The Barnes & Noble Review
Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw of Susie Steiner's Missing, Presumed is thirty-nine years old, single, and doggedly seeking love. The last is not her defining characteristic, but it is her most unfortunate one. ("Two years of Internet dating. It's fair to say they haven't flown by.") Long description: Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw of Susie Steiner's Missing, Presumed is thirty-nine years old, single, and doggedly seeking love. The last is not her defining characteristic, but it is her most unfortunate one. ("Two years of Internet dating. It's fair to say they haven't flown by.") When we meet her, she is enduring dinner at a restaurant with a man "whose name might be Brian but equally be Keith." By any name he is a bore and a prig, his outstanding features being his interest in the details of his own job and his extreme punctiliousness in dividing the bill: He did not, he points out, have any wine. To those of us who are gobblers of British crime novels, Manon is a familiar type, built along the lines of Ian Rankin's Siobhan Clarke and Kate Atkinson's Tracy Waterhouse: bad diet, regrettable clothes, stubborn, perceptive, clear-headed, and hardnosed with a well-concealed heart. More particularly, Manon is a member of the Cambridgeshire Constabulary, and the case that brings her to our notice, in this the first volume of what is projected to be a series, is that of a missing woman.
Returning one Sunday night to the little worker's cottage he shares with his girlfriend, Edith Hind, Will Carter finds the door open and the lights on. Edith's phone, keys, and car are there, and also some spatters of blood -- but no Edith. He calls the police, and matters quickly become of the highest priority when it turns out that the missing woman, a graduate student at Cambridge University, is the daughter of Sir Ian Hind and his wife, Miriam. Sir Ian is a surgeon, among whose patients are members of the royal family. Beyond that, he is great friends with the home secretary and not at all reluctant to throw his weight around. "From now on," Manon's superior officer tells her sardonically, "we treat Sir Bufton Tufton downstairs with the utterly slavish deference he so richly deserves."
As the investigation proceeds, a picture of Edith begins to emerge, and the more we learn about her, the more tiresome she strikes us as being. A harsh critic of the modern world, a would-be savior of the planet, and an advocate of "living truthfully," she is supported by her parents with a handsome monthly allowance. She refuses to have a bank account, declaring that "someone has to break with the status quo," and is in favor of banning cars -- though she has an electric one herself. In the course of questioning Edith's friends and acquaintances, the police learn that she has treated a close friend, Helena, with sarcastic contempt, then initiated a sexual relationship with her, leaving the other woman confused, ashamed, and yearning. Not content with that, she boasted of the affair. Soon enough, the media learn of the matter, reporting it with lurid extravagance. The consequence is disastrous.
Additional strands weave their way in: A notorious sexual predator seems to have had some sort of contact with Edith and, more dramatically, the drowned body of a young man, a petty criminal, is discovered in the nearby River Ouse. Is there a connection? Does the dead man's younger brother, whom he looked after, hold a clue? And what will become of this child now that his brother is gone?
The story is told from three main points of view, with glimpses from a couple of others. Manon's dominates, followed by that of Edith's mother, Miriam, a trained physician who has wound up giving over much of her life to being a wife and a mother to two children. We also see matters as Detective Constable Davy Walker sees them. He is a cheerful, compassionate young man who works with troubled children in his off hours. His girlfriend, Chloe, on the other hand, is a triumph of passive aggression, a killjoy and a source of exquisitely bleak comedy.
The novel's plot is serviceable, possessing an appropriate roster of possible culprits and a wide array of laptops, cell phones, and CCTVs through which to rummage; still, the book's real strength lies in its characters: their personalities, their emotions, and their little ways. "Sir Bufton Tufton" is unable to disguise his contempt for ordinary people; Miriam is shown perceptively in both her grief and her ambivalence about her life's trajectory; Helena's wretchedness over incidents she herself didn't understand is palpable, as is her agony over being exposed publicly. Kind, sweet Davy is a joy, and his god-awful girlfriend is a pearl beyond price. Finally, Manon is a fully developed, which is to say credibly flawed, human being, especially in her unregulated feelings toward intimacy. This is a most promising start to what, I hope, will be a substantial series.
