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Also by Fay Weldon

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1

The world is full of little towns that people want to leave, and scarcely know why. The hills crowd in too closely, they say, or the plains which stretch around are too featureless, or the freeway runs through, or doesn’t run through: you can hardly put your finger on the source of their discontent, or indeed your own. There’s a doctor, a school, good neighbours, kindness and even friends — it’s just you know you have to get out of there or die: let the name of the place be Dullsville, Tennessee, or Borup, Denmark, or Newcastle, New South Wales, or EI Ain in the United Arab Emirates, or Fenedge, East Anglia, a kind of sorrow creeps along the streets and drags you down; you can hardly lift your feet to shake it off. The shops in the High Street are forever closed for lunch, or would be better if they were: the houses in the centre may be old, veritable antiquities, but still lack resonance: a tuning fork that declines to twang, dead in the face of all expectation. And if nothing happens you know you’ll soon be dead as well, or your soul will be. Some marriages are like this too, but that’s another story.

Now it is dangerous to speak these thoughts aloud in case the Devil, in one of the many forms he takes, is flying by; and he often is, especially in such places, for it’s here he locates his safe houses, which in its turn may be why you register the place as desolate. By ‘a safe house’, for those of you not familiar with thrillers, I mean a house maintained by our security services to offer immediate safe haven for anyone under threat or duress. Houses belonging to the Devil will be on the outskirts of town (though sometimes the town creeps up to engulf them); they will be large, ramshackle, damp and crowded by trees but nevertheless have a kind of seedy status. Woe betide anyone who buys such a house, and sometimes the nicest people do, but that too is another story.

Not so long ago three young girls were rash enough to have a dangerous conversation as they walked down a country road just outside Fenedge, East Anglia, England (The World, The Universe, Space, The Cosmos, etc.). They were on their way home from school. Their names were Carmen, Annie and Laura. All three were sixteen, all three had been born in the same week in the same small-town labour ward, all three were close friends, and restless, and all three were virgins. (I know because I know everything that goes on round here.) Not that I necessarily attribute their restlessness to their virgin state, but I do see it as a contributory factor. And the Devil scents restlessness as a dog with its head out of the car scents a rabbit in amongst a thousand other reeking aromas.

‘This place is the pits,’ said Carmen. She was their leader.

‘Dullsville, Tennessee,’ said Laura. She was the pretty one.

‘We’ve got to get out of here,’ said Annie, who was always desperate.

And on they walked, shuffling the white dust of the autumn road all over their shoes, because they were school shoes and who cared? And the Devil, who just happened to be driving by in his big black BMW, picked up the scent of discontent and entered it into his mind for reference. God may have eyes in the back of his head so everything you do is known to him, but I tell you the Devil is worse. He just observes and presses Enter and there you are, your weakness, your vices, sealed into his awareness for ever, available for instant recall any time he chooses. And he accepts no excuses; he offers no leniency for youth, inexperience or stress. That’s you! Too bad!

The Devil, or this particular version of him, for indeed his name is legion, didn’t hang around to hear what else the girls might have to say. He’d heard enough. He just stopped alongside them, as if to ask directions, startling them, and then accelerated away, with a throom, throom more evident in racing cars than in BMWs; he was an old-young man with startlingly blue eyes; he wore a navy blue military-style uniform and a chauffeur’s cap which cast a shadow over a strong, bony face.

‘That driver was a bit of all right,’ said Laura. She had a sweet face and a gentle air, and was altogether unalarming. She felt it was her role and her duty to make the best of things.

‘Well, that driver wasn’t my type,’ said Carmen, though she had little idea what her type was. She just felt like contradicting Laura, whose determination always to look on the bright side she saw as dangerous. Carmen had been born with a sense of the dark and terrible profundity of things. If the country roads were awash with men whom Laura thought a bit of all right, how were they ever to get out of Fenedge? Because Annie was right. They had to watch out for themselves and each other, because no one else would do it. The whole world, except for a teacher or two, conspired to keep them exactly where they were for ever, plus a baby or two or three.

‘You’re so picky,’ said Laura, ‘you’ll cut yourself,’ which meant Laura and Carmen weren’t talking.

‘What would someone like that want with one of us?’ asked Annie.

‘He took one look and just drove off. Why? Because we’re small-time, small-town girls and it shows.’ It was in Annie’s nature to diminish herself if she possibly could, which was just fine, so long as she didn’t include Carmen in her self-assessment.

‘Speak for yourself,’ said Carmen, and then Annie and Carmen weren’t talking.

‘You keep bumping me when you walk,’ said Laura to Annie, and that was them gone too.

But that’s what happens when the Devil passes by. He searches out discontent and then leaves a whole great surging wake of it behind to make things worse, so even friends feel friendship less, and become scratchy and disagreeable with one another.

The three girls walked in silence until they reached Landsfield Crescent, where they lived. Annie was the tallest: she had a long thin body, and knobbly knees and elbows, and a cross unpretty face and short straight brown hair which became greasy unless she washed it every day, and her mother Mavis not only controlled the hot water but maintained that hair should be washed only once a week: Annie looked, and was, a difficult girl. But she was not like anyone else, which was why Carmen kept her company. And Laura could confide in her and trust her to listen and keep secrets, and Carmen and Laura were best friends and thus the three of them combined to form their own special pact against the world.

