The Paying Guests – Sarah Waters

[This is a journal in five sections. I didn’t start reading a new section until I’d finished writing about the one before, so I didn’t know how any of it would turn out until I got to the end.]

21 January 2016
First four chapters of Part 1
This feels like a Sarah Waters novel. It also feels a little too safe, I think. Maybe it’s because Waters is so good at evoking the suburban world of 1922, which she does to a kind of stifling perfection. Not that Frances Wray, whose point of view we follow throughout, is feeling safe. She thinks she’s just made a big mistake in telling Lilian, the woman she regards as her new friend, something about herself that she might not have been ready for. The reader is fine with it. We’ve met a woman called Christina during one of Frances’s afternoon jaunts up to Town from the leafy suburb where she lives with her mother in South London, and it’s easy to tell that there was once much more than friendship between them. And now Frances has told Lilian that the relationship that ended during the War, the one she had let Lilian assume was with a man, was in fact with a woman.

Waters makes it into a set-piece scene. Up until now, on the surface at least, Lilian had seemed to be the one with the exotic tastes, whilst Frances had seemed like Miss Conventionality. Lilian has persuaded her to let her cut her hair into a new style, and it’s during the intimacy of this that Frances decides to get rid of the little untruth which, she feels, is a bad thing in a new friendship. It’s just happened, at the end of Chapter 4, and Frances feels that Lilian might not get over the shock. Is Lilian now suspicious about the intimate little moments they’ve shared? Frances can’t help wondering if she’s right to be suspicious.

The novel opens during a self-conscious Sunday afternoon in May as she and her mother wait for the married couple who are to be the ‘paying guests’. They’ve fallen on hard times – it’s like a Jane Austen novel – through no fault of their own. Mr Wray had managed to die in 1918, having wasted his money on one bad speculation after another. Frances’s two brothers were killed in the War, and now the only way to pay the bills – the servants are long gone – is to let out two of the big Regency rooms to the Barbers. Lilian, until Chapter 4, has been Mrs Barber. Mr Barber is still Mr Barber.

For at least the first chapter it feels like an invasion. Frances can bear it, just as she is uncomplaining about having to take on the chores the maids used to do. But she feels her mother’s sense of humiliation, her suspicion that their scrupulously well-mannered neighbours are secretly despising their attempts to hide their fall. For her mother’s sake, Frances tries to sweep the porch when nobody is likely to be watching. But It isn’t all easy for Frances either. Mr Barber, in the first day or two, insinuates himself into her company, establishing a place where he can linger by the scullery door. He makes ambiguously suggestive remarks – was that comment about growing cucumbers a deliberate innuendo? – and, until she brushes him off one night in the garden as he names the constellations for her, he has a habit of getting a little too close for comfort. Nothing comes of any of that, except for his unavoidable male presence in a house that seems surprisingly poorly soundproofed. Frances’s bedroom is next to theirs, and she sometimes wishes it wasn’t.

The first set piece is the visit of Lilian’s family. She’s still Mrs Barber at this point, and when Frances and her mother return from visiting Frances’s father’s grave they are surprised first by the presence of a little boy on the stairs and then by the loudness of the company. Soon Waters is on favourite territory, class. She’s been there since the start, of course, with the Wrays finding it hard to keep up appearances, and their not-quite-spoken unease about where to position the Barbers on the social spectrum. In Frances’s thought-stream ‘elocution’ is mentioned in connection with their accents, and now we understand: Lilian Barber’s family are definitely not middle class. They aren’t poor, but the woman who turns out to be Lilian’s mother has remarried and spends her days serving in the shop that they live above. She is loudly cheerful, whilst Lilian’s sisters and their children… etc. The mother invites Frances and her mother in, and… Mrs Wray loves children, Frances herself is politically liberal, so it isn’t so bad. But, you know.

