THE GAUNT FACE that met them was black, capped by a slouch-hat. ‘Come,’ said its owner gruffly, and soon they were following at a brisk pace.
‘Where are you taking us?’ Nell asked but got no answer. Beyond the door, which the man pulled shut behind them, was another passage. This was roofed, and they trailed him through to another court and a series of winding streets, each barely wide enough for a man to pass. Presently they came to some open ground, with rutted earth underfoot that was frozen hard.
‘You’re safe for now,’ said the man. ‘But they’ll shoot you down like dogs if you pass that way again.’
‘I wish to thank you,’ said Nell, ‘for what you did back there. We were fortunate that you chanced to be at hand.’
‘Not fortune, deliberate,’ he said, throwing his gun across his shoulder at a jaunty angle now the danger was passed. ‘We know where you come from, when and how. What foolish route you choose and what no-good driver take your money. We know it all.’
She asked him how. ‘When black man new in town asking questions about black men, black men ask questions back. Word gets round quickly among our people. He’s fresh from the country, smells too clean. That smell gets him noticed more than the questions he asks.’
‘Sorry Miss Nell,’ said Hector. ‘I didn’t mean to blunder.’
She took his hand again and both were glad of the hold. ‘There’s no need to apologise. You acted in my best interests. I’m grateful to you too for what you did back there.’
‘And for what you did for me, Miss. You’d have died for me. Died for one of us. They say there’s a first time for everything.’ She saw that he was smiling and Nell smiled too. The action felt natural.
‘Thank you my friend,’ Hector said to their companion.
‘You may call me so, though I don’t like what I hear. Is that collar you wear so light you forget it’s there? It has your name on it like the monkey she’s made of you. We have name for slaves like you, the ones who creep and crawl.’
‘I’m no white cockroach,’ said Hector brusquely.
‘No? Then why not leave her to fend for herself? You owe her nothing. You free now if you want it.’
‘Hector will do as I say, he is loyal to me,’ said Nell.
The man chortled. ‘Hector! Lord above what a name! Do they think Africa is full of Greeks? Are you his Helen of Troy? I wouldn’t die for you, lady, I wouldn’t fight a war with deeds or words. Just the turds I’d like to pelt you with. It’s all your kind deserves. And think on this – me and mine will get pretty trouble for what I’ve done tonight. Think of that, friend,’ he said again to Hector.
‘I’ve a mind not to call you so after all,’ said Hector, riding the horns of a painful dilemma. ‘Are these the manners your precious freedom brings?’
‘Let me answer for myself,’ said Nell. ‘I see how it is, I am alive purely because of who I was with.’
‘No one ask you to walk into a hornets’ nest tonight. No one ask you to risk your necks, one with collar, one without. You have your reasons, lady. Reasons that are yours, not his.’
‘One reason only. She lives among her kind, you must know her. Her name is Olushe …’
He cut her short. ‘No need to say her name, it sounds distasteful on your tongue. We are nearing camp now. Mind they don’t shoot us and ask questions later.’
‘If you cup your ear to the breeze, Miss Nell, you can hear them,’ said Hector, staring ahead into the night. ‘They don’t sleep. Don’t dare I expect.’
There wasn’t much breeze to speak of, but Hector was right about the noise – it was music, a violin, and something deeper, more sonorous. There were voices too, none of them tuneful. They headed on through the darkness, the frozen mud snagging their heels. Soon a string of lanterns was visible swaying in the void like a ship riding at anchor in a choppy bay. But this was land and the shape that stood upon it was a wagon, one of many curving outwards in an arc. The arc became a circle as their vision adjusted, a ringed encampment of 30 wagons ranged double thick. Shadows flickered across the canvas uppers, just lengths and breadths of form without substance, till a head here or a body there flashed up suddenly in grotesque enlargement. The violin shrieked, though the drone of the second instrument – a hurdy-gurdy – wouldn’t be bested. It grew louder as they neared, the musician winding at the handle as if it were a test that he – or they – must pass. He was young, bare-footed, Nell noticed, as he stepped out from between the wagons.
‘They haven’t posted pickets,’ said Hector, studying the scene. ‘No point if they never sleep.’
‘Why don’t they sleep?’ Nell asked. ‘You say they don’t dare.’
‘You have lot to learn, Miss Nell,’ he answered. ‘Or lot to realise. You forget the lives these people lived. On plantations they work from dawn till dusk, often later when the summer night is slow to come. Sleep is luxury they have barely known.’
