The wind spoke in tongues, battering my sides, and the cold bog I stood in gulped.
I squelched my legs deeper until the muddiness hit my thighs. My pinafore darkened. I drowned my forearms. Bending over, I searched for my reflection, but as I moved, unrecognisable shapes moved within the water - sand eruptions and irregular polka dots.
Some girls collect thousands of them bastards a month, I was told.
Back at the reedy shore, leeches covered me. Razor mouths suckled. You’ll get better at pulling them off, I was told.
Slide, don’t pull, I was later told - after the scarring fades from red to pink. Tricks learnt to get them off without breaking the worming bodies from their mouths.
I’d hear girls downstream singing.
Leeches won’t bite in the cold.
Leeches suck on your blood ‘till you be cold.
Sometimes I’d join in.
Mother found me work and board with Mr and Mrs Tilley who managed a leech farm over the warmer seasons.
‘Work hard, and they’ll find you work over winter,’ mother said to ensure I wasn’t encouraged back home.
‘I’ll send you what I can,’ I replied, watching her darn her Sunday dress with dirty fingernails at our rickety table.
The morning I left home, I walked through the muddy streets of Notting Hill. Avoiding pig shit and puddles of piss, too early to be evaporated from the summer heat. Passing the brick kilns where my brothers worked. Where their faces hollowed and their hands calloused.
I climbed on the back of a horse and cart. Five passengers sat on the floor - four scruffy young men and a girl my age, just as skinny and thread-torn. A few wooden crates with lids were stored on top of blankets.
‘Don’t sit on them,’ the driver said, who I later discovered to be Mr Tilley.
The cart’s tipping wheels barely moved over cobbled roads once we entered the city. The commotion of carriages, disordered driving, sellers and buyers, all competing to be heard. Bread. Fish. Chopped poultry and rotten innards overflowing from stalls. Drummers and pulsating organ grinders. All plotted around the bustle of folk. Banging and shouting from above to below - men building walls and knocking stone into shape.
The roads widened as we entered Kensington, and we could take a breath. We passed shop windows, washed and displaying gowns I’d dirty by looking at them. Ladies, arm in arm, with parasols and well-kept shoes clipped along the scrubbed streets. The cart slowed to a stop. I looked up. The faded sound of a piano above an apothecary.
‘Pass the crates,’ Mr Tilley ordered, ‘two to a box.’
‘What’s in them?’ I asked as I heard the clinking of glass.
We lowered the crates onto the pavement, where they were fetched by a man who came out of the building. Where the piano was twinkling above our heads.
‘Same next month?’ Mr Tilley asked the man.
Breaking through the city's smog, we drove onto rural tracks, through trees, and open green under an early July fog. The air was unfamiliar. I couldn’t follow smells like I could in the city. I later got used to the scent of grass, of soil, as I’d hold onto a bunch of reeds as I climbed up a bank or pick grass as I’d sit for rest.
The wooden spokes clanged over uneven terrain. We bobbed around like clonking bottle-top marbles down alleyways. The openness of the land felt big and unbothered by us. The girl wrapped her shawl around her tighter while I sat up, clinging to the side of the cart, to feel the wind on my neck.
‘Have you worked on a leech farm?’ The girl asked.
Adele was her name. We ended up sharing a small bed in the workers’ lodges, which had been a stable. She told me I emitted heat when in bed, and I didn’t say she ran cold. The stable housed six beds, with two of us per bed. Hay and rat shit remained around what in a proper house would be a skirting board, despite Mary anxiously sweeping every morning before our cup of soggy oats. The broom scratching against the floor made the back of my mouth itch.
Adele and I would sneak out at night to look at the stars and, on occasion, creep into the farmhouse's kitchen to pinch a morsel of bread or any leftovers from supper.
‘Look, cheese.’ She whispered one night. ‘Let’s break off a crumb.’
‘They’ll notice cheese missing.’
‘Let’s lick it.’ She further opened the paper wrapping, looking at me for acceptance.
‘Go on then,’ I moved in closer, ready for my turn, ‘no biting.’
As the summer months waned, we were often too tired to get outside for midnight under the moon. But when we did, Adele would always ask, ’What star are you?’ I wish now I’d not thought that foolish. I wish we’d had more nights under the stars, stealing food or roaming further after Sunday prayers.
The day Adele was taken sick was after a wound bled for several hours after she had dislodged a leech from her calf. A spot that was layered with bruises. Where veins surfaced, all our legs were like maps.
Her skin was slippery and hot to the touch, like the wax that dripped down the candle on our bedside table. Mary approached with a folded wet rag and patted it on Adele’s forehead. Mary was quiet. She’d been on this farm the longest, over many summers. At many bedsides.
‘Is the doctor coming?’ I whispered.
‘Mrs Tilley said it’s too late in the hour. He’ll be called for in the morning.’
