AND WAS JERUSALEM BUILDED HERE? - CASSANDRA KHAW (A STRANGE BRIGADE EXCERPT!)
9 months ago
In the pale, poor light of the dormitory, old Mrs. Phillips’ face was all jutting angles, lines that went nowhere. She frowned at Gracie, a wrinkled hand outstretched, like she was offering salvation in the seat of her palm.
“You want to know what I think you should be doing?” said Mrs. Phillips—widowed and forgotten and fierce—without particular rancour. “I think you should find yourself a few cans of paraffin, a good match, and something to eat as you stand on a hill, watching all of this burn to a bad dream. You heard me, Gracie Braithwaite. Burn it. Burn it all down.”
* * *
“A job, mister?” Gracie raked a cool eye over the new arrival, a frown stitching her brows together.
He was tall, elegantly dressed, every inch the London bourgeoisie. His collar and his cuffs were precisely creased, but his stare was something else. Gracie knew that look. She’d seen it in the cellars of her brothers’ favourite pubs, crocodilian and stuporous, the look of an animal who knew good things came to those who wait. The man pressed the pink tip of his tongue between his teeth and cocked a wider smile.
“A job,” he repeated smoothly, and Gracie had to stifle another spasm of loathing, bite down on the impulse to kick the man in his shins and take off. Manchester churned behind them, incurious; the smell of smoke coiled in the air. “A job at the greatest show on earth.”
“You sure don’t look like P.T. Barnum to me, sir.”
That surprised him. “Sorry?”
Gracie stood up straighter, jaw set. Her father’d once despaired of that chin of hers; too much like his, not enough like his wife’s. But after Gracie added a back alley’s worth of scars and a broken nose to her face, he gave up his grumblings, along with any hopes his daughter would tame at a man’s command. “Sucker every minute. That’s what he said.”
“No. No, he didn’t.” The stranger’s face pulled into a frown.
“Barnum never said that.” And a chill fed itself up Gracie’s spine, a slither of unease, slow and dangerous. “He was, first and foremost, a businessman, you understand. While his clientele tolerated a certain amount of impertinence, they were customers and the customer is someone you never insult.”
His expression ripened with a savage, sudden glee, and the man, who was built like a razor, like a wire stretched out, leaned down to whisper into Gracie’s ear. “You can have that for free, Miss Braithwaite. Everything that follows will cost you.”
He reeked of French cologne and incense. Not the kind that swung from Catholic thuribles, vapours rising thick as the dream of the New World, but a fainter smell, softer and sweeter, woody and weird and foreign. Still, the blend wasn’t quite enough to hide something worse, something closer to the bone. A stink that reminded Gracie of cows in summer, hoof-deep in their own manure, flies spiralling around their horns. A burning, animal odour, which sang to something older than common sense.
Run, it said. Run far.
“Mate”—Gracie fanned the air in front of her nose before she pinched the bridge—“you stink.”
“Do I?” For a moment, the man’s eyes burned a colour she’d never seen, a gold so bright it hurt a little to look upon its light. He bared his teeth at Gracie and she scowled in reply, even as he stood straighter, silhouette blocking out the noonday glare. His eyes, hazel again, sparkled with glee. “I suspect, my girl, it is not my fault but yours. Do your brothers wear cologne? Does your father bathe?”
“No, no. That’s unkind of me. I beg your forgiveness. I’m sure he does, but I suppose the question needs to be asked. How often? A week? Twice? Do you ration your soap, my girl? Is it rationed for you?”
The words poured like oil, sleek and suffocating, and if it wasn’t for the conversational lilt to his baritone, Gracie might have punched him then. Instead, she swallowed and listened, habit usurping reason. After all, she’d seen this scene play out ten thousand times before: her father with his head bent, sheepish, his boots scuffed, two buttons missing; a man at the door, enviously rotund, cravat at his throat and a hat on his head, badge and balding pate gleaming in the sun.
It was like a stage performance, a show at the Old Vic, with its players, its beats, its pauses all lined up, waiting to go. And Gracie knew the role her family played in this production: they were the blue-collar extras, hanging on the lip of a command. When people above their station spoke, the Braithwaites listened. Defiance belonged to men and women without hungry mouths to fill.
Still, Gracie couldn’t help but itch beneath her collar, sweat pearling on her chin. She gritted her teeth. “That’s our problem, not yours. If you don’t mind, I’d be leaving.”
