Exclusive Extract: Listeners

1

The sun bounced off the rooftops, dazzled the drivers of cars, jubilantly sank its rays into the fresh of young girls swinging their shopping bags and their hips along Kensington High Street.

As Jennifer Hamilton marched along the street she made an e ort to keep her head up. Her red curls shone in the sunlight, her white cotton dress showed shadows of her body beneath, and her face was thoughtful. Men turned to look at her, not because she was more beautiful than the other sexy, well-turned-out creatures with long legs and lilting walks, but because of her air of vulnerability – an air which disturbed them as they glanced quickly at the slight girl with green eyes.

One man, whose wife had just divorced him, wondered where the purposeful girl in the white dress was o to – probably to have lunch with some boyfriend or meet a merry group of friends, he decided mournfully, as he turned down a side street and out of her life for ever.

A young woman who had met Jennifer a few times at the parties of a mutual friend waved at her from across the road, but Jennifer did not see her and the young woman felt cross. That Jennifer Hamilton is getting too big for her boots, she thought, as she struggled on to the Tube with her shopping bags suddenly heavy. She too wondered where Jennifer was going – probably to some library to carry out interesting research, or to a lunch, or perhaps she has a lover, curse her. Jennifer Hamilton was one of those awful, competent, successful people who managed their lives perfectly and didn’t lose their Tube tickets as she had just done. The young woman grappled in her handbag.

Jennifer turned up Kensington Church Street, passing shops crowded with bright sales clothes and busy with people.

Painful thoughts kept bursting into her brain like cowboys into a saloon with guns ablaze. A three-minute blast and she’d be left shaken but, unfortunately, still alive.

Six weeks ago Jennifer’s husband, Martin, had left her. He had left her alone in the big house they had bought together, with spare bedrooms for guests and a study for her and a study for him. Now it was just space and memories, memories corrupted by regret and guilt and how things might have been.

It was a family house in a terrace of family houses. Now that Martin had moved out it was the loneliest place she had ever known. She had loved its high ceilings and huge rooms but now they just provided more space for sadness. Shabby, laughing Martin had seeped into the texture of every carpet, every painting, every wall. He belonged in the house. He was part of the house, part of Jennifer, and without him the house was incomplete and Jenny was incomplete. They had bought it intending to live there for the rest of their lives. They had managed only six years. She wished she could get rid of the feeling that it was all her fault.

It’s not your fault, they all said, all her friends, you mustn’t feel guilty. It was he who left you. But in her heart Jennifer knew she was to blame. The responsibility for a marriage is always with the woman. It is up to her to keep her husband. If the marriage fails, she fails. And she knew she had sinned against the old law that a woman must look after her man. She had pursued her career – teaching history at a girls’ school and writing biographies for children – too single-mindedly. She had behaved as any talented, dedicated man would have behaved, and was now being punished for it. At school, at university, at home, she had always been taught to strive for excellence. She had done so. Even on sunny days the house was cold.

She had worked hard at her writing and her teaching and now they didn’t matter to her one bit; only Martin mattered. Most nights she had worked until three in the morning, often thinking how proud her adolescent self would have been of her dedica- tion. She had fallen asleep in the spare room with her brain still clattering with the noises of the past she sought to recreate in her lives of great and infamous women. Martin, who was a classics don at London University, had never complained. He was always very understanding about her work, about her unwillingness to go out with him in the evenings, about her weekends spent researching Emily Brontë in Haworth, Emma Hamilton in Merton Park, Madame Blavatsky in the odd little occult bookshops of London. Far too understanding, her worldly-wise mother had said suspiciously.

And now she lay awake until three a.m. afraid: afraid of the future, afraid she was going mad, afraid of the wind rattling the windows, footsteps on the stairs, even the ring of the milkman on a Saturday morning. The bogeymen of her childhood were all over the house whenever it was dark, creeping into the crevices of her brain, making her panic, pressing their faces against the black windows.

Jennifer told herself once again how foolish she’d been to neglect a man she loved so much, a man who had always treated her with respect and kindness. No wonder he had strayed. She pic- tured him, his shoulders shaking with laughter, a boyish expression of merriment in his dear eyes. ‘Cuddles’ he used to call me before I grew distant, she thought, looking down at her feet marching along the pavement. And I called him my darling, she remem- bered, and I put my arms around him when he was sad and once he sulked because I made a fuss over a puppy. But during the last year I drifted away from him, as if down a dark river.

And now I am too far away from anyone, a long way away without moorings. I really am quite lost, she thought, as the sun sparkled on the pavement in front of her, quite lost. Without him I am only half myself and there is darkness all around.

She crossed over Peel Street, rows of dainty cottages, where two friends of Martin lived. She remembered how clever Martin had been at dinners at their house, arguing, discussing, chuckling, drawing out the other guests to talk about their jobs and their fears and their hopes. And what would she say if she met one of those friends now, if sturdy Mary were walking towards her pushing her baby buggy, or if vague, bewildered Stephen walked by with the shopping? Perhaps he would look away, pretend he hadn’t seen her, but if he asked her how she was, where she was going, what she was up to, would she tell him? Would she embarrass him and herself by telling the truth?

The leaves of the trees above her rustled in the slight breeze, and she was afraid.

As she continued her journey, passing close by where a friend used to live, she took comfort from familiar things, from the cars driving by, from the dry cleaners and newsagents. Her inner landscape had shifted so much that she needed some outward stability. The red buses trundled past, the tra c lights worked, everything was as it had been at the time when Martin had told her he was having an a air.

Of course, she should have guessed. During the last few weeks leading up to his revelation she had been unusually tense. She lay in bed beside him feeling as though there were a steel rod threaded through her limbs, twisted a little at the neck. At night he moaned and whimpered but when she woke him he said no, he hadn’t been having nightmares, no, not at all. He went back to sleep and began to whimper again and her heart went out to his unconscious body, pale and f rightened in the night under their thick duvet. The streets were noisy those long nights: a taxi drew up outside, an ambulance soared by in the distance, her body tossed and turned and it didn’t know why it couldn’t get comfortable, couldn’t get to sleep, couldn’t soften into the mattress and the pillows. Knees up in foetal position. Head facing the street. Turn round. Stretch out. Body like a steel statue, but the mind uncomfortably still alive, thinking and thinking back to other sleepless nights, to shapes in the corners of childhood rooms, to why she was anxious when she had no apparent reason to be so. If only there were a switch to turn o the brain, she had thought then – and, oh God, she thought it now.

