By Lucy Hume
Catherine’s husband was out of the house attending to business in the city when the doorknocker sounded three times, loudly, so when she opened it to find a boy standing in the porch and asking for him by name she was at first confused and unable to answer.
“Mr. Dickens, ma’am?”
“This is Tavistock House?”
“I’ve a delivery for Mr. Dickens, ma’am.”
Just then Edward ran into the hall, pursued by his older brother Henry, and hid his face in Catherine’s skirt. Henry cried,
“Mother! Plorn has taken my best marble!”
Catherine sighed and said patiently to the small figure nestling into her leg, “Give Henry back his marble, Edward.”
Edward turned his face up to his mother and showed her the white surrounds of his brown pupils. She looked steadily back at him until he dropped his gaze, stamped his foot and said, “I haven’t got it!” and made his mouth into a cherry. His hands were squeezed into fists. Catherine took hold of his left wrist and prised his fingers open with her own, using her fingernails to her advantage. Finally he cried out in pain and gave up the green glass marble the size of an eyeball with an opaque white spiral at its core.
As Henry drew breath to make his indignation known, the delivery boy coughed. Catherine and her sons had all but forgotten that he was there. He was not much older than Henry: nine or ten perhaps, but thinner, with hair that grew to his collar and a pale face under his cap. He wore a satchel across his chest that was as deep as his torso from armpit to hip.
“Excuse me, ma’am. May I leave it for Mr. Dickens?” He held out the package to her: a small rectangular parcel only a little larger than a deck of playing cards, wrapped in brown paper and tied with string.
“Thank you,” she said, taking the parcel from him. How foolish she was, concerning herself with a quarrel between little boys when there was an important delivery for her husband waiting on the doorstep. She reached into the pocket of her apron for her purse and gave the boy a sixpence.
“Thank you,” he said. He turned and ran south across the square.
“What is it, Mother?” Edward said, hoping to distract his brother from the evidence of his theft.
“I don’t know,” she said, and before she could send them away they had torn off again, four feet thundering down the corridor and up the far stairs, Henry’s fury only exacerbated by its postponement. Catherine could hear Edward squealing like a mangle as his punisher finally caught up with him on the first floor landing.
Catherine took the parcel into the dining room, where she knew she would not be disturbed. She took out her sewing box from a drawer in the dresser and used a small pair of haberdashery scissors to unpick the tight knot on the string. She unfolded the thick, ribbed paper gingerly, as if to prevent it from rustling, though there was no one who might hear. Underneath the paper was a square box covered in new blue velvet.
The hinge was stiff and it took some effort to coax the lid open. The bracelet inside was gold, inlaid with lines of small pearls in groupings of three, separated by rubies set into rotated squares. In the centre there was a single, white diamond. There was a fine chain attached to each fitting of the clasp to prevent it from falling off the wrist should it happen to become unfastened, at a dance, or a dinner, perhaps.
The bracelet was rather small, only about three inches across; it had been designed for a slenderer arm than hers. Indeed, when she tried it on, she found that she could not secure the clasp without pinching the skin of her wrist painfully. She had grown fat over the years: ten pregnancies had seen to that. Though she avoided mirrors, her shoes now creaked when she walked and the loose skin on her neck spilled over her collar like unbaked dough.
There was a pearl for each of their children: Charles, Mary, Kate, Walter, Francis, Alfred, Sydney, Henry, and Edward, and, she decided, the central diamond would be little Dora Annie, for she had been her father’s favourite, though she had only lived nine months.
Catherine returned the bracelet to its box. It was then that she saw something else lying in the folds of paper. It was a small square of notepaper. There was writing on it that read, in a hand that was very like her husband’s, “For my dearest Nelly.”
An image came to her then, of a girl who had played a small role in Charles’s play for its three performances in Manchester, a girl with golden hair that lay in loose braids on each shoulder. She had worn a full white taffeta skirt that fell to just below the knee, with silk stockings and satin ballet shoes. Catherine had noticed her because she had been standing beside Charles for the curtain call, and so had held his hand for the bow. Later, she had learned from Katey that she and her sisters and mother were actresses. She was eighteen, and her name was Ellen. When the company had raised their arms in unison, Catherine had admired the girl’s elegant wrists, her small hand raised high, enclosed in Charles’s own.
Catherine refolded the paper over the box before tying the string tightly, taking care to place the knot in the same spot so that the kink in the string should not show. She would leave it on the sideboard in the hall so that Charles would see it when he first came in.
It was better that she should know; she was glad that she had opened the package. She knew now, which was better, because to live a life half in ignorance, she thought, is not to live at all.
More writing from Lucy Hume at: lucyhume.wordpress.com