I took the rag from her, ’I’ll do that. Get some sleep.’
She’ll be well in the morning, I told myself.
I must have fallen asleep as I woke to her moving. I thought she must be recovering. It was just another bite. I wrapped my arm around her waist, which was warm and sticky. She had stopped shivering. I allowed myself to sleep again.
Waking up to her stiffness was all I could think as I washed the bed linen. Her face, pale, looked younger. Preserved like a stone statue. I didn’t leave the stains to soak in lye but rubbed soap against the bedding, scraping it against the washboard - her last sleep in those scratchy blankets. My hands turned raw from the coarseness of scrubbing. Steam lifted, and foam splashed over the sides of the copper pot. I wiped my eyes on my damp sleeve. The boiling water next to me on the fire was wobbling with the fury they speak of in church.
‘Come now,’ Mary pulled me back, ‘you’ll scrub right through.’
The month before Adele’s death - before the digging of her grave outside the church on the hill, before the clergyman said a prayer about her being a servant of god, before the weekly visits to the wooden cross stuck into the soil where she was buried, where I knelt by the heap and spoke to her memory, her ghost, and where I noticed all the little mounds and crosses that scattered the graveyard - the month before Adele’s death, Mrs Tilley came to the stables. She announced that a portrait of three of us collecting leeches had been commissioned and that the painter Mr Walker would come to make studies of us. What is there to study, I thought.
The day Mr Walker came, the clouds hung low and slow, without sunshine or rain. Adele, myself and another chosen leech collector, Beth, posed in the bog far longer than we’d ever stayed before. I imagined the leeches fattening up, ready to explode.
Mr Walker was a tall, slender man who would whisper his wants to Mrs Tilley, and she’d order us on how to stand, when to bend, where to look. Smile. Lower your head. Reach into your apron pocket.
‘We’re proper ladies now,’ I said to Adele, and she laughed, which caused her to topple out of her position.
‘We’ll be in the most exquisite gallery,’ she put on a posh voice, ‘amongst all the finest ladies and gentlemen.’
‘Dukes will ask us to the opera.’ I looked up to see Mrs Tilley staring at me, tight-lipped.
‘You embarrassed yourselves,’ she later told us. But she meant we had embarrassed her.
Mr Walker sat on one of the kitchen chairs I fetched earlier. It was gradually digging into the bank and tilting, and rather than get up and put it back in order, his legs gradually widened. He furiously sketched and, every so often, would crumple up paper and toss it into the marsh. When the day was done, I asked Mrs Tilley when he’d be back to paint.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ she said, ‘he’ll paint it back at his workshop.’
Mrs Tilley liked to think of herself as civilised, but I’d say to Adele, ‘She’s only a notch up from the stables.’
I knew myself to be a fool when I lingered after church to visit Adele’s grave. I’d tell her about my week. I’d remind her of the times she’d squint at the sun and always say, ‘You don't get sun in London.’ I told her so she wouldn’t forget.
I told her she could have died a worse death, like the girl down my street who was dismembered at the bottle factory, her arms squashed and torn off by a rotation machine. We all knew girls who’d been injured. Hat, match, tanneries. Stitching until fingers bloody and coughing up soot.
I told her I was asked to help prepare the leeches for London. This happened in the kitchen of the farmhouse. All sorts of vases, bottles, and jars covered the table.
‘Mrs Tilley,’ I said, as I wiped down a blue and white porcelain jar, ‘do you have work over winter?’
‘Why do you think I called for you?’ She said, ‘It’ll be you and Mary.’ She picked a leech out of a green opaque glass barrel. ‘You’ve been working hard since -’ she held the wiggling creature up to the light to inspect it. ‘It’ll be half pay for winter. Seeing as the leeches will be sleeping.’ She plopped the leech into another canister. ‘That’s going to the royal apothecary,’ she pointed at the one I was cleaning. ‘For a certain royal lady.’
‘That is not your concern,’ she smiled, ‘fine china and gold leaf rim - the fancier the vase, the more prestigious the customer.’ She stroked the canister's lid, embellished with painted ivy, ‘See these holes? The latest design - more elegant than muslin coverings.’
‘Why do they need holes?’
‘Even leeches need air,’ she laughed.
I learnt to humour her, ‘Who else would buy such beautiful jars?’
‘Pharmacies whose clientele are proper ladies.’ She sprung up and brought over port and two cups from the sideboard. ‘Have a drop.’
I noticed Mrs Tilley would get excited if I asked about the farm. She would talk of this being the biggest leech farm in the country, the best, most enthusiastic leeches. I noticed that if I praised the business, she would give me more time. More details. Pour more sherry or port or the claret a French Doctor had gifted her. I thought I was being a good servant of the lonely. There was a cook and a maid I seldom saw, but I could hear in the background, walking up creaky stairs. Mr Tilley was rarely around during the day, back and forth, making deliveries or stumbling off the cart.
