Read an Excerpt
Plate 1. 1846
GIRL IN THE PRESENCE
I was twelve years old the first time Master Georgie ordered me to stand stock still and not blink. My head was on a level with the pillow and he had me rest my hand on Mr Hardy's shoulder; a finger-tip chill struck through the cloth of his white cotton shirt. It was a Saturday, the feast of the Assumption, and to stop my eyelids from fluttering I pretended God would strike me blind if I let them, which is why I ended up looking so startled. Mr Hardy didn't have to be told to keep still because he was dead.
I say I was twelve years old, but I can't be sure. I don't recollect a mother and never had a birthday until the Hardy family took me in. According to Master Georgie, I'd been found some nine years before, in a cellar in Seel Street, sat beside the body of a woman whose throat had been nibbled by rats.
I didn't have a name, so they called me Myrtle, after the street where the orphanage stands. It was intended I should be placed there, and I would have been if the smallpox hadn't broken out. Instead, a business gentleman on the board of the Liverpool Health Committee and known to Mr Hardy pressed him to house me until the epidemic was over. When this happened and it came time for my departure, Miss Beatrice set up howling; she'd taken a fancy to me. She lost interest the following year when Mr Hardy brought home the dog, but by then Mrs O'Gorman had taken me in hand, so they let me be.
I was fortunate, for I was taught to read by Mrs Hardy, and Mr Hardy sometimes chucked me under the chin and asked how I did. Often, I was allowed to play with Master Freddie, before he went away to school. It was only Mrs O'Gorman who ever beat me, and that for my own good. I was not loved and counted it a blessing; it meant my affections raged undiluted and I could lavish all on Master Georgie.
I don't remember anything about being found. Master Georgie once told me that if I concentrated hard enough the memories might come back, like the images that reared up on his photogenic plates. That scared me, for he performed such magic in the dark, and sometimes, after he'd put the idea into my head, waking at night to the shuffle of leaves along the guttering, I fancied there was a ghastly picture about to imprint itself upon the windowpane. Noticing the shadows under my eyes and ferreting out the cause, Mrs O'Gorman declared he was a wicked boy for spooning me such nonsense.
Twice I went back to that house in Seel Street and stood at the railings. The basement area was flooded and the window glass too grimy to peer through.
That particular afternoon in damp August -- the one that ended so curiously -- began with Mrs Hardy plummeting into one of her states. I'd been summoned to see to the tiger-skin rug. The dog had got in again and Mrs O'Gorman had shooed me upstairs to stiff-brush its grey hairs from those blazing stripes. Master Georgie and Mrs Hardy were seated at opposite ends of the dining-room table.
I didn't like the tiger; its jaws gaped open and unlike Mr Hardy it didn't have any lids to its eyes, which meant they glared. Mrs Hardy detested the rug as much as I did, though for different reasons. Mr Hardy swore he'd bagged the beast himself, in the Madras Province, in the days when he'd been employed as an overseer of Irrigation Works. It was a boast Mrs Hardy had shaken to fragments on more than one agitated occasion; she spat he'd bought it cheap at Riley's auction rooms in Water Street and carried it home over his shoulder.
The rug was positioned in front of the french windows overlooking the garden and the orchard beyond, so I had my back to the table when Mrs Hardy said, `Georgie, dear, you won't be going to the Institute today, will you?'
He agreed he wouldn't.
`Though I expect you'll be going out on business.'
Young as I was I sensed this was more in the nature of an accusation than a supposition. The brush turned to stone in my hand. Mrs Hardy frightened me, for she stared so. Often, when her mouth smiled it didn't signify she was pleased. All the same, she had rescued me, taught me my letters, and I didn't want her upset. I fixed my gaze on the plum trees in the orchard. Miss Beatrice was out there, pirouetting under branches laden with round, rotten fruit. Fat Dr Potter stalked her, face raised to the cloudy heavens.
