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Stephen King meets Muriel Spark in Hilary Mantel's first novel.
Evelyn Axon - a medium by trade - and her half-wit daughter Muriel have become a social problem. Barricaded in their once-respectable house, they live amid festering rubbish, unhealthy smells - and secrets. They completely baffle Isabel Field, the social worker assigned to help them. But Isabel is only the most recent in a long line of people that find the Axons impossible. Meanwhile, Isabel has her own problems: a ...
Stephen King meets Muriel Spark in Hilary Mantel's first novel.
Evelyn Axon - a medium by trade - and her half-wit daughter Muriel have become a social problem. Barricaded in their once-respectable house, they live amid festering rubbish, unhealthy smells - and secrets. They completely baffle Isabel Field, the social worker assigned to help them. But Isabel is only the most recent in a long line of people that find the Axons impossible. Meanwhile, Isabel has her own problems: a married lover, Colin. He is a history teacher to unresponsive children and father to a passel of his own horrible kids. With all this to worry about, how can Isabel even begin to understand what is going on in the Axon household? When Evelyn finally moves to defend Muriel, and Muriel, in turn, acts to protect herself, the results are by turns hilarious and terrifying.
"Mantel's writing is so exact and brilliant that, in itself, it seems an act of survival, even redemption. . . . Mantel is unflinching, and I like her that way."—Joan Acocella, The New Yorker
"Readers will surely be seduced by her sharp humor, reminiscent of Muriel Spark or Edna O'Brien, and her nail-biting narration. . . .Wrapped in the brisk plotting of a suspense thriller, a la Graham Greene." —Charlotte Innes, Los Angeles Times Book Review
"Mantel is without peer in her generation."—Janice Nimura, San Francisco Chronicle
"Hysterical, the dialogue is spot-on. . . . Muriel and her ma are cunning creations."—Margaret Foster
"Strange . . . rather mad . . . extremely funny . . . reminded me of the early Muriel Spark."—Auberon Waugh
When Mrs. Axon found out about her daughter’s condition, she was more surprised than sorry; which did not mean that she was not very sorry indeed. Muriel, for her part, seemed pleased. She sat with her legs splayed and her arms around herself, as if reliving the event. Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.
It was always hard to know what would please Muriel. That winter, when the old man fell on the street and broke his hip, Muriel had personally split her sides. She was in her way a formidable character. It wasn’t often she had a good laugh.
Click, click, click, said the mock-crocs. They were Mrs. Sidney’s shoes. She passed without mishap along the Avenue, over that flagstone with its wickedly raised edge where Mr. Tillotson had tripped last winter and sustained his fracture; they had petitioned the council. Mrs. Sidney’s good legs, the legs of a woman of twenty-five, moved like scissors down the street. Her face was white and tired, her scarlet lips spoke of an effort at gaiety. She had carried the colour over the line of her thin lips, into a curvaceous bow; she had once read in a magazine that this could be done. Of what lies between the good legs and the sagging face, better not to speak; Mrs. Sidney never dwelled on her torso, she had given it up. She stopped by the house called “The Laburnums,” by the straggling privet hedge spattered white with bird-droppings and ravaged by amateur topiary; and tears misted over her eyes. She wore the black coat with the mink trim.
Arthur had been with her when she bought the coat. It was budgeted for; the necessity had been weighed. Arthur had been embarrassed, standing among the garment rails; he had clasped his hands behind his back like Prince Philip, and with his eyes elsewhere he tried to look like a man deep in thought. She had not trailed him around the shops, she knew what she wanted. “A good coat,” she said to him, “a good cloth coat is worth every penny you spend on it.”
She had tried on two, and then the black. The salesgirl was sixteen. She was not interested in her job. She stood with one limp arm draped over the rail, her hip jutting out, watching Mrs. Sidney push the laden hangers to and fro. She did not know anything about the cut of a good cloth coat. Mrs. Sidney removed her gloves, and her fingers stroked the little mink collar appreciatively. She had tried to engage Arthur’s attention, but he was not looking, and for a second she was shot through with resentment. Carelessly she tossed her old camelhair over a rail; until this morning it had been her best coat, but now it seemed shabby and inconsiderable. She unfastened the buttons carefully, slipped her arms into the silky lining. Turning to see the back in the long mirror, she smiled tentatively at the salesgirl. “Do you think the length…?”
The girl raised her thin shoulders in a shrug.
By now Arthur stood smiling at her indulgently, his hands still clasped behind his back.
“I will take it,” Mrs. Sidney said. She minced towards Arthur.
“Very nice, dear,” Arthur said. “Are you sure you’ve got what you wanted?”
She nodded, smiling. He would have been willing, she knew, to pay twenty pounds more, once he had agreed on the economy of a good cloth coat. Arthur did not stint. The girl laid it out by the cash register, flapped some tissue between its crossed arms and slid it, folded, into a big bag. Arthur took out a virgin chequebook, and his rolled-gold fountain pen. Precisely, he unscrewed the cap; smoothly, the ink flowed; with care, he replaced the cap and returned the pen to the inside pocket of his lovat sports jacket. Then, with a single neat pull, he removed the cheque and handed it courteously to the girl. Mrs. Sidney was proud of that, proud of the way the transaction had been carried through; how they did not pay in greasy bundles of notes like plumbers and housepainters. The carrier bag was heavy, with the good cloth coat inside it, and Arthur reached out without speaking and took it from her. He asked about a hat, so anxious was he to have everything correct; but she told him that people do not go in so much for hats nowadays. To be truthful, millinery departments intimidated her. The assistants looked at you scornfully, for so few of the people who tried on hats ever made a purchase; they had lost faith in human nature. She was happy. They had a cup of coffee and a cream cake each, and then they went home.
That night Arthur had his first stroke. When she got up in the morning, all the right side of his body was paralysed, and his mouth was twisted down at the corner; he couldn’t speak. By eight o’clock he was lying on a high white bed at the General. She was sitting outside the ward, drinking the strong tea a nurse had given her out of a chipped white cup. All she could think was, you can get these cups as seconds on the market. Could that be where they get them? A hospital, could it be? He’s on the free list, the nurse said, you can come at any time. When she went to see him he moved restlessly those parts he could move; he never again knew what day of the week it was, or anything at all about the world in the corridor or the market-place beyond. He suffered his second stroke while she was there, and they put lilac screens around the bed and informed her that he had passed away. She wore the black coat to his funeral.
Mrs. Sidney raised one elegant knee a little, to prop her bag on it, fumbled inside and took out a pink tissue. Standing by the stained and formless privet, she dabbed her eyes. She looked for a litterbin, but there were none in the Avenue. She screwed the tissue back into her handbag and scissored along the street.
The Axons’ house stood on a corner. There was a little gate let in between the rhododendrons. No weeds pushed up between the stones of the path. And this was odd, because you would not have thought of Evelyn Axon as a keen gardener. There was stained glass in the door of the porch, venous crimson and the storm-dull blue of August skies. Mrs. Sidney stopped a pace from the door. She feared her nerve was going to fail her. Again she fumbled with her bag, patting for her purse to make sure it was still there. She did not know whether Mrs. Axon accepted payment. A small tickle of grief and fear rose up in her throat. She arrived at her decision; Mrs. Axon would already be watching from some window in the house. She placed her finger on the doorbell as if she were buttonholing the secret of the universe. It did not work.
