Can't wait to read the first three chapters? You don't have to.
My tenth novel is a personal one. With Small Eden, I have written yet more characters into my local landscape – the land on which our cottage is built.
When we moved into the cottage, the vendors told us that it had been the gatehouse for an estate, and this was certainly the received wisdom, but it didn’t feel right. We consulted a local historian, who was intrigued enough by what he saw to begin researching its history. What he had to tell us was far more interesting. The cottage was built (as far as he was able to ascertain) as the ticket office for a pleasure garden which opened at the turn of the century and had closed by 1923. What led a man to embark on such an endeavour after the last of London’s pleasure gardens had failed isn’t written in any history books. The little we know comes from Ordnance Survey maps, census records and a reproduction of a woodcut which hangs in our hall, depicting Edwardian ladies playing a game of doubles on a tennis court, just in front of our cottage. My instinct was that something from his past was driving him. Of course, had our research been more successful, there would have been no story to write.
The book will be available for pre-order soon, but I’m excited to share the opening chapters with you right now.
A boy with his head in the clouds. A man with a head full of dreams.
1884. The symptoms of scarlet fever are easily mistaken for teething, as Robert Cooke and his pregnant wife Freya discover at the cost of their two infant sons. Freya immediately isolates for the safety of their unborn child. Cut off from each other, there is no opportunity for husband and wife to teach each other the language of their loss. By the time they meet again, the subject is taboo. But unspoken grief is a dangerous enemy. It bides its time.
A decade later and now a successful businessman, Robert decides to create a pleasure garden in memory of his sons, in the very same place he found refuge as a boy – a disused chalk quarry in Surrey’s Carshalton. But instead of sharing his vision with his wife, he widens the gulf between them by keeping her in the dark. It is another woman who translates his dreams. An obscure yet talented artist called Florence Hoddy, who lives alone with her unmarried brother, painting only what she sees from her window…
When Robert passes the open door of the children’s nursery, he sees his wife’s face captured in a small halo of candlelight. The flame flickers and the halo shifts, revealing that she is bent over the boys’ cot-bed, a hand laid over Thomas’s brow. “I know,” she’s saying. “I know.”
He stands in the doorway, unseen, and watches her. Freya is a natural in the role of mother while, as head of the house, Robert often feels like an actor miscast, knowing that his understudy would be more suited to the part. But as natural a mother as his wife is, Robert worries that the children will grow accustomed to her sitting with them until they fall asleep, and will not remember how to do it without her soft lowing and her lullabies. “Come down to supper,” he says in a low voice.
Freya looks up. He sees now that she is anxious. “Thomas has a fever. I think we ought to send for Dr Stanbury.”
The doctor won’t thank them for disturbing his evening for the sake of milk teeth. Besides, they’ve been here before. When their daughter Estelle was teething she would get herself all hot and bothered. “Let’s take a look at you, little man.” (Here is a line Robert can say with authority.) He collects the second candlestick from the mantel. The flame dances as he crosses the room to inspect his son. Thomas is grizzling, his skin pale with red blotches on his cheeks. His thumb is anchored in his mouth, splayed fingers glistening with drool. Robert crouches down to better see, and the shadow of his wife’s head and shoulders rises up the wall, a dark guardian angel.
“Are your teeth troubling you?” At two years old, the boy already has his incisors. Robert prises Thomas’s wet thumb from his mouth and feels along his gum – Freya’s right, the boy’s cheeks are livid. The moment Robert feels the sharp point of a tooth poking through, Thomas pulls away and whimpers. “There it is, right at the back. A molar.”
He moves aside to let Freya feel. “Poor lamb,” she coos. “There, now.”
Lying beside Thomas, Gerrard is kicking the bedclothes just to watch the shadows he can make. He’s the baby of the family, but with Freya in her sixth month and expecting their fourth, he won’t occupy that position much longer. Four children under the age of four! If you could plan for such a thing, a gap of three years between each child would be ideal. But they agreed, they wanted a large family Freya, because she came from one and misses it, Robert because he was an only child.
“Remember the sleepless nights we had when Estelle’s back teeth were coming through?” Robert whispers. There is no sound from their daughter, whose bed is in the dark corner behind them. She’s developed a miraculous capacity to sleep through most disturbances. “I’ll fetch the Godfrey’s Cordial. That ought to do the trick.”
Joan glances up as Robert enters the kitchen. “Shall I serve supper, Mr Cooke?”
