TIME IS THE ODDEST thing – it should pass at the same pace every hour but it doesn’t; it stretches itself long and slowly, otherwise passing in an instant, like hours in a pit of dreamless sleep. Over the next few months time did just that – passed in a mixture of fast and slow like dances with different tempos, otherwise in the blinking of an eye.
The trio lived mainly on Olu’s earnings. Nell and Robert acted as her assistants, her fetchers and carriers, her extra pairs of hands. Robert did occasional readings for his colonel, but that was all his employer permitted. What puzzled, was that he wouldn’t let him stop completely, insisting that he turn up once a fortnight for a few disconnected pages. ‘Why not leave him for good? Why go back at his spiteful bidding? And you say he has a burning fever?’ Nell had asked Robert yesterday when he’d come home soaked by December rain.
‘Yes, he has a fever,’ he’d answered, ‘I shouldn’t anger him by making it worse.’
Here was Robert at his weakest; even Nell’s badgering couldn’t make him desist. That he’d no reputation to sully didn’t seem to matter; he was frightened of the man more than he was frightened of her. As for Nell, she no longer needed Mr Sharp, who’d kept her at arm’s length for weeks, fearful of her next move. He didn’t realise how quiet she’d grown; he’d never connected her fanaticism with the absence of Olu. That her ardour had lapsed with her return he’d failed to notice. Consequently he fretted and brooded, too polite to cut her wholly asunder. To earn her bread by other means was a blessing for them both.
Olu was that other means. She was no travelling quack, as some called her, and worse. Her remedies were every bit as good as those of eminent medical men in their fine London houses. Had they condescended to do so, they, the physicians, surgeons and apothecaries alike would have looked over their shoulders to see just how it should be done. In such quarters, however, she was irrelevant; in such quarters she didn’t exist. No official recognition came her way – that was impossible – but she gained a reputation unrivalled among the unlettered poor. There was no doubt about it – she eased suffering, she saved lives. Nell saw it was so, and so did Robert. Once, when they’d chanced upon a cart accident in Shoreditch, she set the broken bones of the injured boy there and then upon the greasy cobbles; she mixed from her leather bag a mustard poultice for a deep wound in his chest, and she eased his cuts and grazes with birch bark, soapwort and tincture of honey. All this in the freezing cold, and with a thick frost on the ground. She didn’t charge a penny, but the boy’s father, who helped litter him to his nearby hovel, insisted on paying her the half-crown he’d earned for carting coal from the wharf. It was Nell who persuaded her to take it, arguing they’d not eat that night without it. There was no need to refuse, said the man, who in joy at having his boy mended admitted openly – for he trusted he was among friends – to being a housebreaker and thief in his spare time, who’d more than a little put by. ‘Take it, my black angel, take it with a good heart!’ he cried, closing her palm round the money. He even kissed her for good measure, leaving his black coal dust on her black cheek.
His black angel she certainly was, and for many more besides; she fulfilled a need, plugged a breach in the lowest stratum of society. What was the secret of her medicine Nell never discovered. She studied no books, no learned treatise or pamphlet; she attended no lectures on anatomy by famed practitioners of the art. She mentioned her mother as a vague source but the rest came from within, part singly, part collectively, as if she tapped the secrets of her people wherever they might be in the world. In England just a sprinkling, more in the Indies, many in Africa for sure. Of one mind with her race, then, but one mind too with Nell, for why did she feel it so acutely? – that she was Olu and Olu was her.
‘What of obeah? – what really of obeah?’ Nell asked her one night while Robert snored – meekly it seemed, but with some disturbance behind it – in his cot across the room. She leaned on her elbow, gazing down into her face; a face grown more beautiful by hardship not less; yet full of mystery as she’d always been.
‘No room for obeah in London,’ Olu said with a smile. ‘The supernatural stays dormant here like nature itself. It’s true of all cities, where men’s false wisdom chases it away.’
‘But there is such a thing? – as your magic I mean?’
‘Obeah comes and goes, like an ache,’ Olu answered, squinting at the floor where a cockroach scuttled slowly towards the wall. As she watched it with her eagle eye, Nell wondered about her catching it for a potion; she wondered at her snatching it up to eat. Old thoughts, like old habits, died hard. ‘I told you my powers are never certain, not there when you want them, there like a bad fellow when you want him not.’
‘Vine,’ spat Nell, ‘Archibald Vine.’
‘You have got over your passion there?’ Olu teased.
‘There never was any passion, not on my side! And it’s time you told me the truth about him.’
‘Truth too strong,’ said Olu, ‘it might strip the paint from the walls.’
‘I still want to hear – not all of it, if you don’t like.’
‘I don’t like.’
‘Just some of it then,’ said Nell disappointed.
‘First tell me that you felt passion, a passion that made you feel dirty, and I tell you some truth in return.’
‘Very well, it’s true,’ Nell said, checking that Robert was still asleep for his snoring had ceased. They’d no candle burning so she couldn’t tell for sure. In the silent darkness, broken only by the noise of carriage wheels or the chastised trot of a trained horse in the street below, she felt a chilling closeness to Olu. What was it about the dark that could be so different? The room was the same surely, or was it? Did another world teem just beyond her fingertips, a world she might know better if she dared to meddle? Darkness was like sleep, she decided, a populated world whose remote gleams visited the mind and communed with the soul. ‘He made me wet between the legs,’ Nell said, ‘and I was tempted to let him in. But I was tempted to let in any man, I was curious to know what it felt like. I still am. The word – and it’s a word I hate – is virgin.’
‘I tell you what it feels like when your virginity is gone – you feel empty, drained, most of all disappointed. Yes, I have said to myself, is that it? Is that what all the fuss is about? But you’ll not know, not begin to guess, what I feel about it now.’
‘How many times, Olu? How many times?’ Nell asked but didn’t want to hear.
‘Too many,’ she said, feigning a drowsy tone. ‘No more talk tonight. And mind the bugs don’t bite. They never bite me any more. I wonder why? Who am I Nell, what am I?’
‘You’re my black sister and I love you,’ Nell said like an arrow through the dark, wondering where and when Olu’s maidenhood was lost, why she’d lain with so many others. She’d never mentioned them before, not the first, the last or the many – she knew now that there were many – in between. Still she didn’t answer, so Nell answered for her: ‘And I your white sister and you love me.’
‘Sisters better than lovers,’ Olu said at length. ‘Either way, we have no need of men. Men bring trouble, and the trouble they bring destroys bodies, destroys lives.’ Robert moaned in his sleep, as if his conscience had been accused. ‘Go to sleep, Nell,’ whispered Olu. ‘Join our friend, wherever he is. It don’t seem very pleasurable,’ and she fell silent with a faint chuckle.
So nothing else for now; about obeah, about Vine, about wetness between the legs; about the dirtiness of man causing pleasure and pain; Nell would have to wait for it, like waiting for the thing itself. But she wasn’t sure she wanted it any more: a part of her had died, or had never been there in the first place.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2