|Illustration by Posy Simmonds|
Cinderella in Autumn
A new short story by Hilary Mantel
Saturday 19 December 2009 00.05 GMT
hen Cinderella had been married for more than 20 years, and was designing in her mind the engraved invitations to her silver wedding, she resumed the habit of early rising which had served her as a young girl. On autumn mornings, when a mist lay like a veil over the lake, she would climb down the fire escape from the ballroom floor, her coat flung over her nightdress, to catch the day when it was new, the air pure and unbreathed by the ever-expanding city. She would walk the squelching lawns, feet sinking beneath her, and sometimes note beneath the trees clusters of spotted toadstools and the innocent domes of amanita virosa; bone-white, they shone like baby skulls, the spade-turned refuse of some atrocity in the foreign news. She would mark their position with her eye, to tell the weedkillers later; wear gloves, she would advise them (always a thoughtful employer) in case poison seeps through the pores.
At this hour the hum of traffic was still subdued. If within the palace precincts she could find a shaft of weak sun, she stood still, eyelids fluttering, the liquid pleasure of birdsong lapping over her. If the prince saw a bird, he shot it; that was his training, of course, it was his class and, these years on, she knew better than to try to change him. She would pull her coat about her and hurry in, imagining the fig scent of strong coffee and the curls of fresh butter in their chilly monogrammed dish.
But then, just as her wet slippered foot gained the steps of the fire escape, up popped the snappers from the laurels: FLASH! Coarse voices called out to her "Over here, darling", and "At me, Cindi!". Irate, she would blow her whistle for the security patrol, but it was too late. Once again they had trapped her, eyes vague and full of dreams, her face doughy without her makeup: FLASH! And there she'd be next day, spread over three columns of the Daily Intruder: looking angry, looking desperate, her eyes raking the shrubbery for the next source of shock.
Under her breath she said, rat-tat-tat, rat-tat-tat: you're all dead. She did not like herself for it but that was what she said.
By this time she was a plump, comfortable woman, largely impervious to public opinion: and just as well. It has started with the "Fright of the Night" votes in the society listings, crept downward to the cheap gossip magazines; they laughed at her way of getting lipstick on her teeth, pointed out every pound she gained, and ran make-over features: "Oi, Cindi! What Would The Fairy Godmother Say Now?" When you have been made over once in your life, and as thoroughly as she had, further advice was not only superfluous but spiteful. What, did they think she could arrest the hands of time?
She knew her duty; she swathed herself with ermine for the opening of parliament, and on gala nights at the palace she wore her official bosom, an expanse of mottled nakedness swagged with rubies. Private, creamy flesh which she'd once displayed to the prince now seemed tired, creased, unfit for view. She preferred, always had, twill shirts and sensible corduroy skirts with pockets, into which she could thrust a duster or a packet of wet-wipes. Sometimes when taken to tour the homes of the humble people, she had given offence by blurting out, "Look, you haven't got a dustpan, have you?" Even in the palace, under its sparkling domes, her glance would flinch from the dust particles swirling gold in the light; they must settle somewhere, mustn't they? In the long gallery, her fingernail would surreptitiously scrape the underside of a gilded frame; she liked, above all paintings, those Dutch masters in which women with bare forearms are planted foursquare on black-and-white tiles, and a sequence of rooms, newly scrubbed, stretches away from the viewer to a window opened on a clean vista, a neat courtyard with herbs in tubs.
The tabloids had idolised her once. She'd been the people's princess, though in truth her background wasn't poor, only dysfunctional. The prince didn't seem to care much about her old life, and she liked that. "Used to shut her in the broom cupboard, didn't they, poppet?" he would say, to the respectful press men who (in that respectful era) came to write up their romance. "Or was it the bread-bin?" She was slight in those days; he'd pick her up and wheel her around in the air, to the delight of What Wand? or Cinders! magazine. She liked it that he didn't probe and pry; what she had taken for tact, she now knew to be indifference. The truth is, even in the early days he had more of a relationship with her shoes than with herself; and especially with that discarded slipper, the one she'd left behind in her haste and panic, when the clock struck midnight and the ballroom shivered about her like a mirage in a heat-haze. She would see him, in absent moments, caressing the glass heel, which would seem to grow higher under his fingertips.