On the day he nally told her, they had been for a drink with Jane and Robert Neville, who had just discovered that Jane was pregnant. In contrast to Martin and Jennifer, Jane and Robert could not stop touching. They smooched with their eyes and their voices. They said ‘love’ and ‘darling’ and ‘honey’ and stared at the door when the other went out for a second.

Jennifer envied nice, well-balanced, loving Jane and Robert. They were ambitious in sensible ways. They wanted to do well in their jobs in advertising rms. They wanted to have a happy marriage. They wanted to have children. They wanted to live good, healthy lives, while she... she didn’t know what she wanted. All this longing and yearning for something out of reach, for some- thing to make her life worthwhile, really was a darned nuisance. Robert and Jane were lucky enough to nd content doing up their big dilapidated house, scraping o wallpaper, sticking on tiles, painting ceilings. It had a big garden full of tall old trees which cast their branches wide and seemed to be climbing with the laughter of yet unborn children. Robert and Jane looked into each other’s eyes and were happy but Jennifer had not considered Martin’s love essential to her happiness. She thought she could do without people because she had always been solitary, needing time alone to come back into focus, relying on her work to justify her existence.

Afterwards, at dinner with Martin at his favourite Turkish restaurant, Jennifer had tucked into pitta bread and taramasalata. Martin was so subdued that she assumed the news of Jane’s preg- nancy had distressed him. He disliked the idea of having children in part, she thought, because children would take attention away f rom him. Sometimes he seemed a child himself, a vast cuckoo of an infant. She had always thought that this was the secret of their happiness together: that he didn’t think of himself as a husband, a male, and she didn’t think of herself as a wife, a female; neither wanted to grow up, neither wanted to take on adult roles which would limit them. People admired their sensible, equal f riendship.

‘Don’t worry, silly, I’m not suddenly going to become preg- nant,’ she said. ‘I’m in no rush. Twenty-eight is young to have children these days.’

‘Jenny,’ Martin had said in a begging tone, pulling at his beard. Martin really was a terrible mess. He had a hectic intelligence, a big brown hedge of a beard, unruly hair and hands with dirty ngernails. Although he was of medium build, he took up a great deal of room because he was always restless. He moved around in his seat and waved his hands to illustrate what he was saying. That day, however, he had seemed very much more compact than usual.

‘Look, I know you’re not keen,’ said Jennifer. ‘And I quite understand. There isn’t the time, anyway. We’re both so busy.’ She stared into the candle, and felt sad. Something tugged at her, something which whispered to her in the early hours of the morning, or late at night as she worked, something she hadn’t felt until recently, a kind of emptiness which demanded to be lled. She knew in her heart it was a desire to have a child but the emptiness made her work harder, in an attempt to subdue these strange, silly, female urges.

‘Jenny, I’ve got something to say, sort of,’ said Martin. ‘Yes, darling. Can I have some more wine?’
‘Jenny, I don’t know how to put this, you see.’

‘Go on,’ she said, with her mouth full and eyes wide. It was not like him to be inarticulate.

The waiter with the buccaneer’s black moustache loomed over them, taking away the smeared plates of taramasalata and replacing them with salad and kebabs.

‘There you are, my friends,’ he boomed. ‘And how are you today?’

‘Fine,’ snapped Martin and the waiter backed away, brushing down his splendid red uniform unhappily. This couple here, they’re usually so nice, what have I done? he thought as he returned to the kitchen. The man with the beard is usually so merry, so talkative. He waves his arms around and she listens to him with such devo- tion and is so pretty. Tonight she looks tired and tense, poor little thing. He resolved to give them extra helpings of Turkish delight.

It was shadowy in the candlelit restaurant. On the walls were murals of Istanbul.

Martin stared down at the red tablecloth and then looked up.

She stretched out her hand to take his. His eyes were bright and black like a frightened bird’s.

‘The thing is, Jenny, I’m having an a air.’

She put down her glass and all the smile went out of her eyes. She didn’t take in his words but she saw the panic. Underneath his urry of words he was usually so very calm and strong.

‘I’m sorry,’ he said.

‘I don’t understand,’ she said.

He picked up a red paper napkin and began tearing it to shreds with his pale hands.

‘You see, I felt that I had to tell you. I couldn’t go on lying to you,’ he told her formally.

‘That’s very good of you,’ she said. ‘Could you pour me another glass of wine, please?’ She was staring at him, expecting his physical form to change before her eyes, altered for ever by this information.

‘Who is she?’

‘Her name is Annabel. She’s an administrator... at, well... at my college. She’s a very nice person, honestly.’ He looked so nervous that she longed to put her arms round him and comfort him.

‘I still don’t understand,’ she said gently.

‘Look, Jenny, let’s face it. We’re not really married. You don’t cook for me, you don’t iron, you don’t socialize, you don’t behave like other wives. You do nothing but work. Things have gone too far. Of course I know it’s my fault too. I let it happen. I indulged you.’

Until the last few weeks he had never complained about her lack of interest in cooking, sewing, etc. She stared at him in astonishment. He suddenly looked rather pleased with himself, as though he had just won an argument.

‘We love each other,’ she said.

‘Do we, Jenny?’ he asked. ‘Are you quite certain it’s not just habit, and the house?’ He smiled to himself, a self-congratulatory smile. For a moment she hated him and his smugness. He could convince himself of anything which suited him.

‘But the house is part of it. It’s part of the love.’ She leaned towards him, frowning. ‘It’s because we love each other that we don’t need to go out all the time. We’re secure. The house repre- sents the love. Could you pour me that glass of wine?’

He took no notice. A far-off expression entered his eyes. He hardly seemed to be aware of her. He seemed already to have moved on.

‘I’m sorry, Jennifer. But it is just not true, really. Last night you wouldn’t even come to that party of Robert Judge’s. I wanted you to come. It was important to me.’

She restrained herself from accusing him of already having asked his new girlfriend to the party when he had casually invited her as if he wanted her to refuse. He had been deliberately putting her in the wrong, she saw now. Keep calm, she told herself. Don’t

cause a scene. Stay placid. Don’t let this anger out. It won’t do any good. You know what your temper is like. Keep it in. Her hand gripped her glass tightly as though it were Martin’s neck.