I heard Georgie say, `Not business, Mother. I'm meeting William Rimmer.'
`Of course you are,' she replied. `You men always have friends to see ... either that or business to see to.'
There was a silence for a long minute, broken by tapping. I swivelled on my haunches, making believe I was attending to the bony head of the tiger. Mrs Hardy was stabbing at the food on her plate and giving one of her stares, eyes lachrymose with bulging misery; gravy splattered the cloth. Master Georgie had explained to me that the stare was peculiar to a malfunction of the thyroid, a gland common to us all, only in Mrs Hardy's case it had started growing. As for her misery, why, that was all due to her husband; she was a neglected wife. Mr Hardy had promised to come home at midday and already it was five after three by the clock on the mantelshelf.
Master Georgie rose then and stooped to kiss his mother on the cheek. She jerked her head away and he made a small mew of annoyance.
`For pity's sake,' she whined, `help me, for I can't help myself.'
`I don't know how to, Mother,' he said, and the defeated slump of his shoulders pierced me to the quick.
Usually he offered to stay with her when she was out of sorts, and almost always she told him not to be foolish. This time he didn't utter a word. He just stood there, looking down at her tear-stained face. She was harder on him than on either Master Freddie or Miss Beatrice. It was because he was her first born and she'd been torn to pieces before he plopped out. Mrs O'Gorman told me that. I didn't doubt he loved her still, but those childhood days when he could show clinging proof of it had gone for ever.
She said bitterly, `Don't look so worried, Georgie. You mustn't let my little misfortunes spoil your day,' to which he retorted with equal bitterness, `To hear is to obey.' I ran out of the room because I couldn't bear it any longer.
The hall kept changing from dark to light as clouds ran over the sun. When I dragged the plug of dog hairs from the brush a current of air from the leaded window whirled it, dandelion fashion, up the well of the stairs to circle the antlers of the stag's head on the landing.
The evening before, Mrs O'Gorman had trapped me in the scullery to acquaint me with the Assumption. She said someone had to school me, seeing I was being raised in such a Godless house. That was a dig at Dr Potter, for being under the sway of the new sciences. Dr Potter held that the world wasn't created in six days; it was more like thousands of years. Why, even mountains hadn't always stayed in the same place. St James' Mount, which overlooks the sunken cemetery, may once have been a flat stretch of earth, grassless under a sheet of ice.
It didn't worry me like it did Mrs O'Gorman, who moaned that it wasn't for the likes of her to doubt the permanency of rocks. But then, her rock was the Kingdom of Heaven and she didn't want it shifted.
She'd pinned me to the chair at the scullery table and trumpeted that tomorrow was a special day, one on which the body of Our Lord's mother had been wafted up to heaven to be united with her soul. The worms hadn't got to her like they will with me, on account of Our Lord loving her so. I only half believed her.
Above me, the web of hair began to drift apart. I mouthed He loves me, he loves me not, though I wasn't thinking of Our Lord.
Presently Master Georgie emerged and began to button himself into his outdoor coat. His fur-lined cloak, the one I tugged out later, hung abandoned in the hall closet. He'd left off wearing it because Mr Hardy, returning merry with drink from mornings at the Corn Exchange, had cried out once too often, `O Vanitas vanitatem.'
A noise of busted china came from the dining room. Master Georgie flinched; Mrs Hardy's heart was in pieces for the umpteenth time and she was taking it out on the dinner plates. A sunbeam pierced the fanlight above the front door, painting his hair with silver.
Just then, Mrs O'Gorman came up the basement stairs and said calmly enough, `You be on your way, Master Georgie. No sense both of us being put upon.'
He dithered for a moment, during which time Mrs Hardy, wailing like a banshee, rushed from the dining room and clambered clumsily up the stairs. Mrs O'Gorman stood her ground, her face giving nothing away. The sun went in again and Master Georgie faded. Looking across the hall he crooked his finger for me to follow.
