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The walworth beauty, p.1

The Walworth Beauty, page 1


The Walworth Beauty

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The Walworth Beauty


  for my friends



  A Piece of the Night

  The Visitation

  The Wild Girl

  The Book of Mrs Noah

  In the Red Kitchen

  Daughters of the House

  Flesh and Blood

  Impossible Saints

  Fair Exchange

  The Looking Glass

  The Mistressclass

  Reader, I Married Him



  The Journeywoman

  Child Lover


  The Mirror of the Mother

  Psyche and the Hurricane

  All the Selves I Was

  The Heretic’s Feast

  The Hunter’s House

  Short Stories

  During Mother’s Absence

  Playing Sardines

  Mud: Stories of Sex and Love


  Food, Sex & God: on Inspiration and Writing

  Paper Houses

  The Lille Diaries (with Sarah LeFanu and Jenny Newman)

  Silly Lady Novelists?

  Artist’s Books

  Poems (with Caroline Isgar)

  Fifteen Beads (with Caroline Isgar)

  Dark City Light City (with Carol Robertson)

  The Secret Staircase (with Caroline Isgar)

  The Dark and Marvellous Room (with Caroline Isgar)


  Prologue. Joseph

  Chapter One. Joseph

  Chapter Two. Madeleine

  Chapter Three. Joseph

  Chapter Four. Madeleine

  Chapter Five. Joseph

  Chapter Six. Madeleine

  Chapter Seven. Joseph

  Chapter Eight. Madeleine

  Chapter Nine. Joseph

  Chapter Ten. Madeleine

  Chapter Eleven. Joseph

  Chapter Twelve. Madeleine

  Chapter Thirteen. Joseph

  Chapter Fourteen. Madeleine

  Chapter Fifteen. Joseph

  Chapter Sixteen. Madeleine

  Chapter Seventeen. Joseph

  Chapter Eighteen. Madeleine

  Chapter Nineteen. Joseph

  Chapter Twenty. Madeleine

  Chapter Twenty One. Joseph

  Chapter Twenty Two. Madeleine

  Chapter Twenty Three. Joseph

  Chapter Twenty Four. Madeleine

  Chapter Twenty Five. Joseph

  Chapter Twenty Six. Madeleine

  Chapter Twenty Seven. Joseph

  Chapter Twenty Eight. Madeleine

  Chapter Twenty Nine. Joseph

  Chapter Thirty. Madeleine


  A Note on the Author

  Also available by Michèle Roberts



  The terraced cul-de-sac drew its name from the former orchard on the site. Those fruit trees had been felled, their roots torn up. Now Apricot Place had planes newly planted along it, and a brick coach-house forming its end.

  To the right of this building opened a narrow passageway. It ran between the side of the last house in the row and a low stone wall crossed halfway along by a stile. Beyond lay a patch of scrubland; a dip of swamp in the middle, edged by ditches flowering with yellow irises in May and blue water mint in August; rows of green vegetable plots beyond. Gypsies sometimes camped here, putting up their canvas shacks amidst pink sprays of rose bay willow herb. Smoke from their fires of scavenged wood drifted towards Orchard Street, and beyond, to the main road, and their lean dogs prowled about, guarding the territory; snapping. Sometimes the women, wearing gold earrings and red-embroidered black shawls, came knocking at the area doors, offering cooks and maidservants whittled pegs in exchange for a screw of tea. Tell your fortune, missis? You gave them a halfpenny, to avoid being sworn at, or cursed, and sent them packing.

  Young people courting came here too, under pretext of picking blackberries, or rose hips, or garlic leaves, depending on the season. You could lie in the long grass and pull it around you and be private for as long as you chose. You could make the grass rustle and ripple and sway. You could hide in a nest woven of green stalks, fringed seed heads, your own whisperings.

