Category Archives: Prose

The Washerwoman’s Daughter

In this Southern city, far from all my family and friends, I am anonymous, known simply to my neighbours as Widow Smith, or sometimes just the Washerwoman. I spend my days scrubbing grimy linen and stained finery, taking pleasure in the simple art of restoring tired old garments into crisp, fresh smelling ones. As I work I talk and sing with Alice, who plays at my feet, constantly making discoveries – the noise that can be made by banging a spoon on a washboard, the fun that can be had messing with the drops of water that fall onto the dust of our small yard, or by slapping a hand into the greasy bubbles of the soapsuds.

            She is a happy child, often laughing with satisfaction or surprise, and turning towards me to share her latest delight. She has Alec’s eyes.

 * * *

When the soldiers arrived, on that evening four years ago, to conscript my husband and the other young men of our village, it was no surprise. There had been omens all day. The butter had curdled in the churn, the bread had burnt, and when I left the house to take one of the sorry looking loaves to old Mistress Hawkins there was a dead crow on our doorstep, its wings spread wide as if crucified. I was queasy with the early weeks of pregnancy, and stepped over it, leaving it for Alec to deal with when he returned from the fields. Perhaps that was a mistake.

            Our farewells were necessarily hurried. We were unprepared, and it wasn’t until after he’d gone that I wished I’d taken a lock of his hair. He embraced my aunt, and asked my uncle to take good care of me. We hugged tightly, and I couldn’t bear to let go of him. When we finally broke apart he knelt and kissed my stomach. Looking up at me he said, ‘Don’t worry Maria, I will be back in time to greet our child.’ His confident tone was betrayed by the anxious slant of his eyes, and the tears that made them glint like peridot gems.

            Then he left, stumbling from the village with the other men, mounted soldiers in front and behind to deal with any last minute changes of mind. I stood with the remaining women, children, old and infirm of our village, and watched them go. Watched until we could no longer see the bobbing hoods of the marching squad, watched until we could no longer hear their boots on the road, watched until long after the dust they stirred had resettled, until we could no longer sense their presence, only the bleakness of their absence.

            That night my nausea subsided, and three days later I lost our baby.

There was no time to grieve properly. Like the other women of my village I was trying to keep up with my husband’s work as well as my own, and my days were physically demanding, keeping my mind in check. But for many long nights, as I lay alone, wrapped in the bed linen that had formed most of my dowry a few months beforehand, searching for the last remaining traces of his smell, I sobbed and screamed for Alec, and that now missing part of me that had connected us.

            ‘There will be more children for you and Alec,’ said Janey Hawkins, as we trudged to market together.

            It was dawn, and the clouds above the silhouetted forest were striped with orange and purple. I shivered, despite my woollen cloak.

            ‘Just you wait,’ said Janey’s sister Ruth. ‘I can remember praying every night for a baby, and now I have seven I pray for some peace and quiet!’

            This roused much laughter and agreement amongst the women, until Susannah Small, who could always be relied on to kill a good mood, said, ‘Anyhow, nothing can happen until the men get home. And that could be a long time off.’

            In the silence she added, ‘If they come back at all, that is.’

            It is proof of how worried we all were that no one bothered trying to contradict her.

Most of the men returned a few weeks later, exhausted, filthy, wounded, but victorious. They came back along the same road they had left, this time unescorted. The village children ran alongside them, shrieking with glee as they recognised their fathers, brothers or uncles.

            I scanned the crowd for Alec, but couldn’t see him. My aunt put a supportive arm around my back as we waited. John Small was hugging Susannah, and from the way his face dropped as he caught my eye I knew the worst possible thing I had feared had happened.

I was ill for several weeks. My aunt nursed me throughout, and was terrified of losing me, knowing that I had nothing left to live for. When I finally left my sickbed I rebuilt my health and stamina by tending our vegetables, and taking in other villagers’ laundry.

              When I was fully recovered I travelled to Thornhill House, where I had been summoned to see Alec’s Commander. It was a few hours’ walk, so I rose early, and set out as the sun was rising. My uncle kindly offered to escort me, but I knew his tired old knees would struggle with the journey, so I told him I would prefer to go alone. My aunt lent me her best cambric pocket, filled with bread and gooseberries to sustain me along the way.

            The Commander’s house was the largest building I had ever seen, even more imposing than the tall, broad church of our nearest market town. I was kept waiting for a long time on an uncomfortable settle in a cavernous hallway. I felt shabby next to the servant who finally showed me to the Commander’s chamber, where the man himself looked down imperiously at me from behind his enormous high oak table.

            He asked my name, and searched through a large leather-bound ledger, following the closely inked lines with the tip of a long white finger.

            ‘Ah yes,’ he said, and cleared his throat. ‘Your husband fought bravely. If it weren’t for men like him this land would still be a place of unrest and danger. I am told he was buried where he fell. You must understand that in the circumstances there was no alternative.’

            I felt horribly faint, but I kept my head bowed and bit the inside of my lips, trying to concentrate all my energy on standing still.

            ‘This is for you. A small pension to compensate for your loss.’

            He handed me a small drawstring pouch of sovereigns. I murmured some words of thanks and put the pouch in my pocket with the remaining gooseberries.

            ‘You may go,’ he said, picking up his quill and waving it in the general direction of the door. I turned and walked away, knowing that once I had left his room it was unlikely that Alec and I, and the wreckage of the life we’d had, would ever cross his mind again.

              I would have enjoyed the walk back home in earlier carefree times. It was the finest kind of June afternoon. The hedgerows were lush and colourful, and busy with birds and small scurrying things. Crickets and bees sounded their presence, and I spotted new green fruits forming on the apple and hazelnut trees. I was reminded of the gooseberries in my pocket, and took the last few out to finish. I put one in my mouth, and winced at its juicy sourness. The next to hand was half rotten, so I tossed it over the hedgerow, and was shocked to hear a gruff exclamation in response.

            I crept cautiously into the field through a break in the hedge, and saw what looked at first glance like a heap of filthy rags, but then it twitched and coughed, and I realised it was an old woman. She was wrinkled and dirty, and only half my height, but as wide as she was tall, wrapped in a number of dirty shawls and blankets.

            ‘I do beg your pardon,’ I said. ‘I hope I didn’t hit you with that gooseberry. I really wouldn’t have thrown it if I’d known there was someone there!’

            ‘Fear not, child,’ she replied hoarsely, banging at her chest with a muddy fist, as if hoping to dislodge the phlegm that was rattling there. ‘It was delicious, the best thing I’ve eaten for a long time. Why, I wish more folk would throw their unwanted vittles over my hedge.’

            ‘You live here?’

            ‘Yes, child. I live here in the hedgerow, amongst the mice and the bindweed.’

            ‘Here,’ I said, and handed her my remaining gooseberries. ‘It’s all I have left, but please take them. You need them more than I do.’

            She took them gratefully and stuffed them into her toothless mouth. I noticed with surprise that although she looked awful she did not smell bad. In fact, there was a strange aroma of cowslips and honey in the air. I looked at her miserable hedgerow shelter, and thought of the money in my pocket.

            ‘I’d like you to have this as well,’ I added, handing her the pouch of sovereigns. ‘Get yourself some proper food, some new clothes and somewhere to stay.’

