Before she had time to scramble to her feet the intruder was upon them; not the Reverend Teller, but a wild youth, brawny and stubble-headed, wearing boots the equal of the vicar’s, and with leather thongs binding each wrist.
‘Jesus,’ Alastair breathed. He sized up the lad and knew he was no match. They were at his mercy. Do something, Scab, he thought, distract him, offer him your body.
‘We weren’t doing no harm, mister,’ he said in a whining voice. ‘Don’t beat us up, we’ll leave peaceable, honest.’
The youth’s beefy chest heaved. He reached forward; Alistair was taken up by the front of his zipper jacket and held, skull to hairless skull.
‘Where’s that friggin’ Austin?’ the youth demanded.
‘Never saw him,’ Alastair said gamely. ‘Who are you? Aw, gerrof, don’t torture me.’
‘Me?’ said the youth. He breathed into Alistair’s putty face. ‘I’m his friggin’ probation officer.’ 214
Who else but the wonderful Hilary Mantel in her pre-Wolf Hall days, the days when she let rip with her changeling self. In comparison with her early work, Wolf Hall (much as I like it) is a surprisingly conventional work. Re-reading Vacant Possession, which was first published in 1987, I was reminded again what an outlaw, what a renegade, she is by nature, a demonic writer who says to us, ‘I’m not making this up. It’s like that, you know it is.’ And we do know it, though most of the time we don’t choose to think about it: human beings are just as deep, dark and strange as they are in these early books (Every Day is Mother’s Day, Vacant Possession, Fludd, Beyond Black.) Forget the lurid prose of horror stories and the manufactured creepiness of vampire tales; this is the real thing, scary, challenging and deeply disturbing to our sense of the reliable ordinariness of life – and at the same time funny, very funny (fiendish glee, says the blurb), and with a beautifully merciless turn of phrase:
Ryan was still flushed, his thin straw hair stuck up in tufts where he had raked his fingers through it when he talked about Isabel. He was a mass of little tics, of amoral reflexes, of tiny mental knee-jerks that kept him out of guilt and anguish and justified himself to himself 166
It’s the blackest of black comedies about the welfare state under Thatcher. It’s also, as the title suggests, about a house haunted by the cruelty, deprivation and malice that’s been played out in it so that it can never make a home for the family that comes into it later. If Mantel doesn’t exactly believe in ghosts, she does seem to believe in the power of unhappiness to haunt places and to influence the people who live in them. And she certainly believes in a psychic wasteland where unwanted humans like her character Muriel Axon live, in which they’re drawn into a kind of magic thinking to put some order into that wasteland.
I was trying to think, as I read, who she reminds me of in this book, and the two I came up with were Muriel Spark, though she is a more domesticated beast than Mantel, and the great Australian Patrick White. Even though White has a much grander (and more grandiose) project, he has a similar attraction to, and feeling for, the battered, the outcast, the extreme character who just doesn’t fit the accepted mould, and there’s a similarly surreal take on the stolid pieties of the mainstream. But I can’t imagine Patrick White writing about the friggin’ probation officer.