The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories

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From one of Britain’s most accomplished, acclaimed, and garlanded writers, Hilary Mantel delivers a brilliant collection of contemporary short stories that demonstrate what modern England has become

In The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel’s trademark gifts of penetrating characterization, unsparing eye, and rascally intelligence are once again fully on display.

Her classic wicked humor in each story—which range from a ghost ...

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From one of Britain’s most accomplished, acclaimed, and garlanded writers, Hilary Mantel delivers a brilliant collection of contemporary short stories that demonstrate what modern England has become

In The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, Hilary Mantel’s trademark gifts of penetrating characterization, unsparing eye, and rascally intelligence are once again fully on display.

Her classic wicked humor in each story—which range from a ghost story to a vampire story to near-memoir to mini-sagas of family and social fracture—brilliantly unsettles the reader in that unmistakably Mantel way. 

Mantel brutally and acutely writes about gender, marriage, class, family, and sex, cutting to the core of human experience. Unpredictable, diverse, and even shockingly unexpected, each story grabs you by the throat within a couple of sentences. The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher displays a magnificent writer at the peak of her powers. 

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

Hilary Mantel's last two books (Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies) both won Man Booker Prizes; now she enters the field again with her first short story collection in a dozen years. For most American readers especially, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher will be a great treat. In addition to the previously unpublished title story, the book contains appealing stories such as "The Heart Fails Without Warning," "The Long QT," and "Winter Break" that were available before only in UK publications. An apt choice for book clubs and nighttime reads.

The New York Times Book Review - Terry Castle
…Hilary Mantel's vastly entertaining new collection of stories…have their own special tang and quidditas. Even as one appreciates the suave authorial style—light, pared-down, technically scintillating, like the Olympic gymnast who nails her landing every time—one has the sense too that Mantel is working with some fairly edgy and complex private material in these contemporary fables…Mantel is…a funny and intelligent and generously untethered writer…
Publishers Weekly
The stories in Mantel's new collection reflect her interest in human frailty and assaults of all kinds, from the most intimate to those by or against the state. In fact, one title, "Offenses Against the Person," would work for many of the stories in the collection. And the selection here offers Mantel's deft blend of clinically precise observation and leavening humor—most notably in "The Heart Fails Without Warning," about anorexia's impact on a family, and "Sorry to Disturb," about an expat wife in Saudi Arabia stuck with an uncomfortable new friendship. But one of the things that makes Mantel's work so distinctively satisfying is the way she builds up detail—convincing readers that if Thomas Cromwell, the star of her two Man Booker Prize-winning novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, were suddenly transported from the 16th century to their office, they'd recognize him instantly. In contrast, the pieces here often feature characters about whom the reader knows little, particularly "Terminus," more musing than story, and "Winter Break," which relies on a shock ending, and they end up feeling slight. Even "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher," the only previously unpublished story in the collection, despite a title that promises action, offers something closer to an interesting conversation than a compelling narrative. There are pleasures here, but Mantel lovers toughing out the wait for the final book in the Cromwell series might do better visiting or revisiting her earlier work like A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, or Fludd. (Sept.)
New York Times Book Review

Mantel's stories have their own special tang and quidditas. Even as one appreciates the suave authorial style-light pared-down, technically scintillating, like the Olympic gymnast who nails her landing every time-one has the sense too that Mantel is working with some fairly edgy and complex private material in these contemporary fables…. One gets the feeling she wants both to frighten us (at times more than a little) and make us laugh. She's like an old-fashioned spirit -medium of sorts: a brusque, mischievous, Madame Arcati-like purveyor of uncanny moments. She transports us somewhere else. And she seems to be having great fun with it too…. Mantel is such a funny and intelligent and generously untethered writer that part of what one's praise must mean is that if you're intelligent and quirky enough to take the book up at all…she's got quirks enough of her own to match you, if not raise you 10.
A.V. Club

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher delivers on its promises: the promise built by Mantel's reputation as one of the unquestionably great contemporary writers, the promise made by its shocking title, and the promise inherent in the genre of short stories…Mantel pokes and prods and scratches at our tiny collective wounds, opening them into something much bigger. Readers may find the stories uncomfortable, but also hard to put down.
USA Today (4 stars)

A book of her short stories is like a little sweet treat…. Some of the stories are so brief and twisted…they have a hint of the cruelty of Roald Dahl's short stories (the ones that were definitely for grown-ups)…. Mantel's narrators never tell everything they know, and that's why they're worth listening to, carefully.
Los Angeles Times

Here is the Mantel of her earlier, darker kitchen-sink novels: harsh and comic, even derisive.
The Wall Street Journal

Hilary Mantel has escaped from King Henry VIII's court.
The Daily Beast

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, untied from the historical record, she gives her characters freer rein to rattle their chains, and the results…are satisfyingly chilling.
Pittsburg Post-Gazette

Here are stories in which horror shudders between the high gothic of Grimm and the menacing quotidian. Oppression comes from air conditioners that 'labor and hack' and from 'the smell of drains.' Cruelty is made manifest by a wayward young girl who finds an even more outcast target in the form of a severely deformed child…. These are Ms. Mantel's signature strokes - freaks made human and humans made freakish, and always with the expiation of a dark and judgmental humor.

