BEDTIME BOOKCLUB

Once Upon A River By Diane Setterfield

If you’re a method-reader who likes your books to embody the moment, then this week’s Bedtime Bookclub is an absolute treat. Set in the long dark days of midwinter, Once Upon A River opens in a tavern upriver on the Thames, not far from Oxford. It’s the late 19th century. The days are short, the nights long and the regulars pass their time by telling tales. Then a stranger collapses through the door, the body of a young girl in his arms. She is dead, drowned, they believe, until she isn’t, and three people descend on the inn claiming her as their own. As you’d expect from the author of The Thirteenth Tale, this is a story in the best tradition: gothic, spiralling, suspenseful and mythic. I adored it. (And, because it’s Christmas, almost, the publisher has kindly agreed to release the Kindle edition this week, even though the hardback isn’t released until January. Enjoy!) SB

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ONCE UPON A RIVER

Diane Setterfield

£12.99, Doubleday

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If you’re a method-reader who likes your books to embody the moment, then this week’s Bedtime Bookclub is an absolute treat. Set in the long dark days of midwinter, Once Upon A River opens in a tavern upriver on the Thames, not far from Oxford. It’s the late 19th century. The days are short, the nights long and the regulars pass their time by telling tales. Then a stranger collapses through the door, the body of a young girl in his arms. She is dead, drowned, they believe, until she isn’t, and three people descend on the inn claiming her as their own. As you’d expect from the author of The Thirteenth Tale, this is a story in the best tradition: gothic, spiralling, suspenseful and mythic. I adored it. (And, because it’s Christmas, almost, the publisher has kindly agreed to release the Kindle edition this week, even though the hardback isn’t released until January. Enjoy!) SB

Chapter:

One

The Story Begins . . .

There was once an inn that sat peacefully on the bank of the Thames at Radcot, a long day’s walk from the source. There were a great many inns along the upper reaches of the Thames at the time of this story and you could get drunk in all of them, but beyond the usual ale and cider, each one had some particular pleasure to offer. The Red Lion at Kelmscott was musical: bargemen played their fiddles in the evening and cheesemakers sang plaintively of lost love. Inglesham had the Green Dragon, a tobacco-scented haven of contemplation. If you were a gambling man, the Stag at Eaton Hastings was the place for you, and if you preferred brawling, there was nowhere better than the Plough just outside Buscot. The Swan at Radcot had its own specialism. It was where you went for storytelling.

The Swan was a very ancient inn, perhaps the most ancient of them all. It had been constructed in three parts: one was old, one was very old and one was older still. These different elements had been harmonized by the thatch that roofed them, the lichen that grew on the old stones and the ivy that scrambled up the walls. In summertime day-trippers came out from the towns on the new railway, to hire a punt or a skiff at the Swan and spend an afternoon on the river with a bottle of ale and a picnic, but in winter the drinkers were all locals, and they congregated in the winter room. It was a plain room in the oldest part of the inn, with a single window pierced through the thick stone wall. In daylight this window showed you Radcot Bridge and the river owing through its three serene arches. By night (and this story begins at night) the bridge was drowned black, and it was only when your ears noticed the low and borderless sound of great quantities of moving water that you could make out the stretch of liquid blackness that owed outside the window, shifting and undulating, darkly illuminated by some energy of its own making.

Nobody really knows how the tradition of storytelling started at the Swan, but it might have something to do with the Battle of Radcot Bridge. In 1387, five hundred years before the night this story began, two great armies met at Radcot Bridge. The who and the why of it are too long to tell, but the outcome was that three men died in battle – a knight, a varlet and a boy – and eight hundred souls were lost, drowned in the marshes, attempting to flee. Yes, that’s right. Eight hundred souls. That’s a lot of story. Their bones lie under what are now watercress fields. Around Radcot they grow the watercress, harvest it, crate it up and send it to the towns on barges, but they don’t eat it. It’s bitter, they complain; so bitter it bites you back, and besides, who wants to eat leaves nourished by ghosts? When a battle like that happens on your doorstep and the dead poison your drinking water, it’s only natural that you would tell of it, over and over again. By force of repetition you would become adept at the telling. And then, when the crisis was over and you turned your attention to other things, what is more natural than that this newly acquired expertise would come to be applied to other tales?

The landlady of the Swan was Margot Ockwell. There had been Ockwells at the Swan for as long as anyone could remember, and quite likely for as long as the Swan had existed. In law her name was Margot Bliss, for she was married, but law was a thing for the towns and cities; here at the Swan she remained an Ockwell. Margot was a handsome woman in her late fifties. She could lift barrels without help and had legs so sturdy she never felt the need to sit down. It was rumoured she even slept on her feet, but she had given birth to thirteen children, so clearly she must have lain down sometimes. She was the daughter of the last landlady and her grandmother and great-grandmother had run the inn before that, and nobody thought anything of it being women in charge at the Swan at Radcot. It was just the way it was.

Margot’s husband was Joe Bliss. He had been born at Kemble, twenty-five miles upstream, a hop and a skip from where the Thames emerges from the earth in a trickle so fine that it is scarcely more than a patch of dampness in the soil. The Blisses were chesty types. They were born small and ailing and most of them were goners before they were grown. Bliss babies grew thinner and paler as they lengthened, until they expired completely, usually before they were ten and often before they were two. The survivors, including Joe, got to adulthood shorter and slighter than average. Their chests rattled in winter, their noses ran, their eyes watered. They were kind, with mild eyes and frequent playful smiles.

At eighteen, an orphan and unfit for physical labour, Joe had left Kemble, to seek his fortune doing he knew not what. From Kemble there are as many directions a man can go in as elsewhere in the world, but the river has its pull; you’d have to be mightily perverse not to follow it. He came to Radcot and, being thirsty, stopped for a drink. The frail-looking young man with his floppy black hair that contrasted with his pallor sat unnoticed, eking out his glass of ale, admiring the innkeeper’s daughter and listening to a story or two. He found it captivating to be amongst people who spoke out loud the kind of tales that had been alive inside his head since boyhood. In a quiet interval he opened his mouth and Once upon a time . . . came out.

Joe Bliss discovered his destiny that day. The Thames had brought him to Radcot and at Radcot he stayed. With a bit of practice he found he could turn his tongue to any kind of tale, whether it be gossip, historic, traditional, folk or fairy. His mobile face could convey surprise, trepidation, relief, doubt, and any other feeling, as well as any actor. Then there were his eyebrows. Luxuriantly black, they told as much of the story as his words did. They drew together when something momentous was coming, twitched when a detail merited close attention, and arched when a character might not be what he seemed. Watching his eyebrows, paying attention to their complex dance, you noticed all sorts of things that might otherwise have passed you by. Within a few weeks of his starting to drink at the Swan he knew how to hold the listeners spellbound. He held Margot spellbound too, and she him.

