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Read an extract from The Misadventures of Margaret Finch by Claire McGlasson

Read an extract from The Misadventures of Margaret Finch by Claire McGlasson

Blackpool, 1938. Miss Margaret Finch – a rather demure young woman – has just begun work in a position that relies on her discretion and powers of observation. Then, her path is crossed by the disgraced Rector of Stiffkey (aka Harold Davidson), who is the subject of a national scandal.

Margaret is determined to discover the truth behind the headlines: is Davidson a maligned hero or an exploiter of the vulnerable? But her own troubles are never far away, and Margaret’s fear that history is about to repeat itself means she needs to uncover that truth urgently.

This deeply evocative novel ripples with the tension of a country not yet able to countenance the devastation of another war. Margaret walks us along the promenade, peeks into the baths and even dares a trip on the love boat in this, her first seaside summer season, on a path more dangerous than she could ever have imagined.


Chapter 1

Some might swear it is meant to be, that everything preceding it was merely preparation for this time, this place, but Margaret Finch isn’t the type to believe in foolish notions like fate. Still, no one could be more surprised than she to discover that, in both appearance and character, she is perfect for this mission. For the first time in her twenty-five years, being female is a benefit; being plain and wholly forgettable, an advantage. Following the rules comes naturally to her. There are those that she has been given: to watch but not participate, to listen but not engage. Then there are the strategies she has devised herself: a rummage in a modestly sized handbag can give her the appearance of being occupied for upwards of six minutes.

As a woman, she is not above suspicion, rather beneath it. As a woman she can go to places the male observers can’t. Places like Blackpool’s Open Air Baths. Specifically, the ladies’ changing rooms. She suspects the stalls might have the effect of the confessional, that advice may be sought and secrets shared. But she has been put off the idea, for several days, by the thought of undressing or of seeing other people in a state of undress. Never having owned a bathing suit, she carries only the toolkit she was instructed to compile when she was recruited: a notebook and two sharpened pencils; a stopwatch; a packet of cigarettes and a lighter; five boiled sweets; and a hipflask filled with brandy. Offering a smoke/sweet/swig can be used to distract a subject if they should start to suspect they are under scrutiny.

She has only ever studied the lido from a distance, standing at a vantage point on the South Pier, which juts out alongside. The curved face of white stone always puts her in mind of the Coliseum. Today she steps inside, walking under one of the Renaissance arches leading to the centre, imagining that she will find herself in a combat ring, bracing herself for some distasteful spectacle. People crowd the edge of the pool, some watching from a viewing platform which runs the length of the roof, others trying to make themselves comfortable on the tiered seating which rises up to block the horizon of sea meeting sky. So many people. So much flesh on display. Young women stand in knitted bathing suits, adjusting necklines lowered by the weight of saturated wool. Young men wear only belted shorts, standing with their stomachs drawn tight. There are exposed chests, pale and hairy; legs arranged at lengthening angles; biceps tensed to maximum effect. She finds it all too much. Like meat set out in a butcher’s window. Men and women give each other appraising looks. But all she sees is sinew and flesh. Spots of acne, yellowed toenails, skin blistered where it has burnt in the sun, dimples at the tops of thighs. To her the meat looks tainted. On the turn.

Reaching the changing room, she enters through the turnstile. She could hire a bathing suit from the kiosk, but since she has no intention of wearing it, decides to save herself threepence, and hire a towel for a penny instead. It will make her look as though she intends to swim and, if she carries it across her front, will be a good place to hide her notebook. Walking along the rows of changing stalls, she pushes the door of one that appears to be empty.

‘Hang on!’

But it is too late; Margaret has already seen the through the gap between the door and frame. The woman inside is bending over, pulling up her underwear.

‘Sorry!’ The cubicle door slams in her face. She moves on and, not wanting to risk making the same mistake again, waits until she sees an older woman emerge fully dressed, before stepping inside. Congratulating herself for hiring a towel, she hangs it over the top of the stall door to make it obvious it is occupied, and removes her shoes. There’s a narrow bench, but she decides not to sit: the bottoms of her legs will be visible to anyone walking past and will look odd unless she gives the impression she is changing. Unpacking her bag, she tries to hear the conversation of the woman on the other side of the partition, who seems to be talking to a friend further along.

‘So quick,’ one says in a lowered voice. ‘Over just like that.’

‘And did he . . . ?’

‘I think so . . . There were . . . afterwards . . .’

‘And did he say anything about . . . ?’

‘No. Only that he hoped nature would take its course. And that it wouldn’t be long before . . . well . . .’

The friend goes quiet for a moment then asks: ‘Did he not try to . . .’

‘No. Like I say, there was only that. The act itself. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to . . . or . . .’

It is clear to Margaret that the two women think they are speaking in a code of modesty, but it requires very little intelligence to decipher it. Copying down their words, she writes the act itself = intercourse in the margin of her notebook. Her hunch that she would be able to collect shared confidences has proved correct, though she had not anticipated that they would speak about such intimate matters. Is it because the screens are there to hide their blushes, or is it the removal of clothes that prompts a baring of the soul?

The Misadventures of Margaret Finch is published by Faber on 6 April 2023

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