Extract from: The Factory
The house is both shabbier and finer than Iris imagined; tall, narrow and brick, with the look of a rake gone to seed. Its windows stare. One is broken. Ferns and palms froth out of every orifice; over window boxes, out of terracotta pots and planters, around the sides of hanging baskets. The straw-strewn lane is barely passable when a horse and cart trots by, and Iris almost has to crouch in a plant pot, a fern tickling her face.
Once the cart has rounded the corner, she clears her throat and looks down at her dress. She wears a small silk rosette on her chest, a Christmas gift from Albie, and she smooths its ragged edges. She picks at a soup stain on the sleeve of her gown. It is her finest outfit, greyed cotton that was once blue. She used to like the way it pulled in her waist, the pert sleeves that made her arms look slender. But now, she thinks she looks like a poor maiden aunt, not the sort of person likely to indulge in perfect triangles of cucumber sandwiches or cream so rich it gave her a stomach-ache.
She hovers her hand over the doorbell, and then reads the plaque beneath it.
‘The Factory. PRB. (Please Ring Bell.)’
She smiles at it, a sly drawing of a line separating those who know the initials’ true meaning, and the uninitiated who do not. PreRaphaelite Brotherhood. She feels a brief pride over her inclusion in that inner circle. She knows because Clarissa told her. Her sister does not. Only those who season their speech with phrases like ‘critics’, ‘Royal Academy’ and ‘exhibition’ would know it. But then, she has no claim to any of that. The paper painting in her hand, tucked into a sleeve of fabric pinched from Mrs Salter, crumples in the wind.
‘Are you going to ring the bell, or would you prefer to have your lesson on the street?’
Iris leaps back, trips over a pot, and stubs her toe. The pain is searing. She looks about her.
‘Up here, Miss Whittle,’ he calls. Louis salutes her from the first-floor window.
‘I – I was just about to ring the bell—’
‘And have been for the last five minutes? I must admit I nearly gave myself away when that cart burst past. It looked like you were grazing on the potted plant.’
‘You’ve been watching me?’ She reddens.
‘I would say observing. It’s an important skill for an artist. I’ll attend you now.’
She has her words prepared. I am not your model yet – somebody you can stare at unannounced for five minutes! But when the door opens, Louis smiles at her and her outrage falls away. She breathes in the scent of turpentine and wax and linseed oil. The carpets are threadbare, the chandelier missing most of its shards, but the walls are thick with paintings – some finished, some barely begun. The hallway is painted a startling swampy blue, and peacock feathers are arranged in a neat row between the dado rail and the ceiling. There is gilding everywhere – the skirting boards, the door frames, the banisters and newel posts.
She wants to take her time, but Louis hurries her along. ‘Is your sister here, Mr Frost?’
‘Clarissa? Oh, no. She has her fallen women causes. The Marylebone Society. Some mite needed tending to. And please, call me by my Christian name. I can’t stand all this mannerly nonsense.’
‘I know, I know. I did ask her to chaperone. But I can promise that you will leave here entirely unsacrificed to Venus.’
Her chest constricts. She would like to find a way to tell him, delicately, that he should desist from such flirtation – she is here to learn to paint, and for nothing else. Other models may comport themselves like prostitutes, but she is different; she will grip tight the jewel of her respectability. And then she realizes she is already thinking as if she has agreed to model. She has not. She will not. Or may not.
‘Are your servants present?’
‘Servants?’ Louis wafts his hand. ‘I couldn’t bear to have anyone fussing like that. A weekly charwoman is all a gentleman should need in these modern times.’ He gestures at the narrow staircase. ‘Come, I’ll give you a grand tour of the studio.’
She has never met anybody like him. It is either very liberating or very intimidating, and she is not sure which. She can see that he is the kind of person used to getting his own way, who makes a virtue of shocking with his views, and it gives her a perverse sense of delight: she won’t humour him by being outraged. She will take pleasure in thwarting him, and feign complete composure at his remarks.
