Chapter 1 – The Pursuit of Happiness
(Excerpt from a novel by Luke Geraghty. Copyright: Luke Geraghty, August 2011. This excerpt has been published with the consent of the author)
Anna Gray plunged into Monday headfirst, knees bent, and with two less shoes than the night before. The morning rush would finish her one day. A passer-by, finding her trampled and wearing hand-me-down underwear, might say she had it coming.
‘Katharine will fight ‘em in the streets, she’ll fight ‘em in her breeches,’ said the town crier as Anna sped past, breathing in the muck that villagers had emptied onto the cobbles. Queen Katharine really needed a new shtick. Something upbeat. ‘Man cures Kelgard of pig plague,’ thought Anna. ‘Bacon sandwiches for all!’ Yeah, people would cling to that like flies to—
Anna heard the splodge first, then felt the mush start to trickle. There was a slight twitch as she looked down, realising that it was impossible to be both barefoot and fancy free. By the time Anna arrived in the shop, breathless and sweating bullets, the clock tower had rung in ten o’clock, with all signs pointing to an emotional breakdown before noon.
The girl shifted her eyes round a rainbow of cotton spools. Victoria was too busy preening herself in front of a mirror to take any notice.
‘Does this scarf make me look chubby tucked in like this?’ asked Victoria.
‘Not from where I’m standing.’
‘So you mean I look chubby from behind?’
Anna preferred to let that one slide.
‘Listen,’ snapped Victoria. ‘You may be consigned to eking out your days alone and unloved as a low caste but I am not. I can hang around with whatever boys I like and if one of them brings me presents I know he couldn’t have bought himself I’m going to accept them. I didn’t make those stupid caste rules and I am certainly not going to live by them. Mary, Anna’s here!’ Victoria’s voice lowered to a whisper. ‘This is the third day in a row you’ve been late. Why can’t you just get fired already? Then I wouldn’t have to work my butt off to compensate for a girl who couldn’t unpick a potato sack and who dreams of stumbling across a pot of gold in Stonemarket, drifting off with it on a cloud.’
It occurred to Anna that anger changed Victoria into a creature of goldfish-like intensity. You wanted to humour her, maybe feign surprise, and yet there she was, flushed and glugging down her own waste. ‘Victoria, I’ve been in the fields for two hours this morning. I’m tired, I’m hungry and I’ve lost my shoes to a badger set.’
‘This is this part where you tell me why I care. And it’s Vicki. With an i!’
‘Take a good look at my feet.’
Something inside Vicki curdled when she saw. Couldn’t be.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Anna. ‘And that smell you should’ve noticed when I first came in? Positively rank. Don’t stop to check who’s on cleaning duty this week because I safely say that it is you. I would start right away. A sailor returning from three months at sea has better taste than the boy who gave you that scarf so I hardly think a few stains here and there will matter.’
Wearing an expression Anna had once attributed to poor digestion, Vicki left to search for a bucket, shouting ‘Maryyyyy!’ as she went.
Fat is a term that’s tossed around loosely. As Anna considered Mary Munslow, who rippled in sluggish motion past a pair of scissors on the counter and returned her perusal with a vacant stare, she thought it fortunate that the term didn’t quite cut the mustard. No, human toffee apple was far more apt – red and round with a glazing Anna likened to caramelised sugar. Mary had that pouch that fosters growth long after the last joey’s sprung; seared lobster flesh not from tanning, which was a mark of the lowly fieldworker, but from a skin condition; bingo wings that hypnotised onlookers with their periodic flappings; varicose veins that looked ready to pop; a low-cut blouse that threatened to drop; and expensive spectacles on her eyes with a second pair propping up her hair all-year-round. That hair, dyed red with an alchemist’s tincture, was dying a second death on her scalp.
Head honcho. Part-time planetary body. Whatever she was, Mary knew her place and liked to remind employees of theirs.
‘I want a word with you, girl,’ she said, bidding Anna into her crumb-strewn hive.
Girl suppressed the lump in her throat and did as she was told. Somehow Lobster Lady had made it to her desk and was flipping through her log book.
‘Out of the last thirty days you’ve been late twenty two times.’
