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The Family Arsenal

Paul Theroux


  The Family Arsenal



  Part One

  Chapter 1

  Chapter 2

  Chapter 3

  Chapter 4

  Chapter 5

  Part Two

  Chapter 6

  Chapter 7

  Chapter 8

  Chapter 9

  Chapter 10

  Chapter 11

  Part Three

  Chapter 12

  Chapter 13

  Chapter 14

  Chapter 15

  Chapter 16

  Chapter 17

  Part Four

  Chapter 18

  Chapter 19

  Chapter 20

  Chapter 21

  Chapter 22

  Chapter 23

  Part Five

  Chapter 24

  Chapter 25

  Chapter 26

  Chapter 27


  The Family Arsenal

  Paul Theroux was born in Medford, Massachusetts in 1941 and published his first novel, Waldo, in 1967. His subsequent novels include The Family Arsenal, Picture Palace, The Mosquito Coast, O-Zone, Millroy the Magician, My Secret History, My Other Life, and, most recently, A Dead Hand. His highly acclaimed travel books include Riding the Iron Rooster, The Great Railway Bazaar, The Old Patagonian Express, Fresh-Air Fiend, and Ghost Train to the Eastern Star. He divides his time between Cape Cod and the Hawaiian Islands.

  Books by Paul Theroux



  Fong and the Indians

  Girls at Play

  Murder in Mount Holly

  Jungle Lovers

  Sinning with Annie

  Saint Jack

  The Black House

  The Family Arsenal

  The Consul’s File

  A Christmas Card

  Picture Palace

  London Snow

  World’s End

  The Mosquito Coast

  The London Embassy

  Half Moon Street

  Doctor Slaughter


  The White Man’s Burden

  My Secret History

  Chicago Loop

  Millroy the Magician

  The Greenest Island

  My Other Life

  Kowloon Tong

  Hotel Honolulu

  The Stranger at the Palazzo d’Oro

  Blinding Light

  The Elephanta Suite

  A Dead Hand


  V. S. Naipaul


  The Great Railway Bazaar

  The Old Patagonian Express

  The Kingdom by the Sea

  Sailing Through China

  Sunrise with Seamonsters

  The Imperial Way

  Riding the Iron Rooster

  To the Ends of the Earth

  The Happy Isles of Oceania

  The Pillars of Hercules

  Sir Vidia’s Shadow

  Fresh-Air Fiend

  Nurse Wolf and Dr Sacks

  Dark Star Safari

  Ghost Train to the Eastern Star

  For Anne, with love

  Alexander, with admiration

  Jonathan, with thanks

  ‘I determined to see it’ – she was speaking still of English society – ‘to learn for myself what it really is before we blow it up. I’ve been here now a year and a half and, as I tell you, I feel I’ve seen. It’s the old regime again, the rottenness and extravagance, bristling with every iniquity and every abuse, over which the French Revolution passed like a whirlwind; or perhaps even more a reproduction of the Roman world in its decadence, gouty, apoplectic, depraved, gorged and clogged with wealth and spoils, selfishness and scepticism, and waiting for the onset of the barbarians. You and I are the barbarians, you know.’

  HENRY JAMES, The Princess Casamassima

  Part One


  Seated on a cushion at the upstairs window of the tall house, Hood raised the cigarette to the sun and saw that it was half full of the opium mixture. Filling it was pleasurable, like the wilful care of delaying for love: to taste confidence. He winked and sighted with it, as if studying violence from afar, to take aim. He had a marksman’s princely squint and the dark furious face of an Apache; but he was only finding his landmarks with the unfinished cigarette.

  He moved it slightly to the left and covered a church steeple on the next road. In the slow fire of the late afternoon the tall granite spire had the look of an old dagger. Then to the right, past the far-off bulb of the Post Office Tower, a matchstick in metal; past a row of riverside warehouses the sun had gutted, and more burnt spires, and the dome of St Paul’s – blue and simple as a bucket at this distance. Drawing the cigarette down he measured a narrow slice of the river between two brick buildings charred by shadow: part of a wharf, the gas works, the power station pouring a muscle of smoke into the sky, a crane poised dangerously like an ember about to snap, housetops shedding flames, then under his thumb the ditch at the end of the crescent where the trains ran.

