Authors: Iain Banks
By Iain Banks
THE WASP FACTORY
WALKING ON GLASS
THE CROW ROAD
A SONG OF STONE
THE STEEP APPROACH TO GARBADALE
Also by Iain M. Banks
THE PLAYER OF GAMES
USE OF WEAPONS
THE STATE OF THE ART
AGAINST A DARK BACKGROUND
LOOK TO WINDWARD
THE HYDROGEN SONATA
Published by Hachette Digital
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2013 Iain Banks
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
Table of Contents
OR ALL MY FRIENDS, FAMILY AND FANS, WITH LOVE.
ITH THANKS TO
ost people are insecure, and with good reason. Not me.
This is probably because I’ve had to think about who I am and who I’m not, which is something your average person generally doesn’t have to do. Your average person has a pair of parents, or at least a mother, or at least knows roughly where they fit into all that family business in a way that I, for better or worse, don’t. Usually I think it’s for the better, though sometimes not.
Also, it helps that I am very clever, if challenged in other ways. Challenged in this context means that I am weird, strange, odd, socially disabled, forever looking at things from an unusual angle, or however you want to put it.
Most things, I’ve come to understand, fit into some sort of spectrum. The descriptions of myself fit into a spectrum that stretches from ‘highly gifted’ at one end to ‘nutter’ at the other, both of which I am comfortable with. One comes from understanding and respect, while the other comes from ignorance and fear. Mrs Willoughby explained the thinking behind both terms. Well, she explained the thinking behind the latter term, the offensive, deliberately hurtful term; the thinking behind the former, respectful judgement seemed perfectly clear and valid to me. (She got that wincing expression on her face when I mentioned this, but didn’t say anything. Hol was more direct.)
‘But I am clever.’
‘I know. It’s not the being clever that’s the problem, Kit. It’s the telling people.’
‘So I ought to lie?’
‘You ought to be less … determined to tell people how clever you are. How much more clever you are than they are.’
‘Even if it’s true?’
‘Plus, you’re missing something.’
I felt myself rock back in my seat. ‘Really?’
‘Yes. There are different types of cleverness.’
‘Hmm,’ I said, which is what I’ve learned to say rather than the things I used to say, like,
No there aren’t
Are you sure?
– in what was, apparently, a sarcastic tone.
‘If nothing else,’ Hol said, ‘other people
that there are different types of cleverness, and that’s what matters, in this context.’
One of the ways I am clever is that I can pay very close attention to exactly what people say and how they phrase things. With Hol this works especially well because she is quite clever too, and expresses herself well, and mostly in proper sentences (Holly is a journalist, so perhaps the habits of her trade have had an effect). Also, we have known each other a long time. With other people it can be harder. Even Guy – whom I’ve known even longer, because he’s my dad, after all – can be a bit opaque sometimes. Especially now, of course, as he’s dying. They don’t think there is a tumour in his head affecting his mind, but he is on a lot of mind-muddling medication.
So, to return to Hol’s last phrase, ‘in this context’: there was an almost audible clunk as she added these words to the end of the sentence. She put those words in there because she knows that I like them, that they make a difference to me. Both Hol and Mrs Willoughby have explained to me – sometimes at great length – that context matters a lot in various situations, and especially in social interactions, which is the stuff I tend to have difficulties with. Adding ‘in this context’ means she – Hol – wanted me to think about what she’d just said rather than just dismiss it out of hand because it seemed to me at the time that there was, plainly, only one sort of cleverness.
Anyway, other people ‘
’ that there are different types of cleverness was, apparently, what I was supposed to focus on.
‘Are you sure, Hol?’ I asked, patiently.
‘There you go.’
‘There I go what?’
‘There you go, sounding sarcastic and patronising.’
‘But I wasn’t being either. I was trying to sound patient.’
‘Again, what you
isn’t what matters, Kit. What matters is how you appear, what other people think you meant.’
‘It’s not my problem if …’ I began, then fell silent under a look from Hol. The look concerned involves her dipping her head a little to the right and her eyebrows rising while her lips purse a fraction. It was her look that says, as near as I can gauge it, ‘Now, Kit, we’ve been over this before.’
your problem,’ she told me. ‘If you’ve given people the wrong impression when you could have given them the right one, you’ve—’
‘Yes yes yes, I need to make allowances for people,’ I said, wanting to get back to the proper point. I may have waved my hands, too. ‘So, what other sorts of cleverness are there?’
Hol sighed. ‘Emotional cleverness, Kit. Empathising with others, getting on with people, intuiting what and how they think.’
‘But if people would just say what they—’
I got the look again.
Now it was my turn to sigh. ‘That’s another area where I have to make allowances, isn’t it?’
‘Yes, it is. Plus, people don’t always know what they think themselves, Kit,’ Hol told me (and, in another turnaround, now
was sounding what you might call conspicuously patient). ‘Not precisely, not so they can tell you clearly and unambiguously and without contradictions.’ She paused, probably waiting for me to protest that, well, people just
know what they think, and express it properly (it was certainly what I was thinking). But I didn’t say it. ‘And a lot of the time,’ she continued – when I just sat there and smiled the way she’d taught me – ‘even when people
know what they think and why, they don’t always want to tell you.’ Another pause. ‘Sometimes because they don’t want to hurt your feelings, or give you something you might use against them later, either directly against them, to their face, or use against them by mentioning what’s just been said to somebody else.’
