Ralph and Anna Eldred are an exemplary couple, devoting themselves to doing good. Thirty years ago as missionaries in Africa, the worst that could happen did. Shattered by their encounter with inexplicable evil, they returned to England, never to speak of it again. But when Ralph falls into an affair, Anna finds no forgiveness in her heart, and thirty years of repressed rage and grief explode, destroying not only a marriage but also their love, their faith, and everything they thought they were.
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About the Author
Hilary Mantel is the bestselling author of many novels including Wolf Hall, which won the Man Booker Prize and the National Book Critics Circle Award for fiction. Bring Up the Bodies, Book Two of the Thomas Cromwell Trilogy, was also awarded the Man Booker Prize and the Costa Book Award. She is also the author of A Change of Climate, A Place of Greater Safety, Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, An Experiment in Love, The Giant, O'Brien, Fludd, Beyond Black, Every Day Is Mother's Day, and Vacant Possession. She has also written a memoir, Giving Up the Ghost. Mantel was the winner of the Hawthornden Prize, and her reviews and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The New York Review of Books, and the London Review of Books. She lives in England with her husband.
Read an Excerpt
On the day of Felix Palmer's funeral, his wife, Ginny, met his mistress, Emma. They had met before, of course. The county of Norfolk is not so populous that they could have avoided each other. Their conduct at these meetings had been shaped by Ginny's lofty and willful ignorance of the situation: by Emma's sangfroid: by Felix's natural desire to maintain an arrangement that suited him.
Over the years they had coincided in drafty parish halls, in charity committee rooms, and at the caucuses of local groups concerned with the protection of what, in the decade just beginning, would be known as "the environment." They had bumped into each other in Norwich, shopping in Jarrold's department store; they had exchanged small talk at exhibitions of craftwork, and occupied neighboring seats at the theater.
Once, traveling to London, they had found themselves sole occupants of a first-class carriage. For half an hour they had found enough that was anodyne to pass the time. Then Ginny, excusing herself with a smile, delved into her bag and pulled out a fat paperback book. She retired behind it. Emma examined its cover. A svelte woman, with a small crown perched upon her wimple, stood before a manor house with anachronistic chimney stacks. The title was in florid gold script: Wyfe to Crookback. Emma looked out of the window. The landscape was a sad East England green; crows wheeled over the fields. As they moved from the edge of England to its heart, Emma herself took out a book.
They parted at sooty Liverpool Street with a nod and a smile. London forced no collusion on them, but Norfolkdid. A handful of farming and professional families played host to both. At a round of weddings and christenings they had made polite, even warm conversation. At a dozen New Year's Eve parties they had wished each other luck and happiness: and sometimes almost meant it.
Now, on this February morning, Ginny stood surrounded by a knot of mourners. Friends and business associates had turned out for the occasion; Felix had been well liked in the district. The church occupied high ground, and a ripping wind billowed coats and snapped at woolen head scarves and brought a flush to aching faces. The mourners could sense the presence of the sea, hidden from them by a belt of pines.
Some of them lingered in the church porch, reading the notices about flower rotas, dusting, and brass cleaning; others stood among the gravestones, looking depressed. They had double-parked in the open area beyond the church gate, and would have to wait their turn to get away. Ginny, leaning on the arm of her son, moved from group to group, offering a few tactful words to soothe their feelings; she understood that death is embarrassing.
Her own familyher son, Daniel, who was an architect, her daughter, Claire, who was a buyer at Harrodshad been as gentle and as careful of her feelings as anyone could wish. Buteven as she deferred the momentGinny felt that it was Emma to whom she wished to speak, to whom naturally she should be speaking. Patting her son's arm, smiling up and dismissing him, she made her way across the grass with a short, precisely regulated stride, her high heels spiking holes in the ground like some primitive seed drill.
Ginny Palmer was a sharp, neat, Wallis Simpson sort of woman, to whom black lent an added definition. As she advanced on Emma, she took from her pocket a crisp lace-edged handkerchief, folded it very small and polished the tip of her nose: a gesture quite unnecessary, but somehow drawn out of her by the occasion. You see me, the widow: fastidious but distraught.
Emma Eldred kept her hands in her pockets; she had forgotten her gloves. She wore the coat that she had worn for years, to go out on her doctor's rounds, to go shopping, to go out walking, and to meet Felix. She saw no need for any other coat, in her ordinary life or on a day like this; it was dark, it was decent, andshe felt obscurelyit was something Felix would have recognized.
