Change. History. Time. Feet.

I need to grow up and get better shoes. You can’t traipse around London for three days solid in worn-out Converse and not expect your feet to hate you by the end of it. Those soles are thin at their best, when they’re new, but when you’ve worn them the equivalent of ten times round the United Kingdom, you are definitely on course for some intense post-walk pangs de pied.

I spent a long weekend in London, two nights in a hotel were presented as a birthday gift by my boyfriend as a subtle hint to switch my brain off. It takes acts of bossy kindness like that from loving others for me to take the hint and accept I need downtime; enforced mini breaks, maternal rants, being strapped into a deckchair for a summer lobotomy. That kind of thing.

As part of the prescribed relaxation I decide to do away with the tube and walk everywhere. I wanted to see London. I didn’t want to zoom through underground tunnels and magically reach my destination without seeing anything; I wanted to join the dots overground. With my feet.

I wouldn’t ordinarily have the time to do it; trips into town are usually for one purpose and bookended by rushing. A rush to get there, a rush to get back. Occasionally I’ll manage to see friends when going in for a meeting or to do a show, but mostly I go there for the thing itself then dash away again. Time. It’s tricky to get it right, isn’t it?

But this weekend I walked. I strolled that bad boy London. I perambulated the nation’s capital like a boss. I mooched the living bejesus out of the big smoke.

And I remembered to look up. I was like a magpie for all the hidden bits; the old street signs, the plaques memorialising long-gone taverns, the chimneys and church steeples and turret rooms and broken windows and strange shops and old walls and hidden doorways and mysterious doorbells. Grandeur and hovels, side by side. Valiant preservation and cruel unthinking destruction. Things simply fading away under the weight of newness. Change. History. Time. My eyes were hungry for it all. I loved London that day in a way I had not allowed myself for a long time. Because I took the time to.

At one point, after picking up the pace again after a well-earned pint of lager and lime in Drury Lane, I wondered if my walking London might be a bit like where Forrest Gump starts running and keeps on going until he gets tired and just stops in the middle of a desert road, all beardy and pooped but with a yawn of strange clarity. I wondered if I might be silently protesting against something, hitting my feet against endless pavements driven by some inner voice until the voice just quietens and I would look down and realise I’d worn my legs down like pencil lead. Walking is meditative; it doesn’t just take your body to other places, it carries your mind away too. I think I needed it. Time and space and walking.

And then of course you get home after three days of being the Barbican’s answer to Bear Grylls and take your shoes off and wince and think maybe you should buy yourself some nice Scholls. “You’re 37 now, Hasler. It’s time. Those arches could drop at any minute.” You look at your feet – the same ones you’ve had all your life, the ones that have walked you everywhere – and you see your own history there, every room and street and moment you have ever walked through used those very feet – and you might even remember to thank them.

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FRAN & LENI – VAULT FESTIVAL LONDON – 25-29 JAN

THE PLAY THAT PUNCHED THE TITS OF LATITUDE & EDINBURGH FESTIVALS COMES TO LONDON… 

1976. Fran & Leni meet in a North London comp. 

3 years later they are The Rips. Girls with guitars, bored of playing nice. 

“Profanity meets poetry” ★★★★ – The Stage
“Laugh out loud funny…provocative…deeply sad” ★★★★ – To Do List 
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Two very different girls escape from everything sugar & spice in this full-throttle tale of lifelong friendship. 

By Sadie Hasler. “Twisted genius” – GQ 
Directed by Sarah Mayhew. “Inspired” – Fringe Review 

Featuring the voices of Phill Jupitus, Lizzie Roper, Alan Cox, Ricky Champ, & Marc Mollica. 

Original music written by Tuppenny Bunters, with lyrics by Sadie Hasler. 

Vault Festival London – 25-29 January – 19:45 – BOOK
TRAILER – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj2Qda7Fomw

Gin & Time

I’m sitting in The Swan, the pub attached to Shakespeare’s Globe, waiting for a friend to arrive. I can tell I’ve been broken by our nation’s capital when the Frenchman behind the bar tells me my gin and tonic is eight pounds and I think to myself “Huh. That’s not too bad.”

