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ANDREW LEE-HART

TOUCH      ASYLUM    SNOW AND ICE

 

Touch 

Okay I don’t give blood just so that I can hold hands with an attractive nurse, but it is certainly makes the whole process that much more pleasurable. As I walked into the church hall I had a quick look round to see a likely candidate.  Any contact would be good, male or female, but a pretty nurse with pale skin would be best. There were a couple of possibilities; a red head, a little old who was attending to one donor whilst in the corner by the drinks machine there was a tall, lithe brunette whose skin was as pale as white chocolate. The rest were elderly but they would have been better than nothing. 

After the preliminaries I was led to the bed and lay down. To my delight the brunette walked over, she had a slight remote look and to my intense disappointment I realised that she was wearing gloves; plastic surgical ones.  She saw me looking at them;

“We are recommended to wear them, stops the spread of infection. Don’t want to give you any of my germs.”

My heart sank. 

The only odour that she gave off was something antiseptic; soap probably or a particularly clinical shower gel. Her hair was tied back, with not one strand running free, whilst her blue uniform was spotless and looked as if she had just ironed it and put it on. 

I pretended to myself that I could feel her cold skin through the thin sheath of rubber but I don’t think that I could, not really. None of the other nurses were wearing them so far as I could see. If only the red head had been there instead; her touch would have been slightly warm, the blood pumping just below the surface, a slight feel of her heat. Human contact between two strangers. 

Having given my pint of blood, or however much it is, I hurriedly drank my tea feeling its warmth disappear quickly down my throat, and left; I have been giving blood for years so did not feel dizzy as I hurried out. I had taken the day off work and I had several other chores to do that Friday. 

The library was only five minutes’ walk from the church hall where I had made my donation. For a long time I had refused to use the automated machines that had been installed six months or so ago. Instead of handing your finished books to a librarian you scanned them into the machine and they disappear. And when you had found some more books to borrow there was a similar procedure; no human contact necessary or wanted. 

I used to like talking to the librarians; not just the young pretty female ones, but any, of either sex. Realised that to them I was just another customer, no sooner gone than forgotten, but I enjoyed a quick chat and the feeling that just for a couple of minutes I became part of their consciousness.  

There was never much physical contact; just the accidental brushing of fingers when I handed in my books, but it was something.  I knew that once the machines had been installed the library staff would disappear, either redeployed or made redundant.  I explained this to one of the librarians, an older lady who I assumed was quite senior, but she was not impressed and told me she had plenty of other things to do and said she would show me how to use the machine if I could not manage it.  I did not want to look stupid so after that I reluctantly started to use them. The only human interaction being a quick smile to whichever librarian happened to be on the desk as I walked in through the door, but they usually ignored me. 

I do drive, but rarely as my flat is in the centre of Telford so all the places I need such as work or shops are within walking distance. At least walking I feel part of humanity, but then the town often seems so empty of pedestrians.  The large supermarket in the middle of town, where I do most of my food shopping, has a large car park which most of the shoppers seem to use.  Even inside the hangar-like building people are in a world of their own.  Of course they have these self-service tills so the only time you get to talk to someone is when you make a mistake and an alarm goes off, and then you get a sigh and often a silent correction of the problem from an irritated shop assistant. I used to go to the greengrocer and the health food shops in the town centre, but the former closed and the latter is as corporate as the supermarket. 

I had lunch in the small vegetarian café in town. I discovered it a year or two ago after a friend mentioned it. It is always seems to be full of life with the young people who work there chatting and often loud rock music playing in the foreground. They seem to have a large turnover of staff, although a slightly older lady who I think is called Vivian has been there since the beginning. 

While the staff chat constantly amongst themselves they are less friendly to the customers.  I go there at least once a week but none of them gives me any sign of recognition and I gave up any attempt at small talk some time ago. So I sit unnoticed on one of the large wooden tables eating my leek and potato soup and read Under the Greenwood Tree. 

After lunch I needed to go to the large Waterstones to buy a book for my mother’s birthday. I could probably have walked it but as there is as there is a bus that stops just outside where I live I decided to catch that instead.  I realised it was the first time in years that I had caught one. It was surprisingly crowded and I stood up between an elderly man with a brief case and a check jacket and a woman in her thirties wearing fawn coloured trousers and a white blouse. Her hair was black but I could see a few shreds of grey amongst the roots. 

At the next stop a rather large man with shopping got on and the woman pushed back into me so I could feel her buttocks in my groin. I thought she would move back into place after the man had squeezed past her, but she stayed close pressed against me.  The inevitable happened and I felt myself go hard and tried to turn away. The best that can happen, I thought, is that she will move hurriedly away with a tut of disgust, and the worst would be a scream and a slap. In fact she continued to push herself against me as she looked vacantly out of the window.  

She smelt of slightly of a superior perfume which I found exceptionally erotic. I dared to push back in return, not hard but just so she knew that I was there, and was involved. She seemed to rub her buttocks from side to side against me, but made no noise. I wondered if anybody on the bus could see what we were doing but nobody seemed to be looking in our direction. I could not believe it was happening, it was the sort of thing one fantasized about, but was more enjoyable in retrospect. 

We had long gone past my stop when eventually she got off, without a backward glance. I followed her slowly but realised there was nothing I could say. Perhaps she had not even noticed me. I watched her hurry over towards a large post office and I went to find a bus back to the book shop, my erection drooping in disappointment. 

That evening I visited my sort of girlfriend Samantha. In fact I don’t think she even regards me as a ‘sort of boyfriend’, maybe as a friend with privileges as the current, rather unpleasant phrase is. We never speak of love, and whilst I do have romantic feelings for her, I know that if I did say that I loved her that would be the end. In fact we rarely speak of emotions and what we feel towards each other and I have no idea what she thinks of me or whether there is anybody else she is truly in love with.  

She has a large house which smells of cigarettes, although I have never seen her smoke. She is tall, with a large bosom and big hips. Her hair is red but dyed, and the shade changes every so often.  She is actually rather pretty and I suspect well out of my league so I should be happy with what I have got, and realistically I realise that I will not get any more, certainly no official relationship.  

We met on a dating website, and while neither of us were swept off our feet we became friends, particularly after we discovered a mutual interest in alternative cinema. As if in respect to the original purpose of our meeting we usually round the evening off with something sexual. 

That evening we watched a French thriller based on a novel by Georges Simenon. A cynic might say that if it not had subtitles we would have turned up our noses at it; but to my mind it seemed much more subtle than the usual thriller which would have been on at the local multiplex, and Samantha who is even less easily satisfied than me also enjoyed it. 

As usual once the film was over and we had both drunk a couple of glasses of wine we did kiss a little bit, getting quite passionate, and then she stroked me through my trousers. When she first started to do this after our third ‘date’, I tried to get my penis out, but she insisted it stayed put. As well as the inevitable mess in my trousers it made the whole thing impersonal. She never wanted me to do anything in return for her, and it was as if she were doing a slightly distasteful favour for an acquaintance, not to be talked about afterwards. The thought of her hands on my bare penis therefore became something of an erotic dream. 

As usual after a quick visit to her toilet I left feeling slightly content but also disappointed.  All those bodily fluids taken out of my body, and so clinically; I just hope that they did someone some good. Maybe saved a life. 

At night I dream of somebody coming into my room, caressing me slowly, every bit of my body. It is dark and I cannot see anything of my late night visitor. They touch me with care; lightly and with seeming enjoyment.  I don’t know if they are male or female and it does not matter. They roll me over and continue their languorous touching. I usually wake up simultaneously aroused and with a feeling of bliss, of acceptance maybe. 

There is always a smell with the dream; at first I was slightly disgusted by it and simultaneously puzzled as to what it was, but realised that it was the smell of the human body; slightly sweating and with no perfume or deodorant to hide its humanity. 

I visited my mother the following day; she lives in Sandwell, which is easy to drive to from Telford.  She is in her mid-seventies and has lived on her own since my father upped and left her shortly after I was born, to God knows where. She left the large house in Birmingham a couple of years later and after moving round the West Midlands eventually settled in a small flat on the outskirts of Sandwell about ten years ago. 

A small, dark woman; she is cold and austere and probably always was even before my father left her. The few photographs that she has from her youth and the early years of her marriage show an aloof young woman, always seeming to be at a distance from whoever she is with. And yet of all the people I know she is the only one I truly love, without wanting anything in return, which is a good job really because she has very little to offer. 

We sat opposite each other drinking Darjeeling tea and I gave her, her present. Her sitting room was filled with books most of which were my father’s but which she had kept with her as she moved from house to house. This is her best room where she entertains guests. When she is on her own she sits in a cosier back room watching television and smoking. 

We talked about this and that and then sat in silence. I do not get bored easily; living on my own I have learnt to pass time and I enjoy the companionship we share. However I realised after a while that whilst I was happy enough she was clearly getting bored; her fingers were tapping and she kept looking above my head at the plain clock on the wall, clearly I was stopping her watching a favourite television programme or she was just bored.  I got the hint, and said I had to get back and prepared to leave. 

As I left the flat, she bent her face forward toward me at an angle, I was at first nonplussed then realised what she wanted so I planted a kiss on her rather withered cheek; skin against skin. 

