Books extract: Peter Carey's 'His Illegal Self'

Carey's new novel tells of radical politics and of the love between a woman and a young boy

She was on the 2 platform just as the train from Albany came in, and when she boarded she found a telephone waiting, directly opposite her. If not for this she might never have called Susan Selkirk. But she was high on life, on possibility, and she was on the phone before she even took a seat... 215? Philly? She wasn't sure. It took six of her quarters. Ridiculous. Like phoning a rock star or a famous author whom your aunt had known, something you only did because you could, because you were not nobody.

Hello, Susan. It's Dial.

Give me your number, said someone, not Susan. We'll call you back.

There was a number, too. She gave it, not unhappy to see a few quarters returned.

She waited for the famous felon as if she were herself some kind of actor in a film, resting her head against the glass, watching the power lines dance like sheet music across the reflection of her extraordinary dress. She was about to talk to America's most-wanted woman. She was going to MoMA before it closed this afternoon. She was staying with her friend Madeleine on West 14th Street. That's all she knew about her future. She had no lover, no father or mother, no home but Boston whose "rapcha" and "capcha" occasionally burst the surface of her speech. She watched the power lines rising and falling beside the Hudson and thought, Remember this moment, how beautiful and strange the world is.

When the phone rang, she saw her hair reflected in the sky.

Hello.

Well, said that piercing girlie voice, if it's not the "bvains." Hi, she said not at all offended by the "bvains." Rather pleased.

Far out, cried Susan. Dial had forgotten how she sounded, the shrill pitch.

What a coincidence, Susan said. Listen I'm going on vacation, you dig. I was just wondering where you are?

Dial could see the conductors walking through the car. The conductor could see her. But she could see Susan Selkirk in the Boston Globe, photographed from the ceiling of the Bronxville Chase Manhattan. What might or might not have been a revolver was in her hand. That was what had happened to SDS. Students for a Democratic Society?

No shit, said Susan. I was just talking to my mom about you. I mean, like, now.

Your mom remembered me?

She'd rather remember you than me. But listen, I sort of was wanting to say hi to my guy.

Which guy?

He was your guy too.

On the telephone, blasting through Croton-on-Hudson, Dial blushed, pulling her hair by the roots, looking at her staring face in the glass.

The baby, Susan Selkirk said. For Christ's sake. I mean my son.

Right.

Call back, Susan Selkirk said suddenly. Tonight. Can you do that for me? Please, please. This is not cool, not now.

I'm going out to see The Godfather with Madeleine.

You're seeing the fucking Godfather.

Sure. Why not?

There was a silence and Dial didn't rush to fill it.

Sure, said Susan, why the fuck not!

Another silence.

I need this favor, Susan said at last. If not for me, then for the Movement.

Dial was a sucker. Susan knew she was a sucker. She wandered back down through the car, hefting her awkward heavy pack, laughing incredulously at herself, at Susan Selkirk who could still issue commands like the revolution was a family business. For the Movement! Please.

She tucked the phone number in her purse and let her mood be made by bigger things, by the great luxury of time, a fall day with sunshine, and the Hudson still as glass. If Susan Selkirk affected her at all, it was only to highlight the richness of her new life which was intensifying daily – Vassar, MoMA, Manhattan, all the possibilities suggested by this gorgeous ride beside the Hudson with the sun pushing down above the golden Palisades.

By the time the train dipped underground at 125th Street, she had forgotten Susan Selkirk. And it was only very late that night, on calculating her expenses and counting the remaining money in her purse, that she found the scrap of paper. When she called it was not because of any deep friendship for Susan. But she had all the time in the world, so she made an arrangement to meet her near Clark Street in Brooklyn. Susan, quite typically, sent two strangers to interrogate her and again she was too curious to be decently offended.

Later all she would remember was their teeth, big and long on one, small and square on the other, but both young women's mouths were full of perfectly straight teeth, clear signs of class that contradicted their dowdy clothes which were a sort of depressed portrait of the unhappy working class. Their hair had been cut gracelessly with kitchen scissors and they had about them a severe judgmental quality that made Dial feel too tall, too pretty, too frivolous for their company.

You know the kid, right? Her son?

Once I did. Freshman year.

She wants to see her son.

Susan does?

We don't use names. OK.

The one with the long teeth was tall and skinny. Her dowdy little sweater was gray cashmere. She lit a cigarette and smoked it with both hands pushed in the pockets of her thrift store coat.

OK, said Dial. It did not help her that she noticed the privileged teeth, the expensive sweater. Neither undercut the moral authority she had been raised to respect. She never could be far enough left for Susan, SDS, herself. She thought the student left were fantasists, yet when the Maoists told her she would be shot after the revolution she was inclined to believe it was true.

She's going on vacation, dig?

Dial understood that vacation was code for something else but she was staring at the girl's stringy blond hair, wondering if there was something in that un-made-up face, something under those pressing dark eyebrows, that might give Dial human entry.

It's dangerous, the girl said, looking over her shoulder at a skinny beat-up plane tree as if its shivery branches might reveal a bug. The grandmother will let you take him.

Mrs Selkirk has no idea who I am.

Yes, she does. If you meet with her at 11, you take the kid back by noon. Done. That's all we're asking. You will have done your little bit.

Little bit, thought Dial. You patronizing little bitch. Do you actually know Phoebe Selkirk? she asked the short one. Have you met her?

Listen, Susan is begging you. You know, like begging, man.

Dial thought, You said her name, moron. Plus where does all this "man" shit come from.

Oh sure, she said.

You know why the old lady trusts you? You want to know? You want to just stand there being sarcastic?

Dial shrugged. But of course she wished to know.

You never talked to the Post.

And that, of course, was completely true. Not just the Post but the News, the Globe, even the Times. And that was why she would call Grandma Selkirk, because the old lady, at least, had seen the steel at Dial's core, that although she could not stand Phoebe Selkirk's Upper East Side ass, she would never betray her trust. That was who she was. *

© Peter Carey 2008

'His Illegal Self' by Peter Carey is published by Faber, £16.99

About the author

Peter Carey was born in Victoria, Australia, in 1943. He is the author of 10 novels, two of which have won the Booker Prize, and three the Miles Franklin Literary Award. He lives in New York, and is director of the Hunter Collage MFA program in creative writing.

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