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Editors' Picks: Week of April 29–May 5

By kileyturner
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An empress, a student, a dream sequence, a purple city, and a migration ... all subjects of much-anticipated new books.
The Empress of Idaho

The Empress of Idaho

edition:Paperback

Bestselling and award-winning author Todd Babiak returns with an immersive and affecting story about a teenager's fascination with an enigmatic new woman in town whose past is catching up with her.

Monument, Colorado, July 1989. Fourteen-year-old Adam Lisinski is mesmerized the moment Beatrice Cyr steps into his life. Adam has a lot going for him: he's hoping to be a starter on his high school football team, he has a fiercely protective mom, a girlfriend, and a part-time job at Eugene's Gas Stop, …

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Excerpt

When she looked at me I saw what I had not seen. Our house was little more than a trailer. The blue vinyl siding was faded by the sun and carried years of dust. The front lawn was really a collection of weeds, but still it needed cutting.There was a filthy red chair with broken springs on our front porch. Weeks ago my mother had asked me to carry it to the corner so the garbage men could pick it up.
Now that the woman was looking at me I understood what Marv had said, that a man does not concern himself with gardening. I was too nervous and too ashamed to answer about the sweet williams. It did not matter because she had already turned and walked up his driveway. From a distance she seemed to float over the gravel. Marv raised his eyebrows and pointed in her direction with both his thumbs, took a step closer and whispered at me. He told me her name, Beatrice—like in poetry, he said. What poetry? It would come to him. Then: “Get this. We just got married.”
“You married her?”
“I goddamn married that woman.”
“Did you know her from somewhere before?”
“We met at O’Grady’s three nights ago.” He reached into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out his thick, oily leather wallet. “How you set up for cash? I’ll give you a five if you’ll help me unload her things.”
I hopped into the bed of the old truck and lifted the only heavy piece of furniture, a solid wood coffee table with a sticker on the leg that said "$9." Marv grabbed a garbage bag full of clothes. 
"How's your mom?" 
"She's good."
There was no sidewalk on Jefferson Street. We stood on the meeting place of weed and gravel. Marv looked at the front of our house. There was a constellation of wet spots where his breasts had pressed against his shirt. Now that Beatrice was not watching he let himself go crooked.
“I’ll cut the lawn.” The hard edges of the coffee table dug into my palms. “And get rid of that chair.”
“If you get a chance. A lady only gets one first impression.”
Inside, his house smelled of cigarette smoke and chemical peaches. An aerosol can of room deodorant, with an old English orchard on the front, had fallen over on the kitchen counter. The morning sun shone through Marv’s beige curtainsand turned his living room the colour of weak tea. It was tidier than usual.
“Where would you like the table, ma’am?”
She wore big gold rings and bracelets. She was thin like a boy and tanned. The garbage bag of clothes leaked. Marv struggled to contain it. Three panties and a sock fell on the green shag carpet and Marv laughed and cussed as he kneeled to pick them up. Then the bag tipped and a fur coat fell out.
I tried to right the bag. It was hot and melty. Beatrice bent and rushed me like a dainty ram. “Jesus Christ, child. That floor isn’t clean. Pick up that coat.” 
“Yes, ma’am.”
“Now Beatrice, a boy like this never seen one of those before.”
She turned to Marv and he took a step back. Then she brought the coat to her nose and inhaled deeply, closed her eyes. By the time she looked at me again she was smiling. “You are?”
“Adam, ma’am, from next door.”
“Charmed. Beatrice Cyr. Walker-Cyr, I suppose, right, Marv?”
“Damn right.”
“This is a Valentino, Adam. Sable, it’s called.” She enunciated as though I were either six years old or from Honduras. “You can touch it to your face.”
“No, that’s okay, ma’am.”
“Touch it to your face.”
I touched it to my face.
“Soft, isn’t it? Softer than a dream. This coat was ten thousand dollars once. Can you imagine?”
I tried to imagine how a woman with a ten-thousand-dollar coat had a nine-dollar coffee table. When would she wear something like this on Jefferson Street?
There wasn’t so much in the bed of the truck: three more garbage bags of clothes and linens, a suitcase, an old lamp whose dust had survived the trip, two boxes of jewellery, a stuffed bunny with one eye, and a set of books about real estate and sales.
When I was finished unloading I waited in the kitchen. I did not want to go into the living room because everything was quiet and I was worried they might be kissing. The wallpaper had drawings of horses and buggies on it. Marv had found it at an auction in Denver. I had helped paste it up and there were a few bubbles and lines from where I had been hasty. It had been a fun day with Marv. We listened to Led Zep and drank root beer. Whenever I smelled commercial glue I thought of us that day, buzzed on sugar and fumes. A cloud of fruit flies hovered over a bowl of bruised bananas. She had a few cassette tapes: Out of the Cellar by Ratt, W.A.S.P. by W.A.S.P., and Songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn by Gustav Mahler. I peeked inside a faded Converse shoebox and I did not understand what was in it apart from a black leather mask and a silver chain. 
"Adam."
I put the broken lid back on the box. "Ma'am." 
"Are you snooping?" 
"No."
She took a step toward me and crossed her bare arms. They had visible muscles and tendons in them. I did not look into her eyes but I could not look at her arms or her chest or her legs either so I looked at the fruit flies and the bananas. 
Marv hobbled in. His shirt was undone and his cheeks were plummy.
"All done?"
"Yes sir." 
Beatrice turned and left us there in the kitchen. Marv watched her go and then he raised his eyebrows at me. "We meet at O'Grady's and next thing you know we got a suite at the Brown Palace." 
"In Denver?" 
"You bet." He fished around in his wallet, which was a wreckage of receipts and scratch tickets and credit cards. 
"But your house is right here." 
"Hotels are for romance, Adam." Marv peeked around the corner. "She's different from other ladies. This one's been all over the world. She's met industrialists, queens, the whole thing."
"What was she doing at O'Grady's?" 
"Tell your mom I'll be there tonight. With my bride." 
Marv did not have kids, and his first marriage had ended like my parents' had ended, with someone running. My dad ran. His wife ran. This is how I imagined the 1970s: people alone in convertibles with pink nylon scarves, crying goodbyes into the wind and driving to Los Angeles.

