Vacant Possession

Hilary Mantel

Holt Paperbacks

VACANT POSSESSION

"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 A.M. 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."

"Strike?"

"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 NIGHT SKY LIT UP BY GOTHIC GLORY ABLAZE 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."

"If you make me any mouldy tea," Alistair said, "I'll pour it down the sink."

"I have these mark sheets," she went on. "You have to say what my tea is, Excellent, Very Good, or Good."

"What if it's witches' piss?" Alistair enquired.

"I wish you'd leave the table, Alistair, if you're going to talk like that."

"I'm not at the table, am I? I'm just stood here, watching you lot eating like pigs."

"Oh, let him starve," Karen said. "He's stunted, that's what he is. He's probably got rickets or sumfin."

"He certainly has not got rickets," Sylvia said.

"Well, he's so titchy. That's why he's such a rotten little bully. We done it in psychology."

"Perhaps he's a pygmy," Claire said. "He can't help it."

Alistair tore off a piece of kitchen roll, and blew his nose into it with great violence. He wadded it up in his palms and tossed it at Karen. It fell short, and lay on the cork tiles.

"Just watch it," Sylvia said. "Lizzie's not spending her time and my money cleaning up after you lot."

"I don't want her cleaning up after me," Alistair said. "You make sure you don't let her in my room."

"She can't get in, can she? You've always got the door locked."

"What do you do in there?" Colin asked.

"Black magic," Karen said. "Him and Austin. Austin nicks vestments and stuff from his dad, and they have Black Masses."

"I'd do a spell to give you spots," Alistair said. "Only you haven't got room for any more."

"So is that what you're going to do today? Lock yourself in and have a Black Mass?"

"Yeah," Alistair said. "And miss all the lovely sunshine." He slouched out of the room. Sylvia's eyes followed him.

"I do worry," she said.

Colin flapped over a page of the newspaper. "It's better than him joining the Young Conservatives," he said.

"You never take things seriously."

"Oh, I do." He glanced up from the news of the inferno. "I know a lot of kids. So I don't get alarmed."

"Yes, but Alistair's your own."

"Now that does alarm me. At times." But he knew a hundred children as bad as Alistair, a hundred worse; antisocial truants from broken homes. Theirs was not broken; only creaking a bit under the strain. The kids passed through his office every day, en route from brief rebellion to a lifetime's acceptance of their lot. They had silly hairstyles; beneath them, dull conformist little brains.

"I wish you'd keep them in school till the end of term," Sylvia said. "I wish he weren't leaving."

"What would he do if he stayed on? Take Oxbridge by storm with his two CSEs?"

"Off again," said Sylvia, stirring her muesli. She was training herself to eat slowly, putting down her spoon between mouthfuls, and the action gave her words a quite spurious consequence. "Off again with your little schoolmaster's sarcasms."

"Does it make you cross?"

"It makes me bored."

"We've nothing else for protection, now the LEA have abolished flogging."

"I don't think you really value education, Colin. You had too much of it."

"I had enough," he conceded.

"Alistair used to be so bright."

"That's what all the parents say."

Sylvia stood up and began carrying dishes to the sink. Her orange peel lay abandoned on the tabletop, a long strip dropped neatly from practised dieter's fingers. Colin looked at it with interest. You can do divination with orange peel, he thought. The future was there, in homely things, for anyone who wanted to know it; door keys, tea leaves. There are letters in orange peel, which tell you who will be important in your life. He could make out quite clearly a capital "I."

At once, a certain thought came into his mind. He examined it, and found it unwelcome. He would not entertain it; he kicked it out. His pulse rate rose a fraction; he dropped his eyes, put down his coffee cup. The thought rolled back, in a leisurely way, and closed around his attention like a loop of string. For a few months in his long marriage, he had been unfaithful to Sylvia. His affair with Isabel Field had been finished for years--it was years since he'd seen her--but the body has its own set of memories, and the mind hangs on to nagging superstitions. An initial leaps out from the table; horoscopes are read. A retreating stranger stops the heart on a station platform.