There are actors in here, having their drinks and letting their voices fall from BOOM to mini-boom. Some city boys have straggled with loose ties over the river and are devoting themselves to making it difficult for lone women to get to the toilets without having to squeeze and bend themselves between their leering grins. I shoot them evils over my notebook. They don’t notice. Couples finger their oversized wine glasses over mild conversations about prospective furniture and which of their friends are planning cripplingly expensive weddings; table-top designs and plans; life’s blueprints being unscrolled in the amber glow of a riverside pub. People wrap up their days in boozy duvets before stumbling home to bed.

I wait for my friend to arrive, whom I have just seen being enthusiastically disembowelled in a Christopher Marlowe play round the corner. Bankside’s historic Rose theatre, home to the first outings of many of Shakespeare’s and Marlowe’s plays, is being peeled back to its original glory by a slow trickle of funding and tentative archeology. It smells gloriously gritty and dank in there, like it’s just been found and the ooze of the ground is our olfactory narrator of all the sleeping centuries, unfurling in our nostrils and keen for the role.

My friend’s never acted in a play before. He’s an author and historian, but had decided in the spirit of ‘saying yes’ to take the director up on the offer of a scholar who gets his bits hacked out in a lesser known bloodbath called The Massacre at Paris. I love the audaciousness of it. A writer deciding he fancied doing a play. I wanted to wave flags at his bravery when he came on stage but instead just silently willed him from my seat at the back. He’s still at the theatre, helping to clear up the confetti blood, and I wait with my gin in one of my favourite places in the world.

I’ve spent very happy moments around the South Bank. I wonder why I am drawn here more than any other part of London. It may be the lure of the National Theatre and its bookshop, the presence of the Globe with its weighty history, the old pubs and ships and remnants of merchants and pirates and kings and death, the river itself, wearing its landmarks casually dotted around like it’s almost bored with how wonderful its history is. It’s all of it. Yes, that’s why I love it. The ‘all of it’ness of it. And I have my own small memories stowed around the place too. Seeing shows, lying on the grass outside the Tate, browsing the bookstalls, sunny afternoons with friends, rainy afternoons with friends, tipsy late night walks, eating, walking, talking.

I used to work just around the corner years ago when I’d just left university. Just up past Borough Market when it was still a bit rubbish, a truer London, before it got scrubbed up and Jamie Olivered to the max. I felt so grown up tottering over London Bridge in my new smart heels, which were always kicked off under my desk the moment I arrived. My first real job, another life ago. Marketing, which came before teaching, which came before bookshops and acting and writing and this column. It was a job that involved a lot of drinking, as a lot of London jobs do, and my colleagues and I would find ourselves quite often down here on the South Bank in the sun. Now we’re all doing different things, our old offices rented out to some other business, and we all keep in touch from time to time.

I can’t not find a little moment to think of that old life when I find myself drinking around here now. And I always raise a quiet glass to Barry, an old colleague who was like a big brother to me who died way way too young, whose voice I can still hear, whose brown eyes I can still see creasing as he pitches his laughter high like a ball. Perhaps that is why I am drawn here too. The river holds all our old echoes. We stitch our own time to it, to keep it alive. It keeps it all safe while everything else changes.

I wait for a new friend, and think of the old ones, and drink gin that is more expensive than it used to be but is still worth it, because it’s here.

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Her Majesty’s Snipers

Her Majesty’s Passport Office, London Victoria.
It loomed over the posh square it abutted like a moody butler over a rich kid’s tea party. I say loomed; I walked the entire circumference of the square searching for it first before I found it right back where I’d started. That’s only when I noticed it was ‘looming’.

I was early. I’m never early. I started off a lifetime’s habit of being tardy when I was two weeks late being born and hindered myself yet further by trying to avail myself of my mother’s back passage. How can you help but begin a lifetime’s habit of late arrivals if you insist on starting your worldly existence by trying to come out of the wrong hole?

