In this much-anticipated follow-up to her debut novel and Booker Prize finalist, Elmet, brilliant young British writer Fiona Mozley turns her keen eye from the gothic woods of Yorkshire to the streets and pubs and cafés of contemporary London. Read this excerpt from Hot Stew (available April 20), a stunning novel set in an unassuming building in the middle of bustling Soho.
On the corner of the street, there is an old French restaurant with red-and-white checkered tablecloths.
Des Sables has been there for decades and has changed very little in that time. It has served the same dishes, with ingredients sourced from the same suppliers, and wines from the same vineyards. The bottles are stacked on the same shelves, and when they are pulled out and dusted off, the silky liquid is poured into the same set of glasses, or ones of a similar style, bought sporadically to replace those that have smashed. The plates are the same: small, round, porcelain.
When the weather is good, tables are placed outside. There is a space between the public thoroughfare and the exterior wall, and the tables are set tightly, with two chairs tucked beneath. One of the tables wobbles. Over the years, thousands of napkins have been folded and placed under the offending leg, hundreds of customers have complained and moved to alternatives, and thousands more have quietly put up with the inconvenience. They have spilled glasses of wine, grumbled, and considered asking to move, before deciding against it.
The restaurant serves escargots. The restaurant has served escargots since it opened. Hundreds, thousands, maybe even millions of snails. They have been thrown into boiling water, and their carcasses scooped out and served with garlic butter. The chewy pellets have been picked with forks and fingers, and the curled shells discarded.
It is lunchtime in midsummer. A box of snails has been taken from the fridge and placed on the side, its contents ready to be immersed and scalded. It is left unsupervised as chefs bustle around the kitchen with sharp knives, pots and pans, bunches of parsley and stalks of celery. A single snail, on the small side, wakes from its chilly slumber and climbs over the edge of the box, down the side, and onto the stainless-steel counter. Slowly, it descends to the floor, then to the back of the kitchen, where there is a door to the street. After about twenty minutes, the little snail finds itself in the alley behind the restaurant, feasting on the discarded outer leaves of a savoy cabbage. Once sated it continues its journey. It begins to climb the wall, flexing and releasing.
The building stands in Soho, in the middle of London. The foundations were constructed in the seventeenth century, during the Interregnum, in the space between a father and a son; the ampersand between The King is Dead & Long Live the King. Bricks and plaster overlaid onto a now-crooked timber frame. There are wormholes in the timber and snail licks on the bricks.
The district was once a suburb. London was enclosed by a wall, and to the north there was a moor. There were deer and boar and hare. North-west of London; north-east of Westminster. Men and women galloped out from the two cities to hunt, and their cries gave this place its name: So! Ho! So! Ho!
The stone came. Bricks and mortar replaced trees; people replaced deer; sticky gray grime replaced sticky brown dirt. Paths carved by the tread of animals were set in stone, widened, edged with walls and gates. Mansions were built for high society. There was dancing, gambling, sex. Music was played and plays were staged. Bargains were struck, sedition was plotted, betrayals were planned, secrets were kept.
New people arrived. Émigrés from France came to escape revolution, guillotine, war. Mansions were divided and subdivided. Drawing rooms became workshops; parlors became coffee shops. Whole families lived in single rooms, and disease spread. Syphilis erupted in sores on the skin and delusions in the mind. Cholera hid in the water, crept through the drains, came out of pumps and down human throats.
Books were written, ripped up, rewritten. Karl Marx dreamed of utopia while his wife cooked dinner and scrubbed the floor. His friends met on Great Windmill Street where wind was once the means of production.
When the bombs fell on London, Soho took a few. Dark lesions appeared in the lines of Georgian townhouses and people sheltered beneath ground.
