THE COLONEL’S BLACK MAN, who wore a green turban and red livery, opened the door of the yellow-bricked house in Soho when they’d knocked. He recognised Olu immediately; Nell too made his eyes start with more than dull recognition. He was 30 or thereabouts but might have passed for older: the tightly-curled hair above his pockmarked face was greying at the temples, and his eyes, old before their time, had seen much, none of it calculated to improve.
‘Please tell Colonel Jenkins that we’re here to see him,’ said Olu, holding her gaze as the pair locked eyes.
‘Why should he see you? You think him still fit for that?’ He leaned a hand against the door post, rubbing it up and down in insinuating manner. ‘He not fit for anything any more. Turn heel, I say on his behalf. He trust me in all things.’
Where had she heard that before? Nell was thinking, when a voice from inside called weakly, ‘Who is it, Caesar? Is it Mister Strong come to read?’
‘No sir!’ Caesar called back, ‘it’s someone else!’
‘Hadn’t you better tell him?’ Nell said. ‘Or shall I shout it over your head?’
‘You haven’t said what you want.’
‘We come to treat him if we can,’ said Olu, unshouldering her bag and holding it towards him at chest height.
He laughed, showing large white teeth smeared with spittle. ‘So you’re a doctor now? But of course you are, I was forgetting. I’ve seen you.’
‘So we’ve heard,’ Nell said. ‘You watch us both, why is that?’
‘I know this much, I’d like to watch what happens next. It won’t be as before, I don’t expect. I see all you have each time you come.’
Olu, not startled by this, needed no time to muster her composure. ‘I see you looking, I looking right at you all the time – did you not see me poke my tongue? – turn up my lip in a filthy snarl? I wasn’t enjoying myself if that’s what you think. No, I see your face through the crack just as ugly as now. Go on, strike me why don’t you?’ she said, when his hand readied.
‘Caesar! – who is it down there? Send them away if it’s the bailiffs!’
‘It’s a doctor to see you, sir!’
There came back a bitter laugh. ‘One more can’t harm, send him up!’
‘Send him up, he said. I won’t say her, I won’t say black her – it isn’t often he gets one surprise in a morning never mind two.’
‘What if the surprise kills him?’ Nell said, as they followed him down the hall. There was nothing in reply, just a twitch of the shoulders which spoke volumes. If only she’d known the language, foreseen the soiled pages it would write.
‘You!’ cried the colonel in shocked disbelief. ‘How came you here? Caesar said you were a doctor!’
‘So she calls herself, sir,’ said the black man, enjoying himself behind his mask of servility. ‘It’s the one I was telling you about, the one they say works miracles.’
‘But she’s a common strumpet,’ the colonel railed. ‘I’ve …’
‘We know what you’ve done,’ Nell said. ‘There are no secrets between Olu and I.’
‘Olu? – what kind of a name is that?’
‘It’s my name,’ she answered. ‘You never thought to ask it before.’
‘I don’t care to ask it now. I should throw you out, both of you.’ He was looking angrily at the wall, but with some deep thought lurking. ‘I know you also,’ he said, turning to Nell, his breathing thick and fast. ‘There’s little in this town I don’t get to know. You’re the baronet’s daughter. Kicked you out on the street, I hear.’ He looked at Olu then back at Nell. ‘I can’t think why,’ he said ironically. ‘And where is Mister Strong this morning? Are you his house companions? You’ve no need to answer for I know that too. But how does it work between you, eh? The man’s like a damned Methodist – he doesn’t seem the type.’
‘Shall I leave you, sir?’ asked Caesar, as humble-mouthed as he was able.
‘No you will not,’ returned his master. ‘You think I want outnumbering two to one? I might be murdered in my bed. Why should they wish to treat me? that’s what I’d like to know.’
‘Because your kind Mister Strong wished for it,’ said Olu. ‘And I wished to see the look on your face when I walked through that door.’
‘Good God, but is this the way of the world to come? You!’ he said, poking his finger at Nell, ‘you campaign on behalf of her kind – can’t you see the harm you do? You make it so they argue point by point, as if they’re the equals of their betters. It’s more than a body can bear.’ He winced as he shifted in his bed. ‘It’s more than my body can bear. What’s left of it.’
‘Do you wish me to take a look?’ asked Olu.
