Pillars of Gold (Common Reader Editions)by Alice Thomas Ellis, Thomas Meagher (Afterword)
Scarlet lives in North London in a working-class neighborhood slowly becoming gentrified. Divorced, but now married to upwardly mobile advertising executive Brian, she spends her time obsessing over the welfare of her daughter Camille and such issues as food irradiation and pollution. Deeply unhappy with her family, her life, and her world, Scarlet confides in Constance, her friend and neighbor who runs in dubious circles of borderline criminals. Constance's life is complicated by an on-again, off-again liaison with a Turk named Mehmet. When their neighbor Barbs disappears, both women are forced to reassess their convictions - and their lives.
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- Akadine Press, The
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- 5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.60(d)
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Schoolchildren fled in terror, weeping as police dragged the bloodstained body of a woman from the canal at Princes Lock last Tuesday afternoon at 2 p.m. A teacher when interviewed stated: 'It was disgusting, the police showed no sensitivity at all ...'
Brian, having read this paragraph in last week's local newspaper, put it aside, rose to his feet, kissed his wife with the words 'Love you' and left ostensibly for his place of work.
His stepdaughter also left ostensibly for school. She had not sat down to breakfast, preferring to eat a handful of dry Puffkins while she sought her shoes, nor did she utter any words of affectionate farewell, not being one for dissimulation. She was at that age.
She walked through the streets until she came to the litter of a part of town which teetered unbecomingly between abject decline and frenzied development. Here she picked her way to the bar currently favoured by herself and her friends. It was Spanish in intention and remarkably expensive, selling those spicy morsels which are given away with drinks in more liberal countries.
As it was not yet open, she sat on the step beside a broken box of rotting plums and watched the market traders going about their business: they all seemed to be in their usual mood of precarious good humour which could splinter at any moment into invective and menacing gesture. Camille took all this for granted, as she accepted without surprise the rows of adjacent stalls and shops selling leather jackets and boots, videos andsandwiches, samosas and scorched sausages. Most local commercial outlets dealt in things to wear or watch or eat. There was also a large new bookshop and several shops selling stationery and filing cabinets and offering the opportunity of faxing or photocopying documents of such significance that they must be duplicated, but Camille's mother could not buy a mop bucket or a length of elastic or a wheel of cheese without going to the centre of town. Camille, of course, did not care a bit since she had never felt the need of such things.
'Hi,' said her best friend, Sam, sitting down beside her and placing her bag of school books on an extended stain of dried urine.
'Good morning,' said Camille jovially.
'What's wrong with you?' inquired Sam. 'You sound happy.'
Camille was disconcerted. She and her friends seldom discussed the concept of happiness: when they were not either bored or depressed they were having a good time and enjoying themselves. To Camille the word 'happy' had an archaic ring. 'Only babies are happy,' she said.
'They are, aren't they?' said Sam, beginning to giggle. 'All fat and bubbly and chubbly and cootchy-wootchy-coo.'
They clutched each other and swayed back and forth, breathless with laughter.
'Morning, girls,' said one of the younger market men, pushing an empty trolley near to their feet.
Sam said, 'Morning,' but Camille glanced at him haughtily and looked away: she considered that she had no time for the working classes, although her mother's best friend had been brought up here in the olden days before the supermarkets and the middle class had come to compete for space. She was different. Constance was Constance.
'What shall we do?' asked Sam.
'You going to school?' asked Camille.
'I got to later,' said Sam, 'or she'll ring my mum.' Sam was going to a tutorial college, where the staff tended to keep a close eye on their pupils, being moderately well paid to do so, while Camille was still at a local comprehensive where the teachers no longer cared much about anything.
'Bitch,' said Camille, commiseratingly.
'Yeah, well,' said Sam, who was a year older, 'but they do teach you properly.' She wore the expression of a catechumen, raw and as yet uninitiated, who dimly sees the advantages of the otherwise disagreeable course before her. Camille leaned across and dropped a rotten plum on her school books.
'You cow,' cried Sam, without malice: only a few months ago she would have pressed the plum into her friend's hair, but now she threw it on to the pavement where it lay easily among the cabbage stalks and traces of vomit.
'What'll I do?' asked Camille.
'You can hang round the Lock,' said Sam. 'Or,' she added, as one who makes a surprisingly original suggestion, 'you could go to school.'
'I got Social Studies,' said Camille, unanswerably.
