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The house, like the party, was subsiding. It didn't lurch or tilt Titanically, crockery and silverware crashing to the floor, women in tight taffeta dresses flung screaming across the room; like the party, it wasn't a large-scale Hollywood affair. As yet the only evidence of its sinking was a crack, a long narrow wound in the sitting-room wall, and Agnes Day felt that it presaged a destiny altogether more menacing.
She stood at the foot of the stairs where a handful of stragglers, having not long ago heroically resisted the two o'clock exodus, now lingered with an air of having in some way been cheated. On the far side of the room, one or two people stood immobile in the landscape of bottles and ashtrays, overturned candles and shattered glass, of wine pools banked by little white hillocks of salt and fringed with crumpled cigarette packets, like contorted statues in an abstract sculpture park. She realised there was no one here she wanted to talk to, no one she could even bear talking to.
`The condemned man ate a hearty breakfast,' said Merlin cheerfully, passing her by as he trawled the room with a large black bin-liner.
Agnes headed for the stairs, where a candle was lying felled in a pool of its own wax on the carpet. Merlin and Nina had, rightly she now admitted, been opposed to her candle scheme; but the house had looked so lovely by candlelight, so aglow with anticipation and promise, that she had forced them to yield. Merlin had submitted gratifyingly swiftly. Nina, less pliant but always with a ready definition of democracy to hand, knew majorityrule when she saw it. They had seen it as a whim, Agnes knew; a flimsy, floating thing which scientists might examine under a microscope. But if that were what it was she was full of them, fiddled with terminal caprice. She toured her disease like a schizophrenic commuter, trudging back and forth between how things were and how she wanted them to be. The candles belonged to the latter world and it was a place she habitually visited alone. Roaming through the gloaming, she had almost been happy.
Agnes Day paused at the foot of the stairs. Her guests looked wild-eyed and nocturnal, something seen in a nature documentary. Some people in one corner were puncturing beer cans with ball-point pens. A geyser of brown liquid foamed over the curtains. Nina was lounging on a nearby sofa, engaged in conversation.
`Look,' she sighed impatiently. `Women don't necessarily want men to accept their hideous physical proclivities. We need a secret life. It's part of our autonomy. In fact, I can't think of anything worse than some post-feminist prat fawning over my body hair.'
`Not at all!' cried the recipient of this lecture, apparently undeterred by it. He had something on his upper lip which, on closer inspection, Agnes saw to be a moustache. `You shouldn't be embarrassed about it! In fact, I think there's nothing more beautiful than a woman with hairy armpits.'
Nina rested her head on two fingers pointed at her temple like a revolver and rolled her eyes at Agnes, who changed course with grim determination and fled up the stairs.
In the bathroom, she peered into the mirror as if trying to see something beyond what was there. Her lipstick had seeped into spiky tendrils around her mouth, clinging like a sea-anemone to the porous surface of her face. Agnes met her own eyes and saw their expression was fearful. She rummaged in the cupboard above the sink and began to draw a new red smile over the flagging grimace already there. Halfway through, her lower lip gleaming like a bloodied crescent moon, she stopped and allowed herself to submit to a wave of despair. What was the point? How, when John had taken all point with him, packing it neatly between a sweater and a book perhaps, could she be expected to care? She looked in the mirror, hoping to compound the tragedy by reading its desolation in her face. Her orphaned lip, however, lent her grieving features an annoyingly comical aspect. She deferred further rumination while carefully drawing in the upper bow.
She emerged a few minutes later to harvest the fruit of her labours. Someone was standing outside, someone she hadn't seen before. The light from the bathroom swung interrogatively over his face as she opened the door and barrelled straight into him, and she saw that look in his eyes as he saw her, the look of surprised appreciation, of suggestion and intent, that speaking glance she had sometimes felt she would do anything for, just to feel again its comforting implication of desire. She apologised and smiled, and somehow a conversation was begun. The slightly distasteful fact that they had met outside the bathroom could be seen as rather humorous, she thought, if presented in the right way. She planned it as she saw him taking every cue faultlessly, like a professional. This is how we met, she would say.
