Written by P. D. James
Format: Trade Paperback, 480 pages
Publisher: Vintage Canada
ISBN: 978-0-307-39779-9 (0-307-39779-3)
Pub Date: March 31, 2009
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21 November—14 December
On November the 21st, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went to Harley Street to keep a first appointment with her plastic surgeon, and there in a consulting room designed, so it appeared, to inspire confidence and allay apprehension, made the decision which would lead inexorably to her death. Later that day she was to lunch at the Ivy. The timing of the two appointments was fortuitous. Mr Chandler-Powell had no earlier date to offer and the luncheon later with Robin Boyton, booked for twelve forty-five, had been arranged two months previously; one did not expect to get a table at the Ivy on impulse. She regarded neither appointment as a birthday celebration. This detail of her private life, like much else, was never mentioned. She doubted whether Robin had discovered her date of birth or would much care if he had. She knew herself to be a respected, even distinguished journalist, but she hardly expected her name to appear in the Times list of VIP birthdays.
She was due at Harley Street at eleven fifteen. Usually with a London appointment she preferred to walk at least part of the way, but today she had ordered a taxi for ten thirty. The journey from the City shouldn’t take three-quarters of an hour but the London traffic was unpredictable. She was entering a world that was strange to her and had no wish to jeopardise her relationship with her surgeon by arriving late for this their first meeting.
Eight years ago she had taken a lease on a house in the City, part of a narrow terrace in a small courtyard at the end of Absolution Alley near Cheapside, and knew as soon as she moved in that this was the part of London in which she would always choose to live. The lease was long and renewable; she would have liked to buy the house, but knew that it would never be for sale. But the fact that she couldn’t hope to call it entirely her own didn’t distress her. Most of it dated back to the seventeenth century. Many generations had lived in it, been born and died there, leaving behind nothing but their names on browning and archaic leases, and she was content to be in their company. Although the lower rooms with their mullioned windows were dark, those in her study and sitting room on the top storey were open to the sky, giving a view of the towers and steeples of the City and beyond. An iron staircase led from a narrow balcony on the third floor to a secluded roof, which held a row of terracotta pots and where on fine Sunday mornings she could sit with her book or newspapers as the Sabbath calm lengthened into midday and the early peace was broken only by the familiar peals of the City bells.
The City which lay below was a charnel house built on multi-layered bones centuries older than those which lay beneath the cities of Hamburg or Dresden. Was this knowledge part of the mystery it held for her, a mystery felt most strongly on a bell-chimed Sunday on her solitary exploration of its hidden alleys and squares? Time had fascinated her from childhood, its apparent power to move at different speeds, the dissolution it wrought on minds and bodies, her sense that each moment, all moments past and those to come, were fused into an illusory present which with every breath became the unalterable, indestructible past. In the City of London these moments were caught and solidified in stone and brick, in churches and monuments and in bridges which spanned the grey-brown ever-flowing Thames. She would walk out in spring or summer as early as six o’clock, double locking the front door behind her, stepping into a silence more profound and mysterious than the absence of noise. Sometimes in this solitary perambulation it seemed that her own footsteps were muted, as if some part of her were afraid to waken the dead who had walked these streets and had known the same silence. She knew that on summer weekends, a few hundred yards away, the tourists and crowds would soon be pouring over the Millennium Bridge, the laden river steamers would move with majestic clumsiness from their berths, and the public city would become raucously alive.
But none of this business penetrated Sanctuary Court. The house she had chosen could not have been more different from that curtained, claustrophobic semi-detached suburban villa in Laburnum Grove, Silford Green, the east London suburb where she had been born and in which she had spent the first sixteen years of her life. Now she would take the first step on a path which might reconcile her to those years or, if reconciliation were impossible, at least rob them of their destructive power.
It was now eight thirty and she was in her bathroom. Turning off the shower, she moved, towel-wrapped, to the mirror over the washbasin. She put out her hand and smoothed it over the steam-smeared glass and watched her face appear, pale and anonymous as a smudged painting. It was months since she had deliberately touched the scar. Now, slowly and delicately, she ran a fingertip down its length, feeling the silver shininess at its heart, the hard bumpy outline of its edge. Placing her left hand over her cheek, she tried to imagine the stranger who, in a few weeks’ time, would look into the same mirror and see a doppelgänger of herself, but one incomplete, unmarked, perhaps with only a thin white line to show where this puckered crevice had run. Gazing at the image which seemed no more than a faint palimpsest of her former self, she began slowly and deliberately to demolish her carefully constructed defences and let the turbulent past, first like a swelling stream and then a river in spate, break through unresisted and take possession of her mind.
She was back in that small rear room, both kitchen and sitting room, in which she and her parents colluded in their lies and endured their voluntary exile from life. The front room, with its bay window, was for special occasions, for family celebrations never held and for visitors who never came, its silence smelling faintly of lavender furniture polish and stale air, an air so portentous that she tried never to breathe it. She was the only child of a frightened and ineffective mother and a drunken father. That was how she had defined herself for more than thirty years and how she still defined herself. Her childhood and adolescence had been circumscribed by shame and guilt. Her father’s periodic bouts of violence were unpredictable. No school friends could safely be brought home, no birthday or Christmas parties arranged and, since no invitations were ever given, none was received. The grammar school to which she went was single sex and friendships between the girls were intense. A special mark of favour was to be invited to spend the night at a friend’s house. No guest ever slept at 239 Laburnum Grove. The isolation didn’t worry her. She knew herself to be more intelligent than her fellows and was able to persuade herself that she had no need of a companionship which would be intellectually unsatisfying and which she knew would never be offered.
