The Essex Serpent By Sarah Perry

To say this is one for historical-fiction fans would be accurate but limiting – this is about as far away from a by-numbers Sunday-night period drama as you can get; instead, an intricate, multi-layered novel that blows away any preconceptions you might have about the Victorian era. Its themes are familiar enough – religion versus science; the emergence of the new independent woman – but underpinning them is the friendship between Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is newly widowed and leaves 1890s London for an Essex village, where she meets Will, the local vicar. Cora is enthralled by rumours that the legendary Essex serpent may be real; Will views the hysteria as a threat to his faith. And so their friendship and intellectual sparring begins. This is a satisfyingly dense, atmospheric novel that is as much about love, platonic or otherwise, as it is about history. ER

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Sarah Perry

£14.99, Serpent's Tail


To say this is one for historical-fiction fans would be accurate but limiting – this is about as far away from a by-numbers Sunday-night period drama as you can get; instead, an intricate, multi-layered novel that blows away any preconceptions you might have about the Victorian era. Its themes are familiar enough – religion versus science; the emergence of the new independent woman – but underpinning them is the friendship between Cora Seaborne and Will Ransome. Cora is newly widowed and leaves 1890s London for an Essex village, where she meets Will, the local vicar. Cora is enthralled by rumours that the legendary Essex serpent may be real; Will views the hysteria as a threat to his faith. And so their friendship and intellectual sparring begins. This is a satisfyingly dense, atmospheric novel that is as much about love, platonic or otherwise, as it is about history. ER




A young man walks down by the banks of the Blackwater under the full cold moon. He’s been drinking the old year down to the dregs, until his eyes grew sore and his stomach turned, and he was tired of the bright lights and bustle. ‘I’ll just go down to the water,’ he said, and kissed the nearest cheek: ‘I’ll be back before the chimes.’ Now he looks east to the turning tide, out to the estuary slow and dark, and the white gulls gleaming on the waves. 

It’s cold, and he ought to feel it, but he’s full of beer and he’s got on his good thick coat. The collar rasps at the nape of his neck: he feels fuddled and constricted and his tongue is dry. I’ll go for a dip, he thinks, that’ll shake me loose; and coming down from the path stands alone on the shore, where deep in the dark mud all the creeks wait for the tide. 

I’ll take a cup o’ kindness yet,’ he sings in his sweet chapel tenor, then laughs, and someone laughs back. He unbuttons his coat, he holds it open, but it’s not enough: he wants to feel the wind’s edge strop itself sharp on his skin. Nearer he goes to the water, and puts out his tongue to the briny air: Yes – I’ll go for a dip, he thinks, dropping his coat on the marsh. He’s done it before, after all, when a boy and in good company: the brave tomfoolery of a midnight dip as the old year dies in the new year’s arms. The tide’s low – the wind’s dropped – the Blackwater holds no fear: give him a glass and he’ll drink it down, salt and seashell, oyster and all. 

But something alters in a turn of the tide or a change of the air: the estuary surface shifts – seems (he steps forward) to pulse and throb, then grow slick and still; then soon after to convulse, as if inching at a touch. Nearer he goes, not yet afraid; the gulls lift off one by one, and the last gives a scream of dismay. 

Winter comes like a blow to the back of his neck: he feels it penetrate his shirt and go into his bones. The good cheer of drink is gone, and he’s comfortless there in the dark – he looks for his coat, but clouds hide the moon and he’s blind. His breath is slow, the air is full of pins; the marsh at his feet all at once is wet, as if something out there has displaced the water. Nothing, it’s nothing, he thinks, patting about for his courage, but there it is again: a curious still moment as if he were looking at a photograph, followed by a frantic uneven motion that cannot be merely the tug of the moon on the tides. He thinks he sees – is certain he sees – the slow movement of something vast, hunched, grimly covered over with rough and lapping scales; then it is gone. 

In the darkness he grows afraid. There’s something there, he feels it, biding its time – implacable, monstrous, born in water, always with an eye cocked in his direction. Down in the deeps it slumbered and up it’s come at last: he imagines it breasting the wave, avidly scenting the air. He is seized by dread – his heart halts with it – in the space of a moment he’s been charged, condemned, and brought to judgment: oh what a sinner he’s been – what a black pip there is at his core! He feels ransacked, emptied of all goodness: he has nothing to bring to his defence. Out he looks to the black Blackwater and there it is again – something cleaving the surface, then subsiding – yes, all along it’s been there, waiting, and at last it’s found him out. He feels a curious calm: justice must be done, after all, and he willingly pleads guilty. It’s all remorse and no redemption, and no less than he deserves. 

But then the wind lifts, and tugs the covering cloud, and the shy moon shows her face. It’s a scant light, to be sure, but a comfort – and there, after all, is his coat, not a yard away, muddy at the hem; the gulls return to the water, and he feels completely absurd. From the path above him comes the sound of laughter: a girl and her boy in their festival clothes – he waves and calls ‘I’m here! I’m here!’ And I am here, he thinks: here on the marsh he knows better than his home, with the tide slowly turning and nothing to fear. Monstrous! he thinks, laughing at himself, giddy with reprieve: as if there were anything out there but herring and mackerel! 

Nothing to fear in the Blackwater, nothing to repent: only a moment of confusion in the darkness and far too much to drink. The water comes to meet him and it’s his old companion again; to prove it he draws nearer, wets his boots, holds out his arms: ‘Here I am!’ he yells, and all the gulls reply. Just a quick dip, he thinks, for auld lang syne, and laughing slips free of his shirt. 

The pendulum swings from one year to the next, and there’s darkness on the face of the deep. 




One o’clock on a dreary day and the time ball dropped at the Greenwich Observatory. There was ice on the prime meridian, and ice on the rigging of the broad-beamed barges down on the busy Thames. Skippers marked the time and tide, and set their oxblood sails against the north-east wind; a freight of iron was bound for Whitechapel foundry, where bells tolled fifty against the anvil as if time were running out. Time was being served behind the walls of Newgate jail, and wasted by philosophers in cafes on the Strand; it was lost by those who wished the past were present, and loathed by those who wished the present past. Oranges and lemons rang the chimes of St Clement’s, and Westminster’s division bell was dumb. 

Time was money in the Royal Exchange, where men passed the afternoon diminishing their hope of threading camels through a needle’s eye, and in the offices of Holborn Bars the long-toothed cog of a master clock caused an electric charge to set its dozen slave clocks chiming. All the clerks looked up from their ledgers, sighed, and looked down once more. On Charing Cross Road time exchanged its chariot for buses and cabs in urgent fleets, and in the wards of Barts and of the Royal Borough pain made hours of minutes. In Wesley’s chapel they sang The sands of time are sinking and wished they might sink faster, and yards away the ice was melting on the graves in Bunhill Fields. 

