She was the daughter of a tea merchant, a man whose soul totted up life into columns of pounds and pennies. He lived in a world made from profit and loss, where China clippers slipped through the seas to arrive and clerks brought him figures and fortunes and messages from captains.
All her life she’d known the smell of that world – the polished wood, cigars and old leather of the offices, the faint tang of salt water and, above all, the scent of the dried tea leaves that hung on his clothes, buried deep in the wool, when he came home in the evenings.
She’d hold her breath as she kissed his cheek, then move quickly away, still feeling the bristles of his beard on her lips.
“Kitty,” he’d call softly, and a few feet from him she’d exhale silently, turn with a smile and say,
He was a good man and she loved him deeply. He treated his family with kindness. But the smell of the tea that shrouded him, the smell that was his wealth, was slowly killing her.
He refused to believe it. To him it was nothing more than hysterical nonsense, and impossibility.
“No one ever died from the smell of tea, Kitty,” he tried telling her gently. When she kept her slow insistence he left the room rather than argue with her then made her an appointment with a physician who tried to tell her the same. Her mother shook her head at the girl’s fancy and her younger sisters giggled at anything so unlikely.
But she knew. She knew.
It had begun when she was eleven and the governess has taken the girls to the warehouse.
“It’s only right that you see what your father does,” she told them in the cold voice that Kitty knew was no more than resentment and envy. “It pays for your dresses and the dolls you play with.”
“It pays your wages, too,” Kitty said. She’d hoped the remark would cut the woman but she’d merely nodded and replied,
The carriage had taken them down to the vast brick sprawl of the docks, building upon building pushed and cramped against the river, fighting each other for space. And around them, all the houses, street up street of them, looking like the ruins of a civilisation that had once been great and glorious and now left to rot.
At the warehouse the factor greeted them, escorting them first through the warren of offices where clerks bowed their heads over desks and ledgers and worked ink-stained fingers. Without any reason, Kitty could feel the sense of unease growing, her chest tightening with each breath in the rooms. It was something beyond her understanding, the way her heart fluttered and shook and her skin flushed hot in the place.
Then, finally, they were led through the door into the warehouse itself, a majestic room as big and tall as any cathedral, the light coming through high windows. Tea dust floated in the air, collecting on her face and hands as she entered and the smell overwhelmed her senses. After just three paces she knew she couldn’t move any further. It left her drunk and spinning, unable to think.
She came to outside, sitting in the carriage, the faces pressed around her – the governess hovering too close, her sisters, the factor standing back a few paces and wringing his hands with worry.
Kitty looked at them, blinking three times to bring them into focus.
“You’re all right!” the governess said triumphantly. “We were all so worried about you, my dear. You fainted in the warehouse.”
She remembered then: the way it all seemed to choke her, how she’d believed her throat would close, the fear and panic that filled her body and her mind until everything went dark.
They left then, her sisters a welter of chatter, the governess asking every five minutes how she felt. But how did she feel? As if there was less of her, as if she’d lost something in there. What it was, she didn’t know, no more than a feeling.
At home she studied herself in the mirror. Her cheeks seemed a little more pale, the blue of her eyes a little less bright. Running her hands down her arms her flesh seemed somehow thinner, as if a layer had vanished, as if she could poke through to the muscle and bone that lay underneath.
Her sisters returned to the warehouse every year, a treat for them, but Kitty would stay at home. At first her father tried to insist, then to cajole her into joining them, but once her saw the terror in her eyes he stopped his insistence.
She stopped drinking tea. She began to shrink away from her father when he returned in his work suits, suddenly sensitive to the smell of him after a day in his office. But it was impossible to escape completely, and after each hug, each bearded kiss on her cheek or forehead, she felt one more small part of her vanish from the world.
As she grew a little older she began to consider why this was happening. She read about illnesses and found nothing that resembled hers until she began to wonder if everyone was right and it was all in her head and she really was an hysterical girl. Then, one day with nothing to fill the hours, she glanced at the table in the hall. Her father had thrown a few of his business letters there when he’d returned the night before and forgotten to take them that morning. Her eyes strayed across the writing and she saw the demands he placed on the tea planters in those countries so far away. He reminded them of the contracts they’d signed, of the risks he took in transportation, and if their costs had risen so much, then perhaps they should pay the labourers less.
From there, over the days and weeks and months, when the house was quiet she’d carefully put on the leathers gloves that fitted so smooth and snug over her hands, tie and kerchief around her nose and mouth until she looked like a common bandit, and sneak into her father’s study. It was dangerous – the place smelt of him, the scent of tea a note that hung high in the air over everything – but she’d spend as long as she dare reading his correspondence. Her ears stayed alert from the smallest sound and she was all too aware of what this was doing to her. She could feel the way her heart pounded dully under her ribs, the energy it all took, but she had to know more.