But somewhere, in the dark interior of the house, Evelyn moved towards the door. She opened it just as Mrs. Sidney raised her hand to knock. Mrs. Sidney lowered her arm foolishly. Evelyn nodded.
“Come in,” she said. “I suppose you want to speak to your late husband.”
It was a nice detached property. As soon as she entered the hall behind Evelyn, Mrs. Sidney’s eyes became viper-sharp. She took in the neglected parquet floor, the umbrella stand, the small table quite bare except for one potplant, withered and brown.
“Nothing seems to survive,” Evelyn said.
Mrs. Sidney took a tighter grip on her bag.
“And into the front parlour,” Evelyn said.
Then she kept her eyes on Evelyn’s fawn cardigan, the bulky shape moving weightily ahead. It was a sunless room, seldom used; at this time Evelyn lived mostly at the back of the house. There were heavy curtains, a round dining-table in some dark wood, eight hard chairs with leather seats; a china cabinet, and two green armchairs placed at either side of the empty fireplace. “You’ll want the fire,” Evelyn said; she was nothing if not a good hostess. Mrs. Sidney took one of the armchairs, knees together, her handbag poised on them. Evelyn shuffled out and left her alone. She stared at the china cabinet, which was quite empty.
Evelyn returned with a little electric fire, two bars, dusty, the flex fraying. “If you don’t mind,” Mrs. Sidney said, “that’s dangerous. Bare wires like that.”
Evelyn slammed the plug firmly into the socket. As she stood up, she gave Mrs. Sidney what Mrs. Sidney called a straight look, the kind of look that is given to people who speak out of turn. “Make yourself comfortable, Mrs. Sidney,” she said.
Once again, Mrs. Sidney was struck by the cultured tone of Evelyn’s voice. She was, had been, what old-fashioned people called a lady. She and her husband had lived in this house when these few dank autumnal avenues were the best addresses in town. The Axons had always kept to themselves. For years the neighbours had complained about Evelyn’s ways, about the odd times at which she hung out her washing, about her habit of muttering to herself in the queue at the Post Office. Yet, Mrs. Sidney thought, she was a cut above. In a way she was a very tragic woman; Mrs. Sidney had a nose for tragedy these days, alerted to it by her own. “You’ll have to excuse my not providing tea,” Evelyn said. “It’s not convenient. I’m not going into the kitchen today.” Mrs. Sidney blinked. For want of reply, her eyes slid back to the empty china cabinet.
“Smashed,” Evelyn said. “All smashed years ago.”
Evelyn went over to the sideboard. It was, Mrs. Sidney noted, the most modern piece of furniture in the room. It had one of those compartments for drinks, and a flap that came down to serve them on. Evelyn pulled it down. Mrs. Sidney gaped. She could make out the labels from here; baked beans, salmon, ox-tongue. Evelyn reached into the back and took out a half-full bottle of orange squash. From a cupboard, she took two glasses and poured a careful measure into each. On the table stood a jug of lukewarm water. Evelyn set down one of the glasses by her guest’s side, and took the armchair opposite.
“I expect you will want to talk about him a little,” she said. She sat upright and alert, watching her visitor, noting how the face-powder had caked at the side of her nose, how the open pores of her cheeks shone, how the body mocked the pretty, lively legs. And suddenly Mrs. Sidney crumpled, as if she had been dealt a blow; her bag slid from her knees to the floor, her shoulders sagged, great gouts of grief came dropping from her mouth. Yes, Evelyn thought, how they steer you to cheerful topics; how after twice meeting they cross the road and pretend that they didn’t see you so that they can avoid the whole embarrassing encounter: a widow. There is, Evelyn reflected, a custom known as Suttee; to judge by their behaviour, many seemed to think its suppression an unhealthy development.
She watched. Mrs. Sidney’s mouth worked, and the scarlet line of lipstick above her top lip contorted independently of the mouth, so that her face seemed to be slipping in and out of some grotesque and ludicrous mask. The woman lurched forward; her hands scrabbled for her bag and she scrubbed at her face with the pink tissues and dropped them in sodden balls on the carpet and onto the chair. Evelyn reached for her orange juice and took a sip. She put down the glass carefully, on a mat with a fringe. “Mr. Sidney was a good husband to you,” she suggested.
Mrs. Sidney talked about the buying of the coat, of the cakes they had eaten, of the vast corridors of the hospital with its draughts and swinging firedoors; the stained walls, the starched impatience of doctors’ coats and the dreadful grimace of his paralysed mouth. As she talked she gasped and retched at the memories, but in the end she calmed herself, sat upright and shaking on the edge of the chair, her legs crossed tightly and her eyes formless and red. She was ready to begin.
“Mr. Sidney’s line of work was with the Transport Authority,” she said carefully. She spoke as if each of her words was a precious crystal glass coming out of a crate; one slip could shatter her again.
“You mean the bus company?” Evelyn said.
“It was a kind of insurance work. When—if, you see, there was an accident, someone was in an accident on the bus, he would be finding out what happened and deciding how much the bus—the Transport Authority—ought to pay out for it. He was called a Claims Investigation Agent.”
“Yes,” Evelyn said. “He was a clerk. I understand. Now I will tell you, Mrs. Sidney, sometimes I meet with success and sometimes I don’t. If you would call it success; I would say, results. It appears that they tell some people that all is very beautiful on the ninth plane and that there are flowers and organ music, but they never said that to me, and if they do say it I think they must be confusing it with the funeral. It would be a natural mistake. On those grounds, I hardly approve of cremation.”
“But do you ever,” Mrs. Sidney hesitated, “do you ever speak with your own husband?”
“Clifford died in 1946,” Evelyn said. “He was a quiet man, and I suppose we have less in common than we did.”
“What did—did he pass over suddenly?”
“Very suddenly. Peritonitis.”
There was a silence. Mrs. Sidney broke it with difficulty. “Do you use a wineglass?”
Evelyn snorted. “If you want that, you get it at parties, don’t you?”
“I’m sorry,” Mrs. Sidney said. She stood up. “Mrs. Axon, I’m sorry, I don’t think I should have come. If my daughter knew she’d kill me.”
“And your curiosity would be satisfied,” Evelyn said. “How old are you, Mrs. Sidney?”
“Since you ask, I’m sixty-five.”
Evelyn sighed. “Not a great age, but you ought to know what to expect. If I were you, I’d sit down, and we can get on.”
Mrs. Sidney sat. She stared about her, hypnotised by her own temerity, by Evelyn’s watery blue eyes, by the dull sheen of the afternoon light on the hard leather chairs.
Presently Evelyn leaned forward, her hands clasped together, her eyes closed, and scalding tears dropped from under her lids. Mrs. Sidney watched them falling. Her heart hammered. Evelyn’s mouth gaped open, and Mrs. Sidney dug her nails into her palms, expecting Arthur’s voice to come out.
Evelyn dropped back in her chair. Her pale eyes snapped open, and she spoke in a perfectly normal voice.
“I told you not to come to me for reassurance, Mrs. Sidney. Go to the Spiritualist Church if you like. It’s in Ruskin Road. They have a cold buffet afterwards.” She got heavily to her feet. Mrs. Sidney lurched after her, past the empty china cabinet and the dead potplant, stumbling to the door.
“Mrs. Sidney,” Evelyn said, “your husband Arthur is roasting in some unspeakable hell.”
