A story about the 21st century celebrity conscience, by NICK ARAGUA
‘I wanna give something back,’ said Maisie. ‘I dunno how though.’
‘There are plenty of ways to do that,’ said Anthony Parson, her accountant, vaguely. ‘We can talk about that some time.’ These kids, he thought. They have millions in the bank and all they want to do is throw their money away. ‘You don’t want to run at decisions like that.’
‘I don’t want to put it off, Anthony.’
Maisie de Sope had long ago reached and passed the stage when she visited her accountant: the bean counter came to her, up to her vast Spanish-style palace in Hollywood, to be served tea and ice-cold sandwiches filled with thin lines of mysterious, ethical, plant-derived paste. Grey-haired Parson, with his paunch and prostate worries, would marvel at the little army of gardeners, pool cleaners, stable lads and lasses, vineyard workers, garage attendants, assistants, under-assistants, stylists, colourists, personal trainers, advisers and social media editors who worked at Maisie’s place. Maisie’s place: boy, that was like calling Versailles Marie Antoinette’s place, he thought. People have spent lifetimes trying to get a tiny fraction of this kind of set-up. And here she is trying give half of it away.
They were in the Moorish lounge on the first floor. Back in the Twenties Charlie Chaplin had eyed up the junior talent in that very room, but Maisie was only vaguely aware of its fabulous past and its staggering art collection. ‘Just the three Matisses in the Moorish lounge,’ Parson would sometimes joke with his wife. ‘The Picassos are all in the Blue Room.’
A maid brought in some Earl Grey and vegan biscuits.
Maisie lit a joint: fine weed aged in Himalayan sea salt and eucalyptus honey. Parson sometimes got a contact high but never complained.
He tapped at his laptop. ‘Thing is,’ Maisie said flatly, ‘whatever I do it’s gotta be real. Everyone is doing endorsements, everyone is doing trans, race. I mean that’s where I wanna be – but it’s gotta be real. They’re like calling people out now for being remote, for just setting something up, for not being like properly engaged.’ She ended that sentence on a daffy note of up-speak. ‘You have to give something back, like, real, something that isn’t easy: you have to show that it kinda hurts almost.’
Parson said, ‘Isn’t this kind of a PR issue?’
‘No Anthony, it’s a cash issue; that makes it an issue for you.’ The daffiness was gone in a flash.
Time was, Parson reflected, when stars who wanted to do charity would be anxious to know how it might be made to work in their favour tax-wise. But the new crowd had gone one step further. The mania now was to demonstrate they were getting nothing from it or, better still, less than nothing. As Maisie said, they liked to show that it hurt. But savvy old Parson knew that the new advantage they all sought wasn’t money, at least not in the short term.
‘OK, how much do you want to set aside?’
Maisie’s beautiful but dead blue eyes, the eyes of the Dragongirl franchise, stared vacantly up at the ceiling and warbled: ‘I dunno, like a million?’
Parson looked up.
‘Is that too small? Should I say two? Three?’
Parson had a small coughing fit and reached for his tea. ‘You need to be more specific,’ he said.
‘I’ll give it some thought while I’m in New York.’
But she didn’t give it much thought. Maisie flew to New York the following day in her private jet. Bella, her main assistant, sat opposite her with Geraldo, Bella’s emotional support pet, on her lap. ‘The vet says he has asthma,’ she said of the tired-looking lapdog. This information had just garnered 16,000 weep emojis on Geraldo’s Twitter page.
With a glint of malice, suggestive of a Roman emperor at the games, Maisie’s dead eyes ranged over Bella and the dog. ‘I read,’ Maisie said, ‘a great piece somewhere that said that keeping dogs as pets is a form of imperialism. I myself would never do it – horses yes, but is a horse a pet? No. I mean I’d go further and say that the pet relationship is a kind of slavery for the animal. A pa – pa – para …’
‘Paradigm?’ said Bella.
‘That’s it, a paradigm of the master-slave relationship.’