‘I note, at least, that you’re no longer at death’s door,’ she says.
‘I must assign the credit for my hasty recovery to the nursing skills of Guinevere.’
‘She sounds very generous,’ Iris says, and she finds herself pleased that he is married. It removes any complexity.
‘She is. But she ate all of my Christmas pudding so she is far from being a model woman. In fact, you will meet her shortly.’
Louis leads her up the stairs and through a door. ‘The studio, ma’am. I tidied especially.’
‘Tidied?’ Iris steps on a mussel shell and flinches. It is as if the room has been spun like a globe until the contents of every drawer, every bookshelf, have been hurled up. A stuffed bear cub lies in the corner, blanketed by newspapers. There are a pair of convex mirrors on the wall. The studio is brimful with clutter.
‘Of course, Mother and I could never agree on a definition for the word, either. Ti-dy. What a dull sound it makes! But there is such mediocrity, when everything is arranged as it should be. Don’t you find that? I’ve never believed in cataloguing things – of putting books here, and cutlery there, and whatnot. It shows such a want of taste and imagination.’
As he speaks, she tries to take it all in. She looks at his easel, streaked with colour.
‘Such a dismal mechanical mind which tidies. A factory mind.’
A movement in the corner, and she screams. ‘What is – the bear is alive! Good God!’
Louis starts to laugh. He laughs until he is holding on to the edge of the door, his mouth open in a silent howl, eyes pinched closed. ‘A – a – a bear—’
‘It really isn’t funny,’ Iris begins, trying not to flinch as the creature ambles towards them. She does not want to provoke his mockery further, but she worries it will attack. He looks just the sort of person who would buy a dangerous animal for a jape, and then find himself killed by it. She moves back. ‘Have you had its teeth and claws pulled?’
It is enough for Louis to straighten, wiping away the tears from his eyes. ‘No! How could I? That would be cruel. This is Guinevere, a wombat, and she is in mourning.’
‘Oh. Ah – I see,’ Iris says. ‘And she is not your –’ She almost says wife, but stops herself. She tests the unfamiliar word. ‘A wombat. In mourning.’ Iris notes the small black handkerchief fastened around the beast’s neck, and tries to hide her amusement behind her hand.
‘I see nothing humorous in it,’ Louis says. ‘She lost Lancelot over Christmas, although admittedly they were not friends. He roamed upstairs and she lived down here. I was quite bereft.’
‘Was he very old?’
‘If only.’ Louis looks down. ‘Rossetti thought it would be entertaining to have him smoke a cigar, but Lancelot gobbled the whole box, a slab of chocolate beside, and snuffed it the next day. Rossetti and I are no longer on speaking terms.’
‘I’m sorry to hear that.’ She extends a half-hearted pat in the direction of the wombat, which fails to make contact with its fur. Guinevere is built with the heft of a brown, hairy cannonball. ‘Is she friendly?’
In response, Louis bundles the creature into his arms, groans at her weight, and tickles her under the chin.
- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -
Extract from: Coffin
Colville Place is narrow, the houses hunched into each other. The buildings are tall – four floors – but each looks no more than a room wide. Several of the houses on the terrace are shopfronts; a chandler’s and a carpenter’s.
He considers knocking at the door, but thinks better of it. He assumes Iris is a scullery maid or similar in this residence, watched over by an elderly widow, and she may not be permitted visitors. ‘The Factory. PRB. Please – ring – bell,’ he reads carefully. So that is what the initials stood for, when he heard the artists shouting them in the Dolphin. But why were they bellowing about ringing bells? It must be some sort of street slang that young swells use.
Silas sits and waits on a step outside a deserted shopfront, knees together, his box perched on his lap, his hand playing with a button. He is almost directly opposite the house where Iris is working. To distract himself, he inspects the broken glass of the shop window. He practises his introduction. She will be impressed that he managed to find her, of that he is sure.