That part of life was over, of course. Isabel had been young and intense, full of devouring schemes. She'd been a social worker, full of tutored emotions; always nagging away about the inner meaning of things. He remembered, when he thought about her now, her gloom, her scruples, the problems she'd had with her clients; and the shock of contact, skin against skin, mouth against mouth, her quickening breath in the darkness of a parked car. He'd had nothing to offer her; only what she could have got from any man, and in greater comfort too. Sylvia hadn't known about it. She hadn't noticed, he thought, the struggle that was going on inside him.

Just as well. Her ignorant body had done the battling for her. Christmas Day, 1974, she'd told him she was pregnant again. He'd given up Isabel so that Claire could be born, and grow up plump and cheeky, and get Brownie badges.

That had been a bad year; the guilt, the deception, the hopeless months that follow the end of an affair. Lately, and unwillingly, he'd begun to think about Isabel again. Change was in the air, an undercurrent of disturbance. He couldn't account for it.

"You're miles away," Sylvia said, clattering at the sink. She crossed to the table and scooped the orange peel into her palm, and dropped it in the bin. "You'll be late if you sit about any longer."

Colin looked at his watch. "Good God, twenty past eight." He threw the paper down. "Have a look at it, about the Minster. It's awful." He snatched up his jacket, made for the door. "Come on, you kids. Take care, see you about six."

What I should do, Isabel thought; what I should do is, I should start writing it down. I'd like to write down everything that worries me, about my life ten years ago. I'd like to write it. But I can't find a pen.

Isabel's brain moves slowly these days. She's only thirty-four. She shouldn't find thinking such an effort, and she shouldn't look such a wreck. Perhaps a sense of foreboding dogs her. That must be it.

If she had any paper, she wouldn't have a pen. When she was a social worker, she always had pens. She was organised; to a degree.

She was not organised now; she had just moved house, not unpacked yet. Here I am again, she said to herself, where I grew up and began my professional career; and had my first love affair. If that is what you call it.

It's not fair, she thought. I never wanted to come back here. I might meet Colin in the supermarket. I might meet his sister, Florence. Then again, I might meet Sylvia. I've never seen Sylvia, but I feel I'd know her at once. Instinct, if you like. Women who have shared a man can probably scent each other out.

What about this shopping list? She turned it over. She could write on the back, why not? Just to get started was the main thing, to get some relief from the thoughts going round and round in her head. A good search through her handbag turned up a biro. She sat down at the kitchen table. She took a deep breath. Yes, I might meet the Sidneys en famille, she thought. Then again, I might meet my old client, Muriel Axon. That would be worse.

"Ten years ago, I lived in this town, I was with Social Services, I was seeing Colin. I lived at home with my father; that was all of my life. But I had this case, and this is the case I want to write about. Muriel Axon, No. III/73/0059. Everything about this case bothered me. It still does.

"Muriel Axon and her old mother Evelyn lived at number 2, Buckingham Avenue, in that part of town where people have big gardens and keep to themselves. Next door to them, but round the corner on Lauderdale Road, lived Colin's sister Florence Sidney. We didn't make that connection until the end. Why should we? When I met Colin--sneaking off to some pub somewhere, hoping we wouldn't meet anyone we knew--we didn't talk about his sister, and where she lived, or my clients and where they lived. But if I had known, I might have been able to ask Florence Sidney about her neighbours. Get some sort of--clarification.

"Then again, I don't know if I wanted clarification. I was afraid to find out what was really going on in the Axon household. Later, when it was all over, and Muriel's mother was dead and Muriel herself had been put in hospital, their house came on the market and Colin bought it. He wanted a big house, and to live next door to his sister. He got it cheap.

"I did warn him against it. I saw him at the inquest, and I told him I wouldn't care to live there. I tried to convey to him that horrible things had happened in that house. He wouldn't take a hint. I couldn't do more than hint. I really didn't know. I couldn't expose my imaginings. I would have sounded superstitious, unbalanced, and he already thought I was that. By that time, everything was over between us.

"After all, it's just a house. Just an empty shell, when the people are taken away.

"I expect I'll find out how Colin's getting on. This is a small town. They're all around, I'm sure; old colleagues, old clients, old lovers. Of course there was always a risk, with Jim moving about for the sake of his career. If you're in banking and you want to get to be a manager quite young you have to be prepared to move about. I'd rather have stayed in Manchester.

