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Excerpt: Wise Children

Why is London like Budapest?

A. Because it is two cities divided by a river.

Good Morning! Let me introduce myself. My name is Dora Chance. Welcome to the wrong side of the tracks.

Put it another way. If you're from the States, think of Manhattan. Then think of Brooklyn. See what I mean? Or, for a Parisian, it might be a question of rive gauche, rive droite. With London, it's the North and South divide. Me and Nora, that's my sister, we've always lived on the left-hand side, the side the tourist rarely sees, the bastard side of Old Father Thames.

Once upon a time, you could make a crude distinction, thus: the rich lived amidst pleasant verdure in the North speedily whisked to exclusive shopping by abundant public transport while the poor eked out miserable existences in the South in circumstances of urban deprivation condemned to wait for hours at windswept bus-stops while sounds of marital violence, breaking glass and drunken song echoed around and it was cold and dark and smelled of fish and chips. But you can't trust things to stay the same. There's been a diaspora of the affluent, they jumped into their diesel Saabs and dispersed through the city. You'd never believe the price of a house round here, these days. And what does the robin do then, poor thing?

Bugger the robin! What would have become of us, if Grandma hadn't left us this house? 49 Bard Road, Brixton, London, South West Two. Bless this house. If it wasn't for this house, Nora and I would be on the streets by now, hauling our worldlies up and down in plastic bags, sucking on the bottle for comfort like babes unweaned, bursting into songs of joy when finally admitted to the night shelter and therefore chucked out again immediately for disturbing the peace, to gasp and freeze and finally snuff it disregarded on the street and blow away like rags. That's a thought for a girl's seventy-fifth birthday, what?

Yes! Seventy-five. Happy Birthday to me. Born in this house, indeed, this very attic, just seventy-five years ago, today. I made my bow five minutes ahead of Nora who is, at this very moment, downstairs, getting breakfast. My dearest sister. Happy Birthday to us.

This is my room. We don't share. We've always respected one another's privacy. Identical, well and good; Siamese, no. Everything slightly soiled, I'm sorry to say. Can't be doing with wash, wash, wash, polish, polish, polish, polish, these days, when time is so precious, but take a good look at the signed photos stuck in the dressing-table mirror—Ivor; Noel; Fred and Adele; Jack; Ginger; Fred and Ginger; Anna, Jessie, Sonnie, Binnie. All friends and colleagues, once upon a time. See the newest one, a tall girl, slender, black curls, enormous eyes, no drawers, 'your very own Tiffany' and lots of XXXXXs. Isn't she lovely? Our beloved godchild. We tried to put her off show business but she wasn't having any. 'What's good enough for you two is good enough for me' 'Show business', right enough; a prettier girl than little Tiff you never saw but she's showed her all.

What did we do? Got it in one. We used to be song and dance girls. We can still lift a leg higher than your average dog, if called for.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of the Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Wise Children by Angela Carter. Copyright © 1993 by Angela Carter.

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Angela Carter