With ten stories unique, strange and tantalizing, Mantel shares her views poetically, harshly and with great love. A have to read.
Library Journal
Mantel received the Man Booker Prize for both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the first two installments in her unprecedented Thomas Cromwell trilogy, which has sold over a million copies across formats. As we await the closing title, here's a collection that includes the newly minted title story and many other pieces that will not be familiar to American readers.
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2014-09-25
Best known for historical novels such as Wolf Hall (2009) and Bring up the Bodies (2012), Mantel proves herself a skilled practitioner of short fiction as well."In those days, the doorbell didn't ring often, and if it did I would draw back into the body of the house." So opens the first story in Mantel's slender collection. Like the title story, and indeed like several others, it has a certain claustrophobic, reticent feel to it, its protagonist a retiring type thrust into discomfort by the larger events at play in the street outside. All of the pieces are worthy of our attention, but the title story is a true tour de force: A house-proud suburbanite has a kitchen window that opens onto a view of a hospital where Margaret Thatcher, in 1983, has had eye surgery, and it is that kitchen window that an IRA sniper wishes to use in order to do the Iron Lady in. Or perhaps not the IRA; remarks the householder, "It crossed my mind then he might not be a Provisional, but from one of the mad splinter groups you heard of." Can she dissuade the shooter? Will she come to take his view that it's no crime to slay the killer of so many innocents? All will be revealed—but after a nice cup of tea, mind you. Mantel blows up very thin balloons by way of situations and then takes a needle to them: Another story concerns a case of misread intentions in an expat cloister in Saudi Arabia, one of its players described thus: "spiritless, freckled, limp, she was a faded redhead who seemed huddled into herself, unused to conversation." You just know that great things aren't going to come from her, and certainly not the history-changing murder of a world leader, just as most of Mantel's characters are retiring, confused people without much of a clue but who muddle on all the same. "What would Anita Brookner do?" asks one of Mantel's protagonists. The answer, we'd like to think, is this: She'd read Mantel's latest, and she'd delight in it.
New York Times

"[A] barnburner of a title story…It's not the plot that matters as much as the superb little touches with which Ms. Mantel punctuates it."

An event with a capital 'E' . . . Breathtaking
The New York Times Book Review

Scintillating . . . Like the Olympic gymnast who nails her landing every time.
USA Today (four stars)

A book of her short stories is like a little sweet treat.

[Mantel is at] the top of her game.
The Seattle Times


[Mantel is] an international literary star.
Entertainment Weekly

One of the best novelists writing today.
The Chicago Tribune

Mantel's] writing is cinematically exquisite… you can't help but get sucked in.
Washington Post

Mantel] evokes a shadowy region where boundaries blur and what might have happened has equal weight with what actually occurred…. Despite the plethora of sharply observed social detail, her short stories always recognize other potential realities…. Even the most straightforward of Mantel's tales retain a faintly otherworldly air.
New Yorker

The stories are artfully constructed and share a muted gothic tone marked by the same 'heightened, crawling quality' that one of Mantel's narrators, a writer, finds at a moldering hotel.
From the Publisher

"The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher, untied from the historical record, she gives her characters freer rein to rattle their chains, and the results…are satisfyingly chilling."

"Here are stories in which horror shudders between the high gothic of Grimm and the menacing quotidian. Oppression comes from air conditioners that 'labor and hack' and from 'the smell of drains.' Cruelty is made manifest by a wayward young girl who finds an even more outcast target in the form of a severely deformed child…. These are Ms. Mantel's signature strokes - freaks made human and humans made freakish, and always with the expiation of a dark and judgmental humor."

The Barnes & Noble Review

This collection of short fiction by Hilary Mantel (best known for her historical novels Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, begins and ends with a story (eight chapters divide them) in which a woman opens the door of her apartment to an unknown man in the summer of 1983. The action of each tale in this coincidental duo takes place on a different continent and involves wholly unrelated characters and plots; yet each projects a similar, hallucinatory reality, whose mingled sharpness and blur are relayed with disconcerting exactness by its narrator. In the first story, "Sorry to Disturb," set in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the stranger at the bell is a rumpled Pakistani businessman who has got lost in the maze of Jeddah's streets and seeks directions. A wary British housewife lets him in. In its opposite number, set in Windsor, England, the man at the door is an IRA assassin. He has learned that the British prime minister is in Windsor for an eye operation and will soon stand directly in sight of the bedroom window of the home he has invaded, giving him the chance to accomplish his mission: the assassination of Margaret Thatcher. The gunman has done his homework. He knows that the woman who has let him in loathes Thatcher (as does Mantel) and likely will not impede his plan — not that she could stop him, once he assembles his sniper rifle. "You can be a help if you want, and if you don't want, we can do accordingly," he tells her. But she does want, even if she insincerely tells him she doesn't believe "violence solves anything." She brews him a pot of tea and waits, complicit.

Behind the two doors of these stories — and the many doors of the others that come between them — stand obscure but distinct individuals. Even if they are not Cromwells, Mantel invests them with motive and personality, rooting them in place with the scents and sights of their daily activities, and with habits and pettinesses that make them feel knowable and real. The woman in Jeddah (where Mantel lived with her husband before she began publishing novels) hates living in Saudi Arabia, where the air in her apartment is "heavy with insecticide; sometimes I sprayed it as I walked, and it fell about me like bright mists, veils." The woman in Windsor (where Mantel lived in 1983) resents but enjoys her quaint bourgeois town, where in the spring, "cherry trees toss extravagant flounces of blossom" until the wind "strips the petals, they flurry in pink drifts and carpet the pavements, as if giants have held a wedding in the street."

"Other lives" lurk behind any door, Mantel writes. "Different histories lie close; they are curled like winter animals, breathing shallow, pulse undetected." Anyone's life, she suggests, could resemble anyone else's; or not: "History could always have been otherwise." Her stories in this book, as in the Tudor novels, sport with the infinite possibilities of otherwise.

A characteristic darkness tinges the mood of each tale, and while Mantel may extol actual nature — cherry blossoms and the occasional butterfly — she has no interest in prettifying human nature or outcomes. Several of the stories revolve around children and family ties. In "Comma," two little girls, middle-class Kitty and lower-class Mary, spy on a rich family's deformed baby. Kitty's status-conscious aunt despises Mary and forbids Kitty to associate with her, but Kitty cannot resist Mary's ragged, sniggering charisma. To pacify her aunt, Kitty denies the friendship, lying: "Mary's got fly-strike" or "She's got maggots." The invented afflictions make the aunt scream with cruel laughter. In "The Long QT," a slim fable of marital vengeance, a man accidentally frees himself of his neat-freak wife; while in "Winter Break," an intentionally childless couple, on holiday in Greece, receive a jolt that strips their pedophobia of its feigned high-mindedness. And "The Heart Fails Without Warning," a haunting story about an anorexic girl and her callous little sister, Lola, starkly avoids sentimentality. "If I die, I want a woodland burial. You can plant a tree and when it grows you can visit it," says the older sister. "Yeah. Right. I'll bring my dog," says Lola.

