The House on Shaftesbury Hill
Like Fyodor Pavlovich Karamazov, Peter Schwartz has four sons, by several different women, and any number of other people who would shed few tears if they heard of his premature demise. But when it happens, journalist Frank Stern finds himself investigating a great deal more than "did he fall or was he pushed?" Set in the last years of Thatcherism, The House on Shaftesbury Hill explores the relationship between sex, power and money, between the moral and the immoral and the amoral forces that drive modern civilisation.
“There was a conversation one evening which for some reason turned to Freud, and an explanation given, not by me, of his concept of the three tiers of human personality: the Id, the Ego and the Superego. It occurred to me that it might make an interesting structure for a novel: a family comprised of three brothers, each living on a different storey of the same house, each representing one of those three archetypes. I put the idea away in the back of my mind, no more than a title at this stage. Some weeks later, desperate for a good book to read, I went trawling round the shelves of various friends to see what I might borrow. The result was Dostoievski’s 'Brothers Karamazov', which had provided a major element of my final undergraduate paper; but why not re-read it? Previously it had been the philosophical aspects that drew me in; now I read it as a thriller, a detective story, a whodunnit, and realised the commercial novel I had always thought beyond me was writeable after all. I had no plot, but between the 'Brothers Freud' and the 'Brothers Karamazov', focused on the complicated murder of the complicated father in both cases, I had a seed. It would take ten years to harvest, but these were the sources of 'The House on Shaftesbury Hill'."
In this excerpt, several of the suspects are in Jersey, plotting to take over the Schwartz empire, and learning a few secrets into the bargain:
A great line of hills and coombes ran along the island's spine like some prehistoric dinosaur, coming down to the level plain about a mile from the sea. From the brow of that last hill the view was extraordinary: the sea on one side; and on the other, miles of lush farmland, tumoured occasionally by mounds and tumuli, some natural, others man-made millennia ago for human burials. And where the marshy plain ran out, a further line of hills rose up, its peaks half-hidden in the misty haze of early morning. From the terrace Mary was watching a farmer on the road below, holding up such traffic as there was as he struggled to persuade his herd to walk towards the milking-sheds rather than browse among the hedgerow looking for an extra breakfast. A tiny biplane buzzed the hotel, probably James again, as obsessive about his new toy as Bobby was about his game-boy, the son hunched over his buttons, pursuing Super Mario or learning to fly by simulator, the father practicing a whole display of aerobatics through the dense, white cloud. Fortunately he hadn't insisted on showing off his circus tricks the previous afternoon, when it was he who'd flown the Cessna into Dewsbury to pick them up. The flight had been terrifying enough without him playing fairgrounds - an electric storm had come up over the Channel, when they were too far out to turn back, but not yet far enough in to be confident of ever arriving. But James was clearly a most skilful pilot. And Tim, dangerholic that he was, was loving every minute of it, mischievously whistling "The Grand Old Duke of York" as if deliberately to exacerbate her terror. But they had, eventually, landed.
"My dear, you really must have some of this delicious croissant."
Mary's breakfast companion was chewing, or gobbling rather, in great leonine bites and mastications. She might never have tasted jam before, the way she was spreading it, layer upon layer, and picking out the bits of fruit as well.
"James gives me a treat three times a year: Easter, Christmas and my birthday," she was muttering, but clearly very keen to tell, through a most unpolite mouthful. "It's all very hush-hush. But great fun. I tell my friends I'm going to visit relatives, and they all imagine I'm sitting in a caravan in Morecambe or something of the sort. James is very good to me."
By the look of her, a caravan in Morecambe would have been far more appropriate. Indeed, partying as she was amongst so many jet-setters and debutantes and tax-exiles, not to mention the occasional publisher's secretary, her dowdy clothes and provincial manner could have suggested some former cook who'd won a game-show prize. Her fingernails were as brittle as a housemaid's.
"You're a friend of the family then?" Mary wondered.
It was, in truth, an entirely reasonable question.
But the woman burst out laughing.
"A friend of the family!" she roared. "A friend of the family! Oh, I'm sorry, it's very rude of me I know. But the very idea of it. Oh no, nobody could possibly consider me a friend of the family. I was James' mother."
So that Mary was spluttering her tea.
"We haven't been introduced." The woman was apparently accustomed to such a reaction. Indeed enjoyed, positively encouraged it. While holding out a very formal hand. "Elizabeth Jennings," she said. "You must be Mrs Levington."
Would a woman who spoke politely with her mouth full also be the sort to mix up her moral values?
"I'm not yet Mrs Levington," Mary dared to venture. And showed the ring. "We haven't set a date yet, but probably next Spring."
Or never. But unlike the loquacious Mrs Jennings, Mary wasn't the sort to go divulging personal details to a complete stranger.
Mrs Jennings appeared anyway to have switched off, unless it was the thought of weddings, which had aroused a memory, or reverie, in her.
"Hold him to his promise, dear," she did eventually reply, most conspiratorially in fact. And leaned so far forward over the table that the sleeve of her dress trailed in the butter. "James' father kept promising to marry me, you know. By the time I discovered he was already married, it was too late to get rid of the baby."
Mary could have been wondering why the woman was telling her all this. Her face, lined and wrinkled with age, had creased still further. The eyes revealed a pain too deep to be expressed in mere words, which tend to trivialise practically everything, or leave themselves open to misinterpretation. But there was no misinterpreting that face, which clearly wished, or simply needed, to confide.
Albeit without the boy hearing.
Though he was so wrapped up in his Nintendo that even an atom bomb wouldn't have disturbed him.
"Although he has several, James' father doesn't like children. It's the making of them that he goes in for."
Had she not wrinkled her mouth to suggest that she was only jesting, Mary might have taken the remark with the caustic it contained. But Mrs Jennings hadn't finished.
"Between you and me, James isn't the only child to grow up thinking that his parents are his parents, when actually only one is."
She was nodding her head most meaningfully. And might even have gone in for a full tapping of the nose and winking of the eye, only it was apparent that Mary hadn't the feintest idea who she was referring to. So Mrs Jennings poured all three of them another cup of tea. And drew Bobby's attention to an untouched bowl of Frosties. She couldn't resist just one more buttered croissant.
"James was nearly thirty before his father told him," she continued telling. "Mind you, the woman he thought was his mother had gone and divorced his father years before."
"Had you never seen him?"
"Who - James? Oh, yes. But not officially. Not as his mother anyway. It wouldn't have been right. No, Peter brought him up. He was very good to me though. I live with Peter's mother, you see. What the fancy people call an amanuensis. Which means I cook her meals and do her laundry and put the bed-pan under her. Lot better than a convent."
Mary was looking perplexed, so Mrs Jennings explained:
"I was only seventeen, you see. And a Catholic. If my parents had found out, they'd have put me in a convent. For life most likely."
Mary would have liked to hear more, not that she was a gossip, or nosey-parker, or even particularly anxious to be told the sordid truths about her hosts, but out of literary interest, because that was her profession. And besides, there was nothing else to do till Tim emerged.
"So Bobby's your grandson?" Mary calculated.
But Mrs Jennings - like the Walrus, was it, or the Carpenter? - simply cut herself another slice.