It was eleven thirty on a Friday, the night her father got paid, the worst day of the week. And now there came the sound she dreaded, the sharp closing of the front door. He came blundering in and she saw her mother move in front of the armchair, which Rhoda knew would awaken his fury. It was to be her father’s chair. He had chosen it, paid for it, and it had been delivered that morning. Only after the van had left had her mother discovered it was the wrong colour. It would have to be changed, but there had been no time before the shop closed. She knew that her mother’s querulous, apologetic, half-whining voice would enrage him, that her own sullen presence would help neither of them, but she couldn’t go up to bed. The noise of what would happen beneath her room would be more terrifying than to be part of it. And now the room was full of him, his blundering body, the stink of him. Hearing his bellow of outrage, his ranting, she felt a sudden spurt of fury, and with it came courage. She heard herself saying, ‘It isn’t Mother’s fault. The chair was wrapped up when the man left it. She couldn’t see it was the wrong colour. They’ll have to change it.’
And then he turned on her. She couldn’t recall the words. Perhaps at the time there had been no words, or she hadn’t heard them. There was only the crack of the smashed bottle, like a pistol shot, the stink of whisky, a moment of searing pain which passed almost as soon as she felt it and the warm blood flowing from her cheek, dripping onto the seat of the chair, her mother’s anguished cry. ‘Oh God, look what you’ve done, Rhoda. The blood! They’ll never take it back now. They’ll never change it.’
Her father gave her one look before stumbling out and hauling himself up to bed. In the seconds in which their eyes met she thought she saw a confusion of emotions: bafflement, horror and disbelief. Then her mother finally turned her attention to her child. Rhoda had been trying to hold the edges of the wound together, the blood sticky on her hands. Her mother fetched towels and a packet of sticking plasters and tried with shaking hands to open it, her tears mixing with the blood. It was Rhoda who gently took the packet from her, unpeeled the plasters from their covers and managed at last to close most of the wound. By the time, less than an hour later, she was lying stiffly in bed the bleeding had been staunched and the future mapped out. There would be no visit to the doctor and no truthful explanation ever; she would stay away from school for a day or two, her mother would telephone, saying she was unwell. And when she did go back, her story would be ready: she had crashed against the edge of the open kitchen door.
And now the sharp-edged memory of that single slashing moment softened into the more mundane recollection of the following years. The wound, which became badly infected, healed painfully and slowly, but neither parent spoke of it. Her father had always found it difficult to meet her eyes; now he hardly ever came near her. Her classmates averted their gaze, but it seemed to her that fear had replaced active dislike. No one at school ever mentioned the disfigurement in her presence until she was in the sixth form and was sitting with her English mistress who was trying to persuade her to try for Cambridge — her own university — instead of London. Without looking up from her papers Miss Farrell had said, ‘Your facial scar, Rhoda. It’s wonderful what plastic surgeons can do today. Perhaps it would be sensible to make an appointment with your GP before you go up.’ Their eyes had met, Rhoda’s mutinous with outrage, and after four seconds of silence, Miss Farrell, cringing in her chair, her face an angry rash of mottled scarlet, had bent again to her papers.
She began to be treated with wary respect. Neither dislike nor respect worried her. She had her own private life, an interest in finding out what others kept hidden, in making discoveries. Probing into other people’s secrets became a lifelong obsession, the substratum and direction of her whole career. She became a stalker of minds. Eighteen years after she had left Silford Green, the suburb had been enthralled by a notorious murder. She had studied the grainy pictures of victim and killer in the papers with no particular interest. The killer confessed within days, was taken away, the case closed. As an investigative journalist, by now becoming increasingly successful, she was interested less by Silford Green’s brief notoriety than by her own more subtle and more lucrative and fascinating lines of enquiry.
She had left home on her sixteenth birthday and found a bed-sit in the next suburb. Every week until he died her father sent her a five-pound note. She never acknowledged it but took the money because she needed it to supplement the cash she earned in the evenings and at weekends working as a waitress, telling herself that it was probably less than her food would have cost at home. When, five years later, with a first in History and established in her first job, her mother phoned to say that her father had died, she felt an absence of emotion that paradoxically seemed stronger and more irksome than regret. He had been found drowned, slumped in an Essex stream whose name she could never remember, with an alcohol level in his blood which proved that he had been intoxicated. The coroner’s verdict of accidental death was expected and, she thought, probably correct. It was the one she had hoped for. She told herself, not without a small flicker of shame which quickly died, that suicide would have been too rational and momentous a final judgement on such an ineffectual life.
The cab ride was quicker than she had expected. She arrived too early at Harley Street and asked the driver to stop at the Marylebone Road end of the street, then walked to her appointment. As on the rare occasions when she had passed this way, she was struck by the street’s emptiness, the almost uncanny calm which hung over these formal eighteenth-century terraces. Almost every door bore a brass plate with a list of names confirming what surely every Londoner would know, that this was the hub of medical expertise. Somewhere behind these gleaming front doors and discreetly curtained windows patients must be waiting in various stages of anxiety, apprehension, hope or despair, yet she seldom saw any of them arriving or departing. The occasional tradesman or messenger would come and go, but otherwise the street could have been an empty film set, awaiting the arrival of director, cameraman and players.
Arriving at the door, she studied the panel of names. There were two surgeons and three physicians, and the name she expected to see was there at the top. Mr G. H. Chandler-Powell, FRCS, FRCS (Plast), MS — the last two letters which proclaimed that a surgeon had reached the summit of expertise and reputation. Master of Surgery. It had, she thought, a fine ring to it. The barber-surgeons awarded their licences by Henry VIII would be surprised to know how far they had come.
From the Hardcover edition.
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