Authors: Rebecca Mascull
Rebecca Mascull lives by the sea in the east of England with her partner and their daughter. She has previously worked in education and has a Masters in Writing. Her first novel,
, was published in 2014.
First published in Great Britain in 2015 by Hodder & Stoughton
An Hachette UK company
Copyright © Rebecca Mascull 2015
The right of Rebecca Mascull to be identified as the Author of the Work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.
All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead is purely coincidental.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library
Ebook ISBN 9781473604346
Hardback ISBN 9781473604353
Hodder & Stoughton Ltd
338 Euston Road
London NW1 3BH
To Simon my port
and Poppy my starboard.
I think I had a brother once.
We sit in the road below the window of a pie shop, his face obscure in the cat-black of a London alley past midnight. We poke at the mortar with sharp sticks, then scrape away till the bricks come loose. He grunts as he manoeuvres the first one from its rest. A voice cries the hour; it is the Watch in the next street and we stop, waiting to see if the old man will turn into our alley and catch us. We hurry. I watch my brother’s hands grasp the slackened bricks and pull them free, dry mortar crumbling dusty and mysterious in the dark air. When the hole is large enough, he shoves me through and I spy two fat pies on the counter. In my littleness, I can barely reach them and do so on tiptoe, my brother fretting in whispers lest I drop them. I entice each pie on fingertips and pass them through to him. There is one for each of us, my brother and me, and once I have scrambled back out we fall to eating them, face-first, the red berries like gore on our dirty cheeks. He finishes first and wipes his fingers about his shirt. He takes my pie plate, licked clean, and tosses both in through the hole. A brisk breeze whistles up the alley and flings litter in our faces. We giggle and grab at it, my brother catching a slip of paper with neat writing on it. I know I cannot read and I do not think he is able, but he scans it and passes it to me.
‘For you, from me,’ says he.
‘What does it say?’ I reply.
He runs a finger along the letters. ‘
All thy life be happiness and love.
There is a commotion behind us. I see a bad set of men with wicked faces, looming towards us. I reach for my brother.
He shouts at me: ‘Run!’ He shouts again, ‘Run!’
And I run. Down the alley, around the corner, out into the thoroughfare. But I am thunderstruck. I will lose him, I think. My brother. Thus I turn on my heel and race back to the pie shop. All is quiet. I see a woman leaning by the wall and ask if she saw the gang. She points down yonder and I quit her, not knowing where I am going. But I hear the men before I see them, laughing till they are like to split their sides. I find them striding along the footpath ahead, one holding my brother who fights and chafes like a trapped rat, but it is a vain struggle. The man bangs my brother’s legs against a post and he hops quieter thereafter. I follow behind for streets and streets, till the brackish smell of the docks fills my nose and we come in sight of the vessels bobbing on the Thames. They drag him on board a boat and though I wait and wait all through the night, he does not reappear. At morning light, the boat leaves the wharf, my brother hidden below. I stand on the quay and shout at the men on deck, yet my reedy voice is lost in the dockside hubbub and the boat drifts away, my brother and my happiness with it.
The days after his loss are a heart-searching time. I take out his note to me and gaze at it often. I beg for food and gain little. I stare in at shop windows and consider how to rob from them. But I do not have my brother’s guile and fear I will be caught and beaten. One sun-shining day late in the afternoon, I trail behind a gentleman in a brocade coat, his cocked hat under his arm and a bag wig keeping the powder from his collar. I think, A wig like that would fetch some coins. He stops and raises his arm to call a chair-man and I jump high, grabbing the bag and whisking the wig from his shaved head. I turn to run but he is so quick and grabs my arm, his grip too strong for me to wrench away and I am fairly caught and cannot budge.
‘Is it a boy or a girl?’ asks he, peering at me. I wear breeches my brother gave me yet my hair hangs long about my shoulders. ‘Where is your mother?’
I do not speak. I jut out my lip and stare the gentleman hard in the eye. I am told since that my grimy face, petulant and proud, and my clothes all tatters and hair matted grey with dirt awaken a pity long dormant in this busy merchant.
‘Do you wish to eat, child?’
I nod. I still have his wig in my fist. My arm held fast, he bends down to pick up his fallen hat and leads me to a hackney coach, whose driver refuses the fare at the sight of a bare-headed gentleman attached to such a ragged bundle as me, yet is persuaded by double the rate. Inside, we are most cruelly shaken up as the pavement is uneven and the horses are fast trotters.
When we slow to our destination, the gentleman says, ‘May I have my wig?’
I oblige and we step out. We stand before a great edifice, a white-stoned building with a towering front door topped by a broad plaque. I cannot read the letters engraved in the inscription, yet above them stand stone effigies of a boy and girl, heads bowed and hands clasped in gratitude. The gentleman has pulled the bell and as we wait, he tells me: ‘This is the Asylum for the Destitute Wretches of the Streets of London. I am a business associate of the founder of this institution. With any luck, this will be your new home.’
