Despotism, finance and family clash in Edward St Aubyn’s savage and heartbreaking Dunbar. Read on for the first chapter
‘We’re off our meds,’ whispered Dunbar.
‘We’re off our meds/ we’re off our heads,’ sang Peter, ‘we’re out of our beds/ and we’re off our meds! Yesterday,’ he continued in a conspiratorial whisper, ‘we were drooling into the lapels of our terry cloth dressing gowns, but now we’re off our meds! We’ve spat them out; we’ve tranquillised the aspidistras! If those fresh lilies you get sent each day . . .’
‘When I think where they come from,’ growled Dunbar.
‘Steady, old man.’
‘They stole my empire and now they send me stinking lilies.’
‘Oh, you had an empire, did you?’ said Peter, in the voice of an eager hostess, ‘you must meet Gavin in Room 33, he’s here in disguise, but his real name,’ Peter lowered her voice, ‘is Alexander the Great.’
‘I don’t believe a word of it,’ grumbled Dunbar, ‘he’s been dead for years.’
‘Well,’ said Peter, now a Harley Street consultant, ‘if those troubled lilies were suffering from schizophrenic tendencies; tendencies, mind you, a little penchant for the schizoid, not the full-blown thing, their symptoms will have been mitigated with a minimum of fatal side effects.’ He leant forward and whispered, ‘that’s where I put my dead meds: in the vase with the lilies!’
‘I really did have an empire, you know,’ said Dunbar. ‘Have I ever told you the story of how it was stolen from me?’
‘Many times, old man, many times,’ said Peter dreamily. Dunbar heaved himself out of his armchair and after a couple of stumbling steps, straightened up, squinting at the strong light that slanted through the reinforced glass of his premium cell.
‘I told Wilson that I would stay on as non-executive chairman,’ Dunbar began, ‘keeping the plane, the entourage, the properties and the appropriate privileges, but laying down the burden—’ he reached over to the large vase of lilies and lowered it carefully to the floor, ‘laying down the burden of running the Trust from day to day. From now on, I told him, the world will be my perfect playground and, in due course, my private hospice.’
‘Oh, that’s very good,’ said Peter, ‘“the world is my private hospice”, that’s a new one.’
‘“But the Trust is everything”, Wilson told me.’ Dunbar grew more agitated as he moved into the story. ‘“If you give that away,” he said, “you’ll have nothing left. You can’t give something away and keep it at the same time.”’ ‘It’s an untenable position,’ Peter cut in, ‘as R. D. Laing said to the Bishop.’
‘Please let me tell my story,’ said Dunbar. ‘I told Wilson that it was a tax measure, that we could get around the inheritance tax by giving the girls the company straight away. “Better pay the tax,” said Wilson, “than disinherit yourself.”’
‘Oh, I like this Wilson,’ said Peter. ‘He sounds like a sound fellow, he sounds like a man with his meds screwed on, I mean his heads screwed on.’
‘He only had one head,’ said Dunbar impatiently, ‘he wasn’t a monster; it’s my daughters who are the monsters.’ ‘Only one head!’ said Peter. ‘What a dull fellow! When I get anti-depressed I have more heads on my head than bees in a bonnet.’
‘Very well, very well,’ said Dunbar. He looked up at the ceiling and then boomed down in the voice of Wilson, ‘“You can’t cling to the trappings of power, without the power itself. It’s just,”’ he paused, trying to avoid the word, but eventually letting it fall on him from the plaster above, “decadent”.’
‘Oh, decadence, decay and death,’ said Peter in his thespian tremolo, descending, syllable by syllable, into a narrow grave. How lightly we have tripped down those stairs, like Fred Astaires, twirling a scythe instead of a cane!’
‘God in heaven,’ said Dunbar, his face flushing, ‘will you please stop interrupting me? People didn’t used to interrupt me; they listened to me meekly. If they spoke, it was to flatter me, or to make lucrative insinuations. But you, you . . .’
‘Okay, guys,’ said Peter, as if addressing an angry mob, ‘give the man some space. Let’s hear what he’s gotta say.’
‘“I can do what I bloody well like!”’ cried Dunbar, ‘that’s what I told Wilson. “I am informing you of my decision, not asking your advice. Just make it happen!”’
Dunbar raised his eyes to the ceiling again.
