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.’

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