            She looked inside the pouch, and gasped. ‘My dear, I can’t take this!’

            ‘Please do. It’s no use to me. It can’t buy me the only thing I want in this world.’

            I thought of Alec’s deep green eyes, and his rough hands gently touching me. Tears prickled my eyes, and I turned to walk away.

            ‘Wait!’ the old woman said. A tear had rolled down her cheek too, cutting a clear path through the grime. She fumbled inside her robes, and produced a small rolled parchment, and something twisted into a scrap of muslin and tied with twine. She pressed them into my hands and said, ‘In return for your kindness let me give you these. If you use them they will be worth far more to you than this money ever could have been.’

            My head began to spin, and the scent of honey and flowers overwhelmed me. I stumbled backwards, and half turned to break my fall. When I looked back in front of me I was alone, and the hollow in the hedgerow was empty, but I was still holding the scroll and the small parcel.

            There was no sign of the old woman in either direction along the track. I leaned against a tree and unrolled the parchment. It was a rudimentary map, showing my village, Thornhill House, and the fields, heath and woodlands in between. There was a cross marked next to the track through the wood. All that was in the twist of muslin was a large seed – it looked like an apple pip, but was the size of a small acorn.

            I was confused, and as I continued to walk home my doubts began to grow about the old woman. Was she some kind of trickster? How had she disappeared so fast? I had no regrets about having helped someone who was genuinely in more need than I was, but I wondered what my aunt and uncle would say when I told them I had given away my widow’s pension.

A few weeks later, curiosity got the better of me, and despite telling my aunt (who was still aggrieved about the money) that I was going to market, I took the map and headed into the woods. The map was easy to follow, and led me to a small circular clearing, surrounded by overhanging trees which obscured all but a tiny patch of sunlight in the centre. I didn’t know what I was expecting to find, so I sat on a fallen tree trunk and looked around.

            The ground was uneven, and covered in stones, weeds, and patches of grass and moss. Small mushrooms grew at the roots of the trees, and ivy trailed from tree to tree, creating the effect of being inside a circular room. Something glinted and caught my eye, and I leant forward to examine it closer. It was a worn nail in the sole of a boot, a boot on the end of a leg which was poking out of the ground.

            I wondered if I had stumbled upon one of the wartime casualties, roughly buried, but I didn’t think any of the fighting had taken place so close by. I thought of Alec, and how this abandoned body was probably someone’s husband, so I found a flat stone, and begin to heap more earth over the boot.

            Then I saw fingers reaching out of the soil, dirty but strangely intact. Thick with square tips. I knew them. Alec’s fingers.

            My head was whirling, I lost all rationality, all I knew was that I had to help him. I scraped furiously at the soil, and somehow managed to uncover him. He was cold, grey, dead… but utterly pliable and incorrupt, like the body of a saint. His clothes and skin were stained with blood and soil. With difficulty I hauled his body to the nearest tree, and propped him there, kissed him on the cheek and promised to return.

            I planned to get assistance from the village, men to help me carry him home for a proper funeral, but as I got further away from Alec and closer to home, I found myself less and less able to believe what I had just seen and done.

When I got back to him, with a shovel and one of the dried carnations I had kept from our wedding day, he was still as perfectly preserved as when I had left him. Somehow I found the strength to dig a deeper hole than the one he had been in. I positioned it right in the centre of the clearing, where the patch of sunlight fell, and buried him holding the carnation and a lock of my hair. I took a lock of his hair in return. I made a square frame of rocks to delineate his grave, and heaped wild flowers over it.

            Again, once I had returned home I found myself unable to believe what had just happened, despite the evidence of the brown curl I had cut from his head, and the streaks of mud on my skirts. I had to go back, to see the grave again with my own eyes, and yes, it was real. I returned there every day for months, tending the grave, planting flowers to grow over Alec’s body. I even planted the strange seed the old woman had given me.

            The clearing itself was flourishing and becoming more beautiful by the day. Wild roses and honeysuckle were twining themselves around the trees, and there were lilies, daffodils, bluebells, poppies… all strangely out of season, and only in this one part of the forest.

            A shoot had sprouted up in the sunshine, from the seed I had planted, and every day it grew slightly taller, and furled out more leaves. I noticed a bud was appearing at the top, and wondered what the flower would be like. Every day as I walked to the grave I wondered if the strange plant had flowered yet, but for months it remained tightly shut, just a little bigger and rounder than the day before.

             On the day it finally bloomed, enormous cream and pink petals rolled back, revealing the flower to the shaft of sunlight. I leant over it to look inside, and nestled in the centre was a tiny baby girl, who blinked large green eyes at me, and waved her soft dimpled fist in the air. I lifted her out, and she curled so comfortably into my arms that I knew she was mine.

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Secresy

‘secresy, that canker-worm of virtue’

Eliza Fenwick, 1795


PREFACE

Paris, December 1793

The afternoon sky was already darkening to a smoky yellow gloom as the long-awaited tumbrel finally rattled into view across the cobbles. The cold, tired citizens crowding the scaffold regained some of their earlier enthusiasm and vigour, and began to heckle, and pelt the prisoners with mud and rotten vegetables. Louisa shuddered as she saw a dead cat being hurled through the air. The whole day had felt like some ghastly preview of hell. There had been a long wait since the morning’s executions, and Louisa and Anne were no longer bothering to cover their noses with their handkerchiefs in a futile attempt to block the stench of blood, excrement, urine and death which hung in the chill air of the Place de la Révolution.

Anne clutched Louisa’s hand under her plain woollen cloak as the tumbrel passed them, and Louisa heard her mother whimper quietly as they both recognised the female prisoner they had prayed would be awarded a last minute reprieve. Even shorn of her golden curls, and dressed in a rough linen shift, Jeanne was still beautiful, although there was no colour in her cheeks now, and she looked tired and filthy.

Their hands were clasped so tightly that Louisa couldn’t tell if it was she who was shaking, or her mother, but she knew it was important that they did not appear to the rest of the crowd to be sympathising with the woman who was now being pushed forcibly to the steps of the scaffold, so she made an effort to stand still and upright, and stare straight ahead of her at what was happening.

They watched in horror as Jeanne was strapped to a sturdy board, which would prevent her from moving once she was placed beneath the blade of the guillotine. It took rather a long time, as Jeanne was struggling and screaming so much. There was none of the dignity and stoicism usually shown by the aristocratic victims of Madame Guillotine, and even some of the bloodthirstier citizens in the surrounding mob seemed to be shocked by Jeanne’s distress. The yelling and raucous laughter began to subside, and Louisa looked down at the ground, finding it impossible to bear the sight of Jeanne writhing and screaming as the board was put in place. She was shouting something in French, which Louisa did not understand, then there was one final piercing scream and a swish as the sharp blade fell. ‘Vive la Révolution!’ shouted the executioner, and the crowd cheered.

Louisa stood where she was, frozen in place, unable to raise her eyes from the cobbles. Sickened, she watched a dark trail of blood snaking between the stones in front of her feet. ‘What did she say?’ she whispered to her mother.

One moment more,’ replied Anne equally quietly, her voice trembling. ‘She asked them for just one moment more.’