‘Martin, let’s keep things simple,’ she said in what was meant to be a cool voice but emerged as a throttled murmur, the rst sound of a volcano erupting. ‘You’ve been having an a air with someone for some time, correct?’

He nodded.

‘How long, exactly?’

‘Just over a year.’

She took a deep breath. ‘So my not going to Robert Judge’s party is hardly relevant?’

‘Jenny, you and I have grown apart. The passion has gone out of our relationship. We’re just friends now. I’d like to remain friends.’ He said this in a prim, self-important tone.

‘We’ve been together for eight years. Of course the passion has gone. Robert and Jane have only been married six months. That’s why they’re all over each other. We were too at rst, if you remember.’

The far-off expression remained in his eyes and Jennifer began interpreting her feelings over the last months in the light of his a air. For some time he had been distant but she had assumed that he was busy thinking about his work. When he had played music alone in his study she had never dreamt he was thinking besottedly of another woman. In eight years of life together, six of them in marriage, their happiness had been interrupted by many strange moods. She had not considered this latest mood anything to worry about. It was just a stage, she had thought, and no doubt his work was partly responsible, and partly hers. She had been a fool. She had let this happen, just as her father had allowed her mother’s a air to happen.

‘She’s married, unfortunately. But I have decided that we are going to be together.’

Jennifer looked into his lovestruck eyes and her heart went numb. ‘You’re going to leave me, aren’t you?’ she said. He nodded. At least there were tears in his eyes. She was grateful for that. How simple things were for Martin: she, Jennifer, was unsatisfactory as a wife and therefore he was changing her. He always saw problems and their solutions with astounding clarity while she, more emotional, less cerebral, saw nothing, knew nothing. Now it seemed to her that she was returning to the blackness and confusion of the time before she met cheerful, sensible Martin.

Apart f rom his sudden compactness, Martin looked the same as ever. And here they were in the restaurant they had visited so many times. Everything looked normal – and yet it wasn’t. Everything had suddenly become very odd and scary indeed. If only he’d chosen somewhere unfamiliar to tell her this news it wouldn’t have been quite so terrible. If only he had told her in the spring, when they were on holiday in Portugal. The strange- ness of what he was saying wouldn’t have crashed so violently against her image of normality. It wouldn’t have endangered her sanity so much.

She had never suspected Martin of in delity. She had always assumed that Martin and she would be together and faithful until the end of their lives. And yet... the rst few times they had met, she had been wary of him. The cool intellect which eventually she had loved was the very thing which had unnerved her. She had been right to be wary of that, as so often she was right on rst meeting someone. She had seen in him then what she saw now, a chill which took the edge o all his emotions and made them the playthings of his mind. Jennifer had read somewhere that the easiest person to deceive is the person closest to you, because he or she trusts you. And there was something that made Martin seem very trustworthy. She wondered how many other less seri- ous a airs he’d had, how many times she’d been fooled. He had frequently looked pained and disdainful when she’d asked him why he’d been so late from a party. It had made her feel guilty for questioning him.

She began to eat her kebab because at least it was real. It tasted just as it looked, and it looked how it usually looked, and it tasted how it usually tasted.

‘Jenny, I’m in love,’ he said, as if expecting her to be pleased for him.

She continued to eat.

Had they walked hand in hand, giggled over drinks, stolen morselsfromeachother’splates?Wastheirrelationshipashershad been with Martin in the beginning, all sex and love and teasing? It was impossibly painful to think about. He had deceived her. She had lost him. He didn’t love her any more.

‘Jenny, I want to marry her. She loves me. We want to have children.’

She took another mouthful.

She nished her glass of wine.

‘Jenny, I’m serious. I do mean it.’

‘Martin, you’re married to me.’

‘We can’t go on as we are.’

‘Shall we have another bottle?’

‘Over the last year you have made no effort. Well, neither of us has. We haven’t been a partnership. You’ve become more and more reclusive.’

‘You make it sound as though it’s all my fault. It’s a great talent of yours,’ she said.

Martin’s face was drawn but he now had blobs of red on his cheeks, from the heat and the drink, which made him faintly ridiculous, like a clown. Jennifer loved him very much, even then, when he was axing at the very roots of her life. She had watched him grow f rom a boy into a man, watched his shoulders broaden, his con dence grow, and now he wanted to leave her. For much of their youth they had been close f riends; they had admired and loved one another. They had laughed at each other’s jokes, formed a united front, grown up together, grown into each other. His practicality and sense of reality had balanced her impracticality and dreaminess. He had liked her wildness and her foolish fancies and dreams of glory. He had seemed to need her – her imagination, her sensitivity, her body – as much as she needed him.

‘I think it would be best if we separated,’ he said, with that same air of injured innocence.

‘Whatever you like,’ she said, feeling sick and pushing away her food. ‘By the way – what’s she like, this woman?’

‘Her name is Annabel,’ he said sharply.

Jennifer nodded and looked interested. If she showed jealousy or anger, she knew he wouldn’t tell her about the girl, and she wanted to know.

‘Is she thin or fat?’

‘Slim, with shoulder-length light brown hair and a f ringe. Are you absolutely sure you want to know this?’

‘Yes, I don’t mind. I want to know.’

Warming to the theme of his beloved, Martin continued to talk while Jennifer wore a xed smile. The absolute horror of what was going on hadn’t reached her yet. To her, they were still having an ordinary meal together which for some reason had the wrong soundtrack. Part of her was distanced, watching what was happening, feeling that someone else was sitting there smiling, playing her role. And she found it hard to believe that he was talking so enthusiastically about a girl who would replace her.

Annabel was a thirty-year-old administrator, very e cient and good at her job. She came from a wealthy family and was very chic ( Jennifer was very unchic – a real ragamu n, as Martin used to call her a ectionately – or had it been critically?). Annabel always had two changes of clothes in the back of her car wrapped in polythene bags (silly woman, thought Jennifer, with the same agreeable smile). She was married to an architect who never did any architecture because he lived o her and drank too much (she’d probably driven him to it with her endless changes of clothes, thought Jennifer). Annabel was very interested in univer- sity politics (unlike me, thought Jennifer miserably). Annabel was also a gourmet who’d always rather have a half-bottle of really good wine than two bottles of plonk. But at the same time she was very gentle, very... kind.