He clicked his fingers at Caesar. ‘Tell me I am not dreaming.’
‘No sir, you are not dreaming,’ he answered quickly. ‘They came to your door and they walked up your stairs at your bidding.’
‘Must there be two of you?’ he asked Olu.
‘She’s my helper. My nurse. You expect me to manage alone?’
‘Damn your eyes, I don’t know what I expect. I certainly didn’t expect this. Trouble is, I’m desperate.’ Olu drew near and sat beside him on the bed. She drew back the sheet and revealed his filthy night-shirt, soiled yellow, red and brown. ‘Did you do this?’ he asked her accusingly. ‘Somebody did. Somebody’s to blame. Look at me, all the bodily humours spilled together on my linen. What a picture they make.’
Nell sat down opposite and spoke before she could answer. ‘Olu is not infected, how can she spread what she doesn’t have?’ It was a truth of sorts and it seemed to satisfy. Caesar behind her, his breathing close at her neck, wasn’t so sure. His breath said so and more; it told of dangers yet to come, of a loyalty not to be fathomed. ‘Fetch me some hot water,’ Olu told him sharply.
‘There’s some on the copper. Let her do it,’ he said of Nell. ‘I wish to see what’s done to my master.’
‘Very commendable, I’m sure, but do as she says Caesar. And be quick about it.’
‘You’ll be showing all you’ve got in my absence sir. Is that wise?’
‘There’s nothing I haven’t seen before,’ said Olu, a smile playing on her lips.
‘You say so? – still say so?’ said the colonel, lifting his shirt when his man was gone. The hideous thing lay limp against his thigh, its colour drained to grey in some parts, bright, variegated, lit by a dull light in others, particularly at the end, where a white, oily discharge oozed. ‘See? – I’m pissing pure cream. I’ve no shame, not any more. A sight like this robs a man of self respect. It makes it so he’ll try anything for a minute’s peace from pain. I’m still looking for that relief. It’s why I asked for the reading, it seemed to do me good at first. I ask for it less now, because I know it for what it is – just useless distraction. If you only knew the man I was,’ he said more for Nell’s benefit than Olu’s. His grey hair, the stern gaze and fixed set of the mouth – it all reminded her of her father.
Olu brought her fingers close, reading his eyes for consent. She met no resistance as they closed gently round the hilt of his stricken member. It was only the second one Nell had seen, and it paled to nothing beside the other. ‘You aim to wash it first?’ he asked, his voice quavering. ‘Then I hope the water is warm rather than hot,’ he said on seeing her nod.
‘This other mess,’ said Olu, straying up the shaft. ‘I know it for what it is.’ She dabbed her finger and tasted it carefully. ‘Mercury.’
A serious face now but not a serious question: ‘And does it make you mercurial? – as quick as silver?’
‘What do you think? The last idiot I paid suggested I inject the stuff down the penis head. As if I weren’t in agony enough!’
‘Don’t touch the mercury again, no matter what your other doctors say,’ said Olu. ‘It’s not meant for this.’
‘Then what is meant for it?’
Caesar returned with the jug and pitcher as she sat there holding his engine. The black man’s eyes darted to the heart of the spectacle, couldn’t believe this was medicine. It was just as before, he looked to be thinking, why else should she fondle his cock?
‘Put the water on the bed,’ said Olu, instructing him with paternal air. She took a cloth from her bag, the same she’d used on Robert earlier. She sprinkled astringent from a small brown bottle and dipped the cloth in the water, testing the temperature with her elbow when she’d rolled up her sleeve. Next she cleaned the offending flesh top to bottom, dabbing deftly but with delicacy among his tangle of pubic hair. Finally she prepared a salve of honey mixed with butter and pressed it into place.
‘What does she do other than stare?’ he asked, looking at Nell. ‘They call you Miss Cooper, I presume? I met your father once,’ he added before she could answer. ‘A fine man. A rich man. The two almost always go together.’ His slave was watching him keenly as he said so. ‘I am not without means. No, that’s not true – I was without means…’
‘Does that hurt?’ Olu asked when he’d grimaced at the end of his sentence.
‘Not as much as usual,’ he said begrudgingly. ‘And I am cleaner down there than usual, that is something at least.’
‘I can do more than this,’ said Olu, who spoke confidently. ‘Just keep talking to occupy yourself. Think of being read to by Mister Strong.’