  Touch….

 

 

ASYLUM

The attached I found in a second-hand bookshop in Whitby, battered and with some pages missing. I have searched on the internet but could not find any trace of it so suspect the copyright has long gone, I thus offer it to the readers of this magazine to make of it what they will.

Andrew Edwin Hart 2018

 

The following manuscript (novel? Confession?) I found in the basement of Harrogate library when I was given the task of deciding which items of our ancient stock we should keep and which to throw away. The chief librarian, Mr Agnew had decided that the basement was too cluttered and that somebody needed to go through it and “rationalise” what we had, therefore last July and August, when England was enjoying the Summer of Love I spent my time in a cold basement going through mouldy books, mostly dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, whilst my eyes ached and I grew progressively disillusioned with a job that kept me hidden away from the excitement of the late nineteen sixties.

There were supposed to be three piles; books to keep, books to offer to second-hand booksellers and books of no possible worth to anybody and thus to be incinerated, but soon there grew a fourth pile, books for my private collection, a pile which every so often I smuggled with me on the bus home. These were books too good to get rid of but which I doubted Mr Agnew would see the value of. My tastes are eclectic and anything that was odd or out of the ordinary went with me to my flat on the outskirts of Harrogate, fortunately the library authorities did not ever get suspicious and visit or I would have been sacked for theft.

My life was in some confusion at the time; my mother had just died leaving me an orphan and then in a fit of madness I proposed to my girlfriend Stephanie who refused me rather harshly and soon after ended the relationship. I was lonely and unloved and thus had plenty of time to read obscure books that no-one had opened for decades or perhaps centuries.

Herring’s account of his travels with Doctor Gilpin I found loosely bound and in a pink file; it was dated 1713 and handwritten and for some reason had been put amongst financial records of the Crown Hotel. At first I put the manuscript onto the pile of material to be disposed of, but then one lunch time on a whim I brought it up to my office and started to read it, braving the rather old-fashioned handwriting, and at the end of the day I took it home and spent the rest of the evening reading it, unable to put it down until its end.

Eventually I plucked up courage and spoke to Mr Agnew, and then with his permission I took the manuscript to the firm of Bays and Locke who have decided to publish it and thus give Mr Herring his moment of literary fame. The manuscript has moved me most strangely and I hope that other readers will feel the same or at least appreciate this glimpse into the England of Queen Anne, a land at once familiar and yet most strange.

Simon Reuven, Harrogate, 1969

 

Publisher’s Note

Mr Herring was clearly a powerful and amusing writer who had something to say, but equally clearly his spelling is poor and inconsistent whilst his turns of phrase are often incomprehensible, therefore I have taken the liberty of “tidying up” the original manuscript; correcting spelling and grammatical errors and making the language more congenial to a modern reader, without I hope losing the wit and charm of the original.  

As well as serving as a memorial to its writer, unfortunately this work will also serve as one to the man who discovered it, one Simon Reuven who I am grieved to say disappeared shortly before this book was due for publication, his friends tell me that he suffered from a deep depression and therefore we can only fear the worst. It is not appropriate for me to comment on this further but suffice to say if it had not been for his enthusiasm and determination this book would never have been published.

Chris Bays, Knaresborough, 1970

 

The following is a true account of my life 1711-12, the reader can make of it what he will.

Mr P Herring, 1714

Wellington (Salop)

I felt him watching me, my master, the doctor in the carriage behind me. He said no words, what was he thinking? I knew that he was a good man, but he was deep, very deep.

The roads were awful; at some points they disappear completely, obliterated by the mud and you could only guess where the track is. And oh the stones and rocks that jolted me terribly, so that even Doctor Gilpin the most fastidious of men and supporter of the Reformation of Manners, occasionally uttered an oath as the carriage rattled and shook and I feared for the wheels.

I touched the horse in front of me with the whip, just to remind her that I was still there, and the carriage continued at a steady pace. In front of us a young man, agricultural looking, strode firmly at the side of the road, looking manly and confident. I heard a cry behind me from the carriage.

“Stop and talk to that man” shouted My Master, Doctor Gilpin of Nottinghamshire and London, “find out where there is an inn.”

I stopped and got down from the carriage and approached this prime example of Salopian manhood.

“Excuse me, where is there a goodly inn?”

The man, dark-haired and thick-chinned, looked at me intently and then after awhile said something which I could not understand, why people in Salop cannot speak in good English I do not understand, their tongue is so barbarous, more so than any of the other places that my Master and I have visited. I stared back as I tried to make out what he has said and then walked back to carriage.

“Well Herring?”

“He said there is one close by” I murmured, and we set off again, with my hoping that an Inn would appear soon so that my master would not realise my deception. It was March and rather cold, and therefore I was shivering under my great coat. I could see no more signs of life around us, just fields that looked green, and occasionally smoke from iron furnaces out in the distance.  As I drove I could feel the Doctor’s impatience building, but then at last there gradually came in view through the evening’s murk, what looked like a village a couple of miles ahead, and then before we reached it, in front of us appeared an Inn, with peasants sat outside supping on some noxious brew or other.

A rather blonde, pale barmaid was serving the Doctor when I came into the inn having seen to the horse and brought our things inside, he was talking to her and she was giggling to herself; he has a good way with words does my Master, he writes of course so that helps, and he has charm. They both ignored me so I sat down in a corner of the inn and waited to be noticed, close by me were two young men sat and seemed out of countenance that the barmaid was so occupied with my master, seeming to hang on to his every word. Although if they thought he wanted to bed her they needed have no fear, my master, despite his apparent flirtatiousness, being as chaste as a nun.

I awoke with master shaking my shoulder and whispering for me to get up, I had barely slept and outside it was dark as pitch.

“Herring, sort out the horse and carriage, be quick.”

“It is still night.” But he was gone, and this is not the first time we have left an inn in the early hours, so I hurried downstairs with our bags and shortly afterwards we were driving out of the inn and into the dark, the moon barely visible above our heads. We drove through the village, I could feel my master’s anxiety and so could the horse and so we swiftly made our way past the grey houses and then the church with its tower.

“Stop” my master urged and there was a figure shrouded in a cloak who appeared from the churchyard, without a word my master helped her into the carriage and we took off.

He finds these people unwanted and unloved and then rescues them and then once we have half a dozen back home we go, to Bramcote Hall away over in Nottinghamshire. I moan about my Master, but he is a good man, he is a doctor after all, and he rescues the people he finds, like he did for me. I know that he saved me and that he can do the same for the others that we find during our travels.

It was Sunday afternoon as we rolled into the Salopian town of Wellington so it was deathly quiet, but nonetheless it looked to be a fine place, and it was far enough away from the inn for us to be safe. Since getting into our carriage, the barmaid, whose name is Jane and my master had made no noise, presumably they were asleep and I too on occasion felt myself drifting off before being pulled into wakefulness by a heavier than usual jolt as we rode over a stone or something more suspicious. But as the day had got brighter I forgot my disturbed night and enjoyed the ride through Salop.

I found an inn called The King Charles and we alighted and I heard My Master say that we would be staying for a few days. I was given a small room to share with a lackey in the house called Bunce, but as he worked from before the sun rose until after it sank he rarely had time to talk and anyway he was so shy that he did not bother me. Jane stayed in her room for much of the time, possibly a-feared that somebody in town would recognise her and send her back to the Inn. No doubt when we had finished my master’s business in Salop we would go back to Nottinghamshire with any other waifs and strays that the good doctor had come upon.

On Monday through to Wednesday my Master sat in his room all morning writing his pieces for that journal The Onlooker and then after lunch we would walk into the town to post off his pieces and to explore and to talk to the natives. Despite their barbarous tongue he seemed to understand them and to be understood. At times like this I was proud of my Master as he was smartly dressed and smelling faintly of perfume and with those polite manners no matter who he was talking to.

On Wednesday afternoon, as we stood by the village cross and my master talked with anybody that would talk to him. I stood nearby just watching and thinking my thoughts. I can still only understand a few words of the execrable Salopian dialect so had no idea what was being discussed although I could guess. My Master is a very good listener and for a few moments whoever he is talking to feels that he or she is the centre of the universe; with a gift like that he could have been a preacher or a politician for I verily believe that at times he could make anybody do anything.

He spoke earnestly with a large lady who despite the afternoon heat wore a large hat and seemed draped in several clokes, not surprisingly she was perspiring constantly. The two of them spoke closely for quite some time, speaking softly that nobody else would hear them.  The Doctor looked pleased and once he and woman had finished speaking he hurried back towards the inn looking purposeful and I followed behind him along the busy high street. Before we re-entered he told me to pack all our stuff but to do it discretely.

We set off from the inn on foot, in the gradually darkening evening. We were mostly going through forest, tripping over trees and other obstacles. We could hear the song of birds and other animal noises that I could not, and did not, want to identify. Doctor Gilpin barely spoke, perhaps trying to remember the path we were supposed to be following, I was worried that we would end up lost and perhaps eaten in the forest, and perhaps there were witches in this benighted part of the country. Several times My Master turned back the way we had come, before going on another way. My feet felt sore, but there was a freshness out here although at one point a smell of burning wood drifted through the forest.

