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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4. Ellen

Mother had just taken a tiny bite of her muffin when Father loudly cleared his throat. The crumb, which had been balancing delicately between Mother’s front teeth, shot out across the table and lay quivering in the centre of the white lace tablecloth. Mother clamped her napkin to her mouth in horror and we both looked across at Father.

He had not touched his breakfast and was already folding his newspaper. Mary had set a candle on the table next to him. The flicker of the flame and the grey morning light had given his face the waxy complexion of a corpse. Flesh hung from under his eyes and mutton-chop whiskers grew wide and long on the broad sides of his head. His hands were slender, though, despite his fatness; his fingers long and tapering and delicate like a woman’s. They made me shudder.

Father cleared his throat again. He used words sparingly. Mealtimes were for nourishing the body and not for idle chatter. His deliveries of the morning prayers were the only words ever permitted to break the silence of the dining room.

‘I received a letter this morning,’ he stated, and he took a fold of paper from his pocket and slowly spread it out.

He had never addressed us at the meal table before and I had to hold my hands in my lap to stop them from trembling.

‘It seems,’ said Father, ‘that my dear sister Isabella is no longer with us.’ He scanned the letter again. ‘Ah, yes. Thrown from her carriage and trampled upon by horses.’

There was a gasp from Mother and she clutched at her throat. Mary hurried to her side and poured her a glass of water.

‘Yes,’ continued Father. ‘It would seem she met her end in a most ghastly fashion.’

My mind was racing. Who was Isabella? I had no idea that Father had a sister. Questions bubbled into my mouth, one on top of the other. Questions I knew I could not ask now.

‘However,’ said Father, ‘I will spare you further details. All you need know is that her sixteen-year-old son, Jacob Grey, will be coming to stay with us for a time.’

A cousin, I thought. I have a cousin?

There was a thud and a clatter of cutlery. I turned to find Mother had fainted. I sighed. She would be indisposed for days now, and I would have to attend to her birds as she sipped her tonics and twittered out instructions from the depths of her bed.

‘So,’ said Father. He folded the letter carefully, ignoring Mother’s predicament. ‘It seems we must extend our hospi- tality to this ... boy. It would not do to be seen as uncharitable. Mary, you will get the blue room ready for our guest. And, from tomorrow, this household will be in mourning. Now, fetch my hat and coat and clean up this . . . mess.’ He waved his arm over the table at the leftover remains of breakfast and at Mother, spilt across the table like a jug of milk.

The front door slammed and Mary tsk-tsked as she helped Mother from her chair. I did not offer to assist. I was thinking of Isabella Grey, of an aunt I had not known existed, and of Jacob Grey. My cousin, Jacob Grey. I liked the name. Jacob Grey, Jacob Grey, I whispered. It tasted good, like a bowl of spiced soup on a cold wet day, or the crisp skin of pork, salty and hot from the fire. Would he be handsome? I wondered. Would he be kind? What would he think of me? He would be grieving, I reminded myself. I hoped I could offer him some comfort.

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