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Story: ‘Offences against the Person’Hilary Mantel

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Vol. 30 No. 6 · 20 March 2008

Story: ‘Offences against the Person’

Hilary Mantel

Her name was Nicolette Bland, and she was my father’s mistress. I’m going back to the early 1970s. It’s a long time now since he was subject to urges of the flesh. She looked like a Nicolette: dainty, poised, hair short and artfully curling: dark, liquid, slightly slanting eyes. She was honey-coloured, as if she’d had a package holiday, and she looked rested, and seldom not-smiling. I put her at 26. I was 17, and filling in the summer before university as a junior clerk in my father’s chambers. Devilling, he called it. I never knew why.

I used to watch her type, clip-clip: little darting movements of her pearlescent nails. ‘They say: Wimmin, never learn to type!’ I offered.

They were just beginning to say it, around 1972. ‘Yes, do they?’ she said, a hand hovering for a moment. ‘Don’t start, Vicky. I’ve a lot to get through by dinnertime.’ She made a little swatting movement, and got right back to it, clipetty-clip, clop-clip.

I was fascinated by her feet. I kept hanging my head upside down and peering at them, side by side under the desk. Spike-heels had gone out of style, but she stuck by them. Hers were black and very highly polished. Once, when my father came out of his office, she said without looking up – clip-clop, clickety-clop – ‘Frank, do you think we could get a modesty panel affixed to this desk?’

By the time I came back, at Christmas, I got her desk because she had gone to work at Kaplan’s, across Albert Square. ‘Something of a supervisory element to it,’ my father said. ‘Also broader scope of work – her experience here, you see, being mostly confined as we are to conveyancing – ’

‘Road traffic offences,’ I said. ‘Offences against the person.’

‘Yes, that sort of lark. Plus I understand young Simon offered her the extra hundred a year.’

‘Probably luncheon vouchers,’ I said.

‘I shouldn’t wonder.’

‘Occam’s Razor shaves you closer,’ I said. I had only begun to suspect something when he began multiplying explanations. My foot shot out – this happens, when I see the truth suddenly – and hit the modesty panel with a dull thud.

It was all a novelty to me. I knew men had dealings with their secretaries. I imagined there were sub-species of adultery going on, up and down John Dalton Street, Cross Street, Corn Exchange, but we never did matrimonial, or if we did the clerks locked the files away from me, so my most recent take on male duplicity came from the novels of Thomas Hardy. The 1960s were behind us, the era of free love, but it had not dawned in Wilmslow, from where we commuted on weekdays on the crowded 7.45. I guessed why Nicolette had moved across the square. It was more discreet for a senior partner to be extramural. The Kaplans must be in on it. Repaying a favour, like the time they sent over a spare stapler when ours came apart in my hand.

Our lives till then had been spotless. We lived in an entirely dust-free house, with a mother occupied full-time in whisking it. My sister had gone to teacher-training college. I was of a nature obsessively tidy. As for my father, he was not a man to cause work. Sometimes during that summer he would send me home by myself, saying he must catch up on paperwork – as if there were some other kind of work, like sawing logs, to which a senior partner was bound. He would send with me a message that he would make do with a sandwich when he came in. The brown dinner which my mother was keeping hot for him would shrivel to a stain in its oven-proof serving dish. Solitary in the murk, she would go out into the garden and tie drooping stems to canes, her feet sunk in the earth she had watered earlier. If the telephone rang, ‘Just coming,’ she would trill from the gloaming. ‘See if it’s your father.’ I would hear her knocking the clods off by the back door.

He was on the rota as duty solicitor, and there were nights when he was kept very late at a police station. My mother, who was of a pale nature, would sometimes look paler as the hands of the clock crept round to eleven. ‘Shouldn’t have to do it,’ she would snap. ‘Too senior. Let Peter Metcalfe do it. Let Whatsi Willis do it, he can’t be thirty.’

When he came in my mother smelled alcohol on his breath. ‘Surely not risking your licence?’ She looked brittle.

‘It’s the atmosphere there at Minshull Street,’ he said. ‘It’s highly intoxicating.’

‘You know that Nicolette?’ I said. ‘Is she foreign?’

‘Bland,’ he said: this to my mother. ‘She used to, whatsit. Typing. Now don’t start, Victoria.’

‘Oh yes,’ my mother said. ‘Young Kaplan offered her a pension scheme.’

‘That’s the one. What’s this about, all of a sudden? Why would she be foreign?’

‘Her nice caramel colour. Her little round arms and legs, you know the ones, they look as if they’ve been moulded. As if she was made in Hong Kong.’

‘I had no idea I was entertaining an Enoch Powellite,’ he said huffily.

‘For crying out loud,’ I said. ‘I’d like to know if it’s bottled tan, if so where would I get it. I want to be more attractive to the opposite sex and I have to start somewhere.’

‘You look like a convict with that haircut.’