Three other stories turn the same focused detachment on the professional sphere. In "Harley Street," a forbidding, self- satisfied receptionist in a medical practice shows an almost sociopathic obtuseness in her inability to perceive the lesbian bond between her co-workers; in "Offenses Against the Person," an undutiful daughter recalls the year in her youth when she worked in her father's legal office and dispassionately observed his disastrous affair with a secretary. The longest of these, the wry episode, "How Shall I Know You?" features a jaded author, bedeviled by migraine, who has accepted a small-town speaking engagement. Entering a grim hotel, following a "diminutive and crooked" young employee with a face of "feral sweetness" up the "scarlet stinking stairs," she thinks, "What would Anita Brookner do?" Eventually, pitying the girl, she gives her money; but later the author feels the pinch of condescension when she realizes that others pity her. The penultimate story, "Terminus," contains a ghostly sighting of the narrator's unfond father — long since dead — prompting her to reflect that "people are divided by all sorts of things," and "frankly, death is the least of them."

For Mantel, frankly, death often acts as an organizing force; what history, what historical fiction could exist without the deaths of the powerful? It is certainly death that unites the characters of the standout title story in this collection: the premeditated, retributive execution of Britain's Iron Lady. Novelists often deny the real-life models for their characters, but Mantel has freely discussed the rancor she felt for Thatcher. She told an interviewer last month that the view she gives her IRA sniper was the very view she had in her Windsor apartment on August 6, 1983, the day Thatcher emerged from eye surgery. "I was exactly where the narrator of my story is standing," she said, watching the prime minister "with the eye of an assassin. So the story began there." The story did not come together, though, Mantel explained, until 2010, when, after she had undergone surgery herself, a morphine dream showed her the right door to knock on, allowing her to complete her vision. "Now that we are here at last, there is all the time in the world," she writes in "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher." "The gunman kneels, easing into position. He sees what I see, the glittering helmet of hair. He sees it shine like a gold coin in a gutter, he sees it big as the full moon." All it will take to erase it is "One easy wink of the world's blind eye."

In reality, of course, that wink never happened; Thatcher left the Windsor hospital unscathed and died of a stroke thirty years later, in 2013. But behind fiction's door, Mantel shows, anything can happen; and in the mind's eye, perhaps it already has.

Liesl Schillinger is a New York–based writer and translator. Her Penguin Classics translation of The Lady of the Camellias, by Alexandre Dumas Fils, appeared in the summer of 2013. In the fall, her illustrated book of neologisms, Wordbirds, was published by Simon & Schuster.

Reviewer: Liesl Schillinger

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781627792103
  • Publisher: Holt, Henry & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 9/30/2014
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 32,756
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.30 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Hilary Mantel is the two-time winner of the Man Booker Prize for her best-selling novels, Wolf Hall, and its sequel, Bring Up the Bodies—an unprecedented achievement. The Royal Shakespeare Company recently adapted Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies for the stage to colossal critical acclaim. The two productions, which run at the Swan Theater in Stratford-upon-Avon until March 29th have been sold out for months. Those without tickets can look forward to the BBC/Masterpiece six part adaption of the novels, which will broadcast in the Spring of 2015 with "Homeland" actor, Damien Lewis, to star as Henry VII and Mark Rylance to portray Thomas Cromwell.

The author of thirteen books, including A Place of Greater Safety, Beyond Black, and the memoir Giving up the Ghost, she is currently at work on the third installment of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy.

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Read an Excerpt



Announcement of the recapture of South Georgia, in the Falkland Islands.

Mrs. Thatcher: Ladies and gentlemen, the Secretary of State for Defense has just come over to give me some very good news . . .

Secretary of State: The message we have got is that British troops landed on South Georgia this afternoon, shortly after 4 p.m. London time . . . The commander of the operation has sent the following message: "Be pleased to inform Her Majesty that the White Ensign flies alongside the Union Jack in South Georgia. God save the Queen."

Mrs. Thatcher: Just rejoice at that news and congratulate our forces and the marines. Goodnight, gentlemen.

Mrs. Thatcher turns toward the door of No. 10 Downing Street.

Reporter: Are we going to declare war on Argentina, Mrs. Thatcher?

Mrs. Thatcher (pausing on her doorstep): Rejoice.

* * *

PICTURE FIRST THE street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their facades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the color of honey. Some are Georgian, flat-fronted. Others are Victorian, with gleaming bays. They are too big for modern households, and most of them have been cut up into flats. But this does not destroy their elegance of proportion, nor detract from the deep luster of paneled front doors, brass-furnished and painted in navy or forest green. It is the neighborhood’s only drawback, that there are more cars than spaces to put them. The residents park nose-to-tail, flaunting their permits. Those who have driveways are often blocked into them. But they are patient householders, proud of their handsome street and willing to suffer to live there. Glancing up, you notice a fragile Georgian fanlight, or a warm scoop of terra-cotta tiling, or a glint of colored glass. In spring, cherry trees toss extravagant flounces of blossom. When the wind strips the petals, they flurry in pink drifts and carpet the pavements, as if giants have held a wedding in the street. In summer, music floats from open windows: Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach.

The street itself describes a gentle curve, joining the main road as it flows out of town. The Holy Trinity Church, islanded, is hung with garrison flags. Looking from a high window over the town (as I did that day of the killing) you feel the close presence of fortress and castle. Glance to your left, and the Round Tower looms into view, pressing itself against the panes. But on days of drizzle and drifting cloud the keep diminishes, like an amateur drawing half erased. Its lines soften, its edges fade; it shrinks into the raw cold from the river, more like a shrouded mountain than a castle built for kings.