In Lincoln’s Inn and Middle Temple lawyers eyed their calendars and saw statutes of limitation expire; in rooms in Camden and Woolwich time was cruel to lovers wondering how it got so late so soon, and in due course was kind to their ordinary wounds. Across the city in terraces and tenements, in high society and low company and in the middle classes, time was spent and squandered, eked out and wished away; and all the time it rained an icy rain. 

At Euston Square and Paddington the Underground stations received their passengers, who poured in like so much raw material going down to be milled and processed and turned out of moulds. In a Circle Line carriage, westbound, fitful lights showed The Times had nothing happy to report, and in the aisle a bag spilled damaged fruit. There was the scent of rain on raincoats, and among the passengers, sunk in his upturned collar, Dr Luke Garrett was reciting the parts of the human heart. ‘Left ventricle, right ventricle, superior vena cava,’ he said, numbering them off on his fingers, hoping the litany might slow his own heart’s anxious beating. The man beside him glanced up, bemused, then shrugging turned away. ‘Left atrium, right atrium,’ said Garrett, beneath his breath: he was accustomed to the scrutiny of strangers, but saw no reason to court it unduly. The Imp, they called him, since he rarely came higher than the shoulders of other men, and had a loping insistent gait that made you feel he might without any warning take a leap onto a window ledge. It was possible to see, even through his coat, a kind of urgent power in his limbs, and his brow bulged above his eyes as if it could barely contain the range and ferocity of his intellect. He affected a long black fringe that mimicked the edge of a raven’s wing: beneath it his eyes were dark. He was thirty-two: a surgeon, with a hungry disobedient mind. 

The lights went out and relit, and Garrett’s destination came closer. He was due within the hour to attend the funeral of a patient, and no man ever wore his mourning clothes more lightly. Michael Seaborne had died six days before of cancer of the throat, and had endured the consuming disease and the attentions of his doctor with equal disinterest. It was not towards the dead that Garrett’s thoughts were now directed, but rather to his widow, who (he thought, smiling) would perhaps be brushing her untidy hair, or finding a button gone on her good black dress. 

The bereavement of Cora Seaborne had been the strangest of all he’d seen – but then, he’d known on arrival at her Foulis Street home that something was awry. The atmosphere in those high-ceilinged rooms had been one of confirmed unease seeming to have little to do with sickness. The patient at that time had still been relatively well, though given to wearing a cravat doubling as a bandage. The cravat was always silk, always pale, and often very slightly stained: in such a fastidious man it was impossible to imagine that it was done unconsciously, and Luke suspected him of trying to make his visitors ill at ease. Seaborne had managed to convey the impression of height by being extremely lean, and was so quietly spoken it was necessary to come near in order to hear him. His voice was sibilant. He was courteous, and the beds of his nails were blue. He’d endured his first consultation calmly, and declined an offer of surgery. ‘I intend to depart the world as I entered it,’ he said, patting the silk at his throat: ‘Without scars.’ 

‘There’s no need to suffer,’ said Luke, offering unsought consolation. 

‘To suffer!’ The idea evidently amused him. ‘An instructive experience, I’m sure.’ Then he’d said, as if one thought naturally followed from the other: ‘Tell me: have you met my wife?’ 

Garrett recalled often his first meeting with Cora Seaborne, though in truth his memory of it was not to be trusted, having been made in the image of all that followed. She’d arrived at that moment as if summoned, pausing at the threshold to survey her visitor. Then she’d crossed the carpet, stooped to kiss her husband’s brow, and standing behind his chair held out her hand. ‘Charles Ambrose tells me no other doctor will do. He gave me your article on the life of Ignaz Semmelweis: if you cut as well as you write, we’ll all live forever.’ The easeful flattery was irresistible, and Garrett could do nothing but laugh, and bow over the offered hand. Her voice was deep, though not quiet, and he thought at first she had the nomad accent of those who’ve never lived long in one country, but it was only that she had a faint speech impediment, overcome by lingering on certain consonants. She was dressed in grey, and simply, but her skirt’s fabric shimmered like a pigeon’s neck. She was tall, and not slender: her eyes also were grey. 

In the months that followed Garrett had come to understand a little the unease scenting the Foulis Street air alongside sandalwood and iodine. Michael Seaborne, even in extremities of pain, exerted a malign influence that had little to do with the invalid’s usual power. His wife was so ready with cool cloths and good wine, so willing to learn how to slip a needle into a vein, that she might have memorised a manual on a woman’s duties down to its last syllable. But Garrett never saw anything passing for affection between Cora and her husband. Sometimes he suspected her of actually willing the brief candle out – sometimes he was afraid she’d take him aside as he prepared a syringe and say, ‘Give him more – give him a little more.’ If she bent to kiss the starved saint’s face on the pillow, it was cautiously, as if she thought he might rear up and tweak her nose in spite. Nurses were hired to dress, and drain, and keep the bed-sheets clean, but rarely lasted a week; the last of these (a Belgian girl, devout) had passed Luke in the corridor and whispered ‘Il est comme un diable!’ and shown him her wrist, though there was nothing there. Only the unnamed dog – loyal, mangy, never far from the bed – had no fear of its master, or at any rate had grown accustomed to him. 

In due course Luke Garrett grew familiar with Francis, the Seabornes’ black-haired silent son, and with Martha, the boy’s nanny, who was given to standing with her arm about Cora Seaborne’s waist with a possessive gesture he disliked. Cursory appraisal of the patient was hurriedly got out of the way (after all, what was there to be done?), and Luke would be taken away to survey a fossil tooth Cora had received in the post, or to be interrogated at length as to his ambitions for advancing cardiac surgery. He practised hypnosis on her, explaining how once it had been used in war to ease the removal of soldiers’ limbs; they played games of chess, which ended with Cora aggrieved to find her opponent had marshalled his forces against her. Luke diagnosed himself to be in love, and sought no cure for the disease. 

Always he was aware of a kind of energy in her, stored up and waiting release; he thought when the end came for Michael Seaborne her feet might strike blue sparks on the pavements. The end did come, and Luke was present for the last breath, which had been laboured, loud, as if at the last moment the patient had set aside the ars moriendi and cared only to live a moment longer. And after all Cora was unchanged, neither mourning nor relieved: her voice broke, once, when reporting that the dog had been found dead, but it was not clear whether she was about to laugh or to cry. The death certificate signed, and all that remained of Michael Seaborne resting elsewhere, there was no sound reason for Garrett to make his way to Foulis Street; but he woke each morning with one purpose in mind, and arriving at the iron gates would find himself expected. 