Katherine A. Powers reviews books widely and has been a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing from the National Book Critics Circle. She is the editor of Suitable Accommodations: An Autobiographical Story of Family Life: The Letters of J. F. Powers, 1942–1963. EAN: 9780465082926 Reviewer: Jollimore, Troy Short description: Friendship, opines the odious gangster Johnny Caspar in the Coen brothers' classic gangster film Miller's Crossing, "is a mental state." The joke, of course, is that Caspar, like nearly everyone else in the film -- the only exception being Gabriel Byrne's brooding loner, Tom Regan -- has no idea whatsoever what the nature of friendship is. Long description: Friendship, opines the odious gangster Johnny Caspar in the Coen brothers' classic gangster film Miller's Crossing, "is a mental state." The joke, of course, is that Caspar, like nearly everyone else in the film -- the only exception being Gabriel Byrne's brooding loner, Tom Regan -- has no idea whatsoever what the nature of friendship is. In his mind it is merely a reciprocal business arrangement, and the worst sort of business at that: you scratch my back, I'll scratch yours -- and when it's convenient to do so, I'll stick a knife in your back instead. There is little affection and no love in Caspar's conception of friendship; it is a conception more suitable for jackals than humans. It is also, sadly, a conception that is becoming increasingly prominent in modern political and economic life, and, it is difficult to avoid feeling, in the culture as a whole.
So is friendship, then, "a mental state'? Yes; but as Alexander Nehamas's charming and perceptive On Friendship reminds us, it is also a great deal more than that. Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, has become my go-to guy when people ask me the question, "Why don't philosophers write about things that matter to human beings?" His first book was on Nietzsche -- it was and remains one of the best books on Nietzsche -- a thinker whose tendency to treat every idea as if it were a matter of life and death has always made him attractive to those who have repudiated the notion that philosophy should consist of abstract theorizing about arcane matters. Nietzsche was also, of course, a wonderful writer, explosively metaphoric, never dry or dull. Nehamas's more recent books range widely, delving into Foucault, Proust, and the ancient Greek philosophers and also investigating television and popular media, for which he has shown a somewhat surprising and admirable appreciation. In 2007 he published Only a Promise of Happiness: The Place of Beauty in a World of Art, a model for philosophers who want to reach beyond the confines of the narrowly academic audience, and On Friendship pursues that same vital goal.
Part of what interests Nehamas about friendship is how difficult it is to talk about it; and, more interestingly still, how difficult it is to talk meaningfully about our friends. Although we feel that we know our friends better than we know anyone, we seem quite unable to provide a complete or satisfying answer to the question of what it is we like about them. Every attempt to explain or justify the love we feel for a friend feels inconclusive, vague, and somewhat banal: it seems to miss the point. "I could tell you that I like [my friend] because he is kind, entertaining, or interesting, and so on," he writes, "but such attempts at explanation can only go so far. They are disappointingly vague and they explain much less than we might think." A key text, here, is the Essays of Michel de Montaigne, which include an essay on friendship dedicated to Montaigne's friend étienne de la Boétie:
It is a strange essay and also, apparently, a failure. It hardly touches La Boétie's life, character, and accomplishments, as we might naturally have expected, and nowhere else in the Essays do we find a concrete picture of the man. Never at a loss for words on any subject, Montaigne seems to have almost nothing to say about the person who was by far the most important in his life. What explains this? Part of what one senses, in reading Montaigne's "On Friendship," is the author's deep ambivalence about treating the subject in an essay at all; as if to write in too much detail about one's friend risks violating the intimacy that binds friends together. But Nehamas is more interested in a different idea: that a friendship, by its very nature, can never be adequately captured in the general terms provided by language, in part because it is essential to the relation that we cannot, in advance, say what is or what it will bring us. Indeed, the publication history of the Essays shows Montaigne struggling with the question of how to represent his friend. He had first intended to include a treatise by La Boétie, so that his readers could appreciate his genius for themselves. For political reasons -- but also, in Nehamas's view, because he had come to see this as a bad strategy (what if the essay did not strike his readers as forcefully as it had struck him?) -- he revised the plan, intending instead to include a selection of La Boétie's sonnets. But this idea, too, came to seem naïve and was dropped.
