The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock by Imogen Hermes Gowar

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock tells the story of how two unlikely people in 18th century London – the unforgettable courtesan Angelica Neal and the widowed merchant Mr Hancock – come together in extraordinary circumstances, prompted by the arrival of a mermaid to the city.

Read on for an extract from Imogen Hermes Gowar's exciting debut.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

'A man might intuit that one particular voyage is not only to be a success but special. It will change everything.'

From upstairs comes the voice of his sister Hester Lippard, who visits every first Thursday to fossick through his larder and laundry and linen press, and exclaim at what she discovers there. A wifeless brother is a troublesome inheritance, but one by which her children may one day profit: if Mrs Lippard does him the charity of removing her youngest from school to serve as his housekeeper, it is in reasonable expectation of reward.

‘Now you see the sheets have taken mildew,’ she is saying. ‘If you had stored them as I advised you . . . did you note it all in your pocketbook?’

The faintest of mumbles in response.

‘Well, did you? This is not for my benefit, Susanna, but for your own.’

A silence, in which he pictures poor Sukie with her head hanging, her cheeks livid.

‘I declare, you make more trouble than you save me! So where is your red thread? Where? Is’t lost again? And who will pay for more, do you think?’

He sighs and scratches. Where is the fruitful family to fill the rooms of this house, which his grandfather built and his father made fine? The dead are here, without a doubt. He feels their touch everywhere in its pitched floorboards and staircase spine, and in the voices of the church bells, St Paul’s at the front door, St Nicholas’s at the back. The hands of the shipwrights are alive here in the long curves of its beams, which recall the bellies of great ships; its lintels carved with birds and flowers, angels and swords, testament for ever to the labour and visions of men long dead.

There are no children here to marvel in their turn at the skill of Deptford woodcarvers, unmatched in all the world; nor to grow up to the rhythm of ships leaving the docks gleaming and laden, returning battered and ragged. Jonah Hancock’s children would know, as Jonah Hancock knows, what it is to load one’s faith and fortune on board a ship and push it off into the unknown. They would know how a man who awaits a ship, as Mr Hancock now does, is distracted by day and wakeful by night, prone to fidgeting, with a bitter taste rising in the back of his throat. He is snappish with his family or else overly sentimental; he hunches over his desk scratching out the same calculations over and over again. He bites his nails.

What knowledge is all this if it dies with Jonah Hancock? What good his joys and sorrows if there is nobody to share in them; what purpose to his face and voice if they are only to be assigned to dust; what value to his fortune if it withers on the vine with no sons to pluck it down?

And yet sometimes there is something more.

All voyages start the same, when men in coffee-houses gather about, and scratch their chins, and weigh risk against obligation.

‘I’ll go in on that,’ says one,

‘And I,’

‘And I,’

for in this world there is no achieving anything all alone. Cast in thy lot and share the purse. And this is why a prudent man does no business with drunks, with rakes, with gamblers, with thieves, or anybody with whom God might have cause to deal severely. You cast in your lot and you share his sin. And it is so easy for a little craft to be dashed against the rocks. So easy for cargo to settle five fathoms deep in the dark. Sailors’ lungs may brine and their fingers may pickle; all that protects them is God’s cupped hand.

What does God say to Mr Hancock? Where is the Calliope, whose captain has sent no word in eighteen months? The summer trails away. Every day the mercury drops. If she does not return soon she will not return, and the blame may well lie with him. What has he done, that might demand such punishment? Who will throw in their lot with his if they suspect him ill-favoured?

Somewhere a tide is turning. In that place where no land can be seen, where horizon to horizon is spanned by shifting twinkling faithless water, a wave humps its back and turns over with a sigh, and sends its salted whispering to Mr Hancock’s ear.

This voyage is special, the whisper says, a strange fluttering in his heart.

It will change everything.

And all of a sudden, in his silent counting-house, this faded man with his brow cupped in his hands is gripped by a great childish glee of anticipation.

The rain eases. The cat crunches on the skull of the mouse. And as she slaps her tongue about her muzzle, Mr Hancock permits himself to hope.

The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock

'A wave humps its back and turns over with a sigh, and sends its salted whispering to Mr Hancock’s ear.'

Owing to the rain it is unlikely that many birds are abroad, but perhaps a crow has just crept from the rafters of Mr Hancock’s house, and now fans out its bombazine feathers and tips its head to one side to view the world with one pale and peevish eye. This crow, if it spreads its wings, will find them full of the still-damp breeze gusting up from the streets below: hot tar, river mud, the ammoniac reek of the tannery. And if it hops from its ledge and rises above the rooftops of Union Street it will come first and swiftly to the docks, the cradles of ships-to-be, which even in their infancy rear above all the buildings. Some, polished and tarred, flags aflutter and figurehead winking, strain to be launched; others, mere ribs of fresh-stripped wood with only air between them, lie in dry-dock vast and pale and naked as the skeletons of whales.