The houses on the right-hand side of Trinity Place — I mean, on the right-hand side as you face out of town — have large gardens, each now shared between three or four tenants. In the early 1980s, England had not succumbed to the smell of burning. The carbonized reek of the weekend barbecue was unknown, except in the riverside gin palaces of Maidenhead and Bray. Our gardens, though immaculately kept, saw little footfall; there were no children in the street, just young couples who had yet to breed and older couples who might, at most, open a door to let an evening party spill out onto a terrace. Through warm afternoons the lawns baked unattended, and cats curled snoozing in the crumbling topsoil of stone urns. In autumn, leaf-heaps composted themselves on sunken patios, and were shoveled up by irritated owners of basement flats. The winter rains soaked the shrubberies, with no one there to see.

But in the summer of 1983 this genteel corner, bypassed by shoppers and tourists, found itself a focus of national interest. Behind the gardens of No. 20 and No. 21 stood the grounds of a private hospital, a graceful pale building occupying a corner site. Three days before her assassination, the prime minister entered this hospital for minor eye surgery. Since then, the area had been dislocated. Strangers jostled residents. Newspapermen and TV crews blocked the street and parked without permission in driveways. You would see them trundle up and down Spinner’s Walk trailing wires and lights, their gaze rolling toward the hospital gates on Clarence Road, their necks noosed by camera straps. Every few minutes they would coagulate in a mass of heaving combat jackets, as if to reassure each other that nothing was happening: but that it would happen, by and by. They waited, and while they waited they slurped orange juice from cartons and lager from cans; they ate, crumbs spilling down their fronts, soiled paper bags chucked into flower beds. The baker at the top of St. Leonard’s Road ran out of cheese rolls by 10 a.m. and everything else by noon. Windsorians clustered on Trinity Place, shopping bags wedged onto low walls. We speculated on why we had this honor, and when she might go away.

Windsor’s not what you think. It has an intelligentsia. Once you wind down from the castle to the bottom of Peascod Street, they are not all royalist lickspittles; and as you cross over the junction to St. Leonard’s Road, you might sniff out closet republicans. Still, it was cold comfort at the polls for the local socialists, and people murmured that it was a vote wasted; they had to show the strength of their feelings by tactical voting, and their spirit by attending outré events at the arts center. Recently remodeled from the fire station, it was a place where self-published poets found a platform, and sour white wine was dispensed from boxes; on Saturday mornings there were classes in self-assertion, yoga and picture framing.

But when Mrs. Thatcher came to visit, the dissidents took to the streets. They gathered in knots, inspecting the press corps and turning their shoulders to the hospital gates, where a row of precious parking bays were marked out and designated doctors only.

A woman said, "I have a Ph.D., and I’m often tempted to park there." It was early, and her loaf was still warm from the baker; she snuggled it against her, like a pet. She said, "There are some strong opinions flying about."

"Mine is a dagger," I said, "and it’s flying straight to her heart."

"Your sentiment," she said admiringly, "is the strongest I’ve heard."

"Well, I have to go in," I said. "I’m expecting Mr. Duggan to mend my boiler."

"On a Saturday? Duggan? You’re highly honored. Better scoot. If you miss him he’ll charge you. He’s a shark, that man. But what can you do?" She fished for a pen in the bottom of her bag. "I’ll give you my number." She wrote it on my bare arm, as neither of us had paper. "Give me a ring. Do you ever go to the arts center? We can get together over a glass of wine."

I WAS PUTTING my Perrier water in the fridge when the doorbell rang. I’d been thinking, we don’t know it now, but we’ll look back with fondness on the time Mrs. Thatcher was here: new friendships formed in the street, chitchat about plumbers whom we hold in common. On the entry-phone there was the usual crackle, as if someone had set fire to the line. "Come up, Mr. Duggan," I said. It was as well to be respectful to him.

I lived on the third floor, the stairs were steep and Duggan was ponderous. So I was surprised at how soon I heard the tap at the door. "Hello," I said. "Did you manage to park your van?"

On the landing — or rather on the top step, as I was alone up there — stood a man in a cheap quilted jacket. My innocent thought was, here is Duggan’s son. "Boiler?" I said.

"Right," he said.

He heaved himself in, with his boiler man’s bag. We were nose to nose in the box-sized hall. His jacket, more than adequate to the English summer, took up the space between us. I edged backward. "What’s up with it?" he said.

"It groans and bangs. I know it’s August, but — "

"No, you’re right, you’re right, you can never trust the weather. Rads hot?"

"In patches."

"Air in your system," he said. "While I’m waiting I’ll bleed it. Might as well. If you’ve got a key."

It was then that a suspicion struck me. Waiting, he said. Waiting for what? "Are you a photographer?"

He didn’t answer. He was patting himself down, searching his pockets, frowning.

"I was expecting a plumber. You shouldn’t just walk in."

"You opened the door."

"Not to you. Anyway, I don’t know why you bothered. You can’t see the front gates from this side. You need to go out of here," I said pointedly, "and turn left."

"They say she’s coming out the back way. It’s a great place to get a shot."

My bedroom had a perfect view of the hospital garden; anyone, by walking around the side of the house, could guess this.

"Who do you work for?" I said.

"You don’t need to know."

"Perhaps not, but it would be polite to tell me."

As I backed into the kitchen, he followed. The room was full of sunlight, and now I saw him clearly: a stocky man, thirties, unkempt, with a round friendly face and unruly hair. He dumped his bag on the table, and pulled off his jacket. His size diminished by half. "Let’s say I’m freelance."

"Even so," I said, "I should get a fee for the use of my premises. It’s only fair."

"You couldn’t put a price on this," he said.

