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Authors: Keith Roberts

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Ladies From Hell

BOOK: Ladies From Hell
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LADIES FROM HELL

Keith Roberts

www.sfgateway.com

Enter the SF Gateway …

In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:

‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’

Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.

The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.

Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.

Welcome to the SF Gateway.

INTRODUCTION

T
HERE ARE TWO
major areas of human experience that generally make very bad copy; sex and music. Which may seem a curious remark with which to preface a book that opens with
Our Lady of Desperation
and closes with
Missa Privata
. But ‘Our Lady’ is not about sex, it’s about the much-misunderstood difference between sex and eroticism; and ‘Missa’, in one sense, is about everything
except
music. In fact the discerning reader will detect a large gap in the very middle of the story, which he or she is invited to plug with a musical experience of his or her own.

Most stories seem to come about as a result of a collision between seemingly chance ideas; and
Our Lady of Desperation
was no exception. I’d had a notion at the back of my mind for years about a society so bedevilled by bureaucracy that each wage earner had a personal governmental watchdog, whose needs he was expected to provide for as well as his own; but the thing had stubbornly refused to flesh out. It was a chance remark by a friend that gave me the key. It put me on the track of the ‘Adonis syndrome’, and a lot more besides. And I hope nobody writes to tell me the story is an example of chauvinist piggery, because it’s not. Richard, as Lady A. observes, pays in full for his so-called ‘free’ love; and the price is heavy.

Dreams are another suspect and dangerous source of inspiration; in the cold light of day, their grandest conceits tend to turn to bat blood and ashes. But there are exceptions, and two of them are in this book. One is
The Shack at Great Cross Halt;
the other I’ll come to in a moment.

‘The Shack’ presented itself to me after a
long and exciting party. A lot of ideas had been bandied about—none, oddly enough, anything to do with the story that finally emerged—and when the guests finally left I found I couldn’t sleep. I did doze off toward dawn, only to be visited by the image of a huge and frightening tree, its bole swathed with great ropes of convolvulus. It seemed to stand beside a motorway; or maybe that was just the early morning traffic, grinding through town on its way to London. The Rural, the American and the Monkey’s Grave came later. ‘Shack’ was a curious story to write; for a time I didn’t know myself what the end of it all would be, and the Cavalry coming over the hill on cue took me fairly by surprise. It was a challenging subject too, in that so much of its material was potentially offensive. I can only hope I trod the tightrope on which I had placed myself well enough to be excused.

I was attacked from several directions for writing
The Ministry of Children
at all. Even the title came under fire, so I’ll take this opportunity to point out that it’s a pun. I’m rather fond of them; there’s a monstrous one in ‘Missa’, I only hope one day somebody finds it. It was also said, quite accurately, that as I’m not a teacher I have no first-hand experience of what is happening in modern education. Such considerations would normally weigh strongly with me; but in this instance I reject them. While it would be invidious to quote names, we can surely all remember at least one national scandal arising from the suicide of a pupil at a Comprehensive school. What was perhaps less widely publicised was the allegation that within the area concerned, attempted suicides by school-children were currently averaging one a month. I agree I’m not an educationalist, and that ‘Ministry’ puts forward no real solution; but faced with statistics like these I reserve the right to say, as loudly and clearly as I am able, that something is wrong.

The Big Fans
is, I suppose, a classic example of the conflation of ideas I mentioned earlier. I had been concurrently reading Lyall Watson’s extraordinary
Supernature
and Alfred Watkins’ even more curious
The Old Straight Track
. While neither Kirlian photography nor the ley system were
concepts wholly new to me, the two suddenly combined to strike sparks from each other. If that great network of tracks could somehow be made visible, like the veins of a gigantic leaf, what a sight it would be! But I still had no story; and the tale, after all, is the thing.

A few weeks later, I was drinking with a friend in an ancient pub in Covent Garden when my attention was drawn to a striking girl in the opposite bar. She sat a little apart from her group, sipping gravely from a large mug of beer. She was, I suppose, no raving beauty. She had one of those broad-cheek-boned, curiously English faces; her hair was brown, her figure trim rather than spectacular; and she was very young. But her aura, for that moment of time, was a nearly visible thing; it tingled on the skin from yards away, like the queer breeze of an ultra-violet lamp. I don’t know her name, or anything about her; but you’ll find her description embedded in the story. She became Sarah, who is herself at the heart of an odd little mystery. Was Glyn, who plays Watson to Boulter’s Holmes, merely seduced by the beauty of his surroundings; or did a power really gather and coil in the little valley, a power centred on the strange young girl? The answer is as enigmatic as the puzzle. If we think Sarah has power, then power she has; the snake of logic swallows its own tail.

