Read an extract from The Wicked Cometh by Laura Carlin
Posted on: 02/01/2019 with tags: debut novel, extract, 19th Century, Georgian, London
The Wicked Cometh is the beguiling historical mystery from debut author Laura Carlin, shortlisted for the Books Are My Bag Breakthrough Author Award. Read an extract here:
The Wicked Cometh
by Laura Carlin
Do you think you know London? They say it’s the finest city in all of Europe. Perhaps you once stood and marvelled at the dome of St Paul’s? Or took a ride on a passenger craft and wove your way past the wherries and steamers as the great Thames carried you to the heart of the city beneath the shadows of Blackfriars Bridge. And then, having paid your half-crown to the driver on the box, did you jounce along in a hackney carriage on your way to Vauxhall, humming a catchy little ditty? Or perhaps took a seat on Shillibeer’s omnibus instead? Did you go from Paddington to the Bank, stopping at The Unicorn for beefsteak with oyster sauce?
Because that’s all there is to know about London, isn’t it? Well, that is what I once thought. No, more than that, it’s the London I believed in, and its flavour and spices season my earliest memory.
I am sitting on my mother’s lap in the parlour.
‘Try not to fall asleep, Hester,’ she whispers. ‘You’re too heavy for that now.’ But her voice, with its warmth and softness, only serves to make me sleepier. The next memory is of my eyes snapping open, of my feet hitting cold flagstones as I am jolted awake by the sound of carriage wheels turning, then grinding to a halt outside. The evening air tingles against my skin and the rustle of Mama’s skirts fills my ears; Papa has returned from London.
He lifts me off the ground and folds me in his arms. I breathe in the scents that rise from his cape: tobacco from the pipe he would have smoked; the spiced mutton he took for supper; the leather from the carriage seats and the cold night air. His whiskers brush my cheek as he kisses me and he lifts me high, higher. His hands are tucked under my arms as he raises me and swings me round and round, his deep-voiced mirth thrums a melody matched only by Mama’s trilling laughter, and the music of their happiness is loud in my ears.
We return to the warmth of the parlour and Papa talks of London; of the great men he has met and the magnificent buildings he has seen. His eyes light up when he tells of the wondrous steamer that glided over the surface of the Thames: no oars, no sails, just the science of steam-power. How fascinated he was by the new exhibition of Greek sculptures at the British Museum. With his words he paints a picture of vitality and excitement and the splashes of colour cover the canvas of my dreams.
At three years old, I truly believed London was the most splendid city in all of Europe and that Mama and Papa’s laughter would never be lost to me. But that was then, and fifteen years is a long time. Sometimes in life, incidents arise, quite unlooked for, and before you know it fate has changed the course of your destiny. It is now the autumn of 1831 and my parents are both dead.
Three babes lost at birth over the years: two brothers and a sister who I never held, never played games with. Three souls cut down in the springtime of their lives, to winter beneath the dust forever more. Mama passed away after giving birth to a fourth stillborn child, to be named Thomas, when I was eleven. Papa was taken by typhoid fever six months later. In less than a twelvemonth, death had snuffed out their lives like a wet candlewick, and I was without a family.
I left our parsonage in the Lincolnshire Wolds some six years ago. As the house was owned by the church, there was nothing to bequeath to me save a handful of mementos. Now I live in London with Papa’s gardener, Jacob, and his wife, Meg. They encouraged me to call them Uncle and Aunt; they aren’t blood relations but they took me in when no one else would. And my London isn’t the one Papa visited, or the one you think you might know; of that I am certain.
Our district is to the north and to the east. Instead of the majesty of Westminster Abbey and the grandeur of the Banqueting House, here the houses spill over each other; dishevelled and ugly. A sickly, rotten stench rises from the streets and the rain-bloated gutters. Some thoroughfares bulge with black mud where pools of fetid water have collected, while others are narrow and meandering. All are swart with the lack of daylight and connected by alleyways and byways that seep over the scabbed ground.