  Here, town finished, and countryside began. You crossed over, from pavements and shops, towards copses and streams, and meadows full of grazing cows. The streets and the fields seemed to push at each other, the city trying to sprawl further out and the fields resisting. The planners and architects and merchants would obviously win. What force had buttercups and earthworms and cabbages against the need of human beings for dwelling places, against developers’ chances to make money? Alive as a strange creature in an aquarium, the city stretched out its tentacles, grew and swelled, gobbling the pastures and hedgerows that lay in its path. Fields were bought, and new rows of houses built, and then the process repeated. Teams of workmen dug up hedges, filled in ponds and streams, put up neat streets of flat-fronted brick dwellings with steps and railings.

  Soon, to see any green fields at all, you’d have to travel further out, down towards Camberwell and Brixton. Walworth was hardly a village at all any more. Nowadays it bristled with shops and pubs, churches and meeting-halls. It even had a zoo on its common, with a great glass viewing structure built round it from which to admire its five dromedaries and their Arab keeper. Here, you could stroll under the palm trees, eat ice cream, and watch a monkey swing past on one paw.

  Some of Walworth’s pleasure gardens still remained, and local people patronised them on Sundays. Around the ornamental lake they’d wander, back and forth along the sandy paths between the pleached hazels, the beds of artichokes, the plantations of medlars and quinces. They admired the wide borders of pink and yellow dahlias, set with lozenges of red geraniums in front. They sat on benches, read the paper and smoked, shouted at their children not to run too far away. Watch out or the gypsies will get you!

  Sooner or later the gypsies would be driven off, and the land they squatted reclaimed for building. No sign of them on this misty morning in late October, apart from their dying fire. They’d probably decamped, to get away from trouble, or else they’d shifted quarters only temporarily and were biding their time behind the plantation of ash and oak in the distance.

  The patch of scrub over the wall at the end of Apricot Place seemed empty. When Joseph climbed down from the stile, he saw at first just a wide, flat heap of grey ashes, a wisp of smoke threading up from it, and a muddy bundle of white-ish rags the gypsies had left behind, dropped near a mound of brambles and nettles, half in and half out of a tangle of thorns, bearded weeds.

  Joseph’s mother had looked like a bundle of rags as she lay dying, muffled in her nightgown, her cap pushed awry over her grey hair. He’d stroked her work-hardened fingers, then taken her hand in his. Don’t go. Don’t go. Death tore people from you as a dentist tore teeth. Dangling and loose then ripped out; a bloody gap left, for your tongue to explore. Gap in his mind, filling with dreams, night after night, of his mother struggling up from her box, calling to him not to abandon her.

  Joseph stepped away from the stile and plunged forwards into the field. Rooks and magpies flew up and cawed as though warning him. Don’t come any nearer. Don’t.

  Look away. Look away now.

  The bundle of muddied white rags was a nightgown. A baby flung face down in the mud. Tiny limbs sprawled.

  The child was limp because it was dead.

  He wanted to cry and to be sick. He threw up first, then sank down onto the cold ground, put his hands over his face, and wept.

  People despised grown men if they cried. Even worse: he was w
eeping not just for the child but for himself too. He’d visited Apricot Place for the first time only a week ago, and since then he’d lost everything. He was lost. He might never get home again.



  When did it begin, his progress towards that cold field? Looking back, he thought that the first chapter of his slow fall had been announced by that foolish song, Milly’s current favourite for her parents’ after-tea entertainment.

  I know where I’m going/ and I know who’s going with me./ I know who I love,/ but the Lord knows who I’ll marry.

  Milly pounded the piano keys. On and on she warbled, until at last Joseph and Cara put their hands over their ears in playful protest, begging her to stop. Milly slammed down the piano lid, came to sit on the arm of Joseph’s chair: Pa, don’t be mean to me! He said: you should practise more, that’s all. She retorted: but there’s never any time!

  Cara wagged a forefinger – his cosy armful of wife, in a brown cotton gown sprigged with pink rosebuds. She said: you could make time easily, dearie, if you wanted to.

  Milly scowled. Joseph lifted his hand and stroked her wrist. So much for your passion for music. So much for nagging me for months to buy you a piano!