At the end of a month, Joe walked sixty miles to a place quite distant from the river, where he told a story in a competition. He won first prize, naturally, and spent the winnings on a ring. He returned to Radcot grey with fatigue, collapsed into bed for a week, and at the end of it got to his knees and proposed marriage to Margot.

‘I don’t know . . .’ her mother said. ‘Can he work? Can he earn a living? How will he look after a family?’

‘Look at the takings,’ Margot pointed out. ‘See how much busier we have been since Joe started telling his stories. Suppose I don’t marry him, Ma. He might go away from here. Then what?’

It was true. People came more often to the inn those days, and from further away, and they stayed longer, to hear the stories Joe told. They all bought drinks. The Swan was thriving.

‘But with all these strong, handsome young men that come in here and admire you so – wouldn’t one of those do better?’

‘It is Joe that I want,’ Margot said firmly. ‘I like the stories.’

She got her way.

That was all nearly forty years before the events of this story, and in the meantime Margot and Joe had raised a large family. In twenty years they had produced twelve robust daughters. All had Margot’s thick brown hair and sturdy legs. They grew up to be buxom young women with blithe smiles and endless cheer. All were married now. One was a little fatter and one a little thinner, one a little taller and one a little shorter, one a little darker and one a little fairer, but in every other respect they were so alike that the drinkers could not tell them apart, and when the girls returned to help out at busy times they were universally known as Little Margot. After bearing all these daughters there had been a lull in the family life of Margot and Joe, and both of them had thought her years of child-bearing were at an end, but then came the last pregnancy and Jonathan, their only son.

With his short neck and his moon face, his almond eyes with their exaggerated upward tilt, his dainty ears and nose, the tongue that seemed too big for his constantly smiling mouth, Jonathan did not look like other children. As he grew, it became clear that he was different from them in other ways too. He was fifteen now, but where other boys of his age were looking forward impatiently to manhood, Jonathan was content to believe that he would live at the inn for ever with his mother and father, and wished for nothing else.

Margot was still a strong and handsome woman, and Joe’s hair had whitened, though his eyebrows were as dark as ever. He was now sixty, which was ancient for a Bliss. People put his survival down to the endlessness of Margot’s care for him. These last few years, he was sometimes so weak that he lay in bed for two or three days at a time, eyes closed. He was not sleeping; no, it was a place beyond sleep that he visited in these periods. Margot took his sinking spells calmly. She kept the fire in to dry the air, tilted cooled broth between his lips, brushed his hair and smoothed his eyebrows. Other people fretted to see him suspended so precariously between one liquid breath and the next, but Margot took it in her stride. ‘Don’t you worry, he’ll be all right,’ she would tell you. And he was. He was a Bliss, that’s all. The river had seeped into him and made his lungs marshy.

It was solstice night, the longest night of the year. For weeks the days had been shrinking, first gradually, then precipitously, so that it was now dark by mid-afternoon. As is well known, when the moon hours lengthen, human beings come adrift from the regularity of their mechanical clocks. They nod at noon, dream in waking hours, open their eyes wide to the pitch-black night. It is a time of magic. And as the borders between night and day stretch to their thinnest, so too do the borders between worlds. Dreams and stories merge with lived experience, the dead and the living brush against each other in their comings and goings, the past and the present touch and overlap. Unexpected things can happen. Did the solstice have anything to do with the strange events at the Swan? You will have to judge for yourself.

Now you know everything you need to know, the story can begin.

Two

The drinkers gathered in the Swan that night were the regulars. Gravel-diggers, cressmen and bargemen for the most part, but Beszant the boat-mender was there too, and so was Owen Albright, who had followed the river to the sea half a century ago and returned two decades later a wealthy man. Albright was arthritic now, and only strong ale and storytelling could reduce the pain in his bones. They had all been there since the light had drained out of the sky, emptying and refilling their glasses, tapping out their pipes and restuffing them with pungent tobacco, and telling stories.

Albright was recounting the battle of Radcot Bridge. After five hundred years any story is liable to get a bit stale, and the storytellers had found a way to enliven the telling of it. Certain parts of the tale were fixed by tradition – the armies, their meeting, the death of the knight and his varlet, the eight hundred drowned men – but the boy’s demise was not. Not a thing was known about him, except that he was a boy, was at Radcot Bridge, and died there. Out of this void came invention. At each retelling the drinkers at the Swan raised the unknown boy from the dead in order to inflict upon him a new death. He had died countless times over the years, in ways ever more outlandish and entertaining. When a story is yours to tell you are allowed to take liberties with it – though woe betide any visitor to the Swan who attempted the same thing. What the boy himself made of his regular resurrection is impossible to say, but the point is, raising the dead was a not infrequent thing at the Swan, and that’s a detail worth remembering.

At this telling, Albright conjured a young entertainer, come to distract the troops while they awaited their orders. Juggling with knives, he slipped in the mud and the knives rained down around him, landing blade-down in wet earth, all but the last one, which fell plumb into his eye and killed him instantly before the battle had even begun. The innovation elicited murmurs of appreciation, quickly dampened so the story could continue, and from then on the tale ran pretty much as it always did.

Afterwards there was a pause. It wasn’t done to jump in too quickly with a new story before the last one was properly digested.

Jonathan had been listening closely.

‘I wish I could tell a story,’ he said.

He was smiling – Jonathan was a boy who was always smiling – but he sounded wistful. He was not stupid, but school had been baffling to him, the other children had laughed at his peculiar face and strange ways, and he had given it up after a few months. He had not mastered reading or writing. The winter regulars were used to the Ockwell lad, with all his oddness.

‘Have a go,’ Albright suggested. ‘Tell one now.’

Jonathan considered it. He opened his mouth and waited, agog, to hear what emerged from it. Nothing did. His face screwed tight with laughter and his shoulders squirmed in hilarity at himself.

‘I can’t!’ he exclaimed when he had recovered himself. ‘I can’t do it!’

‘Some other night, then. You have a bit of a practice, and we’ll listen to you when you’re ready.’

‘You tell a story, Dad,’ Jonathan said. ‘Go on!’

It was Joe’s first night back in the winter room after one of his sinking spells. He was pale and had been silent all evening. Nobody expected a story from him in his frail state, but at the prompting of his son, he smiled mildly and looked up to a high corner of the room where the ceiling was darkened from years of woodsmoke and tobacco. This was the place, Jonathan supposed, where his father’s stories came from. When Joe’s eyes returned to the room, he was ready and opened his mouth to speak.

‘Once upon a—’

The door opened.

It was late for a newcomer. Whoever it was did not rush to come in. The cold draught set the candles flickering and carried the tang of the winter river into the smoky room. The drinkers looked up.

