Jenny is a third-rate music-hall chanteuse living in Edwardian London. When she remarks to her mentor and lover Leo that she never wants to grow old, she is unwittingly making a pact with the Devil. Her contract to love him will reside at the Metaphysical Bank in High Street Kensington—forever. Leo has lived through thousands of years in numerous incarnations. As he gleefully exploits what 20th century London has to offer—as a magician ("the Great Pantoffsky"), fighter pilot, coke dealer, city banker—Jenny finds that the joy of eternal youth is short-lived. Her unchanging appearance provokes questions and Jenny has to move abroad or constantly reinvent herself. For 60 years she has to pass herself off as her own offspring. When she bears a real daughter that may or may not be Leo's, his destructive nature comes to the fore. She flees from him and destroys the contract that she has never read. At the same time Leo understands that Jenny is the one woman that he has truly loved and that perhaps it is time the Devil made a stab at family life, whatever the consequences. A compelling journey through 20th-century Europe and beyond, Miranda Miller’s ingenious take on the Faust story is by turns humorous, erotic, and terrifying.
|Publisher:||Owen, Peter Limited|
|Product dimensions:||5.40(w) x 8.40(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Miranda Miller has published four novels, a book of short stories, and a work of nonfiction that examines the effects of homelessness on women.
Read an Excerpt
By Miranda Miller
Peter Owen PublishersCopyright © 2007 Miranda Miller
All rights reserved.
PART 1 Jenny and Leo
My mother and father sit together over my sister Lizzie's cradle. A rare moment of intimacy in their mutual destruction, which usually leaves Ma alone with two little girls in small, bare rooms while our father goes out drinking. But this is an image of tenderness, the two beautiful faces leaning over the wooden crib. My father is a classically handsome Jew, tall and slim with curly black hair, huge dark eyes, olive skin and a long harmonious face. My mother is also tall, with wavy light-brown hair swept up in a magnificent Edwardian chignon, creamy skin, green eyes and a bustle of vitality and purpose that make her thrilling to watch.
I'm not in the picture, of course, because I'm holding the camera of memory, filtering their long-dead faces through the merciless eyes of a jealous three-year-old. This is the first time I've thought of my parents as lovers, as a sexual couple. Lizzie and I must have been conceived in passion.
Quarrels and sulks as the handsome, feckless couple sink into debt. My father has just enough determination to reject his Orthodox background but not enough to accept responsibility for his young family or decide whether he wants to be a musician or a tailor or a baker. My mother soon comes to despise his weakness more than she loves his charm and good looks.
A game I play with Lizzie on summer evenings in our back yard: we put blankets over a clothes-horse and sit cross-legged in the dark tent it makes, then dare each other to run into the kitchen and steal pans, plates, raw carrots and lumps of dough for 'our house'. Ma hates domesticity, poverty, children and noise. I already know this, so I hide, disappear – as my mother will do herself a few years later when she sails off to Shangri-La via Jo'burg.
Under the dark blankets Lizzie and I inhale the stuffiness, the smell of old bodies and tea and bacon – for my father enjoyed flouting the taboos of his parents – and watch sunlight filtered in tiny needles. Our scabby knees and elbows touch as we whisper, giggle and squabble. We love it when the roof falls in, when the blankets collapse and tangle with our pots and food. Then we have to get up and rebuild our house, weighing the corners of the blankets with stones and crawling back through a flap. Inside, the rich darkness encloses us again, hugging us in our own thoughts, smells and dreams.
Two sisters in white night-dresses in bare rooms, dreaming and squabbling and kicking each other in the single bed we share every night. It's so cold that the condensation freezes on the cracked window-pane and streams down the walls. Lizzie brushes her long black hair with the hairbrush we share and squabble over, splashing her face with cold water before jumping into bed to kick me.
Our parents must have married young. There's a much older brother I can hardly remember, Spencer, a name associated with beautiful stamps and financial hopes. At fourteen he was sent off to South Africa to seek his fortune. I imagine him, a huge shadow wrapped in an envelope, sailing across the ocean with a bundle tied up in a handkerchief like Dick Whittington. Spencer has found his fortune, a warm shiny word. Ma and Pa have fallen from genteel heights, but Spencer's fortune is going to lift them up again. The less money there is, the more my parents talk about it.
