I never knew him. Not really. I thought I had, but it wasn’t until I read his journal that I realized I hadn’t really known him at all. And it’s too late now. Too late to tell him I misjudged him. Too late to tell him I’m sorry.
EXTRACTS FROM THE JOURNAL OF HAYTHAM E. KENWAY
6 DECEMBER 1735
Two days ago I should have been celebrating my tenth birthday at my home in Queen Anne’s Square. Instead, my birthday has gone unremarked; there are no celebrations, only funerals, and our burnt-out house is like a blackened, rotted tooth among the tall, white brick mansions of Queen Anne’s Square.
For the time being, we’re staying in one of Father’s properties in Bloomsbury. It’s a nice house, and though the family is devastated, and our lives torn apart, there is that to be thankful for at least. Here we’ll stay, shocked, in limbo—like troubled ghosts—until our future is decided.
The blaze ate my journals so beginning this feels like starting anew. That being the case, I should probably begin with my name, which is Haytham, an Arabic name, for an English boy whose home is London, and who from birth until two days ago lived an idyllic life sheltered from the worst of the filth that exists elsewhere in the city. From Queen Anne’s Square we could see the fog and smoke that hung over the river, and like everybody else we were bothered by the stink, which I can only describe as “wet horse,” but we didn’t have to tread through the rivers of stinking waste from tanneries, butchers’ shops and the backsides of animals and people. The rancid streams of effluent that hasten the passage of disease: dysentery, cholera, typhoid . . .
“You must wrap up, Master Haytham. Or the lurgy’ll get you.”
On walks across the fields to Hampstead my nurses used to steer me away from the poor unfortunates wracked with coughs, and shielded my eyes from children with deformities. More than anything they feared disease. I suppose because you cannot reason with disease; you can’t bribe it or take arms against it, and it respects neither wealth nor standing. It is an implacable foe.
And of course it attacks without warning. So every evening they checked me for signs of measles or the pox then reported on my good health to Mother, who came to kiss me good night. I was one of the lucky ones, you see, who had a mother to kiss me good night, and a father who did, too; who loved me and my half sister, Jenny, who told me about rich and poor, who instilled in me my good fortune and urged me always to think of others; and who employed tutors and nursemaids to look after and educate me, so that I should grow up to be a man of good values and of worth to the world. One of the lucky ones. Not like the children who have to work in fields and in factories and up chimneys.
I wondered sometimes, though, did they have friends, those other children? If they did, then, while of course I knew better than to envy them their lives when mine was so much more comfortable, I envied them that one thing: their friends. Me, I had none, with no brothers or sisters close to my age either, and, as for making them, well, I was shy. Besides, there was another problem: something that had come to light when I was just five years old.
It happened one afternoon. The mansions of Queen Anne’s Square were built close together, so we’d often see our neighbours, either in the square itself or in their grounds at the rear. On one side of us lived a family who had four girls, two around my age. They spent what seemed like hours skipping or playing blind man’s bluff in their garden, and I used to hear them as I sat in the schoolroom under the watchful eye of my tutor, Old Mr. Fayling, who had bushy grey eyebrows and a habit of picking his nose, carefully studying whatever it was that he’d dug from the recesses of his nostrils then surreptitiously eating it.
This particular afternoon Old Mr. Fayling left the room and I waited until his footsteps had receded before getting up from my sums, going to the window and gazing out at the grounds of the mansion next door.
Dawson was the family name. Mr. Dawson was an MP, so my father said, barely hiding his scowl. They had a high-walled garden, and, despite the trees, bushes, and foliage in full bloom, parts of it were visible from my schoolroom window, so I could see the Dawson girls outside. They were playing hopscotch for a change, and had laid out pall-mall mallets for a makeshift course although it didn’t look as if they were taking it very seriously; probably the two older ones were trying to teach the two younger ones the finer points of the game. A blur of pigtails and pink, crinkly dresses, they were calling and laughing, and occasionally I’d hear the sound of an adult voice, a nursemaid probably, hidden from my sight beneath a low canopy of trees.
My sums were left unattended on the table for a moment as I watched them play, until suddenly, almost as if she could sense she was being watched, one of the younger ones, a year or so my junior, looked up, saw me at the window, and our eyes locked.
I gulped, then very hesitantly raised a hand to wave. To my surprise she beamed back. And next she was calling her sisters, who gathered round, all four of them, excitedly craning their necks and shielding their eyes from the sun to gaze up at the schoolroom window, where I stood like an exhibit at a museum—except a moving exhibit that waved and went slightly pink with embarrassment, but even so felt the soft, warm glow of something that might have been friendship.
Which evaporated the moment their nursemaid appeared from beneath the cover of the trees, glanced up crossly at my window with a look that left me in no doubt what she thought of me—an ogler or worse—then ushered all four girls out of sight.
That look the nursemaid gave me I’d seen before, and I’d see it again, on the square or in the fields behind us. Remember how my nurses steered me away from the ragged unfortunates? Other nursemaids kept their children away from me like that. I never really wondered why. I didn’t question it because . . . I don’t know, because there was no reason to question it, I suppose; it was just something that happened, and I knew no different.
When I was six, Edith presented me with a bundle of pressed clothes and a pair of silver-buckled shoes.
I emerged from behind the screen wearing my new shiny-buckled shoes, a waistcoat and a jacket, and Edith called one of the maids, who said I looked the spitting image of my father, which of course was the idea.
Later on, my parents came to see me, and I could have sworn Father’s eyes misted up a little, while Mother made no pretence at all and simply burst out crying there and then in the nursery, flapping her hand until Edith passed her a handkerchief.