‘Looking at her is better,’ he said, staring at Nell again. ‘A lot better, don’t you agree?’
‘Yes, sir. A lot better,’ answered Caesar. There was menace in both their voices, but Nell thought the black man’s worse.
‘Unwise investments, I should have stuck with government stock,’ the colonel continued, wincing now and then and showing his small sharp teeth. ‘Too much love of speculation, the fine art of bubble blowing. Your father speculated wisely. He dealt in human flesh.’ Olu’s look brought him up short. ‘I shouldn’t have said that, should I? Not under these circumstances. Who knows what sharp knives you keep in that bag. One snip and it’s gone – but might that not be better? And if you take the balls too maybe I can sing like a eunuch in my old age?’
She took from her bag another bottle, cobalt-blue, filled with a mixture she’d heated on their fire earlier and allowed to cool. ‘I won’t say it will cure you, not for definite, but it will ease your suffering,’ she said, uncorking the stopper and holding it to his mouth. ‘Here, drink some now, just a sip, and the same at night before you go to sleep.’
‘I don’t sleep,’ he said. ‘Not ever. And look at the colour of this bottle – isn’t blue the colour for poisons?’
‘It not poison,’ said Olu, ‘but its contents are my secret. They might make me rich one day.’
His lips worked child-like, lamb-like round the rim, and she drew it away when he drank too thirstily. ‘Not too much I say, just a sip. More than a sip and this will never grow stiff and strong again,’ and she gave his penis a parting tweak that made him howl.
Down came his nightshirt again and up went the sheets, with firm instructions to Caesar to get in a maid to do the laundry. ‘Make sure all his linen is kept clean, not like this. These sheets are a disgrace for a man of quality,’ and this last remark caused the colonel to smile.
‘Expect you’ll want paying for your trouble. What will you take?’ He reached his purse which hung from a nail above his bed.
‘How much will you give?’ Nell asked in her stead. Lean times or not, he had a reputation for being a miser.
‘The last one charged me a guinea for nearly killing me. It’s the least I can offer you. What you’ve given me in this bottle tastes well enough. It remains to be seen whether it does me any good. But you’ve spoken plainly, and you don’t bear me any grudges.’
‘Should she bear you any?’ Nell asked pointedly, intrigued by this hint of redemption in a man as proud as her father.
‘I’m a military man, Miss Cooper, I don’t admit mistakes. Battles are not won, men are not commanded by owning weaknesses. You’ve seen my manhood laid bare and futile. What pride I have left I will keep. But I will say this,’ he added when he’d paused, ‘that I thank you both for coming here today. I trust you’ll have a safe journey home, wherever that is.’
‘I thought you knew,’ Nell said meaningfully, and the colonel’s eye caught Caesar’s. There was no denying what she’d read there – the slave resented what he’d just witnessed, his heart was heavy and his blood was up.
‘Will he get well?’ Nell asked, as they made their way home across the frost-rimed streets.
‘Do you care?’
‘I don’t know, do you?’
‘Your father called me an experiment, did he not? Colonel Jenkins is my experiment. I want to know what it feels like to show kindness to a man I hate.’
‘And what does it feel like?’
‘It not feel good but it not feel bad neither. It kills some of the hate in me and it kills the same amount in him. If that be true, and I think it is – because he gave me a guinea he could not afford – then it must be right.’
‘You don’t look happy on what you did.’
‘That’s because I tempted fate going there today. You know what it means to tempt fate? Fate is like your Christian devil. He’s there waiting for the chance to pounce. Fate is what’s written but you can write an extra verse if you try. It might be written that you die twenty years hence, but if you ask, with meaning in your tone, I wonder what it feels like to die tomorrow? you might die then instead.’
‘You won’t die tomorrow, Olu,’ Nell said, for she’d sounded so earnest.
‘There are worse things than dying, Nell. I have those things in the old life, and I could have them again.’
Olu’s mysticism was impenetrable when she got in a certain mind. There was no challenging her and Nell hadn’t the heart to try. Besides, by the time they’d reached home she’d forgotten all about it. And even if she hadn’t, the prospect to greet her there banished all thought but itself.
My new novel is available on Amazon:
Eagle and the Lady-Killer, sequel to An Uncommon Attorney, http://tinyurl.com/h9tqhp2