Fiction September 2012

Onward

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

Caroline always prepares Fred’s breakfast herself. Her young brother’s looking sallow around the eyes. “We saved you the last of the kippers,” she says, in a tone airy enough to give the impression that she and Pet had their fill of kippers before he came down this morning.

Mouth full, Fred sings to his niece in his surprising bass.

His brow is wet with honest sweat,
He earns whate’er he can,

And looks the whole world in the face,
For he owes not any man.

Pet giggles at the face he’s pulling. Caroline slides her last triangle of toast the child’s way. Pet’s worn that striped frock since spring. Is she undersized, for two years old? But then, girls are generally smaller. Are the children Caroline sees thronging the parks so twig-like, under their elaborate coats? “Where did you pick that one up?” she asks Fred.

“A fellow at the office.”

“Again, again,” insists Pet: her new word this week.

Caroline catches herself watching the clock.

Fred launches into song again as he rises to his feet and brushes the crumbs from his waistcoat with a manner oddly middle-aged, for twenty-three.

Toiling—rejoicing—sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes …

“Come, now, Pet, let Uncle get his coat on.” Fred mustn’t be late, but that’s not it: Caroline wants him gone, so she can tackle the day. The child, windmill-armed, slaps imaginary dust out of her uncle’s trousers while her mother adjusts his collar. Not that he has any real prospect of advancement from the ranks of draftsmen, but still, no harm in looking dapper. She nearly made an architect of him, so very nearly; another few years would have done it. Nearly never knit a sock, as their mother used to say in sober moments.

“Bye-bye,” chants Pet, “bye-bye, bye-bye.”

Fred always leaves to catch his omnibus with a cheerful expression. Does he like his work, she wonders? Or just put a brave face on it for thirty-five shillings a week?

Caroline carries the tray down to the kitchen and leaves the dishes for the girl. Pet drops a saucer, but by some miracle it only spins loudly on the tiles. Upstairs, to do the beds together, shaking out the blankets; Caroline straightens everything as soon as her daughter’s back is turned. Then down to the parlor again, where she takes up her mending while Pet wreaks havoc in the sewing box. The room is cooling down as the fire goes gray.

Fred needs new cuffs. These ones are so frayed, it would be throwing good thread after bad to darn them. Or that’s her excuse; Caroline’s fingers are stupid with the needle. Her little brother, her charge and her pride, and she sends him out every day a bit shabbier. Toast crumbs still gritty in her throat, and already Caroline is reviewing the contents of the pantry, brooding over lunch. The remains of yesterday’s beef?

“What a tall tower,” she marvels, watching Pet set another spool on top of the quivering structure. Spools crash and roll across the room. Caroline jumps, pricks herself. “Pick up now,” is all she lets herself say, sucking her finger. “Good girl,” she cries when her daughter produces the last dust-rimmed spool from under the table. Is false cheer better than none, she wonders? So much of motherhood is acting.

Usually she manages to get Pet down to sleep by noon, when the girl comes in to mind her, but today Pet is wound up, squeaking in her own private language, rattling buttons in the tin.

A confident knock at the door. Early, how can he be this early, before the maid’s even got here? What makes him believe, what gives him the right—

Anger tightens the drawstrings of Caroline’s face. “A visitor for Mamma! Would you like to sit here quiet as a mouse and play with Mamma’s jewels?” Before she’s finished speaking she’s thundering up to her room, taking the stairs two at a time, Pet stumbling in her wake.

She grabs the box from her dressing table. The second knock, still sprightly. He’ll wait, won’t he? Surely he’ll give her a minute to get to the blasted door—

As she reaches the hall again, passing the struggling child on the stairs, her skirt almost knocks Pet over; Caroline takes the child’s small hand and pulls her into the parlor. She’s breathing hard as she sets the jewelry box down on the sofa. Pet’s mouth forms an O of ecstasy. All that’s left are cheap necklaces and bracelets in glass and jet, probably easy enough to break, but then again, not valuable enough to matter. “Be good now, Pet.” Good, what does that mean to a two-year-old whose every natural urge is to poke, to grab, to take the world in her fists and shake the secrets out of it? The fire—Caroline slams the guard across it. “Mamma back soon!”

The third knock hammers as she’s dashing through the hall; she pauses to shake her skirts into shape.

Her smiling apologies overlap with his. This one’s all bluff humor and compliments; he’s brought what he calls a mere token. Caroline stares at the miniature lilies, hides her face in their white stiffness. The scent is sweet enough to hurt her throat. Eerie white bugles, suited to a girl’s coffin. This late in the autumn, they must be hothouse blooms: she reckons the cost.

“Mamma!” Pet, lurching into the hall, heavy with necklaces.