“Keep it warm for now.” He goes to the scullery sink. “Thomas is having a bad time teething. Can you fetch me the Godfrey’s?” He washes his hands in the way his father taught him, methodically and up to his wrists. Hand-washing was one of the things Walter was fastidious about. A doctor, he was a firm believer in germ theory – the idea that poison could pass from hand to mouth – while his colleagues held fast to the view that bad air causes disease, and so flung the windows wide in all weathers. Robert’s thoughts are fixed not only on the night ahead, but on Freya’s coming confinement, the nine weeks during which she’ll separate herself from the rest of the household to prepare for their baby’s arrival. With three children under the age of three on their hands, Thomas particularly fractious, they’ll need a nurse when the fourth arrives. It won’t be difficult to find one, there are always women in need of extra income, but they have left it rather late.
Upstairs, Robert doses Thomas with a spoonful of cordial, and while Freya straightens Estelle’s blankets he doses the baby. They’ll be better able to deal with Thomas if Gerrard sleeps through. Robert makes a game of pretending to catch Gerrard’s kicking feet, the boy giggling at his clumsiness. Their youngest is a sweet child. The most extraordinary eyes. They call them hazel, though by candlelight the colour Robert sees most clearly is gold.
Freya comes to his side, rests her head against his shoulder. “I’m so exhausted I could sleep on my feet. I think I’ll have to turn in.”
“What about supper?”
She looks down at her swollen belly. Her body has performed its miracle three times already. The fourth is no less wondrous to Robert. “Honestly, I have nowhere to put it. I need sleep far more than I need food.”
Freya knows herself by now, knows the ordeal that lies ahead. He kisses her forehead. “Go and rest. I’ll sit up with Thomas.”
“You?” By candlelight his wife’s skin glows golden, a match for her corn-coloured hair.
“Don’t look so shocked.”
“I’d thought to ask one of the girls.”
Has she seen through him? “I’m perfectly capable.”
“You’ll fetch me if he gets any worse?”
“Of course I will.” Robert says, though he has no intention of doing such a thing.
“Perhaps I should take Gerrard with me. To be on the safe side.”
“Absolutely not. He’ll keep you awake. Go!” He points to the door. “We’ll be fine.”
At eleven o’clock, the candle reduced to a molten stub, Robert measures out a second dose of Godfrey’s. Exhausted and miserable, Thomas resists the spoon, turning his head this way and that. Seeing that Gerrard is still wide awake, Robert picks him up. With the boy’s head over his shoulder, he pats out a gentle rhythm on his back. I’m twenty-two years old, responsible for my mother and wife, and with a fourth child on the way. We need a bigger house.
For Robert, it will be a restless night, constantly shifting about in the wooden rocking chair, trying to find the least uncomfortable position. His impression is that he’s awake the entire time, but several times he hears a slight snore and knows it to be his own, or is brought to when his head snaps up from his chest. At an hour when darkness is absolute, Robert becomes aware of a noise he struggles to place. He fumbles blindly for safety matches and lights a fresh candle. Thomas is swallowing repeatedly, as if he’s trying to rid himself of something. Robert wets a flannel with cold water from the wash bowl, lays it across his son’s forehead. Three o’clock by his watch. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. You’ve managed a day’s work on three hours’ sleep before. Gently, gently he blows on the candle’s flame so that it dances a reluctant jig, the shadows following the flame’s lead. “You try,” he whispers. Thomas keeps his glassy eyes on the flame, but hasn’t the energy to blow.
Robert determines to stay awake. At any moment Thomas might start crying and he won’t have Freya disturbed. He covers his top half in a child-size blanket, pulling it up to his chin. At the first signs of light, heavy-lidded and stiff-limbed, he draws the curtains to better see. A tic springs to life above his right eye. Every blink is a chore. But he has steered them through the night and Freya will have had her sleep. He turns from the window to his son and sees – he thinks he sees…
He is teething, Robert insists to himself, and Thomas is, no doubt about it, but that is not all. Robert stands there gaping, appalled. Dear God, please not that! Then his fingers are struggling with the fastenings of Thomas’s damp nightshirt, fumbling with buttons – dammit! – forcing them through too-small buttonholes – What have I done? – but finally Robert has the top three undone. Raised bumps, a red rash, no longer mottled, but angry. He lays a trembling hand flat. His son’s chest is burning up, skin the texture of crushed shell. He feels a dredging kind of horror.
His wife arrives at the other side of the boys’ cot-bed. In her nightdress, with her robe hanging open, Freya’s shape is pronounced. “Gerrard,” she says, not in greeting but in trepidation. Sure enough, Gerrard’s cheeks bear the beginnings of a red rash. There is produced a poisonous matter, which, passing from the diseased body, is capable of producing in another body a similar disease. Robert’s father had him recite this, yet when Freya proposed they sent for the doctor, when perhaps there was still time, he vetoed the idea. When she suggested they separate the boys, he said it was unnecessary. All because he didn’t want to be like his mother, constantly assuming the worst, seeing danger where there was none.
