Table of Contents
Judith Castle - David Mitchell
Justin M. Damiano - Daniel Clowes
Frank - A. L. Kennedy
Gideon - ZZ Packer
Gordon - Andrew O’Hagan
Hanwell Snr - Zadie Smith
J. Johnson - Nick Hornby, with illustrations by Posy Simmonds
Lélé - Edwidge Danticat
The Liar - Aleksandar Hemon
Jordan Wellington Lint - Chris Ware
Magda Mandela - Hari Kunzru
The Monster - Toby Litt
Nigora - Adam Thirlwell
Judge Gladys Parks-Schultz - Heidi Julavits
Puppy - George Saunders
Rhoda - Jonathan Safran Foer
Soleil - Vendela Vida
Roy Spivey - Miranda July
Cindy Stubenstock - A. M. Homes
Theo - Dave Eggers
Perkus Tooth - Jonathan Lethem
Donal Webster - Colm Tóibín
Newton Wicks - Andrew Sean Greer
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First published in Great Britain by Hamish Hamilton, an imprint of Penguin Books Ltd. 2007
First published in the United States of America in Penguin Books 2007
Introduction and “Hanwell Snr” copyright © Zadie Smith, 2007; Selection copyright © 826NYC, 2007; Copyright © David Mitchell, 2007; Copyright © Daniel Clowes, 2007; Copyright © A. L. Kennedy, 2007; Copyright © ZZ Packer, 2007; Copyright © Andrew O’Hagan, 2007; Copyright © Nick Hornby, 2007; Copyright © Posy Simmonds; Copyright © Edwidge Danticat, 2007; Copyright © Aleksandar Hemon, 2007: Copyright © Chris Ware, 2007; Copyright © Hari Kunzru, 2007; Copyright © Toby Litt, 2007; Copyright © Adam Thirlwell, 2007; Copyright © Heidi Julavits, 2007; Copyright © George Saunders, 2007; Copyright © Jonathan Safran Foer, 2007; Copyright © Vendela Vida, 2007; Copyright © Miranda July, 2007; Copyright © A. M. Homes, 2007; Copyright © Dave Eggers, 2007; Copyright © Jonathan Lethem, 2007; Copyright © Colm Toibin, 2007; Copyright © Andrew Sean Greer, 2007 All rights reserved
“Gordon” by Andrew O’Hagan, “Hanwell Snr” (as “Hanwell Senior”) by Zadie Smith, “Magda Mandela” by Hari Kunzru, “Puppy” by George Saunders, “Roy Spivey” by Miranda July, and “Donal Webster” by Colm Toibin first appeared in
The New Yorker.
“Nigora” by Adam Thirlwell and “J. Johnson” by Nick Hornby with illustrations by Posy Simmonds first appeared in
“Cindy Stubenstock” (as “Fair Art”) by A. M. Homes published in Exhibit-E, New York.
These selections are works of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING IN PUBLICATION DATA
The book of other people / edited by Zadie Smith.
eISBN : 978-1-101-20126-8
1. Short stories, American. 2. Short stories, English.
3. Characters and characteristics in literature. 4. Fiction—Technique. I. Smith, Zadie.
The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials.
Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.
The Book of Other People
is about character. The instruction was simple:
make somebody up
. Each story was to be named after its character: ‘Donal Webster’ by Colm Tóibín, ‘Cindy Stubenstock’ by A. M. Homes, ‘Frank’ by A. L. Kennedy, and so on. When the commission was sent out, there were no rules about gender, race or species. This freedom resulted in ‘The Monster’ by Toby Litt and ‘Puppy’ by George Saunders. Late in the making of this book I tried to make a case for first and last names, for reasons of uniformity. The idea was not popular. Reproduced here is Edwidge Danticat’s protest, convincing in its simplicity: ‘I think the variety of names is good. It makes it less monotonous-looking. Since people are named different things by different people.’ Surnames have not been forced upon Danticat’s ‘Lélé’ or Adam Thirlwell’s ‘Nigora’ or on any others who did not want them. In one case, the omitted last name is the deliberate secret upon which the story hinges. In another - to use a distinction of Simone Weil’s - the character is a sacred human being and not a ‘person’ or ‘personality’, and his particular name is not important.