This was a riff she had picked up from her second husband, the film star Tommy Bupp. In his addled-pated middle age he fancied himself an intellectual and so flipped through weighty books to divine the meaning of existence. From him Maisie had learned the word imperialism. Once at a party she used it in front of an old European film composer who asked her to define the term. It was an awkward moment rescued by Tommy Bupp.
Bella put Geraldo on the seat beside her. ‘I can see that,’ she said carefully.
Maisie stared out at the clouds over the Midwest. ‘Bella, I want you to draw me up a list of potential groups I can offer support to. Like in an activist sense: climate, sex or race – or any new angles on that. I wanna give something back.’
Geraldo coughed several times and then vomited in a slow way that reminded Maisie of when she’d once watched a rock star vomit at a party: it was unhurried and seemed to cause no alarm or discomfort. Bella cleaned it up with a wipe. ‘You will note,’ she said, ‘that I’m cleaning up the sick, me, the master, or should I say mistress?’
Maisie’s eyes narrowed and her jaw moved forward. The emperor’s thumb, so to say, twitched.
The next day in New York, after appearing on a TV show to promote Neck, about an empowered female vampire, she instructed Serena, another assistant, to sack Bella. Bella was having a good day as well: news of Geraldo’s vomiting had been received with many thousands more weep signs on Twitter. There were a lot of tears and hassles about Bella getting back to LA but Maisie didn’t have to deal with any of it, and moreover wouldn’t hear of Bella and Geraldo getting on her plane either, and that was that. Bella had drawn up the list Maisie asked for but that had been forgotten.
Once back in LA she got a call from Joey Twist, a former child pop star, originally from Canada.
‘You’re out of rehab, Joey.’
‘I like heard you’re flying to, like, South America. Can I tag along?’
‘This is work, Joey. I’m flying down there to work.’
But, she thought, there’s only one goddam reason you want to go to South America – and on my nickel!
She was standing in the cool shade of the Spanish palace’s vast Blue Room where dinner parties were supposed to be held. Fatty Arbuckle had done a backward somersault in it in 1920. Through French windows she looked down on the formal gardens towards a line of trees in the far distance where the paddock began. She spotted one of the gardeners moving slowly in the heat. Joey could be fun, she thought. He was gabbling away about how well he felt, how he was ‘sub-ten per cent body fat’ and ‘like ready for anything’. ‘Jesus, I like wrote five hundred pages of rehab statements. I’m cured, I’m like there. No coke, no meth, no pills, no Xanax, not even weed – not even sugar, man. Please, Maisie, I need the trip. You’ll love me coming. I’m part activist now and I need some jungle action on Twitter. Joey with a tree kind of thing, maybe Joey with an alligator… Joey saves villagers from fascist logging company, you know?’
‘All right but don’t be a dick, Joey. Especially not on the plane or you’ll spend the flight locked in the galley.’
She rang off and called up Mitzi Piccolo, the world famous model, and arranged to dine at Blowback, a rooftop bar specialising in mezcal.
They were mildly papped outside and shared a beetroot taco with flash-fried Brussel sprouts.
Mitzi, blonde, near-athletic, showed her perfect teeth in her perfect mouth. It was her idea of a smile. She said: ‘I’ve been made ambassadress for some pink wine called something rose.’ She reached into her bag and produced a bottle. With one eye shut she arranged it by the cruet and took a picture, and another one of her perfect hand grabbing its neck. She busied herself for a few moments on the phone. ‘Ping,’ she said. ‘Done. It’s on social media. My working day begins and ends.’
Then they got a bit trashed and summoned up all the news stories on their phones about Mitzi and Maisie alleging they were having a lesbian affair. They had discussed this several times. Maisie admitted that she would love to be a lesbian, and had ‘got up to stuff’ but only, she said, because, like, it was the thing to do. She had never had a lesbian impulse in her life. The lack of them made her sad. Her first husband, Mikey Devizes, the son of a billionaire who started the Hoof Onna Hoof beer and pattie chain, could attest to this, having initiated various drugged-up threesomes which were unsatisfactory due to Maisie’s reluctance.