I mentioned dreams earlier on. I think
Missa Privata
must also have begun as one. I’m not too sure as it was a thoroughly odd experience, not quite like anything else I can remember. It, too, happened after a night with friends; a musical evening this time, in which we’d drunk a lot of gin, talked a lot of words and listened to a lot of tape. I suppose the separate elements of the idea can be dissected out readily enough; the music I’d heard, the saga of two Russian ballet dancers who had somehow offended against the State, the terrible scenes that followed the fall of Saigon. But why a young woman called Stella Welles should come knocking so insistently on the inside of my head, demanding to be let out, is more than I can say. Especially as for a non-musician a project like ‘Missa’ must inevitably have something of the nature of a dash across quicksand.
For these reasons, and others, I resisted the story at first; but Stella’s willpower was stronger than mine. I worked on her for five weeks; in the end she turned and swore at me, like a cat that has had its fur rubbed the wrong way, so I knew I had done all I could. As I said, I can’t explain her; I merely commend her to you, with all my sins on her long-suffering and pretty head.

Keith Roberts
Henley-on-Thames, 1978

OUR LADY OF DESPERATION

I
SPENT THE
afternoon with Coventina. I
couldn’t think of better company to be in. I’d been working on her for a year, off and on, and she was at the stage I liked best; I was tickling away with a No. 1 and the pigment on a palette knife, bringing up the highlights in her hair. The Overseer had taken himself off to Dorchester to grab some computer time so I knew I was in for a quiet afternoon. It was May, puffy white clouds chasing each other across the sky in approved fashion, and the Barn smelled as it always smelled, of turpentine and dust. I’d moved the easel across to get the light from the mansard. It took somebody as way-out as Lady A to put a glass roof on a Tithe Barn; but the old one had been falling in anyway, and things being as they are it had been a choice between glass and tar paper.

Lady A came over herself at four with a pot of tea on a silver tray and a plate of fishpaste butties. You can’t beat Shippam’s for flavour, it leaves all your pates for mates standing. She had a close peer at the picture, same as she always does, then stepped back. She’s a great-looking old biddy, six foot tall, straight as a ramrod and with a face like a Fourth Dynasty Pharaoh. She said, “I can never see any difference. When will she be finished?”

I wiped the brush and laid it down. “I don’t know, m’Lady,” I said. “She needs her jewellery yet. I’m still collecting it.”

She gave me a sideways look. She said, “The truth is, you just don’t know when to stop.”

I smiled. “I shall know,” I said. “She’ll tell me.”

She went back to the painting, stood with her head on one side. “It’s the eyes,” she said finally. “They aren’t human; but they’re not an animal’s either. You won’t touch them any more,
will you?”

“No, Ma’am,” I said. “I won’t touch the eyes any more.”

After she had gone I shifted a stack of canvases and sat down on the old sofa I’d acquired. I looked at Coventina, and she looked at me. Her eyes are grey, the exact grey of a switched-off tellyscreen. Depthless, interplanetary. They’re telly-screen-shaped too, just a little; sort of flattened ovals, slightly tilted. It had taken me six months to get them like that. They’re not right of course; but nothing’s ever really right, that’s part of the game. She’s a full-length nude, threequarters life. Am Carpenter posed for the first sketches; the painting’s developed something of its own since of course, they always do, but a lot of Am’s come through. She’s partly decorated already, she’s fixed plastic hairgrips round her nipples and plaited a daisy into her bush. She’s a study in depth, you see; if Coventina still existed she wouldn’t hide the parts we hide at all.

When she’s finished she’s going to have a hip chain with more bits and pieces on it. As I said, I was still collecting them; I’d got an Oxo tin half full of possibilities. There was a bit of broken glass I was pretty sure would be OK, some bottle tops and a bent-up piece of dural tube. She wouldn’t think of jewellery as we do either, you see; she’d just use what she found lying about.

I didn’t feel like working any more and Coventina was definitely turning her nose up so I went through to the sitting room and pottered. There’s quite a complex built on to the end of the Barn; a lounge with a television set plus all the adjuncts of civilized living, two bedrooms, guest room, loo and kitchen. I have to share the bathroom with the Overseer of course, which is a bit aggravating; for him I mean, not me. I have some absent-minded habits that he reckons are antisocial, like emptying the tealeaves down the sink. It puts him off when he’s trying to shave. The last one didn’t bother, but George is a bit fastidious.

The lounge is part of the old Barn structure, it still has its great wooden beams. I’d spent some time making it even more way-out than it started. I carved an Owl Face on one
of the uprights one night; it worked well so I added another above it and another over that, then filled in the rest with curls and squiggles. The latest thing was cutting big indents round the tops of the balloon frames. I’d gone along one wall, turned the corner and got halfway across the next. It was slow work as the old oak was case-hardened like iron, but I was still adding the odd one or two when I thought I would; the place was starting to look like a cross between a Jain shrine and a Celtic tomb.

There were more canvases in the lounge. That was another thing that riled the Overseer. Having a naturally tidy mind he reckoned they should all be down in the Barn, but I brought them through because it was generally warmer and they dried quicker.

BOOK: Ladies From Hell
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