There are twenty-three stories in this volume, too many to mention individually. Each is its own thing entirely. The book has no particular thesis or argument to convey about fictional character. Nor is straight ‘realism’ or ‘naturalism’ - if such things exist - the aim. The hope was that the finished book might be a lively demonstration of the fact that there are as many ways to create ‘character’ (or deny the possibility of ‘character’) as there are writers. It is striking to see how one simple idea plays out in individual minds, the ‘character’ of the prose itself being as differentiated as the ‘other people’ with which these stories are nominally populated. As editor, I have tried to retain the individuality of each piece by leaving them, by and large, little changed.
There is, however, an element of their character that has been removed: the fonts. Publishers standardize fonts to suit the style of the house, but when writers deliver their stories by e-mail, each font tells its own story. There are quite a few writers in this volume who use variations on the nostalgic American Typewriter font (and they are all American), as if the ink were really wet and the press still hot. We have two users of the elegant, melancholic Didot font (both British), and a writer who centres the text in one long, thin strip down the page, like a newspaper column (and uses Georgia, a font that has an academic flavour). Some writers size their text in a gigantic 18. Others are more at home in a tiny 10. There are many strange, precise and seemingly intimate tics that disappear upon publication: paragraphs separated by pictorial symbols, titles designed just so, outsized speech marks, centred dialogue, un-centred paragraphs, no paragraphs at all. It seems a shame to lose these idiosyncratic layouts and their subtle effects. Anyway: I hope what remains will satisfy.
Before leaving you to the stories themselves, I’d like to speak briefly of a technical matter, one that is usually considered to be in bad taste if you are speaking of the ‘Art of Fiction’: money. This book is a ‘charity anthology’, which means the editor must ask writers to work for free, knowing full well that a ‘story’ is like a gas that expands into whatever available space one has. When you begin a story it’s impossible to say how much time will pass before you’re able to finish it. It might take two hours of your time, or a few days, or four months, or more (this is particularly true for graphic novelists). So it was with this project. I want to thank all the writers for putting time aside - sometimes a great deal of time - to do something for nothing. Traditionally, writers denounce the very idea of writing for no remuneration (‘I don’t want the world to give me anything for my books,’ George Eliot once said, ‘except money to save me from the temptation of writing only for money’), but maybe there is also an occasional advantage in writing once again as you wrote in the very beginning, when it was still simply writing and not also a strange breed of employment. It is liberating to write a piece that has no connection to anything else you write, that needn’t be squished into a novel, or styled to fit the taste of a certain magazine, or designed in such a way as to please the kind of people who pay your rent. In
The Book of Other People
we find writers not only trying on different skins but also unlikely styles and variant attitudes, wandering into landscapes one would not have placed them in previously. I recommend them to you with the proviso that their order is simply alphabetical (by character). Each reader should line them up as they like.
The beneficiary of this book is 826 New York,
a non-profit organization dedicated to supporting students aged six to eighteen with their creative and expository writing skills, and to helping teachers inspire their students to write. So
The Book of Other People
represents real people making fictional people work for real people - a rare example of fictional people pulling their own weight for once.
6 March 2007
‘Hello? Judith Castle?’
‘This is she.’
‘My name’s Leo Dunbar. I’m Oliver’s - ’
! Oh, I’ve heard bucketloads about
‘Uh . . . likewise, Judith. Look, I’m - ’
‘All rapturous, I trust?’
‘What Olly’s told you. About little old
. All rapturous, I trust?’
‘Look, Judith, I have . . . some, well, some rather dreadful tidings.’
‘Oh, I know! And let me tell you, I’m spitting kittens about it.’
‘You . . .
‘It’s all over the news, of course.’
‘A national rail strike
national news, Leo! The
I’m due to come down to Lyme Regis and consummate my relationship with Olly, those bloody train drivers go on strike! It’ll be back to the seventies, spiralling inflation,
Saturday Night Fever
and uppity Arabs all over again, mark my words. These things go in cycles. Still, no union bully is going to stand between your brother and me. Now I
drive, but motorways bring on my migraine, as Olly has doubtless explained. Are you driving up to fetch me, or is he?’
‘Judith, my news was a little different.’