Ultimately Montaigne rejected the attempt to explain his friendship and instead left us with an essay that centers on the very impossibility of providing such an explanation -- the impossibility, that is, of capturing in general terms something as unique and singular as a particular love that connects two unique, particular individuals. "What Montaigne does emphasize, again and again, is the private nature of their relationship, a friendship that is theirs and theirs alone: it 'has no other model than itself, and can be compared only with itself.'" This leads to Montaigne's famous statement about La Boétie, which Nehamas calls "the most moving statement about friendship ever made": "If you press me to tell you why I loved him, I feel that this cannot be expressed except by answering: 'Because it was he, because it was I.' "
The point is not simply that human individuals are complex and unique, and therefore hard to describe. For Nehamas, friends, like other things we care deeply about, including works of art, are to be valued in part because their value, and the possibilities they open up for us, cannot be fully understood or predicted. A purely instrumental relationship -- say, my relationship with the mechanic who fixes my car -- will not involve love nor count as friendship, at least not as long as I know precisely what I am getting out of the relationship and am uninterested in anything beyond that. So long as that remains the case, I will regard "my" mechanic as essentially replaceable; if, one day, he stays home and his equally competent partner shows up to replace my fan belt, I have suffered no loss. "In an impersonal relationship all that matters is how well the job is done." And because this is all that matters, the value of instrumental relationships can be fully captured in language; there is no mysterious further mysterious element that resists articulation. A relationship becomes personal -- and the difficulty Montaigne experienced with respect to his friend arises -- precisely at the point when one begins to value, not just the particular and definable salutary consequences of an arrangement reached with a certain other person but the person herself, who possesses virtues one has not yet discerned and who will open up possibilities one cannot as yet predict. And this is what is crucial: at this point, when one comes to like a person for herself, it is no longer clear just what one expects or hopes for from the relationship. Following in Montaigne's footsteps, Nehamas explores the point with reference to one of his own friends:
"And why do you like him?" . . . Although I had no problem with [this] question before, once my relationship with Tomas became personal, I no longer know how to answer it. Once I came to like Tomas himself and not just what he could do for me, I could no longer explain exactly why that was so . . . When our relationship is entirely instrumental, I know exactly what I want from you in advance, and anyone who can provide it for me will do . . . When our relationship, though, is not instrumental, when love is involved, I actually don't know what I want from you, and it isn't clear which features of yours account for my love. This, according to Nehamas, explains the deep power of friendship: to be someone's friend is to commit oneself to a kind of openness to being moved and altered in ways one cannot predict and so cannot control:
When I become your friend, I don't take my desires for granted. I submit myself to you, and I am willing to want new things, to acquire new desires, perhaps even to adopt new values as a result of our relationship. I can't know in advance what any of these will be, especially since you, too, are going to change through our friendship in ways neither one of us can anticipate. Our friendship promises -- and continues to promise, as long as it lasts -- a better future, but all that I can know about that future is that I can't approach it with anyone but you. This account of friendship's transformative power is a useful and insightful corrective to an all-too-influential picture of human agency that pictures human beings as knowledgeable, rational agents in possession of fixed desires and goals, whose behavior consists mostly in seeking to satisfy those desires and achieve those goals in the most efficient way possible. Things are, in fact, far more complex than this, and the fact that they are is to be celebrated. In a world in which we always knew what we were doing -- if we could even imagine such a thing -- life would be static and stagnant, a bland, repetitive game played according to rigid, unalterable rules.
The account of friendship contained in On Friendship bears significant similarity to the account of beauty and art offered in Only a Promise of Happiness. This is no accident, for Nehamas frequently draws comparisons between our relations to the people we love and our relations to the things, particularly artworks, that we love. "Our reactions to art can model our friendships. Most centrally, of course, we love both art and our friends, and in the same way," he writes. In a fascinating discussion of Yasmina Reza's play Art -- a play in which three friends find themselves at odds when one purchases an expensive minimalist painting -- he notes that "After the fight, Marc confesses that what has really hurt him is that he feels that a white painting has replaced him in Serge's affections (a reminder that friends and works of art can play similar roles in our lives)." Nehamas sees Art as dramatizing the way in which our relationships with other persons (and with art!) involve the constant interpretation and re-interpretation of the people about whom we care, the constant posing and re-posing of the question, Who is this person, anyway? (Which leads irresistibly to the fundamental question of philosophy: Who am I?) As he points out, the three friends in the play cannot even agree on what the painting Serge has purchased looks like; the painting, as he says, manifests an "indeterminacy" that is metaphoric for the relations between the characters, and for the uncertainty which, while a necessary element of genuine friendship, can under the wrong circumstances turn quickly to hostility and distrust.
