Hilary Mantel

Let us say, life changes at a glance. Let us say you’re walking forward, you turn your head to look over your shoulder, and behind you the landscape has changed. One life, a life you might have led, is snatched back into the shadows. A different life begins.

This is the day I meet my stepfather; it is the day he meets me. I must not take for granted that you know the topography. You have not seen with your own eyes the long snaking road, nor the hedge on one side, behind which the land rises, nor the wall on the other side, beyond which the land falls away. I am four now. I don’t go to school yet. I am small. I wear a bonnet. And everything about me is as sweet as sweety-pie. My head is slightly too big for my body. The inside of it is bulging with knowledge.

The hedge looks dusty, grey masking green, as if a deposit of ash has fallen, from some distant perpetual fire. The waste ground behind it, steep and tussocky, seems to fade to monochrome. On the other side of the road the wall is made of blackened stone. Beyond it is the cannery. We are walking uphill towards home.

This is the geography I have purchase on. I don’t know left or right. This is a steep village and so I just know up from down. I just know there and back, what’s before me and what’s behind. St Charles Borromeo, behind me, is called ‘our church’. The school of St Charles Borromeo is called ‘our school’. Up ahead is Bankbottom, that is called ‘home’: I am slow with the word ‘home’, because no one says it, they say ‘our house’.

I am forging towards the crossroads, Station Road cross Woolley Bridge Road cross Tintwistle Road, Tintwistle pronounced (except by my mother) Tinsel. If you leave the door open when you come into our house, people say: ‘Do you come from Tinsel?’ And indeed, at the very crossroads, you may see the first front door standing open, in the Tinsel manner: not open wide, just fifteen inches or so, just enough to take the effort out of being nosy.

At this age I have to decode the streets before they are safe to walk. It’s a snag that I can’t read, but I am having all signboards read to me, also the covers of drains and manholes, and those square yellow plates bolted to walls with numbers on them. If you take care to be observant you will see that the roads teem with spoors and tracks, the tracks left for each other by one trade or another, by the companies of men about their business. This plate affixed to the wall, my grandad says, denotes the presence of a hydrant, so many yards that way and so many this. He does not point, but uses his whole hand to indicate: to the forward, to the swerve. Beneath the pavements are pipes and drains, culverts and sewers, and above ground are words to the wise, if you know how to find them. We have just walked on to the toffee shop, at the top of Woolley Bridge Road. If you take care to be observant, Grandad, I say, look into this crack in the wall and you will see a big spider. He faces the craggy stonework, bending his back but not his knees. It is low, for a grown man. He presses his hands into his back as he rises. Ee, love, he says, I take my hat off to you. He is a big ‘un.

I say yes, he is always there.

Let us say, life changes at a glance. Let us say you are still moving towards home, towards Bankbottom, confident and purposive. Let us say it is still five minutes before you will turn and look back over your shoulder and your prospects will be transformed. Coming up now, just before the crossroads, is the Wesleyan chapel.

One day, previous to this, you are coming home from Sunday Mass at our church. For some time now you have been able to take your eyes off your own feet without the general danger of falling over; that’s the stage of walking you are up to. You notice this structure looming up – a big flat frontage, a big dim window. It has some features resembling a church, but not all. Huge window, but no tower: mighty double doors, shut. You cast your eye across the road to establish how it’s located for fire hydrants. You touch your mother’s sleeve, the deep-cuffed sleeve of her winter coat; soft wool brushes your cheek. You say, would this be a church? The reply is soothing: no, it is a chapel. Read the sign, please. It is the Wesleyan chapel. What would be Wesleyan? Well, it is Methodist. What should be the method? No, no, no, it is a church, of sorts. It is a chapel.

I torment her for particulars. It is called pestering. Pestering about Methodists. She says, they sing different hymns. Have you been there? Oh, once, she says, once or twice, with non-Catholic friends; though strictly speaking I should not.

On higher ground, on another street, on another day but soon, you find a second chapel, the Primitive Methodists. You pull her sleeve again. You are out of breath from the climb up the steep street. Your eyes grow round.

You go about and about, seeking enlightenment. This is how the world gets wrong, this is how the wires get crossed. You should persist in questioning with each individual, not stumble about all over the place looking for answers: but you have to get definitions from whoever isn’t too busy. What is primitive? Soon I am seized with mirth: baseless, I know, but I can’t help it. I imagine the Methodists draped in animal skins, beating drums, and I imagine them chalking on the walls. People look around in alarm, checking over their shoulders to see who in our backyard I’m offending. ‘Mrs Clayton’s chapel,’ someone says plaintively.

The full text of this diary is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in