A man is digging a grave at midnight. His shirt is stained with blood, and what he is burying alive is a newborn baby. Against all odds, his secret will come to light through the agency of a nurse, the monstrous yet courageous Betty Potts, who now runs an old people's home in what was once a grand old house.
You would think that, with a story like this, produced by someone who can actually write, publishers would be delighted. If so, you know nothing of the way modern publishing works. Despite being included in Susan Hill's Penguin collection of best modern short stories by women, and despite having won three prizes in total for her first novel, Family Myths and Legends, as well as high praise for her excellent short story collection Indefinite Nights, Patricia Ferguson was a casualty of Andre Deutsch. When that publishing house collapsed, so did the careers of its mid-list authors - those who, with sufficient talent and staying power, might have become the new generation of major novelists. Now, unless you are 21 and have the looks of a model as well as an Oxbridge degree, you are unlikely to be published at all. Does it matter? Yes, it does. Ferguson's It So Happens is published by a new, tiny imprint, Solidus. It has a dreadful cover, and no marketing budget. It is also really good - think of Muriel Spark crossed with Barbara Vine and you might get an inkling of what this slim novel, part ghost story and part black comedy, is like.
Cabotin Court is exactly what the in-habitants of Deborah Moggach's recent novel These Foolish Things were trying to escape in their decrepitude. A former almshouse for elderly women, it is a thoroughly British institution, from its tinned fruit and lino to its muddled carers and air of gentility. Run by the ghastly Betty, who dreams of restoring it to its former glory, it is as joylessly skint as most such institutions. To Betty, the indigent but virtuous females are of secondary importance to getting the house a make-over after the uninspired reign of her predecessor. Rosemary, her deputy, is "plump and brisk and fiftyish . . . Within, however, she knew herself to be a rather delicate creature, easily bored, prone to depression, a poor sleeper: sensitive, in a word." (Naturally, she isn't, but the delight of this novel is the way it revels in its characters' comical misapprehensions of themselves.) Rosemary's still-spry assistant, Annie, mysteriously apprehends things about the past and future behind the blank face and nervous mannerisms of an idiot. Alethea Troy, losing her sight and kept away from her one joy, reading, is the moral centre of the novel. Her friendship with Annie develops in touching counterpoint to the selfish ambitions of the other characters.
Betty knows something about a wealthy new female patron of Cabotin Court that could cause a nasty scandal. As she embarks on her career as a decorator, choosing hilariously horrible replacements for the old humble furnishings, other characters develop unexpected quirks of character. Rosemary is progressively seduced by a conman who wants to persuade her to set up a restaurant with him. Alethea reveals that she had a glamorous past in Hollywood as a private secretary to a now-forgotten writer, and briefly and gloriously regains her vision after a cataract operation. Her amazed pleasure at seeing the world as "a Holbein drawing" is described movingly (Ferguson herself is a qualified nurse, which may account for the imaginative sympathy of such passages). Yet it is Betty who, remembering the one good deed of her life, has most to repent.
Humane, complex, disquieting and very funny, It So Happens is just as enjoyable and skilful as Kingsley Amis's Ending Up or Muriel Spark's Memento Mori - a novel which makes us consider the last things while showing us how late and foolishly we arrive at them. Its characters are preoccupied by money, food, family and soft furnishings. Death, when it comes, is a surprise. They have learned very little worth knowing in the course of their lives; but anyone who reads this brilliant novel will learn rather more.
Amanda Craig's novel Love in Idleness is published in paperback by Abacus