The nurse, Mrs Bibby, sits with her bad leg on an upturned bucket. Strong and square of body and delicate of wrist and neck, with long deft pickpocket’s fingers, she gives the impression of heavy ballast combined with nimble grace. She is in midlife, but truth be told she has never looked young. In her physiognomy one can detect the vicissitudes of decades of hard and soft living. There is something predatory about her, a wild slyness to her eyes, which are very blue and very wide apart. She has a flattened nose and negligible eyebrows. A wide, generous mouth takes up the rest of her face, with several teeth to each side lost. This gives her the air of a raffish tomcat. As does the scar above her eyebrow, the deep nick to her ear lobe and the stump of her missing index finger. Her hair, a greying mouse, is moulded into a remarkable arrangement; a severe parting in the middle with two fluffed cones high on each side of her head. Her face is mesmerising, moving as it does from wide-eyed innocent to vinegary crone in a matter of seconds.
The child, it seems to the nurse, never tires of watching her, or of listening; but then Mrs Bibby’s voice, like her face, changes constantly. Every kind of voice lives inside her, from prim to wheedling, high-stepping to raucously lewd. After the previous nurse, who lay face down sleeping off her gin habit for the best part of six years, Mrs Bibby is a spectacle.
The child is observing her now; her eye peeping through the door of the vestry cupboard left ajar. This is where the good doctor saw fit to lodge the mite. He has brought lanterns and set them about so she can be kept in sight.
Mrs Bibby winks; the eye disappears. She returns her attention, forthright but caring, to Dr Harbin.
“With all due respect,” she says smoothly, “I would advise you to rein it in, sir.”
The doctor, who is pacing the length of the room, halts. “We can’t afford this delay, Mrs Bibby. What if the buyers renege? If they find out that he knows that he’s been . . .”
“Rooked, sir?” completes Mrs Bibby.
The doctor grimaces.
“Well, he would have to find out at some junction, he’s all eyes and frigging ears. But those Parisians, now they’re at a distance. And I ain’t about to tell them you’ve bubbled your rightful buyer.”
Dr Harbin stares hard at her.
Mrs Bibby throws a devoted look up to the ceiling. “Before my light and saviour, ain’t we in this together, Doctor?”
“What have I done?” he whispers. “Of all the people to cross.”
The inky dabs of his eyes dart behind his spectacle lenses. There’s a newly haggard aspect to the doctor’s countenance, as befits a damned man.
“This whole enterprise is slipshod.” His eyes fall frostily upon the nurse. “How could there be no carriage?”
“The jarvey was delayed, sir, wheel trouble, it can’t be helped.”
“And when he arrives I know what I’ll find: a drunken coachman with a team of glue nags and a superannuated carriage that I could outpace on foot.”
Mrs Bibby’s expression remains unchanged but there is a note of irritation in her voice. “Would you have it above-board, all traceable-like?”
The doctor doesn’t answer.
“Still, we found this place to hole up in and ain’t that a fountain of luck, sir?”
“Mrs Bibby, we are not even a mile from Maris House yet.”
“Dr Harbin, all plans have their hitches. I doubt if Sir Edmund will have the coppers out searching.”
“Bridie Devine, she’ll be searching.”
“Then we’re frigged, entirely!” she laughs. “Doctor, take heart, soon we will be across the Channel.”
“And the French will be clamouring to buy your little oddity of nature.”
The doctor rubs his pate with the flat of his hand in a comforting, polishing motion. He turns to her and opens his mouth.
“It’s all arranged, sir,” Mrs Bibby says quickly. “Carriage, Dover, first light.”
Dr Harbin starts pacing again. “It must be tomorrow—the road is long, the risks increasing—”
“You’re right there, Doctor,” pipes up Mrs Bibby in a helpful tone. “He might catch up with us yet, to say nothing of the other collectors out there. With an eye and a nose for goods on the move that they can add to their cabinets of curiosities, their wonder rooms. Oh—you know about them collectors, do you?”
Dr Harbin’s face says he might.
“Mercenary types, Doctor. Un-gentlemanly.”
“I’d rather not think about that.”
“Word gets around, don’t it?” She gives him a contented smile. “Risk of ambush. Or being stopped by coppers.”
Mrs Bibby nods, blithely. “Sir Edmund may not alert them but they’ll be out there all the same, meddling. In villages, along the lonely roads, suspecting, searching.” She points at the vestry cupboard. “Try explaining that.”
Dr Harbin is harried. “What should I do?”
Mrs Bibby picks up her book. “Oh, staying sanguine is all you can do, Doctor.”
The doctor collapses into a chair. From time to time he shakes his head with something like disbelief.
Mrs Bibby feels for him. This is strong business for a weak man.
“And no more impromptu burials.” He gestures with disdain at the muddied knees of his trousers. “Promise me that.”
Mrs Bibby merely looks at him, placidly, half-amused.
“Do you realise how hard it was to get that body out from under Mrs Puck’s bloody nose?” The doctor seems unnerved at the thought.
“Our fallen comrade,” laments Mrs Bibby. “As I said: all plans have their hitches, sir.”
She watches the doctor a moment, then returns to the book in her hand.
The child shuffles to sitting along the wall of the vestry cupboard. She wears a costume so that she will not bite herself or others. It is made of strong material and buckles. It is a job of work to get out of it; despite that, she has a foot loose. There is some slack in the ankle strap so she can shift along the cupboard floor.
“The Kraken is short-tongued tonight,” says Mrs Bibby from the chair.
The child nudges the cupboard door open a bit wider with her foot.
“Playing mum? You understand more than you let on.” Mrs Bibby puts down her book and reaches for the bottle on the table next to her. “Because I am dosed to the gills on Mother Bibby’s Quieting Syrup and enjoying this pleasant change of scenery, we shall have an instructive story.”“Because I am dosed to the gills on Mother Bibby’s Quieting Syrup and enjoying this pleasant change of scenery, we shall have an instructive story.”
