Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Pig Myths - Chapter 2 - Jessica Clarke

               The story might have been written for Jack’s wife, Sarah.  Like the Irishman she refused to bow down to the dangers of the streets; and as Jack was sitting to a Society table Sarah was preparing to walk to Whitechapel.  The walk would take Sarah from the relative comfort of Victoria Park to a district of London known for its squalor and crime; her preparation was to dress in plain, if expensive clothes, a high collar, straight jacket and long skirt that all but erased the evidence of her sex.

                Such behaviour was typical of the doctor, a woman of principle and social conscience; and having dressed, she checked the time and hurried down to the kitchen to give some final instructions.  The young German maid she employed there was a protégé, an ambitious project in self-worth.  Porsche was a reluctant learner, however, she had other ideas; and not expecting to be seen again that evening, Porsche had begun her preparations for her own outing.  She turned away as Sarah entered, trying to hide her face.

                “Are you wearing make-up, Porsche?” Sarah challenged.

                “With permission, Dr Knightley,” Porsche lied; “they are holding a meeting of women at my church.”

                “And do the women usually wear make-up to such meetings?”

                “No, Dr Knightley.”

                “Then you had best remove it.”

                The maid’s blush showed through the light-brown tinge as she turned to this instruction.  Sarah felt no guilt, hers was a tough love; and the model of femininity she practised was physical in a mainly functional sense.  She held the maid’s sheepish gaze with a prudish stare then, Porsche’s youthful deceit something to be corrected.

Porsche responded accordingly, her married lover a secret.  She offered a submissive curtsey, noting its effect.  The submission, as usual, was sufficient to move Sarah onto more practical matters; this time it was supper.

                “You will be home before nine,” Sarah said; “Mr Knightley will expect supper when he returns, and you will need to prepare it.”

                “Of course, Dr Knightley.”

                “Now; I must be off.  Wash your face before you go to church.  You don’t want to give the wrong impression.”

                Sarah closed the door with this final, gentler reminder.  Porsche had already determined what food to leave out before she left for London Bridge; but Sarah could not even guess at this deception.  Hers was a busy life, medicine and politics; and as Sarah thought of suffrage Porsche was preparing to run away to Paris.  The maid pictured a new life there, a fantasy of romance; the excitement justified her behaviour, and she made swift work of her final chores.  Then she dressed in the glamour of silk, a woman of importance ready to leave.

                Sarah meanwhile had moved on, a different protégé.  Jessica Clarke, a nurse at the University Hospital, lived in a street off Whitechapel Road, behind Baker’s Row.  Sarah had recognised the potential at once, a native, if ill-formed intelligence; the woman spoke thus to Sarah’s ambitions, and Sarah had committed a good deal of time, inspiring in Jessica a sense of her own political worth.  As she did so, a bonus of education, Sarah too had learned; and this learning, the innate beauty of Jessica’s class, carried her out from Victoria Park that evening, turning right and right again onto Mile End Road.

She walked, though a woman alone, with her head upright, a hungry intelligence taking in the sights all about.  It was an evening of bitter cold, an icy damp that leaked beneath her coat and her broad-rimmed hat.  There were few people about on such an evening; and those that were, mostly men, gathered beneath street-lamps, or around braziers.  Sarah noticed herself observed by several such groups, some calling out.  She did not react, however crude their jests; she chose rather to assume a look of indifference, as though she was above anything so vulgar.

This defence carried her the few miles towards Whitechapel Station.  She recognised it from a distance, the red and blue lit against the dark of early evening.  About her the sights, sounds and smells had grown more threatening, unpleasant; but Sarah was a woman steeled against unpleasantness.  Her thoughts thus were on spotting the Pavillion Theatre, Jessica’s home was in the streets opposite.  Having reached the theatre Sarah crossed the road, remembering the instructions she had been given, and escaping from a chill wind into a maze of narrow, cramped and poorly lit lanes.

Despite the greater number of people, clustered in doorways or on street corners, Sarah was even more visible now that she had left the main road.  Nobody approached at first, but all eyes seemed to follow her; and as she advanced further, the smokey dark appearing to press its seal behind, she could tell from whispers, gestures and the occasional shout, that she was generating a lot of interest.

She treated this with the same determined resolve; her head was forward now, straight, avoiding any contact of eyes; and she distracted her fear by counting the turns on her right.  By the time she reached Baker’s Row, however, the calls could not be ignored.  Sarah paused at the approach of some women; they were made up for their trade.  The prostitutes looked old, worn with life; and Sarah pitied them their work, even as they stopped, raised their skirts and mimed the movements with which they would serve their customers.

The laughter and jests this invited, placing prices on Sarah’s sex, were echoing loudly as Jessica appeared.  Jessica was both embarrassed and angered by this reception.

“Shut up the lot of yeh,” she called; “or I’ll set my Billy on yeh.”

Sarah’s lesson was brought duly to an end, though the women moved slowly, a few resentful glances, still laughing among themselves.  Sarah watched on, doctor and researcher, the excitements of her danger passing.  She was still doing so when Jessica spoke again.

“I told yeh, yeh shouldn’t have walked,” Jessica complained.

©2012 Padraig De Brún

Chapter 1

Chapter 3