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The Student

The Student

edition:Paperback

The Student is a portrait of a life in two snapshots.

It's 1957 and Miriam Moscowitz is starting her final year of university with unwavering ambition. She is a serious and passionate student of literature who studies hard, dates a young Jewish man with a good job, and is the apple of her father's eye and the worry of her mother's. But then, in a single moment, her dreams crumble around her. Unsure of how to break a path for herself, she begins a reckless affair with an American student obsessed …

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Dream Sequence

Dream Sequence

edition:Paperback

A 49TH SHELF EDITOR'S PICK

Henry Banks, star of the UK’s most popular television series, has higher aspirations, ones befitting of his talent: a serious film career, beginning with a role in a brilliant Spanish director’s next movie. To make the jump to the big screen, he’ll have to remake himself in more than one way. But as he runs his morning miles and scrutinizes his changing physique in the mirror, he doesn’t know that he’s not alone in his obsession—Kristin, an unstable American …

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Excerpt

Excerpt from Dream Sequence

The beautiful house was empty. Kristin watched from the front window as her sister climbed into her snow-spattered car and drove away, shuttling from one set of worries – Kristin – to another – the noisy, complicated, enviably involving struggles of her family life.

Suzanne had left behind a liveliness in the air through which she had moved and talked. Kristin walked back to the kitchen where there were syrupy breakfast plates to clear. She transferred them to the small dishwasher and sucked her sweetened thumbs. Diversify, Suzanne had said. Find some other activities and interests. She used a clear, careful voice with Kristin at the moment, stripped of challenge and controversy. In Kristin’s mind Suzanne’s broad, freckled face still hovered, neutral and patient, ready for her reaction. I understand you not getting a job for a while if you don’t have to. You’re in a great situation, when you think about it. Perfect fresh start time. Craig thinks … Kristin didn’t care what Craig thought. Craig was entirely unsympathetic. Craig was most of the problems Suzanne was now shuttling towards in her rattling Kia on the road back to Pottstown. Craig thought that Kristin had got it made: married to her boss, divorced by her boss and now entitled by law to the lifestyle to which she had become accustomed. You won the Rollover, he liked to say straight to her face and smiling, as though she wouldn’t hear the dirty joke he was pretending he hadn’t made. Craig was the sort of dumb and nasty that thinks it’s smart. Often, when Suzanne’s back was turned, he looked at Kristin, just looked at her for as long as he felt like it, smoking and thinking things.

Kristin was upstairs now, deciding whether she needed to change the sheets of the bed where Suzanne had slept. Kristin lowered her nose to the creased fabric and thought not, catching only a sharpness of lavender. She removed a long curving hair from the pillow and tugged everything straight. Kristin had painted the upper rooms of the house in colours she had seen on The Grange, a British TV programme that had in the most extraordinary way become a very important part of her life. In the show, the walls of the rooms where the wealthy family lived were painted in rich and sombre colours she didn’t like but the servants’ rooms downstairs had lovely colours that she spent many hours with swatch books seeking to match. Blues and greens that were spacious and honest, that had a dignity and sadness that were ideal as the containers of her new, ruined life. Not that Kristin spent much time in the upper rooms. The bedding in this one was white, voluminous, heavy, and made soft crunching sounds as she rearranged it. All neat again. A border of broderie anglaise, an intricate pattern of holes, ran across the top of the comforter.

