A Petrol Scented Spring

Praise for Ajay Close's earlier books





‘Brave, vulnerable, intensely observant and articulate, packed with life'

John le Carré


‘Her eye for the dreadful detail of contemporary life is acute, her pleasure in it is immense . . . she makes you glad to be alive and living now.'

Fay Weldon,
Mail on Sunday


‘With this novel Ajay Close stakes her claim to a deserved place in the pantheon of Scotland's exciting contemporary novelists.'

Val McDermid,
Scotland on Sunday


‘Remarkable prose which is polished and always vivid'

Carol Birch,


‘This is a very assured first novel. It is beautifully structured, written with a commanding voice.'

Carl MacDougall,
The Herald


‘This psychological thriller pulses with life and is riven with sharp observation. As the screws turn, the author's natural zest and intensity harden into a brittle tension to produce one of the most involving thrillers I've read.'

Daily Mail





‘She is a natural writer, with a rare gift of combining tartness and empathy, intellectual reach and an up-to-speed take on contemporary madness. Glasgow has a magnificent addition to its pantheon of fine writers.'

Candia McWilliam


‘A book that engages at every level with questions of imaginative and spiritual depletion and restoration . . . Coloured, multi-dimensional, avid for experience'

Brian Morton,
Scotland on Sunday


‘Dense vigorous prose, alive with observation and shrewd intelligence . . . fate, coincidence, memory, romantic love, sibling rivalry, Scottish nationalism, city life − all are here.'

Literary Review


‘Vivid, funny, touching and eerie'

The Herald


‘Close's second novel is an exceptional one, firmly establishing the arrival of a major talent.'

The List


‘A nutter of a book'

The Big Issue





‘Engrossing . . . the toughness and the edge that her prose achieves are perfect reflections of the content, and a boon to those who want to be made to think, both about men and women and the relations between them, and about the values we so often assume are shared ones.'

The Scotsman


‘Dynamic, detailed and unsqueamish . . . Highly recommended.'

Morning Star


‘Intelligent and uncompromising'

The Herald


‘Blew me away . . . sharp as a blade'

The Weekly Worker





Born in Sheffield, Ajay Close took an English degree at Cambridge. She worked as a newspaper journalist, winning several awards, before becoming a full-time author and playwright. Her first play,
The Keekin Gless
, was staged at Perth Theatre in July 2009. Her second,
The Sma Room Séance
, was performed at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. She is the author of three novels,
Official and Doubtful
(Secker & Warburg 1996), which was long-listed for the Orange Prize,
(Secker & Warburg, 1998) and
(Blackfriars, 2014). All three books collected rave reviews. Ajay Close lives in Perthshire and is, always, working on a new novel.








Official and Doubtful










Ajay Close







First published in Great Britain by

Sandstone Press Ltd

Dochcarty Road



IV15 9UG





All rights reserved.

No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form without the express written permission of the publisher.


Copyright © Ajay Close 2015

Editor: Robert Davidson


The moral right of Ajay Close to be recognised as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Design and Patent Act, 1988.


The publisher acknowledges support from Creative Scotland towards publication of this volume.



ISBN: 978-1-910124-61-1

ISBNe: 978-1-910124-62-8


Cover design by David Wardle of Bold and Noble

Ebook by Iolaire Typesetting, Newtonmore.





For Geraldine





‘. . . a man whose blood

Is very snow-broth'


Measure for Measure


Spring is here. I know it as soon as I wake. Not the pretty, pink-blossomy poet's season, but the petrol-scented spring of Earls Court Square. A sooty blackbird whistling on a chimney pot. The pistol crack of parlour maids beating their rugs. Any day now the typewriter girls on the underground trains will shed their ugly winter coats and the one-eyed costermonger on Derry Street will call out ‘Give us a smile!'

‘But London's so dirty!' Aunt Nellie wails, ‘so noisy, so busy, so big'. Which is just what I love about it. Trains and motor omnibuses and electric trams, all the coalboats, barges and lighters on the river, and the workers spilling down Warwick Road like a sort of many-legged machine. Bill says there are two sorts of people in this country: the mousy, soft-voiced, unobtrusive types who like green fields, health corsets, scrambled eggs without pepper, and pitch-black nights so quiet a person could scream; and the other sort, the modern sort, who prefer Ragtime and gin punch and anchovy toast and scorching down to Brighton in Charlie Beevor's Austin, and a jolt of strong black coffee to start the day.

