BBC National Short Story Award Shortlist - Hilary Mantel
Read an extract from Mantel's shortlisted short story, The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher
Picture ﬁrst the street where she breathed her last. It is a quiet street, sedate, shaded by old trees: a street of tall houses, their façades smooth as white icing, their brickwork the colour of honey. Some are Georgian, ﬂat-fronted. Others are Victorian, with gleaming bays. They are too big for modern households, and most of them have been cut up into ﬂats. But this does not destroy their elegance of proportion, nor detract from the deep lustre of panelled front doors, brass-furnished and painted in navy or forest green. It is the neighbourhood’s only drawback, that there are more cars than spaces to put them. The residents park nose-to-tail, ﬂaunting their permits. Those who have driveways are often blocked into them. But they are patient household- ers, proud of their handsome street and willing to suffer to live there. Glancing up, you notice a fragile Georgian fanlight, or a warm scoop of terracotta tiling, or a glint of coloured glass. In spring, cherry trees toss extravagant ﬂounces of blossom. When the wind strips the petals, they ﬂurry in pink drifts and carpet the pavements, as if giants have held a wedding in the street. In summer, music ﬂoats from open windows: Vivaldi, Mozart, Bach.
The street itself describes a gentle curve, joining the main road as it ﬂows out of town. The Holy Trinity church, islanded, is hung with garrison ﬂags. Looking from a high window over the town (as I did that day of the killing) you feel the close presence of fortress and castle. Glance to your left, and the Round Tower looms into view, pressing itself against the panes. But on days of drizzle and drifting cloud the keep diminishes, like an amateur drawing half-erased. Its lines soften, its edges fade; it shrinks into the raw cold from the river, more like a shrouded mountain than a castle built for kings.
The houses on the right-hand side of Trinity Place – I mean, on the right-hand side as you face out of town – have large gardens, each now shared between three or four tenants. In the early 1980s, England had not succumbed to the smell of burning. The carbonised reek of the weekend barbecue was unknown, except in the riverside gin palaces of Maidenhead and Bray. Our gardens, though immaculately kept, saw little footfall; there were no children in the street, just young couples who had yet to breed and older couples who might, at most, open a door to let an evening party spill out on to a terrace. Through warm afternoons the lawns baked unattended, and cats curled snoozing in the crumbling topsoil of stone urns. In autumn, leaf-heaps composted themselves on sunken patios, and were shovelled up by irritated owners of basement ﬂats. The winter rains soaked the shrubberies, with no one there to see.
But in the summer of 1983 this genteel corner, bypassed by shoppers and tourists, found itself a focus of national interest. Behind the gardens of No. 20 and No. 21 stood the grounds of a private hospital, a graceful pale building occupying a corner site. Three days before her assassination, the prime minister entered this hospital for minor eye surgery. Since then, the area had been dislocated. Strangers jostled residents. Newspapermen and TV crews blocked the street and parked without permission in driveways. You would see them trundle up and down Spinner’s Walk trailing wires and lights, their gaze rolling towards the hospital gates on Clarence Road, their necks noosed by camera straps. Every few minutes they would coagulate in a mass of heaving combat jackets, as if to reassure each other that nothing was happening: but that it would happen, by and by. They waited, and while they waited they slurped orange juice from cartons and lager from cans; they ate, crumbs spilling down their fronts, soiled paper bags chucked into ﬂower- beds. The baker at the top of St Leonard’s Road ran out of cheese rolls by 10 a.m. and everything else by noon. Windsorians clustered on Trinity Place, shopping bags wedged on to low walls. We speculated on why we had this honour, and when she might go away.
Windsor’s not what you think. It has an intelligentsia. Once you wind down from the castle to the bottom of Peascod Street, they are not all royalist lickspittles; and as you cross over the junction to St Leonard’s Road, you might sniff out closet republicans. Still, it was cold comfort at the polls for the local socialists, and people murmured that it was a vote wasted; they had to show the strength of their feelings by tactical voting, and their spirit by attending outré events at the arts centre. Recently remodelled from the ﬁre station, it was a place where self-published poets found a platform, and sour white wine was dispensed from boxes; on Saturday mornings there were classes in self-assertion, yoga and picture framing.
But when Mrs Thatcher came to visit, the dissidents took to the streets.
Hilary Mantel's story The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher has been shortlisted for the BBC National Short Story Award with Book Trust. The winner and runner-up announcement will be broadcast live from the Award ceremony on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row from 7.15pm on Tuesday 6 October 2015.
Read the entire shortlist in the BBC National Short Story Award 2015 Collection.