The train drew in to Embankment, and he was borne along the platform with the crowd. Grief of a kind came to him then, though it was not for Michael Seaborne, nor for his widow: what troubled him most was that this might mark the last of his meetings with Cora – that his final view of her would be as he looked over his shoulder while mourning bells tolled. ‘Still,’ he said: ‘I must be there, if only to see the coffin-lid screwed down.’ Beyond the ticket barriers ice melted on the pavements; the white sun was in decline. 


Dressed as the day demanded, Cora Seaborne sat before her mirror. Pearl drops on gold wires hung at each ear; the lobes were sore, since it had been necessary to pierce them again. ‘So far as tears go,’ she said, ‘these will have to do.’ Her face was powdered pale. Her black hat did not suit her, but had both a veil and a black plume of feathers, and conveyed the proper degree of mourning. The covered buttons on her black cuffs would not fasten, and between the hem of sleeve and glove a strip of white skin would be seen. The neckline of her dress was a little lower than she’d have liked, and showed on her collarbone an ornate scar as long as her thumb, and about as wide. It was the perfect replica of the silver leaves on the silver candlesticks that flanked the silver mirror, and which her husband had pressed into her flesh as though he were sinking his signet ring into a pool of wax. She considered painting it over, but had grown fond of it, and knew that in some circles she was enviously believed to have had a tattoo. 

She turned from the glass and surveyed the room. Any visitor would pause puzzled at the door, seeing on the one hand the high soft bed and damask curtains of a wealthy woman, and on the other the digs of a scholar. The furthest corner was papered with botanical prints, and maps torn from atlases, and sheets of paper on which quotations were written in her large black capitals (NEVER DREAM WITH THY HAND ON THE HELM! TURN NOT THY BACK TO THE COMPASS!). On the mantelpiece a dozen ammonites were ranked according to size; above them, captured in a gilded frame, Mary Anning and her dog observed a fallen fragment of Lyme Regis rock. Was it all hers now – that carpet, these chairs, this crystal glass that still gave off the scent of wine? She supposed so, and at the thought a kind of lightness entered her limbs, as if she might come untethered from Newton’s laws and find herself spread out upon the ceiling. The sensation was decently suppressed, but all the same she could name it: it was not happiness, precisely, nor even contentment, but relief. There was grief, too, that was certain, and she was grateful for it, since however loathed he’d been by the end, he’d formed her, at least in part – and what good ever came of self-loathing? 

‘Oh, he made me – yes,’ she said, and memory unfurled like smoke from a blown candle. Seventeen, and she’d lived with her father in a house above the city, her mother long gone (though not before she’d seen to it that her daughter would not be damned to samplers and French). Her father – uncertain what to do with his modest wealth, whose tenants liked him contemptuously – had gone out on business and returned with Michael Seaborne at his side. He’d presented his daughter with pride – Cora, barefoot, with Latin on her tongue – and the visitor had taken her hand, and admired it, and scolded her for a broken nail. He came again, and again, until he grew expected; he brought her slim books, and small hard objects of no use. He’d mock her, putting his thumb in the palm of her hand and stroking, so that the flesh grew sore, and it seemed her whole consciousness dwelt there at the touching place. In his presence the Hampstead pools, the starlings at dusk, the cloven prints of sheep in the soft mud, all seemed drab, inconsequential. She grew ashamed of them – of her loose untidy clothes, her unbraided hair. 

One day he said: ‘In Japan they’ll mend a broken pot with drops of molten gold. What a thing it would be: to have me break you, and mend your wounds with gold.’ But she’d been seventeen, and armour-clad with youth, and never felt the blade go in: she’d laughed, and so had he. On her nineteenth birthday she exchanged birdsong for feathered fans, crickets in the long grass for a jacket dotted with beetles’ wings; she was bound by whalebone, pierced with ivory, pinned by the hair with tortoiseshell. Her speech grew languid to conceal its stumble; she walked nowhere. He gave her a gold ring which was too small – a year later another, and it was smaller still. 

The widow was roused from her reverie by footsteps overhead, which were slow, and measured out as precisely as the ticking of a clock. ‘Francis,’ she said. She sat quietly, waiting. 


A year before his father died, and perhaps six months after his disease had first appeared at the breakfast table (a lump in the throat restricting the passage of dry toast), Francis Seaborne had been moved to a room on the fourth floor of the house and at the furthest end of the passage. 

His father would’ve had no interest in domestic arrangements even if he’d not at that time been assisting Parliament with the passage of a housing act. The decision had been made wholly by his mother and by Martha, who’d been hired as nurse when he was a baby, and never, as she herself put it, quite got round to leaving. It was felt that Francis was best kept at arm’s length, since he was restless at night and made frequent appearances at the door and even, once or twice, at the window. He’d never ask for water, or for comfort, as any other child might; only stand at the threshold holding one of his many talismans until unease raised a head from the pillow. 

Soon after his removal to what Cora called the Upper Room, he lost interest in his nightly travels, becoming content with accumulating (no-one ever said ‘stealing’) whatever took his fancy. These he laid out in a series of complex and baffling patterns that changed each time Cora made a maternal visit; they had a beauty and strangeness she’d have admired if they’d been the work of somebody else’s son. 

This being Friday, and the day of his father’s funeral, he’d dressed himself. At eleven years old he knew both one end of a shirt from the other, and its usefulness in spelling (‘It is NECESSARY that the shirt has one Collar, but two Sleeves’). That his father had died struck him as a calamity, but one no worse than the loss of one of his treasures the day before (a pigeon’s feather, quite ordinary, but which could be coiled into a perfect circle without snapping its spine). When told the news – noting that his mother was not crying but was rigid and also somehow blazing, as if in the midst of a lightning strike – his first thought was this: I cannot understand why these things happen to me. But the feather was gone; his father was dead; and it seemed he was to attend church. The idea pleased him. He said, conscious of being quite affable given the circumstances: ‘A change is as good as a rest.’ 

In the days following the discovery of Michael Seaborne’s body it was the dog who’d suffered most. It had whined at the sick-room door and could not be consoled; a caress might’ve done it, but since no-one would sink their hands into its greasy pelt, the laying-out of the body (‘Put a penny on his eye for the ferry-man,’ Martha said: ‘I don’t think St Peter will trouble himself . . .’) had been accompanied by that same high keening. The dog was dead now, of course, thought Francis, patting with satisfaction a little wad of fur collected from his father’s sleeve, and so the only mourner was now itself to be mourned. 