A purr this time, baritone smoothing to velvet. He encircled her shoulder with an arm before she could speak, smiling prettily the whole while. “Miss Braithwaite, we’ve known your family for years and years. Would you really walk away from a job with me and mine? What with everything that’s going on with your daddy? Poor Mrs. Braithwaite, too, already fat with your eighth little brother? Do you think she could afford your pride?”
“She wouldn’t want me to whore myself in London. I know that much.” She shrugged his arm loose, glaring. “Why don’t you—”
“Fourteen pounds, eleven and eight. A week.”
The sum stole the air from Gracie’s lungs, and she sank down into herself, fingers splayed over her sternum. What had her mother said—everyone has a price? It was a devil’s dowry, enough to buy ten Gracie Braithwaites and all of her brothers. The man had to know this. He did know this, Gracie decided, walking her gaze over his pencil smile. There was something unpractised about the expression, like he was teaching himself the trick of it as they conversed.
“Ah, child, what would your mother say about that mouth of yours?”
“She’d say she raised a girl who knew when someone was trying to be a wanker, that’s what she’d say. I’m still not going to spread my legs for your diseased, plague-riddled—”
“Miss Braithwaite.” It was a whisper, no louder than that. No threat, no venom, nothing but faint disappointment, but it felt like Gracie had cannonballed into a gulch choked with ice. He clicked his teeth in that London way, shook his head.
Gracie did not apologize. She had enough dignity for that.
“You will not be whoring yourself for my company. In fact, I feel compelled to say that you are the last thing my fellows would hope to bed. I do not know about your brothers, your uncles; I suppose they find dirt attractive. But those I call my peers? No, ma’am. They prefer their women nubile, lithe, skin as pale as ice nailed to bone. We like them big-breasted too, if you’d excuse my language. Pregnant with milk, if we happen to be lucky. A skinny, cat-boned thing like you? No, no. That’s not at all for us, my girl.”
“What do you want with me? You could get a whole mining facility to turn their backs on their mothers for that amount.”
“Yes, but would they be as discreet?” He chuckled. What was his name again? She had to know his name. There was no way that she didn’t. Yet Gracie couldn’t put two syllables together, two sounds to evoke an image of them exchanging courtesies like normal people. They’d been talking for so long. Surely, he’d allowed a name. Her spine writhed in place. “We need you, Gracie Braithwaite. We’ve waited and watched, and then waited longer. We spent decades waiting for you to come into your own. And now that you have, no one will do but you.”
Gracie thought of wine and whiskey, cheap booze smuggled from Ireland, blazing like a lie. She’d just been a little bit too young when she swigged from her brother’s bottle the first time, and they’d laughed like foxes as she coughed through that first mouthful of smoke. The man’s company reminded her of the fugue from that first evening, how its edges had blurred, had become crowded with nightmare possibilities. She swallowed.
“What would I have to do?”
Piously the man—the marionette in the three-piece suit—clasped his palms together, as though in prayer. Even Gracie, an atheist from the marrow out, found the gesture profane. “An honest woman’s work, of course. Miss Gracie Braithwaite, sweet summer girl of ours, I’d pay you a king’s ransom if you’d bend the quick brilliance of your ladylike fingers to your gender’s god-given task. We’d like you to sew for us, beautiful child. Plain and simple. Needle and thread. Body and soul. Say yes, baby girl, and we’ll make it worth everyone’s while.”
Gracie said yes, of course.
There was no universe where she would not have.
The factory belched columns of salty black smoke, ash fountaining in clouds so dense that they couldn’t disperse into the overcast afternoon, but instead lingered in the air and in the skins of the women milling within the compound. Gracie wondered how the oldest of them might look, if there were grandmothers on staff with eyes and teeth and hair the colour of burnt soup bones.
Gracie shuddered and spat the charred taste of the air from her mouth, discomfited by the sudden image of an old woman in silhouette, silently knitting her shadow into a mountain of shirts. There was something inherently wrong about the idea, something so fundamentally unholy about the notion that Gracie couldn’t help but cross herself, a guilty prayer mumbled beneath her breath.
Somewhere ahead, someone began to sing in a high sweet voice, a mournful ballad about one highwayman or another, and the bargain he made for a shipwrecked love. Something about scrimshaws and stitchings of silver, a noose of hide that someone’d braided from the skin he’d pared from his own calf.
“Into Hell’s mouth,” Gracie sighed. She plodded onwards.
