The ending, first:
She keeps on thinking about the room, the unspooling darkness, where they must have hanged her. Mags would have acted unafraid, laughing at her executioners to the end, but even so, even so; Nancy wants to reach in and tear a hole through the roof with her own fists. Mags should have been in sunlight.
They are twelve years old, perhaps. None of them are quite certain. Mags tells everyone the story of her mother selling her for a pair of shoes ("I was bloody ten!" she'll declare, hands on her hips) but the truth is, whores' get don't truly know. They are as old as the calluses on their feet; they're as old as their first moon-bleeding. Nancy hasn't started her bleeding yet, but Lady Quigley prefers it that way. It means Nancy can work more days of the month — men don't like fucking a girl who's bleeding all over their knob. Well, most men anyway.
"Nance," Mags whispers over tea, leaning close enough that her hair tickles Nancy's cheek.
"What?" Nancy hisses. She pretends not to like Margaret — too loud, too bawdy, too quick. She pretends not to like anyone, and for that most of the house leaves her be. They are not at Golden Square, not yet — that will be years to come, and Nancy and Margaret will be gone besides — but she can already see the makings of it, the way Lady Quigley's eyes shine when she welcomes a lordly cull. Nancy does not want to be liked. Even at twelve years old (perhaps), she wishes to be feared.
Little Maggie Mudpie does not fear her. "Nance," she says, sing-song. "Come to the back with me. I found something."
"What d'you find?" Ophelia asks. Her real name is Molly.
"Nothin' you mind," Mags says pertly.
"I'll tell Quigley."
"Tell her, and you'll meet the flesh of my fist," Mags says, still cheerful, and Ophelia shrinks. She is only thirteen (perhaps) and Mags is already the strongest of the young ones in the house. Quigley has already said, in disgust, that perchance they should stop feeding her, the cow, but her threats bother Mags none. Mags is chums with the other whores down the street, the costermongers' sons too — she'll find scraps where she needs them.
They clear their tea — watery, as Quigley does not believe in wasting her best tea on ungrateful chits — and Nancy follows Mags to the alleyway behind the house. She wraps herself in her silky black cloak that a cull once gave her after nearly ripping her cunny in two. She still has the scar, but the cloak she likes. It makes her feel strong, like a shadow.
"Look!" Mags hisses excitedly, and Nancy rears back.
"That's a body," she says, then hesitates. She does not like bodies, though she does not like to admit it. "We seen bodies before, mudpie."
"I know." Mags rolls her eyes. "But this ain't any old body. It's Jenny -- look, d'you see?"
Nancy sees. Jenny, who once gave her a sweetbun thinking she was her daughter. Jenny, who wasn't of the right mind, not after the pox. Jenny, who would sing at her window, high and songbird clear, until somebody threw trash at her head and she would stop, puzzled and hurt. "She had pox," Nancy says roughly, wanting to go back to the house, to the tea, even to the men who are no doubt waiting for their first bit of the day. "She had pox and she died. Ain't no mystery here."
"I'm telling you, there is!" Mags stomps her foot. Margaret, her body already older than her years, her bosom two little apricots under her stays, seems a child again. "Look closer! She were stabbed. There's blood." Wicked glee fills her face. "Might be there's a murderer about the streets. Maybe he'll get Quigley too."
Nancy snorts. "Nobody but God himself is gonna get Quigley. Devils don't get defeated by mortals." She pauses again. Her cloak doesn't feel warm enough, all of a sudden. "More like it's gonna be us someday. Stabbed to the guts. Poor Poxface Jenny."
Mags throws an arm around her. "I'd never let any murderer get you, Nance. You're my best friend." She buries her face in Nancy's neck and sticks her tongue out, licking her. Nancy squeals and tries to throw her off.
"Ain't I just," Mags says. "C'mon. Let's go tell somebody about the body. They should bury her." Neither of them mention going to the justices. It's not even something they think of.
