Read the opening to Evie Woolmore’s stunning Edwardian novel, Equilibrium. And if you enjoy it, go to Amazon to buy it.
There is surely no more fitting place for a disgraced housemaid to take her life than on the hidden stairs that slide beneath the Wapping wharves into the Thames. Out of sight they plunge into the lower reaches of the river, flights of stone and wood that at low tide lead to quiet shores but, when the business of the river is in full flow, pass utterly unseen beneath significant exchanges played out on grand piles above.
The tide is on the turn but Martha cannot see that in the darkness. What she sees is the detritus of a day’s unloading as it smacks and scrapes in waves against the warehouse walls, broken crates and barrels, used, discarded and forgotten, left to soak and sink beneath the surface until they bob up bloated and unrecognisable for what they were.
And so she makes her grateful descent into the water, feeling for the slimy steps one at a time so she will not slip and scream and lose her nerve. The river rises through her, billowing her skirts to catch their drift and draw her in, gently numbing from the outside what longs to die within. So when her feet no longer meet the steps and she must hang in the water until she swims to sink or turns back in fear, she is not afraid but only relieved at how the water welcomes her.
Alone at last.
The current toys and plays a while, but with a few silent strokes she has struggled out beyond the wharves, their lamplight glimmering on the water round her face. It is so much easier in the dark, all care of progress easily abandoned in the beauty of the all-forgiving night.
Alone at last.
And for the first time ever. There was always someone there— from home to Home to House, one family to another, and even when Rafe had had enough of slipping her between his crested sheets, too many people quick to take her in but not with condescending pity but with shame that clogged the workhouse ward with all its tales of woe and wistfulness and what might have been, even sweet Epiphany—
The sirens call for me, like Dad always said they do for drowning men—
‘Martha— Am I too late?’
‘You left your other dress at the workhouse—’
Goodbye, Rafe, I’ll ask nothing more of you now—
‘You can come and live with us, Martha, I talked to Will, he said he’d find a bigger house—’
Just let me go—
‘At least tell me where you left the baby. I’ll take her in, she shouldn’t be raised by strangers—’
And what are you—
‘Martha, please! Come home!’
Just let me be—
‘Please, come back to me—’
And then the splash of footing lost, an awful sliding shriek—
The sirens are slow to loose their fingertips from Martha’s feet and how leadenly her dress still drags and drapes against her, while she wonders if the drowning girl within will rouse herself from blissful dying stupor to swim for shore and pull her sister safe.
And Epiphany, hopelessly floundering among the wreckage of other people’s lives cannot find anything to buoy her up but the prospect of swimming to her sister’s rescue.
‘At least tell me who—’ she splutters through the river’s fastening hold.
But the current now prefers Epiphany in its embrace and Martha, hauling weary arm over weary arm towards the shore, must race against herself to save the innocent— the other innocent in all of this. She grabs and gropes, her fingers sliding hopelessly on nothing, for now the Thames has turned its other cheek and snarls and sneers at those who look for land.
‘Help!’ shouts Martha up into the wide sky, the moorings at the stairs already drifted past. ‘Help her, please!’
Epiphany still flails and flaps too far away but surely smiles before her head dips out of sight, as if to say ‘I’ve found you, Martha, yes, I have!’
‘Help her, someone, please!’
Martha grabs at handfuls of the river until her fingers snag against her sister’s arm and she can haul her close. Epiphany coughs and chokes, that smile only letting water in, her hand splashing at the surface in apology until the sirens tease her from Martha’s slippery embrace and Martha must dive down to where she longs to be, to pull her sister up once more.
‘That’s— better—’ burbles Epiphany in a watery laugh, as though some big adventure unexpectedly unfolds.
Martha would shake her head in disbelief if she could still feel herself at all. ‘You should’ve left me, should’ve let me go,’ she gulps as they swirl around each other at the river’s whim.
‘Who— Who is the baby’s father?’ gasps Epiphany between breaths.
‘Does it— matter—’
‘He might c-care to have a son—’
‘Not a daughter—’
‘A girl, you had a little girl!’
‘—and n-not an heir—’
Epiphany is slow to catch her meaning, and her arms grow still with thought. ‘Lord L-Lyward?’ she mumbles eventually, ‘is it Lord Lyward’s child?’
‘Kick your feet— Fanny— you have to kick to stay afloat.’