I love these mornings. Hot kidneys and buttery toast and the ironed-newsprint smell of Pa's
. A lozenge of sunlight sliding down the wallpaper. Brewer bringing in the post. The murmur of half-distracted talk. Snippets of news from our letters, the price of copper, what everyone wants for lunch. No one really listening. A lovely desultory recitative of
pass the sugar
what about turbot?
Embellished this morning by a light descant of
good gracious!
Dot, you'll like this
, as Auntie reads out Uncle George's gossip about the Bishop.

Today being the last of Aunt Nellie's visit, she and Mama are going to see the Assyrians, and maybe the Minoans if they don't get too tired. Auntie will take her sketchbook and Mama will trail along half a step behind, looking at the bluestockings' dresses. They're debating whether they'll need an umbrella, and wouldn't it be easier to take a cab, and is half past one too late for lunch, when Pa looks up from his paper and says to me ‘You're very quiet'. Quickly, I fold the letter back into its envelope.

‘Someone's rather furtive,' Mama says.

Pa leans across the table, ‘That wouldn't be a proposal, by any chance?'

And now they're all ragging me about the sender. Is it William or Henry or Richard or Charles, or another young buck altogether? Even my sister Hilda joins in, though she knows full well who sent it. I caught her reading over my shoulder.

A whistle pierces the open window, not a moment too soon. I call, ‘Just coming, Bill.'

Aunt Nellie's eyebrows shoot up.

Mama gives me a testy look (we do not shout out to the street in this family), leaving Pa to explain to Aunt Nellie, ‘It's Argemone acting the goat.'

Argemone ffarington Bellairs is nearly six feet tall. Brown hair cut almost as short as Pa's, the frankest blue eyes I've ever seen, and a lopsided smile that saves her the bother of drawling ‘I say, is anyone up for fun?' She is twice as clever as my brother and his Cambridge friends, fluent in French from her schooldays in Caen, and such a sharp mimic that I'm never sure whether to feel flattered or mortified. She knows everything worth knowing. Which hotel Sarah Bernhardt stays in when she visits London. Where Constance Collier buys her hats. The latest dance steps. How much to tip a cabman in Paris. How to be served strong drink in a country hotel without causing a stink (cough delicately into curled fingers and order a whisky mac). She smokes, and bandies the Devil's name, and laughs like a stevedore, but you should see her play the great lady if the servant class gives her cheek. She is quite the most thrilling person I've ever met, and – how shall I put this? – my bosom chum.

We're kindred spirits: Do and Bill, quicksilver and gunpowder, brilliant and disputatious and loud. Mama can't understand it: Donella used to be such a dear sweet girl, perfectly happy with a window seat and an apple and a tome by Mrs Gaskell. Oh I could run like the wind on Torbay strand, but in company I was every inch the dutiful daughter. Until I met Bill, at a rectory tea party of all unlikely occasions, and Do was born.

And now we're never apart. When the doorbell rings, nine times out of ten it's Bill come to collect me for a game of tennis, or a lunch party, or a lantern lecture, or a jaunt down to Richmond, or a walk through Hyde Park.

Hilda says Mama is frightfully jealous, even if she doesn't show it:
would like to be the one walking arm-in-arm with her firstborn, and having the same thought, and both saying it at once, and bursting into peals of laughter. But how can Mama begrudge Bill my friendship? Isn't she always reminding us how lucky we are, compared to that poor motherless girl? Twenty-three and all alone in Bayswater, with her sisters and brothers scattered across the country and her father on the other side of the Atlantic. No one to put her to bed with an earthenware pig when she catches a chill. No one to tell her she would look so much nicer in a plain silk dress than in that awful grey serge. For two pins Mama would invite her to come and live with us in Earls Court. Only Bill doesn't live all alone. She shares a basement flat with that little witch Maud Jenney, two rooms in a narrow white stucco house filled with the garrulous relatives of their Russian landlord, Mose Cohen. There's always someone rapping on the door to borrow an egg or a twist of sugar or the evening paper, or to borrow Bill herself to model a dress while the borrower circles her on hands and knees with a mouthful of pins. Nor is it all borrowing. As often they'll arrive with a bowl of borscht or a blini hot from the pan. I can't think of anything more splendid than living in that maelstrom of Yiddish and gossip and laughter and rages that blow over in the time it takes to thunder back upstairs.