Kristin had with great care and attention to detail redecorated her marriage away. Everything was now to her taste and signified her ownership of this desirable rowhouse. Removing all traces of Ron had been a relief but changing her stepsons’ rooms was painful. They had only been there for the odd weekends that Ron had them but Kristin had always loved that rushing influx of youth and energy, even if, except for the youngest, Lionel, they had not liked her back. Beautiful little Lion. The older boys would glare or speak in grudging single words while staring at their devices, but Lion recognised her kindness, her eagerness, and needed it, coming slowly closer and closer. Now she had removed the clutter and colourful walls of childhood and replaced them with tasteful, impeccable adulthood. Sometimes she regretted it.

Kristin decided to go to yoga. That was another activity and interest. Suzanne didn’t even know. Kristin went to the room with her wardrobe and changed from pyjamas into the soft second skin of her exercise clothes. Over them, she put on her long quilted coat and collected her mat and bag.

When she went to the front door, she found mail lying there, one piece, for Ron: a catalogue for a clothing company that he had never got round to cancelling. Kristin knew it well, mature men in outdoor wear posing in landscapes, fishing, striding, drinking out of enamel mugs with their shirtsleeves rolled. It would go straight into the trash. She was not his PA any more. It was maddening that she still had to deal with these things. Kristin pulled at it to tear it in half but it was too thick. The pages just twisted in her hands. The whole Ron situation had begun with tasks performed for him, note taking and letter writing and appointments in his diary and travel bookings and gifts for his wife and children. When he formed his own company, she went with him. Those morning drives away from traffic out of Philly into greenness and landscape and his big house near Valley Forge, the crackling sweep of his gravel driveway, that long wrong turning in her life. He was still there, with a new wife now, his third. And Kristin was alone. Almost alone.

Kristin liked walking along with the rolled mat poking out of her tote bag. The spiral of foam was a recognised thing. People knew what it was and saw her walking brightly along, supple and sensitive and responsible. The walk was twenty minutes of mostly straight, harsh road but she liked to do it. Almost no one walked but she did. Kristin was in tune with a different time, historical and civil, walking in the salted channels between crusts of snow with the quick chirping British voices of The Grange talking in her head. Kristin admired good penmanship too and handwrote her letters to Henry Banks in navy ink. She tried to make them so beautiful and neat that they looked like you could put the pages upright on a stand and play them on a piano. She put on her hat and gloves and went out.

Henry. Henry was everywhere and nowhere, shaping everything. He was the key signature in which the music of her life was played.

The cold air was rough and quick, the light under grey clouds a thickened white. Unseasonable weather. They were barely into fall and this snow had come suddenly swinging down from the north, flinging whiteness. Kristin liked it, the thrill of this unexpected change. She walked with poise and purpose, her yoga mat protruding from her bag.

Behind the front desk at the yoga centre, the girl’s familiar face looked strongly exposed, floating in front of the cabinet of t-shirts and water bottles, smiling Buddhas and detoxing teas, as though it had been cropped out of a different photograph. ‘Wow,’ Kristin said. ‘I like the hair.’

‘Oh, thank you,’ said the girl, lengthening her neck with a slight inclination of her head as though the hairdresser were still circling her with a mirror to show her all the angles.

‘Dramatic,’ Kristin said and the girl looked directly at her. ‘It’s great,’ Kristin repeated.

‘I thought, you know, this could work for me.’

‘Oh, it works. Maybe I should take the plunge instead of.’ Kristin took hold of her braided ponytail and lifted it up to the side, demonstrating its weary familiarity. ‘You have to invite change, don’t you? Step into the new. Where did you get yours done?’

The receptionist hesitated. ‘Where did I get it cut?’ she asked.

‘Yes,’ Kristin read her name tag, ‘Layla. Where did you go?’

‘Well.’

‘It’s okay. You don’t have to tell me.’

‘No, no. I was.’

‘It’s fine. I understand. We can’t all have it done. I probably don’t want it anyway.’

‘It was at Salon Masaya, on Frankford Ave. You have such beautiful thick hair is all. And along with those bangs, so cute.’

‘I know. I’m a lucky person,’ Kristin said. ‘In a lot of ways.’

Kristin pushed through the double doors, splitting the lotus flower logo painted on them, and left Layla behind as the doors swung back together. Now, having entered the sanctuary, from small speakers overhead came the sound of flowing water, encouraging a peace of mind that had not been achieved by the small dog shifting from foot to foot outside the main practice room. Laurie was taking the class. Kristin didn’t think that Laurie should bring her pug with her, though everyone fussed over it and knew its name, Jasmine. The pug was adorable but unfairly so, because of its indignities, its crushed bulging features, wet and black, its short scraping breaths and urgent, inept waddle. Kristin scratched its furrowed scalp and pulled a velvet ear through her fingers before she went in. Hard to know if Jasmine even noticed. It reacted only to the opening door and shuttled forwards. Kristin kept it back with a raised foot and shut the door.

‘Poor thing wants her mommy.’

