The Quietness

When fifteen-year-old Queenie escapes from the squalid slums of nineteenth-century London, she has no idea about the dangers of the dark world she is about to become embroiled in. Initially thrilled at being taken on as a maid for the seemingly respectable Waters sisters, Queenie comes to realise that something is very wrong with the dozens of strangely silent babies being 'adopted' into the household. Meanwhile, lonely and unloved sixteen-year-old Ellen is delighted when her handsome and charming young cousin Jacob is sent to live with her family. She thinks she has finally found a man to fall in love with and rely on, but when Jacob cruelly betrays her she finds herself once again at the mercy of her cold-hearted father. Soon the girls' lives become irrevocably entwined in this tension-filled drama. THE QUIETNESS is a novel of friendship and trust in the darkest of settings.

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2. Ellen

‘Mary, not so tight!’ I gasped, as she pulled the laces at the back of my corset. It was a miserable morning, the skies covered in a curtain of fog. The fire that Mary had lit in my bedroom was failing to chase away the cruel, icy draughts that crept through the floorboards and window frames. My arms were dotted in goosebumps and the fresh petticoat that Mary had laid out on the bed for me was already dirtied by a thin layer of greasy soot that had blown down the chimney.

My stomach hurt. The cramps which accompanied my monthly bleed pulled at my insides and the bones in my corset poked spitefully in my ribs. The bell for breakfast rang and I nudged Mary.

‘It’s tight enough, I think. Now hurry with my hair.’ Father couldn’t bear anyone to be late to the table and I did not want to draw on his displeasure. I did not want the morning to be made any more miserable.

The rag I had bloodied in the night was in a dish on my dressing table. Mary finished arranging my hair and covered the dish with a cloth ready to carry it downstairs to Father. He would glance at the contents and make a note in his diary. Then Mary would be dismissed down to the kitchen where she would burn the crimson-stained rag on the fire.

It had always been this way; since that first shocking morning in my twelfth year when I had woken to a dull ache in my back and a slipperiness between my thighs. The blood had soaked through my nightgown and left islands of red on my sheets. I knew it had come from deep inside me and I knew I was dying. It was Mary who found me kneeling by the bed, shivering in terror as I prayed for my life. It was Mary who calmed me and cleaned me with warm, wet cloths and told me I was ‘certainly not dying’, but had merely become a woman. She sat me in my armchair and wrapped me in a shawl and, as she pulled the soiled sheets from the bed and rolled them up, she told me she must inform Father of the event; that he had instructed her to tell him when it happened and that she dared not disobey him no matter how I cried and begged her not to.

Every month since then, I have prayed for the blood not to arrive. Prayed not to feel that weight of shame and hatred when I picture Father examining my dirty secret. Father places great importance on the regularity of a girl’s monthly bleed.

‘It is my duty as your father to see that your menstrual flow is observed with care. Any irregularities can only lead to hysteria, or, in the very worst of cases – insanity.’

Father knows all this because he is an anatomist. An eminent anatomist. He takes his carriage most days to the University College Hospital where he studies the workings of the human body. He has published a book on his find- ings: Swift’s Compendium of Anatomy. It is a work of great importance. Bound in polished brown leather, its pages are heavy with the secrets of the dead.

On a warm day last spring, not long after I had turned fifteen, Father told me to dress for an outing in his carriage.

‘It is time you were introduced to the world,’ he said.

Mary had been beside herself with excitement and persuaded me to dab some rouge on my cheeks.

‘He’s sure to be taking you to Rotten Row, miss. A ride around Hyde Park to show you off to the gentlemen of town. He’ll be wanting to find you a husband. You mark my words!’ She squealed with delight as she bustled around me fixing my hair and smoothing my skirts. Could it be true? I did not dare to hope so. But I remember I felt as though I was floating and my heart was beating fast, like the heart of a frightened mouse.

Father did not take me to Hyde Park. Father took me to the hospital. He took me down into the dirty yellow light of the dissecting room. Lying on a table was a man. His head was shaven; his skin brown and papery. I stood as though in a trance. Father walked towards the body and picked up a scalpel. I could not look away. He used the scalpel to slice down the centre of the body. Then he pulled it apart and dipped his hands inside. A hot stench of vile sweetness filled my nostrils and my breakfast rose in my throat.

‘Do you have any questions?’ asked Father.

I was dizzy and weak. From behind my lace handkerchief, I managed to ask Father who the man had been.

‘No one of consequence,’ he replied. ‘Just an unclaimed wretch from the asylum.’

I must have fainted then, for I awoke back in the carriage with a damp handkerchief on my forehead. Father was staring at me.

‘It is a pity you were not born a boy,’ he said. ‘You would have appreciated the great service I am doing mankind and be inspired to carry on my good works. As it is, it is enough that you saw it with your own eyes.’

I think Father knows all there is to know about the inner workings of the human body. He knows people from the inside out. I think that was what he was trying to tell me in the sadness of that yellow room. That he knows inside of me. He knows all of me and I can never hide from him.

As soon as Mary had finished my hair, I hurried down- stairs to the dining room. Mother was already sitting at the table. She is a wisp of a woman, so pale and fragile that I sometimes think the merest breath of wind could carry her over the rooftops of London and lay her to sleep on a cloud. She was dressed as usual in black silk, trimmed with stiff crepe, her silver hair hidden under a lace cap. I have never known her to wear anything other than black. All my life Mother has been in mourning for her dead babies.

‘Never able to keep one,’ Mary told me once. ‘All of ’em dead before they came out. Poor woman.’ I had looked at her, puzzled, and she had looked back at me with a faraway look in her eyes before suddenly seeing my face.

‘Well, ’cept for you, of course. She was allowed to keep you.’

I often think those dead babies must have taken her love away with them. Bit by bit, one by one, until by the time I came along there was none left for me.

Mother barely nodded her head as I whispered her a good morning. We sat in silence, listening to the shouts of the newspaper boy and the double beat of horses’ hooves that rattled along the road outside. Ninny, the cook, and Mary came into the room and waited at the back for morning prayers to be said. Mary had changed into a clean apron ready to serve breakfast but Ninny had grease spots and smears of bacon fat on her bib. I could hear her breath whistling loudly through her nostrils. She shuffled and sniffed and wiped the sweat from her top lip with the back of her hand.

The dining room door opened at last and Father walked in to take his place at the head of the table. The room held its breath, and even Ninny’s nose-whistling paused, as Father looked at us all with his watery eyes and then bent his head to pray.

Every day it is the same. Ninny retreats from the room as Father’s Amen settles in the air like the soot on the mantelpiece. Mary pours the tea and serves the muffins and bacon, while we, the eminent anatomist Dr William Walter Swift, his wife Eliza and I, their daughter Ellen, sit like strangers.

Mother will eat barely a bite before excusing herself and evaporating from the room as though she was never there. She hates the world outside her bedroom. She sits in there day after day, surrounded by fresh flowers and her cages of birds: her finches, parakeets and golden canaries. Her little ‘sugar birds’. I sometimes think she is half bird herself, with her brittle bones and beady eyes.

Father has a hearty appetite, and will eat a whole plate of bacon and a pile of greasy muffins before he folds his newspaper in half and takes out his pocket watch. At precisely half past nine he places the watch back in his pocket and calls for his coat and hat. The front door slams behind him and the ornaments on the sideboard rattle in agitation before the vibrations settle and the house sighs in relief. Then I am left alone in the quietness, with nothing but my books and my dreams of finding love and the emptiness of the day stretching before me.

Except that on this particular morning, Father made an announcement and I somehow knew that my life would never be the same again.

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