Excerpt: 'Mrs Engels' by Gavin McCrea


Lizzie Burns (Engels) c. 1865

From A Resting Place:

A donkey’s age, it takes him, to get the wretched blindfold off. Two, four, six taps of my boot and still he’s behind me, fighting with the knot.

‘What’s keeping you?’ I says.

‘Patience, Lizzie,’ he says, and I know it’d be no use telling him again, at this late stage, that his time in Manchester has turned him into a northern stumpole.

I feel him wiggle his finger underneath the neckerchief; now I hear him bite into it and grind it between his ivories. The cotton presses tight against my nose, which tells me it’s not really new, this rag. It’s one of the old ones from the Club, still smelling of cigars and bear’s grease.

With a last wet groan, he gets it free. A curved terrace of houses — dream palaces — unrolls itself in front of me.

‘Primrose Hill,’ he says, and turns me round to face the hill of grass that rises out of the ground where the terrace ends on the opposite side of the road.

‘Are those sheep?’ I says.

‘And this one’ — he turns me again, this time to meet a giant face of plaster and brick — ‘is ours.’

I have to creak my neck back to see to the top of it. The brightness of the day gleams up its windows. Three floors. Iron railings. An area. A basement.

‘Well?’ he says.

My heart feels faint, which can happen when you make the acquaintance of a real future to replace the what-might-be.

‘Have you nothing to say? Hot and cold water all the way up!’

Dazed by light feeling, I clutch at my throat and dither about stepping over the doorsill. ‘Bless and save us, Frederick, I don’t know. It’s awful grand.’

As I make my way around — the green room already filled with flower and plant, the laundry room fit for an army, the cloak room with hooks for a hundred, the cellar bigger than the one I myself was reared in — I can’t help holding onto the walls and the tables to keep myself on end. I keep expecting a steadying hand from Frederick but it doesn’t come. Something isn’t right with him. A flash temper has come over him. When I point something out, he makes sure to bid his interest the other way. When I open a door on the left, he opens one on the right. When I go to look at a wardrobe, he goes to look at a lamp.

‘She’s done a fine job,’ I says. ‘A fine job.’

But he doesn’t answer. It must be that he doesn’t like what she’s done. And, to be honest, I can see why.

In her book, there’s naught worse than a new house that looks new. She said so just now before we left. ‘So long as the thirst for novelty exists independently of all aesthetic considerations,’ she went, ‘the aim of Manchester and Sheffield and Birmingham will be to produce objects which shall always appear new. And, Lizzie, is there anything more depressing than that lustre of newness?’

And I went to myself, ‘Aye, the smell of decay,’ and took her attitude for a London attitude, set square against sense. But what do I know? She’s the baroness and knows better about the styles. (How she ended up with a cruster like Karl is anyone’s wager. He must have thought that, because her family tree has as many rebels as it does nobles, she’d have the right opinions about everything, already there in her blood. And she must have thought, well, she must have thought he was intellectual and clever, the kind of man that’ll win glory on earth, which only goes to show how little true wisdom there is in young hearts.)

In decorating the house what she’s tried to do, she said, is dull the pristine down and make the place appear longer stood. I said I hope this doesn’t mean there’ll be dirt and dust round the place for I don’t allow it. She said it isn’t a question of cleanliness but of heritage, for olden things can be clean without being shiny. I said what would I be wanting with heritage? All I need is a couple of chairs that stand upright. She said it isn’t hard to give the idea of it, even in recent and modest houses, by buying the necessaries at auctions, such as movables of no modern date and art that’s been handled and weathered — and chipped, I see now — and by scattering it all about so that two new things don’t rub against each other and make a glare.

‘Ending the tyranny of novelty,’ is what she called it.

‘Spending other people’s brass,’ is what I call it, but only to myself.

And it’s unkind even to think it, for I wouldn’t have been able to do it — the ridding, the arranging, the fixing up — without her.

She’s thought of everything. She’s had the right fringe put on the draping, and the right frills put on the fringe. The few bits we sent down ourselves, she’s had cushioned over. She’s had the stores stocked. She’s had calling cards made; there they are stacked on the hall table. Everything: first to last, start to end.

‘We went a finger over budget,’ she said. ‘But I believe quality speaks for itself.’