She closed the door. I shall give this up, she thought. They come here, for a Cook’s Tour of the other world; as if it were in some other but accessible place, they use me like an aero-plane, like a cruise liner. But it was here, a little removed yet concurrent; each day some limb of the supernatural reached out to pluck you by the clothes. I shall give it up, she thought, because it is making me ill; if one day I took some sort of fit and were laid up, what would happen, who would look after Muriel?
AXON, MURIEL ALEXANDRA
DATE OF BIRTH: 4•4•40
2 BUCKINGHAM AVENUE
Miss Axon was visited at her home by Miss Perkins of this Department on 3•3•73 and subsequently by CWD on 15•3•73. Client lives with her widowed mother, Mrs. Evelyn Axon. Her father died in 1946. They are resident in a comfortable detached house with all usual amenities. Client attended St. David’s School, Arlington Road, 1945–1955, but her attendance seems to have been nominal as her mother states she was “more often absent.” Mrs. Axon states that she was informed about 1946 or 1947 that Muriel did not seem to have the normal aptitude for her age-group, and she was kept behind a class for two subsequent years. At this point it appears client should have been designated ESN under the provisions of the 1944 Act, but this was not done and it is suggested that at this point in time she appeared in a borderline normality situation. Mrs. Axon states that she considered that client had been adversely affected by her father’s death at six years old and that “she would not have benefited” from special provision. During the years following Mr. Hutchinson, then School Attendance Officer, visited the house on several occasions but unfortunately these records cannot be traced in the files of the newly constituted Education Welfare Department. (Query check County Hall.) According to Mrs. Axon client was referred (by Mr. Hutchinson) to the Gresham Trust which prior to the takeover of its functions by the Local Authority dealt with the welfare of the subnormal in the community. Client was visited by a caseworker of the Trust, a Miss Blackstone, and Mrs. Axon states that tests were given to the client but that she refused to participate in them. Mrs. Axon states that the visits of the Trust ceased after one year and there appear to be no records of client as it does not seem to have been the policy of the Trust to keep records for more than five years.
Client appears physically fit. Mrs. Axon states that other than the usual childhood illnesses she has never been seriously ill, never been hospitalised, and has not had occasion to visit her GP in the last ten years or possibly more. Mrs. Axon is in general very vague about dates. Mrs. Axon states that Muriel is able to wash and dress herself but will “put on anything” and that she has to supervise her washing and also her meals as she will eat unsuitable food. However she is able to help in the house though Mrs. Axon states she is not very willing. She is sometimes taken shopping by Mrs. Axon but not frequently. Mrs. Axon states that client is not able to go out alone because of various incidents that have occurred in the past, but she would not go into any further details about this.
Mrs. Axon is extremely uncommunicative in herself and this is seen as a problem in assessment. According to Mrs. Axon client is able to understand everything that is said to her but often does not answer when she is spoken to. She has no hobbies or pastimes. Difficulties in this case are increased by the uncooperative and almost hostile attitude of Mrs. Axon, who seems to resent any intervention by welfare agencies. Client’s environment seems to be unstimulating and Mrs. Axon seems to be ashamed of her to the extent that she is unwilling for her to be seen by neighbours. Her attitude to her seems to be one of basic contempt and that client does not have ordinary feelings, for instance she referred to client in her hearing as a “hopeless idiot.” It must be said that client appears to be adequately fed and clothed and that although Mrs. Axon’s standards of housekeeping are not high she does attend to client’s physical welfare, but she seems to have a negative attitude to client’s mental and emotional development and it is unlikely that any significant improvement will take place unless Muriel is encouraged to mix a little more with other people and acquire social confidence.
Recommendations: Multi-professional assessment
C. W. D.
Department of Social Services
15th April 1973
Dear Mrs. Axon,
You may remember that I visited you on March 15th to discuss your daughter’s case and we agreed then that it would be helpful to Muriel if she could attend a day care centre where she would be enabled to mix with other young people and take part in group activities. I have looked into the possibility of this but unfortunately there is a waiting list for our Community Daycare Centres and I have only been able to arrange for Muriel to attend initially for one afternoon a week. However, I feel sure she will benefit from this, and we do look forward to extension of our provision in the near future. She will be able to take part in informal activities like community singing, and she will also be able to try her hand at crafts such as pottery and basket weaving. Our Community Daycare Centre is situated on Calderwell Road. Muriel will be collected by minibus from the corner of Buckingham Avenue and Lauderdale Road, and will be returned to the same point. The hours of our Daycare Session are from 1:30 P.M. to 4:30 P.M. and she should be at the collection point by 1:15 P.M. There is no charge for transport. A nominal charge of 15p is made for tea and biscuits. Her first session will be on Thursday 25th April.
Unfortunately because of pressure on our facilities I have not yet been able to arrange for Muriel to be seen by our psychologist, but I assure you that this will take place at the earliest possible opportunity.
CATHERINE W. DAWSON
One year on; noises from above. They are hard at work again, always at work. Sometimes, as today, in one room of the house, shrieking with laughter and tossing her possessions. Or following her from room to room.
Pulling her fawn cardigan about her, Evelyn lumbered over to the calendar. Woolly lambs pranced in a meadow impossibly green, roses bloomed around the door of a thatched cottage. She searched for the month. All the Thursdays were ringed in red; it was a task she had set herself when this last bout of interference with their lives began, over a year ago now. And today was Thursday.
Now for the hallway. She flicked on the light. It seemed empty. As she moved to the foot of the stairs something grazed her sleeve, and she pulled away. Go, go, she thought savagely; I did not invite you here. A bloody handprint stained the cream emulsion, the leprous skull grinned behind glass. Mr. Sidney’s twisted mouth, in another place. Never again.
She mounted the stairs heavily. Her rheumatism was worse this year, in the raw damp April weather; every day sodden petals from the flowering trees flurried across the window, and thrushes sang in the neglected garden. I am sixty-eight, she thought, I am feeling my age this year.
“Don’t you know it’s Thursday?” Evelyn said sharply. Muriel raised her head. She nodded. Evelyn appraised her; the lank black hair cut straight across her forehead, the coarse flaking skin, the ungainly legs and large red hands. Whatever they say, she thought, she has not improved. Whatever they say, is rubbish. “Well, then, we must sort you out some clothes.”
A sign of animation crossed Muriel’s face. She got up. Crossing to her chest of drawers, she proffered Evelyn her pink cardigan of fluffy wool. Evelyn nodded without interest. “If you like.”
Something caught her eye. She plunged her hand into the drawer and delved for the metallic glint. She held it in her palm as if it were contaminated; a tin of furniture polish, half-used, its waxy rag still stuck inside it.
“Did you put it there?”
Muriel’s pale grey eyes gazed at her. She showed neither guilt, nor fear, nor surprise. Evelyn believed her. Muriel never did anything of her own volition; Muriel never lied.
“They’ve been in here, then?” She reached out to grasp Muriel’s arm above the elbow, squeezing it hard. She was a strong woman. Her fingers bit into the flesh. Muriel blinked at her. “Did you see them?” She shook her daughter’s arm. “Tell me what they did.”
Evelyn’s pulse raced. Until now they had never been in this room. But now here was the proof of it, the tin taken some weeks ago. It was always the same kind of trick; the spilt sugar, the small thefts, the china they had smashed piece by piece. She let Muriel’s arm go and it fell limp at her side.
“I could move you from here. But where would you go? They are always getting into my bedroom.”