“Stay in the parlor,” says Caroline, picking her up, crushing her against the flowers. She plants her on the sofa again, and in the small perfect ear, very low and fierce, she says “Shh!” Turns to find the visitor leaning in the doorway, grinning as if to demonstrate that he doesn’t mind encountering the little one, on the contrary in fact. It occurs to her that he’s scanning Pet’s features, and her stomach turns.

“Piddy,” remarks Pet, caressing one glacial petal.

What’s a pity? How does the child know about pity? Oh, pretty. Caroline yanks the bouquet away. “Yes, Mamma’s special pretty flowers, don’t touch.”

Upstairs, she chats a bit, marvels at how long her visitor’s mustache is getting. Has he had a very tiresome morning in the City? He’s considering investing in the Canadian Grand Trunk Railway, well, hasn’t that quite a ring to it.

Caroline doesn’t care, not for herself. A leaden sense of her fate presses her against her pillow. But no shame. What time in her day has she for shame?

The sheets have a damp feel against her back, though Caroline tells herself she must be imagining it. She moves the way he prefers, with her ears always pricked. Nothing, not a sound. Could Pet have crept upstairs, might she be outside Mamma’s bedroom door right now, plucking up her nerve to push the door open? No, no, Caroline would have heard something, one of those little gasps of exertion or nonsense words a two-year-old can’t help making. But the man has put his oily mustache to her ear now, he’s grunting like a seal. She can’t hear anything else. She should be making those delicate bird-cries he likes but oh god, what if a necklace has snagged, tightened round Pet’s soft throat? Earrings, she forgot to take the damn earrings out of the box. What would one of those tiny sharp hooks do to a small stomach? Her fingers clamp on the pale meat of his shoulders. Hurry, hurry, do your business and be done with it.

“Oh, sweet Caroline,” he groans.

A rage spirals up when she hears him use her name, a coal-smoke whirlwind wrenching this scarecrow out of her, hurling him against the walls, whipping him through the pealing glass to fall like rag ’n’ bones on the Brompton street, where the next passing carriage will flatten his face into stone and mud.

A small sound brings her back to herself. Rocking away on top of her, the visitor doesn’t notice, but Caroline can make out voices in the parlor, one deeper than the other. The girl at last, ten minutes late by the clock on the dresser. It’s all right. Pet’s all right. Caroline’s teeth unlock.

Love fizzes like acid in her bones. She doesn’t have to fake that.

Lunch is the last of the beef, in a soup, bulked out with turnips. Pet pushes her bowl away, but Caroline puts the spoon between the little pink lips over and over.

Though the child hasn’t had her nap, Caroline takes her out, while the rain is holding off. “Pam pam,” wails Pet. Her memory is getting longer; the pram was pawned three weeks ago. (Uncle Fred doesn’t seem to have noticed.)

“You’re a great big girl now, you can walk,” says Caroline, with one of those smiles that are too hard around the edges. Pet wanders in long spirals, trips over a pinecone. “Come along, my sweet. This way.” The air’s bad today, damp and sulfurous. “On we go!” After a minute, Caroline dips to lift her daughter onto her hip. When they reach Brompton Park, Pet struggles to get down and chases sparrows with the lumbering merriment of a drunk. She coughs with excitement, picks up a branch covered in curled yellow leaves, and shakes it like a standard. Caroline wonders if the brown boots are pinching. She thinks of Chinese ladies with their ghastly little feet. For winter she could always line that thin coat with a flannel petticoat of her own … but then it mightn’t button up at the front.

“Birdies! Mamma, birdies!”

“That’s right, pretty birdies.”

A spattering of rain. On the way home, they pass two women on a bench, whose conversation halts. Eyes flicker, then avert. The chat starts up again in graver tones.

Does Caroline hear her name? She keeps her gaze at the level of her daughter’s face. “Look, a snail,” she remarks inanely.

“Nail,” echoes Pet, bending to examine it.

But her mother jerks her hand. “On we go, the rain’s coming.”

Caroline doesn’t care, not for herself. There’s an automatic searing of the cheeks, at moments like these; occasionally on waking, a leaden sense of her fate that presses her against the pillow. But no shame. What time in her day has she for shame?

“Nail,” cries Pet again, squatting to reach for something that looks very much like dog dirt.

“Time for cocoa,” says Caroline, hauling her onto her hip with one arm.

Fallen. It’s not like in the novels, or on the stage; it’s as ordinary as darning. What has Caroline ever done but what she had to, since she was nineteen and she found herself alone with a nine-year-old brother to raise? The road never seemed to fork. She’s put one foot in front of the other and this is where they have led her, this moment, fat drops of rain falling into her collar as she rushes along the blotched footpath with Pet laughing on her hip. Onward, onward, because backward is impossible. Fallen, like leaves that can’t be stuck back on the trees again.