‘The garment workers are going to strike!'

Never ‘Good morning, how are you, Mrs Atkins?' or ‘Isn't it a lovely day?' Always some drama, a piece of news that bounces like a hot coal from hand to hand. A strike, what fun! That'll expose the hypocrisies of the bourgeoisie. Take away their finery and what do they have left? It's the skilled fingers of men like Mr Cohen that allow them to display their
good taste. Ha! Bill loathes taste. Taste is just the consolation prize for people with no intelligence, people who think choosing the right shade of brocatelle makes up for having no conversation, while honest, hardworking, clever people like the Cohens have to pander to their vanity, just to be able to eat.

And yes, I'm a bourgeoise, born and bred. Pa makes money, Mama comes from land. We have an account at Fortnum's. As one of that select group approved by the King as suitable brides for the better sort of families, I have a string of eligible admirers. All I have to say is ‘I've had a letter from Johnnie Hetherington' or ‘Aubrey Percival's invited me down to Cressley' and Bill will forget all about Isadora Duncan or the Mexican revolution or whatever she's blithering about, and get very hot under the collar indeed.

But something's the matter with Hilda. She clangs her tea cup back into its saucer and glowers at the tablecloth. Bill winks at me. Pa glances across, then, wisely, returns to the

Mama says ‘Shall we ask some of the girls from school to tea, Hilly?' and I have to use my napkin to cover a smile. Hilda doesn't want to drink lemonade with her classmates. They're nice enough, as schoolgirls go, but she doesn't want a
friend. She wants someone like Bill, and Mama knows it. Lately, she has taken to drawing me into the hall for these muttered confabs.

‘Why don't you take Hilly with you?'

A long pause, followed by a sigh. ‘If we must.'


So here we are, the three of us, strolling down Church Street on the first day of spring, glancing in the shop windows; looking beyond our own reflections, now and again. Hats, china, dresses, books, the usual clutter of propaganda in the Votes for Women shop. You see those green, white and purple brooches everywhere these days. At the bottom of the display, below a paper banner proclaiming
Holloway Corner
, five china dolls in little prison uniforms have been placed in miniature cardboard cells. A sixth doll is dressed in a doctor's frock coat and stovepipe hat. Someone has cut her hair off and inked a beard around her cherry-ripe pout.

‘I suppose you think that's funny,' Hilda says to me.

‘I do rather,' I admit.

She scowls.

According to Hilda, I have simply ruined her life. I have swiped the best of everything. Bill's friendship. Pa's witty turn of phrase and blithe assumption that of course people will like him – why would they not? Mama's charm and graceful carriage and lovely face. It's true I'm the spit of our mother, but Hilda could be quite a looker if she'd try smiling for once, and there's her talent for sketching, she's not completely null, just convinced she has been dealt a losing hand. Even in her birthplace. I was born in America. I give off a whiff of the Iowa prairie and close shaves with red-skinned tribesmen, while she was hatched in Seaton, a one-horse town on the English coast with its gosh-golly red and white cliffs. She got boarding school, where they sent her because I'd been such a holy terror when I was fifteen. Not that she minded so very much, when she thought I was stuck in Newton Abbot baking macaroons for the Churchwomen's Guild. But the minute she was packed off to Tolmers Park, Pa took our house in town, so she got drumlins and algebra and Latin gerunds and February afternoons on the hockey field with a crosswind straight from Siberia, and the name Hilda, poor thing, while I got Donella, and ten minutes by train to the V and A and the Proms, and jaunts up to Cambridge to visit Gordon and his handsome chums, and gadding around London with Bill.

And I do see her point, life can be unjust: she's seventeen, with a nasty dose of the schoolgirl glums; I'm twenty-one and having a ball.

‘Your pops was in a waggish mood,' Bill remarks as we saunter towards Kensington.