She never wore the shoes afterwards, not in public: not even at her wedding, when the car with matched ostriches drew her to Stonehenge to be married by the rites of the prince's self-designed church. She could never recapture the graceful carelessness of that single night, her feet scarcely skimming the palace floors; though sometimes, in the early days of the marriage, at his request, she would sit on the edge of their bed, her feet in the glass shoes stuck out stiffly in front of her; and at the unbuttoning of his flies she would fall backwards, and stare up at the monogrammed crown into which were gathered the silken draperies of the bed. Her lashes would flutter, her eyes close, as if in ecstasy; but really, she was squinting up to see if there was any dust trapped in the folds.
Since those days, the romance had gone out of their union. As she said to him, what do you expect if you marry a woman for her foot-size? In recent years, she would find shoe-boxes about their suite – badly concealed under piles of shooting magazines, or wrapped in sweat-soaked tweeds – and she would know the prince was on the hunt for a mistress. A more determined wife might have closed down the glass factory, but they'd only bring in clear resin imports from Asia. "I never," she once said frankly to the prime minister, "expected any of this to last. It was too sudden, you see, too sudden and too simple. Pumpkin: coach. Mice: horses. Rat: coachman. Lizards: footmen. Rags: ballgown."
"And after that, just the dancing, I'd suppose," he said, with sympathy. "Just the dancing, and losing track of the time. It could happen to anybody."
Really? she thought. The fact is, it happened to me. She never ceased to recall the stroke of midnight: the terror that shot through her like the bolt from a stun-gun, the shame as her borrowed finery vaporised and her gold-dusted skin shone through her rags. Almost a quarter of a century and she could still feel it, and regret that it was impossible, however much she wished, to stipulate that official functions ended at five-to-midnight. She would, if she could, have passed it off as the custom of the country; but you can't snatch the brandy glass from an ambassador's hand and boot him into the night. She never ceased to feel an inner tremor as the palace clocks crept to the vertical and the chimes rang out over the rooftops. When they were abroad on state visits, the first thing she did, when she came into a ballroom, was to check the exits: in case she had to make one, quick.
Time passed, as time will. She tried not to introspect. As the prince always said, what's the bally use? After she quit her father's house on the prince's arm (both glass slippers dangling from his free hand, a grin plastered across his perspiring face) she'd never actually been back, and it was years since she'd thought about her family. Her wicked stepmother was long dead and trampled under; her father the baron a smear of grease in a cremation urn. Belinda, the elder stepsister, had passed away after years of painful bunion operations which had never yielded a pleasing result. Jemima, the younger and more ugly of the pair, still lived in the ancestral home; they said she was dementing gently in a downstairs annex, a martyr to chilblains and that general brain-fog that overtakes women who've thought of nothing all their lives but how they look. She expected, in due course, to send a brisk, bristling sort of wreath to Jemima's funeral: and be done with her.
And so the morning paper shocked her: draped across the starched cloth, its sections adrift because the prince had picked out the racing pages. She scooped it up, irritably shaking out the main news: Who's Ugly Now? the headline asked. Beneath: "Palace sources offered no comment last night to claims that Jemima, only surviving sister of Princess Cinderella, is living in squalor."
Cinderella put down the paper and wiped her fingers; the prince had basted one corner with marmalade. "Stepsister," she said. "Oh, this is worse than usual."
"Yerss," the prince said. She used to find it endearing, his drawl.