Emma Eldred was not a large woman, but gave the appearance of it: forty-eight years old, her face innocent of cosmetics, her broad feet safely encased in scuffed shoes decorated by leather tassels which somehow failed to cut a dash. Emma had known Ginny's husband since childhood. She might have married him; but Felix was not what Emma considered a serious man. Their relationship had, she felt, borne all the weight it could. As Ginny approached, Emma shrunk into herself, inwardly but not outwardly. A stranger, only partly apprised of the situation, would have taken Ginny for the smart little mistress, and Emma for the tatty old wife.
The women stood together for a moment, not speaking; then as the wind cut her to the bird bones, Ginny took a half step closer, and stood holding her mink collar up to her throat. "Well, Ginny," Emma said, after a moment. "I'm not here to act as a windbreak." She drew her right hand from her pocket, and gave Ginny a pat on the shoulder. It was a brusque gesture, less of consolation than of encouragement; what you might give a weary nag, as it faces the next set of hurdles.
Ginny averted her face. Tears sprang into her eyes. She took out her tiny handkerchief again. "Why, Emma?" she said. She sounded fretful, but as if her fretfulness might turn to rage. "Tell me why. You're a doctor."
"But not his doctor."
"He wasn't ill. He never had a day's illness."
Emma fixed her gaze on the tassels of her shoes. She imagined herself looking right through her dead lover; through his customary tweed jacket, his lambswool pullover, his striped shirt, through the skin, through the flesh, into the arteries where Felix's blood moved slowly, a dark underground stream with silted banks. "No one could have known," she said. "No one could have spared you this shock, Ginny. Will you be all right, my dear?"
"There's plenty of insurance," Ginny said. "And the house. I'll move of course. But not just yet."
"Don't do anything in a hurry," Emma said. She had meant her question in a broad sense, not as an inquiry into Ginny's financial standing. She raised her head, and saw that they were being watched. The eyes of the other mourners were drawn to them, however hard those mourners tried to look away. What do they all think, Emma wondered: that there will be some sort of embarrassing scene? Hardly likely. Not at this time. Not in this place. Not among people like ourselves, who have been reared in the service of the great god Self-Control. "Ginny," she said, "you mustn't stand about here. Let Daniel drive you home."
"A few people are coming back," Ginny said. She looked at Emma in faint surprise, as if it were natural that she would know the arrangements. "You should come back too. Let me give you some whiskey. A freezing day like this ... Still, better than rain. Claire's staying on over the weekend." Ginny raised her hand, and twitched at her collar again. "Emma, I'd like to see you. Like you to come to the house ... Mrs. Gleave is making vol-auvents ..." Her voice tailed off entirely.
Emma's brother, Ralph Eldred, loomed purposefully behind them: a solid figure, hands scrunched into the pockets of his dark wool overcoat. Ginny looked up. The sight of Ralph seemed to restore her. "Ralph, thank you for coming," she said. "Come back with us and have some whiskey."
"I should take myself off," Ralph said. "I have to go to Norwich this afternoon to a meeting. But naturally if you want me to, Ginny ... if I can be of any help ..." He was weighing considerations, as he always did; his presence was wanted on every hand, and it was simply a question of where he was needed most.
"Why, no," Ginny said. "It was a courtesy, Ralph. Do run along."
She managed a smile. It was her husband's underoccupation that had freed him for his long years of infidelity; but Ralph's days were full, and everybody knew it. There were advantages, she saw, in being married to a man who thought only of work, God, and family; even though the Eldred children did look so down-at-heel, and had been so strangely brought up, and even though Ralph's wife was worn to a shadow slaving for his concerns.
Ralph's wife Anna wore a neat black pillbox hat. It looked very smart, though it was not remotely in fashion. Lingering in the background, she gave Ginny a nod of acknowledgment and sympathy. It was an Anna Eldred nod, full of I-do-not-intrude. Ginny returned it; then Ralph took his wife's arm, and squired her away at a good clip toward their parked car.
Ginny looked after them. "You wonder about marriage," she said suddenly. "Are marriages all different, or all alike?"
Emma shrugged, shoulders stiff inside her old coat. "No use asking me, Ginny."
Inside the car, Ralph said, "It's not right, you know. It's not, is it? For Emma to find out like that. More or less by chance. And only when it was all over."
"It was all over very quickly," Anna said. "From what I gather."
"Yes, but to have no priority in being told"
"I expect you think Ginny should have rung her from the hospital, do you? Just given her a tinkle from the intensive care unit?"
