Excerpt from The Goddess and the Thief by Essie Fox (Orion - 5 December 2013)
At that moment I quite forgot myself. When I heard the deep tones of a masculine voice, I leapt from the bed and ran to the door, filled with a sudden rush of hope that: this time – now – it might be him. My father, here, in Mercy’s house, come back to England, to find me again, to take me back home, to India. And then came the lurch of reality, when I remembered he was dead – that he had died four years before, soon after returning to India.
To think of the day when the letter arrived to tell us of that dreadful news was still too painful to endure. When she’d shown me the notification from The Company’s office in Leadenhall Street, Aunt Mercy had said how lucky I was to be living in England with her by then, otherwise I might also have been taken by the cholera. But it seemed to me her main concern was the value of my father’s will, smiling – yes, smiling – when more letters came to bring news of the trust fund in my name and those monies, which, as my guardian, Aunt Mercy was able to access.
Not that I cared what my aunt might spend, if only my father could be brought back, and how I’d wished that it was him arriving on that afternoon. But, oh, that was a different voice. The same timbre, the same refined ‘English’ tones. But you do not forget a father’s voice, no matter how many years pass by.
Still, with my curiosity piqued, I walked on down the narrow stairs that led to the first-floor landing, and even though I could not see what might go on in the hall below - because of the turn of the little half landing, and the size of the fern in the Chinese pot which created a natural barrier - I could hear my aunt quite clearly, and the way she spoke: those softer notes reserved for the greeting of ‘special friends’.
Was it my disappointment, or was it because I had risen too quickly from lying prone upon the bed, the reason for my dizziness and such a buzzing in my ears? And there was something else, as well. It made me feel nervous. That sound, that mechanical whirring, much like the winding of a clock. Wondering what the source could be I continued to make my slow descent, on down the stairs to the main front hall where, when I came to the very last step, I stood with my hands clutching onto the newel post, staring ahead to the console shelf where someone had left a tall silk hat. And there, in my aunt’s appointment book, a brand new name had been inscribed, the ink still glossy on the page. But, if Mercy had a caller then I simply couldn’t understand why the parlour door was open still. And where was ‘the sign’ she always left, the red ribbon she tied around the knob whenever she happened to entertain: the warning that no one left outside should knock or cause disturbance?
I never dared disturb her there unless I was invited. I knew my aunt was not as kind as ‘intimates’ might think. There had been maids who, by mistake, had opened up the ribboned door and later suffered reprimands that led to tear-stained notices. And one – her name was Sally, and I had liked her very much – one night, when I was fast asleep, Sally had come into my room to shake me awake and mutter on about her fears for my mortal soul ‘in this house of unchristian blasphemy’.
Sally had packed her bags, was gone, before the morning light had come. But I remained in Claremont Road. I had no other place to go. And, I was already more than aware of what ‘went on behind the door’, and well before the moment came when my aunt thought to draw me into that profession.
You see, there had been occasions when I had disobeyed her rule and crept from my room, and down the stairs, and then across the tiled floor, hardly daring to take a single breath as I pressed my ear against the door and heard those whispers, sighs, and groans.
But, on that day, that Sunday, the sounds were entirely different. First came the hypnotic ratcheting hum, and then the jerky, tinkling notes as the nets of a melody curled through the air, winding around me, luring me on, to walk across squares of black and white, to stand in full view at the parlour door – and there, the first thing to catch my eye was what I now think of as ‘the bait’ – the pretty little golden cage set down upon the mantelpiece, right next to the big black onyx clock.
It was gloriously oriental. It looked like a miniature temple - or the church where my father used to pray in the gardens of the Residency; what had once been a Mughal tomb. The cage had a fretwork dome on top, and pillars spaced around outside. And inside, within the golden bars, there perched a little silver bird, its surface engraved with feathers and flowers, very detailed, very intricate. Its eyes were two pieces of gleaming jet. A beak had somehow been engineered to open and close in time with the notes – until the music stuttered and died, which was when the bird’s breast split in two and opened to reveal its heart. A green jewel in a nest of black velvet.
Our souls are like birds within a cage, they long for the liberty of the air. Those words rang clear inside my head – and the voice, it was Mini’s, my ayah’s again. I think I may have gasped in shock and Aunt Mercy, then sitting in a chair that was drawn very close to the marble hearth, she looked queerly flustered to see me there, staring in as I was through the parlour door – and her eyes, which had been sparkling, as green as the emerald in its nest, were dulled and darkly menacing. The smile on her lips became a frown, though she quickly regained her composure and cooed, ‘Oh Alice, there you are. We have a guest . . . from India. And look!’ Her hand was lifted to indicate the golden cage. ‘He has been so kind as to bring a gift!’
India? It was someone from India! Might Mini have come along as well? My excitement, I cannot begin to describe when, trembling with anticipation, I made to walk in through the parlour door and almost tripped upon my hems, for – even after months of being dressed in adult clothes, I was much prone to clumsiness, forgetting the length of the trailing skirts, or bumping into the furniture because of the width of the crinoline. Aunt Mercy was always sighing at that, all her sharp exhalations, not to mention her impatience with the myriad other little things that held such importance in her mind. Such as folding my cloths upon the chair when they were taken off at night, or kneeling to say my bedtime prayers, or wearing my gloves when walking out, or sitting with my knees tight closed, my hands tight folded in my lap.
My hands were clasped together then, so tightly that the knuckles ached, when, just like a shadow, the man slipped between us to appear from behind the screen of the door.