  He had got the piano cheap, second-hand, at an auction, for Milly’s eighteenth birthday. What his darling wanted she must have. Glaring with varnish, rigged out with a gilt music-rack, yellow brass candle-holders, the instrument dominated the tiny parlour. Cara had thrown a fringed orange chenille rug across it, and a bouquet of artificial red poppies on top of that, a large china dog, complete with chocolate spots, nestling alongside. She had shoved their two wooden armchairs almost on top of the grate to accommodate the brown cuckoo, which warbled out of tune. He hadn’t paid for the piano yet. The bill hid in his little portable writing-desk on top of the bookcase wedged into the alcove. Also the bill for the new sideboard. Most of the time he could forget they were there.

  He rose, stooped over Cara, kissed her forehead. I’ve got to go out again, sweetheart. I shan’t be back late.

  I know where I’m going,/ and I know who’s going with me.

  Milly’s ditty seemed remarkably inappropriate on this foggy evening. He had hardly a clue where he was going, and no one journeyed with him except for the cab driver, who grunted through the muffler pulled up over his mouth and nose. Perhaps the song’s words made sense to a south London cabbie. This one negotiated the rapidly darkening streets beyond the river with seemingly careless confidence, jolting along over the uneven surfaces, swerving and shouting at other drivers. The flaring gas lamps of Blackfriars Road left behind, in the grey-blue shadows of dusk the looming clutters of brick façades melted together. Houses, and what must be manufactories and warehouses. A reek of sewage, and soot, and tanning leather. The cabbie’s muffler began to make sense.

  They skirted the dark mass of the Borough on their left. Once past it they left behind the worst clatter of traffic. They emerged into wider, open space, some sort of common; a gleam of water in a bush-edged fold. They drove under massing trees, then entered a street lined with terraced houses standing back from long narrow gardens.

  Dusk dissolved into night. The cab turned right, drew up by an anonymous pavement, dropped him in darkness at the opening of what seemed merely an alley. Joseph protested. Sure this is Apricot Place? Certainly, guv’nor.

  Wind gusted. He struggled forwards. Under an archway he blundered, into further darkness. Houses façades reared up. Some lowish building blocked the way ahead. He had entered a narrow cul-de-sac, containing the dankness of the nearby river between its brick sides. And yet, at the same time, somehow holding sweetness under the stink, the air breathed a hint of countryside: earth and wood-smoke and manure.

  His boot soles slipped on soft filth that could be anything: wet straw, dead rats. He inched forwards, counting. The sixth house on the right, at the end of the row, her note had said. His breath puffed out in the chill air. He advanced between railings, mounted stone steps. To his left, another flight fell away into the area. A pale gold light showed at a first-floor window: a fire burning, or candles. So she was indeed at home. He felt for the knocker, gripped the curve of metal in his gloved fingers, and banged it three times, as instructed.

  Absurd, this prearranged signal. Over-dramatic. Perhaps she lived in dread of a visit from the police. Like magpies robbing nests, these women. Swaggerers scared off by shows of strength. Any hint of trouble, a constable asking questions, the landlord due to turn up, chasing rent arrears, and they did a night flit, decamping with all their possessions.

  The chance-met man in the Waterloo pub had explained this in exchange for a drink. Pursing his beard-fringed lips. Odd old fellow, playing with his handkerchief, red and blue paisley, rolling it into a ball, tossing it between his hands. It’s the system they all live by, d’you see? The landlords have to demand a large down payment, when they take on new tenants, because there’s every chance said tenants will clear off at the drop of a hat, taking with them whatever items they fancy. Unscrew the very doorknobs, some of them will. Dismantle the grates and flog ’em for scrap.

  Joseph waited, wrapping his arms around himself, stamping his feet. After some moments the door opened a crack; then wider. A girl, wrapped in a brown linen apron, a blue woollen shawl, peered out. Eyes glittering like gravel chips, set wide apart in a broad face tapering to a pointed chin. No cap: just a frizz of brown hair.

  I’m Joseph Benson, he said: I’m expected.

  Stepping inside, stripping off his gloves, he left the cold scents of the street for warmer ones: floor polish, vegetable soup. The servant, shrinking back against the wall, was wrinkling her nose, pushing out her bottom lip. A child still, who hadn’t yet learned to school her face. New to service, perhaps. The chit didn’t bother offering to take his hat and topcoat, his stick, merely hovered, hands tucked into her shawl, watching him lay down his things on the chest placed against the wall. A candle in a tin holder burned there, its flame wavering in the draught. Some current of dust caught his nose, his throat. He felt an urge to sneeze, and pulled out his handkerchief.