  The ditch wall was streaked with exulting paint: ARSENAL RULE and AGGRO and ALL WANKERS SUPPORT PALACE. That glint behind it was the river at Deptford, showing like a band of bright snake scales; but the snake lay hidden, and here when the wind was right on the creek it was a smell – a tidal odour of mudbanks and exposed pebbles, a blocked sink holding a dead serpent. Up close, in Albacore Crescent, the severe summer shadow gave the bending terraces of plump-fronted houses the look of iron closets, clamped against thieves, and it was the emptiness of the street – indeed, the emptiness of this part of South London – that made Hood think that in each locked house there was at least one impatient man plotting a reply to his disappointment.

  Spying with his cigarette in this way, Hood saw the father and son approach, sweeping the road. They made their way in a bumping procession, detouring around a blind abandoned Zodiac parked on flat tyres, passing the widely spaced trees whose slender trunks were sleeved in wire mesh. The old man was on the broom, shoving at the gutter; behind him, the boy – no more than ten or eleven – fought with the handle of the cart, a dented yellow barrel on wheels. Even with the window closed Hood had heard the scrape of the broom and the bang of the old man’s tin scoop as he emptied a load into the barrel. Hood had been waiting since dawn for Mayo to arrive, and the suspense had made his hearing keen: his frustration amplified the slightest sound.

  He was in a room of snoring children. He thought of them as children: they were young and slept like cats in a basket. They were not conspirators – they didn’t know the word. The girl, Brodie, was asleep across the room; Murf slept against the near wall, hugging a pillow. The crudely sketched tattoo on Brodie’s arm (a small chevron of needlemarks: a bluebird), and Murf’s ear-ring and hunting knife, looked especially ridiculous on these contented sleepers. Sleep had removed anger from their faces and made their youth emphatic. Hood used his cigarette to study them. He thought: It is possible to believe in a sleeper’s innocence.

  Earlier – around two – Brodie had said, ‘Mayo got lost – or picked up. I’m crashing.’ And she had gone to the mantelshelf and pawed with her little hand in the drawers of the Burmese box and taken out a vial of powder. She faced him, hunching, ten inches from shoulder to shoulder, and shyly, because everything was Hood’s in this house, she showed him the vial. She hesitated, looked to Murf for encouragement, then back at Hood, who had not moved or spoken.


  ‘Don’t say that.’

  Brodie nibbled her underlip. She said, ‘Then fuck you.’

  ‘Or that.’

  Hood frowned, and Murf laughed at
the girl, showing the pegs of his teeth. And only then she seemed to realize her cleverness; she giggled and went round-shouldered. It was this that made them children: they could not be alone, but there was nothing they would refuse to do if they had company. Now they were happy, but even angry they were empty.

  Quickly, Brodie had made two cigarettes and looked up for Hood’s approval – he had taught her the trick of making a joint one-handed. She knew enough of her dependency on him to offer him the first one. He said no. Murf rolled sideways and accepted it: ‘Fanks.’ Hood saw how their puffing weighted the air with warm opium fumes, and he had been tempted to abandon his vigil. But Mayo had promised to come – days ago. Hood knew she had what he wanted, the painting – the newspapers had reported her success before she sent him six inches of its fusty lining. He had sent an inch to The Times, but the story of her theft had slipped from the front pages: she was that close. He had expected her at dawn today, and he would not have been surprised to see her steer her ice-cream van from the fog – the signs SUPERTONY and MIND THAT CHILD bright with dampness on the van’s side – and leap out with the painting under her arm. But she didn’t come then, nor at noon. Hood had forgotten to eat lunch, and sick of waiting and not realizing his impatience was aggravated by simple hunger he resented his wasted day by the window; another day. He was quicker than any of them, so it was left to him to wait.