‘She wants to look after me,’ he said.

Maintaining the same polite, interested expression, Jennifer said, ‘She sounds a real pain in the ass.’

Martin pursed his lips. ‘I think we should go.’

‘You have some coleslaw hanging from your beard,’ com- mented Jennifer.

He stood up, and the waiter scurried forward to give him the bill, looking anxiously at the white-faced girl with the dead eyes. When they got home it wasn’t home any more. It was as though a burglar had been in while they were away and had tam- pered with everything and then returned it to its proper place. It looked the same but it wasn’t the same. Nothing could be the same any more.

They slept apart that night and the next day he moved out, to Annabel’s rented at in Bayswater. Annabel, who had more taste, more time, more domestic skills, than she had. Annabel, whom Jennifer hated. Annabel, who had knocked down all the coloured bricks Jennifer had so neatly built up during the course of her life.

Jennifer said that she loved him and asked him not to go, but he hardly seemed able to hear her while he lled his car – their car – with his possessions before driving away.

After he had gone she wandered down the garden and at the bottom, under the willow, she discovered that his pet tortoise had gone too. Oh well, she thought, at least that’s a consolation; Annabel will have to put up with pungent old Thomas the tor- toise on the balcony of her chic little at. The thought of Martin turning up at his smart new love’s with a tortoise under his arm made Jennifer smile.

The house was lonely, but she phoned up her f riends – mostly publishers and fellow teachers – and everyone was sympathetic, and some asked her round. But they were guarded. She knew she talked too much, too wildly, and that they resented the fact that in the past she had been too busy with her work to come to their parties or have lunch with them.

One friend said Martin would be back, another that she was better o without him: ‘Jenny, you were never quite a couple.’ A third reported at length all the ups and downs of her own marriage. They all told her that her sense of impermanence was perfectly normal in the circumstances. They informed her that she was a resilient person and would be herself again in a matter of weeks.

‘But how?’ she pleaded. ‘How do I do it?’

Everybody had answers, the most common one being the word ‘time’. Pleading ill-health, Jennifer took o the last week of term. She did not want to break down in front of her pupils.

Those days spent hating Annabel and Martin were compara- tively easy. She imagined Annabel’s face on a ri e range at a fun- fair. She shot at it over and over again and once when she’d had enough of that she rang Annabel but as soon as Jennifer gave her name Annabel put down the phone, and Jennifer felt ashamed, a failure, a defeated, abandoned woman. She hadn’t even recognized the signs: his nagging, his lack of sexual interest, his late nights.

She composed long letters to Martin and concise ones to problem pages, none of which she sent.

She even missed the wretched tortoise.

It took a few days before the full horror of what had happened flooded in. This next stage was worse. Life began to seem short and foolish. She saw black borders everywhere. Nothing had any point because nothing lasted. She’d built up a house, chosen curtains and carpets, had dreams, made a life with her husband – and a very good one, really. And now the structure was being bulldozed and she was falling down and down, freefalling, screaming out sometimes, sometimes laughing, sometimes making polite conversation. But essentially there was suddenly nothing. In time, she supposed, she’d erect another structure and she’d stop falling into this terrible emptiness. The problem was she was so tired. And there was nothing beneath her. Nothing she valued. Nothing she had. Even her books seemed as though they’d been written by someone else.

She received a brief note from Martin informing her he was going away for a few weeks with Annabel to Greece. ‘All this has been so draining for her and for me.’

A few days later, for the rst time in her life, she considered committing suicide. She so much wanted to stop being tired and afraid. However much sleep she got she still needed more. She was always tired. And all the time she was stalked by grief which crept up and attacked her when she least expected it. It was so exhausting, knowing it was always there, waiting to spring.

She had to remind herself that she was not that kind of person, not the kind who committed suicide. But it was hard for her to know what kind of a person she was now. And at least suicide was a positive, courageous action, she brooded.

She had lost touch with herself, lost Martin, even lost her past. She wished she could remember more of the good times – the sweet moments – of their years together. She looked at old photo- graphs to try to recapture that which could not be recaptured. She tried to nd love there, marked with an X. But love had existed in a tone of voice, a look in the eyes – all things so familiar, so ordinary to her, so much what she expected to have for ever, that often she couldn’t picture them at all. The love which had pervaded every room, every touch, every laugh, didn’t exist any more and because it didn’t exist now it seemed as if it had never existed. How ruthlessly the present changes the past, she thought.

They had met during their last year at university. She remem- bered the day when she returned to her room and saw Martin standing at her desk, in his grey velvet jacket and faded blue jeans, with his back to her. He swung round. ‘Jenny... I was just... writing you a note... I wanted to explain... why I keep coming round... I wanted to say...’ Jennifer ung herself into his adoring arms, and that was that. They had fallen in love.

Before meeting Martin she had been restless and unhappy. As in childhood and adolescence, she had felt herself always to be the onlooker – at her mother’s dramas, at her friends’ parties, even within her own relationships. She had seldom been the initiator of events. She was always observing herself and others f rom a distance. But, with Martin beside her, she appeared to belong in the world. He was so very well balanced, not prey to emotions as she was. His presence helped her to get on with her work and soothe her fears of death and time. It also stopped her from having intima- tions which turned out to be right. In adolescence, a medium had told her she had psychic powers. She had done her best to squash them. She wanted the world to be as it seemed, as Martin saw it.

To everyone’s astonishment, and her mother’s chagrin, after university she had settled down with Martin to become a contented machine producing historical data to feed to the girls at school, and clear, well-written biographies. Her angst, her black terrors, her tempers, her desire for other men, her wild elations had more or less gone, although, when she became angry with her pupils, she was transformed into a demon. Once she had nearly slapped two girls who had been tormenting a dimmer one. She had not apologized, and they had dared tell no one, although they dreamt at night of those tiger eyes glaring at them f rom that delicate white oval face, beneath that red curly hair. But her mother claimed that she was so quiet nowadays she was dull, and Jennifer did not argue with her but just smiled pleasantly. She did not mind annoying her infuriating mother in the least.

But now she longed really to be so quiet that she was dull. She hated the noise of grief in her head and the noises of fear outside it. She hated con ding in strangers. She longed to walk through the world without seeing blackness waiting for her at the end of the corridor.

