Read Vacant Possession Online

Authors: Hilary Mantel

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #General

Vacant Possession

Hilary Mantel is the author of ten novels, including
Wolf Hall,
winner of the Man Booker Prize. Her novel
An Experiment in Love
won the 1996 Hawthornden Prize. Her reviews and essays appear in
The New York Times, The New York Review of Books,
and the
London Review of Books.


Every Day Is Mother’s Day

Eight Months on Ghazzah Street


A Place of Greater Safety

A Change of Climate

An Experiment in Love

The Giant, O’Brien

Learning to Talk

Beyond Black

Wolf Hall


Giving Up the Ghost


To Gerald

“…and that is what one does, one does not get better but different and older and that is always a pleasure.”


“Can these bones live?”



It was ten o’clock in the evening; raining and very dark. A man was walking along the road whistling “Santa Lucia.”

Muriel Axon stood alone at the window of her room; a square plain woman, forty-four years old. She was wrapped in an eider-down, and in the palm of her hand she held the boiled egg she was eating for supper. The glow of the streetlamps showed her wet slate roofs, the long lit curve of the motorway outside the town, and a bristling cat in the shadow of a wall; beyond these, the spines of black hills.

Cradling the warm egg, Muriel dug in her fingernails to crush the shell. She did not go in for table manners; they wasted time. She began to peel the skin, wincing a little as she did so. She put her tongue into the salted gelid hollow and probed gently. The room behind her was dark, and full of the minute crackling her fingers made. She sucked, thought. Most of Muriel’s thoughts were quite unlike other people’s.

Down below, she heard the front door opening. A dim light shone onto the path, and a second later her landlord appeared, Mr. Kowalski, shuffling the few paces to the gate. He looked up and down the road. No one. He stood for a moment, his bullet head shrinking into his shoulders; turned, grunting to himself, and slowly made his way back. She heard the front door slam. It was ten-fifteen. Mr. Kowalski was drawing the bolts, turning the key, putting the chain on the door.


“I wonder who will be the new Poet Laureate?” said Colin Sidney, coming down to breakfast. There was no reply from the other residents at number 2, Buckingham Avenue. He paused on the half-landing, looking out of the little window. He saw the roof of his garage, and his neighbour’s garden. “Well, who?” he muttered. There was nothing in view but a scudding 8:00
. sky, a promise of weak sunshine, a vista of close, green, dripping trees. Midsummer. Colin went down, twitching his tie.

Behind him, the three younger children were preparing for their day. He heard shrieks and curses, the kicking and slamming of doors. The radio was on, and they were playing records too; Acid Raine and the Oncogenes were shaking the walls with their current hit single. “Ted Hughes?” Colin asked. “Larkin?”

There would be perhaps ten minutes’ grace before the children erupted down the stairs to fall on their breakfasts and begin their daily round of feuding amongst themselves and insulting their parents. Colin examined himself in the mirror at the bottom of the stairs. He wished that Sylvia would move it, so that he did not have to begin every day with a confrontation. Perhaps he could ask her. He did not think of moving it himself. He had his spheres of action; this was not one of them.

He saw a man of forty-three, with bright blue eyes, thinning hair, and what he described to himself as faded good looks. But no, he thought; courtesans are faded, schoolmasters are merely worn. He saw a kind of helplessness, in the face of family and wider society; a lack of fibre, both moral and dietary. Listening to the racket above, he solaced himself with a quotation: “They fuck you up, your mum and dad / They may not mean to, but they do.”

Sylvia was in the kitchen already. He thought he could hear her special muesli mix cascading like a rockfall into a dish. But instead he found her in the middle of the room, head tipped back, gazing upwards.

“What a mess,” she said. The entire ceiling and the upper third of the walls were coated with the black smeary deposit from yesterday’s fire. Lizzie, the daily, had opened the door from the hall, and there it was, stinking smoke billowing everywhere. Lucky she had presence of mind, or it would have been far more serious.

“I can’t see why it’s so greasy,” Sylvia said. “It isn’t as if we ever fry anything.” She gave a little hitch to the pants of her tracksuit. “The whole room’ll need repainting. Probably the hall as well.”

“Yes, all right,” Colin said, going to the table. He was sick of hearing about the fire. “Can I have an egg?”

“Well, be it on your own head,” Sylvia said. “You’ve had two this week. You know what the doctor said.”

“I think I’ll be reckless for once.” Colin opened the fridge. “Was young Alistair at home when this fire started?”

“If he was, he won’t admit it.”

“He’s the source of most of the calamities round here, isn’t he? And I can tell you now—” He broke off. “Where’s a pan for this egg?”

“Where it always is, Colin.”

“I can tell you now I’m not doing the repainting.” He ran the tap. “Either Alistair does it—for a fee, if necessary—or we get somebody in.”

Sylvia picked up an orange from a straw basket on the worktop. “I don’t see why you can’t do it.” She tossed the orange into her left hand, and it slapped against her palm. “It’s the end of term soon.”