It looked like a government building should look. Dreary, but dangerous when pushed. I was nervous. The forms had made me nervous, and the emergency appointment made me more so. I smoothed my hair to try and make the top of my head look extra respectable for the snipers. I wanted them to know from my parting that I am not the kind of gal to smuggle in any Uzbekistanis strapped under a lorry. (I haven’t got a lorry.)

I entered the impersonal gleam of the reception and promptly started a courtly dance of repeatedly dropping my paperwork in the queue. I wondered if this made me look as undeniably clumsily British as Hugh Grant, or instead like I had been drilled to feign bumbliness by an evil terrorist uncle whose plan to take over the world rested on the success of my passport-getting skills.

I passed through scanners and didn’t get frisked. They didn’t even make me take any clothes off. I assumed they were lulling me into a false sense of security and that all the serious stuff would take place in the interrogation room where they kept the lubed gloves. They gave me a ticket with a number on it and told me what floor I should go to. I wondered if it was the floor with tasers.

I was 5417. They were only on 1208. I wondered if I should have brought my iPad or got pregnant first so I could have been doing something productive like admin or gestating while I waited. Luckily the numbers didn’t go in any sequential order that civvies could understand and I only had to wait AN HOUR. During which I lost a stone through my palms.

When summoned to the counter I was asked to fill in a section I’d missed out. About my parents. My form fear welled up afresh. I couldn’t remember when my mum and dad got married, even though I’d been there in my amniotic sac best, no doubt wibbling around to the number one of the time – Dr Hook’s When You’re In Love With A Beautiful Woman – the glint of the disco ball shooting its beams through mum’s belly turning her corpuscles into funky lanterns.

I gingerly asked the nice lady at the counter if I had to put my Dad’s name even though he was dead. She stared at me. I wrote it down without waiting for her reply – to show her I was hardened to the necessity of bureaucracy and didn’t at all have a little rush of nausea writing his name and date of birth.

She waved me to the paying desk. During the interminable wait for the payment to go through I wondered if some back-office Kafka droid had paused the phone-line to flick through my life’s misdemeanours before deciding if I could leave the country (or rather, if I could be allowed back in).

Finally it was done.

As I emerged the spring sun shone on the capital as though it had been invented solely for that purpose, forged in the great fires of the Tower of London for a coronation or something. I stilled my eyes, still blinking to the rhythm of the automated syncopated voice that had richocheted ticket numbers round my brain like execution square bullets.

A bird sang, some jasmine bristled in a stiff British breeze. The blue plaque of Winston Churchill’s former residence, 1909-1913, glinted, Britishly. I was British. Most of the time it didn’t matter a jot, but that day it mattered a lot. The nice lady who had handled my forms, who was still within two generations of her African or Afro-Caribbean (but ultimately African, like all of us) roots, saw no reason to doubt me; to doubt the verity of my citizenship, to doubt my intentions, to doubt my character. She passed me through. The older gentleman on the scanners, whose skin glowed more with Bombay sunsets than the electric glows of Croydon or Hounslow, waved me through with barely a glance. The young man on the desk who issued me with my number, whose pretty hue was so gently molten with genetic possibility I could not guess a likely country where the headwater of his heritage had first sprung, handled my dehumanising categorisation – number not person – with perfect boredom.

It was ultimately just a dreary system for keeping everything nice. It failed sometimes but it was better than not having it at all.

I breathed a delayed sigh of relief. Despite the very modern customs of doubt that have sprung from still-raw world events to swamp our old more natural trust, despite my anxious half-assumption that I might have my shoes spliced open by a ballistics expert, my life and family details scrutinised as though I was obscuring dubious facts for dark purposes, my knicker label scanned onto a global database along with my retinas, fingerprints and lipstick kiss, despite all this utter clunk – we were all in it together. And all this processing – bureaucracy’s scary paranoid add-ons, ceremonial cynicisms that slow it all down further- for all its seeming divisiveness, that stuff only really exists to ensure we could stay that way; in it together. Mingling, as we like to do, more like unbiddable waves than the solid dry plates we’re so obsessed with scribbling maps upon.