‘Spit it out, then.’
‘Oliver’s . . . dead, actually, Judith . . . Judith? Are you there?’
‘But our suite is already booked. A
double. The girl at, at, at the Hotel Excalibur took my credit card number. It’s all confirmed. I told Oliver yesterday. Olly wasn’t dead then. He wasn’t even ill.’
‘It was a hit-and-run. He went to buy a bag of frozen peas, but never made it back. The ambulanceman said he was . . . the ambulanceman said Oliver would have been dead before he landed.’
‘But this is . . . outrageous . . .’
‘We can’t believe it ourselves.’
‘This is . . . well . . . your brother . . . when’s the funeral?’
‘Olly and I were lovers, Leo! How can I not come to the funeral?’
‘I’m . . . I’m afraid we’ve already had the funeral.’
‘This morning. Very low-key. I tipped his ashes off the Cobb.’
‘Off the what?’
‘The Cobb. The sea-wall at Lyme Regis.’
‘Oh. The Cobb. Yes. Olly promised to take me there . . . for the sunset. Tomorrow night. The sunset. Oh. This is all . . . so . . . so . . .
‘The very least I can do is to come and help out.’
‘Judith, you’re an angel, and Olly spoke about you in the fondest possible terms, but, if I can be frank, best not to. Everything’s very . . . intense. You understand, don’t you? There’re relatives to be told, an ex-wife, and then the business to be wound up, solicitors . . . mountains of paperwork . . . insurance, wills, powers of attorney . . . a thousand-and-one things . . . it just never stops . . .’
Camilla’s holidaying in Portugal with her father and Fancy-Piece. I got through to her voicemail and left the bare bones of my tragedy. Watering my tomato plants calmed me, until I spotted some green-fly. The vile little things got a good drenching with aphid killer. Then it was the turn of those ants who have colonized my patio. Kettle after kettle after kettle I boiled, until their bodies covered the crazy paving like a spilt canister of commas. Suddenly I found myself sitting in the conservatory with
playing at an unpleasant volume. Olly admitted that Sir Andrew turns out a fine tune. It was one of the last things he said to me. ‘Another Suitcase in Another Hall’ came on and suddenly my eyes streamed, unstoppably. This weekend was to have been a new beginning. Seeing Olly’s studio; meeting his family; making love with a sea-breeze caressing the curtains. After so many limp introductions and dashed hopes, here, at last, was a man whose faults could be mended. Some brisk walks to flatten that paunch. A tactful word to get him to ditch that moustache. Some musicals to oust his ‘electric folk’ tendencies. That Olly and I were intellectual equals was no surprise:
don’t let any old Tom, Dick and Harry sign up. But at our rendezvous in Bath, he couldn’t hide how utterly
he was with little old
on a carnal level. Once over fifty, most British women go to seed, leaving the rest of us to arise, like roses in a bombsite.
I swerved my Saab into the last parking space at the clinic, to the fury of some Flash Harriet who thought she had a prior claim. Water off a duck’s back. To my dismay, my bookshop was open but devoid, apparently, of all life. Winnifred was in the stock room, busy with a sneezing fit, so I manned the till and started sifting the morning’s post: three invoices; one tax form; two CVs from great white hopes after Saturday jobs; a letter informing the recipient that he has won a mansion in Fiji via the lottery - for every blatant scam, there are a thousand halfwits who refuse to understand that nobody gives money away - and a postcard from Barry from Grainge-over-Sands, the asylum-seeker’s detention centre of the soul. An Australian came in and asked for
The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
, so I got chatting, and soon persuaded Milly from Perth to buy the Alexander McCall Smith box set. She left, and Winnifred saw fit to put in an appearance. Winnifred is a lesbian myopic vegan Welsh homoeopathic Pooh Bear sort of a woman.
‘Judith! What can we . . . do for you today?’
‘Re-order the Ladies’ Detective Agency box set, for starters. We’re still a martyr to our hayfever, aren’t we?’
‘But . . . you do remember, Judith, don’t you . . . that, actually . . .’
‘. . . you aren’t actually employed here . . . any more. Not as such.’
one has to keep on top of things, with Barry swanning off while the town is swimming with holidaymakers. If that last customer had been one of those gypsies - whoops, it’s “travellers” nowadays, isn’t it? - you’d have an empty shop by now. Think on.’