The child looks at her blankly.
“You are going out into the world, Christabel, and it is only right that I should prepare you. Impart some of my wisdom and experience, so to speak.”
Christabel is silent.
“Such as, people in polite company don’t use their feet to eat snails.”
As if in defiance, Christabel delicately picks up a snail between her two toes and bends her face to her foot.
“It’s not well-bred,” adds Mrs Bibby. “At least use your fingers.”
The child, inspecting the snail, ignores her.
Mrs Bibby takes a nip, corks the bottle and lays it in her arm crook. “All right, so. In the old days . . .”
There lived a witch. And how do you recognise a witch? They run orphanages in Wanstead and like eating babies. This witch ran an orphanage and was an expert in selecting the choicest of babies. She enjoyed the plump babies with savoury gravy and drop dumplings, the lean ones she’d spatchcock and griddle with onions. Above five years old children were stringy and barely edible. One day a girl came in who was thin and five and there was no eating on her. Let’s call her Dorcas. Life at the witch’s house was difficult for Dorcas. She was—
“What was Dorcas like?” muses Mrs Bibby. “I’m frigged if I can remember.”
Dorcas was a plain girl with a limp to her left leg. This was on account of her mother trying to lose her down the privy when Dorcas was born. A policeman fished her out by the ankle—and shook her by the ankle to get her started up again. Her mother swung for it and Dorcas’s leg was never the same. It wasn’t the policeman’s fault of course, you never can tell if a good act will turn bad, no more than if a bad one will turn good. At the witch’s house there were beatings and starvings (in that respect it was the same as every other orphan house Dorcas had lived in). Now it came about that one day a new baby arrived. The baby was not more than six months old and a fine fat chap with smiling blue eyes and rosy-pink cheeks. Dorcas, knowing the baby’s fate, for the other orphans had told her all about the witch’s tastes, devised a bold plan which would free all of the orphans, including herself, from the witch’s tyranny—
Mrs Bibby breaks off. “Put that bloody snail down. I see what you’re doing.”
Christabel stops licking the snail shell and eyes the nurse through the open cupboard door.
“You heard.” Mrs Bibby waits.
The empty shell is delicately dropped on the flagstones. The foot slowly retracts itself into the cupboard.
Mrs Bibby nods.
Dorcas already knew how to do for rodents. You got the poison from the store, put it in the mush the rats liked and then you waited. Sometimes the high stink said that the rats had crawled somewhere to die. Dorcas was the one to go after them. It was a job she liked because no one else had the stomach. Dorcas decided that if she grew up she would become a rat-catcher. In the meantime, she would poison the fat baby; the witch would eat the baby and thereby be poisoned too. It would be quick for the babe (if the rats were anything to go by), saving him a long roasting . . .
Mrs Bibby pauses, leans forward, biting her lip against the pain from her leg and peers into the cupboard. The child has her eyes closed, she has worked one of her hands lose from her restraints and holds it between her head and the cupboard wall, palm to cheek. The child, roused by Mrs Bibby’s silence, shambles upright.
“You want the rest of the story?”
Christabel looks at her with unblinking pearl eyes.
“The relentless demands of it.” Mrs Bibby, wincing, takes another nip from her bottle.
Dorcas mixed up the poison in a milk jug, enough for a score of rats. Then she put the poison packet away at the back of the store. Dorcas knew that if the witch suspected anything she wouldn’t eat the baby and it might be a while before another fine plump baby came to the orphanage. Then she set flour, suet and a mixing bowl in readiness for the dumplings and laid a place at the table and put the cruets ready. Her preparations complete, she lugged the fat baby boy up into her lap and fed him the rat medicine. He waved his fists with delight when he saw the spoon coming, but when he tasted it, his face crumpled and he spat out the mixture and began to cry. Dorcas, who had picked up babies all her life, swung him backwards over her knee to surprise him. Her trick worked, his mouth opened, Dorcas spooned the poison in. Fighting with the baby made her hot and cross. She didn’t realise how hot and cross until his body went limp, his mouth bitter with poison, his face flushed and his curls damp on his head. How her arms ached. Dorcas was not much bigger than the baby after all. She put the baby in a roasting tin, tucked a napkin over him and waited.
The child wakes to a brightening morning. The vicar’s vestments, his cassocks and surplices, hang above her. She touches the hem of a stole with her free hand, strokes it between her thumb and forefinger. A sudden scramble in the cupboard and the child snatches.
“Going fishing?” laughs Mrs Bibby, who has been watching her.
The nurse is even more tom-cattish than usual. The fluffed cones of her hair are lopsided and she has scratches across the bridge of her nose and on her cheeks. While Christabel has been sleeping Mrs Bibby has been fighting.
Christabel opens her fist, carefully, carefully.
“Oh, strong wriggler!” Mrs Bibby mimes feeding herself and the child mimics newt to mouth.
She kisses the newt.
“One of your subjects, Lady Berwick, like these ladies and gentlemen.” Mrs Bibby gestures at the snails that stud the vestry walls. More are making their way across the floor towards the cupboard. They puddle the flagstones; there will be a moat of them soon.
The child inspects the newt’s spotty body and tail, its limbs and digits and the shiny disks of its eyes. She strokes its snout with its two neat nostrils, with the tip of her fingernail. It wiggles, and, holding it tighter, she puts it into her mouth, biting the head clean off. She looks down at the body in her hand. A twitch, a shudder and still.
“Poor little bleeder.” Mrs Bibby smiles.
The child strokes the newt’s soft belly against her lip, watching the early sun slant across the flagstones, following the snails.