Death. It is in the very air of London. It is stacked in charnel layers under the streets, it dances in whispers through the churchyards, and falls into step with young and old alike in whips of gritty breezes. Old kings, young whores and secret piles of children’s bones lie beneath the pavement.
Death is the law that rules every living thing. Until one remarkable day when death turns its head for a perfect second, when, after nature’s foul breath is cleansed, a crevice is formed. A phenomenon breaks through the fissure to cast off the caul of death’s darkness.
In the absence of death, true darkness emerges.
In the winter, when the low veil of cloud forms against the rooftops of London, there is little difference between night and day. The past and present may become confused under the charcoal sky, swirling together in a sudden gust of wind, until finally, they both die down, entwined in the fine soot that coats the city.
It is but noon, yet candlelight illuminates the rooms of Lawless House as if it were midnight. The macilent fingers of the sisters Fitzgerald pinch tapers that bring the candles sputtering to life, throwing light on this day, December 17th, to mark the afternoon’s ritual of hope.
“Shall we turn on the lights?” asks Verity. The taper, still burning in her hand, casts a soft hint of warmth to her face and catches the rose gold chain that rests around her neck.
“No, no. Let’s do as we’ve always done.”
Her sister Constance moves to the fireplace where the embers spit final sparks. She lays her hand on a thick cloth and wraps it around the handle of the fire shovel that has been resting near the flames for hours. Red hot and ready for her task, she lifts it like a beacon and strides into the kitchen.
It has taken two days to make the stew; pottage they once called it. Three bowls steam with a fusion of Jerusalem artichokes, almonds, milk, bread and a partridge, all of which Constance had pounded, sieved, minced and coaxed into a thick soup. She raises the shovel and carefully places the blade directly on top of the stew, toasting it without disturbing the delicate pastry that forms a rim around the pale blue china bowl. Twice more she brings the shovel down on the remaining servings. She beams with satisfaction and then with a little flick of her fingers, garnishes the bowls with pomegranate kernels and pistachios.
It is the only day of the year upon which the sisters Fitzgerald set three places at their table. It is another gesture of hope. Their spines ripple with just a fraction, just a tinge of excitement containing the whole of the past year’s anticipation.
They eat in silence. Earlier, Verity had thrown eucalyptus leaves on the fire, along with frankincense and sandalwood. The exotic aroma lingers still. Neither has an appetite, but they eat for strength for what may happen later. Or what may not.
Verity clears the table while Constance climbs the winding stone stairs to the first floor to draw two baths. She sits on the side of the claw-footed bath while her hands seek the perfect temperature and her memory stretches to something cold and shocking, a time when water was never hot enough. “A little more heat.” she says aloud. Her bathroom, austere in its lack of adornment is nevertheless comfortable; cosy with thick cotton rugs and, her one nod to expense, heavily lined sea green silk drapes that fall in a thick puddle to the floor. She opens them to reveal a view of the garden.
The second bathroom down the hall is slightly larger. Silver pots full of potions and lotions shoot shards of silver light through the room, crowding the small table by the window. A strand of beads hangs from a shelf littered with Mercury glass bottles from which peacock feathers shoot up and fan out. A decoration dangles from the beads in the form of death’s head, a skull carved from lava stone from Mount Vesuvius.
As always when she enters Verity’s holy retreat, Constance balks under the eyes of the saints that bear down upon her. She opens the taps fully in an effort to drown her claustrophobia with the sound of rushing water. Anthony of Padua, Felicity of Rome, Adjutor of Vernon, saints protected by vapour proof glass hang in gilt frames and resist the rising steam.
Constance hears Verity making her way up the stairs. They glance at each other as they pass in the corridor, and for a second or two it seems all of their long lives, each moment, is contained and met in the invisible space between their brilliant blue eyes.
The sisters close their doors, undress, and sink into the water, both surrendering into their private reverie of the afternoon’s possibilities. A train’s distant low rumble disturbs the familiar ticks and clicks, groans and creaks that Lawless House has developed over its years.
