- Published: 2 July 2021
- ISBN: 9781760895037
- Imprint: Penguin
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 336
- RRP: $16.99
When Days Tilt
London, September 1858
It is a time of tilting days.
In the sky a huge comet burns bright, day and night. Below it, a river rots and there are too many bodies to fit in the graveyards.
The city’s stink is worse than ever. Not just the usual stench of rotting carcasses, overflowing sewers, tons of burning coal and slums full of bodies that never touch water. Or the throat-grabbing pong from the tanneries and slaughterhouses and soapworks, where they boil old fat and bones. Not just the never-ending mud on the streets, which isn’t mud but horse and human dung and anything else that gets thrown down: bones, rotting vegetables, dead flesh, filthy water from knackers’ yards; all the waste of a city.
This is the stench of a poisoned river.
There have never been so many humans in one place. London bursts at the seams, overwhelming even the mighty Thames. Its dark waters reek and its banks writhe with worms the colour of blood. It is the rotting underbelly of the city, flipped up for all to see.
In 1858, London is galloping into the future. Humans travel at unimaginable speeds and new technologies fling words across the globe in seconds. Vast buildings rear up from the earth every day. A street one day is a huge hole the next, and a railway line the next. The speed of change is dizzying and the ticking clock is the heartbeat of London life. Time is everything and you have to be quick to survive.
There is one thing that even the quickest Londoner can’t escape. One that strikes without warning from Knightsbridge to Limehouse. Something as terrifying as the dreaded cholera because this thing cannot be understood and spares no one.
There have been disappearances before, of course. But not like this. Not people fading into thin air in broad daylight. Vanishing like a magic trick, as though taken from the middle of their own life. No one can say how it happens or where it will occur, or when. Or why.
Sometimes, the people return, unfading back into life. It might take days, weeks or longer. When they do, they are changed. Sometimes, indeed, it would be better if they didn’t return at all.
Some people say the comet is God’s angry hand on the sky. Humans are getting above themselves. Darwin is about to blow open science with his theories of evolution and people will not know where they fit in the universe. The signs are there in the sky, on the streets, in the river. The world is rending before them.
Turmoil thuds in every Londoner’s blood. It is the pulse of life here, along with the din of the streets. It rises in a million different ways, bubbling under the skin of even the most dutiful of daughters.
London, September 1858
The tiny balance wheel shot out of Ava’s hand and disappeared from view. She cursed under her breath. Damned snickerty little pieces! She knew how hard a lost watch piece was to find; flyspecks of metal against her monstrous fumbling fingernails. She picked up her tweezers with resignation. Down on her knees again, peering at the floor, tweezers at the ready. How many times had she done this since she started her apprenticeship, years before? At least this time it was a balance wheel, rather than one of the tiny screws she could barely see without her eyeglass screwed into one socket. But she’d been working on that balance wheel for days and it was the best one she’d ever made! The tiny circle of metal looked like nothing but it was to the watch what a pendulum was to a grandfather clock. It had to be weighted just so, along with the delicate hairspring, and even tinier balance staff, roller and jewel, or the watch would never tick.
It was a thankless task, being a watchmaker. Precious hours of life poured into something most people would never see and if they did would dismiss as nothing. So much invisible skill and patience behind every quiet tick! Most of Father’s customers took his matter-of-fact brilliance for granted – had no idea of the almost impossible achievement in every miniature masterpiece. Ava glanced at him, crouched at his bench, his whole being focused on something so small she couldn’t even see it from here. He was a watchmaker, born and bred. Calm, patient, obsessive about detail. She felt the familiar surge of affection.
There it was! Thank God, she wouldn’t have to start from the beginning. She picked it up and carefully got to her feet, willing her hands not to shake, and gently released the scrap of metal onto her bench. The tweezers were damp from her sweaty palms. It was so hot in this studio at the top of the house. The big windows let light in – essential for their work – but also the heat. They were at the end of the hottest summer London had ever known and even now, when they were ready to welcome the cool of autumn, the air was still humid.