Frances decides Mrs Barber is sound, possibly a little lonely, and finds herself talking to her more often. She decides to try out whether they might be friends, and they plan a walk in the unassuming local park. It’s all very small-scale, and the conversation seems light enough. Except, occasionally, Frances feels she’s gaining private little insights into the Barbers’ marriage. Not for the first time, there’s a kind of epiphany, a shift in the nature of the relationship. Then they are both made uncomfortable by the presence of a young man who clearly thinks that at least one of the two young women in the park – he chooses Lilian as the more likely – must be looking for somebody just like him. Men don’t come off at all well in these chapters. And, while it might all be written from Frances’ point of view, we have no way of knowing whether the new intimacy might signal something more serious for her than mere friendship. It isn’t long after this that Frances, perhaps not in complete innocence, tells Lilian about her war-time affair with another woman….

Running underneath all this shabby gentility is an almost completely hidden sensuality that is nonetheless very real. I’ve mentioned Mr Barber’s innuendoes, but not the frankness with which Waters mentions Frances’s unfussy way of dealing with the demands of her own sexual appetites. She spends a few private minutes in between chores, apparently, and this information is offered as blandly as her memory of laughing so much once as a girl that she wet her flannel drawers, or of the easy way Christina’s latest partner (an artist) gives those bold little signs of how intimate they are in private. And we’re always getting little insights into how Frances notices the curves of Lilian’s body beneath her light, loose-fitting clothes, the fullness of her lips. On the afternoon when Lilian’s family visits, the presence of a babe-in-arms somehow serves as a reminder of how babies are made, and what childbirth involves. Waters-land is a physical, feminine world.

And there’s Frances’s involvement in radical politics. She remembers with a kind of wistfulness the activism of the War years. She was a Suffragette, and once spent a night in a police cell after throwing her shoes at an MP. Now, she freely talks about the way that men keep all the power to themselves, whilst pretending to make progress towards gender equality. It sounds modern because, I guess, that’s how Waters wants it to sound. Battles that seemed to have been won are being shown not to have been won at all. Women, it seems, haven’t the same right as men to simply be themselves – and Christina’s partner is the only one we’ve met who is able to make a life for herself on her own terms. I’m sure we’ll hear more of her.

27 January
Chapters 5 and 6 – to the end of Part 1
Nothing happens, at painstakingly described length. And then it does. I’m beginning to realise that giving the impression that nothing happens, then dropping life-changing little bombshells, is the task that Waters has set for herself. These are long chapters, and sometimes the meticulous creation of the mise-en-scene seems too drawn-out – by the end of Part 1, by which time we’ve reached page 224, the main business of the novel seems only just to have begun – but it’s clear to me that without the claustrophobia of the early 1920s setting there could be no jeopardy. I know this author’s work and I’m guessing that she’s done it like this because she couldn’t have done it any other way. What now seems to be the first phase of a gay relationship isn’t in any way shocking to modern readers, but Waters wants us to understand how things have changed. She never wants us to forget that this is a historical novel, and that 1922 is a dangerous place for women like these.

Women like who, exactly? Like Frances, living not in privacy like Christina and her partner Stevie but in the goldfish bowl of suburban London. And like Lilian who, we find out in these chapters, married because she had to at the age of about 22 and seems to have no idea of her own needs. Her baby died at birth, like so many of her mother’s, Frances remembers, and now she’s stuck. She never says it, but it’s clear that what she doesn’t need – and we can see Waters stacking the deck against poor Mr Barber – is what she gets from her husband.

A set-piece scene, one of at least two in Chapter 5, follows Frances into the Barbers’ drawing room one evening when he is celebrating a promotion. He isn’t a bad man. But he is as limited in his outlook as everybody else we encounter in this world, and the evening Frances spends with him and Lilian reveals a marriage reduced to little more than banter and the kind of conversational naughtiness that would once have been called off-colour. Frances, embarrassed at first, goes along with it – but only because she gets more and more drunk. Next morning, badly hung-over, she is mortified that she let things go so far. She feels she allowed ‘Leonard’, as he now has to call him, to humiliate Lilian.