And now Freya is reaching for Gerrard, about to scoop him up in her arms.
Robert’s heart hammers at the bars of its cage. His arms shoot out in front of him. “Stay back!”
Startled by voice, by his panic evident, his wife cowers. Her hands go to her belly, to reassure the child within who must be protected. Behind Robert, in her bed in the corner, Estelle begins to sob, the great hiccupping tears that come when she wakes to discover she’s outside her mother’s womb.
“I’ll send for the doctor.” Robert steers Freya away from the boys’ bedside then goes back for Estelle. “Up you come, little lady.” Her bed-warmed body is a weight in his arms. “It’s all right. Here’s your mother.” He turns so that the girl can see Freya, but his wife cannot take her eyes from the boys in the cot-bed.
“Do you think it’s…?”
“Hopefully not. But to be on the safe side, you ought to have Estelle in with you.”
Freya would have stood in the doorway and kept vigil while Robert is elsewhere, but the boys will call out to her and she’ll go to them – she won’t be able to help herself – and so the door must be shut. And as Freya’s view of her sons narrows, she cranes her neck, whimpering a small protest.
Part One, 1870 – 1872
Chapter One, 1870
If ever there was a day to take a risk, to dare himself, it is today. The boy – Robert is his name – wakes to the competing calls of blackbirds. Knowing only too well the feeling of being interrupted mid-sentence, he flings off his bedclothes and goes to the window. There on the branch of the apple tree sits one of the culprits (the bird is black, a male), eyes bright and hopeful, cocking his head to listen before opening his yellow beak in response: a burst followed by a chirrup. Sometimes all the bird does is open and close his beak, and then with a gulp in his throat. He isn’t the attention-seeker the boy had him pegged to be, simply a herald of the new day. And what a day it is, the sky a shade frequently dubbed sky blue, but not seen for weeks, despite the season. His father promised: The next time we’re up early enough and the weather’s fine, we’ll go. What’s more, today is Robert’s birthday, a day when he surely stands more of a chance than any other. He will risk his father’s bark. He will even risk his mother’s objections.
Outside his parents’ bedroom door, knock ready, Robert pauses. He is too old, he’s been reminded, to bound into the adults’ room. He is a boy, not a puppy dog, and limits must be observed.
‘These modern ideas, sharing,’ Mrs Dwyer has said. ‘It’s bad enough that they…’ She shook off the end of her sentence, perhaps something not intended for a child’s ears. But occasionally, their housekeeper forgets herself.
Robert has learned a good many things from Mrs Dwyer, things he wouldn’t otherwise know. He has learned, for instance, that as a doctor, living where they live, his father could be a rich man if only he’d stop giving away his time and his medicines. ‘That they what?’ he prompted.
‘Never you mind. Just remember, you’re old enough to entertain yourself.’ With a flick of her dishcloth she batted him away. ‘Your parents will make an appearance in their own good time.’
But time is wasting. Mrs Dwyer has already been up for a couple of hours, pattering from room to room, lighting fires, opening the front door to shake out the rugs. He could ask her for hot water, but all he intends is a quick scrub of his face, and for that he makes do with cold, standing at the washstand in his vest and drawers.
Dressed and as respectable as he’s going to be, Robert presses his ear to the door of his parents’ bedroom, hooking the shell of it with the curve of his hand to form a kind of receptacle – a receiver, if you prefer. The forefinger of his other hand makes a useful stopper for his other ear. Birdsong muted, he stills his breath, concentrates. No snore to suggest his father is asleep, but then again, no low murmur to suggest his mother is awake. There must be a way to hurry them along.
The blackbirds! They might be recruited as co-conspirators. Robert returns to his bedroom, hoists up the sash window, then tackles the window on the landing. The house fills with the chatter of birds: the do-re-mi, the cheep-cheep-cheep, the sequence of notes he thinks sounds like pretty birdy. Dare he open his parents’ door? He must. Robert’s fingers tighten around the brass oval. He squeezes his eyes shut, bites his bottom lip and twists to the right. A small click, nothing that would wake a sleeper. The boy pushes the door open a crack, willing the symphony to intrude where he cannot.
A single heavy thud then thunderous footsteps. Robert leaps back just as the door is pulled inwards. His father – Walter is his name, but it is not a name the boy ever uses – is tented in a white nightshirt. The version of his father he’s accustomed to is the black-trousered, frock-coated, stiff-collared one. This is someone entirely different. “Am I needed in my surgery?”