Then we reached our destination; a group of tents in a circle quiet in the faint moonlight. Just as we reached the edge of the camp, the woman from earlier that day appeared and bid us hush and go back under the trees. She then disappeared into the nearest tent and re-appeared with a child in her arms and another following holding her hand who seemed dazed. All five of us made our way back through the forest, the woman leading the way urging us on by gestures and carrying the child whilst the other was apparently now my responsibility. I put him onto my shoulders where he held on tight and fell asleep.

Just as we reached the edge of Wellington my master took the sleeping child off the woman and gave her some coins in a bag.

“Cannot I come with you? You said I could.”

Doctor Gilpin looked at her, “I made no such promise. I have given you money, now be off with you.”

“But where can I go? I have betrayed my husband’s trust.”

“If you truly care for these children then they best away from his violent hand.”

“But he and his servants will turn on me” she said.

My master shrugged and then hurried away as the child in his arms started to stir.

“Perhaps you could suggest that the gypsies took them” I suggested as I hurried behind my master, but the woman gave no sign of having heard and I left her in tears.

We silently reached the inn and My Master made his way to the carriage in which, sat in one corner looking scared sat Jane, surrounded by all our possessions. She started up as we came in.

“Children” she shouted aghast and then I shut the door on them, and we set off for Nottinghamshire and for home.

We stopped off at an inn near the town of Derby having driven all night and day. My master and I sat together outside and supped our ale, whilst in the carriage Jane did her best to look after the two children who she had very reluctantly found herself nursemaid to. My master seemed in a very happy mood.

“Smell the country air” he told me. “This is a beautiful country, and we have rescued more innocents. What could be better than this?”

I wondered if Jane felt the same sat in the carriage trying to entertain two infants, she was clearly not the maternal type, and hopefully my Master would find her more congenial work once we arrived home. I did wonder if she was one who would stay at Bramcote or would find the life uncongenial and flee into the night.

 “I long to be back in London” I told my master, “where I can understand what the people say, where there is tobacco and snuff, and theatre and music.”

“You are a fish out of water.” My master laughed uproariously and then ordered more ale for the both of us. The River Derwent, a poor thing compared to the Mighty Thames, lay close by and I could smell the damp and dirt coming from it.

“Do not worry” he told me, “later this year we will be back in London, my mission is not complete yet, and I have people I need to see, but we have more travelling to do before then. We will not be stopping at Bramcote long, just time to get Jane and the two children settled.”

I looked about me and realised that despite my complaints that I too was happy. Would anybody else from the orphanage have ended up servant to such a kind master and see so many towns and villages that I have seen? True there is madness and evil in this country of ours, but there is also great beauty and kindness.

 

Onlooker, Issue 27

…and thence to Wellington, a goodly town whose inhabitants are friendly and wealthy. There is a large market there where people from as far afield from villages such as Oakengates and Hadley and even the county town of Shrewsbury come to sell their wares. These are country folk without the sophistication of Londoners but they work hard and are worthy and religious. 

Travellers frequent the environs and visit the town on occasion to buy supplies. Their children are poor and the women pale and listless, they are treated with contempt by the local inhabitants and there is general happiness when they move on. They are accused of so many misdemeanours that it is hard to believe all that is said of them and one wonders what would happen if some of their children were brought up within four walls and with plentiful food and drink and with a sense of GOD and piety.

The Salopian countryside is green but not as dramatic as that of Yorkshire or Wales, but it is a restful place despite the smell of burning wood and the smelting of iron. We stayed a week at this place before leaving, with regret, for home…..

G.

Editor’s note the next thirty pages are missing and we re-join the story in London.

London

We trudged through the London mud heading towards Will’s Coffee House, My Master at my side looking smart in his cloke and hat, and with his air of not quite belonging, being slightly above all that surrounded him, whilst I felt happy being back home again after being so long away amongst peasants and yokels.

As we walked I fastidiously avoided the prostitutes that frequent Covent Garden with their gaudy dresses and flagrant nakedness, and I hoped that my Master would do the same, but I knew that he wouldn’t.

“Poor things” he murmured and stopped to talk to a young girl who cannot have been more than twelve. She seemed to come alive as we approached, and I saw hope and yearning in her tired looking eyes.

“My poor dear” he said to her and handed her some money and his card, “take the evening off and come and see me at this address when you can. No harm will come to you.”

My Master often did this, and sometimes the prostitute or stray whom he had befriended would appear a day or so later, worried but desperate and I think that they could tell he was a kind man; after all their lives depended upon their making quick judgements of character and I doubt any regretted coming to our rooms on Exeter Street.

We sat in Will’s Coffee House waiting for Mr Joseph, editor of The Onlooker. we both drank coffee and my Master smoked his pipe. As he gets older he wants me by his side more and more often, making me wonder whether am I his manservant or his friend, because whilst he knows a great many people I would not say that he has anybody who is a bosom friend and even I do not know what is in his heart.

Mr Joseph walked in, a large man but his smartness from his wig to his boots hid his plumpness unless you studied him intently. I had met him a dozen times and found him polite and respectful, but he seemingly always had somewhere else that he needed to be and thus a little distracted, but you made a mistake if you thought that he was not listening to you, he was always alert and never forgot anything, which made me distrust him.

He bought coffee and shook hands with both of us which I took most kind, I looked at My Master but he gave me a look that told me I should stay. Being a factotum I have learned to be invisible when necessary and many people soon forget my presence but Mr Joseph was very well aware that I was still there, occasionally casting an eye over at me.

“Here are my latest scribblings.” My master told him handing him a packet, “we have been to Oxford and Northampton and before that Salop.”

Mr Joseph put them into a pocket of his long coat, casually feeling the packet to see how much paper it contained as he did so.

“Still collecting?” Joseph asked casually as his eyes wandered the dark coffee house.

“Collecting?” my Master asked.

“Yes collecting. Children, waifs and strays. People nobody cares about or who want an escape.”

For the first time I saw my master out of countenance and he lit his pipe and slowly drew it in to hide his embarrassment. Mr Joseph was quiet for awhile and there was silence at the table, and then Mr Joseph looked over at me, “no doubt you are one of your master’s waifs and strays; no family to enquire about you, no friends to worry”. I looked at him hard, and once again there was silence at our table.

“Any news from London?” asked my master eventually, “The Queen?”

Mr Joseph shrugged as if thinking of other things. “The Queen is rarely here in London, she doesn’t like the air. But she is a good monarch, things are stable.”

My master smiled, “sometimes that is best for those in power, fair but remote.”

“Yes we are lucky to live in such times, with a Protestant Queen on the throne and the extremists gone. We live in a beautiful city and no longer have to fear the plague whilst the mob know their place and are happy in it. The theatres are open but less sordid than before and composers compose; we have the arts but there is British reticence and purity. This is a Golden Age and, I doubt me that we will such again.”

My Master nodded, although I am not sure he truly concurred with such sentiments he was glad to have the subject changed.

The two men regarded each other in a more friendly manner, having reached a concord.

“I will publish your pieces. Please send me more when you have time.”

“We are venturing to the north, to Harrogate, Durham and maybe even over the border.”

“But you will stay in London, surely?” Mr Joseph looked for a moment as if he cared.

“Oh yes, Winter is approaching and roads are unpassable, we will wait until Spring and then we will venture out again.”

Mr Joseph nodded distractedly whilst my master continued.

“I am off to the Royal Society tonight, to hob-nob with the great and the good. No doubt you will be there.”

Mr Joseph smiled for a moment, “Certainly. I am a friend of Sir Isaac Newton, I will introduce you. You are both fond of experiments and strange beliefs.”

Two days later there was a knock at our rooms and the young girl from Covent Garden looking furtively about her swiftly entered, she was wearing a light grey robe, spattered with mud and she looked even younger than when we had first come across her. I showed her into My Master and they spoke earnestly for an hour and after that she remained with us. My Master sent out for more appropriate clothes for her and then sent me out to pay off her Bawd to whom she owed money, and to get her pitifully few belongings.

“Her name is Sarah” my Master told me “and she will be staying with us for awhile and then I will send her on with anybody else we come across in London up to Nottinghamshire before we begin our travels.”

She proved to be a useful girl; eager to please and helped keep the rooms tidy. My Master always booked extra rooms in case we found anybody, so she had her privacy. She was a pleasant girl; artless but also hard and I wondered if she would be able to become again the young girl that she was deep down.

“Where are you from?” I asked her one desultory morning whilst my Master scribbled in his room.

“A small village, it is near Stafford. My mother died in childbirth, and my father turned to drink as a consequence. He wanted me to stay, to look after him but I wanted to escape.  I stayed in Stafford for awhile worked as a seamstress but there was trouble so I fled here.”

“Well I am glad you found my Master” I told her, and looking at her innocent and frightened face I meant it.

She still looked reserved but was becoming less thin and more chatty as she got used to us and realised that we meant her no harm. Often as she swept or sewed she sang to herself; hymns sometimes, or more earthy songs. My Master would frown as he had little love for music but for me I felt very happy listening to the trials of Barbary Allen, that lovely Scotch song, and I would ask her to sing it again and again, never having enough of it.