Devizes crossed her mezcal-and-weed clouded mind now. His rages and threats, his manic, comic thrusting in bed, which was so fast and aggressive it seemed to Maisie like one of those old silent comedy movies where everyone moved, like, real fast. Devizes was a disaster area but the divorce court had made her, already a very rich young woman, even richer.
‘Hey, dreamy,’ said a slow, dull voice.
Li’l Jabbsy, to give him his full name: one of the most prominent white mumblerappers on the West Coast. Legend had it that he couldn’t read and so couldn’t write his lyrics; he had to extemporise them into a mobile phone recorder and learn them back. This did not harm his success. Other gossip had it that he was the son of well off parents and could read and write. Maisie had never been able to get to the bottom of it.
Bitch sittin’ in my face
I’m like that fly in the hole
Hoe knows that fly
Hoe knows ever’ fly
Grindin’ poundin’ grindin’
Poundin’ grindin’ poundin’
The last line formed the title of Li’l Jabbsy’s first album, which had won a Grammy. Maisie had met him when she presented him with another industry award for best lyrics. There was excited talk that night that Li’l Jabbsy might soon win the Nobel Prize for Literature but that notion, Maisie had reflected, was ‘mis-sold’. Tonight, like every night, Li’l Jabbsy was dressed for unspecified competitive athletics but his bleary brown eyes and drug-loosened face appeared to militate against any rapid physical movement. He had a baseball cap on backwards and seemed to be dragging one foot behind him as if suffering from a neurological problem. Maisie briefly wondered how, in this state, he might manage the champion lovemaking he boasted of in song. She had never found him to be quite such a champ in the sheets as he made out in his art.
He stood still and looked at the pair of them, blinking slowly, as if trying to figure out whether something sexual was on offer. To Maisie he said: ‘Are you still livin’ in that old museum? I need brandy. Bitch just run over my foot outside. I heard you got the part in that jungle film. That looks like it’s gonna be el cool.’
Maisie took seriously what Jabbsy had to say. She valued his street-cred but their relationship was long over. Something had gone wrong. After he’d moved into Maisie’s palace the honeymoon period had been riotous, everyone in town talked about it: crazy parties that were heard on the other side of the valley; crack and crank, coke blizzards, goo parties, firework displays like the Fourth of July, golden guns, pussy like you wouldn’t believe, some said, armies of it; Maisie’s armour-plated golden Merc driven wildly around the grounds by a person or persons unknown, in the process wrecking the midget golf course and crashing into the lake in the Japanese garden, where it remained to this day in six feet of water. An artist friend of Maisie’s begged her to leave it rusting under the giant waterlilies. Once he pronounced it a work of art in its own right and named it The Wreck of Capital Maisie agreed to let it stay. Now its only passengers were expensive and highly coloured fish swimming sedately over its leather seats.
That was a fun time for her. But after a while, Jabbsy’s retinue became tiresome: there was too much stealing, too many drugs and too much loud music when Maisie was learning a script. ‘I have to concentrate on this, goddammit,’ she had screamed at him when reading Lost in the Supermarket, a retro tale about indie bands that bombed. ‘How the fuck did you ever think I’d look good in a beanie?’ she had yelled at her agent Freyja Bulk when the reviews landed. Somehow she managed to break it off with Jabbsy and, with even more effort by her retinue, managed to get Jabbsy and his crew out of the house.
Jabbsy joined Maisie and Mitzi’s table and they all drank until the three of them were feeling merry. They ended up back at Maisie’s palace where she agreed to let Jabbsy come to South America too.
Joey Twist behaved on Maisie’s jet to Ecuador, as did Li’l Jabbsy. They both hung around the galley trying and succeeding in attracting the two hostesses and then going on to have sex with them in the loo. Maisie mainly stayed in her cabin studying the script for Green Heaven. This, she had told Serena, was ‘the one’. ‘I don’t want to be typecast as a fuckin’ superhero all my life. I’m thirty in a couple of years and if I don’t transition to more serious roles I’m stuck and it’s over. This movie has Oscars written all over it.’
When she said that to Freyja Bulk, Bulk had drily observed that if the Oscars’ TV audience kept declining at its present rate, in five years no one at all would be tuning in. This did not deter Maisie.
