- Published: 1 September 2020
- ISBN: 9780143789666
- Imprint: Bantam Australia
- Format: Trade Paperback
- Pages: 432
- RRP: $32.99
The Orphan of Good Hope
Two by two, the girls from the Burgerweeshuis marched to Divine Service. The smaller girls occupied the front of the column, barely a pace behind the housemother. Johanna Timmerman, in the first row of older girls, was smiling to herself.
‘Why do you always look so happy about Divine Service?’ asked Malliet, next to her.
Johanna threw her what she hoped was a stern look. ‘Shhh. No talking in line.’
Malliet grinned and Johanna felt the corners of her mouth twitch up in reply. Sundays were the best days, despite having to spend three hours standing in the Nieuwe Kerk listening to the predikant’s dire warnings.
She drew in a breath and said quietly, ‘I enjoy Sundays. We’re out of doors for the only time in the week, and today the sun is shining. I’m with my friends.’ She cast a glance sideways at Malliet to see if she looked sceptical. ‘And . . .’
Johanna heard a child’s wail, and a disruption in the line ahead ground their progress to a stop. She craned her neck and saw that one of the little girls had fallen.
Poor little thing. The girl looked to be no more than six or seven years old. Johanna felt an urge to run forward and help her to her feet, but before she could set one foot in front of the other the housemother had gathered the child up, clucking and soothing her.
Johanna felt the swell of her affection for Moeder. Her kindness had been a great solace when Johanna herself had been small and lost, after her mother had died. Moeder gave the child one last pat on the head and regained her place at the front of the procession, but her movements looked awkward. As she led them all forward once more, Johanna worried at the hitch in her step.
It was impossible to tell under Moeder’s cap and layers of clothing whether her hair had turned grey or her figure changed shape over the years. Only a gathering of lines that crinkled her eyes gave any hint of her age. Yet Johanna fretted at how much frailer the housemother had become recently.
Slowly, the girls continued forward, and she promised herself she’d seek out Moeder after the service. Johanna kept her eyes trained on her back, but as the line snaked towards the main entrance, she lost sight of her.
Johanna had nearly reached the outer doors to the church by now, but Malliet had fallen behind her. She could see the line of boys from the other side of the Burgerweeshuis coiling around the church towards the side entrance. Her heart began to race.
There were only a few seats in the Nieuwe Kerk, reserved for wealthy patrons. The children from the Burgerweeshuis stood in the area below the oak chancel, the entire complement of several hundred girls on the right and a similar number of boys squashed together on the left, unofficially separated by a double line of graveslabs that ran the length of the central nave. As the girls filed into rows in a single line, Johanna placed herself at the end of a row between the nave and a side aisle, with Malliet wedged to her right.
The congregation settled, and the predikant, robed and bearded, climbed his way to the pulpit, where a large Bible sat on the lectern. He began to turn pages.
Johanna glanced surreptitiously across the nave, her eyes searching for one particular face framed by golden curls and a squarecut fringe. Depending on the light and her imagination, his longlashed eyes could be green or hazel or brown. She was never close enough to be certain.
‘Idleness breeds wickedness,’ the minister’s voice boomed.
She shifted her gaze to the pulpit and forced herself to concentrate. Heer van der Meer would interrogate them tomorrow on the sermon. It was the height of discourtesy, the schoolmaster said, to ignore the preacher’s words, which had taken him all week to write.
The minister always began with a reading from the Bible, which today was Proverbs 31. Next he read out notices and railed against this and that. He condemned the shameful wearing of jewellery and gaudy colours. During his rant about smoking tobacco in public, something Johanna felt she was in no danger of doing, she stole another sideways look and found the blond boy’s face. As he was towards the centre of the row behind on the boys’ side of the nave, it was impossible to keep her face angled up to God.
Malliet murmured in her ear, ‘Face the front or people will notice.’
He must have felt her eyes on him, for he turned and looked straight at her. Her heart began to flutter against her ribs. She forced her attention back to the minister, but the urge to look was too great. When she glanced back to where the boy stood, he gave a broad smile that made her feel sunlight had flooded the nave.
A touch on her elbow nearly made her jump out of her skin. She swung round to see Malliet’s face tighten.
‘What are you doing?’
Johanna drew in a deep breath and mouthed back, ‘Saying my prayers.’ As it wouldn’t do to lie in church, she lowered her head and began to pray silently, repeating the only words she could think of at that moment. ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’
At another touch on her elbow, she glanced up, expecting more censure, but instead Malliet flicked a finger towards the aisle. Johanna peeked round and was surprised to see Moeder moving slowly towards the door.
The girls exchanged a look. Moeder never left church early.
The minister ground on, but Johanna’s attention was split. When at last the service concluded, the girls filed out to walk back to the orphanage. In the housemother’s absence, the older girls bracketed the younger ones, making sure no one got lost on the way.
Johanna, walking at the back of the group with Malliet, was spared from answering her friend’s questions by their mutual concern over Moeder. Up ahead, a girl turned and waved to them.
