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Game Control, Page 1

Lionel Shriver


  Lionel Shriver

  To the


  whom I can thank for

  my most barbaric opinions,

  and none of whose number

  ever batted an eye

  at the premise for this book.

  The most dignified thing for a worm to do is to sit up and sit still.





  1 The Curse of the Uninvited


  2 Family Planning from the Tar Pits


  3 In the Land of Shit-Fish


  4 Spiritual Pygmies at the Ski Chalet


  5 What Some Women Will Put Up With


  6 Recipes for Romantic Evenings


  7 Dog Days of Millennial Dread


  8 Bitter Pills in the Love-Stone Inn


  9 The Enigma Variations


  10 A Drive to Bob’s Save-Life Bar


  11 The Battle of the Bunnies and the Rats


  12 Maggots in the Breezes of Opah Sanders’s Fan


  13 The Diet of Worms


  14 Paying the Piper


  15 More Parameters


  16 The IMF is OBE’ed


  17 Back in the Behavioural Sink


  18 An Elephant for Breakfast


  19 Sprinkled with Vim and Garnished with Doom


  ENDPAPERS: The Cool Rats


  P.S. Insights, Interviews & More…


  About the Author


  Other Books by Lionel Shriver



  About the Publisher


  The Curse of the Uninvited

  ‘Not on the list,’ the askari declared grandly.

  ‘Perhaps…’ the other voice oiled, deceptively polite, ‘one of the organizers…Dr Kendrick?’ Exaggerated patience made a mockery of good manners.

  With the bad luck that would characterize the next five days, Aaron Spring was just passing the entranceway. Swell. The last thing any population conference needed was Calvin Piper.

  The Director bustled brusquely to the door. ‘It’s quite all right,’

  he assured the African with a sticky smile. ‘This is Dr Piper. Is there some problem with his registration?’

  ‘This man is not on my list,’ the askari insisted.

  ‘There must have been some oversight.’ Spring scanned the clip-board. ‘Let’s enter him in, so this doesn’t happen again.’

  The Kikuyu glared. ‘Not with that animal.’

  Reluctantly, the Director forced himself to look up. Wonderful. A green monkey was gooning on Calvin’s shoulder, teeth bared. Spring slipped the askari twenty shillings. That was not even a dollar, but the price of this visit was just beginning.

  The interloper looked interestedly around the foyer, as if pointing out that he had not been here for some time and things might have changed.

  ‘So good to see you.’ Spring shook his predecessor’s limp hand.

  ‘Is it?’

  ‘You’re just in time to catch the opening reception. What happened with your registration, man?’

  ‘Not a thing. What registration?’


  ‘There must have been some mistake.’

  ‘Not a-tall. I wasn’t invited.’

  Spring winced. Piper had a slight British accent, though his mother was American and he’d spent years in DC. The nattiness of Piper’s tidy sentences made Spring’s voice sound twangy and crass.

  The Director led his ward through the sterile lobby. The Kenyatta International Conference Centre was spacious but lacked flair—wooden slatted with the odd acute angle whose determination to seem modern had guaranteed that the architecture would date in a matter of months. Kenyans were proud of the building, the way, Spring reflected, they were so reliably delighted by anything Western, anything they didn’t make. All the world’s enlightened élite seemed enthralled with African culture except the Africans themselves, who would trade quaint thatch for condos at the drop of a hat.

  ‘Couldn’t you at least have left the monkey home?’ he appealed.

  ‘Come, Malthus is a good prop, don’t you think? Like Margaret Meade’s stick.’

  God rest her soul, Spring had always abhorred Meade’s silly stick.

  ‘Just like it.’

