The muse, p.1
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       The Muse, p.1

           Jessie Burton
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The Muse


  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollinsPublishers

  ....................................

  The Muse

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollinsPublishers

  ....................................

  ALSO BY JESSIE BURTON

  The Miniaturist

  Advance Reader’s e-proof

  courtesy of HarperCollinsPublishers

  This is an advance reader’s e-proof made from digital files of the uncorrected proofs. Readers are reminded that changes may be made prior to publication, including to the type, design, layout, or content, that are not reflected in this e-proof, and that this e-pub may not reflect the final edition. Any material to be quoted or excerpted in a review should be checked against the final published edition. Dates, prices, and manufacturing details are subject to change or cancellation without notice.

  THE MUSE

  Jessie Burton

  An Imprint of Harper­CollinsPublishers

  UNCORRECTED E-PROOF—NOT FOR SALE

  HarperCollinsPublishers

  ....................................

  Copyright

  This book is a work of fiction. The characters, incidents, and dialogue are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  THE MUSE. Copyright © 2016 by Peebo & Pilgrim Limited. All rights reserved. Printed in the United States of America. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. For information address Harper­Collins Publishers, 195 Broadway, New York, NY 10007.

  Harper­Collins books may be purchased for educational, business, or sales promotional use. For information please e-­mail the Special Markets department at SPsales@harpercollins.com.

  FIRST EDITION

  Designed by Shannon Nicole Plunkett

  Library of Congress Cataloging-­in-­Publication Data has been applied for.

  ISBN 978-­0-­06-­240992-­8

  16 17 18 19 20 OV/RRD 10 9 8 7 6 5 4 3 2 1

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  Dedication

  Dedication To Come

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  Epigraph

  Never again will a single story be told as though it were the only one.

  —­JOHN BERGER

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  CONTENTS

  PART I – CABBAGES AND KINGS

  June 1967

  I00

  II00

  III00

  IV00

  V00

  VI00

  January 1936

  100

  200

  300

  400

  500

  600

  PART II – BELONGING

  August 1967

  VII00

  VIII00

  IX00

  February 1936

  700

  800

  900

  1000

  1100

  PART III – THE LION GIRLS

  October 1967

  X00

  XI00

  April 1936

  1200

  1300

  1400

  1500

  1600

  1700

  PART IV – THE SWALLOWED CENTURY

  November 1967

  XII00

  XIII00

  XIV00

  XV00

  XVI00

  XVII00

  September 1936

  1800

  1900

  2000

  2100

  2200

  2300

  PART V – RUFINA AND THE LION

  November 1967

  XVIII00

  XIX00

  PART VI – THE STICKING PLACE

  2400

  AFTERWORD – 00

  XX00

  Bibliography 00

  Acknowledgments 00

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  PART I

  Cabbages and Kings

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  June 1967

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  I

  Not all of us receive the ends that we deserve. Many moments that change a life’s course – a conversation with a stranger on a ship, for example – are pure luck. And yet – no one writes you a letter, or chooses you as their confessor, without good reason. This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play.

  When my day came, it was so hot that my armpits had made moons on the blouse the shoe shop supplied to every employee. ‘It don’t matter what size,’ the woman said, dabbing herself with a handkerchief. My shoulders were aching, my fingertips chafing. I stared; sweat had turned the pale hair at her brow the colour of a wet mouse. London heat; it never has anywhere to go. I didn’t know it, but this woman was the last customer I would ever have to serve.

  ‘I’m sorry?’

  ‘Just said,’ the woman sighed. ‘Any size’ll do.’

  It was nearing closing time, which meant all the crumbs of dry skin – toe jam, as we called it – would have to be hoovered out of the carpet. Cynth always said we could have moulded a whole foot out of those scrapings, a monster to dance a jig of its own. She liked her job at Dolcis Shoes, and she’d got me mine – but within an hour of our shift, I craved the cool of my room, my cheap notebooks, my pencil waiting by the narrow bed. ‘Girl, you got to pick your face up,’ Cynth would whisper. ‘Or you working in the funeral parlour next door?’

  I backed away to the stock cupboard, a place where I would often escape, immune as I was by now to its noxious smell of rubbered soles. I thought I might go in and scream silently at the wall of boxes.

  ‘Wait! Oi, wait,’ the woman called after me. When she was sure she had my attention, she bent low and slipped off her scuffed pump, revealing a foot that had no toes. Not one. A smooth stump, a block of flesh resting innocently on the faded carpet.

  ‘See,’ she said, her voice defeated as she kicked off the second shoe to reveal an identical state of affairs. ‘I just . . . stuff the ends with paper, so it don’t matter what size you bring.’

