SHE SAT ON the bed in gown and cape, her head covered but her face plain to see. It was perceptibly softened; a sense of contrition lurked in the downward gazing eyes.
‘I come, you see?’ Her voice had reverted to exotic tones but playing all the while like a threnody was the English diction Nell had helped to impart.
‘You leave me speechless’ – with delight, Nell meant.
‘I am here,’ said Olu said, ‘let that be enough. I shouldn’t stay.’
‘As you wish,’ Nell answered, thinking why not? – why not stay forever? She knew now what all her work had been for – to please Olu, win her back on her own terms once and for all. What this said of Nell in other respects she daren’t contemplate. To own that she’d not believed in any of it was too hard to bear. How many of us admitted that they truly knew themselves? – and of what shoddy stuff they were made? She would rather live the lie, but only if Olu lived it with her.
‘We are equal now – at last,’ Olu said, looking round the humble room with vindicated pride. ‘You are brought low to my level. Now, and only now, can we be friends.’
It was just as Nell had thought; all the roads she had trodden since they’d last been together had brought her – them – to this juncture. ‘There are no barriers between us,’ she said, in affirmation. ‘Colour doesn’t matter any more.’ Another lie, she reasoned, a lie within a lie.
Olu smiled, contending with herself to admit any joy. ‘No barriers, no differences. I live even better than you I think.’
‘How do you live? In St Giles still? I was there last night.’
Nell sat up in bed, the slats creaking with the sudden jolt. ‘You know? – how?’
‘I see, as I always see. Not with my eyes but in here…’ – she touched her chest – ‘…I feel you near to me last night, and getting nearer. You come in the wind and the rain, and you come home by the long way round. I follow you by the short way and wait while you sleep. Because I feel ready now, because it’s time.’
‘You read my mind,’ Nell said headily. ‘It was always your craft. Is it your craft? – is that how you live?’
‘I ply my trade, the trade no white men let me ply if they can help it. They try hard but they don’t stop me. They can’t. I call myself physician just to spite them. I treat the patients no one wants to treat. Some pay me if they can. I never insist.’
‘A doctor then?’
‘Among other things, I have been other things. But you don’t want to know about them. Another time maybe.’
‘Will there be another time, Olu? I’ve missed you, more than you could know.’ Olu didn’t say that she’d missed her in return, but the look in her eye was not negative, and a smile played upon her lips. Her thick lips – she was every inch the Negress still, the Negress Nell had come to love – sincerely she hoped: because it was right to do so; because prayers were indeed answered – not by Jesus as God’s intermediary, but she who’d been their true object.
‘Much water has flowed under the bridge,’ said Olu. ‘It flows fast, it flows slow, but it’s still water. Maybe all water is the same in the end.’ She looked at Nell sharply. ‘But this we should both know – water in our case has flowed uphill. It’s not meant to happen.’
‘It’s happening more and more, Olu. I’ve seen it with my own eyes. I’ve helped to make it possible. There’s hope out there on the streets. People’s hearts are opening.’ She was making much of what she’d seen, making it go as far as she could. She knew it profited her to do so.
‘I’ve seen, I’ve heard,’ said Olu, appearing to read no beguilement, no dissimulation. ‘It’s partly why I’m here. That and to see you laid low. To make sure it’s true.’
‘I am not alone. Mister Strong – Robert – he lives with me now. He was once kind to you, I think.’ An indeterminate nod, difficult to fathom. ‘We share this place, he and I. Nothing indecent you understand…’ – and she wanted her to understand – ‘…we live quietly, as friends.’
‘You wish to know where I live?’
‘If you’d care to tell me.’ I have been other things, she’d said, and Nell had feared the worst. ‘Please say it’s with the blackbirds still, not as some man’s whore. I don’t think I could bear that.’
Olu stared at her, delaying her answer. ‘No, I am not with the blackbirds. I live alone as you do. I have a cellar dwelling across the river – in Bermondsey. It’s damp, full of cockroaches as long as this…’ – she crooked her little finger – ‘ …Nothing goes to waste. I use them in my medicines.’
Thoughts of her old powers, her old magic, chilled Nell’s blood with renewed thrill and regret. The thrill was enjoyable, not so the regret. Reverend Mortimer had come to mind, the terrible end he’d suffered. ‘I can tell you what I can’t tell Robert – that we killed him. The curse worked, Olu. Joe saw it with his own eyes and I saw the aftermath.’
She didn’t looked surprised, let alone shocked. ‘Maybe it worked, maybe not,’ she said, mysteriously noncommittal. ‘Where there’s a will there’s a way. Two wills in total, yours and mine. Or maybe it’s neither, just one of your English coincidences. Either way, you should not mourn that Yorkshire swine, that Yorkshire toady of your father’s. Pity it not kill the other as well.’
This was too blunt. ‘My father?’
‘No,’ Olu said at length, ‘the other. We both know who.’
‘Vine thrives no doubt. But what of it? I shall never set foot there again.’
‘We shall see.’
‘No Olu, I am done with that now. I am all alone in the great metropolis.’ She was fishing here with a sharp hook, prayed – again – that she’d take the bait. ‘Two can live as cheaply as one.’
‘Two there are already.’
‘Oh never mind Mister Strong – Robert – he always does as I say. He needs me more than I need him. Besides, three can live as cheaply as two.’
‘You live by stitching?’ Olu asked, eyeing the tunic on the back of the chair.