He was uncertain what rituals attended the disposal of the dead, but thought it best to come prepared. His jacket had a number of pockets, each of which contained an object not sacred, precisely, but well suited, he thought, to the task. An eyeglass which had cracked, offering a broken view of things; the wad of fur (he hoped it might still contain a flea or tick, and within that, if he was ever so lucky, a bead of blood); a raven-feather, which was his best, being bluish at the tip; a scrap of fabric he’d torn from Martha’s hem, having observed on it a persistent stain in the shape of the Isle of Wight; and a stone with a perfect perforation in the centre. Pockets packed, and tapped, and counted out, he went down to find his mother, and at each of the thirty-six steps to her room incanted ‘Here – today – gone – tomorrow; here – today gone.’ 

‘Frankie –’ How small he was, she thought. His face, which curiously bore scant resemblance to either parent, save for his father’s rather at-seeming black eyes, was impassive. He’d combed his hair, and it lay in ridges at against his scalp: that he had troubled to make himself neat moved her, and she put out her hand, but let it fall empty to her lap. He stood patting each of pockets in turn, and said: ‘Where is he now?’ 

‘He will be waiting for us at the church.’ Ought she to take him into her arms? He did not look, it must be said, much in need of comfort. 

‘Frankie, if you want to cry, there is no shame in it.’ 

‘If I wanted to cry, I would. If I wanted to do anything, I would.’ She didn’t chastise him for that, since really it was little more than a statement of fact. He once again patted each of his pockets, and she said, gently, ‘You are bringing your treasures.’ 

‘I am bringing my treasures. I have a treasure for you (pat), a treasure for Martha (pat), a treasure for Father (pat), a treasure for me (pat, pat).’ 

‘Thank you, Frankie . . .’ – all at a loss: but there at last was Martha, brightening the room as she always did, dissipating by nothing more than her presence the slight tension which had taken the air. She lightly touched Francis on the head, just as though he had been any other child; her strong arm circled Cora’s waist; she smelt of lemons. 

‘Come on then,’ she said. ‘He never did like us to be late.’ 


The St Martin’s bells tolled for the dead at two, rolling out across Trafalgar Square. Francis, whose hearing was pitilessly acute, pressed gloved hands to each ear and refused to cross the threshold until the last peal died, so that the congregation, turning to see the late-coming widow and her son, sighed, gratified: how pale they were! How very fitting! And would you take a look at that hat! 

Cora watched the evening’s performance with an interested detachment. There in the nave, obscuring the altar – in a coffin resting on what resembled a butcher’s trestle – was her husband’s body, which she did not recall having ever seen in its entirety, only in small and sometimes panicked glimpses of very white flesh laid thinly over beautiful bones. 

It struck her that really she’d known nothing of him in his public life, which was carried out in (she imagined) identical rooms in the Commons, and in his Whitehall set, and in the club which she could not attend, having the misfortune to be female. Perhaps he dealt elsewhere with kindness – yes: perhaps that was it – perhaps she’d been a kind of clearing-house for cruelties deserved elsewhere. There was a kind of nobility in that, if you thought about it: she looked down at her hands as if expecting the notion to have raised stigmata. 

Above her, on the high black balcony which seemed in the dim air to float several feet above the columns which bore it up, was Luke Garrett. Imp, she thought: look at him! and her heart seemed almost to move towards her friend, pressing against the bars of her ribs. His coat was no more fitting to the occasion than his surgeon’s apron might have been, and she was certain he’d been drinking long before he came, and that the girl by his side was a recent acquaintance whose affection was out of his budget; but despite the darkness and distance there came down to her, in one black glance, an incitement to laugh. Martha felt it too, and administered a pinch to her thigh, so that later, when glasses of wine were poured in Hampstead and Paddington and Westminster it was said: ‘Seaborne’s widow gasped with grief just as the priest declared though he were dead, yet shall he live; it was beautiful, you know, in a way.’ 

Beside her, Francis went on whispering, his mouth pressed to his thumb, his eyes tightly closed; it made him babyish again, and she put her hand over his. It fit within hers perfectly still, and very hot, and after a while she lifted her own and laid it again in her lap. 

Afterwards, as black cassocks flapped like rooks between the pews, Cora stood on the steps and greeted the departing congregation, who were all kindness, all solicitude – she must consider herself to have friends in Town; she was welcome, with her handsome boy, at any supper she chose; she’d be remembered in their prayers. She passed to Martha so many visiting-cards, and so many small posies, and so much in the way of little books of remembrance and black-hemmed samplers, that a passer-by might have mistaken the day for a wedding, albeit a sombre one. 

It was not yet evening, but frost thickened on the steps with a hard glitter in the lamplight, and fog enclosed the city in a pale tent. Cora shivered, and Martha came a little nearer, so that she could feel warmth rising from that compact body in its second-best coat. Francis stood some distance away, his left hand foraging in the pocket of his jacket, his right smoothing fitfully at his hair. He did not look distressed, precisely, or either woman would have drawn him between them, with the murmurs of comfort which would have come so easily if they’d been sought. Rather, he looked politely resigned to disruption in a cherished routine. 

‘Christ have mercy on us!’ said Dr Garrett, as the last of the mourners departed, black-hatted, relieved it was over, turning to the night’s entertainment and the morning’s business. Then, with the swift transition to the serious which was so irresistible in him, he grasped Cora’s gloved hand. ‘Well done, Cora: you did well. Can I take you home? Let me take you. I’m hungry. Are you? I could eat a horse and its foal.’ 

‘You can’t afford a horse.’ Martha only ever spoke to the doctor with a show of annoyance; Imp had been her name for him, though no-one remembered it now. His presence in the house at Foulis Street – first a matter of duty, then one of devotion – was an annoyance to Martha, who felt her own devotion to be more than adequate. He’d dispensed with his companion, and had put into his breast pocket a handkerchief edged in black. 

‘I’d like more than anything to go for a long walk,’ said Cora. Francis, as if detecting her sudden weariness and seeing in it an opportunity for gain, came quickly to stand at her feet and demand they travel home by Underground. As ever, it came not as a childish request that if granted, would give him pleasure, but as a bald statement of fact. Garrett, who’d not yet learned to negotiate the boy’s implacable will, said, ‘I’ve already had enough of Hades for one day,’ and gestured towards a passing cab. 

Martha took the boy’s hand, and out of sheer surprise at her audacity he let it lie there in her glove. ‘I’ll take you, Frank: it’ll be warm, and I can’t feel my toes – but Cora, you surely cannot walk all the way – it is three miles at least?’ 