Onlooker, Issue 78

A Trip to Covent Garden. Recently I walked to Covent Garden (formerly Convent Garden) that magnificent edifice built by the late Inigo Jones. But oh what wantoness and greed we see there! The exploited and the exploiter! The innocent girl or boy from the country tempted by the Bawd and Pimp, held in thrall to them, and then the popinjay or honourable duke who uses sates his lust and then forgets her within moments of dressing himself, and looking out for his next conquest.

Is this truly a Golden Age, that so many of my contemporaries see? An age where the poor and simple are used by the rich and corrupt? I am told that this is a religious age where culture rides hand in hand with vertue but walking around Covent Garden or the notorious Vauxhall Gardens I see sites that would shame Babylon or the Rome of Nero and Caligula.

G.

 

Harrogate

It was Spring and I drove my Master’s carriage through the Yorkshire Moors.

“Your hay it is mow'd, and your corn is reap'd; /Your barns will be full, and your hovels heap'd:/ 

Come, my boys, come; / Come, my boys, come; /And merrily roar out Harvest Home. “

I sang, feeling the joys of the season, inside the carriage behind me my Master was silent, he was still not well but despite Mr Joseph urging him to stay in London for longer we had left three days before as he was anxious to get on.

During the Winter months my master had immersed himself in London life; darting hither and thither throughout the city seemingly casting off his age and behaving as he did when we first met. In particular he had become involved with a Dissenters’ orphanage outside the city, visiting often and eventually four of the children had set off by coach along with Jane to Bramcote Hall to await our return, they had been accompanied by two “Mollies”, young men who had been followers of the same trade as Jane, a strange coach ride that must have been.

Whilst my master pursued his own affairs I had plenty of time for my own pursuits; attending the theatre, particularly for the music, reading in the Coffee Rooms and renewing old acquaintances.   And then in February My Master had come down with the ague; at first he ignored his coughing and shaking, but as he continued to shiver I persuaded him to go to bed and then his faeces became liquid and he vomited if he so much looked at some food. I had worried that the plague had made a reappearance and was ready to flee, but Doctor Jeffries assured me that it was just the influenza and so I had stayed and tended my master until he got well, or at least better than he was.

“We'll toss off our ale till we canno' stand,/ And Hoigh for the honour of Old England: / Old England, / Old England, / And Hoigh for the honour of Old England.”

I sang as we continued until my master shouted to me to stop the carriage.

“What is that song you are screeching?” he asked me bad-temperedly as he emerged and cautiously looked about him, and without waiting for an answer he continued to harangue me “cannot you be discrete, the hills are alive with highwaymen. Who knows what else lurks in these strange hills.”

“You are getting old master” I told him, “older and more weary.”

He glared at me and we both laydown on the side of the road whilst the horse ate grass and drank water from a stream. After the busyness of the throng in London this was peaceful and for a moment, even I a true Londoner to my marrow, could appreciate the tranquillity of the countryside.

Doctor Gilpin however seemed nervous, constantly looking around us, perhaps expecting horses’ hooves, shooting and our money being dragged away from us. My Master carried as little cash as he could get away with, and what he had brought was hidden in various parts of the coach.  He shivered as he sat on the grass and I fetched his cloke and he covered himself with it. I could smell smoke; and in the distance there was a thin trail of smoke. My master followed my gaze.

“You really are not well master, and now we are out in the middle of nowhere where will you find an apothecary? “

“But time is drawing on apace and I still have work to be done, people to find. Forgive me my bad temper.”

I bowed slightly, both in mockery but also respect for I truly loved my master and could not imagine anybody else taking his place in my heart.

Once back on the carriage I continued to follow the muddy track. Soon we arrived at a small cottage from whence the smoke came; it was just a small shack really but I stopped the horse to ask for refreshment, but a voice from behind urged me to carry on.

“What are you stopping for? Carry on we cannot be far from Harrogate.” So we continued to move forward; the road was barely visible at times but eventually far in the distance I could see a collection of houses and other buildings as we headed toward Harrogate Spa.

We passed a young man shortly afterwards, he looked tall but slouched as he walked, my master bid me stop and talk to him. The man looked frightened when I stopped and when I addressed him he was slow of speech and confused.

“He is simple” I told my master.

My master spoke directly to him. “Would you like us to carry you apace?” he asked, the man looked nervous, but my master was all charm and kindliness.

“What is your name?”

“Nathan.” My master nodded and held out a hand and after a few moments of indecision, Nathan took it and was helped inside. I rode on somewhat disquieted by this, perhaps my master’s worries were becoming contagious.

We settled at The Swan Inn close by The Pump Rooms and my Master took Nathan in hand. I do not know why this young man had come to Harrogate, work perhaps, just looking for somewhere to stay, but he was happy for my Master to look after him and he soon worshipped him as so many had before, following his every move. Once we were settled in the town the two of them regularly promenaded through Harrogate, Nathan a step behind and often murmuring to himself as they walked.

On most days they went to take the waters, but I had no interest in this, the smell was noxious as if from the bowels of the earth and I was not old or ill that needed such remedies. As my master no longer appeared to need me I walked about the town on my own and I also started to write this manuscript, thinking that it might of interest to look back upon when I am as old as My Master.

More importantly one morning I bumped into a servant girl called Mary who is attached to a Lady Melbourne who apparently is a confidant of Her Sacred Majesty the Queen.  As the town was quiet we sort each other out when we could, walking through the gardens, talking of this and that and flirting in a decorous manner. Mary was originally from Hertfordshire and had been taken on by her Lady Melbourne as a child. She was dark, almost swarthy and as sophisticated as you would expect someone in her position to be, but underneath it all was a bubbling humour that at any moment could burst its banks and engulf us both.

One afternoon when her mistress had no need of her, Mary and I walked out into the country her hand lightly on my arm feeling and natural and right as a thing could be. And then after we walked for an hour or so there in front of us were my Master the Doctor with Nathan next to him, they were deep in discussion, but Nathan saw us and whispered to my master and he looked up with a most curious expression on his face. He exchanged words with Mary who smiled, blushed and curtsied all at the same time as was her wont. They then carried on back into town whilst we continued our walk.

“What a charming gentleman” Mary said, “you are very lucky to have such a master. Now wonder you are reluctant to leave him.”

I smiled, “but I cannot stay with him forever” I told her, nor do I want to.

Later on, back in the Inn Doctor Gilpin accosted me in my rooms.

“That was a fair maid I saw you with. I wonder if she is happy…..”

“No Master” I told him most firmly, “no. She is my friend you are not to take her with you.”

He looked as if he would say something more, but then he looked at me again with a rather sad expression on his face and decided not to pursue the matter, and he left me, calling for Nathan as he did so.

Nathan and I talked sometimes in the evening whilst my master was in his rooms writing his travel pieces for Mr Joseph. Previously My Master had stayed up all night writing, his candle needing to be replenished as melted onto his table, but now even when it was still light he would call me or more often Nathan to assist him to bed, and he wrote during the day, which gave Nathan and I chance to chat in the evening. Our rooms smelt of burning wood from the fire that burnt continually against the North Yorkshire cold.

Nathan was a simple soul and at first I could not understand what he said, but we became used to each other, and his talking became more comprehensible. He was perhaps a little selfish and uninterested in everyone but himself, but I enjoyed hearing him talk about his family and the countryside in Northern Yorkshire. He was a vulnerable man and I was glad that he was safe with us, past any harm.  Sometimes when Nathan had nothing to say we would sit in silence gazing into the fire, but it was a silence that I found relaxing and whilst I felt jealous that Nathan was taking my role from me, he was a gentle soul who I could not have hated or mistreated even if I had been so minded to.

Mary and I spoke in the coffee room; it was only a small wooden building and it was quiet. Perhaps a rather struggling concern with the owner hoping that the fashions of London would soon come to this Northern town which was becoming popular with the gentry.

“You could come to London, my mistress’s brother needs a valet and I am sure she would put a word in for you, and anyway a sharp man like you could find work.”

Mary looked beautiful with her black hair trying to escape from under her blue bonnet. I suspected that she was bored out in the provinces and that any respectable man would have done for a little flirtation and dalliance. But perhaps she was right, and I could not stay with my master forever, and maybe I was something more to her than somebody to pass the time with.

“You spend your time travelling. Will you never stand still?” she asked me.

“But I do not want to be a servant either; not forever. Ministering to some fop’s needs.  I want a change certainly, but something on my own account.”

We paused and drank our coffee.

“What have you in mind?” she asked me.

“I have money saved, and I am sure my master will give me more. I would like to buy a shop, become a bookseller. Harrogate is a coming place, why not buy something here. You are a hard worker, come live with me.”

“But my mistress?”

“What of her?”

When I arrived back at the hotel deep in thought, there were four children in our rooms along with Nathan; all girls. My Master, the good Doctor was talking to them quietly and he glanced up at me as I strode in, but my thoughts filled with Mary and our life together.

“There is a school of sorts in the town,” my Master told me, “Nathan and I visited, and these girls need work.” Despite my master’s kindness they looked scared, they were all young, less than ten and clearly had no idea what was going to happen to them. Nathan too looked petrified and was sitting as far away from them as possible.

“Are we moving on?” I asked my Master.

