Be the first to read an exclusive extract from the very special debut novel from Imogen Hermes Gowar, The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock
The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock is set in the lively, fast-changing world of eighteenth-century London. It tells the story of how two unlikely people – 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. It will be published in early 2018 but we invite you to enter the world of the book now.
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 window pane, 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 whilst all about him the dust motes sparkle. Such visions do not come to Mr Hancock 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 day his excellent wife died with their child first laid in her arms, his life diverged from its proper course. It seems to him that the life he ought to have had is continuing very nearby, with only a very 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 every now and then Mr Hancock hears a voice carried in from the street, or feels some tugging at his clothes, and his immediate thought is Henry, as if he 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 above comes the voice of his sister Hester, 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: her removing her youngest daughter from school and installing her as his housekeeper is not, therefore, a charity entirely without reward.
‘Now you see the sheets have taken mildew,’ she says now. ‘If you had stored them as I advised you… did you note it all in your pocket book?’
The faintest of mumbles in response.
‘Well did you? This is not for my benefit, Susannah, but for your own.’
A silence, in which he pictures his dear 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. If he were now father of a fruitful family, he would surely have greater aspirations, but what can he now be but a man of Deptford, living in the house his grandfather built and his father made fine, with the bells of St Paul’s at the front door and of St Nicholas’ at the back? In its pitched floorboards and staircase-spine he feels his lost ones not so lost; and then its beams and struts remember, in their long curves, the bellies of great ships, and its lintels carved with birds and flowers, angels and swords, are testament to the skill of the shipwright, for no man carves wood like a Deptford man. Since he swam in his mother’s womb he has known no life but that enacted against the rhythm of ships leaving the docks gleaming and laden, and returning – when they returned – battered and ragged. He understands what it is to load one's faith and fortune on board a ship and push it off into the unknown.
The 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.
And yet sometimes there is something more. A man might intuit that one particular voyage is not only to be a success but special. It will change everything. If he is sensible he knows that such optimism is dangerous, but still he goes about his business with a perceptible smugness, and in his private moments he is gripped by a great childish glee of anticipation. Mr Hancock has received no word from the Calliope in two years, and as the summer trails away his expectations of seeing her return ought to go with it. Reason tells him that something has gone awry, but intuition bends towards optimism. The Calliope will return, it says, and her cargo will be of particular importance to him.
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.
Angelica Neal 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, 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. On the floor the crushed triangles of curl-paper are dense with Calvinism, 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 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 book-keeping. And don’t you suck in your breath, for I know what you will say. You would lecture me on my extravagance, but no man pays five guineas a night 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 fruitbowl, 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-six 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 sheepgut 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. ‘I am entirely independent now.’