The beauty and her beastliness

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The Independent Culture
Three O'Clock in the morning. You know the score. Arm: mysteriously locked up in a half-bent position, with a palpable lump when you squeeze it just where it really hurts. Supernu-merary rib: wasn't there at midnight but is now poking its way through the chest wall. Knee: rotating of its own accord. Mind: crumbling, having lost its grip a few minutes ago, due to waking up disorientated, peering wildly around room, getting bearings, waking up a bit more, realising bearings were second-rate amateur bollocks and true reality is: no idea of location whatsoever. Liver: in another room, whereabouts unknown since not on speaking terms. Foot: throbbing mysteriously. Psychological condition: howling despair, life a mere hollow sham, own life in particular a waste, achievements nil, prospects nil, silent tomb a welcome relief on horizon.

Three o'clock in the morning. Only one thing to do: lie there nursing the zip-wounds, swath-ed in inexplicable sailcloth, surrounded by mice and silence, and dredge the memory for good times, hoping you black out again before the sting in the tail stabs you in the jugular, and - look! - here she comes, my all-time trophy lover. Oh, but she was a cracker, a humdinger, could silence a roomful of men by walking in, even the ones who had their backs towards her, and whether it was fear or desire I still can't tell. It was like carrying an anti-personnel mine, going to a party with her: one of the ones that lies dormant but horribly focused, then suddenly, hair-trigger, blasts up to crotch-height and slices off your balls so cleanly that you don't notice until next time you come to use them and they're gone.

God knows what it was. Her absolute beauty may have been part of it, the endless legs, the musk-and-honey voice, eye-blaze, per- fect heart-shaped face, little pixie boots and shorty-short skirt. Maybe; although I had seen her at her worst and the grim alchemy still worked. Worst? Her worst was terrible, and it was there all the time, under the surface. Yet even rancid with anger, hair in rat-tails, dressed in shapeless, washed-out sweats, you only had to get closer than 3ft and you had to have her, then, immediately, and damn the consequences (which were invariably terrible).

I shouldn't have been surprised. Take Hitler; take Saddam Hussein; take any of the sleek shits with loud voices who think they can dominate the world because, caring about nothing but money, they are consequently "good" with it. Who among them uses their power benignly? None. Even when they appear to be behaving generously, they are taking the long view; if they nurture a fledgling it is because, in due course, it can be plucked bare to feather their nest. Absolute beauty bestows absolute power too, although, like most power, it turns out to be a pretty seedy affair. Dictators die in their bunkers, financiers' hearts blow up, their stomachs rot and ulcerate, their giblets plotz one day, they are shot. Politicians fall from office and become of no account; the podgy businessmen, their fat hands accustomed to pinching and patting their bought-and-paid-for female flesh, are nobbled in the end and fetch up in Ford open prison, their only solace a doughnut and a jar of Bovril ("Something for the weekend, Sir?").

And the cracker, the humdinger, the anti- personnel mine? She ended up, last thing I heard, living with a Vladivostok mafioso with a head like a bicep, exiled to the Mediterranean shoreline: big villa, marble floors, posh chef, available buckshee to visiting hoods ("You be nice to Gyorgy, sugar, or I cut your little face and nobody ever look at you again"). Happy? No; and serves her right.

The knee revolves, the elbow creaks, and I remember Aunt Cressie, who wasn't happy either. She was beautiful too, in a delicate, doomed way; but she didn't have the will or the self-regard; her beauty, like her life, never really came into focus, what with one thing and another. She could walk into a room and nobody would notice; people loved her but she never believed it, thinking instead that she had no friends, nobody to talk to, that she wasn't good enough and her role in life was to be hurt. Whereas heart- face distilled ambition and hatred, Aunt Cressie radiated love and hopefulness like a beacon, like a sun. She never forgot a birthday, always wrote, would spend her little income buying presents for nieces and nephews and children of her friends.

She never married. There had been romances, maybe even lovers, but the truth was that though she longed to find someone to place at the centre of her sad and luminous firmament, there was nobody who could accept all the love that Aunt Cressie wanted to offer. It was, I suppose, just too much to take; spurned as a child, feeling unloved, she determined never to make the same mistake herself and instead ended up overlooked, taken for granted, loved and admired but never quite wanted, never quite enough.

She was in an odd way completely powerless and seemed to be lost, in danger, forever poised above a dreadful abyss. It was an unregarded life and I think she believed she had failed. But the truth was that the quiet love which she had somehow distilled by an alchemical process - solve et coagula - from her loneliness and unease was qualitatively as well as quantitively unique. Had she known how to focus her beauty and her life, her whole existence would have been illuminated. But would she have been unable to resist the compulsion to convert her new power to her own use, and so shed less light on others?

Hurt souls cannot radiate; those who by their beauty are universally desired and loved absorb that love, mutating it into petulance; power turns to self-interest. But just occasionally those rules seem to be suspended and we see the possibility of a holiday from our own nature. Eight days ago we took just such a person and packed her away neatly in a well-made wooden box. It's best that way; now we can go back to worshipping the heart-faced and leaving the Aunt Cressies to die as quietly as they lived. !

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