Carmen was shorter than Annie but taller than Laura. Her legs were not as long as they could have been, her nose was too large for comfort, her brown eyes so large you could see the whites beneath the pupils, her hair dark and profuse, her complexion sallow, and her mouth sulky. This, at least, was what she saw when she stared at herself in the mirror, as she did a great deal, trying to relate the sense of herself as ‘I’ to the notion other people had of her as ‘you’, or, more remotely still, as ‘she’. Others saw something different.

Bernard Bellamy did, as the black BMW, Driver at the wheel, Mr Bellamy in the back, returned along the road just as the girls, still in their sulky silence, turned into Landsfield Crescent.

‘Hey, stop, Driver,’ he said. ‘Back up a bit.’ And Driver did, the car obeying him like magic, smooth and silky even in reverse, and Bernard Bellamy looked straight into Carmen’s eyes, and saw something there that made him think this is the girl I am going to marry, in spite of, or perhaps because of, his having been married three times already and being older than Carmen by God knows how many years.

‘That’s the girl for me,’ said Bernard Bellamy, and Driver said, ‘Oh yes? Well, there’s one or two things we have to get straight first,’ and they drove on.

They had a strange relationship, these two. If you see Driver as Mephistopheles and Bernard as Faust you’re getting somewhere near it, though since the century is what it is, Bernard was not so much a man weary of intellectual achievement as bored with plain straightforward money-making, a talent which in the contemporary world is not as well regarded as you might think. Friends drink your champagne and sneer, and your soul shrivels up. To Driver, a shrivelling soul is as mad a waste as letting a £5 peach from Harrods wither forgotten on the shelf. Better gobble it up while it’s soft and fresh and delicious.

It was dusk, and Driver switched on the headlights, and the back lights glowed red in the autumn air as the car departed, and seemed to hang around a long time, and crows, rising in flocks from the trees that lined the road as the car passed, flapped black wings edged with red.

Around here the land is flat and drained. The people of Fenedge — a place smaller than a town, larger than a village, altogether indeterminate, in fact — will say, ‘The sea? A couple of miles away.’ Or ‘five miles away’ or ‘just down the road’, depending on what they think you want to hear, and because they are themselves unsure. The margins between sea and land are unclear. Personally I prefer seas which crash and wallop against a high shore, so you can be absolutely certain where water and earth collide, and appreciate the tumultuousness of their meeting: beaches where the tides rush up and rush out again over rocks, leaving crabs scuttling for cover, and anemones battered but waving their applause. Not for us, not in Dullsville, Somewhere-Near-The-Sea.

2

Be all that as it may, Carmen was sixteen when Bernard Bellamy first set eyes on her where the road to the coast meets Landsfield Crescent. Driver had been working for him for four months. During that time Bernard had been divorced by a very disagreeable and unloving wife, and his disposable income had risen by twenty-six per cent, one per cent of which he gave to charity. The Bellamy soul was beginning to revive. Such things can take a long time, but Driver had all the time in the world. The Devil’s central being takes many forms. If you can be everywhere at once all kinds of things are possible, and what’s time anyway?

I ask myself this as I sit in my wheelchair at the window of 8 Landsfield Crescent and life ticks away, and come to the conclusion that what we mean by time is the measurement of change. I have sat here for seventeen years, as long as the Crescent has been in existence. I have watched trees grow from saplings set in mud, and climbing roses creep up concrete walls – that’s the good news — and the skin on the back of my hand change from smooth to wrinkled – that’s the bad. The Crescent is a short, curved road on the outskirts of Fenedge, central to a housing development which never really happened, apart from this one road which shoots unnaturally out of the town, as if one of a cloud of gnats had strayed too far from the centre and couldn’t get back to its gestalt, no matter how it tried. The Crescent houses are detached, ticky-tacky boxes, all trim and no substance, each one with a small front garden, a larger back one, fenced off from the beet fields which surround us. We are without natural shelter: it is not a proper place for human habitation. The wind blows rough and hard up here, and sometimes you can smell the salt sea in it, and sometimes the slurry the farmers use to help the beet crops grow.

Carmen, Annie and Laura, as I say, were born in the same week. I watched the ambulances turn into Landsfield Crescent to take their labouring mothers to the hospital, watched them return, one, two, three. I blessed them in my mind, one, two, three, as if I were the Fairy Godmother, because, knowing their mothers, it seemed to me they needed all the help they could get. I looked forward to watching the babies grow and change, to see how time and event worked through them. The better to do it, I developed the art of seeing through walls, overhearing what could not be heard. I have nothing else to do but develop these arts. Sometimes I get taken out by my social worker, or friends; mostly I just sit here at the window and wait for Carmen, Annie and Laura to pass and wave and reanimate with their actual presence their continuing story in my mind. When you think you can see through your neighbours’ walls what is fact and what is fiction is hard to distinguish.

Let me reassure you it was not coincidence — for readers hate coincidence — that led to the girls being born in the same week; rather a matter of housing policy. Compulsory Redevelopment had led to a generous relocation scheme in which heavily pregnant women received priority: Carmen’s parents Raelene and Andy had been housed next door to Laura’s parents Kim and Audrey, opposite Annie’s mother and father Mavis and Alan; next door to me. I also received priority, not because I was pregnant, but as a consolation prize because I am so severely disabled as to need a miracle to become so. At least I have a pleasant window to look out of. The girls’ families would normally not have granted two companionable words to one another, except that propinquity, and the nervousness endemic to enforced relocation, obliged them to, at least for a time. (As for me, I speak to whoever is prepared to speak to me: I’m not proud.) Now, sixteen years later, the three families are once again neighbours rather than friends: only their first-born remain attached to one another, bound together by common cause, common experience, sisters in their imagination. And they all still wave at me, but that might be habit, not kindliness.