The boy’s heart pounds. “No, sir.”
“Then why the devil would you wake me?”
“Sir, you said…” Behind his back, Robert’s hands clasp and unclasp in an agony of their own.
“Well? Speak up!”
He raises his chin, prays he won’t stutter. “You said that the next time it was a fine day and we were awake early, you’d take me hot air ballooning at Cremorne.”
“Walter, you –” Two words and his mother’s displeasure is all too apparent. She hardly needs add, I hoped we’d heard the last of that.
His father closes his eyes as if to shut out competing demands and objections and gives a low growl. When he opens them again, it is Robert he addresses. “What kind of a man do you think I am that you can –?”
“A man of your word, sir.” The boy is shocked by his own impudence but it’s too late to take it back. “I think you are a man of your word.”
“Ha!” Walter turns his face towards Robert’s mother (Hettie, another name the boy never uses), who is hidden beneath her own white cotton tent. “The young pup has me in checkmate!” The angle of his father’s moustache often makes it appear that his mouth is downturned, so his mood is rarely immediately apparent, but his voice tells Robert his gruffness was a pantomime. “What day is it, son?”
“The twenty-fourth of July, sir.”
“Wait a moment.” Walter aims the question over his shoulder: “Does that date mean anything to you, my dear?”
“Let me think now. The twenty-fourth…”
“It’s my birthday.” Robert pulls himself up to his full proud height. “I’m eight years old.”
“In that case, you’d better have Mrs Dwyer put a pot of coffee on the stove – and tell her not to skimp on the beans.”
The London his mother would have Robert know is one of palaces and parks, grand statues and stately monuments. Instead, the London of the boy’s imagination takes its lead from his father’s stories. When in a good mood, Walter makes an excellent tour guide. Places are accessible to him because of his profession. Places like the Royal College of Surgeons with its collection of human skulls. But he also knows a backstreet market which offers a selection of trousers whose previous occupants were hanged at Newgate. He has pointed out a discreet gabled frontage on Bishopsgate that conceals a magnificent banqueting hall, all that remains of the palace where Richard of Gloucester, later Richard III, lived at the time of the princes’ disappearance from the Tower. ‘Some say it was murder. Some even say,’ Walter leaned closer, ‘that he did the deed himself.’ Robert’s father knows of an ancient inn where Shakespeare’s players performed while spectators heckled from the galleries, now earmarked for destruction, because London must have its railway. ‘Change has only just begun, no doubt about it.’
Today, Mrs Dwyer’s miraculous strong coffee has worked wonders. His father is particularly vocal as they approach Cremorne from his mother’s preferred direction – via Cheyne Walk. (Less traffic. Fewer careering carriage wheels.) To their left are evenly spaced trees and wooden railings. Rowing boats for hire point their noses towards the Thames, and beyond, gulls pick their way across the mudflats. To their right are red-brick houses, among them the handsome town house that makes his mother sigh at its elegant proportions. Walter has, on several occasions, pressed her gloved hand to his lips and said, ‘If you like it, my dear, I shall buy it for you.’
And on several occasions she has narrowed her eyes and demanded, ‘When?’
For the most part, there is room enough on the footway for Robert and his mother’s rustling skirts, but the boy frequently hops down to join his father in the road. As he strolls, Walter offers up a slice of Cremorne’s history, from what Robert assumes to be the distant past, given that it happened before he was born. “When Tyrell Smith took charge, he wanted to mark the beginning of his tenure with something few had ever seen. He billed the act he chose as The Female Blondin. You’ve heard of Blondin, of course.”
Robert pipes up, “Yes, sir. He’s the greatest ropedancer of all time!”
“Born on the same day as me. The twenty-eighth of February, eighteen twenty-four.”
Robert’s mother raises an eyebrow. “Is that so?”
“You thought him younger than me?”
Hettie protests: “I thought him older.”
“You are the most terrible liar!” All the same, he seems pleased. “Blondin had recently outshone his competitors by attempting something no one else had dared.”
“Crossing Niagara Falls!” Arms out, Robert walks the very edge of the footpath. Imagine the deafening roar as the Niagara River ploughs over rocks, plunging vertically into the gorge below.
“So you do know. A crossing eleven hundred feet wide, high above the rapids. As if that wasn’t spectacular enough, he stopped midway to lie down on the rope. Then, to the crowd’s amazement, he stood on his head.”
His mother shudders. “I couldn’t have watched.”
“People are attracted to danger. What’s more, they want it to be real.”
“Not this person!” His mother’s list of fears includes dark alleys, unpredictable horses, machinery, speed and above all, heights.
