‘The School of English’ by Hilary Mantel



From The London Review of Books:

‘Lastly,’ Mr Maddox said, ‘and to conclude our tour, we come to a very special part of the house.’ He paused, to impress on her that she was going to have a treat. ‘Perhaps, Miss Marcella, it may be that in your last situation, the house did not have a panic room?’

Marcella put her hand to her mouth. ‘God help them. The family go in together, or one at a time?’

‘There is capacity for all the family,’ Mr Maddox said. ‘The need arising, which God forbid.’

‘Which God forbid,’ she repeated. The idea of group agitation … How, she wondered, does panic ignite and spread? Is it parents to children, children to parents? ‘Can the doctor do nothing for them?’ she asked. ‘There are pills to stop fear. Also they say, breathe into a paper bag. It does good in some way, I am not sure how.’

Mr Maddox – the butler – turned his eyes on her, and she knew she had made an error. Perhaps she had shown over-familiarity. Or perhaps she had mistaken his meaning; this seemed likely. ‘So it is not,’ she said tentatively, ‘a room you go in when you are frightened?’

‘It is not a mere room,’ Mr Maddox said, ‘but a facility. Follow and I will show you.’ But he turned back. ‘If you were making a joke, I heartily discourage you. I myself benefited from the care of English nursery teacher. I am joking like a native speaker. But in such exclusive postcodes as St John’s Wood, or in any leafy part of this great metropolis, it is easy to give offence.’ He patted the paunch beneath his T-shirt. (We are a modern, informal household, she had been told.) ‘Miss Marcella,’ he said, ‘come with me.’

She would never have guessed the door they passed through was a door at all. It seemed like mere wall. Once it was opened, the light came on by itself, and it showed a part of the house that was concealed except to those who were, like the butler, in the know: that was where he said he was.

‘Mr Maddox,’ she said, ‘I am to clean here?’

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