I did as he bid, running behind him as he marched down the drive and strode the blackberry-hedged lane leading to Prince's Boulevard. I threw Mrs O'Gorman's sweeping brush into the nettles. He didn't look back, but then, why should he? I was his shadow. He swung his arms like a soldier and his boots splashed mud.
Master Georgie needed me with him so that he could enjoy himself without becoming jittery over conditions at home. If the afternoon proved convivial and he wanted to stay out for supper, I'd be required to run off to see how the land lay with his mother. If Dr Potter had given her one of his powders or Mr Hardy had come home, I had no cause to return. If she was still under her black clouds I'd have to hare back to fetch him.
Along the Boulevard, under the summer trees, nursemaids wheeled their infants out. Earlier there had been a downpour and small girls screamed as sudden gusts of wind scattered raindrops on their heads. The Punch and Judy man was setting up his box alongside the carriage stop. Already the Jew-boy employed to gather a crowd was squeezing on his accordion. The horse that pulled the purple van stood tossing its nose in its feed-bag.
No one I knew had ever set eyes on the man who jiggled Mr Punch into life. Some said he was a dwarf and others that he was nine foot high. He fixed up his stall against the doors of the van and crept in from behind, so as to keep up the illusion. Besides, when it came time for the Jew-boy to pass round the hat, we children generally melted away. The dog Toby was real; he nipped at your ankles if you tried to crawl under the front cloth.
I loitered, waiting for the striped curtains to open. The best bit was always when Judy went off to collect the washing and Mr Punch started thwacking the baby to make it leave off bawling -- then the young folk broke out shrieking and sniggering, particularly those that got whipped regularly.
I didn't fret over Master Georgie going on ahead. I knew I'd find him at the Washington Hotel where he was meeting his friend, William Rimmer, a fellow student at the Medical Institute.
The curtains had just been pushed sideways to reveal Mr Punch leant over the cradle, swinging the bellowing baby back and forth, when the accident happened. There was a sudden hiss from the crowd, a surge backwards and a shower of droplets from above as the stall tipped through the lower branches of the trees and toppled to the ground. Mr Punch fell out altogether and lay in a lump in the puddles. Dog Toby jumped and snarled, jumped and yapped.
It was all over in a blink of an eye. Then, wonder of wonders, the Punch and Judy man reared up before us, scrambling to his feet and waving his arms to fight off the flapping fold of the candy-striped front cloth. From his mouth flew a stream of oaths, which came out comical, not fearsome, for he still used that parrot voice. Beneath his sodden top hat his nose curved down to meet his chin.
The van with its golden letters on the side hadn't suffered so much as a scratch, though it had been shoved a foot or more towards the crowd, thus rocking the stall from its support. In the uproar, a lad ran off with the Jew-boy's accordion but a woman hit him over the head with her gamp, at which he howled and let it drop. She was comical too, for as she whacked at him she squawked out, `Who's a naughty boy, then?', imitating Mr Punch when chastising the baby. We children fairly burst with laughter, skipping about in the wet with the dog Toby snapping at our legs.
The incident was explained and settled satisfactorily enough, the gentleman responsible for the hoo-ha fishing out money to cover the damage. At cock-crow, so it was said, a vegetable cart had spilled cabbages on to the road, all of which, save one, had been recovered or run off with. The gentleman's horse, who had seen service with a cavalry regiment, mistaking it for a puff-adder, had reared up and crashed down sideways, striking the van with its flank.
The animal had recently returned from Africa, where puff-adders were quite common. They hadn't any teeth but if they bit you their tongues imparted a poison that could turn your blood to treacle.
Presently, the gentleman climbed back on to his horse and trotted away, after which the Punch and Judy man bundled his dismembered box into the van and shut up shop for the day. He was still swearing, though not so loudly as before.