‘Yes, I know Miss Munslow but—’
‘Mz,’ corrected Anna. The term was a newfangled form of address some female scholar had invented in the city. It signified a lady was married but could live perfectly well without her husband’s income. Anna didn’t really see the point of inventing words. They weren’t proper inventions, after all. She wondered if that female scholar made any money out of it…
‘Anna!’ Mary was clicking her portly fingers in front of the girl’s face. ‘See this is what I’m talking about. Daydreaming. Randomly abandoning your work to skip off down the street. Lateness. It all adds up. And what I’m trying to do here is run a business. A happy business. A business where the employees come to work with happy smiles painted across their faces; that go about their day with a happy spring in their step and happy, happy words flowing from their mouths. We wouldn’t want to give a negative impression of this shop, would we Anna? We wouldn’t want one tardy, dirty little girl that was employed out of the goodness of the proprietor’s heart to reflect badly on her?’
‘I thought the Assignment Council forced me onto you and you had no choice—’
‘Out of the goodness of my heart. And who has turned into quite the disappointment.’
‘Sorry, Mz Munslow.’
‘I really do think I’ve been fair with you. You were the first one of your kind to work here and that was a big step for me. Think of how it reflects on my reputation when a customer comes in here with an order and is greeted by that ugly thing on your neck.’
‘Sorry, Mz Munslow.’
‘I just think we should reconsider this whole thing.’
‘I’ll try harder,’ said Anna forlornly. ‘I’ll come in early, leave before dawn to make it here and work till dusk. Give me a week, I’ll show you.’
‘I don’t know.’
Anna contemplated her fate in silence.
‘I did not tell you to stop.’
‘I’ll work for three quarters of the salary. I’ll go across the street each day and buy you those cakes you love so much out of my own wage. My family will kill me if I lose this job. I’ve got three younger brothers—’
‘That’s hardly my concern.’
‘Look at me. Look into my eyes.’
Mary took a good long look. She didn’t see anything.
‘I swear I’ll work hard. Let me prove it to you. One final chance, that’s all I’m asking for.’ Anna was down on her hands and knees. Lobster Lady had risen and was lurching dangerously overhead, relishing the moment.
‘Oh, fine.’ Mary swatted the horrible acceptance away with her hands. ‘One final chance and if you mess up you’re gone. Now get out of here, you’re scrunching up my carpet.’
‘Thank you,’ said Anna, shaking her fists with abandon. Before the girl could step back into the safety of the shop floor, Mary glanced over her glasses, took a good long stare at those bare feet, and uttered, ‘I’ll be seeing you.’
The notion was to leave Anna queasy for the rest of the day.
People differ in what they regard as treasure. To seventeen-year-old Anna Gray, it was watching her father make a volcano out of potato and fried beans. It was trekking down Carrigan’s mellow slopes of earth, and lazily walking through its fields of golden corn.
Mary Munslow’s treasure could not be called upon. It was felt on the tongue, tasted in the bud and gone with the gulp, making room for the next treat, with evidence of its existence lingering on the waist and in the grease stain, of which, presently, there were two, both near the tail end of her blouse.
‘Vicki, run across the road and get us something for lunch.’
It was a luxury of the wealthy to be able to spend money recklessly on store-bought lunches. Nursing her pride and a bowl of cold, homemade nettle soup, Anna sat at her desk, watching the world pass by. It was on her second mouthful of the repulsive potage that a knife-like cackle slashed mercilessly through the air, causing the walls to shudder. Mary. Anna supposed she had read something funny. Mary didn’t like to work the floor but would criticise those that did, saying assistants had no idea how to treat a customer and should not give out design advice when they had such little knowledge about tailoring. And the one vital rule – the one that if broken would turn you to stone in Mary’s basilisk gaze – was that you should deal with every individual equally, apart from handsome boys, who must never be flirted with or smiled at, but who must be dealt with swiftly and efficiently at a distance. So when Jack Thorogood walked in through the shop door that day, Anna knew she had a problem on her hands.
Jack was a compulsive flirt, with hay-coloured hair and velvet blue eyes. Women would swoon as he passed by and men would stare on enviously, wickedness beating in their hearts. The boy was a member of the middle caste, the same as Mary, but had no qualms about sharing his affections with ladies of any other.
‘My, you look ravishing as always,’ said Jack.