‘It wouldn’t be my choice,’ my mother said. ‘I mean the tan, the haircut goes without saying. Take a look at her palms when next you see her. If it’s fake they’ll be cocoa-coloured in the cracks. Beauty queens have that dilemma. So Lorraine says.’

Lorraine was her hairstylist. She was a formidable permist and neighbourhood capo, the Cesare Borgia of the tail-comb. My mother had been trying to bring us together. I didn’t like the turn the conversation had taken. As if it were me to be questioned. ‘I’m going to bed.’

‘I hope you won’t have one of your dreams, pet.’

‘Kissy-kissy,’ said my father, offering, under the kitchen strip light, his bristling cheek.

After Christmas, I stayed on in the office while plans were made for my future. Something had gone amiss at university. Though no actual bloodshed was involved. We won’t go into it.

Early in the new year we were in court with an assault that was exciting by our standards. The landlord of a pub in Ancoats was accused of battering one of his customers. The prosecution was ready to say their man had been drinking peaceably at the bar when he felt a call of nature, whereupon the landlord wilfully misdirected him into the backyard, followed him out and booted him around, unprovoked, among the barrels, finally opening a gate and precipitating him into a drear and filthy ginnel. There stood none other than a uniformed constable, straight and true, who witnessing the gash on his head hastened to take his statement in his ready notebook, in which, by the light of a streetlamp that had just wandered into the ginnel, he wrote an immediate and circumstantial account.

The landlord had brought half his regulars along as witnesses to the mildness of his character. A more cut-throat crew you never saw. There was a great deal that was peculiar about the police account of the night, but the landlord, an energetic young Irishman, wasn’t helping his case by causing a disturbance in the corridor outside the courtroom, shouting and hallooing and offering to buy a drink for everyone in sight. ‘Win or lose, sir,’ he shouted at Bernard Bell, who was prosecuting, ‘stroll in at any time and name your pleasure.’

I had to duck myself, to avoid one of his glad-hands. I looked up, steadying myself to follow my papa into court, and to my surprise saw Nicolette appear and then hover at the other end of the corridor. She was frowning, looking about, but when she spotted me she put on a dead-eyed simper. She had some papers in her hand, and she fluttered them, as if suggesting she was on Kaplan business, but somehow I knew she had come to look for my father, I think it was the way her eyes kept roaming, roaming around. ‘Double gin for you, princess,’ the landlord proposed, reeling past her on a policeman’s arm. The policeman’s face said: now do you see why we opposed bail?

When the landlord, who was a likeable sort after all, gave his version of the evening, there was some sniggering from the clerks around me, and roars of laughter from the public gallery. Potts, who was sitting, and was known for having every element of humour left out of him, threatened to clear the court, so there was soon a hush. But I can’t give an account of the case as, just as the police officer took the stand, I felt a kick in my stomach, something like a cloven hoof, and I had to fold myself double to scrabble in the bag at my feet, edge past my father, nod to Potts and back reverently out of the court in the direction of the lavatories. My father, who was now attuned to the biology of young women, gave me a sympathetic glance as I went. I turned at the door, glanced up, and saw that Nicolette was perched in the gallery, squeezed on either side by the landlord’s friends, who bounced silently in their seats at every sally in the court below.

When I came back the court had risen for lunch. Nicolette was in the corridor talking earnestly to my father, her face raised to his. The place seemed deserted. My father was sombre, eyes fixed on her face. But he must be hungry, I thought. He raised his face, he scanned the corridor as if for rescue or a waiter. His eyes passed over me, but he didn’t seem to see me. He looked drained, grey, as if he’d been left standing by the kerb and one of the low-lifes from Ancoats had been siphoning off his blood.

Then the corridor began to fill up with the bustle of the various people hurrying back from lunch. A miasma of extinguished cigarettes, of pale ale and cheese and onion and whisky billowed before them, a smell of wet mackintosh and wet newsprint came in with them, as damp pages of the early edition of the Evening News were unfolded and flapped in the air. Nicolette clipped over to me, smiling, her heels spearing the floor. She seemed keen to strike up a friendship. She clicked open her bag. ‘Your father thought you might need two of these.’ She pulled out a bottle of aspirin.

‘I usually have three.’

‘Be my guest.’

She unscrewed the top with an air of liberality. But there was a cotton wool twist in the neck of the bottle, and when I tried to fish it out it flinched away from my forefinger and impacted itself out of reach. ‘Give it here,’ Nicolette said. She probed the glass with her pearly claw. ‘The little bugger,’ she said.

My father had joined us. Holding up his thick digit, he showed that he was helpless in the matter. Nicolette flushed, her face downturned. Across each eyelid there ran an eely flick, teal blue, drawn with a fine pen. I positioned myself next to her so that I could try to see down her neckline, and find out where her caramel hue ended, but all I could see was an ugly mottling of frustration, spreading crimson to where the buttons of her silk blouse blocked my view.