And it strikes Caroline now that everything the child learns is a step closer to misery. When will Pet begin to register the neighbors’ words? At four? Five? Coming home with her face streaked with knowledge: I heard a bad word. Cruel misnamings of what she is, or rather, what her mother is; the falsity of fact. And what will Caroline tell her then? What fiction, what feeble justification? She wishes absurdly that Pet would stay light enough to carry on her hip; would shrink, in fact, falling back month by month into the plump oblivion of infancy.

Usually only two visitors a day; she can’t cut down any more than that and still make the books balance. No strangers, no boors; she has her standards.

At home, the afternoon goes smoothly: a small mercy. The girl takes Pet up for a nap, while Caroline glances at yesterday’s paper. Stowaway Found Accidentally Stifled in Salt Barrel Three Days Out From Liverpool, says a headline; Caroline winces, and turns the page. She screws up her eyes to read tiny advertisements for items she can’t afford.

By the time her second visitor knocks, Pet and the maid are playing with paper dolls in the parlor. This one only ever speaks about the weather; she agrees with him that the rain will get heavier before dark. Never more than three visitors a day, and usually only two; she can’t cut down any more than that and still make the books balance. No strangers, no boors; she has her standards.

Caroline has bathed, and dismissed the girl, and tidied up, hours before Fred comes home soaked to the ankles. (She can’t find the bouquet of lilies, though it lingers on the air; the girl must have thrown it out, a piece of quiet tact that surprises Caroline.) Her brother apologizes for being late; the rain always causes traffic jams. He likes the way she’s moved the easy chair a little closer to the window. “It’s these small touches,” Fred assures her. “Lets me enjoy the view, while I’m polishing my shoes.”

The view, as if their window looked onto an alpine lake, instead of one of Brompton’s meaner terraces.

Pet’s got him singing that song about the blacksmith again.

Toiling—rejoicing—sorrowing,
Onward through life he goes …

His voice is hoarser after the long day. It was her little brother, Fred, who taught her to be a mother, long before Pet. Love happens, like age or weather. It’s not hard to do, only to endure, sometimes.

Caroline always asks about his work, though there’s not much to say about the drawings on which he’s engaged; mostly he passes on gossip about the architects. In return Fred inquires about her reading; he’s created a sort of fiction that his sister’s day is divided between the care of her child and intellectual advancement. (Caroline sometimes leaves a book on her desk for a few days, then returns it to the library unread. It is not that the visitors take up so much of her day, but until they are dealt with and banished to the other side of the front door again, she can’t settle to anything else.)

She tries not to recall the moment four years ago when she told Fred his training contract would have to be canceled, his face like a starched sheet. There’s no one in particular to blame, which makes it worse. Not the man she lived with for nine years, seeing to his accounts as well as every other wifely duty; he would have gone on supporting her and her brother for the rest of his life, she’s sure, had his business not failed. He’d have married her, in fact, if he hadn’t had the bad luck to be married already. Caroline can’t blame herself, either. When she was nineteen she gambled all she had, but hardly recklessly; for nine years it seemed a decent bargain. What did abstractions like honor matter, compared with realities: white bread in a child’s wet mouth?

“Tired, Sis?”

“Not really,” she says, rousing herself to smile. Fred still looks like a boy, especially when he puts on that avuncular face.

“Shall we have a game of cards?”

“Oh yes,” she says, mustering a tone of delight. Ersatz, every word, and yet all meant in good earnest.

“This is very snug,” says Fred, poking the fire. “Nothing so jolly as an autumn evening in the bosom of the family.”

She wishes he wouldn’t overdo it. Every evening is just like this, unless there’s some drama such as Pet coming down with mumps or a bird banging about in the chimney. They can’t afford any amusements, and they have no friends. Fred claims to get on well enough with the other draftsmen, but he’s never going to risk inviting one home to meet his “widowed” sister. As for Caroline, no woman of her own sort would know her, and she doesn’t want to know the other sort. She lives in the crack between two worlds.

This cozy-nest stuff is not exactly a lie, though. More like a show: a play to entertain Pet. She’s the one who knows least, and so matters most. Again, Caroline feels that queer impulse to shut those bright eyes with her hand, cover those shell-pink ears, close that curious mouth. To beckon her daughter back inside her. To squeeze her like a pearl locked up in its oyster. To—

No, not that. Caroline can never wish Pet unbegun. That’s the paradox that tires her brain, strains her heart: the best thing in her life has sprung from the worst. So though Caroline can’t bear her life, she wouldn’t swap it for any other.

A heavy sweetness; she turns her head sharply.

“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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