‘But . . . Barry’s probably not . . . expecting . . . to actually pay you.’
like I worry about next week’s rent?’
‘Judith . . . Barry did say that if you came in, I should ask you to - ’
‘Oliver’s dead, Winnifred.’ The words burst out of me. ‘My . . . my beau. Dead.’
Winnifred took a step back. ‘Oh,
‘My soul-mate.’ A sob swallowed me whole. ‘Hit-and-run.’
‘Really, the irony is too much to bear. Olly was going to introduce me to his family,
. Show me how to hunt fossils together. Share ice-cream on the Cobb. Consummate our relationship. Such . . . dreadful tidings . . . I wasn’t sure to whom I could turn . . .’
‘Oh, Judith. Sit down. I’ll fetch a cup of tea.’
‘The theatre committee need me in thirty minutes, but I
find a little time for a sympathetic ear . . . Earl Grey, then, with a slice of lemon, if it’s not too much trouble.’
My Amateur Dramatics Society is putting on Sir Andrew’s
The Phantom of the Opera
in October, so rehearsals are well under way. Our director, Roger, gave the lead to June Nolan, wife of Terry Nolan. All Lions Clubbers together. Very cosy. Never mind that June Nolan has all the operatic elegance of a dog-trainer. I turned down a minor role, and focused on stage-management. Let others grapple for glory. My job is thankless, and hectic; like I told Olly, if Muggins here didn’t do it, the whole place would fall apart in a week.
Tears welled up again as I unlocked my little theatre. Olly was to visit me for
’s opening night.
Everyone, this is Oliver Dunbar, a very dear friend. Runs a studio in Dorset, but he’s exhibited in New York City, no less. Oh, ignore Mr Modesty! Olly’s photography is
highly sought after
In the kitchen, silence swelled up. Butterflies fussed on the nodding buddleia outside. A divine July, but
hadn’t put the window key back where it lives, so I couldn’t air the place. I began a round of pelvic-floor exercises. Somewhere nearby, a car alarm was going on and
and on and
and on and
, like an incurable migraine. God, I des
people who can’t set their car alarms properly. I despise Fancy-Piece’s pleased-to-see-you smile. I despise liver cooked in cream.
Where the hell
‘June, where the hell
‘Who is this and where the hell is who?’
What sort of actress doesn’t know her
s from her
‘Judith, of course. Doesn’t your mobile tell you who’s calling? Didn’t have you down as a technophobe, June. Let me show you how. Then you’ll always know who’s trying to reach you.’
‘I know perfectly well how to do it, thank you, Judith. Your number isn’t programmed in, for some bizarre reason.’
‘Well, I’m here at the theatre and not a
has shown up for the meeting, and if people think they can put on a musical worthy of the name with
level of commitment, they - ’
‘The meeting was yesterday.’
‘The meeting was yesterday.’
‘Since when were
meetings held on a Thursday?’
‘Since last meeting. Nadine couldn’t make it this Friday, so Janice switched it to Thursday. Don’t you remember?’
people get muddled, if days get swapped around at the drop of a - ’
‘Nobody else managed to get muddled, Judith.’
If June Nolan weren’t such a Lady Muck - Terry’s a big nob at the cider factory in Hereford better known for an outbreak of Legionnaires’ Disease than for cider - I’d never have let it slip. ‘Well, I
a tad distracted. My lover has died. It’s rather thrown me for a loop, I confess.’
made Lady Muck change her tune. ‘How . . . did it happen, Judith? Were you very close?’
‘A hit-and-run. The police are still hunting the killer. Oh, I’m not sure if
close Olly and I were. It was beyond closeness. We were one, June. One. I shall never be whole again.’