"They say the roof is falling in. But it always was. 'Speaking, shoeless, from her damp wheelchair, the Hon Jemima claimed, She just waltzed out of our lives and left us in poverty and want.' Do you think I should go and see? It's do it sooner or do it later, I'm afraid. I know Jemima. She just wants money. You know what the press is like these days. They won't let it drop."
"Yerss," said the prince. He himself was going fishing. Besides, he had never visited her old home.
A day later, dismissing her official car, she walked up the path. "A decayed baronial pile," the press had called it. Decayed, certainly, but the family had made its money in glue, and the title was a new one, bought from Lloyd George, and with a money-off coupon at that. The house was no better than stockbroker Tudor, just with more teetering storeys than any Tudor would have indulged; the staircases grew meaner, the rooms more pen-like and useless, as you slogged your way to the top.
Dirty nets hung at the leaded lights, the front garden was overgrown. Digressing from the mossy path, and placing her gloved hand against the latticed iron of the side gate, she gazed into a scene of wind-blown devastation, the orchard unpruned and its trees bowed under a weight of rotting, wormy fruit. The vegetable plots had run to seed; the paths, where she had once raked the gravel twice weekly, were now barely distinguishable from the couch grass that impinged on them.
She pressed her gloved fingers to her mouth; she returned to the porch, and took into her hand the lion-head knocker, feeling its familiar contours; how many times, as a little girl, had she polished it up! It was a sad tarnished object now; it didn't seem likely Belinda or Jemima had bestirred themselves with the Brasso. She heard the echo of her knock in the hollow of the house. She waited. Nobody came; by all accounts, nobody would. She pushed the door; she thought it was bolted, but it was only swollen with damp.
The first thing she saw was that, as she expected, the papers were exaggerating. Those bristling industrial-sized rat-traps had been there in her day; the place was vermin-ridden, the hill behind it riddled with passages where they bred. She sniffed: rat-wee, unmistakable. The hearth in the hall was cold, and a wind-up scrubbing brush was making its desultory way over the flagstones. As she watched, it wound down, flipped itself on its back, and lay there like some toothed alien, whirring uselessly at the ceiling. This kingdom's not made much progress with housework, she thought, despite my personal interest. They can find water on the moon, but they can't invent the self-filling bucket, never mind the self‑scrubbing floor. "Women into Engineering!" That would be my manifesto. If I had a manifesto.
It wasn't squalor, at least not by the standards of her early life. It looked just the way it had when she used to battle to cook and clean each day, single-handed, for her father and her stepmother and the ugly sisters. She'd lay fires and the breakfast table last thing at night, and dawn would find her cracking the ice on the back step, strewing the paths with salt, with cinders, so that no one would slip; in those days, she really didn't want them to slip, orthopaedic emergencies were a thing she dreaded, the ugly sisters were bad enough when ambulant, so imagine them in traction! On a hunting morning, Father would be up and roaring for his Eggs Benedict at 6am, and she'd find that the girls, coming in late and drunk, had playfully coiled their silk stockings in the teapot. An interval for sweeping, scouring and wiping the spiders from the windows, churning the butter and tipping any elf-vagrants or wandering gnomes from the back porch. Three couples of hounds would limp in around 10, muddy from the chase and hungry as wolves. After they were sated they sprawled by the drawing room fire, muddying the Chinese carpet, and if she tried to move them on with a nudge of her toe they snarled at her, flattening their ears; she saw their yellow fangs, reeking with fox blood. The baron lolled the while in his clubman's chair, the leather creaking under him, flicking through wine-merchants' catalogues and barking out his orders for claret by the case. Sometime after 11, Belinda and Jemima would trail down, yawning, wrinkling their noses at the scent of wet dog, and demanding she drop everything and make waffles. Lunch she never managed – not for herself – afternoon found her teasing stepmother's bonnet frills with the goffering iron, running upstairs with her hot chocolate and her pills and her scandal magazines, and always as she reached the foot of the stairs, her mind moving ahead to the next task, she would hear that shrill voice calling out again. "Girl! Girl!" In her leisure moments, she black-leaded the range.
