The Sealed Letter
Harcourt. 416 pp. $26
Nov. 16, 2008
Chapter OneThe last day of August, and the sky is the colour of hot ash. Something rancid wafts on the air from Smithfield Market; the air glitters with stone dust. She's swept down Farringdon Street in the slipstream of bowlers, top hats, baskets on porters' heads. A hand lights on her arm, a small, ungloved hand; the brown silk of her sleeve is caught between plump pink fingertips. She staggers, clamps her pocketbook to her ribs, but even as she's jerking away she can't help recognizing that hand.
One syllable dipping down, the next swooping up, a familiar and jaunty music; the word skips across the years like a skimmed stone. Almost everyone calls her that now, but Helen was the first. Fido's eyes flick up to Helen's face: sharp cheekbones, chignon still copper. An acid lemon dress, white lace gloves scrunched in the other hand, the one that's not gripping Fido's sleeve. The human river has washed Fido sideways, now, into a scarlet-chested, brass-buttoned officer, who begs her pardon.
"I knew it was you," cries Helen, holding her emerald parasol up to block the terrible sun. "Did you take me for a pickpocket?" she asks, a giggle in her throat.
"Only for half a moment, Mrs. Codrington," she manages to say, licking her gritty lips.
A flicker of pain across the pointed face. "Oh, Fido. Has it come to that?" "Helen, then," says Fido, and smiles despite herself. Despite the skin- tightening sensation of encountering a friend who is no longer one. Despite the memories that are billowing up like genii from smashed bottles. She wrenches a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and dabs at her forehead. The two women are blocking the traffic; an old man swerves around them, under a sandwich board that reads No Home Should Be Without One.
"But how you've grown," Helen is marvelling.
Fido looks down at the brown bulge of her bodice. "Too true."
Pink fingers clap to the coral mouth. "You monster! Still the same talent for mistaking my meaning, or letting on that you do. Of course I meant you've grown up so."
"It has been, what, seven years?" Her words are as stiff as tin soldiers. Checking her bonnet is straight, she becomes belatedly aware that the scarlet uniform she bumped into a minute ago is hovering, so she turns to see him off.
"Oh, my manners," says Helen. "Miss Emily Faithfull-if I may-Colonel David Anderson, a friend of the family's from Malta." The colonel has dangling blond whiskers. Fido lets his fingers enclose hers. "Delighted," she says distractedly. "The Miss Faithfull?" She winces at the phrase. By his accent, he's a Scot. "Printer and Publisher to the Queen?"
The man's well informed. Fido concedes a nod. "Her Majesty's been gracious enough to lend her name to our enterprise at the Victoria Press." She turns back to Helen. So much to say, and little of it speakable; words log-jam in her throat. "Are you and Captain Codrington home on leave, or-"
"Forever and ever, amen," says Helen.
That little twisted smile is so familiar to Fido that the years fall away like planks splintering under her feet. She feels dizzy; she fears she'll have to sink to her knees, right here in all the dusty clamour of London's City district.
"Matter of fact, it's Vice-Admiral Codrington now," remarks Colonel Anderson.
"Of course, of course, forgive me," Fido tells Helen. "I can't help thinking of him by the name he bore in the days ..." The days when I knew him? When I knew you? But she's not that girl anymore. It's 1864: I'm almost thirty years old, she scolds herself.
"Harry's been immured in paperwork for weeks, ever since our vile crossing from Malta," complains Helen, "so I've press-ganged the colonel into service as my parcel carrier today."
"A keen volunteer, Mrs. C.," he corrects her, swinging two small packages on their strings. "I'll just pop across the road to pick up your whatsits, shall I?"
"Curtain tassels, a dozen of the magenta," she reminds him.
"That's the ticket."
Tactful of the officer to absent himself, Fido thinks. But once she and Helen are alone, the discomfort rises between them like a paper screen. "Such heat" is all she manages. "It takes me back," says Helen pleasurably, twirling her fringed green parasol and tipping her chin up to catch the merciless light. Watching that face, Fido finds it hard to believe that this woman must be-count the years-thirty-six. "To Italy? Or do you mean India?"
"Oh, both: my whole torrid youth!"