When June Nolan
let me go, Muggins here cleaned up the needlessly made tray of coffees, locked up my theatre and headed back towards the clinic car-park. That car alarm was
blaring. Outside the clinic stood a young family, which sounds sweet, but this one made my heart sink.
was about sixteen, fat, dressed like a sporty tramp, and holding a newborn baby in one hand and a giant sausage roll in the other.
looked about eleven, had a lip stud, a rice-pudding complexion, and that hairstyle where strands drip over the criminal forehead. He was a two-thirds scale model of one of those English yobs you see littering European street cafés since budget air-travel came to the masses. Right outside the clinic,
to his own baby, this boy-father was
. Had it been any other morning I might have passed by, but the universe, via Leo, had just sent me a message about the fragility of life.
you smoke near that baby!’
The boy-father looked at me with dead eyes.
‘Haven’t you heard of lung cancer?’
Instead of yelling abuse, he inhaled, bent over his baby and blew out cigarette smoke
into the poor moppet’s face.
family the future of Great Britain?
Yes? Then perhaps eugenics is due a rethink.
A care home spies on the clinic car-park. Yvonne, an aromatherapist I was briefly friendly with, told me that on average its inmates last only eighteen months. The elderly wilt when transplanted. Queen Elizabeth opened this very building a few years ago. I made sure I got to shake the royal hand. She’s smiling at me, in our photograph. Thankful for my assurance that not
her loyal subjects think she organized poor Diana’s assassination. Mind you, I’d put nothing past that Duke of Edinburgh. Told her that, too. A subject has a duty to tell her monarch what’s what.
A janitor-type was peering into my Saab with a knotted-up face.
I realized the offending alarm was, in fact, mine.
With a crisp ‘Excuse me’, I nudged him to one side.
The janitor reared his bulk at me. ‘Is this
Without responding, I unlocked my car and disabled the alarm.
‘Is this’ - in the sudden silence he was shouting - ‘is this
like a joy-rider?’
, this sodding alarm’s been going. Nobody over there’ - he gestured at the care home’s windows, each framing a pale wispy face with less than eighteen months to live - ‘could hear themselves
‘I doubt much thinking goes on there. Shouldn’t
be more concerned about thieves tampering with vehicles under your very nose?’
much doubt there was
any thief !’
Water off a duck’s back. ‘Oh, so we live in a yob-free oasis, do we? See that midget thug over by the clinic? How do you know it wasn’t him? You’ll excuse me. I’m in rather a hurry.’
Thankfully, my Saab started first time.
I reversed out of the tight spot.
I found myself heading not homewards, but on the road to Black Swan Green. I very nearly turned around: Daddy and Marion weren’t expecting me until Sunday. But the universe had told me to cherish my loved ones, so onwards I journeyed, onwards, until the steeple of Saint Gabriel’s and its two giant redwoods sailed closer, closer, over the orchards. Philip and I would explore that graveyard, while our parents chatted after church. How long ago? When Mummy could still go outside, so the late 1970s. Philip found a crack at the base of the steeple. A crack of black. A door to the land of the dead, Philip told me. Left ajar. Philip heard voices, he swore, crying
lonely, lonely, lonely
And it occurred to me that Olly wasn’t the only victim of that hit-and-run murderer, because the Mrs Judith Dunbar-Castle whom I would have become had also been slain.
No, ‘Dunbar-Castle’ sounds like a National Trust property.
Judith Castle-Dunbar was a woman in her fifties, though she could pass for her forties. She was content, and contentment is the best beautician, as Maeve, the owner of an organic shop who pulled the wool over everybody’s eyes, not just mine, used to say. Olly and I would have pooled our funds and bought a spacious house near Charmouth. The Dunbar family would have embraced me. Unlike that gold-digging Patricia creature, who bled him white. Leo would have been Olly’s best man, and Camilla my bridesmaid. Olly’s grown-up son would have wept for joy into his champagne.
I don’t think of you as a stepmother - you’re the big sister I never had.
A chamber orchestra would have performed
Jesus Christ Superstar
for us as, one by one, Olly’s friends would have let slip that my husband was on the ropes before he met little old
Magpies loitered with intent on Saint Gabriel’s lychgate.
Once, I was taller than the beech hedge around Daddy’s house. Now it’s as high as the car port. When one returns to childhood haunts, one is supposed to find how much smaller everything has become. But in Black Swan Green, I always feel that
’m the shrinking one.
‘Daddy! So here’s where you’re hiding!’
‘Why would I “hide” in my own greenhouse?’ Daddy was bent over a cactus, stroking it with a special brush. He switched off the radio cricket. ‘You aren’t due until Sunday.’