Between Virginia Row and Austin Street there is a pile of dwellings to the right, a heap of dwellings to the left. It is a place where the houses are so close together that dawn is never satisfied and dusk is quick to come. To the right of the last wooden house, warped and stooping, there is a covered alleyway no wider than a whip thong. At the end of the alleyway there is a yard; small as a poke, never gladdened by the warmth of the sun. In the far corner of that yard, behind a door that hangs loose on its leather hinges, is a room. It is a small room with a brick and dirt floor. This room is the centre of my London. I cannot and will not call it home, but it is the place where I live.
It is in this room that I wake and stretch the stiffness from my limbs. The hemp mat and horse-rug have done little to protect me from the night air. We used to have mattresses and coverlets, but last year’s frost necessitated their sacrifice as fuel. I take the boots I’ve been using as a pillow and pull them onto my feet. The leather is thin and they are down at heel, but my breath has at least left some warmth in them. I have no laces, so I use a twist of rag.
I am stupefied by the chilliness. It’s not a biting cold but a clammy one; a wet washrag against my skin. A line of washing, gently dripping, is strung from corner to corner but there is not enough air to dry even a pocket-handkerchief. The wainscoting and plaster has long since rotted from the sagging walls and a breath of mist hovers midway between the ceiling and floor.
I yawn and my breath adds to this milky fog. The terrier in the corner, Missy, raises her head and sniffs the air. Her five pups wriggle, whimper and then take suck. Missy lowers her head then raises it again, her ears pricked towards the door. I listen too, but can’t hear anything.
A breeze blows ash over the floor, carpeting the dirt with a veneer of grey velvet. The fire is down to its last cinder. I sit on the stool and prod the ashes, but can do no more than rattle the rust from the poker. The twins, asleep beneath the table where the iron washtub used to be, begin to stir. My belly gives a loud grumble, but the quartern loaf has all gone and there is no breakfast to be had.
‘That you, Hester?’
It’s Aunt Meg calling from outside.
‘You awake, dearie?’ she tries again.
I smooth my hair and tuck it behind my ears. It used to be thick and glossy, the colour of flax; locks that Mama used to brush for me a hundred times every evening. But with years and sorrows, the colour has dimmed to brown, and now I wear it short to reduce the appeal for vermin.
I tread carefully, reluctant to wake the day, and pull open the door. It has no latch, no lock. We have no need to protect ourselves from the bad sort, because we are the bad sort.
Foglers, lifters and murderers surround us: everyone’s on the dodge in some shape or form. Jews to the right, Gypsies to the left and Jacktars in the rooms above: all in all, a well of criminality. Besides all that, we own nothing: nothing to steal, nothing to sell and nothing to pop at the pawnbroker’s.
A glimmer of daylight creeps out of the gloom. I close the door behind me and pull the shawl around my shoulders. Aunt Meg is in the corner of the yard, a rag in her hand and a pail of muddy water at her side. She works at Uncle Jacob’s boots, but they are caked in earth and clay and the soft leather absorbs the dirt she is trying to remove. She casts the first boot to the floor, takes up a knife and begins to scrape the sole of the second boot. She uses her forearm to brush the stray hairs from her face as she works. I won’t ask why the boots are this muddy when they were perfectly clean last evening. I know not to ask what Uncle Jacob does at night. I take a step forward and realise Aunt Meg is crying, almost inaudibly.
‘Let me help you,’ I say. She turns and in one movement wipes her sleeve across her face and sweeps a clump of hair over her right eye. But the bruise is already shining and her eyelid is swollen and dark.
‘Oh no, dearie,’ she says, her voice contrived, too cheerful for the circumstance. ‘We must keep your hands ready for Mr Gaberdine’s manuscript copying. Some folks say we treat you too soft, Hester, but there’s no one hereabouts what can do what you do. You keep those hands like a lady’s, there’s a good girl, and leave these boots to me.’
I picture Mr Gaberdine’s documents, shredded and only a little better than kindling, and the hours I spend piecing everything together and copying them out. I wish I could be more useful to Aunt Meg with the housework, but I also understand that the arrangement with Mr Gaberdine is how I earn my keep.
‘Thank you, Aunt Meg,’ I say, then add, ‘Does it hurt?’
