Monday, May 26, 2008

A Cage of Bones excerpt by Jeffrey Round

This is an excerpt from my first novel, A Cage of Bones. Warden Fields, a naïve college student from Toronto, is discovered by an Italian modelling agency and persuaded to work in Europe. At first all goes well: in Italy he finds love and the glimmerings of success amidst a world of illusion, but later in England’s post-punk landscape he finds himself embroiled in illegal underground political intrigue.

A Cage of Bones
Gay Men’s Press,UK (September,1997)
ISBN: 0854492526


There had been small shows all week. At the height of things, Milan reached a fever pitch as collections were unveiled and fireworks exploded in the sky every night. That evening’s presentation included some of Italy’s pre-eminent designers, gathered together in a gala showing in aid of the newly formed fashion council. Feuding competitors had put aside their pins and cutting shears and come armed only with their most glamorous creations.

The models were assembled in the fitting rooms like so many prize blossoms as dressers and make-up artists fluttered from one to the other making sure each fold, each crease, found its proper place. Warden waited until the first group of models was led out before taking his place at the make-up tables.

Outside, the pounding music and the announcer’s cheerful perma-press voice meant the show had begun. It seemed only moments before the first group were back, inserted in and out of their exits and entrances between brief changes and the soft fluttering of applause.

“She is magnificent!” he heard one of the assistants exclaim. The man was peeking out at the runway from behind a curtain. “Brava! Brava!” he cried, wringing his hands.

The excitement was over Tamarra, a big star whose face frequently appeared on the covers of the glitzy fashion magazines and whose lifestyle and personality were reputedly even larger off-stage. According to Joe, Tamarra was a transsexual from the slums of Brazil.

Warden was distracted by the hands that reached out to brush his hair and dress his body. His stomach fluttered. Then his group was being herded out of the dressing room and checked as they lined up for the parade down the runway. Warden stood anxiously backstage waiting for the introductions, the announcer’s voice booming in his ears.

He looked around at the others, these collective sharers of his life over the past few months: Joe stood up front, hair slicked down and in place at last, but still looking like a mischievous teenager under the conservative adult garb. Behind him was Cody, slate-eyed and steel-chested, while Mike stood at the opposite end of the line-up alongside several others from his own agency.

“Good luck,” Warden mouthed. Mike smiled, giving him a thumbs-up sign.

An assistant fluttered past, waving his hands and pulling his lips into a grin, making hideous faces until they were all laughing, all those beautiful men and women conscious only of their nowness. As though it were all that mattered.

They were let out of the narrow confines one at a time, the pounding beat propelling them down the celebrated catwalk. A door opened and they entered a new universe where the stars seemed to have reassembled inside the pavilion for the night.

Warden watched the models ahead of him spin down the ramp as though across an abstracted horizon. Formations turned and scattered, reassembling instantly as taut lines and dagger sharp curves plunged the eye into a brilliant substitute existence. They seemed to re-invent themselves with every step, scarcely aware of the extraordinary fuss they were causing.

Warden stepped onto the platform, caught in the trembling light. At the far end of the stage were the ‘magnificent’ Tamarra and Eric Nevada. They turned in perfect unison and swept back up opposite sides of the ramp. Tamarra floated along ethereally, nothing in her movements suggesting she’d ever been anything other than what she was right now, while Eric strode up the far side, darkly luminous like a nervous racehorse.

These were the two models who were magic that year. Somewhere someone had decided as much and given them the stamp of approval. This was the look, the stance, the face of what constituted the Here-and-Now.

Warden glanced out over a sea of admiration. Flashes went off like timed explosions around the room. The auditorium was filled with fleeting subtleties, the routes of suggestion upon which the lightness of illusion travelled. This is what it looks like! he caught himself thinking.

How temporary it all was: beat, look, model. Worlds winked out in quicker-than-the-eye changes. High cheekbones, pure skin tones, and slender supple bodies repeated themselves endlessly before retreating behind glossy curtains to be transfigured and melted down in an infinite array of guises.

Warden felt magnified by the attention as flashes of light caught on his skin like tiny smiles of adoration. He rose, porous with ecstasy, while the Lilliputians looked on.

The end of the show exploded in a tableau in honour of the American Independence Day. Models dressed as guards of honour and carrying long-bannered flags flanked both sides of the ramp. Down the centre paraded Tamarra in a vermilion evening gown leading a Siberian tiger cub on a leash. She looked as sleek and tawny as the cat itself. The cub wasn’t in the best of humour, spitting and snarling with each synchronized flash as the show ended in a splurge of colour.

And then it was done. Lights dimmed and the fanfare converged to a distant hum as the public, press and friends rose to follow the oracles of fashion. It was time to let the effects of the show gain momentum, taking it off the runway and into the streets.