This was her life, year after year: till that astonishing winter when the prince gave the ball, till the sudden migraine flash that was the fairy godmother, a light breaking through her life; and that night of stars and snow, the mice-horses leaping ahead into the gloom, the rat-coachman whistling a patriotic air, the lizard-footmen in their livery clinging to the back of the coach, hallooing and blowing their silver bugles: on, on, through the blizzard and into the palace forecourt blazing with torches, and up the sweeping staircases into the dazzle of candelabra, the glass shoes crunching at every step, so she thought they would splinter and pierce her veins: always climbing, always upwards, until she found the prince himself, ashen inside braided scarlet, his throat working and an empty oyster shell in his hand: his medals chiming as, at the sight of her, he trembled with lust from the top of his plumed head to the tip of his tasselled boot.
Now, back in her old home, she remembered this and felt cold. She stood by the cheerless hearth, which it had been her duty to light; she was just patting herself down for matches, when a slovenly looking girl in a plastic apron burst through from the kitchens. She skidded to a halt and stood staring rudely; "Who you? What want?"
"Just a look around," Cinders said, "If it's not too much trouble."
"Trouble?" the girl said. "I got trouble by the basin-full. Milady Jemima won't shift her fat arse on to the commode."
She spoke with the accent of the country people, their lurching contractions: "You came in with commendable alacrity," the princess said.
"Thought you might be me eff gee."
"Fairy godmother? How quaint of you. Still, I suppose I am that generation, now. Have you been expecting her long?"
The girl grunted. Her legs and feet were bare, her stringy arms were laced with tattoos; still, I shall not judge her, Cinders thought. She turned on her heel and clipped over the flagstones, entering, before the girl or her own good sense could check her, the body of the house. The girl trailed her, sniffing: suspicious still. Surely, though, she knew her by now? Her picture was in the papers every day, in one demeaning context or another.
The dining room seemed disused, the long mahogany table sombre as a coffin. "Gets her slop on a tray," the girl explained. The heads of long-dead stags loomed from her father's walls; as she hesitated in the doorway, a shaft of sunlight crept in from the lancet window above, and their antlers threw, for one wavering moment, a sinister, plaited pattern on the opposite wall. How she had hated the polishing of their glass eyes!
"'Ighness, you want a cuppa?" the girl asked. Sweet little thing! Is it possible – and now the first niggle entered her mind, a maggot – is it possible that she once, that she herself, that she with this country accent, that she with bare feet and no manners but willing and kind, her skin roughened from pegging out wet washing in the wind, her hands boiled, her accent uncouth . . . "What do you get paid for this?" Cinders asked. "Minimum wage?"
The girl nodded.
"More than I got."
The girl shrugged.
"I have a real urge to scrub this floor," Cinders said. "Could you oblige me with the necessary?" Seeing the dubious expression on the girl's face, she said gently, "That would be a pail, dear. A brush, and a source of suds."
Oh, right you are, the girl said.
She rose, puffing from her exertions, a half-hour later; the boards were white beneath her, and her face was red. If the exercise had taught her anything, it was that she was not 18 any more; well, I knew that, she thought, but I thought I was good for a floor or two. "Perhaps I am your eff gee after all," she said to the girl. "Nobody should be doing this for a living."
For while she was labouring on her knees, she had heard a piercing, familiar cry: "Girl! Girl!" In shock, she had dropped her brush in the water; dammit, a ghost! But the girl cried, "I'm on it, Miss Jemima," and sped away; and Cinders realised that her ugly sister had simply learned to imitate her deceased stepmother. Damage rolls down the generations, she thought, names are forfeited: first they call you Cinderella, then just "girl". Roles are played out, empress and scapegoat, passed down the years; grudges flourish, duty goes undone.
"What's up?" the girl said, clumping back with a stone hotwater bottle in her hands.