The forces of the Crown arrived. ‘What’s up, Frank?’ Bernard Bell said.

My father said: ‘My daughter’s started her – she’s started her headache.’

‘Touch of the sun.’ It was February. Nobody smiled.

‘Oh, suit yourselves,’ Bernard said. ‘Tweezers will do it.’

I almost glanced behind me for Tweezers, a rachitic clerk with fingerless gloves. Then I saw that Bernard was digging in his pockets. He came out with some treasury tags, small decimal currency and some fluff. He sifted it, plunged his two hands in again, and ferreted down there for quite a while; it was a tribute, I thought, to the charms of Nicolette. My father snorted: ‘Bernie, you never carry tweezers into court? Nail clippers, yes . . .’

‘You may scoff,’ Bernie said, ‘but I have known nasty injuries occur from slivers of flying glass, where in the hands of a man trained by the St John Ambulance, a handy pair of sterilised – ’

But then Nicolette gave a squeak of triumph. She held up the plug of cotton wool between her fingertips. Three aspirin rolled into my palm. If they’d rolled into her palm, I could have settled a question.

Early in the afternoon the case was thrown out. The Irishman tumbled into the corridor to greet his well-wishers, punching the air and crying, ‘Drinks all round.’

It surprised me to see that Nicolette was still there. She was standing alone, her bag looped over her elbow. She’d lost her papers, whatever they were. She looked as if she were queuing up for something. ‘Very honourably prosecuted, sir, and in a gentleman-like manner,’ the landlord flung in the Crown’s direction. When he passed Nicolette, fists flailing, feet flashing out, I saw her step back against the wall with a briskness almost military, and clamp her forearm across her tiny belly.

That night my father took my mother aside. She kept walking away from him, in little aimless drifts, so he had to follow her down the hall and into the kitchen, saying listen to me Lillian. I went up to the bathroom and looked in the bathroom cabinet, which I normally avoided as the thought made me sick. I sorted through what was in there: a small bottle of olive oil, some oozing ointments, a roll of sticking-plaster and some round-ended scissors with a rust-spot at the junction of their blades: crepe bandages packed in cellophane. There was more provision for casualties than I had imagined. I pulled some cotton wool out of a packet, rolled it up into balls and put it in my ears. I went downstairs. I watched my soundless feet go before me, like scouts. I didn’t look through the kitchen door, though it had a glass panel. But after a while I sensed a vibration under my feet, as if the whole house were shaking.

I went into the kitchen. My father wasn’t there and being quick on the uptake I deduced he must have slipped out through the back door. The room was filled with a dull thudding sound. My mother was beating on the edge of the kitchen table the oven-proof dish in which she usually shrivelled his dinner. It was made of toughened glass and took a long time to break. When it shattered at last she left the wreckage on the floor and brushed past me on her way upstairs. I pointed to my ears, as if to warn her that any commentary on the situation was wasted on me. But left to myself I picked up all the shards of the dish, and carried on picking them up and replacing them on the table. Not having the obliging tweezers by me I took up the fragments out of the carpet tiles with my fingernails. This detailed work of recovery took up a satisfactory amount of time. While the muffled evening continued on its way without me, I arranged the jagged fragments so that the pattern of onions and carrots with which the dish had been decorated was complete again. I left it for her to find, but when I came down next morning it was gone as if it had never been.

I went round to see them after the twins were born. Nicolette was very pally. She tried to reminisce about old times – the modesty panel, all that – but I firmly rebuffed her. My father still looked grey, as he had since the day the Irish landlord was in court, and the babies were both yellow, but he seemed pleased with them, grinning away like a callow youth, I thought. I looked at their little fingers, and the palms of their hands, and marvelled at them, as you are meant to do, and he seemed all right with that. ‘How’s your mother?’ he said.

Something was stewing, a brown foodstuff, on the hotplate of the Baby Belling.

My mother got the house. She said she would have been loath to leave the garden. He had to pay her maintenance, and she spent some of it on yoga classes. Having been a brittle person, she became flexible. Each day she saluted the sun.

I was not a prejudiced young person. I still notice these things, the colours people turn when they’re lying, the colours they turn. Nicolette, I saw, looked as if she needed dusting. She smelled of baby sick and brown stewing, and her curly hair hung above her ears in woolly clumps. She whispered to me: ‘Sometimes he’s on call, you know, the rota. He’s out till all hours. Did he do that before?’

My father, always a diffident man, was agitating his knees beneath his babes, by way of bouncing them. He was singing to them, in a subfusc way: ‘One a penny, two a penny, hot cross buns.’ Love is not free. In point of fact, he was reduced to penury, but he must have counted on that. I expect Simon Kaplan admired him, Bernard Bell, those people. As far as I could see, everybody but me had got what they had ordered. ‘Drinks all round?’ I said. Nicolette, finding her hands free, reached into the sideboard and extracted a bottle of British sherry. I watched her blow the dust off it. Only I had failed to name my pleasure.

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