Gertie Moffat is gutting fish. The smell still turns her stomach, but she’s got so quick with her knife now that she can hold her breath for as long as it takes to cut open the belly and get the insides out. That’s the worst bit, that and the eyes, they stare at her like they can see her. She tries not to look at the eyes. Rabbits are much easier. When rabbits are dead they don’t look at you, and they’re sticky, easy to get a hold of, not slippery like fish.
Bertha Cook stands at the other side of the big table, larding the fish with strips of eel. Larding takes longer than gutting, so Bertha’s got a pile of fish waiting. Bertha doesn’t seem to notice their stares, or hold her breath. She’s talking about her Fancy Man, which is just about all she talks about, but today being Saturday, half day, she’s in high spirits because she’ll be with him all afternoon. They’re going to see a show at the Pleasure Gardens over the river, and he’s promised to buy her a new ribbon, and you know what that means, don’t you?
Gertie doesn’t know, and really, she’s had so much to take in these past weeks she doesn’t want to know, either. She chucks two handfuls of fish guts into the bucket under the table and looks up anyway, opening her mouth to breathe. The air she sucks in sticks to her throat on the way down, dirty with smoke even though the back door is open top and bottom. The chimney’s long overdue a clean.
Bertha cackles with a missing front tooth and pulls off her soggy white cap, using it to wipe the sweat off her bumpy red face. Then she says, “You don’t know, do you, petal?”
Gertie shakes her head for ‘no’ and takes hold of another fish, the last one left on her oilcloth. “Poor little cosset,” Bertha says, getting back to her larding. “They didn’t teach you much about anything in that rotten place, did they?”
Gertie’s holding her breath again, so she can’t tell Bertha that they did. They taught her how to read and write, to make and mend, to wash and tend. They taught her to know her place and be thankful for it. They gave her a name.
Gertie’s last fish is done and she wipes her bloody hands on her apron. “You know how to work, I’ll give you that,” Bertha says, throwing an eel across the table so it lands in front of Gertie with a squelchy thud. “Here, cut me some strips.” Cutting strips is easier, it doesn’t smell so much because you don’t go near the guts.
Gertie’s knife glides slowly through the eel’s oily flesh, flat along the body, nice and neat until right near the end when she suddenly goes too fast because the inside door opens BANG and Mrs Huckstead comes in dragging Flora by her arm. Flora’s carrying her bundle. She’s crying.
“Make it quick,” Mrs Huckstead says to Flora through stiff lips, shoving her. Flora’s eyes are big and wet, staring like the fish on the table. Snotty tears have stuck her soft yellow curls to her cheeks. She throws her arms around Gertie’s neck, wetting Gertie’s ear with her face-mess. “It was lies, all of it,” she whispers, chokes. “They’re turning me out…”
“That’s enough.” Mrs Huckstead pulls Flora away sharply and drags her off, out through the back door.
Gertie’s head is full of Flora’s sad blue eyes. She wraps her fingers around the handle of her knife, but she can’t do her work. Her arms and legs are stuck, her insides are twisting. Bertha’s saying things about Mrs Huckstead, cold-hearted mort, face that would turn a funeral up an alley, dried-up old tabby can’t see what’s right in front of her nose or doesn’t want to more like. But what about Flora? “What’s going to happen to Flora?” Gertie asks Bertha.
Bertha doesn’t answer because Mrs Huckstead has come back in and she answers instead. “Don’t give that wicked creature another thought, Gertrude. She’ll get what she deserves,” she says, then walks away to her basement with her wooden heels clip-clopping, peeved, on the flagstones.
Gertie has to sit down on a stool by the grate. “Don’t take any notice of her, petal,” Bertha says. “Nothing’s going to happen to Flora. She’ll go home to her folks in Twickenham. They’re decent types, from what she said.” Bertha picks up her larding needle. “Believe me, that girl will do just fine. It’s her fatherless babe you have to feel for,” she says.