Imagination was a bloody nuisance. She could imagine her own death. She could envisage taking out all those sleeping pills the doctor had given her and eating them one by one until she was slipping into oblivion. She could see herself placing an electric re in her bath and electrocuting herself. She could even conceive of putting a plastic bag over her head, although, in that case, she knew she wouldn’t have the determination to keep it on. She could just about imagine slitting her wrists. She could also imagine what Martin’s response would be. She could imagine his guilt. She had to admit that the thought gave her pleasure.

When she sat up in her top-floor study she saw birds black in the blue sky wheeling over the rooftops like vultures. 

Exclusive Extract: Broken Bodies

1

Anne Fitzgerald stood transfixed before a marble man ghting a marble centaur. The centaur had long since lost his head, as had the man, but still they ght on through the centuries, their battle unresolved. It seemed the man might be winning. His right arm, what was left of it, stretched back as if holding a dagger which he was about to thrust into his oppo- nent’s heart. But still the centaur reared up, still the soft folds of the man’s cloak rippled, still the man remained on the very point of plunging that dagger—long since gone—into the cold stone esh of his enemy.

‘She’s been here every day this week,’ said one doughy-faced attendant to his colleague, who scratched his hook nose and stared.

A tall young American, Patrick Browning, overheard and glanced over at Anne who was slim, with long red wavy hair and a pale complexion which bordered on sickliness but helped to create a fragile beauty. She took what looked like a sweet out of the pocket of her coat and popped it in her mouth which was oversize and added to the drama of her face. She wore tiny red leather gloves.

Patrick Browning ambled across the black marble room, and stood nearby. He was from Connecticut originally, and had gone to college in Boston, then worked for a while on Wall Street before giving it all up, amboyantly, to be a historian. Since then his life had not been amboyant in the least, but simply hard work, with very little money. Some of his spare time was spent working as a bouncer in a club. It was not quite the elegant world of the demi-monde he had imagined when he gave up his highly paid Wall Street job. But it suited him well, in particular because it was a long way from home.

‘Fabulous,’ said Patrick out loud in a voice which was curi- ously intimate, compared with his broad-shouldered appearance. With his baggy beige corduroy trousers, belt and soft shirt, he was dressed like an English academic.

‘What?’ she said, turning to him. Her tone was light and slightly amused.

When he smiled, and he smiled now, his smile crashed through his face, knocking everything else out of the way. His dark brown eyes were enormous, like walking into a room covered in brown velvet.

Anne studied him for a moment then crossed her arms and returned to the battle between the centaur and the swordsman. He noted she was quite young, maybe early twenties.

‘It’s a fabulous piece,’ continued Patrick.

‘Fabulous piece!’ she said, turning back to him. She looked surprised that he was watching her hands not the sculpted frieze of centaur and warrior. ‘Fabulous piece! Is that all you can say?’

‘Well no,’ said Patrick, ‘I could...’

She gave the impression of having green eyes but he couldn’t make them out properly in the light.

‘These are the greatest existing works of Greek culture—look at the skin there—you can see the bowels.’

‘Yes. Amazing,’ said Patrick.

‘Amazing!’ repeated Anne contemptuously.

This conversation was not going as he would have liked but for some reason he couldn’t stop. It was almost as though he was becoming annoyed by the intensity of her interest in the statues, whether because he would have preferred her to be interested in him or because he felt the statues were his own private area, he was not quite sure. He pursed his lips, and his brow felt heavy, overhanging, irritable and his hands large.

He occasionally got into fights when suffering from these particular symptoms.

The two attendants were watching Patrick and Anne with pleasure, both crossing their arms just as both Patrick and Anne were crossing theirs, as if to mock this entertaining show.

‘Pity,’ said Patrick, ‘they should by rights be in Greece.’

‘I’m sorry?’ said Anne, murderously, tucking hair behind her ears, tilting her tiny chin.

His former girlfriend Kate in New York had always been good natured, and had even been good natured about his leaving for London two years ago. He still received letters from her. Her good nature was one of the things which had made him beat his fists against the white walls of Kate’s upper east side apartment. Good nature did not seem to him an appropriate response to the world. Besides, he didn’t want a committed relationship, and she did.

Patrick coughed. To his right, broken sculptures from the Parthenon gestured with handless arms, without heads. Above, spotlights bathed the sculptures in a pink light.

‘I said it’s a pity. They should by rights be in Greece.’

The horses driving the chariot of the sun god surged up through the marble.

Anne’s face tightened. She took a step away from Patrick.

‘I said they should be in Greece,’ insisted Patrick, ‘not in the British Museum. Of course, Lord Elgin should never have removed them from the Parthenon.’

‘Oh really?’ said Anne.

Her lips are far too big for her face, he thought.

‘Lord Elgin,’ continued Patrick, ‘stole them from Athens in the early 1800s. From the Parthenon.’ He wished his throat wasn’t so dry. His body felt larger than any of these huge sculptures, and far more cumbersome while she stood there like some but- ter y, ethereal, poised, questioning, yet without any apparent awareness of the clumsy business of human, mortal limbs. ‘As perhaps you know.’

Anne drew back a red glove and examined her watch. As she did so, her hair fell forward slightly. Her silly glittering hairclips did not hold her landslide of hair well.

‘You know about Elgin?’ he said. ‘He was the British ambas- sador to the Ottoman Empire—in Constantinople—who took it upon himself to steal these invaluable sculptures.’

The woman’s high-heeled boots were close together. Her coat was soft velvet, like a cat’s skin.

‘Interesting you say that,’ she said.

There was a distant, condescending note to her voice, which unnerved him.

‘I must be getting on,’ said the young woman, turning away, the folds of her black coat rippling with a beauty more imme- diate than the cold folds of the soldiers’ cloaks all around them.

Patrick panicked. He had behaved like a boor. He should apologise. He couldn’t imagine why he did it, except for her tiny hands. His mind sorted through a variety of words and haphaz- ardly landed on ‘Lord Elgin was a jerk’. He uttered these words.

Anne stiffened. She smiled gently, pityingly at Patrick, then walked away.

For a moment he followed, but there was something about the de ance of her shoulders that made him stay back.

He settled his thumping heart, which felt as though some pulsating creature was at loose within him, by studying the broken wonders all around him.

Behind him Dionysus reclined, his hands and feet gone, and Iris, messenger of the gods, hurries on, the wind blowing her dress against her stone body, racing through time, but never arriving.