Muriel said that there was a third bedroom. Evelyn stared at her. She could feel again her heart hammering and pounding in her throat. The woman had made a shocked face when she had called Muriel an idiot. She, Evelyn, lived with the daily confirmation of her idiocy. Only a hopeless idiot would suggest she take up residence in a room already tenanted; and such tenants. “Wash yourself,” she commanded her. She went downstairs.
At ten past one she called up to Muriel. Muriel came down. She wore the fluffy pink cardigan and a red skirt. She showed none of the caution Evelyn used when she moved about the house. Sitting on the step next to the bottom, Muriel put out her feet for her shoes to be laced, her legs stiff like a child’s in the dentist’s chair. There was something almost sly in Muriel’s face. But Evelyn never troubled to interpret her expressions; she could speak, if she wished, she could make herself clear.
“If you can make baskets, why can’t you tie your shoes?” Evelyn said brutally. Probably, she thought, the reason is that she cannot make baskets; if the other week’s example is anything to go by. She took Muriel to the door. She had only to walk fifty yards, along the bushes, around the corner to Lauderdale Road. Let her do that by herself, the Welfare woman had begged; to give her a little sense of independence. She had looked at the woman with contempt. In those days she had been very high-handed with them. She had underestimated their persistence. They had kept coming back. Now she was ready to do anything they said, to make the sacrifice of Muriel, if only it would stop them coming to the house, enquiring into the arrangements she found it necessary to make, the shifts and expedients by which she kept them washed and fed and warm from one day to the next; sniffing around with their implications that life could be improved.
She held the door open to watch Muriel out of the gate. Florence Sidney was passing, a stout, well-set-up woman. She had the house, now that her mother had been taken away to a home. It was Florence Sidney, Evelyn thought, who reported us to the Welfare. As if persons in our class of life needed the Welfare. Miss Sidney turned her bonneted head curiously, and Evelyn drew back and slammed the door. She turned to the house, alone; so often, in the 1940s, she had wished she were alone, and now her wish had come back to mock her, to gibber and tiptoe and hiss.
They had not eaten lunch. That was Muriel’s punishment for not speaking when she had been asked about the visitors to her room. Whether something she had seen had terrorised her into silence…Evelyn wondered if she had been unjust. It was too late. Still, she would have her tea and biscuits.
On the floor of the hall lay a crumpled piece of paper. Evelyn’s gorge rose. Low stinking entities, she said to herself. Once she had been able to smell them, but her senses were becoming blunter with age. Increasingly they were choosing this method of communication, this, their tricks, the sharp raps on the wall from different rooms of the house, warning her off by their noises or luring her by their silence. She stopped. Her face twisted. She tried always to avoid showing that she was in pain. It was agony for her to bend to the floor, they must know this. Evelyn looked around. She took her umbrella from the hallstand, and with it fished for the paper, dragging it from where she could not reach, like the intelligent ape in the experiment. From her feet, she scuttled the paper ball to the first stair, from there to the second. She picked it up and straightened it out. The wavering great letters were familiar by now, fly-track thin: GO NOT TO THE KITCHIN TODAY.
Evelyn’s heart sank. Like this, they prolonged her existence. They could take her at any time, kill her (broken neck at the foot of the stairs), or leave her a shell without faculties. But they preferred to watch her fear, her pathetic ruses, her flickering hopes which they would dash within the hour; that was the only explanation. Disconsolate, she entered the front parlour. There, placed precisely in the centre of the circular table, lay a tin-opener.
At once she thought, how provident. It was a matter in which she had been careless. She did not touch it, examined it with her eyes. It did not belong in the house, she had never seen it before. Carefully, she picked it up. It was new, quite new. It was the first time they had left her a gift.
She lowered the flap of the sideboard and took out a tin of baked beans. I must make better arrangements, she thought. The days when they forbade her the kitchen were becoming more frequent, they were driving her increasingly to the front parlour with its hard chairs where she had seen the dead. Perhaps, she thought, a paraffin stove. She opened the tin, and cast around. To hand came the heavy glass ashtray, unused since Clifford died. She emptied the cold tan slime into it and sat eating the beans with her fingers. When she had finished she put down the ashtray and sat resting for a moment. Now where would she go, until it was time for Muriel again? The blue light bounced off polished wood. The air was silent, serene. Evelyn breathed deeply. All their ingenuity had satisfied itself, for the afternoon. Travelling around the room searching the corners, her eye fell on the basket which Muriel had brought home two weeks ago from the Handicapped Class. It was a very ill-made basket, very mis-shapen. Evelyn could not think what use to put it to. Because she was very considerate about Muriel’s feelings, she had not discarded it. Now she took it and hobbled out with it to the hall, where she placed it on the table, for display. As an afterthought, she lifted the dead plant in its plastic pot, and placed it inside.
AXON, MURIEL ALEXANDRA
Client has attended the Calderwell Rd Day Centre once weekly for three months. Whilst we await a comprehensive appraisal, it must be stressed that the ongoing observations of the Day Centre staff have had a great part to play in analysing the client’s difficulties, as in applying multifocal measurement tests it is essential to take into account the degree of emotional retardation probably partly induced by her home environment.
Preliminary estimates suggest that the client has an IQ of around 85 on the Stanford-Binet scale, and that therefore her potential and capabilities are somewhat greater than we were led to expect from History III/73/0059. Whilst the need for special facilities may have been indicated at an earlier date, it is suggested that client when in contact with education professionals suffered from a degree of retardation not readily distinguishable from borderline normality, and thus was not brought to the attention of the Social Services; however, due to impoverished environment her emotional condition has worsened and she is now subsisting at a marginal level of social adequacy.
Client has achieved basic literacy, but as she lacks concentration and motivation no occupational adequacy is envisaged for the future. In carrying out simple mechanical tasks, which are well within her capacity, her lack of sustained self-direction is seen. A marked flattening of affect may give rise to the suspicion of a schizoid or sub-schizoid state. Emphasis must be given to social adjustment and interpersonal relations, and inculcation of a maximum degree of self-direction, and efforts must be directed towards helping to attain a satisfactory level of social independence. Subaverage intellectual functioning may be compensated for in this case by sequential development of self-help skills.
M. S. BYRNE, MA
Community Daycare Supervisor
Sorry to bother you on this one but since my transfer has come up so suddenly Norman suggested I dump this one on you, and you do a home visit this week. I should warn you that in my opinion the old woman is completely gaga, but I don’t see what we can do.
Home Visit, 23.9.73.
Explained to Mrs. Axon that Miss Dawson had been transferred. Client appears well. Mrs. Axon stated that she was dissatisfied with client’s progress, but that she had not expected her to make any progress. Explained to Mrs. Axon the various activities in which client participates at Community Care Sessions. Enquired why she had not told Miss Dawson that client able to read and write. Mrs. Axon stated “Because it would have been a lie.” Explained to her that client’s achievement was on a basic level. Nevertheless this was a very praiseworthy attainment and client should be given every encouragement to use her skills. Asked client if she would show her mother how she could write. Client agreed that she would do this but when supplied with paper she scribbled on it. Mrs. Axon stated “It is plain that you are all fools and fools in charge of fools.”
