ROBERT’S WORK WAS strange indeed, and getting stranger by the day as he explained a few nights later. He’d never known a man with such an appetite for reading, or for being read to, according to the brief.
‘He just lies there on his bed, Nell, like a great fish,’ he said, unable to fathom it out. ‘Sometimes – because it’s the Greeks and the Romans perhaps – you know how war-like they were – he stops me mid sentence and expostulates about the campaigns he’s known. He was in Bengal in ’59, took his orders from Clive himself.’
As she listened, Nell stitched and licked her blood, fancied she’d got a taste for it now and no one else’s would do. It tasted bitter and salty, like the copper coins she earned and whose odour never left her hands. He was staring at her squinting eyes, picked up a guttering candle from the sill and came to inspect. Shaking his head at the marks of her suffering, he went back to his stool and fell silent. He wouldn’t finish his tale till she’d given her blessing.
‘It’s all right, Robert, don’t mind me,’ she said, calling him by his first name now, hardly conscious that she did so. He was so familiar, such a poor soul in his drab, black suit; the same suit he’d worn for years and so much worse for wear. The hat likewise, meant to be tricorned, had taken on the form of a bedraggled one-winged bird. He blamed the jostling crowds for its battering, the cut and thrust without mercy that he said was the streets of London – paved with turds and dead cats, he quipped, instead of gold.
‘Begging your pardon, Nell,’ he said. ‘Penury breeds coarseness in a man – no?’
She looked up from her work and studied him. His hunched posture, sitting or standing, still resembled a question mark, symbol perhaps of their shared lives that had no settled footing. He’d had a letter from his wife today telling him another child had died. There’d been no tears so far; he’d been reading Seneca all day as distraction, maybe as solace. He rose and creaked his way across the flimsy plank floor, avoiding the holes, the cracks, the manifold dangers of precipitate fall to the tailor’s lodgings below. The old man’s tortured coughing was audible night and day, like some broken beast in a cellar.
‘In spite of what you say, I am still hungry. There’s ale on the table …’ – she pointed to the jug Mr Tinker had brought – ‘…but no food. The ale is good by the way, it doesn’t turn my stomach like the water hereabouts.’
‘Oh, and I almost forgot – I have a pie for us to share,’ he said, pulling out the bundle from his torn pocket. ‘Two pies as it happens.’ He unfolded the wrapped handkerchief flap by flap and showed Nell the contents. ‘One I purchased, the other I found.’
‘Found where?’ she asked, remembering his description of the streets.
‘Never mind where,’ he said, and gave it a wipe on his breeches. ‘You take the other, Nell, the clean one. I trust it’s beef steak in there and not dog’s meat. You can never be sure, you know. If only I were tougher, strong like my name. They sell me anything and I don’t complain – dog in the pies, chalk in the flour, water in the ale. I think they’d like to poison me properly and be done with it.’
‘If I taste dog – and I shall know it for dog – I shall take this pie back and force it down the man’s throat. Big as he is no doubt …’
‘He’s big,’ Robert interrupted. ‘Not a man to be crossed. These butchers you know …’
‘Big as he is,’ she repeated, ‘butcher or not, I shall make him eat more than his words.’ The tutor’s thin lips parted in a laugh. ‘That’s better,’ she said laughing too. ‘You know we should laugh more often. I think it’s all we have left.’
He sat down again, this time with his elbows on his knees and his head in his hands. ‘I ought to cry for my child but I can’t. Not yet.’
‘You sound as if you’re saving it up as a pleasure to be enjoyed.’
‘Don’t mock me, Nell. If there is dog in that pie I know how it felt when it died – at the end of its tether.’
‘Go on eat,’ she urged, ‘it will make you cry.’ He looked at her perplexed. ‘Don’t you find that eating worsens your sadness? It’s true for me, I indulge it, you know, put myself through the mill like Lady Grist.’ He nibbled the crust and seemed to consider. As he chewed, trying to play the gentleman by keeping his mouth closed, Nell saw him dab his eye corner. ‘See, it’s working. Keep eating, those tears will come.’ She bit through her crust next and found the pastry surprisingly good. As for the meat, fatty as it was, there was a certain taste of beef. She took the mug of ale he offered and washed it down, spilling some on her apron. She didn’t notice the stain, only the blood on her hands. Out it came, red, copious and relentless – and no surprise. In a month of stitching she’d never quite staunched the flow. The blood was rich, like her life’s blood. Like the blood she’d feared at twelve-years-old. ‘You’re in the flowers, Miss,’ Betty had said as she fetched her a clean cloth. ‘You’re a woman now in all but name.’ What was she now, she wondered, in all but name? What she did know, was that the ale, the blood, the link with her budding sex had made her heady in belly and groin. She felt hungry, dirty, cheapened by life’s trials. She ought to go further and couple with Robert on the cold planks; endure the splinters in her buttocks, the grind of her backbone against the rocking wood. The pleasure in pain, the pain in pleasure; hanged for a sheep as a lamb. Why not do what everyone (except Mr Sharp, she hoped) would presume they were doing?
She looked at Robert, her eyes playing upon that certain part of him, the part that had sired five children, five sickly children. ‘You were saying,’ she said in distracted revulsion, ‘about the colonel – Colonel-whatever-his-name.’
‘Jenkins.’ He began to laugh again. ‘He has part of one ear missing, it’s a wonder that famous War of the Lobe wasn’t fought on his account. He really has been everywhere, if his exploits are to be believed. But it’s the way he tells of them, Nell,’ he said, his expression darkening, ‘not an ounce of compassion for ally or enemy alike. He sits up in bed sometimes, with a blind look that’s the purest opposite of reason. I’ve seen him feign a pistol shot, run someone through with a sword before collapsing back on his pillow. The military man, Nell, I’ll never understand him. He still wears it round his neck, you know, his regimental gorget. As for that Negro he keeps.’