‘The first time— the f-first time you tried— this— in the river— I thought it was our f-fault, Will and me—’
‘Don’t— try to— understand. Just kick. Kick, Fanny, come on—’
‘You d-don’t really want to— d-d-die, do you?’
‘What about the b-ba-b-by—’
‘Don’t—try— to speak. Just kick— kick— kick—’
Martha forces her feet against the flow and strains to hear the putter of the launch upstream that does not come, and all the while that endless memory of Rafe, the agony revived by hoping for Epiphany amid the deadening of the river until all that is left is reimagining the end of herself, the cloudy dream of pushing Epiphany up onto the boat then falling out of reach to chase the sirens’ call—
A dirty smog loiters above the Stalls, shrouding all but the front of the Circle, cheap, stale tobacco burned with weak flame and thickened with the beery breath of bleary-eyed women. It is only four thirty in the afternoon, but the Saturday matinee is the unfettered whore of the week’s shows, lustful, noisy, blatant, unexpectedly demanding. With none of Monday night’s fresh piety or Friday’s cheerful indulgence, she is blighted by a hangover and desperate to please the punters at half the price. All the misery of the week gathers around her, drawn in as a last resort, bored and restless for entertainment between the day of work and the day of rest, determined to be the least willing of audiences, relinquishing their secrets as reluctantly as they would give up their last ha’penny bit for the rent.
At this very moment they refuse to believe, of course, for it was still light when they came into the theatre and the spiritual arts that will soon manifest themselves here surely belong to the dark. But night will have fallen by the time they leave wide-eyed and dodging the streetlamp glare, wanting to be alone in the shadows with the truth as it flowed from the mouth of Epiphany Fortune. Those are the lucky ones. The rest queue up for tickets for the evening show, thirsty to be proved wrong again.
Epiphany smiles to herself. Following the Chinese acrobats is always difficult. Some boisterous dame remembering her childhood is turning handstands in the aisle, cheered on by those who dare not join her lest they break their leg and their chance of a job on Monday morning. Above the smog, normally shy young men whoop at each other across the Circle, urgent echoes of the athletes’ cries of flight: Yah! Wiii-ooop! Yee-yah! And through this zoo of noise the Master of Ceremonies hollers and barks, flapping flightlessly in his penguin suit, emboldened by the narrow shaft of light leaking down on his head through the smog.
‘Ladieeeees and Gen-tle-MEN! I respectfully call on you for your att-en-shun— Ladieees— Please!’
It is his own fault that he struggles to control them. Even the most amateur of showmen knows it is madness to whip an audience to a frenzy then expect it to compose itself for an act better suited to the muslin-curtained parlours of Camberwell and Lamb’s Conduit Street. But the headstrong fool wouldn’t change the order and Epiphany is stuck with it.
But then, he is the same headstrong fool who gambled his integrity and his takings on this unknown act so utterly unsuited to such a bawdy north London outpost of the vaudeville circuit, solely on the basis of a message Epiphany delivered from his long dead mother.
The MC slams his hammer against the makeshift lectern and the crowd falls silent.
“And now, the most extraordinary sight you will ever see! The Wonder Show of the Year, the Decade, perhaps even our New Twentieth Century! The most incredible One Hundred Per Cent GENUINE demonstration of Psychic Power you will ever see on this our mortal plane! This elfin girl who will remind you of your daughters, your nieces, your sisters, this most ordinary young woman will before your very eyes demonstrate her Extra-Ordinary Clairvoyance, the purest God-given gift to contact your lost loved ones in The Afterlife! Yes, ladies and gentlemen, Epiphany Fortune speaks to the dead— And the dead speak back!’
The empty toll of the gong shimmers up from the orchestra pit as the faintly lit stage fills with a purer, more silvery smoke than chokes the galleries. Within its soft clouds the trap door in the centre of the stage opens, and a rosewood cabinet barely bigger than two coffins steadily ascends from the very core of the theatre. Epiphany gathers herself, smoothing down the familiar shiver of anxiety that would fracture her once more if she let it. These sheer cliffs of humanity towering over the stage terrify her even when she is confident of herself and her presence, yet she knows there is nothing to be afraid of. There are few here who will not listen if she speaks directly to them….
Text copyright © Evie Woolmore 2010 All Rights Reserved