‘Three and a half,’ said the doctor, as if he himself had laid the paving stones. ‘Cora, let me walk with you.’ The cab driver made an impatient gesture, and received an obscene response. ‘You shouldn’t do it. You can’t go alone . . .’ 

‘Shouldn’t? Can’t?’ Cora took off her gloves, which were no more proof against the cold than a cobweb. She thrust them at Garrett. ‘Give me yours – I can’t think why they make these, or why women buy them – I can walk, and I will. I’m dressed for walking, see?’ She lifted her hem and displayed boots better suited to a schoolboy. 

Francis had turned away from his mother, no longer interested in the turn the evening might take; he had a great deal to do, back in his Upper Room, and a few new items (pat, pat) which required his attention. He pulled his hand from Martha’s and set off towards the city. Martha, throwing a mistrustful look at Garrett and a rueful one at her friend, called out a farewell and slipped into the mist. 

‘Let me go alone,’ said Cora, pulling on the borrowed gloves, so threadbare they were scarcely warmer than her own. ‘My thoughts are so tangled they’ll take a mile or more to unravel.’ She touched the black-edged handkerchief in Garrett’s pocket. ‘Come tomorrow, if you like, to the grave. I said I’d go alone, but perhaps that’s the point; perhaps we are always alone, no matter the company we keep.’ 

‘You ought to be followed about by a clerk making a record of your wisdom,’ said the Imp, satirically, letting her hand fall. He bowed extravagantly, and retreated into the cab, slamming the door against her laughter. 

Marvelling at his ability to bring about such total reversions in her mood, Cora turned first not west towards home, but towards the Strand. She liked to find the place where the River Fleet had been diverted underground, east from Holborn; there was a particular grating where on a quiet day you could hear it running out towards the sea. 

Reaching Fleet Street, she thought that if she strained hard enough into the grey air she might hear the river running through its long tomb, but there was only the noise of a city which no frost or fog could dissuade from work or pleasure. And besides, she’d once been told that it was scarcely more than a sewer by now, swollen not by rainwater leaching down from Hampstead Heath but by humanity massing on its banks. She stood a while longer, until her hands ached with the chill, and the punctured lobes of her ears began to throb. She sighed, and set out for home, discovering that the unease that once accompanied the image of the high white house on Foulis Street had been left behind, dropped somewhere beneath the black pews of the church. 

Martha, who’d anxiously awaited Cora’s return (little more than an hour later, with freckles blazing through white powder and her black hat slipped), put a great store on appetite as evidence of a sound mind, and watched with pleasure as her friend ate fried eggs and toast. ‘I’ll be glad when it’s all over,’ she’d said. ‘All these cards, these handshakes. I am so bored of the etiquette of death!’ 

In his mother’s absence the child, mollified by the Underground, had gone wordlessly upstairs with a glass of water and slept with an apple core in his hand. Martha had stood at his door and seen how black his lashes were against his white cheek, and felt her heart soften towards him. A scrap of the wretched dog’s fur had found its way to his pillow; she imagined it seething with lice and fleas, and stooped over the boy to take it and leave him safely sleeping. But her wrist must’ve touched the pillowcase; he came fully alert in the time it took a breath to leave her; seeing the fur in her hand he gave a kind of wordless scream of rage, so that she dropped the greasy wad and ran from the room. Coming downstairs, she thought, How can I be afraid of him: he’s nothing but a fatherless boy! and was half-inclined to return and insist that he hand over the unsavoury little keepsake, and perhaps even submit to a kiss. Then a key was fitted noisily to the lock, and there had been Cora, demanding a fire, throwing down her gloves, holding out her arms for an embrace. 

Late that night, the last to bed, Martha paused at Cora’s door: it had been her habit these past few years to content herself that all was well with her friend. Cora’s door stood half-open; a log in the replace spat as it burned. At the threshold Martha said, ‘Are you sleeping? Should I come in?’ and receiving no answer stepped onto the thick pale carpet. All along the mantelpiece were visiting cards and mourning-cards, black-edged, close-written; a bunch of violets tied with a black ribbon had fallen onto the hearth. Martha bent to pick them up, and they seemed almost to shrink away from her and hide again behind their heart-shaped leaves. She stood them in a little glass of water, set them where her friend would see them on first waking, and stooped to kiss her. Cora murmured, and shifted, but did not wake; and Martha recalled first coming to Foulis Street to take up her post, anticipating some haughty matron with a mind enfeebled by gossip and fashion, and how wrong-footed she’d been by the changeable being who’d come to the door. Infuriated and entranced, Martha found that no sooner had she grown accustomed to one Cora, another would emerge: one moment a girl who seemed a student over-pleased with her own intelligence, the next a friend of long years’ intimacy; a woman giving suppers of stylish extravagance, who’d swear once the last guest was gone, take down her hair, and sprawl laughing beside the fire. 

Even her voice was a matter for confused admiration – that odd half-lilt, half-impediment, which would appear when she was tired, and certain consonants gave her trouble. That behind the intelligent charm (which, Martha wryly observed, could be turned on and off like the bathroom tap) there were visible wounds only made her dearer. Michael Seaborne treated Martha with the kind of indifference he might’ve reserved for the hat-stand in the hall: she was entirely inconsequential – he did not even meet her eye on the stairs. But watchful Martha let nothing pass her by – overheard each courteous insult, observed each concealed bruise – and only with a great effort prevented herself from plotting a murder for which she’d’ve cheerfully been hanged. Just less than a year after arriving at Foulis Street – in the small hours, during which no-one had slept – Cora had come to her room. Whatever had been done or said had caused her to tremble violently, though the night was warm; her thick untidy hair was wet. Without speaking Martha had raised the cloths that covered her, and taken Cora into her arms; she drew up her knees to enclose her entirely, and held her very tight, so that the other woman’s trembling entered her. Unlaced from the conventions of whalebone and cloth Cora’s body was large, strong; Martha felt the blades moving in her narrow back, the soft stomach which she cradled against her arm, the sturdy muscles of her thighs: it had been like clinging to an animal which would never again consent to lie so still. They’d woken in a loose embrace, wholly at ease, and parted on a caress. 

It heartened her now to see that Cora had not taken to her bed in mourning, but with her old habit of looking over what she called ‘her Studies’, as if she were a boy cramming for college. On the bed beside her was the old leather file which had been her mother’s, and which had lost the gilt from its monogram, and which smelt (so Martha insisted) of the animal it once had been. And there also were her notebooks, written in a small clear script, the margins covered, the pages interleaved with pressed stems of weeds and grasses, and a map of a section of coastline marked with red ink. A spill of papers lay all around her and she’d fallen asleep clutching her Dorset ammonite. But in her sleep she’d held on much too hard: it had crumbled to pieces, and left her with a muddy hand. 



