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THE DRESS LODGER
The boys down on the Low Quay know a hundred ways to sell bad fish.
They'll mingle four dead eels with every one alive knowing full well the average man can't tell which is tangled inside a cloudy tub. They'll polish up a stinking mackerel with a bit of turpentine and buff it with their shirttails until it gleams. Beneath the wharves late in the day, you can catch them blowing air into the bellies of cod to make their underweight catch look fat and succulent. Poor hungry family, to puncture those flatulent fish and find them more air than meat. But a boy's got to make a living, and when he is forced to feel around in the mud at low tide, scrambling after sprats dropped overboard from a trawler, he may have to take a little advantage to earn his daily wage.
You notice it most on Saturday nights when the markets are set up along Low Street. The orange sellers have secretly boiled their fruit to plump it up, though the practice causes it to turn black within a day; the cherry vendors have weighted their prepacked boxes with cabbage leaves to tip the scales. Not everyone is dishonest, but nearly every merchant prefers to sell his wares after dark when their imperfections are softened by candlelight and men's eyes are less discerning after a full day's work. Most workers are paid on Saturday night here in Sunderland, so they have money in their pockets for meat pies and jacket potatoes kept warm in barrel ovens; they buy two pennies' worth of greasy herring and a roll to go with it. The young sons of public houses owners crisscross the market delivering trays of ale to wives who've ordered it for their family dinners, and are stopped along the way by so many thirsty men, they have to run back for more. On Saturday when the streets are extravagant with stacked purple cabbages, ruby apples, bright green leeks fringing stalls iridescent with oyster shells, everyone feels rich. There will be meat on Sunday, and when a favorite customer comes to buy his chops the expansive butcher holds out a newly slaughtered pig's hear like a present.
It is Saturday night; work is another two days away. Sunday, you may play cards or walk out on the town moor or, if you are feeling guilty about something, wash your face and go to church. Perhaps you'll just want to sleep, which is what happens most Sundays, when you take your tea on the stool by the fire and realize how good it feels just to sit and stare until your head drops down upon the chest and your cup slips from your fingers. But Saturday night you are alive and want some entertainment. Two new shows have come to town. One is about that disease everyone keeps talking about, the cholera morbus, but the second one sounds far more promising. The Spectacle Unique Les Chats Savants: Signior Capelli's celebrated menagery of Sagacious Cats, well known in the principal cities of Europe, Whose Docility and Intelligence Never Fail to Astonish. You could certainly stand to be delightfully astonished, since the astonishment you'll receive tomorrow when you learn half the plums you brought tonight are rotted through will be decidedly less pleasant. You push your way between the stalls along Low Street headed toward the theatre on Sans. On your right, the River Wear makes a snaking black ribbon between Sunderland proper and well-lit Monkwearmouth on the opposite shore. There are fewer ships on the river because of the Quarantine, you think, and it is killing everyone, from the keelmen who load Newcastle coal to the potteries that need imported Dorset clay. Your back room matchstick factory is safe, at least, no matter what happens. For ten years you've painted phosphorus tips on little wooden splinters and you've never, for a day, done without supplies. The phosphorus is slowly rotting your jawbone and turning you into a freakish mess, you can't bear to look in the glass, but tonight, Saturday night, you want only to see some sagacious cats, and not think about how your hands and face glow in the dark.
Outside the cheap theatre, where children and domestics get in half price—as if life weren't easy enough for them anyway—you come upon a stampede. Housemaids leap squealing into coachmen; little boys stomp, stomp, stomp like Indians in a rain dance. It's those damn frogs. They've come up from the riverbed, where they've been fucking and spawning, fucking and spawning all this wet, warm autumn until they've overflowed the steep banks and invaded the town. Merchants along Low Street have found moist green frogs suffocated in their flour, the pastor of Trinity Church found them floating in the Communion wine. Just last night, your landlord cursed the chorus of frogs yowling in his basement and sent down his ferret to rip through them. They are advancing on Bishopwearmouth, the third and by far the most affluent section of Sunderland, built on higher ground to the south. Good, you think. Let a little of the river bottom come up in the world. Let a lawyer or two lie awake and worry, like you have on too many nights, that the Lord had sent a modern plague of Egypt to destroy this town.