She’d caught Nell off guard and she didn’t know what to say. ‘Yes – and no,’ which was true. Though Mr Sharp still sent money it wasn’t enough to live on.
‘Why try to hide what you do? – and who you have seen? I’ve watched you for weeks now. I see your comings and goings. His too,’ she said, gesturing towards the curtain. ‘Yours have been wondrous to behold. His less so. He works for a hard and reclusive man who never leaves the house. I watch that house and his man watch me. That man has starved eyes, I wish I knew what they hungered for. He watches you too, watches me watching you and sometimes watches you himself when he thinks I don’t see. But I always see, and it always lands me in trouble. More trouble is coming, even though we have enough.’
‘You refer to Colonel Jenkins’ black man? – his slave?’
‘He’s not quite that but he don’t work for no wages either. He’s out to line his pockets any way he can. He watches me, but he don’t want me, not in that way. And yet I need to be on my guard there I think.’
‘If you’re in danger at all …’
‘I’m always in danger.’
‘Danger can be shared. Will you stay, Olu? – here, with Robert and me?’
‘You wish me to share your bed? I seem to remember that we tried just that. It didn’t feel right for either of us. Maybe I should share Robert’s.’ Surely she was jesting, thought Nell. ‘Or make up my own bed on the floor. I’ve slept on the floor before. I’d bring my bed from Bermondsey if it was worth the carriage but why should I bring a bundle of straw? Fresh straw’s to be had from the stables at end of the street.’
‘Then you’ll stay?’ Olu nodded. ‘And never leave me again – promise?’ Another nod, not so forthright but worth its weight in gold. ‘And you’ll tell me the truth of how and why you ran away – and how else you’ve lived till now – for it still worries and vexes me greatly?’
‘All in good time, Miss,’ she said, with teasing throwback to their old days.
‘But…’ Robert’s waking put paid to any further explanation. He was genuinely pleased to see her when he’d wiped the sleep from his eyes, delighted by Nell’s suggestion that they make their lodgings fit three. With winter coming it would be warmer, he joked, and who was to say they wouldn’t eat better than they’d done in months? No more squalid pies, no more stale bread, no more water masquerading as ale. In fact he had a mind to celebrate right now by sending for a pot-boy from the nearest inn or, better still, breaking their fast by dining out.
‘Boiled beef and potatoes – no? – or whatever takes your fancy,’ he said as he shivered with cold.
‘Why not swan like the king himself?’ Nell asked. ‘I saw his fat mouth watering as he passed in his carriage last June.’ She couldn’t resist a boast: ‘I doubt he’s forgotten me. If he’s riding off his meal this minute in Windsor Great Park, I’ll wager it’s still on his mind.’ The word wager had troubled Olu, and Nell guessed why. Their conversations would be long in the coming days, but the topics that informed them few and narrowly focused.
‘Wondrous to behold,’ Olu repeated with irony. ‘When white girls turn black the news travels fast and wide.’ Robert agreed, saying how the news reached him as he sat reading to the colonel. ‘And I know who bring him that news,’ said Olu, darting him a worried glance.
‘I’m sorry, Nell,’ said Robert, bracing himself as he stooped to light the fire. ‘I pretended I didn’t know you, not that it made much difference. The colonel looked sideways at his Negro in secret disbelief. And he liked my reading less that day, I couldn’t help noticing. He kept upbraiding me for my tone of voice, which had served him well till then. Most peculiar, I must say, and disconcerting – yes? I caught the two of them thick as thieves as I left. If the stairs hadn’t creaked so much I’d have crept back to listen – what? You know, he’s not as rich as we thought. There was a bailiff at the door the other morning, said he’d have a warrant sworn for his arrest if he didn’t pay his dues by tomorrow week.’
‘You’ve had your wages?’ Nell asked, for they couldn’t afford to miss them.
‘Such as they are,’ he answered, rattling the pennies in his poor coat as he raked out last night’s cinders. ‘I don’t think he’ll want me for much longer, and to tell the truth I don’t much wish to be wanted. The man has no heart, Nell. His black man neither, excuse me for saying so Olu.’ She nodded solemnly, her way of saying, no offence taken, we are not all pure as the driven snow. ‘If only my work had led to a better position. Like my life in general, it has amounted to nothing.’
‘You are a good tutor,’ said Olu to cheer him. ‘I speak from experience.’ She had the grace to be positive, viewing his skills objectively, not in terms of the damage they’d done by way of elocution and deportment. ‘But it seems I have come back into your lives at the right time. My contribution will be welcome.’
Nell explained about Olu’s work as a doctor in the streets and houses of the poor. Robert was interested and impressed, though puzzled that she could operate unlicensed and without censure, just like a Fleet parson.
‘I suppose I could operate likewise as an unlicensed tutor. It would make little difference, licensed or not. Do you know, I haven’t had a single recommendation? If I didn’t know better I’d say my prospects have been blighted behind my back. The colonel seems to want to keep me to himself or, failing that, no one else should have me.’ Now where have I heard that before? thought Nell, thinking of Mr Vine. ‘It’s most perplexing if it’s true,’ continued Robert. ‘I can’t think why he’d do such a thing.’
Can’t you? Oh but I can – wasn’t that what Olu was thinking?
‘Leave the fire,’ Nell said to Robert. ‘Let’s do as you say and celebrate.’ What she really meant was talk, for there seemed so much to discuss.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2