‘I was just passing. Don’t switch the radio off on my account.’
‘I switched it off because the agony’s too much. We’re 139 for 8 against Sri Lanka.
‘That’s a gorgeous bloom, Daddy.’
‘This, you mean? Mexicans call it the Phoenix Tree. The Yanks call it the Blue Moon. I call it a waste of bloody time. Six years of fussing and fretting, all you get is this mouldy mauve flower and the aroma of cat litter.’
‘You can cut me eighteen inches of that twine.’
‘Sure. Is Marion not around, Daddy?’
‘She’s at her book group. You’re too old to say “sure”.’
‘Her book group? Jilly Cooper’s got a new one out?’
‘They’re reading an Icelander. Halldor Laxless, I believe.’
‘ “Halldor Laxless”. My.’
‘The only writer I can stomach is Wilbur Smith. All the rest are bloody Nancy boys. Eighteen inches, I said. That’s more like two feet.’
‘I put a punnet of strawberries on the kitchen sill.’
‘They bring me out in a rash. You’re staying for lunch, I suppose.’
Mummy used to complain that Daddy loved his greenhouse more than his real house. Neighbours’ children’s frisbees and shuttlecocks would get confiscated for landing too near it, never mind that they ganged up on
to vent their displeasure. And no silky mistress was ever cared for as much as the green velvet lawn upon which Daddy lavished vitamins and weedkiller. I remember the day Philip was shown how to mow it.
It’s a man’s job, Judith. Women are congenitally incapable of straight lines. End of story
. A lesser woman would still be bitter.
‘Did Philip’s birthday card ever arrive, Daddy?’
‘Philip has to lick the Adelaide office into shape.’ With tweezers and a surgeon’s delicacy of touch, Daddy tied a droopy cactus limb to a bamboo splint. ‘I raised that boy to see a job through. Not to ponce around with cards and Interflora and ghastly ties.’
‘So nothing’s come of his plan to make it over this summer?’
‘Philip’s the project-leader.’ Daddy measured out a cup of cactus feed. ‘He has too much responsibility just to drop everything.’
‘Oh, dear. Still no
Philip Castle on the horizon?’
‘How the bloody hell should
’ll be the first to find out when he
get hitched, via your global intelligence network.’
‘Only asking, Daddy. Only asking. I see you got the CCTV installed around the front.’
‘And the back. The Old Vicarage had a break-in. I’d get myself a couple of lurchers - teach ’em to bite first and ask permission later, like my father in Rhodesia - but Marion isn’t having it. We booked that kayaking trip in Norway, so you’re on the garden-watering detail in September.’
‘If I’m around, I’ll be delighted to oblige.’
Daddy gave me a significant look.
I held it. You mustn’t let Daddy intimidate you, or he’ll turn you into Mummy. ‘A new development on the Glebe, I see.’
‘ “Development”? Don’t get me started. Once upon a time, this village
a village. These days,
Paddy O’Speculator can slip those human turds at the council a few quid and knock up a dozen houses overnight for seven hundred grand apiece. Ah, Marion’s back. I can hear her car.’
a shock!’ Marion poured the coffee while I stacked her gold-edged tableware in the dishwasher. ‘So much life ahead of him! Poor,
man. And poor,
‘I died with him, Marion. That’s how it feels.’
‘A photographer, you mentioned?’
‘Ha!’ Daddy dunked his biscuit. ‘
highly regarded one. His gallery’s in Lyme Regis. Daddy, what is so amusing about Lyme Regis?’
Marion gave him a glare like Mummy never would. ‘The police are
to catch the driver sooner or later, aren’t they?’
‘The police won’t shift their comfy arses an inch,’ muttered Daddy, getting up. ‘Not if it’s not about blowing up airports. Not these days.’
‘The sergeant told me the rain washed the clues away.’ I sat back down and sipped Marion’s excellent coffee. She replaces her machine every year, whether it needs replacing or not. Mummy used a percolator only once in her life. She put three filters in instead of one, and the kitchen floor was flooded. She cried about it for three nights running.
