Under Glass, page 1
BY THE SAME AUTHOR
The Spiral House (2013)
The Magistrate of Gower (2015)
Published by Penguin Books
an imprint of Penguin Random House (Pty) Ltd
Company Reg No 1953/000441/07
The Estuaries No 4, Oxbow Crescent, Century Avenue, Century City, 7441,
PO Box 1144, Cape Town, 8000, South Africa
© 2018 Claire Robertson
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical or electronic, including photocopying and recording, or be stored in any information storage or retrieval system, without written permission from the publisher.
First edition, first printing 2018
1 3 5 7 9 8 6 4 2
ISBN 978-1-4152-0970-7 (Print)
ISBN 978-1-4152-0963-9 (ePub)
Cover design by Gretchen van der Byl
Author photograph by Sitaara Stodel
Text design by Fahiema Hallam
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For Helen and Julia
I do not know that there is a snake, but it is possible. Therefore, after I crawl under the wide bed in my sisters’ room, among the hatboxes and the clothes boxes, the naphthalene and the dust, I smack my hand on the floor to warn it that I am here.
There is also a trunk under the bed with me, and the spinning top that they believe is lost. Tonight I discover it when I crawl into my cave, and then I smack my hand on the bare wood of the floor.
Not long after this there will occur the famous incident of the mamba that reaches the upper veranda along the branches of the mahogany tree and drops onto the daybed of our father in the night where he is sleeping out of doors. Man and snake will lie in peace, curled together, and both will come most rudely awake, one to the violence and crimson of a cut snake against his leg, one to die by the flashing knife of Griffin who, stealing along the veranda in her sari, has seen the grey coils holding down the net and has cut off its head. Father will give her a gold sovereign and have the boys saw off a limb so that one never again can come so close.
But now my sisters are at the top of the stairs and along the passageway and in the room. One by one they climb onto the bed and I watch their feet lift; they rise swift as a branch that is bent and released. The feathers of the mattress shift as it settles them in.
I am forbidden the room, let alone my cave under the bed, let alone my eavesdropping, but in imitation of them I settle here below. Four years old and the Colony’s top spy.
The twins quieten down. They must be eight years old, and Fronia perhaps thirteen. There is also Maude, six or seven. I am always Cosmo, but Fronia’s proper name is Sophronia. Every night she is a storyteller, beginning the same way: ‘Once there was …’ or ‘Once there were …’ Her stories are usually about us in our white castle in the sugar fields. Or, I should say, about them.
I wake in my own room, as I do every morning. Griffin has been and gone, the pot has been used; without truly rousing me she has helped me to it. I cannot manage, I cannot even reach, the complicated buttons nor, kick as I do, kick through the closed hem of my nightgown.
Although I must be carried to my own bed each night after I fall asleep under the bed in the girls’ room, nightly I continue in my secret plan: Griffin tucks me in after nursery supper, and the instant I hear her footfall on the stairs I make my way to their room as fast as my sack-race-sealed night skirts will allow, racing to be safely under the bed before they come upstairs and climb on.
Every person involved, from Maude to whoever brings me back to bed, knows all about it, anticipates my hobbled manoeuvrings. But we are all loyal to the conspiracy. I have recently decided it is Fuze who carries me back to the nursery each night. In my recollection, Fuze has taken sides with me in this removal from their end of the veranda to ours, mine and Griffin’s, and I feel my cheek on his upper chest, the tilting of my body to accommodate the movement of his.
All I know is that I want to be in the girls’ room, piled on the bed with them like puppies. I like the game we play, but I want my place in their line: Fronia, Verity, Chastity, Maude, in formation across the top of the bed. Sheet to their necks and there they lie until morning, fists above the covers, neat as dolls. I want to be the fifth of them but I am, as I am told so many times each day, not.
SEALED INTO THE BLACK HOLD she crosses the bar. She has her arms folded over her waist. Her fingers are spread against the layers and bone of her stays and she is pressed between the curves of a pair of barrels, her back to the hull. There is a rib of stays under her hands and the living hull holds back the sea. In a long moment between the horrid escalation of the floor and when it will fall away, she blinks to test for light. Open or closed, her eyes see the same, which is nothing. She keeps them closed and drops with the floor down the face of unseen water.
At her feet, her little daughter is burrowed into her skirts. Mrs Chetwyn tries to hear her among the children crying out with each plunge and the women exhorting Christ Our Lord aid us O Jesus in a shrill mutter and pleading with the sea (they are all women in the hold, or girls, or sexless babes in arms), but she cannot make out Sophronia’s voice. There is only the press and nudge of the barrels, only the whining timbers, the alien knocking and the whimpers and cries and tilt of her blood in her ears to let her know how steeply they have heeled.
She speculates that if not drowned she may be crushed. She tries by such cool observation to repel the infection of their panic, although by the way she stiffens her jaw against releasing the merest sound, she knows herself to be more afraid than they: too afraid to participate in public fright.