Mrs Tilley took me to one of the leech houses built a short walk from the back of the farmhouse. Along the path were a few small headstones. One said, IN LOVING MEMORY OF OUR LOYAL DOG IVOR.
‘Those are all the pets the farm lost,’ she said as she noticed me reading, ‘he was a good retriever.’
I thought about the wooden crosses dug into the graves on the hill. Uneven and quickly tied together with coarse rope.
The leech house was a small square brick building with two tiny windows and a chimney. Inside was one room, pungent with the moss and peat that lined clay sinks that held water and leeches. Droplets of water fell from the low ceiling.
‘In the winter, you’ll need to keep the fires going so the leeches don’t freeze,’ Mrs Tilley said. ‘For now, take the buckets the girls put their leeches into and empty them in these.’
She peered over the top of a murky sink.
‘Here,’ she picked out a floppy one, ‘this one’s dead - it’s just skin.’ She handed it to me. ‘We’ll dry the skins out and powder them.’
‘When do they need to feed?’
‘They’ll last half a year, but they’ll be gone by then.’
‘Why did it die?’
‘Don’t concern yourself with all the whys. You’ll never get anything done.’
Moving leeches from the marshes to the barn, to the buckets to the containers, from glass jars to vases felt like a trance. I studied their fattened bodies for any defects. I thought about all the blood they’d consumed and how our blood would mix with proper lady blood. I’d removed so many monsters from my legs and arms, yet I’d barely noticed a mouth at one end and a sucker at the other. Looking closely, I saw their differences, the patterns of yellow, green, browns.
I counted each one according to the order written in a small black notebook - it had the doctor's name or house it was to go to and a description of the container to use. Bulbous clay pots with two tiny handles around the neck, normally had the word leeches painted on with curly brushstrokes, and they went to the store pharmacies. Vases, which were ornate, with delicate necks and fine line drawings, had to be handled with extra care, regardless of them containing the same old buttery leeches as the common pots. I thought of each vase as the lady or gentleman it was to encounter and imagined their lives in Kensington. I imagined these leeches suckling under high ceilings and flowery wallpaper to the sound of a piano.
One night Mrs Tilley stormed into the stable. ‘Can’t you count?’ she yelled. ‘Your numbers are wrong.’ She paced up and down, ‘some are under, and some are over. How do you explain that?’
Mary later showed me how to score a mark every time I counted to ten. ‘Then you can count every ten marks as one-hundred,’ she said. ‘We’ll find you something to write on in the morning.’
After a few weeks, when the numbers were in order, I fell back in Mrs Tilley’s favour, and we would chat in the kitchen again over bottles of leeches.
‘Strange. You don’t feel them bite,’ I said.
‘There’s something in them that stops you from feeling it.’
I hesitated, ’Have you ever collected leeches?’
‘Yes, in the early days, Mr Tilley and I both collected.’ She took a sip of port. ‘And we used horse legs.’
‘Dead horse legs.’
‘Why don’t we still use them?’
‘Expensive, and they don’t last. Cheaper to get girls.’
As autumn turned cold and before the other girls left the farm, Mr Walker returned once more. We were all called to the house and stood silent in the drawing room. An easel stood with the painting covered by cloth. A Mr William Howitt had accompanied him as he was writing a piece for publication on rural life.
Mrs Tilley had already told us to say how grateful we were working in pleasant lands and how finely we were treated. She told us to be especially grateful for seeing the painting as girls like us would seldom get such an experience.
Mrs Tilley wore a dress I had not seen. Fuller skirt. Tighter bodice, a red as deep as an old blood-stained sheet. Mr Tilley showed Mr Howitt the leech vases on display on the table that had been moved to the side of the room.
‘Charming,’ Mr Howitt ran a finger down the body of a pear-shaped vase, ‘they remind me of those new urns.’
‘We should go into the cremation business,’ Mr Tilley said.
‘It’s going to be all the rage, or so I’m told.’
Both men laughed, preening their collars. Mr Tilley displayed himself as not only tolerable to small talk but encouraging of it. Standing tall like a peacock.
Mr Walker, standing by the covered painting, coughed loud and deep enough for the men to pay attention. There were a few gasps as Mr Walker carefully uncovered the linen to reveal the canvas.
Silence. Mrs Tilley started clapping. She looked around and nodded for us to applaud. So we did.
These women in thick oil were plump. Rosy-cheeked. Soft skinned. Wearing lily-white bonnets and floral garments I’d only seen on Mrs Tilley. They stood in clear springs, under welcoming blue skies, surrounded by unmuddied green banks. Trees had grown. The church was rebuilt. I looked hard into that painting. I felt pressure under my eyes.
I couldn't see Adele. I couldn't see myself.
Alia is currently studying for an MA in Creative Writing and has fiction published in the Mechanics' Institute Review.