“Oh, they came for the sensation, no doubt about it. As Blondin walked blindfold, spectators happily wagered that he’d would plunge to a watery death.”
“But he didn’t fall,” says Robert.
“No, he didn’t. And Tyrell Smith would have booked Blondin for Cremorne, if the great man hadn’t been embroiled in,” his father winces, “something of a controversy.”
“What kind of controversy?” the boy asks greedily.
“The kind that’s probably unsuitable for an eight-year-old’s ears.”
Their walk has brought them to Cremorne Pier, where a steamer is pulling away, stirring and churning the water. Its cargo of high-spirited pleasure seekers traipse past in the direction of the gardens, but Robert is too distracted to pay them any attention. That cannot be the end of it. “Please tell, sir!”
His father defers to Hettie. “What do you think, my dear?”
Robert feels as if he may burst with the effort of trying to contain himself.
“Since I have no idea how the story ends, you’ll have to be the judge.”
“I suppose I must.” His father strides towards the far end of the pier, then turns decisively. “Blondin was performing at Dublin’s Royal Portobello Gardens when his tightrope snapped. Blondin was unharmed, but two of his assistants weren’t so lucky. Sadly,” Walter leans on the railings and peers down into the murk of the Thames, “there was no water to break their fall.”
“Goodness!” Hettie reaches for Robert’s shoulder; pulls him towards her. He trips over his own feet in an effort not to tread on her skirts. “Was there no safety net?”
“Blondin refuses to work with one.”
His father angles his head, as if considering her viewpoint. “He believes that if he plans for disaster, he’ll attract it.” Then he addresses Robert and Robert alone. “The tightrope was faulty, but that sort of thing leaves a bad taste. Tyrell Smith booked the next best thing, a woman who went by the name of Madame Genevieve – because, as everyone knows, France produces the world’s best ropedancers. Madame Genevieve was to attempt to cross the Thames by tightrope, starting from the Battersea side.”
Robert turns to the toll-bridge and counts: seven, eight, nine arches before the central point under which sailing barges pass, eight beyond. Quite an expanse, by anyone’s standards.
“It was obvious, the best view was going to be had from the river. I was in a small boat.” His father points in the direction of the turpentine works. “About there.”
The boy fixes on the point, imagines himself in a rowing boat.
“I doubt Madame Genevieve’s tightrope was as high as Blondin’s, but you wouldn’t have got me up there for all the tea in China.”
“What about all the tea in India?”
“All right, clever clogs.” His father pulls Robert’s cap down over his eyes. “Madame Genevieve’s tightrope was shaped like Brunel’s famous suspension bridge.” Robert rights his cap in time to see Walter demonstrate how the tightrope curved up and down. “At each high point was a narrow ledge where Madame Genevieve could pause and rest, while evenly-spaced tethers pulled the rope taut.”
Tight rope. Robert’s mind makes new sense of the word. Of course! So delighted is he with his discovery, it’s as if he’s invented the word anew.
“Our first inkling that something was wrong was when Madame Genevieve stopped about two-thirds of the way across for what seemed a little too long. Our boat began to rock as people took to their feet in protest – they thought her reluctance was an act. But the danger was real.”
Boggle-eyed, Robert demands, “What happened?”
“A whisper passed down the length of our boat: ‘A tether’s been cut.’”
His mother flattens her hand just below the base of her throat. “Deliberately?”
“So it seemed. What looked like a tug-of-war team gathered on the bank and pulled the rope tight. With dusk fast approaching Madame Genevieve had to continue, but the second she stepped onto the rope it began to sway. Nobody dared breathe. Then came the terrible moment when Madame Genevieve dropped her balance-pole. As it crashed into the Thames an unholy hullabaloo broke out. Fortunately, Madame Genevieve’s training served her well. She caught the tightrope in both hands. It swung wildly as she dangled there, but somehow she managed to lower herself into a boat. And the relief,” his father pats his chest, “was enormous.”
The boy can believe it. He finds he too has been holding his breath. But Walter claps three times, breaking whatever spell he had them under.
“Well, Signor Jacopo.” He is teasing, referring to a boyhood memory. A small monkey who used to parachute from a hot air balloon dressed in a scarlet hat and coat. “Enough excitement for one day?”
Good though it was, his father’s story is hardly a substitute for a balloon ride. Robert is undeterred. “No, sir.”
Walter turns to Hettie, as if to say, I tried, but Hettie grips the handle of her parasol and tightens her mouth.
Small Eden will be out on 30 April 2022. Pre-order from 5 April 2022 to have it delivered to you on the date of release.
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