"But I couldn't produce any good reasons why we shouldn't come back. Not reasons that convinced Jim. He doesn't take much notice of my opinions. That's understandable. I'm always crying, you see, bursting into tears, and falling over, and losing things. I was in banking too when we got married--I thought it would be restful and uncomplicated--but now I just sit about at home.

"I'm not fit for anything, Jim says. He wonders what's the matter with me. I spend my days thinking.

"So I thought I could write a book, you see, about the Axon case and all that, and when it was done I could send it to the Sunday papers, and then everyone would know how social workers operate and why things go so badly wrong. How you get cases you can't handle, and how clients conspire against you, and circumstances seem to conspire too. How it messes up your personal life. How you live with yourself afterwards; when disaster has occurred."

That will do for a preface, she thought. I can call it Confessions of a Social Worker, I suppose. She had long ago overflowed the shopping list and been forced to write on the piece of packing paper that had come around the teapot. The spout had got broken, but it didn't matter; there wasn't much call for tea. I'll buy a proper notebook later, she thought, on my way to the off-licence.

It was 12:30 P.M. when Sylvia came home from the CAB. In the hall she paused and called out, "Hello, Lizzie, all right are you?" A clattering from the kitchen told her that her daily woman was hard at work. What a comfort to have the basics taken care of, she thought. She told herself that she hated housework, though in fact for most of her married life it had been her pride, pleasure, and retreat.

Going up the stairs, dragging her feet in their striped trainers, she acknowledged that she felt tired. The wrangle at the breakfast table was always a strain, and now her head was buzzing with Social Security regulations and unanswered questions about the legal aid scheme. The house was quiet. She went into her bedroom, kicked off her shoes, and lay down on the bed. Her eyes closed; she dozed for five minutes, wrapped in the midday heat. Suddenly a shrill ringing brought her upright, shocked out of sleep. Damn that cooker timer, she thought, it's gone off by itself again. Why doesn't Lizzie stop it? Heart still racing, she padded over to the door. Opened it; the ringing stopped. She sighed. Better turn out those drawers, I suppose. Skip lunch. Don't need it, this weather.

She knew that if she began with the bottom drawer, she would find her photograph albums; and then she could sit on the bed and browse. It was something she'd not done in ages. She'd never had much time to herself. Lizzie's advent had been a blessing--even if she was a bit odd. You didn't engage a cleaner for her looks or fashion sense, or for her conversation; you just needed someone honest and with a bit of initiative. Lizzie always reminded her of how she'd come up in the world. She reminded her a little of someone she'd known before her marriage; one of the girls on the Pork Shoulder line.

She leaned back against the pillows. Wedding pictures, baby pictures; Suzanne grinning in her pram in the postage-stamp garden of their very first house. Suzanne had left home now, was studying geography at Manchester University. Then Alistair, scowling from under a woollen hat in the same pram. It was very like his present scowl, except that now he had more teeth. Here was Karen, two years old, digging in the garden of their house on the estate. Here she was again, a little older, mouth drooping, swinging on the rickety gate. Everything about that house had been rickety, leaky, or shoddy; it was a triumph of jerry-building. No wonder they'd been keen to move to Buckingham Avenue, despite its neglected and depressing condition.

The move had been a stroke of luck for them. With Claire on the way, they'd needed a bigger place; but how to afford it? Normally she'd never have considered the Lauderdale Road area--all those big detached houses, too gloomy and too expensive. Colin had grown up on Lauderdale Road, and his sister Florence, who had never got married, still occupied the family house; his father was dead, and Florence had put their mother in a home. Florence had called her up one day and said, "The Axon house is on the market, just round the corner, the one with the garden backing onto ours. You ought to enquire about it."

"What?" she'd said. "That place where those two peculiar women lived? It's falling down."

"It's going cheap," Florence had said. "Suit yourselves. But you could do it up."

Sylvia suspected Florence's motives, of course. She was possessive; she wanted her brother next door, on call for mending her fuses and unblocking her sink. But still...out of curiosity, Sylvia phoned the estate agent.

"It is in need of sympathetic renovation," the man confirmed, "but it's basically very sound. Of course, it's very well situated. Within easy reach of shops and schools--"

"I know where it is. Why is it so cheap?"

He'd dropped his voice, become confidential. "Can't say too much, bit of a sad case--old lady's died, and her daughter, she's not quite right, know what I mean? Gone into hospital."