Introduced the subject of client’s long-term care. Mrs. Axon expressed the idea that client would be left alone in the house (presumably meaning after she herself was dead). Mrs. Axon did not appear to be able to verbalise the idea of her own death. Explained to her that Muriel had been placed on the waiting list for five-day care at the Centre and that in the event of her decease a place would be found for her in a residential institution or hostel. Mrs. Axon stated “Do you mean Holloway?” and when this queried stated “She has murderous inclinations.” Did not clarify this statement. Asked Mrs. Axon about her own physical health and whether she felt able to care for Muriel as of the present time. Mrs. Axon stated that her own health was excellent. Suggested that client might be able to do more for herself if encouraged. Surprisingly in view of her previous statement Mrs. Axon said that client had always been a good and obedient girl and that she had never been any trouble from her birth. Suggested to Mrs. Axon that Muriel was no longer in this position now, i.e., no longer a girl. Mrs. Axon stated that if Muriel was “any trouble” she would hold caseworker responsible.
Mrs. Axon’s attitude on this visit was most unfriendly.
Dear Sister Janet,
When you come on duty will you try if you can stop Muriel putting her hand in the tea-money again. M. S. Byrne MA says she had a need to do this as in the present state of her she needs to take things not be given as part of her identity, or autonomy, one of those. It isn’t her first time thieving so if I were you I’d bring the box at half past three and lock it in the medicine cupboard till you see the back end of her, then she can have her autonomy on Mpoe’s shift next week.
Muriel is walking along Lauderdale Road. Muriel is observing Muriel walking along Lauderdale Road. Off the bus; like puppets of wood the people on the bus nod their heads and jerk their arms at her. She understands it to be their ceremony of farewell. Rigidly, as if saluting some dictator, she raises her right arm in imitation. Always she finds the outward forms the best, the safest. The people on the bus seem perfectly satisfied. She smiles to herself.
Off the bus at the junction of Buckingham Avenue and Lauderdale Road. This is the blind side of the house. Along Lauderdale Road to the end; cross the road; turn. Back along the opposite side. Along the road, in at the gate. No purpose in the detour, except that Evelyn will never know. But wait:
There basking in the weak sunshine is the dog known as pedigree wire-haired fox terrier. Between its paws, a big bone licked clean. Muriel stoops. As her fingers creep towards the bone, the dog wakes and leaps to its feet, a growl in its throat. Muriel extends one of her stiff legs and lace-up shoes and kicks the dog in the ribs with all the force she can muster. The dog known as pedigree wire-haired fox terrier flees, yelping. Around the corner. In at the gate.
Evelyn opens the door without speaking. She shuffles towards the back of the house. The living room is safe then, Muriel thinks sardonically. Muriel stares at the dull floor, at the table. I could be that floor, she thinks, that very floor to walk on; things placed upon it. I could be the thing that is placed. The familiar panic begins to rise up inside her. As her fingers close over the bone in her pocket, her heart slows.
That morning Evelyn had shouted questions at her. Evelyn had taken by the arm and shaken the girl known as Muriel Alexandra Axon. Whenever this happens, Muriel creeps out, a midnight flitter; she watches from the other side of the room. Evelyn thinks she knows who she is talking to; she does not know that she is shaking a table or a floor, a dead planet, a pebble on a beach. It is most satisfactory. It shows how little Evelyn knows of the true state of affairs.
Once, some years ago now, Muriel realised that her mother could not read her mind, or not all of it. She tested this. She thought certain thoughts, like: I will kill you. Then many times a day Muriel would think thoughts, rejoicing in the deception. I will trip you down the stairs and break your neck. Mother mother mother. Muriel eat your soup spilling it like that. Clumsy girl. From thoughts, short steps to action. Evelyn did not know that she had walked along Lauderdale Road, that she had a bone in her pocket, or five coins from the tea-money. Unless…still, Muriel was not sure how much she knew. This was why, when Evelyn spoke to her, she became like an empty cavern. Muriel Alexandra’s body stands irreproachable like a guardsman on parade, while her thoughts slip off to gambol and strut, enjoying their own existence. GO NOT TO THE KITCHIN TODAY.
Evelyn explains. They go into the front parlour, and drink the cordial with the lukewarm water. Tomorrow, Evelyn thinks, if there is no message, I must remember to fill the jug. Or I could take it upstairs, and fill it in the bathroom.
Muriel remarks that the orange juice is very nice. Evelyn says kindly, “You are a good girl, you appreciate what is provided for you.”
And again Muriel smiles. The orange juice is revolting; she thinks so. She marvels constantly at how easy it is to deceive. She wants one of the tins of meat; all evening she cherishes her longings and her hunger, the feelings she has that Evelyn does not know about. At eight o’clock Evelyn says, “We could have a tin of meat.”
Inside, Muriel squirms in pain. Her thought has been read again. Dragged, filleted, out of her living head. But she struggles to keep the smile on her face; and Evelyn thinks she is pleased at the suggestion. Muriel is beginning to feel the victor; she can keep changing the rules, Evelyn cannot win. Unless…still, it might be possible that she is Evelyn. That Evelyn is growing inside her. Go, go, she thought savagely; I did not invite you here.
Nine o’clock; Evelyn nods in her chair. She is growing deaf, Muriel thinks, old and deaf. Stealthily she moves out to the hallway. It is not until Friday morning that Evelyn goes through her pockets. First she takes the money, spreading it out on her palm; five, five pieces of money. Then the letter in its brown wrapper. Where? She looks around. Her mouth twists. She puts her hand to it in alarm. That was Evelyn’s mouth twisting, Evelyn growing inside her.
In panic she spreads out the money and counts it again; five. And there is the dead plant, all its leaves gone now, nothing but the brown withered stalk, standing in a basket made by a person they have taken to be Muriel Alexandra Axon. Carefully she lifts out the plantpot; folding the letter in half, she places it in the bottom of the basket. (And you be sure you give it to your mother, won’t you now, Muriel?) Back goes the plant. She takes the bone. It is still slimy from the jaws of the dog called pedigree wire-haired fox terrier. Outside the door of the front parlour she listens. Only Evelyn’s breathing; she snickers in her nose, her lower jaw droops onto her chest. Muriel enters the kitchen. There is the teapot from this morning, the breakfast toast, all the remains from before Evelyn received her message from the spirits. Muriel picks up the box of matches, selecting carefully the one that will do the job. From the drawer she takes three tea-towels; white and blue check, white and yellow check, sights of Southport. She puts them in the sink to burn them. The first match goes out, and the second. But she has seen a man, when he lights his cigarettes, shielding the flame with his hand. She takes pleasure in the fact that no one will ever know where she learned this trick. In time she can throw the charred debris on the floor, surrounding the bone. And the pedigree wire-haired fox terrier will never complain, she knows that; when she walks along the Avenue again, she will see the resentment locked in its yellow eyes, and the dumb unproductive movements of its jaw.
Evelyn wakes with a start at Muriel’s hand on her shoulder. “Yes, yes,” she mutters, “it’s time we were getting to bed.” She takes up the poker which she always carries with her when she moves about the house after dark. All the lights will be left burning tonight; that is the least discouragement one can give them, she tells Muriel. Muriel mounts the stairs behind her. Muriel’s shoulders droop. Her knees stiffen, her hand quivers for support on the banister. At each tread she feels pain, she grimaces, she gasps a little. All her resources for today are played out. She is becoming Evelyn, for the night.
Department of Social Services
1st May, 1974
Dear Mr. Byrne,
You will be pleased to know that we have persuaded Tarleton’s Hardware not to press shoplifting charges against Miss Muriel Axon, regarding the removal of a tin-opener which occurred when a small party of clients was taken on a shopping expedition last week.