‘I mean: take jasmine, for instance.’ Dr Luke Garrett swept papers from his desk as if he might find beneath them white buds popping into bloom, and discovering instead a pouch of tobacco set about rolling a cigarette. ‘The scent is so sweet that it’s both pleasant and unpleasant; people recoil and go nearer, recoil and go nearer; they’re not sure whether to be disgusted or seduced. If only we could acknowledge pain and pleasure not as opposite poles but all of a piece, we might at last understand . . .’ He lost the thread of his thought, and cast about for it. 

Accustomed to these lectures, the man who stood beside the window sucked at his beer and mildly said, ‘Only last week you concluded that all states of pain are evil, and all states of pleasure are good. I remember your words exactly, because you said it so many times, and in fact wrote it down for me, in case I forgot. I might actually have it on me –’ He patted ironically at each pocket, then flushed, never having quite got the hang of affectionate mockery. George Spencer was all that Garrett was not: tall, wealthy, fair, shy, with feelings deeper than his thoughts were swift. Those who’d known both since their student days joked that Spencer was the Imp’s good conscience, severed from him somehow, always running to keep up. 

Garrett shoved himself deeper into his armchair. ‘Of course it seems completely contradictory and wholly unjustifiable, but then the best minds can hold two opposing thoughts at once.’ He frowned, an expression which caused his eyes almost to vanish below his black eyebrows and blacker fringe, and drained his glass. ‘Let me explain . . .’ 

‘I’d like that: but I’m supposed to be meeting friends for dinner.’ 

‘You don’t have any friends, Spencer. Even I don’t like you. Look: it’s useless denying that causing or experiencing pain is the most repulsive of human experiences. Before we knocked the patient out cold, surgeons would vomit in horror at what they were about to do; sane men and women would shorten their lives by twenty years rather than endure the knife – so would you – so would I! But all the same – it is impossible to say what pain actually is, or what is truly felt, or if what pains one pains another: it is more a matter of the imagination than of the body – so you see then how valuable hypnosis ought to be?’ He narrowed his eyes at Spencer and went on: ‘If you tell me you’re burned and in pain, how can I know whether the sensations you report bear any resemblance to what I’d feel if I suffered the same injury? All I can safely say is that we each experienced some physical response to an identical stimulus. True, we might both yelp, and splash about in cold water for a bit and so on, but how can I know that you are not actually experiencing a sensation that, if I were to experience it, might have me yelping to an entirely different tune?’ Wolfish, he bared his teeth and went on: ‘Does it matter? Would it alter the treatment a physician might give? If you begin to question the truth – or I suppose the value – of pain, how could you resist withholding or dispensing care according to some measure which you admit yourself is completely arbitrary?’ 

Losing interest, Garrett stooped to collect the fallen papers from the floor, and set about sorting them into neat files. ‘Doesn’t matter in the least, to all practical purposes. The thought just occurred to me, that’s all. Things occur to me, and I like to talk about them, and I haven’t anyone else. I ought to get a dog.’ Spencer, noting his friend’s plunge into gloom, took out his cigarette, and ignoring the ticking of his watch sat in a bare-seated chair and surveyed the room. It was fanatically clean, and the parsimonious winter sun could not pick out a speck of dust, no matter how it tried. It contained two chairs and a table, with two upended packing cases making do elsewhere. A length of fabric nailed over the window was washed thin and pale, and the white stone replace gleamed. There was a strong scent of lemons and antiseptic, and over the fire were black-framed photographs of Ignaz Semmelweis and John Snow. Pinned above the little desk there was a drawing (signed LUKE GARRETT AGE THIRTEEN) of a serpent coiled about a staff and testing the air with its split tongue: the symbol of Asclepius, who was cut from the womb of his mother on her funeral pyre and grew up to be the god of healing. The only food and drink Spencer had ever seen up those three flights of whitewashed stairs were cheap beer and Jacob’s crackers. He looked down at his friend, conscious of the familiar battle between frustration and affection which he always roused. 

Spencer could recall with perfect clarity their first meeting in the lecture rooms of the Royal Borough, the teaching hospital where Garrett proved himself to have leaped ahead of his tutors in theory and understanding, bearing their tutelage with ill grace save when studying cardiac anatomy and the circulatory system, when he’d become so boyish and enthused he was suspected of mockery and often tossed out of class. Spencer, who knew the only way to conceal and overcome the limits of his own intelligence was to study, and study hard, avoided Garrett. He suspected no good could come of being seen with him, and besides was a little afraid of the black glitter set behind his eyes. Encountering him one evening, long after the laboratory was emptied and its doors ought to have been locked, he thought at first he must be in deep distress. He was seated with a drooping head at one of the scored and Bunsen-burned benches, staring intently at something between his outspread hands. 

‘Garrett?’ he’d said: ‘Is that you? Are you all right? What are you doing here so late?’ 

Garrett hadn’t answered, but turned his head, and the sardonic grin with which his face was usually masked was gone. Instead he gave the other man a frank smile of such happy sweetness that Spencer thought he must have been mistaken for a friend; but Garrett gestured and said, ‘Look! Come and see what I made!’ 

Spencer’s first thought was that Garrett had taken up embroidery. This would not have been so strange: each year there was a contest among the graduate surgeons to see who could sew the nest stitches on a white silk square, and some claimed to have practised with cobweb. What had been holding Garrett’s attention was a beautiful object that resembled a Japanese fan in miniature with an intricately woven tassel at the handle. It measured no broader than his thumb, and was worked in such fine patterns of blue and scarlet on dense yellowish cream that he could barely see where the threads looped through the silk. Stooping to look closer, his vision sharpened and shifted, and he realised what it was; an exquisitely cut portion of the lining of a human stomach, sliced thin as paper, injected with ink to show the tracing of the blood vessels and set between glass slides. No artist could have matched the fine loop and twist of vein and artery, which had no pattern at all, but in which Spencer thought he saw the image of bare-branched trees in spring. 

Oh!’ He caught Garrett’s eye, and they shared a look of delight that was a stitch neither ever severed. 

‘You made this?’

‘I did! Once when I was young I saw a picture of something like this, made by Edward Jenner, I think – I told my father I’d make one of my own, though I doubt he believed me – and here we are and here it is. I broke into the morgue. You won’t tell?’ 

‘No – never!’ said Spencer, entranced. 