But they lift; a shout from the men overhead, urging the waves to comply; a forward rush and steep careen; a deadly, heavy grab at the hull under her feet from the sea bottom. O merciful God! she bites at the darkness, fights whalebone, steel and laces for air even though she wants to hold her breath until they are saved from this sea – and they are surely over it and are righted. There is cheering from above and terrible breathing among them here below.
There come the scrape of a hatch and sobbing, and daughters are passed up through the square of light to where men are exaggerating their doubts about a safe passage now that it is behind them.
Mrs Chetwyn lets go of her middle and turns side-on to elbow herself out of her brace hole. At her feet, Sophronia is unfolding from among her mother’s skirts. From under a veil of sari cloth the ayah pulls herself out of her crouch to pluck at the child’s clothes, and soon it is their turn to be
Small boats are coming to meet them. At first light they were swung by barrel chair from the Lady Lee to this large yacht to cross the sand bar of legend, and now they will drop into open skiffs. Mrs Chetwyn, as she waits her turn, tidies her recent quarter-year into patterns: the Lady Lee, two hundred and two passengers, almost three months (at the end of which the forbiddingly large ship had shrunk to a croft, a mousehole, a crowded irritation so profound it was almost calming in the way it seized her brain), then half an hour among twenty or so women in the hold of the yacht, now five or six of them at a time on the unnamed little surf boats and as many minutes on that journey entire.
At the end of the ride over the surf, one last conveyance yet stands between them and the shore. It is occasioning small screams from some of the women. Mrs Chetwyn cocks an ear to them: the musical yelps are a publication of reluctance, a plea in mitigation of the immodesty to which the women are bent: obliged to object, they object. She translates for herself the lamentations of one Scattergood, and understands by her unconvincing shrieks: ‘Know you, and you women most particularly, it is through no fault of my own that my arms are laid upon the shoulders of this ebony specimen pair, and theirs crossed beneath my seat, and their breath hot on my bosom.’ Delight and fright, frothing.
Successively shorter periods spent in progressively smaller vessels have given the journey the air of speeding up, and of moving towards a vanishing point. Now, from the great ship and its months down to the boats and their minutes, each woman is spending only seconds on the crossed arms of a pair of all-but-naked men before landing with dry skirts and boots upon the sand.
Mrs Chetwyn watches from the bucking surf boat as Sophronia and Griffin are carried ashore with less ceremony by a man apiece. When it is her turn she places one gloved hand on the nearest shoulder of each of hers and lowers herself back-wards onto their crossed arms. As she feels their bodies brace against a knee-high surging wave, she says to herself – and almost says aloud, in encouragement – that if they can bear what must be borne, she can too; it is the sort of pun that her husband would have made, were he here to see his family ashore.
But Chetwyn is ashore already, deep in the daunting bush, and she has charge of them, directing the ayah and the little girl towards what she takes to be a customs shed, and searching in her pocket for the letter with the name of the agent, and preparing to manage the business of bringing ashore the heap of goods she had had hauled aboard from a Plymouth dock in the grey winter that preceded this hot autumn.
By her side, no higher than her mother’s waist, stands Sophronia, dressed as thoroughly as Mrs Chetwyn from bonnet to buttoned boots. Behind both Chetwyns, as desiccated as they are dewy, cockerel-coloured in red and orange and black when they are doves, tall Griffin twitches her folds and counts her bracelets, and bends at the waist to reach down and flick the ribbon of the little girl’s cape off her shoulder to join its twin in front. Sophronia, mildly smiling, looks down, burrows her boots into the sand.
Between the Chetwyn party and the small waves, women are uniting with their husbands, and families are counting their members, counting again and reaching with small gestures to touch one another – a hand on a shoulder, a head cupped or tousled. The woman Scattergood, attached to the Drummond party nominally as a mother’s help but known by all on the ship since the first storm to be as much trouble to the mother as all eight of her small children acting in concert, is settling herself as a duck might when, having impressed itself with flight, it has also managed to regain the Earth. A wall-eyed party of some forty years, she is executing a deliberate fussy disturbance of her person as if to signal that she is too busy with her tail feathers to give comment on the excellence of her landing, though you may do so. This is manifest in the twitching of her pelisse and the settling of her skirt folds, then the settling of them anew. She, like the rest of the party still on the shore, faces the sea as she fusses. Then they turn, almost in concert, and face the land.
‘Chetwyn. Chetwyn, Grover, Allardyce, Ghent.’ The agent has found them. Unjacketed, defrocked, he wears a loose pale blouse of blue stuff and a wide straw hat, and has an arm curved, open, towards Mrs Chetwyn and the rest of the little party to invite them, impatiently, to proceed from the beach to the littoral. Mrs Chetwyn starts towards him then stops, a gloved hand raised to draw his attention.
