Chapter 1

Londinium MDCCCLXX

 

Sarah could hear the sound of horses outside. 

 

If she’d been warm enough to get out of bed, she would have seen a diligence pull up in front of the embassy and let three well-dressed young men alight. Kerosene street lamps had been lit within the last hour and the afternoon fog diffused their light so that, it seemed to Sarah, a warm glow hung over the area. But it was anything but warm in the stale bedroom and Sarah spat into the gloom and pulled the covers tight around her. The bed was still damp and she shivered as the voices faded away and the horses cantered into the distant streets. Dull shadows flickered now and became one with the thick dust on the cold panes and, in time, an ache pulsed in her forehead. Sarah lost herself in the transition between waking and sleep and she started to think about her brother up at Lindum. It was strange that this was the first time that she had thought about him since the quarrel last Saint Nicolas’ Eve. Hugo was laughing at her in her half-sleep and she was trying to ignore him but she was conscious that there was also someone watching the two of them, away to the right, over by the horses, and she couldn’t work out who that might have been. She was sore too from the earlier copulation with Alexis and very conscious that her brother might not be approving.

 

Could she have blamed him?  

 

And as dreams unravel, she sat on a beach looking at the stars in the spring night sky, and she wondered whether any of those stars had inhabitants and whether any of those inhabitants, or stars, had brothers who disapproved. Over in the distance she saw a light in the sea and it seemed to be coming nearer. After a few seconds, she could make out that it was a boat and after a few seconds more that there were people on the boat.  And soon, the boat was in the lapping waves by the shore and a man in a purple tunic held a light as two creatures disembarked. The creatures were slightly smaller than the man in the tunic and they resembled lizards and They were talking in lizard talk with lizard tongue and she could understand what They were saying. Without looking at her, They drew nearer, and one of Them shuffled Her way into the sand until all you could see was Her head and Her back. And then in the blink of an eye, She was gone. The remaining lizard gave the man in the tunic two gold coins and as the man rowed away, the lizard curled up and went to sleep on the sand. 

 

Sarah had understood from the lizard talk that They had come from a land very far away and that They were in search of some precious thing that had eluded Their race for countless years. She also understood that her presence here was in some way linked to Their quest. She thought about this long and hard but it made no sense so she thought about other things  - the pain of loss, and the yearning for love. 

 

A man was fucking her in the waves, it was no one she knew and he was heavy with her, he hit her across the face and he hit her across her back and he held her hands together in a rough manner as he straddled her in the sand. She looked at the stars and one in particular seemed to resonate with her plight and she stared at it closely as the stranger took her and for many minutes after he had come and gone. It shone and shone and then flickered slightly and afterwards it all but disappeared as a mist enveloped the beach. 

 

When the crimson sun came up, Sarah saw that the lizard had died in the night and His body had already been partially eaten by other creatures and their disapproving brothers. So Sarah pushed her hands into the sand to get away from the corpse and she began to panic. She clawed at the sand and pushed her head into the indentation she had made and then she had sand in her mouth and in her throat and it was mixing up with Alexis’s semen and she was choking. And then the sand gave way and she was completely entombed and a man said in lizard talk – send Me your dreams - and she was in a bed again, but this was a lush, dry, warm bed with many covers of ermine and silk, and music was playing, music gorgeous in its brilliance and colour, and many people were singing in harmony as pretty young girls danced in wondrous synchronisation and raw young boys looked on in admiration and adolescent lust.

 

Sarah was in a sitting room with four sissy girls that she didn’t know. She was aware of rain beating down as though they were in a tent somewhere but that didn’t make sense. None of the five spoke but they were all looking at the grandfather clock at the end of the room. The time was five minutes to midnight. Sarah wondered if it might be her birthday. This all seemed very real, not like a dream at all. The clock face showed three minutes to midnight and Sarah was excruciatingly bored. Her four colleagues sat impassively in their party dresses and finery and as one of them began to finger her plaits, another glanced at her in disapproval. Two minutes to midnight and all was still, one minute to midnight and one of the girls let out a short giggle.