After several weeks of watching Maisie filming in the jungle, Li’l Jabbsy and Joey were getting restless.
‘Man, I think we need a trip,’ said Joey, looking up to the dense forests.
‘Yep. I thought you were clean now?’
‘What happens in Ecuador stays in Ecuador.’
‘I’ll speak to Maisie.’
Joey found that Maisie was also up for an adventure. The director and producers, who no doubt would forbid any trips to the interior on pain of injury and flouting of insurance policies, were not to be told. They and most of the crew were going into El Coca for the weekend.
Joey hired two guides and off they all went up a jungle road in a people carrier. It was not more of the gloomy, shrieking forest that Joey or Jabbsy wanted to see. Maisie knew this full well. Soon the car stopped at a small village of native Indians, overhung by a vast canopy of trees. Joey made enquiries for the local variety of witchdoctor. They were directed to a hut where they found the witchdoctor drinking beer and watching an English Premier League football match on television. Maisie stood outside and became aware of the villagers watching her. Even in jeans and a logger’s shirt she was a rare specimen of beauty. She smiled and, for want of any better way of communicating, pressed her hands together in an attitude of prayer and bowed, as if she were in Thailand. Her mind was still ranging over what her charitable work should be. Perhaps she could build these people a new village?
Inside his hut the witchdoctor, through one of the guides’ translation, was made to understand that his visitors were seeking the ancient hallucinogenic potation of the jungle people. He finished his beer, removed his trilby and replaced it with a headdress of lurid red and green feathers. He produced a much-thumbed plastic-covered price-list with several European languages on it. ‘With the full spiritual cleanse you will see all things and understand all things,’ said the guide. ‘You will see the before-life and the afterlife.’
‘I’m like really up for that,’ said Joey. They explained the deal to Maisie, who asked a lot of questions about additives and acid rain, then agreed. The trio paid the money and the witchdoctor spat water over each of them. This was, he said, the beginning of the ritual.
The trip was unlike anything the three of them had experienced, and they were all seasoned drug users. In any case Maisie had never been impressed or excited by the prospect of drugs. (She had first taken illegal narcotics as a child with her father, a car salesman from Iowa, who now ran a religious sect with a strong mail order arm. She kept him permanently at bay with an ongoing series of restraining orders. He it was who got her into catalogue clothes modelling – she was the Toledo Toddler. Her beauty rapidly carried her on from there.) But this drug, with some unpronounceable name, was different.
They were shown to a ceremonial tent and spent a few hours being violently sick. ‘This barfing is like hard,’ Jabbsy remarked between retches. Joey said nothing. His eyes were wide, his face looked profoundly shocked and it shone with sweat. Whatever he was seeing was not in the tent.
In his hut, the shaman was watching a US television programme about competitive eating.
Maisie realised it was a mega trip and, just as with LSD in her teen years, knew that the most important thing she could do was accept it. ‘It’s a fairground ride,’ her father had said of lysergic acid when they’d dropped a tab each on a Sunday drive over to Grandma Quimby’s house in the early Noughties. What an afternoon that had been. ‘Sure,’ her father had added, ‘You might see God but that’s howdy doody.’ It seemed that eventually her father had indeed seen God, or a god, but Maisie never did.
In their drug-altered states Maisie, Joey and Jabbsy seemed to wander for years in a kind of underworld unique to each of them. This melted into new nightmares, at least for the men. Joey felt at one point that he had been trapped for 14 years in a McDonald’s burger box stuck at the back of a cupboard in his former mother-in-law’s house in Queens, New York. Demons and troglodytes, vast jaws and pitchy hells passed before his eyes.
Maisie was undisturbed by her experience. While Joey and Jabbsy rolled around in the hut screaming, she lay serenely, imagining she was flying over the jungle. She came to a lost city and found a ruined temple crowned with a gold Oscar statuette. The whiteness of the temple glowed in sunlight. It was then she remembered something that Jabbsy had said that night in Blowback: ‘Are you still living in that museum?’
A warm glow settled on her. She began to walk towards the temple, head held high. The problem was solved. In the gloom of the hut she smiled with her eyes shut.
