Although not to me. She was just Jenny, who’d refused to play with me so often I’d long since given up asking her; who whenever I picture her was sitting in a high-backed chair, head bent over her sewing, or embroidery—whatever it was she did with a needle and thread. And scowling. That smoky stare her admirers said she had? I called it scowling.
The thing was, despite the fact that we were little more than guests in each other’s lives, like ships sailing around the same small harbour, passing closely but never making contact, we had the same father. And Jenny, being more than a decade older than I, knew more about him than I did. So even though I’d had years of her telling me I was too stupid or too young to understand—or too stupid and too young to understand; and once even too short to understand, whatever that was supposed to mean—I used to try to engage her in conversation. I don’t know why, because, as I say, I always came away none the wiser. To annoy her perhaps. But on this particular occasion, a couple of days or so after my conversation with Tom’s eyeball, it was because I was genuinely curious to find out what Tom had meant.
So I asked her: “What do people say about us?”
She sighed theatrically and looked up from her needlework.
“What do you mean, Squirt?” she asked.
“Just that—what do people say about us?”
“Are you talking about gossip?”
“If you like.”
“And what would you care about gossip? Aren’t you a bit too—”
“I care,” I interrupted, before we got on to the subject of my being too young, too stupid or too short.
“Do you? Why?”
“Somebody said something, that’s all.”
She put down her work, tucking it by the chair cushion at the side of her leg, and pursed her lips. “Who? Who said it and what did they say?”
“A boy at the gate in the grounds. He said our family was strange and that Father was a . . .”
“I never found out.”
She smiled and picked up her needlework “And that’s what set you thinking, is it?”
“Well, wouldn’t it you?”
“I already know everything I need to know,” she said haughtily, “and I tell you this, I couldn’t give two figs what they say about us in the house next door.”
“Well, tell me then,” I said. “What did Father do before I was born?”
Jenny did smile, sometimes. She smiled when she had the upper hand, when she could exert a little power over someone—especially if that someone was me.
“You’ll find out,” she said.
“All in good time. After all, you are his male heir.”
There was a long pause. “How do you mean, ‘male heir’?” I asked. “What’s the difference between that and what you are?”
She sighed. “Well, at the moment, not much, although you have weapons training, and I don’t.”
“You don’t?” But on reflection I already knew that, and I suppose I had wondered why it was that I did swordcraft and she did needlecraft.
“No, Haytham, I don’t have weapons training. No child has weapons training, Haytham, not in Bloomsbury anyway, and maybe not in all of London. Nobody but you. Haven’t you been told?”
“Not to say anything.”
“Yes, but . . .”
“Well, didn’t you ever wonder why—why you’re not supposed to say anything?”
Maybe I had. Maybe I secretly knew all along. I said nothing.
“You’ll soon find out what’s in store for you,” she said. “Our lives have been mapped out for us, don’t you worry about that.”
“Well, then, what’s in store for you?”
She snorted derisively. “What is in store for me? is the wrong question. Who is in store? would be more accurate.” There was a trace of something in her voice that I wouldn’t quite understand until much later, and I looked at her, knowing better than to enquire further, and risk feeling the sting of that needle. But when I eventually put down the book I had been reading and left the drawing room, I did so knowing that although I had learnt almost nothing about my father or family, I’d learnt something about Jenny: why she never smiled; why she was always so antagonistic towards me.
It was because she’d seen the future. She’d seen the future and knew it favoured me, for no better reason than I had been born male.
I might have felt sorry for her. Might have done—if she hadn’t been such a grumbler.
Knowing what I now knew, though, weapons training the following day had an extra frisson. So: nobody else had weapons training but me. Suddenly it felt as though I were tasting forbidden fruit, and the fact that my father was my tutor only made it more succulent. If Jenny was right, and there was some calling I was being groomed to answer, like other boys are trained for the priesthood, or as blacksmiths, butchers or carpenters, then good. That suited me fine. There was nobody in the world I looked up to more than Father. The thought that he was passing on his knowledge to me was at once comforting and thrilling.
And, of course, it involved swords. What more could a boy want? Looking back, I know that from that day on I became a more willing and enthusiastic pupil. Every day, either at midday or after evening meal, depending on Father’s diary, we convened in what we called the training room but was actually the games room. And it was there that my sword skills began to improve.
I haven’t trained since the attack. I haven’t had the heart to pick up a blade at all, but I know that when I do I’ll picture that room, with its dark, oak-panelled walls, bookshelves and the covered billiard table which had been moved aside to make space. And in it my father, his bright eyes, sharp but kindly, and always smiling, always encouraging me: block, parry, footwork, balance, awareness, anticipation. Those words he repeated like a mantra, sometimes saying nothing else for an entire lesson at a time, just barking the commands, nodding when I got it right, shaking his head when I did it wrong, occasionally pausing, scooping his hair out of his face, and going to the back of me to position my arms and legs.
To me, they are—or were—the sights and sounds of weapons training: the bookshelves, the billiard table, my father’s mantra and the sound of ringing . . .
Wooden training swords we used, much to my chagrin. Steel would come later, he’d say, whenever I complained.