But by now we’re into Chapter 6, and Waters begins to move things on. Before the end of the day, Frances and Lilian are completely reconciled following the unease of the days spent after Frances’s confession. They talk about it now, and Frances gives the whole sorry history of how a relationship that had seemed possible in wartime is made to seem utterly out of the question by her grieving family. She had been made to feel like a vampire, she tells Lilian – she was older than Christina – and her horizons shrank to what they are now following the deaths both of her father and second brother in the months before the end of the War. Lilian is astonished by the word – ‘Vampire?’ – and it leads to the single most symbolic moment of the novel so far. Their conversation has been taking place in Frances’s bedroom and, having made to leave, Lilian comes back and stands over her as she lies on the bed. Then she performs an extraordinary mime, pulling out what Frances realises is an imaginary stake from her heart.

Is the rest of Chapter 6 inevitable? It seems so now, but Waters is very careful to strew the path with obstacles. Most of these are in the form of other people’s expectations, as played out excruciatingly in two very different houses. The first is before the embarrassing evening that reveals the poverty of the Barbers’ marriage. A friend of Frances’s mother who lives nearby invites them both for dinner, and an ex-soldier friend of the woman’s dead son is also there. It’s soon clear why these two unmarried people have been invited, and he seems as embarrassed as she is. He seems somehow lessened, worn out by his experiences in the War, and seems no more interested in her than she is in him. The second is a set piece over many pages, in which the unspoken bond between Frances and Lilian is hinted at in the most lurching, uncertain ways possible in the context of a very conventional birthday party.

The party is Lilian’s sister’s, and she told Frances about it in the early stages of their friendship before the temporary embarrassment. It’s what prompted not only the new hairstyle but also up-to-the-minute alterations to a dress of Frances’s, and now that Lilian confirms that yes, she is still invited, Frances finds herself feeling almost girlishly excited. Cue preparations, the trying-on of the dress… etc. But inevitably, once they get there, it’s a disappointment. While Lilian is constantly asked to dance, a young man monopolises Frances as he tries to impress her with the ‘motor-car’ he is able to borrow and the trips he could take her on. Briefly, and embarrassingly – Frances really does seem to be as bad a dancer as she had told the young man – she and Lilian attempt a tango together. It’s a moment of contact which, ironically, goes on far too long. Otherwise, Frances only has glimpses of Lilian, whose occasional looks toward her she finds impossible to interpret. Eventually Lilian asks Frances to take her home – apparently a willingness to accept the gallantries of the first days of their friendship – but the leave-taking is awkward. It’s all awkward.

The reader doesn’t know any better than Frances how the evening is going to turn out. As they walk through the London streets Frances thinks Lilian is slowing down to speak… but no, she’s adjusting a shawl. And when they get home… what? Leonard Barber has been punched in the face and thrown to the ground, He had got in from the work party he’d been invited to – ‘a washout’ – and Frances’s mother had done her best to staunch the flow of blood from his nose. It feels like the disastrous end to a disappointing evening. But no, again. As Frances spends some quiet time after midnight cleaning blood from the kitchen, Lilian can’t sleep either, and comes downstairs. And one thing leads to another, very fully and satisfyingly as Frances offers pleasures to Lilian in ways she has clearly never experienced before.

So all’s well, yes? Obviously not. Waters has been careful to show us what a minefield they are treading. ‘What have we done?’ asks Lilian, but whether in a kind of wonderment or terror isn’t made clear. ‘You know what we’ve done,’ says Frances, before getting Lilian to confirm this and then telling her that she, Frances, has fallen in love. Fine. But the last ‘chill’ sound of Part 1, as Lilian steadies herself from Frances’s embrace, is ‘the muted tap of her wedding-band.’

It’s as symbolic as the mimed withdrawal of the stake, and more incontrovertibly real. Wedding bands in this world have a power that Waters has been confirming for nearly 200 pages now, along with all the other reminders of just how dominating men are. Frances, despite her progressive views and the modern-seeming acceptance of her own sexuality, is not a 21st Century woman transported back in time. In the hidebound world that Waters has created, It’s hard to see where she and Lilian can go with their new-found love. Men are not the villains of the piece – we are always being reminded of Leonard Barber’s smallness in the world – but the way things are set up, they might as well be. Everything about the status quo is taken for granted, and it’s hard to imagine that Frances and Lilian have anything but hard times ahead of them.

