Hardcover, 288 pages
Publisher: Del Rey (June 2015)
Selected by Mary Mount
“Mantel is known for her historical fiction but I am even keener on her work set in the modern world – these stories are equally as witty, dark and compelling.” —Mary Mount
Twice winning the Booker Prize has established Hilary Mantel as one of the most essential voices in contemporary English letters. But Mantel has not been shy in attracting criticism. This book, her second collection of short stories, was berated by the Daily Mail for its vivid imagining of the killing of the famous Tory Prime Minister. Other stories, like the one from which this extract is taken, conjure masterfully with a sense of the macabre in the everyday, setting their sights on the complacencies of bourgeois life.
FROM WINTER BREAK
By the time they arrived at their destination, they could no longer recognise their own name. The taxi driver stabbed the air with his placard while they stood gawping up and down the line, until Phil pointed and said, “That’s us.” Little peaks had grown over the Ts in their surname, and the dot on the “i” had drifted away like an island. She rubbed her cheek, numbed by the draught from the air vent above her seat; the rest of her felt creased and gritty, and while Phil bustled towards the man, waving, she picked the cloth of her T-shirt away from the small of her back, and shuffled after him. We dress for the weather we want, as if to bully it, even though we’ve seen the forecast.
The driver laid a hairy, proprietorial hand on their baggage trolley. He was a squat man with the regulation moustache, and he wore a twill zipped jacket with a tartan lining peeping from under it; as if to say, forget your sunshine illusions. The plane was late and it was already dark. He flung open a rear door for her and humped their bags into the back of his estate car. “Long way,” was all he said.
“Yes, but pre-paid,” Phil said.
The driver plumped down in his seat with a leathery creak. When he slammed his door the whole vehicle shuddered. The front headrests had been wrenched off, so when he swivelled his body to reverse he threw his arm across both seatbacks and stared past her unseeing, an inch from her face, while she examined his nostril hair by the giddy flash of the car park’s lights. “Sit back, darling,” Phil told her. “Seatbelt on. Away we go.”
How suited he would have been to fatherhood. Whoopsey-daisy. There, there. No harm done.
But Phil thought otherwise. Always had. He preferred to be able to take a winter break during the school term, when hotel rates were lower. For years now he had passed her newspapers, folded to those reports that tell you how children cost a million pounds before they’re 18. “When you see it set out like that,” he’d say, “it’s frightening. People think they’ll get away with hand-me-downs. Half-portions. It doesn’t work like that.”
“But our child wouldn’t have a drug addiction,” she’d say. “Not on that scale. It wouldn’t be bright enough for Eton. It could go down the road to Hillside Comp. Although, I hear they have head lice.”
“And you wouldn’t want to deal with that, would you?” he said: a man laying down his ace.
They inched through the town, the pavements jostling, the cheap bars flashing their signs, and Phil said, as she knew he would, “I think we made the right decision.” A journey of an hour lay ahead, and they speeded up through the sprawling outskirts; the road began to climb. When she was sure that the driver did not want conversation she eased herself back in her seat. There were two types of taxi man: the garrulous ones with a niece in Dagenham, who wanted to talk right the way out to the far coast and the national park; and the ones who needed every grunt racked out of them, who wouldn’t tell you where their niece lived if they were under torture. She made one or two tourist remarks: how had the weather been? “Raining. Now I smoke,” the man said. He thrust a cigarette right from the packet into his mouth, juggling a lighter and at one point taking his hands from the wheel entirely. He drove very fast, treating each swerve in the road as a personal insult, fuming at any hold-up. She could feel Phil’s opinions banking up behind his teeth: now that won’t do the gearbox any good, will it? At first, a few cars edged past them, creeping down to the lights of the town. Then the traffic thinned and petered out. As the road narrowed, black and silent hills fell away behind them. Phil began to tell her about the flora and fauna of the high maquis1.
She had to imagine the fragrance of herbs crushed underfoot. The car windows were sealed against the still, cool night, and she turned her head deliberately away from her husband and misted the glass with her breath. The fauna was mostly goats. They tumbled down the hillsides, stones cascading after them, and leapt across the path of the car, kids running at their heels. They were patched and particoloured, fleet and heedless. Sometimes an eye gleamed furtive in a headlight. She twitched at the seatbelt, which was sawing into her throat. She closed her eyes.
At Heathrow Phil had been a pain in the security queue. When the young man in front of them bent to pick laboriously at the laces of his hiking boots, Phil said loudly, “He knows he has to take his shoes off. But he couldn’t just have slip-ons, like the rest of us.”
“Phil,” she whispered, “it’s because they’re heavy. He wants to wear his boots so they don’t count as baggage.”
“I call it selfish. Here’s the queue banking up. He knows what’s going to happen.”
The hiker glanced up from the tail of his eye. “Sorry, mate.”
“One day you’ll get your head punched in,” she said.
“We’ll see, shall we?” Phil said: singing it, like a child in a playground game.
Once, a year or two into their marriage, he had confessed to her that he found the presence of small children unbearably agitating: the unmodulated noise, the strewn plastic toys, the inarticulate demands that you provide something, fix something, though you didn’t know what it was.
“On the contrary,” she said. “They point. They shout, ‘Juice’.”
He nodded miserably. “A lifetime of that,” he said. “It would get to you. It would feel like a lifetime.”
 Maquis is a drought-resistant shrubland vegetation of the Mediterranean region.