‘Often, yes,’ Hol agreed, and smiled. Hol has a plain face but the consensus seems to be that it lights up when she smiles. I like to see her smile, and especially I like to see her smile at me, so I suppose this must be true. Hol has always been my favourite of Dad’s old friends (not that he really has any new ones). Even before we came to our financial arrangement, I knew that I trusted her and I would listen to her and take her seriously. ‘Sometimes,’ she went on, ‘they’re ashamed of what they’re thinking, or just need more time to decide what they really, truly feel, because emotions can get very … well, tangled.’
‘So,’ I said, ‘what you’re saying is, it’s complicated.’ (This is almost a joke between us. A lot of apparently simple things seem to end up being ‘complicated’.)
Hol nodded. ‘People are. Who’d ’a thunk?’
I thought about this. ‘Well, everybody, obviously.’
Holly nodded. ‘Well, everybody else, Kit.’
‘So I ought to hide my light under a bushel?’
‘Oh, Jeez, Kit, you haven’t been reading the Bible again, have you?’
‘Is that where that’s from?’
‘Yes. I mean, I think so.’
‘No. But should I? Hide my light under a bushel, I mean?’
‘Well, just don’t insist on putting it under a magnifying glass.’
We were in the sitting room of the house, sitting on overstuffed but threadbare couches on either side of the large, interestingly warped coffee table. A large vase of black glass containing real flowers sat between us. Usually we keep artificial flowers in this vase because real ones are such a bother and the only reason the vase is there anyway is to catch drips falling from the water-stained ceiling directly above. Holly had put the real flowers there. They were yellow; daffodils. This was spring, as in last spring, four Holly visits ago, when Guy seemed to be on the mend, or at least when the cancer was in remission.
I sat back in the seat and nodded in what I hoped was a decisive manner. ‘I understand.’
Hol frowned. ‘Hmm,’ she said. ‘Hu-fucking-rah.’ (She is, unfortunately, somewhat prone to swearing, so arguably not that clever after all.)
Holly is wrong. I do understand emotions. When I see her shape in the frosted glass of the inner door of the porch, framed against the grey light by the storm doors bracketing her, I recognise her and feel a surge of good emotion. I run down the stairs to the door before Mrs Gunn can get there from the kitchen at the back of the house. I want to be the first person to greet Hol.
Mrs Gunn says that I ‘thunder’ when I run down the stairs. I don’t care. I jump down the last two steps, landing as lightly as I can – which is surprisingly lightly, I think – then take the last two and a half paces to the front door at a calm walk because I don’t want to appear too overenthusiastic. I can be a bit full-on, I’ve been told. (I’ve always thought this is really a good thing and people are just embarrassed and jealous that they’re not as forthright as I am, but both Mrs Willoughby and Hol have explained … Well, I’m not sure I could be bothered to listen on either occasion, but it was definitely one of those complicated areas where I have to pull back a bit and restrain myself.)
I open the door. ‘Holly!’
‘Hi, Kit,’ she says, and comes forward and hugs me, kissing me on both sides of the face. She rises on tiptoes to do this, and properly applies lip pressure to my cheeks, a couple of centimetres forward from each of my ears. There is no moisture transferred (thankfully, even if it is Hol), but it is more than the usual mwah-mwah that I know, through Hol, media people exchange, when there may be no physical contact between heads at all, just cheeks put briefly in proximity.
Hol’s hair looks the same so I don’t have to remember to compliment her on this, and she appears similar otherwise, which is good. She is dressed in blue jeans, a black T-shirt and a green fleece. It is mostly thanks to Hol – and a little due to Mrs Willoughby – that I know to look for these things and consider commenting on them, to keep people happy.
‘How are you, love?’ she asks me.
I like the way Hol says ‘love’. She was brought up near Bolton but her accent is sort of placeless; if you were forced to, you might say she sounded vaguely like a Londoner – or at least somebody from the Home Counties – with a hint of American. Dad says she completely lost what he calls her ‘Ay-oop’ accent within the first year of uni, remaking herself to sound less provincial, less identifiable, more neutral and bland. But she still says ‘love’ like a northerner, with the vowel sound like the one in ‘low’, not the one in ‘above’. I realise I am thinking about this rather than actually replying to her question when I notice that there’s an ongoing silence and Hol is looking at me with both eyebrows raised.
‘Oh,’ I say. ‘Generally pretty well, thanks.’
‘Huh,’ Mrs Gunn says, appearing silently, suddenly at my side. Mrs Gunn is small, wiry, seemingly always bent over – forwards – and wears what we’re all pretty sure is a tightly curled auburn wig. ‘It’s you,’ she says to Hol. She turns away again, heading back down the dark hall, drying her hands violently on a dishcloth. ‘I suppose you’d better come in,’ she says as she goes.