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Authors: Margot Livesey

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Coming of Age

The House on Fortune Street

BOOK: The House on Fortune Street
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For Andrea Barrett

Contents

 

1

A Soft Nest 1

2

I Mark this Day with a White Stone 73

3

The Feast of Epiphany 155

4

The Marshes 229

 

Acknowledgments About the Author

Other Books by Margot Livesey Credits

Cover Copyright

About the Publisher

 

 

 

 

he letter came, deceptively, in the kind of envelope a businesslike friend, or his supervisor, might use. It was typed on rather heavy white paper and signed with the pleasing name of Beth Giardini. Sean read the brief paragraphs twice, admiring the mixture of courtesy and menace. Perhaps it had escaped his notice that he was overdrawn by one hundred and twenty-eight pounds? As he doubtless recalled, the bank had waived the penalty last time; this time, regret-fully, they must impose their normal fee. Would he kindly telephone to

discuss the matter at his earliest convenience?

Sitting in the empty kitchen, surrounded by the evidence of Abigail’s hasty departure, Sean understood that he was suffering from what his beloved Keats had called bill pestilence. When he was still living in Oxford, still married, most people he knew, including himself and his wife, were poor but their poverty hadn’t seemed to matter. Of course he had yearned after expensive books and sometimes, walking at night, he and Judy had stopped to gaze enviously through the windows of the large lit-up houses, but for the most part his needs had fitted his income. In London, however, living with Abigail, the two had rapidly fallen out of joint, as Sean was only too well aware. This letter was not the result of any reckless extravagance. For six months he had been trying to cut back on photocopying and refusing invitations to the pub.

 

Now gazing at Abigail’s plate, rimmed with crumbs and one glisten-ing fragment of marmalade, he did his best not to dwell on all the steps, large and small, that had brought this letter to his door. Instead he concentrated on the hundred and twenty-eight pounds, not a huge sum but a serious amount to borrow and, realistically, he would need more, at least two hundred, to remain solvent. On the back of the envelope he jotted down dates and numbers: when he might receive his small salary from the theater, when various bills were due. The figures were undeni-able, and irreconcilable.

He tried to think of people from whom he might borrow: his brother, one or two Oxford friends, his old friend Tyler. Much longer and more immediately available was the list of those whom he could not ask; his thrifty parents and Abigail jostled for first place. But then his second slice of toast popped up, and so did a name: Valentine. Sean had vowed, after their last book together, not to take on anything else until he had finished his dissertation, but such a vow, made only to the four walls of his study, was clearly irrelevant in the light of this current emergency. At once the figures on the envelope grew a little less daunting. With luck Valentine’s agent would be able to find them another project soon. And if he knew he had money coming in, Sean thought, he could phone the bank and arrange a sensible overdraft.

He was reaching for the marmalade when he heard a sound at the front door. Thinking Abigail had forgotten something, he seized the letter, thrust it into the pocket of his jeans, and tried to impersonate a man having a leisurely breakfast. But it was only someone deliver-ing a leaflet, one of the dozens advertising pizza or estate agents that arrived at the house each day. In the silent aftermath Sean couldn’t help noticing that his familiar surroundings had taken on a new intensity; the sage-colored walls were more vivid, the stove shone more brightly, the refrigerator purred more insistently, the glasses gleamed. His home here was in danger.

 

our days later Sean was sitting on Valentine’s sofa, scan-

ning the theater reviews in the newspaper, while across the room Valentine talked to his agent on the phone.

“So, it’ll be the usual three payments?” The response elicited brisk note taking. Then Sean heard his name. “Yes, Sean and I are doing this together. He’ll keep my nose to the grindstone.”

Giving up all pretense of reading, he set aside the paper and studied his friend. In his gray linen shirt and expensive jeans, Valentine looked ready to hold forth, at a moment’s notice, on some television arts pro-gram. His canary yellow hair had darkened in the last few years, and his features, which when he was an undergraduate used to crowd the middle of his face, had now taken up their proper places between his square chin and his high forehead. Even in June, Sean noticed, he was already mysteriously tanned.

“Excellent,” said Valentine. Glancing up from the notebook, he twitched the corners of his mouth. After several more superlatives he hung up. “Well,” he said, rubbing his hands, “I think this calls for an early drink.”

He refused to say more until he had fetched a beer for Sean, and a gin and tonic for himself. Then he raised his glass and broke the news. His agent, Jane, had called to say that the Belladonna Society, a small but well-funded organization founded soon after the First World War, was commissioning a handbook for euthanasia. “They want to make the case for legalizing euthanasia and to give an overview of the medical stuff. They’ll provide most of the material but there’ll be some research and we’ll have to do interviews with medical personnel, relatives.”

As Valentine described the society’s proposal, the number of pages, and the pay, Sean felt a cold finger run down his spine. “But isn’t this like telling people how to kill themselves?” he said. “Isn’t it better not to know certain things?”

 

“I don’t think so.” Valentine swirled his gin and tonic. “As I understand it the information is out there anyway. Our job is to present it in the sanest, most lucid form. Just because you give someone a gun,” he added, his chin rising fractionally to meet Sean’s objections, “doesn’t mean they have to use it.”

“I think people usually do feel they have to use guns,” Sean said. “And I think whoever gave them the gun is partly responsible. Couldn’t Jane find us something else?”

Feigning exasperation, or perhaps genuinely annoyed, Valentine popped his eyes, a trick that Sean had been observing for over a decade without being able to decide whether his friend could actually move his eyeballs, or if they bulged anyway and he merely flexed the lids. “Not immediately,” he said. “And I don’t see how I could ask her to. She worked hard to put this deal together. The society is paying surprisingly well.”

