Like so many people living through this great time in human history, I am not at all sure what is right and what is wrong. So if I appear a little slow to grasp the moral dimensions of what follows, I’m afraid I will have to ask you to bear with me. Apologies. It’s a difficult age.
Actually, I do not believe I was behaving all that badly when these withering atrocities first began. (And if it would now be helpful for me to admit that mine was a crime of sorts, then I feel I must also be allowed to maintain that I did not deserve the punishment.) Rather, I seem to recall that I was trying to be as careful and as sensitive and as discreet as possible; it was William who was acting like a fool.
We had finally come to a halt in the middle of “The Desire for Order.” Lucy and Nathalie were somewhere up ahead—progressing unabashed through the room designated “Modern Life.” I had been hoping to slip away without detection. But matters were not proceeding according to plan. For the last two minutes William had been following me through the gallery with the air of a pantomime detective: two steps behind, stopping only a slapstick fraction after me and then raking his eyes accusingly up and down my person.
He spoke in a vociferous whisper: “Jasper, what the hell are you doing?” “Ssshh.” The artificial lights hummed. “I am attempting to enjoy my birthday.” “Well, why do you keep running away from us?” “I’m not.” “Of course you are.” His voice was becoming progressively louder. “You are deliberately refusing to enter ‘Modern Life’— over there.” He pointed. “And you keep drifting back into ‘The Desire for Order’—in here.” He pointed again, but this time at his feet and with a flourish. “Don’t think I haven’t been watching you.” “For Christ’s sake, William, if you must know—” “I must.” “I am trying to get off this floor altogether and back upstairs into ‘Nude Action Body’ without anybody noticing. So it would be very helpful if you would stop drawing attention to us and go and catch up with the girls. Why exactly are you following me?” “Because you’ve got the booze and I think you should open it. Immediately.” He paused to draw a stiffening breath. “And because you always look oddly attractive when you are up to something.” “I’m not up to anything, and I haven’t got the wine—I stowed it inside Lucy’s bag, which is now safely inside a cloakroom locker.” I feigned interest in the mangled wire that we were facing.
“You didn’t. My God. Well, we must mount a rescue. We must spring the noble prisoner from its vile cell straight away! People from Texas put their cream sodas in those lockers—I’ve seen them do it—and their . . . their fanny packs. And God only knows what’s in Lucy’s bag—women’s products, probably. And cheap Hungarian biros. You realize—” “Will you please keep your voice down? ” I frowned. An elderly couple wearing “I love Houston” T-shirts seemed to be choking to death on the far side of the installation. “Anyway, Lucy uses an ink pen.” But William was undeterred. “You realize that you may have ruined that great Burgundy’s life. One of the most elegant vintages of the last millennium traumatized beyond recovery within minutes of your having taken possession. It’s barbarous. I am holding you personally resp—” “William, for fuck’s sake. If you must talk so bloody loudly, then can you at least try to sound more like a human being from the present century? And less like a fucking ponce.” I cleared my throat. “Besides, you’re not allowed to wander around Tate Modern swigging booze. It’s against the rules.” “Balls. What rules? That’s a 1990 Chambertin Clos de Bcze you’ve got locked up in there like a . . . like a common Chianti. Bought by me—especially for you, my dear Jasper, on this, the occasion of your twenty- ninth birthday. How could they stop us drinking it? They wouldn’t dare.” I mimicked his ridiculous manner: “As well you know, my dear William, that bottle needs opening for at least two hours before we could even go near it. It’s my wine now, and I forbid you to molest it before it’s had a chance to develop. Look at you, you’re slathering like a pedophile.” “Well, I think you’re being very unfair. You drag your friends out to look at all this—all this bric-a-brac and mutilated genitalia —and then you deny us essential refreshment. Of course I am desperate. Of course I need a drink. This isn’t art, this is wreckage.” I took a few steps away from him and turned to face a large canvas covered in heavy ridges of dun brown paint. William followed and did the same, tilting his head to one side in a parody of viewers of modern art the world over.
“Actually,” he said, a little less audibly, “I was meanning the small bottle of specialty vodka that Nathalie bought you. I thought you might have stashed it in your coat or something. I only need a painkillllller to get me through the next room.” Mock grievance now yielded to genuine curiosity: “Anyway, you haven’t answered my question.” “That’s because you are a complete penis, William.” “Why are you in such a hurry to leave us? What’s so special about ‘Nude Action Body’?” He looked sideways at me, but I kept my attention on the painting. “Is it that girl you were staring at?” “No.” “Yes, it is. It’s that girl from upstairs.” “No, it isn’t.” “The one you were pretending not to follow before we came down here.” He paused. “I knew it. I knew it.” “OK. Yes. It is.” He gave a theatrical sigh. “I thought you were supposed to be stopping all that. What was it you said?” He composed his face as if to deliver Hamlet’s saddest soliloquy. “ ‘I can’t go on like this, Will, I am going mad. Oh Will, save me from the quagmire of womankind. No more of this relentless sex. Oh handsome Will, I have to stop. I must stop. I will be true.’ ” I ignored him. “William, I need you to buy me some time and stop fucking around. Lucy and Nathalie will be back in here looking for us any second. Go and distract them. Be nice. Be selfless. Help me.” He ignored me. “OK, maybe not the ‘handsome Will’ bit, but those were more or less your words. And now look at you—you’re right back to where you were a year ago. You can’t leave your flat without trying to sleep with half of London. And never a moment’s cease to consider what the fuck you are doing or—heaven forbid—why.” I walked toward the exit on the far side of the room and considered a collection of icons made to evoke the Russian Orthodox style. The figures were blurred and distorted and appeared to recede into their frames, so that it was impossible to tell whether they were indeed hallowed saints or grotesque contorted animals or merely half-smudged lines signifying nothing.
“Look, Will, I need fifteen minutes. Will you keep an eye on the others for me—please? Don’t let them leave this floor. If they look like they’re moving, set off the fire ...