Marion had reconditioned yew boards laid everywhere after she married Daddy. A hanging stitched by one of her sponsored African children adorns the Afrikaner fireplace:
Happiness is not a Destination, it is a Method of Life
. As long as flies aren’t drinking from your eyes, I suppose that’s true. A lesser woman would be upset at how Daddy has let all trace of Mummy disappear from her home. What would Mummy’s ghost recognize now? The alpine rockery, installed years ago to keep up with the Taylors; the cactii and their greenhouse of course; Mummy and Daddy’s honeymoon photograph on the dresser, bleached blue by four decades; the summer house Daddy built for her, in the vain hope it would help with her agoraphobia; the chill in the downstairs loo. That’s her lot. I haven’t been upstairs here for years. Nor do I care to. Marion and Daddy’s love-life is doubtless conducted on some space-age double mattress. They
have a love-life. I sense these things.
‘If your engagement was an open secret,’ Marion was saying, ‘Olly’s family must want you there for the funeral.’
‘They wouldn’t dream of burying him without me. Olly’s brother told me the dreadful tidings before he told Olly’s ex-wife.’
‘So, when is the service?’
Daddy turned the kitchen radio on. ‘ -
has announced that industrial action threatening rail travellers with chaos and misery this weekend has been averted, following the rail union’s acceptance of a 4.9 per cent pay increase over two years, with an enhanced system of bonuses. Officials say -
Daddy fiddled the dial, in search of cricket, grumbling incoherently.
But the universe had spoken loud and clear.
‘My train leaves tomorrow. Crack of dawn.’
The taxi-driver at Axminster Station flicked his cigarette away and heaved my suitcase into his unwashed cab. ‘Cheer up, love. May never happen.’ I replied, tartly, that ‘it’ already
happened. ‘I am here to bury my husband. He lost his long battle with leukemia.’ My words wove an instant magic. Off went his trashy local radio station, away went that ‘love’ and on came a proper air of respect. As he drove me down to Lyme Regis through the drizzle, he made attempts at informed conversation about his son’s school and the Ofsted table; about a proposed site for a low-security prison, shouted down by outraged locals; about a Victorian mansion once owned by Benny Hill and, rumour has it, home to all sorts of goings-on, obscured now by leylandii of gigantic height. My responses were polite but minimal. Widows should not be chatty, and I had my pelvic-floor exercises to run through.
‘Hope the weather picks up for you,’ he said, as I paid, ‘madam.’
It was the same at the Hotel Excalibur. ‘Business or pleasure, is it?’ asked the bouncy creature in that cud-chewing Dorset accent. ‘Neither,’ I told her, with courage and dignity. ‘I am here to bury my husband. Iraq. I’m not at liberty to tell you any more.’ Before my very eyes, she transformed into a real receptionist. She checked if a quieter, more spacious room, away from the conference wing, was available. Lo and behold, it was. ‘At no extra charge?’ I verified. She was pleasingly shocked. ‘We wouldn’t dream of it, madam! You’ll be more comfortable there, Mrs’ - she glanced at my form - ‘Mrs Castle-Dunbar. Would you like a lie-down now? I can send some tea up to your room.’ I’d prefer to stretch my legs, I told her, and she got me an umbrella. Several ‘Made in China’ umbrellas were in the stand - left behind by forgetful guests, doubtless - but she picked me out a sturdy, Churchillian, raven-black affair.
Yes, there are boxes of tatty junk in Lyme Regis, but also cabinets of
rareties. Nestling between Cap’n Scallywag’s Diner and Wildest Dreams Amusement Arcade you’ll find Feay’s Fossils and Henry Jeffreys Antiquarian Maps. From a florist on Silver Street, I purchased twelve ruby roses. In a jeweller’s on Pound Street, a pearl necklace caught my eye. £395 is not small change, but one doesn’t bury one’s soul-mate every day of the week, and I negotiated a discount of £35. I got the elderly proprietor to snip off the tag so I could wear it now. ‘Very good, madam,’ he replied. England would be a superior country if everyone in shops spoke like that.
Then I came to the Cobb.