‘I believe for most of us – for me, certainly – what’s below the skin is more worth looking at than what’s outside it. Turn me inside-out and I’d be quite a handsome man!’ Garrett placed the slide in a cardboard box, secured it with string, and placed it in his breast pocket, reverent as a priest. ‘I’m going to take it to a framer and have it set in ebony. Is ebony expensive? Pine, or oak – I live in hope of one day knowing someone who’ll think it as beautiful as I do. Shall we have a drink?’ 

Spencer had looked at the exercise books he’d carried from his rooms, then down at Luke’s face. It occurred to Spencer for the first time that he was certainly shy, and probably lonely. ‘Why not?’ he said. ‘If I’m going to fail the exam, I might as well not care about it.’ 

The other man had grinned. ‘I hope you’ve got some money, then, because I’ve not eaten since yesterday.’ Then he’d loped ahead down the corridor, laughing at himself, or at Spencer, or at an old joke he’d only just remembered. 

It was apparent Garrett had not yet found a fit recipient for his handiwork, for there – years later – was the slide in its box, placed reverently upon the mantelpiece, the white cardboard darkened at the edge. Spencer rolled the cigarette between his fingers, and said: ‘Has she gone?’ 

Looking up, Garrett considered pretending he misunderstood, but knew himself bettered. ‘Cora? She went last week. The blinds are down at Foulis Street and the furniture’s covered in dust-sheets. I know, because I looked.’ He scowled. ‘She’d gone by the time I came by. That old witch Martha was there and wouldn’t pass on the address: said she needed rest and quiet and I’d hear from her in her own good time.’ 

‘Martha is one year older than you,’ said Spencer mildly. ‘And admit it, Garrett: peace and quiet are two qualities which are not often linked with you.’ 

‘I am her friend!’

‘Yes, but not a peaceful or a quiet one. Where has she gone?’ 

‘Colchester. Colchester! What is there at Colchester? A ruin and a river, and web-footed peasants, and mud.’

‘They’re finding fossils on the coast: I read about it. Smart women are wearing necklaces of sharks’ teeth set in silver. Cora will be happy as a schoolboy there, up to her knees in mud. You’ll see her soon.’ 

‘What good is soon? What good is Colchester? What good are fossils? It’s been hardly a month. She should still be mourning.’ (At this, neither met the other man’s eye.) ‘She should be with people who love her.’ 

‘She is with Martha, and no-one ever loved her more.’ Spencer did not mention Francis, who’d several times beaten him at chess: it did not somehow seem feasible to suggest the boy loved his mother. His watch ticked louder, and he saw in Garrett the slow burning of a furious temper. Thinking of the dinner that awaited him, and the wine, and the warm deep-carpeted house, he said – as if the thought had just occurred – ‘I meant to ask: how’s your paper coming along?’ Dangling the prospect of academic approval in front of Garrett generally had much the same effect as showing a dog a raw bone, and lately little else could turn his mind from Cora Seaborne. 

‘Paper?’ The word came out like something unpleasant eaten. Then, a little mollified: ‘On the possibility of replacing an aortic valve? Yes, all right’ – almost without looking, he deftly retrieved half-a-dozen sheets of dense black script from midway through a stack of notebooks – ‘Deadline’s Sunday. Might as well crack on with it. Get out, would you?’ He turned away, folded himself over the desk, and began sharpening a pencil with a razorblade. He unfolded a large sheet of paper which showed a vastly enlarged transverse section of a human heart, with cryptic markings in black ink, and sections of script crossed out and reinstated with a series of exclamation marks. Something in the margins caught his eye; it excited or irritated him: he swore, and began scribbling. 

Spencer withdrew a banknote from his pocket, set it silently on the floor, where his friend might mistake it for one he himself had dropped and forgotten, and closed the door behind him. 


Having scoured its river for kingfishers and its castle for ravens, Cora Seaborne walked through Colchester with Martha on her arm, holding an umbrella above them both. There’d been no kingfisher (‘On a Nile cruise, probably – Martha, shall we follow them?’), but the castle keep had been thick with grave-faced rooks stalking about in their ragged trousers. ‘Quite a good ruin,’ said Cora, ‘But I’d have liked to’ve seen a gibbet, or a miscreant with pecked-out eyes.’ 

Martha – who had little patience for the past and eyes fixed always at some brighter point several years distant – said, ‘There’s suffering, if you’re really determined to find it,’ and gestured towards a man whose legs ended above the knee and who had stationed himself opposite a cafe, the better to induce guilt in tourists with overfilled bellies. Martha had made no secret of her discomfort at being plucked from her city home: for all that her thick fair plait and strong arms gave her the appearance of a dairy-girl with a fondness for cream, she’d never before been much east of Bishopsgate, and thought the oaky Essex fields sinister and the pink-painted Essex houses the dwelling-places of half-wits. Her astonishment that coffee could be had in such a backwater had been matched only by her disgust at the astringent liquid she’d been served, and she spoke to anyone they met with the extravagant politeness reserved for a stupid child. All the same, in the fortnight since they’d departed London – Francis retrieved from school, to the unspoken but evident relief of his teachers – Martha had almost come to love the little town for its effect on her friend, who removed from London’s gaze had abandoned her dutiful mourning and receded ten years to a merrier self. Sooner or later, she thought, she’d gently ask how long Cora intended to live in their two rooms on the High Street, doing nothing but walking herself weary and poring over books, but for now she was content to witness Cora’s happiness. 

Adjusting the umbrella, which had done nothing more than channel the weak rain more efficiently into the collars of their coats, Cora followed Martha’s pointing hand. The crippled man was doing a far better job than they of tricking the weather, and judging by the satisfaction with which he examined the contents of his upturned hat, had made a good day’s takings. He was sitting on what Cora first took to be a stone bench, but which on looking closer she saw was a piece of fallen masonry. It measured at least three feet broad and two deep, and the remains of a Latin phrase emerged to the left of the beggar’s limbs. Seeing the two women in their good coats observing him from across the road he immediately adopted an expression of craven misery; this he swiftly discarded as being too obvious and replaced with one of noble suffering, with the suggestion that though he found his occupation odious he could never be accused of shirking. Cora, who loved the theatre, tugged her arm from Martha’s and slipping behind a passing bus stood gravely at his feet, sheltered a little by a shallow porch. 

