Grievance Marguerite Alexander A moving novel about the relationships within families and between friends, told through the touching story of a young woman starting out on a new life in London, on a quest to escape the claustrophobia of her small hometown.Nora Doyle, a young Irish girl, has come to university in London. The promise of a loving and idyllic childhood was brutally cut short when she was forced to assume the responsibility of looking after her Downs syndrome brother while her parents, devastated by his birth, retreated into their collapsed lives. Only Nora gave her brother the love, care and attention he needed, but she had to endure the watchful eye of her bullying, dogmatic father and the resentment of her crushed, self-pitying mother.To escape the small-town claustrophobia of a Northern Ireland battered by political and religious divisions, Nora begins a new life in London. But instead of finding friends and caring adults to make up for her own lack of parental love and normal family life, she unwittingly becomes the obsession of her narcissistic lecturer and finds it hard to connect with her peers. Too late she realises that she can escape from her family, but her behaviour and relationships with those around her continue to be shaped by her upbringing.Written with sensitivity and a rare emotional insight, this is a richly woven story about how we make connections and what it is that severs them. Grievance Marguerite Alexander For Rachel, Chloë, Hannah and Tom Table of Contents Cover Page (#u957d6389-039a-511a-aebf-58f0a3b2253f) Title Page (#ubbbf133e-78c2-5286-b214-565402d98a48) PART ONE Animals (#u87a66b33-4d3a-5e8d-8094-bec5d1b34266) London (#uee75d80e-a54f-55da-a646-7426e56b5048) Ballypierce (#u2b006085-5853-5f7b-9cd3-5944f5f44bee) PART TWO Servants (#uab4b9f90-1dbb-580d-98c6-f7cbbab2b9a4) London (#u61a4aa5b-d081-5bc6-aa10-cd0db4fdc60a) Ballypierce (#litres_trial_promo) PART THREE Rituals and Meaning (#litres_trial_promo) London (#litres_trial_promo) Ballypierce (#litres_trial_promo) PART FOUR Ecstasy and Longing (#litres_trial_promo) London (#litres_trial_promo) Ballypierce (#litres_trial_promo) PART FIVE The Slaying of the Father (#litres_trial_promo) London (#litres_trial_promo) Ballypierce (#litres_trial_promo) PART SIX Understanding Women (#litres_trial_promo) London (#litres_trial_promo) Ballypierce (#litres_trial_promo) PART SEVEN Exile (#litres_trial_promo) London (#litres_trial_promo) Ballypierce (#litres_trial_promo) EPILOGUE (#litres_trial_promo) Acknowledgements (#litres_trial_promo) About the Author (#litres_trial_promo) Copyright (#litres_trial_promo) About the Publisher (#litres_trial_promo) PART ONE Animals (#ulink_b5a30344-8e14-5345-b09d-39b0b4262af6) London (#ulink_cbc72def-3e1e-51dc-b210-4fc9266fef4f) It is, Steve supposes, the particular quality of the September afternoon that makes the group so picturesque. The air is so still that the few leaves that are ready to fall drift to the ground with a kind of languor, their colours, in their slow descent, caught in the slanting rays of the sun. It was to enjoy the effect that Steve had lingered; otherwise he might not have noticed the young people at all. There are about half a dozen, mostly seated, one or two of the young men lying, under the handsome chestnut tree in the college quadrangle. A picnic seems to be in progress. A woollen rug is spread on the grass, dotted with plates of food and large jugs of Pimm’s, its colour harmonising with the autumnal tones of the setting. It must be somebody’s birthday, or perhaps a celebration of reunion at the beginning of the new academic year. Their clothes are unusually bright for undergraduates and one of the girls, who is wearing a floral printed summer dress, has some kind of wreath on her long, crinkly red hair. As Steve watches, she picks up the jug and fills the glasses that stretched arms hold out to her. None of the group is familiar to him, but he’s just returned after a year’s sabbatical and is unlikely to recognise students he doesn’t teach. He is just about to move on when one of the reclining young men suddenly sits bolt upright and, as he speaks, waves his long, gangly arms in the air. Steve is too far away to catch what he has said, but the gales of laughter that greet the young man’s performance drift across the quad towards him. He smiles to himself, shut off from the joke but pleased by the scene. He is just about to move on to his office when another group of young people, equally striking but quite different from the first, claims his attention. With an immediate feeling of revulsion, quickly followed by shame, Steve realizes that a number of this second group have a severe mental handicap. They roll their heads and mutter to themselves, apparently indifferent to their surroundings. It seems that, left to themselves, they would shuffle aimlessly along, but the expedition is given an air of purpose by the others, young helpers who are all linked by the arm to their special charges, whom they are guiding across the quad. There is a young woman with Down’s syndrome, whose shoulder-length silky light-brown hair briefly reminds him of his daughter, Emily, but this one point of resemblance heightens the cruelty of the contrast between them. He takes in her face, its tiny features puckered with anxiety; her hands, clutching the arm of the athletic young woman who is leading her; the large thighs and buttocks in the shapeless tracksuit bottoms. Then he turns away, finding his own curiosity inappropriate. He can’t think what they might be doing here. He wonders whether, in his absence, his colleagues have initiated some outreach programme, possibly attracting government money. It’s the kind of well-meaning, but ultimately pointless, scheme that a junior minister might consider worthy of funding. Unless it’s an initiative by one of the student Christian groups. His interest withers, as it always does, at the thought of active religious commitment (but only in this context: religion as an expression of nationalism or oppression or political discontent is another matter entirely). Because he doesn’t want to cut across the slow, straggling line, he switches direction and makes a loop that brings him closer to the party of picnickers and, for the first time, notices a girl who, from his earlier position, had been partly obscured. She is more simply and austerely dressed than the others, in white T-shirt and black jeans, small, slender, finely moulded and delicately featured, with the kind of colouring – black hair, blue eyes and pale, almost white skin – that immediately makes his heart leap. He is particularly struck by her attitude. She is kneeling, body upright from the knees, looking intently away from her friends. Steve slows down and sees that she is following the progress of the last pair in the group crossing the quad. At first he thinks that her interest is in the young guide, so unlikely does it seem that an educated girl of her generation would stare so blatantly at someone with an obvious mental handicap. The young man is tall, fair-haired, tanned and would, Steve imagines, gaze deep into the eyes of anyone prepared to listen and tell them how much God loves them. He feels a vague resentment that such a remarkable girl should squander her attention on such an unworthy object. Almost immediately, however, he decides he’s mistaken. To his practised eye, her manner does not suggest sexual interest. He looks as closely as he can at the muscular Christian’s partner, who is on the far side and can only be seen in profile. He, too, is tall and fair-haired, but his features, like those of the girl who reminded him of Emily, are marked by Down’s syndrome. Their arms are linked, but the arrangement seems purely mechanical, the one showing no awareness of the other’s presence. Steve’s attitude to the guide changes to respect, particularly for his attempts to interest his charge in their surroundings. His free arm is busy indicating points of interest in the quad and he keeps up a steady flow of conversation, but the other boy’s head remains averted, whether or not as a deliberate snub, it’s impossible to say. Then as the pair, who have been drifting away from the rest of the group, turn to catch up, Steve sees that the boy with Down’s syndrome is holding a long chiffon scarf in a brilliant pink. Never taking his eyes off the scarf, and with remarkably deft and practised movements, he waves it in an elaborate series of loops to produce an effect of some beauty. Steve supposes it was the scarf that caught the girl’s eye, and then she became mesmerised by the performance. Still a puzzle remains, that she should find the boy so compelling that she forgets her friends and the party taking place around her. He is struck by the irony: he has been transfixed by the girl, who shows no awareness of his presence, while the boy, who has eyes only for his scarf, absorbs her. Then suddenly this long, suspended moment, to which the still September air and slanting rays of golden sunshine have contributed, is broken. The young man and the boy with the scarf are gone, along with the rest of their group. And the young woman has dropped back on her heels and turned to her friends, who now seem to Steve noisy, even raucous, after the intense quiet of the boy and the girl who was watching him. He turns away in the direction of his office. As the afternoon slides into memory, Steve comes to see it as marking the end of his sabbatical, gaining importance with the new turn of events. But memory can be treacherous. What stays in the mind is the girl, for whom everything else becomes merely setting – not just the chestnut tree and the early-autumn sunshine, but her friends too. In the manner of sheep and goats, they serve to emphasise her difference: her apartness, her seriousness and her intensity. Her beauty is striking enough against her own immediate background, but when the other young people, so cruelly served by nature, are brought into play, it acquires iconic value. What he forgets, as the days pass, is her mysterious absorption in the boy with the pink chiffon scarf. It may be that it’s beyond his scope to see someone so signally lacking in beauty and intelligence as capable of meaning. In responding as he does, reordering and refiguring the world according to unexamined prejudices, he makes a fatal error, one that he is always careful to warn his students against. He ignores the context in which he first saw the girl, all those other elements in the scene that are crucial to understanding. And context, as he has spent so much of his professional life arguing, is different from background, which gives the central object transcendent status, encouraging the interpreter to impose his own meaning. Meanwhile Steve picks up the threads of his professional life and falls back into patterns and routines. There is his new undergraduate course on Irish literature to think about. He has his first sessions with two new doctorate students, both too awed by his reputation to do more than mouth the platitudes into which his own once groundbreaking work has fossilised. There are emails and letters to answer and papers to read, but while he dispatches everything with his usual efficiency, he feels himself to be only half there, semi-detached from his professional self. This isn’t just because he’s been away from it all. The truth is that, although nobody but his wife Martha yet knows of his plans, he is already planning at least a partial escape, in search of another outlet for his talents, and hopes to make an even bigger impact than, as a young scholar, he made on the academic world. He’s pulled back sharply into the here and now when Charles Rowe pays his welcome-back call. Just for that moment Steve wishes, as must his colleague, that they were still in the time of Rowe’s beloved Jane Austen when a card left on a platter might do the trick. Steve knows that it’s Rowe even before he’s in the room. There is a shuffling sound outside the door, the unmistakable signal of Rowe’s approach, then a light, tentative knock, followed by a much louder one, in case the first wasn’t heard, both indications of his unease at the prospect of seeing Steve. ‘Yes, come in.’ Steve turns from his desk as Rowe’s overlarge head twists round the door. He wonders whether, as a boy, his colleague was encouraged to see it as stuffed with brains to compensate for the embarrassment it must have caused. ‘Ah, Steven. Good. You’re here. Excellent.’ The words are carefully articulated, suggesting a stutter, once painfully overcome, which always seems on the verge of returning in Steve’s presence: although they’ve rubbed along well enough together for some time now, it’s clear that Rowe has never recovered from the shock he received when Steve was first appointed to the English department and set about overturning the cherished assumptions of his older colleagues. This was in the early eighties, the beginning of the Thatcher era, when young men (and a few young women) like Steve brazenly presented themselves as a countercultural revolutionary force. Ignoring much of the traditional canon, Steve required his students to read French critics and philosophers like Foucault and Barthes. Rowe, ever eager to learn, dipped into them himself, and finding the prose impenetrable – an unhappy afternoon spent struggling with one paragraph of Derrida has left painful scars on his memory – dismissed them as rubbish, then found to his dismay that the students lapped them up. When they started quoting what he came to think of as the ‘Gallic wreckers’ in essays he had set, he was at a loss how to grade them. For Rowe and others of his generation, there was a seismic shift. Literature as a repository of eternal values was dismissed in favour of the idea that it was all culturally determined. Even worse was the thought that some of the most valued works in English were hoodwinking their readers into accepting bourgeois values. Jane Austen came under scrutiny and Rowe had to swallow the bitter pill that Mansfield Park, his own favourite, was not after all about personal morality and religious vocation but slavery. It seemed that the only ‘correct’ way to read a text was to concentrate on those who were ‘marginalised’ (another new concept) by it: colonial subjects, women, homosexuals. And slaves. The forces of righteousness had arrived. Traditionalists like Rowe, who in the beginning found comfort in dismissing the new critical theories as absurd – ‘the emperor’s new clothes’ was the phrase he used with like-minded colleagues – were soon silenced by Steve. His face had a way of setting in contempt at opinions different from his own, and this induced an acute sense of humiliation in those who had been foolhardy enough to voice them. For one so young, Steve was remarkably confident – a confidence that was rapidly justified by events. His first book sold in numbers previously undreamed-of in academic circles and made him something of a celebrity. Overnight it seemed that the ideas he and others of his generation pioneered had become the new orthodoxy, leaving Rowe and his bewildered colleagues with no choice but to conform. Once the battle was won, harmony of a sort was restored; since Steve’s early appointment to a professorship, which made him, in hierarchical terms, Rowe’s equal, he has behaved with impeccable courtesy towards him, as he does now, getting to his feet in deference to the older man and ushering him to a chair. ‘Well, just for a few minutes, perhaps,’ Rowe says. ‘Far be it from me to disturb you when you’re h-hard at it.’ Steve tries not to look while Rowe, clutching a stack of papers as justification for his visit, makes his ungainly way to the chair, then sinks into it. His condition seems to have deteriorated rapidly over the past year, since Steve last saw him, if indeed there is a condition, other than the process of ageing. He can’t be more than sixty-three or -four, Steve thinks. Only fifteen years older than I am. Christ. ‘You’re looking very well,’ Rowe says. ‘Restored, if I might say so.’ Steve, who is leaning back against his bookshelves, arms folded and ankles crossed, raises an eyebrow in reply. He’s not sure that he likes the idea of being in need of restoration, of being on the downward side of a curve where his inevitable decline may, from time to time, be halted, but never reversed; where a renewal of youthful vigour, after much-needed restoration, will inevitably be short-lived. ‘Not that you ever…’ says Rowe, hastily. ‘Oh dear, you work so admirably hard that I imagined the break…’ This sentence, too, fails and Rowe lowers his eyes in shame. ‘It was, as you say, restorative,’ says Steve, suddenly relenting. It seems churlish to take out his disaffection on Rowe. His colleague rewards this small act of kindness with a relieved smile that briefly shows discoloured teeth. ‘Not too much time in the library, I hope?’ ‘Some, but I also did the Joyce trail – Dublin, Paris, Trieste, Zürich.’ Steve has always avoided studies of individual writers before, preferring theoretical exposition, accompanied by theatrical sleight-of-hand, to overturn the received meaning of canonical texts. Before his sabbatical, however, he announced his intention to write a book on James Joyce. ‘Ah, I envy you.’ Rowe is beginning to relax, to lose the persecuted expression that he wore on entering the room. ‘Jane Austen doesn’t provide her acolytes with quite the same opportunities for travel.’ ‘No, I suppose not. So, what can I do for you, Charles?’ Steve nods in the direction of Rowe’s bundle of papers. ‘Ah, yes,’ says Rowe, leafing through them. ‘Here’s something to get you back into the swing of things. I thought I’d bring you up to date with preparations for the Gender and Ethnicity Conference.’ His manner is shyly confident, that of a man offering a particularly rare treat. His confidence is all the more poignant, or piquant, in view of the battering he has received over the years from the keepers of the new orthodoxies. If anybody is responsible for his present sorry state – his pathetic anxiety to please, his physical deterioration, the stutter that seems always on the verge of returning – then it’s probably Steve himself, in creating a climate in which Rowe has been obliged to conform to ideas that he may not even understand, let alone endorse. ‘That’s very thoughtful of you, Charles,’ Steve says. ‘Leave it with me and I’ll give you my comments as soon as I’ve had the chance to read all the material.’ Rowe fails to respond to Steve’s dismissal. ‘We’ve taken the liberty – or, rather, I’ve taken the liberty – I must take full responsibility here…’ he pauses to send Steve a complicit smile, a sure sign, for all his disclaimers, that he has little doubt of pleasing ‘…to put your name forward for the main session of the conference. Something on Irish ethnicity, perhaps, since that seems to be the direction your interests are taking? I thought some advance publicity for the book – not, of course, that you ever need…’ No, I don’t, thinks Steve, angry even while knowing that Rowe means no harm. His reputation alone is enough to guarantee all the publicity he needs. Besides, the department ought to be able to see that he’s moved beyond giving a paper at any conference Rowe is capable of organising. Of course, his name is associated with these ideas – his book on critical theory, although published twenty years ago, is still included on reading lists, not just for literature but for history and anthropology students – but now it’s for the foot soldiers to carry on a battle that’s been largely won. It’s true that he’s about to teach a course on Irish literature, but if he has to teach, he might as well amuse himself. He’s sufficiently in control of his own reactions, and aware of the danger of burning his boats, to say, ‘Thank you, Charles. It’s nice to know I wasn’t forgotten in my absence. But may I think about it? I’d really rather not commit myself to anything until I see how much time I can squeeze out of all this.’ He makes a sweeping movement with his arm that vaguely encompasses the full range of professional duties suggested by the crowded desk. ‘More than anything, I’m anxious to get on with the book.’ Rowe is disappointed, but not crushed. He has suffered so many defeats in the course of his working life, even when, as on this occasion, he is sure that his actions will be welcomed. ‘Of course, Steven. Whatever you think best. If you could let me know in time to find an alternative speaker – if that’s what you decide, of course…’ He struggles to his feet, makes his ungainly way across the room, then pauses at the door and lifts his arm in farewell before leaving. Steve sinks into his chair and sits for a while with his head in his hands, wondering how he’s going to be able to put in his time until his means of escape materialises. He had embarked on his sabbatical, and his book on Joyce, with the idea of changing direction but without realising how far in a new direction he would be taken. He’d known for a while that the critical revolution he had helped bring about had peaked; that there was no longer any shock value in overturning expectations when, for new generations of students, deconstruction was already commonplace. He had become a victim of his own success. But the nature of that success was, he had come to feel, rather limited. In the decade and a half since he made his name, public interest in the academy has shifted away from the post-structuralist approach to literature that once tore apart English departments (the new craze is for reading groups, where no expertise is needed to pitch in with an opinion) towards science and the grand narratives of the neo-Darwinians and astrophysicists. The change can be charted through radio talk-shows, where he is no longer a valued guest, in which the hosts, former devotees of the arts, struggle to ask scientists meaningful questions. At the same time, those of his arts colleagues who have maintained or strengthened their public profiles – for Steve’s weakness is that he craves public recognition, only feels fully alive when he is ahead of his peers – have moved into biography and cultural history (in at least one well-known case, the history of science), where they have found a way of overturning received ideas through a gossipy, personality-driven, accessible approach. If anything short of a miracle is capable of restoring a spring to Rowe’s step, Steve thinks, it would be the knowledge that he, the once formidable champion of the obscure and arcane processes of critical theory, is now weighing the merits of accessibility. What attracted him to Joyce was the opportunity he saw for a flashy tour de force, a critical and biographical work that mimicked Joyce’s own writing. Through a combination of deep scholarship and a light, knowing manner, he would illuminate Joyce and find his own way back to the talk-show circuit. And there was an additional beauty in his original idea: that it needn’t look like a desperate move to revive a flagging career since it could be presented as a development of his earlier interests. For was not Joyce himself, like many Irish writers, a kind of deconstructionist? And wasn’t the shift in focus to an Irish writer entirely consistent with his own known interest in colonial writing? It certainly wasn’t a disadvantage, in his original calculations, that Ireland had become a fashionable topic, not just for former colonial oppressors but, it seemed, globally: Ireland was the only country in the European Union that all the others could agree to admire, a nation that had transformed itself economically without losing any of its lovableness. A new book on Joyce would be a reminder of a different moment in Irish history and of the persistent literary creativity of the Irish. And it would also launch Steve into a new phase in his career, as commentator on Ireland more generally, an informed outsider with the skills and knowledge to take on Ireland’s new identity. His motives, while self-interested, were never cynical. He was genuinely engaged by the subject, while the still unresolved situation in Ulster – where his allegiances were and are, of course, with the minority Catholic population – would offer him full scope for the committed political position (on the side of the oppressed, the marginalised, the silenced) with which his name is associated. Once that wider role, to which his book on Joyce would give him access, has been secured. Then an extraordinary thing happened. During his sabbatical he visited Ireland – Dublin, Galway, Cork, places associated with Joyce and his wife Nora – and fell in love. Not with a person, but with the place and its people. It seemed that all the clichés currently employed for contemporary Ireland, about its dynamism, its vibrancy and vitality, about a young, highly educated population that was comfortable both with ideas and popular culture, about a nation that had thrown off the shackles of the past to forge a new identity, were true. And although he never visited the North, his experience of the Republic confirmed his political sympathy for the Northern Irish Catholics, who had only to free themselves of the last vestiges of colonialism to effect the same transformation. He felt a euphoria of a kind that was new to him. He had gone to Ireland deeply committed to the theoretical position that had underpinned his work – that there is no such thing as a fixed national character that justifies hostile stereotypes, only a set of characteristics that are a response to historical circumstance – and had the satisfaction of seeing his theories triumphantly vindicated. The drab, pious, inward-looking Ireland that he had visited once as a student and found uncongenial, despite the magnificent literature and a history that could only enlist his sympathy, had disappeared as the people had responded to new opportunities. What had been for Steve an idea had become a romance. Having always seen himself as the least sentimental, most rational of men, this new emotional attachment to his subject has taken Steve by surprise so, of course, he rationalises it. His enthusiasm, he argues, is for the pleasure of being right, of testing a theory and finding it true. And he has enough self-awareness to see that the revelation of Ireland came to him at a moment when the need for change in his own life had become a yearning. Ireland’s transformation was an inspiration. So why is he sitting in his office, with his head in his hands, the picture of misery? He’s begun to wake up in the night with a feeling of dread because his book on Joyce has stalled and the bright new future he has envisaged for himself seems to depend on it. He urges himself to be patient, that it’s only his eagerness to move his life into a new phase that has produced the deadlock. But this has no effect on the panic he feels whenever he tries to work. What if he never achieves anything again, comparable to that precocious leap to academic stardom? Sometimes he feels on the verge of a creative breakthrough, the realisation of which will confound the world and force the admission that, highly though he was estimated before, he was in fact underestimated. At such times, the germ of a startling idea hovers on the edge of his consciousness, but when he tries to pull it to the centre of his mind, where it can be examined and developed, it proves elusive, not only refusing to shift but disappearing altogether. He gets up and wanders over to the window, hoping to see something that will distract him, like the scene under the chestnut tree, but there’s nothing beyond the usual comings and goings. Maybe, he tells himself, this period of sterility is the prelude to a major breakthrough. If he can only be patient, not panic and be alert to possibilities, who knows? There are more immediate claims on his attention, however, and soon the opening session of his course on Irish literature arrives. ‘So, one of our objectives on this course is to restore to the Irish their literary heritage.’ The room is packed with second-year students who have come in expectation of a performance from Professor Steven Woolf. His reputation has preceded him and so far he’s done nothing to disappoint them. He’s seated on, rather than behind, the desk, his motorcycle helmet perched next to him, and his stance draws attention to his effortless command of the subject, for he is speaking without notes, enforcing their attention, demanding their complicity in the critical position he’s outlining. He’s dressed like them, in leather jacket and jeans, though his were almost certainly bought new rather than second-hand, which both erases and confirms the differences between them. He hasn’t lost his youthful edge, the impression he gives of belonging to a generation in the vanguard of change, but he is also a legendary figure, occupying a position to which they might aspire but will almost certainly never reach. In asserting his intention to restore to the Irish what they have lost he speaks as their champion, as one who has the authority to make a grand gesture of restitution. Except, of course, that such an act of restitution is now redundant. He is impressive, but the group is not without sceptics. ‘I’d have thought they’d got the hang of claiming their own heritage by now,’ says Nick Bailey, one of the stars of the year, to his friend Pete Taylor, who is sprawled across his chair as usual, as if he doesn’t know where to put his unusually long arms and legs. ‘World leaders, my son,’ says Pete. ‘But you can see his problem. What do you do when the disadvantaged refuse to stay shackled and destroy all your arguments?’ Steve stops abruptly and glances in their direction. As his eye comes to rest, first, on Pete, then on Nick, he is briefly puzzled, before the professional mask is resumed. ‘This isn’t a lecture,’ he says. ‘You’re quite free to make your point to the room at large – if it’s something you’re prepared to share.’ The two young men exchange a look, and then Pete says, ‘We were saying that the Irish seem to be pretty good at exploiting their own heritage these days. That’s when they can spare the time from being a tiger economy and relaxing with sex, drugs and rock and roll. I just wondered whether our idea of the Irish wasn’t a bit out of date.’ Steve is too practised to take offence, or at any rate to show that he has, especially since Pete’s point has been made with a good-humoured lack of aggression. When he responds, his manner is smooth and impenetrable. ‘You’re quite right that the Irish are no slouches in manipulating popular history for tourism, but that isn’t quite what I had in mind. I’m merely signalling my intention to look at texts not as timeless works of imperishable genius that are part of the English literary canon but in the context of Irish history, Irish society and Irish politics, and of the power relations that, however concealed, have shaped the writers’ attitudes.’ He pauses before landing his parting shot. ‘And it’s worth remembering, before we get too carried away, that there is one part of the island of Ireland where history isn’t yet over, and where the inhabitants don’t yet feel free to surrender themselves to the rock-and-roll culture. I don’t intend putting this to the test, but I would hazard a guess that even here, in this very room, there are pockets of ignorance about the historical roots of the situation in Northern Ireland that you’ve all grown up with.’ There is no doubting Steve’s political engagement and, duly chastened, Nick, Pete and the few others who are inclined to levity, settle down. However predictable Steve’s views might be to those who have read his books, his own history commands respect. This generation of students hadn’t yet started primary school when his book on critical theory was published, at the beginning of the Thatcherite revolution. The left, disabled by defeat, had embarked on a long and acrimonious quarrel with itself, but Steve’s particular brand of Marxism – playful, subversive, disrespectful of authority – offered a new kind of Utopian vision. English lecturers were being hired and fired according to divisions Steve had helped to create. People subscribed to a belief in him as they might to a religion. His ideas, like the Falklands War, created opposing camps. And, of course, it went without saying that if you were in favour of Steve you were against British action in the Falklands. His status, however, is not just a matter of the theories promoted in his published work. He marched with the miners and was kicked by a policeman. This is a matter of record, captured by a BBC cameraman. And when he appeared on late-night arts programmes – for this was the beginning of his career as a minor television personality – he extended the academic debate into the public issues of the day, claiming, as he is now, that there is no distinction between critical and political practice. He is known to have turned down a chair at Oxford, where he started his career as an undergraduate, and although some of his colleagues have hinted – privately, to one or two favoured students – that Steve’s preference is to be as close as possible to the television studios, that he may even, at this moment, be turning his attention to Irish literature because, in the current political climate when ideology is felt to be a handicap, Ireland is the flavour of the month and an issue on which righteous indignation might still be expressed, many here prefer to believe that he rejected Oxford on the grounds of élitism. He is a star turn, and they are as mesmerised by his personal style as by what he has to say: the leather jacket, the desert boots, the motorcycle helmet on the desk, while the satchel that holds his papers is thrown casually onto the floor. And it isn’t as though the style has been cultivated to compensate for deficiencies in appearance, as is all too evidently the case with one or two of the younger lecturers. His black hair, brushed back from his face, is thick and only slightly greying, his mouth is full, red and sensual, his eyes, behind the wire-framed glasses, large, dark and – well, yes, brooding, as one or two of the girls concede to each other, cliché though it is. The mind of Phoebe Metcalfe is as likely as not to be preoccupied with such matters, so her friends are surprised when, instead of a note to that effect – enlivened, as her communications usually are, with a little drawing of a smiling face and other icons expressive of good cheer – she makes an intervention that shows she has been attending to the substance of Steve’s argument. He has just delivered his thoughts on the question of national character. ‘I must make clear, right at the outset,’ he has said, ‘that I don’t want any of the texts that we’ll be reading explained by a woolly reference to national character, as though that’s a fixed and mysterious essence that we all more or less understand. The Irish have suffered more than most from the stereotypes that other people have imposed on them. Like all national stereotypes, they tell us more about the prejudices of those who use them than about the Irish themselves.’ He sounds genuinely indignant, and one or two remember that Steve is Jewish, which might account for his fellow feeling with another racially stereotyped group. He removes his glasses to massage the bridge of his nose and in that pause of temporary sightlessness he fails to see Phoebe, who is already bobbing excitedly up and down in her chair. His sight restored, Steve returns to his argument. ‘We’ve already had a contribution to that effect, of course. We used to see the Irish as commercially backward and God-fearing, one or both due to some flaw in the national character. Now, the Republic at any rate is an economic model for the rest of Europe and one of its coolest holiday destinations. Meanwhile, revelations of child abuse have undermined the hold of the Church in less than a generation. So, characteristics that once seemed fixed are vulnerable to changing circumstances.’ Phoebe finally explodes: ‘Oh, but the Irish are special and, like, different?’ Steve has been intermittently aware of her throughout the session, although so far he has restrained himself from showing annoyance. There is a general air of noise and bustle about her that suggests, to his trained eye, someone with poor concentration. Her chair seems to scrape every time she moves, which is a good deal more often than others find necessary. She has spent most of the class so far trying, and rejecting, a series of pens that are kept in an enormous carpet bag; and each time one is replaced by another, the bag is dragged from floor to lap and back again. And in the gaps allowed by her fidgeting, she has made a series of attempts – all, so far, unsuccessful – to engage the girl next to her in whispered conversation. Now, however, all her efforts are concentrated on developing her argument. ‘I mean, we all, like, know that the Irish are spiritual and charming and fantastic story-tellers, which is why they’re such brilliant writers? Why is that a stereotype? It’s, like, common sense? And if we need a reason for it, surely it’s because they’re Celts? And the Celts are amazingly imaginative and sensitive. And surely they have an oral tradition? You know what I mean?’ While she’s speaking, the ripples of amusement throughout the room suggest that her views are known and affectionately tolerated. Steve takes in her long, crinkly red hair, pale freckled face and light blue eyes. She could be Irish or, since her accent – English public school overlaid by London demotic – doesn’t suggest that, of Irish descent. Whatever her racial identity, however, she favours a Camden Market ethnicity in dress. A sheepskin Afghan coat, which must take real dedication to wear on such a close, muggy day, is slung over the back of her chair, while a flowing Indian print dress, decorated with quantities of beads, scarves and silver bangles, covers her soft, full figure. Steve’s own particular brand of Irish romance (though it’s a term he’s reluctant to use), rooted as it is in historical reality, makes him particularly hostile to the one so aptly embodied in this flabby, messily eclectic girl. ‘It’s as well Phoebe doesn’t realise she’s just made his point for him,’ Nick says to Pete. ‘She’s told him pretty much everything he needs to know about her.’ ‘He’s wondering whether he’s got an alien in the class,’ Pete whispers back. ‘Phoebe will challenge his rationalism, if anybody can.’ What’s challenging Steve about Phoebe, however, is the niggling sense that he knows her from a different context. Then he remembers the scene under the chestnut tree and places her as the Dionysian figure in the summer dress, with the wreath of daisies in her hair, holding the jug of Pimm’s. The picturesque stillness of that moment, snatched from time and larger circumstance, evaporates in the human reality of this girl, who is mouthing clichés as though nobody has thought of them before. When he replies, he ignores Phoebe and addresses the group more generally. ‘The Celtic origins of Ireland were so distorted and sentimentalised in the nineteenth century that they exist for us as myth rather than useful historical reality.’ While he is speaking, however, he thinks of the other girl, who claimed his attention for herself, not as an element in a larger picture, beautiful in any setting, her face enlivened more by thought than by the occasion. He glances quickly round the room, to see if she, too, is there, and as his eyes come to rest on her, the girl next to Phoebe, who has been keeping her head down, resisting her companion’s attempts to distract her, looks up. She is unmistakably the girl in the black jeans and white T-shirt. His eyes meet hers and, at this closer range, he sees their clear, dark blue, set in a small face of perfect symmetry. He notices, as he did before, a remarkable self-possession; that she is unusual in being able to look at another person without smiling. She seems to him complete and apart, isolated from the commonplace reality around her. The difference between her and Phoebe is so marked, the one so grossly material, the other light and ethereal, that they could belong to different species. Before she lowers her eyes he tries to read their expression but finds it unfathomable. Steve’s total disengagement is broken abruptly by another student, a fierce-looking girl with many-studded ears. ‘Could I take us back to a point you made just a minute ago – about child abuse among priests weakening the power of the Catholic Church? I’d say that you were taking too rosy a view of modern Ireland in implying that all that – the power of the Church and of patriarchy generally – is now in the past when Irish women are still denied the right to abortion.’ Emma Leigh is a notable feminist, women’s officer in the union and scourge of any lecturer who fails to give due prominence to the female perspective. Startled out of his reverie Steve, who prides himself on his sharpness and speed in argument, finds it difficult to adjust to the change in topic. When his brain clears, he is immediately irritated by the stridency of this young woman, so different from the stillness and quiet of the other, whom he has been contemplating with such pleasure. That doesn’t stop her being right, of course. All his life he has been a champion of women’s rights, but her intervention suddenly seems like a meaningless cliché when set against his own recent experience of Ireland. Forcing himself to look at Emma, who is sitting back in her chair – smirking with satisfaction, it seems to him, at having landed a punch – he says, ‘I don’t think that’s an issue that can be discussed without considering the full complexity of modern Ireland.’ His manner is dismissive, one that he perfected early in his career for crushing older colleagues, who were forced, often against their better judgement, to concede that he knew more than they did. Emma, although silenced for now, doesn’t conceal her outrage, and may well prove a tougher opponent than the likes of Rowe. And although most of the group are relieved by this reprieve from Emma’s agenda, which has been known to dominate entire sessions, some see that Steve has been wrong-footed, that in failing to give modest support to Emma’s views, he has violated his own known principles. Are they to take it that he is always right, even when he is wrong? Smiling now, as though aware that he has lost ground, Steve says, ‘I suggest that we turn aside from these general observations, seductive though they are, and look at the first text on your syllabus, Swift’s Modest Proposal, published in 1729 – or, to give it its full title, A Modest Proposal for Preventing the Children of poor People inIreland, from being a Burden to their Parents or Country; and for making them beneficial to the Public. All beginnings are arbitrary, of course, but for me Swift marks the start of an authentic tradition of Irish writing in English.’ On the subject of Swift, their first writer, and Swift’s famous essay, their first text, Steve becomes particularly animated. When Pete asks whether Swift, a member of the Protestant Ascendancy, was ‘really’ Irish, Steve replies, ‘It’s difficult to say what he “really” was, just as it isn’t always easy to decide what he “really” thought, because he occupied some kind of boundary between competing versions of reality. On the one hand he was an Anglican clergyman who tried to gain preference in London, to be close to the centre of power. On the other, his experience of Ireland made him an increasingly robust critic of English policy there. Like a number of Anglo-Irish writers – Beckett, Wilde, Yeats – he was a master of assumed identities and used them to destabilise the reader’s sense of reality within the text.’ Some of these contradictions belong to Steve too: he craves to be at the centre, where the action is, yet has made his reputation by championing the marginal and silenced. Unlike Swift, who was born in Ireland, he has no claim to an Irish identity, yet speaks as though he alone can get beyond the disfiguring stereotypes to an understanding of the ‘real’ Ireland, even though he rejects the validity of such a concept on theoretical grounds. There follows a brief discussion on whether Swift was mad – Phoebe remembers a television programme to that effect – and on his persistent use of irony, ably led by Nick Bailey, who shows welcome signs of intelligence. As Nick is speaking, Steve recognises him, and his friend Pete, as members of the group under the chestnut tree, and tries to resist the temptation to speculate on their relationship with ‘his’ girl, who still hasn’t spoken, though she smiles when Pete takes over from Nick the lead in discussion. ‘I really like the way he softens you up,’ says Pete. ‘The voice or speaker or whatever he is goes on about how sorry he is for the Irish and how they can’t feed their children and there’s no work for them, and he’s come up with a solution for making the children useful.’ Steve nods. ‘“Sound and useful members of the Commonwealth” is the ideal proposed.’ ‘Right,’ says Pete. ‘And you think he’s going to come up with some kind of light, clean industry – children did work at this time, didn’t they? – maybe with some kind of government investment, and instead he suggests that as soon as they’re a year old, and won’t be, like, breast-fed any more, Irish babies should be eaten.’ ‘Why babies?’ Steve asks. ‘Well, I suppose you wouldn’t fancy them when they’re any older,’ Pete replies. ‘He says that fourteen-year-old boys would be a bit stringy.’ When the laughter has died down, a girl Steve hasn’t noticed before – small, with dark, curly hair and, Steve thinks, what children’s books used to describe as a ‘merry’ look, the kind of girl who is usually the heroine’s confidante – takes the audacious step of topping Pete’s remark: ‘But at least they’d be organic.’ Instead of just laughing with the rest, Pete beams his appreciation at Annie Price, whose remark will be remembered as one of the highlights of the course. Their paths haven’t crossed much before, but each recognises in the other a kindred spirit and their partnership will be one of the success stories of the year. Then, just as Steve thinks that the class will be over before ‘his’ girl has spoken, she intervenes in a way that alters the course of the discussion. ‘Surely we’re outraged because babies are so vulnerable,’ she says, and as she speaks two little spots of colour rise to her cheeks. There is an awkward sincerity about her, as though it requires effort for her to speak so publicly, but she’s been driven to it by her concern for babies. Steve notices none of this, however, or that the self-possession he’s attributed to her isn’t total. What is electrifying is her accent, which is immediately identifiable as Northern Irish; and Steve, who is the least superstitious of men, has the strange and elating sense that fate has intervened on his behalf. What he’d really like to do is end the session now, take her off and find out everything about her, but instead he nods enthusiastically and says, ‘It is outrageous, of course, you’re right to remind us of that, and the more so because it’s shockingly funny. I’m sorry, you didn’t introduce yourself…’ ‘Nora. Nora Doyle,’ the girl says, looking at him levelly without smiling. There is a suspended moment of silence throughout the room as they observe Steve’s reaction. It’s known that Steve is writing a book about Joyce, and that Joyce’s wife, Nora, was the model for Molly Bloom. And although barely a handful of them have read Ulysses, more have read Molly Bloom’s notorious soliloquy, whose scatological preoccupations couldn’t be further from what they know of the demure and reserved Nora Doyle. Steve acknowledges the connection with a raised eyebrow and a smile. ‘It’s good to have an Irish member of the class. You must be sure to keep us all on our toes.’ At this point Emma weighs in with the claim that no woman would write about the eating of babies, even with satirical intent. And while Steve could point out that such unfounded assertions are inappropriate in academic discourse, he privately acknowledges that, outside this rarefied field, she’s probably right, and lets it ride, hoping that indulging her in this instance will go some way to placating her. ‘Killing babies is about the most transgressive of all human acts,’ says Nick, ‘but surely the whole point of this piece is that the Irish are described as though they’re animals, of a different species, and it’s a small step from that to see them as a saleable, and edible, commodity.’ ‘That’s right,’ says Steve, oblivious of his own recent, private relegation of Phoebe to a different species from Nora. ‘What’s interesting is that the speaker seems initially to be complicit in the way the English, or the Protestant Ascendancy, view the Irish, but then manages to turn the argument against them by taking their attitude to its logical conclusion. He’s saying, in effect, that you might as well be eating them for all the effort you’re making to keep them alive. And, of course, history tells us – I’m thinking here of the Holocaust or apartheid – that the persistent use of animal imagery creates a climate where those others can be treated in any way that the ruling hegemony sees fit.’ Then, just when he’s on the point of dismissing them, Nora speaks again, but this time she is almost playful; he wonders whether she is teasing him. ‘I hope we shan’t be seeing the Irish as victims of the English all the time,’ she says. Steve is surprised, forced to confront the unwelcome possibility that, despite her name, she might be Protestant. ‘Unfortunately that has been the history of the two countries.’ ‘Just as long as we acknowledge that the process we’ve just been discussing isn’t all in one direction. It’s true that the Irish haven’t had the opportunity to oppress the English, but they might take a certain comfort in seeing them as animals.’ Then before he has framed a reply, she says, ‘I don’t suppose that the IRA bomber sees – or saw, if the peace process holds – his victims as human beings with the same capacity for suffering as himself.’ Relieved, Steve says, ‘None of us would argue with that, although we still have a responsibility to investigate the cause of the violence.’ As he finishes speaking, he gives a nod of dismissal, turns away from the class and walks over to the window. He is not quite as absorbed in his own thoughts as he seems: he is aware of his students packing up their bags, pulling on jackets and forming into groups as they drift out of the room. He turns to face Nora as she, too, makes her way between the seats. ‘I just wanted to repeat what I said earlier,’ he said, ‘that it’s good to have an authentically Irish member of the class. At least, I assume you’re the only one, unless there are others who are keeping their heads down.’ ‘I wouldn’t know,’ she says, attentive but not smiling. Steve realises that, although he has seen her smile, she hasn’t yet smiled at him, and wonders how long he’ll have to wait for that. ‘I’ve come into contact with most people in the group, but not everybody. And there are what you might call the London Irish, like Nick.’ ‘We don’t get a large number of Irish students here, though there are a few. May I ask what brought you?’ ‘Oh, this and that. You know.’ ‘You thought you’d spread your wings?’ ‘Something like that.’ This is much harder work for Steve than the class he’s just given, but he persists none the less. ‘Well, we’re honoured. These are exciting times in Northern Ireland. You must feel you’re missing out.’ ‘You mean with the Assembly and all?’ ‘Well, yes. You are in favour of what’s going on?’ Nora hesitates briefly and, when she speaks, chooses her words with care: ‘My family’s Catholic. On the whole, Catholics are more likely to support the Good Friday Agreement.’ Steve smiles his relief, although he is puzzled by the form her reply takes, as though she is at pains to give as little information as is consistent with candour. ‘I thought as much. Your name, I suppose. It tends to be something of a giveaway in Ireland.’ ‘Well. Certainly according to Seamus Heaney it does, though I’ve never been stopped by an RUC man.’ ‘No, I suppose not. Young women aren’t usually thought to pose the same kind of threat as young men.’ Finding nothing else to say, and uncomfortable at her reluctance to volunteer any information about herself – a rare characteristic in his experience of young people – Steve releases her. ‘Well, I’ll see you next week.’ He watches her leave the room and notices that Phoebe Metcalfe is just outside the door, waiting for her. Not for the first time he wonders at the friendships formed by students and remembers some of the people he has had to avoid since Oxford. He gives them time to move on – he wouldn’t put it past Phoebe to waylay him and offer him her views on the little people – before picking up his helmet and satchel and leaving. Half an hour later, Phoebe, Nora and Nick are seated at a Formica table in Marco and Gianna’s, the local Italian coffee bar. Usually Pete would be with them, but when last seen he had given them a distracted wave as he chatted up Annie Price. They are all drinking cappuccinos, and Phoebe, having declared herself to be ‘sinking’ with hunger, is eating a large cinnamon Danish that her friends have declined to share. ‘So, what did he want?’ Phoebe asks Nora, not for the first time, but now that they’re seated Nora can hardly evade the question. Phoebe’s learned from experience that Nora will give away as little as possible without appearing eccentric, and so attracting an even more unwelcome degree of attention; persistent questioning usually produces some result, however grudging. Nora takes time to form her reply. Her manner, as so often, suggests someone much older. ‘He wanted to make sure that I was a Catholic.’ Phoebe’s round face, pink now from the coffee and the steaminess of the atmosphere, puckers in bewilderment. With Nick and Nora she often seems like a child, puzzling out the ways of the adult world. ‘But why? He doesn’t strike me as someone who cares about religion. Is he going to ask all of us? Is that allowed?’ ‘It’s because he doesn’t want the embarrassment, some way into the term, of finding out that he has a wicked Ulster Protestant in his midst,’ explains Nick. ‘But why does it matter?’ ‘Because it would be politically compromising for him to single out Nora as a favoured student, then find that she was on the wrong side.’ ‘But what does politics have to do with religion?’ Phoebe asks, but before either of them can answer, says, ‘On second thoughts, don’t bother. I wish he’d stop banging on about it, whatever. I thought this was meant to be a literature course.’ ‘Everything is political for Steve, but when he comes to Ireland he happens to be right.’ Nick is watching Nora as he says this, but she is staring absently into the remains of her cappuccino. Like Steve, he has given some thought to the nature of Nora’s friendship with Phoebe, and thinks he has arrived at a partial explanation. Phoebe, for all her questions, is fundamentally incurious. As on this occasion, she dismisses any information that is incompatible with her worldview. He judges that this suits Nora well. In the year he’s known her she’s been persistently evasive about her background – remarkably so, given that her accent immediately identifies her as coming from one of the few parts of the United Kingdom that impinges on everybody’s consciousness. She is sometimes eager, as she was in today’s class, to express a view on Ireland, often with the implied suggestion that the English fail to understand it, then seems to regret drawing attention to herself. Always her opinions on Ireland are cast in strictly impersonal terms, as though she has arrived at an opinion through studying the subject rather than as a result of experience. As far as he can remember, she has never volunteered an anecdote about her childhood or parents, the kind of stuff that’s common currency among students who, in the early days of friendship, like to define and establish who they are. When such occasions arise, and members of a group try to outdo each other with stories of an outrageous parent or eccentric upbringing (for everything is exaggerated in the interests of glamour), Nora falls silent, or turns the conversation, or makes an excuse to leave. It’s as though she’s afraid of being found out. There is some discussion between them about whether Nora can’t or won’t talk about herself. Pete has always subscribed to the view that Nora doesn’t choose to talk, that she preserves her mystery so that they (the men particularly) can project their fantasies on to her. If she were known to have had a conventional middle-class background, albeit in a different place, she would be like the rest of them, apart from her extraordinary looks, of course. Nick isn’t so sure. Within the limits she has set herself, Nora is often touchingly eager to please, almost too compliant to other people’s wishes – a characteristic that Phoebe has been quick to spot and ready to exploit. He thinks that Nora is genuinely inhibited, but by what he hasn’t yet decided. Privately – because in a gossipy environment like a university where any hint of the glamorous, subversive or criminal is immediately seized upon and enlarged – he’s speculated about an IRA connection. It’s difficult to imagine Nora actively involved, but her conformity to the role of model citizen and outstanding student – like him, she gained a first in her first-year exams – would be the perfect cover. On the other hand, the revulsion she sometimes expresses against terrorism could be genuine. Sometimes he thinks that her adaptability, her unwillingness to impose her will, might indicate that she’s been a victim of aggression; that she’s used to keeping her head down. Whatever the cause, it’s thought that she never goes home and, as far as he knows, she spent the entire summer working in a hotel in Devon, presumably to help pay her way through college. He wonders what it would be like to have a relationship with her. The idea certainly appeals, but she seems to be as inhibited about sex as about everything else, and Nick is so used to girls who leave no room to doubt their willingness that he’s not sure how he would begin to break down her reserve. Putting aside for the moment thoughts about that particular reserve, Nick decides to chance his luck with a direct question about Ireland. ‘So tell me, Nora, how, in your opinion as an insider, did Steve tackle the Irish question?’ She turns her head judiciously to one side, exactly as she might, he thinks, if she were marshalling an argument for an essay or a class presentation. It occurs to him for the first time that, although she never draws attention to her successes, she is most at ease with academic discourse, as though she has developed that side of her character at the expense of the rest. ‘He talks a lot about stereotypes, and how they tell us nothing about the country, only about the prejudices of those who subscribe to them, but he has all the prejudices about the Irish of the liberal London intelligentsia – how we’re all victims and it’s all the fault of empire, as though there’s no such thing as personal responsibility and morality. Irish Catholics are all angels, and all the others are now animals. He’s just turned the traditional model on its head.’ He wants to ask her, ‘Then what, for Christ’s sake, is the reality, or your reality?’ but knowing that will get him nowhere, says, ‘In his own way, Steve’s an old romantic. He may subscribe to a cool, post-structuralist approach, but you could see that he fancies himself as a bit of a Swift – an outsider who uses his mordant wit and superior intelligence to see further and deeper than an insider.’ ‘I don’t think he’s at all romantic,’ says Phoebe. ‘I’d heard so much about him that I was expecting something more…’ Unable to find the word she wants, she lifts her arms, then drops them to express her disappointment, only just missing, in their cramped surroundings, the empty cups and plate on the table. ‘I thought he was a bit of a cold fish.’ ‘So what was he like – close up and personal, I mean?’ asks Nick. ‘He looked older,’ Nora says. ‘Tired, as though a couple of hours’ work had exhausted him.’ ‘I suppose he’s getting on a bit. It’s hard for ageing rebels like him to know what to do with themselves, with younger generations yapping at their heels. Do they go back on everything they’ve believed in, like those Old Labour people trying to look comfortable in a New Labour government? Or do they find a new cause for themselves? I guess that’s why he’s taken on Ireland. At the moment it’s sexier than Marxism, but I’d say he’s a bit of a latecomer to the game. Wouldn’t you, Nora?’ Nora merely shrugs, as though she’s reached the limit with this particular conversation. What she doesn’t say is that, throughout the session, Steve kept reminding her of her father. She doesn’t say it because she hasn’t yet found a way to talk about home, and to explain the resemblance she would have to tell her entire family history. Ballypierce (#ulink_c209da3b-1559-5cf1-a634-6a7608655bf3) Nora’s earliest precise memory is of a day shortly before the birth of her brother. She remembers that the baby’s imminence hung in the air that afternoon, charging the atmosphere and releasing in her father a restless energy. Always a boastful man, his pride in himself, and in her, seemed to know no bounds. And while she is sure, without having a clear memory of them, that there were other, similar occasions before that afternoon, she knows that there were none afterwards. This, she thinks, is why she remembers the afternoon so clearly, that it marked the end of an era: with Felix’s birth, another, altogether different, phase in their lives began. She remembers sitting on the counter in her father’s shop, surrounded by a group of admiring men. The pretext for her being there was that her mother needed to rest. Her father had come home for lunch, as he was in the habit of doing when it was just the three of them, leaving in charge one of the succession of young women that he had working for him. His routine was sufficiently established for people to know not to take in their prescriptions over the dinner hour, when many of the other shops, which couldn’t afford extra help, closed. Her mother had told him that the midwife had called, that her blood pressure was up again and she needed rest. ‘Will I take the wee girl back with me, Bernie?’ he had asked. ‘Since when have you needed my permission?’ her mother had replied. It was acknowledged between the three of them that she and her father were a team, and while her mother boasted of this to her acquaintance – the degree of interest that Gerald took in his four-year-old daughter was sufficiently unusual to arouse the envy of other women – her resentment at being excluded sometimes surfaced at home. Nora was hoping that the baby would be a boy, not for herself or her father, who were perfectly content, but for her mother. She and the baby boy would then form another self-contained team and the family would be perfectly balanced. So Gerald took her back with him and she spent the first hour or so sitting at a little desk that Gerald had rigged up for her in the corner, drawing and doing a few sums that he had set her. Really, this was only marking time until a sufficient crowd had gathered, mostly other shopkeepers who had left their wives, now released from kitchen duties, in charge while they slipped out for half an hour. Without understanding at that point precisely why, she knew that it was a mark of her father’s importance that his shop acted as a magnet for men with time on their hands during the slow, early-afternoon hours before the schools were out. Ballypierce was a largely nationalist town where incomes were low and trade rarely buoyant. But Gerald, who had grown up and gone to school with many of the other traders, was a great man among them, a pharmacist who had gone to Belfast to study. They could leave their shops, but he had to stay at his post to make up prescriptions, apart from the hour dedicated to lunch, when he insisted on a home-cooked meal. He was one of the few whose family didn’t live above the shop, having chosen instead a new bungalow, built to architect’s specifications on a hill at the edge of the town with a view over the valley. The flat above the shop was let so he was a landlord in addition to his professional status. People might not have jobs but they still became ill and needed medicines that the Health Service funded so, whatever else was happening, the Doyles were always comfortable. And Gerald, instead of joining the Protestants at the golf course or sailing club, as he was entitled to, had stayed one of them, always ready for good craic, always pleased to see an old friend who dropped in. By comparison with others in the town, his shop was like a palace, with large plate-glass windows on both sides of the door, all the fittings built to the highest standards, always sweetly smelling from the soaps and perfumes and ladies’ cosmetics, and gleamingly clean, because Gerald insisted on the highest standards of hygiene and had been known to sack a girl whose hair always looked unwashed. And when the party was under way, Gerald would send his assistant into the little kitchenette to make them all cups of tea. That afternoon Nora was lifted on to the counter, the one with the little room behind it where Gerald made up his prescriptions. She was wearing a navy blue smocked Viyella dress with matching tights – Gerald had requested that Bernie change her before they left – and her hair was tied back into a tight ponytail. When Gerald had started this routine, as soon as she could walk and talk and had no need of nappies, she would recite a few nursery rhymes or count to a specified number, but since he had taught her to read she was always required to show off her current level of attainment. That afternoon she read from a simplified picture-book version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. ‘You’re a great girl, so you are,’ said Malachy McGready, the greengrocer. ‘It’s no wonder your daddy’s so proud of you. But if he gives you books like this to read, you’ll start to think you’re a wee Brit. You won’t find many Susans and Edmunds around here.’ Gerald gave a satisfied little smirk, having come prepared for just this rebuke. ‘Don’t you know who C. S. Lewis was?’ he asked. ‘Your man was born in Belfast and ended up a professor at Oxford.’ This was greeted with smiles all round, not so much that one of their own (they were by no means convinced that a man who wrote like this could be so described) had achieved so much in the wider world but because Gerald had outmanoeuvred them yet again. These afternoon gatherings, whether Nora was present or not, were not so much exchanges between equals, as enactments and affirmations of Gerald Doyle’s superiority, and if he had ever been caught out or bettered, they would have felt keen disappointment. Malachy’s scepticism was, none the less, a necessary component of the drama. ‘Is that what you’re after for the little lady here – for her to be a professor at Oxford? What’s wrong with Queen’s, or Trinity, if she must leave home?’ ‘I want the best for her, and she deserves it. And if when the time comes the best is still Oxford, then we’ll have to make the sacrifice.’ As he spoke, Gerald looked down fondly at Nora, who sat swinging her legs and munching a biscuit. ‘But tell me, Gerald, your man, Lewis,’ said Malachy, who had picked up the discarded book and was peering at it to make sure that he had the name right, ‘would I be right in thinking he was a Protestant?’ ‘Well, you would, of course. How many Catholics do you suppose went from here to Oxford before the war?’ There was that in Gerald’s manner of a man who is playing a game so elaborate that his opponent, at the moment of thinking he has caught him out, finds himself the victim of superior strategy. Gerald’s air of victory took no account of his having ignored the drift of Malachy’s argument. Then, with a sudden shift of tactics, he addressed the point that Malachy had been labouring. ‘You want to know why I give Nora stuff like this to read? Because it’s what the children of the ruling classes read, and if you want them to get on in that world, you give them a head start. Rather than have her, at forty, feeling aggrieved at the way the world has treated her, I want her out there with the best of them, showing what can be done.’ A number of them felt mildly rebuked by this, but they would no more have thought of challenging him than they would a geometric theorem or a doctor’s diagnosis. Gerald loved imparting information, surprising people, overturning their expectations; and while he needed a patsy like Malachy in order to shine, none of them was prepared to risk losing his goodwill and, with it, the dim reflection of his glory that touched them as welcome members of his circle. They enjoyed the sense of inclusion that allowed them, later, to say to a wife or customer, ‘Gerald Doyle was saying to me only the other day…’ Besides, they believed, because he had told them, that his was the voice of science, reason and progress, and they were all reluctant to pit themselves against these mysterious forces. If he seemed more than usually pleased with himself that day, they put it down to the imminently expected baby, and were prepared to indulge him. ‘The teachers will have their work cut out when she starts school,’ said Liam Doherty, who owned the best of the nationalist bars. ‘You haven’t left them much to teach her.’ ‘It’s a problem, right enough,’ said Gerald. On this particular point, if on no other, he was prepared to acknowledge himself baffled. ‘But there, I almost forgot. I’ve been looking into Shakespeare with her, and her memory’s prodigious. Come on, darling,’ he said to Nora, as he lifted her down from the counter and gestured to his companions to clear a space around her. ‘Show us how you do Shylock.’ Nora composed herself briefly, then stretched our her arms and recited, ‘“I am a Jew. Hath not a Jew eyes? Hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? Fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die? And if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”’ After the first two short, monosyllabic sentences, this was delivered in the chanting monotone of small children reciting prayers that are beyond their understanding – a style that she had learned not from Gerald or from her mother but at the little nursery she attended in the mornings, where prayers were part of the routine. Then, after a look of encouragement from her father, she shifted her position, hunching her shoulders into a forward stoop and holding out her right hand in a grasping gesture. ‘O my ducats, O my daughter, O my ducats, O my daughter,’ she growled, with as much depth, intensity and malice as she could muster. When she had finished, she ran over to her father and clutched him round the knees. Her audience was genuinely speechless, not sure what to make of her performance, for all its precociousness. As was customary, it was Malachy who found a way of expressing their doubts: ‘This Shylock,’ he said tentatively, ‘wasn’t he a fellow?’ Gerald nodded. ‘The Jewish moneylender. The first Jew in literature, when writers weren’t afraid to tell the truth.’ ‘She says it bravely,’ said Malachy. ‘I doubt there’s another girl her age who could match her. But were there no girls’ parts you could teach her?’ Gerald nodded slowly. ‘I looked into it, of course, but most of the young girls in his plays are only interested in love and such like and I didn’t want her head filled with that kind of nonsense. Now Portia’s different, of course. I tried her out with the “quality of mercy” speech, but there were words that even she couldn’t get her tongue round, and you have to be careful with a child like this not to tax the brain with more than it can handle.’ There were murmurs of approval for Gerald’s commendable fatherly concern. These he stilled by raising a warning finger. ‘But don’t make any mistake about it,’ he said, ‘They can’t learn soon enough how the world works.’ ‘You want her to know about the Jews?’ asked Liam, doubtfully. This struck all of them as an entirely unnecessary lesson. As Irish Catholics, they had never questioned the received wisdom that Jews were treacherous, money-grubbing and only out for themselves. On the other hand, none of them had ever met a Jew, or was likely to do so. ‘I want her to learn something much more useful than that,’ said Gerald, who was, as usual, a step ahead of them. ‘I want her to realise that, not just in this instance but in almost everything you could name, people’s instincts are being suppressed by those who think they know better. Now, take the Jews.’ ‘I’d rather not, thank you,’ said Tom O’Neill, the butcher, raising the biggest laugh of the afternoon. ‘Very well, then. Take Shakespeare and the Jews. Now, the English are only too ready to accept what he has to say about England – all that jingoistic nonsense about sceptred isles and brave English soldiers throwing themselves into the breach, without knowing that he was more or less forced to write it, but they don’t want to hear what he says about Jews. And yet the man was ahead of his time. He said – you heard the girl – that they’re not animals, they’re human beings, like the rest of us. They bleed, they laugh and all the rest of it. I’ll go along with that. But – and it’s an important “but” – revenge matters as much to them as food and drink, and they don’t have the same feelings for their flesh and blood as we do. His daughter runs away, and all he can think about are his ducats. But you’re not allowed to say that any more, not in England or the States. No, I just want her to learn to respect the evidence and to be fearless in saying what she knows to be right. That’s all. The Jews are incidental, they’re just an example.’ Signalling that the session was over for the afternoon, he lifted Nora up and held her, legs dangling, face on a level with his, as if he were displaying her. ‘And I want her to know that she’s more precious to her Daddy than anything else in the world, even ducats. Especially ducats.’ There was no doubt that they made an appealing picture – Gerald fresh-faced, well-tended (it was rumoured that he took home some of the lotions and creams from the shop for his own skin, and that he needed a wife at home all the time to iron the shirts that he insisted on wearing, clean, every day), dressed in the finest tweed, linen and leather, a man in the prime of life, and Nora as dainty and delicate as a little fairy. ‘And what if the next one’s a boy?’ ‘It’ll make no difference. There isn’t a boy who can match her.’ Nora’s companion memory to what was to be the last occasion when her father took her to the shop with him to demonstrate her cleverness fell within days of the first. The two stand side by side, an end followed by a beginning. Everything about that second day was different, from the moment she woke up and sensed an alteration in the sounds of the house. Still in her pyjamas, she wandered through into the kitchen where her mother would be preparing the breakfast – hers to be eaten at the kitchen table, her father’s to be placed on a tray and carried through to him in the bedroom. Instead of her mother, however, there was Mrs Daly from next door, a woman of late middle age, whose children had grown and left home, moving about and, as she described it, making herself useful. ‘Now, pet, you mustn’t fret,’ she said. ‘Your daddy’s taken your mummy into the hospital, and when she comes home, please, God, she’ll have a new wee brother or sister for you. Now, what would you like for your breakfast? Will I cook you an egg or fry you a rasher?’ Nora sat and spooned cereal into her mouth while Mrs Daly pushed a cloth over the work surfaces in a show of activity. She wondered how her mother felt about having another woman in her kitchen. She knew her to be ill at ease with her neighbours in this most select area of the town and that she suspected Mrs Daly, who had time on her hands and an imagination actively engaged in the lives of others, of a tendency to snoop. Bernie often said that her neighbours regarded her as fortunate, not just because they lived so well but also because, as an exceptionally pretty young woman, she had caught Gerald’s eye when she had come to work as an assistant at the pharmacy. And she suspected that ‘fortunate’ carried connotations of something in excess of what she deserved. Convinced that everybody around her was looking for evidence against her, she was an anxious, if unenthusiastic housekeeper, and kept her family, modest country people of whom she was now ashamed, at a distance. There was to be no nursery this morning, and Mrs Daly was clearly relieved when, after breakfast, Nora demonstrated that she was quite capable of amusing herself. Although she wasn’t very good at playing with toys, she had other resources, and after she had spent some time drawing and looking through books, she put on her rubber boots and jacket and wandered round the garden while Mrs Daly sat with yesterday’s newspaper at the picture window in the lounge, keeping an eye on her. At this time Gerald took considerable pride in his garden, which deteriorated sadly in the years that followed, and Nora, in her progress, named the shrubs and bulbs that were in flower, as her father had taught her: magnolia, viburnum, the quince-bearing japonica and daffodils. The daffodils were a concession to popular taste, as represented by Bernie: for himself, Gerald favoured those plants that his neighbours couldn’t identify when they passed the time of day with him while he was working in the garden. Nora talked to herself as she padded through the damp grass, conducting an endless conversation in her head – a habit that persisted with her into young adulthood. She was growing hungry and thinking it must nearly be lunchtime when she noticed that Mrs Daly was no longer at her post by the window. Assuming that the old woman must be preparing something for her to eat, she went back into the house, took off her boots as she had been trained and, without putting her indoor shoes back on, passed through the central corridor in the bungalow to the kitchen, which was at the front of the house facing the street. The architect whom they had consulted after buying their plot of land had convinced Bernie that, with his design, she would have a livelier time while she was working, but she had always felt exposed in there and had come to resent his advice. Just before she reached the kitchen, Nora heard voices, those of Mrs Daly and another woman, who seemed to be telling her something. They were speaking softly, but there was an undertow of excitement; suspecting that they would stop if she joined them, Nora hovered outside the door, which was ajar, as though someone had gone to close it without checking that it had held. ‘Lord love us,’ she heard Mrs Daly say. ‘Who would have expected such a thing?’ ‘It can happen to anybody,’ the other woman replied. ‘But the Doyles, of all people,’ said Mrs Daly. Then she used a word that sounded to Nora like ‘gerbil’. They didn’t have pets, but Nora had once seen a gerbil when she had gone to play with Katy, a girl who lived in one of the neighbouring houses. It was a little rat-like creature in a cage, and when Katy had lifted it out, petted and kissed it, the sight had sickened her and she had refused all subsequent invitations to play. Why would Mrs Daly bring gerbils into a conversation about her family? But then, as the women continued, it seemed that they were talking about her mother’s new baby. Trembling, she crept away down the corridor and, not knowing what else to do, put her boots and coat back on and went out again into the garden. She didn’t feel hungry any more so she sat huddled on the bench wondering what to do. She felt numb with cold and misery but never considered approaching Mrs Daly for comfort or enlightenment. She had already absorbed some of her parents’ pride and touchy reserve about anything that might reflect less than well on them, so she had no intention of letting the two women, whose presence in her house she now deeply resented, see her fear, shame and bewilderment. She didn’t want them to know that she had overheard their conversation, so she sat there and hugged to herself the horrific possibilities that the word ‘gerbil’ had unleashed. Nora stayed in the garden until Mrs Daly, with a great show of bustle and concern, came out to get her. ‘Whatever can you be thinking of, pet, to stay out here for so long, catching your death?’ Nora knew that, in the grand scheme of things, it was Mrs Daly’s task to call her in, and that she had suddenly woken up to the time she had allowed to pass while she was gossiping in the kitchen with a woman who had no business being there anyway. ‘Now, you come inside and warm yourself up while I make you a bit of dinner. I’ve had a wee look and there’s sausages, ham, fish fingers, soup. You just tell me what you’d like.’ She allowed herself to be led into the house, but eluded all Mrs Daly’s attempts to take her by the hand. When they reached the kitchen the other woman had already left, as Nora had suspected would be the case. She sat, composed and docile, at the kitchen table, while Mrs Daly heated some soup and toasted bread for them both, and although her appetite had not returned, she forced herself to eat a few mouthfuls. More than anything, she didn’t want Mrs Daly to know that she had heard the word ‘gerbil’, as though the word itself had a special power and the mere act of saying it might bring into being what she most feared. She felt sure that, if the subject were raised, Mrs Daly would smother her with a pity she didn’t really feel, for what she had picked up from the overheard conversation wasn’t concern but relish in other people’s misfortune. Besides, she was trying to convince herself that what she had heard was a mistake. Nothing was real unless her father told her it was so, and she remembered now her father’s poor opinion of women like Mrs Daly, whom he described as ignorant and superstitious, and on one occasion had had to explain to her what he meant by ‘forces of darkness’ when something that had upset her mother was being discussed. When her father came back from the hospital Mrs Daly, who seemed to Nora to be swelling with importance, would wither and disappear back into her house. In the middle of the afternoon, while Nora was doing her best to occupy herself in her bedroom, the telephone rang. She heard the kitchen door close before Mrs Daly answered it. Then, shortly afterwards, it rang again, and after that it seemed that it never stopped. Finally Mrs Daly appeared at her bedroom door and said, ‘That was your father, pet. They’re waiting for an ambulance to bring them back from the hospital. Then they’ll all be home.’ Nora nodded. It seemed that the baby had indeed been born, but Mrs Daly was volunteering no information about it. ‘Will you come and sit with me?’ ‘I’m fine, thank you.’ When, shortly afterwards, she heard the bustle of arrival at the front door, Nora went and sat on the floor, her back to the wall, waiting to be called. There were sounds of movement, and strangers’ voices, and then she heard Mrs Daly say, ‘The Lord love him, the poor wee boy. But they do say they bring luck to a house.’ ‘They do, do they? Well, I suppose “they” would know, whoever they happen to be,’ said her father. ‘And who told you anyway? Did I say anything to you about this baby?’ ‘Well, Mary Donovan popped in. She has a friend, a nurse at the hospital who—’ ‘So, the bush telegraph has been functioning as well as ever, I see. I wondered why it was taking me so long to get through on the telephone in my own house.’ ‘It wasn’t like that. Don’t make it so hard for yourself, Gerald. I know it must be a terrible shock, and my heart bleeds for you, but everybody wishes you well.’ ‘Do they? Do they indeed? Just as they say this will bring me luck? Well I’m sure that will be a great comfort to me.’ Rigid with fear, Nora lay on her bed. Normally, she was his first thought when her father entered the house, but muted sounds of conversation, and the louder noises of people moving about, continued outside, and nobody came to get her. Straining her ears, she thought once or twice that she was picking up new and unfamiliar sounds, of a tiny living creature hovering somewhere between human and animal, but she couldn’t be sure. Then the doorbell rang, and shortly afterwards rang again, and she heard the clear, measured voices of men other than her father. Suddenly she could bear the suspense no longer. She went out into the empty hall and tracked the new voices to her parents’ bedroom, but the door was closed. She wandered into the kitchen and there was her father, standing at the kitchen counter staring at the teapot and waiting for the kettle to boil. He turned when he heard her and looked at her, not as if he had never seen her before but as if he now saw her differently and was having to make up his mind about something. ‘The house is full of priests and doctors and it’s all cups of tea and little snacks, though if I know Father McCaffrey there’ll be no leaving this house until he’s seen the whiskey bottle.’ ‘I’ve a baby brother, then,’ said Nora. ‘That’s right,’ said Gerald. ‘And I have a son. What every man’s supposed to want. Am I not right? They do say, be careful of making a wish, it might come true. You know what’s going through my mind?’ Nora shook her head. ‘There’s this book, Nineteen Eighty-four, written by this Englishman, years ago, before anybody knew what 1984 would be like, but he made it sound like the end of the world, the people not really human – not what you could call human – any more. Well, this is 1984, so we must give him the credit for getting something right.’ He loaded the tray with tea and fruit cake, cups and saucers, milk jug and sugar bowl, and Nora realised she had never seen him perform even the smallest household task before. All that had been left to her mother. In its way, the sight of her father fussing over cups and saucers was as frightening as anything else that had happened that day, and she wondered whether that was the way it was going to be from now on. Lifting the tray, he said, ‘I’ll take this through to the vultures who’ve come to prey on our misery.’ When he had left the room, Nora sat at the kitchen table, eating the cake crumbs and bits of dried fruit left in the tin. Her father hadn’t asked her if she had eaten, what kind of day she had had, how Mrs Daly had been towards her. He hadn’t said when he would be back to attend to her, whether her mother had been asking for her, or given any clue as to how life would proceed. All these concerns had to a degree displaced her fears about the baby, but she was also doing her best not to dwell on her new brother. In particular she avoided visualising him. She sat there while the telephone rang intermittently and was answered elsewhere in the house, staring at the empty blackness of the window, where nobody had thought to draw her mother’s flower-patterned curtains. After what seemed a very long time, she heard her parents’ bedroom door open, and then her father was with her again. ‘You’d better come in,’ he said. ‘Father McCaffrey and Dr Murphy want a word with you.’ He didn’t take her hand but led the way to the bedroom, where he waited at the door while she went inside. He didn’t go in himself, but closed the door behind her from outside. Opposite, her mother was sitting up in bed, with the cradle she had prepared for the baby beside her. She gave Nora a wan smile, as if everything was out of her hands. This in itself was not unusual since, within the family, she had always seemed the least powerful of the three, taking directions from her husband on most household matters, and resentfully acknowledging that she came after Nora in his affections. What was more startling was that, while she was recognisable of course, she seemed completely different, as though she had been rearranged. She looked as though something had happened to her face, though it was impossible to say what. Nora carried around with her the memory of her mother’s face that day and, years later, when she heard a woman describe herself as ‘shattered’, by what seemed to Nora a rather trivial event – she came to judge much of the substance of other people’s lives as trivial – she thought, ‘Yes, that’s it. She had been shattered, broken up and hastily put together again, but none of the pieces fitted in quite the way they had before, not any more.’ At the foot of the bed were Father McCaffrey and Dr Murphy, one on each side, like guardians. Nora saw a look pass between them and, after a nod from the priest, the doctor cleared his throat. ‘Well now, Nora,’ he said. Nora had often been taken to visit him, or had received visits from him at home, and he was always brisk and reassuring. Now he was frowning with concentration, as if struggling to find a manner appropriate to the occasion. ‘We thought you should be told – it’s always best to be clear about these things from the beginning. Your little brother has what’s known as Down’s syndrome. At one time he would have been called a “mongol”, a term you might still hear people use, but now we prefer Down’s syndrome, after the man who discovered it.’ Before he could go on with his explanation, Father McCaffrey, who appeared to think that the doctor had struck the wrong note, interrupted: ‘These are very special children, Nora. Special to God, who wants us to cherish them, so he only sends them to those families he knows will give them the love and care they need.’ Nora said nothing, as she tried to assimilate the implications of ‘special’. She had always been led to understand that she was special, but there was evidently more than one kind of special. As if sensing her confusion, Dr Murphy said, ‘He won’t develop in quite the way you have, he won’t learn so quickly. But you’ll find yourself surprised at some of the things he can do and he will be a very loving brother to you.’ ‘Exactly,’ said Father McCaffrey. ‘They’re generally very loving, and you shouldn’t bother your head too much with what he can and can’t do. Too much is made of all that in the world today. He’ll be special to God because of his innocence, and that’s a very precious gift indeed.’ Nora nodded, feeling that something was required of her, but really her mind was elsewhere. The doctor had said ‘mongol’. That was what the word had been, not ‘gerbil’. ‘Now, I know we don’t need to tell you to be a really good girl, and to help your mother and your wee brother as much as you can,’ said Father McCaffrey. Nora glanced across at her mother. She certainly looked in need of help. ‘Now, why don’t we leave you here, to start getting to know your brother and to have some time with your mummy?’ the priest concluded. The doctor said something to her mother about visits and midwives, then they both turned to go. On their way to the door, however, the doctor paused briefly to catch Nora’s eye and give her a sad smile. Everything about that day had been strange – not just Mrs Daly and the strange woman who had come and sat in the kitchen as though it were completely natural, and her father’s changed manner towards her, and the doctor and the priest referring to her brother all the time as “they”, as though he weren’t a single baby but one of a group, all identical: the presence in their house of a priest who behaved as though he were entitled to exercise some authority was also a novelty. Her father was not a practising Catholic, and while he didn’t actively discourage priests from visiting, he liked them to know that their presence was on his terms. If they were going to drink his whiskey, he would say, then he had every right to give them his opinion of the papacy, or of the role they had played in keeping people poor and ignorant. Now, just as strange as anything else was the sudden silence in the room and Nora feeling instantly at a loss. Something seemed to be required of her and she didn’t know what. It didn’t seem that her mother was in a position to offer her a direction on how to behave in these changed circumstances. Tentatively, she walked along the side of the bed towards her mother and the baby. She wondered whether she ought to kiss her mother, but felt estranged and awkward. Instead she said, ‘Will I look at the baby?’ ‘If you want,’ said her mother indifferently. Nora peered into the cradle and all her anxieties suddenly evaporated. He was, after all, just a baby, not unlike any other that she had seen. No, that wasn’t quite true since he had long, fair hair – hair the same colour as her mother’s, just as she had her father’s black hair – and all the other babies she had seen had been bald. She bent over and touched his hair and was surprised to find it silky, not unlike her own when it had been washed. As she touched him, he stirred and opened his eyes. She saw that they slanted up at the corners, but they were large and a deep, deep navy blue, unlike any other eye colour in the world. She looked up and said, ‘He’s really pretty,’ but her mother’s face was blank and she turned her head as soon as their eyes met and sank back into the pillows. There followed another of the periods of blank time that had punctuated the day – a day that had alternated strangely between boredom and fear. Normally there was a routine, and wherever she was in the day, Nora knew what would happen next. But now, although it was long dark, she hadn’t had her bath, or tea, or a story, and as far as she could tell, her parents had forgotten that she had come to depend on this clear sequence of events. She kept her position by the baby, who was silent in a way that, from her limited experience of babies, she hadn’t expected. Once or twice there was a slight stirring and he seemed on the point of crying. His mouth opened, but no sound came out, as though it were too much effort for him. She wondered whether he needed to be fed. She crept round to get a better view of her mother, who she assumed was sleeping, but she found her as before, staring blankly at the wall ahead. If she was aware of Nora, she gave no sign. It was some time after the doctor and priest had left before her father came to the bedroom door, where he stood, as if reluctant to enter. ‘Will you have something to eat, Bernie?’ ‘I couldn’t swallow a thing.’ ‘A cup of tea?’ ‘I’ve drunk so much tea today that I don’t think I’ll be able to get the taste out of my mouth again.’ ‘Right you are, then,’ he said, clutching the door handle as if to retreat. ‘Gerald, will you wait a minute? There’s something I want to talk to you about.’ ‘Can’t it wait?’ ‘Please.’ Gerald stepped into the room, closed the door behind him and leaned against it. ‘Won’t you sit down?’ ‘I’m right enough like this.’ Bernie shifted herself into a sitting position, wincing slightly from the stitches. ‘We should decide what we’ll call him.’ ‘Not now, Bernie. I can’t believe there’s any urgency. There are families of ten in this very town where the last ones had to wait weeks for a name, until their parents could summon up the energy.’ ‘There may not be any urgency for you but they’ve been at me all the time – the nurses, the doctors, Father McCaffrey, and it will be the same with the midwives tomorrow. I’d just like them to leave me be, with all their talk about bonding and giving him a name so that he’s part of the family.’ Gerald sighed deeply. ‘Well, if you’ve got any ideas, you just go ahead. It’s all the same to me.’ ‘Father McCaffrey wondered about Felix.’ ‘Isn’t that the name of the cat in the cartoon? I didn’t realise that the old boy had a sense of humour. Well, I’ll just take a wee look and see whether I think it suits him.’ He walked over to the cradle and peered inside without touching the baby. ‘What do you think, Nora? Do you think your brother looks like a Felix?’ ‘I don’t know what a Felix looks like.’ ‘That’s very good,’ said Gerald, laughing grimly. ‘I would say that makes it an appropriate name.’ ‘Father McCaffrey says it means “happy”,’ said Bernie wearily. ‘He says it will help us if we think of him in that way.’ ‘Does he now? Well, at least he’s consistent. Priests are experts at convincing themselves that what they want to believe is actually there, only they call it God. Maybe he’d like to take him off our hands and try it out for himself, since he’s had so much practice.’ ‘We have to live here, Gerald. We have to do what’s expected of us.’ ‘Go ahead, then, name him Felix,’ said Gerald, on his way to the door. ‘He says it’s Greek,’ said Bernie, delaying her husband’s departure. ‘He said it might appeal to you, as a man of learning. I said that we’d thought of giving him an Irish name and we’d talked about Sean and Liam if it was a boy.’ Her voice caught on the memory of that distant, hopeful time before she had given birth, since when the world had changed for ever. Two fat tears made their way slowly down her cheeks, but she continued speaking, although her voice was thicker: ‘He said it was only a suggestion, and that an Irish name might be even better. He said it would make him part of the community.’ ‘No, we’ll call him Felix,’ said Gerald. ‘He doesn’t look like an Irishman to me.’ With that he was gone. Apart from asking Nora’s opinion of the name, he had scarcely looked at her. After he’d gone, her mother lapsed back into her torpor. Nora could scarcely stay in her parents’ room all night, so she got up and crept to the door. Before she left the room she glanced back and saw that, although her mother was motionless, she was still crying. She had never seen her like that before. Usually she cried because she was angry, or feeling neglected, and the crying was accompanied by raised voices, but this time it was silent and she let her tears flow without drying them. It was almost as though she didn’t know what was happening. It didn’t seem right to disturb her, so Nora slipped out of the room and into the lounge, where her father was sitting in his special armchair with a glass of whiskey in his hand, watching the television. It seemed to be the news. As she stood there, the face of Mrs Thatcher flashed on to the screen. As the Prime Minister started to speak, Gerald said, with unusual vehemence, ‘The woman’s a bloody animal.’ Immediately Nora remembered that for a few hours that morning she had thought her new brother was a gerbil, and she felt again the terrible dread that had lasted until she saw him. Then, in her mother’s bedroom, her father had made a joke about Felix the cat, which she didn’t understand. She looked again at Mrs Thatcher and wondered what her father saw in this middle-aged English woman that she couldn’t see. The idea that a person could be an animal was so shocking to Nora that her mind recoiled from it. Nora knew that her father didn’t like Mrs Thatcher, and that she shouldn’t like her either because of what she had done to the Irish, but she had never heard him call her an animal before. She placed herself in his line of vision and said, ‘Will I go to bed now?’ Barely glancing at her he said, ‘Does your mother need you any more?’ ‘I don’t think so.’ ‘Then you might as well go to bed.’ PART TWO Servants (#ulink_de97c0e9-b192-5a23-be50-c80784ba9957) London (#ulink_e403c5e2-5761-5e8b-ab09-e568db3087b2) It’s late October and the remaining leaves are turning colour and falling across the squares of Bloomsbury. In one of those squares, Pete Taylor, Annie Price and Phoebe Metcalfe are sitting huddled on a bench, eating sandwiches. Pete and Annie ran into Phoebe earlier in the morning when they had just come out from a lecture that Phoebe should have attended but had somehow managed to miss. She was wandering aimlessly around the building looking, as Annie said later to Pete, for someone to play with. It was Phoebe who suggested the al fresco lunch – a rather lavish affair, for the circumstances, which she’s assembled herself since the arrangement was made, incurring expenses that she’s refused to pass on to them, insisting that it’s her treat – and they, taking pity on her, agreed. There has, since the beginning of term, been realignment in their group. Annie wasn’t even thought of last year, and although she has taken care to recognise the claims of Pete’s longer-standing friends, they sense that Pete is now semi-detached, the radiant good humour that once encircled them now more often, and with a particular fondness, bestowed on Annie alone. Meanwhile Nick and Nora, whose friendship until now has been defined by belonging to the same group, have become closer. It isn’t clear what’s brought about the change, beyond a growing confidence in Nora, who is regularly singled out by Steve for special attention. And since Steve is the star of the English department, some of that stardust has fallen on her. Nora and Nick are, at this very minute, to the certain knowledge of their friends, sitting side by side in the library, preparing to dazzle the rest of them in the afternoon’s Irish-literature class. ‘You must admit, they make a lovely couple,’ Annie says. ‘Like the hero and heroine of a novel who are destined to come together at the end because no one else will quite do.’ ‘When you see them together, she kind of brings out the Irish in him,’ Pete says. ‘I’ve never noticed before, but there’s something about him of the young Yeats, when he was a mere broth of a boy. A touch of the aesthete.’ ‘Surely Nick isn’t Irish too,’ says Phoebe. Although she started off at the picnic in high spirits, she’s grown sullen as the conversation has turned to their absent friends. Now she sounds despondent, as though yet another way of excluding her has been devised. ‘Some generations back,’ says Pete. ‘I’m glad to say he has the grace not to brag about it. As far as I know, he’s never even been there.’ ‘So what’s the current state of affairs?’ asks Annie. ‘Have they – like – got it together yet?’ She asks the question because it’s likely to engage Phoebe. ‘Not under my roof,’ says Pete, who shares with Nick, although Annie spends much of her time at their flat, retreating every so often in simulated outrage at the smell of dirty socks and takeaway curry and the evenings given over to football on the television. ‘Nor mine,’ says Phoebe, who lives with Nora. Although she’s been dying for the information that Pete has just given her, pride – or the unwillingness to admit that she feels excluded from Nick and Nora’s confidence – has stopped her asking. Her face lightens as she bites into a large slice of cheesecake. ‘It’s as I thought, then,’ says Pete. ‘A meeting of minds. When they’re both distinguished scholars, they’ll make little jokes in the footnotes of their learned volumes that nobody else will understand.’ ‘That’s how I imagine Steve’s married life to be, assuming he has one,’ says Annie. ‘No small-talk, with bouts of intellectual sparring for relaxation. You just can’t see him watching television, or going down to Homebase, like my Dad, for a few planks of wood and some screws.’ ‘I can’t see him living in the kind of house that needs DIY,’ says Pete, ‘no disrespect to your Dad. I see him in a loft or warehouse conversion, with an amazing view over London. Very minimalist, but with loads of books and periodicals, a state-of-the-art espresso machine to keep him fuelled while he’s burning the midnight oil and just one marvellous picture – Matisse, or one of those guys.’ ‘He’s a university professor, not a corporate lawyer,’ says Annie. ‘You’re confusing him with your own fantasies, although you don’t seem to be doing much to bring them about. You could make a start with your laundry.’ Pete and Annie’s amiable domestic bickering, which suggests already established routines and the continuing conversation of a shared life, excludes Phoebe more effectively than public displays of affection. When her anger finally explodes, however, it’s directed against Steve. ‘What is it with everyone and Steve? You’d think, to hear everyone talk, that he was, like, a god, but I totally fail to see it. I can’t see the point of one single thing that he’s made us read this term, and if you want my opinion, he’s just showing off because he knows all about these books that nobody else has even heard of.’ Pete keeps his face averted while Phoebe’s speaking so that she doesn’t see the here-we-go-again look that he can’t suppress, but Annie, who watches her with motherly attention, sees the crumbs of cheesecake in her hair and the way the tip of her nose has reddened in the cold and feels sorry for her. ‘It is a bit of a slog,’ Annie says. She’s actually enjoying the course, but understands Phoebe’s need to be soothed and stroked and to have her feelings acknowledged. ‘It will get better later, once he’s established the historical context.’ Phoebe is not soothed. The very word ‘history’ suggests to her a tyranny of fact over imagination, and as for ‘context’, she wouldn’t care if she never heard the word again. But since she doesn’t know how to get these points across, is beginning to lose the confidence in her own opinions that she has always taken for granted, she directs her rage instead at their book of the week, Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent. ‘As far as I’m concerned, I’ve spent the best part of a day reading the ramblings of someone I’d run a mile to avoid in real life – some old servant guy who tells stories about his masters getting drunk and falling over as though we’re meant to find them hysterically funny but leave me cold.’ ‘A very neat summary of the plot, if I might say so, Phoebe,’ says Pete. ‘I’d be surprised if anybody can better that.’ ‘Oh, Nora will, you wait and see. She’ll know exactly why it’s important and how it fits into the “historical context”. And you know something? She behaves as though she doesn’t have one at all. Don’t you think that’s a bit hypocritical?’ ‘It’s frustrating,’ Annie says, diplomatically deterring to Phoebe’s point of view before weighing it against alternatives. ‘You do feel you can only get so far with her before you meet a barrier. But I don’t think she’s secretive by nature, so she must have her reasons.’ ‘I’m with Phoebe on this one,’ Pete says. ‘I think we’ve all been a bit too soft on young Nora. She looks so fragile that you’re afraid to press her too hard in case a crack opens up down the middle, but it can’t be good for her to keep everything bottled up. My mum wouldn’t approve. “Better out than in” has always been her policy.’ ‘And you’re a living monument to it,’ says Annie. Phoebe’s mood is immediately transformed. Noisily she sucks smears of cheesecake off her fingers, lets the remains of the picnic slip from her lap on to the ground, stands up and runs to the nearest pile of fallen leaves. Scooping up an armful, she says, ‘Let’s have a leaf fight.’ More than half-way through the class, Steve finds that most of the group are still preoccupied with Thady, the old servant who provoked such outrage in Phoebe. Usually so insistent on structured argument, he is for once allowing the class free rein. Like Phoebe, who is no more likely to regard him as a kindred spirit than he would her, he is feeling aggrieved and rejected, outside a charmed circle to which he had assumed he had free access. This morning he suffered a bitter disappointment, which he finds difficult to assimilate, let alone accept. Raw and wounded, he has had to rely on ingrained professionalism to get him through the day; and now, noticing the time, he rouses himself to explain the concept of the unreliable narrator and its relevance to the text. ‘He’s a servant commenting on the behaviour of his masters. Now this in itself, I should have thought, indicates some kind of political dimension to the story, but we can take that further and observe that some of the Rackrents in this family saga spend as much time in Bath, a fashionable watering-place dedicated to pleasure, as they do in Ireland, where they pay little attention to their duties as landlords and let their estate go to rack and ruin. Yet they are central to the story, while Thady, the native Irish steward, is a bystander. That, it seems to me, is emblematic of the condition of the Irish throughout the colonial period.’ In addition to his other worries, he’s been brooding on changes in the seating arrangements. Students generally are remarkably territorial, sticking rigidly throughout the course to the places taken in the first session. But this afternoon, for the first time, Phoebe is no longer with Nora, by the window, but seated between Pete and Annie, in a quasi-family group, with Phoebe, the child, flanked by her parents. Since she appears to have a light dusting of leaves on her hair and at the cuffs of her sweater, as though she’s been rolling on the grass, the analogy isn’t that far-fetched. What a handful for her adoptive parents. Nora, meanwhile, is in her usual place, but with Nick beside her. Although they haven’t, as far as he has observed, exchanged a word since the class has been in progress, he senses, from the way their chairs are positioned, and their apparent physical ease in relation to each other, some kind of understanding between them. He should be glad for Nora that the balance of friendship appears to have shifted away from Phoebe towards Nick, who is more her intellectual equal, but he cannot find in himself sufficient reserves of generosity. They certainly make an attractive couple. Nora’s beauty seems, if anything, enhanced since he first saw her. She isn’t quite so pale, and although she hasn’t lost her elusiveness, the sense she gives of not quite inhabiting her surroundings, she is more animated. As for Nick, Steve is noticing for the first time his rather elfin look – the full but upward-slanting brown eyes, the high cheekbones, hair curling round slightly pointed ears – and tries to resist the thought, worthier of Phoebe than of himself, of legendary Celtic heroes. Only a man as young as Nick, he’s forced to acknowledge, can turn that degree of dishevelment – fraying pullover, trailing shoelaces, battered jeans – to advantage. He is himself reaching the age when, if he were to attempt such a look, he’d risk being mistaken for a tramp. ‘What I want to know,’ says Annie, ‘is how we should “read” Thady. He calls himself “honest” Thady all the time, but isn’t it a bit like “honest” Iago? He turns a blind eye, after all, when his son grows up and systematically rips the family off. He strikes me as a cunning old sod, if you’ll pardon the expression.’ ‘As far as I’m concerned,’ says Nick, who, when he speaks, doesn’t look at Steve, but keeps his eyes lowered, as though the open book in his lap has more claim on his attention, ‘when you read Castle Rackrent what you mostly experience is irony, just as when you read Swift. As Annie said, you don’t know how to “read” Thady, but that applies to almost everything in the book. I suppose you could say that that’s the literary expression of a kind of ambivalence in the Irish situation.’ He’s certainly good, Steve thinks, noticing that Nora has kept her eyes attentively on Nick while he’s been speaking. He wonders whether, like the conscientious students they are, they’ve been discussing the novel in advance of the class. Which would make him an indirect facilitator of their relationship. ‘That’s right,’ says Steve, aware that he’s withholding from Nick the praise he’s earned. ‘But how in particular is Thady an expression of that ambivalence?’ In the silence that follows, Nick catches Nora’s eye and nods, as though encouraging her to take up the challenge. ‘Thady is a dependant in the Rackrent household,’ she says, ‘so it’s important to him to maintain the goodwill of his masters. One of the things they require is admiration. Perhaps we’re meant to think that he really does admire them on some level. They’re presented as generous, and that always goes down well. But the position of dependency often involves some kind of underhand activity to secure its own interests. If we were to go for a psychological interpretation, we might say that he presents to the reader his love for them but represses his resentment.’ Steve is struck, as he often is, by the impersonality of her tone. He would be the first to insist that a scholarly debate isn’t the occasion for personal anecdote and reminiscence, which tend to mark the contributions of weaker students like Phoebe. He senses in Nora, however, an imperative that has little to do with observing convention. It’s as though she’s at pains always to establish an objective truth in which she has nothing invested. Perversely, this thought brings him back to Thady, whose narrative is so slippery and open to interpretation because, as a servant, everything he says is subject to constraint. It seems to Steve that, while the effect is so different, Nora, like Thady, has no authentic voice. Is this because, in London, she feels obliged to conform to an idiom that is alien to her, or is there another reason that might, in time, reveal itself? For all that, she shows a growing confidence in her chosen idiom and he speculates on whether any of the others is nursing a grievance towards her. The likeliest candidates would seem to be Phoebe or Emma or one of what he characterises as the huddled masses, who sit there taking notes but rarely speak, whose names he’s been careful to memorise but, beyond that, is content to leave be. So it’s a surprise when Pete, whose presence in the group is unfailingly benevolent, responds in a way that might be interpreted as hostile. ‘Is that how you feel about us, Nora?’ Steve wonders whether to intervene but, because he, too, is curious, holds back for the time being, keeping in reserve the right to slap Pete down if necessary. Nora turns round sharply and says, ‘I can’t see the point you’re making.’ ‘It just occurred to me that, as an Irish person inhabiting an English reality, you might feel that kind of ambivalence towards us. I’m sorry, I’m probably completely out of order, but I’m just testing the assumptions we’re making about the novel against life.’ There is, as far as Steve can tell, no malice in his tone. On the other hand, he is clearly seizing the opportunity to break Nora’s guard. Again, Nora chooses her words carefully, so that Steve considers at what cost to herself spontaneity is so routinely denied. ‘I don’t think my situation is directly comparable to that of a fictional character in a Protestant Ascendancy household in a novel written two hundred years ago. As far as more recent history’s concerned, I don’t believe in bearing grudges towards individuals who aren’t directly responsible.’ As she finishes, she gives a tight little smile, which Pete returns more broadly. ‘Just checking,’ he says. In order to bring closure, Steve says, ‘I think we should avoid personalising this. As far as your more general point is concerned, Pete, it’s a valid one. Thady presents an unstable self, an unstable perspective on the world he inhabits because the terms of that world are largely dictated by other people.’ That, Steve hopes, will deal not just with this matter but with Castle Rackrent more generally. He’s had enough. He doesn’t want to look, or avoid looking, at Nick and Nora sitting side by side, and speculate, or avoid speculating, about their relationship outside this room – whether they’ll go back somewhere together, eat together, laugh together, sleep together. Except that, Steve’s instinct tells him, there’s still something untouched about Nora. But for how long? Like Pete, he’s finding that the pressure of lived experience is displacing the theoretical speculation that he once found so seductive. He wants desperately to be on his own and to think about all of this, and to go home and lick his wounds after the blow he received this morning… ‘I don’t think we should ignore the gender perspective on all of this.’ ‘Go ahead,’ Steve says. It was too much to hope that they might get through an entire class without Emma Leigh putting her oar in. ‘Wouldn’t you say that, as a woman, Maria Edgeworth brought a particular perspective to Thady’s position? That as a woman in a male-dominated society she, too, was living in a world whose terms had been dictated by other people? And that this helped her develop an empathy towards servants and other dispossessed people?’ If only it were that simple, Steve thinks. Even as a man who prefers the company of women, he’s not sure that he’s willing to cede to them all claims to virtue on quite these grounds. Before he has to answer, Pete says, ‘Hang on a minute. Are you saying that being a woman cancels out every other advantage? That every woman, however fortunate, is on a level with the lowest in society? She was the daughter of a rich, enlightened landowner, and was educated and treated as an equal by her father, unless the bloke who wrote the introduction I read got it all wrong.’ ‘Right,’ says Emma. ‘But what she suffered from having such a prominent father was that nobody believed she wrote the books herself. Everybody thought they were really her father’s work.’ ‘Then she’s had the last laugh,’ says Pete. ‘The old man’s only remembered now as Maria Edgeworth’s dad, so justice has been done.’ ‘And Dombey and Son was a daughter after all,’ says Steve, as he gathers up his belongings. Since Emma ducked answering a serious point that deserved addressing, allowing instead her self-righteousness to get the better of her, her argument doesn’t deserve serious attention. As he leaves the room, he hears her voice, raised to a level to be heard above a class breaking up, saying, ‘What is it about men that they always have to have the last word? Don’t they know it’s a sign of weakness?’ Tant pis, he thinks. At least the worst of this wretched day’s now over. Less than an hour later, Steve is sitting in his basement kitchen with his wife and daughters, drinking tea. The setting would confound Pete, whose ideas of minimalist splendour in a riverside or Clerkenwell warehouse, the architectural equivalent of Steve’s monochrome clothes, leather jacket and motorbike, are rooted in magazines rather than experience. The tall, early-Victorian house is in Primrose Hill, an area of London that acquired a fashionable status among intellectuals at a period beyond the reach of his students’ memories. It was bought with a mixture of family money (an aspect of his background on which Steve has kept so uniformly silent that he has almost forgotten it) and the earnings from his groundbreaking book on critical theory. And far from being minimalist, the kitchen is cluttered with the residue of family life – schoolbags dropped on to the floor; a cork board covered with notices of school events, parties, dental appointments and photographs of Steve’s daughters, Jessica and Emily, making funny faces for the camera; and a cat sleeping in front of a stove in which a real fire – albeit the smokelessfuel variety that is permitted in London – is burning. All the internal walls of the basement have been removed. At the front of the house, facing the street, there is a refectory table, currently strewn with interrupted homework. The working kitchen area is in the middle and a family sitting room, with the stove and a french window leading into the garden, at the back. Jessica and Emily have rooms fully equipped with desks and computers, but often prefer to do those parts of their homework that require less concentration within reach of their mother. In the Woolf household, work, conversation and the rituals of family life are part of a continuous, seamless process. Steve is stretched out in front of the stove that his wife, Martha, has lit for the first time this year, at one end of a once elegant, now sagging, sofa, with a mug of tea in one hand and his free arm round the shoulders of his younger daughter, Emily. At fifteen, Emily is a reluctant teenager who has yet to engage her parents in the turbulent pitched battles of adolescence, preferring instead to prolong her enjoyment of the physical and emotional warmth of childhood. Martha is standing at one of the kitchen counters, preparing vegetables for the sauce they will eat, with pasta and a salad, for dinner but, thanks to the kitchen design on which she herself insisted, she is still enough part of the group to be involved in what is happening. Jessica is sitting cross-legged on the rug next to the cat, reading an essay on the Reformation that she finished half an hour ago. She is quicker, livelier, more ambitious than her sister, and hopes to read history at Balliol; and although Steve is opposed on principle to all forms of élitism, he thinks none the less that it would be a waste of his daughter’s considerable talents if she were to entrust them to a lesser institution, where the best possible teaching in her subject is not available. It’s difficult for Steve to remember now (although Martha occasionally teases him about it) how reluctant he was to have children. The life of the mind has always played a crucial role in his own personal mythology – not just the level of his intelligence but his insistence on living according to reason – and it seemed to him that the desire for children was pure biological determinism. Not only would his own life be more satisfactory without them, in terms of personal freedom, but he’d seen the deplorable effects of parenthood on his contemporaries. Their brains turned to mush, they had no shame in drooling over the most routine achievements of their offspring, recounting every early utterance as though it embodied the wisdom of the ages, but most shocking of all, they lost the ability to make principled and objective decisions. Self-interest, disguised as laudable concern for their children, ruled. In the event Martha went ahead in the teeth of his opposition, saying that, if it came to it, she would bring up a baby on her own. As she had known all along, there was no need for such desperate measures. He was overwhelmed by his own feelings, falling in love, first with Jessica, and then, despite his fears that an experience of such magnitude and importance couldn’t be repeated, with Emily. They forced him to acknowledge the blind spots in his own reason. Now, despite the preoccupations he brought home with him, and his urgent need for Martha’s good sense and counsel, he is in a kind of heaven, with Emily nestling comfortably against him and Jessica, who has inherited his looks, intellectual ambition and restlessness, filling him with pride for her powers of argument and elegant prose style. She ends with a flourish and a graceful tribute to his tuition. In a clear, ringing voice, she quotes from Donne’s third Satire – ‘“On a huge hill, Cragged, and steep, Truth stands, and he that will Reach her, about must, and about must go…”’ In the course of an earlier consultation on the essay, Steve supplied the quotation, to illustrate the tireless questioning of the English Protestant at the time of the Reformation. ‘Well, what do you think?’ Jessica asks, when she has allowed a short pause for her achievement to be assessed. ‘I’m speechless with admiration,’ Steve says. ‘That isn’t good enough,’ says Jessica. ‘Nothing’s perfect, you must have some criticism. You can’t put your critical faculties aside just because I’m your daughter. Unless the fire and the prospect of dinner are making you lazy.’ ‘You’ve silenced and stunned my critical faculties,’ Steve says. ‘By showing them perfection, you’ve rendered them redundant.’ ‘What would your students say if they could hear you now?’ asks Martha, who has finished her preparations for dinner, and is now sitting in an armchair facing the sofa. ‘They’d think you’d gone soft in the head.’ ‘They would be just as impressed as I am. Only the chronically resentful fail to recognise true excellence when they’re presented with it.’ ‘So, how many of your students are as good as I am?’ Jessica asks. ‘Oh, pipe down,’ says Emily. ‘I bet none of his students are as vain as you are.’ ‘I wouldn’t bet on that,’ says Steve. He looks at Jessica steadily, consideringly. ‘No, none of my students is as good as you.’ ‘In that case, I have a request.’ ‘There are almost certainly none as crafty as you,’ says Martha. Steve’s deep sigh expresses the dilemma of the doting father, who finds himself unable to refuse his daughter something she really wants but fears that what she wants may not be good for her. ‘Go on, Jessica, I’m listening,’ he says, in a deliberate parody of the Victorian paterfamilias. ‘I want to go clubbing in Leicester Square on Saturday night with a crowd from school, and I want not to have to leave at a set time, and not to have to ring you in the course of the evening, and then I want to go back and sleep at Louisa’s house. I intend to turn up here at around lunchtime on Sunday, a touch jaded, perhaps, in the short term, but reinvigorated by a much-needed shot of youth culture. That’ll leave me with plenty of time to do any outstanding homework, although as it happens I’m well ahead of the game. Please, please, please.’ Jessica still has the manner of the precocious child. Her mastery of the situation, of the language and argument required to present her case, is charmingly at odds with her childlike demeanour. And Emily, who feels that, however hard she tries, she will never be able to achieve her sister’s dazzling blend of naïveté and sophistication, leaves the shelter of her father’s arm and slumps at the other end of the sofa. In many ways she would prefer not to be a witness to the scene that is being enacted, but she is fascinated by Jessica’s performance none the less. Steve gives another deep sigh and, released by Emily, adjusts himself into a more purposeful sitting position. His opinion of Louisa is well known within the family. He first made her acquaintance when he bumped into her on the landing one night, not knowing that she was in the house, on his way to bed after arriving home late. A mask-like face, of a kind that could only be achieved with the application of several layers of makeup, had loomed out of the darkness, and further inspection had revealed the shortest skirt and tightest top he had ever seen – or so he claimed later in his exaggerated account of the episode. Then this strange young woman had greeted him with perfect confidence, as though he were already well known to her, as presumably he was by repute. Later, reeling from the shock of the encounter, he woke Martha as he got into bed and learned that she was a friend of Jessica’s and they had been out together for the evening. He still claims not to have slept a wink that night, after making such an unsettling discovery. Steve rarely mentions his Jewish background, which Martha does not share, and never allows it to colour his position on any issue: he persistently takes a pro-Palestinian stance on the situation in the Middle East. Yet he is aware of traces in himself, which he does his best to conceal, of the more traditional outlook associated with Judaism. Obscured for years, these ancestral leanings have surfaced in a protective attitude towards his daughters, which Jessica in particular claims to place her at a disadvantage in relation to her friends. Confident though he is in most aspects of his life, he sometimes feels disabled in his dealings with her by an unresolved conflict between reason and a powerful paternal instinct. ‘What do you think, Martha?’ he asks. The two girls smile and exchange a look at this evidence of their father’s growing reliance on their mother. Martha is soothing (a quality he has come to need more with the passage of time), has great reserves of common sense (denigrated by Steve in the classroom and lecture hall, it has its use in solving family disputes) and, perhaps most valuable of all, a quality of attentiveness that gives her judgements particular weight. Whatever problems are brought to her, at home, at work or within her own large circle of friends, she is apparently able to put herself on one side, so that even when her advice is not to the liking of those who have sought it, they feel she has offered it in their best interests. ‘I think we should be preparing Jessica for university,’ she says, ‘not academically – that’s taken care of – but in how she handles the social life. Once she’s away, we won’t know where she is or whom she’s with at any given time. We should trust in her good sense, but we’ll make sure she has a mobile, in case there are problems she can’t deal with. And meanwhile, Jess, I’ll ring Louisa’s mother –’ ‘Oh, Mum, do you have to?’ ‘– and make sure that she’ll be there and expecting you. We’ll also insist on knowing how you intend to get back to Louisa’s.’ Shortly afterwards, once Jessica and Emily have gone off to their rooms, Steve and Martha settle down to enjoy a glass of wine before they summon their daughters for dinner. ‘So,’ Steve asks, ‘how was life among the stacks today?’ Martha works at the British Library, which has been beset by difficulties since its recent move to Euston Road. Steve is often amused by her stories of life at the library where, despite the reputation enjoyed by librarians for having quiet, retiring natures, there seem to be as many prima donnas as there are in the academic world. ‘Don’t even ask. This is a day when I’d prefer to forget all about it.’ Steve watches as Martha performs her own exhaustion. She lets her head flop to one side, her arms go limp, while her legs, which are already stretched out in front of her, relax apart. Her eyes are closed, so she doesn’t notice that he takes in the details of her appearance – her long legs, still shapely, clad in black tights as they were when he had first met her, her body still pretty much what it was then, slim and agile, in a black skirt ending just above the knee and a soft blue polo-neck sweater. Her face is more lined but, he is pleased to note, not sagging, and while she doesn’t inspire in him the kind of pride of possession that he feels for his daughters, he has for her a growing tenderness. The adjective that is most likely to hover in his mind in connection with her is ‘steadfast’: as their time together lengthens, it becomes increasingly appropriate. Having made her point, she recovers her original position and says, ‘In fact, I’m feeling so feeble this evening that I’m going to curl up after dinner with a Joanna Trollope that I bought on my way home.’ Steve throws up his arms in mock-despair and says, affectionately, ‘What are we going to do with you?’ This is one of their recurring routines, provoked not just by Martha’s occasional taste for light fiction but by the chocolate wrappers that sometimes emerge from the debris of her handbag, the furtive cigarettes that, once or twice a week, he finds her smoking in the garden or in an empty room with the window open, and by the long, involved, often raucous telephone conversations she has with her friends. In truth, however, he admires her capacity to find pleasure in small, harmless acts of self-indulgence, while he can never enjoy more than fleeting moments of contentment. He is always measuring himself, not by what he has already achieved but by those goals, not yet reached, that he is currently pursuing, and is too easily cast down by setbacks. ‘So, what about you?’ she asks. ‘Any news yet?’ This is the moment Steve has been dreading, as much as he’s been longing for it, throughout the day. He needs to unburden himself, but an admission of failure is painful, even to an audience as loyal as Martha. ‘I didn’t get it,’ he says, staring into his glass; and as his smile fades, she sees the look of utter desolation. ‘Oh, Steve, I am sorry.’ He was being considered as the front man for a series of projected programmes on Ireland, covering history and broader cultural issues. When he was asked to apply he had embraced the opportunity as the ideal platform for his talents, the escape route that had become necessary since his return from Ireland. He has discussed the project endlessly with Martha, and although she has done her best to share his enthusiasm, his craving for celebrity – however it is dressed up and disguised, that’s what it comes down to – has saddened her. She respects his ambition, but can’t help feeling that he’s elevated something essentially tawdry above the valuable work to which he’s dedicated his life. At the same time, the deep shame she reads into his averted gaze, as though he can hardly bear to look at her, arouses in her an instinct to protect and comfort. ‘It’s probably a political appointment, rather than one based on merit,’ she says, hoping that if it isn’t it can be interpreted in Steve’s favour. ‘Did they tell you who is doing it?’ ‘Oh, some Irishman,’ he says, then laughs at his dismissive tone. ‘Well, then, at least it isn’t personal.’ ‘I know, I know, and of course, objectively, I can see that it’s the right thing. If I’d been making the appointment, it’s probably what I would have done. But it makes me wonder whether I’m doing the right thing in changing direction, whether I’ll ever be taken seriously. There are those already who see me as something of an opportunist, which is allowable as long as one is successful in seizing opportunities. But a failed opportunist becomes a laughing-stock.’ Martha takes a deep breath while she considers which, among the options available to her, is most likely to lift Steve out of his gloom. Nobody else, not even his daughters, suspects Steve’s talent for despair, the way that after every setback, even the most trifling, he can reduce everything he’s achieved to nothing. She thinks that this was why he married her. There were a number of available candidates, women with flashier intellects or more obvious glamour, but he found in her the one person to whom he could expose his weakness and find solace. She felt then and still feels that if her one advantage over the rest of the field is that she can perform this particular service for him she might as well make the most of it. ‘You do have your book on Joyce, and it sounds wonderful. That will be a far more solid achievement than hosting a few television programmes that everybody will have forgotten within a month or two.’ ‘It sounds more wonderful than it is,’ Steve says. ‘I imagined something really creative, but realisation’s dawning that, whatever my talents may be, they don’t lie in that direction. Joyce’s wife said that Joyce envied Shakespeare, and I’m starting to think that maybe I envy Joyce.’ ‘I’m sure that’s not true. Not about envying Joyce. Who wouldn’t? I mean about the quality of your own book. I’m sure that it’s only been going badly because you’ve been distracted by this other thing, but once you give it your full attention you’ll find it’s everything you hoped for.’ Steve is still slumped, still resistant to Martha’s determined optimism, so she shifts to what they both know is unarguable. ‘You’re still the most popular lecturer they have. I know and you know and most of the English department knows that you’re single-handedly responsible for attracting some of the best students away from Oxford and Cambridge.’ ‘I’ve been regretting all afternoon that I didn’t take that chair at Oxford when it was offered. No, more than that, I’ve been regretting ever becoming an academic. It seemed then that it was where all the best people went, but it’s become more and more marginal. A place for nerds, clever enough, but people who can’t hack it in the outside world, like convents and monasteries.’ ‘I’ll ignore most of that. What do you know about convents and monasteries anyway? As far as Oxford’s concerned, I’m glad you didn’t take it. I wouldn’t have been able to move, and a divided life is never satisfactory. Besides, how would Jessica feel, when the time comes, to have you crowding her space and keeping a paternal eye on her?’ In spite of himself Steve smiles. He knows she’s doing her best to distract him, but allows it to happen. ‘What about this new Irish-literature class?’ Martha asks. ‘You haven’t said much about it. Do you find it enjoyable?’ ‘Yes, I suppose. They’re quite a lively bunch.’ ‘Now that Jessica’s not here, you can tell me. Any particularly bright students?’ Martha knows that, unlike many academics who see teaching as a distraction from their own research, Steve takes his responsibilities as a lecturer seriously and is careful to nurture real talent when he finds it. ‘Two, as it happens,’ Steve says, and gets up to pour more wine. ‘And a couple of class jokers who, as long as they don’t get out of hand, can be an asset.’ Seated again, he says, eyes averted, ‘Actually, there’s a girl.’ A pause, like a missed heartbeat, follows. Martha allows it to lengthen. While she is alert to the implications of what Steve has said, she sees no reason why she should make it easy for him. The truth is that, from the beginning, there have always been girls, or women, and it was clear to her that, if she wasn’t prepared to tolerate them, there would be no marriage, despite Steve’s total reliance on her. Some ambitious men, she knows, are able to confine the drive to succeed to their careers, their public lives, but Steve isn’t one of them. Particularly at the times of disappointment that are inevitable in any life, Steve needs a sexual conquest to boost his morale. Martha married Steve out of deep love, but without illusions, and this readiness to face reality has been a source of pride and strength, sustaining her in circumstances that might otherwise have undermined her. She’s never seen it as a strategy, but so far it’s worked. None of the women – academics, like himself, producers of programmes in which he has featured, publishers – has threatened her marriage, because what Steve wanted from them was soon over and forgotten. She has never known whether to be grateful or disillusioned by his capacity for sex without emotion, but she’s never colluded in it or pampered his weakness. And within her own moral frame of reference, to pretend not to know, while less painful, would be a kind of collusion. The imperative of openness has never been breached, allowing Steve a continuing belief in his own integrity and Martha the right to make him feel uncomfortable. Jessica and Emily, on the other hand, have been spared all knowledge of their father’s extra-marital activities. In this household, where hypocrisy on the part of the older generation is regarded as a cardinal sin, there has been this one secret. And the secrecy, as well as protecting them, has come to seem justified by events. Martha approached Steve’s sabbatical with some anxiety, anticipating, in his long periods away from home, the deadly combination of loneliness and opportunity; but he returned home with nothing to report, touchingly relieved to have his family around him again. She had assumed that this must signal the end of that particular craving. At last, since he has shown no sign of clarifying his meaning but continues to stare into his wine glass, Martha’s patience snaps and she asks, ‘Do you mean ‘There’s a girl’ in the sense I think you mean it? Or that there’s a girl who stands out from the other clever, amusing students by virtue of her cleverness or amusingness?’ This is the tone – brittle and detached – that Martha usually adopts when she is required by the rule of honesty to acknowledge the presence of another woman on the scene. Her manner suggests that, while she accepts his behaviour, she has never stopped deploring it. ‘Well, both, as it happens,’ Steve says. ‘I don’t know about amusing. Probably not. If anything, she’s rather on the serious side, but she is an exceptional student. And yes, I do—’ ‘Fancy her?’ ‘If you want to put it like that.’ Steve is clearly uncomfortable, and since he announced the existence of ‘the girl’ has not looked Martha in the eye. ‘You’ve always steered well clear of students.’ Steve shrugs, as if the situation were outside his control. ‘Isn’t it rather dangerous, in the current climate? Didn’t you tell me that Professor Rowe was cautioned for squeezing a student’s shoulder when he handed back a bad essay?’ ‘Old Rowe lives in another world,’ Steve says. ‘I don’t suppose he can interpret the signals.’ ‘Oh, I see, so you’ve been getting signals from this girl.’ ‘Well, no, since you ask. As it happens, she’s extremely reserved.’ Martha nods slowly as she takes in all the implications of what Steve is saying. ‘Is that the attraction – that, unlike most of your female students, she seems indifferent?’ She pauses for an answer, and when none is forthcoming, says, ‘Isn’t it possible that you’re not thinking straight after the disappointment over the television contract? That you might be looking for another challenge – one you’re sure of succeeding in?’ Finally Steve looks her in the eye. ‘I’ve been through all this myself and, yes, if it’s any comfort, I am fully aware of the risks and of those aspects of my present situation that make me more – susceptible, shall we say? And I promise I’ll do nothing to endanger us or my career.’ ‘But how can you be sure? I suppose you can feel reasonably certain of me, given our history, but I can’t guarantee how I would feel if you formed a strong emotional attachment. I’ve never been faced with that, after all. And as far as your career’s concerned, this girl’s an unknown quantity. Do you know anything about her? If she’s as reserved as you say she is, presumably she’s something of a mystery.’ ‘Only that she’s Northern Irish, from a Catholic background.’ ‘Oh, I see,’ says Martha, undecided as to whether this makes her – the as yet unnamed girl from Northern Ireland – more or less dangerous. Throughout this conversation she has been feeling more than usually threatened, has begun to wonder whether Steve’s uncharacteristically incautious behaviour indicates not just his craving, after a professional disappointment, for success elsewhere but something special about this particular girl; that after years of relatively harmless dalliance, he might finally have met someone with the power to disturb his emotional equilibrium and their carefully preserved marriage. It now seems likely, however, that it isn’t the girl herself, however pretty and clever she might be, but the mere fact that she’s Irish. On the other hand, this could make her appearance on the scene even more alarming. Since he took up Joyce, Steve has made something of a fetish of Ireland, though he would strenuously deny this interpretation of his behaviour. It is, she thinks, the kind of folly to which intellectuals like Steve are especially prone. Suspicious as he is generally of judgements based on instinct or emotion, he has an accumulated store of sentimentality that he allows himself to direct at liberal causes. In Martha’s view, this one passed its sell-by date with the Good Friday Agreement. None the less, he might well be at his most susceptible to a girl clothed in all the glamour of colonial oppression. Steve, who has been deep in his own thoughts, says, ‘I was wondering about inviting her here.’ ‘Here?’ Martha asks. This is another possibly significant variation to an established pattern. ‘But you never bring your students home.’ Indeed, Steve is not one of those academics who fraternise with students, preferring instead to keep his personal and professional lives entirely separate. Martha has sometimes regretted this, feeling that an important part of his life is closed to her, but she recognises in him a deep fear of exposure. To be seen as a husband, a father, a householder, a cat-fancier might compromise the mystique he enjoys in lecture and seminar rooms. ‘Well, I thought I might this time.’ ‘Is that to reassure her or me?’ Steve smiles tenderly. ‘Martha, you shouldn’t need reassurance. You know that there is nothing I would do knowingly to hurt you. Look, if it’s any comfort, I know what the risks are, and I’ve pretty much made up my mind not to take this any further – not in that direction, at any rate. Why not befriend her? She may well be lonely. And to have her here would erect a barrier as far as I’m concerned. Once she’s met you and the girls, it becomes unthinkable that I should – well, you know what I’m trying to say.’ ‘You want to be saved from yourself. Well, invite her round, then.’ While Steve is in Primrose Hill, drinking tea with his family, Nora returns alone to the flat in Crouch End that she shares with Phoebe, having made her excuses to the others – Phoebe, Nick, Pete and Annie – not to join them for the post-class cappuccino. Although the flat is empty, so for a while she doesn’t have to respect Phoebe’s prior right, as owner, to occupy the public space, Nora isn’t tempted by the empty sitting room and the television set that she could, on this occasion, turn to a channel of her own choosing. Instead, she makes straight for her bedroom, where she drops her bag and jacket before curling up on the bed. This was her habit at home. Over the years she developed a sense of the rest of the house, apart from whatever spot was occupied by Felix, as hostile territory where at any moment she might stumble unwittingly on the landmine of her parents’ many sensitivities. And her need for a refuge has continued. Viewed objectively, her life holds more promise at the moment than at any time she can remember. It seems likely that she will achieve all the academic goals she’s set herself, and a bright, if still undefined future should be assured. Nick’s interest in her is clear, a source of secret pleasure when she allows herself the indulgence of daydreaming. She knows that this current state of suspense cannot continue indefinitely, that he’s going to expect more from her than she’s currently able to give, but any other girl would regard this as a blessed state. She’s living in circumstances more comfortable than she thought possible when she first came to London, thanks to an act of generosity she could never have imagined. These are the facts of her immediate situation and, as she lies curled on her bed, she marshals them in her mind to dispel her anxiety. The ability to think rationally has always been important to her and, since she was old enough to formulate such an idea, has defined who she is. Powerless as she was at home, the force of reason was her only defence. And while she couldn’t say that it was effective against her parents, who regarded it more as an incitement than as a challenge that they might meet by behaving rationally, it comforted her in the inner recesses of her being. When she planned her escape, the world she envisaged for herself was peopled by paragons who shared her commitment to objective truth. If this was the premise by which she decided to live, she has only herself to blame for the anxiety that sent her fleeing from the company of her friends. If she really values the truth, she should have been more open about herself from the beginning. The longer she’s left it, the harder it’s become, and if she were to tell her story now, she would have to explain the reasons for her reticence as well. She came to London in the naïve belief that she could reinvent herself. The anguish that drove her from home was in part because the daughter her parents saw bore no relation to the person she knew herself to be. She felt distorted and deformed by them. In London she would take control of her life and of the self she presented to the world. She wasn’t so much determinedly suppressing the past, as refusing to be defined by what she had left behind. The mere telling of her story would skew people’s reactions to her. And as she listened to other people talk about their families, her own came to seem grotesque, to the point at which she wondered if she would even be believed. When she rehearsed her story in her own mind, it seemed – to a judgement as fastidious as hers, as alert to genre – like the worst kind of sensationalist fiction. And the longer she left the telling, the more likely it was that her motives, when she finally came to unburden herself, would be misinterpreted. She was so sick of the relish in unearned victimhood she’d seen at home that she shrank from exposing herself to the charge of courting pathos. Конец ознакомительного фрагмента. Текст предоставлен ООО «ЛитРес». Прочитайте эту книгу целиком, купив полную легальную версию (https://www.litres.ru/marguerite-alexander/grievance/?lfrom=334617187) на ЛитРес. 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