  Spring hurried ahead. Having assumed the leadership of USAID’s Population Division six long, fatiguing years before, surely by now he might be spared the pawing deference the Director Emeritus still, confound the man, inspired in him. He reminded himself that much of his own work that five years had been repairing the damage Piper had done to the reputation of population assistance worldwide. And by now Spring was well weary of his own staff’s nostalgic stories of Piper’s offensive mouthing off to African presidents. Why, you would never guess from their fond reminiscences that many of those same staff members had ratted on this glorified game-show host at their first opportunity. All right, Spring was aware he wasn’t colourful—he did not travel with a green monkey, he did not gratuitously insult statesmen, he did not detest the very people he was employed to assist, and his pockets did not spill black, red and yellow condoms every time he reached for his handkerchief.

  Behind his back Spring vilified Piper, but perhaps to com-2

  pensate for going all gooey face to face. Here was a character whose politics, having veered so far left they had ended on the far right instead, Spring deplored as uncompassionate and irresponsible.

  Spring aspired to despise Piper, but he would never get that far. He would only be free to dislike the urbane, unruffleable, horribly wry has-been once sure that Piper adored and respected him first—that is, never.

  And Piper made him feel fat. Piper was the older although he didn’t look it, and was surely one of those careless types who never gave a thought to what they ate, while Spring jogged four joyless miles a day, and had given up ice-cream.

  ‘You ruined that Kuke’s day, you know,’ Calvin was commenting about the askari. ‘He loved barring my way. You get a lot of wazungu rolling their eyes about Africans and bureaucracy, how they revel in its petty power—but how they don’t understand it, wielding stamps and forms like children playing office. I’ve come to believe they understand bureaucracy perfectly well. After all, most petty power isn’t petty a-tall, is it? These tiny people can stick you back on your plane, impound your whisky, cut off your electricity and keep you out of conferences you so desperately wish to attend. Bureaucracy is a weapon. And there is no pleasure greater than turning artillery on just the people who taught you to use it.’

  ‘Calvin,’ implored the Director, ‘do keep your theories quiet this week. I’m off for some wine.’

  Leaving the man toothpicking pineapple to his ill-tempered monkey, Spring felt sheepish for having let the rogue inside. He was haunted by childhood fairy-tales in which the aggrieved, uninvited relative arrives at the christening anyway, to curse the child.

  It was a mistake to exhort Calvin to keep his mouth shut. Had Spring encouraged enthusiastic participation in the interchange of controversial ideas, Piper might have loitered listlessly in the back, thumbing abstracts. Instead Calvin perched with his pet in the front row of a session on infant mortality, making just the kind of scandal sure to see its way into the Nairobi papers the next day.

  ‘Why are
we still trying to reduce infant mortality,’ Piper inquired,

  ‘when it is precisely our drastic reduction of the 3

  death rate that created uncontrolled population growth in the first place? Why not leave it alone? Why not even let it go up a little?’

  He did not say ‘a lot’, but might as well have.

  The room stirred. Coughs. Heads in hands.

  The moderator interceded. ‘It is well established by now, Dr Piper, that reduction of infant mortality must precede a drop in fertility.

  Families have extra children as an insurance factor, and once they find most of those children surviving they adjust their family size accordingly, etc. This is kindergarten demography, Dr Piper. We can dispense with this level of discussion. Ms Davis—’

  ‘On the contrary,’ Calvin pursued. ‘All of Africa illustrates that fallacy. Death rates have been plummeting since 1950, and birth rates remain high. So we keep more children alive to suffer and starve. I would propose instead that this conference pass a resolution to retract all immunization programmes in countries with growth rates of higher than 2 per cent—’

  The session went into an uproar. ‘Moderator!’ cried a woman from the Population Reference Bureau. ‘Can we please have it on record that this conference does not support the death of babies?’

  The next day the headline in Nairobi’s Daily Nation read, ‘Pop Council Conference: Let Children Die’.

  Like everyone else, she had heard he was there, caught the flash of defiant black hair, the screech of his sidekick, and had craned across the rows to find that at least at a distance he hadn’t changed much.

  When dinners roiled with the infant mortality affair, she found herself sticking up for him: ‘He just likes to be outrageous. It’s a sport.’