Fortunately Mr. Tarleton was most reasonable when the situation was explained to him. However we cannot count on meeting this forbearance from shopkeepers on other occasions. I should therefore be obliged if you would request your staff to exercise great vigilance when taking clients out of the Day Centre grounds. This type of incident, if publicised, can have a very unfortunate effect on public relations between the department and the public.
The caseworker involved here tells me it would be unwise to let Miss Axon’s mother know of this incident, as she appears to be a woman of exceedingly old-fashioned moral values and her already extremely negative attitude to Miss Axon is compounding our difficulties in this case.
I should also be obliged if you would not mention this to the nursing or other care staff.
Principal Social Worker
Dear Sister Janet,
This is just to tell you that Muriel got let off the bit of thieving she did when Mpoe took them out the other week to have their autonomy. I know because I heard M. S. Byrne MA bawling Mpoe out for not keeping her eyes open when they came out of the Chocolate Kabin, I think he’s had a rocket from Clegg. What the devil do you think she wanted a tin-opener for? Between you and me I wouldn’t mind if we could lose Muriel when we get demolished.
“This day last week some beast was murdered in the kitchen,” Evelyn said. Oh, can they die, Muriel asks. Evelyn tries, without much hope, once more to explain to Muriel. There is more than one set of persecutors. There are the tenants with their constant jibes, their petty destructiveness; it was not (she pats her daughter’s arm) a human creature. It is possible to see them, quite possible, but they are very quick. You must learn to look for them out of the corner of your eyes. If people did learn to look out of the corners of their eyes, they would see a great deal that at present they miss; and most of it would be to their disadvantage.
But the other inhabitants, their effect is more—she presses her hand to her rib cage. In the soul, she wants to say, but she wonders if Muriel has a soul; if she had, and they took it away. I fear…her seamed face works a little in distress at her thoughts. She makes a gesture like someone erasing the writing on a blackboard; after which, the board itself remains.
She looks different, Muriel notices, more harassed, more starting and looking in corners. Since last Friday’s discoveries.
She is fumbling in her purse now. She lays out certain coins on the kitchen table.
“For your tea and biscuits,” she says.
Muriel lets them lie for a time. She practises fixing her eyes on Evelyn but looking straight through her to the wood of the cupboard at her back. She practises wiping all thoughts out of her mind. At the same time she must watch Evelyn, to see that she is still mumbling over her own concerns, not looking up with the comprehension she dreads. Finally, when Muriel can bear the suspense no longer, she snatches up the coins and holds them in her hands. Evelyn lays out more on the table. “For the milk-money. Tomorrow.” Evelyn shuffles out of the kitchen, but in a moment she is back. “My envelopes,” she says, her voice querulous. “My white envelopes for putting in the milkbottles. They have torn them all.” She opens the kitchen drawer where she keeps her ration books and ends of string, her paper bags and cotton reels and farthings.
“Lock and key,” she says. “I shall have to buy more and keep them under lock and key.”
She tears the corner of a paper bag and puts the money into it. She folds the remainder of the bag and puts it back in the drawer. Once again tomorrow he will take the money and go away, without having to knock at the door; when the price goes up he will put a note through the letterbox. They have teased her so often with their rappings that she tries not to go to the door for any unnecessary reason; tries not to set the precedent of being in a certain place at a certain time, in case they set traps. Suddenly vindictive, she turns to Muriel: “I think of stopping you going to these Handicapped Classes. What good does it do? I think of stopping you.” In a monotone, Muriel begins to repeat her words. “Stop it, stop it,” Evelyn screams at her. There is terror in the girl’s face. Evelyn waddles from the room.
And once more: the match rasps against the box, the flame wavers up; Muriel watches her flesh shrinking away from the heat, and feels pain. She allows the flame to play over her wrist until it burns out in her fingers. Feels, feels. Taking the scissors, uses the point to draw blood. Again, feels.
“If you’re going, if you’re going at all, it’s time you got ready. Are you listening to me?”
Muriel sits with her arms clamped down to her sides, willing her mother to turn. The blisters are forming now on her raw skin, the blood has dried. Evelyn shows no signs of recent pain.
“Here.” Evelyn goes to the chest of drawers and impatiently wrenches one open, tossing a cardigan and a pair of thick woollen stockings onto the bed. Her water-eyes darting, Muriel sees that Evelyn’s forearms are unmarked. So however it came about that her thoughts were read again (as good as read), even if half an hour ago Evelyn was thinking in her brain, she has not been in all parts of her today. Still, unless…unless the marks will show up later. Evelyn turns, and sees only her daughter’s shuttered face with its habitually blank gaze. She begins again to grumble about the trouble it gives her, getting Muriel ready for the class and setting her going. Only the thought of the Welfare people coming to the house stops her from keeping Muriel at home. “What do you want to go there for anyway? Going on a bus with a lot of other people with things wrong with them, cripples and people not right in the head. One day they’ll put them on that bus and take them and gas them, and then you’ll wish you’d stayed at home with your mother.” She knows Muriel is not listening to her. She is looking sceptically at the clothes on the bed. She goes to her drawers and hunts through for the pink fluffy cardigan.
“Grey with dirt,” Evelyn says contemptuously. “If you won’t give it to me to wash I won’t let you wear it again after this week. They will suppose I don’t see to your cleanliness.”
She gapes. Her jaw unhinges and her eyes grow round. Muriel is not in any doubt now. Evelyn has not been in her body today, not even very much in her brain. She is completely surprised, Muriel thinks. To be helpful, always to be helpful, she holds up her arms for Evelyn’s inspection. A low moan comes from Evelyn.
“They have been torturing you,” she says. “They have been here in your room, torturing you.” Moaning again, she washes her arthritic hands together. Could you not cry out? You have gagged me, Muriel thinks. Up the stairs you would have come, rushing to take my pain for yourself. With what? Sharp blades and fire, Muriel says, in her casually dead voice. Now Evelyn is smashing her way out of the room and along the landing, quite heedless of the usual mockery as she passes the door of the spare room, and Muriel can hear her retching behind the closed bathroom door. Putting her hand to her belly, Muriel feels a little wash of the sickness to come.
Now Lauderdale Road, homecoming. Screened by the high bushes, Muriel takes out her coins to count them. Some of them have gone. Spent, she thinks dully, expended. What are these heads, she wonders, whose are these heads upon them? She slips a hand in her pocket and takes out the little looking-glass that she picked up from where it was lying on a counter in a shop. She presses the sides of her skull, to keep in her memory the places she has seen.
Evelyn drives questions into her like hooks. Did they see, did they remark upon your arms, what people were there, were there baskets made at that place, was there singing of songs, of what type and number, kind and shape, were the biscuits you ate? Of the tea, was it pale or brown, is there sugar in that tea, do they give you the sugar as you are accustomed, in lumps or spoons from basins, and do they place it there for you or do you yourself take what you suppose you need? Of the singing: is there piano or other instrument to accompany it? She knows nothing, Muriel thinks with contempt. She makes her face frozen up.
“Oh, you are stonewalling again,” Evelyn says furiously. That night when she enters her room she will find it almost festal, the pieces of the torn envelopes littering the carpet and sibilating in the draughts, like confetti.
Department of Social Services
3rd May 1974
Dear Mrs. Axon,
This is to advise you that the Daycare Sessions attended by Miss Axon will be temporarily suspended for a short period only, due to the demolition of the premises in Calderwell Road, from the Thursday after next. However our sessions are to be resumed at a much better equipped centre at The Hollies, Vernon Road, and you will be advised presently of the new arrangements for transport and etc. If you have any enquiries please contact Miss J. Smith at the address above or telephone.