His consideration of Art also provides Nehamas with the opportunity to advance the surprising claim that, of the various art forms, theater is best suited to take friendship as its subject. This is because, in his view, friendship depends on and is manifested in small actions and gestures that need to be seen (a description won't do, since we might disagree on the correct interpretation -- so the novel is out) and that can only be understood as acts of friendship within the context of a sequence of actions that take place over time (so painting, too, is out -- as Nehamas points out, "no gesture, look, or bodily disposition, no attitude, feeling, or emotion, no action and no situation is associated with friendship firmly enough to make its representation a matter for the eye"):
Friendship is an embodied relationship, and its depictions require embodiment as well: they must include the looks, the gestures, the tones of voice, and the bodily dispositions that are essential to textured communication and on which so much of our understanding of our intimates is based. But no description of looks, gestures and tones of voice can ever be complete, and so no description can communicate whether these belong to can act of friendship or not. Many aspects of the behavior of friends are irreducibly visual, and that is another reason that friendship is a difficult subject for narrative, to which description is essential. But, as we have seen, it is inherently temporal, and that makes friendship a subject unsuitable to painting. Looks, gestures, tones of voice, and bodily dispositions are the stuff of drama, which is, accordingly, the medium in which friendship is best represented. If, like me, you find such claims both surprising and, on reflection, surprisingly plausible, you may find yourself wondering about their implications for the increasingly common phenomenon of technologically mediated friendships. More and more people claim to have close friends, and in some cases lovers, with whom they communicate mostly or even entirely online. Can such relationships be genuine friendships if, as Nehamas says, many elements of friendship are "irreducibly visual"? It could be suggested, of course, that such technologies as Skype and FaceTime provide us with visual access to physically distant friends, but I have doubts about this; the technology is not yet at the point where Skypeing with a friend is anything like talking to one face to face, and I would not be at all surprised if Nehamas, confronted with the question, were to insist that a visual connection of this sort would still not really be enough. There is a reason, I suspect, that Nehamas focuses on theater, an art form in which the performers are not only visible to the audience but physically present. Some will object that this overemphasizes the physical (and I am not certain that Nehamas would disagree); some, too, will complain that Nehamas's account over-emphasizes the visual. One must be careful, at any rate, not to overstate the case: Nehamas does not himself explicitly claim that the "irreducibly visual" aspects of friendship are necessary, in the sense that a friendship could not exist without them, and there are reasons to resist this view. Blind people, after all, are surely capable of friendship! (For that matter, one might ask: what does Nehamas's view imply about the possibility of purely epistolary relationships?)
A book as rich and provocative as this one is bound to open up as many questions as it answers, and to say that it does so is no criticism; it is, indeed, a compliment. Friendship is, after all, a complex phenomenon. It is also -- as Nehamas reminds us by highlighting the lack of knowledge and control we manifest in entering into friendships -- a potentially dangerous one. "A new friendship always brings with it the prospect of serious and unpredictable change," and there is no guarantee that the change it brings will take the form of moral improvement:
Among the most remarkable features of friendship is that even a good friendship, valuable as it is, can involve base, even abhorrent behavior: friendship transformed Achilles into a raging beast, and Pylades helped Orestes murder his own mother. And sometimes immoral behavior can actually provoke our admiration: that's what we feel for Silien, the hero of Jean-Pierre Melville's stunning film Le Doulos (1962), a gangster who lies, cheats, beats, kills, and eventually dies tragically in what turns out to have been all along a vain effort to save his only friend in the world. That Silien is capable of such dedication to another person shows how far he is from the pathologically self-interested Jonny Caspar. Aristotle tells us that a friend is "another self," but the morally stunted gangsters of Miller's Crossing seem to be capable of friendship only with themselves. Still, neither Silien nor Caspar are straightforwardly commendable from a moral point of view; if there is any coincidence between the virtues of friendship and those of morality, it is a highly imperfect one. It is to Nehamas's credit that he recognizes and forces us to contemplate the fact that friendship, which in our culture is all too often the subject of easy praise as a simple, unadulterated good, reveals itself on closer inspection to be a complex, mysterious, and troubling phenomenon. And also, of course, a fundamental one: no matter how ambivalent one might feel about it -- and I experienced many moments of uncertainty and ambivalence while reading this wise, admirable, and highly pleasurable book -- I, for one, must confess that I can't imagine human life without it.
Troy Jollimore is Associate Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Chico. His most recent books are Love's Vision and At Lake Scugog: Poems, both from Princeton University Press.
The New York Times Book Review - Alida Becker
…Manon is portrayed with an irresistible blend of sympathy and snark. By the time she hits bottom, professionally and privately, we're entirely caught up in her story. That's partly because the story of what happened to Edith, slowly revealed through tantalizing, frustrating clues, is overshadowed by the stories of the people who've been left behind. Shifting her narrative's point of view, Steiner moves back and forth between Manon and one of her younger colleagues; Edith's emotionally fragile best friend; and Edith's mother, Lady Miriam Hind, a warm and insightful woman, not nearly as grand as her title…would suggest. In some ways, Miriam is the true heroine of Missing, Presumed, and her observations are among the most affecting in a novel that ends up being as much about loneliness and longing as it is about the solving of a crime.