‘Leave this to me,’ said their guide, as a cluster of figures emerged. He strolled on ahead and joined them, gesturing now and then in close conversation, his head, just once, glancing their way. At last he turned and beckoned: Hector must go alone.
The deep-rutted earth hindered his path; he walked ungainly, struggling for pride among his kind. The men he joined, all young, were not welcoming. One broke away and walked round Nell in a circle. ‘You not wanted here,’ he growled in a famished voice. ‘Why you come here making trouble? You think white cockroach make a difference?’ he said, jerking his thumb at Hector. ‘We not offer invite, even to him. We free here, lady, no one touch us.’
Survival had made Nell brave. ‘Only because they wouldn’t want to touch you. Look at you,’ she said, ‘you don’t look very prosperous.’
‘Close your white mouth,’ said the youth. ‘You here under sufferance. You bring war with white thieves across them fields. Our man shoot their man on your behalf. They move against us now …’
‘Look, whatever you may think of me …’
‘You’ve no idea what we think of you. You can’t even imagine.’
‘Tell me, I’d like to hear.’
‘How long you got, white bitch? It’ll take till dawn to tell, and dawn break late in your English winter.’
Hector had come away at last. She struggled to hide her relief. ‘All’s arranged,’ he said, steering her away towards the group. ‘They’ll let you see her, I think, but only for a while. They break camp soon, it’s how they live – by moving on like gypsies. After tonight, they can’t afford to stay’
‘But she’s really here? My Olu?’
‘Your Olu?’ said one of the men they’d joined. ‘She’s not your Olu any more, she’s ours. She belong to us and she belong to herself. When she with you she belong only to you. And yet you call her by her real name …’ The man who’d rescued them was leaning against a wagon wheel. ‘Why? is what he’s asking.’
‘I’d like to think that we’d become friends.’
‘Not possible, don’t even think it. I’ve mind to send you on your way and have done with all this right now.’
‘Are you in charge? Are you their king?’
His eyes narrowed; she saw him finger his gun. ‘You have big mouth in wrong places, lady. We don’t work by your white laws. No leaders here. We have that word the Americans use – democracy.’
‘Just a few minutes, that’s all I ask’ – had it come to so little, when she’d hoped for so much?
This man, who was their spokesman but wouldn’t admit it, wiped his mouth and spat like a true Englishman. ‘And then you go and don’t come back? – understand?’
‘She understands,’ said Hector.
‘Then follow me.’
They followed through a slit between the wagons, the firelight darting yellow and jagged from a central fire. Crouched around it, on the hardened earth, a small group stared sullenly at the flames. A boy roasting a potato on a stick glanced up wonderingly as they passed, his face lean, his gaze empty. The woman beside him watched cunningly.
‘Keep walking, don’t look,’ muttered Hector, sounding like a white man now, giving orders. He was capable, thought Nell, given the chance, which meant the same must be true of many others. What a world they might have if his like was ever freed – black men in charge of whites, black men wielding power. She tried to convince herself that it didn’t matter, and in a place like this who was right or wrong? It was frontier talk on virgin territory. Or a virgin talking at the frontier.
The man led them to a lone wagon standing at an angle from the double line. A light burned inside where voices muttered fitfully. ‘In there,’ he grunted. ‘See what welcome you get.’
Hector stayed by the wheel while Nell climbed the steps. She braced herself then rapped on the gate below the canvas. The speakers fell silent. She heard the shuffling of feet, saw the fabric flutter as its strings were loosened. She watched as the flaps were drawn back and a face appeared. It was a woman’s, middle-aged or younger, with a deep scar from eye to mouth. Beyond, in the lantern light, was Olu, bent over a cradle made warm by straw and sacks. A sick infant stirred restlessly inside.
‘Please,’ Nell asked, ‘may I speak with your friend?’ The woman turned to Olu, whose face showed neither surprise nor encouragement. Your visit was pointless, said her look, and Nell’s heart turned leaden. ‘What ails the child?’ she asked. ‘Perhaps I can help.’
‘Say what you have to say, and go,’ said Olu, soothing its distempered brow. Nell glanced at other woman, the mother, she presumed, hoping for some privacy. ‘Don’t mind her. She knows no English. Her mistress chose not to teach her.’ Her eyes flashed as she said so, and Nell saw the accusation.
‘May I at least come in?’ she asked.
‘If you can bear it,’ said Olu, nodding to the woman to lower the gate.
Nell stepped in and trod softly on the wooden slats. The wagon trembled with her weight. Pots and pans hanging from a string tinkled overhead.