I moseyed along, for a while not late for anything. Old learnt tunes swelled in my head. Rule Britannia. The national anthem. I hummed. And with a retrospectively Sex Pistolsy anarchic flare wondered if I should yell back “I’M ONLY HUMMING BECAUSE I DON’T KNOW THE FUCKING WORDS, YOU PRICKS”. But I want to go to Milan next week. And I didn’t really fancy being shot in the eyeball. So I didn’t.

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Legacy Theatreland

One of the many things I love about writing is that it invokes all your cerebral bustle while indulging your lazy side. You can for example have the most productive day while propped up by five pillows in old pants, long socks, and a Dolly Parton T-shirt covered in biscuit crumbs. In fact, some of my best work has been done while looking like I’ve just had a breakdown over the last Hobnob.

One of the other things I love is hearing the words I’ve spent weeks of my life writing, transcribed voices that sprung to life from a seemingly throwaway idea on the back of a napkin, spoken aloud by people I love and admire, to a theatre full of laughing people. That is my drug, my joy, my adrenaline shot to the heart.

Last week, my play The Bastard Children of Remington Steele had a run at London’s Leicester Square Theatre. It was a week that will keep me floating into next year. As with anything where you put yourself ‘out there’, you hate yourself for feeling validated by sales and response, but you sort of have to put that out of your head. It is part of it. The gumption to do it in the first place, closely shadowed by self-loathing. They keep each other in check.

In amongst hating the self-promotion and the fear, I allowed myself a rare slither of pride. Turning up with your cast and a trunk in London’s Theatreland is ruddy exciting. It feels official. It makes the weeks of muttering to yourself seem less like madness and more like an investment.

What allowed the pride to rise like a warm bun in my heart as we drove down Charing Cross on our first night was a little thing, really. I glanced out of the window and saw the red bricks of the Palace Theatre and for a few fleeting moments it was my fourteenth birthday again. I’d been spoilt, taken to the recently opened Planet Hollywood by my lovely mum, who afterwards guided me through the west-end with a mysterious air. There, on the corner outside the theatre, stood my dad. I hadn’t been expecting to see him. But there he was, holding a pint and a present. A butterfly locket. He and my mum smiled at me with the stoic partnership that separated parents must work at. They did well; I was blithely unaware of how hard it was for Mum to do that at times. Dad gestured towards the theatre and I realised we were going inside to watch Les Miserables. I almost exploded with glee.

Thinking about it now, my pride last week wasn’t an ugly indulgence. It was only rightful. It was a tribute to the hard work of my parents. It was a thank you. They worked hard to fill me with confidence and the resources to do things, make things. They gave me the sense of entitlement to the world that we should all feel. It is ours to take.

Passing the Palace, and seeing the ghost of my Dad for a moment, made me feel like I was returning to claim a tiny piece of Theatreland that he’d reserved for me.

It still seems so strange to me that a man who eventually chose to end his life could have succeeded so fruitfully in teaching me how to live mine.

I went on stage, felt the lights on my face like a hug from above. I did my play about fathers; their presence, absence, legacies. And I even remembered my lines. How could I not. They were because of, in spite of, and for him.

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Naked In A Hotel Room Window

There’s something liberating about standing at a window naked, knowing you can’t be seen.

I was glad of the optical safety of voile last week as I stood in a hotel room, reassured by the friendly obscuring science of early morning light pressed against the dimness behind me.

It was a typical London hotel, a huge Georgian townhouse that had seen better days. And worse no doubt. Staying over after a gig because of an early start in Soho, I had felt a little lonely in it at first. It was a big room for a girl on her own – it had made me feel small and wistful. I’d kicked about in it for a bit pretending I was preparing for a ball. I pottered with the generic supplementaries; the dubiously dateless UHT milk, the stationery that nobody has a use for anymore, the tiny square of squeaky soap. I touched the wallpaper, swirled my toes in the carpet, wondered if the fireplace had dislodged bricks concealing a tin of scandalous love letters from a mistress to her only love, a tall dark handsome lord. I wanted to peel back the layers to see what it had all been, once. Then I slept deeply in the drowse of heavy starch.

