Dunbar by Edward St Aubyn

Despotism, finance and family clash in the savage and heartbreaking new novel from Edward St Aubyn, author of the Patrick Melrose novels that inspired the Sky Atlantic TV series starring Benedict Cumberbatch. Read on for the first chapter of Dunbar.


Is there ever anything to get unduly worried about,' Peter couldn’t help asking, 'when there are so many things to worry about duly?'

‘Is there ever anything to get unduly worried about,’ Peter couldn’t help asking, ‘when there are so many things to worry about duly?

’Dunbar waved him aside, like a man discouraging a persistent fly.

‘But,’ Dunbar resumed, ‘according to the glib doctor – that gilded serpent, that dodecahedron – who should have been an expert, since his only patient was me, or I, or at any rate, myself, Henry Dunbar,’ he said, pounding his chest, ‘Henry Dunbar.’

‘Not Henry Dunbar, the Canadian media mogul!’ asked Peter, seemingly all agog. ‘One of the world’s richest, and arguably the world’s most powerful man?’

‘Yes, yes, that’s me, or I, or at least my name – my grammar slips a little around certain ideas, spins around, around certain whirlpools. Anyway, according to that hateful traitor, my physician, it would be better to keep my tantrums “to a minimum”; for my entourage not to engage with them, or appear to take them too seriously.’

‘Tantrums will be at a maximum tomorrow afternoon,’ Peter announced, ‘as Hurricane Henry moves through the Lake District. Viewers are advised to crawl into a basement and chain themselves to a rock.’

Dunbar flailed his arms around, warding off more and more flies.

‘I . . . I. Where was I? Oh, yes, after my little show of rage, Wilson remained impassive, thinking it was the right thing to do. Meanwhile, I noticed the egg; its surface turned out to be chipped and spoilt, but the interior was made of gold and the whole thing had failed to shatter in the way that my mood demanded. I walked over to it and brought my pitiless hell down on the maddening toy, but it was more resistant than I had imagined and the egg slid from under my shoe. I just caught the mantelpiece in time to save myself from an ignominious fall. I saw loyal Wilson rise from his chair and subside again. The moment of shock jolted me out of my fury and into a more fragile frame of mind.

‘“I’m getting old, Charlie,” I said to Wilson, picking up the toy egg and pushing down the sense of dread I’d carried ever since that stupid, stupid accident in Davos: the constant fear of falling over again, of no longer being able to trust my treacherous body. “I don’t want that level of responsibility any more,” I said. “The girls will look after me, there’s nothing they love more than fussing over their old father.”’

‘In short,’ said Peter, in a thick Viennese accent, ‘“he turned his daughters into his mother!’’ As Freud said to the Bishop, on the corner of Heimatstrasse and Wanderlust.’

‘I opened the window nearest to me,’ Dunbar persisted, ‘and posted the egg into the air. “That’ll make someone’s day,” I said.’

‘“As long as it doesn’t crack their skull,” said Wilson. “Heads are more brittle than gold.”’

‘Oh, what a wise Wilson it is,’ said Peter.

‘“I think we would have heard the cry of alarm by now,” I assured him, sitting back down behind my desk. “People are better at hiding their glee than their agony. Here,” I said, offering Wilson a gift, “why don’t you have one of these? I’ve got enough of this Russki bling to make a Fabergé omelette.” I opened my drawer and tossed a glittering bauble through the air. Wilson, who had been playing catch with me and my family for several decades, since that first Sunday lunch when he found us all playing baseball in the garden like a normal family – like a family playing at being a normal family – caught it neatly, glanced down at the lattice of tiny diamonds that criss-crossed its crimson surface and rolled it without comment on to the table beside his armchair, where it came to rest unsteadily next to his empty Meissen coffee cup.’

‘I’m loving the detail, darling,’ said Peter, the ecstatic theatre director, ‘loving it.’

‘“You should at least hold back a block of shares,” said Wilson, “and I’m telling  you  right  now  that  you  won’t be allowed to keep Global One. No private citizen has his own 747.”

‘“Allowed?” I thundered, “allowed? Who is it will deny Dunbar his wishes? Who is it will deny Dunbar his whims?”’

‘Why Dunbar, of course,’ said Peter. ‘Only he has the power, or had the power, or used to have the power.’

‘I’ll make it a condition of the gift! By God, I’ll have my way!’

A knock on the door made Dunbar fall abruptly silent. A hunted look came over his face.

‘Quickly,’ said Peter, leaping up and hurrying to his side. ‘Remember, old man: pretend to take your meds, but don’t swallow them,’ he whispered. ‘Tomorrow is the great escape, the great jailbreak.’

‘Yes, yes,’ whispered Dunbar, ‘the great escape. Enter!’ he called out grandly.

Peter, who had started quietly humming the theme music of Mission Impossible, gave Dunbar a wink.

Dunbar tried to return the wink, but found he could not control his eyelids separately and blinked a few times instead.

Two nurses entered the room, pushing a trolley loaded with medicine bottles and plastic cups.

‘Good afternoon, gentlemen,’ said Nurse Roberts, the older of the two. ‘How are we today?’