‘Good afternoon.’ She reached for her purse. The man cast his eyes up at the sky, which at that moment split and displayed an astonishing blue interior. ‘It isn’t,’ he said. ‘But it might yet be: I’ll give you that.’ The brief brightness illuminated the building behind him, which Cora saw had been torn apart as though by an explosion. A section to her left remained more or less as its architect intended – a several-storeyed building that might have been a great house or town hall – but a portion to the right had sheared away and sunk several feet into the ground. A bulwark of poles and planks kept it from tumbling across the pavement, but it was treacherous, and she thought she could hear above the slow traffic the creak and grinding of iron on stone. Martha appeared at her side and Cora instinctively took her hand, unsure whether to step backwards or hitch up her skirt and take a closer look. The same appetite that made her break stones in search of ammonites until the air reeked of cordite propelled her forward: she could see up to a room with its replace intact, and a scarlet scrap of carpet lolling over the edge of the broken floor like a tongue. Further up, an oak seedling had taken hold beside the staircase, and a pale fungus that resembled many fingerless hands had colonised the plaster ceiling. 

‘Now steady on, miss!’ Alarmed, the man shuffled across his stone seat and gripped the hem of Cora’s coat. ‘What d’you want to be doing that for? No, a little further back, I should think . . . and a little further . . . safe enough now, yes; and don’t do it again.’ He spoke with the authority of a gate-keeper, so that Cora felt rather ashamed of herself and said, ‘Oh, I am sorry: I didn’t mean to alarm you. It’s just I thought I saw something move.’ 

‘That’ll be the house martins and they needn’t trouble you a bit.’ Forgetting for a moment the demeanour of his profession, he tugged at his scarf and said, ‘Thomas Taylor, at your service. Not been here before, I take it?’ 

‘A few days. My friend and I’ – Cora gestured towards Martha, who stood a little distance away in the shadow of her umbrella, stiff with disapproval – ‘Are staying on awhile, so I thought maybe I’d better say hello.’ Cora and the cripple both examined this statement for logic, and finding none let it pass. 

‘You’ve probably come about the earthquake,’ said Taylor, gesturing behind him to the ruins. He gave the appearance of a lecturer taking a last look at his notes, and Cora – always ready to be educated – indicated that she had. ‘Could you enlighten us?’ she said: ‘If you have the time.’ 

It had come (he said) eight years back, by his reckoning, at eighteen minutes past nine precisely. It had been as fair an April morning as any could remember, which later was counted a blessing, since most were out-of-doors. The Essex earth had bucked as if trying to shake off all its towns and villages; for twenty seconds, no more, a series of convulsions that paused once as if a breath were being drawn and then began again. Out in the estuaries of the Colne and the Blackwater, the sea had gathered into foaming waves which ransacked the shore and reduced every vessel on the water to splinters. Langenhoe Church, known to be haunted, was shaken almost to bits, and the villages of Wivenhoe and Abberton were hardly more than rubble. They felt it over in Belgium, where teacups were knocked from the table; here in Essex a boy left sleeping in a cot beneath the table was crushed by falling mortar, and a man cleaning the face of the town hall clock was knocked from a ladder and his arm broke clean off. Over in Maldon they thought someone had set dynamite to terrorise the town and ran screaming in the streets, and Virley Church was beyond repair and had no congregants but foxes, no pews but beds of nettle. In the orchards the apple trees lost their blossom and grew no fruit that year. 

Come to think of it, thought Cora, she did recall the headlines, which had been a touch amused (to think that modest little Essex, with barely a pleat in its landscape, should have shuddered and broken!). ‘Extraordinary!’ she said, delighted: ‘It’s all Paleozoic rock under our feet, this part of the world: to think of it, laid down five hundred million years before, shrugging its shoulders and bringing down the steeples on the churches!’ 

‘I don’t know about that,’ said Taylor, exchanging a glance with Martha which had in it a degree of understanding. ‘At any rate, Colchester did badly, as you see, though no lives lost.’ He gestured again with his thumb to the gaping ruin, and said ‘If you’re minded to go in step careful, and keep your eyes skinned for my legs, on account of them being not fifteen yards away.’ He tugged at the fabric of his trousers, and tucked the empty cloth closer; Cora, whose pity was very near the surface, bent and with a hand on his shoulder said: ‘I’m so sorry to have been the cause of your remembering – though probably you never forget it, and I’m sorry for that, too.’ She reached for her purse, wondering how to convey that it was not done in the spirit of alms, but of payment. 

‘Well now,’ said Taylor, taking a coin, and managing to do so with the air of having done her a favour, ‘There’s more!’ The lecturer’s manner departed, and he took on the appearance of a showman. ‘I daresay you’ve heard tell of the Essex Serpent, which once was the terror of Henham and Wormingford, and has been seen again?’ Delighted, Cora said that she had not. ‘Ah,’ said Taylor, growing mournful, ‘I wonder if I ought not to trouble you, what with ladies being of a fragile disposition.’ He eyed his visitor, and evidently concluded that no woman in such a coat could be frightened by mere monsters. ‘So then: in 1669 it was, with the son of the traitor king on the throne, a man could scarcely walk a mile before coming up against a warning pinned to an oak or a gatepost. STRANGE NEWS, they’d say, of a monstrous serpent with eyes like a sheep, come out of the Essex waters and up to the birch woods and commons!’ He buffed the coin to brightness on his sleeve. ‘Those were the years of the Essex Serpent, be it scale and sinew, or wood and canvas, or little but the ravings of madmen; children were kept from the banks of the river and shermen wished for a better trade! Then it was gone as soon as it came, and for nigh on two hundred years we had neither hide nor hair of it ’til the quake came and something was shook loose down there under the water – something was set free! A great creeping thing, as they tell it, more dragon than serpent, as content on land as in water, that suns its wings on a fair day. The first man as saw it up by Point Clear lost his reason and never found it again and died in the asylum not six months back, leaving behind a dozen drawings he made with bits of charcoal from the grate . . .’ 

‘Strange news!’ said Cora. ‘And stranger things in heaven and earth . . . tell me: was any picture ever taken of it – did anyone think to make a report?’ 

‘None that I know of.’ He shrugged. ‘Can’t say as I put much store on it myself. Essex folk are over-keen on this sort of thing, what with the Chelmsford witches, and Black Shuck doing the rounds when he’s tired of Suffolk flesh.’ He surveyed them a while, and appeared to grow suddenly weary of their company. He put the coin in his pocket, and patted it twice. ‘Well then, I’ve made my living today, and more besides, and I’ll be fetched home soon to a good meal. Besides’ – he looked wryly at Martha, whose impatience shivered in the spokes of her umbrella – ‘I think you’d best be off wherever you’re going, though mind the cracks in the pavements, as my daughter’d tell you, since you never know what’s between.’ He waved them away with a grand gesture that would have sat well on a statesman dismissing a secretary, and hearing a young couple laughing through the wet air turned away and assembled his expression of pleading. 

Tagged in:
Sarah Perry
Historical fiction

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