Selling one’s soul to the devil takes on new meaning in this fiendishly clever page-turner by Fay Weldon. Once upon a time, in the dullest town imaginable, there lived three girls: Laura, the pretty one; Annie, the one desperate to escape; and Carmen, the one who catches the devil’s eye. She’s sixteen when Bernard Bellamy spies her from the back seat of his big, black BMW. He’s just made a bargain with Mephistopheles himself: his mortal soul in exchange for the fulfillment of his desires. And he wants Carmen to be his wife. As time passes, inexplicable things happen to Carmen, Laura, and Annie. But Carmen is determined to hang on to her soul, no matter what obstacles—and temptations—are erected in her path. Will she succumb? Only the devil knows . . .
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By Fay Weldon
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Fay Weldon
All rights reserved.
The world is full of little towns that people want to leave, and scarcely know why. The hills crowd in too closely, they say, or the plains which stretch around are too featureless, or the freeway runs through, or doesn't run through: you can hardly put your finger on the source of their discontent, or indeed your own. There's a doctor, a school, good neighbours, kindness and even friends — it's just you know you have to get out of there or die: let the name of the place be Dullsville, Tennessee, or Borup, Denmark, or Newcastle, New South Wales, or El Ain in the United Arab Emirates, or Fenedge, East Anglia, a kind of sorrow creeps along the streets and drags you down; you can hardly lift your feet to shake it off. The shops in the High Street are forever closed for lunch, or would be better if they were: the houses in the centre may be old, veritable antiquities, but still lack resonance: a tuning fork that declines to twang, dead in the face of all expectation. And if nothing happens you know you'll soon be dead as well, or your soul will be. Some marriages are like this too, but that's another story.
Now it is dangerous to speak these thoughts aloud in case the Devil, in one of the many forms he takes, is flying by; and he often is, especially in such places, for it's here he locates his safe houses, which in its turn may be why you register the place as desolate. By 'a safe house', for those of you not familiar with thrillers, I mean a house maintained by our security services to offer immediate safe haven for anyone under threat or duress. Houses belonging to the Devil will be on the outskirts of town (though sometimes the town creeps up to engulf them); they will be large, ramshackle, damp and crowded by trees but nevertheless have a kind of seedy status. Woe betide anyone who buys such a house, and sometimes the nicest people do, but that too is another story.
Not so long ago three young girls were rash enough to have a dangerous conversation as they walked down a country road just outside Fenedge, East Anglia, England (The World, The Universe, Space, The Cosmos, etc.). They were on their way home from school. Their names were Carmen, Annie and Laura. All three were sixteen, all three had been born in the same week in the same small-town labour ward, all three were close friends, and restless, and all three were virgins. (I know because I know everything that goes on round here.) Not that I necessarily attribute their restlessness to their virgin state, but I do see it as a contributory factor. And the Devil scents restlessness as a dog with its head out of the car scents a rabbit in amongst a thousand other reeking aromas.
'This place is the pits,' said Carmen. She was their leader.
'Dullsville, Tennessee,' said Laura. She was the pretty one.
'We've got to get out of here,' said Annie, who was always desperate.
And on they walked, shuffling the white dust of the autumn road all over their shoes, because they were school shoes and who cared? And the Devil, who just happened to be driving by in his big black BMW, picked up the scent of discontent and entered it into his mind for reference. God may have eyes in the back of his head so everything you do is known to him, but I tell you the Devil is worse. He just observes and presses Enter and there you are, your weakness, your vices, sealed into his awareness for ever, available for instant recall any time he chooses. And he accepts no excuses; he offers no leniency for youth, inexperience or stress. That's you! Too bad!
The Devil, or this particular version of him, for indeed his name is legion, didn't hang around to hear what else the girls might have to say. He'd heard enough. He just stopped alongside them, as if to ask directions, startling them, and then accelerated away, with a throom, throom more evident in racing cars than in BMWs; he was an old-young man with startlingly blue eyes; he wore a navy blue military-style uniform and a chauffeur's cap which cast a shadow over a strong, bony face.
'That driver was a bit of all right,' said Laura. She had a sweet face and a gentle air, and was altogether unalarming. She felt it was her role and her duty to make the best of things.
'Well, that driver wasn't my type,' said Carmen, though she had little idea what her type was. She just felt like contradicting Laura, whose determination always to look on the bright side she saw as dangerous. Carmen had been born with a sense of the dark and terrible profundity of things. If the country roads were awash with men whom Laura thought a bit of all right, how were they ever to get out of Fenedge? Because Annie was right. They had to watch out for themselves and each other, because no one else would do it. The whole world, except for a teacher or two, conspired to keep them exactly where they were for ever, plus a baby or two or three.
'You're so picky,' said Laura, 'you'll cut yourself,' which meant Laura and Carmen weren't talking.
