A Novel In The Time of Covid: The Alchemist's Daughter

Chapter One

The milkmaids are preparing for the dance. In rutted lanes, ducking with nervous laughter as late-to-bed bats flit in and out of the blackthorn hedges, they tie ribbons in each other’s plaited hair, pick cow parsley and dog roses and campion for garlands. Their men, those who could be bothered to stir themselves at such an unchristian hour, are murmuring to each other in little knots, unimportant for once. The first pipes of the day are lit and sweet smoke billows and rises. Young girls and older women peer at each other’s faces as they straighten ribbons, push in a flower, searching for what they once were, what they will become, and the darkness hides their feelings: envy, regret, relief. There is laughter. Down the hill, the lights of the city make dim, fragile spider webs: lamps along the streets where the rich folk live, candles in upstairs windows as servants wake up; lanterns on wagons and carriages. A blackbird starts to sing in the hedge. It is May Day.

Someone gives a sign and the women lift their yokes of polished wood onto their shoulders. The pails are empty today and the yokes are no burden but still the women mutter and curse out of habit as the wood settles onto their broad, hard backs. Down the lane they go, heavy petticoats swaying and sweeping the dust. They are going to walk beside the Fleet River and dance their first dance of the day in Charterhouse Yard.

Cattle are lowing and crying hollowly in Smithfield and drovers are yelling above the clatter of hooves in Aldersgate Street. But Charterhouse Yard is quiet and content in the dark. The nightly drunkards, taking the boozy shortcut between Drury Lane and Smithfield, have all passed through and now there are only cats under the clipped trees that criss-cross the ancient square. In one of the fine houses a woman turns over in bed. Half-waking she becomes aware of the absence beside her: the large frame of her husband is not there. She remembers: a late night, and he had promised to sleep in his dressing chamber so as not to wake her. She smiles, and the pleasant effort of it sends her back to sleep straight away, turned towards the considerate absence of the man, her cheek cupped in her hand, her dark brown curls settling onto the white linen that smells, very faintly, of scorching iron and lavender.

Across the city wall in Angel Street, another woman is in bed with an empty place next to her. But her husband is downstairs drinking wine and scuffing the floor with his boot in a mild panic, because his wife is giving birth. It is an easy one, says the midwife, the same who delivered the first one, the difficult one, always difficult and now lying under stone in Christ Church. Still the woman grunts and sweats, the linen sopping beneath her, clinging to the long furrow of her spine and her plump backside. The laces of her coif are digging into her straining neck and she scrabbles at the knot, tearing the stitching clean off. She balls up the damp, greasy cloth and jams it between her teeth as the midwife barks at her to push, there’s a good girl, don’t be lazy, don’t be a lump. The midwife slaps the straining woman’s hand away from where it has strayed to the perfect dome of her belly, squints through the dim yellow candlelight, sees flesh part for a sleek black head. The woman screams and a puckered brow, two screwed up eyes and a nub of a nose appear. Push, you great cow. Push it out, for the love of God! She pushes. The midwife’s hard fingers grasp at the little creature, slide around the tiny neck and under the arms. Push, you clever girl!

In Charterhouse Yard, the sleeping woman dreams of a glass, a wonderful goblet which she holds in her cupped hands. A thin stream of garnet-red wine is falling straight down from far above her, thin as a silken thread, into the clear bowl. She watches it fill, and as the liquid rises so the wine becomes redder and more beautiful, as red as the ruby her husband brought her from Scanderoon, as red as the setting sun. There is something in the depths of the glass: a rose? A flower, she thinks, a damask rose, a tight maze of petals. And the stream falls in a perfect line from heaven and fills the bowl, fills it to the rim and over the rim, so that the redness, held by the glass lip, bulges and catches her reflection. The wine domes impossibly, rising to meet the falling thread until she is holding a great red spike in her hands, trembling where its motion holds the light. Her fingers are smooth and perfectly white against the glass. She looks into the heart of the wine. It isn’t a flower after all, but something else. Not petals, but a maze indeed: streets, walls, houses, church spires.

“Oh!” she says in wonder. The thrill makes her fingers tighten minutely against the shell of glass. It shatters, and as it breaks she finds that she had expected it to happen, but not that the wine would still hang there, a great red drop suspended by a single thread of liquid from some impossible height. The broken glass dissolves into the flesh of her hand. She feels it come into her like the cold from a frosted windowpane. And then there is a sudden feeling of vastness, of the immense space above her, the measureless dome of absence through which is falling a single thread of garnet-red wine. The weight of it all is too much. She lifts her head to look up, and the thing in her hands turns to hot liquid that engulfs her.

The dark curls do not move on the white pillow. They fan out from beneath her nightcap, across the pale curve of her neck. Her hand is still beneath her cheek. One eye has opened slightly, but it doesn’t see the faint gold of false dawn, just enough light to show the furrow in the bed next to her where her husband ought to be. She will not hear the milkmaids of Islington dance into the Yard, singing and clashing their burnished pails. She will not turn to wish her maid good morning, and she will not see her husband, the big man, fall onto the Turkey rug with a crash that will set the curtains of her deathbed quivering.

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