In the morning, water boiling indignantly in a one-cup capacity kettle, I dried off from a shower so savage it had almost sent my nipples skimming like marbles across the tiles. While my body was alert from its aqua pummelling, my brain was still lost in an indistinct fog before the day took shape as something more lucidly belonging to my life. I allowed my towel to slip to the floor, gazed out at the rooftops, watched the sun unfurl itself over the wet grey tiles. I heard the trundling of a street-cleaner’s cart, the clip-clop of hurried heeled feet, the cooing of a pigeon on the sill. It could have been London at any time in its history. People, industry, bird poo.

I like those vague morning moments, when you haven’t quite walked into yourself yet. I looked out at London and tried to picture all its scenes, to conjure it all like an incantation of time; a carousel of Hogarthian sketches twirling before me.

Pretty girls pulling on dresses a size too small, serious men shaving and doing James Bond gun fingers, children smearing jam on freshly painted walls, secret lovers squeezing hands goodbye in parked cars, a professor with a wondrous discovery in his briefcase licking cappuccino froth from his moustache, the world’s greatest unknown songwriter shuffling unnoticed on the tube, homeless people leaving the grand steps of city churches to sit by ATMs, tired workers in debt who haven’t had a day off since the month before, a queen’s guard sneezing in his fluffy hat, a beefeater feeding his pet raven and missing his dead twin, students and their wrist-snapping books feeling they’ll inherit the world, a mouse at Mornington Crescent re-padding his nest with a scrap of Pucci scarf, a lost wedding ring rolling down a drain and plinking onto a sewage engineer’s helmet, a proud barista with an unexplained shaky hand, the headless window ducks of Chinatown, the first mutating cancer cell of a lady feeding the Hyde park squirrels, the echo of Nell Gwynn’s laugh caught in the crystal ringing of an antique glass in a Marylebone shop, a crumb of Samuel Pepys’ best cheese in the cement of a Southwark pub, a bus driver sitting with Tolstoy open in his lap just in case the traffic’s bad, tourists who feel their hearts swell in this great place and try to carve their initials in its bustling heritage by buying a sweatshirt saying “I Love London”, a Zimbabwean woman feeling cold for the first time walking up her first English garden path in Hackney with a broken suitcase, a man splashing wee on his shoes in a Charing Cross loo as a pigeon flaps in, a gust of wind through a broken window of the Palace Theatre blowing a wig to the floor, a rich exec having a wank behind his new desk in the gherkin and not caring if he gets caught, a bruised thief spotting a poster for La Boheme and remembering her nan singing, all the many stowaways that London harbours moving unseen behind the countless curtains – all the people, all the ghosts, all together.

The room somehow felt different that morning. I didn’t feel lonely; I felt free. Grown-up. Deserving of the space. I lay diagonally on the bed looking up at the ornate ceiling rose, and wondered how many other hundreds of women had looked up at it, less fortunate and less happy than myself. Lost women, paid-for women, women not free to love who they love, women who’d never had the luxury of being alone and knowing that that’s alright. I was here, in a room I’d paid for myself with a job I loved. I wasn’t vulnerable in this big room; I was independent, I had choices. I was about to thwack my key on a desk, smile at a man who’d been sitting sentinel over nothing in a suit all night, and march out into the cold Soho sun.

London boiled its kettles, scraped its knives across its breakfast plates, tossed its toast crusts into its bins. It had its cross words and its kisses. It kept me company.

I got dressed, put my make-up on. I shook off the blankness and became myself for the day.

But I left a small part of myself in the layers of the room; a shadow of myself standing at the window, naked and knowing I couldn’t be seen. One of London’s eternal stowaways.

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The Angel’s Âme – A Story

A ‘story-script’ written on the theme of ‘Chancing Your Arm’ – performed at Flight of Fancy, part of London Storytelling Festival, Leicester Square Theatre, November 2012.