“True. I have one day’s summer holiday and then I start on next year’s timetable.”

Sylvia’s eyes followed him as he moved about the kitchen. “Are you having bread?” she asked, her tone incredulous.

Striding about in her bright blue tracksuit, Sylvia would never have been taken for a mother of four. Suzanne, the eldest, was eighteen now; her mother was waiting hopefully for the day when someone would mistake them for sisters. It was mysterious, this matter of Sylvia’s age. At twenty, she had looked forty; all the girls on her street wanted to look like their mothers. The Youth Cult passed her by; at thirty she looked forty still, square and deep-bosomed, with her hair bleached and lacquered in the way she had worn it on the day she was married.

Then at some stage—Colin couldn’t pinpoint it—she had stopped getting older. She took herself in hand. She bought a leotard, and went timidly to a class at the church hall; she stood watching, her hands splayed self-consciously to hide her pannier thighs. The next week she bought a tape of disco music, and started dancing. She clumped over the fitted carpets, making the glass shelves tinkle in the china cabinet that had been her mother’s. She threw out the china cabinet, and got some pine shelves instead.

These days she wore her brown hair in a short curly perm, which her hairdresser, Shane, believed would soften her firm, rather harsh features. Her body was lean now, dieted and disciplined, capriciously nourished and not too much: as far as her brain was concerned, she was taking a course at the Open University. Now that she had lost so much weight, she was always in pursuit of new clothes, little tee shirts and cotton skirts which were bright, cheap, and casual; she picked up her ideas on the same plan. It seemed to Colin that she had chosen, among current fads and notions, all those designed to diminish his self-respect and make him most uncomfortable.

How nice it would be if she had a job, Colin thought. He was a Deputy Head; they scraped along. There were even luxuries, like Lizzie Blank the daily woman (Tuesdays and Thursdays). But the children ate so much, and left the lights on and the taps running; they needed outfits and treats, and dinner money and bus money and more money, they insisted, for day-glo paint and handcuffs and all the other stuff you wore to an Acid Raine concert. They wanted special diets and school trips, and a tent so they could sleep in the garden in summer; they wanted video nasties, and Claire—it was reassuring, he supposed—wanted a new Brownie uniform. Every whim cost cash down. For all he knew, they might be maintaining a heroin habit. It couldn’t have cost more. When he opened his bank statements he felt as if he were being eaten away, month by month, from the inside out.

But unfortunately, there were no jobs; not for anybody really, and certainly not for Sylvia. She was not qualified for anything. She was educated now, but not trained. The old Sylvia showed through too often. She became emotional when their opinions differed. Under pressure, she was always regressing to the received wisdom of the cooked meats factory where she had worked before they were married.

Colin found a plate for his bread and took it to the table. “So…” he said. “What are you up to today?”

“Citizens Advice Bureau, ten till twelve.” Sylvia peeled her orange. “Then later on there’s this committee meeting. We’re thinking about setting up a women’s refuge.”

There was something bubbling and thwarted in Sylvia that only meddling in other people’s business would satisfy. Before the birth of their youngest child Claire, when they had lived on a large housing estate, there had been plenty of time for gossip; some of it idle, some of it manipulative. Buckingham Avenue had repressed her, with its absence of tittle-tattle, its well-kept fences, its elderly residents leading sedate and private lives. Good fences make good neighbours, he used to say, when they moved in, nine years ago. Sylvia didn’t agree. In her fortieth year, Sylvia discovered social concern. She discovered community action, and protest, and steering committees. If Alistair’s blossoming delinquencies didn’t spoil her chances, she’d probably end up a JP. This was a big change; but it was not unaccountable. The children no longer needed her, and the marriage was not worthy of sustained attention. It just ran on, taking care of itself. After twenty years you can’t expect passion. It’s enough if you’re barely civil.

Colin stood over the cooker and looked down at his egg, bobbing dizzily in a froth of leaking white. As if alive, it flew about and tapped itself against the side of the pan. He picked up a teaspoon and dabbed at it, scalding his fingers in the steam. He could feel Sylvia watching him. By her standards, he had no common sense: he had never laid claim to it. But he was a clever man, and capable in his own line. His face wore a habitual expression of strained tolerance, of goodwill and anxiety, uneasily mixed.

“We’re still marking exams,” he said. He dipped for his egg with a tea strainer, which he had found by chance in a drawer. “I’ve got three hundred reports to sign. And the union blokes are coming in to see me this morning. You’d think they’d let it rest till after the holidays. But no.”


“Well, they’re talking about it.”

“I’ve every sympathy.”

“So have I, I want a pay rise too, but it makes it bloody difficult to run a school.” He sighed, and went about with his egg.

“What are you doing?” Sylvia asked. “Why don’t you put it in an egg cup and sit down with it? Or are you going to race off with it down Lauderdale Road?”