It began to rain before I reached the Washington Hotel. I hadn't my shawl, but a spot of damp was nothing to me. In winter, when the wind howled up from the river, I huddled in the doorway of the Star Theatre. Once, an actor came by and said I was pretty and why didn't I come inside to get warm by the Green Room fire. I didn't go because the rouge on his cheeks made him look more angry than kindly. Besides, I knew he was buttering me, the line of my mouth being too determined for prettiness and my eyes too deeply set, which lends me a melancholy look. Another time, in December, my feet turned quite blue and Mrs O'Gorman had to rub them with goose-fat to restore the circulation. What did I care! I'd freeze stiff for Master Georgie.
In summer, my favourite place was on the granite steps of the entrance to the railway station in Lime Street. From there I could see down the slope to where the hotel stood within its square of garden, the red roses bobbing tall in the wind. On clear days, beneath high blue heavens, the humps of the Welsh hills rode the horizon. Now, the grey river met the grey sky, and a low white sun, sliced by the masts of ships, sailed through a splash of scarlet petals.
Mr Hardy had an oil painting of the same view hung on his study wall. The masts were there, and the row of cottages sloping down towards the tobacco warehouse, but the Washington was missing because it hadn't been built. It was a very old painting and had belonged to Mr Hardy's father, yet the colours were as fresh as new, unlike Master Georgie's photographic pictures which turned black after a week.
I had been sitting for an hour or more, watching the people bustling back and forth, the smoke from the steam engines spurting into the lowering skies, when I witnessed a Christian act. A woman who had been standing at the bottom of the steps, a child in her arms and a wicker basket at her feet, was approached by another woman, better dressed than she and holding her skirts up from the wet. A live duck sat squashed in the basket, its neck tied to the handle, its beak bound with string. The woman pulled back her shawl so as to show off the baby nestling at her breast. Just then a boy sneaked through the crowd and snatching up the basket ran off with it. Unaware, the woman went on cooing. Seconds later, another boy appeared at her elbow and deposited the basket back at her feet. He didn't utter a word. Straightening up, he caught me watching him. He was three or four years older than myself, dark of complexion, either from dirt or nature, and his mouth was disfigured by what I took to be an epithelioma of the upper lip. I noticed such things because Master Georgie let me read his medical books, though, as yet, I didn't understand them perfectly.
At that instant William Rimmer came out of the hotel. I waited until I saw Master Georgie emerge, then sped down the steps, across the square and into the doorway of the Union Warehouse. Master Georgie got irritated if I hung about too closely. I couldn't hear what they were saying, but from the agitated manner in which William Rimmer walked off a few paces, then returned, I gathered they were arguing rather than talking. Mostly, they discussed cadavers and blood vessels and the like, so I reckoned it was a medical rift. All the same, Master Georgie looked hang- dog, which was out of character, and I felt a sudden flutter of distress. Gauging they were too locked to notice, I stole nearer and hid behind the roses. It was still raining and water sprayed from Master Georgie's hat.
William Rimmer said, `I won't listen to your excuses.'
Master Georgie said, `I have nothing to excuse.' He spoke calmly, which was his way. He held that if a man wanted his judgement to be accepted, it should be expressed coolly and without passion.
`You can't deny it was underhand,' said William Rimmer. `Damn it, George, you knew my feelings.'
`In the circumstances, I don't see I was at fault. You heard what Mrs Prescott said ... What was I to do? ... Was I supposed to refuse so that you could step in?'
`In your place I would have done --'
`Would you indeed? And risk appearing boorish?'
`It wasn't the action of a friend,' William Rimmer stormed, and with that he walked off again, only this time he kept straight on and didn't look back.
Master Georgie hesitated and then made as if to follow. After no more than a few yards he changed his mind and almost ran across the square. He didn't turn to see if I was at his heels.