Sometimes I wonder whether in fact it’s I myself, sitting in my window, who control their lives, and not just fate; I who set Driver and Bernard Bellamy down the tree-lined road to encounter the girls as they walked home from the little station at Fenedge Halt. Perhaps it was I myself who, on a bored day, initiated the trouble between Kim and Audrey, the melding of Count Capinski into Mavis’s mind, to Alan’s distress, and rendered Andy unemployed and Raelene miserable and did it irresponsibly, and all just to liven things up a little down here on Landsfield Crescent: a Bad Fairy, after all, not in the least Good.

But then I remember that a sense of omnipotence can be a symptom of mental illness, and put the notion from my mind. I live in fear of going mad, just to add to my other troubles.

Look at it like this: on the day I summoned Driver out of the flat East Anglian landscape, set him uniformed and gaitered and bright-blue-eyed at the wheel of a black BMW, flickered hell fire through the evening sky to scare the crows, created Bernard Bellamy as both the tempter and the tempted, I did it in response to Carmen, Laura and Annie’s desire just to get out of here. I was being helpful, honestly. Creating a window of opportunity for them to leap out of.

‘But how do we get out of here?’ asked Laura, before they parted. (Driver being a long way off, ill temper just evaporated.) ‘Out of Dullsville, Tennessee? How does a girl ever get out?’

‘You can work your way out, you can sleep your way out,’ replied Carmen. ‘You can sell your soul to the Devil.’

‘Bags I work,’ said Annie, who always believed that if it hurt it was good for you.

‘Bags I sleep,’ said Laura, but she kept her fingers crossed while she spoke. She believed in love, romance and fidelity, but hardly liked to say so.

‘That leaves me,’ said Carmen sadly, ‘to sell my soul to the Devil.’

And they went into their respective homes, to face whatever there was to face.

Laura’s fate waited for her outside the front gate. He was seventeen and had zits; he leaned against his motor scooter. He wore a leather jacket and he had soulful brown eyes and a dogged demeanour. Laura ignored him. She walked straight past him and into her house and Carmen and Annie watched and giggled, and Woodie pretended not to hear them.

Now although Laura accepted her fate she meant to fight it off as long as she could, at least until Woodie had grown out of his zits, had calmed down and could earn an honest living. He was studying technical drawing and carpentry at a college in Norwich, but could think only of Laura. He’d taken her outside at an end-of-term disco and kissed her under the moon, and some kind of yellowy light had pierced through to the marrow of his bones, so now, as he put it, ‘She’s in my system, for good or bad,’ but alas he wasn’t in hers, not yet. He knew he would be, one day.

Audrey, Laura’s mother, opened the window and spoke to Woodie. She wore a flowered cotton dress, and her arms and her face were thin, but her voice was strong. Laura took after her father Kim, both of them being on the fleshy side, and soft-voiced.

‘Woodie,’ she said, ‘do go away. It’s unsettling.’

‘I like to be near her,’ he said.

‘Woodie,’ said Audrey, ‘the way to get girls to run after you is to run away from them.’

Once she’d run away from Kim, who’d run after and made her pregnant with Laura, and when his divorce was through he’d married her, and moved into the house she’d shared with her mother, until the Town Hall tore it down and housed them here in Landsfield Crescent. She’d had asthma ever since. The climate didn’t agree with her: the constant wind deranged her: she always had a pain here, an ache there: she, an inland person by nature, lived in fear that the tide would forget one day how to ebb and would simply rise and rise and drown them all in their beds. After Laura her stomach and bosom had drooped: Landsfield Crescent was not lucky for her. She taught General Science part-time in the local Further Education College. Her husband Kim taught English Literature and Business Studies, full-time, likewise. His classroom and his home smelt sweetly of marijuana, or perhaps it was herbal cigarettes. He had a beard, and wore sandals at the weekend for the health of his feet. He was an energetic lover.

‘I don’t like playing games,’ said Woodie to Audrey. ‘Laura either loves me or she doesn’t.’

‘Then she doesn’t,’ said Audrey briskly. It is not easy, even for the most sensible and sensitive of mothers, to accept that their daughters are now of an age to receive love, and offer it. ‘She’s too young. She has to concentrate on her school work. She wants to go to college. She has to pass exams.’

‘I don’t care whether she passes her exams or not,’ said Woodie. ‘It makes no difference to me.’

He spoke with the lordliness of Alexander, Prince of Persia, for all he was seventeen and had zits, and it was at that moment that Audrey perceived that her daughter’s fate was indeed to marry Woodie and have his children and there was no saving it. You give up your life for them, she thought, and they’re never grateful, they take it all for granted, and then they grow up to give away their lives as well, in just the same way. Where’s the point? This depressing thought, which she believed singular to herself, gave her a pain in her stomach, or perhaps it was the other way round and the pain led to the thought. Whatever it was, the pain never thereafter quite went away, nor the sadness.

‘Woodie,’ said Audrey, ‘she’s passing exams for her sake, not yours. If you can’t understand that what can you understand? Go away.’

And still he stood there, leaning against his scooter, chewing a fingernail. He didn’t believe a word of it, until Laura appeared at the front door, in her short white shorts and blue and white striped top.

‘Woodie,’ she said, ‘this is getting embarrassing. Go away.’