Gertie was a fatherless babe. Motherless, too. They used to sing a song about it in the Foundling Hospital:
Left on the world’s bleak waste forlorn,
In sin conciev’d, to sorrow born,
By guilt and shame foredoom’d to share,
No mother’s love, no father’s care.
Flora’s baby does have a father, though. It’s the Master, Lord Grace. Flora told her, up in her attic room, the housemaid’s room, last Saturday. She told Gertie everything about the baby and the Master, but it’s all a secret. Gertie promised not to tell anyone, not until Flora says she can, and she’s going to keep her promise. Flora was a True Friend to Gertie.
Flora said her baby wouldn’t want for anything because Lord Grace was going to marry her when the Mistress died, which wouldn’t be very long now. Lord Grace told Flora he loved her. “Nobody’s ever loved me before,” Flora said to Gertie.
“God loves you,” Gertie reminded her, in case she’d forgotten.
“Maybe he does,” Flora said, laughing, “but he ain’t gonna make me mistress of a house like this now, is he?”
But Lord Grace isn’t going to, either. It was a lie.
Gertie stands up and goes back to the kitchen table. She starts cutting a fresh strip from the eel, but this time she’s rough and fierce, trying to hurt the ugly fish even though it’s already dead. “Conceived in sin,” she says out loud.
It’s Sunday now, so Bertha’s making a Sunday Pye. She’s quiet today, and her face is as white as her cap. Bertha cuts the big shapes out of the paste and Gertie does the small ones, copying from the Mister Kidder book.
Gertie’s in the middle of a fancy French leaf when Mrs Huckstead comes in. She stands by the table and watches them, then she says, “Come with me, Gertrude.” Gertie looks at Bertha, who doesn’t look best pleased, but she nods her head.
“Go on,” Bertha says, “I’ll finish this up.”
Gertie follows Mrs Huckstead past the back stairs and into the front hall, where Gertie’s never been before. The floor is patterned and there’s a big picture on the wall that turns out to be a mirror because what’s in it is the back of Mrs Huckstead going up a big staircase. Gertie could turn at the bottom of the stairs and look into it. She wants to but she doesn’t want to, either, and then she can’t because Mrs Huckstead turns around and looks down.
“Is it true what they told me, girl?” she asks, “That you read well?”
Gertie starts up the stairs without looking back at the mirror. The shiny wooden banisters remind her of the Hospital, of home. “I do like reading, if that’s what you mean, Mistress,” Gertie answers.
“Good,” Mrs Huckstead says. At the top of the stairs they stop again in front of a door with a painting on each side, one of a man and one of a woman, fancy dressed. The pictures aren’t nearly as good as the pictures in the Hospital. The Hospital’s pictures were painted by the best artists in the land, so they said. Mrs Huckstead goes through the door and Gertie follows her.
Inside it’s warm and dark, and there’s a sour-sweet smell, like flowers with night soil underneath. Gertie can’t see much until Mrs Huckstead opens the shutters. There’s a tall draped bed, a fancy white fireplace, tapestry chairs and cushions, all different colours, a carpet, a dresser with bottles and boxes in gold and silver and all painted and next to it, tall in front of the window, there’s another mirror. A mirror with Gertie in it.
It has to be her. Gertie waves her hand, just to make sure. From this far backshe looks nearly normal. Then she moves three steps nearer and she can see why the others called her Gertie the Goblin. They weren’t supposed to, but they did anyway.
On one whole side of her face she’s a monster. A terrible, scaly monster. In all her life she never thought it could look this disgusting. Where her eye never was there’s a hole that looks like someone churned her skin in a barrel, dark, lumpy, ugly skin. Fish-gut colour. Fish-gut skin. Why did they…
“Gertrude! Come away from there!” Mrs Huckstead is over beside the bed. “Here. Sit here, girl.”
Gertie can see that there’s someone asleep in the bed, a lady, deep in cushions and fine woollen lace. Her skin is nearly see-through, close to her bones. “This is our Mistress, Gertrude. Lady Grace,” Mrs Huckstead says. “Her health is very poor.” Gertie can see that. Anyone could see that.
