The Sealed Letter - By Emma Donoghue
(Latin, "at first sight" or "on the face of it":
evidence presumed to be true unless rebutted)
Every woman should be free
to support herself by the use of
whatever faculties God has given her.
Letter to the English Woman's Journal
The last day of August, and the sky is the colour of hot ash. Something rancid wafts on the air from Smithfield Market; the air glitters with stone dust. She's swept down Farringdon Street in the slipstream of bowlers, top hats, baskets on porters' heads. A hand lights on her arm, a small, ungloved hand; the brown silk of her sleeve is caught between plump pink fingertips. She staggers, clamps her pocketbook to her ribs, but even as she's jerking away she can't help recognizing that hand.
One syllable dipping down, the next swooping up, a familiar and jaunty music; the word skips across the years like a skimmed stone. Almost everyone calls her that now, but Helen was the first. Fido's eyes flick up to Helen's face: sharp cheekbones, chignon still copper. An acid lemon dress, white lace gloves scrunched in the other hand, the one that's not gripping Fido's sleeve. The human river has washed Fido sideways, now, into a scarlet-chested, brass-buttoned officer, who begs her pardon.
"I knew it was you," cries Helen, holding her emerald parasol up to block the terrible sun. "Did you take me for a pickpocket?" she asks, a giggle in her throat.
"Only for half a moment, Mrs. Codrington," she manages to say, licking her gritty lips.
A flicker of pain across the pointed face. "Oh, Fido. Has it come to that?"
"Helen, then," says Fido, and smiles despite herself. Despite the skintightening sensation of encountering a friend who is no longer one. Despite the memories that are billowing up like genii from smashed bottles. She wrenches a handkerchief from her jacket pocket and dabs at her forehead. The two women are blocking the traffic; an old man swerves around them, under a sandwich board that reads No Home Should Be Without One.
"But how you've grown," Helen is marvelling.
Fido looks down at the brown bulge of her bodice. "Too true."
Pink fingers clap to the coral mouth. "You monster! Still the same talent for mistaking my meaning, or letting on that you do. Of course I meant you've grown up so."
"It has been, what, seven years?" Her words are as stiff as tin soldiers. Checking her bonnet is straight, she becomes belatedly aware that the scarlet uniform she bumped into a minute ago is hovering, so she turns to see him off.
"Oh, my manners," says Helen. "Miss Emily Faithfull—if I may—Colonel David Anderson, a friend of the family's from Malta."
The colonel has dangling blond whiskers. Fido lets his fingers enclose hers. "Delighted," she says distractedly.
"The Miss Faithfull?"
She winces at the phrase. By his accent, he's a Scot.
"Printer and Publisher to the Queen?"
The man's well informed. Fido concedes a nod. "Her Majesty's been gracious enough to lend her name to our enterprise at the Victoria Press." She turns back to Helen. So much to say, and little of it speakable; words log-jam in her throat. "Are you and Captain Codrington home on leave, or—"
"Forever and ever, amen," says Helen.
That little twisted smile is so familiar to Fido that the years fall away like planks splintering under her feet. She feels dizzy; she fears she'll have to sink to her knees, right here in all the dusty clamour of London's City district.
"Matter of fact, it's Vice-Admiral Codrington now," remarks Colonel Anderson.
"Of course, of course, forgive me," Fido tells Helen. "I can't help thinking of him by the name he bore in the days..." The days when I knew him? When I knew you? But she's not that girl anymore. It's 1864: I'm almost thirty years old, she scolds herself.
"Harry's been immured in paperwork for weeks, ever since our vile crossing from Malta," complains Helen, "so I've press-ganged the colonel into service as my parcel carrier today."
"A keen volunteer, Mrs. C.," he corrects her, swinging two small packages on their strings. "I'll just pop across the road to pick up your whatsits, shall I?"
"Curtain tassels, a dozen of the magenta," she reminds him.
"That's the ticket."
Tactful of the officer to absent himself, Fido thinks. But once she and Helen are alone, the discomfort rises between them like a paper screen. "Such heat" is all she manages.
"It takes me back," says Helen pleasurably, twirling her fringed green parasol and tipping her chin up to catch the merciless light.
Watching that face, Fido finds it hard to believe