  ‘At our expense,’ the woman from the Population Crisis Committee had snapped, and Eleanor got a whiff of what even passing association with Calvin Piper had come to cost you.

  His arrival changed the whole conference for her. She found herself drifting off with an obscure secretive smile as if she were still the girl she had been then. Yet she never sought him out. She conceded as the conference convened for its final address that she was afraid to introduce herself in case he


  drew a blank, which would irremediably damage a memory she still held dear. There weren’t many of those left.

  Eleanor knew copious conferees, but not beyond the level of talking shop, so while many parties would take advantage of free air fare to bask for a week in Malindi, Eleanor had not joined up.

  She was beyond Africa as entertainment. Besides, had she bundled off to the coast, she could picture the evenings all too well: the men getting sozzled at a cheap veranda bar, telling Third World snafu stories; Eleanor increasingly chagrined as they dared one another to be a little bit racist, until they were actually using the word ‘wogs’.

  She would have to decide whether to object and make a scene and tighten everyone up but at least defend her principles, or to slip off to her room to pick the flaking skin from the back of her neck, worrying into the mirror, her nose gone hard.

  As the rest scattered officiously with planes to catch, Eleanor wandered down the steps with nothing to do. It was too early for dinner and her own flight back to Dar es Salaam was not until the next day. She could stroll back to her hotel and pack, but she travelled so lightly now that she was fooling herself—it would take five minutes.

  So she dandered down to Kaunda, listlessly scanning shops, most of whose proprietors were Asian, and hardly appreciated by Kenyans for their enterprise. The goods for sale—film, antique colonial silver and the endless taka-taka of soapstone wart-hogs, banana-leaf elephants, and ebony rhinoceroses—did not cater to residents but to the scattering of travellers down the walk, unselfconsciously trussed in khaki safari gear and dopey little hats. Along with the encrusted, sun-scorched backpackers who lay knackered on curbs, Eleanor wondered how the tourists could bear their own cliché, though there was surely some trite niche into which she herself fitted all too neatly.

  The well-meaning aid worker on a junket. Eleanor sighed.

  Everywhere, animals. With the T-shirts covered in zebra stripes, lions’ manes and cheetah spots, you would never imagine that Kenya had a population problem of a human variety. Stifled by the tinny, tacky shame of it all, Eleanor veered from the town centre towards River Road, where the giraffe batiks gave way to jikos, sufurias and mounds of


  second-hand clothes, among which she was more at home. Touts beat the sides of matatus for still more fares when their passengers were already bulging out of the windows. These privately run minibuses formed the core transport system of Kenya, painted in jubilant zigzags, with names like ‘Sombo Rider and Road Missile’

  or ‘Spirit of Jesus Sex Mashine’, ‘I Luv Retreads’ and ‘See Me After Job’ on the bumpers. Oh, River Road was as tasteless as downtown really, but with a jostling, exuberant trashiness that Eleanor relished.

  Everyone hustling for a bob, no one in this part of town would fritter their shillings on soapstone wart-hogs in a million years.

  Gradually, however, she grew nervous. While the eyes of pedlars and pedestrians just a few blocks away were beseeching or veiled, here they glared, unmistakably hostile. Children pointed at Eleanor, shouting, ‘ Mzungu!’ Tall, muscular men knocked her shoulders on purpose. Matatus side-swiped her path as she tried to cross the street.

  Much as she marvelled at the energy and ingenuity of the neighbourhood, this was their part of town and she didn’t belong here.

  Everywhere on this continent her complexion blinked like an airstrip light. The one relief of trips to Boston was to walk down the streets and blend in.

  She retreated back to Trattoria for tea, tired from her meagre foray, feeling after the feeble excursion that she had been a terribly long way.

  Yet when she bent dutifully over papers from the conference, the print blurred, ‘The Cultural Context of High Fertility in Sub-Saharan Africa’ having no apparent bearing on the dusty villages to which she bounced her Land Rover monthly. This persistent malaise had been wheedling its way into odd moments over tea with increasing frequency. Perhaps she had malaria again.