By his accent, he was from Liverpool. Far from Duggan, or Duggan’s son. But then he hadn’t spoken till he was in at the front door, so how could I have known? He could have been a plumber, I said to myself. I hadn’t been a total fool; for the moment, self-respect was all that concerned me. Ask for identification, people advise, before letting a stranger in. But imagine the ruckus that Duggan would have caused, if you’d held his boy up on the stairs, impeding him from getting to the next boiler on his list, and shortening his plunder opportunities.

The kitchen window looked down over Trinity Place, now seething with people. If I craned my neck I could see a new police presence to my left, trotting up from the private gardens of Clarence Crescent. "Have one of these?" The visitor had found his cigarettes.

"No. And I’d rather you didn’t."

"Fair enough." He crushed the pack into his pocket, and pulled out a balled-up handkerchief. He stood back from the tall window, mopping his face; face and handkerchief were both crumpled and gray. Clearly it wasn’t something he was used to, tricking himself into private houses. I was more annoyed with myself than with him. He had a living to make, and perhaps you couldn’t blame him for pushing in, when some fool of a woman held the door open. I said, "How long do you propose to stay?"

"She’s expected in an hour."

"Right." That accounted for it, the increased hum and buzz from the street. "How do you know?"

"We’ve a girl on the inside. A nurse."

I handed him two sheets of kitchen roll. "Ta." He blotted his forehead. "She’s going to come out and the doctors and nurses are lining up, so she can appreciate them. She’s going to walk along the line with her thank-you and bye-bye, then toddle round the side, duck into a limo and she’s away. Well, that’s the idea. I don’t have an exact time. So I thought if I was here early I could set up, have a look at the angles."

"How much will you get for a good shot?"

"Life without parole," he said.

I laughed. "It’s not a crime."

"That’s my feeling."

"It’s a fair distance," I said. "I mean, I know you have special lenses, and you’re the only one up here, but don’t you want a close-up?"

"Nah," he said. "As long as I get a clear view, the distance is a doddle."

He crumpled up the kitchen roll and looked around for the bin. I took the paper from him, he grunted, then applied himself to unstrapping his bag, a canvas holdall that I supposed would be as suitable for a photographer as for any tradesman. But one by one he took out metal parts which, even in my ignorance, I knew were not part of a photographer’s kit. He began to assemble them; his fingertips were delicate. As he worked he sang, almost under his breath, a little song from the football terraces:

You are a scouser, a dirty scouser,

You’re only happy on giro day.

Your dad’s out stealing, your mam’s drug-dealing,

Please don’t take our hub-caps away.

"Three million unemployed," he said. "Most of them live round our way. It wouldn’t be a problem here, would it?"

"Oh no. Plenty of gift shops to employ everybody. Have you been up to the High Street?"

I thought of the tourist scrums pushing each other off the pavements, jostling for souvenir humbugs and windup Beefeaters. It could have been another country. No voices carried from the street below. Our man was humming, absorbed. I wondered if his song had a second verse. As he lifted each component from his bag he wiped it with a cloth that was cleaner than his handkerchief, handling it with gentle reverence, like an altar boy polishing the vessels for mass.

When the mechanism was assembled he held it out for my inspection. "Folding stock," he said. "That’s the beauty of her. Fits in a cornflakes packet. They call her the widowmaker. Though not in this case. Poor bloody Dennis, eh? He’ll have to boil his own eggs from now on."

It feels, in retrospect, as if hours stretched ahead, as we sat in the bedroom together, he on a folding chair near the sash window, his mug of tea cradled in his hands, the widowmaker at his feet; myself on the edge of the bed, over which I had hastily dragged the duvet to tidy it. He had brought his jacket from the kitchen; perhaps the pockets were crammed with assassin’s requisites. When he flung it on the bed, it slid straight off again. I tried to grab it and my palm slid across the nylon; like a reptile, it seemed to have its own life. I flumped it on the bed beside me and took a grip on it by the collar. He looked on with mild approval.

He kept glancing at his watch, though he said he had no certain time. Once he rubbed its face with his palm, as if it might be fogged and concealing a different time underneath. He would check, from the corner of his eye, that I was still where I should be, my hands in view: as, he explained, he preferred them to be. Then he would fix his gaze on the lawns, the back fences. As if to be closer to his target, he rocked his chair forward on its front legs.

I said, "It’s the fake femininity I can’t stand, and the counterfeit voice. The way she boasts about her dad the grocer and what he taught her, but you know she would change it all if she could, and be born to rich people. It’s the way she loves the rich, the way she worships them. It’s her philistinism, her ignorance, and the way she revels in her ignorance. It’s her lack of pity. Why does she need an eye operation? Is it because she can’t cry?"

When the telephone rang, it made us both jump. I broke off what I was saying. "Answer that," he said. "It will be for me."

IT WAS HARD for me to imagine the busy network of activity that lay behind the day’s plans. "Wait," I’d said to him, as I asked him, "Tea or coffee?" as I switched the kettle on. "You know I was expecting the boiler man? I’m sure he’ll be here soon."

"Duggan?" he said. "Nah."

"You know Duggan?"

"I know he won’t be here."

"What have you done to him?"

"Oh, for God’s sake." He snorted. "Why would we do anything? No need. He got the nod. We have pals all over the place."

Pals. A pleasing word. Almost archaic. Dear God, I thought, Duggan an I.R.A. man. Not that my visitor had named his affiliation, but I had spoken it loudly in my mind. The word, the initials, didn’t cause me the shock or upset it would cause, perhaps, to you. I told him this, as I reached in the fridge for milk and waited for the kettle to boil: saying, I would deter you if I could, but it would only be out of fear for myself and what’s going to happen to me after you’ve done it: which by the way is what? I am no friend of this woman, though I don’t (I felt compelled to add) believe violence solves anything. But I would not betray you, because . . .

"Yeah," he said. "Everybody’s got an Irish granny. It’s no guarantee of anything at all. I’m here for your sightlines. I don’t care about your affinities. Keep away from the front window and don’t touch the phone, or I’ll knock you dead. I don’t care about the songs your bloody great-uncles used to sing on a Saturday night."

