This is the Preface and Chapter One of Clairey Blanchard’s first novel which you can download free to read on your Kindle or mobile device. Find out more about Clairey — buy the full ebook here.
In an age of change, ‘The Triangle’ appears idyllic, nourished by friendship and beer. But behind the Victorian facade, lives are not as perfect as they seem. Poppy lives a humble life and aspires to improve herself through reading novels of the day, as women begin to find their voice in traditional society. Believing she has the qualities he seeks, she catches the attention of her flawed master, Charlie Butternorth, heir to Aldbury Park, a family home uninhabited by love and happiness. His is determined to prove his desire is in earnest with Poppy, unlike inebriated nights spent with forgettable women, to escape his traumatic loss, yet he still has to conceal sinister activities and a deviant affair, to protect his reputation and inheritance.
Poppy’s devoted aunt harbors her own memories of the Butternorths and consequences she must declare, before her natural end. Revelations and observations criss cross the artisan’s settlement, above and below ground, where good men toil on behalf of The Triangle’s benefactor to create surreptitious portals for figures of imperial power.
As her conscience becomes heavier and secretive, Poppy is faced with difficult choices about her future and accepting the past. She must turn to someone she trusts, to help her understand the complicated family and decide her fate.
Will she succumb to ruinous risks or saved in time by kind souls, who have already experienced the extent of Charlie’s damaged regard for love. What lies beneath the streets and who must protect their secrets the most?
Chapter One — Friday Night
Beyond steamed up windows of The Antlers’ public house, The Triangle’s inhabitants poured in, downing ale, engaging in gossip and who knew what else, by the end of the night? Albert tiptoed to reach a glass;
‘Evening Frank, usual?’
‘Indeed,’ he confirmed, eagerly rubbing his artisan’s hands down a sheepskin gilet, in preparation for a jug of bitter hops, after un-tacking his horse in the adjoining courtyard and leaving her to indulge in a lush bag of oats. Navvies, built of solid brawn were next through the door, exhausted from another punishing shift on the deep railway cutting. For twelve hours a day, every Irish labourer hauled trees, cleared earth and reinforced forty foot trenches with freshly baked bricks. Their sustenance was a diet of dark ale, interspersed with salty porridge and meat pies; drinking was their priority;
‘Evening men, porters all round?’
‘Aye,’ answered Jim on behalf of the other two. Their hard earned money was exchanged for three jugs of locally brewed Triangle porter, quaffed in perfect harmony and repeated throughout the night. As Emily pushed open the door, she laughed;
‘I’m dry as bloody brick dust,’ to her sweetheart, Edward. She was free, at last from heaving dirty linens around Aldbury Park, settled now by the crackling, amber fire, revelling in the buoyant atmosphere inside their local;
‘Thank God, the bloody week’s over,’ she remarked, dabbing cloudy cider overflowing around her mouth with the back of her coat and complaining into her sweetheart’s ear;
‘Lady Butternorth’s so bleedin’ fussy; I ‘ave to set fresh linens on ‘er bed twice a day, ’cause of ‘er afternoon rest. Still, get to nose ’round ‘er wardrobe; tried on ‘er sable coat today.’ Stroking the tangled ends of her untamed hair, she remembered staring at her earlier gaunt reflection, swamped by luxurious fur;
‘Like a proper lady I looked, darlin.’ Edward worked equally hard for his sixteen pounds per year, to satisfy his employer’s high standards. He listened patiently while she continued venting;
‘It’s alright for ‘er ain’t it? She don’ ‘ave to stir the dolly in the washtub for hours. My ‘ands ain’t ever goin’ be as soft as ‘ers.’ Opening her palm, Edward blew lightly onto her red, roar and broken skin. She closed her eyes in a moment of relief from the constant stinging;
‘I love you wha’ever your ‘ands look like, my girl,’ leaning in closer;
‘Ain’t your ‘ands I wan’ grab hold of an’way,’ grabbing a breast under her coat as she picked up her jug again, wriggling flirtatiously;
‘Eh you, not ‘ere,’ restraining her straightforward lover. Aromas of tangy ale, soup and fag smoke filled the homely lounge, gradually brimming with satisfied locals; fingers and toes softened and faces glowed with full stomachs.
