She sat at the table. ‘It’ll be three shillings, in advance.’
‘Three shillings. More if it’s the last months, but you’re not far gone from the look of you. Guaranteed, otherwise your money back.’
‘Money back for what?’
She folded her arms. ‘Are you pregnant of not?’
‘No! I’m a…’ but I trailed off. It was ludicrous to insist that I was a man after that question. And she knew my name.. I glanced back at the door.
She smiled thinly and patted my hand. ‘Don’t worry. What you are means nothing to me. I’ve seen it all: women who dress up in suits and ties, gentlemen who wear dresses and grow their hair, and wealthy ladies who are best friends, inseparable day and night, more in love with each other than their husbands. I have an eye for it. And an ear. Are you sure you’re not pregnant? One little slip, easily done.’
‘No,’ I replied, realising my mistake. This wasn’t a place where women came to give birth, this was something else altogether. No one would come here unless they had to, unless they were desperate. Women were sometimes brought into the hospital after such procedures, and the nurses would whisper the word to each other in the corridors, eyes alight at the wickedness of it: abortion. The destruction of a life not yet started.
She produced a little bottle with a colourful label from the apron pocket. ‘If you don’t the hook there’s Widow Welch’s, but it don’t always suffice. No money back for that.’
‘I’m not pregnant.’
‘The clap then’?
She raised her eyebrow and blinked several times. ‘Then why in heaven’s name are you here?’
‘You gave me your card at the funeral of Maria Milanes, remember? Maria Mills, I suppose. I just wanted to speak to you.’
‘Oh, I see. I assumed… well, that you were in trouble. It don’t do to discuss these things in public.’ She stood up and tapped the cage, arousing the little bird to a frenzy of excitement. She poked a nut through the bars, holding it there and making kissing noises while the finch scratched at it with its beak.
‘Androgyne,’ she said. ‘That’s the word for your type. You’re an androgyne. A person who think they’re the opposite of what they are.’
I shouldn’t have cared, but it was irritating to be so patronized, so reduced, by someone who did what she did. ‘Not that is any of your business, but I don’t think I’m a man. I am a man.’
‘Is that a fact?’ She didn’t seem at all bothered by my sharpness. ‘There was a man here this morning as it happens. I don’t get them often, which is why I mention it. Sitting right where you are now, drinking my tea, leaving his mucky boot-prints all over my floor. He came in with a girl, not married or nothing, and put his hands in his pocket, no quibbling over the odd farthing like some of ‘em.’
She paused, as if she expected me to say that at least the fellow had done the decent thing, but what was decent about it? Paying for that wasn’t decent, it was an abomination.
When I didn’t reply, she continued. ‘So I chatted to her while it was going on, giving her soothing else to think about, you know. She told me how he’d tried to worm to worm his way out of it until her two brothers caught up with him. One of ‘em has a bit of a reputation. Anyway, after that, she said, her lad had bagged to be allowed to take her straight down to me, and pay for it and everything. Don’t know what she saw in him. She was a pretty thing and he wasn’t a looker in any light and had the manners of a hog. Do you know what she told me?’
‘How could I?’ I was becoming impatient. Would she ever get to the point?
‘Well I’ll tell you.’ She interlaced her fingers, reminding me bizarrely of my father, who would rather have slit his own wrists than sit here and listen to this woman. ‘The girl said “If I’m not with him, then I’ll have no one.” And there you have it. She’d rather be with that gormless waste of skin than be on her own.’
‘Not all men are the same.’
‘No, not all. Some are worse. He didn’t beat her or rape her as far as I know, though of course she had them brothers, so maybe it was fear of them rather than any forbearance on his part.’
I folded my arms. ‘You’ve made your point. You don’t like men.’
‘It’s not a question of liking. I see what I see. And what I don’t see is why any woman would pretend to be one. Do you want to be Prime Minister? Or a priest? Or stand outside the pub making suggestions to every woman passing, is that it? You can act like a man if you want but you can’t win a piss contest or grow a beard worthy of a name. you still bleed. Men fight and drink and plant their seed in any woman who’s willing, and some who ain’t. Why would you want to be like that? Is it to get work?’
My position at the hospital had nothing to do with why I was a man, though it was true no women would ever be offered it. I was a man because, underneath my skin, I had a man’s beating heart. Nothing more, nothing less. Sometimes I wondered whether I might go to sleep one night and wake up the next morning the way I should have been. And if that miracle were to happen, nothing would change, and everything would change. I would have the same lodging, the same life, the same love for Maria, but I would be whole. I would be one person through and through.
Born Charlotte Pritchard, Leo Stenhope has lived as his true self since the age of fifteen, when he fled his family. Constantly worrying people might discover his secret, he nonetheless falls in love with the sweet prostate Maria and dreams to create a normal life with her. But just when Maria seems to be ready to accept his proposal, she is found dead and Leo doesn’t believe the police pinned down the right person for the murder. Spurred by the strong need to know what really happened to his Maria, Leo finds himself investigating her murder.
This is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. Set in Victorian London, it brings the city and the time to life, the settings, the visuals, even the smells and the tastes. It’s an extremely vivid novel.
The mystery is reasonably good, and it ends in an unexpected way… which sounds very much like life, if I may say.
Still, what really makes the story unforgettable is the characters. Leo is a phenomenal lead character. He has a fantastically strong, personal voice and still he allows us reader to enter his mind and his heart and become intimate with him, feeling his pain, his fears. He starts out as a romantic, slightly obsessive character, but the events that bring him to be suspected of Maria’s murder, then to try and discover who the murder was change drastically not just his vision of Maria, but also to question the world he knows and finally reality as he has always understood it.
But all the characters are strong and well-rounded. The supporting cast is fabulous: Rosie, the working class woman who doesn’t need any man to guide her life or bring up her children; Constance, the 12-year-old daughter of Leo’s landlord, who’s the true manager of the house; Jacob, Leo’s foul-mouthed friend who’s one of the few to know Leo’s body doesn’t match his heart and mind. But even the extras have personality, drive and goals. My favourite is Leo’s sister, a strong woman who moves grudgingly in a society that will never acknowledge her cleverness.
I enjoyed this novel immensely and I’m very happy to learn this is just the first in a series of historical mysteries. Can’t wait for the next.
In post is part of the Thursday Quotables meme. If you want to discover more about this meme and maybe take part in it, head over to Bookshelf Fantasies