'What would someone like that want with one of us?' asked Annie. 'He took one look and just drove off. Why? Because we're small-time, small-town girls and it shows.' It was in Annie's nature to diminish herself if she possibly could, which was just fine, so long as she didn't include Carmen in her self-assessment.
'Speak for yourself,' said Carmen, and then Annie and Carmen weren't talking.
'You keep bumping me when you walk,' said Laura to Annie, and that was them gone too.
But that's what happens when the Devil passes by. He searches out discontent and then leaves a whole great surging wake of it behind to make things worse, so even friends feel friendship less, and become scratchy and disagreeable with one another.
The three girls walked in silence until they reached Landsfield Crescent, where they lived. Annie was the tallest: she had a long thin body, and knobbly knees and elbows, and a cross unpretty face and short straight brown hair which became greasy unless she washed it every day, and her mother Mavis not only controlled the hot water but maintained that hair should be washed only once a week: Annie looked, and was, a difficult girl. But she was not like anyone else, which was why Carmen kept her company. And Laura could confide in her and trust her to listen and keep secrets, and Carmen and Laura were best friends and thus the three of them combined to form their own special pact against the world.
Carmen was shorter than Annie but taller than Laura. Her legs were not as long as they could have been, her nose was too large for comfort, her brown eyes so large you could see the whites beneath the pupils, her hair dark and profuse, her complexion sallow, and her mouth sulky. This, at least, was what she saw when she stared at herself in the mirror, as she did a great deal, trying to relate the sense of herself as 'I' to the notion other people had of her as 'you', or, more remotely still, as 'she'. Others saw something different.
Bernard Bellamy did, as the black BMW, Driver at the wheel, Mr Bellamy in the back, returned along the road just as the girls, still in their sulky silence, turned into Landsfield Crescent.
'Hey, stop, Driver,' he said. 'Back up a bit.' And Driver did, the car obeying him like magic, smooth and silky even in reverse, and Bernard Bellamy looked straight into Carmen's eyes, and saw something there that made him think this is the girl I am going to marry, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his having been married three times already and being older than Carmen by God knows how many years.
'That's the girl for me,' said Bernard Bellamy, and Driver said, 'Oh yes? Well, there's one or two things we have to get straight first,' and they drove on.
They had a strange relationship, these two. If you see Driver as Mephistopheles and Bernard as Faust you're getting somewhere near it, though since the century is what it is, Bernard was not so much a man weary of intellectual achievement as bored with plain straightforward money-making, a talent which in the contemporary world is not as well regarded as you might think. Friends drink your champagne and sneer, and your soul shrivels up. To Driver, a shrivelling soul is as mad a waste as letting a £5 peach from Harrods wither forgotten on the shelf. Better gobble it up while it's soft and fresh and delicious.
It was dusk, and Driver switched on the headlights, and the back lights glowed red in the autumn air as the car departed, and seemed to hang around a long time, and crows, rising in flocks from the trees that lined the road as the car passed, flapped black wings edged with red.
Around here the land is flat and drained. The people of Fenedge — a place smaller than a town, larger than a village, altogether indeterminate, in fact — will say, 'The sea? A couple of miles away.' Or 'five miles away' or 'just down the road', depending on what they think you want to hear, and because they are themselves unsure. The margins between sea and land are unclear. Personally I prefer seas which crash and wallop against a high shore, so you can be absolutely certain where water and earth collide, and appreciate the tumultuousness of their meeting: beaches where the tides rush up and rush out again over rocks, leaving crabs scuttling for cover, and anemones battered but waving their applause. Not for us, not in Dullsville, Somewhere-Near-The-Sea.CHAPTER 2
Be all that as it may, Carmen was sixteen when Bernard Bellamy first set eyes on her where the road to the coast meets Landsfield Crescent. Driver had been working for him for four months. During that time Bernard had been divorced by a very disagreeable and unloving wife, and his disposable income had risen by twenty-six per cent, one per cent of which he gave to charity. The Bellamy soul was beginning to revive. Such things can take a long time, but Driver had all the time in the world. The Devil's central being takes many forms. If you can be everywhere at once all kinds of things are possible, and what's time anyway?
I ask myself this as I sit in my wheelchair at the window of 8 Landsfield Crescent and life ticks away, and come to the conclusion that what we mean by time is the measurement of change. I have sat here for seventeen years, as long as the Crescent has been in existence. I have watched trees grow from saplings set in mud, and climbing roses creep up concrete walls — that's the good news — and the skin on the back of my hand change from smooth to wrinkled — that's the bad. The Crescent is a short, curved road on the outskirts of Fenedge, central to a housing development which never really happened, apart from this one road which shoots unnaturally out of the town, as if one of a cloud of gnats had strayed too far from the centre and couldn't get back to its gestalt, no matter how it tried. The Crescent houses are detached, ticky-tacky boxes, all trim and no substance, each one with a small front garden, a larger back one, fenced off from the beet fields which surround us. We are without natural shelter: it is not a proper place for human habitation. The wind blows rough and hard up here, and sometimes you can smell the salt sea in it, and sometimes the slurry the farmers use to help the beet crops grow.