"And if no one does? I don't want to see her thrown into the river," Nancy shudders.
"Then we'll bury her, right?" Mags says.
"Yeah," Mags repeats firmly. "Who's gonna watch out for our own, but us?"
Nancy is not as iron-skinned as Mags, though she tries. "You're a three-day old loaf of bread, thrown to the gutter," Mags laughs. "Knock on the crust and it sounds hollow, but inside there's some soft, squishy bits left for eating." Nancy is not sure how much she appreciates being compared to bread, but she lets Mags get away with it. To her resignation, she lets Mags get away with everything. They are fourteen years old (perhaps) and taking culls on the regular now. Nancy limps most days — Lady Quigley says with a face like hers, she's only good for hard use.
"A face like yours?" Mags says in outrage. She cups Nancy's face and presses her thumbs to Nancy's cheeks, avoiding a bruise underneath Nancy's left eye. "God bloody fuckin' hell, you're beautiful."
"Come off it," Nancy scoffs. "I look like a wraith. A ghost about to eat men's hearts."
"Like I said, beautiful, an angel sent to earth," Mags grins. She drops her hands. "You wanna compare war wounds? Look what what bloody Yates did to me last night." She lifts her skirts and shows Nancy's the gashes, like Yates had raked his fingers down Mags' thighs and then did it again for good measure. Nancy whistles, though her belly hurts at the sight.
"I got Yates later today," she tells Mags. "He told Quigley he'd come back. For a turn with me, now that he's had you."
"Oh my Nance," Mags says. "He ain't nothing but a bear with an aching tooth. Here, let me tell you all the tricks I use with him. He ain't so bad."
But Mags doesn't know, doesn't see. Mags isn't beautiful the way Ophelia is beautiful, the way the rest of Quigley's girls are beautiful, but Mags is a womanly fourteen, and Nancy can hope for neither. You're the rag I wipe my arse with at the end of the night, a man once told her, and she grits her teeth and tries not to scream as they shove themselves into her still-tender body.
Later that night, Mags slips into the room where Yates has tied her up and bedded her, used whips and knives. Nancy will shriek at her if there's a hint of pity on her face, but Mags is no-nonsense. "C'mere," she says. "Into the bath with you." She wraps her arms around Nancy and tries to hoist her up. They're neither of them very strong or well-nourished. They both topple. "Ah well," Mags says. "Up and at 'em again."
"Can't… no bath..." Nancy groans. "Quigley'll kill us." Only the high-earning girls get the bathtub. The rest of them can pour a bucket of water over themselves and call it done.
"Quigley's gone out and the rest of them are asleep or still fuckin'," Mags says. "You won't let the hot bath go to waste, will you? I already filled it up when I heard you…" She falls quiet. "Well, I already done it." She helps Nancy hobble to the bath down the hallway and sink into the tub. Nancy groans again. Her blood mixes with the warm water and the soap Mags' managed to find.
"Like strawberries and cream," Mags declares, and they both smirk at the grim humour.
"God alive, I'm hungry," Nancy says.
"Got an apple here somewhere," Mags offers. "Or could nip down to the kitchens for some bread. Like I said, Quigley won't notice."
Nancy grabs her by the arm. "No. Don't — don't go."
"Apple it is then," says Mags. She produces an apple and a knife from her skirts — the knife doesn't surprise Nancy none, all of the smart whores carry one, so long as they're smart enough not to get it used against them. She starts cutting the apple into pieces while Nancy closes her eyes and soaks. The bath does feel good. She tries not to think of Yates. She tries not to think of his voice, or his hands, or the cut of the whip down her back. Age measured not in calluses or women's monthlies but whip-scars, she thinks, and nearly slips into sleep when Mags starts giving her the apple slices to eat.
It seems like something a mother might've done for a child, if either of them had such a mother or been such a child, and Nancy eats greedily.
Mags, she thinks, Mags. Mags.