“Back home, back to Nottinghamshire.” I shrugged, my mind on Mary. The idea of living with Mary had grown on me. I loved travelling and truth to tell I loved the doctor and what he had done for me, but I felt that time was moving on. Did I want to go to my grave having just been a manservant, never having the chance to marry and have children? Despite their noise and their smell I loved children and wanted some of my own.

“You seem distracted? Is it that maid?” It took me a moment to realise that My Master had spoken and I flushed deeply.

“She is a beautiful woman and I would like to see her some more.” I told him.

Doctor Gilpin sighed. “Come back with me to Bramcote, I need you to drive my carriage and look after Nathan and the girls and then you can make your decision.  Nobody is ever with me against their will.  You have been a good servant to me and I will repay you.”

“Thank you” I said, feeling as if I was such a wretch. I had just been an orphan when he discovered me, was nothing, likely to die in the gutter. Stupid and unskilled and now I was a gentleman’s manservant with prospects and I owed it all to him. This life was all I had known, and I was a fool to think that I could set up a shop, become a tradesman. I was helpless without My Master, and how could I be so ungrateful?

We sat together in his rooms later, the girls were in bed and Nathan was drinking downstairs in the Inn.

“She seems a comely wench.” he told me.

“She is bright and she is practical. I am not sure if she will leave her mistress but she seems willing.”

My master looked at me kindly; each day he looked older and his skin more sallow; he had clearly never fully recovered from his ague of the previous winter. Everything he did took longer and so often he wrapped himself up in clokes and blankets.

“Was there never anybody for you?” I asked him.

“Never, marriage is not for me. I have been called to higher things. I have my companions and I have God, but somebody to share bed with?  That does not tempt me?”

“What did you do before you met me?” I asked him, why had I never asked him this before? Was I not interested in the person who I was closest too in the whole world?”

“I studied in Cambridge, then abroad in Germany, and after that I was restless so I travelled, all over Europe, Spain, France and then Italy. I met people, talked and for a while I lived as a peasant. Even when word was got to me that my father was dead I stayed abroad for a year or so before coming back to claim my inheritance.”

He puffed on his pipe as he spoke, and I coughed discretely.

“And then I started to travel in my own country. And I knew that I would need a companion, a helper and when I found you I knew you were the one. I did not know what would happen to us, whether you would bide with me or leave, but you have helped me immeasurably and I know that God called you to me. Whatever you decide to do next you have been a great help, but I do hope that you stay. Flesh withers eventually but only the spirit stays true, Mary will not always be as she is now.

The following morning My Master wrote and wrote, he seemed well and happier. The four girls played in my room whilst Nathan and I watched them and talked a little. He told me of his younger sister who had gone off to another town, but he could not remember where, then he became confused and was silent, so we sat and watched the girls playing some kind of counting game that seemed too complicated for me. Nathan was scared, I could tell that but did not know how to ask what would happen next, where we would be going, but how could I explain Bramcote Hall to somebody who was overawed by an Inn in a small town like Harrogate? I tried to comfort Nathan, but he became withdrawn and sat deep in his own thoughts where not even My Master could reach him.

Nathan sat besides me in front of the carriage as we drove through Yorkshire and headed towards My Master’s home, Bramcote Hall. He was enthralled by the beautiful scenery; the mountains, rocks, the waterfalls. I could sense that he wanted to get down, and at times when we stopped to rest the horse and to give the girls a break, he ran out into the fields and chased the sheep and shouted at the sky words that made no sense to me. He was a wild thing, but he was happy and My Master looked at him with love.

Onlooker, Issue 119

…. I have been lonely in many a crowded room, amongst the throngs at the Haymarket or the theatre, or on market day in a busy town. I hear the sounds of people close by me laughing, shouting and talking but I stand alone despite having a companion by my side. Even when at home with my friends and servants about me, my thoughts crowd upon me but there is nobody to say them to as I deal with others’ wants. I pretend to be interested in the topics of the day, gossip and discussions on money but actually I am not; even at church there is nothing to touch a chord in my heart.

But yesterday I set off onto the North Yorkshire Moors, walking all day with the wind in my hair and grass springy beneath my step, all at once I feel that there is someone with me who understands my thoughts and wants, and who laughs at what I laugh at and cries at what moves me to tears. The clergyman will say it is God, the deist the spirit of the place, I do not know what it is but only when I am out on my own in the wildest of place do I feel known and understand, and I would travel to the ends of the earth for such a sensation.

G.

.

Bramcote Hall

Nathan and the girls had never seen the hall before of course, but even I who knew the grandeur and size of the building as well as anybody, felt a little overwhelmed as we drove up the long drive. Bramcote Hall gradually became visible in the distance through a slight fog, and I heard Nathan gasp as its magnificence was gradually revealed to us.

The gravel split and crunched as we drove up; the hall was large with two wings and a vast entrance hall. Word had obviously got round that we were on our way because I noticed a hurry and a scurry and soon there was a crowd of people waiting for us by the entrance, all smartly dressed and respectful. I felt Nathan start to breathe most heavily.

“Don’t worry” I told him, “they were all once like you, the unwanted and the straying who My Master took in and who live here, and who are all very happy.”

There were almost forty people living here now; every year my Master would find four or five more to come and live with us, occasionally some would leave and my Master would find them something in Nottingham or Southwell, but mostly they stayed and seemed pleased to do so. I could see Jane from Shropshire, looking demur in a maid’s uniform, although even that could not hide her large bosom and I felt a faint stirring in me, something I had started to experience over the last few months. I stopped the carriage in front of the entrance and Nathan and I jumped down and then I helped the children and My Master out of the carriage. We were home.

As usual there was the service of thanksgiving. The house had a small chapel within the house, hidden away underground so that only members of the household knew about it. My Master himself always preached and preached in a way unlike I had heard before. I had attended a church as a child, all us children had to do, and the vicar, a kindly and good man I am sure, talked of Christ betrayed and of us doing our duty to the king and to those others in authority, whilst we sat and fidgeted, and thought of other things.

But My Master Preached of sanctity, of keeping ourselves holy and pure. He talked of us being persecuted for our beliefs, of how we were a Chosen People called for higher things. And as I sat in the back of the chapel, smelling the damp and the candles, I looked up at my Master looking so wise and holy and then at the people around me; people like Nathan and the others from Yorkshire who were new and the people who I had known almost as long as I had known My Master. Those had grown from confused children unto adults under his care, they now looked smart, respectable and happy, without exception. The four girls also seemed happy although overawed as they sat together and held hands.

During the service I felt emotional and there was a great sadness in my breast perhaps because I was tired after all our travelling, but I think it was more than that as if something was ending despite what I might do to stop it.

And over the next few days as we became settled I began to feel somewhat isolated from the house and its doings. Formerly I would take my master out in the carriage, he would talk to me in the evenings, confide to me about his concerns, but now it was Nathan who went out with him, and quite often I discovered them talking in the withdrawing room sitting drinking and talking in hushed tones, and they would both look at me as if asking what I would, so I would make an excuse and go to my rooms. My master remained polite with me, but the intimacy and warmth had gone.  Formerly there had been frequent services which I was called to attended, but now often wandering the house I would realise that there was nobody about, so doubtless they were in the chapel and I had been excluded.

The evenings were light and I took to walking through the gardens, the gardens were formal and they were well-maintained by some of the young men who my Master had brought here; there was fruit and flowers all formally laid out as it should be. During my perambulations I thought about the house, the only home that I had been made to feel welcome and where I was free to go as I pleased, and then I thought about Mary, but she was so faraway and had a mistress. Maybe she had forgotten all about me as I was starting to forget her. It was warm as I walked through the well-tended gardens and I looked up at the hall ahead of me grey and clean.

I sort out my master who was in his rooms gazing out of the window as if something out there had caught his attention, but when I glanced all I could see were the grounds laid out before us and past them the high brick wall.

“Oh Herring” he murmured sounding kindly. I had hoped that on our return he would seem less frail but he had clearly aged since our stay in London, and had become an old man.

“Have you had any missives from Mary” he asked me?

“She sent me a telegram to ask if all is well.”

We sat together on a sofa.

“Do you no longer want me at your service, in the chapel?  Am I surplus to your requirements?”

“Herring, it is not what I want it is that it is no longer appropriate, you have found someone you love and somebody who you will marry. I am truly happy for you but that is not what our religion teaches, not what I preach in the chapel.” He plucked up courage to talk some more.

“When I was in Italy, in Milan I came across a group, Cathars they are called, and they taught me much. It is their beliefs we follow here, much to the horror of Reverend Pilkington over in the village. Many times he has come over here begging me to desist and to repent.”

“But why?” I asked. I had realised the doctor’s teachings were a little different to what I had seen before, but I had not really taken it all in and he did teach of the Bible and spoke of Christ. The Chapel was a holy place.

“Many small things are different from what the established church preaches; the difference between spirit and body and we do not believe in marriage, we have to remain chaste and to want to remain chaste. I have never married and all the people I have rescued have voluntary chosen this state.  You once asked me why I had not married and that is the reason.”

“But I could do the same” I told him, heartbroken at the thought of leaving this paradise.

