Wicked Women: Storiesby Fay Weldon
Victims, liberators, blackmailers, healers, and ghosts—they’re just a few of the fascinating men and women you’ll meet in this stellar, boundary-defying anthology.
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A New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Wicked Women brings together twenty tales that lay bare the minds and hearts of men, women, and children
Victims, liberators, blackmailers, healers, and ghosts—they’re just a few of the fascinating men and women you’ll meet in this stellar, boundary-defying anthology.
From a heartless lover to a therapist who’s exposed for being a child hater, Weldon’s characters search for meaning, betray their vows, take pleasure in others’ misfortunes, or get pushed out of the family manse by their grasping offspring.
Whether she’s depicting a child’s reaction to the chaotic lives of her parents, or envisioning a terrifying futuristic society, Fay Weldon wields her prolific pen like a sword. In a pre-apocalyptic world where nothing is sacred, Wicked Women reveals the infinite ability of men and women to wound, to grieve, and to love.
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By Fay Weldon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1997 Fay Weldon
All rights reserved.
END OF THE LINE
"There's a girl called Weena Dodds on the end of the line," said Elaine Desmond.
"Tell her I'm busy," said Defoe Desmond, her husband. They were fiftyfiveish. Both were personable and attractive. They lived in a secluded Grade I listed property.
"She's from the New Age Times," said Elaine. "And she wants to talk to you about Red Mercury."
"Red Mercury's a hoax," he said, "and the New Age Times is a streak of shit. Tell her to go away."
Elaine couched his response in gentler terms, but Weena Dodds would not go away.
"What's he fucking afraid of?" Weena demanded. "What's he so guilty about? Ask him!"
"I am afraid of nothing and guilty about nothing," said Defoe Desmond to his wife. "Tell Weena Dodds she can have her interview."
Elaine explained to Weena that Drewlove Village was at the end of the line. Weena would need to change at Westbury Junction, and start out from London at 9 a.m. to arrive at midday. Then she should take a taxi. The interview would last an hour. Elaine was sorry she could not offer lunch, but there would at least be coffee.
"All that way and no lunch," said Weena to her editor, Dervish Wilton. "What a bitch she sounds. Just like my mother."
"Find out why the Defoe Desmond show was really axed," said the editor of the New Age Times, who was thirtyish and had dark eyes as cold as Stalin's. "You're not going for the food."
"I'm going First Class," warned Weena Dodds. "I'm not roughing it in Standard."
"You're lucky I don't make you cycle down," said the editor. "There's a dozen Vegan girls out there already lining up for your job."
"Let 'em line," said Weena. She was safe enough. She blow-jobbed the editor on Friday afternoons, and not many Vegan girls would do that these days, not even for the sake of employment. The old world and the new criss-crossed each other. You could turn them both to your advantage if you had the instinct. She was a pretty girl with a prim mouth and wide eyes, a smooth high forehead and a great deal of frizzy hair, and a bosom plumper than she wanted it to be. Sometimes she shaved the hair back from her forehead: then she had a bland, medieval look. But it was a problem when the hair was growing back. She had to stay at home.
"What do you reckon the girl from the New Age Times looks like?" asked Defoe.
"Lank-haired," said Elaine, "from the sound of her voice. It had a nasal whine."
"Ah," said Defoe. He was sketching a nuclear warhead on his architectural drawing board, prior to Weena's arrival. Six slugs of Red Mercury backed six slugs of plutonium, all focusing in on a central point, where he helpfully wrote, "POW! CRITICAL!" Underneath he wrote, "A neutron bomb in a golf ball!"
"Isn't that rather too jokey?" enquired Elaine. "You don't want even the New Age Times to do a hatchet job."
"I have been so hacked to pieces already," said Defoe, "a hatchet would have nothing with which to engage."
Defoe's TV science show had recently been pulled. Ratings had fallen with the end of the Cold War. No one feared nuclear extinction any more. Death by passive smoking seemed a more prescient danger. The world was bored by Defoe's pacings, up and down, up and down across the studio floor, as he explained the mechanics of the nuclear apocalypse at length for the home market, in snippets for CNN, and many a broadsheet and yellow sheet had remarked upon it, and he chafed.
"Tell me more about how you see Weena Dodds," said Defoe.
"Unblinking," said Elaine. "Therapists, New Agers and Born Again Christians seldom blink. A blink marks the mind's registration of a new idea. Converts have no intention of receiving new ideas. They know already all they want to know."
"I see," said Defoe, "that you already have a prejudice against the girl. Well, I will have to be nice to her to make up for it."
"She has a strange name," said Elaine. "Weena Dodds! What kind of parents name their child Weena? How did they expect her to turn out?"
"I expect they were fans of H. G. Wells," said Defoe. "I expect they had read The Time Machine. Weena was the name of the little creature who befriended the Time Traveller. She was an Eloi. In the distant future, Elois skipped about and danced and sang on the surface of the earth; Morlocks toiled below the ground, dealing with the intricate workings of the universe. They lived in the fetid dark, dwarfish mechanics, and surfaced only to herd the Eloi for food." Defoe liked to give instruction.