I couldn't think what the quarrel was about. Mrs Prescott was a wealthy woman who lived in grand style beyond Strawberry Fields. She had three daughters, two of whom were rumoured to be plain and the third handsome. I'd heard Mr Hardy remark on her looks, and he was a great man for knowing what constituted a good-looking woman. Mrs Prescott had given a dance the week before to which Master Georgie had been invited. By the sound of it, so had William Rimmer. Beyond that, it was a mystery what Mrs Prescott had said and what Master Georgie had done that William Rimmer considered underhand.
My mind wouldn't let the matter rest, the argumentative words tumbling over and over in my head as I trailed Master Georgie the length of Bold Street. It was monstrous of William Rimmer to upbraid him. Why, when he'd caught an infection of the finger from slicing livers in the dissecting room, and lain at death's door for two days, groaning under the fever, Master Georgie had spent a whole night sitting up with him. On his return, recounting to Mrs Hardy the torment his friend was enduring, tears swelled up in his eyes. It hurt my heart to have his devotion so easily forgotten.
Master Georgie should have turned left when we reached St John's Church; instead he swerved right, up the cobbled rise towards St James' Mount. I reckon he was lost in thought, either that or putting time between himself and home. It had stopped raining and a watery sun floated above the chimney stacks. Mrs O'Gorman didn't like setting foot in this part of the town. Poverty, she confided, sent her skittering, due to her having nudged too close to it on account of Ireland and the potatoes.
Years past, when Mr Hardy's father was alive, merchants lived in the streets nearest to their manufacturing businesses beside the river. It was expansion, Master Georgie said, and the inrush of humanity, that sent them scuttling upwards to build their mansions in the hills. The once pampered houses now stood in mouldering disarray, balconies rusted, windows stuffed with rags. Sometimes the crowded cellars flooded and infants drowned along with the rats. Such disasters afforded Mrs Hardy solace, for on her good days she attended committees for the relief of the poor, which took her out of herself.
Miss Beatrice, in a spiteful mood, had implied that I too might have crawled in from the bogs of Ireland. She crowed that when found I had a scrap of green ribbon rotting in my hair. Mrs O'Gorman said it wasn't true. She'd been the one to cut my hair off to be rid of the lice, so she should know. I didn't mind one way or the other. It was of no interest to me where I came from, only where I was going.
All the same, I quickened my pace as Master Georgie climbed the pavement of Mount Street. Poor people appear predatory owing to their bones showing, and bones were in abundance among the gaggle of ragged boys on the corner, the wild children squabbling in the gutter, the stupefied men slouched against the railings. They didn't molest me for they saw I had nothing to give. A woman accosted Master Georgie but he waved her aside, not from lack of charity, simply from his being abstracted. Of average height, stout of build, he walked with feet turned out and back straight as a ramrod. I watched the way he swung his arms. How strange it is that even a mode of walking can inspire love.
Suddenly he shouted over his shoulder, `Don't lag behind, Myrtle. Keep up with me.' For perhaps thirty seconds, until that scuffed front door opened, framing a screaming woman clad in a torn chemise, I was happy, for his flung injunction signified he knew I was there and didn't want me lost.
The face of the woman in the doorway was distorted with fright. She had few teeth and her mouth resembled a dark hole. Master Georgie was about to pass by when she screamed again, shrill and menacing as a swooping gull. The sound stopped him momentarily in his tracks. He looked about him to see who would come to her aid -- but what did a scream amount to in such a wretched place? Mounting the cracked steps he followed her into the house.
I scampered after, not wishing to miss the excitement. As the woman toiled ahead up the stairs I could see black hairs bristling on her plump white calves; breath needed for the ascent, she'd ceased uttering those ghastly bird cries. Someone climbed the stairs behind me and when I looked over my shoulder I was astonished to see the boy who earlier had rescued the duck. I half stumbled; the banister rail on the turn of the landing was broken and a splinter of wood pierced my palm as I propelled myself upwards.