And there in the stink of Quigley's perfumed harem, in the claw-foot bathtub streaked with her own blood, she knows love.
When they are sixteen (perhaps), something in Mags goes cold. She disappears for half days at a time without telling Nancy where she has gone. She does not eat, even though Lady Quigley urges her to since Mags is quick to becoming one of her best girls. Mags does not eat, and she does not laugh, and she does not crawl into Nancy's bed anymore like she used to, and rest her head on Nancy's shoulder and whisper Greek Street gossip until they both fall asleep.
"What's the matter?" Nancy asks her. "Tell me."
"Nothing," Mags says, "nothing."
But there is a locked room in the house now, and the rest of them whisper that there is a girl inside, a girl who is not allowed to leave. There was another locked room a few months ago, and another a few before that. This in itself is not so strange to Nancy, who herself was once locked up until she screamed herself hoarse and then quieted and agreed to spread her legs. Mags lasted even longer until she started doing Quigley's bidding. But this time it feels different. There are no angry yells from inside the room, only silence, and Nancy has seen the empty bottle of laudanum upturned on an armoire in the sitting room.
She has seen Mags go inside that room and come out shaken.
"She's killing them girls, ain't she?" Nancy says one day, when she's cornered Mags in the alley, and Mags is scrubbing a bit of dirt off her shoe as if the hounds of the devil are upon her. Mags ignores her, but Nancy grabs her by the elbow and yanks her close. Mags is colder these days but Nancy has grown harder — slowly, she is daring to be as rough with her culls as they are with her, the ones she's learned don't mind it.
"Get your hands off me, Nancy Ache-Face!" Mags hisses.
"I won't, you brat," Nancy says. "She's killing them, ain't she? Quigley? That's why you're so quiet all the time. That's why fancy gentlemen come in at all hours of the night. That's why there's the fuckin' laudenum."
Mags' face grows blotchy red.
"Are you helping her?" Nancy says. "Is that it? Little Margaret Wells, who'll suck a man's cock 'til he cries of joy — a murderess?"
Mags leaps to her feet. "Are you the Lord Chief Justice now? Don't you be telling me what to do! You know as well as I do that if either of us say no to Quigley, we'll be out on the streets and starving — we'll have killed ourselves. And that's if Quigley doesn't come and slit my throat first for what I know."
Nancy feels her helplessness. Their world is London, and there is nowhere in London they can go where Lydia Quigley cannot find them. "Then we'll make her want us to leave."
"How will we do that?" Mags scoffs. "Paint our faces with spots and pretend to be ill? We'd—" she stops.
"We could, Mags, we could," Nancy says softly. "Or put a cushion under our skirts and make her think we're expecting. She'd never allow that. We'd spoil her nice clean establishment, we would."
Mags is quiet for a long time.
'It scares me silly," Nancy says. "Trying to fool Quigley. What might happen to us. But if you will — if you go. I'll go anywhere you do." It feels like more than a promise. It feels like a marriage vow.
"If I ever had a daughter, for real," Mags says, "I'd never do to her what Quigley's done to me." She straightens her back and shivers. "Alright, alright. What'd we got to lose, anyway?"
Quigley won't have them anymore, but Hannah Pratt in Shepherd Market opens her doors to them. "Earn your keep, make the culls happy, cut the house a portion of the coin, and I'll make sure you girls stay nice and cozy," Mrs. Pratt says, a smile full of missing teeth. "Forget any of that and I'll toss you out by your ankles, you understand?" She points to her strong man, Harold.
Mags dips a sardonic curtsy. Nancy keeps her arms crossed. Neither of them say what they are truly thinking, which is that they have nothing left, only the dresses on their backs and Nancy's beloved black cloak. Mags tupped four men under a bridge yesterday to buy them bread. Nancy tried but broke. I can't do it, I can't do it, she'd gasped, not when I'm free even for a puny second. I'd rather die than let a man use me again.
And Mags had put a hand, gentle, on her arm and replied, s'alright, Nance, let me.