Verity adds a few drops of oil to the water, closes her eyes under the gazes of the saints, and in a quick anxious burst, she chants a prayer of her own invention.
“May he still be alive. May he be safe. May he find us today.”
Later, the sisters are seated at their tables in the dressing room when Constance notices that Verity’s hands tremble as she makes an effort to pin her hair. Gently, she takes the pins from Verity.
‘I always expect that I won’t remember how to pin your hair in exactly the right way.’
‘You do it perfectly. I’m going to cut it all off soon. It’s easier when…you know.’
Constance looks at her sister’s reflection in the mirror.
‘No hiding today,’ she says, gathering Verity’s hair and twisting it into a long, silver tress. ‘No disguises.’
‘No.’ Verity rubs a hint of colour onto her cheeks. ‘The only disguise we wear today is—‘ She stops and turns to her sister. ‘I wear blue and you wear lavender, his favourites. So that he might recognize us in a crowd, he used to say. Do you remember?’
They speak these words as if they were new thoughts, as if they’d not spoken them many times before.
‘Of course,’ Constance whispers.
‘He cried out from his dreams in this house. ‘‘Auntie Connie! Auntie Very!” No one had ever called you Connie before. He couldn’t pronounce my name and shouted in his little voice, “Very! Very!” And he was so cross with us when we laughed at him.’
The sisters are brought to silence with a memory that is older than they dare say.
Constance is the first to break the spell by reaching for the necklace she wears, one that is similar to her sister’s. Searching by habit, she grasps a golden fede ring that dangles from the delicate chain. She checks that the ring is secure.
Verity, too, fingers her own necklace with an impatient twirl.
The day the boy proudly presented the sisters with the rings, he bore their kisses of thanks with patience.
‘So that we’ll always find each other,’ he’d said, producing a third ring, one that he also wore on a chain around his neck.
They had thought it an odd thing to say, and were amused that he was so delighted by his own chain, which he kept tucked underneath his shirt. Perhaps it was a premonition of what would take place shortly after his plump little hands proudly presented the gifts.
The sisters rarely leave the house together any more, staggering their departures makes them less noticeable. But today is different and they allow the indulgence this afternoon. The sky darkens, though it is but half past two. Verity chooses a pair of sunglasses with round-shaped lenses, similar to a pair she wore when the boy was still theirs.
The air is sharp and a quick wind hits them like a sheet of ice. It’s a perfect excuse to wear their long capes without fretting about unwanted attention. After all, this is Camden Town, and nowhere else in London, nor in all of the United Kingdom perhaps, does costuming reach such soaring heights. It’s only one day, they reason, and their only risk-taking of the year. For if their boy appears at the meeting place, they are determined to make it impossible for him not to recognize them. They are resolved that he will set his eyes upon their long, blue and lavender cloaks, he will catch sight of their necklaces with his rings shining in the dull winter light, and look into their faces, and he will know them.
Constance waits for the sound of the front gate to click into place before they turn their backs to Lawless House. The Weeping Willow shed late this year; its tiny yellow leaves look like eyelashes that create a carpet on the pavement.
‘Oh good great God, the streets are throbbing,’ says Constance as they turn the corner onto one of the main thoroughfares.
“And it’s only Wednesday.” Verity replies.
Their long capes swirl in a breeze that carries discarded sheets of newspapers and the invisible grit of the high street. The sisters reach the pulsing intersection, where one of Camden Town Station’s resident buskers plays a cheesy, pop rendition of ‘White Christmas’. People surge from the underground in droves; pulled by the gigantic magnet of the market, they make an orderly migration to the stalls.
The sisters, immune to the market’s force, turn their anxious faces south to one of London’s secret gardens, nestling off the high street. They arrive at the gates of St Martin’s Gardens gripped in anticipation.
They aren’t even sure he’s still alive. They’d tossed around ideas about him so often and for so many years that they’d created a shared fantasy about the kind of man he might have become. He might still be a boy, they reasoned. They considered, too, that he might be dead. They have no way of knowing.