A noise at the other end of the room distracted her from her thoughts. A woman in a grey uniform stood in the doorway, the biggest woman Sarah had ever seen, even larger than the one she and Alice saw exhibited in Manchester recently for a shilling a look after they had been to the market. The woman was flanked by two men, much smaller than her.
Sarah sat down again and looked at Rosanna. ‘Who’s that?’
But Rosanna pulled a tatty blanket that had been folded on the end of her bed right up. Sarah saw other women in the room do the same, many peeping over the top of their blanket. This huge woman marched from bed to bed, stopping briefly at some, maybe to instil further fear. She came to Rosanna’s bed.
‘Please, Miss Brody,’ Rosanna said, ‘I’ve had a bath this month.’
The woman then came to Sarah’s bed. ‘Are you the new one? They told me about you.’ Her voice was deep and gruff. A short haircut accentuated her manly appearance.
Sarah cringed. ‘I … don’t need one either, Ma’am.’
Brody came at her, arms thick and hairy, whisking her up and holding her in the cradle position as if she was a baby.
‘Put me down. I … I’m a lady.’
‘We’ve got to get rid of those voices. Evil spirits don’t like water, you know.’
Sarah kicked and screamed, but Brody carried her out of the dormitory with little effort and down a long, dark corridor. No help was needed from the assistants who followed quietly behind. Sarah kept struggling, though she knew it was no use against the might of this woman. She closed her eyes and opened them again, hoping she would wake up and discover it was all just a bad dream.
They came to a room with a large bath tub, and Sarah expected to see the devil himself pop up from behind it, ready to torture her.
‘No. You can’t do this to me.’
Brody put her down. ‘Strip!’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Your clothes, take them off.’
‘Either you remove them or I’ll do it for you.’
In the dim light, she could see her assailant was fully a foot taller than herself and probably twice as heavy. Sarah slowly removed her white gown and untied her undergarments. She tried to cover herself with her arms. The water was murky and it smelt, and she wondered how many patients before her had been bathed in the same water.
‘There’s no soap.’
Brody laughed. ‘Get in.’
‘It’s freezing,’ she said as she put a leg in the water.
‘Ever heard of an evil spirit who likes cold water?’ Brody made her get right in.
Sarah sat in the bath, body hunched up, teeth chattering, water up to her shoulders.
‘Breathe in, and hold it,’ Brody ordered. She pushed her down and held her head under.
Sarah had never had her whole head submerged like this before. She went to inhale, swallowing water and choking. Frantically she swished her arms about and tried to get to the surface. This awful woman was going to drown her, she was sure. After what seemed like an eternity, she was pulled up by the hair. She coughed, and gasped for air. When she opened her eyes, she saw her aggressor towering over her, grinning with satisfaction.
‘And again.’ Brody pushed her under a second time.
She tried to scream, but the sound was muffled by the water. Brody left her under longer this time before finally pulling her up. Sarah coughed and gargled and groaned, fighting for air.
‘You must learn to hold your breath, woman,’ Miss Brody said as she dunked her again, holding her under even longer.
Sarah put her arm up and went to push Brody’s hand away, but her strength had been sapped and her arm fell limp back into the water. A strange calm came over her. No longer did she feel the need for air. Her life raced past her. She saw her grandmother cooking bread on a skewer, her father questioning Henry when he asked him for her hand in marriage, each of her children as infants, and Baby and Albert just before they left on their respective journeys. Then everything went black.
Next thing she knew, she was lying on a bed, not in the dormitory with the other women, but in a smaller room, cleaner and whiter. And there was no sign of any water. She thought she might be in heaven, or about to go there. Nearby she heard a male voice say her name and thought it might be St Peter asking the spirit of someone who had known her on earth if he should let her in. She looked for the Pearly Gates.
Suddenly somebody came into the room. When she saw who it was, she knew she wasn’t in heaven.
‘Ah, you’ve woken,’ Miss Brody said, seeing her patient trying to sit up.
Sarah wished she was in heaven. She then saw a man in the room.
‘I’m Doctor Neagle,’ he said.
‘Go away, both of you.’ Her headache was worse than ever, but she didn’t want to tell the doctor for fear he would give her some strange medicine or a needle.
‘Don’t be afraid, Ma’am. I was called from the infirmary next door when they couldn’t wake you.’
‘I’m all right, I tell you. I don’t need a doctor.’
Neagle turned to Brody. ‘Take her back, and do be more careful treating the ones who hear voices.’ He left the room.
Sarah tried to get off the bed, but Brody shoved her back down.
‘You’re a troublemaker, you are.’
She curled up and put her arms across her body and hands to her face. ‘Now what’ve I done?’ she said trembling.
‘Not holding your breath properly.’
‘Stupid woman. No wonder you’re in here. I’ll show you how.’ She inhaled and held it for several seconds.
Sarah kept her hands and arms ready to defend herself, sure she would be beaten.
Without warning, Brody exhaled. ‘There, simple isn’t it.’
‘You could’ve drowned me.’
‘I’ve never lost one yet, in twenty years. Cured a few too. Mind you, it can take time.’
Her face still white, Sarah lowered her guard but kept her body in a ball. ‘You cure people?’
‘Of their voices.’
‘My voices are real though.’
‘No, they’re not, they’re rubbish.’
‘They aren’t. Albert talks to me.’
‘Where is he? I can’t see him.’
‘He’s in New South Wales, a convict. It was a mistake, of course.’
‘So he’s in some far-off land and he talks to you.’
‘And I talk to him.’
Brody laughed sarcastically. ‘And I talk to people in London and on the moon.’
‘It’s going to take a while to cure you, isn’t it?’
Brody hoisted Sarah onto her shoulders, took her back to the dormitory and laid her on her bed. Sarah noticed some of the women, including Rosanna, had left the room, perhaps to avoid a bath. She watched, still fearful, as the huge figure of Miss Brody marched over to the other side of the room and plucked another woman from her bed. This time the victim was made to walk, guided by a firm hand at the back of the neck.
end of excerpt
My historical novel, A Weaver’s Web, is available at the following outlets:
Amazon US: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00H52SEEK
Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B00H52SEEK
Amazon Australia: https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B00H52SEEK