Welcome to Corduroy Mansions, the affectionate nickname given to a genteelly crumbling mansion block in London’s vibrant pimlico, home to a delightfully eccentric cast of characters.
The fine, but crucial line between friendship and romance has become somewhat blurred to fine art graduate Caroline, and over at the Ragg Porter Literary Agency a business rivalry leads to an unseemly tussle over the ownership of Autobiography of a Yeti.
In the Snark household, psychoanalyst Berthea suffers on two fronts: her brother Terence Moongrove indulges his penchant for fast cars, whilst her son Oedipus Snark MP, is the unacceptable face of the Liberal Democrats. Even easy-going wine merchant William finds his loyalties and his troubles increase when his faithful Pimlico terrier, Freddie de la Hay, disappears on a mystery tour around the surrounding countryside. Will he find his way back?
Oedipus Snark had a number of distinctions in this life. Then first of these—and perhaps the most remarkable—was that he was, by common consent, the only truly nasty Liberal Democrat Member of Parliament. This was not just an accolade bestowed upon him by journalists in search of an amusing soubriquet, it was a judgement agreed upon by all those who knew him, including, most notably, his mother. Berthea Snark, a well-known psychoanalyst who lived in a small, undistinguished mews house behind Corduroy Mansions, had tried very hard to love her son, but had eventually given up, thus joining that minuscule group—mothers who cannot abide their sons. So rare is the phenomenon, and so willing are most mothers to forgive their sons any shortcoming, that this demographic—that is to say, in English, these people—is completely ignored by marketeers. And that, as we all know, is the real test of significance. If marketeers ignore you, you are not worth bothering about; you are nothing; you are—to put it brutally—a non-demographic. So intense was Berthea’s distaste for her son that she had once seriously contemplated arranging a DNA test to see whether there was any chance that Oedipus had been mixed up with her real infant in hospital and given to the wrong mother. She knew that this was clutching at straws, but she had read about such errors in a popular psychology magazine and concluded that there was a chance, just a chance, that it had happened to her. The author of the article had for years researched the psychological profile of those who had lived a large part of their life under a false belief as to the identity of their father and had only later discovered the mistake. In the course of discussing this not entirely uncommon problem, the author had casually mentioned two cases of a rather different error, where the woman thought to be mother was discovered not to be mother after all.
One of these cases had been of a boy who had been given by his mother to her sister in an act of generosity. The donor, who had six children already, had decided that her childless sister’s need for a baby was greater than her own and had generously—and not without some relief—donated this seventh child. It had worked to the satisfaction of all, and when the truth slipped out—as the truth sometimes does in spite of our best efforts to conceal it—the reaction of the boy, now a young man of eighteen, had been admirable. There had been no recriminations, or sense of betrayal: he had gone straight to the florist, purchased a large bouquet of flowers and handed it to the woman who he had assumed all those years was his real mother. Love, he had written on the accompanying card, is thicker than blood. Berthea could not imagine Oedipus doing such a thing. In fact, she found it difficult to remember when her son had last given her a present; not that she held it against him, even if she had noted it as a point that she might at least touch upon in a suitable chapter of the unauthorised biography of him that she was currently writing. And here was the second of his distinctions: there are few, if any, examples of hostile biographies written by mothers. Berthea, though, was well advanced in her plans, and the manuscript of the work provisionally entitled My Son Oedipus was already two hundred and ten typewritten pages long.
Those pages took us only as far as the end of Oedipus’s schooldays. He had been sent to boarding school when he was ten, spending a short time at a very dubious prep school in the West Country before winning a scholarship to Uppingham.
The prep school, now closed down by the authorities, was found to be a money-laundering scheme dreamed up by an Irish racehorse owner; and while the boys were for the most part entirely happy (not surprisingly, given that the headmaster took them to the racetrack three times a week), their education left a great deal to be desired. Oedipus, though, had thrived, and had won the Uppingham scholarship by arranging for another boy at the school, an intellectual prodigy, to impersonate him in the scholarship examination. This had the desired result and brought, rather to the surprise of his mother, an offer of a full scholarship, covering the cost of tuition and
boarding. “I know I’m failing as a mother,” Berthea confessed to a friend at the time. “I’m perfectly aware of that. But, quite frankly, much as I love my son, I’m always relieved when Oedipus goes off to school. I know I shouldn’t feel this, but it’s as if a great load is lifted from my shoulders each time I see him off. I feel somehow liberated.”
“I’m not surprised,” said the friend. “And you mustn’t reproach yourself. Your son is a particularly unpleasant child—I’ve always thought so.”
