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Somewhere a tide is turning. In that place where no land can be seen, where horizon to horizon is spanned by shifting twinkling faithless water, a wave humps its back and turns over with a sigh, and sends its salted whispering to Mr Hancock’s ear.

This voyage is special, the whisper says, a strange fluttering in his heart.

It will change everything.

And all of a sudden, in his silent counting-house, this faded man with his brow cupped in his hands is gripped by a great childish glee of anticipation.

The rain eases. The cat crunches on the skull of the mouse. And as she slaps her tongue about her muzzle, Mr Hancock permits himself to hope.

Owing to the rain it is unlikely that many birds are abroad, but perhaps a crow has just crept from the rafters of Mr Hancock’s house, and now fans out its bombazine feathers and tips its head to one side to view the world with one pale and peevish eye. This crow, if it spreads its wings, will find them full of the still-damp breeze gusting up from the streets below: hot tar, river mud, the ammoniac reek of the tannery. And if it hops from its ledge and rises above the rooftops of Union Street it will come first and swiftly to the docks, the cradles of ships-to-be, which even in their infancy rear above all the buildings. Some, polished and tarred, flags aflutter and figurehead winking, strain to be launched; others, mere ribs of fresh-stripped wood with only air between them, lie in dry-dock vast and pale and naked as the skeletons of whales.

If, from here, this crow steers itself north-west following the turn of the river, and if it flies for six miles without pause . . . Well, is this likely, for a crow? What are their habits? What is the range of their territory? If it were to do this, coasting across the sky as the clouds recede, it would approach the city of London, the river crenelated on each bank with docks large and small, some built tall from yellow stone, some of sagging black wood.

The wharves and bridges pen the water in tight, but after the storm it squirms and heaves. The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current. As the sun creeps out, this conjectured crow will fly over the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s, the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually come upon Soho. As it alights on a Dean Street gutter, its shadow will briefly cross the first-floor window of one particular house, stealing the daylight from the room within so that the face of Angelica Neal is momentarily lost in darkness.

She sits at her dressing table as cool and fragrant as a rosewater custard, picking at a bowl of hothouse fruit while her friend – Mrs Eliza Frost – tweaks the last scorched curl-paper from her hair. She has been laced back into her stays and half-draped in a powdering robe, but there is a flush of the bedroom in her cheeks, and her eyes are dragged irresistibly back to her own dimpling reflection as if to the face of a lover. A canary skips and whistles in its cage, mirrors twinkle all about, and her table is strewn with ribbons and earrings and tiny glass bottles. Each afternoon they carry it from the dark dressing room into the sunny parlour so as to spare their candles.

‘But these measures will soon be unnecessary,’ says Angelica, as a little storm of hair powder flies up around her. ‘When the season begins, and there are more places to be seen – more people to see me – our living will be far easier.’ On the floor the crushed triangles of curl-paper are dense with Wesleyan homily, snipped as they are from pious tracts passed out daily to the whores of Dean Street.

 

This is an excerpt from the 2018 shortlisted book by Imogen Hermes Gowar.  Read more

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