Agnes and Nina and Merlin met at university; or at least that was what Agnes said. Merlin, prizing information over intrigue, said they met at Oxford. Nina said they met at college. Agnes preferred her own version of events, although not, as might have been imagined, for its lack of bias towards cultural élitism in either quarter. To her, such ellipses contained a world of social possibility which could not be overlooked. So, `We met at university,' she would say; or, of some fleeting stranger waving to her across a crowded room, `Oh, just someone I knew at university.' `When I was at university,' she would say, eyes modestly lowered, head tilted slightly forwards, so that her panicked and prurient companion would endure several agonising moments of uncertainty. Was it Hull or Harvard? He (for it was invariably a he) couldn't tell, but now that she'd mentioned it he simply had to know. Was she beautiful and brainy? Was his cup about to run over? Almost unable to bear the possibility of disappointment, and unaware that his discomfort was standard procedure, he would somehow stammer: `Where did you study?' Agnes, with a now quite confident show of shame and humility would murmur, `Oxford' low, but not so low as to be in any danger of being misheard and then would look for a brief moment imploringly into her inquisitor's eye.
Once or twice, when Agnes had left the irresistible bait of her undisclosed place of education hanging tantalisingly in the air, her companion had merely smiled slyly and inquired, `Oxford or Cambridge?' The admission would take on a very different tone then, and while Agnes was quick to condemn these specimens as offenders against the rules of attraction, she would eventually concede that they must also be the unfortunate living examples of that breed she had often heard spoken about but whose aversion she had humbly never considered would devolve upon her who disliked intelligent women.
While none of them, then, could agree on where they met, the plain fact of their mutual liking was less open to dispute. Nina and Agnes had been friends first, and had met in the early weeks of their first year. Nina, freshly emerged from the dustcloud of a genteel Surrey upbringing, was a radical supporter of anything which promised to undermine it; while Agnes naturally gravitated towards things which bore at least a resemblance, however vague, to the small collection of known quantifies accumulated during her East Anglian youth. In the event their unlikely convergence was precipitated by Nina's accosting Agnes in a hallway and inviting her to a women's group meeting.
`Women's group?' Agnes had replied suspiciously. `Well yes, okay. Is that where you all sit around and talk about diets and boyfriends and things?'
At the time Nina had found this jest hilarious, and had had ample opportunity over the subsequent years to ruminate upon the possibility that Agnes might have meant it seriously.
It wasn't long before the arrival of Merlin, a bouncing eleven-stone mathematician, completed their family group and even strengthened their commitment to one another. Many were the times Agnes and Nina concealed their quarrels for his sake, for he doted on them both. Merlin, although quiet and bespectacled, was possessed of the rare ability to make people like him with very little apparent effort on his part. This was possibly owing to a certain air of impartiality, an asocial, asexual calmness in his nature, which never failed to attract those beset by insecurities concerning their own frenetically social and sexual selves; who, it might be added, in those days of identity crises, constituted the great majority of his peers. While Merlin appeared not to mind his involuntary popularity, Agnes and Nina took it upon themselves to protect him from the wasteful wiles of moaners and whingers. They discouraged the distressed individuals regularly to be found taking up tenancy in his room; whisked him away from under the noses of those attempting to waylay him with their problems on his way to the library; and even, upon occasion, salvaged him from the jaws of women who, wounded by less liberated loves, sought to assuage their hurt in the safety of Merlin's enlightened sensibilities.
So Merlin went unscarred, if uninitiated, through the three difficult years of weaning from adolescence; he frolicked untrammelled in Elysian groves of quantum mechanics and chaos, while Nina and Agnes dealt with the hard realities of English literature. They listened patiently, their hands dusty with medieval prose, their foreheads smudged with nineteenth-century hardship, while Merlin spoke sweetly of the frothy surface of time and the vexing disappearance of Schrödinger's cat. It was not, then, without some surprise and perhaps the smallest quantity of resentment that as they emerged some years later into the harsh light and noise of a brutal London and anxiously watched Merlin take his first faltering steps, they clearly saw him break into a confident run straight into the arms of a multi-million-pound financial institution, a company car, and a salary for which Elizabeth Bennet would have left Darcy's dinner burning in the oven.
Agnes and Nina listened nervously as Merlin debated the various advantages of living in Chelsea, Hampstead or Kensington, then took to reading the Hackney Gazette and the Acton Observer in the hope that such publications, if left lying around, might cultivate in him a taste for the distinctive flavour of the more modest boroughs. This practice, however, was short-lived, for as pleasant as the world seemed when reflected in the Merton Mirror, it offered little opportunity for gainful employment; although Agnes, it must be said, often spent illicit hours poring over their yellowed pages, lost in the twilit subterrene of out-of-date local intrigue and small-ads; of macabre deeds, petty thievery and sleazy domestic violence, of truth that was stranger indeed than the fiction of bombs, wars and global decay that she observed nightly. She read about a woman who left her husband's corpse rotting on the sofa, claiming she didn't know he was dead; a man who, catching his wife with a man he look to be her lover, shot them both and then shot himself; someone divorcing his wife after discovering she'd been feeding him cat food for the last ten years. `I was saving him money,' the woman protested. `I used the extra to buy nylons, a bit of lipstick you know.'