Carmen, Annie and Laura, as I say, were born in the same week. I watched the ambulances turn into Landsfield Crescent to take their labouring mothers to the hospital, watched them return, one, two, three. I blessed them in my mind, one, two, three, as if I were the Fairy Godmother, because, knowing their mothers, it seemed to me they needed all the help they could get. I looked forward to watching the babies grow and change, to see how time and event worked through them. The better to do it, I developed the art of seeing through walls, overhearing what could not be heard. I have nothing else to do but develop these arts. Sometimes I get taken out by my social worker, or friends; mostly I just sit here at the window and wait for Carmen, Annie and Laura to pass and wave and reanimate with their actual presence their continuing story in my mind. When you think you can see through your neighbours' walls what is fact and what is fiction is hard to distinguish.
Let me reassure you it was not coincidence — for readers hate coincidence — that led to the girls being born in the same week; rather a matter of housing policy. Compulsory Redevelopment had led to a generous relocation scheme in which heavily pregnant women received priority: Carmen's parents Raelene and Andy had been housed next door to Laura's parents Kim and Audrey, opposite Annie's mother and father Mavis and Alan; next door to me. I also received priority, not because I was pregnant, but as a consolation prize because I am so severely disabled as to need a miracle to become so. At least I have a pleasant window to look out of. The girls' families would normally not have granted two companionable words to one another, except that propinquity, and the nervousness endemic to enforced relocation, obliged them to, at least for a time. (As for me, I speak to whoever is prepared to speak to me: I'm not proud.) Now, sixteen years later, the three families are once again neighbours rather than friends: only their first-born remain attached to one another, bound together by common cause, common experience, sisters in their imagination. And they all still wave at me, but that might be habit, not kindliness.
Sometimes I wonder whether in fact it's I myself, sitting in my window, who control their lives, and not just fate; I who set Driver and Bernard Bellamy down the tree-lined road to encounter the girls as they walked home from the little station at Fenedge Halt. Perhaps it was I myself who, on a bored day, initiated the trouble between Kim and Audrey, the melding of Count Capinski into Mavis's mind, to Alan's distress, and rendered Andy unemployed and Raelene miserable and did it irresponsibly, and all just to liven things up a little down here on Landsfield Crescent: a Bad Fairy, after all, not in the least Good.
But then I remember that a sense of omnipotence can be a symptom of mental illness, and put the notion from my mind. I live in fear of going mad, just to add to my other troubles.
Look at it like this: on the day I summoned Driver out of the flat East Anglian landscape, set him uniformed and gaitered and bright-blue-eyed at the wheel of a blackBMW, flickered hell fire through the evening sky to scare the crows, created Bernard Bellamy as both the tempter and the tempted, I did it in response to Carmen, Laura and Annie's desire just to get out of here. I was being helpful, honestly. Creating a window of opportunity for them to leap out of.
'But how do we get out of here?' asked Laura, before they parted. (Driver being a long way off, ill temper just evaporated.) 'Out of Dullsville, Tennessee? How does a girl ever get out?'
'You can work your way out, you can sleep your way out,' replied Carmen. 'You can sell your soul to the Devil.'
'Bags I work,' said Annie, who always believed that if it hurt it was good for you.
'Bags I sleep,' said Laura, but she kept her fingers crossed while she spoke. She believed in love, romance and fidelity, but hardly liked to say so.
'That leaves me,' said Carmen sadly, 'to sell my soul to the Devil.'
And they went into their respective homes, to face whatever there was to face.
Laura's fate waited for her outside the front gate. He was seventeen and had zits; he leaned against his motor scooter. He wore a leather jacket and he had soulful brown eyes and a dogged demeanour. Laura ignored him. She walked straight past him and into her house and Carmen and Annie watched and giggled, and Woodie pretended not to hear them.
Now although Laura accepted her fate she meant to fight it off as long as she could, at least until Woodie had grown out of his zits, had calmed down and could earn an honest living. He was studying technical drawing and carpentry at a college in Norwich, but could think only of Laura. He'd taken her outside at an end-of-term disco and kissed her under the moon, and some kind of yellowy light had pierced through to the marrow of his bones, so now, as he put it, 'She's in my system, for good or bad,' but alas he wasn't in hers, not yet. He knew he would be, one day.
Audrey, Laura's mother, opened the window and spoke to Woodie. She wore a flowered cotton dress, and her arms and her face were thin, but her voice was strong. Laura took after her father Kim, both of them being on the fleshy side, and soft-voiced.
Excerpted from Growing Rich by Fay Weldon. Copyright © 1992 Fay Weldon. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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