So Woodie went away, at least for a time. And Laura went back to her room and stared at her homework. One year to her exams. And shouldn’t her father be home from college by now? He was having an affair with a girl no older than her, and Laura knew and Audrey didn’t, and should she tell or should she not? She thought perhaps she should but she didn’t have the courage.

The moment that Woodie revved up and drove off was the moment that Count Capinski entered Annie’s mother’s head and took up his fitful residence there. Annie’s mother Mavis Horner, you must understand, was a clairvoyant, and her husband Alan Horner a preacher in the Fenedge spiritualist church, so the event, which to others might seem strange, was well within Mavis and Alan’s field of comprehension. Spirits of the departed, figments of the other world, flitted in and out of Mavis’s head at the best of times; what was unusual was that on this occasion this one not only arrived unsummoned but stayed. Perhaps – to use the Horners’ rather Victorian terminology — the ordinary borderlines between this vale of tears and the spirit world were breached by the shock of Driver’s appearance in the neighbourhood, to take up residence in his Fenedge safe house, and Capinski managed to slip through and find a tenancy in Mavis’s head. At any rate, there he was. This was how it happened.

Annie was upstairs in her small back bedroom doing her homework. Mavis and Alan Horner were inspecting the garage which Carmen’s father Andy Wedmore had built for Alan, at no little cost. Alan, who worked for the local ambulance service, occasionally found it convenient to stop off with his ambulance at home on his way back from a call, just to recover from the trauma of his work. His was an accident vehicle; a particularly bad section of motorway ran nearby.

‘He’s made a bodge job of this,’ said Alan, running a finger over a window ledge, getting a splinter as a result. ‘I could have done it better myself.’ The first part of this statement was true enough, and could be said of all work undertaken by Andy; the second not so.

‘You don’t have the time for DIY,’ said Mavis. ‘Each to his own. The cook to his wooden spoon, the bootmaker to his last.’

They eased their way round the side of the ambulance, between metal and concrete, noting a loose piece of wiring here, a wrongly placed shelf there, the general air of flung-together. Alan wore a suit which wrinkled round the crotch and under his arms, but a nice blue shirt and yellow tie, and Mavis wore a blue dress and a yellow cardy. They liked to echo one another in every way they could. They felt very close. She had the puffy face, stolid body and puzzled eyes of the habitual clairvoyant. Too much contact with the other world is bad for the appearance. It muddies the outlines of the self as it appears to the real world. Fudge and fuzz: half one thing, half another.

‘What are those two funny black bags?’ asked Mavis. ‘On the shelf over there? Rolled up carpet, or what?’

‘They’re not important,’ said Alan. ‘I’ll have them out by the morning. The morgue’s taken to closing down at four. I never like to knock the staff up, when they’re tired. It’s easier for everyone to face nasty work in the morning.’

‘You mean they’re body bags?’ asked Mavis. ‘And they’re full?’

‘Full as I could manage,’ said Alan. ‘I hope I got them both properly sorted out.’

And Mavis started to moan, for all the world like someone in childbirth.

‘It’s only till morning,’ said Alan. ‘They’ll be okay. It’s not a warm night.’ But it was, of course.

Mavis’s moaning stopped and a particular look came over her face, one Alan was accustomed to seeing only on Sundays, and which alarmed him even more than the sound of her evident distress.

On Tuesday and Thursday evenings Mavis conducted private séances (eighteen pounds a head, minimum number of participants four plus medium) and on these occasions, exhausted after a day in her surgery, made do with the tricks of the trade while in conversation with the recently dead. (That is to say, most people of a certain generation – and her clients were mostly elderly – know a Harry or have bad backs, or were known to the ambulance service and, besides, Mavis kept extensive files on local residents and had notice of who was coming along.) But sometimes on Sunday afternoon at the Spiritualist Church service, when she was rested, she would be conscious of what she called the real thing. The fuzz and fudge of her normal appearance would sharpen and harden: her neck would seem longer, her cheeks more hollow, and when her mouth opened she spoke with someone else’s voice. He could see her now begin to change.

‘Oh my God,’ said Mavis. ‘It’s much too strong. Make him go away.’

‘It can’t be coming from the body bags,’ said Alan, ‘because they were both female.’

Next time Mavis spoke it was in a guttural male voice with an Eastern European accent.

‘Dear lady,’ said the Count/Mavis, ‘I am charmed to make your acquaintance at last. I am deeply indebted for your hospitality. May I introduce myself? Count Capinski at your service. And so this is your husband?’

‘Shake hands with the Count, Alan,’ said Mavis, stretching out a surprisingly male hand, which Alan, taken unawares, accepted and shook.

And that was how, by all accounts, Capinski arrived in Mavis’s head, where he stayed on and off for some years. Since his alternative dwelling was a little dungeon in Cracow in the fourteenth century, where he was, or so he claimed, starving to death, Landsfield Crescent must have seemed agreeable enough while he waited for possible rescue in his own time.

Annie came down from her little back bedroom in search of a cup of tea and found her mother devouring an entire sliced loaf and the week’s ration of cheese, and the hot water supply switched on, which was unusual mid-week. Everyone has their favourite economies, and Mavis’s was not to waste hot water. But today she planned on a bath.

‘So this,’ said Count Capinski, from Mavis’s bread-filled mouth, ‘is your little daughter. But isn’t she of an age to be married?’

‘She’s still at school,’ explained Mavis, in her own voice, swallowing.

‘But not for long,’ observed the Count/Mavis. ‘Soon she will meet a tall dark stranger from overseas, who will sweep her off her feet and carry her off to paradise. She will travel to the ends of the earth and back again. It will not be all happiness. I, Count Capinski, prophesy.’