Every eye saw, yet for a long moment none reacted. They were trying to make sense of what they were seeing.

The man – if man it was – was tall and strong, but his head was monstrous and they boggled at the sight of it. Was it a monster from a folk tale? Were they sleeping and was this a nightmare? The nose was askew and flattened; beneath it was a gaping hollow, dark with blood. As sights went, it was horrifying enough, but in its arms the awful creature carried a large puppet, with waxen face and limbs and slickly painted hair.

What roused them to action was the man himself. He first roared, a great bellow as misshapen as the mouth it emerged from, then he staggered and swayed. A pair of farmhands jumped from their seats just in time to grab him under the arms and arrest his fall so that he did not smash his head on the flagstones. At the same time, Jonathan leapt forward from the reside, arms outstretched, and into them dropped the puppet with a solid weightiness that took his joints and muscles by surprise.

Returning to their senses, they hoisted the unconscious man on to a table. A second table was dragged forward so that the man’s legs could be rested upon it. Then, when he was laid down and straightened out, they all stood around and raised their candles and lamps over him. The man’s eyes did not flicker.

‘Is he dead?’ Albright wondered.

There was a round of indistinct murmurs and much frowning.

‘Slap his face,’ someone said. ‘See if that brings him round.’

‘A tot of liquor’ll do it,’ another suggested.

Margot elbowed her way to the top of the table and studied the man. ‘Don’t you go slapping him. Not with his face in that state. Nor pouring anything down his throat. Just you wait a minute.’

She turned away to the seat by the hearth. On it was a cushion, and she picked it up and carried it back to the table. With the aid of the candlelight, she spotted a pinprick of white on the cotton. Picking at it with her fingernail, she drew out a feather. The men watched her, eyes wide with bewilderment.

‘I don’t think you’ll wake a dead man by tickling him,’ said a gravel-digger. ‘Nor a live one either, not in this state.’

‘I’m not going to tickle him,’ she replied.

Margot laid the feather on the man’s lips. All peered. For a moment there was nothing, then the soft and plumy parts of the feather shivered.

‘He breathes!’

The relief soon gave way to renewed perplexity.

‘Who is it, though?’ a bargeman asked. ‘Do anyone know him?’

There followed a few moments of general hubbub, during which they considered the question. One reckoned he knew everybody on the river from Castle Eaton to Duxford, which was some ten miles, and he was sure he didn’t know the fellow. Another had a sister in Lechlade and was certain he had never seen the man there. A third felt that he might have seen the man somewhere, but the longer he looked, the less willing he was to put money on it. A fourth wondered whether he was a river gypsy, for it was the time of year when their boats came down this stretch of the river, to be stared at with suspicion, and everybody made sure to lock their doors at night and bring inside anything that could be lifted. But with that good woollen jacket and his expensive leather boots – no. This was not a ragged gypsy man. A fifth stared and then, with triumph, remarked that the man was the very height and build of Liddiard from Whitey’s Farm, and was his hair not the same colour too? A sixth pointed out that Liddiard was here at the other end of the table, and when the fifth looked across, he could not deny it. At the end of these and further declarations, it was agreed by one, two, three, four, five, six, and all the others present that they didn’t know him – at least, they didn’t think so. But looking as he did, who could be certain?

Into the silence that followed this conclusion, a seventh spoke. ‘Whatever has befallen him?’

The man’s clothes were soaking wet, and the smell of the river, green and brown, was on him. Some accident on the water, that much was obvious. They talked of dangers on the river, of the water that played tricks on even the wisest of rivermen.

‘Is there a boat? Shall I go and see if I can spy one?’ Beszant the boat-mender offered.

Margot was washing the blood from the man’s face with deft and gentle motions. She winced as she revealed the great gash that split his upper lip and divided his skin into two flaps that gaped to show his broken teeth and bloodied gum.

‘Leave the boat,’ she instructed. ‘It is the man that matters. There is more here than I can help with. Who will run for Rita?’ She looked round and spotted one of the farmhands who was too poor to drink much. ‘Neath, you are quick on your feet. Can you run along to Rush Cottage and fetch the nurse without stumbling? One accident is quite enough for one night.’

The young man left.

Jonathan, meanwhile, had kept apart from the others. The weight of the drenched puppet was cumbersome, so he sat down and arranged it on his lap. He thought of the papier mâché dragon that the troupe of guisers had brought for a play last Christmastime. It was light and hard and had rapped with a light tat-tat-tat if you beat your fingernails against it. This puppet was not made of that. He thought of the dolls he had seen, stuffed with rice. They were weighty and soft. He had never seen one this size. He sniffed its head. There was no smell of rice – only the river. The hair was made of real hair, and he couldn’t work out how they had joined it to the head. The ear was so real they might have moulded it from a real one. He marvelled at the perfect precision of the lashes. Putting his fingertip gently to the soft, damp, tickling ends of them caused the lid to move a little. He touched the lid with the gentlest of touches and there was something behind. Slippery and globular, it was soft and firm at the same time.

Something darkly unfathomable gripped him. Behind the backs of his parents and the drinkers, he gave the figure a gentle shake. An arm slid and swung from the shoulder joint in a way a puppet’s arm ought not to swing, and he felt a rising water level, powerful and rapid, inside him.

‘It is a little girl.’

In all the discussion around the injured man, nobody heard.

Again, louder: ‘It is a little girl!

They turned.

‘She won’t wake up.’ He held out the sodden little body so that they might see for themselves.

They moved to stand around Jonathan. A dozen pairs of stricken eyes rested on the little body.

Her skin shimmered like water. The folds of her cotton frock were plastered to the smooth lines of the limbs, and her head tilted on her neck at an angle no puppeteer could achieve. She was a little girl, and they had not seen it, not one of them, though it was obvious. What maker would go to such lengths, making a doll of such perfection, only to dress it in the cotton smock any pauper’s daughter might wear? Who would paint a face in that macabre and lifeless manner? What maker other than the good Lord had it in him to make the curve of that cheekbone, the planes of that shin, that delicate foot with five toes individually shaped and sized and detailed? Of course it was a little girl! How could they ever have thought otherwise?

In the room usually so thick with words, there was silence. The men who were fathers remembered their own children and resolved to show them nothing but love till the end of their days. Those who were old and had never known a child of their own suffered a great pang of absence, and those who were childless and still young were pierced with the longing to hold their own offspring in their arms.

At last the silence was broken.

‘Good Lord!’

‘Dead, poor mite.’

‘Drowned!’

‘Put the feather on her lips, Ma!’

‘Oh, Jonathan. It is too late for her.’

‘But it worked with the man!’

‘No, son, he was breathing already. The feather only showed us the life that was still in him.’

‘It might still be in her!’