3 February
To near the end of Part 2
I’m just stopping for a moment because, over 300 pages in, something’s happened. Lilian has just killed poor old Len. She did it with the big ugly ashtray that Frances never did like – it was mentioned in the very first chapter, so nobody can accuse Waters of not laying the ground – and now she and Frances are in the house alone with the body.

What I’m wondering is whether something else that Waters set up whole chapters ago is now going to come into play. That time when Len was mugged… then, I couldn’t think where Waters was taking that plot development. To show his smallness, that in post-WW1 England he is as much a victim as the less fortunate ex-soldiers facing a life of near-vagrancy and having to fend for themselves? Maybe – but maybe, instead, she’s offering her heroines a possible route out of their difficulties. Frances’s mother is out at the house of the only friend she has – Frances has been admiring Lilian’s timing in bringing on the miscarriage that has led to this scene – so… couldn’t they take the body out into the road and pretend that his head was caved in by a passing desperado? Are we suddenly in the seedy world of Double Indemnity?

I’m hoping not, because it’s preposterous. The murder was bad enough, but a cover-up like that would be even more melodramatic. Maybe they’ll pretend that Len was attacking Frances, and that Lilian was only trying to help. (This is much nearer the truth, and Lilian is frankly appalled by what she has done.) Either way, it wouldn’t allow Frances and Lilian to ride off into the sunset to lead the happy, fulfilled lives they’ve been fantasising about – Christina, or Chrissie, knows too much about the affair not to suspect the truth, and Frances’s mother has been quietly suspicious of the closeness between them lately. Hmm. So… more misery, to go with the hundred obstacle-strewn pages we’ve already had in Part 2? Or, if not that particular misery, what other sort? Part 3 is over 200 pages long – and I haven’t even found out their plan of action for the rest of part Part 2 yet.

To the end of Part 2
It’s Plan A. In fact, the first plan that Frances comes up with – Lilian is too traumatised to think rationally – is to go for the option in which the police are called and Lilian admits to killing Len while defending Frances. But, step by carefully-plotted step, they come round to the idea of staging a death outside the house. They don’t go for suggesting an attack by an outsider, but a drunken fall in the garden on to a stone that Frances places under his head. As new refinements occur to them, you can practically hear the plot machinery clicking into place. Soon we can see what’s happening, as Waters does her best to make it seem like the outcome of the kind of desperate logic that would occur to them in such circumstances. The details of the carrying of the body, the cleaning up of the evidence, Frances’s attempts to make herself seem normal to both her mother and a male neighbour who has brought her home…. It is all so painstaking I felt I was in one of those Ian McEwan novels in which he persuades you that yes, this really could happen. Oh, no it couldn’t. Things like this only happen in novels – which is a pity, when Waters has been so careful to make all the rest of it so forensically believable.

Even before the entry of the goddess of melodrama, it was Waters’ too-painstaking creation of a believable mise-en-scene that was bothering me about Part 2. What she gives us are the tiny incremental steps in the development of a relationship which, just before the killing, has reached a point of crisis. That wedding-band of Lilian’s features in a highly charged conversation they have. As Frances takes it from Lilian’s finger exposing the vulnerable white skin beneath, Waters makes the symbolism explicit: Frances insists that it is exactly like that moment when Lilian drew the imaginary stake from her own heart.

By this time, we’ve had Frances using all the persuasive powers at her disposal to overcome Lilian’s reluctance to reject the life of convention she’s found herself in. As I said, it’s incremental. At the beginning of Part 2 she still isn’t sure whether the febrile encounter in the scullery after the party will lead to anything long-term. If my memory serves, she is usually the one to make the first move while Lilian, until now locked in a marriage with little real affection in it, opens herself to the newness of it. She has never felt so loved before, and begins to use the word herself. It’s a clever thing that Waters is doing, however exasperated I might sometimes have become by the slowness of the approach. (130-odd pages? Really?) As ever, we are confined to Frances’s point of view, so we only receive her impression of Lilian’s responses. She often feels great uncertainty, but presses on.