Maisie was the first to recover, brought back to full consciousness via the thread of jungle noise. Jabbsy emerged next. His hair and clothes were filthy from the floor and the front of his track-suit was covered in dried vomit, like a baby’s bib. Joey, it turned out, was in a coma. The shaman was not overly concerned despite being unable to rouse him by spitting water in his face. ‘He’s resting,’ he said. After they got Joey back to town in the people-carrier he was admitted to hospital.
Jabbsy was greatly troubled by the development. ‘Like shit, Maisie, what are we going to do?’ he said, anxiety twanging his voice high.
‘We’re not going to do anything, are we,’ she said. ‘It’s not our job. Joey was very clean and took a big dose. How many people leave rehab and overdose on something? Could any of us stop him?’
‘Sposin’ he like dies?’
‘Then I’ll be all over the news, and the studio will be angry and everyone will be angry. I can’t help that. I need to make a call.’
She rang Parson. The accountant was in the middle of a dinner party which was by LA standards an old-fashioned affair involving meat, martinis and Frank Sinatra CDs. Parson’s wife watched him take the call in the kitchen. He rolled his eyes as he noted down Maisie’s instructions. Towards the end of the call he switched to speaker-phone and all his guests were beckoned in to hear the movie star saying: ‘I want it all done by the time I get back from South America, do you understand? I want it all done.’
Location shooting for Green Heaven wrapped two months later. Privately Maisie decided that green wasn’t so heavenly. ‘I never want to see another fuckin’ rainforest in my life,’ she thought on her jet back to LA. But she felt her role as a UN doctor exposing exploitation in the jungle was proper mature material. Jabbsy did himself some good PR-wise with further visits to the village, where he was photographed helping to install a water pump. Adversity and the enforced exile of a film set rekindled Maisie and Jabbsy’s old romance. He dumped the bitch who had driven over his foot that night outside Blowback. Maisie felt the need for some loving, as she put it. When I need something, she told Mitzi in an encrypted text, I don’t deny myself.
Joey had been flown back to the US still comatose. He’d woken up at long last. ‘But he ain’t making much sense,’ Jabbsy reported after calling the hospital. Joey’s misfortune had made news but because the director broke his arm and a stuntman drowned, Joey’s ‘mystery’ illness dissolved into a wider showbiz gossip narrative that the production was suffering from an Inca curse. The trip to the shaman went unreported.
When she got out of her chauffeur-driven car at home the first thing Maisie did was walk to the field where the old orangery had stood. It had been demolished, fenced off and a new road built for public access. Where the orangery had stood there was in its place a large building of several storeys in blinding white masonry and internationally postmodern design. A sign on the front in big sans serif letters said:
MUSEUM OF OPPRESSION
Maisie smiled her big Dragongirl smile. She had seen the building being constructed on all the TV news channels. It had played very well with a lot of the networks. Her PR team had done a wonderful job. She stood for a moment in the sunshine. She had done it, she thought. She walked slowly up the steps and went through heavy glass doors into a hushed interior.
Here and there in the huge lobby workmen were putting finishing touches to exhibits. She had told Parson to collect as many artefacts as were necessary to fill the building and make the point. Parson had consulted academics, historians and French philosophers before going on a tour of the world’s salesrooms and private collections. He did this sadly, mentally keeping an appalled eye on the bottom line.
Maisie stroked the barrel of a Civil War cannon in the foyer. Close by on a dais she noticed an ancient bell, which a card said came from some old cathedral in Europe. Behind that was a life-size model of slaves’ quarters from the antebellum South with a looped recording of field hollers playing. She moved on through galleries devoted to western art, western books and western religion. There were mock-ups of concentration camps, Fifties kitchens with waxworks of housewives cooking their husbands’ evening meals; a Vietnam section; a World War Two section with two fighter planes; sections on penal injustices, the British Empire, containing a papier-mâché statue of Queen Victoria and a recreation of Rorke’s Drift; there was an electric chair, a replica guillotine and a gallows from a British prison; there were sections on corporal punishment, healthcare, the CIA, Richard Nixon, police brutality, John Wayne, homosexuality, phallocentric design, climate change, acid rain, Elvis Presley, otherness, Queerness, gendering, a Shakespeare first folio and even an artful little waxwork of Gandhi (when she stood in front of it she activated a pressure switch under the floor and heard some of his obiter dicta).