  She kicked herself for not saying hello to Calvin Piper. If he hadn’t remembered her she could have reminded him. Surely there was no great risk to her precious hope chest of girlhood adventures.

  Eleanor realized she’d just turned 37 and she was still shy.

  She discovered that she had left a scarf on the back of her chair in the last assembly, and hurried to retrieve it before 6

  the building closed. She was relieved by mission, however mundane.

  The conference centre was still open, though cleared out. In the main hall pages splayed the aisles like wings of dead white birds.

  On the way to her chair she picked up papers. Eleanor was like that—she tidied. In hotels, she made her own bed and rinsed her own water glasses and hung her towels so neatly they looked unused. Her insistence on being no trouble often got other people into it, with the suggestion they were not doing their job. Today was no exception. A girl in a green uniform came rushing up and waved at Eleanor’s armful. ‘No, no.’ The girl took the pile firmly from the white woman’s hands.

  ‘It seemed such a chore,’ Eleanor said in Swahili, flustered and pinkening. She pointed towards her seat, thinking she had to explain (Eleanor always thought she had to explain, when no one wanted to hear really), nodding and smiling too much.

  Of course the scarf was gone—what continent did she think she was on? Looking lamely about, Eleanor was about to scuttle out, for the empty hall disturbed her. The party-being-over sensation reminded her too keenly of her recent life lately—so much purpose and opinion suddenly gone slack.

  Laughter caught her unawares. In the stripe of chairs, the far rows were rearranged around a familiar gleam of hair, and a monkey.

  She drew closer to find Calvin sitting with several other lin
gerers from the Population Council Conference, none of whom she knew.

  Their laughter was of a seditious sort, as at something you were not supposed to say.

  ‘Eleanor Merritt.’ He did remember.

  ‘I’m sorry to intrude, but—’

  ‘You were forever sorry.’ He pulled up a chair for her between him and an older woman, who shot her an icy smile. ‘Eleanor works for Pathfinder: opulent funding, international profile and well run—’

  he paused—‘for a waste of time. But Ms Merritt has risen high. From hard work, no doubt. She cares about humanity. Ms Merritt,’ he submitted to the group, ‘is a good person.’

  ‘Not always,’ she defended. ‘Sometimes I’m a shrew.’


  Calvin laughed. ‘I would love to see it. Promise me.’

  He had called her bluff. She could hardly remember being a shrew; not because she was gracious but because she was a coward. Eleanor vented her temper exclusively on objects—pens that wouldn’t write, cars that wouldn’t start, the telephones-cum-doorstops that littered any Third World posting. The more peaceable her relations with people, the more the inanimate teemed with malevolence.

  ‘The Pathfinder Fund,’ Calvin explained, ‘belongs to that dogged IUD-in-the-dyke school, flogging the odd condom while the population happily doubles every eighteen years. When the fertility rate plummets from 6.9 to 6.87, they take credit, and Ford slips them a cheque.’

  ‘It is incredibly arrogant,’ said Eleanor, ‘to march into someone else’s culture and tell them how many children to have. Raising the status of women and giving them power over their own reproduction is the best way to reduce the birth rate—’

  ‘There is nothing wrong with arrogance,’ said Calvin, ‘so long as you are right.’

  ‘Besides,’ interjected the upright, withered woman at Eleanor’s side, ‘improving the status of women is not pursued as an end in itself, but with an eye to a declining birth rate. You do not get your funding from Ford by promising to give women control over their lives, but by claiming you can reduce population growth. It’s dupli-citous. If they were no guiding hand of population control, you wouldn’t pull in any money, would you?’

  ‘All that matters,’ Calvin dismissed, ‘is that family planning does not work. I am reminded of those women in Delhi employed by the city to mow metropolitan lawns. They use scissors. I picture those tiny clinics pitched in the middle of oblivious, fecund hordes much like Eleanor sent to mow the whole of Tsavo game park with her Swiss Army knife.’