'Yeah, well,' said Sam again. They watched a woman, who could not have been long in this country, testing a mango for ripeness: she felt it all over with her thumb, not looking at it, concentrated, unsmiling, until the stall holder, ever-vigilant, caught sight of her. The expected outburst over, Sam said, 'We should have warned her.'
'She wouldn't've understood,' said Camille. 'Grandma says this is the only country in the world where they won't let you feel the fruit.'
'Still,' said Sam, 'they let the dossers pick up the ones they throw out.'
'Decent of them,' said Camille, and again they bent over, limp with mirth. The doors of the bar opened behind them and they went in to order hot chocolate from the rather older part-time student who had learned the advisability of doing something to earn a little money and had taken several jobs as a waitress. Sam and Camille thought her hopelessly wet.
Scarlet, left alone in the house, looked at the breakfast table in horrified disgust: this feeling had first started some time before she couldn't remember when as boredom. She had managed to cope with it by listening to the radio, playing tapes, even turning on breakfast television until its unremitting triviality had threatened to drive her even madder than she had felt herself going already. Now she thought that if she had to clear the table once more, put the few plates in the dish-washer, put the cereal packet away, brush the crumbs from the table top, she would scream and go on screaming: scream until the plaster started to crack from the walls and the neighbours gathered to stand whispering outside the window and the cat fled in terror. She ought to feed the cat and then there was the washing. The builder should be summoned to scrutinize the small growth on the pantry's outer wall, and her husband had informed her that the bank had made another balls-up and requested her to deal with it. Tonight they were going to the theatre.
Examining her responses to this normal catalogue of everyday events, of life, she found that she wished she was dead, had been dead for some time, so that she was used to it: and then she thought that if she had been dead for long enough, she would probably be bored with that by now. She decided that what she felt was panic, the terror of being trapped not in too small but in too large a space, where too much could happen and go beyond control. She knew, from reading and from subjection to the media, that she was not alone in her distress: the world was full of nutty housewives, many of them probably just round the corner, since she lived in a district famed countrywide for feminism and madness. Some were suffering from post-parturition melancholy, some from the effects of withdrawal from Valium; many were single mothers and many the victims of spouse or 'partner' abuse.
Scarlet hated the word 'partner'. She began to make a mental list of words she hated. 'Meal' and 'choice' and 'portion' and 'mutual' and 'caring' and 'unwaged' and 'second home' and 'home'. Then she began on a list of words she liked, but all she could think of was 'fireplace'. After a while she thought of 'angel' and wrote it down on the telephone pad.
'Mum's dumb,' explained Camille to her friend Tim, as they sat sipping Coke on the banks of the canal. 'She doesn't understand anything.'
'You mean,' observed Tim sagaciously, 'she doesn't know you' re bunking off school.'
'She wouldn't care,' said Camille.
'I bet she would if she knew,' said Tim. 'I bet she'd go bananas.'
'Well, she won't know if nobody tells her,' said Camille, but, in truth, she knew she could depend on the discretion of her friends. They would lie like flatfish to protect each other from parental awareness, and so certain were they of the rightness of their cause which was, in many cases, the pursuit of uninterrupted idleness and pleasure that no one could disbelieve them. They were a generation of large, well-nourished, beautiful children with silken hair, smooth skin and clear eyes. Some of them had taken drugs, but on the whole this was regarded as both old-fashioned and Working-class, so swiftly do perceptions and attitudes change. On the other hand, when they got the chance, they drank more than was good for them, and they all smoked, either surreptitiously or openly, depending on where they were and the various fashions in tolerance among their parents, some of whom still smoked cannabis to the scorn of their offspring. They were all also, in one way or another, prejudiced and snobbish, although they would have denied this with their dying breath. Colour and caste were immaterial to them, but poverty they despised: not the real poverty of the dispossessed, the homeless and derelict, with whom, bizarrely, they tended to identify, but the poverty of those who were forced to work in uncongenial jobs. The maternal words 'If you don't study hard, you'll end up on the check-out counter at Tesco's' had had, if not the intended effect, the result of causing Camille and her friends to look down on shop assistants, bank clerks and bus drivers: for more recondite reasons of their own they also held in contempt estate and travel agents and people who worked in advertising. Camille's stepfather worked in advertising.
'He's such a jerk,' she remarked, remembering him as he left the breakfast table clad in the dark, light-weight suit which hung uneasily between an older idea of what was appropriate to the businessman and the current notion that, since it was no longer altogether cool to be a businessman, the person in the fast lane to wealth should appear relaxed and unconstrained. Brian could not bring himself to discard collar and tie but looked, always, slightly ashamed of them.