In this richly plotted police procedural from British author Steiner (Homecoming), Edith Hind, a 24-year-old Cambridge graduate student, goes missing, leaving behind only a smear of blood and signs of a struggle at the flat she shares with her boyfriend. The pressure is on Det. Sgt. Manon Bradshaw, who excels at her job but has suffered a string of dreary Internet dates, and the rest of the Cambridgeshire Major Incident Team, since Edith’s father is Sir Ian Hind, physician to the royal family. Steiner slips smoothly among narrators, shifting from Manon’s ever-widening investigation to characters who are directly affected by Edith’s disappearance. As leads dry up and days missing increase, every scrap of case information is fodder for the press, who pounce on the more salacious aspects of Edith’s personal life, even as Manon and the team discover that the answers might be linked to something much more serious. A vein of dark humor pulses beneath this compelling whodunit with an appealing, complicated heroine at its center. Agent: Eleanor Jackson, Dunow, Carlson & Lerner. (June)
A new and complex police heroine tries to solve a high-profile missing persons case while seeking domestic fulfillment in Cambridge. Thirty-nine and single, DS Manon Bradshaw is feeling the burn of loneliness. As she pursues dead-end date after dead-end date, her personal life seems a complete disaster, but her professional interest and energy are piqued when the beautiful graduate-student daughter of a famous physician goes missing, apparently the victim of foul play. As the investigation into free-spirited Edith Hind's disappearance uncovers no strong leads, Manon finds herself drawn to two unconventional males: one, a possible romantic partner, plays a tangential role in the investigation when he finds a body; the other, a young boy with a tragic home life, mourns the death of his brother, who also might have ties to Edith or her family. As Manon draws nearer to the truth about Edith, aided by her idealistic partner, Davy, and their team of homicide detectives, she also has to face the fact that she might not be destined to follow the traditional domestic model. Though it follows all the typical twists and turns of a modern police procedural, this novel stands out from the pack in two significant ways: first of all, in the solution, which reflects a sophisticated commentary on today's news stories about how prejudices about race and privilege play out in our justice system; and second, in the wounded, compassionate, human character of Manon. Her struggles to define love and family at a time when both are open to interpretation make for a highly charismatic and engaging story. Hopefully, this is just the first adventure of many Steiner (Homecoming, 2013) will write for DS Bradshaw and her team.
From the Publisher
“[A] smart, stylish novel.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Nuanced suspense that’s perfect for Kate Atkinson fans.”—People
“[A] wonderfully written novel . . . [Susie] Steiner tells her well-populated and surprise-filled story in the present tense and from five different points of view, including that of the missing student’s mother. The author gets inside the minds and lives of her book’s socially disparate personalities with the grace of a novelist of manners, even as she pulls tight the strands of one of the most ambitious police procedurals of the year. Detective Bradshaw’s biting wit is a bonus.”—The Wall Street Journal
“You might come to Missing, Presumed for the police procedural; you’ll stay for the layered, authentic characters that Steiner brings to life.”—Bethanne Patrick, NPR
“Missing, Presumed has future BBC miniseries written all over it.”—Redbook
“Drenched in character and setting, with pinpoint detail that breathes life and color into every sentence.”—The News & Observer
“A new and complex police heroine . . . a highly charismatic and engaging story.”—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“This combination of police procedural and an unfolding family drama that continuously twists and turns will work well for fans of Kate Atkinson and Tana French.”—Booklist
“Dazzling . . . Missing, Presumed is an extraordinarily assured police procedural in the tradition of Ruth Rendell and Elizabeth George—the surprises continue to the last page as Susie Steiner blasts expectations and assumptions to dig deep into questions of trust, betrayal, class, and family bonds.”—Joseph Finder, author of The Fixer
“A vein of dark humor pulses beneath this compelling whodunit with an appealing, complicated heroine at its center.”—Publishers Weekly
“Where Steiner excels is in the depth and clarity with which she depicts her characters. . . . It all adds up to a world that feels much bigger than the novel in which it is contained.”—The Guardian
“Missing, Presumed is fast-paced, twisty and full of realistic characters and scenarios. With any luck Detective Bradshaw will be back in future instalments, since she is a quirky, likable character, capable of carrying a series.”—Vancouver Sun
“Detective Sergeant Manon Bradshaw is appealing, multifaceted, and unforgettable. She charges through Missing, Presumed with twin goals—to find the body, and to find durable love. The resolution of this gripping novel astonishes, and leaves a long afterglow.”—Amity Gaige, author of Schroder