‘It’s too bad,’ said Annie. ‘Your own mother ill-wishing you,’ and, outraged, she went over with her homework to Laura’s and knocked on the door.

‘Please can I do my homework here?’ asked Annie.

‘Is there something the matter at home?’ asked Audrey.

‘No more than usual,’ said Annie.

‘You might as well go on up, since Carmen is there already. But try to concentrate on your homework,’ said Audrey, who often talked like the back page of a women’s magazine, ‘and forget your personal problems.’

Annie went up to Laura’s room, which had been especially decorated to Laura’s taste in pink and white, not like her own room, which was so full of steel filing cabinets and card indexes she could scarcely find her way to bed.

‘What now?’ asked Laura of Annie.

‘There’s a strange man in my mother’s head,’ said Annie.

Carmen said, ‘Will your father sue for divorce?’ and Annie said, ‘No such luck. It will turn him on.’

Now Carmen too had run into trouble on reaching home. Observing how often any one of the three girls, on returning from school, would stay home only briefly, to reconvene the group in either Laura or Carmen’s house after a spat of door-slamming, I would comfort myself with the notion that though not to have children is a terrible fate, to have them can be worse.

Carmen came from a family of slobs. Everyone knew it, no one denied it, not even Carmen. The general belief was that she had been switched at birth. She had a fineness of feature which her alleged parents did not; a composure and a sense of wrong and right altogether alien to them, which they interpreted as the putting on of airs. Andy, Carmen’s father, had a reputation throughout Fenedge as a bad if cheerful builder. His extensions fell down: his damp courses never worked: if he painted your window frames you could be sure those windows would never open again. It was nothing to him that his final bills would outstrip his estimates by more than a hundred per cent: his wife Raelene seldom dared answer the phone for fear of outraged and impatient clients; yet enough work came his way to keep him going. At least he sang, not swore, on top of his ladder, and if you failed to move the furniture before he arrived to paint the ceiling he would not pull a face but simply get on with the painting, and charge you extra for non-drip paint. He would take on work other builders would scorn to – the tarting up of premises between one tenant and the next: bodge jobs specifically asked for. His large beer belly flopped over his belt; he had little piggy jolly eyes, and on hot days he seldom left home with a shirt. His wife Raelene ate for comfort and suffered from depression: her chin and her neck were as one: she had once been on a shoplifting charge. Stephen, Carmen’s younger brother, had been on two drug charges (though only for marijuana) by the time he was fourteen. They were not a hard or criminal family; on the contrary, Andy would stop whatever he was doing to mend your burst pipes in an emergency, and Raelene would feed the neighbour’s cat if required. They were just slobs and everyone knew it, and pitied Carmen for being one of their number, and Carmen hated to be pitied. Who doesn’t? At least anyone you care to talk to.

On this particular afternoon when Carmen let herself in, she found her father and her brother eating fish and chips for their tea, which Raelene had just finished cooking. The chips were dripping with oil, the way the family liked them: no tales of the desirability of polyunsaturated fats had come their way so far. Stephen was reading the morning’s edition of the nation’s favourite tabloid, The Sun. He always opened Page 3 first. In those days the nude girls always appeared towards the front of the newspaper; later, for some reason to do with I don’t know what, except perhaps the fact that the owners of the most fabulous tits failed to live up to expectations of equally spectacular and lascivious lifestyle, they had drifted towards the back and become more to do with the sports pages than home news.

Carmen stood in the doorway to the kitchen and raised her eyebrows, as she was well accustomed to doing. The cat’s food hardened, maggoty, in a saucer uncleaned for days; dirty dishes piled in the sink; the smell of frying fish lingered in the air; little dusty yellow globules of fat spotted the ceiling above the cooker. Raelene, her own plate of fish and chips keeping warm in the oven, attempted to save the cooking oil for reuse by pouring it through too small a sieve, so that it slopped over the draining board. Now, hopelessly, she squirted detergent into the slops. She had pretty little hands, which Carmen had inherited, but they were lost in the whole of her.

‘So,’ said Andy to Carmen, ‘Madam honours us with her presence. Too late to help her mother with the tea.’

He wore no shirt. Stephen wore a T-shirt made of his nation’s flag. Carmen raised her eyebrows further.

Raelene said, ‘Carmen, will you put the garbage out? I’ve only got two hands,’ and Carmen replied, ‘Why did you call me Carmen if you only wanted me as a beast of burden?’ But they all looked at her blankly, so she said, ‘After tea, mum,’ and took her plate from the warming oven and sat down at the table, carefully brushing the chair before she did so.

‘No chips,’ she said, and pushed them to one side of her plate, and picked away at the fish, carefully removing the burnt batter to reach the almost raw white flesh inside.

‘Carmen,’ said her father, ‘I don’t know what it is with you. You’re the great wet blanket of all times.’

And Stephen turned to the photograph of Peachey Penelope, whose bare bosom upthrust not just all over Page 3, but whose nipples extended back into Page 2, as a special exercise in energetic typographical ingenuity.

‘Coo, Dad, look at that,’ said Stephen. ‘How about those?’

Raelene complained from the sink, where spilt oil and bargain-price detergent had just formed a kind of foamy cake, ‘Don’t look at it, Dad, I don’t like it.’

Andy looked at Penelope’s likeness and said to Raelene, ‘Don’t be such a prude. Everyone’s got them.’

