Pagan and her Parents: Extract

Leo, the narrator of the novel, here admits to his dead friend, Candida, that he has flouted her wishes and invited her parents to meet their granddaughter, Pagan, an invitation that has huge repercussions for all concerned.

I have betrayed you. I hardly dare say it, but I have seen your parents. And yet somehow I feel that you know already. As we sit drinking tea, the air is heavy with disapproval… although how much of it is yours and how much theirs, I cannot be sure.

Your spirit remains alive, if only in my consciousness. You would dismiss any larger claim as superstition, as grotesque a negation of nature as Mae West’s skin; eternal youth or eternal souls are both equally vain. But I feel you in my every moment; you make the past part of the present. I speak to you of it – from it – and I know that I am not speaking to myself. So I pick up my pen… my life has become one of paper intimacies. And yet, for you, I fear that it is an endless frustration. ‘You used to have such good stories; tell me something I don’t already know.’

I think that I would prefer an old-style spirit, a guardian angel or vengeful ghost, someone always at hand with a word of warning; then I might have been better prepared… there again, you have warned me against them for nineteen years.

The first indication is an envelope: an indistinct postmark, an unfamiliar hand. It has the copper-plate confidence of a poison-pen letter; and yet it has not been forwarded from the BBC. I turn to the signature: yours sincerely, Muriel Mulliner. My pulse quickens. Pagan laughs; I have sunk my wrists in the marmalade. Then she sees my face.

‘Is it a nasty letter?’

‘Just a bill. Eat up or we’ll be late for school.’

‘Good. I hate it. I’m going to run away.’

‘And who won a gold star last week?’

‘I like it really.’

‘I should think so too. Now hurry up and let Susan wipe your face.’

‘It’s not as sticky as your sleeve.’

‘Cheeky monkey.’

We pick up two of her friends, Phoebe and Stephanie; the morning run has changed now that the Sampsons have returned to Washington. I might as well be wearing a peaked hat for all the notice that they take of me. Pagan tells them about our Sunday trip to the zoo. She watched two lemurs very actively mating. I watched the crowd. Some parents withdrew their children instantly as though from an accident; others laughed as the rampant male pushed the recalcitrant female round and round the compound. And I thought what would they say if they came upon two people making delicate love discreetly in the park proper. ‘What animals! What beasts!’ And we moved on to the reptile house.

‘It was yucky,’ Pagan says. ‘Ginormous snakes, all thick and slimy.’

‘Snakes aren’t slimy, darling; they’re warm and hard.’ There is a shocked silence as they register that I have been listening: a breach of etiquette on a Lord Chamberlain scale. Pagan continues in a pointed whisper.

‘I hare snakes. When I grow up, I’m going to live in Ireland.’


‘Cos there aren’t any. A wizard sang a song and they all wriggled into the sea.’

‘Are they still there?’

‘No, silly. It was in history.’

‘They might have babies.’

Pagan ponders. ‘It’s alright living in Ireland, but not swimming.’

‘I expect they put up a notice like when there’s a storm.’

‘Where my granny lives in Cornwall, when there’s a storm, the beach is full of dead fishes,’ says Stephanie.

‘I ‘spect in Ireland there’ll be dead snakes,’ says Phoebe.

‘Urgh,’ says Stephanie, ‘that’ll be worse.’

We arrive at school. All my lingering fears about Pagan’s depression disappear with her in the mass of squealing five-year-olds. I chat to Barbara Newsom who persists in her request to interview me for the Evening Standard. She wants to know how I am coping on my own with a young girl. I distrust her motives and deflect the offer. I return home and re-read your mother’s letter. I know from the start that it will be bad news. She writes that she would like to discuss Pagan’s future. There is far too much to say by phone or on paper, so will I be so kind as to arrange to meet her and her husband? They will be glad to come up to London. My first instinct is to refuse. I am Pagan’s testamentary guardian; they have never even seen her; there is nothing to discuss. But then I relent. I never understood your grudge against your parents. Besides, it might be useful for Pagan to discover a family that is more than a courtesy one; she asked me last week why all her aunts were only pretend. This is the nearest that she has to blood.

So, against my better judgement, I invite them to tea. I don’t know why I spend so long tidying up… or rather, I do and I don’t like it. I refuse to allow Pagan to play downstairs, which only confirms her in her – in your – prejudice.

‘I don’t see why I have to see them. They were cruel to my mummy and she hated them.’

‘She didn’t hate them. It’s all very complicated.’

‘She did too. And you know it.’

‘Wouldn’t you like to have grandparents? They live by the seaside. Perhaps we’ll go for the day.’

‘I want to go to Butlins.’

‘And I expect they’ll bring you a present. Grandparents always bring presents.’

‘You give me presents. You said you’d give me anything I wanted.’

‘Now you’ll have even more.’

‘If you say you’re going to do something, you have to do it or else you’ll be a liar.’

She snaps at Susan when she tries to change her dress. She doesn’t see why she has to put it on; it makes her itch. But Susan can afford to be stricter; she has references for her role. I am still discovering mine.

The doorbell rings on the stroke of four. It is as if the chimes are synchronised. I am used to a world of fashionable lateness; these are people who run their lives by the clock. Consuela lets them in with an air of dignified disapproval. Pagan and I greet them in the hall. I cannot decide whether it is her hand sweating or mine.

They look so old. I suddenly wonder if the reason for your adoption is that they married late; although I know that in truth they cannot be much more than seventy. But then they are the kind of people who thrive on old age; as if they have been waiting for it all their lives; the respect that they have not earned by any other means, the deference they demand as their due: people to call him ‘sir’ and stand up for her on buses… not, I am sure, that they ever use them, but supposing they should.

‘Hello,’ your mother says to Pagan. ‘I’m Granny.’

‘You’re old, aren’t you?’ comes her instant, obsessional reply.

‘I suppose I am. Although no well-brought up child ever mentions a lady’s age. Especially since there’s nothing she can do.’

‘You could buy a bikini.’ I apologise for my cough.