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.
Jonah Hancock’s counting-house is built wedge-shaped and coffered like a ship’s cabin, whitewashed walls and black skirting, beam pegged snugly to beam. The wind sings down Union Street, raindrops burst against the windowpane, and Mr Hancock leans forward on his elbows, cradling his brow in his hands. Rasping his fingers over his scalp, he discovers a crest of coarse hair the barber has missed, and idles over it with mild curiosity but no irritation. In private, Mr Hancock is not much concerned with his appearance; in society, he wears a wig.
He is a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian and linen, honest familiar textures to match his threadbare scalp, the silverish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips. He is not a handsome man, nor ever was one (and as he perches on his stool his great belly and skinny legs give him the look of a rat up a post), but his meaty face is amiable, and his small eyes with their pale lashes are clear and trusting. He is a man well designed for his station in the world: a merchant son of a merchant’s son – a son of Deptford – whose place is not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that pass through his rough hands, but only to assess their worth, scratch down their names and numbers, and send them on to the bright and exuberant city across the river. The ships he sends out into the world – the Eagle, the Calliope, the Lorenzo – cross and re-cross the globe, but Jonah Hancock himself, the stillest of men, falls asleep each night in the room in which he first drew breath.
The light in the office has a murky cast to it, full of storms. The rain comes down in sheets. Mr Hancock’s ledgers are spread out before him, creeping with insect words and figures, but his mind is not on his work, and he is grateful for the distraction of a scuffling outside the office.
Ah, thinks Mr Hancock, that will be Henry, but when he turns around from his desk it is only the cat. She is almost upside down at the foot of the stairs, with her rear in the air, her hind paws splayed wide on the bottom step, and her forepaws pinning a squirming mouse to the hall floorboards. Her little mouth is open, teeth flashing in triumph, but her position is precarious. To right herself, he calculates, she must let go of her quarry.
‘Whisht!’ says Mr Hancock. ‘Begone!’ but she catches the mouse up in her jaws and prances across the hall. She is out of his sight, but he hears the thrum of her dancing paws and the dampish thud of the mouse’s body hitting the floorboards as she flips it into the air again and again. He has watched her play this game many times, and always finds her enquiring, open-throated cry unpleasantly human.
He turns back to his desk, shaking his head. He could have sworn it was Henry coming down the stairs. In his mind’s eye the scene has already taken place: his tall thin son, with white stockings and brown curls, pausing to grin into the office while all about him the dust motes sparkle. Such visions do not come to him very often, but when they do they always disturb him, for Henry Hancock died at birth.
Mr Hancock is not a whimsical man but he has never been able to shake the notion that, the moment his wife laid her head back on her childbed pillow and sighed her last wretched breath, his life diverged from its proper course. It seems to him that the one he ought to have had continues very nearby, with only a thin bit of air and chance separating him from it, and every now and then he catches a glimpse of it as if a curtain has momentarily fluttered aside. In the first year of his viduity, for example, he once felt a warm human pressure against his knee during a card game, and looked down in fond expectation of a stout little child hauling itself to its feet beside his chair. Why was he so appalled to discover instead the left hand of Moll Rennie creeping along his thigh? On another occasion, a brightly painted toy drum caught his eye at a fair, and he had carried it nearly halfway home before he remembered that no small boy was there to receive it. Fifteen years have now passed, but in rare unguarded moments Mr Hancock might hear a voice carried in from the street, or feel some tugging at his clothes, and his immediate thought is Henry, as if he had had a son all along.
He is never visited by his wife Mary in this way, although she was a great blessing to him. She was thirty-three when she died, a placid woman who had seen much of this world and was amply prepared for the next: Mr Hancock does not doubt where she has gone, or the possibility that he might one day join her there, and for him this is enough. He only mourns their child, who passed so swiftly from birth to death, exchanging one oblivion for another like a sleeper rolling over.
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,
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.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
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.’