The Weekend Read
The Liar’s Girl
By Catherine Johnson
19th May 2017
London, October 1829
You are there waiting at the door to let me in, and I slip inside your parents’ shop. No, that is too small a word. I know your mother calls it nothing less than ‘The Emporium’.
I would not set foot inside in daylight. One look from her would send me scurrying away again, back to the street. This is a fact. You know it’s true. But in darkness all is possible. I say that aloud, to you, like a spell, and I feel the earth shift under my feet.
Everything is about to change. You do not know this yet. The candle you hold gutters in the draught, you lean down to kiss me and I have to think hard of something else.
Not the feeling of your lips on mine, tender and demanding, or the pressure of your fingers as they trace patterns on my neck. I could give in to those senses completely if I am not careful. But I am fifteen. And have learnt not to trust the fluttering in my insides – the swooping falling flying feeling – I must not, cannot fall.
I close my eyes and bring to mind a picture from my first few months in this city. A story I will never tell you, about a massive dray horse, beautiful, powerful, its smoke-grey coat beaded with sweat as it clattered over the cobbles down Whitecross Market. Out of control, its eyes rolling wild, knocking over stalls, the sound of its great iron hooves slipping – then its foreleg snapping, the bones splintering, and the scream. Did you know horses screamed? I did not. Then the louder noise when a man with a gun blew the beast’s brains out right there on the corner of the Jewin, children watching, younger than me. I should have known, for your countrymen have less compassion than any street bitch would have for its pups.
So all those times when we were together, when we were kissing in the long grass at Copenhagen Fields my eyes shut tight, or sometimes open in a reverie as we two lay together and watched the clouds scud past. When you would lean across and ask me earnestly, your honest eyes desperate to know what lay behind mine: ‘What are you thinking of?’
Well, here, you have it: that dead horse, twitching in the gutter. A reminder that life is cruel, and all may turn on something seemingly of no importance. A word out of place, an accident of fate, and the ground will fall away and you may end up dancing at the end of a rope.
My first lesson: this world is a cruel place where the slip of a hand or the smile of a passer-by can result in oblivion for some.
But I do not say this as I slip inside The St James’ Cloth Emporium. I simply kiss you back, hurried, fast, my breath tasting of cinnamon and allspice. I am nothing if not exotic.
Under the shop counter in his truckle bed, Sam the apprentice stirs; his head pops up, and you silence him, with a look and a finger at your lips. You are kind, and you should know that makes this all both easier and harder.
On the outside, I am all a flutter. Across the street the bells at St George’s chime for three o’ clock. I whisper; ‘We must hurry!’ and I kiss you once more, upon your neck where you taste of salt and lavender
You are more than passing fair. You know that though, and it is another reason why your parents, with two shops, Mayfair and the City, would make a good match for you, marry you to a doctor’s daughter. She is a girl who comes from money, safety and security. Her name is Jane, she has very light brown hair, the palest blue eyes and a fondness for kittens and the colour yellow. She sings. You recount her singing The Girl Wrapt in a Wether’s Skin (I did not say that perhaps she was singing about me), and that is the only time I have heard you say anything cruel about anyone. But anyway, be assured she is not for you.
You have a bag stuffed with clothes, and I guess, correctly, as it turns out, all the money from today’s trade.
I ask for beer or water, something, to slake my thirst. After all, I have run from the rookeries of St Giles, where the alleys are so narrow you may sit up in bed and shake hands with your neighbour on the other side of the street.
I wait while you fetch it, sit as quiet as can be and wish for a miracle. For you to change your mind and say you will not come. For your father to wake and find me here and shout loud enough to wake the dead. I wish, I wish, it was him, not you.
I imagine that future for a moment, while you are out of the room. Imagine my mother waiting and waiting alone. I would vanish like a magic trick, somehow cease to exist, and with me all bitterness gone into the ether like a dream. The promise I made to him of your deliverance scrubbed out, rewritten.
Too late. You have returned, and I smile at you, the sweet half smile of a maid.
I drink the water gratefully and make sure to offer you the rest. ‘You’ll need it,’ I say.
You throw back your head and drain the cup. Our fingers brush, my heart is galloping. I lean close and say, a loud whisper to drown out all the shouting in my head; ‘I love you.’
And at that moment, here in the dark of the shop, Sam rustling in his bed, you must know, I never said a truer word.
You open the shop door, one hand on the bell to silence it. Outside London is sleeping, Far away I can hear dogs barking, fighting maybe, and even farther a woman sobbing and sobbing. I believe in the Scots vernacular (I am well versed in the varieties and oddities of language in these small islands) they call it greeting. Did you know that?