‘He keeps a Negro?’ Nell asked, more surprised than she needed to be as she plied her needle once more.
‘Who worships him like a living god. Waits on him head, hand and foot – what? Oh, throw that off for the night, won’t you?’ he said with a frown. ‘I’m in need of closer talk.’ The tears had come at last, and the pie must take the credit. He was weeping as he chewed, his mouth wide open regardless of manners. To see the grief of a man totally undone was heartbreaking. He was crying as a child for his child, crying for the child he’d once been, for the child his child, in death, would always be.
‘Don’t cry, Robert,’ Nell said kindly and smiled. She knew he wanted more: a kiss and a loving embrace, but she hadn’t the will to give it – not yet, nor he the nerve to ask. She was beyond love, she told herself, a frozen north of a girl whom life could never thaw. He’d find her like stone if he touched her, with tenderness only for fighting. She’d fight on the streets if needs be, but not on her own account. To find those whose suffering was worse than hers was still her goal. All she needed was a push, and maybe that time had come.
In his tears, in his grief, meanwhile, Robert was growing bold. He was looking at Nell as she had looked at him. ‘Nell, please,’ he said, with a glance just half lascivious, ‘stop your stitching and …’
‘And nothing,’ she said, cutting him short before he could say more, a more they might both regret. She lay aside the half-done jacket and wound up her bobbin. It was gold thread for an officer’s tunic, earning twice a Brown Bess private’s if she made it neat and tidy, eh? as Mr Tinker would say. ‘This slave, what about him?’ she asked, brushing the debris from her lap.
Robert got the better of himself and hemmed loudly. ‘I don’t trust him.’
‘Why should you trust him?’ she said. ‘Why should he expect you to trust him?’
‘I’ve never seen such servility. It’s – sickening is the word that comes to mind. A man shouldn’t be so servile. He doesn’t like me I can tell. If there’s such a thing as a pecking order, black as he is he sees himself higher than me. He gets nothing for his pains, however. Only abuse.’ He forced a laugh from his stricken face, then allowed it to come naturally; it didn’t need to be forced and it drove away his tears. ‘You ought to see how it is there, Nell, it would split your sides. It would make a saint laugh and lose his halo in the gutter.’
‘Will this man be important in our lives?’ she asked with a yawn. ‘If not, can we speak of something else? I am so tired tonight. This ale is strong.’
‘Londoners are used to strong ale, they were given it as mother’s milk. Either that or gin. They say it’s the quickest way out of London.’
‘Carry on with your story if you must,’ she said. ‘I have two ears to listen with, unlike your Colonel Jenkins. You were saying, about his black man.’
‘No, it’s as you say – the man is nothing to us. And yet – well, it’s just his slithering and crawling in the face of – well, no reward whatsoever – what? His master is his life, he never mixes with his kind at one of the taverns. You know they have their own taverns here.’
‘Yes, I do know. Mister Sharp has mentioned them. There’s one in particular off the Edgware Road.’
‘Extraordinary – what? Their own black music, their own black songs. Their own black tavern keeper to serve them their own black beer. I wonder that it’s right.’
‘Of course it’s right,’ Nell countered. ‘What choice do they have? You know, in spite of my tiredness, I have a mind to visit the place this night. I doubt we’ll see your friend from the Colonel’s.’
‘Caesar, he’s called Caesar. Very Roman I’m sure. The name goes with the readings I give.’
‘Well, Caesar, Pompey, Achilles, Agamemnon, Paris – Helen of Bow if he were female –we must forget about him as a lost cause, concentrate on the ones who have not abandoned the fight. We are poor like them now, and they would be churlish to turn us away.’
‘But is it wise Nell? We’ll be the only white faces there. They might not take kindly.’
‘I’ve listened to Mister Sharp. He says it’s not the same with them as it is with us. One black face among a white crowd equals ridicule, violence, even death. One white face amid a crowd of black is different. If that face smacks of poverty, there is a common bond. Mister Sharp has a theory that liberation for black people, acceptance of their status as human beings, depends very much on the poor whites, who like them have few if any rights.’ She stopped and drew breath at a certain barbed memory: that white meant right, no doubt about it. ‘Betty and Hector,’ she resumed in earnest, ‘they had to be forced apart. By nature they would have made a couple. They were fellow strugglers, searching for an island in a sea of misery.’
‘You’re quite the poet, Nell, when you wish to be,’ said Robert sipping his ale. ‘I am a man of prose myself. Together, however, we might …’ He wished to say more, a lot more but shyness had overwhelmed him. ‘It’s nothing, nothing that can’t wait,’ he said, lowering his eyes.
He’d meant love, thought Nell, not lust. Either way, it was best unsaid. She’d lost her desire of a moment ago, of being mauled by his willing flesh. She was glad it had gone, but for how long? An urge suppressed was hardly an urge conquered. ‘Shall we go?’ she said, adding her bonnet to her shawl from the hook behind the door. There’d been no door like it in her old life: cut in the wall a foot above the floor, hinged with leather and latched with string. There were studs too but on the wrong side – to keep the Devil inside, not out, she’d mused on dark nights, watching the candlelight flicker.
‘If you’re sure, if you think it wise – yes?’ queried Robert, finishing his ale.
‘I’m sure it’s wise,’ she answered, pausing with her hand on the makeshift latch. ‘Come, I shall buy us some of that London gin to steady our nerves,’ and when she pulled on the door she was helped by the draught behind it. It was a wind that chilled yet comforted, a wind both evil and good. Perhaps it was like her, she decided, a devil with an angel’s face. Yet a man like Robert Strong would see only the angel.