Stephen King meets Muriel Spark in Hilary Mantel's first novel.
Evelyn Axona-medium by trade-and her half-wit daughter Muriel have become a social problem. Barricaded in their once-respectable house, they live amid festering rubbish, unhealthy smells-and secrets. They completely baffle Isabel Field, the social worker assigned to help them. But Isabel is only the most recent in a long line of people that find the Axons impossible. Meanwhile, Isabel has her own problems: a married lover, Colin. He is a history teacher to unresponsive children and father to a passel of his own horrible kids. With all this to worry about, how can Isabel even begin to understand what is going on in the Axon household? When Evelyn finally moves to def Muriel, and Muriel, in turn, acts to protect herself, the results are by turns hilarious and terrifying.
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Hilary Mantel is the critically acclaimed author of eight novels, seven of which are available in paperback from Henry Holt. Winner of the Hawthornden Prize, she lives in England. Ms. Mantel reviews for The New York Times and the New York Review of Books.
EVERY DAY IS MOTHER'S DAY
When Mrs. Axon found out about her daughter's condition, she was more surprised than sorry; which did not mean that she was not very sorry indeed. Muriel, for her part, seemed pleased. She sat with her legs splayed and her arms around herself, as if reliving the event. Her face wore an expression of daft beatitude.
It was always hard to know what would please Muriel. That winter, when the old man fell on the street and broke his hip, Muriel had personally split her sides. She was in her way a formidable character. It wasn't often she had a good laugh.
Click, click, click, said the mock-crocs. They were Mrs. Sidney's shoes. She passed without mishap along the Avenue, over that flagstone with its wickedly raised edge where Mr. Tillotson had tripped last winter and sustained his fracture; they had petitioned the council. Mrs. Sidney's good legs, the legs of a woman of twenty-five, moved like scissors down the street. Her face was white and tired, her scarlet lips spoke of an effort at gaiety. She had carried the colour over the line of her thin lips, into a curvaceous bow; she had once read in a magazine that this could be done. Of what lies between the good legs and the sagging face, better not to speak; Mrs. Sidney never dwelled on her torso, she had given it up. She stopped by the house called "The Laburnums," by the straggling privet hedge spattered white with bird-droppings and ravaged by amateur topiary; and tears misted over her eyes. She wore the black coat with the mink trim.
Arthur had been with her when she bought the coat. It was budgeted for; the necessity had been weighed. Arthur had been embarrassed, standing among the garment rails; he had clasped his hands behind his back like Prince Philip, and with his eyes elsewhere he tried to look like a man deep in thought. She had not trailed him around the shops, she knew what she wanted. "A good coat," she said to him, "a good cloth coat is worth every penny you spend on it."
She had tried on two, and then the black. The salesgirl was sixteen. She was not interested in her job. She stood with one limp arm draped over the rail, her hip jutting out, watching Mrs. Sidney push the laden hangers to and fro. She did not know anything about the cut of a good cloth coat. Mrs. Sidney removed her gloves, and her fingers stroked the little mink collar appreciatively. She had tried to engage Arthur's attention, but he was not looking, and for a second she was shot through with resentment. Carelessly she tossed her old camelhair over a rail; until this morning it had been her best coat, but now it seemed shabby and inconsiderable. She unfastened the buttons carefully, slipped her arms into the silky lining. Turning to see the back in the long mirror, she smiled tentatively at the salesgirl. "Do you think the length...?"
The girl raised her thin shoulders in a shrug.
By now Arthur stood smiling at her indulgently, his hands still clasped behind his back.
"I will take it," Mrs. Sidney said. She minced towards Arthur.
"Very nice, dear," Arthur said. "Are you sure you've got what you wanted?"
She nodded, smiling. He would have been willing, she knew, to pay twenty pounds more, once he had agreed on the economy of a good cloth coat. Arthur did not stint. The girl laid it out by the cash register, flapped some tissue between its crossed arms and slid it, folded, into a big bag. Arthur took out a virgin chequebook, and his rolled-gold fountain pen. Precisely, he unscrewed the cap; smoothly, the ink flowed; with care, he replaced the cap and returned the pen to the inside pocket of his lovat sports jacket. Then, with a single neat pull, he removed the cheque and handed it courteously to the girl. Mrs. Sidney was proud of that, proud of the way the transaction had been carried through; how they did not pay in greasy bundles of notes like plumbers and housepainters. The carrier bag was heavy, with the good cloth coat inside it, and Arthur reached out without speaking and took it from her. He asked about a hat, so anxious was he to have everything correct; but she told him that people do not go in so much for hats nowadays. To be truthful, millinery departments intimidated her. The assistants looked at you scornfully, for so few of the people who tried on hats ever made a purchase; they had lost faith in human nature. She was happy. They had a cup of coffee and a cream cake each, and then they went home.