  It was a sight, and I have not forgotten it; the Englishwoman who showed me her toeless feet. At the time, perhaps I was repulsed. We always say the young have little truck with ugliness, have not learned to mask shock. I wasn’t that young, really; twenty-­six. I don’t know what I did in the moment, but I do recall telling Cynth, on the way home to the flat we shared off Clapham Common, and her whooping with delighted horror at the thought of those toeless feet. ‘Stumpy McGee!’ she shouted. ‘She comin’ to get yuh, Delly!’ And then, with an optimistic pragmatism; ‘At least she wear any shoe she want.’

  Perhaps that w
oman was a witch coming to herald the change in my path. I don’t believe so; a different woman did that. But her presence does seem a macabre end to that chapter of my life. Did she see in me a kindred vulnerability? Did she and I occupy a space where our only option was to fill the gap with paper? I don’t know. There does remain the very slim possibility that all she wanted was a new pair of shoes. And yet I always think of her as something from a fairy tale, because that was the day that everything changed.

  OVER THE LAST FIVE YEARS since sailing to England from Port of Spain, I’d applied for many other jobs, and heard nothing. As the train from Southampton chugged into Waterloo, Cynth had mistaken house chimneys for factories, the promise of plenty of work. It was a promise that turned out to be harder to fulfil. I often fantasized about leaving Dolcis, once applying to a national newspaper to work as a tea-­girl. Back home, with my degree and self-­regard, I would never have dreamed of serving any soul tea, but Cynth had said, ‘A one-­eye stone-­deaf limping frog could do that job, and they still won’t it give to you, Odelle.’

  Cynth, with whom I had gone to school, and with whom I had travelled to England, had become besotted with two things: shoes, and her fiancé, Samuel, whom she had met at our local church off Clapham High Street. Sam turned out to be a great bonus, given the place was normally full of old tanties telling us about the good old days. Because of finding him, Cynth did not strain at the bit as I did, and it could be a source of tension between us. I would often declare that I couldn’t take it any more, that I wasn’t like her, and Cynth would say, ‘Oh, because I some sheep and you so clever?’

  I had telephoned so many advertisements which stated experience was not essential, and ­people sounded so nice – and then I’d turn up and miracle, miracle! every single job had been taken. And yet, call it folly, call it my pursuit of a just inheritance, but I kept on applying. The latest – and the best I’d ever seen – was a typist post at the Skelton Institute of Art, a place of pillars and porticoes. I’d even visited it once, on my monthly Saturday off. I’d spent the day wandering the rooms, moving from Gainsborough to Chagall, via aquatints by William Blake. On the train home to Clapham, a little girl gazed at me as if I was a painting. Her small fingers reached out and rubbed my earlobe, and she asked her mother, ‘Does it come off?’ Her mother didn’t chide: she looked like she damn well wanted the earlobe to give its answer.

  I hadn’t scrapped with the boys to gain a first-­class English Literature degree from the University of the West Indies for nothing. I hadn’t endured a child’s pinch in a train carriage for nothing. Back home, the British Consulate itself had awarded me the Commonwealth Students’ first prize for my poem, ‘Caribbean Spider-­Lily’. I’m sorry, Cynth, but I was not going to put shoes on sweaty Cinderellas for the rest of my life. There were tears, of course, mainly sobbed into my sagging pillow. The pressure of desire curdled inside me, I was ashamed of it, and yet it defined me. I had bigger things I wanted to do, and I’d done five years of waiting. In the meantime, I wrote revenge poems about the English weather, and lied to my mother that London was heaven.

  THE LETTER WAS ON THE mat when Cynth and I got home. I kicked off my shoes and stood stock-­still in the hallway. The postmark was London W.1, the centre of the world. The Victorian tiles under my bare feet were cold; my toes flexed upon the brown and blue. I slid one finger under the flap of the envelope, lifting it like a broken leaf. It was the Skelton Institute letterhead.

  ‘Well?’ Cynth said.

  I didn’t reply, one fingernail pressed into the floral Braille of our landlord’s Anaglypta wallpaper, as I read to the end in shock.

  The Skelton Institute

  Skelton Square

  London, W.1

  16th June, 1967

  Dear Miss Bastien,

  Thank you for sending your application letter and curriculum vitae.

  To thrive, under whatever circumstances life presents us, is all anyone can hope for. You are clearly a young woman of great ability, amply armoured. To that degree, I am delighted to invite you to a week’s trial role in the typist position.

  There is much to learn, and most of it must be learned alone. If this arrangement suits you, please advise me by return of post whether the offer is to be accepted, and we will proceed from there. The starting salary is £10 p/w.

