The Harvesters, Eric Leclere (2023)
Fall of the Magician, Pieter Brueghel 1565
Extract from ‘The Harvesters’, published by Alibi Books April 2023
All rights reserved © Eric Leclere, 2022
Mind how you go, Lottie.
‘They say the best things in life are free. Absolutely. But with the addendum that the person who first came up with these words never feasted their eyes upon an Aston Martin DB5.’
Here was a statement which, on most days, Lombard might well have seconded, for insofar as he was concerned no other manmade contrivance he knew of – never mind a motorcar – measured up to its lines and forms. His quiet tinkering with the old Aston Martin in Ali’s barn was motivated by more than the challenge of simply getting it to fire up. Although the feat in itself would be remarkable enough to be cause for a moment of self-indulgent self-congratulation, Ali’s casual pledge of “Let her rip and she’s all yours” had never left his mind ever since it had crossed her lips. He’d done well not to look keen, but for all that suspected Ali knew; she teased him enough about the time he spent “fooling around with Aston” in the barn. Be that as it may, it was really owing to his appreciation of the said vehicle that the quote had piqued his curiosity while leafing through a newspaper at some prior time. The words were attributed to a man whose story he was as yet unaware was dominating large parts of the Western media, and this particular pronouncement of his had apparently been judiciously selected to indict his coarse character as well as broadcast his power and privilege. Naturally, it was no surprise that the man’s story was of a salacious nature.
He was British born, a maverick self-made magnate who over three decades had built from the ground up a reputable international entertainment brand; from first operating an all-night café in East London, he’d opened a chain of nightclubs, branched out into live music and concert venues, then moved into music production, promotion and distribution, by and by coming to boast his own achievements through the creation of his own airline. He was also a man of his time. Every bit as accomplished a self-publicist as he was a shrewd entrepreneur, he’d turned himself into a celebrity, his own brand’s be-all and end-all, much noted for never missing an opportunity to share the limelight with the powerful and famous or to promote his various charitable activities. However, three decades of hard work and great fortune all seemed to have come to an end when an ambitious reporter had penned allegations denouncing him as a serial rapist. The reporter claimed to have secured evidence to back his assertions after tracking down a handful of legally and otherwise ‘silenced’ female ex-employees and aspiring singers whom he had convinced to ‘speak their truth’, in some cases under the cover of anonymity. All allegations related to historical deeds and misdeeds for which only anecdotal evidence could be provided since none of the facts were reported or investigated at the time of the affirmed offences. In the event, where there was smoke there was fire. The man soon admitted to ‘a voracious sexual appetite’, acknowledged inviting aspiring female artists who sought to land a recording contract with his organisation to ride in his Aston Martin with a view to having his way with them, and likewise conceded that he was driven by ulterior motives when he asked females applying for cabin crew jobs at his airline to join him in hotel rooms for interview. He acknowledged being ‘a sexual predator’, acknowledged he’d abused his position of power to ‘try to extract favours from those who sought things and dreams I had the means to offer or deny them’. All the same, he refuted all allegations of rape, or of forcing himself in a sexual manner on anyone, was adamant that all intimate sexual contacts which occurred between himself and his accusers were consensual, even – in an attempt to shore up his case – produced letters to demonstrate that he’d had a year-long ‘affectionate affair’ with one of his present-day accusers. All with little effect. By their very nature, his high profile and alleged crimes at a time of instant information consumerism, contributed to a situation in which neither the media nor the general public could get enough new ‘incriminating’ revelations to assuage their appetite. In this, they were not half helped by further allegations from yet more ‘victims’, whose number soon grew from a handful to over a dozen. He was duly arrested. A trial date was set. Men everywhere labelled him a monster. Groups of women offering slogans such as ‘Believe all Women’ collected across all sorts of platforms. All called for ‘Justice’ and the end of ‘Old Machismo’. News anchors, pundits, solicitors, politicians competed for suggestions as how best to punish ‘this evil man’, proposed the seizure of his considerable assets to recompense his accusers. The reporter credited with exposing him was presented with a prestigious international award for his ‘achievement in journalism’. Celebrated singers, actors and writers – some of whom were known to have once called the man ‘a friend’ – were outraged and moved to declare that, not unlike Christ before him perhaps, in the future the man’s name may well end up being used to signify ‘before’ and ‘after’, as in ‘before and after men could get away with abuse of power and rape’. And the Mayor of London, seizing the opportunity to further his credibility, jumped into the fray, declaring ‘This monster poisoned our children’s air with his petrol-guzzling car—He must never again be allowed to poison women with his dreadful male supremacist behaviour.’ It hardly mattered that none knew what had truly happened in the man’s Aston Martin or hotel rooms. Sexual activity had taken place, on this all parties agreed, but he said one thing and his accusers and their champions said another. There existed no evidence of his innocence or guilt; forensic, toxicologic, digital, textual, audio, video or by way of anything else; no tangible proof to corroborate the claims of his accusers, which, as if commensurate with gravity, pulled in more and more supporters as their numbers grew, most markedly from among celebrities of all stripes. Still, aside from a misguided journalist and one well-known actor – one stated: ‘This ought not to be a case of “Look at the ugly old witch walking with the Devil” or “The Jews poisoned the Well!”—This isn’t the Middle Ages. For the sake of all and society, the law of “beyond any reasonable doubt” must be applied sensibly and permitted to prevail’; the other remarked: ‘This monster, for all his monstrosity, is not all guilty men; should he be martyred and scapegoated for all of men’s sins merely pour encourager les autres?’ – still, beside these two erring voices, who it is said were ‘sun-setted’ – or let-go and barred from all social platforms and gatherings – few seemed much interested in matters of law, evidence or precedence. In places where the notion of justice based on evidence was cherished as a serious matter for the public good, the possibility of being branded a ‘rape apologist’ mattered much more, overpowered all considerations, even common sense. As anticipated, no one ventured to defend the accused’s wrecked reputation once his trial got under way. Since one of the accusers had provided anatomical details of the man’s genitals, the presiding judge thought it apt for the prosecutor to present a photograph of the man naked as evidence of his wrongdoings, and a jury of 12 men and women convicted him of some but not all of the charges levelled against him; he was forthwith sentenced to 30 years in prison, the sort of tariff commonly reserved for murderers and all such miscreants. Afterwards, given that it was estimated it would cost the British capital alone in excess of two hundred jobs, the Mayor of London was asked whether he thought the sale of the man’s airline and other assets to compensate his victims should proceed. The good Mayor declined to air an opinion on the issue, but took the opportunity to remark: ‘I think that I speak for all decent people when I say the jury have done us all in London and beyond a great service—Thank you.’
Up to this point, the affair had proceeded to the contentment of most; a monster had been caught by the toe, had hollered but was not let go. Private and public celebrations were held both on conviction and sentencing days. The only contention occurred later, when it was suggested by the supporters of the reporter who had started the whole denunciation rolling – now himself a leader of sorts with a sizeable social digital following – that some of the funds raised from the disposal of the convicted rapist’s assets ought to be used to commission a statue of the offender, a life-size memento to keep on public display so that people would never forget the monster or how society dealt with his kind. It was a novel concept. The idea called for further new social arrangements of things, new deportment, new perception. Not everyone was fully signed up to the idea though. Some pointed out that statues were erected for communities to remember the brave and the great, although, as happened more and more, many had recently been toppled for offending new orthodoxies. The matter was considered, indeed the statue was commissioned, but in the end after much soul-searching it could not be agreed where to put it. As The Paragon asked in an editorial: ‘Where in our fair new Xanadu should the statue of Evil be erected? A carpark? His birth town’s main square? A prison? Its horrid presence would render any place too disagreeable to visit.’
Many aspects of living were being re-arranged. But the notion of erecting monuments of reviled lifeforms as memorials had yet – if it ever would – to take root. And despite the Mayor of London’s comments, for many with taste and discernment the gas-guzzling Aston Martin DB5 remained a much-loved beast; a state of affairs which agreed with Lombard.