‘Femke!’ Johanna waved back.
The girl came hurrying towards them, frowning. ‘Why do you think Moeder left the service early?’
Johanna held a finger to her lips, indicating the smaller girls with her chin. ‘I’m sure it’s nothing to worry about, Femke,’ she said brightly, hoping the little ones would be reassured. ‘We all know Moeder has so much to do.’ She shrugged at the girl and mouthed, ‘I’ll find out.’
By now they had reached the entrance to the Burgerweeshuis, which lay concealed inside a narrow alley. They filed through the enormous columned entryway. The door had been left open, and to one side a sturdy young woman stood guard, her hair covered by a dark, floppy cap with starched points that fell to her shoulders. Over her green dress she wore an apron the colour of a cloudy sky. She watched on while the trail of girls walked past her, ushering them inside with a wave of her hand.
Johanna paused by her. ‘Why did Moeder leave Divine Service early, Hilletje? Should we be worried?’
The maid shook her head. ‘Darned if I know.’
‘Do you know where she is?’
‘She’s gone to her rooms, most likely.’
‘I’ll drop in on her,’ Johanna said, then turned to Malliet. ‘I’ll see you later in the refectory for the midday meal. Could you keep me a place?’
The light was dim in the housemother’s parlour, and it was cold too – a mean peat fire struggled against the chill, the turf hissing like a snake. Moeder was still layered up, seated behind a table in a comfortablelooking leather chair, her winterwhite forehead ruffled into a crease under her snowy cap. She had both hands wrapped around a porcelain mug that sat on her desk. As far as Johanna could see, it was empty.
‘Are you warm enough, Moeder?’
The old lady pulled her hands from the mug and placed them in her lap. ‘Yes, I am, thank you. I’m never much bothered by the cold.’
‘Would you like me to refill your drink?’
‘That would be very kind.’
Johanna poured more coffee into the mug and was alarmed to see that Moeder had trouble lifting it up, her hand shaky with the effort. After she’d finally managed to bring the china to her lips, she shook her head and sighed. She looked tired out.
Moeder pointed to a wooden stool and told Johanna to sit. She did so, resting her fingers on the edge of the table.
‘It’s always lovely to see you, dear. Is there something you needed?’
Johanna took a breath. ‘Forgive me, Moeder. I hope I am not out of place in asking.’ The old lady smiled and she smiled back, acknowledging the unspoken joke between them about her constant questioning. ‘I could not help but notice that you left Divine Service early. Is everything all right?’ As she spoke, she noticed a letter on the writing desk. The seal was broken and the ends of the letter roll were weighted down to keep them flat on the desk.
‘The predikant believes that the weekly cleansing of one’s soul is not to be hurried. Today I could not face it.’
Anxiety knotted Johanna’s stomach. ‘Is there anything that I can do for you? Shall we send for the physician?’
‘No, child, I do not need medical assistance.’ A thoughtful look crossed the old lady’s face. ‘But there is something I would ask you.’ She touched the letter roll. ‘We have another little one joining us soon, and I would like you to assume responsibility for her induction.’
‘Is Hilletje no longer to have that task?’
Moeder inclined her head towards the door. ‘Hilletje is keen to move on with her life. She is twenty-three now, and feels that she is denying herself the chance to find a husband if she remains in an allfemale establishment. I have given her my blessing to find another position.’ Silence descended for a moment before Moeder went on. ‘Of all my girls, you are the one I most trust to be kind and ease the transition from the life outside to our particular existence here. I know you felt it keenly when you first arrived.’
‘Of course, Moeder.’ Johanna smiled and then glanced at the desk. She cleared her throat, thinking that now was as good a time as any to ask a question that had long been on her mind. ‘Do you remember the day I arrived here?’
The housemother’s mottled white hand hovered by her heart. ‘You were very little.’
Johanna looked down at her feet; now the moment had come, she fumbled for the words. ‘I sat on your knee. In this room. You told me that my father wished for me to be here, but I have no memories of him. Do you remember anything at all from the notary’s letter?’
‘It was so long ago. But he must have had money to sponsor you. I have a vague impression that he was some sort of—’ She broke off, a look of dismay crossing her face. ‘No, no, surely that can’t be right. Ask me later, dear. I’ll see if I can recall the detail.’
No one suspected the blond boy’s cargo as he drove his crude pony cart through the streets of Charleston.
After more than two weeks at sea to simmer the tension between them, Violet and Daisie Chettle couldn’t stand each other, let alone stand next to each other.
As the new year of 1910 moved closer to its second month, the world marvelled that there had been so few deaths in Paris when the River Seine rose more than eight metres and flooded the city.
The hot touch of the city still on her, Rosalind unfastens her stockings and drops them in the bathroom sink with a handful of washing soda.
In that crowded city, she had worked for a haberdasher and presided over the slow death of her mother, after which she’d discovered in herself an unexpected yearning to leave Ireland and see the world.