 

The second hand was approaching the hour now and Sarah wondered if they were all going to sing Happy Birthday as the clock struck the hour.

 

But instead she was in a bathtub of blood and there were arms in there and they weren’t hers. And still the rain came beating down on the tent. Sarah picked a piece of flesh out of the stew that she was in and saw that it was a warm, severed human knee. She tried to get out of the bath but it was like quicksand and she couldn’t move. She put her hand on her leg but it was someone else’s. Panicking, she tried to pull herself up by the towel rail but it gave way and dust and plaster fell into the blood and limbs. Then she became aware that someone was watching her and she knew, just knew that it was a severed head. She wanted to pee very badly.

 

Sarah Constant was certain that there was only way to escape this nightmare and she started to scream Susan’s name. Who was Susan?

 

And then, just like that, she was in a meadow and there were butterflies and clouds. 

 

Sarah wondered how to tell Hugo that his collar was lop-sided and she looked at her younger brother quizzically and hummed his favourite tunes. The picnic had been a great success, they had collected wild flowers and Hugo had entwined them in her hair, caressed her shoulders and petted with her. The warm summer sun still high in the sky beamed down on them and all was well in the world. Maman called them and they looked at each other. Hugo leaned down to kiss his sister once more on the lips, looked at her with lust and they got up laughing like mice and ran back to greet their mother. 

 

It was snowing heavily now and Sarah pulled the rug around her as she sat in the troika. She could hear wolves in the distance and she trembled knowing that it would still be an hour before they reached the castle. Alexis was trying to reassure her but she just stared at him. He gently put his mitten against her red cheek and tried to blow a warm kiss but it was as though his very life force had frozen and thin sheets of ice shattered against her face.

 

They had come to a stop now and Alexis had gotten out to urinate. Sarah, too, alighted from the troika and walked over to a ramshackle wall wet with liverwort and ivy. She had difficulty in breathing and steadied herself against a pillar. There was an inscription on the pillar in a language she didn’t understand, however she looked at it closely and it seemed familiar. She began to cough and saw specks of blood on her mitten. She wet herself and began to cry at the unfairness of it all, barely noticing Alexis’ calling from the sleigh. She put her head against the pillar and wept and wept until the postilion came over and took her arm roughly to pull her back towards the troika.

 

And then she was in a damp bed in a familiar room and there was a light outside the window. The room was very still and her headache had got worse. A cat scurried by the windowsill and leapt into the street below as voices faraway in the early evening made empty promises and veiled threats. She pulled her knees up to her chest and coughed. She had never felt so low. She thought about Hugo with self-loathing and one solitary tear slid down her cheek and onto her bosom. 

 

Sarah tried to make sense of her situation. She had rowed with her father over the relationship with her brother and had left for Londinium where she had secured downstairs work in a private club. Sometimes she earned an extra pittance by being nice to upstairs gentlemen, but generally the work was dull and meagre and arduous, and she yearned for the comfort and luxury of the family estate in Cantabrigia. But there was no going back now. How tiresome it was to have to explain her love for her dear brother amidst accusations of impropriety and godlessness, how gruelling to be under the scrutiny and inquisition of people outside the family: Dr Jackson; Bishop Lagrange; Antonius, Consul-General of Cantabrigia. And to have bear the sly glances of her school friends, and the sordid prattle of the villagers.  What did they know of true love and constancy? The ache in Sarah’s forehead had become a black sword rattling through her very being. There was no going back and there was little prospect of moving forward. She had enjoyed some intimacy with Alexis – he was different from the others – but there was a chasm between them. Sometimes when she touched him afterwards, it was though he had shed his skin and a new rougher texture was waiting behind the ectoplasm, a new instar waiting to be revealed to the world, and when she thought like this, he seemed to know. On those occasions, he had always kissed her brow, caressed her neck, and she had fallen asleep. 

 

There was a candle flickering on the mantelpiece now.

 

She heard noises outside the door and wondered if Alexis had come back to take her once again. She didn’t care. 

 

Sarah Constant shivered and wondered how to tell him she was quick with child.

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© Doug Hewett