‘“I’m not only your lawyer, Henry; I’m your oldest surviving friend. I’m saying these things to protect you.”
‘“You presume too much on our friendship,” I thundered. “I will not be lectured on the company that I alone created.”’ Dunbar raised his fist to the ceiling and shook it. ‘At that point, I seized a Fabergé egg that lay in a nest of tissue paper on my desk – it was the third one that month: how monotonous the Russians were with their imperial pretensions; bunch of jumped-up Jewish kleptocrats, pretending to be Romanov princes, I didn’t need their: “Bloody Russki trash!” I shouted, flinging the egg into the fireplace behind my desk, scattering pearls and fragments of enamel across the hearth. “What do my daughters call it?” I asked Wilson. “Bling! Bloody Russki bling!”
‘Wilson remained impassive; these “infantile tantrums” had become almost daily occurrences, causing some worry to my medical team. You see,’ said Dunbar to Peter excitedly, ‘I can read his thoughts now. I’ve got . . .’
‘I’m afraid to say that you’ve got psychotic insight,’ said Peter, the Harley Street consultant.
‘Oh, pish, stop pretending to be a doctor.’ ‘Who shall I pretend to be?’ asked Peter. ‘Just be yourself, for heaven’s sake.’
‘Oh, I haven’t got that one down yet, Henry. Give me someone easier to impersonate. How about John Wayne?’ Peter didn’t wait for an answer. ‘We’re goin’ to bust out of this joint, Henry,’ he drawled, ‘and by sundown tomorrow we’ll be walkin’ into the Windermere Saloon and ordering a couple of drinks from the bartender, like a couple of real men in charge of their own destinies.’
‘I must tell my story,’ wailed Dunbar. ‘Oh, God, let me not go mad.’
‘You see,’ said Peter, ignoring Dunbar’s distress, ‘I am, or I was, or I used to be – who knows whether I’m history or not? – a famous comedian, but I suffer from depression, the comic affliction, or the tragic affliction of the comic, or the historic affliction of tragic comedians, or the fiction of the tragic affliction of historic comedians!’
‘Please,’ said Dunbar, ‘I’m getting confused.’
‘Oh, I’m anti-depressed/ I’m anti-depressed’, sang Peter, leaping from his chair, locking arms with Dunbar and encouraging him to spin, ‘I’m so anti-depressed/ that I’m manic!’ He stopped suddenly and let go of Dunbar’s arm. ‘Sound of Screeching Tyres,’ he cut in, in his voiceover voice, beginning to mime, ‘as he wrestles manfully with the steering wheel on the verge of a precipice.’
‘I have seen your many faces,’ said Dunbar vaguely, ‘on many screens.’
‘Oh, I don’t claim to be unique,’ said Peter, with a swagger of modesty, ‘I’m not the only one. In fact in 1953, when I was ejected into this vale of tears by my careless mother, there were already two hundred and thirty-one Peter Walkers in the London telephone directory alone; well, not alone so much as overcrowded.’
Dunbar stood frozen in the middle of the room.
‘But I digress,’ said Peter jovially. ‘Tell me about your “medical team”, old man.’
‘My medical team,’ said Dunbar, grasping at the handrail of a familiar phrase in the pitch and roll of his thoughts. ‘Yes, yes; only the day before I announced my decision to Wilson, Dr Bob, my personal physician, had taken Wilson aside to tell him that I had been experiencing some “little cerebral incidents”. He told Wilson there was “nothing to get unduly worried about”.’
'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.
More about the author
‘I really did have an empire, you know,’ said Dunbar. ‘Have I ever told you the story of how it was stolen from me?’
Henry Dunbar, the once all-powerful head of a global corporation, is not having a good day. In his dotage he handed over care of the family firm to his two eldest daughters, Abby and Megan. But relations quickly soured, leaving him doubting the wisdom of past decisions...
Now imprisoned in a care home in the Lake District with only a demented alcoholic comedian as company, Dunbar starts planning his escape. As he flees into the hills, his family is hot on his heels. But who will find him first, his beloved youngest daughter, Florence, or the tigresses Abby and Megan, so keen to divest him of his estate?
Edward St Aubyn is renowned for his masterwork, the five Melrose novels, which dissect with savage and beautiful precision the agonies of family life. Dunbar is a devastating family story and an excoriating novel for and of our times – an examination of power, money and the value of forgiveness.