Nancy could choke on her own guilt, her uselessness. But first they must find a home and a protector.
"I like your sass," Hannah tells Mags with a smile of her own. "Just don't be usin' it to cross me any time soon."
"No ma'am," Mags says, and here they are now: their new life.
That night, ensconced in their warm room they share with three other girls — who are all out, accompanying Mrs. Pratt to a party none of the new girls have proper dresses for — they help themselves to some gin and toast their success. "Fuck you, sour-faced Lydia Quigley! You don't get a piece of this anymore," Mags gasps, falling backwards onto the sheets, her skirts riding up. She laughs until she shakes the bed with it, and then bursts into tears. Nancy holds her through it, as she cries and cries.
"Dunno why I'm acting the worm," Mags sobs. "I should be happy."
"We are happy," Nancy says, stroking her back. "This is how our kind is happy. Happy and sad and ruined, all at once."
"Like a fruitcake with all them bits inside."
"A bloody fruitcake? Earlier I'm a piece of bread and now we prattle of cake?" Nancy says. "You need to fill your belly more, it's rattling as empty as your womb."
Mags laughs through her tears, and then she lifts her face, and oh Nancy cannot help it. She leans in and they are kissing. Clumsy and soft and salty, awkward with the newness of it — they can both bring a man off with a few jerks of the wrist, but kissing is a strange thing, like walking through the darkness into a world behind a mirror where there are no harlots, only Mags and Nancy, Nancy and Mags, clutching each other in this warm room full of oil-light.
"Please," Mags whispers, "please," and Nancy melts into her, through her, as if Mags is the door and she is the key. They kiss so much their mouths ache with it, and it is a very different kind of hurt from the kind men have inflicted on them, but it hurts even more than that, Nancy thinks. She is seared, flame-bright, when she peels Mags out of her skirts and puts her mouth on Mags' belly. She is gutted open when Mags turns them over and slides a finger over Nancy's scars, smiling mischievously before working a finger through Nancy's thatch of hair, between her thighs.
"You're so wet," she says, and Nancy moans with embarrassment. She clenches her thighs together, afraid, but Mags laughs sweetly, wildly and pulls them apart. "You'll let me do this, won't you? My darling Nancy, my beautiful Nance."
Nancy can only jerk her head yes, and cries out at two of Mags' fingers in her, and then the touch of Mags' mouth. This is what Christ must have felt like, speared on the cross, and when she tells Mags this, Mags only laughs all the harder. "Sacrilege," she says, and licks Nancy delightedly. "Hm, it's not so hard to do this with a woman. Easier than I thought. Bit strange-tastin' though, but with all the things I've put into my mouth before, who can say?"
It's you, it's you, Nancy thinks, and then she can't think anymore, she has gone through that door and into the fire.
"D'you know what I like best about you and me, about us together?" Mags says drowsily, after, curled beside Nancy on the bed letting the sweat dry off their bodies. The other girls will be back soon, but not yet, not yet.
"Let me guess," Nancy says dryly, bringing Mags' hand to her mouth and licking the webbing between her fingers.
Mags giggles. "Not that. Alright - not just that, you beast! I like that you're so angry, you're so fierce with it that it makes the culls give second thought. It makes me… less afraid." Nancy is amazed by that, at Mags who is never afraid, but Mags adds, "We're two hateful little girls, is what we are. Just like Quigley said. Gonna crack the shell of the world open and gulp down the yolk. Aren't we? Aren't we?" And Nancy says yes.
This is how their lives continue.
They grow old, for whores. They learn from Hannah Pratt what they never did from Lydia Quigley. Mrs. Pratt teaches Mags how to run her own house, and Mags is good at it, quickly becomes her right-hand woman. Nancy goes to Mrs. Pratt and tells her that she will sweep the floors, wash the sheets, do anything but let men fuck her wet and bleeding. You'll make more on your back than with a bucket, Mrs. Pratt says, but Nancy does not care, not until Mrs. Pratt eyes her cannily and adds, I have a gentleman here who wants a bit of rough.