  With warm wishes,

  Marjorie Quick

  £10 a week. At Dolcis, I only got six. Four pounds would make the difference of a world, but it wasn’t even the money. It was that I was a step closer to what I’d been taught were Important Things – culture, history, art. The signature was in thick black ink, the ‘M’ and ‘Q’ extravagant, almost Italianate in grandeur. The letter smelled faintly of a peculiar perfume. It was a bit dog-­eared, as if this Marjorie Quick had left it in her handbag for some days before finally deciding to take it to the post.

  Goodbye shoe shop, goodbye drudgery. ‘I got it,’ I whispered to my friend. ‘They want me. I blimmin’ got it.’

  Cynth screamed and took me in her arms. ‘Yes!’

  I let out a sob. ‘You did it. You did it,’ she went on, and I breathed her neck, like air after thunder in Port of Spain. She took the letter and said, ‘What kind of a name is Marjorie Quick?’

  I was too happy to answer. Dig your nail in that wall, Odelle Bastien; break apart that paper flower. But I wonder, given what happened, the trouble it led you to, would you do it again? Would you turn up at eight twenty-­five on the morning of Monday 3 July 1967, adjusting that new hat of yours, feet wiggling in your Dolcis shoes, to work in the Skelton for £10 a week and a woman called Marjorie Quick?

  Yes, I would. Because I was Odelle and Quick was Quick. And to think you have a second path is to be a fool.

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  II

  I envisaged I would be working in a whole atrium of clattering typists, but I was alone. Many of the staff were away, I supposed, taking annual holidays in exotic places like France. Every day, I would walk up the stone steps towards the Skelton’s large doors, upon whose panes was blazoned in gold lettering ARS VINCIT OMNIA. Hands on the vincit and the omnia, I pushed inside to a place that smelled of old leather and polished wood, where to my immediate right was a long reception desk and a wall of pigeonholes looming behind it, already filled with the morning’s post.

  The view in the room I’d been assigned was terrible – a brick wall smeared black with soot, and a long drop when you looked down. I could see an alleyway, where porters and secretaries from the neighbouring building would line up and smoke. I could never hear their conversations, only watch their body language, the ritual of a patted pocket, heads together like a kiss as the cigarette was flourished and the lighter caught, a leg bent coquettishly backwards against a wall. It was such a hidden place.

  Skelton Square was tucked behind Piccadilly, on the river side. Standing there since George III was king, it had been lucky in the Blitz. Beyond the rooftops the sounds of the Circus could be heard; bus engines and honking motor cars, the keening calls of milk boys. There was a false sense of security in a place like this, in the heart of London’s West End.

  FOR NEARLY THE WHOLE OF the first week the only person I spoke to was a girl called Pamela Rudge. Pamela was the receptionist, and she would always be there, reading the Express at her counter, elbows on the wood, gum popping in her mouth before the big fellers showed and she threw it in the bin. With a hint of suffering, as if she’d been interrupted in a difficult activity, she would fold the newspaper like a piece of delicate lace and look up at me. ‘Good morning, Adele,’ she’d say. Twenty-­one years old, Pam Rudge was the latest in a long line of East-­Enders, an immobile beehive lacquered to her head and enough black eyeline
r to feed five pharaohs.

  Rudge was fashionable, overtly sexual. I wanted her mint-­green minidress, her pussy-­bow blouses in shades of burnt orange, but I didn’t have the confidence to show my body like that. All my flair was locked inside my head. I wanted her lipstick shades, her blusher, but English powders and creams transported me into strange, grey zones where I looked like a ghost. In the make-­up department in Arding & Hobbs at the Junction, I’d find things called ‘Buttermilk Nude’, ‘Blonde Corn’, ‘Apricot Bloom’, ‘Willow Lily’ and other such bad face poetry.

  I decided that Pamela was the kind of person whose idea of a good night out was to gorge her face on a saveloy in Leicester Square. She probably spent her salary on hair spray and bad novels, but was too stupid to even read them. Perhaps I communicated some of these thoughts – because Pamela, in turn, would either maintain wide-­eyed surprise at seeing me every day, as if astonished by my audacity to keep coming back, or express comatose boredom at the appearance of my face. Sometimes she would not even look up as I lifted the flap of the reception desk and let it drop with the lightest bang just at the level of her right ear.

  Cynth once told me that I looked better in profile, and I said that made me sound like I was a coin. But now it makes me wonder about my two sides, the arch impression I probably gave Pamela, the spare change of myself that no one yet had pocketed. The truth was, I felt so prim before a girl like Rudge.

  She knew no other blacks, she told me on the Thursday of that first week. When I said that I hadn’t known any either by that name till I came here, she looked completely blank.

  BUT DESPITE THE CLUNKY DANCE with Pamela, I was ecstatic to be there. The Skelton was Eden, it was Mecca and Pemberley; the best of my dreams come to life. A room, a desk, a typewriter, Pall Mall in the morning as I walked from Charing Cross, a boulevard of golden light.

 
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