A woman appears at the door. Her mob cap and pinner are bright white, as if laundered in ice. Her face is set in a hard pattern but when she looks at me, there are wrinkles about her eyes I like. She talks with the gentleman for a time. She nods and I am told to enter.
‘You will do well with Matron,’ says the gentleman. ‘Good luck to you, orphan, if such you be,’ and, adjusting his wig slightly, he leaves.
The front door is closed and bolted, the only light leaking dimly from a slim window above, a spiked iron bar clamped across it.
‘What is that for?’ I ask.
Says Matron, ‘Have you never lived in a house?’
‘’Tis there to stop rogues like you from smashing the glass and being thrust through by blackguards who use children for their thievery.’
She ushers me towards a door and we go into a room wherein stands a circular table and chairs, brown panelling on the walls and a bow-window to the street, before which I am positioned that the woman may regard me fully.
‘Perhaps you are three years of age. Or just four. Yet you are so malnourished ’tis possible you could be five, six or twenty.’ She shakes her head in disgust. ‘A child so filthy, it’s more monkey than mankind.’
I am taken to a kitchen in an outhouse, across a muddy yard. There we find two maidservants who gape at me. I am told to take off my clothes. I will not do it. I clamp my hand around my brother’s note in my pocket and close my eyes tight.
‘You are eaten up with vermin, child,’ says Matron. ‘You must wash.’ Hands tear my clothes from me, stand me in a tin bucket before a crackling fire and pour water on me. They scrub me with soap for an eternity and find a little girl. I do not open my eyes this whole time or release my fist. When I am done, Matron tells the maidservants to go and ready the other children for prayers and I open my eyes.
‘Come now,’ says she, holding up a pair of scissors. ‘I must dress your hair.’
I let her tug my head this way and that, watching the tangled clumps fall to the floor and feeling a sudden lightness about the ears.
‘What is your name?’ she asks. But I do not know it. I cannot remember my brother calling me a name. I only know he found food for me. Perhaps he called me ‘sister’, though I could not swear it. She continues, ‘No matter. All foundlings here are given new names.’
She opens a cupboard filled with piles of clothes, girls’ to the left, boys’ to the right. I have never conceived of so many clean clothes together in one place. To possess more than a shirt, jacket and one pair of breeches seems luxury to me. She retrieves a shift, stays, stockings, petticoat, apron and cap. She helps me dress and ends with a green jacket bodice, an image of a flower sewn on its front with white thread for the petals and a golden heart. I am found sturdy shoes from a shelf of many pairs and told to sit on a stool by the fire. With only a shift and skirt to cover my legs, my underparts feel cool and vulnerable. I wrap my skirts about my thighs, my hand still closed around my treasured note.
‘Will you open your fist for me?’
I shake my head.
‘For meat, will you do it?’
I am torn. The long-lost taste of flesh! She opens the safe, brings out dabs of meat on string and passes one to me. She shows me how to hold it before the fire to cook it. As I gobble it down, the precious slip of paper drifts to the floor on the warm air and is snatched by Matron, who reads aloud: ‘
‘No,’ say I. ‘Those are not the words.’
‘Yes, they are. See? Price, a penny. Is that your worth, child?’
‘You are wrong. The devil burn you, for you are
!’ I shout and cry my bellyful for the first time in that orphanage, and not for the last.
Matron wipes my blubbering face with her handkerchief and observes me.
‘A bold little miss. A clever one too, for your size. I shall give you the surname Price, from the only scrap of identity you own. As for a Christian name, the gentleman who found you was a Mr Dawnay, first name Jacob not suitable. But Dawnay, now. A prettyish sort of a name that would do, would it not? Eat up then, as it is evening and time for bed.’
Other foundlings named here have received such as Julius Caesar, William Shakespeare and Theodosia Rainbow. So my name is not as foolish as it might be. And that is how I become Miss Dawnay Price.
Matron leads me up two pairs of stairs. Halfway, I hear the sound of boys larking behind a closed door, past which I am hurried. I peer down at the awkward angles of the banisters that form a square spiral to the hallway below. Ascending the last few steps, the laughter of girls emanates from above. My throat aches with fear and I clutch at my clothes. I have no memory of sleeping in a room or sharing any space with so many females. I think on my brother and wish to weep, but I prevent myself and determine to face whatever is in this room with defiance. At the very top, we enter a garret and I discover my dormitory and meet my fellow inmates. There are two rows of beds, amid which there is a covey of girls, from around my age to perhaps double it. All are dressed neatly in the same green jackets and white caps, some sitting in pairs holding hands, others standing with linked arms. At our appearance, all stop still and some cock their heads to look past Matron and stare at me. Some eyes show interest, while others betray suspicion in their frowns.