Bethany Harris sits perfectly still on the soiled mattress, her legs drawn up, both hands loose on the dirty folds of her gown. She faces the room’s only window, the frame lidded on either side with damask curtains hung with tassels. Beautiful curtains that catch the sun.
No draught ever disturbs them. The window is nailed shut and the glass panes are as thick as her finger. Outside, in the neat garden, rosebeds throw up a hundred pink faces.
A fly settles on her cheek. She tries not to blink and keeps her breath to a whisper. For hours she practises clearing her mind of thoughts. Every day is a struggle to diminish herself, to vanish. Then she might be forgotten, ignored, left alone. It’s the only trick she has.
On her right is the door leading into the passage. She is attuned to it. The scrape of the key, the turn of the knob, a whisper as it swings inwards on greased hinges. She has learned footsteps as she had her letters. Friend’s heavy tread, the scurryings of the younger girls, the ragged steps of the ill or crippled.
Parts of Bethany are missing. The satin bows from her stained dress. The heels from both slippers. Her ivory bracelet – stolen and likely sold. A hard slap loosened a tooth, and the nail is missing from her ring finger.
Her gaze shifts from the window. A chorus of dust motes are caught in a sunbeam and lifted on warm eddies of air. She focuses, bringing them into sharp relief. For a moment the room seems filled with twirling bits and pieces, forming patterns then breaking apart to shape others.
A noise in the passage. Bethany folds more tightly in on herself. A step, a break, then two steps in quick succession. The girl who brings water and eat-it-now things raided from larder scraps. She scuttles from room to room, performing all the dirty tasks Friend will not consider. Perhaps she lacks the wit to run away. Or maybe what awaits her outside the garden walls is worse than the things she has to deal with inside.
She always enters the room breathless and pink-cheeked, as if late for some tryst of critical importance. Today her hands are empty. She is on the bed in a breeze, stroking Bethany’s hair, fingers like warm brook water trickling over her scalp. ‘Don’t know why Friend picks on you so. Before, he never paid much mind to one of us over another, ’less it came down to poking his pink stick. Even then it can’t be said he was o’er fussy.’
Her eyes go egg-wide when she speaks, as if using some God-endowed talent to form the words. When Bethany chooses to consider the matter, she wonders what had prompted this young woman’s mind to break, or whether she had indeed been mad when first brought here.
It won’t happen to me.
Disconnected thoughts butterfly through Beth’s head, collide, form images. She feels lice biting her scalp. Dust motes fade back into nothingness as a cloud covers the sun.
A frown splits the brow above the water girl’s hazel, gone-away eyes. ‘Friend’s coming for you later,’ she says. ‘That’s what he sent me to tell you.’
‘What does he want?’
The water girl starts humming a melody that loops around and in on itself as her mind cycles through its seasons of lucidity and witlessness. Beth catches her wrist. ‘I asked you what he wants.’
‘Not likely to tell me, is he? Remember what I said last time. Don’t be afraid to run away,’ water girl taps her temple, ‘in here. Friend can’t get you when you’ve jumped that wall. I have my place. You’ll find yours. Not bad places, though. I know you have some.’ She leans forward on the mattress. A storm wouldn’t knock a strand of her greasy, matted hair from its place. ‘If there were no bad places you wouldn’t be here.’
Dusk sees Bethany still folded on her mattress. She hears Friend’s irregular tread. The door swings open. He slips inside, quiet despite his bulk, and pauses beside the bed. ‘Not a sound,’ he says. ‘I’m taking you to my office. Mustn’t wake anyone.’
Bethany obliges with silence. After a moment she unfolds her limbs, slowly, so cramp won’t bite. Out in the hall, a smoky candle gutters in its holder on the wall. Upstairs, someone coughs in her sleep, mumbles and turns over. Bethany sucks in a breath and follows Friend along the low-ceilinged passage. The air is only a little fresher. Ahead is an open door with a fire flickering in a grate beyond. She can sense the warmth of it.