If, from here, this crow steers itself north-west following the turn of the river, and if it flies for six miles without pause . . . Well, is this likely, for a crow? What are their habits? What is the range of their territory? If it were to do this, coasting across the sky as the clouds recede, it would approach the city of London, the river crenelated on each bank with docks large and small, some built tall from yellow stone, some of sagging black wood.

The wharves and bridges pen the water in tight, but after the storm it squirms and heaves. The white-sailed ships strain upon it, and the watermen have gathered their bravado to steer their little crafts away from the bank and race across the current. As the sun creeps out, this conjectured crow will fly over the winking glass of the Southwark melon farms; the customs house, the tiered spire of St Bride’s, the milling square of Seven Dials, and eventually come upon Soho. As it alights on a Dean Street gutter, its shadow will briefly cross the first-floor window of one particular house, stealing the daylight from the room within so that the face of Angelica Neal is momentarily lost in darkness.

She sits at her dressing table as cool and fragrant as a rosewater custard, picking at a bowl of hothouse fruit while her friend – Mrs Eliza Frost – tweaks the last scorched curl-paper from her hair. She has been laced back into her stays and half-draped in a powdering robe, but there is a flush of the bedroom in her cheeks, and her eyes are dragged irresistibly back to her own dimpling reflection as if to the face of a lover. A canary skips and whistles in its cage, mirrors twinkle all about, and her table is strewn with ribbons and earrings and tiny glass bottles. each afternoon they carry it from the dark dressing room into the sunny parlour so as to spare their candles.

‘But these measures will soon be unnecessary,’ says Angelica, as a little storm of hair powder flies up around her. ‘When the season begins, and there are more places to be seen – more people to see me – our living will be far easier.’ on the floor the crushed triangles of curl-paper are dense with Wesleyan homily, snipped as they are from pious tracts passed out daily to the whores of Dean Street.

‘Humph,’ says Mrs Frost, who now clutches a hank of her friend’s yellow hair and is busy teasing it all into a great soft heap on top of her head. She has to remove the pins nipped between her lips before she can reply properly. ‘I hope you are right.’

They have been in these rooms for a fortnight, paying with notes peeled off a wedge which, although jealously protected by Mrs Frost, is swiftly diminishing.

‘How you do worry,’ says Angelica.

‘I don’t like it. Money coming in spits and spots. Not knowing one day to the next . . .’

‘’Tis not my fault.’ Angelica opens her eyes very wide. Her chemise slips an inch down her bosom. It is not Angelica’s fault: until a month previous she was in the keeping of a middle-aged duke, who doted upon her for the three years they lived together, but in his will forgot her.

‘And you reduced to letting any man make free with you,’ says Mrs Frost. The sunlight flashes off the back of the brush. Mrs Frost is tall and narrow, the skin of her face unpainted and very smooth and taut, like kidskin. It is difficult to age her, for her person is like her dress, neat and plain, sponged lightly clean each night, kept carefully from the world.

‘Any man who can afford it, which keeps the numbers down. Listen, my dove, I do know your opinion but since I pay your way I am not obliged to hear it.’

‘You are compromising yourself.’

‘How else am I to keep us in stockings? You answer me that, you who are so conscientious in your bookkeeping. And don’t you draw in your breath, for I know what you will say. You would lecture me on my extravagance, but no man hands banknotes to a drab who looks as if a sixpence would content her. I have my appearance to consider.’

‘You have nothing to do with the accounts,’ says Mrs Frost. ‘You cannot imagine how this complicates my life.’

A little flash of electricity whisks through Angelica’s body. She grips the arms of her chair and stamps her feet on the floorboards, so the curl-papers leap reanimated, and scratch their printed wings together. ‘My life is very complicated, Eliza!’

‘Keep your temper.’ Another vigorous burst of powder.

‘Leave off !’ Angelica swats her hands about her head. ‘You will cover up all its colour.’ Angelica is protective of her heavy gold hair, for it was once the making of her. In her tenderest youth she found herself assistant and model to an Italian hairdresser, and (according to legend) it was from him that little fat Angelica learned not only the art of grooming but also the art of love.

The women are silent. At moments of impasse, they know better than to talk it out: they retreat resentfully back into their own heads, as pugilists to their corners. Mrs Frost shakes an armful of paper into the fire, and Angelica turns back to the fruit bowl, popping grapes off their stems one by one, gathering them into her fist. She licks their juice off the heel of her hand. The sunlight slanting through the window is warm on the down of her cheek. She is twenty-seven and still beautiful, which owes something to luck and something to circumstance and something to good sense. Her bright blue eyes and voluptuous smile are gifts of Nature; her body and mind are unmarked by the toils she might have known as a wife; her skin is clear, her grot fragrant, and her nose still whole thanks to the little pouches of sheep gut she keeps in her cabinet, tied with green ribbons and carefully rinsed after each use.

‘Dying was the best thing he could have done,’ she says to Mrs Frost, as a peace offering. ‘And just in time for the season.’

You can find out more about Imogen Hermes Gowar by following her on Twitter @girlhermesPinterest, or through her blog

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