"to have no right to know. That's what galls me. It's inhuman. And now Ginny gets all the sympathy, all the attention. I'm not saying she doesn't need and deserve it. But Emma gets nothing, not a word. Only this public embarrassment."
"I seeyou think that as Emma was the maitresse en titre, she should be allowed to put on a show of her own?" Anna sighed. "I'm sure Felix has left her some fine diamonds, and a chateau for her old age."
A contractor's van drew up in front of the Eldreds' car, adding to the traffic jam; restoration work was going on at the church. Two workmen got out, and began to untie a ladder from the roofrack. A lesser man with Ralph's schedule would have fretted at the delay. But Ralph showed his impatience only by a little tapping of his forefinger against the steering wheel. There was a school nearby, and the voices of children drifted from the playground, carried on the wind like gulls' cries.
The couple who blocked them drove off, nodding, raising hands in a stiff-fingered wave. The contractor moved his van. Ralph pulled out onto the road. Anna saw the children dashing and bumping and careening behind a fence: bullets trussed in duffle coats, their faces hidden under hoods.
The route home lay inland, through narrow lanes between farms; flat airy fields, where tractors lay at rest. Ralph pulled up to let a duck dawdle across the road, on its way from a barnyard to nowhere. "I'll tell you," he said. "I'll tell you what's the worst of it. Emma's got nothing. Nothing. She's given twenty years to Felix and now she's on her own."
"Emma's given something," Anna said. "I think to say that she's given twenty years is being melodramatic."
"Why is it," Ralph said, "that women manage to be so cool in these situations? What's all this keeping up a good front? Why do they think they have to do it? I heard Ginny talking about insurance policies, for God's sake."
"I only mean, that Emma's life has suited her. She had what she wanteda part-time man. Felix didn't use her. The reverse, I think. She could have married. If she'd chosen to. She didn't have to wait on Felix."
"Married? Could she?" Ralph turned his head.
"Look out," Anna said, with a languor born of experience. Ralph put his foot on the brake; a farm truck slowly extruded its back end from a muddy and half-concealed driveway.
"Sorry," Ralph said. "Could she? Who could she have married then?"
"Oh Ralph, I don't mean any one person, not this particular man or that particular man ... I only mean that if she had wanted to marry, if that had been what she preferred, she could have done it. But marriage entails things, like learning to boil eggs. Things that are beyond Emma."
"I can't see men beating a path to her door." Ralph edged the car painfully down the lane, squeezing it past the truck, which had got stuck. "Not Emma. No beauty."
"Felix liked her."
"Felix was a creature of habit."
"Most men are."
Ralph fell silent. He was very fond of his sister; no one should think otherwise. Emma was kind, clever, wise ... and lonely, he'd supposed: a little figure glimpsed on a river bank, while the pleasure craft sped by. This notion of her as a manipulator, of Felix as a little fish that she played at the end of her stick and hook ... Seems unlikely to me, he thought. But then, what do I know?
The journey took them a half hour, through back roads and lanes, through straggling hamlets of red brick or flint cottages, whose only amenity was a postbox; between agribusiness fields, wide open to a vast gray sky. Ralph pulled up with a jolt at the gate of their house. Anna shot forward, one hand on the dashboard and one on her hat. "Can I leave you here? I'm late."
As she unraveled her seat belt, Ralph turned to look at her. "Those people at the funeral, all those friends of Felix's, how many of them do you think knew about him and Emma?"
Anna took her house keys from her bag. "Every one of them."
"How did Ginny bear it?"
"Easily. Or so everyone says." Anna swung her door open and her legs out, setting her high heels daintily into the mud. "What time will you be back?"
"Seven o'clock. Maybe eight."
Nine, then, Anna thought. "Everybody knew except you," she said. "I suppose you still feel a fool."
"I suppose I do." Ralph reached over to close the passenger door. "But then, I still don't see why I should have known. Not as if their affair was the flamboyant sort. Not as if it was ..."he searched for the word"... torrid."
Torrid, Anna thought. She watched him drive away. Interesting how our vocabulary responds, providing us with words we have never needed before, words stacked away for us, neatly folded into our brain and there for our use: like a bride's lifetime supply of linen, or a ducal trove of monogrammed china. Death will overtake us before a fraction of those words are used.
Getting It in the Head Henry Holt and Company
By Mike McCormack
Copyright © 1996 Mike McCormack. All rights reserved.