No, Nancy says, dry-mouthed.
Not that kind, Mrs. Pratt says. He could use a girl who'll rough him up, put him on his knees and make him beg. She grins. You interested, you strange, wild thing?
This is how Nancy gets her first deep taste of the other kind of fruit. This is how Nancy learns to be the kind of whore she ought to have been in the first place, if small girls sold by their drunken mothers are ever meant to be whores. Mrs. Pratt buys her her first cat o' nine tails, and Nancy sleeps with it at her side. She learns how to hide her fear from men, how to cold and commanding, sharp-eyed and cruel-tongued. If she thinks of Quigley as she does it, pretends to be her when she knows not else what to do… well, she does not tell Mags.
Mags' first babe comes when she is one-and-twenty. Charlotte is wispy-haired and bawling, and Mags is exhausted as she places her in Nancy's arms.
"I'll drop her, I will," Nancy warns. "You know I'm no good at this."
"Don't you dare," Mags says, but she cackles. "She's a Wells woman, this one. Will have a head like a rock. Can take a few bumps."
Mrs. Pratt is peculiar for a bawd in that she has a fondness for children, and lets Mags and Charlotte stay. Charlotte learns to crawl, then toddle, and then run, and soon she is everywhere underfoot. When she learns to speak she starts asking questions all of the time, and Nancy remarks that she would make a fine magistrate, this one, and they all laugh even though they know she'll be a whore like her ma.
Lucy comes several years later, after Mrs. Pratt has died and left the house to Mags. She's a quiet one, sleeps most of the day as a babe. When she is older she has a careful manner about her, unwilling to try new things unless her rowdy older sister Charlotte drags her about.
Nancy has no desire to leave them, but she does. She rents her own rooms and moves her practice down the street. Mags is furious when she finds out. "What, we're not good enough for you anymore?" she says, spitting rage, until Nancy puts her hands on her shoulders and kisses her cheek.
"What we do are two very different things now," she says. "I'm all whips and claws and leather straps. Doesn't make sense to keep them under one roof."
"It's all fuckin'," says Mags.
"Yes, that's true," Nancy says. "Alright, fuckin' is fuckin'. But maybe I just don't want Margaret Wells shouting at me all hours of the day like a fishwife. You're a terrifying bawd."
"Oi, you." Mags smacks her on the head. "Well, s'long as you come for supper, you hear?" and Nancy breathes in the scent of her skin and promises that she will.
They've not touched each other since that one night of freedom. They tried but there was no space to repeat it, nowhere where eyes weren't watching. And then they stopped trying because there was no time, no place, and because Nancy knows the truth: that for her there is only Mags, but for Mags there are many men, many loves. After Charlotte and Lucy, and running her own house for many years, Mags meets Will North, and Nancy watches them dance around each other, towards the inevitable. Jacob comes soon after, early-born, and Nancy can nearly fit him in the palm of one hand. She makes sure he eats so that he grows big and strong like his da.
This is how their lives continue: with joy and sorrow every minute of it, breathed in together.
Mags has to start a war with Lydia Quigley. Of course she does.
"Can't you leave well enough alone?" Nancy snaps, tired of the matter even before it has truly begun, but Mags is a whirling fury.
"She wants to ruin me and my business," she spits, sending Jacob scurrying to the next room. "She's the one that can't leave well enough alone. If Lydia Quigley wants a fight in the street, that's a fight she'll damn well get."
"She wants to turn my own flesh and blood against me." Mags' voice changes, and she falls onto a chair and buries her face in her hands. The anger is quickly chased away by despair. "My own Charlotte."
"Charlotte's too smart for the likes of Quigley, you'll see. She'll come back and tell us her reasons."