Maisie reached the end of the exhibits and came back out into the sunlight. She punched the air then dropped her head and cried tears that felt sweet.
Once the private view and official opening of the Museum of Oppression – televised and star-studded – had occurred in the weeks that followed, visitor numbers fell off dramatically. Maisie was not overly concerned. The money she had spent was quite extraordinary, lunatic even, and it had not gone unnoticed. ‘A clear demonstration of commitment,’ some commentators said, having cherry-picked the phrase from the press pack released by Maisie’s PR firm. ‘Commitment yes,’ she thought, ‘but is it enough?’
Social media was divided along the usual lines. It didn’t matter what all the right-wing mockers and abusers said. It was the social justice warriors and pressure groups who counted. Maisie would sit stoned in the Moorish lounge until late at night, scrolling through social media while Jabbsy smoked bongs and laughed at what he called ‘crazy shit’ on the gigantic television. After an influential community organiser in LA had observed on social media that Maisie’s Museum of Oppression was ‘an expression of privilege and therefore a form of hierarchical and OPPRESSIVE action in and of itself’, the seed of doubt grew in her mind. The post got thousands and thousands of approval emojis. ‘Like,’ she thought, ‘what do you have to do?’ It depressed her as she learned lines for her fourth Dragongirl film.
Time passed. Green Heaven bombed on release and, far worse, Maisie did not make it into the Oscar shortlists. She heard that Joey had improved to a degree and now only needed a walking frame if tired. The museum averaged six visitors a week. It was quietly announced that henceforward it would only open on Mondays and Thursdays.
As the weather grew hotter Jabbsy had the idea of throwing a party to take Maisie’s mind off things. She had consulted her doctors complaining of depression and had been told to give up weed and take long walks. Not so long ago the party idea would not have appealed but now, in her low and restless state, Maisie agreed that it would be fun. She told Serena to throw everything at it: waiters, champagne, goo party, snow machine, waltzers, fire-eaters, vegan hot dogs, clowns, strippers, wrestlers, motorcycle stunt-riders, house DJs, a giant stage for Li’l Jabbsy to do his mumblerap on, everything. ‘It’s got to be something no one will ever forget,’ she told Serena.
That is just what it was.
The party became a festival, with hundreds of tents pitched in the paddock and spilling into the ornamental gardens and vineyard. There was pissing in the fountains and fucking on the midget golf course. Roadies built a massive stage in the paddock. The whole grounds were bathed in a diaphanous admixture of cannabis smoke and the smell of onions from vegan hot dog stands. Everyone who was anyone in the mid-ranks of the LA entertainment business dropped by and hordes of their employees had also got in on the act. An invite was Hollywood gold dust. Even Bella, the assistant Maisie sacked after the discussion about pet-keeping on the plane, was there using the invitation that was sent to her in error. Geraldo ran excitedly before her down the gravel paths of the gardens. The house was off limits – a brigade of hard-core security staff enforced the cordon sanitaire. Barbaric inhuman music came from gigantic speakers driven on to the estate on low-loaders.
In the gardens flower beds were trampled on and ornamental lawns pounded with tent pegs and ploughed by the traffic of the crowds. Bottles and beer cans rolled everywhere. A makeshift ashram had been constructed in the long herbaceous border and five DJs from Encino were micro-dosing and meditating inside it before playing their sets. The head gardener sat in his office in a rage, drinking heavily. And this was only 6pm!
Maisie surveyed the scene from the Moorish lounge balcony like a marshal before a battle, or a member of the British royal family. Jabbsy embraced her, his drug-addled eyes glittering in a kind of aspic. ‘See,’ he said in his lover voice, ‘ain’t it great?’ And it was. Maisie nodded. ‘Everybody loves Maisie,’ he added. He hugged her closer and took a drag on his blunt at the same time.