An oak-panelled room. A desk, a stool, a shelf bristling with quills. Bethany has been here before, on her first night, waiting while her name was entered in a leatherbound book. Now she stands with her back to the fire, eyes watchful. Whatever Friend has planned she will make sure to get some heat into her bones first. He regards her, lips thinning. ‘That’s right. Warm your arse. While you’re at it slap your cheeks to put a bit of colour back into ’em. Won’t hurt to have you looking fresh.’
‘Are you going to kill me?’
Friend leans forward. ‘What’s that?’
Beth knots her hands behind her back. ‘It’s what you’ve wanted from the start.’
A laugh splits his florid face. ‘Killing you is the last thing I have in mind tonight.’
Her bottom lip starts to quiver. She can do nothing to stop it, but she won’t cry for him. ‘You’re just a scrap of a man who takes pleasure in torturing women. Your mother should have smothered you while you were still in swaddling.’
His boot smacks into Beth’s thigh and sends her sprawling across the floorboards. She smells dust and old cinders. Splinters prick both hands.
Friend stands over her. This is it, she thinks. The next kick will catch me in the ribs. The third will fetch across the side of my head. He won’t stop until I don’t have a breath left in me.
She braces herself. Friend remains standing, legs astride. She twists round to look at him.
‘You’re a bold lass,’ he says, ‘but don’t give me cause to lash out again. You’ve caught someone’s eye and that means a fat pile of coin for my purse. I have faith. I’ve had it since you tried to rip open my carriage door.’
Before she can reply he opens the yard entrance and calls into the darkness. A massive, midnight-skinned warlock steps into the room. He’s dressed like a lord in a crimson satin jacket and a waistcoat that glitters with golden butterflies. Tasselled breeches top cream hose, which in turn are swallowed up by a pair of polished, buckled shoes. Above his dark brow is a silver-dusted wig pricked with a black satin bow as large as a man’s hand. Ancient, pagan magic seems to crackle between his fingertips. Yet when he turns those big hands over, the palms are as pink as the girl’s own.
Friend spits on his sleeve and scrubs grime from the corners of her face. ‘A pretty one, just like I told you.’
‘You cut it too fine,’ the dark man’s voice rumbles like grinding millstones. ‘Another month in this hole and the worms would have her.’
‘Nay, sir. Wouldn’t pay to let this one die. She had to suffer for her sins, if you take my meaning. Honest gold bought her penance, just as you are buying her salvation.’
The visitor crouches in front of Beth. A mark colours his right cheek. A picture of a bird, small but perfectly drawn. A river dweller, but the name escapes her.
‘We are going on a coach ride,’ he says, pronouncing each word in an accent that knows no home in any vale or coast of this country. ‘I need you to behave. If you can do that you will be treated fairly. Do you understand?’
‘You’re all dark,’ she whispers.
He nods, his expression not changing. She reckons his face had been hewn out of coal. Then his mouth splits open and two rows of teeth, whiter than snowdrops, leap out at her. She blurts ‘Oooh’ like a child and scrabbles backwards onto her knees. The dark man reaches under her arms and hauls her upright as if she weighs no more than a bag of cobwebs. The girl shrugs free. Perhaps he’s a slave. She’s heard city folk take to dandying up their darkies, though she’s never seen one.
He scours her with those big eyes. ‘Can you walk a short distance, Miss?’
No one has called her ‘Miss’ for what seems a lifetime now. Liar, harlot – those things and more. But ‘Miss’? Any other time Friend would laugh until his breeches split.
The dark man turns. ‘Do you have a coat or cloak?’
Friend snorts. ‘She goes out the same way she came in. I ain’t a parish charity and I don’t earn so much that I can afford to give clothes away.’
‘I have lined your pocket well enough.’
‘Aye, and who am I going to have to bribe in turn to make sure you get away with your trick?’
‘Very well. The blanket in the carriage will have to do.’