She read it all, every last word and reply. She knew how he’d dealt with the attempt to form a union among the men at the warehouse, how he’d crushed it with dismissals and threats. She knew the money he’d spent in bribes of officials overseas for preferential treatment, the way he’d ridden roughshod over everything to find greater profits.
By the time she was done, she understood. But after that her gowns hung more loosely on her body than they had before, although she was still growing and ate as heartily as she ever had. Her spirit had sunk deeper. She understood.
Kitty knew that her mother and father worried about her. She sometimes heard them talking in hushed, serious tones behind carefully closed doors, and noticed the looks they gave her. But even if she’d tried, even if she’d had the words to make it all clear to them, they’d never have accepted it.
Tea was a plant. It was a commodity, a means to the money that built and furnished this house, that paid for the dressmaker, the tailor and the grocer. It could never be more than that.
But she knew.
They took her from doctor to doctor, tried this remedy and that, some pleasant, some less so. None of them worked. If they’d ever been willing to listen, she could have told them.
“Kitty,” he mother said, “we’re going out for the morning tomorrow.”
“Where, Mama?” she asked. “All of us?”
“Into town,” her mother answered. “I’ve ordered the coach for nine, so you’ll need to be ready. And yes, all of us. Except your father, of course. He’ll be at work.”
Excited, she was waiting by the door as the coachman brought the carriage round the next morning. It was a week before Christmas, a bare coating of snow and frost on the ground, the three standing tall in the hallways, decorated with baubles and candles.
Kitty sat between her sisters, listening contentedly to the quick babble of their gossip, the frivolities comforting somehow, like a bolster to hug in a cold bed. The horses clopped along merrily, the countryside changing to suburban terraces then the shops and arcades that bloomed with shoppers glancing into windows and businessmen who strode purposefully as if they were following a higher calling.
Any moment she expected the coach to stop but it didn’t. Her sisters prattled on, not even seeming to notice, but Kitty looked at her mother, the older woman giving a calm, superior smile.
“Where are we going, Mama?”
“To visit your father, dear.”
“What? At the warehouse?” she could feel the panic rising, her throat starting to tighten around her words.
“Where else would he be at this time, Kitty? It’s time you overcame these silly feeling of yours, you know. You’re almost a grown woman now. It’s not seemly.”
“But…” she began but could go no further. Nothing she could do now would make any difference. Weary, heartsick, she saw the landscape change, sliding from money to the poverty of the small back-to-backs where even the sky looked tired. Finally they pulled up at the warehouse.
I could just sit here, she thought. I could refuse to move. But then her mother was tugging at her wrist, saying,
“Get down now, Kitty. I’m not going to take no for an answer any more. Whatever these ridiculous ideas are that you have in your head, you need to get over them.”
But they’re not in my head, Mama, she thought. They’re real.
Then she was standing on the gravel, being ushered along with her mother’s hand at her elbow, half-pushing, half-dragging, the woman’s face set and stern as her sisters trailed behind.
The factor met them at the door of the building, a harried man of middle age with wisps of hair at the sides of his head, sad, bulldog eyes, bowing to the ladies as he led them towards the warehouse door.
It looked so innocuous, Kitty thought. Nothing more than bricks, mortar and wood. But already she felt as if hands were tightening around her throat, the tongue swelling in her mouth, her palms clammy inside the gloves and her skin itching.
First they passed through the offices, the way they had when she’d come here as a girl. Even the smells were exactly as she remembered them, just as if they’d waited for her return. And then they came to the door into the warehouse.
The women stood back as the factor turned the handle and opened it. Kitty could see her father there, off in the distance, talking to a workman in his buff coat, the sacks of tea leaves everywhere piled high.
“Well,” her mother said, “go on, girl.” Four words that brooked no objection.
She breathed in, her chest so tight it hurt and began to walk towards the door, glancing once over her shoulder at her mother and her sisters. They looked so earnest, so hopeful, so alive. Kitty walked through the entrance, her head held high, and gently closed the door behind her.
Two minutes later her father came out, glancing around in confusion.
“Where’s Kitty?” he asked his wife. “I thought you were going to send her in.”
“I did,” his wife objected, looking at him in disbelief. She turned to her daughters. “We watched her go through the door, didn’t we, girls?”
He pointed at the warehouse behind them and shook his head.
The woman nodded firmly
“But she can’t have,” her told her, exasperation edging into voice. “I was standing right there. I was watching the whole time. The only person who came in there was the factor. Then there was a draught and the door closed behind him.” He sighed and took off his glasses. “Where is she? What’s happened to her? You can’t tell me she simply vanished into thin air.”