Kristin turned to see the man who’d made this comment, tall and soft in the middle, a dark bulb of hair, smiling. Around him, four women were readying themselves in different areas of the room.

‘But if I let her in,’ Laurie said, ‘she’d be licking at your faces and blowing her breath over you and you wouldn’t want that.’

‘No, probably not.’

Laurie stood on large livid feet, shaking her long fingers loose. Her flesh had been subdued with years of practice. Her belly lay meek and flat behind jutting hipbones. Hair scraped back, skin clear as rainwater, she smiled generally into the room, a kind of facial hold music, while Kristin deposited her bag and coat and unrolled her mat in a space between the others.

‘Okay, okay, yogis,’ Laurie said. ‘Somehow it’s wintertime already but there is still a sun behind those clouds to salute, so.’ She stretched up and poured herself down into the first asana. The others followed, growing upwards, folding in half.

Kristin stretched and breathed through the hour, seeing the room in different perspectives, the wrinkled cloth at her knees, her red and white fingers on her mat. Periodically, Jasmine scratched at the door. Kristin looked through the hoop of herself and saw the others in similar knots and star shapes. She felt vibrant with exertion, her heart beating heavily, sweat in her hair. Henry, the things I do for you.

Afterwards, they lay in corpse pose and the lights and shabby ceiling tiles drifted like clouds overhead. Kristin liked lying in corpse pose, at the bottom of things, her bones resting on the floor, like she’d sunk to the bottom of the ocean, discarded. Dying and dying and dying. The relief of a final state.

As she sometimes did, Laurie decided to share an inspirational thought to close the class. ‘It is suddenly cold and dark,’ she said, her voice deeper and slower after the hour’s yoga. ‘It feels like the end of the year, like we’re all about to hibernate. But you ask a naturopath, or a farmer, or anyone who really understands natural cycles, and they’ll tell you this is the beginning. The seeds are falling into the earth and will start germinating now, under the snow, underground. New futures are growing, new possibilities. So while you lie there at rest at the end of our cycle of activity, think of yourself as a germinating seed about to get up and walk into your future.’

Oh it was wonderful how if you were open the world told you what you needed to hear which was what you already knew. Kristin was alive with her very particular future. Suzanne had no need to worry. It would happen. The connection was made. Kristin had been reborn before, when she had met her twin soul, Henry Banks, by chance, on her way down to the Virgin Islands for a vacation. She remembered so well the strange dazzling period of realisation that the whole world had changed, down in the blue Caribbean. There was that butterfly that flew into her room and stayed there for several days, its unbelievable colours dancing and gliding. When it settled on her bedspread or curtains she could see the crystalline pattern of its wings, bars of glowing green, dots of yellow, its round, alien eyes and sensitive antennae. You can see the whole universe in a butterfly if you really look, its intricate, perfect machine. It was a sign. That was obvious. It bounced up. It sailed in curves. The butterfly had come to tell her that everything was going to be all right.

After Laurie rang the bell that marked the end of the session, Kristin was the first to leave, her warmth sealed inside her coat. She allowed Jasmine with great relief to scuttle in through the opened door.

During the class more snow had fallen. Kristin walked quickly home into a fresh, speeding wind. Cars thrashed wetly past. On the corner at a cross street the wind whisked up the surface snow and spun it in a little tornado and stopped and did it again. The wind must always spin like that, Kristin suddenly understood, only now it was visible. The snow illustrated the wind and Kristin, noticing, had a little bit more of the secrets of the world revealed to her, things you can’t see but are as true as true. The world is a magical place.

At home, she showered and washed her hair. On the edge of her bed, she bowed into the blast of the hairdryer. From the kitchen, she collected some crackers and baby carrots and dip and took them down to the den. The den was the part of the house where she was most comfortable, warm and half-underground, the snow blue against the glass of the windows. The rest of the house, perfected and separate, hovered overhead. She turned on the TV. If she didn’t turn on the TV the silence could accumulate. Amazing how the silence could gather and get louder and louder and seem almost to be about to explode, like a faulty boiler shaking its pipes. It could give her pressure headaches. The TV kept it at bay. She settled on the sofa. Her hair was fragrant and light and voluminous. Before she started the TVO of The Grange she had her alerts to check on her iPad. Nothing new had come up for Henry’s name on Google. She checked Twitter for mentions. Something in a language she didn’t understand which when translated was just about the show going out that night in their country. In a way, it was a relief to search around and find nothing. The searching was stressful, unpredictable, thrilling sometimes, making her heart jolt with a new photograph or a new lie about his personal life. And there were so many people with stupid opinions, people who had never even met him who thought they knew something about him. Less of this now that the final season of The Grange had been aired with a frightening flurry of coverage. Sometimes she wished the whole online world didn’t exist to confuse her connection with Henry. Once it had all been so simple. He’d held her hand. One day he would again.