At ten thirty prompt, Albert’s wife June clanged the bell and called time, causing haste in last orders. Plenty of tots were dispensed and knocked back, ensuring lasting warmth stayed within bones on the way home.
On this biting evening, freezing fog divided the air in two, carriages appeared to charge roofless along the main track, containing ladies returning from a day’s dress fitting and gentlemen from idle business in a club. All tracks from the pub wound around crisscrossing streets, narrowing to a sharp corner adjacent to the main thoroughfare and back along a serviceable road to loosely form a triangular outline, where the settlement breathed within rows of cottages edged with grander houses facing Aldbury Park. Drinkers evaporated into the smudgy fog, routes home were judged by direction and distance in footsteps; any other reason for walking in The Triangle tonight would be questionable. Frank’s horse was comfortably bedded down, ready for another day’s fetching and carrying at dawn;
‘See you in the mornin’ girl,’ he called over, thinning the last pinch of tobacco from a hand made leather pouch along rustling rolling paper to enjoy his final smoke of the night. He carried on walking along the back wall of the pub, touching the railings at the entrance of Little Passage to steer himself straight ahead; it was like an airless tunnel tonight. The burning end of his fag was concealed by fog, until tiny specks of brightness appeared, like a distant constellation from cottages at the far end. Just before he stepped out from the suffocating path, a terrible moan came from the adjacent cottage, where inside, pain must have been apparent.
Cupping his fag to hide the remaining glow before he dared to emerge, he hovered like a ghost, until only the creaking pulse of The Antlers’ sign could be heard in the heart of The Triangle’s stillness. Listening for voices, he waited, only to hear a muted huddle of distress;
‘Wha’s goin’ on in there?’ he pondered, watching the evident snuffing out of candlelight; ‘Don’t sound righ’ t’ me.’ Realising his feet would need thawing out in front of his small stove later, he loitered, wondering who was using the place, since his pal Clive had vacated to reside in Aldbury Park. It was not until his feet were numb, that the sound of a bottle smashing prompted further activity, before the door opened and two cloaked figures departed into the cold abyss. Frank’s ears burned from lack of circulating warmth, but caught a few words from his secluded distance;
‘The carriage is waiting for you down here…’ Tha’s a woman that is, he ascertained. Slowly, he walked past the front window with his head down, straining his eyes to catch any presence left within, before casually reversing his tracks, as if he’d noticed a unattended shilling, right up to the window to see into the bare front room. He chiseled out a little portal through the frosted glass, revealing a broken bottle glued to the floor by candle wax, smashed as the figures had left. Any attempt to enter would be potentially bloody;
‘Can’t see nothin’ in there,’ he whispered against the frozen window, his breath falling to the ground. He continued walking in the direction of bed, when, looking down at the outline of his boots against the frosted path, droplets of the darkest blue were scattered in abandonment. His stride stopped in a pool of the same, opaque liquid; he crouched to dip his fingers in it, lifting them up before his face;
‘Blood,’ he remarked with concern, ‘tha’s wha’ I’ve been followin’. He racked his mind about the cottage and its unidentified visitors right through until six the next morning, as he tacked up Molly, still distracted. The silent density of fog, eerie loneliness of walking home and potency of strong ale all meant, that until he’d spoken to Clive, he could not rest, or confirm whom he had seen, in a state of anguish, while hiding in Little Passage.
No further than a mile from where Frank had walked a blooded trail, the mansion looked down with paternal protectiveness, over its offspring of subordinate houses from its elevated vantage in Aldbury Park. Footsteps along a dark, wood panelled corridor tapped like a military drum, as Charlie Butternorth reached his locked bedroom door through blurred vision, slumping into a leather armchair, wheezing with satisfied exhaustion; the state he’d acquired from the company of forgettable women, of whom another was already fading from his sedated mind tonight; he mumbled;
‘Damn women, will I ever find peace?’ As his eyelids fell out of disinterest in the lonely darkness, he complained;
‘Another slut paid off,’ with resentment, until staff dared to rouse him with a remedy of tea, kippers and a sharp inhalation of prescribed stimulant, restoring his appealing equilibrium. He would not remember the nameless young woman, but his sometime lover would never forget the agony of every step she’d taken to reach the carriage, steadying herself on the kind woman’s arm, leaving The Triangle poorer in virtue but abundant in sovereigns, as compensation for her silence.