Blackberry and Wild Rose

Blackberry and Wild Rose

by Sonia Velton

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781538479148
Publisher: Blackstone Publishing
Publication date: 05/07/2019
Product dimensions: 5.20(w) x 5.70(h) x (d)

About the Author

Sonia Velton grew up between the Bahamas and the UK. After graduating from university with a first class law degree, she qualified as a solicitor at an international law firm, later going on to specialize in labor and discrimination law. Sonia has spent much time abroad, including the US where her father was a citizen. She relocated to the Middle East in 2006. Eight years and three children later she returned to the UK and now lives in Kent, England.

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CHAPTER 1

Sara

It was 1768 when I first met Esther Thorel down an alleyway behind the Wig and Feathers tavern. She was on her way to the French poorhouse with twenty newly printed copies of the King James Bible. I was on my way to damnation with a sailor fresh off the East India clipper. But that meeting was my salvation. Before that came my undoing.

* * *

When a young girl from the country arrives in London, she is like a caterpillar on a leaf, just waiting for the next bird to pass by. No sooner had I climbed down from the cart that drove me straight into the throng of Spitalfields market than a woman was already pushing through the crowd towards me. It wasn't the London I had been expecting: wide, clean streets lined with tall houses, their windows framing elegant parlours. No, I had stepped straight into a London that was as earthy and pungent as the country, and the shock of it kept me rooted to the spot until the cart moved off and I had to step out of the way.

It was summer, and the heat warmed the market like a stew, and all sorts of noisome odours rose from it. I stood clutching my bag to my chest and reeling from the stink of vegetables rotting among sheep dung, while an unconcerned city busied itself around me. I should have run after that cart as fast as I could, but at the time I saw no threat in an elderly woman picking her way towards me through the old cauliflower heads. When she reached me, she beamed so widely that the skin concertinaed around her eyes. I thought it was kindness, but it wasn't. Her eyes lit up, as if she had spotted a polished penny dropped among the coal.

"Tsk," she said. "I thought he was going to drive right over you!" Then her face fell and she looked around me in an exaggerated fashion. "Why, you're not on your own, my dear, are you?"

Without waiting for an answer, she grasped my elbow in her bony hand and began guiding me away from the market. "The city's no place for a young thing like you. There's all sorts of nasty folk about." She stopped suddenly as if she had bumped into her own idea. "Perhaps you should come home with me, miss?" she said, turning towards me and bringing out her smile again.

"That is very kind of you, Mrs ..."

"Swann, my dear, Mrs Swann."

"Mrs Swann. I am much obliged, but I have an introduction already." I fumbled in my bag and pulled out a piece of paper with a name and address written on it. "My mother said I"m to go here as soon as I arrive."

The smile slid off Mrs Swann's face and she plucked the paper from my hand. Once she had read it, she looked up and gave a dismissive shake of her head. "This place is miles away. You'll never get there before nightfall."

"But my mother said it was next to Spitalfields market."

"And when was your mother last in London?" Mrs Swann clutched my arm again and started walking me towards an alley off the main street. "London changes all the time. What was nearby ten years ago is miles away today. Best you come home with me tonight. You can set off again in the morning." Then she folded my piece of paper and tucked it firmly into the top of her bodice.

* * *

At the end of the alley there was a tavern with a wide bay window at the front and a sign hanging over the door. Years ago, the sign must have been brightly painted, but time and weather had turned the paint to faded flakes and curls. Across the bottom, though, I could still read Wig and Feathers. The door was propped open by a cask of ale, presumably because of the heat, and before Mrs Swann had even pulled me up the step behind her, I was greeted by a rush of warm air full of stale beer and snatched conversations.

We did not stay in the tavern. I stumbled behind Mrs Swann with my bag, trying to ignore the stares of the men seated at the tables, until we reached a staircase at the back, which took us up to a room above the tavern. It was quite comfortable, with a bed and a washstand in one corner, a chest of drawers in the other. Mrs Swann left me then, promising to return with a cup of chocolate.

Chocolate! I had seen my mother scrape careful slices of chocolate from a block and use them to make the master's drinks, spiced with nutmeg and cloves rubbed against the back of a clam shell, but I had never tasted it. This must be how ordinary people live in London, I thought, as I walked over to the window. I could see the market in the distance, slowly emptying of people as the stalls were packed up and the sheep herded back into their pens, and I realized how tired I was. Perhaps I slept, I cannot remember, but by the time there was a knock at the door the room was in darkness. Murmured conversation and the clatter of plates rumbled up from the tavern below. The door opened and Mrs Swann came in, carrying a cup and saucer.