"You mean they've put her away?"

"The old mother died suddenly, there was an inquest. It was in the paper, in the Reporter."

She didn't say, my husband was there when she died. That was irrelevant. But they'd wondered what had happened to the Axon girl. Not that they'd known the Axons, really; they were the kind of neighbours you didn't set eyes on from one year to the next. "What hospital has she gone to?"

"As to that, I couldn't say. You see what it was, madam, they were recluses. They didn't like other people in the house. So they didn't keep up with repairs. Well, two ladies, you don't expect it. But it's a lovely property."

"All right. When can we have the key?"

They'd been to see it together. Florence met them at the gate. "Well?" She was anxious that Colin's decision should not be coloured by the unpleasant episode that had taken place in the house a few weeks earlier. He'd called on Florence late one afternoon, fortunately as it turned out; plodding out through the twilit garden to inspect, at her request, a dubious bit of guttering, he'd noticed something very strange going on at the Axon house. At an upstairs window, a young woman was gesturing, calling for help; very odd, but Colin hadn't hesitated. Florence had watched amazed as he crashed through the shrubbery and pounded on the Axons' back door, ready to break it down. Once inside he'd raced up the stairs to let the girl out; Mrs. Axon had pursued him, only to meet with an accident. It came out later that she'd had a heart attack, as well as a fall. Colin had given artificial respiration; with no result. And the young woman? She was a social worker, making her calls; the old lady had tricked her into the spare bedroom and turned the key. God knows what else had been going on at number 2. Would Colin want it?

"Well," he'd said cautiously, "it's cheap. It needs work." But if the last occupants had left shadows, he thought he could dispel them. "We could cut some of these trees down," he said. "Let some light in."

"Yes," Sylvia had said. "Then Florence could see in our garden, couldn't she?" She was not enthusiastic about that. But the trees would have to go, and all the junk that the Axons had left behind them; and that little glasshouse that the agent had called a conservatory, with its cracked and grimy panes and its mound of cardboard and newspapers all festering and damp. What a clean-up job! But think of the possibilities...

So they had put down a holding deposit, and Colin had called the solicitor. Contracts were exchanged within weeks. Their married life had been full of upheavals; this was the only thing that had gone smoothly.

Sylvia turned back to her albums.

How the photographs improved, from shiny dog-eared scraps, faded brown with age, to the borderless silk prints of recent date. Here she stood before the front door of Buckingham Avenue, her arm through her husband's. Florence, she thought, must have taken the picture. Behind them, the house looked like the set of a Hammer Films production; that ugly stained glass in the front door, those great clumps of evergreens shading the paths. The woodwork was rotting, the downspouts were in a deplorable condition; and the two figures who stood before it were hardly in a better one. Colin must have been fourteen stone there, she thought. Look at his belly hanging over his belt. Look at the silly expression on his face.

Her own image offered little comfort. Her tight skirt--surely unfashionably short?--emphasised her large hips and stocky legs; she was still out of shape after her recent pregnancy. Here she was, holding the new baby, Claire, peeping at the camera with a simper above the infant's shawled bulk. Her hair had been bleached out to a strawlike mess. Had she not known that backcombing and lacquer would ruin it? Worse, had she not known that no one else had used them for years?

No doubt at the factory, she thought, we were behind the times. We didn't know any better. She accorded an indulgent smile to her teenaged self, making up for a Friday night out, scrubbing her fair skin until the aura of animal fat, sodium polyphosphates, and assembly-line sweat was completely wiped away and she moved in a mist of Yardley's cologne and heart-skipping expectation towards the weekly dance; off she went, a great big beautiful baby doll. Then, on the seven o'clock train, she had met Colin.

It was an awful photograph, why had she ever kept it? Quickly she detached it from the page and put it down on the bedside cabinet. There was a blank space now in the album, a testament to her vanity. There she was again, arms folded outside number 2. The garden had been dug over, and the house behind her had all its woodwork painted a gleaming white. It had been a gruelling year-long slog, up and down ladders with buckets of paste, back-breaking work; but it was a big house, and there was land at the side to accommodate the extension they had eventually built, giving them a fourth bedroom and a much bigger kitchen. That was the whole point about Buckingham Avenue, it offered such scope for improvement. How much easier it would have been if their removal had not coincided with the crisis in Colin's life. There had been a girlfriend, of course; he supposed she didn't know. His behaviour was odd and abstracted, even by his own standards. He had drunk too much, whenever he could get his hands on some alcohol; they could not afford, in those days, to keep a stock in the house. Their petrol bills had soared; where did he go? Finally, of course, he'd been breathalysed and banned from driving. His little affair had come to nothing. That was obvious, wasn't it? He was still here, she was still here; here they were.