"Nothing." I'm just squatting here on my haunches, prosing on to myself, she thought, while I could be changing a life. She looked up, "Look, why don't I give you a scholarship to Harvard?"
The girl gaped at her. "I take it very kindly, but what would I do for a brain?"
"Go to the rat trap," Cinders said grandly, "and fetch me a white rat." She giggled. "There can be magic," she said. "It strikes all in a moment."
"She'm calling again," the girl said. "Hark."
Cinders straightened up; a pain shot up and down her spine. Smoothing out the spare plastic apron the girl had lent her, and dusting her wet hands on the backside of her tweed skirt, she made her way to her stepsister's room.
Jemima was hunched into an invalid chair, wearing a shawl that she recognised as one she had crocheted herself, under duress. Her stepsister was, if possible, uglier than ever; a pang pierced the princess, as she remembered how she had prepared Jemima for evenings out, affixing over her warts with spirit gum a thick sprinkling of black velvet patches cut in the shape of moons and stars. The Sky at Night, Belinda used to call her, sneering; there was no solidarity in their ugliness, these sisters. Women beware women.
At first she thought Jemima was asleep. She stood, drinking in the scene; then her stepsister's chins quivered upwards from the shawl. "Well, look who the firk it is! Old Cinderbum, as I live and breathe."
"You barely do either," said the princess.
"Thrown you out, has he?"
"Mind if I sit down, Jem? My back aches." She shoved a pile of unironed laundry to the floor. "You've been talking to the press."
"Got to talk to somebody. Only got that slut of a girl."
"She seems a very good type of girl. In fact I'm sending her to Harvard."
Jemima didn't even blink. "How's the prince? Leaving him, are you? Belinda said it'd never last."
"We've managed 20-odd years. What would you call lasting?"
And yet, did it not flit through her head sometimes at the breakfast table, when he was bespattering the TV guide with sticky crumbs, that a little chopped amanita, seethed in cream, would rot his liver even quicker than those peaty malts he favoured? "I used to be good," she said, realising it. "Charitable unto all. That's why my fairy godmother came through for me. I deserved her. But my fear is, Jem," and as she spoke, she understood it, "I don't deserve it any more. Rat-tat-tat, I think. Bang, you're dead. I have provocation. But even so."
"Life gets you that way," Jemima said. "C'est la bloody vie. How do you think we felt, oppressing you year on year? We'd have subbed you the odd shilling. It was only loyalty to our mother, that's all. You wear down the shoes of your morality, but they're the only sodding shoes you've got. You slop about with the heels squashed down, and floodwater leaching through the soles. Well, so Belinda always said. You know what you've got to do now. Make way for younger talent."
"Don't be ridiculous," she said sharply. "You're not younger than me, nor do you look it."
"You'll get some sort of pay-off, I reck-on. I don't suppose he had a pre-nup."
"No. Too romantic. He used to swoon with passion every time I . . ." She broke off, for decency's sake. Now was not the time to be boasting to Jemima about her feet and their abilities. They ached now, even snuggled into the kid-soft loafers made on her own last.
"Where will you go?" Jemima sniggered. "No use thinking you can use this as a bolt-hole. Belinda sold off her half before she died. Mine's mortgaged to the hilt. When I go, the estate will just about cover the debts. What the chancellor doesn't swipe, that is. Let's hope the Tories get in next, eh?"
"They told me you were gaga. You sound all right to me. Sitting there, tax planning, like some evil spider." She stood up. "I'll be back. Just going up to the garrets."
Jemima's laughter, in fancy at least, followed her up. As she paused on the first landing, where the principal chambers were, she thought she inhaled the scent of camphor and cologne, of spot cream and cheap deodorant, that had characterised the closets of her stepsisters. Another flight, and she had to stop and catch her breath . . . Would I, she thought, give it all to be young and lovely again, to float up here on my cloud of hope? Because I was lovely, because I never gave up hope . . . She laboured on, to the very top floor. The very room she used to sleep in, the sliver of a room under the stars . . . she pushed the door.