I nodded. It was only what I’d thought myself. It was sentiment and no substance.

The minstrel boy to the war is gone,

In the ranks of death you’ll find him.

His father’s sword he has girded on,

And his wild harp slung behind him.

My great-uncles (and he was right about them) wouldn’t have known a wild harp if it had sprung up and bitten their bottoms. Patriotism was only an excuse to get what they called pie-eyed, while their wives had tea and ginger nuts then recited the rosary in the back kitchen. The whole thing was an excuse: why we are oppressed. Why we are sat here being oppressed, while people from other tribes are hauling themselves up by their own ungodly efforts and buying three-piece suites. While we are rooted here going la-la-la auld Ireland (because at this distance in time the words escape us) our neighbors are patching their quarrels, losing their origins and moving on, to modern, nonsectarian forms of stigma, expressed in modern songs: you are a scouser, a dirty scouser. I’m not, personally. But the north is all the same to southerners. And in Berkshire and the Home Counties, all causes are the same, all ideas for which a person might care to die: they are nuisances, a breach of the peace, and likely to hold up the traffic or delay the trains.

"You seem to know about me," I said. I sounded resentful.

"As much as anybody would need to know. That’s to say, not that you’re anything special. You can be a help if you want, and if you don’t want, we can do accordingly."

He spoke as if he had companions. He was only one man. But a bulky one, even without the jacket. Suppose I had been a true-blue Tory, or one of those devout souls who won’t so much as crush an insect: I still wouldn’t have tried anything tricky. As it was, he counted on me to be docile, or perhaps, despite his sneering, he trusted me to some small extent. Anyway, he let me follow him into the bedroom with my mug of tea. He carried his own tea in his left hand and his gun in his right. He left the roll of sticky tape and the handcuffs on the kitchen table, where he’d put them when they came out of his bag.

And now he let me pick up the phone extension from the bedside table, and hand it to him. I heard a woman’s voice, young, timid and far away. You would not have thought she was in the hospital round the corner. "Brendan?" she said. I did not imagine that was his real name.

HE PUT DOWN the receiver so hard it clattered. "There’s some friggin’ holdup. It’ll be twenty minutes, she reckons. Or thirty, it could even be thirty." He let his breath out, as if he’d been holding it since he stomped upstairs. "Bugger this. Where’s the lav?"

You can surprise a person with affinity, I thought, and then say, "Where’s the lav?" Not a Windsor expression. It wasn’t really a question, either. The flat was so small that its layout was obvious. He took his weapon with him. I listened to him urinate. Run a tap. I heard splashing. I heard him come out, zipping his trousers. His face was red where he’d been toweling it. He sat down hard on the folding chair. There was a bleat from the fragile canework. He said, "You’ve got a number written on your arm."


"What’s it a number of?"

"A woman." I dabbed my forefinger with my tongue and slicked it across the ink.

"You won’t get it off that way. You need to get some soap and give it a good scrub."

"How kind of you to take an interest."

"Have you wrote it down? Her number?"


"Don’t you want it?"

Only if I have a future, I thought. I wondered when it would be appropriate to ask.

"Make us another brew. And put sugar in it this time."

"Oh," I said. I was flustered by a failing in hospitality. "I didn’t know you took sugar. I might not have white."

"The bourgeoisie, eh?"

I was angry. "You’re not too proud to shoot out of my bourgeois sash window, are you?"

He lurched forward, hand groping for the gun. It wasn’t to shoot me, though my heart leapt. He glared down into the gardens, tensing as if he were going to butt his head through the glass. He made a small, dissatisfied grunt, and sat down again. "A bloody cat on the fence."

"I have demerara," I said. "I expect it tastes the same, when it’s stirred in."

"You wouldn’t think of shouting out of the kitchen window, would you?" he said. "Or trying to bolt down the stairs?"

"What, after all I’ve said?"

"You think you’re on my side?" He was sweating again. "You don’t know my side. Believe me, you have no idea."

It crossed my mind then he might not be a Provisional, but from one of the mad splinter groups you heard of. I was hardly in a position to quibble; the end result would be the same. But I said, "Bourgeoisie, what sort of polytechnic expression is that?"

I was insulting him, and I meant to. For those of tender years, I should explain that polytechnics were institutes of higher education, for the young who missed university entrance: for those who were bright enough to say affinity, but still wore cheap nylon coats.

He frowned. "Brew the tea."

"I don’t think you should sneer at my great-uncles for being cod-Irish, if you talk in slogans you found in skips."

"It was a sort of a joke," he said.

"Oh. Well. Was it?" I was taken aback. "It looks as if I’ve no more sense of humor than she has."

I indicated, with my head, the lawns outside the window, where the prime minister was shortly to die.

"I don’t fault her for not laughing," he said. "I won’t fault her for that."

"You should. It’s why she can’t see how ridiculous she is."

"I wouldn’t call her ridiculous," he said, mulish. "Cruel, wicked, but not ridiculous. What’s there to laugh at?"

"All things human laugh," I said.

After some thought, he replied, "Jesus wept."

He smirked. I saw he had relaxed, knowing that because of the friggin’ delay he wouldn’t have to murder yet. "Mind you," I said, "she’d probably laugh if she were here. She’d laugh because she despises us. Look at your anorak. She despises your anorak. Look at my hair. She despises my hair."

He glanced up. He’d not looked at me before, not to see me; I was just the tea maker. "The way it just hangs there," I explained. "Instead of being in corrugations. I ought to have it washed and set. It ought to go in graduated rollers, she knows where she is with that sort of hair. And I don’t like the way she walks. ‘Toddles,’ you said. ‘She’ll toddle round.’ You had it right, there."

"What do you think this is about?" he said.


He nodded. "And I want you to understand that. I’m not shooting her because she doesn’t like the opera. Or because you don’t care for — what in sod’s name do you call it? — her accessories. It’s not about her handbag. It’s not about her hairdo. It’s about Ireland. Only Ireland, right?"