'He's nice to me,' said Tim.
'He's nice to everyone,' said Camille, 'he thinks. He goes, "Oh, have a drink, old boy," and he thinks people like him.'
'I like him,' said Tim.
'You don't know him,' said Camille.
'He doesn't beat you up or rape you, does he?' asked Tim.
It had not previously occurred to Camille that he might. 'No,' she conceded, 'but he's always there.'
With some reluctance, for this generation was not free of sexual solidarity, Tim had to agree that he knew what she meant. His own father's mistress had a habit of always being there. She could be a nuisance: she would remind his father that his exams or a dental appointment were due, or comment adversely on the state of his room. Not, thought Tim, because she greatly cared for his welfare but because she liked interfering. He was rather sorry for his father.
'They mean well,' he said.
'Oh, Tim, you're so Christian,' said Camille.
'You should meet my friend Chris,' said Tim. 'You'd like him. You'd get on well together.'
'I hate men,' said Camille.
'Charming,' said Tim.
'Not you,' said Camille. 'You don't count as men.'
Just before midday Camille drifted into an even more expensive bar-restaurant further down the road. She only had about fifty pence left from the money she had borrowed from her stepfather the day before, but she hoped that the young Italian barman, who fancied her, had not yet been sacked or moved on and would give her a margarita, free. Other customers, strangers, sometimes offered to buy her drinks, but it was against her principles to accept them. A small, fat, rich man sat ogling girls' legs: he was there most days and represented everything Camille most despised: she thought that he imagined he was living in a Continental fashion.
Her stepfather, who had been there since he left home, drinking coffee and mineral water and reading the papers, turned his chair slightly, so that she would not be able to see his face, supposing that one adult male back would look much like another to those of Camille's generation: his wife, he thought, would have recognized him from any angle. Thinking of this, he wondered why he was feeling guilty, since from the professional point of view he was working that is, he was having a working breakfast with some colleagues. They hadn't arrived yet, because they had been held up in the traffic, but they would be along in time for an early lunch. This was all quite accepted, but he couldn't rid himself of the memory of his wife gazing blankly at the breakfast table with only the prospect of clearing it. Although he knew she would be bored if she was here, he still felt uneasy. His first wife had left him to become a theatrical agent because she didn't want to be just a housewife. So she said. The truth was she hadn't wanted to be a housewife at all: she had wanted someone else to do the washing and the shopping and the cooking and to mind the child while she breakfasted with clients. This had been doubly hurtful, for it meant that she not only did not want to work for and look after him but preferred his lifestyle to her own, and by implication (for she was a lazy woman) that meant that she considered what he did not to be work at all, merely a pleasurable means of making a great deal of money. He had been in the habit, as he left in the mornings, of saying, 'Well, I'm off to work now,' until one day, shortly before she deserted, she had, at those words, slammed shut the door of the dishwasher with a crash that shattered a wine glass and shouted at him: she had inquired, without much originality, what he thought she did all day, whether he imagined that cooking and shopping and washing and minding the child was not work, whether he supposed that she would now retire to her bed and lie there sucking chocolate bars and examining her fingernails until he chose to return for dinner. She had said much more, and while he had not listened closely, he had got the gist. He was certain that Scarlet would never behave so irrationally but could not quite rid himself of the image of the breakfast table.
There was a current copy of the local rag lying on the chair beside him: he had read The Times and the Independent and now turned to the more microcosmic news. As he was not an insensitive or a brave man, the larger items in the national dailies frequently upset him and clouded his mind with vague anxieties. He remembered the local papers of his youth, with their accounts of flower shows, weddings and the meetings of societies.
The local rag still contained these, but they were outnumbered by descriptions of neighbourhood robberies, muggings, drug-trafficking, rapes and murders. On the front page was a story about an old man who had lain dead in his council flat for eighteen months until Gas Board workers had discovered him, a blurred photograph of some local women who were going somewhere in a body to protest about something and a larger picture of a council dignitary opening some sort of centre and looking pleased with himself. The impression that things had got worse was inescapable.
There was a letter relevant to the murder item he had seen that morning, and he read it through, frowning. The headmistress and the governors of the school named were justly irate, for, they stated with concerted vehemence, no child had witnessed the recovery of the body of a murder victim from the canal: those children who had not been making stegosauruses out of old egg boxes had been learning an Ashanti war dance, and not one had been in the playground, which was the only vantage point from which body recovery would be observable. Nor, added the headmistress and governors roundly, before appending their names, had any teacher expressed dissatisfaction with the behaviour of the police, for no teacher had been interviewed by a reporter. Brian was shocked: this was not the usual journalistic inaccuracy but downright lying. The blurring of the precise borders between fact and fantasy was one thing, untruth another.