As he walked out a few moments later, through the museum, sunlight strikes down over colossal black scarab beetles, over two pillars soaring up, over stone hawks sitting docile through the centuries, a world of violent shapes. This is magic, he thought, this is a world of magic and transformation. He stayed quite still, awed by the sunlight and splendour, the moment of glory in a city day, and as he stopped he saw that the young woman, the young woman of the centaur and the swordsman, of the gloves and velvet coat, had also stopped to look at the sunlight, before hurrying on, away from him, the long coat swinging behind her.

Exclusive Extract: Separation

3

Let me stop a moment to introduce a little known character, the chief character in so many real-life scenarios, although severely neglected in literature and plays. Let me introduce THE BABY, at present fast asleep in her cot, eyes fluttering to the universal tune of Brahms’ Lullaby, looking mild and peaceful. THE BABY is a figure of enormous consequence, never to be underestimated. Watch a baby of a few weeks kick its legs. Oh – the power of that soft skin and appealing blue eyes. Lovers – beware of babies. The baby wants the mother all to itself. It doesn’t want the father with his bristly chin. Go away father. Go back to your work. I shall wake my mother at night. I shall stare searchingly into her eyes. I will need her so much she will forget all about you. And you will be left alone in your bed. She will cease to buy clothes for herself. She will buy them only for me. I will suck at her breasts. I restore her and destroy her. She will wash the creases of my fat thighs. She will long for me to sleep and when I sleep she will long for me to wake. She is in love, you see. Shhh… it’s the secret women never tell. You were just the booby trap nature set up to send her hurtling into my arms. All the make-up she put on and the pounding music you listened to, and the hot kisses you shared, it all leads only to me, the beginning and the end of things, a new age-old bald person, a Buddha giving meaning and taking it all away.

A young girl’s wriggling hips, the roar of a motorbike, the tightness of black leather, it all leads to a nursery decorated with pink pigs.

And the funniest thing of all, the really hilarious thing, is that few guess it. Most adults believe the central drama of existence is love between a man and a woman.

In fact, we run the show. We send men out to work with briefcases when they would like to be explorers. We twist and turn families with our gurgles and our cries. We make even the most sensible childless women go broody and sad in the coolness of the night. We make a woman with three impossible, horrid children want a fourth and destroy herself completely. We make men stay with women they don’t love, and we make men leave women they do. We make people completely happy and absolutely miserable. On warm drunken summer days we make lovers forget to remember.

Beware of babies. Joke about their dirty nappies, disparage their eating habits, laugh at their elderly expressions, complain about the way they wake you at night, but never underestimate their power.

They are the third person in many a bitter love triangle, they are the menders of many broken lives, they blink their blue eyes and the world turns in obedience.

This particular baby, Kate Richardson, is certainly no exception. Ravishingly innocent, momentously tiny, she is making her steely mother into her slave, or trying to. Her mother is attempting to fight back. It will be interesting to see who wins, and to judge whether whoever wins really has won.

Exclusive extract: Heat

1

The first time she saw her old lover again was at a bookshop, up in Rockville.

Rockville was a nightmare area to the north of Washington DC, a suburban wasteland of low-lying carpet shops, pizza parlours and bed shops, all of which transmogrified into something else even as one watched. Everything was temporary there. Susan speeded up, turning up the radio. And there it was: Janis Joplin’s ‘Mercedes Benz’, one of the tracks she used to listen to years ago.

As a teenager, she had no particular feelings about the past.

All she’d wanted was future; life was by and large a serial process. The door slammed on the last minute as soon as it was over. Life had been like living in Rockville, somewhere without a memory, where nothing remained for long, where adults could return to the streets of their childhood and find absolutely nothing the same; not a shop, not a church, not a tree.

But now life had a novelistic structure, a shape and some themes and some interweaving characters who made appearances at various stages of her life and theirs. The chief characters had been refined down to just a few, mostly people who’d turned up early in the novel of her life.

There was a new supermarket; there was a baby shop which wouldn’t last long; there was a shop selling ski things. Making a left, her car drew up outside the bookshop with its friendly green front.

She had first lived in America for a few months, at UCLA in California when she was twenty-four, and it had always been to her a place of sanctuary from England, where she was born. Her husband, Jim Stewart, was American.

She sniffed and grimaced. Their car had recently been valeted and smelt pungently of wet dog.

She kicked off her driving shoes and put on a pair of high heels, wondering why she was bothering.

As she walked into the shop, she felt a little nervous, as though sensing what brought her here, for these ties of ours are far stronger than we think, and draw men and women over oceans, round corners, through doorways.

She walked to the biography section past the psychology section which always attracted a group of cross-legged women reading tomes on ‘How to get love back in your life’ or ‘Make him love you forever’. It was too embarrassing to buy such a book, and even more embarrassing to keep a copy on a bookshelf. Thus they were mostly read in snatches by women nervous that the object of their affections, or just a friend, might catch them at it.

Even more difficult to manage was the trick of browsing nonchalantly through the sex books full of incomprehensible instructions and horrible drawings more suitable for a mortician’s manual.

Bookshops were a great solace. When she thought of dying, it was leaving behind books which upset her most of all, particularly a battered copy of John Donne’s poems, with ‘The Good Morrow’ underlined in places. At least the relations with those she loved would continue, in that they would continue to love her, while her death would terminate all relationship with these books.

A man in a wheelchair watched a squat lady in shorts balancing a pile of books in her arms. Close by, an overweight man chewed at an unlit cigar as he examined New Age titles.

Susan began to flip through the biography section and read something about Freud’s cocaine habit, and about how Elizabeth I had been pregnant with Robert Dudley’s child, and also she flipped through a biography of Lewis Carroll arranged in thirty seven fragments, then moved over towards her area of study, the natural history section.

It was then that she saw Phillip over in fiction, an appropriate place.

He met her eyes, then glanced down as though he hadn’t seen her.

She spun round and marched out of the bookshop, nearly knocking over an elderly lady. Outside, under the glare of the hot skies, she tried to find her car.

She’d spent thirteen years avoiding him, checking out every room and every party before entering it.