She set the iPad down, next to Spiderman. Spiderman lay on the sofa beside her, small and plastic, his stiff arms and legs raised as if for action, holding a stomach crunch position. Lion, little Lionel who loved her, had given her Spiderman one day without telling her. And Spiderman had become a crucial part of the story. It all added up. Kristin picked up the remote and flipped on an old episode. When Henry appeared, she thought she would tell him about the wind and the snow and about what Laurie had said about seeds in winter in her next letter. She would start on it later. Letters flew past all that electronic noise and went right to his hands. Henry’s movements on the screen, his expressions, the exhilarating moments of his smiles, his emotions, the dialogue in that beautiful accent that she could speak along with – it was all a timeless connection. She ate and she watched all the precise little moments, her mind fully fastened to them. She could stay like this until the daylight darkened and the neighbours’ cars, returning from work, passed like aeroplanes overhead.

*

The hunger was beginning to hurt. Three days of grinding emptiness, of heat and sudden flutterings in the left side of his body. The relief of small meals in the evenings, monkish bowls of rice and green vegetables that he perceived so sharply, his senses attuned to the rising steam, the warmth and aroma. And afterwards the velvety sensation of being fed that allowed him to fall asleep. In the morning he was hungry again. It was working. It was worth doing. He was becoming what he needed to be, to convince García who, finally, was in London to see him. But it would be a mistake to fast today. He needed energy. He went to his kitchen and ate a banana and two large handfuls of nuts, enough food to relax and feel well but not enough to dull his sharpness. He ate and hummed to himself.

He dressed. He ran his hands down the smoothness of his abdomen. His body was tight. His trousers hung from his hipbones. He chose a khaki linen shirt with button-down pockets that he thought had the right sort of feel: serious, adaptable, with connotations of the military and the desert. Henry checked how he looked in the mirror.

Henry’s face was something everybody had to deal with, to assimilate and get over, even Henry. When Henry caught sight of his face he often felt as though he were arriving late at something already happening. His face looked so finished and authoritative. He had the approved lines, the symmetry; he looked how a man should look. His handsomeness could be a shock, as much for him as for others who sometimes also had to process their recognition of him, their sensation of an untethered and inexplicable intimacy. Occasionally Henry thought that it would be nice, warm and relaxed and human, to be a little ugly, to have a face that showed personality in pouches under the eyes or a large, soft mouth, the face of a character actor, expressing suffering and humour. His own good looks were bland, Henry thought, mainstream, televisual. Hunger seemed to be improving it, its calm masculinity now fretted with sharpness and shadows. Henry had observed long ago that cinematic faces were not normally attractive, not attractive in a normal way. They did not belong on Sunday evening television or in clothing catalogues or any realm of the conventional ideals. The truly cinematic actors, that is. Look at Joaquin Phoenix with his dark stare and scarred mouth or Meryl Streep’s long thin nose and subtle, not quite sensual mouth, her large and frightening eyes, her affronting vulnerability. All of them, when you thought about it: Christopher Walken, Jack Nicholson. Bogart and Hoffman and Day-Lewis. Of course the actresses tended to be more straightforwardly beautiful but then overwhelmingly so. Think of the wide landscape of Julia Roberts’s smile, an American landscape, honest, expansive, full of hope. No, up until now, Henry’s face had been of the reassuring kind that made for success on TV. It had lacked the strangeness and astringency that made for cinema. But now, perhaps, it was coming, with age, with hunger. He observed himself in the mirror. He said, ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba-ba. Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa-pa. Red lorry. Yellow lorry. Red lorry. Yellow lorry. How are you today? I’m fine, sir. How are you today?’

He checked his phone to see if his taxi had arrived. It hadn’t. He stepped out onto his balcony to smoke a cigarette, cupping the lighter flame from the blustery river air. A whirring sound: straight and fast, a cormorant flew low over the water. He should be looking at his pages again. He threw the cigarette away and went in.

He picked up the pages and glanced at them, reminding himself. He bounced up and down on the balls of his feet, swinging his arms. ‘Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba,’ he said. ‘Pa-pa-pa-pa-pa. You can’t just walk in here whenever you like. You just can’t.’

His phone chimed. The taxi was outside. According to the text, Omar was driving. Henry had booked a taxi because he wanted safety between his flat and Soho, a protected preparatory calm. The bike ride was too long, too raw, too sweaty, and he almost never used public transport now. You never knew what might happen. He put the pages in his satchel. He paused in the centre of the room to practise a facial expression, the animation of a friendly and relaxed greeting. He dropped the expression from his face. He bounced again on his feet then walked on. Locking the front door behind him, he immediately missed the safety of his flat. It would be there to receive him again, to hide him, after whatever it was that happened later in the day.

On the shelf by the exit door he had post. Two letters. He put them into his satchel and stepped outside.

The taxi was a large black people carrier with tinted windows. Inside, he said to the neck in front of him, to the bejewelled hand on the gear stick, ‘Hi, Omar. You know where we’re going?’