LETTER I

Paris, April 1768

My dearest Anne,

Although I am sure you consider yourself quite the English Lady now you are settled in London with your new husband, please excuse me continuing to write to you in French. It would take me far too long to compose a letter in my poor English, and I have so much to relate to you. Many remarkable things have happened since you left Paris – I am sure you will simply not believe most of what I am going to tell you, although you did always say that my beauty would get me whatever I wanted!

Not long after you left Labille’s, Comte du Barry began visiting the shop rather regularly. Apparently Drouais had told him about me, and he was eager to see me for himself. I don’t know if you ever encountered him, but he is known throughout Paris as ‘The Rake’ for his dissolute morals, and although he procures women for all sorts of high powered men he has the intelligence to keep just about on the right side of the law.

The first time he came into the shop he glanced around, then strode straight over to me. ‘Surely you must be the celebrated Jeanne Vaubernier?’ he asked, bowing and taking my hand. ‘I have heard so much of your beauty, but truly what I am gazing upon surpasses anything I could have been told of your exquisite figure, your blonde curls, your dimpled smile, and those large sapphire eyes.’

‘Thank you, Monsieur,’ I replied, removing my hand from his, as I could see Labille frowning from the other side of the shop. His compliments did not embarrass me though – I am quite used to it, as you know!

The Comte invited me to dine in his apartments that evening. I assumed he was interested in me himself, and I was keen to encourage him, as he is exceedingly wealthy and very influential. However, we dined, and talked, and he tried nothing untoward which surprised me very much.

He came into Labille’s again the next day, accompanied by a Monsieur Morand. I wondered if he had Morand in mind as a suitor for me, but their discussion was cryptic, and the following day the Comte came in alone, and said Morand had approved me to meet with a Monsieur Lebel. I dined with the Comte again, and after dinner Morand arrived and introduced me to Lebel, a plump and serious-looking old man who at first seemed speechless with admiration for me!

‘Well sir, what think you of our celestial beauty?’ Morand asked him.

‘Worthy of a throne!’ Lebel finally replied, bending to kiss my hand. He elaborated further on my charms as he continued to gaze up and down my person.

After they had left, I felt certain that the Comte intended me to become the mistress of Monsieur Lebel, and I asked if he was of any great importance. The Comte laughed and explained that Lebel was the personal valet to the most important man in France, and was therefore the second most important man in France, but would say no more.

Later he told me that I would not be going back to work at Labille’s, for he had a job in mind that was far more fitting for me than shopgirl, but it was a position only a married woman would be suited to, so henceforward I was to pose as his sister-in-law, wife to his brother Guillaume, and would be known as the Comtesse Madame du Barry. I was most intrigued, and somewhat excited, particularly as he gave me some wonderful jewellery and a wardrobe fit for my new station in life! I have diamonds! And dresses far surpassing anything we sold at Labille’s. Oh Anne, I wish you could see the necklace I am wearing right now. It is an elaborate gold design of festoons and pendants, and is encrusted with hundreds of amethysts which the Comte says bring out the violet tones in my eyes. It is incredibly heavy, but any discomfort is far outweighed by its beauty.

The Comte has also furnished me with a whole new past which I am to relate if anyone asks. He has even credited my mother with an aristocratic title – can you imagine! I can only hope she never decides to pay me a visit!

But now to the most exciting news of all. This evening I am to be presented to none other than the King himself, and if he likes me I am to be installed at Versailles as his mistress! Apparently he has been very lonely since the death of Madame de Pompadour, and Lebel has been searching for the perfect replacement. When I meet him this evening the King will be incognito as ‘Baron de Gonesse’ and I must pretend I do not recognise him. I have been instructed simply to be as charming, gracious and lovely as I can. I must confess I am more than a little nervous at the thought of meeting Louis XV, but I am determined to do well and make him like me.

I will write again soon, and let you know what happens!

Your ever-loving friend,

Jeanne.

CHAPTER ONE

London, October 1793

Louisa was aware of the banging before she fully awoke, and at first she thought she had dreamt it, but then she heard her father’s heavy steps progressing rapidly down the staircase to the door. She wondered who it could be, so early in the morning, but she could see her breath forming clouds in the sharp cold air above her bed, and it was deliciously warm under her blankets, so she decided to stay where she was for the time being.

            She assumed it was just a business matter anyway. As a printer Will Gumbley always had plenty of work, but also carried out a number of highly secretive jobs for underground political groups in London. But then Louisa heard Will call for her mother, and she knew that it must be something else as Will was careful to never involve Anne in the illicit side of the business, especially now that Pitt was clamping down on seditious meetings and materials.

            Half dozing again, cosy and contented, she wondered if it was the younger George Jones at the door, come to request her hand in marriage. Maybe he had a chaise waiting outside, and would whisk her away to Ranelagh or Vauxhall where they would stroll arm in arm making bright witty conversation. Unlikely, she knew, at this hour in the morning, especially since George Jones had barely ever seemed to notice her, but there are no rules when it comes to daydreaming. Then the violent slamming of the door to her parents’ bedchamber made her jump, and she sat up quickly, straining to hear the unintelligible but urgent-sounding discussion they were having. She slipped out of bed and wrapped the rough, thick, top blanket around herself, then crept out of her room across the staircase to her parents’ solid oak door, where she placed her ear against the keyhole and listened.

            ‘You can’t do it!’ Will was hissing angrily. ‘I won’t let you!’

            ‘You can’t stop me!’ Anne retorted, then softened her tone slightly and said, ‘Please Will, I don’t want to do this either, but it is important to Jeanne and one day it will be important to Louisa too. This may be their last chance to meet, if nothing can be done to save her.’

            ‘But it’s so dangerous over there at the moment, more so now we are at war. And how do you propose to even get there?’

            ‘Hush, Will, you’ll wake her. I may have lived here for twenty-five years, but I am still French, and will have no trouble passing as such in my native city! We can sail from Dover if you will help me by producing the documentation we will need, and we will wear tricolore ribbons on our cloaks and hats.’

            As usual, Will seemed to be realising that he couldn’t argue with his stubborn wife, and he said no more, but Louisa heard him sigh heavily. She tiptoed quickly back into her bedroom, confused and somewhat worried, just as the church clock at the end of the street struck seven. Her room was still dim, the small leaded window in the eaves being too grimy on the outside to let much morning light in. She looked at the jug of cold water on her washstand, but shivered at the thought of washing with it, and decided not to bother. She used her chamber pot, and dressed hurriedly, wanting to get downstairs and find out exactly what was going on.

            The kitchen was a large dark room with simple furnishings, occupying much of the ground floor. As Louisa entered, Anne was just heaving a sturdy wooden chest back under the window. It covered a loose floorboard where the Gumbleys kept their money and important papers. Anne turned quickly upon hearing Louisa, and hurried back over to the fireplace as if nothing was amiss.

            ‘Good morning, chérie,’ she said brightly, and a little breathlessly. ‘I was just about to wake you, but I see you are already dressed! Come and get warm by the fire and help me with breakfast.’

            As Anne prepared the tea, Louisa took a pound cake from the mantelpiece, unwrapped it from its muslin cover, and cut three generous slices. She could not stop wondering what was going on, but did not dare ask her mother outright.

            ‘Where is Papa?’ she asked instead, hoping to draw some useful information from Anne in this way.