How those dainty domestics and little children carry on, jabbing their umbrellas at flailing rubbery legs, frightening the frogs far more than they themselves are frightened! You roll your eyes and dig into your pocket for the 5 d. they extort from you at the box office, reach across to hand the rouged ticket vendor your money—but if you please, wait just a moment . . . .
Before you duck inside, dear matchstick painter, and disappear from view for what will be at least two hours, we beg leave to ask what might at first seem a frivolous question, but which will eventually make sense: if you were to compose your own story—forgetting for a moment the small fact that you cannot exactly write—would you choose this Saturday night, outside of this cheap theatre, through this veil of frogs in which to introduce your heroine? If you might have at your command the entire globe, any moment of historic confluence, if you might in the writing of a humble book bring back to life a Queen of Sheba or an Empress Josephine, would you strew her path with frogs here in dirty Sunderland when you might pluck from your imagination green emeralds to scatter before her in Zanzibar? No, we thought not. You are a personage of refined taste. Left up to you, who is to say this book might not evolve into a tender tale of a matchstick painter whose matches so delight the King of Sicily that he dedicates his palace to her private use, festoons it with pearls and causes the British royal family to hold her quartz and lapis phosphorus pots? If the story were in your hands, we might expect no unpleasantness, no murder or blackest betrayal, for you are not of a punishing nature. And yet, dear matchstick painter, your growing suspicions are correct—this is not your story. This is ours, and you have been summoned, led through the marketplace, encouraged to see this entertainment over the tedious play on cholera morbus down the street for solely that purpose: to provide us with an introduction to our true heroine, who, if you'll turn around, is walking down Sans Street toward you, carefully picking her way across the unctuous carpet of frogs.
Don't be upset, dear friend; we can't all of us be heroes. Though we met you first, we shouldn't feel compelled to follow your tiresome life. From the factory. Home. To the public house for a warm beer every third night—the whole process repeating itself ad nauseam. You have a purpose in the machinery of this book, and though it is not large, it is necessary. We have brought you here to describe her to us, we being too far away in time and space to form a clear impression. Please, dear friend, keep us in suspense no longer. Is she lovely? Plain? Young? Old? First impressions are difficult to shake, dear friend, so please, be precise.
Begin with her face.
It is thin, you say, but well formed? Has she not the snub nose and round cheeks of so many Sunderland girls whose raw ancestors tramped down from Scotland or washed ashore lo those many centuries ago from porkfed Saxony? Oh, hers is a more Gaulish beauty—if you dare to use the term as a compliment barely fifteen years after Waterloo—with delicate arching brows, a reasonably straight nose, and large, dark, almost navy blue eyes. Her slightly sunken cheeks are drizzled with light freckles—hereditary, you would wager, for surely freckles coaxed out by a pleasant day at the shore would not sit so starkly against white skin. And she is very pale. Her face and exposed arms are the color of cooling milk, faintly blue in the bucket; they possess the sort of pallor that scatters light, the sort of luminescence that great ladies, it is rumored, take small tastes of arsenic to achieve. Hers is the skin of a girl who never sees the light of day.
And her hair, what of her hair? Such skin must set off a deep brunette mane or a fiery halo of red. No, you say? She is blonde? With hair almost as pale as her skin, worn in a complicated style (known in fashionable circles as an "apollo"); her tresses braided and wrapped into a topknot at the crown, while little blonde ringlets are left to frizz at her temples. An ornament which if decorating the tresses of a lady would be a gilt arrow to honor the slayer of Python but on our heroine is a pigeon-feather-dyed red, bisects the knot and complete the apollo.