Agnes imagined them, these borough-dwellers, packed into honeycombed tower-blocks and desolate shopping malls, their territories orbiting round Belgravia and Knightsbridge and Soho like strange satellites round a mysterious sun. She was fascinated by their fearlessness. There were days when she sat until the afternoon died into darkness, her eyes raking the classified pages in search of she knew not what. Models wanted for mail order catalogue. Commis chef required. Earn hundreds from home own transportation essential.
They ended up living in Highbury; or at least that was what Agnes said. Merlin, taking for his reference the nearest conurbation, said they lived in Finsbury Park. Nina said they lived in the Arsenal. What Nina's claim lacked in glamour it made up for in accuracy: they did indeed live in the Arsenal, a tiny grid of quiet streets possessing an unusually parochial charm for what they all claimed was central London. The Arsenal, however, although dangerously near the borders, was undeniably in Agnes's Highbury, and the two friends were happy to discover they lived in such close proximity. Alas, it was Merlin, insisting as he did on the windswept reaches of Finsbury Park, who dwelt in error; for though it was but half a mile away, this barren region of concrete and cast-iron, of clotting traffic and petrol-heavy air, of desolate pavements overrun with skulking dogs and whirling litter cyclones, of filthy strings of shops selling only what nobody wanted to buy, was and on this Agnes insisted a world apart.
The house belonged to Merlin's uncle Dan, but Merlin's preferment displayed scant consciousness of the time-honoured rituals of heirloom and inheritance. Dan deserted the property like a precipitant rat at the first sign of listing, when rumours of the street's subsidence were still but turnouts. The council had agreed to purchase the house at the end of a two-year period by which time, they assured him with what appeared to be complacency, it was certain to be uninhabitable -- and Dan was partially comforted to find in Merlin a tenant prepared to pay handsomely for the pleasure of witnessing the property's decline. The proximity of the Arsenal football ground went some way towards recompensing Merlin for his pains, and although the value of this bonus had been calculated without his incumbent flatmates in mind, they at least were relieved that he seemed to have abandoned his dreams of security guards and private swimming pools.
What it lacked in elegant accoutrements the house made up for in symbolic value, for it was, after all, their first. Like its occupants, 14 Elwood Street was detached from its neighbours. Merlin claimed there was an exiled Cameroonian prince living in disgrace next door; but while Agnes and Nina had seen for themselves the broken windows, overflowing bins and constant stream of unsavoury visitors that paid testimony to the latter part of this statement, they had no evidence as to the veracity of the former.
Once Merlin had started his job, Agnes and Nina spent their days scrubbing and sweeping and purging like symbiotic housewives. Within a fortnight, however, Nina found a job on a local newspaper, which shifting of the household's employment ratio meant that home improvements were relegated to weekends. While the democratic process exempted Agnes from days of lonesome toil, it did not see fit to replace this occupation with any more productive form of employment. She spent days wandering the streets of her unfamiliar home, and was eventually driven to go into different news-agents, buying three papers a day just so that she could talk to someone. On one of these social forays she encountered her next-door neighbour, the erstwhile prince of the Cameroons, rooting in his own rubbish bin as if in the hope of scavenging something that he, as a monarchist spendthrift, might have tossed away half finished.
`Morning!' Agnes called out, driven by pity and desperation to an attempt at human kindness.
The man looked up and stared at her. Presently, he grinned and indicated a battered lime-green Cortina parked outside the house.
`Joy ride?' he said. `Me and you?'
`No thank you,' said Agnes smartly as she walked on, chilled by this untimely encounter with derangement.
`Fuck you!' she suddenly heard him shout behind her.
She quickened her pace tearfully as the cry wheeled in the
air like a vulture, blocking out the sun. Fuuh-kyooo.
Agnes liked to believe there was some good to be gleaned from every situation, however bad it might seem, but when she had been working for a month at Diplomat's Week magazine she realised the higher purpose of the benevolent universe was taking a little longer than usual to reveal itself.
She had been employed, for reasons she was not yet able to ascertain, as assistant editor of this illustrious weekly, but soon came to feel that she was not so much assisting as getting in the way. The pain of this suspicion would become particularly acute when, sitting in her overheated office, she would find herself transfixed by the arthritic motion of the clock on the wall, and, forgetting for a moment that her imprisonment was owed to an act of will rather than one of international terrorism, would become tearful at the thought that perhaps the rest of her adult life was to be wished away thus.