Carmen said, ‘Men don’t, only women,’ and both Raelene and Andy said, ‘No one asked your opinion, Car,’ and Carmen said, ‘Why did you call me Carmen if you meant to call me Car?’

Stephen said, ‘How’d you like a handful of that, Dad?’ and Andy, looking more closely, said, ‘I don’t know so much. I reckon that’s silicone, not flesh.’

Carmen took off her navy school jumper and undid her tie and took that off too.

‘Do you think that’s silicone, Raelene?’ asked Andy of his wife and Raelene refused to look but said, ‘How would I know?’

‘Feel the texture,’ said her son, ‘you’d tell soon enough. A bit of a squeeze and you’d know.’

Carmen took her shirt off and no one noticed. She sat there in her bra. Raelene stared at the draining board and the menfolk at the photograph.

‘Silicone or not,’ said Andy, ‘I wouldn’t complain and nor would you, Steve, if you’re a chip off the old block.’

Carmen took off her bra and sat there naked from the waist up. She had a white skin, and a bosom smaller than Peachey Penelope’s and discreet and rosy nipples. She pecked away at her fish.

‘I’m a chip off the old block then, Dad,’ said Steve, and then caught sight of Carmen and rose to his feet, spilling tea all over the newspaper, at the same time as Andy said to his daughter, ‘You disgusting little bitch, cover yourself up at once.’ Carmen just said, ‘Don’t be so prudish, Dad. We’ve all got them. Why don’t you take out yours, Mum, and give the lads a treat?’

At which Andy and Stephen both left the room in a hurry, leaving their meal half finished. They were both upset.

‘I’ll get the social worker on to you,’ said Andy as he left, ‘for Unruly Behaviour. You’re no daughter of mine. I blame you for this, Raelene.’

Raelene wept into the mess on the draining board.

‘Carmen,’ she said, ‘cover yourself up. You let me down. What are we going to do with you?’

Carmen put on her bra, saying, ‘I’m going to write and ask them to put men’s privates on Page 4. Give the girls a treat.’

Raelene said, ‘You’re the Devil’s own daughter,’ and certainly in those days Carmen could be fiendish and Raelene would complain about her to me when she came over for a cup of tea. But I wasn’t surprised. Landsfield Crescent was point eight of a mile nearer Driver’s safe house, Sealord Mansion, than any other street in Fenedge, and the Wedmore home was on the outer curve of the Crescent, so it caught the full force of trouble, as some houses in a road will get the force of the prevailing wind, not others. You can tell by the way the trees in the garden lean. But I didn’t tell Raelene all that. I’d just say adolescent girls were often difficult for a time but then grew out of it, which I would have thought self-evident, but it’s surprising what people don’t know. What is more, Bernard Bellamy had that day looked into her eyes and seen what he was looking for, so one way and another it’s not surprising she took off a garment or so. Forget the provocation.

‘If I’m the Devil’s child,’ said Carmen to her mother, ‘then you must have had it off with the Devil.’

Raelene dropped the plastic bottle of detergent onto the floor. The red cap fell off and the liquid slunk towards the cat’s saucer unnoticed.

‘Or perhaps one night, seventeen years ago,’ said Carmen, pressing home her advantage, ‘you got lucky and a knight in shining armour came galloping up to you, and had his wicked way, and forgot to take you with him. I just can’t believe I’m that man you call your husband’s daughter,’ and she put on her shirt and took her homework over to Laura’s, and asked Audrey if she could put her school clothes through the wash, so she could be smart for school the next day. Audrey said of course. Audrey ran a one-woman rescue service for the benefit of her neighbours’ children, but it didn’t stop her getting a pain, which she put down to indigestion, caused by worry over her husband Kim’s whereabouts; an unreasonable worry, she told herself, born of the guilt of having in her time been the other woman.

And of course Carmen, Annie and Laura talked and idled their days away instead of working at their lessons and when the time for their final examinations came a year later were even more hopelessly unprepared than could reasonably have been expected. Blame the parents if you like; personally I blame the Devil…

3

The very next day after Driver drove through Fenedge and Bernard Bellamy looked into Carmen’s eyes, I received a letter. Now it’s a known fact that where there are devils there are angels too, and vice versa, so I couldn’t be sure whether the letter was sent by the agents of heaven or hell. It came from a transplant surgeon in a large Chicago hospital who offered to operate on me free of charge, in an attempt to reinstate the flow of blood to my spinal column – by either a kind of backbone bypass or, better still, the clearing of blocked veins by miniaturised balloons – and thus return to me the use of my legs. (Accounts of my condition get written up from time to time in the medical press.) I replied by return yes, of course he was welcome to try, rather to the discomfort of my own local Fenedge general practitioner, Dr Grafton, whose belief it is that his patients deserve whatever afflicts them, and that they shouldn’t struggle too hard to be rid of it. This in turn may be why Mavis Horner has so many patients lining up to visit her. I flew off to Chicago within the week.

I shan’t dwell upon the ins and outs of catheters, the fancy drugs and startling lasers that contributed to my treatment; indeed, I can’t remember much of it, I swallowed so many rough large red forgetfulness pills. I only mention the event to explain that I was away from my window for six months or so, and that when I returned to my watching post, my legs no better and no worse, it became apparent that there had been an exciting development or so in my absence. Exciting, that is to say, in Fenedge terms, if not Chicago’s.