‘It is plain she is gone, poor lass. She is not breathing, and besides, you have only to look at her colour. Who will carry the poor child to the long room? You take her, Higgs.’

‘But it’s cold there,’ Jonathan protested.

His mother patted his shoulder. ‘She won’t mind that. She is not really here any more, and it is never cold in the place she has gone to.’

‘Let me carry her.’

‘You carry the lantern, and unlock the door for Mr Higgs. She’s heavy for you, my love.’

The gravel-digger took the body from Jonathan’s failing grip and lifted her as though she weighed no more than a goose. Jonathan lit the way out and round the side to a small stone outbuilding. A thick wooden door gave on to a narrow, windowless store room. The floor was plain earth, and the walls had never been plastered or panelled or painted. In summer it was a good place to leave a plucked duck or a trout that you were not yet hungry for; on a winter night like this one it was bitter. Projecting from one wall was a stone slab, and it was here that Higgs laid the girl down. Jonathan, remembering the fragility of the papier mâché, cradled her skull – ‘So as not to hurt her’ – as it came into contact with the stone.

Higgs’s lantern cast a circle of light on to the girl’s face.

‘Ma said she’s dead,’ Jonathan said.

‘That’s right, lad.’

‘Ma says she’s in another place.’

‘She is.’

‘She looks as though she’s here, to me.’

‘Her thoughts have emptied out of her. Her soul has passed.’

‘Couldn’t she be asleep?’

‘Nay, lad. She’d’ve woke up by now.’

The lantern cast flickering shadows on to the unmoving face, the warmth of its light tried to mask the dead white of the skin, but it was no substitute for the inner illumination of life.

‘There was a girl who slept for a hundred years, once. She was woke up with a kiss.’

Higgs blinked ercely. ‘I think that was just a story.’

The circle of light shifted from the girl’s face and illuminated Higgs’s feet as they made their way out again, but at the door he discovered that Jonathan was not beside him. Turning, he raised the lantern again in time to see him stoop and place a kiss on the child’s forehead in the darkness.

Jonathan watched the girl intently. Then his shoulders slumped and he turned away.

They locked the door behind them and came away.

Three

The Corpse without a Story

There was a doctor two miles from Radcot, but nobody thought of sending for him. He was old and expensive and his patients mostly died, which was not encouraging. Instead they did the sensible thing: they sent for Rita.

So it was that half an hour after the man was placed on the tables, there came the sound of steps outside and the door opened on a woman. Other than Margot and her daughters, who were as much a part of the Swan as its floorboards and stone walls, women were a rare sight at the inn, and every eye was upon her as she entered the room. Rita Sunday was of middle height and her hair was neither light nor dark. In all other aspects, her looks were not average. The men evaluated her and found her lacking in almost every respect. Her cheekbones were too high and too angular; her nose was a bit too large, her jaw a bit too wide, her chin a bit too forward. Her best feature was her eyes, which did well enough for shape, though they were grey and looked at things too steadily from beneath her symmetrical brow. She was too old to be young, and other women her age had been crossed off the list of those suitable for appraisal, yet in Rita’s case, for all her plainness and three decades of virginity, she still had something about her. Was it her history? Their local nurse and midwife, she had been born in a convent, lived there till adulthood and learnt all her medicine in the convent hospital.

Rita stepped inside the winter room of the Swan. As if she were not aware of all the eyes upon her, she unbuttoned her sober woollen coat and slid her arms out of it. The dress beneath was dark and unadorned.

She went directly to where the man lay, bloodied and still unconscious on the table.

‘I have heated water for you, Rita,’ Margot told her. ‘And cloths here, all clean. What else will you want?’

‘More light, if you can manage it.’

‘Jonathan is fetching spare lanterns and candles from upstairs.’

‘And quite likely’ – having washed her hands, Rita was gently exploring the extent of the gash in the man’s lip – ‘a razor, and a man with a gentle and steady hand for shaving.’

‘Joe can do that, can’t you?’

Joe nodded.

‘And liquor. The strongest you have.’

Margot unlocked the special cupboard and took out a green bottle. She placed it next to Rita’s bag and all the drinkers eyed it. Unlabelled, it bore the signs of being illegally distilled, which meant it would be strong enough to knock a man out.

The two bargemen holding lanterns over the man’s head saw the nurse probe the hole that was his mouth. With two blood-slicked fingers she drew out a broken tooth. A moment later she had two more. Her searching fingers went next into his still-damp hair. She explored every inch of his scalp.

‘His head injuries are just to the face. It could be worse. Right, let’s first get him out of these wet things.’

The room seemed to start. An unmarried woman could not strip a man’s clothes from him without unsettling the natural order of things.

‘Margot,’ Rita suggested smoothly, ‘would you direct the men?’

She turned her back and busied herself with setting out items from her bag, while Margot instructed the men in the removal of his clothes, reminding them to go gently – ‘We don’t know where else he is injured yet – let’s not make it worse!’ – and undid buttons and ties with her maternal fingers where they were too drunk or just too clumsy to do it. His garments piled up on the floor: a navy jacket with many pockets like a bargeman’s but made of better cloth; freshly soled boots of strong leather; a proper belt, where a riverman would make do with rope; thick jersey long johns; and a knitted vest beneath his felt shirt.

‘Who is he? Do we know?’ Rita asked while she looked away.

‘Don’t know that we’ve ever set eyes on him. But it’s hard to tell, the state he’s in.’

‘Have you got his jacket off?’

‘Yes.’

‘Perhaps Jonathan might have a look in the pockets.’

When she turned to face the table again, her patient was naked and a white handkerchief had been placed to protect his modesty and Rita’s reputation.

She felt their eyes flicker to her face and away again.

‘Joe, if you would shave his upper lip as gently as you can. You won’t make a perfect job of it, but do your best. Go carefully around his nose – it’s broken.’

She began the examination. She placed her hands first upon his feet, moved up to his ankles, shins, calves . . . Her white hands stood out against his darker skin.

‘He is an out-of-doors man,’ a gravel-digger noted.

She palpated bone, ligament, muscle, her eyes all the while diverted from his nakedness, as though her fingertips saw better than her eyes. She worked swiftly, knowing rapidly that here, at least, all was well.

At the man’s right hip Rita’s fingers inched around the white handkerchief, and paused.

‘Light here, please.’

The patient was badly grazed all along one flank. Rita tilted liquor from the green bottle on to a cloth and applied it to the wound. The men around the table twisted their lips in little expressions of sympathy, but the patient himself did not stir.

The man’s hand lay alongside his hip. It was swollen to twice the size it ought to be, bloodied and discoloured. Rita applied the liquor here too, but certain marks did not come away, though she wiped once and again. Ink-dark blots, but not the darkness of bruising, and not dried blood. Interested, she raised the hand and peered closely at them.