Two encounters she has with other women become set pieces in themselves. They might have deterred Frances from the path she is on, but they have the opposite effect. During an afternoon spent with Chrissie she realises for the first time what she lost by giving up that relationship, and realises the sacrifice she made by becoming her mother’s combined housekeeper and housemaid. This is only a month into the affair – three months have passed by the end of Part 2 – and Chrissie urges Frances to be careful. Frances has given her a pretty clear idea of Lilian’s limitations, and she doubts that it can lead anywhere good. Ah. Then some weeks later, the woman who had been the fiancée of one of her brothers arrives, earlier than her usual anniversary visit. She has chosen the only route possible for a woman in her situation – it really does seem as schematic as that – marriage to a successful but boring older man. She has come to let them know, without saying it, that the visits will be coming to an end. As Frances (or her mother) says, she’ll have a child of her own after the honeymoon to go with the three grown-up children her husband already has.

To Frances, of course, this is just another set of shackles. She has always defined Lilian’s marriage in these terms to herself, but now she becomes far more open about it with Lilian. She gets her to focus on everything that is wrong with it, so that when Len books a week’s holiday late in the summer Lilian hates the idea. She writes a plaintive letter to Frances that only stiffens her resolve. When, at the end of the wedding-ring conversation, Lilian announces that she is pregnant it seems a short step to deciding to repeat a remedy she has used before. Waters has clearly done research into the existence of such remedies in 1922: certain chemists stocked pills which could induce miscarriage in the early weeks of pregnancy. Waters takes us through the process not only of the purchase, but of the day-by-day course of pill-taking. And then we get the bloody outcome, on the same evening that Len arrives home earlier than expected from his night out.

The detailing of physical, corporeal existence has always been an important aspect of this novel. The ‘WC’ is almost a character in itself, out at the back so that everybody else in the house knows when you’re going. (Some snatched moments of affection are taken when Len is in there.) Just before Len arrives home it is full of blood, some of which we have seen in visceral strings as Lilian’s pregnancy has come to its stomach-cramping end. And Leonard’s death is like this, from the heavy wetness of the sound that Frances hears just before his grip on her neck loosens. In order to stop his furious insistence that Lilian should confess about the ‘man’ who is obviously seeking to take his own place, Frances has blurted out that she and Lilian are lovers. Hence his attack on her. And hence, at the end of Part 2, the three women in the house are in bed – Lilian is with Frances – and Len’s body is outside. Frances hears that it has started to rain, and feels a mixture of ‘relief and shame.’ It will be obscuring a lot of details of how he must have died, ‘making its blameless, cleansing assault on Leonard’s clothes, Leonard’s body, his smashed head, his soft, soft mouth.’

I suppose Waters realised that without such a downpour, there’d be no chance at all that their desperate attempt to hide the crime would be successful. Now… we don’t know. Maybe Part 3 will open with them both in jail. But I bet it opens next morning, and that there will be grisly descriptions of the discovery of the body, the questions, the guilt. I’m not in any hurry to find out. I have another novel to finish reading first.


15 February
Chapters 11-14 of Part 3…
… which make up just over half of it. And I was right in my guess: it opens next morning after a sleepless night for Frances and, in due course, we get the grisly descriptions of the discovery of the body, the questions, the guilt. Very early on when writing about this book – it was the first thing I wrote – I described it as somehow feeling too safe. And now, even though Frances and Lilian are in the biggest jeopardy yet – near the end of Chapter 14, Frances had persuaded Lilian that they will have to confess, but has changed her mind – it still feels safe. Maybe it’s to do with the restrictions Waters has set herself: a strictly chronological narrative confined, just as strictly, to one point of view. When thinking back over Parts 1 and 2 – I read William McIlvanney’s Docherty in the meantime, and it would be hard to find a more different presentation of the early 1920s – all I can think of is how A leads to B leads to C leads to… however far we are now. Not Z, certainly, but the end is only 100 pages away now. In a novel as painstaking as this one, 100 pages will feel like a sprint finish.