"Oh, I don’t know," I said. "You’re a bit of a fake yourself, I think. You’re no nearer the old country than I am. Your great-uncles didn’t know the words either. So you might want supporting reasons. Adjuncts."

"I was brought up in a tradition," he said. "And look, it brings us here." He looked around, as if he didn’t believe it: the crucial act of a dedicated life, ten minutes from now, with your back to a chipboard wardrobe glossed with white veneer; a pleated paper blind, an unmade bed, a strange woman, and your last tea with no sugar in it. "I think of those boys on hunger strike," he said, "the first of them dead almost two years to the day that she was first elected: did you know that? It took sixty-six days for Bobby to die. And nine other boys not far behind him. After you’ve starved yourself for about forty-five days they say it gets better. You stop dry-heaving and you can take water again. But that’s your last chance, because after fifty days you can hardly see or hear. Your body digests itself. It eats itself in despair. You wonder she can’t laugh? I see nothing to laugh at."

"What can I say?" I asked him. "I agree with everything you’ve said. You go and make the tea and I’ll sit here and mind the gun."

For a moment, he seemed to consider it.

"You’d miss. You’re not trained at all."

"How are you trained?"


"It’s not like a live person. You might shoot the nurses. The doctors."

"I might, at that."

I heard his long, smoker’s cough. "Oh, right, the tea," I said. "But you know another thing? They may have been blind at the end, but their eyes were open when they went into it. You can’t force pity from a government like hers. Why would she negotiate? Why would you expect it? What’s a dozen Irishmen to them? What’s a hundred? All those people, they’re capital punishers. They pretend to be modern, but leave them to themselves and they’d gouge eyes out in the public squares."

"It might not be a bad thing," he said. "Hanging. In some circumstances."

I stared at him. "For an Irish martyr? O.K. Quicker than starving yourself."

"It is that. I can’t fault you there."

"You know what men say, in the pub? They say, name an Irish martyr. They say, go on, go on, you can’t, can you?"

"I could give you a string of names," he said. "They were in the paper. Two years, is that too long to remember?"

"No. But keep up, will you? The people who say this, they’re Englishmen."

"You’re right. They’re Englishmen," he said sadly. "They can’t remember bugger all."

TEN MINUTES, I thought. Ten minutes give or take. In defiance of him, I sidled up to the kitchen window. The street had fallen into its weekend torpor; the crowds were around the corner. They must be expecting her soon. There was a telephone on the kitchen worktop, right by my hand, but if I picked it up he would hear the bedroom extension give its little yip, and he would come out and kill me, not with a bullet but in some less obtrusive way that would not alert the neighbors and spoil his day.

I stood by the kettle while it boiled. I wondered: Has the eye surgery been a success? When she comes out, will she be able to see as normal? Will they have to lead her? Will her eyes be bandaged?

I did not like the picture in my mind. I called out to him, to know the answer. No, he shouted back, the old eyes will be sharp as a tack.

I thought, there’s not a tear in her. Not for the mother in the rain at the bus stop, or the sailor burning in the sea. She sleeps four hours a night. She lives on the fumes of whiskey and the iron in the blood of her prey.

WHEN I TOOK back the second mug of tea, with the demerara stirred in, he had taken off his baggy sweater, which was unraveling at the cuffs; he dresses for the tomb, I thought, layer on layer but it won’t keep out the cold. Under the wool he wore a faded flannel shirt. Its twisted collar curled up; I thought, he looks like a man who does his own laundry. "Hostages to fortune?" I said.

"No," he said, "I don’t get very far with the lasses." He passed a hand over his hair to flatten it, as if the adjustment might change his fortunes. "No kids, well, none I know of."

I gave him his tea. He took a gulp and winced. "After . . ." he said.


"Right after, they’ll know where the shot’s come from, it won’t take any time for them to work that out. Once I get down the stairs and out the front door, they’ll have me right there in the street. I’m going to take the gun, so as soon as they sight me they’ll shoot me dead." He paused and then said, as if I had demurred, "It’s the best way."

"Ah," I said. "I thought you had a plan. I mean, other than getting killed."

"What better plan could I have?" There was only a touch of sarcasm. "It’s a godsend, this. The hospital. Your attic. Your window. You. It’s cheap. It’s clean. It gets the job done, and it costs one man."

I had said to him earlier, violence solves nothing. But it was only a piety, like a grace before meat. I wasn’t attending to its meaning as I said it, and if I thought about it, I felt a hypocrite. It’s only what the strong preach to the weak; you never hear it the other way round; the strong don’t lay down their arms. "What if I could buy you a moment?" I said. "If you were to wear your jacket to the killing, and be ready to go: to leave the widowmaker here, and pick up your empty bag, and walk out like a boiler man, the way you came in?"

"As soon as I walk out of this house I’m done."

"But if you were to walk out of the house next door?"

"And how would that be managed?" he said.

I said, "Come with me."

HE WAS NERVOUS to leave it, his sentry post, but on this promise he must. We still have five minutes, I said, and you know it, so come, leave your gun tidily under your chair. He crowded up behind me in the hall, and I had to tell him to step back so I could open the door. "Put it on the latch," he advised. "It would be a farce if we were shut out on the stairs."

The staircases of these houses have no daylight. You can push a time switch on the wall and flood the landings with a yellow glare. After the allotted two minutes you will be back in the dark. But the darkness is not so deep as you first think.

You stand, breathing gently, evenly, eyes adapting. Feet noiseless on the thick carpets, descend just one half-flight. Listen: the house is silent. The tenants who share this staircase are gone all day. Closed doors annul and muffle the world outside, the cackle of news bulletins from radios, the buzz of the trippers from the top of the town, even the apocalyptic roar of the airplanes as they dip toward Heathrow. The air, uncirculated, has a camphor smell, as if the people who first lived here were creaking open wardrobes, lifting out their mourning clothes. Neither in nor out of the house, visible but not seen, you could lurk here for an hour undisturbed, you could loiter for a day. You could sleep here; you could dream. Neither innocent nor guilty, you could skulk here for decades, while the alderman’s daughter grows old: between step and step, grow old yourself, slip the noose of your name. One day Trinity Place will fall down, in a puff of plaster and powdered bone. Time will draw to a zero point, a dot: angels will pick through the ruins, kicking up the petals from the gutters, arms wrapped in tattered flags.