  The maid yawned, showing even white teeth, a pink tongue. She jerked her head, moved her bow lips: you’re to come straight up. To her he must be just another punter sliding in on his own discreet business. One of hundreds she had seen on to the premises and then off again.

  He said: thank you.

  She unloosed her shawl, bent and picked up the light. Sharp wrists. Blue sleeves rolled back to her elbows. Her skirts scooped over one arm, bunched clear of the steep rise of the stairs, she climbed ahead of him, up the narrow wainscoted shaft into the blackness above. She clutched the wooden banister with her right hand, and in her left the candlestick bearing its lit stub. Tilting, it spilled wax: a slop of grease, translucent, ran across her thumb; hardened to opaque pearls. The candlelight’s golden haze surrounded her brown curls. One ear outlined in gold. The sway of her waist. Her thin, lifting ankles. Her stockinged feet, thrust into backless felt slippers, shifted hush-hush from tread to tread. A darn emphasised each heel.

  Their ascent seemed slow, dreamlike. As though encumbered by the darkness. Muffled by it. The girl smelled of soap, warm animal.

  At the top of the stairs she turned right, pressed into further shadows. Along a short passage she led him, the flame in her upraised hand flickering, a will-o’-the-wisp dancing along just ahead. The wooden boards shifted and creaked under his boots. She paused beside a tall black oblong outlined in gold. A door, light springing out all round it from the room beyond.

  He lost his balance, knocked against the maid. She swerved, avoided his clutching fingers, shot him a fierce look. He wanted to protest, you misunderstand, I meant no harm, but choked on a cough, his throat clenching. Her fist made a brisk rat-a-tat-tat. She clicked the latch, thrust him inside, and departed.

  He fell into a cave of gold: candlelight, firelight; suspended within darkness. The radiance confused him: he tripped on the matting and l
et go of the handkerchief he held. It floated to the floor.

  He ducked his head, stared at his feet. He made a mock half-bow, bending to pick up his handkerchief, stuffing it into his trouser pocket. His fingers met the soft bulk of his purse, and his breathing slowed. The banknotes were hidden where no pickpocket could ever find them, deep inside the stitched-up inside pocket of the topcoat he’d left downstairs, but the pouch of coins he liked to have always at hand. To weigh, to jangle.

  Mrs Dulcimer?

  Her back turned, her head bent, she stood facing the glowing red fire. Over at the window, a half-moon mahogany table bore a brass candelabra stuck with glimmering tapers. Caught between fire and candles, she gleamed, the thick folds of her orange shot-silk dress bright as the flames. A crimson stole, threaded with silver tinsel, looped her shoulders, hid her neck. Tongues of light licked towards the clasp of a gilt chain, her black hair falling in oiled curls from a high silvery comb, a red ribbon, tied round her head, finished with a flourishing bow. Was she really so shy that she had to present her back to him? Impossible, in her line of business. A pose, merely. A game she played. Very well. Humour her.

  I am Mrs Dulcimer.

  Her contralto voice sounded over-genteel. She was in disguise, trying to pass herself off as refined; but her accent gave the game away. She’d clearly had a bit of education. Her note confirming their appointment had been decorously expressed. Well written enough. A neat copperplate hand, with tidy flourishes. Some kind of dame school, perhaps, before she took her first false step. Away from her shopkeeping family, her milliner mother. Many women of her sort came from that kind of background, he felt sure. Too much access to the world of the street. Brought up decent, then their heads turned by customers’ flattery. You expected a woman presiding over a shop counter to be neatly turned out, even a trifle gaudy. A woman letting rooms to prostitutes to be even more so. Mrs Dulcimer fitted the part exactly. With her glittering threads, her red velvet ribbon, her elaborate ringlets, she’d have graced a fairground. The cramped little room smelled right, too: the over-sweet perfume of lilies. Cheap scent bought in some low nearby shop then ladled on. Part of her tawdry scenario.

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