'Looking for work and hoping to God he doesn't find it,' Ma says of my feckless father. Every few months we change rooms and schools. The rooms get smaller and the schools rougher. I know landlords are bastards, jobs are slavery, schools are pigsties, pubs are where the money goes, pawnbrokers cheat you and other children hit you if you don't hit them first. Pa hates religion, all of it, Jewish or Christian. When he ran off with Ma – who was Jewish, too, but never went to synagogue – he fled from his family, who lived in a hebra in Bethnal Green with other families from the same shtetl in Poland. Although all he has fled to is more poverty, my father says he's glad to have escaped from the Talmud. Won't let us have anything to do with the missionaries who flock to save our degraded East End souls. I always want to go along and have tea and cake and sermons, but we aren't allowed.
Sometimes the battle between Ma and Pa spreads. One night I look out of the window and see the whole street erupt into a fight – like a party, only with fists instead of buns. Softly illuminated, like dancers on the gas-lit cobbles, men and women punch and claw at each other. Through the cracked glass I see heads hit the cobblestones, noses squashed like tomatoes, a straw hat torn off with a clump of hair attached to it. Pa has left again, and behind me I hear Ma's voice. 'These people are scum; they don't know any better. Don't look at them, Jenny.'
Pa doesn't happen any more. We move again, and Ma shares a bed with us, snoring and sobbing and smelling like Pa did when he came home. Lizzie and I think it's wonderful to have her in bed with us; we don't care how smelly and noisy she is.
Then Ma goes off to South Africa to be with Spencer, who we always knew was her favourite just because he was a boy. I'm twelve, three years older than Lizzie, and we go to live with Auntie Flo, who isn't our aunt but some kind of relation. She's quite kind really, but I can't forgive her for not being my mother. I can see her street, the chandler's and the beer shop and baker's. Little brick houses with 'Mangling done here' signs in the windows. We think Auntie Flo's rich because she has the whole house and doesn't do mangling.
Auntie Flo's crappery down at the end of the yard, frozen in winter and flyblown in summer, is so terrifying in the middle of the night that Lizzie and I refuse to use it and develop bladder infections. The chamber pot's icy, too, and most nights it's too cold to pee or do anything except huddle against Lizzie's back in bed. We squabble over which side of the lumpy mattress to sleep on and who used the curling tongs and which one of us was to leave the breakfast tray for Mr Barnabus, the only one of Auntie Flo's lodgers who isn't downright hideous. Lizzie thinks it's the end of the world when I kiss him.
Every morning my sister and I walk to the Bath Street School, where we don't learn anything, but at least for two whole years we live in the same house and go to the same school. When I come home I search the table in the murky hall for the letter from Ma that never comes. I think my glamorous mother in South Africa is proud of me, misses me. I think she has only left us because she had to and because our big brother Spencer is going to make lots of money and send for us.
Only she doesn't. The envelopes with beautiful stamps arrive every few months, but they're not addressed to me or Lizzie. They're for Auntie Flo, full of money to pay for our keep, so we must be worth something.
On my fourteenth birthday, when I have to leave school, my horizons barely fill the grimy window of the room I share with Lizzie. Auntie Flo takes in lodgers and sometimes works as a barmaid at the Falstaff. Ma didn't work because she was a lady really. I can just about imagine working in the hat shop in Kingsland Road. I'd have to wear a black frock and stand rigidly to attention and call other women madam. A job like that would be posh, grand, swish, compared with the only alternatives, which are the baby-boot or feather-curling factories.
All I know is I hate babies and I want to be the one who wears the hats and the feathers. I know men stare at me, and there's money in that. On the other side of London, where I've never been, there are theatres and carriages and jewellery that might as well be worn by me as by engravings in illustrated newspapers. I've been to music halls, and the only women I've ever heard of who did anything except have babies are Queen Victoria, Marie Lloyd and Vesta Tilley. If you can't get a job as a queen you can always learn to sing and dance. Auntie Flo says girls who go on the stage aren't much good – although with a nod and a wink and a leer, implying that being good isn't much fun.
'Leopold M. Bishop, professional Tutor and Agent, prepares ladies for Theatres or Music Halls and procures Engagements. Easy payments. Stamped agreements given to every Pupil.'