"And the Time Traveller brought her home with him?" asked Elaine.
"I seem to remember," said Defoe, "that the Morlocks ate her before he could."
"You are the chief Morlock," said Elaine. "I am glad I didn't ask her to lunch, for her sake."
"I can't stand wives," said Weena Dodds to her mother Francine that night. They were doomed to live together, it seemed, mother and daughter, for reasons of commerce and comfort.
"I was your father's wife," said Francine. She was an elegant, unemotional woman, doing a further degree in Clinical Psychology.
"Exactly," said Weena. "You always acted as if you owned him."
"I did," said Francine. They decided, mutely, not to take the argument further. Both were tired.
"What a bitch!" said Weena, playing for sympathy instead. "All the way to the end of the line and not even any lunch."
"You could do without lunch," said Francine, who had been born thin and attributed her daughter's tendency to put on weight as lack of self-control. Weena burst into tears and ran from the room.
Weena called her friend Hattie.
"My mother is such a bitch," Weena said. "She killed my father, you know. People only get cancer if they're unhappy."
"My father killed my mother," said Hattie gloomily, "in that case."
"It was stomach cancer," said Weena. "Even after it was diagnosed, she wouldn't go over to health foods. She kept on feeding my father meat, not to mention animal fats."
"My mother was the worst cook in the world," said Hattie. It wasn't so much that they conversed, these two, as set each other off. "My father says it contributed to her early death. It was stomach cancer, too."
"It isn't healthy to live with one's mother," observed Weena. "I'd move out, only I know my father always intended me to have the apartment. It was just the inheritance laws stopped him so now we have to share."
"Couldn't one or the other of you buy the other out?"
"Yes, but which one? We both want it. Guess where I'm going tomorrow?"
"Where?" asked Hattie.
"To interview Defoe Desmond."
"That man who used to be on the TV?"
"That's right," said Weena.
"What on earth for?"
"There's this new stuff called Red Mercury they say could blow up the world."
"Never heard of it," said Hattie.
"That's the point," said Weena. "It's used in neutron bombs. Neutron bombs kill people but preserve property. So they're keeping it a secret."
"They are awful," said Hattie bleakly. "What news on the Bob front?"
"Still pattering along behind," said Weena, "breathing halitosis over my hopes." Bob was Senior Editor at a Publishing House, and forty-fiveish.
"Men are awful," agreed Hattie. She was trying to paint her toenails and speak on the phone at the same time.
"I blame his wife," said Weena. "First she said she loved him, and wouldn't leave him alone; then she threatened to burn us alive in our bed, so we had to go into hiding; then she changed her mind and left him, and now it's over between us and he needs her she won't even go back to him. God, women can be bitches."
"It sometimes seems to me, Weena," said Hattie, "that once they've left their wives for you, that's when you lose interest."
"I suppose you could see it like that," said Weena, "or you could see it as men trying to reduce you to wife status the moment they get you, and me fighting back. I would have thought a friend would see it the second way."
"Sorry," said Hattie. "I thought friends were the ones who were meant to tell you the truth. Well if Bob's going free, perhaps I should take him up? He has money and influence. I think you're mad to let him go."
Weena shivered and drew the conversation to an end. Once a man was rejected, he ought to stay rejected, and by everyone she knew. She went and said she was sorry to her mother, for no rhyme or reason, and took herself off to bed. She still had teddy bears on her counterpane and liked to cuddle them.
Elaine showed a couple called the Swains, David and Lila, around Drewlove House. The property was for sale.
"I like the way the house is at the end of a line," said Lila, "and then you take this journey into the woods, and suddenly there it is, a little piece of old England." Lila was from Bangladesh and had an American accent. David nudged her and she said, "Oh, sorry."
"It should perhaps be better described as remote, not secluded," said David. He was tall, thin, whiter than white, blond and had a receding chin.
"Just you and me," said Lila, twitching her sari to stop the gold and red fabric trailing in the cat's saucer of milk. They were in the kitchen, Aga-warmed. There were spring flowers on the table especially for the occasion. "You and me. Safe from the world's stare. Nature is so much kinder than people."
"We were looking for somewhere more accessible to London," said David Swain. "That wait at Westbury Junction certainly lowers the value of the place," and as Lila opened her mouth to speak, he nudged her and she shut it again.
"I'm surprised you want to sell," David Swain said as they walked through the garden, and Lila fell on her knees in front of a frilly double tulip of particular attractiveness. "If, as you say, it's been in your family for some generations."
"There has been a rather sudden change in our circumstances," said Elaine.
"The names on the deeds of Drewlove House are a matter of public record—one likes to get these details straight before contemplating purchase. Do get up, Lila. You are making your sari dirty."