It is not a truth widely known that Madame Clench’s Salon of the Flesh was the most visited attraction in the London of 1826. There was no Georgian equivalent of Time Out to herald it as a hidden gem. It was hidden for a reason, and that reason was decency. Its patrons were furtive, its joys unbugled, its only souvenirs the impish memories in the minds of all who went, and in the case of Frederick Muldoon one life-ruining instance of the clap. But his is not our evening’s story…

It was, for a long time, just your ordinary whorehouse. Ramshackle, perverse, and full of the stench of sex and waste. But Madame Clench had a fancy to grasp out of the muck and onto the petticoats of finery.

MC Stoke me, if all around me ain’t scrubbers and ‘ores. I know I’m in the business of ‘ores, but by christ don’t I tire of just how whorey it all is. You! You are a whore!

Whore Don’t I know it and ain’t I good at it!

MC Your gaudy but thorough milkings of the butcher get me the fattest geese I’ll give you that, but oh how I yearn for more.

Class. A quality she neither had nor could emulate.

Madam Clench, in another life, might have amounted to something more than a crusty-mouthed madam, but class was a cruel parent, and few get over the savage kick in the extremities it doles out at birth. Yet still she dreamed.

She longed for etiquette, silk and love. What she had was coarseness, customised flour sacks, and the grunting of artless men too cowardly to get their cocks dirty at home with their wives.

Then, one day, Madam Clench spotted a chance and she took it.

It was a bright morn, and she was attempting to sashay like a lady through the flower market. She tried her best at it, but she merely looked like she was kicking away hungry spaniels. Just as she was breathing in the succulent boughs of just-burst lilies, she saw a girl and stopped mid-breath.

The girl was an angel, her golden head like a shining halo in the sunlight, her skin like porcelain might have been had it been made by a deity instead of mere men.

She was drawn to the girl like a bee to the brightest of flowers. She knew not how to approach her and instead stood gawping. Then a chance presented itself. The girl turned light as a lilting breeze and a ribbon fell from her hair. Madam Clench stumbled forward and took it up with a victorious shriek.

MC Aaaooh, girl, your ribbon!

GIRL Pardon?

French!

A chance. The chance, though it remained as ineffable as the unsettling aroma wafting aloft from Gunt Picklebot’s cellar. It pulled at her like the glint of a gem in the mud.

MC Oh, poor wretch, look at the state of you – you look lost in the ways of London. Permit me to escort you back to my humble but consoling abode, where I shall tutor you in how not to Die, for it’s certain that’s what you’ll do here, wafting around in your ridiculous innocence. Come on.

And, without quite knowing why, the girl followed her.

After tripping through the rancid gutter shit of the cheery streets, they arrived at the house that was home to anywhere between 2 and 20 whores, depending on the fluctuations in moods and morality. The best whores are the most fickle in all regards.

MC ‘Ere we go. Sit at the table. I have a table you know! I dragged it from Mrs Smythe’s rooms as she lay dying of the pox. So, dearheart, tell Madam Mumsy Clench what the syphilitic spittoon you’re doing here?

GIRL I came to London…for love.

MC You came from France – spouting tit of Romance – to London – the weeping wart on the face of England – for love?

GIRL …Oui.

MC By Christ. You’ll be dead on a barrow within a week.

The girl looked at her, her eyes filling with great big beautiful French tears, and fell on the stolen table. Madam Clench watched the display and tried to reacquaint herself with emotion. Then she caught sight of the girl’s arms, outstretched in hopelessness.

MC Marie Antoinette’s Knicker-drawer! Those arms!

The girl looked up enquiringly at Madam Clench.

GIRL Arms?

MC Yes. Arms. They’re like the dreams of angels caught in wisp-like form, like ivory butter softened by the sun, like giant pearls forged into the celestial boughs of heaven’s trees… You could make a ruddy fortune as an ‘ore you could.

Just then, a ray of sunshine burst through the window with a rudeness that reminded Madam Clench of the time she lanced Tilly Bristow’s boil. Her shudder was disrupted by Revelation. The girl! This exquisite French idiot was her chance! She was her route out of the tedious dire muck!