“But you are yearning for Mary, and you want to be with her. You could stay here but all the time you would be pining for her, and if we have to flee, are driven from this place will you go willingly, or will your heart be not with us but somewhere else?”

Nathan then walked in and I left the two of them. I gathered a few of my possessions together and as the moon stood high above me I secured them to a horse I had stolen from the stables and I set off down the long drive heading out to London, I knew that I would never see this house again, nor the people within it.

My master had always paid me well and so I knew that I would have sufficient for awhile and there amongst the throngs of people would be Mary and I making my way towards her. At first there was sadness in my heart but as I rode through the early morning sunshine I began to sing whilst my heart lifted in exaltation and I thought of my future with joy.

 

Postscript by Andrew Hart

The manuscript ends here with Mr Herring riding off to London in the hope of persuading Mary to marry him. Unfortunately, I have no idea what happened next to him and where he settled although as the manuscript was found here in Harrogate I assume that the author did come back here to live, and I hope that it was with Mary and that he died a happy man; and had no regrets about leaving Bramcote Hall. I like to imagine him owning a small bookshop and serving the gentry whilst at home sat Mary with their children, all happy and content and in love in their different ways with the author of this piece of writing.

For months I tried to find out more about Doctor Gilpin; he had inherited. Bramcote Hall in 1695 after the death of his father. His grandfather, a parliamentarian and friend of Oliver Cromwell had had the house built and the family held onto it throughout the Restoration and the Glorious Revolution. After Doctor Gilpin left the house it was sold to the Middleton family, a merchant family from the city of Nottingham, but eventually the house fell into disrepair and was demolished at the beginning of the twentieth century and there are now houses and a park where it once stood. Nottinghamshire County Libraries still hold photographs and engravings of the original building which can viewed by the curious or the scholarly; and one can see why Mr Herring was so in love with it.

As for Doctor Gilpin I found little trace, a baptismal record, but unsurprisingly no marriage record or records of any children. The house came into the hands of the Middletons in 1715 so he had left the house by that perhaps taking his retinue with him. But there is no trace at all of his further career despite my painstaking attempts to find something.

I visited the British Library at Collingdale a few months ago as they hold copies of The Onlooker for the three years it ran 1710-1712, and I was able to peruse copies on microfilm, and in almost every edition there is a travel piece initialled with a “G” at the end, and very fine they are too, and confirmed much of Mr Herring said of their travels together. I have enclosed a few in this book to give the reader a flavour of the writing.

As for Doctor Gilpin I had given up hope of finding out what happened to him or his household until I came across an unpublished Journal of the Reverend Pilkington who was vicar throughout much of the time that Doctor Gilpin lived in the Hall, but he left shortly before Doctor Gilpin also departed. This is from an entry dated 17th March, 1716

“Elspeth and I returned back to Bramcote to visit her family and to see how my old parish was managing without me. Word had got out of our arrival and we were very pleased to receive an invitation from the new owners of Bramcote Hall, a Mr Henry Middleton and his wife.

The Hall has changed much since the heterodox Doctor (so called) Gilpin lived there, with whom I had many debates; there was a warm welcome and apparently the family now worship at St. Margaret’s instead of the chapel which is unused. We had a charming evening and were persuaded to stay the night.

Whilst we were there one of the other guests, my successor Doctor Fellowes told me of the disappearance of Doctor Gilpin and his strange assortment of followers. My successor chose force where I had chosen talk, and he spoke to the Bishop of Southwell about the strange goings on at Bramcote Hall.  At the Bishop’s suggestion The Serjeant for the area came to the Hall and spoke to Doctor Gilpin, and within a week carriages had left the Hall and it was left empty, some of the servants reappeared in Nottingham and Southwell but most had disappeared with their master, but to where nobody knows.  Apparently the local people still talk about the mad doctor and has blasphemous rites.

After awhile a relative of Doctor Gilpin emerged to claim the and was happy to sell it onto the Middleton Family for a very reasonable price. As for Gilpin and his people the rumour is that they fled to Russia in the hope that they could practice their perversities in peace, but nobody knows for sure and I am not sure where they got that idea from as Gilpin and his followers kept themselves to themselves. Certainly there is no trace of them hereabouts so perhaps they have trekked to the Steppes and beyond.  I sincerely hope that wherever they are they have discovered the error of their ways and come back to Christ.  That night, before we retired Elspeth and I prayed for the souls of Doctor Gilpin and all the others who have been led astray by madness and over thinking.”

 

Sometimes at night I dream of Doctor Gilpin and his crew making their way through the snow and ice, looking for a home to practice their strange religion. I hope that there were no more Crusaders to kill and repress them and that they found happiness, at least for awhile. And O what I would give to join them.

S.R.

Undated piece found at Andrew’s desk after he disappeared.

As my followers and I dwell together in peace, (despite the ice and snow), I thank God for a decision to leave the benighted country that was our home and to trust our instincts to flee. More people join us happy to discover a different kind of life amongst people who live like brothers and sisters and who live and practice love.

G.

 

 

 

Snow and Ice

 

“No matter how far we travel, all Russians eventually come home; some in a wedding carriage, some in a hearse.”

Old Russian saying.

 

One

“Open up girl.”

The rapping on the door had been going on for a few minutes, noisy and rude, but not enough to wake me fully from my dreaming, I kept my eyes tight shut and covered my ears with my hands to block out this unholy intrusion.

“Girl, girl. Stop dozing and come see to me.”

The room was hot from the scorching sun and there was the smell of shit coming in from the streets, and I did not want to get up out of my chair.

“Come girl, where are my belongings?”

The accent was foreign, Russian I guessed, but his English was clear and precise, and so it always proved. My mother was out, buying supplies and I, the maid of all work, needed to stir myself, but I felt languorous to my very soul. 

 

I slowly opened my eyes and saw a golden head peering through the window; he looked cross but there was amusement in his eyes as he continued to shout.

“You girl, stir yourself and answer the door.”

In haste I got up, shifted my dress and went to see to the impatient man who was shouting through the window so crossly.

“Are you simple girl?” he asked, and I looked at him calmly; he could have easily broken me with one blow but if you are just a dogsbody you learn to judge people quickly, and I did not feel he would hurt me, well not out of anger anyway, and I let him into the house with a slight bow. 

We had been expecting him since last week when my mother had received a scrawled note to tell us that a Russian gentleman, a Monsieur Kalinin, wanted rooms for a few weeks, maybe more, and would be arriving forthwith. As it was summer and thus not busy and because there had been banknotes enclosed with the letter we were happy to oblige, and then yesterday his baggage had arrived, and now here was the owner himself, a force of nature from God knew where. He was impossibly tall, so I had to bend backwards to look at him and as he seemed overheated as if he would explode at any moment. I speedily showed him to his rooms on the ground floor where his two chests lay piled in one corner.

“I am expecting a large box” he told me, “when it arrives treat it with care, it is a most precious thing”.

After a quick look around the rooms he was off, heading in the direction of the city leaving behind a scent of citrus fruit, and his voice calling for a carriage. I returned indoors to escape the heat and to sink back into the sleep from which this strange man had awakened me. 

For the next three days the box did not arrive, whilst early every morning Kalinin went into the city, returning in the evening looking full of important matters, perhaps he was seeing Queen Anne or one of her ministers; he seemed distinguished enough. Meanwhile my mother came and went; curtsying to Kalinin whenever she got chance and shouting at me.

“Here Polly”, “where are you girl?” and then in despair “why can’t you speak?”

And then she too was off into the city on various missions to bring us money or contacts, and most importantly, apparently, looking for someone for me to marry.

“She does not speak, never has done since she was a child and she does tend to daydream, but she is acute, and I am sure once she is married and has children she will calm down and get her wits about her.”

Fortunately, nobody so far had taken the bait yet, but we were not poor and a young woman who won’t talk is not such a bad thing, one day somebody would succumb to my mother, and off I would go to be someone’s skivvy and have their children, and I would lose the little freedom that I had. 

And then on the fourth day, the box arrived; carried in by two men whose shirts were dark with sweat, and I watched as they carefully placed it in our lodger’s room.

“I have never known heat like this Missy” said one of them and then he winked at me before trying to slap my arse, but I dodged out of his way and fled to the kitchen and stayed there until he and his companion had gone, and then I returned and examined the box most carefully; it was almost as tall as me and it seemed quite substantial. When I hit the top of it with the flat of my hand there was strange noise as of pieces of metal, a jangling sound as if a creature in torment. I did not dare open it but had to wait until Kalinin returned for the mystery to be revealed. 

When Kalinin eventually did return, wiping the sweat from his brow with a rag, he found me mopping the kitchen floor.

“Polly, fetch me something to drink.”

And when I had returned from the inn with his ale I heard banging and dull thuds and then the strangest of sounds; it was like music but most weird. I stood and listened to the tinkling and then the heavier sounds, and after that, a brief moment of silence, and he swiftly opened his door to discover me standing there with his drink in my hands.

“I thought I could feel your presence. Come in maid.” 

I stood in front of this strange object, it looked like a sideboard but there were keys, black with white scattered above them, and he had pulled up a bench to it on which he sat.