But we are confused. Is our heroine not a lady? Are we to go through this novel in the company of some commonplace Sunderland slut—not invited to any fancy parties, fed on boiled potatoes and beer when we might, in some other novel, have prawns and champagne? You said she has the pallor of a lady, wears her hair after the fashion of the day. How is she dressed, pray tell? By her clothes, surely we will know her.
Her dress is blue. How descriptive. But of what color blue?
Yes, of course in better years we too attended spectacles where nymphs and water sprites yearned for mortal men, where mermaids brushed their hair and admired themselves in flashing mirrors. You would have us picture, then, the backdrop of that theatrical Sea: the billows of cyan silk, the azure pasteboard waves, the ultramarine netting, tangled with sea horses and starfishes, flung to represent an aquatic paradise. We will close our eyes and do so as you command. Ah, how cool they look while we sweat in the theatre of a hot summer's night, spying on their underwater world with its hierarchy and despot king and chorus of rebellious daughters; a world so rich and foreign, yet so happily fraught with the politics of our own. Now, to that cool, blinding blue, we are to add the color of our play's artificial sky, appreciating the scene painter's ability to reach back into his childhood and extract the extinct shade of cerulean that floated over the River Wear before the factories were built. Yes, we are old enough to remember that color. We are old enough, certainly, to remember good many other things besides.
To the complex blue body of her dress, you would have us add wide-blown gigot sleeves swelling from bare shoulders and a matching belt cinched at her narrow waist, creating the inverted-triangle look so popular among fashionable women of today. Festoon the entirety with tulle and white bouffant in three puffy tiers from knee to ankle-length hem. Tie her up with a handful of bows down the bodice. She is a sumptuous, fantastical wedding cake. A walking confection. A tasty morsel. And yet, still you hesitate. Certainly no one other than the finest lady might afford such a singular dress. So what is wrong?
She seems small.
Is that all? Dainty is the fashion, my friend. Long gone is the tall, lithe, neo-Grecian look made popular by Boney and his Court in France. Give us the fantasy of the Romantics, frothy faux shepherdess frocks and Oriental accessories! We are a global power, and yet we are pastoral! We have fought in Egypt, we are marching across India; we have the technology to replicate the entire world in our clothing, and we yearn for a simpler time. Anyone would look small against such an empire. But stop, you say. If we are to tap you for a description of our heroine, we must trust your evaluation. Daintiness is bred and daintiness is manufactured. This girl—for surely she can be no more than sixteen—has had daintiness thrust upon her. She seems to you stunted and underdeveloped beneath that dress; her shoulders are painfully thin and her belt hangs loosely at the waist. Her shoes, the universal giveaway of poverty, peek out from under the skirt, revealing themselves as mud-spattered, worn-heeled work boots.
Is it possible? Could we be mistaken in our choice of heroines? Perhaps we got the date wrong, or the address, or even the country. Is there no one behind her—one of her better perhaps, coming to rescue our book from certain dullness? Look again, dear friend, leave the ticket booth and just peer around the corner to make sure we have not overlooked someone.
Why do you draw back? What? What is it there in the shadows you see?
Now you are rushing back to the theatre. Now you claim your duty is done? We have given you the opportunity to participate in our story, and you choose instead to hide yourself among the mass of anonymous theatregoers eating sandwiches from dirty handkerchiefs, pulling the corks from bottles of beer with their round yellow teeth. What is her name at least? Ask her name? But now the lights are come up, the first disoriented snow leopard bounds on stage decked in alchemist's cape and black cone hat; and you, dear matchstick painter, for we can see you hesitating in the aisle, are wrestling with yourself. It is Saturday night. You only wanted to see some chat savants, you wanted nothing to do with this infernal business. But you knew her, didn't you? We could tell from your stricken face when you peered into the shadows, you recognized that girl. What is her name?
A lioness teeters on her back paws wearing a mortarboard. A gray tabby, many and naked, runs figure eights through her unsteady legs, and the crowd roars.
Gustine. Her name is Gustine.
