Penelope jumps from her chair, breakfast forgotten. She spills tea over the table, narrowly missing the page that has her so excited.
‘Here, look, it’s perfect.’
I grab the page to steady it as it’s thrust in front of me and try to work out which of the numerous advertisements is the one I should be marvelling at. I don’t see it and she snatches it out of my hands, folds it over and offers it again, one finger jabbing at the small black letters.
‘For sale – a collection of wax anatomicals. Numerous models of the highest quality now offered at prices to suit. Former owner recently deceased. Enquiries: 24 Talbot Street, Southwark.’
My sister, it seems, has lost what little mind she was possessed of.
‘You see?’ She beams at me, and I’m suddenly glad that she will be married in a few months and all her ridiculous ideas will become the problems of another man. The address sounds familiar, but I’m sure that I would have remembered any business of my sister’s which had led her to frequent Southwark.
‘No, Pen. I’m afraid I fail to see what you could possible be wanting with such a macabre set of objects.’
‘Really, Charles.’ She pouts. ‘For the ball ? Remember? I want it to be memorable and these would be perfect’
‘But that is the point. Flick will be beside herself. She is only planning to have gypsies, whereas I will have a true house of horrors.’
‘I thought Felicity Penridge was your best friend?’ The conversation is moving at too fast a pace for me to have a hope of following Pen’s reasoning.
‘That was before she slighted my darling Thomas. Jealous little minx. Just because he had the honesty to say that her dress was unbecoming. Anyway, a ball on All Hallows eve should be ghoulish don’t you think? We needn’t exhibit them if they’re not quite proper, but I’m sure that they would make fabulous ornaments. We could light them with candles!’
Her use of the word we gives me the uneasy impression that by the time this is pitched to our mother the idea will have become all mine and Pen will simply be helping her ‘artistic’ brother. She continues to ramble about candles and curtains, trying to work out how many alcoves and cupboards she can find in which to hide the wretched things.
Mother’s resistence to filling the house with ‘indelicate monstrosities’ lasts until Penelope mentioned Lady Pendridge’s planned Gypsy ball. The thought of being upstaged by ‘that woman’ whose marriage to Lord Penridge had been ‘nothing more than the buying of a title – everyone knows her father’s money came from mills.’, is more than my mother’s delicate nerves could bear. I am dispatched with all haste to claim the ghoulish wax works for the good of society, which might otherwise be deceived into appreciating the good taste of Lady Penridge.
24 Talbot street is a small shabby looking place. Enough brick in it to keep it from falling down, and enough timber to make it lean drunkenly on its neighbours. I knock, glad that my gloves will keep the rough wood from embedding splinters in my hands.
A maid answers the door and then shuffles off into the recesses of the house, after having first called ‘Mistress’ in a tone so low it barely penetrates beyond her fringe. I venture inside. The hallway is narrow, the small parlour on the left is empty, and I stand wondering what i should do.
‘Botheration. My apologies, sir.’
The voice comes from behind me and turning, I see, on the stairs, a slim figure, all in black.
‘The girl doesn’t really understand about visitors. My husband …’ She stops abruptly and swallows as though trying to rid herself of an unpleasant taste.
‘My name is Sir Bretton. I am calling about your advertisement.’
‘Yes.’ She smiles, relieved I think not to be asked about the dead husband who was obviously not a favourite with her. ‘I got your card. The collection is downstairs, if you will follow.’
The stairs are as narrow as the hallway, the carpet gives out before the bottom and the floor of the cellar is flagstones and damp. It seems a strange setting for a prized collection, this dank, place which smells of earth and decay.
She leads me into the first room. The walls are lined with glass boxes, each containing some part of the body dissected and exposed in wax. I see a hand, the veins pulled out to float on air, the nerves, pale blue against the white of the bone. There is a skull, the layers of flesh and bone skillfully cut through to show the grey brain quivering within. I’m at once repulsed by the brutality of the work, the uncompromising realism of the sculpture, and attracted by the neat, clean, impotent spectacle of the wax. The wife stands behind me, I hear her skirts settle into place, and her sharp intake of breath when I reach out to touch one of the figures. I pause, finger adrift but not yet landed, and turn back to face her.
‘Sorry, I suppose I could damage it.’