That night Arthur had his first stroke. When she got up in the morning, all the right side of his body was paralysed, and his mouth was twisted down at the corner; he couldn't speak. By eight o'clock he was lying on a high white bed at the General. She was sitting outside the ward, drinking the strong tea a nurse had given her out of a chipped white cup. All she could think was, you can get these cups as seconds on the market. Could that be where they get them? A hospital, could it be? He's on the free list, the nurse said, you can come at any time. When she went to see him he moved restlessly those parts he could move; he never again knew what day of the week it was, or anything at all about the world in the corridor or the market-place beyond. He suffered his second stroke while she was there, and they put lilac screens around the bed and informed her that he had passed away. She wore the black coat to his funeral.
Mrs. Sidney raised one elegant knee a little, to prop her bag on it, fumbled inside and took out a pink tissue. Standing by the stained and formless privet, she dabbed her eyes. She looked for a litterbin, but there were none in the Avenue. She screwed the tissue back into her handbag and scissored along the street.
The Axons' house stood on a corner. There was a little gate let in between the rhododendrons. No weeds pushed up between the stones of the path. And this was odd, because you would not have thought of Evelyn Axon as a keen gardener. There was stained glass in the door of the porch, venous crimson and the storm-dull blue of August skies. Mrs. Sidney stopped a pace from the door. She feared her nerve was going to fail her. Again she fumbled with her bag, patting for her purse to make sure it was still there. She did not know whether Mrs. Axon accepted payment. A small tickle of grief and fear rose up in her throat. She arrived at her decision; Mrs. Axon would already be watching from some window in the house. She placed her finger on the doorbell as if she were buttonholing the secret of the universe. It did not work.
But somewhere, in the dark interior of the house, Evelyn moved towards the door. She opened it just as Mrs. Sidney raised her hand to knock. Mrs. Sidney lowered her arm foolishly. Evelyn nodded.
"Come in," she said. "I suppose you want to speak to your late husband."
It was a nice detached property. As soon as she entered the hall behind Evelyn, Mrs. Sidney's eyes became viper-sharp. She took in the neglected parquet floor, the umbrella stand, the small table quite bare except for one potplant, withered and brown.
"Nothing seems to survive," Evelyn said.
Mrs. Sidney took a tighter grip on her bag.
"And into the front parlour," Evelyn said.
Then she kept her eyes on Evelyn's fawn cardigan, the bulky shape moving weightily ahead. It was a sunless room, seldom used; at this time Evelyn lived mostly at the back of the house. There were heavy curtains, a round dining-table in some dark wood, eight hard chairs with leather seats; a china cabinet, and two green armchairs placed at either side of the empty fireplace. "You'll want the fire," Evelyn said; she was nothing if not a good hostess. Mrs. Sidney took one of the armchairs, knees together, her handbag poised on them. Evelyn shuffled out and left her alone. She stared at the china cabinet, which was quite empty.
Evelyn returned with a little electric fire, two bars, dusty, the flex fraying. "If you don't mind," Mrs. Sidney said, "that's dangerous. Bare wires like that."
Evelyn slammed the plug firmly into the socket. As she stood up, she gave Mrs. Sidney what Mrs. Sidney called a straight look, the kind of look that is given to people who speak out of turn. "Make yourself comfortable, Mrs. Sidney," she said.
Once again, Mrs. Sidney was struck by the cultured tone of Evelyn's voice. She was, had been, what old-fashioned people called a lady. She and her husband had lived in this house when these few dank autumnal avenues were the best addresses in town. The Axons had always kept to themselves. For years the neighbours had complained about Evelyn's ways, about the odd times at which she hung out her washing, about her habit of muttering to herself in the queue at the Post Office. Yet, Mrs. Sidney thought, she was a cut above. In a way she was a very tragic woman; Mrs. Sidney had a nose for tragedy these days, alerted to it by her own. "You'll have to excuse my not providing tea," Evelyn said. "It's not convenient. I'm not going into the kitchen today." Mrs. Sidney blinked. For want of reply, her eyes slid back to the empty china cabinet.
"Smashed," Evelyn said. "All smashed years ago."
Evelyn went over to the sideboard. It was, Mrs. Sidney noted, the most modern piece of furniture in the room. It had one of those compartments for drinks, and a flap that came down to serve them on. Evelyn pulled it down. Mrs. Sidney gaped. She could make out the labels from here; baked beans, salmon, ox-tongue. Evelyn reached into the back and took out a half-full bottle of orange squash. From a cupboard, she took two glasses and poured a careful measure into each. On the table stood a jug of lukewarm water. Evelyn set down one of the glasses by her guest's side, and took the armchair opposite.
"I expect you will want to talk about him a little," she said. She sat upright and alert, watching her visitor, noting how the face-powder had caked at the side of her nose, how the open pores of her cheeks shone, how the body mocked the pretty, lively legs. And suddenly Mrs. Sidney crumpled, as if she had been dealt a blow; her bag slid from her knees to the floor, her shoulders sagged, great gouts of grief came dropping from her mouth. Yes, Evelyn thought, how they steer you to cheerful topics; how after twice meeting they cross the road and pretend that they didn't see you so that they can avoid the whole embarrassing encounter: a widow. There is, Evelyn reflected, a custom known as Suttee; to judge by their behaviour, many seemed to think its suppression an unhealthy development.