“It is called a pianoforte, it has come all the way from Italy, and you Polly are the first English person to hear it”

I stood close by and could smell his strange perfume as he played, his hands swiftly darting up and down the keys, and being so close to this wondrous machine I felt my heart stop and start, and I held onto this wooden object and felt it vibrate.

“It needs somebody more musical”, he admitted, “I am no player.” 

I sat down next to him and tentatively pressed some of the keys; I knew that if I could get it right that I could make an ayre out of this thing; the tunes were there in the box, they just needed bringing out.  And eventually I found them and as he sat close to me, I played up and down the keyboard, my fingers knowing which keys to press and for how long; and in my head I could see the sailors at Deptford and the boats going who knew where, and then I thought about the man next to me and I thought of ice and snow, wild bears and savage wolves, and fairy tale castles and I conjured them up in my playing, until I was faraway from this London wilting in the July heat but rather was sailing over the sea to strange lands, and I carried on making music until my fingers ached and my mother returned home from the city.  

 

Two

I lead him into the house; he was a plump young man with sweat pouring from him, whilst his wig was at an angle, making him look most dishevelled, but there was an arrogance about him and he looked at me with disdain, as if I were a dog.

“Herr Handel” our lodger, greeted him and then he showed him into his rooms, shaking his hand as he did so; very considerately he left the door ajar so that I could listen as his guest sat down and played. He was a famous musician apparently, and had agreed to try out the pianoforte; at first he played most tentatively as if getting a feel for it, and then he began to experiment with it; playing notes ever so quietly and then banging down hard on others so that I was afeared he would break the machine. He muttered something in German and then he played something pleasant and with a melody and I listened intently, as the tune went up and down and back on its self, before naturally coming to its end, and then after a pause he played more tunes, one swiftly following another, and I wanted to applause and watch him play, but I dared not, so stood hidden and took it all in.  

He was still playing when my mother found me.

“Polly, what are you doing? You have cleaning to do.”

With reluctance I left the divine music and went about my tasks, but the music followed me throughout the house; loud and quiet, fast and slow, testing the machines to its limits. I wondered if Herr Handel saw it as a way of communicating, expressing what otherwise was impossible to say, but how could he?  He could talk, even though his language was curt, but I could say nothing, just gesture and now make music to say what was in my head, the myriad ideas and desires, that before I did not even know I had. 

“He seemed to like it” our lodger told me later on, “he did not say much, but then he is German and his English is poor. But then who needs language?  And he knows people, musicians and the gentry, hopefully he will spread the word.”

And then he let me sit down on the stool and play, and the rest of afternoon went swiftly by as I conjured up tune after tune, forgetting the dry heat outside, my mother with her list of chores and nagging and even the lodger as he sat close by, surreptitiously stroking my thigh, faster and faster, as I played. 

And then one morning I discovered the pianoforte being put into a carriage by two men in livery, and the lodger was all a-bustle, tending to his wig and brushing his clothes. He called for my mother and I listened close by.

“But she cannot talk” I heard her say, “it will be too much for her, she is not used to such society.”

He spoke to her quietly for some moments and eventually she must have agreed because, looking a little scared, she found me.

“You are to go to Kensington Palace and play before Her Majestie” she said and then she helped me to dress in my best clothes, a beautiful satin dress, and she brushed and tied my hair, “don’t disgrace me, and do what Monsieur Kalinin tells you.” 

And then he and I were in a carriage, driving swiftly through the streets of London, the streets I knew so well, it was still hot and we both sweated in our fine clothes, and Kalinin looked cramped tucked inside the carriage, with his long legs splayed out in a most uncomfortable looking manner. We carried on into stranger parts of the city, and I gazed out of the window, my heart fluttering, but also proud that I was in a carriage like a woman of means. And then as I was starting to doze we reached a large red house; the biggest I have ever seen, and I knew that this was Kensington Palace, where Queen Anne held court, and my heart lurched within me. I wondered if Kalinin was as nervous as me, as he stared straight ahead, and then as we arrived, he squeezed my hand before helping me down. 

We were led through corridor after corridor, with men smartly dressed standing about silently and looking grave. Kalinin and I stood in a foyer for a few moments, the chairs looking too fragile to sit on, and we looked at each other and he gave me a smile, and I knew that he was in control, as if he had done this before, and I stopped being scared. One of the smartly dressed servants then ushered us into a large room full of richly-dressed ladies and gentlemen, and the smell of scent. And there, in front of us was the pianoforte, gleaming and familiar, and automatically I walked towards it, before noticing a large woman looking at me curiously, who seemed to be the centre of everybody’s attention, she smiled at me kindly, and there was a nudge and we both bowed.

“This is the machine I have heard tell of?” she spoke with authority but quietly as if she did not have to raise her voice.

“Yes your majesty. All the way from Italy.” Said Kalinin, his tone respectful but with an air of confidence, which I was glad about, and I felt most proud of him. 

The Queen made the slightest of gestures, and Kalinin ushered me to sit and I started to play.  I had nothing planned, and at first I played randomly, just picking at notes, but then almost without knowing it the keys began to tell of the magnificent palace, so formal and grand, and the servants who stood and watched, and Her Majestie, large and uncomfortable looking, but with the authority of family and wealth. I played until the piece was at an end, and there was applause from the Queen, followed swiftly by her courtiers, as if in competition to show the most appreciation. 

“Well done young lady” said Her Majestie, most graciously, “you play most beautifully, and the machine, is most clever and strange.  I have heard the harpsichord and the virginals, but no instrument that can play both loud and quiet, and it has a beautiful tone.”

She then waved us away, and moments later we were back in the carriage and the palace was shrinking in the distance behind us.

“Well done” Kalinin said, “well done indeed.” And then he kissed me on the lips, and I tasted meat and ale on his breath which sickened me. I sat back in the carriage and fanned myself as Kalinin talked of further invitations to the palace and concerts, but I felt that we were already forgotten about; just a momentary diversion for the Queen and her courtiers and that nothing would come of our visit, however I forbore to spoil his moment and let him chatter and dream, and he stroked my ankle absentmindedly as he did so. 

They were all out and I was playing a tune over and over again, when there was a loud rapping at the door; no doubt another member of the gentry to hear the pianoforte. But instead a man well below middle-size stood in front of me, with a sword by his side, and an accent which was foreign and barely understandable.

“I am looking for a man called Kalinin.”

I gestured that he was away in the city.

“Oh an idiot. Is there nobody else here?”

I shook my head.

“I have come a great distance to see him, he has something of mine, something precious.” I looked at him and then he left saying over his shoulder, “I will return and I want what is mine.” 

And that evening, after Kalinin had returned, he did come again, demanding to see our lodger, and there were raised voices, and whilst my mother and I hid in the kitchen we heard the sound of blows and shouting and then someone being tumbled out of the house and swearing loudly in a foreign tongue. After the door was slammed shut I discovered Kalinin standing by the pianoforte, he seemed out of breath and his jacket was torn at the shoulder.

“Don’t worry maid, I am not hurt, but he will come back, and I suspect that next time he will not be alone. I did not think that they would bother coming all the way from Italy, all for the sake of a toy. Play whilst I think.”

And so I conjured up melody after melody, whilst he paced about the room murmuring, and then he started to pack-up his belongings.  

 

Three

Kalinin said it was a “misunderstanding”, he was owed money but had taken the pianoforte instead, “but there are lots of them and we are done here. I had not planned on staying here so long, but at least I have found someone to play this instrument.”

I didn’t know whether to believe his story, nor did I particularly care. I could him picture him in Italy; always looking for the main chance and charming all the right people before it was time for him to go, the musical box by his side whilst left in his wake were those who he had betrayed and stolen from.  

And thus we fled, just the two of us, and by the end of the next day we were on a boat leaving England and all our troubles. He asked me to come with him because I was, his “protégé”, his “musician”,  and I nodded and quickly grabbed my few possessions frightened that he would change his mind or that my mother would talk him out of it, but I think that he sensed my yearning for travel and adventure, or that the only time I felt as if I was alive was when I was at the pianoforte. Or perhaps he thought that I loved him; that I enjoyed it when he pawed my body and forced his tongue into my mouth. Men are such fools.  

We sailed for France, the pianoforte covered in several cloaks and tied with ropes; he stayed with it, never letting it leave his sight, often he hugged it, as if it was a lover or a God; and through the cities and countryside of Europe it went with us; secure and always within sight. We travelled for days on end and then would find somewhere with a comfortable inn and with a suitable population (large and with money) and we would stay for a few days and rest, and then I could play; tunes I heard on the way, the hymns that my mother sang, a French tune from that inn in Poitiers, and the song that man sang who drove our carriage throughout Germany. I played them all, adapted them and never forgot them. When I was in front of the keys it was as if my fingers longed for them, and then I could not stop making music, and often people from the inn would gathered to listen, marvelling at this box that produced such sounds, and at the young girl who was always silent, but who could cast such spells. 

Whilst I was playing Kalinin would head into the city or town and arrange a concert and I would play in a hall or at the house of gentry. I soon learned to relax and let my heart guide me, unaware of those around me, whilst my hands conjured up tunes out of nothing. Sometimes the audience applauded whilst at other times they just laughed, and some old man would chuck me under the chin and wink at Kalinin who would smile but then not leave my side until we were back in the inn.  I was never sure how long we would stay at a particular place; on occasion I thought we were staying for a few weeks but then he would return to the inn and tell me to pack and within an hour we would be leaving heading away at speed, but he would never tell me why, were we being pursued, had he just become bored or I had become too friendly with the owner of the inn? 