‘No.’ She shakes her head, not meeting my eyes. ‘They are made as teaching models. Quite sturdy, You can even throw them and they won’t fall to pieces.’
Truly?’ Intrigued I wonder if she has thrown one of them? Perhaps she threw it at the dead husband, whoever he was.
Another nod. ‘It does dent them slightly, though.’
I resist the urge to hunt for the dented model.
‘Are there anymore?’ There is another room, I can see the door, but she hesitates and finally looks straight at me.
‘Why do you want them?’ Her tone is frustrated, upset, as though she has been lurching towards tears and chosen instead to take refuge in anger.
I know, instinctively, that she will not give me the models for Penelope’s party. I grasp at her earlier words and throw them back to her.
‘They’re teaching aids aren’t they? I know someone who works for the university, he’d take good care of them.’
Her lips purse and twist and then she whirls round, past me, and through the door to the other room.
The models in here are laid out on tables. Five of them. Five Venuses. Completely and utterly wanton, wholly unsuitable even for Pen’s depraved purposes. They writhe on cheap red velvet, their bodies open to behold. Their faces seem caught between agony and ecstasy. I gasp, and quickly bite my tongue, knowing any comment I make will be wrong. Looking at the wife, I see her lip quiver and her eyes moisten. She blinks them dry but can’t quite stop the shiver, which moves down her neck and shoulders, until a shudder of revulsion passes through her and she turns away.
‘Sorry.’ I do not know what i am apologising for, perhaps merely for being male and so in someway reminiscent of what she has lost.
‘It is not .. you have not … it is just …’ She starts to cry and I stand awkwardly distant, watching her shake and shiver with tears. They stop eventually.
‘I am sorry.’ I repeat. ‘I do not want to intrude upon your grief’ though i am not at all sure it is grief she is feeling.
‘No.’ She shakes her head. ‘It is not your fault. In truth i would be glad if you would take them. The only other offer was for a sideshow. A carnival.’ She spits the word out as though it is bitter on her tongue. I think, guiltily, of Pen’s plans and say nothing.
‘You didn’t tell me your name.’ I try to change the subject, no longer wanting anything to do with these models.
‘Oh.’ she looks wide eyed for a moment. ‘I thought you knew. I thought …’ She frowns and then draws herself up, offering her hand again ‘Lady Darlinton.’
I am speechless. The strange nagging sensation I had about the address when Pen first showed me the paper falls into place. Darlinton died three weeks ago in bedlam, his murder trail was in the newspapers for months before that. He murdered prostitutes, cut them open, or cut parts of them away, ‘like a biology book’ as one policeman put it. He rented a house in Southwark, this house apparently, which he used for his liaisons. As I look at the Venuses, I realise that their faces are the same as the artists impressions from the newspapers. Models or mementos of his actions. I feel suddenly ill and Lady Darlinton comes forward to lay a hand on my arm.
‘I am sorry. The other callers recognised the address, I just assumed…’
‘No. I’m fine.’ I smile at her.
‘You don’t want to take them, do you?’ Her answering smile is as weak as mine feels.
She shrugs. ‘I should have known no respectable gentleman would want them, had my husband not left so many debts I would have broken them up, but …’
‘£500 – to burn them.’ I say it so quickly that she doesn’t catch it, and I have to repeat my offer. She gives me a long look, and then looks back at the models, lying on the table.
‘To burn them? Why? Why would you…’
‘There’s nothing else that can decently be done with them.’ The thought of seeing the models exhibited revolts me, and I know that if I leave them here then she will be forced to sell them, and who but a carnival or freakshow merchant would buy such things?
‘Thank you.’ She whispers her thanks, and gives me a quick smile, which vanishes almost before I register it. I kiss her hand and tell her I will get my man to call on her with the money later that day.
‘I still cannot believe she wouldn’t sell you the models, Charles.’ Pen’s dulcet tones interrupt my vain attempt to read the paper.
‘She didn’t like the idea of them being gawped at. I thought it was perfectly understandably personally.’
‘They’re wax models. Not people, Charles.’ Pen sighs, stirs her chocolate and begins to sip.
I say nothing, but as my eye runs down the paper I catch a short snippet in the left hand column. ‘Fire at Talbot Street. Infamous house of killer destroyed’. I smile, thinking of melting wax, the contorted venuses relaxing into dissolution and Pen, noticing my expression, flounces away in disgust.