Thank you, kind matchstick painter. We have a certain sight, you know, but the fact is, we don't always trust it for details. It's a strange ability we have that allows us to see more clearly those who are closer to us, who perhaps are only a few weeks or a few months separated in time. Like for instance you. Or the turnip-fleshed woman who is trailing our heroine. The one you pulled back from in the dark. Her we see quite clearly, though perhaps she appeared to you as only a malevolent shadow along the ground.
In front of us, Gustine and her shadow turn left onto High Street.
A greasy drizzle has picked up, slicking cobblestones already slippery with fallen oak leaves. She heads away from the theatre toward dark linen and woolen shops, bakeries, booksellers and stationers shut up tight against the raw night. Hackney cabs clatter by, not pausing to see why a respectably dressed woman might be walking alone in a closed neighborhood without a cloak or umbrella at half past nine at night. A few merchants, reluctant to go home and face another night of boiled onions and Bible lessons, linger over their locks, peering into the dark windows as though sure of having forgotten something very important. They catch a glimpse of her, reflected by gaslight in their plate glass, and stay just a little longer, to watch and wish that one night, they might be coming out at exactly the moment she passes by, and might, by accident, brush against her tight hot snatch. Gustine lifts her skirt and shakes a frog loose from the hem.
People are saying this explosion of river frogs is due to an atmospheric disturbance, the same that brought the lightning storms and unseasonably warm weather even through October. They say that cholera is certain to follow in its wake. Gustine looks up to where the atmosphere is supposed to be. She wonders if one night it will merely begin to rain cholera. She wonders if cholera could even make it through the heavy gray clouds on this moonless sky begot by Sunderland's hardworking chimneys.
Behind Gustine her shadow pauses, and it too cocks an eye at the sky.
"Damn it!" Gustine turns and yells at the creature behind her. "Will you please just sod off?"
The girl gathers her dress and sprints away down High Street. She takes a right and then a left and then another right, trying her best to shake the old woman who follows her every night. The old bitch who dogs her every bloody step. Truly, business is bad enough with the Quarantine. The last thing she needs is that hag on her tail.
The shadow does not run after her, for shadows need never run; they are, by their nature, inseparably, inexorably pulled along in the wake of their objects. They do not think, they do not argue. They never worry they will be lost or shaken. A shadow cannot be paid off or given the slip like some commonplace retainer; it is with you from the hour of your birth to the day of your death and beyond, following you even where no one else will, into the wooden box as they hammer down the lid.
Wet blue rat.
The old woman walks with her head down as though scenting prey, and yet, she has almost no sense of smell, nor of taste, and she is so old she can barely hear. The rain has plastered her gray hair to her cheeks like whiskers, but she doesn't feel it. She walks with a bend head studying her own shoes, confident they will take her where she needs to go, and she walks quickly for a woman her age—which, depending on who you ask, is anywhere from sixty to eighty-three. She wears a loose-fitting brown wool dress with a dirty handkerchief tied over the bosom and her hair pulled back in that old-fashioned no-style style. Nothing about her, from her slightly hunched back to her hairy ape arms, would distinguish her from any other old woman in the East End—until you looked into her slack-skinned turnip-colored face. With a single glance you would realize what makes this abandoned shadow so assuredly calm and confident. What keeps Gustine afraid. What made poor matchstick painter pull back in horror outside the cheap theatre. You would see the shadow has an Eye.
Not eyes, mind you, but an Eye: a single gray carpuncle that has, over the years, siphoned from her other four senses every bit of potency, redirected the diffuse sensations of sound and touch and even smell straight forward into a single supreme ability; into an Eye so aware, so magnified it never tires, needs no sleep, misses nothing. No one may steal an apple but the Eye sees it. No one may pick his nose or slap his wife or feed his dog under the table, but that it is noted. How happy Jeremy Bentham would be to discover a living, breathing Panopticon moving through Sunderland's East End, kicking aside squabbling cats, splashing through black puddles of human waste and rotting food, its formidable sight turned upon a single prisoner only—that pretty young girl laced inside her bright blue dress.