The straw pallet in the corner was the same, the cracked boards that supported it, with their mouseholes: the sparse cold rays were the same, filtering through the smeared skylight. There on the wall was her dear dead mother's picture: veiled, as it always had been, at her stepmother's insistence, with a dirty dishcloth. Stepmother had kept it moist with old tea-leaves from the dregs of the pot, with unmentionable wipings from her lavatory, but now the rag was stiff as an old corpse; and, like an old corpse, persistently stinky. Cinders twitched it aside. The sweet, dead face, faded now, smiled into hers, and – an involuntary twitch of the facial muscles – she smiled back.
She heard the feet of the slut on the stairs. She stood, absently rubbing the small of her back, till the girl's head butted into view from the narrow staircase. "There you be," the girl said. She nodded to the picture on the wall. "I give the old lady a wipe from time to time. Herself insists on the dishcloth, though."
"I think you've almost scrubbed her out. She looks blurred, or is it me? Still, you meant well. Look, about Harvard –". She hesitated, twisting her foot on the floor, examining her polished toe. "I realise it's a bit sudden. You probably haven't even got a passport, or a scholar's gown? You should come on our preparatory scheme. The prince's scheme, I should say. He's very proud of it. It brings out your potential and fits you for a destiny."
"It fit you for what?"
"Oh, good God, girl, have you no concept of a destiny? You improve your literacy, if any. You go white-water rafting."
"I'm not sure. The prince thinks it character building." What am I doing, she thought: selling it to her, as if I were one of his employees? Habit, I suppose. "You don't get a wage, but you get spending money. It's just for a year. We can do Harvard later. We just need to coach you a bit . . ." The girl turned down the corners of her mouth. She heard her own voice rattling on. "You get a cardigan every Christmas. I knit them myself."
"Very nice," the girl said flatly. Oh, Cinders thought, the underestimated tact of the lower classes!
The girl turned aside, as if to galumph downstairs. Then, as if struck by a thought, she turned: "Wait – you say I get coached. Would I get to meet the prince?"
"If you want," Cinders said dubiously. "I warn you to abandon any romantic fantasies. He's quite bald nowadays, and always with an unheeded dew-drop at the end of his royal nose." She saw herself, year upon year, patiently passing a handkerchief, linen folded and stiffly embroidered with his coat of arms. "Besides," she sighed, "he wouldn't like your feet."
The girl looked down: toes calloused, ankles puffy, nails broad and ridged under peeling scarlet polish. "Things can be done," she said.
"Don't go down that road. Not surgery. It killed Belinda."
"I wasn't thinking surgery."
She sped away. Amazing how fast feet like that can carry you.
Cinders turned back to her dead mother. Let's be truthful, she thought, she's flaking in her frame. But she stood before the painting (never more than an amateur daub), framing it with her hands; she looked at close range, she stared, till the ridges of the paint, the image itself, lost resolution. Unsighted, she felt it with her fingertips, reading it like a blind woman, from the brushstrokes and their traces; I am searching, I am searching, maman, chère maman, for any clue as to how to lead my life from this point on.
A catch in her throat. She took a deep breath. Trouble with tears, somebody has to wipe them up. Come on, Cinders, she said to herself. The room, now she thought of it, smelled: a whiff of desperation from her early self. She walked to the little window. There was a web, which she blew away; she could not blow away the cracks in the glass. She took out her handkerchief, spat on it, and polished a circle in the grime. Below, in the neglected vegetable plots, she discerned a pattern of activity. She could see tattoo girl, her back bent, pushing and nudging along the path a certain object, striped and stippled, solid and elliptical. She blinked, as if to unweb her own eyes, as if to dismiss her fog of nostalgia, the accumulated illusion of the years, but this was no illusion. The slut had got hold of a pumpkin somehow; puffing, effortful, grimly determined, she was rolling it over the rough ground, and up the path towards her future.