Things have already speeded up a little after an agonisingly slow start in this section. It’s Frances’s agony that we’re feeling, but so closely that it feels like our own. It goes without saying that, with certain caveats that I’ve already mentioned, it all feels utterly plausible. This is what a police investigation would be like in 1922, we feel. This is how a nicely brought up middle class girl would respond to the horror she’s put herself through. And, as Part 3 makes its stately progress through the week or so following the killing, we feel that this really is what it would be like for the goldfish bowl of respectable suburbia to make way for the altogether more terrifying fish-tank she and Lilian find themselves in now. The papers make the most of every little detail of the investigation that comes their way. And, as I guessed before Part 2 was over – it’s not a difficult call – Frances’s mother starts to regard her suspiciously with something approaching horror. She hasn’t guessed the truth, but she knows that something big is happening, and that her daughter has become almost a stranger to her.

But I’m not telling you the plot. A long chapter takes us through the discovery of the body, the trauma of the identification and, just as traumatic, the first set of questions. Then comes the first plot tweak: a police nurse accompanies Lilian to the station WC and assumes from the blood she sees that shock has brought on a miscarriage. Phew. Along with the heavy rain that Waters keeps reminding us about, this is all helpful to our conspirators, accounting for Lilian’s pallor and all-round droopiness. By the end of the day, and the end of the chapter, Lilian’s mother is unhelpfully insisting that they should look after her. She doesn’t resist beyond the second day, but before that Frances has chaotic dreams of trying to prop up a falling building with her bare hands. (Waters loves buildings. The big house in The Little Stranger is a character in its own right. And unsafe, bombed buildings are a big part of The Night Watch.)

Next day, next long chapter. It’s a Sunday – the terrible night was Friday – and The News of the World has got hold of the story: ‘Murder at Champion Hill: Clerk’s Mysterious Death’. Things had been bad enough before for Frances’s mother, but now they are in the public eye… and it only gets worse. Frances finds herself having to deal not only with her own tortured emotions – to say nothing of her fears for Lilian, now back over the shop on the Walworth Road – but also her mother’s mortification as more details emerge. Leonard’s friend has told the police a story about them being out until late on the Friday night, but nobody remembers them in the pubs they have supposedly visited. Later still, the autopsy reveals that Leonard had hardly drunk a thing. And a couple out on the lane much earlier than his supposed return go to the police to report sounds of ‘sighing’. It could have been other lovers, but it seems unlikely….

It’s like Kate Summerscale’s The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a clever account of the real-life 19th Century police investigation of a murder in a middle class house. But now the point of view is that of a character who realises that she could easily face trial as an accessory to murder, and every new detail gleefully reported in the press is a new torture. It’s one of the most claustrophobic things I’ve read in a long time, because Frances has nobody to turn to. Lilian is practically inaccessible, and her mother is allowing her long-suppressed fears about Frances to come rushing to the surface. Slowly, the police seem to have put together a plausible theory, in which Leonard’s friend has probably been having an affair with Lilian. One newspaper prints a cropped group photo that shows the two together, and Lilian is under the spotlight. This is the beginning of the era of forensic science, and the police have looked at the hairs found on Leonard’s coat. Frances knows, or assumes, that nothing will incriminate the supposed rival.

Things reach a pitch in Chapter 14. The funeral, at which Leonard’s family virtually snub Lilian’s – they appear totally ready to accept the love triangle theory the papers present – is followed by a visit from the inspector and the ‘nose’ he has boasted of to her. What is the ‘something not right’ that he’s been sniffing out almost from the start? And why does he look at her so intently from time to time…? Against her better judgment, she makes only her second visit to Walworth Road, and it’s fraught with difficulties and genuine fear. After an unsatisfactory conversation Frances goes to see Christina. A telegram from her has recently caused a lot of grief with Frances’s mother, but never mind that. She breaks down in tears, and comes within a hairsbreadth of confessing the truth… but she doesn’t. Instead, Waters lays something else on Frances. She hears a newsboy shouting that an arrest has been made.