‘This?’ She points to her eye. ‘It’s nothing, dearie. It’s not Jacob’s fault. It’s nobody’s fault. It just is what it is. And we do all right by you, don’t we? He don’t hurt you, does he?’
‘No,’ I say. Yet I find I don’t declare it emphatically.
Uncle Jacob was kindness itself after Mama and Papa died. With no relations who would own me and no means of subsistence, destitution seemed inevitable. It was decided I would stay temporarily with Jacob and Meg. It was hoped that the new parson would practise the benevolence he preached and take in a poor lamb of God to bring her up as his own. It transpired, however, that he was a bachelor whose sole interest was debating ecclesiastical matters with fellow bachelors in a haze of tobacco smoke. It was also assumed the new incumbent of the parsonage would still need a gardener, but he brought his own servants. Fortunately for us, Jacob’s brother owned an errand-cart business in London and so, to the finest city in all of Europe, Jacob and Meg went. And with the innocence of a child and the blind perversity of a sheep, I went with them, for what else was I to do? The temporary arrangement became a permanent solution.
Initially, we lived in clean lodgings. I arrived in neat clothing with my meagre keepsakes, as few as they were: a silver comb, a gold locket and a prayer book. We had an old range to warm us and oil lamps for light. The kettle was always hot on the trivet and Aunt Meg cooked chitterlings twice a week and collared eels every Friday. The business thrived and so did we. Then Obadiah, the old dray horse, gently lay down in the street one day and never got up again. Jacob’s brother followed his horse to the grave soon after and, with no horse or contacts, it wasn’t long before the business died too. Jacob sold the carrier’s cart together with his Dutch hoe, his rake, fork and shovel, and we moved to cheaper lodgings. Eventually, I was obliged to sell my locket and the comb. We moved a dozen times in as many months, each time to lodgings that were smaller, grimier, darker. And as a spider is washed down a spout by the force of water, so we were washed by the obstinacy of poverty into the corner of the yard at the end of the alley. Uncle Jacob sought solace in the gin shops, and a man soaked in geneva is hardly a man at all. He abandons propriety and loses control of his urges.
Uncle Jacob now spends his days odd-jobbing and devilling. He is known to pet and bundle with the eldest daughter of Mrs O’Rourke, the Irish gypsy. He is also frequently seen with Rabbity Sue, who makes a living from tuppenny uprights. Three months ago, he told me how lovely my blue eyes were and that I had looks that could win a man’s heart. Of late he has started to pay me more unwanted attention: sometimes wordless stares; sometimes he brushes close by my breasts and I feel his sour breath on my neck. He uses more blasphemy than a bargeman and, with his sharp edge and his sharp words, some days he is a pair of scissors at me, clipping my spirits with his taunts.
‘Jacob protects us all in his own way, don’t he though?’ Meg goes on. ‘And providing scran’s not as easy as it once were. You take Mrs O’Rourke in there.’ She jabs her thumb over her shoulder at the dilapidated house behind her. ‘She’s been feeding her brood on potatoes and penny bran since Michaelmas. And we had meat just last Thursday, didn’t we?’
I nod as I picture the greasy leg of mutton boiled to rags. And as much as Aunt Meg tries to hide it, I perceive the austerity of our lifestyle in her features, and hear the futility in her voice. The last vestiges of our respectability are being crushed by poverty. Yet she will not admit it. Perhaps she doesn’t know it. But I do. We are in a most miserable condition and live on the lowest terms life has to offer. And the only incentive I have to counteract utter oblivion is to believe that hope will arrive at Smithfield today, in the form of my cousin Edward.
I’ve never met him but Aunt Meg fell in to talking with some of the Lincolnshire drovers last time they came to town, discovering the existence of a distant relation of mine, who would be joining the cattle-men on their next drove. She said she told them how I can write a pretty hand and add up lists of numbers, and in exchange for a home and board could make myself very useful. Edward has since become the embodiment of my desire to be free of London. He should have been at Smithfield three weeks since to meet with me but has yet to arrive. I won’t give up. I will wait there every day, for I must leave London, I must escape this life.
The Wicked Cometh is available to order now in paperback.