"I am a Drewlove," said Elaine, pleasantly. "My mother lost the house, gambling, in 1941, when I was little, which as you can imagine caused quite a family upset. My mother lost to a local builder, a Mr. Malcolm Trott. Had she won, she would have owned the Trott farm. Mr. Trott, being no gentleman, held her to her gambling debt. She would have done the same to him, no doubt. The house was presently requisitioned by, and later bought by, the Ministry of Defence, who then sold it to my husband, on our marriage. My husband was at the time a young scientist working for the Ministry. So the names on the Land Registry should read, since 1785, Drewlove after Drewlove, with various mortgaging, surrendering, conveyancing, further charging, of various lands and buildings to the Family Trott; the whole lot going to Malcolm Trott in 1941, who won in the end; to the MOD in 1947, and from MOD to Desmond in 1963. Okay?"
"That was a very full explanation," said David Swain, appearing satisfied. They were back inside the house by now. Elaine had talked all the way. David Swain drummed his sweaty fingers on an Aga especially cleaned and polished for his visit. "Thank you for it. I know you understand that in the circumstances some explanation was certainly called for."
"Would you like to see the Granny flat?" asked Elaine.
"I don't have a family," said Lila. "They have disowned me."
"One moment," said David Swain. "There is something fishy going on here. How come your mother's name was Drewlove? There should be another name there somewhere if that cock-and-bull story is true."
"My mother," said Elaine, "never married. She was a very fishy woman. I am illegitimate. And I do not want you living in my family home; it will take you twenty minutes to walk to the station, the end of the line. My phone is out of order, or I would call you a taxi."
"I heard it ringing just now," said Lila.
"It does that sometimes," said Elaine. "The lines round here can be very bad. You had better go now, and hurry, or you will have to wait hours for your next connection."
"The Swains went away quickly," said Defoe.
"Not soon enough," said Elaine.
"We don't have to sell this house," said Defoe.
"You haven't seen this morning's letter from the bank," said Elaine. "We do. They say it's the end of the line."
"Perhaps this house is unlucky," said Defoe.
"It was okay until they extended the railway line, in 1919. That was the year my mother was born," said Elaine. "And things go wrong anyway. One can hardly attribute all cosmic events to a verbal pun. One can hardly say we lost our income because you lost your job because the world lost interest in the nuclear threat because our house is at the end of the line."
"Some could," said Defoe. "Someone like the girl from the New Age Times could very well. New Agers drive winsome thoughts between ordinary notions of cause and effect."
And his eyes drifted towards the window, to see if Weena Dodds was coming up the path. She was.
Elaine opened the door to Weena. Weena saw a woman who was a dead-ringer for her mother Francine, but without scarves and earrings. Her nails were broken and she was without eye make-up, which for someone of her age was foolish. This woman had clearly lived in the country too long.
"There wasn't a taxi at the station," said Weena. "I had to walk."
"Walking would do you no harm," said Elaine, "from the look of you." Weena seemed to be a heterosexual version of her own daughter Daphne. Just one of those things.
"The bitch, the bitch!" said Weena to Hattie that night on the phone. "I expect she was jealous," said Hattie. "Probably flat as a board herself." Hattie had a nice little bosom herself, just about right. Weena giggled.
"Not flat," said Weena. "There are advantages to flat. Just shapeless. You know how wives and mothers get."
"I expect you had your revenge," said Hattie.
"Oh, I did," said Weena. "I did."
"Well," said Defoe, waiting until his wife had left the room, "this is a surprise. I didn't think you'd have the nerve. I want my £20 back."
"The £20 you stole from my wallet while I was asleep."
"That was the point," she said. "I always take money from a man's wallet if he falls asleep after sex. It's policy. It repairs my self-esteem."
"I was tired," Defoe said. "It was after the show. You had no mercy. I am a tired old married man."
"You could have fooled me," she said. "And the wallet was so stuffed I'm surprised you noticed."
"That was before Nemesis fell," he said. "I could do with every penny now."
"Not Nemesis," she said, "but Karma. We all get what we deserve. But I know the feeling."
"We get what we deserve!" he marvelled. "Do you honestly believe that?"
"I got you that night," she said, smiling her pretty smile, "so I must have done something right."
"When I called the number you gave," he said, "the woman who answered said she didn't know who you were."
Excerpted from Wicked Women by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 1997 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Novelist, playwright, and screenwriter Fay Weldon was born in England, brought up in New Zealand, and returned to the United Kingdom when she was fifteen. She studied economics and psychology at the University of St Andrews in Scotland. She worked briefly for the Foreign Office in London, then as a journalist, and then as an advertising copywriter. She later gave up her career in advertising, and began to write fulltime. Her first novel, The Fat Woman’s Joke, was published in 1967. She was chair of the judges for the Booker Prize for fiction in 1983, and received an honorary doctorate from the University of St Andrews in 1990. In 2001, she was named a Commander of the British Empire. Weldon’s work includes more than twenty novels, five collections of short stories, several children’s books, nonfiction books, magazine articles, and a number of plays written for television, radio, and the stage, including the pilot episode for the television series Upstairs Downstairs. She-Devil, the film adaption of her 1983 novel The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, starred Meryl Streep in a Golden Globe–winning role.
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