‘She’ll be dead by daybreak,’ said Olu, adding fresh water to her rag and dabbing the stricken face. ‘What she ails is catching, I dare say – do you really want to risk it?’
‘You’re risking it, why shouldn’t I?’ Nell answered, looking down at the face covered in weeping sores.
Olu’s eyes softened a little. ‘You’re forgetting that I ran away from you. Doesn’t that tell you everything?’
‘Does it?’ Nell asked, thinking there must be more – how had she left and why? ‘Olu, if there’s something you’re not telling me …’
‘There isn’t,’ she snapped, ‘so make that the end of it. I’m among friends now, these are my own people. You, as we both know, have yours.’
‘But you’re starving here,’ said Nell, her voice catching. She couldn’t ignore those thin arms, the fin-like shoulder blades that trembled as she tended the child.
‘I’ve starved before,’ she said, breaking into a cough. ‘Cold like this is new, I’ll grant it,’ she added, pulling at her thin shawl. There was no food to be seen, no comfort of any sort. The heap of rags behind was her bed, and the other heap belonged to the woman whose wagon she shared.
‘If you came home with me I’d see to it that …’
‘No,’ she countered, ‘our time together is past.’
‘We were friends, you can’t deny it,’ Nell insisted. ‘I saw it in your eyes. You’d begun to love me.’
‘You are wrong,’ she said, soothing the child again. ‘There’s too much sea between us.’
‘There’s no sea, Olu, and hardly any land – I’m here in London for the season.’
‘For the season,’ she repeated ironically. ‘I think that says it all.’
‘That you not only white but high and mighty. You have never known hardship. Never learned how to suffer. Your heart is of stone underneath, like all your kind. Go home to your precious father. Does he know you’re here? – I thought not – and will you tell him?’
‘It would do our case no good. He’s …difficult I know. A masterful man.’
‘Some would say an evil man.’
‘No, not evil,’ Nell was quick to say. ‘And please don’t malign his character.’
‘There, you see? – I scratch you and you show yourself as you really are.’
‘And what is that?’ She genuinely didn’t know, was more confused than ever.
‘Please go now, it’s what I wish.’
‘Is it? You don’t mean it, your mouth says one thing and your eyes another. Think of all we shared …’
‘Just go!’ she cried. ‘I have no need of you in my life. You will never be poor like me, down and out on the streets. Did you not see the stars tonight? – that is the measure of the distance between us.’
‘The stars are white and the sky is black – they need each other.’
The child’s moaning grew stronger; its mother fussed at its side. ‘Leave us Nell,’ said Olu. ‘You have seen me. Let that be enough. I trust I am safe from pursuit.’
There was hint of a question here that sounded more than it seemed. Nell was curious but not unduly; she felt too sad for mystery. ‘Rest assured, you have nothing to fear. I wish you well in your new life. And I will think of you – often.’ Olu didn’t acknowledge; she didn’t even look Nell’s way. ‘Will you shake my hand one last time?’ she said, fighting back the tears.
Olu gave her hand, limp and cold. The feel of it was so familiar but it offered no hope. ‘Tell me you don’t love me,’ she said, hoping against hope.
She hesitated, then fixed her gaze and said it: ‘No, I don’t love you. I only pretended to love you, and for my sake not yours. You must go now.’
‘Very well – as you wish,’ said Nell, biting back her grief as she left them in peace. No, in torment to match mine, she thought, as she joined Hector outside. If I am to suffer, so must you, and more! – oh what must I do to forget you? for her look had said it all, her trip had indeed been pointless.
They left the camp more quickly than they’d come, the night wind whistling in their ears. ‘I’m sorry, Miss Nell,’ said Hector, as they crossed the fields by a different route. ‘I could have told you how it would end.’
‘At least I’ve seen her,’ she said, pretending it was enough. ‘I’m sure she doesn’t hate me.’
‘No, Miss Nell, she not hate you, I’m sure of it,’ he said to appease her.
‘Of all the friends I could have made, it’s my misfortune to have – no, that’s a wicked falsehood. What I meant to say is …’
‘You not have to explain,’ said Hector. ‘Life brings its lessons, its trials. Mark Olu down as one or the other. If I may speak plainly again, Miss.’
‘I think you’ve earned that right.’
‘It my belief, Miss Nell, that you’re a finer person than you were. You grow in your heart, where it matters.’
‘Too much perhaps. The question is, when will it stop? – and what must I do to forget her?’
The answer to that was stranger than she could have dreamed.
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