Fiction September 2012

Onward

Love happens, like age or weather. It’s not hard to do, only to endure, sometimes.

“Piddy flower,” Pet is saying, as she lays the bruised lilies across Fred’s knee.

“Wherever did you get those pretty flowers?” marvels Fred.

“Mamma visitor,” says Pet confidingly.

Caroline snatches the bouquet. Halfway down the stairs, she hears the house ring with Pet’s shrieks. In the kitchen, the reek of the scrap bucket makes her retch, but it’s better than the lilies. She pushes them down deep under the gristle and turnip peel, and scrubs her hands on the cloth.

“Sis—” Fred is holding Pet with her face pressed against his shirtfront; she’s still gulping.

“Mamma’s sorry,” she tells Pet hoarsely, “but the flowers were dirty. They had to go in the bucket.”

She tries to take the child, but Pet clings to her uncle with a fresh burst of wailing.

“I’ll bring you some more tomorrow,” Fred promises the child. “What about roses? Roses are ever so pretty.”

“And ever so expensive,” says Caroline under her breath, examining her nails.

“It’s my money.”

They stare at each other in the dim kitchen. After a second she takes Pet—unresisting now—and carries her upstairs.

Caroline takes longer than usual to go through the routine; she sings Pet half a dozen nursery rhymes and stays for a while after the lamp is turned down. They say it spoils a child to let them have a light at night, but Caroline doesn’t care. If you break the cardinal rule when you’re still a girl, what does it matter if you break a few more? When the bough breaks, the cradle will fall, she sings under her breath. Down will come baby, cradle and all.

Bone-weary: she’s tempted to go to bed. But she can’t leave Fred alone downstairs. Entering the parlor, she sits straight down and picks up her hand of cards.

Her brother’s hand closes over hers. “Caro.”

The old name saps her, melts her.

“What I said—”

“Of course your wages are your own,” she tells him.

“Of course they’re not. All for one, and all that. Besides, you earn twice what I do.”

The word hits her hard. They’ve always spoken as if the figures Caroline adds to the household budget every week come from dividends, or a legacy. Earn: as if it were a job like any other. She feels mortification, and a strange sort of relief.

“Last week I applied for the position of ticket collector at the Olympic,” he goes on.

“Fred, you can’t work in the evenings too!”

He shrugs like a small boy. “Today I heard the position has been filled; there were more than thirty applicants.”

She doesn’t know what to say: What a shame, or Just as well.

“We can’t go on like this,” he says, pursing his lips.

She stares at him.

“A new beginning, that’s what we need, where nobody knows us. New names, even.”

“We can’t go on like this,” Fred says, pursing his lips. “A new beginning, that’s what we need, where nobody knows us. New names, even.”

Caroline’s eyes hurt as they rest on her brother. So young, still, so wonderfully stupid. Not that her borrowed surname means anything to her; she’d change it in the morning, if it would do any good. “Fred,” she says softly, “that wouldn’t work for long. In another part of London, or another town, even, the neighbors would start to notice as soon as there were”—her throat locks on the word visitors—“people coming and going,” she finishes weakly.

Fred’s jaw is set. “If I could get a better position, you could drop all that.”

All that: only now, in the tightness of his words, can she hear how much he hates the men who have been swanning into his house since he was a child. She bites her lip. But what better position? Thirty men ahead of him for a job collecting theater tickets!

“I wouldn’t mind getting into some other line altogether,” he mentions. “Some business you could help me with, even; you’ve got a great head for figures.”

She breathes out her exasperation before she speaks. “In such times as these, Fred—”

“I don’t mean in England,” he says, very low.

“Not in England?” She repeats it without understanding.

And then, unexpectedly, he grins. “If we made up our minds to a really fresh start … well, it could be anywhere. The Cape. Australia. Canada.”

Caroline blinks. “You’re proposing that—”

“Don’t ask me for any details yet,” he says, “but there are opportunities. Every­one says so. More space,” he adds urgently, “and fewer people. Less fuss about one’s origins, too.”

She nods at that.

“Things are just getting started in those sorts of places,” says Fred with a kind of wonder, “whereas here …”

“Things have been going on as they are for such a long time.”

“Yes.” He grips his sister’s fingers hard enough to hurt. “Where should we go?”

“I—” She stops herself before she can say she doesn’t care, or that it makes no difference, because it’s not going to happen; it’s a child’s fantasy. “You choose.”

“Could you bear it, really, Caro? Leaving England behind?”

What’s the harm in humoring him?

“I expect I would hate it at first,” she says quietly.

Fred’s face falls.

“But I could get used to it, I believe. We all could, especially Pet.” Her throat locks on the syllable. To really live. Not walled up.

“Oh, Sis. A fresh start!”

“People do it every day,” she says, a little giddy. Is she deluding herself that she could be anything but what she is? When you change countries, perhaps your old self stays fixed to your back, like a turtle’s shell.

Fred is standing by the little writing desk. He lets out his breath in a half whistle and sits down on the beveled edge.

You’ll break it, she wants to say, but she stops herself. Instead she says what just a moment ago she wasn’t going to. “But it can’t be done, Fred, not really.”

His jaw juts, exactly like his niece’s. “Why can’t it?”

“Come, now. However would we raise the cost of our passage?”

“Ah, I have one or two ideas about that,” he announces.

Caroline’s eyes narrow. “Nothing reckless, Fred?”

“No, no. There’s someone to whom I mean to write, to ask—”

“For charity?” she interrupts shrilly.

Her brother’s fiddling with the pen she uses to keep the household books, rubbing dried ink off the nib. “This person’s a very distinguished gentleman—I won’t name him, in case nothing comes of it, but I know he takes an interest in such cases.”

Such cases. That means her. A long pause, and Caroline considers the curiously lingering nature of pride. “You wouldn’t tell this person? Tell him my story?” she forces herself to add.

“Ours. Our story. I would be obliged to tell it,” he says, almost stern, coming over to the sofa and letting himself down beside her.

She squeezes her eyes shut.

“You have nothing to be ashamed of,” Fred says.

Hot water spills down her face. What does he know?

“I’d put it all down on paper just once. To be done with it. Say I may?”

Sell her story, instead of her body? “No.” Caroline’s pulse is in her ears, as fast as the wheels of a train, as loud as a ship’s engine. Not on and on, but out and away. To let out the truth, and then sink it under the waves. What will she tell Pet, years later? Nothing, nothing at all. Or a beautiful lie: We lost your papa back in England. “No,” she says, “I’ll do it,” opening her eyes blindly and taking the pen from his hand.

* * *

Caroline Thompson’s existence is recorded only in the letters of Charles Dickens. The young draftsman Frederick Maynard first wrote to the novelist about his older sister and her daughter on October 10, 1854, and Dickens got to know both siblings before persuading his fellow philanthropist Angela Burdett-Coutts to set Caroline up with a lodging house. When that failed to make Caroline a living, he and Burdett-Coutts let her sell the furniture (for more than 100 pounds) to pay her and her child’s way to Canada. On May 14, 1856, Dickens referred to “an endeavor I am making to do something to help a sister and brother to go out to Canada with some sort of light upon their way,” so Fred apparently went with his sister and niece. On September 26, 1857, Dickens recorded, “I saw Mrs. Thompson before she went, and told her that I trusted her with great confidence.”

Fred’s song is Henry Wadsworth Long­fellow’s “The Village Blacksmith” (1840).

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma Donoghue now lives in Canada. Her books include the best-selling Room (shortlisted for the Man Booker and Orange Prizes) and Slammerkin. “Onward” is from a new collection of short stories, Astray.
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