Sylvia looked at her watch. Ten past one. She let the albums slip onto the bed, yawned, stretched, and peeled off her tracksuit, dropping it into the laundry basket. She went into the bathroom, washed, and cleaned her teeth vigorously. Back in the bedroom, she averted her face to avoid the sight of herself half-naked in the dressing table mirror. Her thighs were going, her tummy had gone; after four pregnancies, what could you expect? If she had known then what she knew now...She pulled on her baggy cotton trousers, and took out of the drawer a tee shirt which said in big black letters NURSERY SCHOOLS ARE OUR RIGHT. Running a hand through her hair, she mooched off downstairs.

Lizzie Blank, the daily (a German name, Sylvia supposed), was standing at the sink wringing dirty water from a cloth. "All right, Lizzie?" Sylvia said.

"All right, Mrs. S.?"

Sylvia crossed to the fridge. She opened it, picked out a lettuce leaf, and stood nibbling it while she surveyed her domestic. She supposed that a survey of Lizzie Blank would be a comfort to any normal woman who was afraid of losing her looks. Weird was the only word for her.

Lizzie Blank was a woman of no age that could easily be determined. Her dumpling body, entirely without a waistline, was supported on peg-shaped legs. Her hair, platinum blond and matted, had a height and stiffness that Sylvia's in its heyday had never approached; two little squiggles, shaped like meat hooks, stood stiffly out by each ear. Her large face--rather blank in truth--was so caked with make-up that it was impossible to decide what it might look like naked, and her eyelids, outlined in thick black pencil, were painted a vivid teal blue. How many pairs of false eyelashes she wore, Sylvia could not take it upon herself to say. Her magenta lips bore no relation to her real mouth, but were over-painted greasily onto the skin, so that the merest twitch of her cheek muscles brought about a smile or a pout. The lips worked unceasingly; the eyes remained quite dead.

"How was your trip?" Sylvia asked.

"Okay. One of us thought there would be donkeys. We had them before, when we went on a day trip."

"I think you only get them at the seaside."

"I don't see why. Not as if they swim."

Sylvia was taken aback. "Tell me, Lizzie," she said, "do you wear a wig?"

Lizzie only smiled. Sylvia realised that her question was perhaps an intrusion. After all, she thought, if it is a wig, it's bound to slip about on her head from time to time. I could find out by observation alone.

Sylvia swung open the fridge door again, took out half a cucumber, and cut an inch off it. She raised it to her lips. "By the way, you didn't try to clean Alistair's room, did you? I meant to tell you. I expect he's got the door locked."

"The spare room?" Lizzie looked at her; it might have been astonishment, but her face was so far from the human norm that it was always difficult to be sure what her expressions meant.

"Well, it's not really the spare room. Alistair's always had it, since we came."

"I call it the spare room."

"I daresay it was, before we moved here. Anyway, what I'm saying is--don't bother with it. His father will make him clean it up, when the school holidays start."

"Some rooms have no talent for cleaning. Some rooms will never be clean." Her tone was perhaps unnecessarily doom-laden, but Sylvia supposed she was devoted to her art. It was a good sign really.

"I was wondering, would you take on another lady?"

Lizzie was washing down the sink with bleach. She shook her head, without pausing in her work.

"Only, our vicar's wife is looking for somebody to do a few hours for her."

"Did you say you could recommend me?" Lizzie turned her full flat face towards her employer; her rouged cheeks glowed, ripely pink, in a waste of chalk-white powder.

"I mentioned your name. I didn't commit you."

"Not interested, Mrs. S."

"I did tell her, I didn't know how many other people you did for." Biting her cucumber: "You're a bit of an enigma, Lizzie."

"I can't take anything else on." Lizzie screwed the cap back on the bleach bottle. "I work at night."