‘Got the address here. Greek Street.’

‘That’s the one.’

Not wishing to talk any more, Henry pushed his headphones into his ears and put on his pre-meeting music. Years ago at university, as a music scholar, a member of his college choir, he had sung Renaissance polyphony. A sense of competence and self-confidence suffused him when he heard it now. The plainchant of the opening statement, low and horizontal, was followed by the higher voices joining one after the other, merging, ascending, passing one another, opening a great fan of sound. Calm and ethereal, a translucent grid laid over his view of Docklands, of Limehouse and east London passing outside his window. He hummed along with Palestrina’s tenor line. In the comfortable hollow of his leather seat, he watched the people outside, the Muslims with waistcoats and hennaed beards, the young mothers, the hipsters of Whitechapel over time giving way to the suited office types of Gray’s Inn and Holborn: London’s surplus of faces, of human versions, every permutation, all preoccupied, unconscious, milling towards something. At traffic lights the taxi slowed for him to observe a man on a corner holding a phone to his ear and eating an apple, delicately picking with his teeth at the remaining edible flesh by the core. A cyclist shuttled past his window. All these people, blind to his presence behind darkened glass. They would be interested in him, most of them. Their expressions would change. The taxi progressed in halts and short surges into Soho. Henry checked his watch. Good, he wasn’t too early. He plucked the flowing harmonies from his ears, paid Omar and stepped briefly into the movement of the street. Keeping his head low, hunched forwards, he walked to a discreet glass door with gold lettering and pressed the buzzer. There was no voice but the door buzzed. Henry pushed it open. He was met by a young man of the assistant type descending the stairs, what Henry’s friend Lucas had once referred to as ‘one of those little shits with the hair’. On his t-shirt, much more striking than his actual face, was a very realistic drawing of a gorilla wearing large headphones. He had a pen in his mouth which he removed to say, ‘Hi, it’s Henry, isn’t it?’ as if he didn’t know. ‘Come on up’, as if he owned the place. The guy put the pen back in his mouth and headed up the stairs. Henry followed. At the top, Henry was met by Sally, the casting director, a quiet, tightly organised woman, a great encyclopaedist of talent, and one of the most important people in the business. Often it was those people who seemed the least artistic, like they could work happily in any other business. They spoke in the universal language of professionalism, not one that Henry had been obliged particularly to learn. Sally Lindholm could just as easily have run a government department.

‘Henry, how nice to see you. Thank you for coming in. How are you?’

Thank you for coming in. The pretence that this was an equal relationship was something that Henry was used to ignoring. The answer to the question how are you was always to be kept brief. Genuine as her friendliness may be, Henry knew not to talk with any unnecessary personal detail. The space accorded for his response was like a box on a form to be filled out. It could only contain so much. ‘I’m good, I’m good,’ he answered.

‘You’re looking well,’ Sally said. Her friendliness was real enough. It was other people’s – actors’ – responses to her that couldn’t be trusted. They were always straining, eager, beaming, and Sally was like royalty, accepting this as normal, possibly at this point unable to tell the difference between the acting and the real thing, or not caring. ‘We’re ready to go, I think,’ she said.

‘Oh, really? No waiting area? No fellow actors I have to pretend I’m happy to see?’

She laughed. ‘Not today. You’re spared. Shall we go in?’

‘Sure. I’m excited to meet the man himself.’

‘Of course. Do you need anything? Water?’

‘Just some water would be great.’

‘Okay. Seb, could you bring some water for Henry?’

The assistant swept the upper mass of his hair from one side of his head to the other. ‘I’m on it,’ he said.

Henry animated his face with warm greeting as he entered the room but he had to wait. García was watching some footage on a laptop. A large man, his folded arms rested on his gut. Sitting low in his chair, his face was sunk down into his beard. He held up one hand to stay Henry and Sally then decisively slapped the spacebar.

‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Please.’ He gestured at the seat in the middle of the room facing a camera.

‘You are Henry.’

 

‘I am.’

‘So, I’ve seen your work. I’ve seen you on tape. All very nice.’

Henry dropped his satchel by the door and sat down, leaning forward towards García, his forearms on his knees. ‘And I’ve seen yours, of course. Sueños Locos. The Path to Destruction. The Violet Hour. Bricks. I mean, those are … They mean a lot to me, those films. It’s an honour to meet you.’

‘Okay, okay,’ García exhaled through wide nostrils and shunted his glasses back up his nose.

Seb swooped down at Henry’s feet then backed away. Henry glanced down and saw a bottle of mineral water. Seb settled himself in a seat beside the camera. García said, ‘So, Mike. You like this character?’

‘I don’t know about “like”. I think I understand him. I feel him.’

‘You think you are like him?’

‘Sure. I know where he’s coming from, that commitment, that anger. We all are to some extent. That’s the genius of it.’

