"Capital,” by John Lanchester (Norton, June 11)

"Capital,” by John Lanchester (Norton, June 11) Credit: Handout

On a rainy morning in early December, an 82-year-old woman sat in her front room at 42 Pepys Road, looking out at the street through a lace curtain. Her name was Petunia Howe and she was waiting for a Tesco delivery van.

Petunia was the oldest person living in Pepys Road, and the last person to have been born in the street and still be resident there. But her connection with the place went back further than that, because her grandfather had bought their house "off the plan," before it was even built. He was a barrister's clerk who worked at a set of chambers in Lincoln's Inn, a man who was both conservative and Conservative, and in the way of barristers' clerks he passed on the job to his son, and then, when his son had only daughters, to his grandson-in-law. That was Petunia's husband, Albert, who had died five years before.

Petunia did not think of herself as someone who had "seen it all." She thought she had had a narrow and uneventful life. Nonetheless, she had lived through two-thirds of the whole history of Pepys Road, and she had seen a great deal, noticing more than she ever admitted and judging as little as she could. Her feeling on this point was that Albert had done enough judging for both of them. The only gap in her experience of Pepys Road was when she was evacuated during the early years of the Second World War, spending 1940 to 1942 at a farm in Suffolk. That was a time she still preferred not to think about, not because anybody was cruel to her -- the farmer and his wife were as nice as they could be, as nice as the constant labour of their physically active lives allowed them to be -- but simply because she missed her parents and their cosy, familiar life, with the day shaped by her father's arrival home from work and the tea they took together at six o'clock. The irony was that despite being evacuated to miss the bombing, she had been there the night in 1944 when a V-2 rocket landed ten doors down the street. It had been four o'clock in the morning, and Petunia could still remember how the explosion had been a physical sensation rather than a noise -- it pushed her firmly out of bed, like a companion who had got tired of sleeping with her but wished her no harm. Ten people died that night. The funeral, held at the big church on the Common, had been awful. It was better to have funerals on rainy days, with no sky, but that day had been bright and clear and crisp and Petunia hadn't been able to stop thinking about it for months. A van came down the road, slowed and stopped outside. The diesel engine was so loud that the windows rattled. Perhaps this was it? No, the van re-engaged its gears and moved off down the street, making an up-down banging as it went over the sleeping policemen. They had been supposed to cut down the amount of traffic in the street but seemed only to have made it more noisy, and also more polluted, as traffic slowed to go over the bumps and then accelerated away afterwards. Since they were put in there had not been a single day on which Albert did not complain about them: literally not a single one from the day the road reopened to traffic until his sudden death.

Petunia heard the van stop further down the street. A delivery, though not of groceries, and not to her. That was one of the main things she noticed about the street these days: the deliveries. It was something which happened more and more often as the street grew posher, and now here was Petunia, awaiting a delivery of her own.

There used to be a term for it: 'the carriage trade.' She remembered her mother talking about 'the carriage trade.' Somehow it made you think of men in top hats, and horse-drawn vehicles. Part of the carriage trade, at my age, thought Petunia. The idea made her smile. The shopping was her groceries, and it was an experiment on the part of her daughter Mary, who lived in Essex. Petunia was starting to struggle with the trip to the shops, not in a major way but just enough to feel anxious about the round trip to the high street and back with more than a single basket of shopping. So Mary had set up a delivery of basics for her, with the idea being she would get all her bulkier and heavier staples sent once a week, at the same time, Wednesday between ten and midday. Petunia would much, much rather have had Mary, or Mary's son Graham who lived in London, come and do her shopping with her, and give her some help in person; but that option hadn't been offered.

The van noise came again, an even louder rumbling this time, and then the van moved off, but not far: she heard it park just down the road. Through the window she saw the logo: Tesco! A man came up to her front garden carrying a pallet, and cleverly managed to unlatch the gate with his hip. Petunia got up carefully, using both arms and taking a moment to steady herself. She opened the door.

"Morning, love. You all right? No substitutions. Shall I take it through? There's a warden but I told him don't even think about it."

The nice Tesco man took her shopping through to the kitchen and put her bags on the table. As she had got older Petunia more and more often noticed when people made displays of unthinking health and strength. An example was here in the ease with which this young man lifted the heavy pallet to dump it on the table, before taking the bags out of it four at a time. His shoulders and arms stretched out sideways as he lifted the bags: it made him look enormous, like a body-building polar bear.

Petunia did not go in much for being embarrassed about things being out of date, but even she was a little self-conscious about her kitchen. Linoleum, once it started to look tatty, somehow looked extra-tatty, even when it was clean. But the man didn't seem to notice. He was very polite. If he had been the kind of workman you tipped, Petunia would have given him a nice tip, but Mary, when she set up the delivery, had told her -- irritatedly, as if knowing her mother well enough to be annoyed at what she was thinking -- that you didn't tip supermarket delivery men.

"Thank you," Petunia said. As she closed the door behind the man she saw there was a postcard on the doormat. She bent over, again carefully, and picked it up. The card was a photograph of 42 Pepys Road, her own house. She turned it over. There was no signature on the card, only a typed message. It said, "We Want What You Have." That made Petunia smile. Why on earth would anybody want what she had?


Reprinted from "Capital" by John Lanchester. Copyright (c) 2012 by John Lanchester, first American edition 2012. With the permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Co.

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