            ‘Dressing, of course!’ Anne replied with surprise, looking quizzically at her daughter, who was rewrapping the cake with downcast eyes as if it was perfectly usual to question her father’s whereabouts on such an ordinary morning. ‘Where else would he be?’

            ‘I thought he may have begun work already. I heard… I heard a knock at the door this morning.’

            ‘Ah that,’ said Anne. ‘Nothing, a mistake, a messenger calling at the wrong house. But your father is very busy at the moment, so I will help him today. You had better stay here and attend to the housework. You could call on Maria when you’ve finished.’

            Anne’s words simply served to stoke the fire of Louisa’s curiosity further. Her father made her even more suspicious by behaving perfectly normally throughout breakfast. As Louisa began to clear the plates and cups away from the table Anne mentioned her intention of helping Will with his work.

            ‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘I would appreciate that today, my dear. There is far too much for Henry and I to do alone.’

            Henry was Will’s apprentice. Three years younger than Louisa, at only sixteen he was exceedingly tall for his age, and drove Will to despair with his gangly clumsiness. Will was fond of him, however, and let him sleep next to the press and eat with the family in the evening. Louisa and Anne liked him too, particularly when he made them laugh by performing jovial and highly accurate impersonations of his employer.

            As Louisa passed back to the table for Will’s plate, Anne grabbed her hand and drew her closer to her chair. She smiled up at her, reached up and stroked her daughter’s wild curls, and then looking more serious said, ‘Louisa, whatever happens, we love you very much, and we always have.’

            There was a limit to how much Louisa could take before exploding, and Anne had finally overstepped the line. ‘Please Mama, do tell me what is going on! I heard you this morning! Who is Jeanne and why on earth do I need to meet her?’

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Room 401

I can move around the room if I want to, but I choose to spend most of my time propped against the enormous white pillows of the king size bed, looking at the last thing I saw – a terracotta pot artistically fixed in the centre of the plain white wall opposite, as if floating.

There are always flowers in the pot – gerberas, geraniums, African violets. Some of the chambermaids remember to water them. Ubah never forgets, however busy she is. Maureen on the other hand has never watered them. She flaps her duster across the top as if they were plastic then moves on, never even stopping to check the dryness of the soil with her finger. Consequently the flowers don’t last long. It’s not an ideal environment for a plant. The windows don’t open (which completely ruined Plan A) and the climate control ensures that room 401 is either roasting hot or freezing cold, according to the particular tastes of the current occupant.

Guest, I should say. I’m the only real occupant.

*  *  *  *  *

When I wake up a man with sweat patches on his light blue shirt is wheeling his suitcase towards the bed. He’s holding  a mobile phone to his ear, and a suit jacket over the arm pulling the case, so he leaves the door to slam itself heavily shut behind him.

‘Just do what you’ve gotta do. Show that twat we’re not gonna play ball! Gotta go,’ he says, in the type of blokey mid-atlantic business accent that always reminds me of how Will spoke to his colleagues.

He clicks his phone off and throws it onto the bed. Then he’s looking around and heading straight over to the minibar, kicking his brogues off and loosening his tie as he goes.

Guests like him are the ones I see most often in room 401. They are at home in a hotel. They have a routine – phone the family before the kids go to bed, plug their laptops in, knock out a few emails, make a few calls. After dinner they come back to the room and take their pick from the minibar and the pay-per-view movie selection. In the morning they shower and go, leaving crumpled sheets, soggy towels, empty bottles, discarded newspapers. I never see them again. Sometimes I catch their name – Rob, Ed, Alex, Tom – but not always.

His phone rings. ‘Hello? Yep, this is Alex’. Another Alex, I think.

*  *  *  *  *

When I had to scrap Plan A I panicked slightly. I knew it was now or never if I was going to have the courage to do it. I had a Plan B, but when I thought it through there was too much scope for error. In the end I used Plan B combined with a new Plan C, which involved ordering a rare steak from Room Service. There was a moment’s confusion as I had earlier told them I was vegetarian, but as the customer is always right there was no comment once I had confirmed that was indeed what I was asking for.

*  *  *  *  *

It’s always rather tense for a moment when a couple arrives. Just until I can get it straight in my head what their relationship is. These two are definitely having an affair. They were kissing before they were even properly in the room, and he’s wearing a wedding ring, but she isn’t. That’s often a giveaway. They are asleep now. Whilst they were stripping each other’s clothes off, I took a couple of spikes off the cactus in the bathroom and dropped them on the bed. He sat straight down on them, and there was a hell of a fuss. She had to pull them out using the tweezers from the Complimentary Pamper Pack (I thought about hiding them, but decided I’d probably done enough already). The concierge sent up an apologetic bottle of champagne on the house, which lightened the mood again slightly, but the momentum had clearly gone for them both.

            They’ve left the half drunk bottle on the Philippe Starck desk. I add a little water, just enough to have flattened it by the time they wake up. She is sleeping on her back, one arm across the pillow above her glossy head. Her hair reminds me of shampoo adverts, but when I lean in very close I can see a few flakes of dandruff around her hairline. Her face is perfect, I can see why he’s attracted to her, but I know the truth. The eyebrows have been shaped, the lips plumped, and the forehead botoxed. Her make up has been expertly layered for maximum effect. He’d know this if he lived with her. But he’s only seen her like this, never at her worst –  red-nosed and pasty with the flu for example, face swollen with grief for a dead pet, or dishevelled and grey-skinned with a vodka-induced hangover.

            I tried to keep the act going as long as I could with Will. It really hurt when he complained about the state of my hair when I’d just got up, when he criticised me for opening the door to the postman without my make up on, or every time he thought my thighs were a couple of pounds heavier, or I was slouching too much. But it hurt even more when he stopped complaining. Because I knew that meant he had someone else.

            This one reminds me a bit of Will. Slightly thinning hair, ridiculously large designer watch, sleeping sprawled diagonally on his front as if the bed was his alone. However, his right hand is resting on her thigh and Will would never have sought that closeness to me in his sleep. I wonder if he did with Emma?

I want them to go. Now. It’s time for them to wake up. I bang the wardrobe door hard.

*  *  *  *  *

I like the homely couples, the ones that remind me of my parents. The married ones who are still in love, who are spending the night in this boutique hotel as a birthday treat, or on a special offer with a show or dinner thrown in. They treat room 401 with respect, tiptoe around in their socks, hang the towels up when they’ve used them. They daren’t touch the minibar for fear of incurring extra charges. One lady accidently broke a glass on the edge of the sink, and was in torment until she called reception to confess. When they told her it didn’t matter, and sent someone up to clean it up and replace it, you could’ve been excused for thinking she had won the lottery. I took the biggest sharpest piece, and hid it just inside the wardrobe where it couldn’t be seen.

I enjoy the surprised looks on these dear couples’ faces when they return from dinner to find Ubah has been in and closed the curtains, turned down the bed and left chocolates on their pillows. They don’t put the television on too loudly. They bring their pyjamas. They even have a little tidy around before they go.

            I was tidy too. I hung the ‘Do Not Disturb’ notice on the door, packed all my things into my overnight bag, straightened the towels, and turned off the television. I sat on the middle of the bed with a glass of water, my sleeping pills (Plan B) and the steak knife from the Room Service tray (Plan C). The blood ruined the bedding, but they managed to get away with not recarpeting.

