Excerpt of The Crimson Petal and The White by Michel Faber
(Page 8 of 10)
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'Doctor won't send us away?' asked the child, scoring a bull's-eye, as always, on her worst fear.
'Walk faster,' was all she could reply.
By the time they found a house with the oval lamp lit outside, the boy was wheezing so hard that Caroline was half insane, her hands trembling with the urge to rip his little throat open and give him some air. Instead she rang the doctor's bell.
After a minute or two, a man came to the door in his night-gown, looking not at all like any doctor Caroline had met before, nor smelling like one.
'Sir,' she addressed him, doing her best to keep both the desperation and the provincial burr out of her voice. 'My son needs a doctor!'
For a moment he stared her up and down, noting her outmoded monochrome dress, the frost on her cheeks, the mud on her boots. Then he motioned her to come in, smiling and laying his broad hand on her boy's shivering shoulder as he said:
'Well now, this is a happy coincidence. I need a woman.'
Five years later, moving sleepily through her bedroom, Caroline stubs her toes on the ceramic basin and is provoked to clean up her bedroom. She transfers the stagnant contraceptive bouillon carefully into the chamber pot, watching, as she pours, the germs of another man's offspring combine with piss. She heaves the full pot onto her window-sill, and pushes the window open. There's no crack of ice this time, and the air is still. She'd like to toss the liquid into the air, but the Sanitary Inspector has been sniffing around lately, reminding everyone that this is the nineteenth century, not the eighteenth. Threats of eviction have been made. Church Lane is infested with Irish Catholics, spiteful gossips the lot of them, and Caroline doesn't want them accusing her of soliciting cholera on top of everything else.
So, she tips the chamber-pot slowly forwards and lets the mixture trickle discreetly down the brickwork. For a while the building will look as though God relieved Himself against it, but then the problem will get solved one way or another, before the neighbours wake up - either the sun will dry it or fresh snow will rinse it.
Caroline is hungry now, a sharp belly-hunger, despite the fact that she doesn't normally wake until much, much later. She's noticed that before: if you wake up too early, you're famished, but if you wake later, you're all right again, and then later still you're famished again. Needs and desires must rise and fall during sleep, clamouring for satisfaction at the door of consciousness, then slinking away for a while. A deep thinker, that's what her husband used to call her. Too much education might have done her more harm than good.
Caroline's guts make a noise like a piglet. She laughs, and decides to give Eppie a surprise by paying an early-morning visit to The Mother's Finest. Put a smile on his ugly face and a pie in her belly.
In the cold light of day, the clothes she hastily threw on in order to see the wrecked cab don't pass muster. Rough hands have wrinkled the fabric, dirty shoes have stepped on the hems, there are even speckles of blood from the scabby shins of old Leo the dyer. Caroline strips off and starts afresh with a voluminous blue and grey striped dress and tight black bodice straight out of her wardrobe.
Getting dressed is much easier for Caroline than it is for most of the women you will meet later in this story. She has made small, cunning alterations to all her clothing. Fastenings have been shifted, in defiance of fashion, to where her hands can reach them, and each layer hides short-cuts in the layer beneath. (See? - her seamstressing skills did come in useful in the end!)
To her face and hair Caroline affords a little more attention, scrutinising the particulars in a small hand-mirror tacked upside-down to the wall. She's in fair repair for twenty-nine. A few pale scars on her forehead and chin. One black tooth that doesn't hurt a bit and is best left alone. Eyes a little bloodshot, but big and sympathetic, like those of a dog that's had a good master. Decent lips. Eyebrows as good as anyone's. And, of course, her splendid nest of hair. With a wire brush she untangles the fringe and fluffs it out over her forehead, squaring it just above the eyes with the back of her hand. Too impatient and hungry to comb the rest, she winds it up into a pile on top of her head and pins it fast, then covers it up with an indigo hat. Her face she powders and pinks, not to conceal that she's old, ugly or corrupt in flesh, for she isn't any of these yet, but rather to brighten the pallor of her sunless existence - this for her own sake rather than for her customers.
Copyright © Michel Faber, 2002. All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any information storage and retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publisher. Requests for permission to make copies of any part of the work should be mailed to the following address: Permissions Department, Harcourt, Inc., 6277 Sea Harbor Drive, Orlando, Florida 32887-6777.