This verdict on Oedipus was shared by almost all his contemporaries at school. When Berthea had advertised in the school association magazine for “recollections—no matter how frank—of the schooldays of Oedipus Snark, MP”, she had been astonished by the unanimity of opinion.
“I remember Oedipus Snark quite well,” wrote one of her informants. “He was the one we all disliked intensely. I’m sorry to have to tell you this, as I gather that you’re his mother, but we really couldn’t stand the sight of him. What on earth possessed you to have him?”
And there was this from another: “Can you give me his current address? I promise I won’t pass it on to anybody. I just want to know—for my own purposes.”
Of course, Berthea did not pass on her son’s address to that particular correspondent. She did not want Oedipus to meet any physical misfortune; she wanted him simply to be exposed, to be made to confront his shortcomings, to accept responsibility. And was there anything wrong with that? she wondered. Does it make me any the less of a mother for wanting to see justice done?
She had thought long and hard about what it was to be a mother. And from that, inspired by the article she read about disproof of maternity, the idea came to her that there had been a fairly long pause between the point at which Oedipus was taken from her in the maternity ward and the moment he was returned to her bedside. It was, she remembered, at least an hour, and during that time, as a nurse informed her, another three babies had been born.
“We’ve been worked off our feet, Mrs Snark,” said the nurse.
“Four babies in two hours! All of them boys. A population explosion, that’s what it is.”
Berthea now thought: four boys, all lying in those tiny cots they put newborn babies in; physically indistinguishable, at that age, one from the other; identified only by a little plastic bracelet which could so easily slip off, be picked up and put on the wrong baby. Surely it could happen. Or was that just wishful thinking?
William French lives in the top flat of Corduroy Mansions with his faithful ex-vegetarian dog Freddie de la Hay and a freeloading son he hopes will soon fly the nest. On the first floor reside a group of lively young women including twinset-and-pearls Caroline from Cheltenham, vitamin-addict Dee, and put-upon PA Jenny.
Round the corner lives Oedipus Snark MP, possibly the world’s only loathsome Lib Dem, who has succeeded in offending everyone he knows, and many others besides. But what dark revenge is being plotted by his mother Berthea Snark, and by his girlfriend, Barbara Ragg?
First published as a serial podcast audiobook in partnership with the Daily Telegraph, these delightful stories are now a series of bestselling novels.
Passing off, thought William. Spanish sparkling wine—filthy stuff, he thought, filthy—passed itself off as champagne. Japanese whisky—Glen Yakomoto!—was served as Scotch. Inferior hard cheese—from Mafia-run factories in Catania—was sold to the unsuspecting as Parmesan.
Lots of things were passed off in one way or another, and now, as he stood before the bathroom mirror, he wondered if he could be passed off too. He looked at himself, or such part of himself as the small mirror encompassed—just his face, really, and a bit of neck. It was a fifty-one-year-old face chronologically, but would it pass, he wondered, for a forty-something-year-old face?
He looked more closely: there were lines around the eyes and at the edge of the mouth but the cheeks were smooth enough. He pulled at the skin around the eyes and the lines disappeared. There were doctors who could do that for you, of course: tighten things up; nip and tuck. But the results, he thought, were usually risible. He had a customer who had gone off to some clinic and come back with a face like a Noh-play mask—all smoothed out and flat. It was sad, really. And as for male wigs, with their stark, obvious hairlines, all one wanted to do was to reach forward and give them a tug. It was quite hard to resist, actually, and once, as a student—and when drunk—he had done just that. He had tugged at the wig of a man in a bar and ... the man had cried. He still felt ashamed of himself for that. Best not to think about it.
No, he was weathering well enough and it was far more dignified to let nature take its course, to weather in a National Trust sort of way. He looked again at his face. Not bad. The sort of face, he thought, that would be hard to describe on the Wanted poster, if he were ever to do anything to merit the attention of the police—which he had not, of course. Apart from the usual sort of thing that made a criminal of everybody: “Wanted for illegal parking,” he muttered. “William Edward French (51). Average height, very slightly overweight (if you don’t mind our saying so), no distinguishing features. Not dangerous, but approach with caution.”
He smiled. And if I were to describe myself in one of those lonely hearts ads? Wine dealer, widower, solvent late forties-ish, GSOH, reasonable shape, interested in music, dining out etc., etc., WLTM presentable, lively woman with view to LTR.
That would be about it. Of course one had to be careful about the choice of words in these things; there were codes, and one might not be aware of them. Solvent was clear enough: it meant that one had sufficient money to be comfortable, and that was true enough. He would not describe himself as well off, but he was certainly solvent. Well off, he had read somewhere, now meant disposable assets of over ... how much? More than he had, he suspected.