Somebody starts to play the piano. It is a mournful tune. Sometimes Silas has slipped into churches, listened to the thunder of organs, the hum of violins, of choirs. He imagines Iris is the kind of person who could be stirred by a requiem – a tender, feminine soul. He wonders if it could even be her playing. He thinks of her slender fingers racing up and down cool ivory, the swaying of her spine.
He waits and he waits and he waits, fumbling and standing each time he hears footsteps on the street. It is never her. But at last, just when he is becoming so cold and hungry that he thinks he will leave to buy a baked potato or a pudding, she is there, turning the corner into Colville Place, taller than he remembered, less waif-like. He is surprised by the strength in her shoulders.
Silas pats his box and stands. She walks right past him. He calls out.
‘Miss – Iris?’
She turns. There is no smile, no flicker. He wets his lips, swallows.
‘Yes?’ she asks, but she looks about her. (‘Silas – you have come at last.’) ‘I’m terribly sorry. I don’t recall . . .’
Of all her responses, he did not imagine this. He was so sure that she thought of him too. ‘I – my name is Silas.’ Still her brow is furrowed. She will laugh soon, pretend it is a jest. But he continues, just in case. ‘We met at the Great Exhibition. My friend Albie . . .’
A slight frown. It was, he thinks with a downward glance at his dog box, no jest.
‘Yes. Of course. Now I remember.’ She waits. He says nothing.
At last she says, ‘Well, can I help you at all? Has Albie been taken ill?’
‘Oh no, it’s – I’ve just been accepted for the Great Exhibition.’ He nods at the box. ‘Or at least I haven’t, but a skeleton and a stuffed puppy and a window have been – I mean, a window made of butterflies. The puppies are here, conjoined.’ He clears his throat. ‘In their coffin, as I call this box. And when I open it, it’s like they are being excavated.’
She looks perplexed.
‘That is just a – a small joke of mine. Well,’ he carries on, his voice only wavering a little.
‘I must be going,’ she says, nodding at number six. ‘I only came out briefly for a candle. It was a pleasure—’
He says, too quickly, ‘When we met, you said you wanted to see my collection, and I wondered when might be convenient for you to visit?’
She looks around her, and then speaks slowly. She is polite. She is unfailingly polite, and now he knows that she barely remembers him, it occurs to him that she may not want to come at all, that she may just agree to spare his feelings.
‘Well, if I happen to be passing—’ She touches a rosette on her dress.
He fidgets. ‘Will you come tomorrow?’
‘Come at five o’clock.’ He reaches into his pocket, draws out the butterfly-wing pendant and hands it to her. ‘You can have this. It’s for you.’
She looks at the blue wing, at its brown-white eye. ‘You made this?’
‘Oh.’ She does not say anything else, does not seem to mind if empty expanses of conversation linger. She is stroking the butterfly glass with her thumb, but does not seem to be aware of it. He can see the shape of her clavicle through her dress. He would like to know how the bone feels under her skin.
‘I can show you how I make the butterflies, if you like, but my other exhibits are much more impressive. My shop – it’s called Silas Reed’s Shop of Curiosities Antique and New. It’s at the end of a quiet passage leading from the Strand. Ask any of the clerks or letter-writing boys for directions.’
She nods, but doesn’t appear to be concentrating. ‘And you are Mr Reed?’
‘You can call me by my Christian name. Silas.’
‘Yes,’ he says, trying to swallow the bitterness. Albie had introduced them, after all, and he mentioned his name again in the conversation earlier, and she has remembered nothing of him.
‘Silas’s Shop of Curiosities, tomorrow at five,’ he repeats.
‘Very good. Thank you for the gift.’
‘It’s nothing,’ he says, but she has already turned away, and it is as if the ground roils under Silas, as if he is adrift on black waves.
Looking for more world-class literature?
Sign up to the Literary Reads newsletter and be the first to discover the latest news from our award-winning Picador authors.