It was nearing two weeks later that Madam Clench plonked the girl down behind a curtain and smeared her in lanolin.

MC Gives you a nice sheen in the lamplight.

The other whores stood around with venom in their eyes. How was it that this newcomer, this Parisian prude, was attracting so much attention?

MC BECAUSE SHE’S SODDING CELESTIAL, YOU SODDEN-BLOOMERED BINTS!!

…Was how Madam Clench answered their new-sprung fears.

GIRL Madam Clench? Perhaps zis is after all not a good idea? What will men see in the unplucked obedient blonde virgin from Montmartre? I have none of the charm of zese girls.

MC And none of the venereal woes either. Just trust me, my girl. Trust me. You need not any of their sluttish ways – you have something far more valuable. Place your arm out through the curtain, just one lovely bloody arm, and let mystique do the rest.

She stared into the girl’s eyes, as blue as the river Seine had never been, and she felt a shiver run through her. Those eyes were swimming with trust.

GIRL You know, Madam Clench, in France we ‘ave a word zat sounds like ‘arm’…

MC Oh yes, dear?

GIRL Yes. It means, how you say, ‘soul’.

MC Arm?

GIRL Yes – âme. Soul. Heart.

The whores cackled in the doorway.

WHORE Soul she says! She’ll be scrubbing her soul out of her dress along with the souls of half of London’s gentry.

MC Don’t you pay them any mind. You inspire the thought of eternal bliss in the minds of gentleman, then these scrubbers will tend to whatever the men’s wretched anatomy throws up afterwards. And I’ll collect the coins. Be celestial my dear. Be celestial.

And with that Madam Clench pulled the curtain shut and withdrew from the room. She hastened herself to the parlour to attend the first influx of guests, but something did not feel right in her chest – and it wasn’t the hurriedly gobbled pasty stolen from Will Tyker’s stall.

The men soon gathered – they had been hearing of the Angel’s arm hot on the breath of London throughout the past week and were hungry for a sight of it. Madam Clench corralled them in the parlour until they were giddy with lusty promise. She went to pull the lace across the window for privacy, and when she turned around the assembled men had sprung from the room and were halfway up the stairs, their polished boots heavy on the bowing wood. She ran up after them, squeezing herself through the throng to hold them back from the curtain.

They all stood agog, staring at the arm – the soft-sheened protrusion of a faceless girl. It seemed lit by a light that was not of the room. It seemed not of the room itself, not of this world – it had the aura of a fleeting thing, a paused hummingbird’s wing, or a snowflake frozen in the air.

MEN Who is she? Does she not speak? What is your name, girl?

Madam Clench closed her eyes and bit her lip. Her name. She had never asked. She had never thought to ask. She was just Girl.

MC Tell them.

GIRL My name…is Beatrice.

Madam Clench opened her eyes, and steadied herself against the wall. Beatrice. That was her name. She had always loved her name as a girl – thought it surely the name of a lady – but had not used it since she fell into vice. She was doomed to just be Clench, the unloved woman in a thousand dirty laps.

The men wanted more. They clamoured. They stepped towards the curtain, the arm was not enough. They wanted all of her. The pulsing hand of a disgraced earl thrust out to draw it back.

Then, Madam Clench let out such a cry that the whole city seemed stopped for a moment.

The men all turned, their shock worn like gaudy carnival masks. The girl’s arm quivered, still trusting.

MC No! She’s too good for any of you. She has…soul, and I will not chance it for all my life to come.

Something in her voice spiked shame into the hearts of the men. They left. And the memory of that resplendent arm, that briefly upheld sanctity of something pure, stoppered their lust for a good while to come.

Madam Clench pulled back the curtain, looked at the girl who had her eyes shut tight, and took her hand gently.

MC Come on, cherub. You can help me in the kitchen instead. I never got good at peeling spuds. I always ‘ad me chops around a duke, dear.

And something which could so easily have been lost, was not.

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