‘He is a photographer,’ she said.

‘Blow me down! How do you know that?’

‘His fingers. See these marks? Silver nitrate stains. It’s what they use to develop the photographs.’

She took advantage of the surprise generated by this news to work around the white handkerchief. She pressed gently into his abdomen, found no evidence of internal injury, and worked up, up, the light following her, until the white handkerchief receded into the darkness and the men could be reassured that Rita was safely back in the realm of decorum again.

With his thick beard half gone, the man looked no less ghastly. The misshapen nose was all the more prominent, the gash that split the lip and ran up towards his cheek looked ten times worse for being visible. The eyes that usually endow a face with humanity were so swollen they were tight shut. On his forehead the skin had swollen into a bloodied lump; Rita drew splinters of what looked like dark wood from it, cleaned it, then turned her attention to the lip injury.

Margot handed her a needle and thread, both sterilized in the liquor. Rita put the point to the split and drove the needle into the skin, and as she did, the candlelight flickered.

‘Anyone who needs to, sit down now,’ she instructed. ‘One patient is enough.’

But nobody was willing to admit to the need to sit.

She made three neat stitches, drawing the thread through, and the men either looked away or watched, fascinated by the spectacle of a human face being mended as if it were a torn collar.

When it was done, there was audible relief.

Rita looked at her handiwork.

‘He do look a bit better now,’ one of the bargemen admitted. ‘Unless it’s just that we’re used to looking at him.’

‘Hmm,’ said Rita, as if she half agreed.

She reached to the middle of his face, gripped his nose between thumb and index finger and gave it a rm twist. There was a distinct sound of gristle and bone moving – a crunch that was also a squelch – and the candlelight quivered violently.

‘Catch him, quick!’ Rita exclaimed, and for the second time that night the farmhands took the weight of a fellow man collapsing in their arms as the gravel-digger’s knees gave way. In doing so, all three men’s candles fell to the floor, extinguishing themselves as they dropped – and the entire scene was snuffed out with them.

‘Well,’ said Margot, when the candles had been relit. ‘What a night. We had best put this poor man in the pilgrims’ room.’ In the days when Radcot Bridge was the only river crossing for miles, many travellers had broken their journey at the inn, and though it was rarely used these days there was a room at the end of the corridor that was still called the pilgrims’ room. Rita oversaw the removal of her patient and they laid him on the bed and put a blanket over him.

‘I should like to see the child before I go,’ she said.

‘You will want to say a prayer over the poor mite. Of course.’ In the minds of the locals, not only was Rita as good as a doctor, but given her time in the convent she could stand in for the parson at a push. ‘Here’s the key. Take a lantern.’

Back in her hat and coat and with a muffler wrapped around her face, Rita left the Swan and went to the outbuilding.

Four

Rita Sunday was not afraid of corpses. She was used to them from childhood, had even been born from one. This is how it had happened: thirty-five years ago, heavily pregnant and in despair, a woman had thrown herself into the river. By the time a bargeman spotted her and pulled her out, she was three-quarters drowned. He took her to the nuns at Godstow, who nursed the poor and needy at the convent hospital. She survived long enough for labour to commence. The shock of almost drowning having weakened her, she had no strength left to give birth and died when her belly rippled with the strong contractions. Sister Grace had rolled up her sleeves, taken a scalpel, sliced a shallow red curve into the dead woman’s abdomen and removed from it a living baby. Nobody knew her mother’s name, and they would not have given it to the child anyway – the deceased had been triply sinful, by fornication, the act of self-murder and the attempt at killing her baby, and it would have been ungodly to encourage the child to remember her. They named the baby Margareta, after Saint Margaret, and she came to be called Rita for short. As for her surname, in the absence of a flesh-and-blood begetter she was called Sunday, for the day of the heavenly Father, just like all the other orphans at the nunnery.

The young Rita did well at her lessons, showed an interest in the hospital, and was encouraged to help. There were tasks even a child could do: at eight she was making beds and cleaning the bloodied sheets and cloths; at twelve she carried buckets of hot water and helped lay out the dead. By the time Rita was fteen she was cleaning wounds, splinting fractures, stitching skin, and by seventeen there was little in the way of nursing that she could not do, including delivering a baby all by herself. She might easily have stayed in the convent, becoming a nun and devoting her life to God and the sick, were it not for the fact that one day, collecting herbs on the riverbank, it occurred to her that there was no life beyond this one. It was a wicked thought according to everything she had been taught, but instead of feeling guilty, she was overwhelmed with relief. If there was no heaven, there was no hell, and if there was no hell then her unknown mother was not enduring the agonies of eternal torment, but simply gone, absent, untouched by suffering. She told the nuns of her change of heart, and before they had recovered from their consternation, she had rolled a nightdress and a pair of bloomers together and left without even a hairbrush.

‘But your duty!’ Sister Grace had called after her. ‘To God and the sick!’

‘The sick are everywhere,’ she had cried back, and Sister Grace had replied, ‘So is God,’ but she said it quietly and Rita did not hear.

The young nurse had worked first at an Oxford hospital, then, when her talent was noticed, as general nurse and assistant to an enlightened medical man in London. ‘You’ll be a great loss to me and the profession when you marry,’ he said to her more than once, when it was plain a patient had taken a shine to her.

‘Marry? Not me,’ she told him every time.

‘Why ever not?’ he pressed, when he had heard the same answer half a dozen times.

‘I’m more use to the world as a nurse than as a wife and mother.’

It was only half an answer.

He got the other half a few days later. They were attending a young mother, the same age as Rita. It was her third pregnancy. Everything had gone smoothly before, and there was no particular reason to fear the worst. The baby was not awkwardly positioned, the labour was not unduly prolonged, the forceps were not necessary, the placenta followed cleanly. It was just that they could not stop the bleeding. She bled and she bled and she bled until she died.

The doctor spoke to the husband outside the room while Rita gathered up the bloodstained sheets with efficient expertise. She had lost count of the dead mothers long ago.

When the doctor came in, she had everything ready for their departure. They stepped out of the house and into the street in silence. After a few steps she said, ‘I don’t want to die like that.’

‘I don’t blame you,’ he said.

The doctor had a friend, a certain gentleman, who called frequently at dinner time and did not leave till the next morning. Rita never spoke of it, yet the doctor realized she was aware of the love he felt for this man. She appeared to be unperturbed by it, and was entirely discreet. After thinking things over for a few months, he made a surprising suggestion.

‘Why don’t you marry me?’ he asked her one day between patients. ‘There would be no . . . you know. But it would be convenient for me, and it might be advantageous for you. The patients would like it.’