The girl touches the dark man’s arm. ‘I’m going home?’
‘Yes,’ he says, no longer smiling. ‘In a manner of speaking.’
A summer aberration whips bitter rain across the back yard.
Beth kicks off the broken corpses of her shoes and presses both feet into the gravel. Pinprick sensations run across her soles as the stone chips crack her toes apart. She raises her head to the sky, mouth open, both hands stretched out. When was the last time she had felt rain on her skin? She licks her top lip, her chin, as far as the tip of her tongue will reach. She lets it soak her dirty gown and plaster her hair against her skull. A rain orb hangs pendulously from a strand of hair, reflecting the night world in tiny entirety.
The darkie closes the yard door. Now it’s only the light of Friend’s fire bleeding through the curtains and a wind-bobbed lantern dangling from a carriage waiting in the lane. Beth needs nothing more. From her square window she’d mapped the contours of this pretty, deceitful garden. Her visitor doesn’t push or rebuke, but follows softly along the path as she flits between the flowerbeds. Water trickles from the corner of his tricorne and runs fingers down the front of his coat. His face is unseeable.
Beth plucks a sodden bloom from its stalk and crushes its petals against her cheeks. A peck of muddied earth pressed to her nostrils fetches memories of rutted village lanes, her mother’s vegetable gardens, the meadow behind the church which always flooded in the winter rains. All the evergone things.
The darkie is waiting beside the gate, and here the night has coughed out a new curiosity. A lumpen figure standing by the carriage, in a too-big coat and grasping an oiled whip easily twice his height. Rain threads currents of hair across the brow of his misshapen head.
‘You took thy time, Kingfisher,’ the figure says, voice muffled by his upturned collar.
‘That may be, but I’ve hooked our fish and want to land her before the night is done.’
The dark man, Kingfisher, lays a hand on Beth’s arm. Beth’s feet splash in one of the many puddles dotting the lane. She falters at the carriage door, caught in an instant of memory. The grip on her arm tightens.
‘Don’t cause trouble, little one.’
‘Show me the door handles. And the windows. I want to see them working.’
The grip relaxes. ‘You have a terror of coaches? Look,’ he demonstrates, ‘everything is as it should be.’
She snatches a lungful of air and climbs inside. The floor is smothered in rugs which are soothing against her toes. On the wall, a smaller lantern burns with a frail light. Beth slumps against the soft upholstery. Kingfisher offers a blanket but Beth pushes it away.
‘You will catch a fever,’ he warns.
‘That pigsty didn’t kill me so I doubt a slap of fresh water on my skin will do so.’
‘As you wish.’ He lays the blanket aside and holds out a pewter flask. After a moment’s thought, Beth takes a sip. A smoky-flavoured brandy spreads fire through her belly. She opens her mouth to speak but he seals her lips with one finger. ‘No, you must rest now. We have a long journey ahead.’
He leans back and raps on the roof with his knuckles. A crack of the reins and the carriage stumbles into motion.
‘What do you want with me?’
A shake of the head. ‘Do as I say for now.’ He pulls the hat down over his eyes, deepening the shadows around his face. His voice is cultured, almost gentlemanly, but he wears it like a coat that doesn’t quite fit.
The coach springs swallow the lumps and bumps of the rain-lashed road. Beth’s eyes grow heavy. She wonders if the brandy is drugged, but makes no fuss as the motion of their passage lulls her into a half-sleep, the deepest she dare allow herself to fall. No dreams visit her. The Comfort Home has knocked even that pleasure out of her head. Instead she grasps the belief that, whatever the dark man’s purpose, at least she is going home.
• Ian Garbutt has worked in journalism and publishing. He was awarded a Scottish Arts Council New Writer’s Bursary and attended Napier University in Edinburgh, where he obtained a Master of Arts with Distinction in Creative Writing. In addition to Wasp, published by Polygon, Ian has published two historical novels under the pseudonym of Melanie Gifford.