Colin sat down with his ovoid ruin and picked up the newspaper. The day had brightened and the pleasant morning sun shone through his double glazing. “I always think of
Gulliver’s Travels
when I eat an egg,” he told his wife. “You see—” He broke off, gaped, put down his egg spoon, and seized up the newspaper. “Good God, Sylvia. York Minster’s burned down. Look at this.” He thrust the newspaper at her. The front page bore the headline
and a four-column picture of the Minster’s south transept wreathed in smoke and flame.

“It never rains but it pours,” Sylvia remarked, glancing at the kitchen ceiling. She tilted her yoghurt carton and scraped it out delicately with her teaspoon. “Funny, Lizzie was off to York yesterday on a day trip. I wonder if she saw it.”

“It happened at half two in the morning.”

“What a pity. She doesn’t like to miss anything.”

“Good God, it’s not a tourist attraction,” Colin said. “It’s a national tragedy. Four million pounds’ worth of damage.” He groaned.

“Don’t take it so personally.”

“‘The fire took almost three hours to contain,’” Colin read out loud. “‘Although it was stopped from spreading to the central tower, or from seriously damaging the Minster’s famous collection of stained-glass windows, it left the transept’s ancient roof beams and plastered vaults a smouldering mass on the floor below.’”

“Your egg’s going cold,” Sylvia said. “I’d have thought you’d eat it, after you went to such trouble to get it.”

“I’ve lost my appetite. You don’t seem to appreciate what a loss this is to our heritage.”

“It’s no loss to your arteries, anyway.” Sylvia tossed her yoghurt carton into the wastebin. She opened one of the kitchen cupboards and began to take down the packets of the stuff the children ate. Amid Colin’s disinterested grief he felt a sharp prickle of personal resentment: she still does things for them, but nothing at all for me. “How did it start?” she enquired.

“Lightning, they think. They quote a priest here who says it was divine intervention.”

“Why should it be that?”

“Because of the Bishop of Durham. He was consecrated at the Minster last Friday. You know, all about his controversial views on the Resurrection. I thought that now you’re so friendly with our vicar you’d be well up in all this.”

“Francis doesn’t talk about the Church much, he talks about community projects.” Sylvia rummaged in the cutlery drawer. “If God didn’t like the Bishop of Durham, why didn’t He strike him personally? And do it promptly, on Saturday morning?”

“Well, I tend to agree with you,” Colin said. “It can’t be that, can it?” He turned to the back page for more news of the disaster. “‘The Lord was on our side as we battled the flames,’” he read. “By the way, how’s the vicar’s son? Has he come out of Youth Custody yet?”

“He’s not in Youth Custody. He’s having Intermediate Treatment. He’s doing community service.” Sylvia reached out for a piece of toast and picked up her knife. “Do you know what Francis says?”

“Watch it, that’s butter you’re eating,” Colin said.

“Oh, so it is!” Looking thoughtful, she put the bread down on her plate. “He says that this business of Austin doing take-and-drive-away, it’s a deep compulsion he has, a compulsion to find out his real identity by sampling and testing out various machines.”

“You mean it’s the vicar’s fault for naming him after a car?”

“At some level, you see, Francis thinks he does believe that. By dumping the cars, he’s trying to jettison the mechanistic fantasies that have taken him over, and affirm his survival as a human being. It’s a form of acting out. Francis’s real worry is that because he usually leaves the cars in such a wrecked-up condition, it may indicate suicidal tendencies.”

“Lordy, lordy,” Colin said. “I didn’t know you could kill yourself by sniffing glue.”

“It can damage your brain.”

“How would they know?”

“Francis is very worried. He can’t talk to Hermione. She thinks it’s because they didn’t send him to boarding school.”

“I don’t doubt he’ll be boarded out soon enough, and at the taxpayers’ expense. How he got off this time beats me.”

“He didn’t get off.” Sylvia looked offended. “Community service is a very valid option.”

“I’d rather he were in custody. Keep him away from our kids. How does a vicar’s son turn out such a thug?”

There was no time to go into this, because the children rushed in: Karen and Claire in their school uniforms, and the boy in a kind of romper suit of sagging jersey fabric, with holes cut out of it here and there, exposing bits of flesh. The girls flung themselves into their chairs.

“Brownies tonight,” Claire said: a chubby child, putting out her paws for everything edible within reach. “And I haven’t got my new uniform yet, Mum.”

“Okay, I’ll see about it.” She knew that the Brownies were a conformist outfit, pseudo-masculine if not paramilitary, but she suspected that they were more harmless than some of the things her children got up to.

“You ought to see her,” Karen said. “She shouldn’t grow so much, it’s uncouth. Her skirt’s up round her bum. It’s child pornography.”

“That will do,” Colin said.

Claire stuffed a piece of toast into her mouth. “It’s Brownie Tea-Making Fortnight soon. I have to make at least fifty cups of tea for family and friends. And every cup I make, they give it marks.”

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