I decide to tease her. ‘He's trying to get me married off, preferably to someone who'll put a bit of business his way.'

Hilda shoots me an accusing look, but there's more than a speck of truth in this. Four years since I was presented at court. Most of my fellow debs are wed. By the time Mama was twenty-one she had two children in tow.

‘So put an end to his hopes,' Bill says.

‘It's all right for you.'

‘Because Pater's barking mad?'

Kenneth ffarington Bellairs has been a sheep farmer, newspaper editor, stock market savant, company director and bankrupt, and can currently be corresponded with care of Medical Lake Asylum.

I murmur, ‘The situation has its advantages'.

‘No one to horsewhip you?'

‘You're the one who'd take the blame. I'm the perfect damsel.'

Hilda is listening very carefully.

‘Look at that!' I say.

We've reached Throckmorton's Fine Art, which today is displaying a canvas by Samuel Peploe. A still life of a restaurant table late at night.

Bill's eyes are hooded. Her fingers stray towards mine, then, remembering, twitch away again. I know what she's thinking. I'm thinking it myself. The silver coffee pot beside the empty glass, the discarded napkin, that blown rose: it's a painting of us. What use have we for Nature? We're a new species, releasing our strongest scent in artificial light.

Her thumb strokes the pearl button at her throat. ‘Half stupefied by meat and drink, the bitter aftertaste of coffee in my mouth—'

She's putting herself inside the canvas. It's a game we play when we're alone. I cough to remind her of our chaperone, but she takes no notice.

‘—the throb of my pulse so alive to you, I can't bring myself to meet your look.'

Dinner at Mama's table is a cheerfully temperate affair, precursor to eight hours of soundly dreamless sleep, and yet my little sister says, ‘I've felt like that'.

‘I should hope you have not,' I say, sounding like Aunt Nellie.

‘And why shouldn't she? She's old enough to provoke a glance. Or do you think they only have eyes for you?'

This is my cue to laugh, and reply
of course: one
glimpse of me and they're smitten for all time
. Instead I say, ‘She's too young for all that rot.'

Bill slides me a sidelong look, ‘You weren't at seventeen.'

‘Cheese it, Bill.' But it's too late, I can see Hilda wondering how, or rather with whom, I disgraced myself. The weedy aesthetes at Miss Burt-Cowper's dance classes? One of Gordon's friends? The gardener's boy in Devon, with his strong brown hands?

It's almost eleven by the clock on the wall of Barkers department store when we get to Kensington High Street. I'm about to suggest we telephone Brewer with our apologies and have an early lunch in that place with the potted palms that does such delicious squab pie, when Bill catches my eye and directs a quizzing glance across the street. It's a perfectly ordinary Monday morning. A good throng on each pavement. Errand boys in their white aprons, ladies' maids in search of ribbons and stockings, chaps like Pa in bowler hats, a couple of fashionable gentlewomen rustling along in their whipped-cream skirts.

But now I do spot something. That tall girl. Dressed with a simplicity that graces her slender figure like a boast, her hair much the same colour as Hilda's and mine. She stands apart from the human tide, right against a shop window. All at once, as if she can feel my scrutiny, she turns and looks straight at me. A pretty face, though my first thought is not her prettiness. She seems terribly familiar.

And there is something in her hand.

Barkers' clock strikes the first of its eleven chimes and, with a tremendous cacophony of smashing glass, the perfectly ordinary Monday morning turns to madness. It happened on Saturday on Regent Street, I read about it in the paper, which makes the fact of it happening now even more dumbfounding. The cheek of them! To do it twice! All along both sides of the High Street women I had not noticed until this moment – women wearing mannishly-tailored jackets over shapeless skirts – are pulling hammers out of their sleeves and striking at shop windows. Other women, shrieking, cower from the splintering glass. Policemen blow whistles. The chaps in bowler hats wrestle hammers out of hands. Not five feet away from me, a chit of a girl in a green, white and purple sash has her arms pinned behind her and is frogmarched towards a policeman. I feel so strangely filled and empty all at once, outraged and excited and even . . . privileged, yes, that's the word, privileged to be watching this, to have the breath snatched from my lungs and still to want it to go on and on. And strangest of all, when I look back, Bill has her arms around Hilda, who is weeping.

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