He had to think like this because of the nature of his employment, whereby he was often required to make inflated claims for the nature and properties of the products which his clients wished to bring to the daily notice of the populace. He had learned never to say deprecatingly, as some of his colleagues thought it polished to do, that he was ashamed of his profession because that would sound as though he was, and in a way he was. He never admitted this to himself in so many words, which was probably why he had occasional attacks of breathlessness and a tendency to develop a rash behind his ears. That, at any rate, would have been the diagnosis of Scarlet's therapist.
Turning back to the local rag he learned that the police had as yet no clue to the identity of the woman whose body had been fished out of the canal. It was a terrible world where people could die and nobody would claim the remains. It happened all the time round here. He sometimes toyed with the idea of going to live in an EC country, where the streets were cleaner and the wages even higher, but he wouldn't be able to speak the language.
Camille, returning from the Ladies, observed her stepfather sipping mineral water and reading the paper and made a detour round the tables to avoid him. She could always claim this was a break period, but on the whole it was easier if her movements remained unobserved. Her Italian friend had gone from behind the bar, but his replacement was proving equally obliging. She was very soon a little the worse for drink, her pale hair untidy and her features less perfectly exquisite than they should have been. She laughed a lot.
Scarlet sat cross-legged, in the position referred to as the 'lotus', on the quarry-tiled floor of her kitchen and breathed deeply. The French windows were open upon the garden, and after a while she saw her best friend Constance vaulting the low fence which separated them and approaching her.
'You ought to try acupressure,' said Constance. 'It relieves all the tension.'
Scarlet had just thrown away a bunch of dried Provençal flowers which had adorned her sideboard for over a year and was already feeling slightly better: she thought that if only she could rearrange all the furniture, she might be cured, but it seemed too drastic a step to take.
'I suppose yoga's out of date,' she said.
'Yes, a bit,' said Constance. 'Not under the banyan tree so much, but round here, yes, it's a bit dated.'
'When did you get back?' asked Scarlet. 'I've been missing you.'
'Just now,' said Constance. 'I haven't even unpacked. Memet says when you're travelling all you need to take these days is precautions, so I've only got the one bag. Matter of fact, I'm puzzled.'
'Oh?' said Scarlet. It was unlike Constance to worry. Whenever she felt unwell or oppressed she embarked on a new course of treatment at the alternative medicine centre or ingested a new range of vitamins.
'Yes, well, you know I said you needn't feed the cat and water the plants because Barbs said she'd do it?'
'Yes,' said Scarlet, coldly.
'Well, my plants are all dead and the cat's starving, and when I went across to her place it was all locked up and there are piles of junk mail on the mat.'
'Eliot can't be starving,' protested Scarlet. 'I've been feeding him. He kept stealing Nigel's food, so I gave him a bowl of his own every day.'
'Well, the plants are all dead as a doornail,' said Constance, 'and she's not been in. It's all exactly the same as I left it.'
'She must've gone away,' said Scarlet, gratified to hear of the dead plants and Barbs's dereliction of duty, for she had been rather hurt not to be asked to mind Eliot.
'It's not like her,' said Constance, and Scarlet had to admit that she was right.
Barbs prided herself on her deep and politically informed compassion. She concerned herself about everyone the neighbours, the tramps, the gipsies, the feral cats and the condition of the local trees. When the council had organized a festival to alert the people to the plight of Nicaragua, she alone of all the neighbours had climbed into the mobile coffee shop, which the council had provided, to drink Nicaraguan coffee and read the Nicaraguan posters which adorned the bulkheads and bulwarks of the van. She went on gay-rights marches although, as far as anyone knew, she was heterosexual and was wont to punch the air with her fist at moments which seemed to call for affirmation or triumph. Sometimes she also uttered a cry which she had picked up somewhere: a kind of 'Yah!' Barbs would surely never voluntarily leave a cat or a Busy Lizzie to starve.
'You seen her going in and out?' asked Constance.
'No,' said Scarlet, 'but then I don't notice much.' She found it easier to live in a faint fog, at one remove from what most people called reality.
'She's let me down,' said Constance. 'She's supposed to be Miss Kind and Caring, and she's let me down.'
'Perhaps something's happened to her,' said Scarlet. 'Did you look through the windows?'