I did not miss my mother; she had wept that morning as we left hurriedly, but I was off on adventure with a mad Russian and I was glad to leave, and she would soon find a maid to do the work and she no longer had to find a suitor for a dumb girl who was more trouble than she was worth. I did not miss her abrasive tongue or her cringing ways to the great and the good. And I was also bored of staying in the same part of London, the same scenes every day, perhaps it was ungodly, and I was having ideas above my station, but I wanted change and difference. 

After awhile I started to wonder where we were going, did Kalinin have a route or a plan? He certainly never told me if he did, just carried on as if it at random, crossing borders as if they were of no account, so that I had no sense of direction, and then he used different names, often posing as an Englishman (Mr Johnson) or a Polish count (Count Gutowski), whilst I was Bertha, or Marie or Esther, but never Polly.  

We arrived in Berlin, the largest city we have visited.

“We shall stay here awhile” he told me, “this is a big city with plenty of opportunities”.

 That first morning we were walking down one of the many boulevards, my arm on his, when I thought I saw that man who Kalinin had fought with that day, he was dressed less smartly but I had no doubt it was him; I nudged Kalinin slightly, and he  too saw the man but did not show surprise and said nothing, but as we carried on with our walk I could see that he was distracted, and so was I despite the beauty of the city and all the people hurrying in different directions.  

That night after he we had sported in bed he waited for a few moments for me to fall asleep, and then I heard him stealthily get up and leave the inn. I stayed awake, wondering what he was doing, and whether he would return or be found dead in a ditch with a stiletto in his chest. I lay there nervously, wondering what I should do if he failed to return. I must have fallen asleep eventually, because the next thing that I remember was him shaking me awake and telling me to get dressed. It was still dark outside, and I shivered with the cold.

“Come we have to go” he murmured, “there is a cart and the pianoforte is wrapped up and ready”.

I was still half asleep and quickly dressed and we set off after I helped him lift the machine onto the cart and secure it.

“One of them is gone, but who knows how many there are.”

“Gone?”

“Gone.” 

We travelled East; the air becoming colder, and the people different in feature and dress, and oh the poverty which I could smell, and which smothered me. One night as we slept under the stars; his cloak over both of us, he spoke.

“We are heading home” he told me, “to my country, Russia, to St. Petersburg, the new city the Czar has built in the West, to modernise my backward country. Maybe I can get an audience with him; I used to be well connected before I began this wandering.”

He huddled close to me, and I felt his arm around me, and I nestled closer, and like that I fell asleep, feeling safe and secure, at least for the time being.

 

 

Four

We reached The Winter Palace, a most disappointing building, only two floors, but then in this city that was still half-built nothing was grand or wonderful. We had been in St. Petersburg for weeks and I had wandered over bridges and smiled at the people, who gazed at me blankly or hissed in contempt so that I hurried back to our freezing rooms and covered myself in furs and cloaks. This was Russia’s Western capital? And whilst I wandered through the city or played on the pianoforte, Kalinin chased up acquaintances and made new friends.

“This is the coming place”, he had said the previous morning as we looked out of the window at the pouring rain, “and Peter is a modernising Czar. He will appreciate this instrument as it is new and European. Russia no longer a country of peasants and filth, but a modern country.”

I smiled, it did not look very modern to me; I preferred Berlin and wished we had travelled to Italy for the sun, St. Petersburg had no history, no soul. 

The Czar was even taller than Kalinin, and his gaze, oh I could not tear myself away from it; it was like the face of God, and for the first time I was nervous as I played and could not lose myself in the music; I felt as if my soul was being shriven and that every bit of me was being looked at by this man/god. I played on, and when I had finished one piece there was silence as if the whole court was waiting to be led, and eventually he came to attention, as if drawn out of a reverie and then he shouted for me to play something more, he spoke the most barbarous French, as barbarous as his country, and sometimes he spoke English, which was equally poor. At his command I carried on playing; pieces I had practiced on the way and things about St. Petersburg, and the snow and ice.  And then eventually, when I felt that I could play no more he let me finish. 

“What is your name?”

“Her name is Polly, she does not speak”.

“A beautiful woman does not need to.  You may go.” And so we left, I overawed, more so than when I had played for the various dukes and duchesses in France and Germany, and even in front of Queen Anne. He just seemed so powerful, as if he could do whatever he wanted with his bare hands, and that I was nothing compared to him.

“I had not realised you were beautiful” Kalinin said, when we were outside. “You have made an impression.” And he looked at me in a wondering sort of way, as if something had happened that he was not sure how to deal with. 

And that is how it began; summoned day after day to the Winter Palace, and the walks in the grounds, with the most powerful man in the East, and the concerts I played for the court, or just for the Czar alone. He would talk to me; about St. Petersburg and about when he had lived in London working at the docks, and I smiled and nodded, and that is all that he seemed to want. And then there were the nights in his bed, where time stood still, and then later I would try to capture it in music, and somehow I could not, or not quite. And there were the dresses and toys which he overloaded me with as if he could buy my soul, but he already had that, far more than Kalinin ever had. 

The messenger took me to a small, poor-looking house, far away from the centre of St Petersburg, hidden away in a street full of shacks and starved-looking inhabitants. He had come to me that evening as I wandered through the gardens, at first I had assumed he was from the Czar, but Peter was with his empress today, and this man looked shabby and he wore no livery.

“It is Mister Kalinin, the musician. He is ill and calling for you.”

Kalinin, it all seemed so long ago; our travelling to Russia and then Peter picking me out. I had not meant to cast him aside, but the Czar is a jealous monarch and I was so busy, and slowly Kalinin disappeared from my life, so that one day he was no longer there, and I did not bother trying to find him. Sometimes at night I thought of him before I slept and dreamt of the new pianoforte that the Czar had ordered for me from Italy, or the opera I had been to that evening; my life filled with music and dancing. And I hoped that I would not wake up and find myself back in that house in London, with someone rapping hard on the door and calling to be let in. 

The pianoforte was by Kalinin’s bed, the only object of value in his room, and he lay sweating under a grubby blanket, looking diminished as he lay there, not the same person who I had travelled so far with and who had held me tight and smiled at me when I was frightened.

“Thank you for coming” he murmured. I sat by his side, and he held my hand, his hand was hot and sticky, and the room smelt of sweat and rotting food.

“Do you still play?”

I squeezed his hand and sat at the pianoforte and I started to press the keys, a piece about a young girl who meets a handsome man who takes away on a life full of adventure, but she leaves her saviour to die in a squalid room, forgotten and uncared for.   

Kalinin slept as I continued to play; he was seemed more at peace with his eyes closed and I carried on playing, as much for myself as for the unconscious man in the room. Occasionally he groaned or muttered something in Russian, but he did not wake. And then when I was finished I walked over to him and stroked his arm.

“I am sorry” I told him, or I think that I spoke but perhaps it was all in my head, and then I kissed him lightly on the forehead.  After a few moments of silent prayer, I left him, the messenger was still hanging about the house, and I gave him some kopecks that I had on me and asked him to look after the man in his final days and to let me know if he needed anything. And then I returned to the Winter Palace, and to my Lord and Master. 

A few days later I returned to the house, I knew at once Kalinin was dead, the house smelt of it and I could sense that nobody alive was in there. He lay just as I had left him, perhaps he had never woken after I had left, and the servant had abandoned him. I kissed him gently, his face cold and hard, and then I looked round and his pianoforte was no longer there, perhaps stolen by the messenger or by a thief who had taken it whilst its owner lay dead or dying.  

I cried as his body was taken away, and I cried two days later when he was buried underground, the black-robed Priest muttering a prayer to the crows that fluttered overhead, and to me his only mourner. The cemetery was already full of graves and I wondered if I too would be buried here and would anyone know my name, I knew that Peter would soon tire of me and I would be just one more discarded mistress cast out to make my way as best I could.   

Therefore, after much thought, that evening I wrote the Czar a letter; the first begging letter that ever I wrote, I knew that I had to leave if I was not to die in a garret like Kalinin. The Czar did what I asked and more; a troika, money, letters of introduction, a young servant and most important of all, my pianoforte. My heart beat faster at the thought of journeying into the unknown, but I was still young, and I yearned to travel on, and not be the mistress or servant of anyone.  

With all my belongings surrounding me in the troika, we set off for Moscow, Russia’s capital in the East, which beckoned to me from afar; perhaps I was being foolhardy, but I felt brave and happy as I travelled further and further into the heart of Russia, to a mystical and strange world, that would never be westernised or conquered, and where hopefully the people would take me to their hearts, at least for a time.  

We ploughed through the snow and ice, and as we did so I imagined Kalinin at my side stroking my thigh and laughing.

“Well Polly, this is a long way from London.  This is a long way from anywhere….”

And I smiled as I watched the fir trees tall and gaunt, fly past and heard the sound of the horses hooves as they pulled us forward, whilst in the distance I could hear wolves calling out to each other over this vast landscape that some call home.