It also stank. The smell wafted up from the river as far as their Bishopsgate house, though it was bearable here – unlike the Houses of Parliament overlooking the river, where the delicate noses of the governing classes had been driven out from their sitting. Ava had avoided the Thames all summer.
It wasn’t just the smell they had to keep out. The London air blackened everything it touched. And then there was the noise – you couldn’t live on a thoroughfare like Bishopsgate without having all of London serenade you, day and night.
‘Father, I need to wash my hands. Shall I bring you something to drink?’
He didn’t look up for a moment, engrossed in his work, but then laid down his tools and stretched his neck back with a sigh. ‘It’s hot, indeed,’ he said with some surprise. Removing his eyeglass, he peered at Ava’s bench. ‘How is your balance this time?’
‘Better, I think. It’s round, at least.’
Last time her balance had bulged like a balloon. Her father was a rare breed among watchmakers – he insisted on making almost all his own pieces, in spite of the thousands of pieceworkers all over Clerkenwell, each one an expert in producing a specific, tiny watch part. Which meant that she had to learn as well. Maybe she should be grateful for the opportunity to learn a disappearing skill, but she boiled with frustration every time her sausage fingers mangled yet another fairy-sized piece of metal. She held her breath as Father went over to her bench and narrowed his eyes at her work.
He gave a grunt and stood up. ‘Ah well. Perhaps you need a break, after all. A glass of cordial would be lovely, my dear.’
Ava’s relief wrestled with shame. Poor Father. He had quietly and lovingly raised her on his own, with Violet’s help, and she knew she was the centre of his world. In turn she adored him – his gentleness, his calm, even his infuriatingly particular ways.
But she would always be a disappointment to him. If only she had a sister! Not a brother, who would get all the attention. Ava knew her own family wasn’t quite typical in such ways, but a sister would be her equal, her ally, her depositor of secrets and worries. As it was, Ava had to carry the whole weight of his expectation. And she knew her father worried about her future. He wanted her to be secure, to be able to make a living. At least he wasn’t trying to marry her off.
If her mother had still been alive perhaps there would be other siblings to inherit her father’s dexterity and patience – but as it was, Ava was the only option.
It was as though Father had read her mind. ‘Are you visiting Mother’s grave today?’
Ava nodded. Saturday had been the day they made the trip to Bow Cemetery to lay a posy there ever since she could remember, though nowadays she was old enough to go alone. At fourteen years old she was nearly a woman – only a few years younger than her mother had been when the cholera struck. Ava had no memories of her mother, but she had heard so many stories from Father and Violet, their housekeeper, that she felt she knew her intimately. Her feminine, dainty mother, with her nimble dressmaking fingers and her gracious spirit. She had been an icon of ideal womanhood – gentle, loving, kind, accepting – and as Ava grew yet bigger, clumsier and more impatient, it became harder to live under the shadow of such a paragon.
She pushed the thought away. ‘Yes. I should go down and see what Violet needs from the market.’
She always picked up the shopping at Spitalfields on her way back from the cemetery. It was a long trek, but at least Mother had been buried at one of the new garden cemeteries rather than one of the church grounds nearer to home where thousands of bodies lay crushed together under the ground.
Ava wiped her hands on her skirt before putting away all her tools and the pieces she was working on.
Violet strode into the hallway below and stood at the bottom of the stairs, raising one eyebrow at Ava as she clattered down them. A stack of linen needing mending teetered on her sturdy brown arms, bare to the elbows.
‘Do you recognise any of this, by chance?’
Ava groaned. ‘You know I do, Violet. I’ll do it, I promise.’ She fanned her face. ‘It’s so much cooler down here! I have to get Father a drink – it’s like a furnace upstairs.’ She stepped around Violet to go to the kitchen, but Violet blocked her path.
‘When will you do it, Ava? You’re not getting away that easily.’ Violet’s round face had that stubborn look Ava knew so well. She wasn’t letting this go.
Ava let out her breath like a horse. Violet knew how much Ava hated sewing. It was just as tedious as watchmaking. Her life was counting out in ticks and stitches.