Charlotte Lottway thought of herself as Venice, which as it happened, she’d recently visited in the company of Avery Weyland: all wondrous radiance and uniquely imperfect. She was not known to stick her neck out for anyone, nor had much predilection for politics or militantism. Like most, she’d followed the spectacular public demise of the former music magnate from a distance; yet, unlike most, she’d actually met the man, some years previously in Ibiza when working for an independent producer in the music video industry. As a matter of course, he’d made eyes at her within hours of their encounter. Unless intimidated by her looks, most men – or so things stood prior to the above-mentioned affair which seemed to have rendered some of them a little timid – most men hardly failed to make a pass at her, or to provide her with amusement while coming to grief trying to conceal her effect on them. They couldn’t help it, couldn’t keep their eyes or thoughts from her form which she’d long ago learnt how to present to her advantage. More than this though, her impact was in no small part due to her disfigurement, the once much hated most visible blemish on her otherwise exquisite lips which, by its colour and together with the formation of moles on her cheek and neck, seemed to captivate most people; its blazing flush against her dark skin appeared to be particularly effective on men, mesmerized them, commanded their full attention, as if awakening a sense of wonder or possibly some odd and old protective instinct within them. She knew, because her younger sister who in most ways looked a mirror reflection of herself, but a flawless one, presenting a face and lips free from marks or imperfection, only ever made it as second best with the boys when they were together; a consolation prize.
Still and all, the music mogul never stood a chance. He was fat and short and middle-aged and she needed neither his money nor laissez-passer. He’d tried, understood what was and what was not available, and moved on, at no time afterwards giving her cause for concern. Then again, she was fortunate. She seemed to have been born under a lucky star. Always gave away just what she wished to give away, never more, and always got away with it, even if on occasion she could be given too much, or at other times, not quite enough. In any event, the lesson she took from the man’s ruination was that too much love can kill, and that many men and women positively protest much too much. In matters of intimacy, she was both easy and broad-minded, reckoned ‘each to their own’ and ‘vive la difference’. “In the same way sex ought never to have been the jurisdiction of religious zealots calling out sins and hellfire, it should not be the domain of fanatics with lists of dos and don’ts—Dos and don’ts about flirtation; dos and don’ts about seduction; dos and don’ts about masturbation; dos and don’ts about passion. Making fucking rules and lists has nothing to do with sex. Everyone’s watching too much porn.”
This much she’d shared with her younger sister who’d raised an eyebrow after she’d ventured that it would be well if the public censure of the disgraced ‘rapist’ could stop at least until he’d had his day in court; “We should give justice a chance before throwing stones —That is if justice can still be given a chance, what with all the baying for blood.” And – for reasons which shall soon become clear – this is as much as she ever said about the matter to anyone other than her sister and a few men she slept with. In truth, self-interest more than notions of justice was her main consideration. Her sister, on the other hand, as was her wont, was mostly interested in getting the keys to all doors and feeling free to roam all the corridors safe in the knowledge that all roaming tigers were on a leash.
It would have been a foolish person who would trivialize Charlotte Lottway as a mere feast for the eyes. Ravishing, she was, but she was just as astute, and shrewd enough to know how to satisfy her desires and meet her ambition – and discerning enough to know her limitations. Had it been up to her, she’d have liked nothing better than to live the life of a gifted artistic Goddess of some kind or other, but her self-confidence never blinded her to the reality that she was without the talent or imagination necessary to summon the Muses. Still, she hardly minded, wise to the fact that her reward was to be blessed with good luck where talent was lacking. She was well aware that in another time, a young woman of colour wouldn’t have fared as well as she expected to, even one with her looks and privileged background. And, making up for her youth and as yet limited experience, she was not merely well-read but perceptive enough to sense that anything wrestled from men and women can just as easily be lost to their next whims or fancies; as illustrated by the rapid and total downfall of the music promoter and airline owner. Fortune is fickle, and it was only right that she should make the most of hers.