On the stairs, a whispered word: "And will you kill me?" It is a question you can only ask in the dark.

"I’ll leave you gagged and taped," he says. "In the kitchen. You can tell them I did it the minute I burst in."

"But when will you really do it?" Voice a murmur.

"Just before. No time after."

"You will not. I want to see. I’m not missing this."

"Then I’ll tie you up in the bedroom, O.K.? I’ll tie you up with a view."

"You could let me slip downstairs just before. I’ll take a shopping bag. If nobody sees me go, I’ll say I was out the whole time. But make sure to force my door, won’t you? Like a break-in?"

"I see you know my job."

"I’m learning."

"I thought you wanted to see it happen."

"I’d be able to hear it. It’ll be like the roar from the Roman circus."

"No. We’ll not do that." A touch: hand brushing arm. "Show me this thing. Whatever it is I’m here for, wasting time."

On the half-landing there is a door. It looks like the door to a broom cupboard. But it is heavy. Heavy to pull, hand slipping on the brass knob.

"Fire door."

He leans past and yanks it open.

Behind it, two inches away, another door.


He pushes. Slow glide, dark into matching dark. The same faint, trapped, accumulating scent, the scent of the margin where the private and public worlds meet: raindrops on contract carpet, wet umbrella, damp shoe-leather, metal tang of keys, the salt of metal in palm. But this is the house next door. Look down into the dim well. It is the same, but not. You can step out of that frame and into this. A killer, you enter No. 21. A plumber, you exit No. 20. Beyond the fire door there are other households with other lives. Different histories lie close; they are curled like winter animals, breathing shallow, pulse undetected.

What we need, it is clear, is to buy time. A few moments’ grace to deliver us from a situation that seems unnegotiable. There is a quirk in the building’s structure. It is a slender chance but the only one. From the house next door he will emerge a few yards nearer the end of the street: nearer the right end, away from town and castle, away from the crime. We must assume that despite his bravado he does not intend to die if he can help it: that somewhere in the surrounding streets, illegally parked in a resident’s bay or blocking a resident’s drive, there is a vehicle waiting for him, to convey him beyond reach, and dissolve him as if he had never been.

He hesitates, looking into the dark.

"Try it. Do not put on the light. Do not speak. Step through."

* * *

WHO HAS NOT seen the door in the wall? It is the invalid child’s consolation, the prisoner’s last hope. It is the easy exit for the dying man, who perishes not in the death grip of a rattling gasp, but passes on a sigh, like a falling feather. It is a special door and obeys no laws that govern wood or iron. No locksmith can defeat it, no bailiff kick it in; patrolling policemen pass it, because it is visible only to the eye of faith. Once through it, you return as angles and air, as sparks and flame. That the assassin was a flicker in its frame, you know. Beyond the fire door he melts, and this is how you’ve never seen him on the news. This is how you don’t know his name, his face. This is how, to your certain knowledge, Mrs. Thatcher went on living till she died. But note the door: note the wall: note the power of the door in the wall that you never saw was there. And note the cold wind that blows through it, when you open it a crack. History could always have been otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity: the day, the hour, the slant of the light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near the bypass.

* * *

AND STEPPING BACK, into No. 21, the assassin grunts with laughter.

"Shh!" I say.

"Is that your great suggestion? They shoot me a bit further along the street? O.K., we’ll give it a go. Exit along another line. A little surprise."

Time is short now. We return to the bedroom. He has not said if I shall live or should make other plans. He motions me to the window. "Open it now. Then get back."

He is afraid of a sudden noise that might startle someone below. But though the window is heavy, and sometimes shudders in its frame, the sash slides smoothly upward. He need not fret. The gardens are empty. But over in the hospital, beyond the fences and shrubs, there is movement. They are beginning to come out: not the official party, but a gaggle of nurses in their aprons and caps.

He takes up the widowmaker, lays her tenderly across his knees. He tips his chair forward, and because I see his hands are once more slippery with sweat I bring him a towel and he takes it without speaking, and wipes his palms. Once more I am reminded of something priestly: a sacrifice. A wasp dawdles over the sill. The scent of the gardens is watery, green. The tepid sunshine wobbles in, polishes his shabby brogues, moves shyly across the surface of the dressing table. I want to ask: When what is to happen, happens, will it be noisy? From where I sit? If I sit? Or stand? Stand where? At his shoulder? Perhaps I should kneel and pray.

And now we are seconds from the target. The terrace, the lawns, are twittering with hospital personnel. A receiving line has formed. Doctors, nurses, clerks. The chef joins it, in his whites and a toque. It is a kind of hat I have only seen in children’s picture books. Despite myself, I giggle. I am conscious of every rise and fall of the assassin’s breath. A hush falls: on the gardens, and on us.

High heels on the mossy path. Tippy-tap. Toddle on. She’s making efforts, but getting nowhere very fast. The bag on the arm, slung like a shield. The tailored suit just as I have foreseen, the pussycat bow, a long loop of pearls, and — a new touch — big goggle glasses. Shading her, no doubt, from the trials of the afternoon. Hand extended, she is moving along the line. Now that we are here at last, there is all the time in the world. The gunman kneels, easing into position. He sees what I see, the glittering helmet of hair. He sees it shine like a gold coin in a gutter, he sees it big as the full moon. On the sill the wasp hovers, suspends itself in still air. One easy wink of the world’s blind eye: "Rejoice," he says. "Fucking rejoice."

Copyright © 2014 by Hilary Mantel

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