We came at last to an open door on the third floor. Master Georgie and the woman entered the room while I remained on the threshold. I could see a fire burning in the grate, its reflection flickering upon the rails of a brass bed. Close by stood a little round table bearing a bottle, a glass and a pocket watch. On the bed, face down, arms stretched above the head, both hands clenched in a fist about the bars, lay a figure clad in nothing but a shirt, naked buttocks exposed. It was a curious position to sleep in, for he appeared to hang rather than lie, back arched as though gathering momentum like the man on the flying trapeze. I knew it was a man because his breeches hung from the knob of the bed.
Another harsh cry rang through the room, and it was worse than anything the woman had managed, for this time it came from Master Georgie. Startled, I was about to edge closer when the duck-boy pushed me aside and demanded, `What's wrong, Margaret? Trouble, is it?'
`He died on me,' the woman wailed. `It weren't nothing to do with me.'
Master Georgie fell to his knees beside the bed. He made no attempt to turn the body over or feel a pulse; poking a finger out he traced the fold of the shirt where it rucked at the neck. It had gone very quiet and a feeling of dread began to steal over me, as though something horrible was about to happen in that darkening room with the watch ticking and glinting on the table.
At last Master Georgie looked up and the dread became palpable, for his face was drained of colour and his eyes as bewildered as my own. I ran to him then and put my hand on his shoulder, and though I don't believe he knew who it was, for a fleeting moment he inclined his head and rested his cheek against my wrist. Then he shrugged away and stood up.
`We must move him,' he said, addressing the boy. `You must help me move him.' He was pleading rather than asking.
`Is it to the Infirmary?' the boy wanted to know, at which Master Georgie shouted out, `God damn you, no.' After which outburst, visibly struggling to gain control of himself, he added more reasonably, `I know this gentleman. It will be kinder to his family if I take him to his house.'
Seeing me standing there he ordered the woman to put me into another room. `I ain't got no other room,' she said. All the same, she hustled me on to the landing and endeavoured to shut the door in my face, only I fought her and she gave up. She had no power in her arms and her breath stank of drink.
It took strength to unclasp the hands from the bed rail and turn the body over. Quick as a flash Georgie pulled down its shirt, for decency's sake. And now it was my turn to cry out, for it was Mr Hardy who lay there, grey hair lank as seaweed, lips purple as the plums in his orchard.
The woman came to me then and whispered, `Who is he, dearie?' but I stayed mute. She tugged at my hair to make me tell, and I never even whimpered. She could have pulled out every hair on my head and still I wouldn't have told, for that would have been a betrayal.
`I need a conveyance to take him home,' Master Georgie said.
The boy nodded in the direction of the window. `There's a van out in the alleyway and a horse in the stables. I'll need money.'
`I have money,' said Master Georgie, digging into his pockets.
The woman had sidled closer to the bed, her eyes concentrating on the watch on the table. I guessed what she was about and darting forward snatched it up and held it fiercely to my chest. She struck at me, catching me a blow on the ear which sent me tumbling backwards on to the bed. My leg touched Mr Hardy's ankle and its fading warmth sent such a shock through me that I jerked upright as though galvanised by lightning.
I gave the watch to Master Georgie. He was standing at the window looking on to the alleyway below. He took it without acknowledgement, flopping it over and over in his cupped hands. So as to be less noticeable I sat on the floor with my back to the stained wallpaper.
Presently, the duck-boy returned. He said the horse was being put into harness and we should go out the back way, through the scullery and into the yard. Master Georgie said, `Good, good,' and stared down at the bed. Plucking the trousers from off the brass rail he began to steer Mr Hardy's feet into the funnels of cloth; there were corns round as beads embossed on his white toes.
The woman, her assistance required, flapped her hands and shrank away. I stood up, prepared to help, but the boy got there before me. When they humped the breeches over Mr Hardy's backside, his shirt rolled up and I was taken by surprise at the limpness of his private parts. I'd seen them before, one Easter when he'd felt compelled to show them me, only that time a thing rigid as a carrot had stuck out between his fingers.