Inside, unnoticed, television news was showing pictures of a riot that had started over a man shot by police while robbing a liquor store. Cars were overturned and the reporter was wearing face protection. And this was only 7pm!
Hours later, just before Jabbsy – who was very high indeed – started his set, members of his coterie, Li’l Splod, Li’l Lol and Li’l Teenzy – to name but three – and indeed Mitzi Piccolo had tweeted that a big party was happening at Maisie’s and ‘the whole city was invited’. Thousands acted on the invitation. The grounds of Maisie’s place were mobbed with intruders. Cars jammed roads for a mile around.
Midway through Jabbsy’s set the house was breached by rampaging hordes and Maisie was forced to lock herself in the panic room with her domestic staff as rioters stormed through the house. It was comprehensively looted, though the Matisses and Picassos were left behind. It was unclear, the LA County Law Office later said, who set the fire but soon the old palace was ablaze.
The rioters did not stop with the house. Many on social media reasserted their disapproval of Maisie’s Museum of Oppression. A fuckin’ museum of oppression, they jabbed angrily into their devices. Nah, that won’t do. It’s just more oppression. This played well online. Before long the Museum of Oppression was also set on fire.
It was a long ghastly night of chaos, of sirens, police, riot squads, gunshots, TV news crews, ambulances, smoke and flames and fighting.
Dawn brought a dismal scene: two huge plumes of smoke rose from Maisie’s house and her museum. The grounds were wrecked. Even the maze was in ashes. Triages had been set up in the ornamental gardens and the vineyard. Most of the crowds had gone and firefighters hosed the ruins.
Li’l Jabbsy and his coterie plus Joey and Mitzi sat at a table in the grounds. No one was saying much. Ash fell around them like apocalyptic drizzle.
Maisie appeared with a sprightly step. ‘Morning people,’ she said brightly. Mitzi looked up, surprised at this bonhomie.
‘How are you so clean?’ asked Mitzi. Indeed, Maisie was clean: she was showered, primped, blow-dried, and freshly clothed. ‘I washed in the trailer – the garages never burned.’ Jabbsy, exhausted, hungover, stoned and bewildered, was leaning his head on his hand. His eyes flicked up to Maisie like a sullen child in class.
They heard a car and looked over to the gates across the immense, ruined lawns. A car had been allowed past the police lines. It came up the drive towards them and stopped. Parson got out. ‘Jesus,’ he kept saying. ‘I hope your insurance –’
‘Don’t start on all that crap, Anthony,’ said Maisie. She turned and looked at the prospect of smoking mansion and museum. ‘Isn’t this wonderful?’ she said in her Californian warble. ‘Isn’t this just the most wonderful fucking thing that ever happened? I didn’t feel I was like there with things. I felt I’d fallen short. But now I feel like I’ve done it.’ She turned towards them. ‘I’ve given something back.’
She started to laugh and this was a cue for the others to smile. ‘I am so happy!’ she said gaily and with not a hint of irony. Now they all laughed, some genuinely, some uneasily, some through suggestion, some through dope. A passing policeman looked at them. The only person who didn’t laugh was Parson. Maisie noticed this. ‘I’ve given something back, Anthony,’ she said. ‘I’ve paid my dues. What are you gonna do? Now crew, let’s go out for breakfast ‘cos, like, there’s no kitchen. I’m flying to Europe tomorrow, there’s a climate change conference in Oslo. I’m an ambassador. I was thinking that I could offset the fires and smoke by planting a forest upstate or maybe in, like, Brazil or something. Anthony? Thoughts?’
Parson did not answer. He stared at the smoking ruins. ‘Jesus,’ he said again in a small voice.
The noise of sirens across the city joined together in one vast and hideous wail. As they drove away from the ruins in a caravan of cars, the smoke from the wreck of Maisie’s house and museum wafted across LA and merged with the smoke from the looting and the rioting, and its smuts and ashes, the ashes of the museum’s contents, of furniture, paintings, artefacts, objects, books and parchments, of Gandhi’s waxwork and of the Shakespeare first folio fell on the city, on rich and poor alike.
NICK ARAGUA writes from south London