Social Work Assistant
p.p. Director of Social Services
If they had not been pushing her about that morning, if they had not been trying to do her bodily injury, she would not have smashed the plantpot or found the letter underneath, in the bottom of the basket.
This is old, she said to herself. It has been here for some time. This was May, it is now late June, therefore certainly there have been Thursdays when…there was time unaccounted for. Yet time in the house was moving now at its own speed, in fits and starts. Food decayed on the plates, insects bred in the dark. The place was more and more crowded. Useless to try to talk to Muriel, to ask her for some account of the letter. Muriel rarely spoke now; it was like going back to her childhood. More and more, when Evelyn was in a room with her daughter, she felt as if no one was there.
Department of Social Services
3rd July 1974
Dear Mrs. Axon,
Mrs. J. Smith visited your home on behalf of the Department last Friday, but was unable to gain admittance. The reason for her visit was to ascertain whether Miss Axon had been informed of the new arrangements for attendance at The Hollies, since she has not been present at Daycare Sessions since they resumed. If Miss Axon is ill, perhaps you would be kind enough to notify us, and let us know when she will resume attendance. If you have any problems, please don’t hesitate to contact us.
Jacqueline Smith is now on maternity leave, and I shall be dealing with Miss Axon’s case in future.
At first, Evelyn had said, “Perhaps you need not go to this new place. They won’t want you. They are always saying there is pressure on their faculties.” She was afraid that they would call, and when the knocking did come, at an unaccustomed time of day, she had taken Muriel into the back room and made her sit quietly until the caller had gone away. That morning she had not felt like seeing anyone, combating them, dealing with anyone at all. It had been enough of a shock to find that morning’s trail of messages. First the little mirror that she had never seen before lying on the hall table, a tawdry affair of pink plastic, and the twist of papers round it with the insect capitals: LOOK AT YOUR FASE.
Then she had hunted them through the house: THERE ARE MANY PEOPLE IN THIS PLASE and YOU ARE PUTING IN MY PLASE and SHE SHALL BE PUT IN HER PLASE and, last of all, ANOTHER IS IN HER PLASE.
The day she received the second letter from the Welfare had been much calmer. There had been no messages lately, no buffetings on the landing and stairs, no thefts of her property. It had been Muriel’s problem that was uppermost in her mind; or Muriel’s condition rather. She strove to keep it in perspective. The invention and ingenuity of the parallel world had amazed her in recent months, its many and new manifestations, the closeness of its stinking breath on her neck. Periods of calm followed by new alarms, the torturing of Muriel, the closing off to both of them, permanently now, of certain parts of the house. In the circumstances, Muriel’s pregnancy could only be felt as a lesser shock.
“Both mad, if you ask me,” Florence Sidney was saying. “You might as well try to fly through the window as help either of them.”
She was standing by the window, which had perhaps helped to indicate the improbability to her mind; she was looking out at her nephew and her nieces, playing among the windfalls in the disarrayed late summer garden. “I haven’t seen Muriel for—” She turned her head. It was painfully evident that her sister-in-law was not listening to her. Sylvia was launched on a series of questions.
“And may I ask what you intend to do with yourself now?”
“Do now? Well.” The questions seemed to make no sense. What does anyone do now?
“With your life. With the rest of your life. That’s what I’m talking about, Florence.”
“Well, I’ll do the same as everybody,” Florence said. Limp on, eyes front, towards the grave.
“I mean, it’s no kind of life, is it? For anybody?”
“What had you in mind?”
“You want to put the past behind you. Get out and live a bit. You want to join some Societies. Get yourself a new girdle.”
Florence didn’t speak. She came away from the window; she never admitted it, but the antics and the shrieking of the children got on her nerves.
“The trouble with you is that you don’t make the best of yourself,” Sylvia said. “I’m not running you down, I’m only telling you out of the kindness of my heart. You’re no beauty queen, but you could do yourself up.”
“What for?” Florence sat down by the tea-trolley.
“For the fellers,” Sylvia said conspiratorially.
“I don’t know any fellows.”
“Well, and you never will, will you, if you keep mouldering in the house? What’s stopping you now? Your mother’s been put away, you don’t have to stop in and mind her anymore.”
“I wish you would not use that expression,” Florence said. Any of those expressions really; redolent of your time at the cooked meats factory. Sylvia laughed; she patted her hair, puffed out and lacquered in a style that had passed its apogee some years before. It was impossible to imagine her without this hairstyle; like a helmet, it covered her weakest point, the head. She was, Florence thought, a strange blend of savage self-assertion and abject dependence; pathetic and ferocious by turns. Florence knew so little of the married women of her generation that she imagined Sylvia to be unusual.
“It is a home for the elderly,” Florence said. “A sanctuary for the twilight years.”
“Get away,” Sylvia said. “Your mother’s off her rocker. Colin doesn’t keep any secrets from me.”
“Really?” Florence said. “By the nature of a secret, you would not know if he did.”
“You’ve room to talk, about the folks round the corner.”
“It wasn’t idle gossip. I haven’t seen them for some time. They are old neighbours, though they are not people whom we have known. I am concerned.”
Sylvia yawned, leaning back and allowing her fingers a token flutter before her mouth.
“You want to be concerned with yourself. I’m telling you. Smarten yourself up and get out a bit. The trouble with this family, it’s too introvert.”
“Oh, is that Colin’s trouble?” Florence asked.
“Well, he was introvert.”
“But you remedied it.”
“What kind of a life is that?” Sylvia asked. “I had other offers. I could have got married four times over.”
“That might have been unwise,” Florence said gently. “You know, you’ve changed, Sylvia. You will have your opinions now. I remember when Colin first brought you home.”
Sylvia blushed furiously. So she remembers too, Florence thought. Father had been alive, of course, quite hale and hearty. Mrs. Sidney wore a new Crimplene suit in powder blue with bracelet-length sleeves. She herself put on a beige jersey wool. There were fruit scones and a Victoria sandwich. Mother’s gimlet eyes spotted a traycloth insufficiently starched, and (although often they were not starched at all) she whisked it off. As she waited to meet the girl her son intended to marry, one pointed finger rubbed and rubbed at a spot on the wooden arm of her chair. It had been summer, a day very like this. Sylvia’s substantial black brassiere had shown clearly under her short cotton frock, and she had emitted great guffaws of nervous laughter whenever she was addressed. Father had been exquisitely civil. Colin had not known where to look. Florence and her mother had agreed later that, seeing her in the setting he was used to, Colin would be sure to see that he was making a mistake. But he hadn’t.
“I let your blasted mother put on me,” Sylvia said. “I’d know better now.” From upstairs came the sound of the lavatory flushing.
“Unfortunately it isn’t given to any of us to have our opportunities over again. Or what would you do if you could? Perhaps since you are now so dissatisfied with your life, you ought to have looked the other way when you saw Colin on the tram.”
“I can assure you,” Sylvia said, “that I didn’t meet Colin on any tram.”
“It would be nothing to be ashamed of if you had.”
“I assure you.”
“She couldn’t have,” said Colin, coming in. “It’s not possible.”
“I understood you met on a tram. I’m not saying anything against it.”
“Couldn’t have been on a tram,” Colin said. “I’m not saying we wouldn’t have been on a tram, either Sylvia or myself, but I happen to recall that the trams had stopped running some years previously. It was on the railway station that we met.”