I forget myself. ‘We have to hurry!’ You say. And I think how I am doing you a kind of favour. I do believe you would wither left in that shop, buried in bright muslin and pale linsey wolsey.
You look at me. ‘We must reach Woolwich by six, you said . . .’ And you smile.
You kiss my forehead, sometimes it seems I am some kind of foolish child to you. So be it.
Listen, I say. Take my hand. I’m glad you’re with me, your fingers knitted fast in mine. Your heart beating hard as mine under your skin. You grin, as if this is an adventure, an escape. Not life or death. Oh! You have been featherbedded in so many ways.
Your breath is making twin clouds of smoke in the cold air with mine. I tell you there is safety in numbers, even when that number is two.
My second lesson, and mark me well: the only safe number ever in this world is one.
I know all these streets, the filth and the dirt and the joy of them runs in my veins. I may not have drawn my first breath in this city, but it is my home now. I want to tell you to keep your eyes open, remember every stone and brick, for you will not see them again.
We must be quick! Out through the silent white-washed sugar-coated streets of St James towards the bridge at Westminster. Don’t look back. Not once. We can make it out of the city by morning with this moon.
I have promised you my story, and tonight I will tell. You shall have the introduction as we run hell for leather down Pollen Street, across Piccadilly towards the river. And I am sad, for you will never see the new road, the Regent’s Road, built. By the time we reach the prison hulks at Woolwich you will know enough to make a piece of it and some expectation of what is to come.
By then, you may want to let go of my hand, you may want to have nothing more to do with me.
Let me assure you I will understand. Even and beyond your heart breaking.
After tonight you can judge me, another blackbird from the stews a born liar and deceiver. Neither black nor white, true or false. You laugh when I say that. Is my face not solemn enough? Are my tears not still sticky on my cheeks?
You are sorry then, and want to kiss away any offence you may have caused.
We cannot stop! At Swallow Street a drunken man hugs the walls of the buildings singing a wailing version of ‘The Nut Brown Maid’. You laugh, and the drunken man looks our way and yells as if in pain or terror. Your hand flies to your belt.
‘You bought a knife?’ I say. I really hadn’t thought it possible, and I fight the urge to ask if you know how to use it.
I pull you along; you are out of breath, more used to books and book keeping. We are nearly at the river, if you take a deep breath you can taste it on your tongue, the tang of filth, the hundreds of years of life and death. The clock at St James’ chimes for half past. We have to hurry, I want to fly across the bridge at Westminster, faster than minutes and seconds, faster than moments and ideas and kisses.
‘We do not need a story about love, we’re living it!’ you say. Your eyes are shining.
‘Love.’ I am your echo. I think and have to look away or I know it will be simpler to be lost to kissing you and we shall not go another step. I take a breath and look at you for a long second. ‘You must listen!’ I say.
You look at me.
‘This story is better than words, any words!’
I want you to know, I want to give you a chance to escape . . .
‘Let me begin,’ I say. ‘Please.’
You say nothing, so I start.
‘Imagine somewhere far away. A land where there is never winter, and fruit drops from the tree into your hand all year round. One day some men came from the east and turned this Eden into Hell. They didn’t see perfection, they saw only the possibility of gold, do you understand? Not real gold, only that it might be conjured from the soil, given enough blood. That was the moment this started. That’s what is happening here, right now on these streets.
‘The West Indies?’ you say. ‘My father was there, for a year, I think, en route to America.’
You tell me I am exaggerating. That the only time your father spoke of it he said the air was so thick and moist he could hardly breathe. He said the whole island was heavy with the smell of rot and putrefaction, hardly any kind of paradise.
I have no facts to fight you with. I can’t remember home at all, only what I have been told.
You tell me your father told you that in Jamaica white people died of sickness or debauchery or both. (Not unlike London, I want to add. But I stay silent.) That he came home in a hurry, his fortune made to open both his shops.
I have to quieten you. I want to shout – do you not see? Where did that money come from? You still do not realize I am telling the story of both our families. I am a Londoner by choice, where you have never known anything else, but one way or another our beginnings and our ends have their roots so very far away.
We creep past St James’ Park, trying not to disturb the girls who still work undercover of the trees and bushes.
I whisper back that I am telling a story, my story. That you would do well to listen.