“Manon Bradshaw is a messed-up, big-hearted detective in the best tradition.”—Harriet Lane, author of Her
“Missing, Presumed hits the sweet spot between literary and crime fiction. The plot is thrilling, with a twist that knocked me sideways, swiftly followed by another one that knocked me back in the other direction. More than that, the characters became dear friends of mine over the course of the book. I’m already looking forward to the next one.”—Erin Kelly, author of Broadchurch
“Missing, Presumed is a gripping, suspenseful, gratifyingly unpredictable detective novel, with enough plot twists to satisfy fans of the genre. But it’s also a beautifully written reflection on loneliness, and that’s what will stay with you long after you’ve turned the last page. I hope we’ll see more of Susie Steiner’s prickly, all-too-human DS Manon Bradshaw!”—Maggie Mitchell, author of Pretty Is
“Within a chapter, DS Manon Bradshaw announces herself as a detective to follow through books and books to come. Here’s a treat for those who love their crime fiction rich in psychology, beautifully written, and laced with dark humor. Dive in.”—Lucie Whitehouse, author of Before We Met
“A complex, gripping read . . . The mystery behind Edith Hind’s disappearance is filled to the hilt with provocative breadcrumbs, making for a page-turning literary crime novel that is nicely balanced by the all-too-relatable human foibles of lonely DS Manon Bradshaw.”—Suzanne Rindell, author of The Other Typist
“There is a secret pulsing at the heart of this police procedural–slash–family thriller, and it isn’t only the truth about where beautiful young Edith Hind has gone. In heroine Manon Bradshaw, readers will find a character so real she bleeds. As Manon exposes the mystery behind Edith’s disappearance, she also reveals the truth about her own loneliness and life. Best of all, perhaps, in both women’s redemption, we discover the potential for our own.”—Jenny Milchman, author of Cover of Snow
Read an Excerpt
December 17, 2010
She can feel hope ebbing, like the Christmas lights on fade in Pound Saver. Manon tells herself to focus on the man sitting opposite, whose name might be Brian but could equally be Keith, who is crossing his legs and his foot bangs her shin just where the bone is nearest the surface. She reaches down to rub it but he’s oblivious.
“Sensitive,” his profile had said, along with an interest in military aircraft. She wonders now what on earth she was thinking when she arranged it, but then compatibility seemed no marker for anything. The last date with a town planner scored 78 percent—she’d harbored such hopes; he even liked Thomas Hardy—yet Manon spent the evening flinching each time his spittle landed on her face, which was remarkably often.
Two years of Internet dating. It’s fair to say they haven’t flown by.
He’s turned his face so the light hits the thumbprints on his glasses: petroleum-purple eggs, the kind of oval spiral they dream of finding at a crime scene. He’s talking about his job with the Rivers Authority while she looks up gratefully to the waiter who is filling their wineglasses—well, her glass, because her companion isn’t drinking.
She’s endured far worse than this, of course, like the one she traveled all the way to London for. “Keep an open mind,” Bri had urged. “You don’t know where the man of your dreams might pop up.” He was tall and very thin and he stooped like an undertaker going up the escalator at Tate Modern—giving it his best Uriah Heep. Manon thought that escalator ride was never going to end, and when she finally got to the top, she turned without a word and came straight back down, leaving him standing at the summit, staring at her. She got on the first train out of King’s Cross, back to Huntingdon, as if fleeing the scent of decomposing flesh. Every officer on the Major Incident Team knew that smell, the way it stuck to your clothes.
This one—she’s looking at him now, whatever his name is, Darren or Barry—isn’t so much morbid as effacing. He is talking about newts; she’s vaguely aware of this. Now he’s raising his eyebrows—“Shopping trolleys!”—and she supposes he’s making a wry comment about how often they’re dumped in streams. She really must engage.
“So, one week till Christmas,” she says. “How are you spending it?”
He looks annoyed that she’s diverted him from the flow of his rivers. “I’ve a brother in Norwich,” he says. “I go to him. He’s got kids.” He seems momentarily disappointed and she likes him the more for it.
“Not an easy time, Christmas. When you’re on your own, I mean.”
“We have a pretty good time, me and Col, once we crack open the beers. We’re a right double act.”
Perhaps his name’s Terry, she thinks sadly. Too late to ask now. “Shall we get the bill?” He hasn’t even asked about her name—and most men do (“Manon, that’s a funny name. Is it Welsh?”)—but in a sense it’s a relief, the way he just plows on.
The waiter brings the bill and it lies lightly curled on a white saucer with two mint imperials.
“Shall we split it?” says Manon, throwing a card onto the saucer. He is sucking on a mint, looking at the bill.
“To be fair,” he says, “I didn’t have any wine. Here.” He shows her the items on the bill that were hers—carafe of red and a side salad.