And reasonable shape? Well, if that was not strictly speaking true at present, it would be shortly. William had joined a gym and been allocated a personal trainer. If his shape at present was not ideal, it soon would be, once the personal trainer had worked on him. It would take a month or two, he thought, not much more than that. So perhaps one might say, shortly to be in reasonable shape.
Now, what about: would like to meet presentable, lively woman. Well, presentable was a pretty low requirement. Virtually anybody could be presentable if they made at least some effort. Lively was another matter. One would have to be careful about lively because it could possibly be code for insatiable, and that would not do. Who would want to meet an insatiable woman? My son, thought William suddenly. That’s exactly the sort of woman Eddie would want to meet. The thought depressed him.
William lived with his son. There had been several broad hints dropped that Eddie might care to move out and share with other twenty-somethings, and recently a friend of Eddie’s had even asked him if he wanted to move into a shared flat, but these hints had apparently fallen on unreceptive ground. “It’s quite an adventure, Eddie,” William said. “Everybody at your stage of life shares a flat. Like those girls downstairs. Look at the fun they have. Most people do it.”
William sighed. “My circumstances, Eddie, were a bit different.”
“You lived with Grandpa until he snuffed it.”
“Precisely. But I had to, don’t you see? I couldn’t leave him to look after himself.”
“But I could live with you until you snuff it.”
“That’s very kind of you. But I’m not planning to snuff it just yet.”
Then there had been an offer to help with a mortgage—to pay the deposit on a flat in Kentish Town. William had even gone so far as to contact an agent and find a place that sounded suitable. He had looked at it without telling Eddie, meeting the agent one afternoon and being shown round while a litany of the flat’s—and the area’s—advantages was recited.
William had been puzzled. “But it doesn’t appear to have a kitchen,” he pointed out.
The agent was silent for a moment. “Not as such,” he conceded. “No. That’s correct. But there’s a place for a sink and you can see where the cooker used to be. So that’s the kitchen space. Nowadays people think in terms of a kitchen space. The old concept of a separate kitchen is not so important. People see past a kitchen.”
In spite of the drawbacks, William had suggested that Eddie should look at the place and had then made his proposition. He would give him the deposit and guarantee the mortgage.
“Your own place,” he said. “It’s ideal.”
Eddie looked doubtful. “But it hasn’t got a kitchen, Dad. You said so. No kitchen.”
William took this in his stride. “It has a kitchen space, Eddie. People see past an actual kitchen these days. Didn’t you know that?”
But Eddie was not to be moved. “It’s kind of you, Dad. I appreciate the offer, but I think it’s premature. I’m actually quite comfortable living at home. And it’s greener, isn’t it? Sharing. It makes our carbon footprint much smaller.”
And so William found himself living with his twenty-four-year-old son. Wine dealer, he thought, would like his son to meet a lively woman with view to his moving in with her. Permanently. Any area.
He turned away from the bathroom mirror and stooped down to run his morning bath. It was a Friday, which meant that he would open the business half an hour late, at ten-thirty rather than ten. This meant that he could have his bath and then his breakfast in a more leisurely way, lingering over his boiled egg and newspaper before setting off; a small treat, but a valued one.
There was a knocking on the door, soft at first and then more insistent.
“You’re taking ages, Dad. What are you doing in there?”
He did not reply.
“Dad? Would you mind hurrying up? Or you want me to be late?”
William turned and faced the door. He stuck out his tongue.
“Don’t be so childish,” came the voice from the other side of the door.
Childish? thought William. Well, you’ve got a little surprise coming your way, Eddie, my boy.
In the genteel environs of Corduroy Mansions, strange doings are afoot, mostly in the name of love. Lonely William French and his faithful canine Freddie de la Hay are recruited to MI6 by a beguiling lady operative, William’s neighbour Caroline finds suitor James mysteriously lacking, and Barbara Ragg is tempted to the Highlands by blossoming romance. Meanwhile sage psychiatrist Berthea Snark, under normal circumstances the voice of reason, finds herself called away to protect her brother from a band of scheming New Age fraudsters seeking to insert themselves into the bosom of the family.
William French, wine merchant, Master of Wine (failed), somewhere in his early fifties (hardly noticeably, particularly in the right light), loyal subscriber to Rural Living (although he lived quite happily in central London), long-time supporter of several good causes (he was a kind man at heart, with a strong sense of fairness), widower, dog-owner, and much else besides; the same William French looked about his flat in Corduroy Mansions, as anybody might survey his or her flat in a moment of self-assessment, of stocktaking.