Why was she born to a dressmaker and a watchmaker, when she wanted to fling aside needles and tweezers and stride out into the world? To devour news of all the changes in the huge city around her? To be part of the energy she could feel every time she stepped into the street? She had the fanciful feeling that Donati’s Comet was carving its brilliant path over London to show her the way out of her own life.
She wanted a bigger destiny, one that looked outward and stirred her soul. She wished – oh, she didn’t know what she wished, but it wasn’t for a life peering at needles and bits of metal!
Violet was watching Ava closely. Her face softened. ‘You know it’s an essential skill for a woman, Ava, and one your mother was mistress of. I am only doing what she would do – insist that you have the skills any girl your age should have.’
Violet always could read Ava’s mind. Ava was lucky that her father had chosen Violet to be their housekeeper. She was like a second mother to Ava and Ava adored her.
Just not the jobs she gave her.
Ava sighed. ‘I will do some now before I go to the cemetery. And the market. And before I do my studies for Miss Buss. And go back to the studio.’
Violet snorted. ‘You are no busier than any of us, Miss Bailey, so don’t play that card with me. Your pertness reminds me of that girl in your class – Phoebe? I hope you are not being influenced by her, of all people.’
Violet’s expression made Ava grin. Violet knew very well how much Ava despised her.
‘I wouldn’t let your father hear you suggest your workload is too great. You know he was reluctant for you to apply for that scholarship on top of your apprenticeship. Hmm?’ The tilt of Violet’s head spoke volumes.
Ava sighed. Violet was right. A girl doing a watchmaking apprenticeship was unusual enough. Attending one of the new girls’ schools on top of that was unheard of. Her father had told her it would be too much for her – that she would not do either thing justice – but she wouldn’t give in. How could she get out of the house without an education? Other than becoming somebody’s wife, but she had yet to see a wife living the life she wanted to live.
No, she could not let Father see her struggling now.
Violet went on. ‘I think rain is coming this afternoon. You should go now. Your sewing can wait for later. I will leave it in the front room.’
Violet swept off, calling over her shoulder, ‘I will take a drink to your father. Go, quickly.’
She disappeared into the front room. A second later her head popped back out. ‘Oh, we need potatoes and some good ribs – don’t pay too much! And apples are in season now. Some cress, perhaps.’ She looked at the ceiling, deep in thought. ‘That should do. And Ava?’ She was looking at Ava now, her face serious. ‘Take the thoroughfares. People tend to be taken from the back streets, they say.’
The disappearances were a fact of life these days. They struck randomly, at all classes, in different parts of London. Ava did her best not to think about them and it was unusual for Violet to say such a thing. She gave Violet a questioning look.
Violet frowned. ‘There have been more lately. And also – I met someone recently who came back. He was not right, Ava. His eyes . . .’ She forced a smile. ‘But we can’t stop living our lives and we must not let fear get the better of us. So off you go – but keep watch.’
Ava smiled reassuringly at Violet’s worried expression. ‘I’ll be careful, Violet.’
She put on her bonnet, pulled her cloak off its hook and picked up a basket. Violet’s caution was sensible. London was a filthy, brutal place, full of dangers.
But it didn’t matter. Every time Ava left the house she felt the same prickle of excitement. This city never failed to surprise, shock and delight. She strode outside and took a deep breath of smoky air under the long streak of comet hanging silently in the sky.
Into the vast vibration of London life.
Magic, mystery and darkness – a gripping fantasy adventure for lovers of Philip Pullman’s Northern Lights. In this page-turning debut, one girl must figure out why she is the key to two worlds, before time itself falls under the control of the powerful and the greedy.Buy now
‘The full moon rose over us,’ Layla sang, while she carefully joined two pieces of metal together in the broiling, cramped welding bay.
Mary Lawson was the first to die. Leaving Euston station shortly before 6.45 a.m, she made straight for her favourite breakfast stall.
The sun set at six minutes to four. Kay lay stretched out on the floor, reading the very small print on the back of the newspaper.
Look, I didn’t want to be a half-blood. If you’re reading this because you think you might be one, my advice is: close this book right now.