And the rooms do indeed speak. They speak dark and solemn. For in buying the movables — and by all accounts she bid like a mad- body after most of it — she thought not about what was handsome but about what was suitable to Frederick’s position. And seeing them now, these hulks of bookcases and cabinets and desks and tables, I find myself wondering has she mistaken him, all along, for a priest.

‘Are you thinking what I’m thinking, Frederick?’ I says, as a way of cheering him.

But there’s no humour to be had from him. He’s gone like a brick. Closed like a door. He shrugs and disappears upstairs. I follow him up and find him on the first landing, glowering down at his feet.

‘Lizzie, I wish you to favour me by showing me which room you would like to have as your boudoir. I’d rather have these matters decided for me.’

‘All right,’ I says, hardening myself now. ‘If that’s how you want it.’ Jenny has put a cabinet and a toilette table in the large room on the first floor, so she probable expects me to claim that one, on account of its size and distance from the road. As it happens, I decide to leave that one to Frederick — it’s closer to his study after all — and I choose instead the smaller one on the top floor. Here I’ll have to share a landing with the maids, and it means an extra flight of steps up and down, and I know people will think I picked it out of a fear of taking too much. But the truth is I much prefer it. They’ve thought to put a fireplace all the way up here. And there’s a nice washstand and a hip bath and the flowers on the wall are so brilliant and colourful they look fresh picked. And the bed: the bed has golden posts and an eiderdown quilt, and the way it’s sitting in the light, it’s like God shining down over it. I sit on it and know immediate that it’s mine. ‘That’s it with the moving,’ it makes me think. ‘We’ll not budge from here. This is the place that’ll see me out. This is the bed that on my last day I won’t get up from.’

‘This is the one I want,’ I says.

‘Fine,’ he says, and goes to look out the little window that gives over garden and the roofs of the other houses.

There’s a terrible quiet. His back is a wall blocking out the lovely bit of sun, and the shiver in his limbs makes me think he’s going to put his fist out through the glass. For what reason, it’s beyond me to say.

‘Is everything all right with you, Frederick?’

Slow, he turns round. He doesn’t look at me and heeds only the wringing of his hands. ‘I am sorry, Lizzie’ — he shakes his head in a sorrowful way — ‘I am sorry that you judge the house only awful grand. You were expecting something more. But this will have to do for now.’

Alarmed, I open to object. I rise to a stand and reach out an arm, but he raises to halt me.

‘It is already a risk to take a house this size. A bigger one would be a push too far. Besides, I have already given my word on it. It has been signed to us for three and half years.’

‘Frederick, I —’

‘Jenny and Karl are waiting for our impressions. They, and especially Jenny, have put a great deal of time and effort into finding us this house and making it fit to occupy. So what you are going to do, Lizzie, what I’m telling you to do, is to pretend that you think it more, much more, than awful grand.’

A rising laugh makes me push my face into my sleeve. As foreigners go, he’s unusual fast at picking things up. His problem — the big noke — is letting go when a thing is long done and over. There’s times he’ll get his whole fist round a delicate article and won’t drop it till he’s wrung all the sense out of it, and he holds it still, even if he knows it’s crushed or broke or anyhows beyond repair.

‘Lizzie, are you laughing?’

Laughter that’s sealed only builds and I think I might burst. I plonk back down on the bed and lift my shirts up to hide my face.

‘Ya, you are laughing! What is so funny? Stop it! I said, stop it!’

‘Oh Frederick,’ I says, and it all spills out of me, a peel. ‘Come here and let me kiss you.’

He lumbers over, confounded, and sits beside me.

‘Frederick,’ I says, ‘the house is much more than grand. It’s an effin castle!’

He frowns and studies my face for any hidden rigs.

‘I’m serious! I just adore it!’

He grins and lets out a sigh and takes tight of me and kisses me.

And for a moment, now, it almost doesn’t matter that it’s her he really wants to be holding, that it’s her he’d prefer as his princess, for she isn’t here and won’t be coming back, and I’m the closest thing to her he can ever hope to get.

‘You know something?’ he says then, tears in his eyes but laughing too. ‘The Queen was right.’

‘The Queen? About what?’

‘About the Irish.’

‘And what, pray tell, did the old hooer say about us?’

‘That you’re an abominable people, none in the world better at causing distress.’

Excerpted from Mrs Engels by Gavin McCrea, published by Scribe, 1 May 2015. Excerpted with permission from the publisher.