For all that, for all her luck and looks, she was still some way from where she wished to be, and few – if anyone – could guess how hard she had grafted even to become Avery Weyland’s assistant, the inconveniences, frustrations and boredom she had to put up with. She was fond of Avery Weyland, whom she’d cajoled into rescuing her from the music video business when he expanded his production outfit with the revenue from the sale of the rights to his dead father’s novels, but was not minded to play second fiddle to the man’s interests for too long. The film business was café society, a great fantasy mill which a bright mind like hers could work and dominate. She was heedful of the nature of its particulars – it existed only as a suggested notion, tricks of perspective and presentation. Say ‘Bee’ and how much of the world whispers ‘Honey’ – or ‘Sting’. Films were confections, magic tricks aimed at audiences willing their makers to fulfil their delusions. ‘Bee’ could be either sweetness or pain, as determined by the package. ‘A + B = C’. All that mattered was to arrive at the predetermined ‘C’, and ‘C’ could waft with the breeze, drift with fashion, bend with trends, always yielding to its masters. Charlotte Lottway was a quick learner. She knew her business. And in no small part thanks to Avery Weyland, had become familiar with the mechanics of ‘making films happen’. However, pitching, hyping, flattering and hustling money were all things she found inherently unrewarding. Or beneath her, perhaps – she was unsure. This was not to say that the film production business was without its perks and appeal, merely that it failed to satisfy her conception of her future. In short, she wanted to go places, envisaged realities beyond the grind of film production. Still, for now, wherever her future lay, she was happy enough to be adventuring with Avery Weyland, whose film company was affording her a convenient and pleasurable pathway to what she imagined were better things to come.
As it happened, insofar as they had potential, she quite liked the screenplays sent by the odd millionaire from French Guiana – although, in all fairness, nowhere near as much as she cared for the man himself – and was very much set on seizing the opportunity Avery Weyland afforded her to exploit one of them as a ticket to the future. And she knew exactly how to proceed with the one they’d selected. It was atmospheric, gritty, at its core a rather simple story about an ultimately doomed relationship between half-brothers – one from the US, a Jew; the other from the UK, who grew up a Muslim – who learn of each other’s existence from their deceased Jewish New Yorker mother’s last will and testament. They meet, grow fond of one another, each forced to come to terms with their own demons, but ultimately part company resigned to the fact that the things that separate them are too big a hurdle for the world they inhabit. For these two, the daily waters they navigate means brotherly rapprochement is an unattainable island. Charlotte Lottway saw the story as an allegory for the human condition, with at its centre the pivotal question: is it possible for an individual not to conform to his community’s expectations without coming undone? As drafted, the answer was an unsentimental ‘No’. Nurturing and interdependency between a person and their environment beats free will and freedom of action. The characters find they could only get along and become one if ‘the others’ around allow it, an unrealistic expectation given the disparity between their respective communities. She guessed it was either inspired by or a nod to Sartre’s ‘L’enfer c’est les autres’. A noteworthy proposition. All the same, a very outmoded one. She knew that for all its merits, this exploration of an age-old theme would today be better served by changing the message, and the project have a more bankable future with the two main characters turned into sisters and none of that Jewess mother from New York vieux jeu backstory.
This being so, she very much hoped Xavier Lagarde would not be visited by a change of heart about helping out his niece and would deliver promptly on his pledge to have her loverboy sign the required assignment of rights agreement. Meanwhile, she also wondered whether she may have been a little too forward with the man, too brazen perhaps. Avery Weyland had taken her to task for it after lunch, mentioned the word “promiscuous”, only to pitifully apologize the moment the word had escaped his lips. “Come on, Avery. Where are the men I have deceived? I never give more than I advertise,” she riposted, unperturbed; “I like him—I’m sure he likes me. What’s wrong with liking?” “Is that a question or—” “Oh. Please—” “Well, I’m sure you saw the ring on his finger, Lottie. On your head be it if you blow it.”
It went without saying that she had seen the ring on his finger; as if a woman could fail to notice such a detail. Still, she’d also noted he hardly pulled himself away when their arms or knees touched, and barely seemed to mind huddling together in the office lift. She had the bit between her teeth.
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