Master Georgie and the boy carried him down between them. He was a well-built man and his weight sank him in the middle. The woman, who had been given money to open up the yard, defaulted and scuttled back into the room, whining she had palpitations. I was clutching Mr Hardy's boots, and when his hat tipped off on the bend in the stairs I harvested that too. His eyes were closed but his mouth sagged open, from his being jogged.
I had to squeeze past to unlock the scullery door into the back. Once it was ajar, the light of the waning afternoon caught our faces. Master Georgie's cheeks had flushed pink again, though that was due to exertion. The gate into the alleyway was insecure on its hinges and had been nailed shut to hold it fast. Master Georgie and the boy swarmed over the wall to look for something that might serve as a battering ram to burst it open. They sat Mr Hardy against the stump of a sycamore tree and told me to keep an eye on him, as though he was likely to stroll away. I did, yet I kept my distance, watching the rain glistening on the buttons of his coat.
Until he was dead I'd liked Mr Hardy. He was cheerful and lacking in malice and on the few occasions he'd noticed me his eyes twinkled. At parties he always sang after his dinner, and you could hear his voice all over the house. It was usually the same song, about a little drummer boy who called for his mother as he lay dying on a battlefield, and when it was over and the guests clapped their appreciation he sang it again. It had very sad words but he bellowed so heartily when it came to the line, Mother dear, I am fading fast, that no one could forbear laughing.
Now, if proof were required that the soul flees the body, I might have pointed the finger at him; there was no mistaking his emptiness. For his sake I hoped Mrs O'Gorman had been in the right of it when she'd asserted that rich people always had a friend waiting for them beyond the bright blue sky; he was no great shakes without his cronies round him. Standing there, listening to the melancholy gurglings of roof-top pigeons, I dwelt with pleasure on the unstable and transitory nature of life, seeing I was fortunate enough to be alive. Although the better part of me felt distress, I did know that I revelled in the moment. The mind, like the eye, perceives things more clearly in daylight.
There was a sudden thud against the gate, though it merely shuddered, and then two more blows, after which it gave and swung wide. Outside stood the purple van with its letters gaudily outlined in gold. It wasn't the Punch and Judy man's beast between the shafts, for that was no bigger than a donkey and this was the size of one of the dray horses that thundered from the cobbled courtyard of the brewery.
I held open the van doors while Master Georgie and the duck-boy lugged Mr Hardy across the yard. Once the boy stopped to catch his breath and Master Georgie cried out, `Hurry ... we must lay him flat.' Possibly the boy thought this levelling was required out of respect, but I knew haste was a necessity, owing to the danger of rigor mortis taking a grip. It wouldn't do to have Mr Hardy arrive home shaped like a jack-knife.
The interior of the van still held the twisted remains of the puppet box, though Mr Punch wasn't there, or Judy or the constable. We had to push the lengths of wood to one side to make space, and when it was done and the stiffening legs were straightened I was urged to jump in. Master Georgie was going to sit up with the boy, to give him directions. I didn't care for the arrangement, but before I could demur the doors were slammed shut, the outside bolt pulled to, and Mr Hardy and I sank into a blackness as impenetrable as the tomb.
The journey was a bumpy affair, the van being light and the horse powerful. I had to put my legs across Mr Hardy and press down hard to keep him pinned flat. When the wheels hit holes in the road we fairly bounced in the air; flying round a corner a sharp object hit me in the chest. Reading it with my fingers, I recognised Mr Punch's poor baby and stroked its wooden cheek against my own, crooning it mustn't be afraid.