  Waiting, a penalty, was his favour to them. He had not insisted on leading; he obliged himself to move at their speed. He looked again at Brodie and Murf. They slept smiling, Murf with his knees raised, Brodie on the cushion where she had propped herself to smoke. She had a smudge on her cheek that Hood found viciously attractive, a blot that threw her pretty face into relief and reminded him of the one fact he knew: she had planted a bomb in a locker at Euston. She slept in depths of silence that counterfeited a happy death. Awake, Hood felt like a parent in a room of napping children, and at five he had crossed the room to the Burmese box that had lain at the edge of his eye all day. He had taken it to the window and set to work. He crushed a cigarette and pinched out the tobacco, and he began filling the empty tube with alternate layers of tobacco and opium powder. He had delayed, tamping carefully, in the hope that Mayo’s arrival would interrupt him. It was the reason he had used it to stare out of the window for so long; and when the cigarette was finished he had avoided lighting the tightly twisted end and kissing the purple smoke from it. Now he did not want to be interrupted; the smoke was definite. It would warm him and give him sleep, release him from waiting and deliver him to a place of numb enchantment where all promises were kept and what he attempted he mastered. And more: fountains of light, the caress of moths’ wings, syrup in his throat, sex like splitting a peach with his teeth on the Perfume River, and all the green heat of Guatemala.

  Striking a match he had heard the father and son again and was distracted by their muffled voices. They were in front of the house, the old man pushing into a pile the litter of papers, the boy resting on the handle of the cart, watching his father gasp. Hood shook out the match and from his window looked down two storeys, annoyed by the interruption, but feeling an affectionate pity for them and a hatred for their grubby job. The man was too old to be punching waste paper with a broom and stooping with his pan; the boy too young to be standing in the gutter with his clumsy barrel. It seemed to Hood a shabby and undeserved penance, which they performed sighing, with inappropriately serious faces; and Hood felt mingled outrage and self-contempt, wanting to save them from a job he would not do himself.

  He knew the third figure, a tall man in a plum-coloured suit sauntering towards them on the opposite side of the street. And yet he was almost surprised to see him – he had once hammered that man so hard in a dream he was convinced the brute was dead. The man appeared cheerful, but that was deceptive. He crossed over, pitching forward into a tiger’s slouch with each step, and Hood could see he was drunk. The man paused and jerked his face at the old sweeper, muttered something and passed by. He went five paces, drew a bag from the pocket of his jacket and removed a brown bottle from the bag. He crumpled the bag and lazily drop-kicked it into the gutter the man had cleared. He shouted and pointed to it, but the old man ignored the protesting squawk; he went on sweeping. The boy looked back anxiously, not at the shouting man but at the crumpled bag in the newly swept gutter.

  Hood placed his cigarette on the Burmese box and slid the window open. The men faced each other: authority in a plum-coloured suit, servitude with a push-broom, the simplest example of unfairness; and the judging child.

  ‘Pick it up!’

  ‘– no attention to him,’ the old man was saying to the boy.

  But the boy left the cart and started in the direction of the bag.

  ‘Get back here,’ said the old man. ‘Don’t listen to him.’

  The boy obeyed his father. This infuriated the drunk, and Hood heard again, ‘Pick it up!’

  Now the old man turned and screamed, ‘Get off out of it! You stitched me up last week and you’re not going to stitch me up again! Right, you made the mess and you can bloody well –’

  The tall man staggered towards the father and son, howling with his whole face and swinging the bottle in his hand; his voice, his suit insisted. The old man clutched his broom like a weapon and lowered his puckered face behind it, crying, ‘Pack it in!’ But it was the boy’s face that alarmed Hood: it had become delicate with fear, as if it might shatter like white china, and wincing it looked pathetically young. Not daring to draw a breath the boy wore the quick mask of a nervous infant panicked by noise. The man was threatening his father, now standing close, raising his arms and working his mad face at him.