She watched. Mrs. Sidney's mouth worked, and the scarlet line of lipstick above her top lip contorted independently of the mouth, so that her face seemed to be slipping in and out of some grotesque and ludicrous mask. The woman lurched forward; her hands scrabbled for her bag and she scrubbed at her face with the pink tissues and dropped them in sodden balls on the carpet and onto the chair. Evelyn reached for her orange juice and took a sip. She put down the glass carefully, on a mat with a fringe. "Mr. Sidney was a good husband to you," she suggested.
Mrs. Sidney talked about the buying of the coat, of the cakes they had eaten, of the vast corridors of the hospital with its draughts and swinging firedoors; the stained walls, the starched impatience of doctors' coats and the dreadful grimace of his paralysed mouth. As she talked she gasped and retched at the memories, but in the end she calmed herself, sat upright and shaking on the edge of the chair, her legs crossed tightly and her eyes formless and red. She was ready to begin.
"Mr. Sidney's line of work was with the Transport Authority," she said carefully. She spoke as if each of her words was a precious crystal glass coming out of a crate; one slip could shatter her again.
"You mean the bus company?" Evelyn said.
"It was a kind of insurance work. When--if, you see, there was an accident, someone was in an accident on the bus, he would be finding out what happened and deciding how much the bus--the Transport Authority--ought to pay out for it. He was called a Claims Investigation Agent."
"Yes," Evelyn said. "He was a clerk. I understand. Now I will tell you, Mrs. Sidney, sometimes I meet with success and sometimes I don't. If you would call it success; I would say, results. It appears that they tell some people that all is very beautiful on the ninth plane and that there are flowers and organ music, but they never said that to me, and if they do say it I think they must be confusing it with the funeral. It would be a natural mistake. On those grounds, I hardly approve of cremation."
"But do you ever," Mrs. Sidney hesitated, "do you ever speak with your own husband?"
"Clifford died in 1946," Evelyn said. "He was a quiet man, and I suppose we have less in common than we did."
"What did--did he pass over suddenly?"
"Very suddenly. Peritonitis."
There was a silence. Mrs. Sidney broke it with difficulty. "Do you use a wineglass?"
Evelyn snorted. "If you want that, you get it at parties, don't you?"
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Sidney said. She stood up. "Mrs. Axon, I'm sorry, I don't think I should have come. If my daughter knew she'd kill me."
"And your curiosity would be satisfied," Evelyn said. "How old are you, Mrs. Sidney?"
"Since you ask, I'm sixty-five."
Evelyn sighed. "Not a great age, but you ought to know what to expect. If I were you, I'd sit down, and we can get on."
Mrs. Sidney sat. She stared about her, hypnotised by her own temerity, by Evelyn's watery blue eyes, by the dull sheen of the afternoon light on the hard leather chairs.
Presently Evelyn leaned forward, her hands clasped together, her eyes closed, and scalding tears dropped from under her lids. Mrs. Sidney watched them falling. Her heart hammered. Evelyn's mouth gaped open, and Mrs. Sidney dug her nails into her palms, expecting Arthur's voice to come out.
Evelyn dropped back in her chair. Her pale eyes snapped open, and she spoke in a perfectly normal voice.
"I told you not to come to me for reassurance, Mrs. Sidney. Go to the Spiritualist Church if you like. It's in Ruskin Road. They have a cold buffet afterwards." She got heavily to her feet. Mrs. Sidney lurched after her, past the empty china cabinet and the dead potplant, stumbling to the door.
"Mrs. Sidney," Evelyn said, "your husband Arthur is roasting in some unspeakable hell."
She closed the door. I shall give this up, she thought. They come here, for a Cook's Tour of the other world; as if it were in some other but accessible place, they use me like an aero-plane, like a cruise liner. But it was here, a little removed yet concurrent; each day some limb of the supernatural reached out to pluck you by the clothes. I shall give it up, she thought, because it is making me ill; if one day I took some sort of fit and were laid up, what would happen, who would look after Muriel?
AXON, MURIEL ALEXANDRA
DATE OF BIRTH: 4*4*40
2 BUCKINGHAM AVENUE
Miss Axon was visited at her home by Miss Perkins of this Department on 3*3*73 and subsequently by CWD on 15*3*73. Client lives with her widowed mother, Mrs. Evelyn Axon. Her father died in 1946. They are resident in a comfortable detached house with all usual amenities. Client attended St. David's School, Arlington Road, 1945-1955, but her attendance seems to have been nominal as her mother states she was "more often absent." Mrs. Axon states that she was informed about 1946 or 1947 that Muriel did not seem to have the normal aptitude for her age-group, and she was kept behind a class for two subsequent years. At this point it appears client should have been designated ESN under the provisions of the 1944 Act, but this was not done and it is suggested that at this point in time she ap...
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Book Description Holt Paperbacks, 2000. Paperback. Book Condition: New. book. Bookseller Inventory # M0805062726