*  *  *  *  *

I never thought this would happen, although now that it has I realise it is what I’ve been waiting for. Why I hung around. Will is here! I don’t know how long it has been since I’ve seen him, but I presume he is here for some kind of anniversary of my death. One year? Five? Possibly even ten. I really don’t know. Time has no meaning for me any more.

            I wake up when the hotel manager shows him in, making appropriate noises of sympathy, and saying he will leave him alone for a few moments. The manager hasn’t been in the room since the morning Maureen found me, and he had to deal with the paramedics, police and so on.

Will looks awful. Gaunt and weary. I guess he was more affected by my death than I thought he would be. He looks around, tugging at the point of his shirt collar, the way he always does when he’s thinking. I suddenly remember all the reasons why I love him. He sits heavily on the bed and puts his face in his hands. I reach for my shard of glass. I kneel behind him on the bed and wrap my arms around him. He tenses very slightly and starts to cry. I don’t have long before the manager comes back for him. I kiss the thin patch of hair on the back of his head, and draw my glass blade quickly and deeply across his throat.

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Letty and her Peculiar Gentleman

The first time Letty saw the peculiar gentleman was on a mild June night. She had sat up in the kitchen waiting to pay the night-soil men after their collection, and had been dozing with her head on her arms on the pitted oak table. Her arms were red and dimpled by the pattern of the wood, and her eyes were damp and heavy, but she laughed at the lewd jokes of the men, and paid them their shilling, barely noticing the stench of the waste they were adding to the already heaving cart.

            As she wiped her hands on her apron, and turned to go back inside, she saw a silhouetted figure on the other side of the street creep out of an alley, dash past the illumination of the streetlamp, and disappear back into the shadows. The figure was tall, and bore the unmistakeable shape of a top hat on its head. Letty wondered briefly what he was doing, but was more concerned that she had to be up to light the range and open the shutters in three hours time, before the Askews rose for breakfast, and soon forgot all about him.

            As the door closed behind her, Arthur Robinson crept back out from the shadows. Under the light of the gas lamp he pencilled a brief note in a small composition book, which he then replaced in his pocket. He glanced once more towards the house, then strolled up Hill Street towards Berkeley Square.

            A few days later he was there again, watching Letty take a dawn delivery of coal. Soon she began to notice he was often lurking nearby late at night, or skulking furtively at the side of the house, early in the morning as she scrubbed the front steps or tipped slops into the gutter. She was naturally shy, and could see from his clothing that he was well-to-do, so she pretended not to have seen him, but would peep at him from the corner of her eye as she went about her work. However, the notes he was jotting in his notebook unnerved her, and eventually she found the courage to speak to him.

            ‘Can I help you Sir?’ she called across the street.

            He started, put away his notebook, and glancing around to confirm the street was deserted came over to her.

            ‘It’s Letty isn’t it?’ he asked gently, then as she seemed rather taken aback, added, ‘I know your employers well, my wife and I have dined here with them on occasion.’

            ‘Are you spying on me? Did my mistress want you to check I’m doing my work properly? What… I don’t…’

            ‘No, no, no,’ he interrupted, resting his hand on her shoulder, and looking into her anxious eyes. ‘Nothing like that, in fact Mr and Mrs Askew don’t know I’m here, so it would be better if you didn’t mention it. No, the truth of the matter is that I am simply… carrying out some research. Yes, that’s all, some research. I’m interested in girls like you, ordinary, poor, hard-working girls. And if you were to, let’s say, help me further, I would make it worth your while.’

            Letty took a sudden step backwards. ‘Sir, I’m no streetwalker! And you couldn’t pay enough to make me do anything… like that.’ She turned back towards the house.

            ‘I’m no man of vice!’ he snapped, then seeing panic in her expression he made an effort to soften his tone. ‘Wait Letty, you misunderstand me. Firstly, I am a happily married and very respectable fellow. I have no interest in immoral behaviour, I merely wish to learn more about the young girls of London who carry out good honest toil.’

            He spoke convincingly, and his dark blue eyes never left her face. He certainly looked respectable, Letty thought. Rather handsome too, with his light brown whiskers and curly hair.

            ‘What do you want to know?’ she asked.

            ‘I simply wish to learn more about your work, your daily routine, the filthiest most dreadful of your chores, and the state of your general health. I can pay you handsomely, my only condition being that our meetings must be kept secret from absolutely everyone – including your employers and the other household staff.’

            Arthur noticed someone turning the corner, and taking Letty’s elbow guided her gently around the side of the house.

            ‘How about we consider this our first meeting, and I give you this?’ he said, producing five shillings from his pocket and placing the coins in her hand. He looked at her calloused palm and traced the patches of rough red skin with his soft white fingertip. Letty snatched her hand away.

            ‘Thank you, Sir.’

            She did not know whether to feel delighted or horrified. Almost a week’s wages for agreeing to some secret meetings, and having her hand caressed by a young gentleman who was actually rather pleasing to the eye. They agreed to meet again at midnight the following Tuesday, in Berkeley Square.

            Letty spent some of her unexpected windfall on a small piece of soap and a jar of rose cold cream. She had felt so self-conscious when the gentleman had looked at her hand. She wished she had pale delicate hands like Mrs Askew or Miss Constance. No lady would go outside without gloves, but then ladies didn’t have to deal with ashes, slops and grime as she did. She resolved to wear gloves on Tuesday evening, if she went, which she was still rather unsure about.

            Arthur was nervous too. He wondered if he’d pushed Letty a little too far, but he hadn’t expected to speak to her so soon. On Tuesday evening, when he heard his wife Isabella close her bedroom door, he took his notebook and pencil from his desk drawer and left the house. His fears were unconfirmed. Letty was already waiting on a bench in the central garden of Berkeley Square.

            At first the conversation didn’t go quite as he hoped. Letty seemed to be downplaying the scale of her chores, making out that she was always careful to keep her cuffs and aprons clean, and that being a housemaid was easy, graceful, feminine work. She noticed he looked disappointed and stopped taking notes when she described at length how to turn and mend sheets, and how he kept trying to turn the conversation back to less salubrious tasks. He became positively excited when she told him how she would kneel in the hearth to brush the ashes and cinders from the grate, and her routine for collecting the bedroom slops every morning.

            Letty was uneducated but not stupid, and after a few meetings she began to understand exactly what her gentleman wanted from her. His payments to her seemed to vary based on the amount of dirt and filth involved in her anecdotes, and she accordingly began to embellish them with the grimiest details she could think of. He asked her if she would keep a diary for him, but as she was unable to read or write it was not possible. Their meetings became weekly, and sometimes Letty earned ten shillings from Arthur if she had described something particularly miserable to him.

            ‘Yesterday, Sir, I was asked to clean the hole under the stairs where the brooms and dustpans are kept. It’s about two yards deep, and so low that I had to crawl in on my hands and knees, into the darkness, and sweep the walls down with a handbrush. There was dust and cobwebs falling all over me, and it made me cough like anything. When I came out I was black with dirt from head to toe.’

            ‘Black all over?’

            ‘Oh yes, Sir, there wasn’t an inch of me that wasn’t filthy!’