“Yes, right, OK,” she says, while he gets out his phone and begins totting up. The windows are fogged and Manon peers at the misty halos of Huntingdon’s festive lights. It’ll be a cold walk home past the shuttered-up shops on the high street, the sad, beery air emanating from Cromwell’s, and out toward the river, its refreshing green scent and its movement a slithering in the darkness, to her flat, where she has left all the lights burning.
“Yours comes to twenty-three eighty-five. Mine’s only eleven pounds,” he says. “D’you want to check?”
Midnight, and Manon sits with her knees up on the window seat, looking down at the snowy street lit by orange streetlamps. Flakes float down on their leisurely journey, buffeting, tissue-light. The freezing draft coming in through the sash frame makes her hug her knees to her chest as she watches him—Frank? Bernard?—round the corner of her street and disappear.
When she’s sure he’s gone, she walks a circuit of the lounge, turning off the lamps. To give him credit, he was stopped short by her flat—“Whoa, this is where you live?”—but his interest was short-lived and he soon recommenced his monologue. Perhaps, now she comes to think of it, she slept with him to shut him up.
The walls of the lounge are Prussian blue. The shelving on which the television stands is fifties G Plan in walnut. Her sofa is a circular design in brown corduroy. Two olive-green velvet wing chairs sit to each side of it and beside one is a yellow-domed seventies floor lamp, which she has just switched off at the plug because the switch is busted. The décor is a homage to mid-century modern, like a film set, with every detail of a piece. The scene for a post-ironic East German comedy perhaps, or Abigail’s Party; a place absolutely bursting with taste of a charismatic kind, all of it chosen by the flat’s previous owners. Manon bought the lot—furniture, lamps, and all—together with the property itself, from a couple who were going abroad to “start afresh.” At least, that’s what the man had said. “We just want to shed, you know?” To which Manon replied, “Shed away. I’ll take the lot.” And his girlfriend looked around her, swallowing down her tears. She told Manon how she’d collected all of it, lovingly, on eBay. “Still, fresh start,” she said.
Manon makes her way to the bedroom, which at the point of sale was even more starkly dramatic: dark navy walls with white-painted floorboards and shutters; a whole bank of white wardrobes, handle-less and disappearing into themselves. You had to do a Marcel Marceau impression to discover the pressure points at which to open them.
The previous owners had a minimalist mattress on the floor and a disheveled white duvet. Under Manon’s tenure, however, this room has lost much of its allure: books stacked by the bed, covered with a film of dust; a cloudy glass of water; wires trailing the floor from her police radio to the plug, and among them gray fluff and human hair, coiling like DNA. Her motley collection of shoes makes opening the cupboards additionally tricky. She kicks at a discarded pair of pants on the floor, rolled about themselves like a croissant, throws off her dressing gown (100 percent polyester, keep away from fire and flame), and retrieves, from under the bedclothes in which he has incongruously lain, her flannelette nightie.
Up close he smelled musty. And vaguely sweet. But above all, foreign. Was this her experiment—bringing him close, out of the world of strangers? Was she trying him out? Or smelling him out, as if intimacy might transform him into something less ordinary? People who know her—well, Bryony mainly—disapprove of her emotional “immaturity,” but the fact is human beings are different up close. You find out more through smell and touch than any chat about newts or shopping trolleys. She becomes her mammalian self, using her senses to choose a mate. She’s read somewhere that smell is the most efficient way of selecting from the gene pool to ensure the best immune system in offspring. So she puts out on the first date! She’s a scientist at the mating frontline.
In her darker moments—and she can feel their approach even now—she wonders if she is simply filling an awkward gap in the conversation. Instead of a ghastly shuffling of feet and “Well, that was nice, but we should probably leave it there,” she forces the moment to its crisis. It’s like running yourself over to avoid shaking hands.
In the bathroom, she picks up her toothbrush and lays along it a slug of toothpaste, watching herself in the mirror as she brushes. Here is the flaw in her argument: the sex was pretty much a reflection of the night’s conversation—all newts and shopping trolleys and a definite lack of tumultuous waterfalls or even babbling brooks, if you wanted to pursue the waterways analogy.
She looks at the springy coils of her hair, bobbing ringlets, brown mostly but with the odd blond one poking out like a rogue pasta twirl—spit—unruly and energetic, as if she is some child in a playground, and discordant now—spit—that she is on the cusp of her forties. She can feel herself gliding into that invisible—gargle—phase of womanhood, alongside those pushing prams or pulling shopping wheelies. She is drawn to the wider fittings in Clarks, has begun to have knee trouble, and is disturbed to find that clipping her toenails leaves her vaguely out of puff. She wonders what other indignities aging will throw at her and how soon. A few centuries ago she’d be dead, having had eight children by the age of twenty-five. Nature doesn’t know what to do with a childless woman of thirty-nine, except throw her that fertility curveball—aches and pains combined with extra time, like some terrifying end to a high-stakes football match.