In the darkness, pictures floated in my head of Mrs Hardy and Miss Beatrice becoming acquainted with the dreadful news. Miss Beatrice was weeping, for herself rather than her departed father, because now he was gone she'd have to stay with her widowed mother and give up the idea of running away to sea. Mrs O'Gorman blamed education for putting the notion into her head, because she'd never pined for anything so outlandish until she was sent away to boarding school in Lichfield. Mrs Hardy was lying in bed calling out for Dr Potter to fetch the port wine. He was too occupied in comforting Miss Beatrice to pay heed, for she was in his arms at last, and his face, loony with delight, beamed above her trembling shoulder. I poured out the wine from the cooler on the dresser and took it to Mrs Hardy; before she sipped she seized my wrist and murmured with popping eyes, `You are the only true friend I have in this dark world.' I replied, `It is my duty,' which struck me as not friendly enough, so I added, `and my pleasure.'
Just then, Mr Hardy rolled under my legs. I was frightened his face might get splinters from the lengths of wood, though I imagined dead flesh needed no protection against the arrows of life. All the same, I tugged at his jacket to bring him closer; it was Master Georgie I was shielding.
Tears had sprung into my eyes when I'd thought about Mrs Hardy, for I reckoned she loved her husband in spite of all her moanings to the contrary, and I expect things were different between them when they were first joined. She was cleverer than him and didn't like his singing and perhaps that had driven them apart. Mrs O'Gorman said they'd met at a horse race in India, where it was so hot that everyone's judgements got muzzy and they had to lie down every afternoon. It was a question of old habits dying hard, for Mrs Hardy did that even if the weather was cold.
Suddenly the van slowed to a halt and then unaccountably bucked backwards. I could hear the horse's great hooves ringing on the cobblestones as I tipped towards the doors. After some manoeuvring we lurched to the left, which slid me forward again. I don't know where Mr Hardy was and didn't care. I drew my knees up to my chin and gabbled over and over that the Lord was my shepherd and I should not want.
[CHAPTER ONE CONTINUES ...]
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I agree with the other reviewers. This is a wonderful book but not for the ordinary reader. I found myself wishing for more historical detail but that is just me. This is the way Ms Bainbridge writes and I am a big fan. My favourite of her books remains "The Birthday Boys".
I never cared for historical fiction until I read this book. Perhaps I was finally ready to see what I was missing, and to discover how mankind makes the same errors again and again.
First off, I would definitely recommend this book, but not to the casual reader. It's not an entertaining beach read nor is it something that you can get through easily. It requires much concentration and focus. I have never yet met with a book by Beryl Bainbridge that I did not like and this one is no exception.first, a bit about the Crimean War (the backdrop for this book): The Crimean War 1854 - 1856In 1853, Russia sent troops to defend Christians within the Ottoman Empire. Within months, Russian troops had occupied parts of the Ottoman Empire and the Turks declared war. On 28 March 1854, looking to prevent Russian expansion, Britain and France (with Austrian backing) also declared war on Russia. In September 1854, Allied troops invaded the Crimea and within a month were besieging the Russian held city of Sebastopol. On 25 October 1854, the Russians were driven back at the Battle of Balaclava (including the foolhardy Charge of the Light Brigade). Eleven days later, the Battle of Inkerman was also fought (with high casualties on both sides). Poorly supplied and with little medical assistance ... the British troops suffered immense casualties - 4,600 died in battle; 13,000 were wounded; and 17,500 died of disease."With this as the setting for Master Georgie, the book is divided into six "plates," or photographs, each capturing a specific moment in time as related by three separate narrators. Each is a focus on love and death, although through the story, you get the sense that the author is looking at the realities of war as set against the notion of the heroic history of war during the period of British empire. The main character is George Hardy, who tries to enlist in the war as a surgeon, but who is rejected due to his marital status. He signs up independently instead, and takes his family including wife, kids, brother-in-law Dr. Potter and his wife (George's sister Beatrice) and Myrtle, a woman in the employ of the Hardys who has some mysterious connection to George. Eventually the family is sent home after George is ordered to serve as doctor for the British in the Crimean theater, and the rest of the book is a look at the effects of war and the realities of life as viewed by those who are a part of it, even though their experiences and place in the scheme of things are largely different to one another.It is a fine piece of writing, and should not be missed. Highly recommended.