Leo always did like contracts.
I've chosen him out of a list of men claiming to teach acting because his name is Bishop and I think bishops are safe. I go to see him, clutching his advertisement from the local paper and my only white gloves. I'm afraid they'll get dirty if I wear them.
I've never seen these streets before. Bloomsbury. Huge white houses like slabs of blooming cake, the dark pavements shiny with rain. London still feels imperial and pleased with itself. These houses are full of objects and people that know their place. You can tell at once they don't do mangling, they don't even put their own clothes on or cook their own food. I can smell the rain, the sap in all these trees that aren't allowed to grow in Hoxton and my lavender perfume that I saved up for weeks to buy. My heart gallops with terror as I approach his house.
A uniformed maid like a bossy penguin shows me into a comfortable overcrowded room. Behind a carved desk is a tall, thin man with brown hair and dark-blue eyes, well dressed. He looks about thirty, more than twice my age but not old; looks so like the dream lover I've been imagining since I was twelve that I at once feel naked, as if he's been spying on my fantasies. I'm sure he knows my stays are too tight and my shoes and blouse and skirt are ridiculously big, borrowed from Auntie Flo. But I haven't come all this way just to be sent packing, so I walk straight up to him and say, 'I want you to teach me how to act. I want to be like Marie Lloyd.'
'Nobody is like her. That is why she is a great performer.'
Clumsily I audition, and he agrees to teach me.
For a year I give him most of the money I earn curling feathers and sewing them on to hats, boas and evening cloaks. My fingers are sore, and I hate each slippery feather as if it's a spiteful bird sneering at me. I'm determined that one day I'll wear these garments I'm sewing for other, richer women. Twelve hours a day I sleep-walk at the factory, and for two hours a week, on Sunday evenings, I wake up. Leo teaches me how to walk, speak, read, act, sing, dance, dress and breathe.
One afternoon, when my elocution lesson is over, instead of going home, I turn to the man behind the desk. 'You married?'
'Always lived alone, 'ave ya?'
'I have,' he says in the exquisite, stilted accent I'm supposed to imitate. But although it's his teaching voice he no longer has his teaching face. I stand over him with one hand on my hip, staring into the eyes that are suddenly evasive as he fidgets with his blotter. 'It's time for you to go home, my dear.'
'Don't feel like it. And you 'aven't got no other pupils Sundays. You told me so.'
We sit beside the fire and talk. I ask all the questions. After months of lessons I don't know anything about him but feel he can see straight through me. When Lizzie asks what my posh teacher is like, I reply, 'He talks lovely.'
Now I fire brash questions about his career, his childhood, his friends and what he does when I'm not here. Mr Bishop is awkward, as if he has never answered these very obvious questions before. I sit in a low chair opposite him, staring straight into his dark-blue eyes, which look devious and surprised. I try to memorize his face for Lizzie so that I can tell her once and for all whether he's handsome or ugly. It's a long, thin, clever face, with a sharp nose and thin lips, like a greyhound, and as I continue my interrogation he looks so nervous I think he might go racing off. He sidles out from behind his fortress desk and sits in one of the two green leather armchairs by the fire.
I pursue him to the other one and sit opposite him. I stop trying to force him to talk and stare at him in the darkening room. Suddenly he looks at me so hard that I see myself: a dark, skinny girl of fifteen in a white blouse tucked into a navy-blue skirt, cheeks flushed from the firelight and the excitement of being with him. I see my whole life until now reflected in his eyes, a very small thing, and also see that those eyes aren't indifferent to me any more.
He drops to his knees and holds out his arms to me. We kneel together on the shabby red Turkish carpet in front of the fire and kiss. His face feels scratchy and alien, yet warm and comforting, too, as if a part of myself I've lost has been restored.
After that our lessons change a bit. I still do the singing and dancing and acting, but somehow we always end up over by the fire with half our clothes off. He fondles my breasts, strokes my bare legs, talks about Garrick and Irving and Sarah Bernhardt and Ellen Terry, about painting and music and philosophy. You can't say it isn't educational. Our lessons stretch from two hours to four to half the night.
'How long've you been in the theatre?'
'I was in the theatre long before you were born.'
'Go on, you're not that old!'
'Have you ever heard of Arlecchino?'