            ‘And crawling like that must have been rough treatment for your knees?’ Arthur asked hopefully, scribbling furiously in his notebook.

            ‘Oh Sir, they was as painful as anything, and grazed by the stone flags. I had to get down on them again this morning to scrub the front steps. And to black-lead the boot scraper. Oh and Sir, did I tell you, I have discovered that the best way to apply the black-lead is with my bare hands. It’s such oily stuff, so hard to put on with a brush, but using my hands it rubs in beautifully. Makes my hands terribly dirty though, look Sir how stained black my fingernails are.’

            Arthur took the proffered hand, and looked almost as if he would bend to kiss it. Instead he jumped abruptly up from the bench, and fished some coins from his pocket.

            ‘You are keeping this secret, as I demanded?’

            ‘Of course Sir. I never break a promise, and you are so good to me.’

One Tuesday night Arthur was late leaving the house. Isabella seemed in no hurry to retire to bed, and was sat with him in the drawing room embroidering, and briefing him on the social engagements they had in the week ahead. Once or twice Arthur wandered over to the window to see if he could see Letty waiting for him in the Square, but there were too many trees obscuring his view of the bench. By the time he left the house the Square was deserted.

            He intended to walk past the Askew house as frequently as possible over the next few days, until he could see Letty and explain why he had not turned up. He passed the house twice on Wednesday but saw no sign of any of the inhabitants.

            The following evening Arthur and Isabella Robinson dined at the Webster house, with a handful of other guests including Colonel Huxley and his young wife Lavinia, a vivacious woman with a predilection for gossip for which Isabella loved her and Arthur loathed her in equal measure. He glowered into his calf’s-head soup as Lavinia elaborated on the sordid details of a scandalous affaire between Mrs Gertrude Moore and Lord Ashby. A lengthy discussion of the attributes of the three Greene girls and their slim chances of advantageous marriage occupied the diners through the stewed kidneys, and the mutton and turnips. Arthur had nothing to contribute to the conversation, but his acquaintances were used to his silence on matters of gossip, and therefore no-one was surprised that he had little to say when the partridges and cabinet pudding were served, and the conversation turned to the Askews and their recent troubles.

            ‘I saw Constance Askew and her mother at Benvenuto Cellini last night,’ said Mrs Webster. ‘They seemed most out of sorts.’

            ‘Oh, my dear Prudence,’ said Lavinia, ‘I can explain that to you. I was told in absolute confidence of course, so this must go no further, but they have had a terrible time with one of their servants.’

            Arthur stiffened, then tried to appear as if he was concentrating on the cabinet pudding and paying no more attention to the conversation than usual.

            ‘It seems one of the housemaids had been stealing from them! They found an awful lot of money concealed in a purse under her mattress, all in small coins. She must have been squirreling it away for years, out of the housekeeping. They had always trusted her, she used to pay the tradesmen and do bits of shopping for them, and they never imagined she would steal. When they confronted her she denied it of course, but refused to explain where the money had come from. They threatened her with a magistrate but she managed to slip out of the house.’

            ‘Goodness!’ gasped Isabella.

            ‘But there’s worse,’ said Lavinia. ‘The following morning her body was found floating in the Thames. They don’t know if it was deliberate or accidental, but it makes me think she must have been guilty.’

            Absorbed in the hubbub around the table even Isabella failed to notice that her husband had turned a ghastly shade of grey, and had replaced his wine glass carefully on the table with a shaking hand.

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Turquoise Damask

‘I think that’s everything, Mrs Newman. I shall see you again in a week’s time,’ the man says, putting away his tape measure and sheaf of fabric samples, and casting one final experienced and slightly pitying glance towards the current pair of worn mustard velvet curtains.

            Grandma shows him out, and they continue talking through the hall and at the front door. Grandpa and I look at one another and snigger, instinctively sharing a joke neither of us needs to explain. Grandpa looks tired. He has had a cold for several days now, and is uncharacteristically still in pyjamas although it is mid-morning. Judging by their brown and orange stripes, and large collars, they are at least as old as the mustard curtains, in fact Grandpa in pyjamas is a sight so rarely seen that it brings back memories of my early childhood, the days when I was the only grandchild, Grandma and I sitting up in their double bed looking at a book together and waiting for Grandpa to return to bed with the tray of pre-breakfast drinks and biscuits.

            I am nineteen now, and as the oldest grandchild by a number of years, I have a special bond with my grandparents, one which is about to be strengthened in a way I can’t possibly foresee as we sit on the cream leather sofa and armchair on this bright early-summer Tuesday morning. Grandpa is quiet, but that’s not unusual, he is well known in the family for drifting off into his own world. I always imagine his thoughts as some kind of higher plane, occupied by politicians, historical figures and the characters of Trollope, Dickens, Hardy and Shakespeare. My current thoughts are rather lower down. I am wondering whether turquoise damask was the right choice for the curtains. They will certainly brighten the room, but I think once they are hung their pristine brilliance will highlight the fact that the wallpaper and paintwork have darkened over the years, stained by cigarette smoke, children’s fingers and everyday life, to almost the same shade of mustard as the old velvet drapes.

            ‘He’ll be back to hang them next Tuesday morning,’ remarks Grandma unnecessarily, coming back into the room. She looks happy, this is the first time they have ever had custom-made curtains. ‘I’ll make some tea,’ she adds, turning to leave again, but Grandpa interrupts.

            ‘Don’t make any for me,’ he says. ‘I’m going to lie down before lunch.’ And he makes his way slowly upstairs.

Grandma looks worried. ‘I’m glad Dr Chauhan’s coming this afternoon,’ she says, ‘Your Grandpa’s really not himself at the moment.’

            I agree. I’ve been spending a lot of time with them lately. I’m unemployed, but now I have an offer of a university place I no longer have to make excuses for my ineffectual attempts at finding work. Grandpa doesn’t seem to be shaking this cold. A few days ago he seemed to be getting better, and took his favourite walk across the park to the second hand bookshop in Selly Oak, but although he returned triumphant with a good haul, including a Mary Wollstonecraft for me, it seems to have set him back, and he hasn’t left the house since.

            As Grandma boils the kettle for tea, I move from the sofa next to Grandpa’s empty armchair to the old brown recliner in front of the mustard-curtained French windows that lead into the garden. This is next to Grandma’s armchair. As long as I can remember they have each sat in their particular corner of the room – Grandma by the brightest source of natural light for her knitting, and facing the television; Grandpa under a reading lamp, next to a bookcase and the radio.

            It is a lovely day, which highlights further how unwell Grandpa must be feeling. Ordinarily on a day like this he would be working in the large back garden. It is a full-time job maintaining the terrace, lawn, rose garden, fruit trees, greenhouses and vegetable patch he has developed over the years. I have stirred dust from the carpet by crossing the room, and the motes dance in the beam of sunlight coming through the window. When I was very small my Dad told me they were fairies, and I believed him for years.

            Grandma and I drink our tea, and settle down to work on our project. She is knitting me a light pink sweater from an original 1950’s pattern, and I am sewing a pattern of pearl beads on to the pieces she has already completed. It is 1992, and I have a passion for rockabilly music and vintage clothing. My lack of wages has made me very resourceful with a needle and thread. Knitting is a skill which my Grandma has passed to me through my Mother and Aunt, but at nineteen I don’t yet have the patience to complete anything larger than gloves or hats.