García didn’t smile or response. He hit the centre of his glasses again. ‘So we will read a little bit.’

Sally said, ‘You’ve got the pages, haven’t you?’

‘Yep.’ Henry raised an arm to indicate his bag. ‘But I shouldn’t need them. I’m off book.’

‘Excellent. Seb, ready to go?’

‘Just one …’ He pressed a couple of buttons. A small staring red light appeared on the camera. He gave a thumbs-up.

Henry dropped his head down onto his chest, disconnecting, becoming the other thing. He lifted his face. It was tighter, slightly stricken, his gaze significant.

‘Julia?’ he said.

García, an unlikely Julia, gruff and heavily accented, said, ‘Hey, Mike.’

‘Julia, you can’t just walk in here like this.’

‘The door was open.’

‘What does that mean? You walk through every open door you see?’

‘Jesus, Mike. I was just passing and I came in to see.’

‘You can’t do that, Julia. You can’t. You can’t. I’m just getting things, you know, clear here.’

‘Okay,’ García interrupted. ‘Leave it there.’

‘Sure.’ Henry drained back into himself. Uncomfortable, he reached down for the water bottle and twisted the top but didn’t yet drink.

‘That first “Julia”,’ García said. ‘It can be softer.’

‘Okay.’

‘And you know he is saying the opposite of what he wants. He isn’t sleeping. He isn’t eating. The war is in his head all the time. He knows he’s in trouble. He wants Julia to come in. You have to say, “You can’t just walk in.” Underneath it’s, “You have to come in. Please.”’

‘That’s what I thought.’

‘And “What does that mean?” That line, he’s thinking about meaning, he’s thinking in a different way, very fast, very conceptual.’

‘He’s like on a whole other level. He’s like, yes, but what does that mean? She walks through every open door she sees? It’s a description of her, of her freedom. It’s, like, the total contrast to him.’

‘Exactly, exactly. Also, a bit angry. “What does that mean?” It’s too much for him. We do again.’

Henry sighed and shook his shoulders, looking down then up. ‘Julia,’ he said.

‘Hey, Mike.’

‘Julia, you can’t just walk in here like this.’

‘The door was open.’

‘What does that mean? You walk through every open door you see?’

‘Jesus, Mike. I was just passing and I came in to see.’

‘You can’t do that, Julia. You can’t. You can’t. I’m just getting things, you know, clear here. I’m getting set. I’m making improvements. It’s delicate. People need their privacy.’

‘Okay, that’s good.’

‘Really? You don’t want to get more of the scene?’

‘No. Enough words. I want to see Mike alone in his apartment.’

‘Okay, sure.’ Henry took a drink. The bottle was full to the brim. Water toppled into his mouth.

He swallowed. ‘Sure,’ he said. ‘Just …’

 

‘Just be alone in the apartment.’

‘Sure. Cool.’ He closed his eyes and willed himself there. The apartment, as far as he was concerned, had yellowing wallpaper. There was a fridge, old, large, American, with rounded edges. Windows down onto the street. He stood up and paced, quickly, as though his body was a racing thought. He did that for a while then stopped still as though halted by some new idea. He sat down in the chair and stared into the distance, one hand picking at the fabric of his trousers. After a while he swigged from his water bottle with an overhand grip that made it beer. García said, ‘Okay, okay. Enough.’

Henry groaned and rubbed his face with his hands. He felt a drop of sweat, cold, appear at his waist on the right-hand side, rolling down from his armpit.

‘You can do it again,’ García said. ‘But you have to stop acting like somebody who is acting.’

‘You mean …’

‘Stop acting. Forget us. You’re alone in private.’

‘Okay. Sure.’ He stared past the blurred mass of García. He hardened his facial expression. Disconnected, he wanted to go to sleep. He thought about going with that impulse and letting his eyes close, but it wouldn’t be enough. He got up and paced again. He stopped. He sat down and fidgeted.

‘Okay, okay. That’s good.’

‘All right.’

‘Good. That’s enough.’

‘It’s enough? You don’t want?’

‘No, it’s good. We have it.’

Sally stood up, holding her notebook to her waist. ‘Great. So.’

‘Well, like I said,’ Henry advanced while he had the chance, hand outstretched, ‘it’s an honour. I’m pleased you called me back again.’

García did not stand up. He held out a surprisingly soft and heavy hand for Henry to grasp.

‘Okay, okay,’ he said. ‘Thank you.’

‘So,’ Sally said again, smiling by the door.

When they were the other side of that door, desperate to get a sense of what had happened, Henry said, ‘Wow, that was quick. For a fourth meeting.’

‘He’s like that,’ Sally said. ‘Quick and decisive. It’s fine. We’ll be in touch.’

‘Okay. Cool. Okay.’ Henry resisted the urge to grip her shoulders and say, ‘Just tell me now.’ He smiled at her and said, ‘Amazing. That was Miguel García. Okay. Well. I’ll see you next time. I guess I can let myself out.’