She put the chocolate on the edge of the washstand and busied herself closing the curtains and holding a taper to the candle. "That's better," she said, coming to sit next to me. She picked up the saucer, her hand shaking slightly, making the liquid ripple in the cup. "Here, drink this." She held the cup almost to my lips herself. Her nails were very long and they scraped against my fingers as I took the chocolate. And what a taste! Bittersweet yet creamy, the rush of the new through my veins. Sugar and excitement made my head spin.

"It's delicious," I said, staring at her over the rim of the cup. She was perched on the bed like a bird, neatly folded in with her hands in her lap. Her eyes were almost black in the half-light and they followed the cup intently as it went from the saucer to my mouth and back again.

"Who were all those girls?" I asked her presently. As we had made our way up the stairs and along the passage, we must have passed three or four.

"They are my daughters," she said, still staring at me with her inky eyes.

"Your daughters?" I was starting to feel confused. I tried to keep hold of my thoughts but it was like pulling eels out of a bucket. "All of them? But they looked so different."

Mrs Swann gave the bottom of my cup a little tap with her fingernail, nudging it up towards me. "Oh, yes," she said, almost in a whisper. "Every single one. Just like you now."

I wanted to ask her what she meant, but the words seemed to chase themselves around in my head like bees. By the time I could speak, all that came out was "You're so kind, Mrs Swann."

She gave me a tight little smile and took the cup from my hands, checking it briefly to see that it was empty. "Good girl," she said, and patted my knee, then stood up. I tried to stand, too, but my legs buckled under me and I fell back onto the bed. I started to laugh so hard that I was folded over with my head on my skirts. Once I had caught my breath, I looked up expecting Mrs Swann to be laughing too. But she wasn't. Her face was as set and expressionless as the porcelain cup in her hands. I just sat there and watched as she reached down with her free hand and began to riffle through the folds of my skirts. My shock at what she was doing came out as something between a giggle and a hiccup. Either way, Mrs Swann ignored it. The tremor in her hand worsened and the cup rattled a jig in the saucer as she pulled out my purse on its string and yanked it from my waist.

She straightened and looked down at me. "You don't want to be carrying money around," she said, cupping the little cloth bag my mother had given me in her hand. "I"ll look after it for you. Just like I"m going to look after you, my dear."

I don't completely trust my memory: it offers up snatches of my life in perfect clarity but swallows the rest. Mrs Swann must have left, but I hardly noticed because the buzzing in my head was so loud that it made me claw at my hair. Then a man came in. I wouldn't recognize him now if I passed him on the street, but I do remember his shoes. They appeared in front of me as I sat on the edge of the bed, staring at the floor, trying not to be sick. They were brown leather with a shiny gold buckle. The ankles and calves that rose out of them might have belonged to any well-to-do merchant or parish constable.

Have I done something wrong? This was what I wanted to ask him, but although I bade my lips to move they did nothing of the sort. I could only peer at him, watching his image begin to snake and bend, as if I were looking at his reflection in a poorly made mirror.

Then he pushed me back onto the bed. The mattress was lumpy under me and his face was rough against my skin. As he pulled up my skirts, I had the sensation of my whole body falling apart. When he climbed on top of me, I felt as if I was outside myself, struggling to pick up my arms and legs and put them back together again so that I could push him off. But I was like a doll, lying broken on a nursery floor. Then I was hurting, but couldn't tell where the pain was coming from. In my mind, I could hear myself screaming, but the only actual sounds were the creak and thud of the bed and the man's laboured breathing.

Once he had gone, a woman — not Mrs Swann — came into the room and put a bowl of water and a rag by the bedside. After I had cleaned myself, I dropped the rag back into the water and watched as swirls of blood coloured it a dirty brown.

The opium, like the pain, came only once. After that Mrs Swann relied on a locked door and the insistent manner of her customers. I was wrong to think that poor people in London drank chocolate. I never saw a cup of chocolate again until after Esther Thorel, and her basket of King James Bibles, passed by the alley leading to the Wig and Feathers tavern.

Esther

Stepping outside the chilly void of L"Église Neuve — a Huguenot church sitting in the shadow of Hawksmoor's grand Christ Church to the west — and into the sunlight was like being reborn. A time spent in devotion, incubating the spirit, before we were disgorged back into the world, a trailing line of sombre-clad, God-fearing folk.

Elias, my husband of four years, stopped at the foot of the church's steps and turned back towards me, offering his arm to help me negotiate the stone treads, polished by so many pious feet that they reflected the sunlight like water. I smiled and placed my hand on his sleeve. His jacket was made of silk, a muted charcoal damask for church, but as soft and luminous under my palm as spun cobwebs. As I stepped down towards him, his Huguenot kinsmen filed past in plain black wool coats over neat white collars.