She thought about it and agreed. They became engaged, but before they could marry he fell ill with pneumonia and died, too young. In the last days of his life he called his lawyer to alter his will. In it he left his house and furniture to the gentleman, and to Rita a significant sum of money, enough to give her modest independence. He also left her his library. She sold the volumes that were not medical or scientific, and had the rest packed and taken upriver. When the boat came to Godstow, she looked at the convent as she passed and felt a surprising pang that called to mind her lost God.

‘Here?’ the boatman asked, mistaking the nature of the intensity on her face.

‘Keep going,’ she told him.

On they went, another day, another night, till they came to Radcot. She liked the look of the place.

‘Here,’ she told the bargeman. ‘This will do.’

She bought a cottage, placed her books on the shelves, and let it be known among the better households of the area that she had a letter of recommendation from one of the best medical men in London. Once she had treated a few patients and delivered half a dozen babies, she was established. The wealthier families in the area wanted only Rita for their arrivals in the world and departures from it, and for all the medical crises in between. This was well-paid work and provided an adequate income to round out her inheritance. Among these patients were a number who could afford to be hypochondriacs; she tolerated their self-indulgence, for it enabled her to work at very low rates – or for nothing at all, for those who could not afford to pay. When she was not working, she lived frugally, read her way methodically through the doctor’s library (she neither thought of him nor referred to him as her fiancé) and made medicines.

Rita had been at Radcot for nearly ten years now. Death did not frighten her. In those years she had tended the dying, witnessed their demise and laid out the dead. Death by sickness, death in childbirth, death by accident. Death by malice, once or twice. Death as the welcome visitor to great age. Godstow’s hospital was on the river, so naturally she was familiar with the bodies of the drowned.

It was death by drowning that was on Rita’s mind as she made her way briskly through the cold night air to the outbuilding. Drowning is easy. Every year the river helps herself to a few lives. One drink too many, one hasty step, one second’s lapse of attention is all it takes. Rita’s first drowning was a boy of twelve, only a year younger than herself at the time, who slipped as he sang and larked about on the lock. Later was the summer reveller who mistook his step from a boat, received a blow to the temple on the way down, and his friends were too drunk to come effectively to his aid. A student showing off jumped from the apex of Wolvercote Bridge on a golden autumnal day, only to be surprised by the depth and the current. A river is a river, whatever the season. There were young women, like her own mother, poor souls unable to face a future of shame and poverty, abandoned by lover and family, who turned to the river to put an end to it all. And then there were the babies, unwanted morsels of flesh, little beginnings of life, drowned before they had a chance to live. She’d seen it all.

At the door to the long room, Rita turned the key in the lock. The air seemed even colder inside than out. It outlined a vivid map of passages and cavities behind her nostrils and up into her forehead. The chill carried the tang of earth, stone and, overwhelmingly, river. Her mind sprang instantly to attention.

The feeble light from the lantern faltered long before it reached the corners of the stone room, yet the little corpse was illuminated, shimmering with a glaucous gleam. It was a peculiar effect, caused by the extreme paleness of the body, but a fanciful person might have thought the light emanated from the small limbs themselves.

Aware of the unusual alertness that stirred in her, Rita approached. She judged the child to be about four years of age. Her skin was white. She was dressed in the simplest of shifts that left her arms and ankles bare, and the fabric, still damp, lay in ripples around her.

Rita automatically initiated the convent-hospital routine. She checked for breathing. She placed two fingers against the child’s neck to feel for a pulse. She peeled back the petal of an eyelid to examine the pupil. As she did all this, she heard in her mind the echo of the prayer that would have accompanied the examination in a chorus of calm, female voices: Our Father, which art in heaven . . . She heard it, but her lips did not move in time.

No breathing. No pulse. Full dilation of the pupils.

The uncommon vigilance was alive in her still. She stood over the little body and wondered what it was that had set her mind on edge. Perhaps it was nothing but the cold air.

You can read a dead body if you have seen enough of them, and Rita had seen it all. The when and the how and the why of it were all there if you knew how to look. She began an examination of the corpse so complete and so thorough that she entirely forgot about the cold. In the flickering light of the lantern, she peered and squinted at every inch of the child’s skin. She lifted arms and legs, felt the smooth movement of joints. She looked into ear and nostril. She explored the cavity of the mouth. She studied every finger- and toenail. At the end of it all, she stood back and frowned.

Something wasn’t right.

Head on one side, mouth twisted in perplexity, Rita went through everything she knew. She knew how the drowned wrinkle, swell and bloat. She knew how their skin, hair and nails loosen. None of this was present here, but that meant only that this child had not been in the water very long. Then there was the matter of mucus. Drowning leaves foam at the edges of the mouth and nostrils, but there was none on the face of this corpse. That too had its explanation. The girl was already dead when she went into the water. So far, so good. It was the rest that disturbed her. If the child had not drowned, what had happened to her? The skull was intact; the limbs unbeaten. There was no bruising to the neck. No bones were broken. There was no evidence of injury to the internal organs. Rita was aware how far human wickedness could go: she had checked the girl’s genitals and knew she had not been the victim of unnatural interference.

Was it possible that the child had died naturally? Yet there were no visible signs of illness. In fact, to judge from her weight, skin and hair, she had been exceptionally healthy.

All this was disconcerting enough, but there was more. Even supposing the child had died of natural causes and – for reasons impossible to imagine – been disposed of in the river, there should be injuries to the flesh made after death. Sand and grit abrade skin, stones graze, the detritus on the river’s bed will cut flesh. Water can break a man’s bones; a bridge will smash his skull. Wherever you looked at her, this child was unmarked, unbruised, ungrazed, uncut. The little body was immaculate. ‘Like a doll,’ Jonathan had told her when he described the girl falling into his arms, and she understood why he had thought so. Rita had run her fingertips over the soles of the girl’s feet, around the outer edge of her big toe, and they were so perfect you would think she had never put foot to earth. Her nails were as fine and as pearlized as those of a newborn. That death had made no mark on her was strange enough, but nor had life, and that, in Rita’s experience, was unique.

A body always tells a story – but this child’s corpse was a blank page.

Rita reached for the lantern on its hook. She trained its light on the child’s face, but found it as inexpressive as the rest of her. It was impossible to tell whether, in life, these blunt and unfinished features had borne the imprint of prettiness, timid watchfulness or sly mischief. If there had once been curiosity or placidity or impatience here, life had not had time to etch it into permanence.

Only a very short time ago – two hours or not much more – the body and soul of this little girl had still been securely united. At this thought, and despite all her training, all her experience, Rita found herself suddenly in the grip of a storm of feeling. Not for the first time since they had parted company, she wished for God. God who, in her childhood years, had seen all, known all, understood all. How simple it had been when, ignorant and confused, she could nonetheless put her faith in a Father who enjoyed perfect understanding of all things. She had been able to bear not knowing a thing when she could be sure that God knew. But now . . .