            We talk about inconsequential things – the yarn and beads we are using, family gossip, plans for the next few days, my latest boyfriend – and before we know it an hour and a half has passed and we are both starting to feel hungry.

            ‘I’ll pop up and check on John,’ Grandma says. ‘He’ll probably want to come down for lunch.’

            I lean back in the chair, enjoying the warmth of the sun, the silence of my surroundings. There are none of the traffic noises I am familiar with at home, and as it is a school day there are no children playing outside or humming lawnmowers. I can hear my own breathing, and the clock ticking rhythmically in the hall – then I jolt upright in response to an anguished shout from upstairs of ‘Louise! Louise!’

            I run upstairs and Grandma is on the landing. The expression on her face is like nothing I have seen before, and she says, ‘I think he’s dead!’

            ‘What?’ I say stupidly.

            ‘He’s dead!’

            ‘He can’t be!’ I say, and follow her into the bedroom.

            Grandpa’s legs are sitting on the edge of the bed, his feet still in his brown suede slippers on the floor. His torso and head are backwards, flat on the bed, which is neatly made as if he has only just sat down. He is still wearing his glasses, and his eyes stare up at the ceiling. His face is strange, a grotesque caricature of himself, his mouth hanging open, dentures loose. He looks almost, but not quite, like my Grandpa.

            I am useless. ‘What do we do?’ I whisper.

            Grandma picks up the bedroom telephone extension and dials 999. We sit on the opposite side of the bed to Grandpa and I hold her hand as she talks to the woman at the other end of the line. This is not the Grandma I know either. Her voice is new to me.

            We sit at the top of the stairs and wait for the ambulance, silently clinging onto each other. It may be a minute or an hour before the ambulance arrives, I have lost all concept of time passing. The paramedics examine him, then place something on his chest and attempt to jolt life back into him. It is the most horrible thing I have ever seen, Grandpa’s grey body flailing on the bed, and it haunts me for years afterwards. They keep trying, again and again, although we know it is pointless. They pronounce him dead, and tell us from the way he was sitting it must have been very sudden.

            This is little comfort, and I am suddenly struck by the difficulty of consoling Grandma, who like Grandpa was an active member of the Communist Party until the 1950s and a lifelong atheist. There are no platitudes I can give her about him being in a better place, or watching over her. He is gone, she is left behind, and that is that. Over the next few years she will become increasingly bitter, unable to hide her jealousy when she hears of women whose husbands have survived heart attacks.

            The rest of the day is spent waiting for people – my parents, my aunt and uncle, my brother and cousins, Dr Chauhan, and a respectfully soft-footed undertaker who shuts us in the sitting room as he slips Grandpa discreetly out of the house. The room is full of people, but strangely quiet. Grandma and I hold hands on the sofa. No one sits in Grandpa’s chair.

            I don’t cry until I get home that evening. Later on I will think of all the unfinished conversations, unasked questions and half-told tales I had always assumed there would be plenty of future opportunities for. But as I watch the hearse pull away from the house my only thought is that he will never see the new curtains.

            A few weeks later my thinner, paler Grandma hands me a carrier bag containing the pink sweater. ‘I’ll understand if you don’t ever feel like wearing it,’ she says. I kiss her soft cheek and take the carrier bag upstairs to hide at the bottom of my wardrobe.

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Gun

There’s a gun in Rich’s wardrobe. I can’t sleep because I keep thinking about it, worrying that he’ll go out and his Mom will find it when she hangs his school shirts up. Or worse, he’ll take it out with him somewhere and get caught. I knew I should’ve told him to chuck it in the canal. We found it this morning, on the towpath under the railway bridge. It was wrapped in a grey t-shirt, and tied in a Spar bag with a couple of bricks. Rich reckoned someone must’ve tried to throw it in the canal in a hurry and missed.

            ‘D’you think it’s a murder weapon?’ I asked him, and cleared my throat, trying to sound like my voice was only shaking ’cause I needed to cough.

            ‘Dunno,’ he said. ‘Prob’ly.’ Rich knows about stuff like that. His cousin’s in Winson Green. Got mixed up with the Spencer Crew and they set him up, Rich says.

            ‘Is it loaded?’ I whispered. Rich picked it up carefully and pointed it across the canal. He held it with two hands and strafed from side to side, like he was playing Call of Duty, making pistol shot noises with his mouth.

            I felt sick. ‘Rich…’

            He turned and looked at me, gun still aimed at the spray-painted skull on the wall opposite. His eyes were narrowed, but he was grinning.

            ‘We’re keeping this,’ he said.

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Yamba

‘Driven like Cattle to a fair,
See they sell us young and old;
Child from Mother too they tear,
All for love of filthy Gold.’
(from The Sorrows of Yamba; or, the Negro Woman’s Lamentation by Hannah More, 1797)

I wasn’t going to say anything, my dear, but you’ve been crying for the best part of an hour down there. I’ve been trying to turn a blind eye – or ear, I suppose, in this darkness – but really, you should pull yourself together. It is always darkest just before the day dawneth and all that, but you’re not going to last five minutes in here if you show your weaknesses. After all, my dear, you won’t be here long, and as you told me yourself you deserve it. Not like some of us, who’ve done nothing wrong. There’s no end in sight for me, but I don’t waste my time with pointless tears.

            You’ll learn, my dear. Personally I’m happiest at night, here in my bunk. It’s never quiet, there are always clangs, and footsteps, and someone somewhere shouting, but after a while you stop noticing. I like to forget where I am, and disappear into my dreams. You know, some mornings I wake feeling as if I’ve only just closed my eyes. When I feel like that, as if I haven’t dreamed, it can simply ruin the whole of the day ahead. I feel cheated, to be quite honest. Some of the ladies are surprised that I prefer the night. They say to me: ‘Viv, if your story is really true, then aren’t you terrified at night?’ So I point out to them how safe we are here. It’s so modern, all concrete, strip-lighting and wipe-clean surfaces. No turrets, candelabras or antiques in here. No mystery. Of course, I’m forgetting dear, you don’t know my story yet, do you?

            You’ll meet the other ladies in the morning. Do forgive my frankness, but I’m sure you’ll fit right in. They’re much more your type than mine, you see. I stuck out like a sore thumb when I first arrived. But I stood firm, kept myself to myself, and in the end they left me alone. I’ve been here so long now I’m simply one of the fixtures and fittings. Lady Vivienne, the girls call me! James would’ve found that rather amusing – his family always considered me rather middle-class. Silly really, my father had much more money than the Failands did, but he was a self-made man, and they were old money.

            You’re from Bristol, aren’t you? Then you will know Sneyd Court. It’s the house with two tall symmetrical towers at the top of the Gorge, overlooking the Downs. That was James’ family home. We had to sell it in the early ’nineties. Upkeep and heating and so on were far too much for us to cope with, and we had the boys’ school fees to think about. We’d sink all our cash into sorting out one problem and then another part of the house would start to fall apart. I was quite happy to sell the old place. I always found it rather intimidating. All those dark panelled rooms, endless corridors, portraits of pompous ancestors sneering down at one. James was terribly upset though. His family had been there for generations, and all their history was there in that house.