Sealord Mansion had been bought by Bernard Bellamy, who was now Sir Bernard Bellamy, knighted for services to industry, struck on the shoulder by a sword wielded by the Queen herself. It is a fact that to be made a knight you have to be able both to kneel and to bend your neck, and that on occasion certain individuals, too old and stiff to do such things, have had to decline the offer on account of their infirmity, but Sir Bernard Bellamy had no such problem. He looked these days as Elizabeth Taylor looked after three months in a health hydro – younger, skinnier and fuller of future than ever – now that Driver drove him everywhere.

Sir Bernard, it appeared, had diversified out of catering – he made his initial fortune selling chicken patties in the Chick-A-Whizz franchise concern – into the hotel business. Sealord Mansion, that mecca of the naturalists, had at the stroke of a pen become Bellamy House, and the builders been moved in to strip both the inside and the outside of the building to make it look less like what it was, an admiral’s folly, and more like an hotel, American style, and one fit for the rich and famous. A Save Sealord group, composed mostly of botanists and bird-watchers, had risen and fallen in my absence; been defeated in their struggle to permit the house, in whose attic bats bred, and in whose grounds rare heathers and ferns grew, to remain undisturbed.

‘Can all these people be wrong?’ Bernard had enquired of Driver, ‘and only me be right?’ That was when Driver was nudging his way through a crowd of some eighty placard-bearing people, whose hearts were clearly in the right place, and whose spelling was excellent, which is not necessarily the case with the protesting classes. ‘Save the Hippuris vulgaris!’ they read. ‘Protect Our Typha latifolia!’ ‘Our Whincnat Is Precious To Us’, ‘The Wheatear Shall Not Perish’, ‘Long Live Sealord, Home To The Hooper Swan’, and so on.

‘Very easily,’ Driver had replied. ‘For every man who wants to achieve something, there are at least a hundred who try to hold him back. And just look at the Adam’s apples of these particular folk; how they jerk up and down in their scrawny throats in rhythm as they chant! Hard to take them seriously.’ And Sir Bernard Bellamy looked and laughed, for what Driver said was true. The Devil is often right about things: it helps explain his power over the hearts and minds of men.

And the other sad truth was that Sealord Mansion, built by an admiral for a child mistress a couple of centuries back, had in the first place been a bodge job dedicated to an unholy purpose, and had caused outrage when it was built, so that the outrage which attended its change of use, to use the planners’ term, was thereby undermined.

And so when Driver drove over the foot of one young bird-watcher and lamed him for life, the protest fizzled out, instead of gaining force as could have been expected. But then again, though it is in the nature of bird-watchers to endure great discomfort in pursuit of their ends and think nothing of cold and damp and shortage of sleep, they perhaps see too much virtue in stillness and silence: they are simply not the kind to persist in aggro.

To get to Sealord Mansion in the days before it became the Bellamy House Hotel, the proper way, the walkers’ way – or so I am told: I must rely upon others in this instance – you would scorn the main road. You would walk inland in a northerly direction from the sea wall at Winterwart, leaving behind you the tidal flats, where the waders and wildfowl abound; you would crunch across the shingle stretches where the yellow-horned poppy grows, and the hound’s-tongue and the curled beet too; you would skirt the flooded gravel pits, which the sticklebacks so love, and where a bittern was once sighted, and so reach the heather-clad dune slacks, where the ling and the rare cross-leaved heath abound. A little further inland and you would pass the habitat of the rare natterjack toad – that strange burrowing creature with its unnaturally short back legs, whose habit it is to utter such eerie cries of a summer evening as to scare the unwary out of their wits — proceed further still, into the woodlands, down the banks of the reed-lined stream and then, finally, under the green arms of the willows, you would come to Sealord Mansion itself, shuttered, dilapidated, but beautiful enough in its disorder, its grounds so richly rewarding to the botanist – anyone searching for the rare royal fern, the Osmunda regalis, or the even more rare crested buckler – and an excellent and undisturbed breeding ground for the siskin, the redwing, the redpoll and the brambling and every warbler you can think of. What did they care if Sealord was the Devil’s safe house; what do flora and fauna need to know about these things?

Some pleasures are no longer. Sealord Mansion is now Bellamy House Hotel, and a breeze-block wall bars the rambler’s way from the sea, and bright green lawns roll neatly over the levelled high dune ridges; the gravel pits are filled the better to fashion a golf course, so the red-breasted merganser calls no more, and only the natterjacks remain, their voices, unloving and unloved, calling through the summer nights. But that’s enough of all that nature talk. What’s gone is gone.

I never saw any of it anyway.

While I was away in Chicago trying to grow a new backbone, Sir Bernard Bellamy spoke at Fenedge High School for Girls. Driver encouraged him so to do. The event was not a success. Perhaps Driver had his reasons for wishing it thus to turn out.

‘But this really is the back of beyond,’ complained Sir Bernard as the BMW took the road from the new improved Bellamy House Hotel, with its mock Tudor facade and grand new steps flanked with an imported palm tree or so to add a touch of the exotic. Workmen were still at work: the grand opening was yet to come. The helipad was being built where once a little colony of the rare pasque flower grew. ‘Are you convinced it’s ripe for development?’

‘The back of beyond,’ said Driver, ‘normally provides a pool of cheap labour for men of vision such as yourself. That is to say, people content to be happy in their own way, which is not ours. Fenedge may not be sin city, but nor do we want it to be.’

‘I’ve never spoken to schoolgirls before,’ said Sir Bernard.