There was a lot wrong with it, he decided, just as he felt there was a lot that was not quite right with his life in general. Sorting out one’s flat, though, is often easier than sorting out oneself, and there is a great deal to be said for first getting one’s flat in order before attempting the same thing with one’s life. Perhaps there was an adage for this—a pithy Latin expression akin to mens sana in corpore sano. Which made him think ... Everybody knew that particular expression, of course; everybody, that is, except William’s twenty-eight-year-old son, Eddie, who had once rendered it within his father’s hearing as “men’s saunas lead to a healthy body”. William had been about to laugh at this ingenious translation, redolent, as it was, of the cod Latin he had found so achingly funny as a twelve-year-old boy: Caesar adsum iam forte, Pompey ad erat. Pompey sic in omnibus, Caesar sic in at. Caesar had some jam for tea, Pompey had a rat ... and so on. But then he realised that Eddie was serious.
The discovery that Eddie had no knowledge of Latin had depressed him. He knew that the overwhelming majority of people had no Latin and did not feel the lack of it. The problem with Eddie, though, was that not only did he not have Latin, he had virtually nothing else either: no mathematics worthy of the name, no geography beyond a knowledge of the location of various London pubs, no knowledge of biology or any of the other natural sciences, no grasp of history. When it came to making an inventory of what Eddie knew, there was really very little to list.
He put his son out of his mind and returned to thinking about the proposition mens sana in corpore sano. Was there an equivalent, he wondered, to express the connection between an ordered flat and an ordered life? Vita ordinata in domo ordinata? It sounded all right, he felt—indeed, it sounded rather impressive—but he found himself feeling a little bit unsure about the Latin. Domus was feminine, was it not? But was it not one of those fourth declension nouns where there was an alternative ablative form—domu rather than domo? William was not certain, and so he put that out of his mind too.
He walked slowly about his flat, moving from room to room, thinking of what would be necessary to reform it completely. Starting in the drawing room, he looked at the large oriental carpet that dominated the centre of the room. It was said that some such carpets gained in value as the years went past, but he could not see this happening to his red Baluch carpet, which was beginning to look distinctly tattered at the edges. Then there was the furniture, and here there was no doubt that the chairs, if once they had been fashionable, no longer were. If there was furniture that spoke of its decade, then these chairs positively shouted the seventies, a period in which it was generally agreed design lost its way. It would all, he thought, have to be got rid of and replaced with the sort of furniture that he saw advertised in the weekend magazines of the newspapers. Timeless elegance was the claim made on behalf of such furniture, and timeless elegance, William considered, was exactly what he needed.
He would give his own furniture to one of those organisations that collect it and pass it on to people who have no furniture of their own and no money to buy any. The thought of this process gave him a feeling of warmth. He could just imagine somebody in a less favoured part of London waiting with anticipation as a completely free consignment of surplus furniture – in this case William’s—was unloaded. He pictured a person who had previously sat on the floor now sitting comfortably on this Corduroy Mansions armchair, not noticing the large stain on the cushion of which Eddie had denied all knowledge, though it was definitely his responsibility. It was a most unpleasant stain, that one, and William had never enquired as to exactly what it was. Yet he had noticed that Marcia, when she had lived with him, had studiously avoided ever sitting on that chair. And who could blame her?
Our furniture, he reflected, says so much about us, and our tastes—perhaps more than we like to acknowledge. We may not like a piece of furniture now, but the awkward fact remains that we once were a person who liked it. And unlike clothes, which are jettisoned with passing fashion, furniture has a habit of staying with us, reminding us of tasteless stages of our lives. William looked at his settee; he had bought it at a furniture shop off the Tottenham Court Road—he remembered that much—but he would never buy something like that now. And certainly not in that colour. Did they still make mauve furniture? he wondered.
He moved on to the kitchen. William liked his kitchen, and often sat there on summer evenings, looking out of the window over the roof-tops behind Corduroy Mansions, watching the sun sink over west London. Sometimes, if conditions were right, the dying sun would touch the edge of the clouds with gold, making for a striking contrast with the sky beyond, as sharply delineated as in a Maxfield Parrish painting. He would sit there and think about nothing in particular, vaguely grateful for the display that nature was providing but also conscious of the fact that there was not enough beauty in his life and that it would be nice to have more.
Now, surveying his kitchen from the doorway, he saw not the outside vista but the inside—the cork floor that needed replacing, the scratched surfaces that surely fostered an ecosystem in which whole legions, entire divisions of Pseudomonas were encamped. Best not to think about that, nor about the bacteria which undoubtedly romped around the faithful body of his dog, Freddie de la Hay, who was sitting on the kitchen floor, looking up at his master in mute adoration, and wondering, perhaps, what the problem was.