Rain began to fall, a cold soup that smelled to Gracie of London. She had lost two brothers to the city, was midway into losing the third: the youngest of them, straw-haired and sullen, with a mouth like a sculptor’s despair. It felt like treason to say so, but Gracie wasn’t sure he would survive the capital.
Still, there was hope. Assuming the money the man—
—what was his name? Why couldn’t Grace remember? They’d both signed the contract; she’d watched as he wrote on the yellowed paper, his penmanship beautiful as heartbreak—
—had promised did not vanish like faerie gold, Gracie’d have an excuse and a half to keep the boy home. He would no doubt complain, but he’d thank her one day, when he was old and loved and still innocent of grief.
Swallowed by her musings, Gracie took no notice of how the singing slowed at her approach, and how the women’s eyes—not one of them was any colour but linen and soot—grew wide as the doors to the factory opened, and how they cringed as a straight-backed girl, hair the hue of menstrual tissue, descended the steps.
“Grace Dominique Braithwaite.” Her smile was bright as the coming of Christ, was red as his wounds. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
* * *
Miss Velvet did not walk; she prowled.
Her gait was long and certain, and shared more with the wolf’s long-legged lope than a lady’s mincing tread. It stood in contrast with her wardrobe. The impractical jodphurs, the high equestrian boots, oiled and fur-trimmed. Miss Velvet’s corset made Gracie wince, as did her cropped ruby jacket, buttoned beneath high breasts. Someone else must have chosen the pieces; Gracie couldn’t imagine Miss Velvet deciding on this florid arrangement herself. Yet the woman bore her ensemble without complaint, even a kind of truculent dignity, enviable in its cut-glass precision.
“—been around for at least fifty years now. We’ve seen entire families come and go, marry into money, forget that they ever were a part of our humble household. But we understand that is the working-class dream. No foul, no harm.” Despite her carriage, Miss Velvet’s voice was soft and sweetly breathless, an ingenue’s lilt, absent of coquetry. “Sometimes, they come back. Introduce their children to us for apprenticeships.”
“Do you get many boys—?”
“No. No, no, no. Never male children. Girls, Miss Braithwaite, are more intuitive, more malleable, more—” Miss Velvet fluttered a gloved hand. “More worthy of attention, I think. There’s a power to be found in knowing that you are always second best, always a little bit weaker than the rest of the world. I’m sure you know what I mean.”
Gracie, who grew up with seven loyal brothers, who could throw a right hook faster than a man could lie, did not. But she thought it might be impertinent to say. “If you say so, miss.”
“Mm. We’ll get along perfectly. Anyway. Where was I? Yes, the factory’s practically an institution, a shining beacon in Lancashire’s fiefdom of poorly ventilated, poorly regulated factories. Our girls have weekends. There are benefits too, possibilities for advancement, and if you make the mistake of becoming gravid with child, we can accommodate for that too. Especially if the spawn is male.”
Gracie narrowed her eyes. She’d expected grime in the factory’s corners, penumbral hallways half-lit by bare bulbs, rotting beams and whimpering from behind closed doors. Not this industrial austerity. No music, no sound but for the clack of careful footsteps, nothing but the machinery’s humming gospel, which seemed to seep through the bones to sing in her marrow. “Th—the spawn?”
“Son,” Miss Velvet said, with a million-dollar smile, gaze lidded. “We acknowledge the difficulty in raising sons. So rambunctious, so loud. If you were to have the ill fortune of giving birth to a boy, we’d do everything we can to streamline your existence, to make it easier to attend to your duties. Rest assured that your son would be loved, provided for like he was our own.”
A pale girl, hair bound in an off-white scarf, trotted by the pair.
“You don’t have to worry about that. I don’t have any plans for—”
“Excellent, excellent. Miss Braithwaite, we’ll get along just perfectly. Have I said that already? Because I feel the need to do so. It is a thing that humans do not do enough. Appreciate each other. Appreciate themselves.”
There it was again. Humans, not people. Spawn, not son. The tiniest aberrations in word choice. Gracie decided she wouldn’t be half-surprised if this was merely a reflection of cosmopolitan fashion; this calving of one’s self from the unwashed proletariat. She could see it being funny for these people, even satisfying, to act as an entomologist might. Certainly, London acted like it was a world of its own, a perfumed paradise, separate from its rural relatives.
Why not its reluctant exports?