After the war, the concrete came, and parallel lines, and precise angles that connected earth to sky. Houses were rebuilt, shops were rebuilt, and new paving stones were laid. The dead were buried. The past was buried. There were new kinds of men and new kinds of women. There was art and music and miniskirts and sharp haircuts to match the skyline. Films were made; records were cut. Soho came to be filled with the apparatus of sound and vision. Electric currents ran through cables and magnets and copper coils and pushed rhythmic air into dark rooms where people danced in new ways, and drank and smoked, and ingested new drugs imported from old places. And they spoke again of revolution.
And they spoke until the winds changed. Trade and commerce and common sense and common decency prevailed, and men and women availed themselves of all opportunities. New roads were laid; office blocks shot up. And luxury flats stood on crumbling slums like shining false teeth on rotten gums.
At the top of the building, whose ground floor is occupied by the restaurant, there is a secret garden. It was planted by the two women who share the garret, where the ceilings are slanted and dormer windows jut out. Outside the windows is a ledge, where the roof meets the exterior wall. The windows are large enough to climb through and it is possible to stand on the ledge. The woman called Tabitha discovered this. She is an intermittent smoker and the other woman, Precious, won’t allow her to smoke inside. Tabitha found that, along the ledge, there are steps
and, if you climb the short flight, you come to a flat terrace, sheltered by the adjacent slanting roofs but exposed enough to trap the midday sun.
Precious and Tabitha have filled the space with life. It began with a cheap chili plant Precious picked up from the supermarket. The chilies did better than expected and Precious bought others, then the generic herbs of a kitchen garden: parsley, rosemary, chives. She bought a rose and ornamental grasses. When the weather is good and Precious and Tabitha have free time, they sit out together.
“Do you know what I find really quite rank?”
“What do you find really quite rank, Tabitha?”
“The fact that you put crushed snail shells around your plants to stop snails eating them.”
“What’s wrong with that?”
“It’s weird. Don’t people use eggshells?”
“Yeah, but I get the used snail shells from the restaurant downstairs. They also give me mussel, and clam and cockle shells. It’s what’s available.”
“I get that. I’m just saying: I don’t like it. It would be like someone building a fence to keep out people, and instead of using wire or wood, they built it out of human bones. Do you know what I mean?”
Tabitha has a cigarette in one hand and an e-cigarette in the other, holding both as if they are glasses of expensive wine and she is sampling each in turn. She takes a drag from the real cigarette, holds the smoke between her cheeks, makes a whirling motion with her pursed lips, and exhales, then repeats the process with the e-cigarette. She frowns and pouts, deep in concentration.
“It’s not the same,” she says.
“It’s never going to be. The question isn’t whether you can tell the difference but whether you think you could make the switch.”
“Well, no, then. The answer is no.”
“For god’s sake, could you at least give it a proper try?”
“I have done!”
“For longer than, like, five seconds.”
“I don’t like the way it feels in my mouth. It feels artificial. Like detergent.”
“Because the others are one hundred percent natural, organic carcinogens.”
“It’s real tobacco, at least. Plant-based.”
“Give those to me.’ Precious snatches the packet of cigarettes from the table next to the older woman. She looks down at the grim warnings and harrowing images printed on the side of the carton, pulls back her throwing arm and pelts the cigarettes off the roof. The little box tumbles in a graceful arc over the side of the building and out of sight.
Tabitha’s eyes widen, incredulous. “That could seriously injure someone.”
“There was hardly anything in it. The most it will give someone is a paper cut.”
“Paper cuts can hurt,” Tabitha points out. She returns to the lit cigarette still in her hand, and takes a long, ostentatious drag. She blows the smoke towards her friend. “What’s it to you, anyway? Me smoking.”
“I don’t want you to die?”
“Would you miss me?”
“Funerals are expensive.”
“Just chuck my corpse in the river.”
“It’d scare the tourists. They’d be chugging down the Thames on a sightseeing cruise then see your ugly mug bobbing around in the shallows.”
“Simple solution: weigh me down with bricks.”
“It might be easier to give up the cigs.”
“For you, maybe.”