She took the child’s hand – the perfect hand with its five perfect fingers and their perfect fingernails – laid it in her open palm and closed her other hand over it.

This is wrong! All wrong! It should not be so!

And that is when it happened.

Five

The Miracle

Before Margot plunged the injured man’s clothes into the bucket of fresh water, Jonathan went through his pockets. They gave up:

One purse swollen with water, containing a sum of money that would cover all kinds of expenses and still stand them all a drink when he was feeling better.

One handkerchief, sodden.

One pipe, unbroken, and a tin of tobacco. They prised open the lid and found the contents to be dry. ‘He’ll be glad of that, at least,’ they noted.

One ring, to which were linked a number of dainty tools and implements over which they puzzled – was he a clock-mender? they wondered. A locksmith? A burglar? – until the next item was drawn out.

One photograph. And then they remembered the dark stains on the man’s fingers and Rita’s idea that he might be a photographer, and this seemed to lend weight to it. The tools must be something to do with the man’s profession.

Joe took the photograph from his son and dabbed it gently with his woollen cuff to dry it.

It showed a corner of a field, an ash tree, and not a lot else.

‘I’ve seen prettier pictures,’ someone said.

‘It wants a church spire or a thatched cottage,’ said another.

‘It don’t seem to be a photograph of anything exactly,’ a third said, scratching his head in perplexity.

‘Trewsbury Mead,’ said Joe, the only one to recognize it.

They didn’t know what to say, so they shrugged and put the photograph on the mantel to dry and went on to the next and last item to come out of the man’s pockets, which was:

One tin box, in which was a wad of small cards. They peeled off the top one and handed it to Owen, the best reader of them all, who raised a candle and read aloud:

Henry Daunt of Oxford

Portraits, landscapes, city and country scenes
Also: postcards, guide books, picture frames
Thames scenes a speciality

‘She was right,’ they exclaimed. ‘She said he were a photographer, and here’s the proof of it.’

Then Owen read out an address on Oxford’s High Street.

‘Who will be going to Oxford tomorrow?’ Margot asked. ‘Anybody know?’

‘My sister’s husband runs the cheese barge,’ a gravel-digger suggested. ‘I don’t mind going to her house tonight and asking him.’

‘Barge’ll take two days, won’t it?’

‘Can’t leave his family worrying about him for two days.’

‘Surely he won’t be going tomorrow, your sister’s husband? If he did, he wouldn’t be back in time for Christmas.’

‘The railway, then.’

It was decided that Martins would go. He was not wanted at the farm tomorrow, and he had a sister living five minutes from the station at Lechlade. He would go to her house now, to be on hand for the early train. Margot gave him the fare, he repeated the address till he knew it, and set off, with a shilling in his pocket and a brand-new story on his tongue. He had six miles of riverbank along which to rehearse his tale, and by the time he got to his sister’s house he would have it to perfection.

The other drinkers lingered. Storytelling of the usual kind was over for the night – who would stop to tell a story when one was actually happening? – and so they refilled their tankards and glasses, relit their pipes and settled on their stools. Joe put his shaving things away and returned to his chair, where from time to time he discreetly coughed. From his stool by the window, Jonathan kept an eye on the logs in the re and surveyed the level of the candles. Margot prodded the river-wet clothes into a bucket with an old paddle and gave them a good swirl, then she put the pan of spiced beer back over the stove. The fragrance of nutmeg and allspice mingled with tobacco and burning logs, and the smell of the river receded.

The drinkers began to talk, finding words to turn the night’s events into a story.

‘When I saw him in the doorway there, I was astonished. No, astounded. That’s what I was. Astounded!’

‘I was stunned, I was.’

‘And me. I was stunned and astounded. What about you?’

They were collectors of words, the same way so many of the gravel-diggers were collectors of fossils. They kept an ear constantly alert for them, the rare, the unusual, the unique.

‘I reckon I was dumbfounded.’

They tried it out for flavour, weighing it on their tongues. It was good. They gave their colleague admiring nods.

One was new to the Swan, new to storytelling. He was still finding his feet. ‘How about flabbergasted? Could I say that?’

‘Why not?’ they encouraged. ‘Say flabbergasted, if you like.’

Beszant the boat-mender came back in. A boat could tell a story too and he’d been to see what it had to say. Everybody in the inn looked up to hear.

‘She’s there,’ he reported. ‘All bashed in along the saxboard. Graunched something terrible and taking in water. She were half under. I’ve left her upturned on the bank, but nothing can be done. ’Tis all over for her now.’

‘What do you suppose happened? Was it the wharf that he went into?’

He shook his head with authority. ‘Something came smashing down on the boat. From above.’ He brought one hand down powerfully through the air and crashed one palm against the other to demonstrate. ‘Wharf, no – boat’d be bashed in from the side.’

The drinkers now talked themselves up- and downstream, furlong by furlong, bridge by bridge, setting the damage to man and boat against every danger. All were rivermen of one kind or another – if not by profession then by long association – and every man had his say as they tried to work out what had happened. In their minds they smashed the little boat into every jetty and every wharf, every bridge and every millwheel, upstream and down, but none was right. Then they came to Devil’s Weir.

The weir had great uprights of solid ash at regular intervals across the river, and between them were wide expanses of wood, like walls, that could be raised or lowered according to the ow. It was customary to get out of your boat and drag it up the slope that was made for the purpose, in order to go around the weir and then re-enter the water on the other side. There was an inn on the bank, so most of the time you could count on finding someone to give you a hand in exchange for the price of a drink. But sometimes – when the boards were up and the boat was nimble, when the river was calm and the boatman very experienced – then a man might save himself a bit of time and steer through. He would have to align his boat carefully, not take it askew, then he would need to pull in his blades so as not to break them against the great uprights, and – if the river was high – he would need to duck or else throw himself at on his back in the boat to avoid knocking his head on the weir-beam.

They measured all this against the man. They measured it against the boat.

‘So is that it?’ asked Joe. ‘It was at Devil’s Weir he came to grief?’

Beszant picked up a fragment of wood, matchstick-sized, from a little pile. Black and rm, it was the largest of the splinters Rita had extracted from the forehead of the injured man. He tested it against his fingertip, felt the residual firmness of the wood despite the long contact with water. Most likely ash, and the weir was built of ash.

‘I reckon so.’

‘I’ve taken Devil’s Weir myself more than once,’ a farmhand said. ‘You too, I reckon?’

The boat-mender nodded. ‘If the river’s in the mood to let me, yes.’

‘Would you attempt it at night?’

‘Risk my life to save a few seconds? I’m not such a fool.’

There was a sense of satisfaction at having settled at least one aspect of the night’s events.