“I knew public transport was involved somewhere,” Florence said.
“And what have you got against it?”
Florence smiled faintly. “Nothing.”
“Only I was going to say, your father made his living out of it, didn’t he, people falling off buses.”
“Yes, my love,” Colin said. “We are all staunch supporters of public transport in this house. Perhaps that’s why you caught my eye. You so clearly approved of it too.”
“You were a while,” Sylvia observed, “in the toilet.”
“Allow me a few moments’ privacy,” Colin said. “Confine your interest to the children’s bowel movements, not mine.”
“The topic of romance on trams has worn thin,” Florence said. “I see that we must have something else. Sylvia sees it too.”
Defiantly, Colin took out a cigarette and lit it. Love is blind, Florence thought: for a year or two.
“Unhygienic habit,” Sylvia said. “I gave it up when I was pregnant with Suzanne. I read it in a magazine. Smoking and Pregnancy.”
“Sylvia takes magazines devoted to housewifery,” Florence said. “Does she have recipes making use of frozen chicken which are both tasty and economical?”
“I know what you eat,” Sylvia said. “Bread and jam.”
“In its place,” Florence murmured.
“Tea,” said Colin.
“I know. And tomato sandwiches. I don’t think Colin had ever had a proper meal in his life until we got married.” She got up. “We’ll be off, Florence.” She went out through the kitchen to the back door. “Come on, you lot, we’re off.”
An argument ensued. Florence could hear the protests of the children overridden by Sylvia’s firm flat voice. It made her nervous. If they wanted to stay, it probably meant that they were engaged in some form of covert vandalism. “The roses,” she said nervously.
“Roses,” Colin put his head in his hands. “You ought to get some cabbages in. The cost of living being what it is.”
“Oh, I couldn’t. They were Father’s roses.”
“Grub them up,” Colin said. “That’s it. Grub them up.” He groaned quietly, then stood up, stretching himself. He was a man on poor terms with his clothes—his shirt always coming out of his waistband, his trousers shooting up around his calves as he sat; it was difficult not to see this as a symptom of a more general failure of control. He had once been remarkably good-looking, but now his looks had faded, as if his features were doubtful of their application in his current circumstances. His habitual expression was one of anxious astonishment, like that of a man who has been stopped in the street by a policeman and finds he has forgotten his name. “Where’s my pullover?” he said, looking about. He hauled it over his head and smoothed his thinning fair hair.
“You’re ageing, Colin,” Florence said in a low voice.
“Ah well. At my back I always hear time’s wingèd chariot etc. It’s been ten years you know, me and Sylvia. I should have thought the amusement would have palled. You hurt her, you know. She cries. She isn’t entirely the jolly factory lass you take her to be.”
“Come on, Colin.” Sylvia was standing in the doorway holding the hands of her two younger children. “Thank you very much, Florence. Say thank you to your Auntie for the nice tea.”
Freeing their hands, pushing past Florence, the children whooped out to the car. Sylvia followed them.
“I wanted your opinion,” Florence said. “About Mrs. Axon and her daughter.”
“I have no opinion,” Colin said. “Mrs. Axon has lived around the corner for as long as I can remember without having done anything to warrant my having an opinion on her.” His shirt had come out again; he was stuffing it back, hauling at his belt. “You know, Florence, Sylvia’s quite right. You’ve got to make a life of your own.”
Outside, Sylvia wound the car window down. “Colin, are you coming?”
“Anon, good Sylvia, anon. You see, the problem is, you were geared up to years of self-sacrifice, looking after Mother. Now all that’s aborted…well, you know what I mean. Eh, old girl? Pop over next Sunday.” A peck on the cheek. She stood in the porch watching Sylvia wind the window up again. There was something incongruously patrician about Sylvia’s averted profile, her mouth was set, her chin sagging. Colin hunched himself into the driver’s seat.
“It’s a flaming bloodsport,” Sylvia said.
“Sorry, love.” On a sudden whim Colin transferred his hand from the knob of the gearstick to her knee. He patted it. “You mustn’t let her get you down. She’s lonely, you know.”
Sylvia sniffed. “Come on, let’s get home.”
Colin steered along Buckingham Avenue with his usual caution. The little saloon forced him to drive with his arms stiffly extended, as if he were fending off the week ahead.
“You were getting at me,” she said.
“Well, just a bit.”
“Florence sets you off.”
“I said I’m sorry. Can we have a bit of peace? I said,” he raised his voice for the children in the back, “can we have a bit of peace?”
The most difficult thing was not knowing: how many months. Evelyn took down the calendar and pored over it. You could not be positive that the missing Thursdays were implicated. That would be a jump altogether too far ahead.
“Do you want to go to the doctor?” she said. “It would cost.”
Muriel said that it was free now.
“Free? Nothing’s free. What sort of stupid talk is that?”
She didn’t know what was going on in the world, Muriel said craftily. Craftily, because it was Muriel’s scheme to have her inadequacy prick her, so that she would buy a television set. Evelyn wouldn’t have one in the house, not while she was alive; and after her death she expected to exercise some sway. After all, they hadn’t missed the radio when it had broken down, and they didn’t feel the lack of newspapers. Soon after the last war Muriel had been sent with the month’s money to the newsagent’s. It had been wrapped up in a piece of paper, and she had lost it. Evelyn couldn’t see her way to finding the money twice over. So the shop had stopped delivering. Evelyn had never read them anyway. All the news was the same, and all bogus. The papers took no cognizance of the other world, except when they found some cheap talk of poltergeists or table-turning to fill the pages up.
“And where do you go?” she demanded of Muriel. “Where do you go, that you know so much?”
Muriel didn’t answer that question. Either Evelyn knew where she had been, and was mocking her, or she did not; in which case, her powers were on the wane, the long battle was drawing to an end. They tell you what’s free at the Class, Muriel said. They tell you what you can get for nothing.
It was strongly in Evelyn’s mind now that it must be someone from the class who was the father of Muriel’s child. But it was no use bothering Muriel about it, no use trying to get anything out of her. It did cross her mind that something malign in the house might be responsible for the girl’s condition; but she had to admit that in her extensive experience she had not heard of such a thing. There were unnatural unions, but did they come to fruition? Muriel looked as if she would come to fruition, quite soon. No, surely her first thought was right. The lax Welfare had turned their backs. Some half-wit had prevailed on a quarter-wit. Only one thing she would have liked to find out; was he in some way deformed?
Social Services Department
Luther King House
Tel: 51212 Ext. 27
10th October 1974
Dear Mrs. Axon,
I must apologise for the delay in contacting you, but Miss Axon’s file was mislaid when the Department moved to new offices recently, and has only just come to hand.
As Miss Axon has not attended our Daycare Sessions since the move to The Hollies, we are anxious to know whether any difficulty has arisen. Miss Taft of this Department wrote to you on July 3rd, but you may perhaps have overlooked this letter. If it is convenient for you, I will call at your home on October 15th at about 3 P.M., and I will hope to see Miss Axon then and have a chat with her. If this date is not convenient perhaps you would kindly telephone me at the number above.
Miss Taft is now attending a course, and as she will be away for six months Miss Axon’s case has been handed over to me. I hope to be able to help you with any problems that arise.
Copyright © 1985 by Hilary Mantel. All rights reserved.
Posted January 8, 2011
No text was provided for this review.
Posted November 17, 2012
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Posted October 14, 2011
No text was provided for this review.