            So much beautiful furniture, and exquisite collections of silver and porcelain. Lining the staircase were portraits of the direct male line of Failands, from the early Barons onwards. James was the oldest male in his generation, and as I looked at those pictures I could trace a likeness all the way back, despite the fashions and styles imposed by the painters of the day. The Failand men all had that long straight nose and rather close set eyes with thick eyebrows. Not exactly handsome, but exuding confidence and superiority. My sons had the same features, still do I should think, although I haven’t seen either of them for a few years now. One of the finest portraits, painted by Jonathan Richardson in around 1705, full length and life size, showed Edward Failand as a middle-aged man, wearing the long wig and robes of the time. His eyes are dark and stare out at one. His mouth is set in a hard line. It used to make me shiver. We donated that one to the Bristol museum. It was far too big for our flat, and Edward Failand was a big name in local history, having spent much of his fortune on building almshouses and founding schools.

            His fortune. Strange we call it that. It may have been a fortune to Edward, but the many thousands of slaves he shipped from Africa to the Caribbean were anything but fortunate. Of course the Failands didn’t really like talking about that side of their family history. They much preferred to view Edward and his sons as great charitable figures, examples of Christian liberality. But if the truth be known, the Failands were leading figures in the slave trade right up until it was abolished in the 19th century, and I’m sure Abolition was all that stopped them. Edward even kept a slave woman at Sneyd Court, working amongst the other servants. Her name was Yamba and she was from Sierra Leone. She had been captured and brought to England, and the rest of her family taken to the plantations. Her youngest child had died on the voyage over, whilst she was still nursing him. Yamba worked hard all her life, but apparently barely spoke and never smiled, which is not surprising really. She even died working – she was found slumped in a fireplace with a hearth brush still in her hand by one of the other servants. They think she was in her forties, but apparently she looked twice that.

            The other notable fact about Edward was that he was the first in a long line of Failand suicides. Or so they thought. Despite his religion, his wife found him in bed with his left wrist slit and a knife at his side. And this was a pattern that repeated itself again and again, roughly every other generation of Failand men. James and I used to joke about it before our wedding. I’d been told these men were always found by their wives, so I told James if he ever had morbid thoughts he must wait until I was away from home before acting on them! We laughed at the time. If only we’d known. The last before James was his grandfather, Thomas Failand. Now of course the Police have forensics, and scepticism, on their side. My husband was the first Failand suicide they subjected to all that. People nowadays think science will explain everything. Well here I am, proof that it doesn’t, if only they’d listen. Science will never explain Yamba.

            I didn’t know much about Yamba until we sold the house. There was a small oil painting of her in one of the bedrooms in the west wing, a fairly drab thing, so dingy you could barely make her out, and rather badly done, although once your eyes were accustomed it looked as though she was staring straight at you. I’d lived there several years by then, but had never even noticed it before.

‘We’re keeping that one,’ said James, when I took it to show him.

‘Oh James it’s hideous! Where on earth will we hang it in the flat?’

James was quite insistent. I didn’t understand why, even after he’d explained her story to me. I thought he’d want to put the family’s shame behind him. We’d agreed to keep only the very best pieces, things that would suit the Georgian flat we were moving to. It was a large flat, but would seem small enough after Sneyd Court, without cluttering it up with excess junk. Oh I loved that flat! I was so happy there. The rooms were light and airy, with high ceilings and enormous Georgian sash windows, that looked out over Hotwells and the river at the front, and the Downs at the back. How I miss the Downs. I miss having a view of any sort. You can only see upwards into the sky here.

            James hung Yamba’s picture in his study. And the strangest thing happened. I didn’t venture into his study very often, but I swear whenever I saw that portrait Yamba seemed to have aged some more.

When it happened, both boys were away at school. James was at home with a streaming cold, and was behaving like a bear with a sore head. We’d had several petty arguments already that day, and in the end he had taken himself off to bed with a glass of whisky and ginger wine. I was sitting at the kitchen table working out a menu for a dinner party we were hosting the following week, when I heard a crash from James’ study. I ran in, and Yamba’s portrait had fallen from the wall and was lying face down in the hearth. I decided to check and see if the noise had disturbed James, but when I tried the bedroom door it was locked. I knocked several times, getting increasingly more annoyed, but could get no answer from James. Back to the kitchen I went, but when James still hadn’t surfaced an hour later I found the spare keys and unlocked the door myself.

            James was in our bed, and our bed was scarlet with his blood. His poor savaged left wrist lay on top of the covers, and next to his right hand was our bread knife. It was the most awful thing I have ever seen, and to this day I can see the scene as clearly as if it were a snapshot. A single body contains an awful lot of blood. I was hysterical at first, but I pulled myself together and called an ambulance, and when they arrived the police came too. They said it was suicide. I don’t remember what order things happened in, but the flat was like Clapham Junction, people coming and going, different police officers asking me different questions. Over the next few days I tried to make funeral arrangements, but the police wouldn’t release James’ body. They said things didn’t add up. More visits and more questions. It seems James had an awful lot of sedatives inside him, besides the whisky and ginger wine, and the police felt he would have been unable to even lift the knife, never mind slice through his own wrist with it. And then there was the small matter of the bread knife. I had used it at breakfast, and it was covered in my fingerprints, but not one of James’ or anyone else, for that matter. Well of course not. I told them over and over again, I did all the cooking in our household, James barely knew where the kitchen was, and Yamba didn’t have fingerprints. It was Yamba, I told them, Yamba did it. More questions. And then the evidence of our downstairs neighbour, terribly vulgar nouveau-riche young woman who had been at home all that day with her baby. Nobody had used the communal entrance all morning she said, and she had heard our rows, heard the crash. Heard me running around, and then nothing. Nothing until the ambulance and police cars arrived. Because it was Yamba, I told them, Yamba, Yamba, Yamba.

            People nowadays don’t believe in ghosts. I didn’t either until I had to. Even those who go to church refuse to accept there may be supernatural forces we still don’t fully understand. I happen to know the prosecuting barrister attends church regularly – he was a member of the Merchant Venturers alongside James, so we often met socially. I couldn’t get any of James’ friends to defend me. I found a lawyer eventually, and he did his best, but he kept advising me to change my story. I wouldn’t. I couldn’t! I was telling the truth. However, it seemed the jury didn’t believe in ghosts, and neither did the judge.

Here in prison I think about Yamba a lot. I long for Bristol, the Avon Gorge, the suspension bridge, but to Yamba Bristol was a prison. She was torn away from her children, and I have been torn from mine by their hatred and disbelief. In my dreams I often fly like a bird over the coast of West Africa. I fly across high mountains, and through dense tropical rainforest. I fly over white sandy beaches, fringed with palm trees, across small plantations into coastal villages. And I find Yamba, sitting in the doorway of her hut, preparing fish, nursing her baby, or laughing and singing with her sisters and her children. And I feel it is my responsibility to keep her there in my dreams, safe in her village for as long as I can. Because if I don’t, my grandson will be the next one she punishes.

            So you see, my dear, how important the night is to me, and how important it is that I sleep well. So we’ll have no more of this crying please. Tomorrow I’ll introduce you to the girls, and show you the ropes, so do try and get some rest while you can. Good night, my dear.

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