It curves out into the sea, this ancient stone wall, before dividing into two arms. One arm shelters the modest harbour. The other lunges into open water. Judith Castle-Dunbar followed the latter, cutting a swathe through a platoon of German pensioners. She booted their backsides into the briny drink, or imagined doing so, so vividly that she heard their cries and hearty Teutonic
s. Sir Andrew’s
- more sublime than Mozart’s, who never knew when to stop - thundered over the water, for her, for the soul of Oliver Dunbar. Beadlets of mist clung to her overcoat. She reached the end. Judith Castle-Dunbar gazed towards France, obscured today by an inconsolable sky of tears.
An inconsolable sky of tears
. Judith Castle-Dunbar flung one red rose into the funereal waters below her. And another, another, another, sinking into the fathoms. Rest in peace. The widow has an uncanny sensation of being in a film.
Gulls are her familiars. Damp tourists, anglers, local hoodies and drug addicts, bored rich Germans, spiteful June Nolans, soya-milk Winnifreds and bronzed Marions, holiday admirals in their affordable yachts . . . they watch on, wondering,
Who is that woman? Why is her sadness so deep?
She will remain anchored in the inlets of their memories, long after today. This woman moves in a separate realm. A Meryl Streep sort of realm. A realm which ordinary people can glimpse, but never inhabit.
Tucked up on the toppermost shelf of the town, Oliver Dunbar Photography was open for business as usual. A bell greeted me: the very bell Olly must have heard every day of his working life here. Right here. I must obtain it, and have it rigged up to my door at home. Inside, a man was speaking on the telephone. Leo! I recognized him by his voice. Leo is a touch beefier than Olly, but he has those sensuous Dunbar eyes, and that Jeremy Irons bone structure. His black clothes - obviously he’ll be in mourning for weeks yet - suited him well, and what pluck, I thought, to keep the show on the road at a time like this. Doubtless the Dunbars are rallying round. Despite my discreet enquiries, Olly never mentioned Leo’s wife or girlfriend, and all ten fingers were free of rings. With the receiver still wedged between his ear and his manly shoulder, Leo smiled apologetically and gestured that I should make myself comfortable. An electricity passed between us. I sense these things. Why should it not? He is my dead lover’s brother. I am one of the family. Closing my umbrella, I stood it in a bucket, and withdrew into a side-gallery to give Leo some privacy. His conversation wasn’t worth overhearing, anyway: arrangements for wedding photographs at the council offices. Olly and I were to have married in a stone circle.
The side-gallery was walled with portraits. Some faces are windows, others are masks. What jokes had Olly told to coax out those smiles? What gentlenesses? Whatever they were, they outlived Dear Olly, and, in these portraits, my dear man’s humour and compassion will outlive us all. Diamond-anniversary couples; babies on rugs; sisters in easy poses, extended families in stiffer groups; matriarchs amidst tribes of grandchildren; shiny newly-weds; surly, softened adolescents; a Sikh family even, here in Dorset. What a miracle it is, how two faces become one in their children’s.
Families, I decided, come in three types.
First, families who participate in each other’s lives.
Second, families who merely
their lives to each other.
Third, families who don’t even do that.
We Castles, I suppose, are type two. Philip has his sights on type three, which is his lookout. But my fondest aspiration is to belong to the first type of family. To belong to a family who won’t push you away for the crime of desiring intimacy! Even if I suggest to Camilla, my
, that I visit her in London, it’s
No, Mum, this week’s no good
Sorry, Sinead’s having a party this weekend
Later in the summer, Mum, work’s gone
. Then August arrives and she clears off to Portugal with her father and Fancy-Piece. How am I supposed to feel? So Muggins here does her best at the bookshop, the drama society, my England in Bloom Committee, and what do I get? The likes of June Nolan dubbing me a ‘busybody’ of course, that’s all water off a duck’s back, but where’s the sin in wanting to be needed? In telling one’s loved ones those home truths they need to hear?
Everything would have changed, post-wedding. Everything. Olly, his sisters, Leo here,
toddlers, gather at their parents’ home every weekend. I’d be a peace-broker, a soft-shoulder, a mucker-inner, a washer-upper.
We swear, Judith, we don’t know how we got by without you.
sorry to keep you,’ said Leo. ‘You wouldn’t believe how - ’
The phone rang.
!’ Leo rolled his long-lashed eyes. ‘Do you mind?’