Havisham

A Novel

Ronald Frame

Picador

ONE
 
 
*   *   *
My father draped the public rooms of Satis House in dust sheets. The chandeliers were left in situ, but wrapped in calico bags. The shutters were closed completely across some windows, and part-drawn at others.
My first days were lived out in a hush of respectfully lowered voices as a procession of folk came to offer their condolences.
My eyes became accustomed to the half-light.
*   *   *
One evening several new candles were set in one of the chandeliers. My mother’s clavecin was uncovered, and someone played it again – notwithstanding that it was out of tune – and that was the point at which the house stopped being a sepulchre and was slowly brought back to life.
*   *   *
It was the first word I remember seeing.
HAVISHAM.
Painted in green letters on the sooty brick of the brewhouse wall.
Fat letters. Each one had its own character.
Comfortable spreading ‘H’. Angular, proud ‘A’. Welcoming, open ‘V’. The unforthcoming sentinel ‘I’. ‘S’, a show-off, not altogether to be trusted. The squat and briefly indecisive, then reassuring ‘M’.
The name was up there even in the dark. In the morning it was the first thing I would look for from the house windows, to check that the wind hadn’t made off with our identity in the night or the slanting estuary rain washed the brickwork clean.
*   *   *
Jehosophat Havisham, otherwise known as Joseph Havisham, son of Matthias.
Havisham’s was the largest of several brewers in the town. Over the years we had bought out a number of smaller breweries and their outlets, but my father had preferred to concentrate production in our own (extended) works. He continued his father’s programme of tying in the vending sites, acquiring ownership outright or making loans to the publicans who stocked our beer.
Everyone in North Kent knew who we were. Approaching the town on the London road, the eye was drawn first to the tower of the cathedral and then, some moments later, to the name HAVISHAM so boldly stated on the old brick.
We were to be found on Crow Lane.
The brewery was on one side of the big cobbled yard, and our home on the other.
Satis House was Elizabethan, and took the shape of an E, with later addings-on. The maids would play a game, counting in their heads the rooms they had to clean, and never agreeing on a total: between twenty-five and thirty.
Once the famous Pepys had strolled by, and ventured into the Cherry Garden. There he came upon a doltish shopkeeper and his pretty daughter, and the great man ‘did kiss her’.
My father slept in the King’s Room, which was the chamber provided for Charles II following his sojourn in France, in 1660. The staircase had been made broader to accommodate the Merry Monarch as his manservants manoeuvred him upstairs and down. A second, steeper flight was built behind for the servants.
*   *   *
I grew up with the rich aroma of hops and the potent fumes from the fermenting rooms in my nostrils, filling my head until I failed to notice. I must have been in a state of perpetual mild intoxication.
I heard, but came not to hear, the din of the place. Casks being rolled across the cobbles, chaff-cutting, bottle-washing, racking, wood being tossed into the kiln fires. Carts rumbled in and out all day long.
The labourers had Herculean muscles. Unloading the sacks of malt and raising them on creaky pulleys; mashing the ground malt; slopping out the containers and vats; drawing into butts; pounding the extraneous yeast; always rolling those barrels from the brewhouse to the storehouse, and loading them on to the drays.
Heat, flames, steam, the dust clouds from the hops, the heady atmosphere of fermentation and money being made.
*   *   *
I was told by my father that the brewery was a parlous place for a little girl, and I should keep my distance. The hoists, the traps, those carts passing in and out; the horses were chosen for their strength, not their sensitivity, but every now and then one would be overcome with equine despair and make a bid for freedom, endangering itself and anyone in its path.
The brewhouse was only silent at night, and even then I heard the watchmen whistling to keep up their spirits in that gaunt and eerily echoing edifice, and the dogs for want of adventure barking at phantom intruders. The first brew-hands were there by five in the morning, sun-up, and the last left seventeen hours later, a couple of hours short of midnight.
I woke, and fell asleep, to the clopping of shod hooves, the whinnying of overworked carthorses.
*   *   *
‘It’s a dangerous place, miss,’ my nursemaids would repeat.
My father insisted. ‘Too many hazards for you to go running about.’
But should I ever complain about the noise, or the smell of hops or dropped dung, his response was immediate: this was our livelihood/if it was good enough for my grandfather/you’ll simply have to put up with it, won’t you, missy. So I learned not to comment, and if I was distracted from my lessons or my handiwork or my day-dreaming, I moved across to the garden side of the house. Out of doors, in the garden, the sounds would follow me, but there were flowers and trees to look at, and the wide Medway sky to traverse with my thoughts.
*   *   *
Sometimes I would see a man or a woman reeling drunk out of a pub, or I’d hear the singing and cursing of regulars deep in their cups.
That, too, was a part of who we Havishams were. But I would be hurried past by whoever was holding my hand, as if they had been issued with orders: the child isn’t to linger thereabouts, d’you understand. So we negotiated those obstacles double-quick, taking to side alleys if need be, to remove ourselves to somewhere more salubrious, while the rollicking voices sounded after us – but not their owners, thankfully grounded in a stupor.


 
Copyright © 2012 by Ronald Frame