‘Has it ever occurred to you, Nurse Roberts,’ asked Peter, ‘that we might have more than one emotion within us, let alone between us?’

‘Up to your old tricks again, Mr Walker,’ said Nurse Roberts. ‘Have we been to our meeting today?’

‘We have been to our meeting, and I am happy to report that we experienced a warm sense of fellowship with our fellow fellows.’

Nurse Muldoon couldn’t help giggling.

‘Don’t encourage him,’ said Nurse Roberts with a disapproving sigh. ‘We’re not going to try to run away to the pub again, are we?’

‘What do you take me for?’ asked Peter.

‘A raging alcoholic,’ said Nurse Roberts sarcastically. ‘What on earth could persuade a person to leave this notorious beauty spot,’ said Peter returning to his thespian tremolo, ‘this haven of natural tranquillisers, this valley through which the milk of human kindness flows like a silken river, healing the troubled minds of its already well heeled clientele?’

‘Hmmm,’ said Nurse Roberts, ‘we’ve got our eye on you.’

‘Here at Schloss Meadowmeade,’ said Peter, metamorphosed into a German Kommandant, ‘we have ninety-nine point nine per cent security! The only reason it is not one hundred per cent is because you fellows locked one of your own officers on the window ledge overnight and he lost a finger to frostbite!’

‘That’s enough of your nonsense,’ said Nurse Roberts. ‘What’s this vase doing on the floor? Nurse Muldoon, would you mind? And then, will you please accompany Mr Walker back to his room. Mr Dunbar needs his afternoon rest. It’s time to say goodbye and let him get a little peace and quiet.’

‘See ya round, partner,’ said John Wayne, giving Dunbar a wink.

Dunbar blinked back several times to show that he understood.

After the others had left, Nurse Roberts led the way into the bedroom with her trolley.

‘I don’t think Mr Walker is a good influence on you, personally,’ she said. ‘He just gets you agitated.’

‘Yes,’ said Dunbar humbly, ‘you’re quite right, Nurse. He’s a bit all over the place. I find him quite frightening sometimes.’

‘I’m not surprised you do, dear. To tell you the truth, I never liked The Many Faces of Peter Walker – always used to change channels. Give me Danny Kaye any day. It was a more innocent age. Or Dick Emery, oh, he used to make me laugh,’ said Nurse Roberts, plumping Dunbar’s pillows while he sat on the edge of the bed, the very picture of a dazed old man.

‘Now it’s time for us to take our afternoon medicine,’ said Nurse Roberts. She set aside two bottles, lifting a plastic cup from the column of cups in the corner of the trolley.

‘We’ve got our nice green and brown one that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy,’ she explained in language simple enough for poor old Dunbar to understand, ‘and then we’ve got our big white one that stops us having silly ideas about our daughters not loving us, when they’re paying for us to have a lovely long holiday here at Meadowmeade, and to get the rest we deserve after being a very, very busy and very important man.’

‘I know they love me, really,’ said Dunbar, accepting the little cup. ‘I just get confused.’

‘Of course you do,’ said Nurse Roberts, ‘that’s why you’re here, dear, so we can help you.’

‘I have another daughter . . .’ Dunbar began.

‘Another daughter?’ said Nurse Roberts. ‘Oh, dear, I’ll have to have a word with Dr Harris about your doses.’

Dunbar tipped the pills into his mouth and took a sip of water from the glass proffered by Nurse Roberts. Smiling gratefully at his caregiver, he lay down on the bed and, without another word, closed his eyes.

‘You have a nice little nap,’ said Nurse Roberts, wheeling her trolley out of the room. ‘Sweet dreams!’

The moment he heard the door close, Dunbar’s eyes shot open. He sat up and spat the pills into his hand, hoisting himself out of bed and shuffling back into his sitting room.

‘Monsters,’ he muttered, ‘vultures tearing at my heart and entrails.’ He pictured their ragged head feathers streaked with gore and offal. Treacherous, lecherous bitches, perverting his personal physician – the man appointed to examine Dunbar’s body, authorised to take samples of Dunbar’s blood and urine, to check him for prostate cancer, to shine torchlight on to his tender tonsils; it didn’t bear thinking about, didn’t bear thinking about – perverting his personal physician into their, into their all too personal gynaecologist, their pimp, their copulator, their serpent dildo!

He thrust the pills down the neck of the vase with his shaking thumbs.

‘You think you can castrate me with your chemicals, eh?’ said Dunbar. ‘Well, you’d better watch out, my little bitches, I’m on my way back. I’m not finished yet. I’ll have my revenge. I’ll – I don’t know what I’ll do yet – but I’ll . . .’

The words wouldn’t come, the resolution wouldn’t come, but the rage continued to swell up in him until he started to growl like a wolf preparing to attack, a low, slowly intensifying growl with nowhere to go. He hoisted the vase above his head, ready to fling it against his prison window, but then he froze, unable to smash it or to put it down, all action cancelled by the perfect civil war of omnipotence and impotence that gridlocked his body and his mind.

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