I thought I would post up an extract of the novel today, and I've chosen a scene involving Alexa and Fanny. This bit takes place after Alexa's first visit to Kelmscott Manor, a place that Fanny was banned from. We know from Rossetti's letters that Alexa visited Fanny after she returned and told her a few uncomfortable truths as to what was going on.
When Alexa calls on Fanny, she is in the kitchen, making jam...
Like the golden sun, she sat at the large wooden table that filled the centre of the kitchen, her pale dress covered with a pinafore of stout cotton in a floral sprigged print. Her frame hid the chair, swamped in fabric from skirt and apron. She had a wide white bowl in front of her and a sharp knife held in her hand. From the left, her strong hand found a punnet of plums which she picked from. Her eyes flicked to me briefly as I entered, and she drew her knife around the fruit, twisting it and pulling sharply at the stone before depositing the flesh into the bowl.
‘How was Kelmscott?’
She sliced at another plum, her lips tightening. I drew back the chair opposite her, lowering myself into it slowly. Caution was always necessary with Fanny, and I considered that maybe it wasn’t the moment to antagonise her while she held a knife. That wasn’t why I was there anyway. I tilted my head in a gesture of boredom, making a face of distaste.
‘As you might imagine, Mrs Hughes.’
My admission drew a snorted laugh, her knife busy. I watched for a moment, the all-pervading smell of sharp juice making me feel a little sick. Her fingers were slick and shiny with the plums, the skins darkening with her wet touch, and the juice flowing down her fingers over her rings, under the rings, covering the skin. I moved my queasy gaze to the bowl of plums. Some were rosy, some a little green and freckled, some still with stalks and leaves. A confident spider paraded across the skins at the top, making his way to safety, but showing no fear as Fanny’s plump hand seized one of his stepping stones and whisked it away.
‘My mother used to make plum jam,’ she began, and gave a little smile. I nodded. She was lying, that tiny smile giving her away. She always smiled when she lied, possibly why I had liked her when many others did not. I preferred to see it as a joke she was sharing, a story, rather than mistruth.
‘I haven’t had good jam for a while.’ That also wasn’t true, but for want of something to say, I was polite.
‘Oh, my jam is the best.’ She smiled a wide, toothy grin, which I mirrored, helplessly.
‘So I’ve heard,’ I answered saucily, and we both laughed, the tension broken. She gave her head a toss, shaking back loose strands of crinkly blonde hair, but the movement allowed her to relax her expression for a moment and I could see unhappiness crease her features. As her head was still again, her smile returned as if it never left.
‘How’s the jam at Kelmscott?’
The enquiry drew an immediate answer from me.
‘There isn’t any.’
We sat in silence as she considered this, satisfied. The only sound was the knife continuously slicing through the plums and freeing the stones, a clatter as they hit the table and the soft impact of flesh in the bowl.
‘Would you like a plum?’ she asked at last, and I reached forward as she tilted the bowl. ‘Take the nicest, go on.’
My fingers hovered, then I gently grasped a cherry-red fruit, feeling the skin’s tightness as my fingers caught it. Fanny made an impressed face at me as I took the fruit, holding it in my hand like a precious prize.
‘A good choice, and just ripe. It will be no loss to my jam.’ She picked up a perfect little red fruit and holding it like a gem between her thumb and finger. ‘Some fruits look beautiful, precious, but…’ She slid her knife around the skin and I could hear the flesh crunch unwillingly. She hacked out the stone with effort and dumped the little carnage into the bowl, ‘They are all hard inside, even though they look ripe. Some fruits are glorious…’ She lifted a large plum, dark red like ox blood and the size of a hen’s egg. She rolled it expertly between her fingers, studying it, taking the powdery bloom from the skin and darkening it. Her knife slid in and the juice trickled uncontrollably from the wound as she rotated the dark form in her hand. When she opened it, it was all pulp, loose and generous and she picked the stone out, depositing the body in the bowl with a wet flop. ‘To what end? They all end up in the bowl and no-one appreciates the quantity they give.’
Wiping her hands on her apron, she gestured for me to hand over my fruit. Curiously, I passed it back and she slid the knife around the seam of the body with ease. She twisted it a little but it parted with such compliance that it seemed unnecessary and her thumb ejected the stone cleanly. I laughed, but without knowing why other than I felt very uncomfortable suddenly.
‘It’s a good one.’
I spoke just to fill the silence, as I took the cut plum from her barely wet hand. For a spilt second her fingers tightened on the fruit, just as a warning, but the barest amount.
‘Your plum is obviously ready for eating,’ she replied, and her smile did not reach her eyes.
‘Lord Fanny,’ I sighed, ‘pack it in. Anyway, my plum is my business.’
‘You mind that you keep it that way.’ She smiled and the moment was allowed to pass.
The book is available to buy from Amazon already, and I will be having a bit of an on-line shindig on 9th April to launch it.