Gertie sits down in a chair beside the bed and Mrs Huckstead puts a heavy Bible in her lap. “I want you to read to the Mistress until I get back. Can you do that?” Gertie nods. She’s trying hard not to look at the mirror again.
Mrs Huckstead touches the Mistress on her shoulder and says, “This is Gertrude, Mistress. The new kitchen maid. The one I got from the Foundling Hospital. She’s here to read for you.” Then she leaves.
Gertie starts reading the part of the Bible she likes best and knows best, Exodus, where Moses is found in a basket. She hasn’t been able to read since she got here and it’s good, until a whisper from the bed suddenly stops her. “How old are you, child?”
Gertie looks up. The Mistress is awake and watching her. Interested, not scared.
“Fifteen, Mistress,” Gertie answers.
“Do you know when you were born?”
“Yes, Mistress. Around about May Day, Mistress.”
Lady Grace’s eyes get wet and a tear runs down her face, shiny against her dry paper skin. Then she says, “Help me up, dear”’ and starts pushing and pulling at her covers. Gertie isn’t sure if she’s meant to, but this is the Mistress after all, so she puts the Bible down and helps Lady Grace to climb out of bed. She hardly weighs anything so it’s easy for Gertie to get her over to the dresser where she wants to go.
Gertie sets the Mistress down gently in a chair that has thick arms on it to keep her up. She tells Gertie to bring another chair over and sit down too. In the mirror, Gertie can see both of them.
Then the Mistress reaches up and pulls Gertie’s cap off and her hair falls down and over her shoulders. In the mirror, Gertie’s hair is the same as Lady Grace’s. “Cover this side of your face,” the Mistress says, and Gertie does, with the cap she’s holding.
They both look the same. The same brown hair, the same green eyes, the same pointy nose. The same face.
Lady Grace’s hand touches all over Gertie’s head, making it tingle. She picks up a silver brush from the dresser and tries to brush Gertie’s hair but she’s too weak. Then she lays her head against Gertie’s chest, and she’s shaking, breathing fast and sharp. “They told me you were dead,” she whispers against Gertie’s apron. Gertie comforts her. Comforts herself.
After a while the Mistress lifts her head, still shaking. She opens a box on the dresser and pulls out a big round jewel made of diamonds and green. Gertie’s never seen anything sparkle like that. “Put it on,” the Mistress says, so Gertie does, hanging it around her neck by its bright golden chain. “It was my mother’s. Now it’s yours, by rights.”
The Mistress takes more jewels out of the box. “All of it is.” She starts taking rings and bracelets and necklaces out of the boxes and giving them to Gertie, telling her to put them on. Soon Gertie has rings on all her fingers, brooches all over her apron, and so many jewels round her neck they’re pulling her head down.
Then the Mistress looks very, very tired and her breath is thin. Gertie lifts her out of her chair and carries her back to bed, laying her down in the cushions, carefully, and the Mistress closes her eyes. She opens them suddenly, once, and says, “Mary. I was going to call you Mary,” then sleeps. Then her thin breath stops. Then she’s gone. Dead. Gertie knows what dead looks like.
Gertie Moffat is sitting by the window in a Post Chaise, bumping along the Twickenham Road, heading for Flora’s farm and Flora’s baby that hasn’t been born yet. It’s a sunny day so she’s trying to enjoy the country views, but everything looks murky from behind her black veil. The jewels she’s got hidden under her stays are hurting her, jabbing her ribs, but the journey won’t be long now.
Mrs Huckstead told Gertie to put the jewels all back on the dresser, just after she’d made it plain that nothing had changed, that nothing had happened. That Gertie still belonged in the kitchen with Bertha.
Mrs Huckstead was too busy fussing around Lord Grace’s pretend crying to notice when Gertie dropped the jewels into her big apron pocket instead. It wasn’t stealing. Her mother gave them to her. They’re hers now, by rights. They’re Gertie Moffat’s jewels, not Mary Grace’s.
Mary Grace was a person who never happened.
I was prepared to feel alone, expected the government-mandated 2-metre gap to yawn between us, cold and hostile. I expected these new spaces to be