‘Put a sock in it, peach fuzz.’ Lobster Lady was calling, asking whether it was a customer. ‘Crud,’ bawled Anna. Too loudly. Mary can hear a chocolate sprinkle hit the ground at fifty metres.
‘Don’t make me come out there on my lunch break. I will not be pleased.’
The birth-branded girl rose and moved to stand behind the counter to give an impression of authority. ‘Welcome to Munslow & Daughters, how can I help you?’
Jack fed a hand through his blonde tresses. ‘Is that any way to talk to one of your best customers?’ He swanned to the counter and leaned over to smell Anna. She was quite positive she smelt of dung – you know, the kind that gets buried under your fingernails and causes others to pinch their noses and shoo you away. ‘You reek of Saddlebank Field. Have you been frolicking amongst the poesies without me?’
‘What can I do for you today, sir?’
Jack will not get me fired, Jack will not get me fired…
‘I’m here to pick up an order. My riding pants: are they mended?’ She would check for him. ‘Don’t keep me waiting long,’ he cooed, with that assurance of wealth and fine breeding that insists on treating others as props in the grand ol’ play of life. We are currently on Act II, where Jack has matured to a young man and is outwardly searching for a wife, while inwardly searching for fresh flavours to try, from wealthy debutante to farmer’s daughter. ‘I can hear you fumbling about back there. I did tell you not to fumble by yourself.’
Anna emerged with a small band of soot under her right eye and the riding pants outstretched over her two arms. She’d put on a pair of shoes she had found in the back to prevent further unnecessary comments. ‘Here you go, Mr Thorogood.’
‘Ah, let me take a look.’ He took the riding pants and held them up, inspecting the craftsmanship. ‘Did you do this? It’s good.’ He leaned over the counter and wiped the soot off her face, dawdling with two fingers on her neck. ‘You are quite lovely, you know. It’s this tattoo I like the most. Like two mountains, one falling from the sky, one rising from the earth, meeting halfway and crossing over.’
What a crock of— ‘I’m told I am one of few who bear it, sir.’
Finger on her lips now. ‘Then you bear it awfully well, Miss Gray.’
There was a silence like that of the calm before a stampede squashes idle bystanders into the ground. Mouth full of confectionary, pig feet somehow silenced by Jack’s blue eyes, Mary Munslow devoured the moment. ‘What on earth are you doing? Get away from that poor man!’
Mary’s corpulent frame waddled over, a smile burning on her lips. ‘Oh Mr Thorogood, I do hope this wretched girl hasn’t done anything terrible to you.’
‘Not at all. I was just leaving.’
Before Anna could mutter anything to Jack, he meandered out the door, glancing back and giving her a flick of his hair before departing to locate the next prop in his untroubled existence. When Anna came to, the Lobster Lady was clicking her portly fingers. A word is what she wanted. A word in the place where pancakes go to die.
‘I’ll save you the trouble,’ said Anna, striding into Mary’s office. ‘Here’s my key and my tools. Take them and your lousy, badly paid job, and cram ‘em in your pie hole along with everything else.’
Mary’s mouth was agape. Was that chocolate bourbon on her snaggletooth?
‘I’m not a second-class citizen and I won’t be treated like one anymore. I’m not going to settle for a life of working my fingers to the bone. I’ve never been very good at working, as you pointed out, and I’m definitely not going to work for a woman who makes my life miserable just to make her lonely heart light for a few minutes. You may be middle caste but you’re not decent or good or true like any of my kind. I’d rather be in the gutter with them than in this shop with you.’
Anna stormed out of the room so fast parchment rose up in her stead. The floorboards carried her and her idealism rapidly along, right as Vicki was coming through the door with the lunch order.
The food flew through the air as Anna swiped it out of Vicki’s hands, shouting behind so that the whole street stopped in its tracks: ‘She could use a few less meals anyway!’
Pitter patter fell on Lake Leitrim. Anna closed her eyes and saw a soothsayer on a cloud casting his runes, slinking away with an empty swagbag. The rain cleared and liquid stars sparkled. For a blink and a beat she was absorbed into their radiant patina, mess magicked away.
A heron swept low to pick up a fish from the lake. Anna was in that stage of self pity where you half-heartedly contemplate ending it all. Seeing the fish flap about helplessly she decided to rule out death by hungry bird.
