SHE FOUND OUT later rather than sooner. Summer had turned to autumn, and day to night a hundred times or more. She was alone in body and mind, feeling now a fool, a failure, a fraud. She felt it especially at night. Night time told her the truth, she believed, and the day time lied. Night time judged her, punished her and, like one who craved pain, she sought it out at its worst. Robert tried but he couldn’t help her. She walked the streets alone; she provoked the very air around her, challenged it to a duel of wills. It was a fight she waged night after night, a fight that came to a head the night in question – an October one, cold and wet. If Jesus was the light of the world, where was he on such nights? Nights when the evil grime of the streets insinuated itself into her blood. Nights when death beckoned, brought to mind graves dank and mouldering. Tombs for the rich, or holes for the poor, the result was the same – a vision of darkness and eternal sleep.
Down Water Lane to Blackfriars Bridge, the clip of her shoes echoing between the houses. She splashed through puddles that shimmered in the hollows, saw in the water her reflected face. It didn’t flatter. She thought of her vain days ever staring in the mirror, how much had changed since all that pouting and twirling. Her appearance was irrelevant now, the past likewise. Friends, family, she had lost them all – but they had failed her just as much as she had failed them. No, they had failed her more! Defying the woman she was born to be, she spat like a man over the side of the bridge, watched her spittle fragmented by the wind. The same wind had ploughed the river’s surface into furrows, just like the fields at Belle Isle. Home, always home – would it never cease to haunt her? She remembered the ground in springtime, the rich brown soil freshly cut by the plough, the moan of the wind, the cawing of the rooks. These memories were her earliest and her happiest; she seemed to have known them before she was born, a pre-life beyond the great house – in the air, the grass, the trees and moors above.
A church clock nearby struck two; the sound carried across the water on the breeze. She heard it go, she almost saw it, a spectre in sound. Corporeal by contrast was the carriage crossing the bridge towards her with its lamps flaring in the wind. Though it clattered past at speed, she saw its crest emblazoned on the door. She saw too the glance of savage disdain from the driver, one of those dogs of blind loyalty that barked and bit unquestioningly. If only such dogs (this one was white) would hear the truth: that their masters despised them, not least because they needed them, couldn’t be who they were without their toil. She’d recognised the crest immediately, another memory of home, this time not so sweet. Lord Pemberton was the master who sat inside, sated and ready for his bed. She recalled his renowned humour, his view of life as a comedy. A man who viewed it so because he didn’t feel; he merely thought.
Her own thoughts turned inevitably to her father. She tempted herself that the more she suffered the more he’d pine and regret. She imagined him watching from the comfort of his fireside, worried at her route tonight, circuitous, dangerous, daring himself to love her one last time, better than he’d ever done. Her surrogate joy and excitement was coupled with sadness of the oddest kind as she turned and walked away. Occasional streetlamps that she passed hissed and flared. Only the oil was to blame but it seemed like a new horror was assailing the fabric of the night; a condiment to pain and suffering, at one with all that was cruel in life – prisons and workhouses, convict ships and asylums, most of all slavery, a practice forged in hell alongside its chains.
She thought of one slave in particular, one runaway who was now free. She was glad that she was free, free as a tropical bird. She couldn’t deny her that freedom, and she couldn’t deny her love. And Olu was alive to her not dead. Always would be. Hence her route, like metal to magnet, to the infamous parish of St Giles. Not since that fateful night with Hector had she ventured here, but here she was and she hoped her father was watching. Watching her, and watching Olu. Watching them together one last time like the love he was aching to give. A love which, should he see them sharing the same fate, he would have to give. If Jesus was the light of the world, if Jesus answered prayers…but no, how could he? – just listen to that music of the night? The sounds that reached her were surcharged with depravity and despair. Those who made them, animal and human alike, had one foot in the grave. Yet how strange that she felt at home now among the noise and the stench, the streets where life was hard as granite. She ought to have known it was true, that human beings, as Annie had taught her, soon got used to anything.
On she walked, tempting rape, tempting murder. She felt she was one of them, a beaten wife, an abused whore, an ailing runner for a canting crew. But though her prayers stayed unanswered, nothing untoward occurred; not a soul was abroad in the wind and the rain as she left the labyrinth behind. On down Holborn now and into Cheapside, where she’d supped with Robert that first day. Still walking, still dreaming, she came at last to Spitalfields, whose tenements were a lurid green in the moonlight. Roofs and walls were faulted and folded with decay, their crumbling surfaces patterned like oyster shells. Everything leaned, everything tumbled; no straight lines, no straight angles; nothing whole or wholesome. The nest she shared was in this rookery, the stone tree that housed it nodded tiredly in a corner. What remained if its communal door was hanging from its hinges. Its creak echoed as she crossed the hall with its pungent smell of human waste.
Their damp room, which served as bedroom, living-room and all else combined, was on the next floor above the dying tailor’s lodgings. She let herself in with her rusty key. The moonlight followed her; it flooded through the rag of curtain that covered the window. Its blanching shine came with a draught through the cracked glass. The once splendid ceiling, carved and embossed, showed up starkly in the milky glow, which made a mockery of the rude and common furniture. There was bread and cheese on the table but she was too dispirited to eat; and though she’d eaten nothing all day food would have choked her, made her weep as she’d told Robert that night. They slept at opposite sides of the room. She could hear his breathing behind the curtain that hid his truckle bed. It sounded pitiful, and pitiful he looked in his ragged heap when she drew back the curtain. Though there wasn’t much to mask, sleep hid any gall in his character; it made him a child again. The same was true of her, he’d said; sleep hid the fire of her will, the contrary currents that inflamed her features.
She drew closer and touched his hand hanging limp from the covering. Like a baby’s, it delicately coiled round her finger. She kissed him on the cheek, brushing his stubbly skin with her bedraggled tresses. His eyes flickered but didn’t open. Why not, when she ached to see their kindness? If only he’d wake, smile on her with loving recognition. She needed him, he was all she had. She’d never felt so alone, so bereft of the will to live. She lay down on her bed, and when sleep finally came it was fretful, filled with crazy dreams. At first she dreamed of a sword whose blade was bright and its handle studded with jewels. She knew it was her sword of righteousness, though she were no Christian soldier. Its message was clear nonetheless: fight, endure to the end and reap the reward. But what reward? she asked, as she dreamed of her father in his four-poster bed. ‘You’ll see,’ she told his sleeping form, parting the curtain as she’d done with Robert. She meant that he’d see the error of his ways in not loving her through thick and thin.
So many dreams, such shallow sleep. She thought she was dreaming still when she woke in the dawn. It was the dream she’d expected to have and so far been denied. But this wasn’t a dream at all but a prayer answered. Its substance was a figure still as stone, whose profile she knew before it turned to face her. The figure was Olu’s.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2