‘Just deliver the speech we agreed upon,’ said Driver, who seemed a little irritated. ‘Say the lines and leave the stage; have your cup of tea afterwards, a piece of the cake baked by the Home Economics class, be pleasant to everyone, and they’ll all be lining up for jobs at Bellamy House Hotel. You’ll see.’

‘I may throw away the prepared speech and speak from the soul,’ warned Sir Bernard. ‘It’s what I usually do and it’s always worked to date.’

At the very mention of the word soul, Driver lifted his handsome head and sniffed the air, like a fox trying to pick out chicken.

‘You have quite a snuffle there again,’ said Sir Bernard, who knew that Driver was after his soul, but being unconvinced that he had one, felt that selling it was a risk well worth taking. Sir Bernard was accustomed to selling things that did not exist – eternal youth, perfect health amongst them — having a strong financial interest in one of the nation’s leading health food chains. There was a slight bump, as if the car had run something over.

‘That wasn’t a cat, I hope,’ said Sir Bernard.

‘Good Lord no,’ said Driver. They drove on in silence.

By the time they reached the uncompromising square brick building which was Fenedge School for Girls it was raining: the kind of sweeping misty drizzle which so often affected the area, although no doubt it helped the wild flowers grow. (Plants can absorb moisture through their leaves as well as their roots.) A small group waited under umbrellas to greet Sir Bernard. Mrs Baker, Head of English, was there: a woman in late middle age with a beautiful Renaissance face perched on an overflowing body, which she had clothed in layer upon layer of dusty black, in a way that was almost Islamic. Sharing her umbrella were Carmen, Annie and Laura, the three of them making one of her.

‘Welcome, Sir Bernard,’ said Mrs Baker, ‘to Fenedge School. We have been so looking forward to your visit. These days we depend so very much on the support of local enterprise.’

Driver stood to one side; he did not need an umbrella: the rain fell all around but not on him. He held his over Sir Bernard’s silvery head, a model chauffeur, always there but never ostentatiously so.

Mrs Baker introduced Laura, Annie and Carmen to Sir Bernard. ‘These are my best girls,’ she said. Mrs Baker’s best girls! By that she meant the girls least likely to succumb too soon to the local boys; girls who would go out into the world and show just what a woman could do, unburdened by domesticity; girls who would pass their exams without trouble. And the exams were only a month away. Annie was Head Girl; she meant to follow in her family’s footsteps, and go into the healing arts, that is to say, nursing. Laura was Head Prefect; she planned to go to the University of East Anglia, and Carmen was to do Art & Design at the local Polytechnic. All this Mrs Baker told Sir Bernard, careless of the weather.

But no one was listening. It was raining too hard, and the wind blew the words back into her mouth, and as for Sir Bernard, he was staring hard at Carmen. Rain glistened on her eyelashes; she was, as my grandmother used to describe it, ‘in good face’ that day, and when she saw Sir Bernard staring she blushed, and looked more enchanting still.

‘Shall we go inside?’ suggested Driver, because he did not at that time include a chit of a girl like Carmen in his plans. She was not the Marguerite he had in mind for Sir Bernard. Her soul was far too firmly hers; and what’s more it swam around in the sphere of Mrs Baker, a woman he disliked on sight, for all she wore layers of black. He could not abide a plump woman, and that was that; a plump good woman was anathema to him.

Sir Bernard stood on a platform in front of two hundred and fifty-three girls and listened to Mrs Baker’s introductory talk, or half listened, because Carmen was standing at the very back of the hall, just by the back exit. He would rather she had sat in the very front, but at least he could see her. She is my Marguerite, he thought, and it’s up to the Devil to provide her. Mrs Baker was speaking about the transition from the world of school to the world of work, and the usual guff about equal opportunities and women making their presence felt in business and politics, so he paid no attention to his notes and spoke from the soul.

‘I reckon all your noses,’ he said, ‘are too pretty to be kept to the grindstone. I reckon too many people spend too much time telling the young what they ought to hear, and not what they need to hear. Which is this. What this nation needs, to solve its employment problems, is for women to return to the home; to stay out of the workforce once they are married. What’s so bad about staying at home?’

Mrs Baker shuffled discontent and disapproval beside him, but he took no notice.

‘It’s our experience,’ said Sir Bernard, ‘that throughout the Bellamy Empire the most efficient executives are the ones with stay-at-home wives, the ones who create happy families, healthy children, and give a man something worth fighting for. A man’s duty is to support a family; a woman’s duty is to make a home he’s happy to come back to –’

He could see Driver at the side of the stage. Driver was shaking his head at him. Sir Bernard carried on.

‘Book-learning,’ said Sir Bernard to the girls, ‘is not much use to a girl, and don’t let your teachers tell you otherwise. I left school at fourteen; I never passed an exam in my life –’

The stage was lined with curtains allegedly fireproofed. But now a little flicker of flame ran up them. Perhaps it was the fierce focusing of Driver’s eyes that set it off, and it was then fanned by Mrs Baker’s flush of outrage – though of course it might have been the caretaker’s cigarette, discarded but not stubbed out as he entered a No Smoking Zone – but, whatever the cause, Carmen at the back of the hall was the first to see the flames. She shrieked, ‘Fire! Don’t panic!’ and the whole audience rose as one girl and filed neatly from the hall, well drilled as they were in proper emergency procedure, while Laura, Annie and Carmen counted them through. They did not believe in the fire, but they trusted Carmen to get them out of a boring situation if she could.

Sir Bernard and Driver left by the side entrance, made hasty goodbyes and drove off.

‘Why didn’t you keep to the script?’ said Driver.

‘’‘’