In the street, he wanted to shout and punch something, to free all of the crushed energy inside him. Instead, he walked quickly for a few yards then turned around and walked in the opposite direction with a destination in mind. Don’t act like a person acting. Such drama school level bullshit. García had a reputation for brilliance, for spontaneity, for breaking down his actors until, defenceless, they gave him what he wanted. But that couldn’t come from stuff like that. Henry wouldn’t believe it. Henry didn’t need manipulation anyway. He was ready to give García whatever he asked for. Henry hurried off Old Compton Street with its many obstructing pedestrians into Dean Street and through the door of the Groucho Club. He was furiously hungry and the Groucho cheeseburger was what he wanted right now. The garish, pretentious homeliness of the Groucho was also appealing, certainly more than the watchful grey restraint of Soho House. He signed the register and pushed through the inner door.

A bristle of inspection from those at the bar, carefully dissembled. He could feel a few of them recognising him: that momentarily prolonged glance before looking away. Their non-reaction was an important facet of their self-respect, a self-respect that Henry knew was nonetheless enhanced by his being there. He walked through the bar, past the piano and down the corridor to a table in the back. He opened his satchel, pulled out his phone and the post he’d forgotten he’d picked up and tossed them onto the table. He raised one hand to attract a waiter and picked up his phone with the other. A waitress appeared, blonde, attractive in her black waistcoat and tie, her long apron, her shining hair tied cleanly back. They hired them for a reason.

‘Mr Banks, what can I get you?’

‘Oh. Can I get a cheeseburger and a Diet Coke?’

‘Of course. Anything with that?’

‘No.’

‘Great. Sorry, to remind you, if you want to make a call you’ll have to take that outside.’

‘No worries. I know the rules.’

He waited for her to go away and put his phone back on the table. He wasn’t quite ready to phone Carol, his agent. Instead, he sat back in his seat, tired, molested with afterthoughts, with the image of García waiting for him to leave the room, with the memory of his own performance. That came back to him now in horrifying flashes of clumsy effort that went on who knew how long. Audition room time seems to distend to great length while it is happening and collapses into one catastrophic moment when it is over. Miguel García was one of the few filmmakers out there that everybody called a genius, a Werner Herzog, a Paul Thomas Anderson, a Scorsese, a man whose interest in you would guarantee the interest of others and who, moreover, made actual works of art. In so doing, he made actors, their faces, their gestures, their names, permanent in the history of the world. He was larger than Henry had imagined, thick-limbed, a slow and stubborn mass. His beard was unpleasant to look at. It was not an outgrowth of lustrous vitality, more a sign of indifference and neglect. His large, square-framed glasses were in the style of no style. They belonged on a man who lived with his mother, who spent hours in public libraries and carried his possessions in plastic carrier bags. That had been García. There was no outward sign of his intelligence, beyond a grumpy decisiveness. Sitting low in his chair, he gave the impression of an animal in an odorous den. He had peered out, judging Henry, deciding whether or not he was worthy of the immortality that he would confer only as a bi-product of pursuing the distinctive beauty of his vision. This film, The Beauty Part, was preoccupied with the central character, with Mike, with, potentially, Henry. Desire for the part flamed up in Henry, scorched and faded, leaving him even more tired and despondent. Fortunately, his Diet Coke arrived and Henry could take a long pull on its cold caramel flavour, its caffeine and enlivening bubbles. No new messages on his phone, he reached for his post.

The first, larger envelope was an invitation to a short film screening and party that he had no interest in. The second envelope was printed with his agent’s company name. That one contained another envelope, decorated with a sticker of a butterfly, in which was a handwritten letter. It began, My dearest Henry, it’s been so long since we met and yet every day I feel us growing closer together and I know you must do deep down as well. I watch you all the time on The Grange so I can keep seeing your face. I know it so well, I know your expressions, your hair and eyes, the sound of your voice. It is the music of my life.

Why had this come to him?

What’s the latest news I have for you? The strange weather I mentioned in my last letter keeps coming. I had a dream about you last night, back in the airport. And then, down in the islands. Remember how I told you that soon after we met I was down in St Thomas and I wrote your name in the sand and drew a heart round it? I was there again, looking ….

Henry stopped reading. This letter should not have got to him. Carol’s assistant, Vicky, was supposed to screen this stuff out, not just stick it in an envelope and send it to him. This was not helpful right now. This letter did not strike him as endearing or amusing. It was typical of quite a few he’d read in the past. Unsettling, uncanny, full of private madness and incantation and belonging to a live person who was out there right now, thinking about him, who thought she had met him, scrawling his name on pages, on the sand of a beach somewhere, and feeling a compulsion in the world that was about them, about his fate. It was nonsense and harmless, presumably, but so much better not to know, not to have this inside him. It should never have reached him.

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