She bent down to put the bleach away under the sink, presenting to Sylvia her large rear end. "Yes, well, I thought I'd ask. I'd better get off to my committee meeting. Can I give you a lift?"

Lizzie took off her large plastic apron and hung it behind the kitchen door. "Thank you kindly, Mrs. S. You're a good woman. An angel, I might add."

With a baffled smile, Sylvia went off to get her purse. Weird was the word. As it happened, though, Lizzie Blank was the only person who had answered her ad in the Reporter. The purplish, pinpoint, foreign-looking hand had prepared her for--well, a foreigner; a person of strange diction and eccentric ways of cleaning lavatories. Lizzie did not seem exactly foreign; but perhaps her parents were, perhaps she came from a funny background. She seemed a good-hearted soul, Sylvia thought, and willing enough; even if she was rather lavish with the cleaning materials.

She went back into the kitchen. Lizzie Blank was now in her outdoor garb; a dirndl skirt of red and blue, and a leopard-skin jacket. "I'm surprised you don't feel the heat," Sylvia said, counting out her money. "There you are, love." Lizzie's false nails flashed, and the notes vanished into one of her pockets.

"It's my pride and joy, this jacket," she said. "As my mother used to say, Pride must Abide."

Lizzie took out a chiffon scarf, pink shot through with gold, and went out into the hall. In front of the mirror, she adjusted it carefully over her coiffure. "Ready?" Sylvia said, swinging her car keys. "You'll have to give me directions."

Damn, she thought, I've been stuffing myself again; and I meant not to have any lunch.

They drove downhill towards the town centre. Right here, left here, said the charwoman, leading them into the maze of streets that still stood on the southern side of the motorway link. "All this will be coming down soon," Sylvia said. "You'll all be dumped over Hadleigh way in a high-rise. How do you feel about that?"

"All right."

"But it'll break up your community."

"Not my community. I wasn't born here."

"Oh, I see. But still, you won't like life in a towerblock."

"I shan't mind. You can throw things off the balconies."

Sylvia gave her a sideways look, then switched her attention back to the road. She slowed down. Small brown children played by the kerb, barelegged in the July heat, crouching in the gutter and darting out into the road. There was not a blade of grass for miles. Midsummer brought out the worst in it, baking the cracks in the pavements, raising a stench from the dustbins. The long ginnels that ran between the houses discharged a dim effulgence of stale sweat and stale spices; a thin ginger cat slept on a coal-shed roof, its scarred limbs splayed, its eyes screwed tight against the glare. Not a tree, not a patch of shade. "Displacing people from their environment," Sylvia said. "You'd think the lesson would be learned by now."

"Here it is. Eugene Terrace."

"Whereabouts?"

"This will do." Lizzie opened the car door and began to lever her bloated body out of the seat, swivelling sideways and kicking her feet over the kerb. Her ankle chain flashed in the sunlight. Out at last, she leaned down and stuck her face in at the passenger door. "Thanks a million, Mrs. S." Inside the leopard-skin jacket she was perspiring heavily, and patches of grease were breaking through her face powder; she gave a terrifying impression of imminent dissolution, as if fire had broken out at Madame Tussaud's.

Sylvia drew back from her grinning mouth and heavy scent. "Is this where you live, at this shop?"

"Over the top. It's temporary. I'm stopping with a friend, he's got lodgings here."

"See you Thursday then." She watched Lizzie, waddling towards the side door of the fly-blown corner grocery. I wonder what she means about working at night? Can she possibly be a prostitute? Surely not; she was too grotesque for anyone's taste. Lizzie stopped, ferreting in her bag for her door key. There was something unreal about her, as if she were a puppet, or an illustration loosed from the pages of a book. Suddenly, and with awful clarity, Sylvia understood her mingled repulsion and fascination, the prickling of kinship which had made her take the creature on. It was herself she was seeing, Sylvia Sidney of ten years back, the masklike maquillage, the jelly-flesh wobbling like a sow's; the great big beautiful baby doll. She felt suddenly sick. She groped for the gear lever.

Lizzie Blank, known otherwise as Muriel Axon, turned her key in the lock; and entered the dismal passageway of Mukerjee's All-Asia Emporium.

VACANT POSSESSION Copyright © 1986 by Hilary Mantel