Nearly there now. The police haven’t arrested either the friend or Lilian, because there’s been another convenient plot tweak: a young man with a history of violent behaviour – he seems to have been the man who attacked Leonard that Saturday night, months before – has a big motive. Guess. Yes, Leonard had been having a long-term affair with his fiancée. Goodness. Frances borrows enough money for a taxi back to Lilian’s mother’s place and, to everyone’s surprise, says that she must talk to Lilian alone. They can’t let an innocent man face trial, can they? Cue tortured soul-searching, followed by a decision to let things run their course…. Which is when Frances realises about four different things about Lilian, one after the other. She knew about the affair. She found out about it while she was on holiday – hence that tortured letter which had seemed to be about her love for Frances but was really about the hatred she felt for Leonard. And she already knew then that she was pregnant. As she confronts Lilian with these things one by one, she can deny none of them.

So, really, how much of an accident was that blow to the head? Was she really not thinking about the big insurance pay-out she’d get, like any widow of an employee of the Pearl? Everything Frances thought she knew about Lilian suddenly seems phoney. This, and the few pages left before the end of the chapter, are the most gut-wrenching moments of the novel so far. (And it hasn’t even taken 500 pages to get here. Not quite.) Frances feels something inside herself hardening. And this is when she tells Lilian that what they must do now is go to the police with the truth.

As she watches her from where she’s sitting on the bed, she is surprised by the poise with which Lilian seems able to prepare for the walk to the station, as though she almost expected this moment to come eventually. And she’s just as surprised by a feeling that suddenly overwhelms her as she tries to rise. ‘She wanted to be sick. Her heart felt squeezed. She thought with astonishment, I’m ill. Christ, I’m really ill. I’m dying!’ In fact, it’s something else entirely. Terror. Before her brain has processed it, something inside her realises what it is that she’s proposing. Then she does process it, step by step. (When is anything not step by step in this novel?) She imagines the papers, the motives that will be invented, the inspector ‘digging, turn[ing] up her old affair with Christina. He’d make something filthy of that….’ And so on.

‘Take off your coat,’ she said. ‘We’ll do as you said and – and wait … till the court hearing. We’ll wait to see how bad it looks.’

21 February
The rest of Part 3 – to the end
And that’s exactly what they do, wait and see. The reader doesn’t know the outcome of the murder trial any sooner than Frances and Lilian, and it makes this final section much more of a page-turner than anything that has come before. It isn’t their trial, but that of the young man against whom Waters has stacked such a weight of circumstantial evidence that it proceeds with a nightmarish inevitability that takes up almost all of the long final chapter of the novel. The outcome seems to be a foregone conclusion until just a few pages from the end, and even after another implausible plot tweak casts the evidence in doubt it still looks as though our heroines are going to have to confess.

This has always been the unspoken deal they have made, because to remain silent would be a crime against justice. Not only would an innocent man be hanged – Frances, inevitably, has noticed the little black cap that the judge has with him, ready to pass the death sentence – but it would feel like class warfare. Waters makes the testimony of the final witness into a quiet little sketch of life at the bottom of the heap, where the defendant and his mother live. This is the witness who, whilst explaining why he hasn’t come forward earlier, provides a last-minute alibi for the accused man. Waters doesn’t let either Frances or the reader off so easily, of course – Leonard’s brother causes such a stir by shouting ‘Liar!’ at him that it seems to have undermined the spell that the revelation has caused – but, when it comes, the verdict is ‘Not guilty.’

This isn’t quite the end, of course, but I need to rewind. Following their decision – or Frances’s decision – not to confess, the law takes its course. It’s like this novel has always been, as A, the first hearing, leads to B, the second, leads to C…. Frances and Lilian see little of one another except in public, and that’s no good at all. So the first view of the nineteen-year-old suspect is Frances’s, a view that she realises is very different from that of the police and the public. She recognises his swagger for what it is, a kind of confused, desperate defiance. She even tries to get the inspector to see it, but he has a case he thinks he can win, and isn’t going to be swayed now. Of course, it’s in her interest to undermine the police’s case… but that doesn’t make her wrong. With his awful teeth and the cosh he carries to kill the rats where he lives and works, he looks to the court like the city’s criminal underbelly made flesh. Frances, seasoned political activist that she is, sees deprivation.