I begin again: ‘One morning on the island another warm day dawns. The heavy sun shining on a sea so bright and blue you’d think you dreamt it. Down at the port, a red-faced men steps off a boat. He is unsteady on dry land, has come a long way. Where he lives the cold wind bites into your bones. He’s come to be an overseer, to crack the whip and keep those wayward darkies on the straight and narrow. Green Mount Plantation. High up in the hills, round hills like a child’s drawing, pudding bowls turned upside down and all alike, the road winds around and around. The heat is cooler but the sweat falls off him and the road never stops curling and the man vomits. Copiously. That means a lot. You would know that with your education. I know that because this is the way the story was told. Was passed down. That man, I say, was your father.
‘You’re wrong.’ Your voice is sharp. ‘My father an overseer?’
Buckra, I say. But you have no idea what that means. When my mother says the word she spits into the fire and sparks fly.
You say nothing. There is the pressure of your fingers against mine. But you do not speak. Do you now recognise your father’s story?
Inside I am begging for you to understand what’s happening, but still you don’t.
We reach the river. The water is black as molasses and just as slow, and the sound of the water slap-slapping heavy against the bridge like heavy shod heartbeats. There is a watchman crossing, and you pull me into the shadow, into the dark and we embrace. We are not a threat. Just another lost couple. We cross the bridge at a hurry, keen to show, should anyone be watching, that we do not intend to throw ourselves into the darkness below. But as we scurry across I feel such a pull I swear that if your hand was not firmly clasped in mine I would succumb.
We reach the other side. You point out where your father grew up in the back streets between the Magdalen and the Bethlem Hospitals, in one of those small streets where the houses lean in together like lovers listening for secrets.
You have lost interest, I think. In my story. Maybe you don’t want to hear. Maybe, to you, it does not matter; to you all of it is so far in the past it cannot touch us.
The road opens out into a circus. We are south of the river now and the air smells of breweries and tanneries and hard work. A heavy laden dray plods into town from Kent or Sussex, laden high with hops.
In the centre of the road there is an obelisk. We are at St Georges’ Circus, not quite halfway. I cross the street and run up the steps. You look at me, no trace of fear in your eyes. You seem at home in the city in the night. Perhaps we are more alike than I imagine. I kiss you. And this time I don’t think of the horse, I think of the feeling. Of your mouth on mine, your hands, your tongue. And there is no room for any regret or fear or dread. And I pray. If not to God, who has never done anything for me since I drew breath, then to my mother’s gods. The King of the Crossroads, the woman at the edge of the world. I pray to stay here, with you always. And I wish and wish that kissing was a way to stop the clock. To stop time and change the future. We could stay here for ever and ever, as the sun rises and the traffic flows. Clinging together.
But wishing and praying never changed one single thing. The course is set. The die is cast. My mother and her damned ship await.
Your father is already paying for what he did. He will wake up and your room will be empty. You will be gone. He deserves that. And you agree, you hate him almost as much as my mother does. Almost as much.
We hurry through Newington and through Bermondsey now. The streets are black with factories and brick works and distilleries. I walk along, two steps for every one of yours, hugged close to you as the city begins to wake. You have forgotten my story and are keen to tell me of the life you dream of, the one where you and I are free to live together, be together.
Imagine that! You say.
I wish I could.
All around from out of houses and tenements the city begins to stir. Early starters or those who never slept, the costers and the traders, readying stalls. No one looks at us. We are invisible. It is a spell of hers, the only one that works, I think.
I want to remind you of how we met.
That was no accident. She has watched you, for a very long time. She has never forgotten what your father did to mine.
We were never slaves. There is no flogging in my story. I try and explain as we pass the docks at Rotherhithe and Deptford. How my father wed the Witch of Green Mount, and how your father killed and robbed him.
But I am holding you up now. Your strength is ebbing. You lean on me, and as we reach the turn of the river at Greenwich close to the Naval College, I am relieved to see my mother and her man Jonathan waiting with the cart.
She told me Woolwich, she is too clever for me. She must have dosed you to get no farther than Greenwich, in case I changed my mind, in case you decided to run. I curse her under my breath.
One day, many days and months from now, when you wake up in a strange new land, you may ask yourself why I did it. Why I went along with her planning, plotting. You don’t know that I took in tales of hatred and betrayal with my mother’s milk. She hated your family so much she followed yours back across the Atlantic. This has been years in the making.
They scoop you up. I sit at the back with you, free to tell you anything now that your eyes roll back in your head and you cannot speak, only moan a little when the cart jolts and rocks. I put your head upon my lap so it is not such a hardship and count the nag’s steps as she carries us away.
