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Extract from The Ladder Dancer

Chapter One

A gentleman always behaves with restraint…

[A Gentleman's Companion, September 1736]

The day was as filthy as my temper. Gusts of wind swirled the September fog, slapped chill flurries of rain into my face. Passers-by were shadows that flickered into existence as the fog parted then faded as it drifted back again. The hulks of ships moored at the Key were merely dark patches in the murk. Seagulls shrieked overhead.

While I'd been in the houses of the ladies and gentlemen all day, trying to sell them tickets for the winter concerts, the fog had come up the Tyne in thick waves, blanketing the river and the buildings on either side, muffling the clatter of the keelmen loading coal, the barking of dogs, the cries of children. An unseen ballad singer was working her way through a popular song about the latest murder in London. A thin child's voice. Desperation, surely, to be trying to wheedle money out of
anyone in this weather.

I turned up the collar of my greatcoat and stepped cautiously along the wet cobbles of the Key. A couple of drunken sailors loomed out of the fog, reeled across my path, laughing hysterically. I jolted back, trying to avoid them, slipped, cursed.

I'd had to spend almost an entire day, in one house or another, talking to ladies who'd only one topic in mind and were determined to raise it. In newly-decorated drawing rooms, upholstered with the most fashionable wallpaper and hung with embroideries done by the lady of the house, I'd handed over the freshly printed tickets; lady after lady took them graciously, perused them, asked me who was singing this year - and slipped in a question or two about my wife: 'And how is the new Mrs Patterson?' I've never seen a set of people so eager for gossip.

The snide remark made by the maiden lady at my last house-call had been the final straw. 'But my dear Mr Patterson, we didn't expect to see you at all this year. We expected you to be taking it easy at home.' A coy smile. 'A gentleman who marries money has no need - ' a simpering hesitation, 'to toil.'

Nice of her to avoid the dreaded word work, I thought savagely. I'd bowed out of the house and vowed never to go back. A useless resolve, of course; I couldn't afford such a dramatic gesture.

The fog swirled in closer; I twisted a foot on an up-jutting cobble, stood a moment cursing with pain. To make matters worse, I could hear a murmur from my right, from the river itself. A faint keening of grief, a wailing and moaning of distress. Faint lights glittered through the fog, dancing in the water like a hundred stars faintly twinkling.

Each light was the spirit of a man who died in the river, inhabiting the place of their death, as all spirits do. The essence of a man bundled up and concentrated in a single cold gleam of matter, lingering eighty or a hundred years after death, until final dissolution takes it. I know worlds where spirits do not exist, but here we all come to this, eventually: a lonely point of dulled light in a bright vibrant world.

For some people fate is kind. Those who die on solid earth cling to the buildings in which they expire, and can gossip to the living almost as if they have never died; they can feel still part of the world around them. For others, fate is harsh; those who drown in the river or at sea are at the mercies of the tides and swells, and can find themselves drifting forever alone, visible to the living merely as a glimmer of light on a wave. Whenever they come close to land, they cry out and wail and lament their fate, pleading with those who pass for help that cannot be given, that would be years too late. Everybody ignores them, hurry away, afraid that one day this might be their fate too. It is the loneliest, most desolate sound I know.

When it comes to my time to die, I intend it shall be in my bed, or at my own hearth, where my spirit can linger in comfortable commerce with my friends and descendents.

My bed? My hearth? My wife's bed and my wife's hearth, at any rate. As the maiden lady said, I've married money.

The pain in my foot eased; I hobbled forward. The fog thinned, showed me a keel moored at the Keyside. A pig squealed at the bow like an exotic figurehead. Sailors were hurrying about on deck, stowing kegs of water and boxes of biscuits: intending to sail on the next tide, no doubt. The keel bobbed up and down on the choppy waves, drifting away from the Key then bumping back up again, gangplank creaking and mooring ropes straining.

A sailor stopped to call to a woman staggering down the Key. In the trailing wisps of fog, I could see only her back, a ragged shawl, bedraggled hair. As she turned to yell to the sailor, I saw she carried an infant in her arms. Very young, I guessed, by the way its head lolled back. The woman shrieked, cackled with laughter.

No guessing what ailed her. Gin.

The fog drifted back in. I shivered, pulled my coat round me. If I made it as far as the Printing Office without injuring myself, it would be a miracle. And after that, I'd go home. To my wife. My wealthy wife. The spirits wailed, and the young ballad singer sang a coarse song that ill-suited her youth. She breathed in all the wrong places - I itched to correct her.

The clop clop of horse's hooves. Moving fast - too fast for this weather. I stopped, trying to gauge the horse's direction, not wanting to be ridden down. The fog took up the sound, battered it against the buildings lining the Key and threw it back again confusingly. Was it behind me or -

The horse loomed up ahead, beyond the keel. It was grey as the fog, being ridden hard, breaking into a gallop. On cobbles, in limited visibility, it was folly. The rider was a mere hulk on its back, a bulky figure swaddled in greatcoat and hat. Head down, face almost entirely hidden.

I watched, helpless, as the inevitable disaster struck. The horse came on, tossing its head, struggling against its rider's grip. On, on. One of the sailors shouted. The drunken woman glanced up, almost lazily, obviously befuddled. The horse came on. All the sailors were shouting now.

It was too late. The horse slammed into the woman. Its heavy shoulder caught her, spun her to one side. She shrieked, flung out her hands, dropped the child, grabbed at it again, went down -

The boat, caught by the river swell, drifted away from the Key. The woman went down into the gap between wharf and boat, and was lost from sight.

The sailors were after her instantly, scrambling down, throwing ropes, hauling her sodden and shrieking from the river. Water poured out of her clothes, cascaded down her face, plastered her hair to her head. A burly sailor hugged her tight, swung her up onto the deck. She was beating her fists against his chest, struggling to get away.

The baby had gone.

The horse tore past me, so close I saw the white sweat on its flanks and beneath the saddle. Its breath floated away; its rider's coat skirts drifted out and brushed my shoulder. There was an almost tangible emanation of fury; I caught sight of a hard mouth curling into a snarl. And a glimpse of leather bags hung over the saddle, one embossed with intertwined letters. Then the horse was past and its rider with it, swallowed up by the fog.

Women were running from a nearby tavern. The burly sailor was trying to restrain the woman. She was shrieking over and over, the same word: baby, baby. And in the confusion, I heard someone call out 'accident'.

It was not an accident. I'd been directly facing the horse. I'd seen the rider tug on the reins, and the horse shift course fractionally to strike against the woman. It had been deliberate.

No accident.


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