Whole continents had been eradicated from her world picture because of Phillip. India had become a no-go area. Africa (he had written a piece from there) had been eliminated. The former Soviet Union was somewhere he had said he wanted to visit so she couldn’t go there. Although, even on visits to London, she had never bumped into him, she had been doubtful about the eastern half of the globe, as though he might pop up in a temple, head shaven, as a monk, or be the beggar her group gave money to, or be a businessman at a Hong Kong hotel.

She stood in the car park twisting her silver bracelet round and round.

She focused on her car, and hurried to it, fumbling for the keys.

 

2

Of course, this is the age for old lovers, once people have settled in the pattern of their lives. It happens to most people. Those you have thought never to see again appear at parties, in the street, at dinner parties, and while you discuss your child’s homework you recall his taking you down on the floor of a concrete office room, and you blink and ask if he understands equations and how old is his son now and which school is he at. And all the while the comedy is there, at the corner of his eyes and yours.

‘Oh yes, that’s supposed to be a good school.’

‘And your children, how are they?’ he asks.

All your old loves come back, in the end, in dreams or in reality.

They dream of you now their lives are mapped out. Oh – that is the woman or man who could have taken me to another life. I could have been someone else. I remember her gaiety and the way she seemed to understand and the kisses, hot and fluid from the wide mouth. And to be unfaithful to my wife or husband – well, that doesn’t really matter. After all, I met my old lover first, when I was very young, when we were both young, how could it be wrong to do as we did in the past, when her nails dragged over my skin? Maybe my life would have been better if it had been with her.

Even now a father, who has just moved back to the area after many years away, is on a school zoo trip as an accompanying adult.

One of the mothers helping the teacher was his girlfriend years ago, when he was seventeen and he was tall and handsome. But now he has a fat stomach and a sadness around the parallel lines of his forehead. Whenever they look into a cage, the animals start making love feverishly. The father keeps nervously clearing his throat. The mother walks away from the cages and makes conversation about the school’s PTA, and he kicks at the path with his heels, thinking how beautifully her hair drapes her forehead, just as it used to when she was seventeen.

And when you look at each other, you see the old selves. Choose lovers carefully because you’ll have them forever.

It’s thirteen years since Susan and Phillip split up, but of course old lovers never go away, they crowd round, watching your every action, coming between you, stroking your thighs when you make love to your wife, laughing at you as you eat your suburban breakfast, help you to pull on your socks in the morning, with lowered amused eyes. They watch as you drive out from your well-kept house – oh, they whisper, and you had such hopes, they say.

For thirteen years she had kept away from Phillip.

Writing Implements

When I was thirteen I won £1000 in a competition. It was for naming the qualities that made a Sunsilk Supergirl. A man ran the doorbell at our family house in Wimbledon early one summer’s evening and asked for me. He needed to verify that I was a real person. The prize was £1000 or an open-topped Sunbeam Alpine. With a tiny proportion of the money I bought a grey Olivetti typewriter in a hard case. The prize convinced me anything was possible if you tried (not that listing the qualities was hard). But more importantly it bought me that typewriter.

          So, aged 13 I am dressed up in a white dress, clutching a lilac bag, and with sleek hair and white-rimmed shades going to to collect my winnings in London. Meanwhile my 13 year old alter ego Tessa, the anti-heroine of my novel Fire Child, is ruthlessly seducing patronising older men, also in Wimbledon, until her activities cause real trouble. It is she who is in command. I never liked novels or films where women are victims. Give me ‘Kill Bill’ over ‘Terminator’ any time. When I returned from receiving the prize (see pic – hmm, I don’t look that innocent, more Tessa than Sally) I poured my thoughts into my diary, as I have done all my life. I had decided I would become a writer. I would take control. After all, I had money to support me when the time came, and most importantly soon I would have a typewriter. It was the turning point for my life, that day when the man arrived at our door.

          At first I wrote my stories in long hand. I wrote stories of a girl whose father’s plane had crashed in the mountains and now she lived wild with animals and stole from the bourgeoisie in the village below. The girl was courageous and didn’t care about social conventions, none of my heroines did, though I was a good girl if you can call wanting to do terrible things being good. I sat writing late at night in my lilac bedroom, looking up sometimes to stare at my reflection in the dark window. I acted out the games sometimes, because what is story writing but a form of make believe? I liked watching my white hand move over the lined paper of the cheap exercise books I used to write in. My handwriting wasn’t good but still I liked, as I still like, seeing the emotion in the shape of the letters, how the handwriting sprawls when I am excited by what I am writing, how at other times it is neat, how sometimes it is in biro, sometimes fountain pen (which we had to use at school) and sometimes pencil. The physical drama of writing was part of the pleasure of writing. 

Even writing by typewriter is much less interesting than writing by hand. In the days before computers, before the word processor, before typewriters, before even fountain pens, Dickens wrote his four million words with quill pens and used different inks and nibs, with different ink flows, to give handwriting variations. He did some pretty good work without a typewriter or a computer while Queen Victoria wrote millions of words in her letters and journals as well as ruling an empire. And how very much more interesting to write in that way, with cuttings out and notes in the margin, than homogenised by a word processor. As for scholars reading the words of these Victorian monoliths, the energy and dash is in the forms of their handwriting as well as their words. What will future scholars have to study? Some emails and some Times Roman manuscripts without any mistakes.

But times changed. To submit an article or a story it was necessary to type it out therefore I learnt to type, but badly. But I liked the magic typewriter I had won, ticket to another world. Looking back, I realise I especially liked making corrections with Tippex because of the high it supplied, a little like sniffing glue. As I was untidy and always making corrections, my work would be matted with Tippex and I would often be inspired. Typing was physical. When I wanted to reorganise pages I would cut with scissors the part I wanted to move and place it elsewhere, applying sellotape to attach the pieces. Sorted. Cut and paste, in the old days. There were no ink cartridges to buy, all you had to do was change the ribbons. I liked the noise too, the thumping. It connected you with the outside world whereas the world of computers is eerily quiet as you tap your words into the strange grey world that exists inside the screen. Everything comes out looking the same, so neat, no violet ink or blue ink splodges, no curly letters or dramatic slashes, no typing cutting into the page. When I edited a literary magazine, ‘Books and Bookmen’, a much-praised writer was the first to submit copy that had been word-processed. It didn’t read the same as the energetic, vital copy he used to submit. It was oddly flattened and ordinary as if inside the computer were little factory workers smashing down every verbal flourish or eccentricity.