My mother has found room for you on a transport to the South, to Botany Bay. You will be swapped for a cutpurse who worked out of the tenement next to ours in Dyott Street, in the Seven Dials. Your parents will never see you again. You will be lost to them utterly and completely.
I was only the bait, the meat, the morsel that will convince you to walk into the web. And here we are. Your head thrown back looking at the dull dawn sky as we trundle through the dockyard gates at Woolwich.
It feels as if we have reached the edge of the world, the city far behind us, across the river and beyond only marshes more marshes.
Mother whispers and tells me I have done a good job, the very best. She calls me Bridget.
You thought my name was Mary. That was a lie too.
The boat is sailing for Australia. You will be one more convict, out of many.
My mother is old now, but Jonathan is still strong. He takes off your good clothes and passes your bag to Mother, he ties your hands quickly and roughly behind your back.
I beg him to leave you be, there is no fight in you but he ignores me and I am ashamed.
Your head lolls to one side. I only know you are not dead because I put my hand on your neck and feel the blood
pumping there under the skin. A small relief. I feel sick as they take you away, half drag half carry you up the plank. Exchange coins, a flash of bright silver.
I run after you, kiss you one last time, and the clouds part – the sun is there, struggling to shine.
Then it is gone and you with it.
That is the last I see of you.
What happened afterwards was this: mother and her man take us to an inn, it is for sailors and I say nothing. My tongue is tied, and I will not drink a drop and lose the taste of you.
Mother toasts me.
Blood for blood.
I wipe a tear. Mother reminds me that we have no feelings – can never have. Not for the likes of you.
I look away.
I have spun such a web and I am stuck fast. I shut my eyes and see you once again half dragged up that gangplank to oblivion. It feels as if my whole insides, innards, heart brain, muscles are collapsing. I struggle to hold myself together until I am outside the Inn. Then I vomit – again you would say copiously – into a ditch.
And, with the sky, at last my thoughts are clear. The sun has now peeped out and hangs like a perfect golden peach above the Thames. A thing of beauty.
I run back through the dock gates, faster and faster. For you.
But I am too late.
The Amity is half a chain out on the water. I could not swim out to you, could not reach you if I wanted. Even if I shout you will not hear me, walled in by wood and somewhere deep under the decks.
All I hear is the crying of those poor souls who never wanted to leave, or those who have been left behind. There is another woman on the quayside, tucked in her cloak, a tiny baby pale and wriggling like a rat. It mews and she shushes it with a song. The same one you sung to me once, as we walked out through Newington: ‘The Nut Brown Maid’. The song tells of a girl who lied, its words are true, and I was not.
My breath fails me. I am almost given up to self-pity. I will never see you, touch you, kiss you, again. My eyes prickle with tears.
And even if I sail after you across the earth, to the far side of the world you will despise me. For I am guilty and complicit.
The liar’s girl.
I turn away, walk back to the Inn. Everything is ashes. At the door I look inside. The air is thick with smoke and the smell of ale. I see my mother, laughing with Jonathan, your bag, your clothes, those clothes that will still smell of you safe under her feet.
Mother does not look at me. I was useful; a cup, a hammer, a blade made flesh. She is talking to her Jonathan. He is a big man, arms like hams, lighter skinned than me; he looks straight at me like a dog eyes a bone. My mother smiles. I see the transaction has already been made.
There is a feeling in my throat, my head, my chest, a lack of breath, a knot of fear and something inside me tearing and I know that is my heart breaking.
I walk purposefully towards my mother and Jonathan. Offer to buy drinks and vittles for us all. But I take the money and run outside.
If your parents are lost to you then so are mine.
I reckon I will need every penny in order to buy your freedom so I offer the groom a good look at my breasts, and while he fumbles with his buckles and buttons I swing up onto the fastest looking horse, still saddled. A bay with a white blaze.
Then I turn it east and gallop for Sheerness. The Amity puts on its last human cargo there, on the Isle of Sheppey. There is a chance I can get you off, that I can talk whoever round – a slender chance, but I know I have to take it.
I hear the shouting as the horse and I turn onto the road for Kent.
She is a good kind horse, I pat her neck, lean forward and whisper magic words into her ear to urge her onward, and dutifully she flattens out into a gallop.
Since you are gone I tell the horse my final lesson one I learnt too late:
My love. All lies were true, all bets are off. I swear, I promise I will follow you across the world and somehow make you love me all again. If not. I am certain of this, I shall die.
Record the Nut-brown Maid,
Which, when her love came her to prove,
To her to make his moan,
Would not depart; for in her heart
She loved but him alone.