"Was it ... was it generally hot in Malta?"
Helen's laugh comes out startlingly deep, like a sob. "So we're reduced to discussing the weather." Irritation boils in Fido's veins. "As it happens, I'm pressed for time today-" "Oh, yes, I was almost forgetting what a very important person you've become. The Miss Faithfull, philanthropist, pioneer!" Fido wants to take her by the lemon-lace-edged shoulders and shake her like a doll. "I prefer to call myself a woman of business."
"I can quite see why I was dropped the moment I left the country," Helen rattles on, "considering how pressed for time you've been, what with all your valiant efforts on behalf of our downtrodden sex."
Her mouth, Fido finds, is hanging open. "Whatever can you mean, dropped?"
A pretty shrug. "It needn't have been done with such brutal efficiency, need it?" Helen's dropped the mocking tone. "Friendships have their seasons, that's understood. But you might have let me down rather more gently, I suppose, after all we'd been through."
Fido blinks dust out of her eyes. "It wasn't kind, that's all I'll say. Or womanly. It wasn't like you, like what I knew of your heart, or thought I did." "Stop." She holds up her white-gloved hand till it almost touches those rapid lips. Helen only speeds up. "You'd had your fill of me and Harry by the time we embarked for Malta, was that it? All at once sick to death of us and our bickerings?" Her eyes have the wet blue sheen of rain. "I know, I know, I quite see that we'd worn you out between us. But I must confess, when I found myself tossed aside like yesterday's newspaper-"
"My dear." Fido almost barks it. "I find these accusations incongruous." Helen stares at her like a baby. "Must I remind you, I wrote twice to Admiralty House in Valetta and got not a word of reply to either?" "Nonsense!" Fido is bewildered. This is like one of those dreams in which one is caught up in an endless, illogical series of tasks.
"Of course I wrote back," cries Helen.
"Of course from Malta! I was a stranger in a strange land; I needed a bosom friend more than ever. Why ever would I have left off writing? I poured out all my worries-" Fido breaks in. "When was this? What month?"
"How should I recall, all these years later?" asks Helen reasonably. "But I know I replied as soon as I got your letter-the one and only letter I received from you when I was in Malta. I sent several long screeds, but on your side the correspondence simply dried up. You can't imagine my nervous excitement when a packet of post would arrive from England, and I'd rip it open-"
Fido's chewing her lip; she tastes blood. "I did change my lodgings, that autumn," she concedes. "But still, your letters ought to have been sent on directly by the post office."
"Lost at sea?" suggests Helen, frowning.
"One of them, perhaps, but could the Continental mail really be so-"
"Things do go astray."
"What a very absurd-" Fido hears her voice rise pitifully, and breaks off. Scalding water behind her eyes. "I don't know what to say."
Helen's smile is miserable. "Oh heavens, I see it all now. I should have tried again; I should have kept on writing, despite my mortified feelings."
"No, I should! I thought-" She tries now to remember what she'd thought; what sense she'd made of it when Helen hadn't written back, that strange year when the Codringtons were posted abroad and Fido stayed alone in London, wondering what to make of herself. "I suppose I supposed ... a chapter in your life had drawn to a close."
"Dearest Fido! You're not the stuff of a chapter," Helen protests. "Several volumes, at least."
Her brain's whirling under the hot, powdery sky. She doesn't want to cry, here on Farringdon Street, a matter of yards from her steam-printing office, where any passing clerk or hand might spot her. So Fido laughs instead. "Such an idiotic misunderstanding, like something out of Mozart. I couldn't be sorrier."
"Nor I. These seven years have been an eternity!"
What in another woman would strike Fido as hyperbole has in Helen Codrington always charmed her, somehow. The phrases are delivered with a sort of rueful merriment, as if by an actress who knows herself to be better than her part.
She seizes Fido's wrists, squeezing tight enough that her bones shift under the humid cotton gloves. "And what are the odds that I'd happen across you again, not a fortnight after my return? Like a rose in this urban wilderness," she cries, dropping Fido's wrists to gesture across the crowded City.
Excerpted from Sealed Letter by Emma Donoghue Copyright © 2008 by Emma Donoghue. Excerpted by permission.
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