‘And yet,’ Joe wondered, after a pause, ‘if it was at Devil’s Weir he came to grief, how did he get from there to here?’

Now half a dozen small conversations broke out as theory after theory was proposed, tested and found wanting. Suppose he had rowed all the way after the accident . . . With those injuries? No! Then suppose he drifted, lying in the boat between life and death, until at Radcot he came to his senses and . . . Drifted? A boat in that cock-eyed state? Negotiating obstacles in the dark all by itself and letting in water all the while? No!

Round and round they went, finding explanations that fitted one half of the facts or the other half, that supplied a what but not a how, or a where but not a why, until all imagination came to an end and they were no nearer an answer. How had the man not drowned?

For a while the only voice to be heard was that of the river, and then Joe coughed lightly and gathered his breath to speak.

‘It must be Quietly’s doing.’

Everybody glanced towards the window and those near enough looked out, into the soft, at night in which a span of swiftly moving blackness shone with a liquid gleam. Quietly the ferryman. All knew of him. From time to time he featured in stories they told, and some swore they’d met him. He appeared when you were in trouble on the water, a gaunt and elongated figure, manipulating his pole so masterfully that his punt seemed to glide as if powered by an otherworldly force. He spoke never a word, but guided you safely to the bank so you would live another day. But if you were out of luck – so they said – it was another shore altogether that he would take you to, and those poor souls did not return to the Swan to lift their pint of ale and tell of their encounter.

Quietly. Now that would turn it into another kind of story altogether.

Margot, whose mother and grandmother had spoken of Quietly in the months before they died, frowned and changed the subject.

‘It’ll be a sorry awakening for that poor man. To lose a child – there is no heartbreak like it.’

There was a murmur of agreement and she went on: ‘Why would a father take a child out on the river at this time of night, anyway? In winter too! Even if he were alone it was foolish, but with a child . . .’

The fathers in the room nodded, and added rashness to the character of the man who lay senseless in the next room.

Joe coughed and said, ‘She were a droll-looking little maid.’

‘Strange.’

‘Peculiar.’

‘Odd,’ came a trio of voices.

‘I didn’t even know it was a child,’ a voice said wonderingly.

‘You weren’t the only one.’

Margot had been pondering this all the while the men had been talking of boats and weirs. She thought of her twelve daughters and her granddaughters and admonished herself. A child was a child, dead or alive.

‘How did we not see it?’ she asked, in a voice that made them all ashamed.

They turned their eyes to the dark corners and consulted their memories. They conjured the injured man to stand again in the doorway. They reinhabited their shock, considered what there had not been time to consider as it happened. It had been like a dream, they thought, or a nightmare. The man had appeared to them like something from a folk tale: a monster or a ghoul. They had taken the child for a puppet or a doll.

The door opened, as it had opened before.

The drinkers blinked away their memory of the man and saw this: Rita.

She stood in the doorway, where the man had stood.

The dead girl was in her arms.

Again? Was it time’s error? Were they drunk? Had they lost their wits? Too much had happened and their brains were full. They waited for the world to right itself.

The corpse opened its eyes.

‘She breathes in.’

‘And out.’

‘In.’

‘Out.’

The girl’s head swivelled.

Her gaze sent a wave through the room so strong that every eye felt its ripple, every soul was rocked on its mooring.

Time went unmeasured, and when the silence was at last broken it was Rita who spoke.

‘I don’t know,’ she said.

It was an answer to the questions they were too stunned to ask, an answer to the questions she could scarcely form herself.

When they found that their tongues were still in their mouths and still working, Margot said, ‘Let me wrap her in my shawl.’

Rita put out a warning hand. ‘Let her not be warmed too quickly. She has come this far in the cold. Perhaps she should grow warm by slow degrees.’

The women laid the child on the window seat. Her pallor was deathly. She was unmoving; all but her eyes, which blinked and looked.

The rivermen and the cressmen and the gravel-diggers, young men and old, with hard hands and reddened fingers, grimy necks and rough chins, sat forward in their seats and gazed with soft yearning at the little child.

‘Her eyes are closing!’

‘Is she dying again?’

‘See her chest rise?’

‘Ah! I see it. And now it falls.’

‘And rises again.’

‘She is falling asleep.’

‘Hush!’

They spoke in whispers.

‘Are we keeping her awake?’

‘Shuffle aside, will you? I cannot see her breathe!’

‘Now do you see her?’

‘She breathes in.’

‘And out.’

‘In.’

‘Out.’

They stood on tiptoe to lean forwards, peer over shoulders, squint into the circle of light from the candle that Rita held over the sleeping girl. Their eyes followed her every breath and, without knowing it, their breathing fell in time with hers, as if their many chests might make a great pair of bellows to inflate her little lungs. The room itself expanded and contracted with her respiration.

‘It must be a fine thing to have a little child to look after.’ It was a bony cressman with red ears who spoke, in a longing half-tone.

‘Nothing finer,’ his friends admitted wistfully.

Jonathan had not taken his eyes off the girl. He edged across the floor until he stood beside her. He extended a hand uncertainly and at Rita’s nod laid it gently on a strand of the girl’s hair.

‘How did you do it?’ he asked.

‘I didn’t.’

‘Then what made her come alive again?’

She shook her head.

‘Was it me? I kissed her. To wake her, like the prince in the story.’ And he brought his lips to her hair to show Rita.

‘It doesn’t happen like that in real life.’

‘Is it a miracle?’

Rita frowned, unable to answer.

‘Don’t go thinking about it now,’ his mother said. ‘There’s a great many things hard to fathom in darkness that set themselves straight in the light of day. The little mite needs to sleep, not have you fidgeting around her. Come away, I’ve got a job for you.’

She unlocked the cupboard again and took out another bottle, set a dozen tiny glasses on a tray, poured an inch of liquor into each.

Jonathan handed one to everybody present.

‘Give one to your father.’ Joe didn’t usually drink in winter and when his lungs were bad. ‘What about you, Rita?’

‘I will, thank you.’

As one, they raised the glasses to their lips and swallowed in a single gulp.

Was it a miracle? It was as if they had dreamt of a pot of gold and woken to find it on their pillow. As if they had told a tale of a fairy princess and finished it only to find her sitting in a corner of the room listening.

For close on an hour they sat in silence and watched the sleeping child and wondered at it. Could there be any place in the country more interesting tonight than the Swan at Radcot? And they would be able to say, I was there.

In the end, it was Margot who sent them all home. ‘It’s been a long night, and nothing will do us more good now than a bit of sleep.’

The dregs in tankards were drained and slowly the drinkers reached for their coats and hats. They rose on legs unsteady with drink and magic, and shuffled over the floor towards the door. There was a round of goodnights, the door was opened and one by one, with many a backward glance, the drinkers disappeared into the night.

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Diane Setterfield
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