Of course now I don’t know where I would buy a typewriter ribbon. I don’t know if I could bear to thump at a typewriter. But I do know I can buy fountain pens and I know I can buy inks of all kinds of hues. I began this with turquoise ink in a lined notebook then as it began to write itself I moved onto the computer.

So often through my life it has worked like that, the implements of writing helping the mind to take off, to race, to play. The smooth movement of the medium nib of a Cross fountain pen over lined paper, with no glare from an computer screen, there’s nothing quite like it. It connects you up to all the people who have written like this in the past, so long ago, in Egypt, in Victorian times, a man or woman and some paper, telling the story, watching the words take shape as the writer makes them take shape, up and over, down and down, swirling and twirling, choosing how many words on a line, without anything telling you what to do, how to spell, when to turn from one line to another. That’s freedom, dazzling stuff.

Fire Child, is published alongside Heat on 23 March 2017. You can pre-order them here

Exclusive extract: Fire Child

Tessa Armstrong

Northwood Road, Highbury, N5

Friday 1 September

I am very thin and find it hard to eat. Sometimes I think I’m starving myself to death because I’m tired of existing. I don’t like myself. Ever since I killed my father I have lost hope. That was five years ago. I was just fifteen.

Before that my only problem in life was to decide whether to be an actress, a journalist like my father, or a chat show hostess. But at the same time, I realize now, I was cold. The drawer of this desk where I sit is full of love letters. I used to read them out to my girlfriends at school, in particular to my best friend Nicola, who was prettier than the other girls and wickeder. They were children, while Nicola and I were born old. She was the daughter of a politician. I haven’t seen her for five years but we fell out long before that, one evening; an evening which caused quite a scandal.

I still like to read my old letters. I think I was made with a very large Tessa-shaped hole in my mind and heart. I also think I was very brave to manage without you all those years. I loved you so instantly, and it’s the same love I feel now, much stronger and deeper now, and growing so much all the time, but it’s the same love. It’s hard to see how it arrived like that, just suddenly and fully formed and without a moment’s hesitation or doubt. You were the one, you are the one, you always will be the one. Darling, if I didn’t know from experience that I will be more in love with you tomorrow than I am today and will be more in love with you still next week, I would say that I love you absolutely.

That one was written by a photographer I met in a park. He left the country when I grew bored and refused to see him. Even at the time my ability to inspire intense love rather surprised me. Especially as the love was always unreciprocated.

In those days, when my father was alive, we had a house in south London full of windows – bay windows, round windows, French windows – next door to three young boys and their parents.

When the eldest boy Philip was thirteen, he started to want to swap stamps with me. Before that, I had been good only as a snowball target. I caught him staring at me intently as I examined his lovely Chinese stamps covered in dragons and sputniks on the floor of my bedroom. I suggested he give them all to me in exchange for just one dull brown Norwegian stamp featuring a man with a small beard. He agreed, and for the first time I recognized my power. I remember the faint dark hairs above his lips and the furtive way he looked at me.

He never tried to touch me. Occasionally my arm would brush his, as if in error, and he would blush. He had big ears, short hair and an excellent stamp collection – until it was decimated by my unfair offers.

One day during an endless hot summer holiday I called round to swap stamps with Philip wearing a pretty backless dress, hoping to get better stamps that way. But Philip was out, playing cricket.

His two brothers and mother were out too.

His handsome father, however, was in.

He had been mowing the lawn in his shorts, and had sweat on his face and a beer in his hand. He invited me in for a Coca-Cola.

 ‘Your lawn looks very nice, Mr Brown,’ I said as I stood at the window of the breakfast room.

I felt his hands on my bare arms.

‘Yes it does, doesn’t it?’ he said in an ordinary voice as though nothing out of the ordinary were happening. His hands on my arms gave me an agreeable sensation, somewhere between a shiver and a burn. He kissed the hot nape of my neck.

‘Where’s my Coca-Cola, Mr Brown?’ I asked softly.

He stopped kissing to reply: ‘It’s on the table behind you. Do you want a glass or a straw?’

‘No thank you very much. I’ll drink it from the can… in a minute.’

His hands were round my waist – big, tough, man’s hands. I liked the smell of his sweat. His hands moved upwards and pushed my breasts up. I closed my eyes in pleasure as Mr Brown kissed the back of my head and murmured into my hair. He turned me round and put his lips on mine.

It was not the first time I had been kissed but it was easily the best. The kisses of boys were inept: a slobbery blurring of lips.

Mr Brown gave complicated kisses. His tongue became one second like a small fish let loose in my mouth – it darted delightfully all over the place. The next second his tongue changed into a warm snake thrusting and pushing.

I stood limply and gave myself up to the pleasure.

His hand was undoing the buttons of my dress when the phone rang in the next room.

He started.

‘Don’t answer,’ I said.

He looked down at me with a dazed expression, as though he didn’t know who I was or how I’d got there.

‘Don’t answer it,’ I repeated firmly.

His forehead puckered.

‘Don’t frown at me like that,’ I said. ‘You don’t look quite so handsome when you frown.’

He continued to stare at me.

The phone seemed to be ringing louder and louder into the silence.

‘Tessa, tell me. How old are you?’

‘Nearly thirteen,’ I replied, with a hint of pride. I was fed up with being twelve and being treated like a child.

He took a step back, then swung away, out of the room.

A minute or two later he returned. His eyes were piercing and blue and sort of scared.

‘That was the boys saying they’ll be back soon.’

I crossed my arms. ‘I haven’t had my Coca-Cola yet.’

He handed me the can. I watched him as I drank. A little dribbled down my chin. I wiped it off with the back of my hand.

His face was flushed.

He looked past me, through the window, at his garden with its tree house and its swings.

‘They’ll be back soon,’ he repeated.

I put my arms around him, and looked up, big-eyed, sweet, very young.

His lips returned to mine.

We made love a few minutes later on the floor, before the boys returned home. It was my first time. I quite enjoyed it.

Afterwards, he dressed quickly and would not meet my eyes.

For the next few weekends I watched his house from my parents’ bedroom and when I was sure he was alone I’d call round asking for Philip. Always Philip’s father offered me Coca-Cola. Always he tried not to make love to me. Always he did make love to me, and always he dressed quickly afterwards and would not meet my eyes.

During those weeks he lost a lot of weight and by the end was rather haggard and not as attractive as at first, so I became less interested.

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