Today's Reading

PROLOGUE

There is no letter, no address or greeting, nothing at all save for the single slip of paper that she slides out of the envelope, a sense of dread curdling like old milk in her stomach even though she has no idea, not yet, of what she holds.

Carefully she unfolds it, the paper cheap and scratchy, the stark lines of black ink written in a firm and unshaking hand. It takes her a moment to see what it is—an official document, or at least a copy of one, the columns darkly scored. Sarah Mills, Aged twenty-two, River Cottage, Kendal. She catches her breath as she reads the next lines: Cause of Death: General Debility.

"Love?"

Her husband's voice floats up the stairs of their little terraced house, kind and questioning, and her fingers clench on the paper as guilt washes over her in a scorching tide.

"Just a moment." She scans the lines again. Date of Death: 24 May 1872. Two months ago. Two months ago Sarah had breathed her last— how and why? And who had sent this to her? Realization ices inside her. Someone has wanted her to know. This slip of paper is an accusation, as loud as a spoken threat, as frightening as a raised fist, a judgment handed down by some unknown witness.

It's your fault Sarah died.

She couldn't know that. She had no idea why Sarah had died, and yet...she has so much to atone for. So much to regret. When she'd seen Sarah last, she'd been healthy and whole, robust if resigned. She'd been twenty-one years old. When she'd seen Sarah last, she'd been rescued by her. Saved.

The sound of her husband's heavy, familiar tread on the narrow staircase has her slipping the copy of the death certificate into her apron pocket. She rises from her seat by the window and straightens her dress, taking a deep breath and tucking a few stray wisps of hair back into her bun. Her heart thuds.

"I'm coming," she calls, her voice trembling slightly, and she hurries from the bedroom, trying to push the terrible knowledge of that certificate from her mind. She's been good at that, too good, perhaps, at pretending the past hasn't happened. That she's a new person, a different person now, one with a husband and child she loves and adores. She won't let that certificate and its awful knowledge threaten what she holds dear.

The next morning, after her husband has gone off whistling to his carpentry workshop, the breakfast dishes have been scrubbed and put away and the dirty water poured out into the courtyard in back of the kitchen, she climbs up the narrow stairs to the little attic room at the top of the house. It is meant for a maid, if they had a maid, but her husband's work as a carpenter means she does all the housework, even the heavy scrubbing and washing, herself. And once she'd insisted she would have a maid when she married.

Grimacing faintly at her own childish folly, she thinks again of Sarah. Sarah had had to do all the washing and scrubbing, soaking shirts and old-fashioned collars until her hands were cracked and red from the harsh lye soap she made herself, and then having to starch the collars into hard points, spending hours with the heavy flat irons. Had the never-ending round of housework contributed to her death? General Debility.

The little room is cramped and airless, the cobwebbed eaves brushing her head, the one tiny window looking out onto rolling hills that lead to a slate-grey sea, churning and restless even on this summer's day, yet no less beautiful.

She remembers her arrival two years ago, how desperate and afraid she was, yet clinging to the one frail thread of hope that Sarah, in her generosity, had offered her. She'd clutched her single case, its side banging her knees, as Ruth had met her at the train and led her up the narrow, winding street, the smell of coal fires on the damp sea air. She'd glimpsed the sea, a twinkling promise behind the row of whitewashed cottages, and her heart had lifted. She'd always loved the sea. Back in Kendal there had only been the river, hemmed in on every side by the looming fells, so sometimes it felt as if the earth was enclosing her, a giant's teacup.

Now she crouches in the centre of the room, the slip of paper clutched in her hand, a dozen different memories tumbling through her mind, making her mouth tremble as she keeps the useless tears at bay. Sarah silently sweeping up broken crockery, her face set in determinedly placid lines. Sarah sitting slumped at the kitchen table, her head resting against her hand, her eyes fluttering closed, her other hand reaching out to Lucy, always to Lucy. Sarah pressing a rail ticket into her hand, her lips drawn tightly together, her eyes dark and troubled.

Go. It's the only way.

But had it been? Had it been?
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