"Reason's simple enough. I weren't good enough for her," Mags says. Her eyes are hard but her words are ashen-quiet. "Treating my own daughters the way they treated us. Thinking about the Scanwell girl as if — and Kitty, sweet, stupid Kitty—" She swipes roughly at her face, smearing her rouge. "Ah, Will's right to not want anything to do with me."
Nancy goes to her side, pulls out a handkerchief, and starts scrubbing at Mags' face. "Look at you, all a mess," she says sharply. "You made a decision and now you'll live by it. That's how it's done. No use blubbering over it now. You still got Lucy. You still got Jacob."
"No maybes about it."
Mags licks her lips. "We're not kind women."
"No." Nancy cleans the rouge off Mags' cheeks the best she can, hard enough that it makes Mags scowl. "Kitty was a kind woman. Fanny's a kind woman. They'd be rabbits in the woods if it weren't for us." She pulls her to her feet. "Now see here. If you're bull-headed enough to wage war against Lydia Quigley, I suppose I'm fool enough to follow you."
"Like Patroclus, with Achilles," Mags murmurs, but the colour is in her face again and Nancy can tell she is already thinking about next moves, next plans, next battles.
More blood will be spilled before the end. The pain of Nancy's flogging a few days later clears her sight, even as she cries out her anguish on the street. She sees: the sky, the wheeling birds, the grey dank of a faraway chimney. Then her knees give out and she sees the white of her own shift, wet now with rubies. My worldly riches, she thinks, and she knows that she is mad, that they are all mad, to follow Mags like this, into the rotting dark, into the barking pits of hell. But even as she lies curled up in bed that night, eyes stinging with furious tears, she knows that if she swears she will never go down this path again, that it would be a lie, it would always be a lie.
Mags comes to her side, gives her cool water to sip, smooths the hair off Nancy's feverish forehead. "Do you ever wish," she says, "that you didn't love me so?"
"Yes," says Nancy, a lie, a lie, a lie.
"I think about that night still, when we were girls," Mags' voice is hoarse. "You know that, Nance, don't you? You're the only person who'll never leave me. Men come and go. Children forsake you. Don't you know, you cunt? You're the love of my life."
Nancy closes her eyes, and breathes.
The ending, again:
"We're here for the body of Margaret Wells." Somewhere close by, a bell is ringing. Nancy's head aches; hollow, hollow.
The ending, at last:
Will looks up, his lip between his teeth. "There is no body."
Nancy's whip hand is sharp and true. The anger guides her, and the culls cry out in ecstasy. She tells them they are worthless, they are nothing, and they beg for more. She earns the coin that she requires, and leaves London in the middle of the night with only a letter for the others. She imagines them, at Mags' house. No. Charlotte's house now. She imagines them at Charlotte's waking up to read it — Charlotte slitting open the letter, Lucy picking at her biscuits, Jacob running about, Will trying to keep peace. She thinks of them, and then sets her face forward, to the salt and the wind, and the ship she boards without glancing back.
"What's a woman like you going to Virginia for?" a sailor asks her, wide-mouthed, hot-eyed. She imagines taking a knife and cutting his smile off him.
"For my general," she says. 'For the patron saint of hateful little girls."
In Virginia she rents a room and begins her search. She walks the street and asks for a Margaret Wells. She visits the whorehouses, talks to the bawds, pays for their information; is patient; is calm. She will find her in the end. It never occurs to her that she might not. Nancy's faith is as cold as snow laid resting over barren fields.
In a tavern in Boston, near the docks, a woman raises her head when Nancy comes in the door, wringing her hat. The wind is howling — there's a storm a'coming. The woman is leaning over a table, her hair tied up, serving beer to a gaggle of drunken men.
She looks at Nancy.
"Hello mudpie," says Nancy, dripping over the floorboards. "A change in profession?"
"Well," says Mags, sauntering over. She looks tired, so tired, but she is smiling. "Me old back hurts too much for anything but an honest living."
Nancy opens her arms.
"One day," Nancy says, "we'll go home."