“Glad to hear—well, glad to hear that you had to share that, Miss Velvet. But d’you mind awfully if we talked about the practicalities of my position here? I’d hate to be a waste of a good salary.”
“Yes, of course.” Miss Velvet, much to Gracie’s bewilderment, was beginning to purr. There was something else, Gracie thought. Something to the way Miss Velvet chewed on her words, as though there were extra syllables seeded in every sentence, colloquialisms of mandibular motion that only the rarefied understood. “Of course, of course. But that’s hardly my area of expertise. You’ll want Mrs. Phillips for that. She is the caretaker, the kindly mother of your particular division. Everything you need to know, you’ll hear from here.”
They took another turn, then a second, a third, before at last Miss Velvet walked Gracie up a spiral stairwell, two storeys past identical-looking floors, every last corridor lit exactly the same way. The effect was dizzying.
“Careful, Miss Braithwaite.” The girl’s voice, warm against her ear. A smell of leather and tannic acids, skin curing beneath a blistering blue sky; the stink of guts beneath that burning animal scent, a coppery aftertaste. “You’ve only just arrived. We have so very far to go.”
Gracie swallowed. “I hear you.”
“Good.” Miss Velvet grinned and said no more.
The two marched on in silence. Down the throat of a passage that appeared no different from the others, its walls scalloped with thick wooden doors. Miss Velvet halted at the end of the hall, narrow frame haloed by grey light. She turned—two sharp taps of her heel against the brick floor—and dove into a bow, a hand to her frilled collar, the other arm outstretched.
Feeling like something was expected of her, some reciprocal ritual, Gracie bobbed an anxious curtsey, eliciting a cool trill of laughter.
“We’ll have so much fun, Miss Braithwaite. I look forward to the days to come.” And with that, Miss Velvet took her leave.
The dormitory was plain: a single wide window stretched across a wall, the glass so dirty that the world outside smeared into shadows; cots with scant bedding; several small cabinets; laundry lines drooping under fresh-washed undergarments, water bleeding from their hems into shallow pools. Everywhere, there were women, milling under the steepled ceiling, and a damp musty odour, as though of hounds come slinking from the rain.
“Hello?” Gracie said, setting her father’s one good suitcase, crammed with all the hand-me-downs that would fit, onto the floor.
A silence curled around the room. Linen and soot, Gracie thought, not for the first time. They were all the colour of linen and soot, nothing in between. Would she look like that one day too? While Gracie worried at the idea, an old woman rose from her chair. When she spoke, it was with a faint Bristolian brogue.
“Another one.” The woman laid down her knitting needles, shooed away a cat that had taken residence between her ankles, a burly black tom with pound coins for eyes, one ear long chewed down to a withered stump. “What’d he promise you?”
“Benefits, a pension plan, and opportunities to purchase the family plot in the next five years,” Gracie declared promptly, pleased by her own informative alacrity. Emboldened, she continued, bantering the terminology of landlords, not entirely certain whether the context fit, but she figured it wouldn’t be a problem, not if she spoke with enough wit. “It’s a seller’s market these days, you know? Rents picking up. Even if it’s a bit of an investment now, value will appreciate.”
“No doubt,” said the old woman, still unnamed. Her hair hung in unkept ringlets; someone’d thought to braid them at some point, but she’d since allowed the plait to fallow, the tips uncoiling into a grey mess. Despite her age, she stood unstooped, her posture almost mocking in its straight-shouldered geometry. There had to be at least fifty years between Gracie and her counterpart, and she wore all of it like honours from the King. “At least you’ve sold your soul for practical reasons.”
“I think,” Gracie said, “I take some offence at that.”
The woman smiled. “I’m sure you do. The name’s Mrs. Phillips, poppet. I suggest you take some time to think long and hard about what your goals are in life. Whether you’d rather be the lone wolf, full of vim and vinegar, or the one who survives to the end of this story.”
Anger spasmed in Gracie, instinctive. She’d not come here to be mocked; and more than that, she tired of riddles, of meanings slithering between mealy-mouthed platitudes. All that unspoken truth, odorous and seasoned with a winking malevolent delight. Everyone who wasn’t poor Gracie Braithwaite knew the score. But Gracie kept her bile down, kept her mouth shut.
Then, after a time:
“I’m here to work.”
Mrs. Philips regarded her with a cold, pale eye. Linen and soot, Gracie thought, looking the old woman over from head to toe.