"Ah, Mr Thorel." Pastor Gabeau stepped towards us, extending his hand for Elias to shake, which he did, vigorously. "And Mrs Thorel," he said, turning to me and smiling a gracious smile. "I trust you enjoyed the sermon."

There was only time for the briefest of formalities. Behind us, a queue of the devout was forming, snaking right back into the nave of L"Église Neuve.

"Have you heard," continued Gabeau, holding on to Elias's hand for a moment longer, "that a new French charity house has opened in Vine Street?"

Elias knew nothing of the sort. His head was filled with his work. Certainly, he knew which days the silk man received his orders for the finest raw silk from Italy. He knew which throwsters had the nimblest fingers to clean his silk and twist the gossamer strands into yarn, and he knew the journeymen in Spitalfields with the skill to weave those threads into the finest silk that money can buy. But when it came to the concerns of our community, I had learned to leave Elias to the work that sustained him and be the eyes and the ears of the household myself.

"Indeed we have, Pastor," I said, slipping my arm through Elias's. "And we are keen to do all we can to help." It was what Gabeau wanted to hear. There would be endless soup to make and carry to the new charity house. I would do this, along with the other Huguenot wives now milling and chatting behind us. I smiled at Pastor Gabeau. "Perhaps I could sew some shirts."

Gabeau nodded slowly. "That would be very kind, Mrs Thorel," he said. "But what these people really need, even more than the shirts on their backs, is the word of God. Do you not agree?" He did not wait for an answer. "We are looking for ..." he glanced upwards as if awaiting divine instruction "... a donation. Perhaps a few copies of the new edition of the King James."

Two weeks later, I was heading towards Vine Street with a basket of Bibles so heavy it made my arm ache. My heart sank when it started pouring with rain — I was certain I would have to turn back. I was just wondering what His plan could be — to thwart my good intentions in such a manner — when I saw the entrance to a small alley off the main street. I had never noticed it before, but the houses there were of the old style, built before the Great Fire, and they overhung the street to such a degree that I could find shelter.

It was a sign, I knew it was: the Bibles, the rain, the tiny alleyway I had never noticed before. I was meant to find her that day.

CHAPTER 2

Sara

I never saw my purse again. I asked her for it, of course, but there was always some excuse. It was locked away in her strong box and she had misplaced the key. She had lent the money to a friend and would give it to me when they repaid her. Once she even told me that they had introduced a tax on hair powder and she had had to use the money to buy a certificate from the justice of the peace. But she always said that she would give it back to me, just not then.

There was a pound in that purse. My mother had worked as a servant all her life to save it. When I had left home, she had pressed the purse into my hand and told me to use the money to set myself up in London. I could not go home nor move on without it. At the time I was most desperate to leave, I was stuck. I tried to find the piece of paper my mother had given me with the address on it, but it would have been easier to delve inside Mrs Swann's bodice than get into her bedroom or the cellar where she kept her ledgers and accounts. She had probably tossed it into the nearest fire. I pictured it sometimes, curling and blackening in the grate, while I tried to read the disappearing words. Phoenix Street became Peacock Lane and number six was sometimes number eight until eventually I could recall none at all.

Then an odd thing happened. I stopped spending all my time thinking about how to find the key to Mrs Swann's strong box. I stopped trying to sidle past Nathanial, the Wig and Feathers" houseboy, and out onto the street. I just did what Mrs Swann expected of me and the months slipped into a year or more, until I could no longer be sure how long I had been there. I only remembered the day I had arrived, the heat of the summer as I stood in Spitalfields market and the pungent stink of the life I had been dropped into.

My name is Sara Kemp. It is a good, short name, serviceable and no fancier than it needs to be, and in this regard it suits me well. I worked hard at Mrs Swann's and made no fuss. And why not? I was the daughter of a servant, after all, and no stranger to drudgery. I had been taught to accept my fate by a mother who had accepted her own with the silent fortitude of the widow. I was too young to remember my father, a cook on Baltimore sloop, who squandered the money he brought home on petty wagers and gin, before he had the decency to leave for the New World and never come back. She told everyone he had died at sea, which was a noble enough end for a man who had sold her shoes for the sake of a threepenny bet.

The Quakers helped us. They found a position for my mother in a country house and sent me to the Quaker free school in the village, where they taught me about the wretchedness of vice and the dangers of drink, as if the tales of my father hadn't taught me that already. I learned to read and to sew, but when they told me I had to learn a trade, that I would go into service just like my mother, I never went back and my mother let me follow her around the kitchen instead: learning to cook was all I wanted to do. It seems I was my father's daughter after all.

(Continues…)


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