'I looked through the letterbox and all the downstairs windows, and there's not a whisker,' said Constance. 'Nothing. No sign of her.'
'I suppose it's all right, though,' said Scarlet. 'I mean, what could have happened to her? Something must have come up, and she must have gone off in a hurry. One of her friends or something.'
'It's odd,' said Constance. 'Who'd want to have Barbs around if they didn't have to?'
'A man?' suggested Scarlet. 'Do you want decaff or camomile?'
'She may've been murdered,' said Constance. 'Or abducted,' she added as an afterthought. 'Only you'd have to feel sorry for anyone who kidnapped Barbs. She'd sit round trying to raise his consciousness. He'd have to be a stranger.'
'She wouldn't go away with a stranger,' said Scarlet.
'Yes, she would,' said Constance, 'She might feel discriminatory if she didn't.'
'There are terrible things in the papers,' said Scarlet, vaguely. She was acting on the advice of her therapist in speaking thus. Her therapist held that it was natural and healthy for human beings to assume that bad things happened only to other people in remote areas. Scarlet did not believe this for a moment, which was why she held reality at arm's length and had to see a therapist about it. She felt she should reassure Constance, with a sane and cheerful smile, that such things didn't go on in their street, but Constance reminded her that they did.
'There's terrible things here,' she said. The police had only recently organized a stake-out in a house just down the road, watching and waiting for a serial murderer to call in at his mother's council flat to collect his laundry. There were regular burglaries in houses and flats, both private and council-owned. No one was safe, particularly not old ladies and single women.
'And those tinkers,' said Constance, venomously. 'They've been bringing their dogs to do their business in my front garden, and if I go to the council, d'you know what they'll say? They'll say I'm harassing the travellers.'
Scarlet regarded her wistfully. Constance had thick, coarse black hair and wore an orange scarf somehow knitted into it. She had dark-brown, shiny eyes and a tanned, muscular frame on which she hung brightly coloured blouses and skirts. She very often went barefoot in order to keep her feet in good condition, and she wore long, dangly earrings. She had Irish blood and gipsy blood, and one of her brothers trained greyhounds. She was thus entitled to be as forthright as she wished about the travellers, who kept camping in the council yard and various public spaces and were cordially loathed by the local residents, whether they admitted it or not. Scarlet both hated and feared them but was restrained by her class and upbringing from saying so.
'And the kids,' continued Constance, 'little bastards. Two of them came round a while ago and they said, "Our pigeon's on your roof, miss, can we go up your house and get it down through your loft?" I told them,' she concluded with a smile of pleasure at the recollection.
'Poor little scraps,' said Scarlet, regretting her words as she spoke. She feared the gipsy children because they had still, wicked faces and the swiftness of weasels. 'They've not had much chance,' she added by way of apology for herself.
'You sound like Barbs,' observed Constance. 'I'll have a camomile.'
'But what about Barbs?' asked Scarlet, who was finding this mystery diverting. 'Honey? Don't you think you should go to the police?'
Fifteen years ago, when Brian and Scarlet had just bought the house next door to Constance, she had regarded the police as her worst enemy, but things had changed. Now she saved her animus largely for the council, which seemed unfair, since it had permitted her to buy for almost nothing the house which her mother had rented and given her a grant for improvements. She still dealt in stolen goods when she got the chance, but the police were less interested in stolen goods than they had been in the more law-abiding times of some years before. Now, what with drugs and violence, they had their work cut out without worrying unduly about the van-loads of cardboard boxes which regularly changed hands in the market. 'Maybe,' said Constance, non-committally.
'What would you say to them?' asked Scarlet.
Constance was patient with her. 'I'd say she's not there and she should be, and we don't know where she is. I'd tell them about the plants. I'd say, I'm sure there's no real cause for worry, but, I'm a bit concerned. I'd just tell them.'
'Do you want to telephone from here?' invited Scarlet.
'No point in telephoning,' said Constance. 'They've got a central exchange somewhere up north and they put you on hold till the local mob come in for their tea.'
Scarlet admitted that if this was not precisely the case, there was yet room for considering it probable: she had often found difficulty in summoning the aid of the force, being directed by a controller to different stations which in turn would advise her to try elsewhere. 'They've got a lot on their plate,' she said.
'I could go there,' said Constance, sucking honey from her spoon.
'Do you want me to come with you?' asked Scarlet.
'No, it's all right,' said Constance. 'I'll go round Sainsbury's on the way back.'
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