Faced with the compelling argument of his finances, not to mention Valentine’s, Sean was at a loss. How could he explain that any major decision had always felt to him like a kind of death, an irrevocable clos-ing down of certain possibilities; he had no desire to spend his days in the company of people who really were making a fatal choice. Besides, Valentine had already changed the topic. Had Sean heard that one of their former tutors was doing a television series on utopian communities, beginning with medieval clerics and going all the way to Findhorn?

 

y the time Sean pried himself free, after one more beer, the book was a foregone conclusion. Outside, the gloom of the June evening mirrored his feelings. It was nearly midsummer, but the sky was overcast, and at the underground station a chill wind sliced across the platform. He paced restlessly from one vending machine to

 

another, trying to resist the memories that Valentine’s remarks about Oxford had aroused. Eventually the train faltered into the station and, after several minutes, departed in the same uncertain fashion. They limped south to Brixton. Above ground again Sean discovered the pavement speckled with rain. When he turned into Fortune Street the sycamore trees on either side were fluttering light and dark in the wind. Underfoot, dead leaves crackled, creating the momentary illusion that, during the hours he had spent with Valentine, the entire summer had passed by.

The house came into view. As so often these days, the upstairs windows, behind which he and Abigail lived, were dark; she was, he recalled, at one of her endless meetings. Downstairs, however, in Dara’s flat, a window glowed. Briefly he considered knocking at her door. Dara was Abigail’s oldest friend—they had met, like him and Valentine, at university—and she now worked as a counselor at a women’s center in Peckham. A few weeks ago, when he’d run into her on the way home, she had invited him in for coffee. He had found himself sitting in her pleasant living room, complaining about Abigail’s busyness: ever since she started the theater, she never seemed to have a moment; there was always a patron to be wooed, an actor to be coaxed or coached. Dara had been reassuring: Abigail was such a perfectionist, the theater would be on a better footing soon. Nonetheless he had returned upstairs with the sense that he had opened a book that ought to be kept tightly closed. Now he could feel that, given the chance, he would once again reveal to Dara’s solicitous gaze what should remain hidden. He took out his keys and continued to his part of the house.

Inside he turned on lights, debated another beer, settled for tea, and sat down with a stack of plays. He had started reading scripts for Abigail’s theater a little over a year ago—his official title was literary manager—and at first he had longed to write to each author, personally and at length, about how his or her work might be improved. But he

 

had soon realized that the vast majority of the plays that flooded into the theater office were mediocre, or worse. His job was not so much to succor talent, as the soul-deadening one of saying no, no, no. He had learned to read quickly and savagely. Often weeks passed without his encountering a single submission that merited even a complete reading, let alone a second one. Still Abigail insisted that he was doing vital work. Finding new playwrights was one of the ways the Roustabout Theater would create an identity, which, given that the company had no actual theater, only a name, an office, and half a dozen underpaid employees, was particularly important.

The first couple of scripts he dismissed after a few pages. A look at the cast list of the third—eleven Girl Guides and a monster—was enough to place it in the reject pile. He reached for the fourth. At the sight of the title, Half in Love, the line rose to his lips: “‘Oft-times I have been half in love with easeful death.’” And when he turned to the cast list, there were the familiar names: John Keats, Fanny Brawne, Benjamin Bailey, Joseph Severn, Fanny Keats. Sean felt a surge of indigna-tion. If anyone was going to write a bad play about his favorite poet, it ought to be he. He had memorized “To Autumn” when he was sixteen to impress a reluctant girlfriend; almost a decade later Keats had played a crucial role in his meeting with his future wife; and for the last six years, nearly seven, he had gone over and over the poet’s brief life as he struggled with his dissertation. Now, alone in the empty flat, he gave in to the memories that had, since he left Valentine’s, been begging for attention.

A few weeks into the first term of his doctorate, Sean had attended a lecture on the Romantics. He had carefully chosen a seat between two empty chairs in the back row where, if the don failed to live up to his reputation, he could read unobserved. But just as the lecture was about to begin, a woman hurried in and sank into the chair on his left.

 

“The Romantics,” proclaimed the don,“have the distinction of being not only the first coherent movement in British poetry but also the first self-conscious movement. That self-consciousness, however, had severe limitations.”

Sean glanced over to see that his companion, whose head barely reached his shoulder, had her notebook open and was writing down the don’s remarks interspersed with exclamations: Rubbish! Balderdash! Crap! Bollocks! . . .

The don moved on to Keats and she turned to a new page. “In the first fifteen years of his life Keats lost both parents, his grandfather, and a younger brother. His beloved brother Tom died when the poet was twenty-three, shortly before he started the ‘Eve of St. Agnes.’ When he wrote, ‘The death or sickness of someone has always spoilt my hours,’ he was being absolutely literal. No wonder the question of immortality seemed so pressing, even before his own illness. He believed, intellectu-ally and viscerally, as he asserts in the magisterial opening of Endymion, that ‘A Thing of Beauty is a joy forever.’

“As for women—” The don sighed. “Sometimes I think he would have given all his great odes to be four inches taller.” He began to quote from a letter Keats had written in 1818 to his friend Benjamin Bailey: “‘When I was a Schoolboy I thought a fair Woman a pure Goddess, my mind was a soft nest in which some one of them slept though she knew it not . . .’”

When the lecture ended the woman turned to Sean. “Excuse me,” she said—she had a dimple in one cheek and a long, graceful neck—“but wasn’t that awfully predictable?”

Sean had agreed that it was, and suggested a drink. Later he learned that arriving at the last minute and having strong opinions were two of Judy’s more consistent traits. Like Sean, she claimed Keats as her favorite poet; she felt a special closeness with him, she joked, because she was the same height. “You’d have towered over him,” she said. She

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