“Well, at least don’t do it next to my rose. She doesn’t want your exhaust fumes.”
“Oh, for god’s sake. Not allowed to smoke inside. Not allowed to smoke outside. Is this a totalitarian regime?”
A phone rings. It’s a landline but with a cordless receiver which Tabitha has brought outside. She puts down the e-cigarette and picks up the receiver and continues to smoke the real cigarette as she talks. She says “yeah” and “uh huh” a couple of times and nods as if her gestures can be seen by the person she’s speaking to.
Tabitha hangs up and puts down the receiver. “John,” she says simply.
Precious is bent over the flowerpot pulling out weeds. She straightens her back and peels off her gardening gloves. She digs the trowel into the soil and throws the dirty gloves onto one of the folding chairs. She sticks a leg over the side of the building and, clutching the railings, lowers herself down the ladder then squeezes through the open window into the flat.
Down on the pavement, a woman and a man sit at the wobbly table. Having sat here before, the woman has placed a paper napkin beneath the offending leg. The furniture is now still, but the checkered cloth moves with the breeze. There is a bottle of red Bordeaux, two glasses, a bowl of green olives, and another for discarded pits.
“You must be joking,” says the woman. Her name is Agatha Howard. She is in her mid twenties, dressed elegantly but in the style of an older woman—a politician or a business executive. She is wearing a linen trouser suit, the jacket removed and folded on the back of her chair, and a white blouse buttoned to her neck. There are jewels around her wrist and hanging from each earlobe but these—rubies set in gold—age her. She holds a small photograph loosely between a thumb and forefinger. The photograph is of a piece of fabric. The fabric may once have been a handkerchief but it is now old and shapeless, and ragged at the edges. It is mostly gray, but at one corner there is a dark brown stain.
“I am not joking,” the man replies. He is an antique dealer.
“Hand me that letter of verification.”
The man hands the woman a letter of verification pertaining to the square of fabric. It is typed on headed paper, and signed. Agatha reads to the end, frowns, then looks closely at the signature. “I haven’t heard of this historian,” she says.
“He’s at Durham. He is young but very well regarded.”
“If he were well regarded, I would have heard of him.”
Agatha looks again at the letter, then again at the photograph of the rag. It was supposedly dipped in blood at the foot of the guillotine, taken as a keepsake of the dying order.
“It’s the kind of money I would expect to pay for a relic of the Bourbons, not for a minor member of the nobility.”
“Not a minor noble. A descendant of the Valois kings through the female line.”
Agatha considers. She studies the photograph again, and then the man. She sits back in her chair and looks out to the street, then up at hanging baskets of red geraniums. Inside one, there is a discarded packet of cigarettes. The box is lying among the dark green foliage, and one of the cigarettes has become caught between the soil and the metal wire of the basket.
People these days have such a fundamental lack of respect.
She looks back at the man.
“No,” she says.
“I said no.”
“Would you like to come in and see the original?”
“I’m not interested.”
He has dealt with her before, so knows she is serious.
“Fine,” he says. “Keep the photo in case you change your mind.” He seems neither affronted nor disappointed. He shouldn’t be—Agatha has spent huge amounts of money at his dealership.
“I have to go,” she tells him.
“You’re not staying to eat?”
“I can’t, but you should. This place won’t be here for much longer. I’m redeveloping most of the street. Restaurants like this are quaint, but they aren’t profitable.”
The man looks at her as a disappointed teacher might look at a wayward pupil. He asks her what he should order.
“The escargots are excellent.”
She gets up, knocking the wobbly table. She says goodbye and makes her way to the end of the street where her driver is waiting for her in a blue Rolls Royce.
Just along from the French restaurant, there is a grate in the pavement, and along from the grate there is a hatch. Beneath the hatch, which opens and shuts on rusty hinges, there is a dark cellar, and inside the dark cellar there are a number of people. Two of the people come out of the hatch, and race each other down the street. They are making their way to an old pub: the Aphra Behn.