‘There you are,’ came the boy’s voice. ‘I’ve been looking everywhere for you. Are you okay?’
‘Not really.’ Anna had the habit of being honest where platitudes would do fine. Tommy sat down beside her.
‘Don’t worry about that overgrown toad,’ he said. ‘You can find another job. Go to the Assignment Council; tell them what happened.’
‘And get thrown in the stocks for disobedience? Not a chance.’
‘Have you been on Jim O’Flanagan’s ale again?’
She shot Tommy a scorching glance. He didn’t appear to give it much notice.
‘I’ve told you: that hooch ain’t proper. His Dad’s lugging bathtubs in and out of their basement at night like it’s nothing special. Between you and me, that winter flu last year, the one everyone was so scared about, the one everyone thought’d be the death of us all…down to the hooch. Draws the blood to the stomach, you see. Makes it settle there. And the only thing that gets rid of it is more hooch. Plot of a mastermind that is, plot of a mastermind.’
‘Tommy,’ Anna replied, with the beginnings of a smile. ‘I haven’t been on the hooch.’
‘What is it then?’ He placed his hand on Anna’s thigh and took it away as fast as it came. ‘I want to know. Truly.’
‘I can’t do this anymore, Tommy. I don’t want to work and be miserable, the only prospect of happiness some man, or some child, or some wicker baskets for my future cat factory.’
‘You’ve had a bad day, that’s all it is. Tell you what: we’ll go to the city on the back of a cart, we’ll sneak in through the side door of the Atlas and watch that new play Pauper Don’t Preach. You’ll like it. Supposed to be real saucy.’
‘You’re not listening to what I’m saying.’
‘’Cause you’re speaking rot, that’s why.’
‘I’m not going to accept this life, I’m not. I’m going to get out of here.’
‘You’ve not got two pennies to rub together.’
‘I can live off the hospitality of strangers.’
‘Nobody’ll give you something for nothing.’
‘Then I’ll work for it; offer to do odd jobs for food and a bed for the night. You’ve seen me in the fields. I can hold my own.’
Tommy quietened, out of ideas. His face grew glum and he directed it towards the lake in hope of respite, scanning the hills for sheep, counting them as he went along, watching shepherds chaperone their flocks into safety. Across from him two boys squinted and skimmed stones, competing to see who would be the champion. They had been as liberated once, hadn’t they? When exploring an unknown grassland took up a day and building treehouses in Mr Peacock’s pasture was a daring adventure. Life was populated by these fascinating, confident tall people who were absorbed in conversation. But why was the joke so funny? What did “diddling the farm boy” mean? ‘You’ll find out soon enough,’ they said. And it was true, only it wasn’t very exciting after all. Not like exploring. And running until you thought your lungs would burst. And making up your own plays and re-enacting them for the grown-ups.
‘You think I’m happy here?’ said Tommy, soaking up the memories. ‘I want to get away as much as you do. I hate working, Nan’s always on my back, and I’ve known the same people my entire life and they’re everyone I’ll ever know. I want to go out there and see places and meet people. Kelgard snobs. Jungle tribesmen. Desert nomads. Even those Venecians we’re supposed to hate. What d’ya think they’re like?’
‘Fiery. Brown. Stinking rich or just plain stinking.’
Tommy was persuading himself that maybe Anna wasn’t crazy. ‘We could put our money together. Buy food to feed us for the first week and then live off other’s generosity like you said. People would be good to us, wouldn’t they? Two kids exploring the world. And we’d grow wiser with each day. Stronger. Think of the people we’d meet.’
Hearing her idea spoken by another’s mouth, Anna realised it was laughable. She gathered up her grass-stained dress and rose to her feet, stretching out a hand for Tommy. ‘We’d best be off.’
The boy’s eyes were on the horizon.
‘Yeah, alright. Was your idea anyway.’
‘What was that?’
‘I said, “Don’t you look pretty today.”’
Passing through a wooden gate and down a path lined with oak trees, Anna and Tommy fought one another as they had done through childhood. The sky above seemed impossibly blue; the sun’s rays peeking through the treetops. The pair walked down the path, forgetting about work and society and hormones, caught up in familiar company and the enjoyment that a simple life brings.
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