A hostage, then, only to fortune, and determined from the start swiftly to make good her escape, Agnes saw little point in absorbing herself in the dull round of tasks which befell her, and still less in cultivating meaningful relationships with her guards. The editor, Jean, was a grim and tight-lipped woman, whose all-encompassing role as high priestess of form and slave to detail meant that Agnes was ever within spitting distance of her wrath; a proximity made more terrible by the fact of Jean's having devised an office system either so complex or so irrational that only she could understand it. The blame for Agnes's complete failure to grasp any one of its labyrinthian tenets could therefore have been apportioned to one of several quarters, but her inferior position in a hierarchy which seemed to her to be riddled with the same predestined injustices as that of her family, rendered her wholly accountable.
`Don't buck the system, Barbara!' Jean would cry as Agnes was discovered performing emergency surgery on a filing cabinet so full that it appeared to be vomiting sheaves of paper. Barbara was the name of Agnes's predecessor, whose ghost evidently still walked for Jean.
`I was only trying to help!' Agnes would rejoin; but Jean, who wore the look of one doing things for the war effort, had long since formed the opinion that there was a saboteur in their midst and was not to be fooled by any such protestations of innocence.
Conspiratorial solace soon appeared in the form of Jean's personal assistant, Greta, who returned from holiday just as Agnes was beginning to wonder if she would ever return to waking life. Greta was certainly personal, to the point of rudeness, with her employer, but Agnes was cheered to see that there was someone who was of even less assistance than herself. On first encountering her, Agnes had been somewhat alarmed by Greta's transatlantic accent and air-hostess smile, but she soon learned that Greta had a curious allure, an ability to arouse unlikely behaviour in those around her, which lent her a strange and devilish beauty.
`This city is bizarre,' she sighed when arriving in the office one morning. `I was crossing the road over there when some guy in a truck drinking a can of beer stopped at the lights and just spat a whole mouthful all over me.'
The beer stain adorning the front of her jacket bore witness to her story and she waited, doe-eyed and credulous, for an explanation, while Agnes and Jean assured her that such occurrences were far from commonplace; which admission seemed only to baffle her further.
`The guy in the truck?' she said finally. `He kind of reminded me of my boyfriend back home.'
Greta was a Ukrainian Canadian, and if a marriage between these two cultures seemed unlikely, their brief encounter in the form of Greta was unregrettable. She had come to London six months earlier, and despite finding the city to be drab, tedious and inhospitable in the extreme, saw no reason why she should leave. In addition to her unconventional style of dress she favoured garish colours and dressed as if in preparation for a carnival or costume ball: clownish stripes combined with military epaulets, Elizabethan ruffs with rakish ponchos Greta's voluptuous beauty and unsuspecting nature invited much attention, most of it, as far as Agnes could see, unwelcome.
`I'm on a diet,' she announced one lunchtime.
`Why?' queried Agnes, amazed that she should contemplate such an activity when her life already seemed to be in constant peril.
`Oh, some guy came up to me in the street last night and said I was a fat cow,' said Greta cheerfully. `He suggested I might try and lose some weight.'
As if it were infectious, Agnes too began to discover the discomfort of strangers, but the weightiness for her of such encounters could not be so easily lost. She began to attract the attentions of the mad, the vagrant and those down on their luck in a manner she hoped was no relation to recognition. Once a soft touch for these ragged moralists who inveigled her into sparing them her change, Agnes began to cross the road, begging for some change in her circumstances. She witnessed her expulsion from the civilised world daily as she completed the arduous journey to the misleadingly named Finchley Central, where the offices of Diplomat's Week clung to the city's edge like a penitent cliff-top suicide, hoping against hope that someone, anyone remotely sane, would stay on the train beyond Highgate; but by the time they reached Camden Town the majority of those whom she could not picture stealing her wallet had long since disembarked, and as the train blasted through the topsoil into the charmless overground world of East Finchley the last feverish, pulsating remnants of the mad morning rush were gone.
Until that moment Agnes usually managed to sustain the appearance of a thrusting young professional running on a tight schedule; but then someone switched on the lights, pulled off the mask, revealed the pretender for exactly who she was. Women fanned themselves and fainted in the aisles in dismay; men in tight tailcoats stood up, red-faced, and waved their programmes demanding redress. For she was none other than Agnes Day: sub-editor, suburbanite, failure extraordinaire.