  Hood had been with Mayo that other time. She had said, ‘He’s not political, it doesn’t matter.’ ‘I’ll kill him,’ Hood had said; and she laughed and turned away from the window: ‘You’ve got an Irish temper! What would that effect?’ Watching the man go then he had said. ‘His ass, May. His ass.’

  He wanted to see the old man triumph and teach the boy courage, and he looked for a flourish of the broom handle, a whack or an insult to turn the drunk away. Hood imagined himself leaping from the window, flying two storeys to the bastard’s back and dragging him to the street. In an uprush of anger he saw himself with the man by the ears and tearing his head off. But there was nothing. Hood seethed and stayed where he was, the thick curtains in his hands, the pelmet shaking above him. And the boy looked on, helplessly at his helpless father, as the man struck, slapped him (‘Dad!’), nearly losing his balance, and spat out something more. Hood saw the old man close his eyes and tighten his grip on the broom; he saw the boy’s face break and the tears, and the drunk’s expression – that of a scavenger seizing a piece of meat in his teeth and turning away to protect it. He saw all this with terrible clarity, but he heard nothing more, for at that moment a train passed in the ditch at the end of the crescent. The train closed in on the quarrel, quickly, without an announcing sound. Then there was for fifteen seconds the drone of wheels on rails and the rattle and screech of the carriages, sealing the humiliation by drowning it in a single wave of clatter; and ending it, for when the train had gone by, leaving the traces of a hum on the housefronts, the old man had the broom on his shoulder and the boy was trundling up the road, following his father with the yellow barrel. The drunk slouched away, carrying himself crookedly to the hill.


  On that train, the 17.27 from Charing Cross, sat Ralph Gawber, an accountant. His thin face and his obvious fatigue gave him a look of kindliness, and he rode the train with tolerance, responding to the jump of the carriage with a gentle nod. In his heavy suit, in the harsh August heat, he had the undusted sanctity of a clergyman who has spent the day preaching without result in a stubborn slum. He held The Times in one hand, folded flat in a rectangle to make a surface for the crossword, and with the ballpoint pen in his other hand he might have been studying a clue. But the crossword was completely inked in. Mr Gawber was asleep. He
had the elderly commuter’s habit of being able to sleep without shifting position; sleep took him and embalmed him lightly like a touch of sadness he would soon shake off. He was dreaming of having tea with the Queen in a sunny room in Buckingham Palace. Jammed in the corner, the standing passengers’ coats brushing his head, the lunchbox of the shirtless man next to him nudging his thigh, he dreamed. Around him, travellers slapped and shook their evening papers, but Mr Gawber slept on. The Queen suddenly smiled and leaned forwards and plucked open the front of her dress. Her full breasts tumbled out and Mr Gawber put his head between them and sobbed with shame and relief. They were so cool; and he felt her nipples against his ears.

  He had caught the morning train dressed warmly for the chilly summer fog which blanketed Catford and gave him a secure feeling of privacy among the bulky lighted cars half-lost in vapour. The fog cheered him with forgetfulness, slowly and unaccountably, allowing him amnesia. But the sun had burst into his compartment at London Bridge, dramatically lighting the Peek Frean biscuit factory and releasing a powerful odour of shortbread. At once, he loathed his suit. The boats on the river were indistinguishable in the broad dazzle, and by the time Mr Gawber had walked the quarter mile to Kingsway he was perspiring. It seemed to him, in travelling this short distance from his home in South London, as if he had left a far-off place, where the weather was different, and had to cross a frontier to work.

  All day at his desk at Rackstraw’s he had been hot, and twice he had gone to the tiled stairwell at the centre of the building, just to stand and be cool. ‘Lovely day,’ Miss French had said. He had to agree. Only the weather brought Mr Gawber and his secretary together in conversation. He bore it and memorized the clouds for her. He would not tell her what he secretly felt, that London looked deranged in summer heat, collapsing and crowded, sunburnt necks and ugly exposed navels, the paint blistering, the very bricks sweating old poisons through their cracks. And this summer something dreadful was happening: a slump, or worse – an eruption. He’d seen the figures and smelled smoke; the economy wanted a complete rejig.