But, as I mentioned, Waters has stacked all the cards against him. Not only does he admit the assault on Leonard back in the summer; his girlfriend is happy to report that he said there would be more where that came from if Leonard carried on seeing her. Which, as we know, he did. And the cosh, expertly demonstrated in an electrifying moment in the first hearing, could do the damage to an unprotected skull that the police surgeon reports. The hairs found on the coat ‘could’ be a match. The blood on the cosh ‘could’ be human. And so on. Waters makes it clearer to the reader than Frances allows herself to believe that this boy hasn’t got a chance. Without the threadbare deus ex machina in the shape of the eleventh-hour witness, he would almost certainly have been found guilty, and Waters would have been able to make her point about class in a different way, that the dirt-poor of society didn’t stand a chance. (As it happens, now I think about it, the witness alters the class dynamic. He is willing to lose his job in order to do the right thing for a neighbour he doesn’t even like. There’s nothing sentimental about Waters’ presentation of it, but it’s a slum-dweller who saves the boy, not a middle class woman from the suburbs.)

Throughout all this, Frances and Lilian get only one chance to be alone in the house. It’s a disaster, as Waters takes us through the excruciating collapse of whatever it is that they ever had. There’s mistrust, recriminations that are spoken and, too late, retracted…. It’s a horrifyingly convincing portrayal of how the pressure, on Frances especially (because it’s her point of view we are being shown), can lead to an overwhelming sense that all control has been lost. We remember her half-formed suspicions about Lilian’s motive when she wielded that ash-tray, and now she simply can’t believe that what they had was ever genuine. When Lilian has gone she burns the letter Lilian wrote on holiday, and ends up bursting into uncontrollable tears in her mother’s arms when she decides, again, not to confess to her. She can’t confess to anyone.

Later, on the eve of the last day of the actual trial, we are with Frances as she gazes in a kind of loving wonder at ordinary things in Lilian’s room. It seems impossible that she might never be able to see them again, which is what would happen if she were to confess. At this point she is convinced that the boy will be found guilty, and she can’t imagine a future for herself. She attempts to get her mother to say that she will never think badly of her whatever happens…. Her mother is mystified, of course, and is forced to put Frances’s strange behaviour down to the strain of the weeks since the killing. They talk about the house, how it has not been a happy place for a long time. Waters puts what is perhaps the most striking image of it into the mouth of Frances’s mother: ‘It’s only a lot of bricks and mortar. Its heart stopped, Frances, years ago.’

Is it the only thing whose heart has stopped? She is thinking about the dead men of the family, of course, although it’s Leonard’s death that sparked the conversation, and the thought. And with only fifteen pages left to go, what other hearts might stop? Has the heart of Frances’s relationship with Lilian already stopped? Frances has been haunting Lilian’s room with its little collection of evocative knick-knacks, and seems incapable of action. The possibility of confession has never seemed real, ever since that moment when she told Lilian to take off her coat at the end of Chapter 14. But how else is Waters going to resolve the impossible quandary? Will it end in suicide?

The verdict arrives next day, and once we know it, it seems that it had to be this way. The police won’t be looking for anybody else, and Frances and Lilian are off the hook…. Except they aren’t. There’s a short coda, as Frances thinks that Lilian is avoiding her in the melee after the case quickly ends. She wanders across a bridge, looks into the water… and knows she isn’t going to jump. She sits on a stone bench in a cold little alcove – architecture continues to play its part, as I remember it doing in the final witness’s testimony – and Lilian is there. She had seen Frances from the taxi, and – and what? ‘Would it be all right,’ Frances wonders, ‘…to allow themselves to be happy?’

Answer: ‘She didn’t know.’ And despite this novel’s length – almost 600 pages – it feels as though little has been done beyond the preparation of the ground. Their relationship is still secret, and when Frances tries to pretend that their living together would only be ‘one small, brave thing,’ that little word, ‘brave’, carries an awful lot of weight. So Waters leaves them ‘in their stone corner,’ and we have no more idea of what comes next than they do.

But, in this novel, hasn’t that always been the way?