'Harlequin. Wonderful part. I've still got the costume.' He goes to a chest in the corner of his room and comes back with some old rags.
'Bit of a mess, isn't it? Like a patchwork quilt gone wrong. Could do with a wash.' Leo sits in his chair by the fire, stroking his old costume. 'I've lost the mask. I used to love that mask. It was only a papier-mâché half-mask, but when I put it on I felt his personality flow into me. His comic delight in his own folly, his genius for wriggling out of awkward situations. And the audiences loved me; they applauded me in Bergamo and Venice and Mantua and Vienna and Warsaw and Moscow. Suddenly my tricks and lies were lovable. In this costume, wearing that mask, I was capable of the most amazing acrobatics. I could turn a back flip holding a glass of wine and not spill a drop; I could walk upside down to the imperial box where Catherine the Great was waiting with open arms –'
'Who's she then?' I ask jealously.
'A skeleton.' He leaps up. 'I'd come strutting on to the stage like this, perhaps do a few cartwheels like this. Never at a loss for words, gossiping about local scandals and politics, as Harlequin I could say anything. Always improvising, disguising myself – in one play I'm in a tomb after a jealous rival has poisoned me. I wake up beside the beautiful Eularia – she looked a bit like you, as a matter of fact – she's been poisoned, too. She says, "I am a woman, alas, brought low by a jealous lover on whom I doted too much." Then I say, "And I am a man poisoned by a madly jealous rival." Then I look at her like this and say, "Come over here. Although I'm dead I find I still have a taste for the ladies." Shall I show you what happens next?'
I'm so wet with desire for him that I have to turn away from Lizzie in bed each night to masturbate silently. Leo's sensuality is always under control; he never quite gives me the satisfaction of losing my virginity. He trains me to respond with my mouth, hands and cunt to his casual depravity until, one day, I become the seducer.
One Sunday evening my lesson ends with us both lying, almost naked, in front of his fire. Flames throw liquid red reflections over our arched bodies and the blood-red Turkish rug. Outside the window I can see the dark, foggy night I don't want to be expelled into. This room has become my centre; all week at the feather factory I languish, waiting for his voice and hands and mouth to make me real again. I know he has other female pupils, and I'm frantically jealous of them. I consider chaining myself to his desk like the crazy women who chain themselves to the railings at Westminster. The girls at the factory laugh at them. Give me the spondoodles and a good-looking fella and sod the vote – that's our politics.
'I don't want to go home.'
'It's late. Your aunt will be worried.'
'No she won't. She doesn't give a bugger.'
'Don't swear. It isn't lady-like.'
'What about those tricks you've taught me, then? Putting my mouth and hands in places I never dreamt of. Is that what ladies do?'
'Behind closed doors, I believe, it has been known.'
'What about your other pupils then, them as comes after me. Do they all end up stripped to their petticoats?'
'I'm your teacher, my dear, not your husband.'
'Lock the door. I want an extra lesson.'
We finally consummate our sexual games and lie panting on the Turkish rug by the fire. 'So that's what all the giggling and whispering and wait-until-you're-older was about. Well, it's worth waiting for.'
'I've always thought so.'
'Do it again.'
You are my universe. I internalize you as surely as you slither deep inside me during our wild lovemaking. Loving you, I love the world and throw myself at it greedily.
'Trouble with you, Jenny-nose-in-the-air, you fink you're better than the rest of us. I've a mind to write and tell Ma what you're really up to with that Leo.'
'If Ma'd been worried about our morals she wouldn't of left us with Auntie Flo.'
'She says she'll send for us when Spencer's made some money.'
'Catch me going off to bloody Jo'burg. Give me London any day. Help me with my hair, will ya? Must run. I'm meeting Leo at Giulini's at eight.'
'Take me with you, Jenny.'
'No. You're too young. Make your own life.'
Excerpted from Loving Mephistopheles by Miranda Miller. Copyright © 2007 Miranda Miller. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPart 1: Jenny and Leo,
On the Make,
The Metaphysical Bank,
Leo in Love,
A Modest Proposal,
A Child Is Given,
Part 2: Abbie in the Underworld,
Leo and David,
The House in Phillimore Gardens,
Down the Plughole,
Abbie in Love,
In the Bunker,
Part 3: An Island in the Moon,
Down to Earth,