Inside the reception hall, a vast arena of marble and tulle, the models reappeared one by one to mingle with the public, standing with the designers and posing for the photo-hungry. Finally the stars entered, Eric followed by Tamarra. She stood for a moment at the top of the stairs as though caught by surprise when the flashes started up again. Then, with one foot, she began her descent, elegant and ever lovely, and a smile that seemed to say to everyone in the room ‘Ah, there you are at last!’ but which really said ‘Here am I.’

The reception went by in a blur. Between the enthusiastic introductions and brassy greetings, the brilliant talk and bitchy gossip, cocaine began to be dispensed furtively among the glasses of champagne. Warden watched curiously as Tamarra herself came to offer him the drug of the gods. She smiled benignly and lifted it up on the back of a credit card.

“Here’s to it,” she said, wrinkling her nose. “Up the spout.”

He had a quick snort of the cold whiteness up each nostril and felt a numbness descending his throat. Gianni Versace passed by with one of the show’s co-ordinators.

“You were wonderful, my darling!” he said, taking Tamarra’s hand and kissing it lightly.

“Gianni, Antonio, I’d like you to meet Warden,” she said. “Warden is with Maura’s agency. We’ll have to get him in our show next year. He’s going to be very good.”

They spoke briefly in English, and then switched to Italian. Tamarra laughed at something he couldn’t understand. Crowds surrounded them. Tamarra and the famous designer drifted off in a haze of smoke and camera flashes, followed by the co-ordinator.

A waiter passed bearing a tray that seemed to float towards Warden. He picked up a glass with an amazingly long stem. The music was sounding peculiar. Everything sparkled, as though the room were strewn with delicate crystal petals. There was a glittering edge to it all, outlining the gathering in an aura that was fabulous yet vaguely sinister.

Warden watched as his agency director went through the crowd, a blur with an anxious face. Then Cody went by with a woman on either arm. After a while Tamarra reappeared. Warden stared. For a moment he thought he saw traces of blood and bone pressing through her skin, her celebrated cheeks rotting as she stood chatting and laughing, ignorant of her impending demise. He shook his head as though clearing a blockage. The nightmarish vision disappeared.

“This place is getting too fabulous for words, darling,” Tamarra said, shaking her vivacious hair. “Some of us are going somewhere to dance and we think you ought to come along.”

And then they were clambering into one of several cars with a dozen or so others who’d been in the show. Mike was there and he felt reassured. He watched as parts of Milan flew by he’d never seen before. Out of a general buzz of conversation he heard Tamarra speaking.

“This one needs taking care of,” she said, patting his head.

He was aware of a face leering at him from the front seat.

“I’ll help,” he heard a man’s voice say.

“No, you won’t,” said Tamarra. “You keep your hands on the steering wheel and off of this boy. He’s an innocent among us wolves.”

Warden smiled and suffered her attentions while the car drove through warm streets with its top down. Eventually, they all piled out at a park where outdoor celebrations were taking place. There was music and dancing and occasional fireworks like ersatz stars dissolving in the sky.

After an appropriate amount of time the night began to move off in search of further adventure before dawn. Warden found himself in a dance club where everyone looked as elegant and beautiful as the runway models. He felt as though he’d walked into the centre of a diamond, everything moving in a din of white lights and beating sound.

The man who’d driven them came over and put a drink in his hands. Warden was thirsty and downed it quickly. The man was a photographer. He told Warden he was very beautiful and wanted to make him a star. He wanted Warden to come and live with him.

“I will provide you with everything,” the infatuated man said, trying to kiss his lips.

Warden pushed him away. “You probably couldn’t afford me,” he said, repeating a line he’d heard someone else use once, and went off to dance.

He swayed like a feather in a breeze. Around him faces gleamed, radiating haloes and receding in the distance. The music had become a dull roar and he knew it was very late. Someone grabbed him by the shoulders and ousted him from the club as though waking him sharply from a dream. Outside, someone else wrapped him in a jacket, which looked surprisingly like the one he’d been wearing god-knows-where in another time and place. Then he found himself out on the street, gravel crushing under his feet like peanut shells.

“Can you look after him, darling?” he heard Tamarra say, as hands pushed him gently into a taxi, unable to shut the door behind him as he lay stretched out on the seat.

He heard Mike answer something about ‘sticky pearls’, which made him laugh. He felt as though veils hung inside his head while he watched Tamarra stumble away from them. He struggled to sit up in the seat trying to think, to remember where he was or how he got there.

“Oh, my god!” he heard Tamarra say. “I can’t believe it! I’ve got a Gucci show in three hours and I’ve still got my Versace make-up on!”

He watched as a long black limousine rolled slowly up to the curb like a hearse. Tamarra went over to the driver’s window.

“Darling, have you got any cocaine?” she said.

A door opened and she stumbled inside. It was the last thing he remembered in the lavender night.

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