‘Pardon me, Mr …’ She consults the letter in her hand. ‘Mr Peabody. Pardon me, but oughtn’t we attend our goods?’
She gestures towards the bay, at the far rim of which, beyond a pale line of land, the Lady Lee’s naked masts and yards rise from a glittering sea.
But ‘Madam,’ says he, with a pitying sort of contempt, ‘Madam, there are weeks ahead – one week at the very least – before her cargo will come ashore. We ain’t attending this crew; we return, and not soon, when the cargo is come.
‘And I am Mole. Peabody died.’ He spits to underline the sacrifice of this.
Mrs Chetwyn has her reticule, her clothes, her servant Griffin, her daughter and one carpet bag in Griffin’s keeping. Never has she been so untethered from wardrobe, boxes, things – leave alone an actual home, true furnishings. With her now she has little more than money, letters and a fresh, cool sensation of being almost at a point where she can begin again, as though her step from this beach up onto the little boardwalk were, in fact, a step across a border.
Sophronia, hardly ever a swift or spirited child, breaks character to give a little run onto the boards where, clutched by sea legs, she flings out her arms to keep her balance, then gives a swooping laugh and turns her bonneted face to the sun. Griffin narrows her eyes (gaps for small feet, splinters, drop from edge to sand, sun, newness), snaps to the girl’s side as though by elastication, holds her by the shoulders and steadies her.
Mrs Chetwyn, buoyed by her daughter’s boldness, follows, tilting, too, against the set land of Port Natal in the early morning of this twenty-second day of March in the year 1857.
It is two miles to the settlement by ox wagon, a journey during which what is most forbidden is to express dismay at how sparse and poor is the English mark upon the land, and so they talk about the heat, gesture to the green hills rising in lilting, broken lines from the shore.
The driver directs them to the place Chetwyn secured before he headed off on his expedition. In its very incompleteness she reads his effort. It is a canvas square lifted in the centre and pegged at the edges to tent a floor of tough grass into which, against a back wall of canvas, four stakes have been driven to describe legs, then cross-linked and mattressed for a bed; a trunk makes a table. There are poor candles sagging in glass chimneys and a pail in one corner. A wider bucket squats in another. She has bent at the waist to look in. Now she straightens.
Outside the tent is a circle of stones and the sooty mud of a cooking fire. The whole is in the circle of shade cast by a generous tree whose trunk is sinewed as a flayed neck and pale as bone, though as she lifts her hands to her bonnet ribbons and turns slowly to take the place in, the tree resolves into a cousin of the banyan of their first Indian home, and she decides to read in this a compliment from him, a kindly message.
Inside the tent the three of them bump against one another, but Sophronia is greatly satisfied by their home, and Griffin – who cannot stand at her full height in it – is already unrolling her sleeping mat in the low, angled space between the foot of the bed and the sloping canvas. She catches Sophronia as she passes and tugs and unties her free of her little cape and coat, then another entire layer of clothing, which yet leaves her in a skirt, shift and overshirt. Sophronia shivers happily at her release and spins away outside. Griffin follows her and squats to engineer a fire.
Mrs Chetwyn sinks to the bed, feels it compress under her as she sits. She unties herself from her outerwear and tugs her gloves, finger by finger, from her hands.
‘Remember how well we slept on the Lady Lee?’ Mrs Chetwyn keeps her voice bright; they had not slept particularly well in their splintery small cabin – though grateful to have a cabin at all, yes yes – but invention is called for. ‘We will be cosy, the three of us. Everyone does it here,’ and she pats the brittle stuff into place, tucks in the flap and lets it fall back onto the frame.
She lifts her arms at her sides as much as she is able, not quite scarecrow, more than curtsy. ‘A seaweed bed will give us back our land legs,’ she says, and lists in dizziness, pretends to topple with the motion of the heaving land. Sophronia’s face smooths in amazement.
Mrs Chetwyn, Sophronia and Griffin have been travelling for eleven months. Lucknow to Calcutta to Gravesend to Hull, to London to Hull to Plymouth to here. The child, three years old when they left their home with the banyan tree, has grown nimble about stowing herself and her cloth dolly on carts, in wagons, cabins, on open decks, in holds, out of the way of rowlocks, terrifyingly and importantly on her own plush seat aboard a thundering train, in hackneys, the bedrooms of aunts and a grandfather’s home, silently in drawing rooms, politely in kitchens, mulishly in an abandoned nursery when neither Mama nor Griffin were with her. So far the tent is her favourite, but then the most recent place always is, excepting the train. Mrs Chetwyn relies on Sophronia greeting each new situation with her deft bustle and needs her now, when they are so close to the end of their road, to tuck her dolly under the cotton blanket on the curious mattress and signal brave ownership of the tent.
Mrs Chetwyn, who wants nothing more than to unlace and lie back on the bed and perhaps weep, decides that a walk is in order. Movement, for her and Sophronia. A delay in settling down to the business of being at their journey’s end.