She wipes a blob of foam off her chin with a towel. Eventually, he asked about her name (her moment in the sun!) and she told him it meant “bitter” in Hebrew, and she lay back on the pillow, remembering how her mother had squeezed her secondary-school shoulders and told her how much she’d loved it, how “Manon” was her folly, much as her father objected. A Marmite name, you either loved it or loathed it, and her mother loved it, she said, because it was “all held down,” those “n”s like tent pegs in the ground.
There was silence, in which she supposed he wanted her to ask about his name, which she couldn’t really, because she wasn’t sure what it was. She could have said, “What about yours?” as a means of finding out, but by that point it seemed unnecessary. She had smelled him out and found him wanting. Her mind was set on how to get him out of her flat, which she did by saying, “Right, then, early start tomorrow,” and holding open her bedroom door.
She smooths out the pillow and duvet where he’s been and pushes her feet down under the covers, reaching out an arm from the bed to switch on the radio, with its sticker reminding her it remains “Property of Cambridgeshire Police.” A cumbersome bit of kit, and no one at detective sergeant rank is supposed to have one at home, but it is not a plaything. It is the method by which she overcomes insomnia. Some rely on the shipping forecast; Manon prefers low murmurings about road traffic accidents or drunken altercations outside Level 2 Nightclub on All Saints Passage, all of which she can safely ignore because they are far too lowly for the Major Incident Team.
“VB, VB, mobile unit to Northern Bypass, please; that’s the A141, junction with Main Street. UDAA.”
Unlawfully Driving Away an Automobile. Someone’s nicked some wheels. Off you pop, Plod. The voice begins to sound very far away as Manon’s eyelids grow heavy, the burbling of the radio merging into a pebbly blur behind her eyes. The clicks, switches, whirring, receivers picked up and put down, colleagues conferred with, buttons pressed to receive. To Manon, it is the sound of vigilance, this rapid response to hurt and misdeed. It is human kindness in action, protecting the good against the bad. She sleeps.
Miriam is washing up, looking out over the bleak winter garden—the lawn smooth as Christmas icing. She’d have liked a bigger garden, but this is about as good as it gets in Hampstead.
She’s thinking about Edith, her hands inside rubber gloves in the sink, washing up the Le Creuset after lunch’s monkfish stew. The pancetta has stuck around the edges and she is going at it with a scourer. She’s so lucky, she thinks, to have a girl, because girls look after you when you get old. Boys just leave home, eventually going to live cheek by jowl with their mothers-in-law.
And then she curses herself, because it goes against all her feminist principles—requiring her daughter, her clever Cambridge-educated daughter, to wipe her wrinkly old bottom and bring her meals and audiobooks, probably while juggling toddlers and some pathetic attempt at a career. Her own career hadn’t recovered from having the children, those three days a week at the GP surgery feeling like time-filling in between bouts of household management.
Feminism, she thinks, has a long way to go before men take on the detritus of family life—not the spectacular bread and butter pudding, brought out to “oohs” and “aahs” (which always has the whiff of Man makes pudding! Round of applause!), but ordering bin liners and making sure there are enough lightbulbs. When the children were little, Miriam felt as if she were being buried under sand drifts from the Sahara: music lessons, homework folders, kids’ parties, thank-you notes, fresh fruit, and meter readings. It silted up the corners of her mind until there was no space for anything else. Ian sidestepped it with strategic incompetence so that his mind remained free to focus on Important Things (such as work, or reading an interesting book). It was one of the biggest shocks of adult life—the injustice—and no one had warned her about it, certainly not her mother, who felt it was only right and proper that Miriam take on the more organizational tasks in life because she was “so good at them.” She’d better not think about it now, or she’ll get too angry.
She lifts the Le Creuset onto the white ceramic draining board, wondering why people rave about the things when they are almost un-lift-able and scratch everything they touch. Ian hasn’t made it home for lunch so she’s eaten the stew by herself, struggling to lift the damn heavy pot in order to pour the remains into a Tupperware box and struggling also not to feel hard done by. She’s alone so much these days, in part because when the sand drifts receded, along with the departure of the children, they left an excess of time, while Ian’s existence maintained its steady course, which was essentially Rushing About, Being Important. She has to fight, very often, not to take umbrage at the separations and also their converse, to retain some sense of herself in their togetherness. Wasn’t every marriage a negotiation about proximity?