The Blake Plates tells two stories, connected but separate.
One of them is about Rebecca Haughton. In the spring of 1960 – seventeen and studying for her A Levels – she finds herself the owner of a set of small engraved copper plates. The plates seem to have a connection with William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Intrigued by the possibility that they might be Blake’s originals, Rebecca begins a search that brings her face to face with new people, mostly kind and helpful, but some hostile and perhaps dangerous. What will it mean for her if the plates are authenticated and she turns out to be the owner of such a valuable art-work?
Rebecca and her mother, Olivia, have a meeting with specialists at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, where the Senior Keeper shows them an original copy of the Songs.
EXCERPT 1 ~ Rebecca:
The Senior Keeper turns the pages, pausing to let the visitors study each of them briefly.
But when he reaches ‘The Blossom’, Rebecca asks him to pause. This mysterious little poem is one of her favourites. Now, lost in the perfection of William Blake’s original print, she’s seized and taken away, her whole body and mind clenched in amazement and joy. She’s studied this illustration in the facsimile copy that Zoe’s dad had lent her – she’d loved it – but it’s a thin and anaemic version, she now realises. Slightly misty. But the colours of the original are rich and luminous, bright as a mid-day in summer, as fresh and vibrant as if William or his wife Catherine had finished them only a couple of hours ago. No wonder they’re called illuminated texts – they shine with their own golden radiance, as if the artist had dipped his brush or his dauber in coloured sunlight, and laid it naked on the pages.
She is enkindled. She hears William say something to Catherine, and her murmured reply. She catches the words yellow ochre. But the vision is gone in a moment, irretrievably vanished. But she’d heard them, talking!
Dr Waller-Dixon, looking directly at Olivia, says: ‘These plates could be very important, Mrs . . ?’
‘Haughton,’ Olivia tells him. ‘Miss Haughton.’
He seems not to be troubled by the fact that Rebecca’s mother is Miss Haughton. ‘These plates,’ he continues, ‘need to be in a place of security from now on. And the other 25 must be handed over to us at once so that we can arrange and carry out proper processes of investigation.’
There is no immediate response. So he adds: ‘You do understand?’
Olivia understands perfectly. But she indicates with a slight movement of her head that the decision is not hers to make. She’s looking at Rebecca.
‘No,’ Rebecca says.
She’s emphatic. ‘No!’
The Blake Plates is a story of sunlight and brightness, but there is an almost impenetrable darkness too. In a parallel narrative, Rebecca’s friend Cressida – now working in London for a detective agency – finds herself drawn into the dangerous world of trafficking and under-age prostitution. In 1793, one of William Blake’s Songs had drawn his readers’ shocked attention to a ‘youthful harlot’ wandering the streets of the capital city. In 1960, it’s still happening, mirroring Blake’s perceptions almost two centuries earlier. Small children are involved too, both boys and girls. Cressida, knowing almost nothing about such things, finds herself investigating what she only half-comprehends. A general public understanding of these realities is only just starting to break open.
But she is a fearless young woman. Nothing is going to stop her, as this second extract shows.
EXCERPT 2 ~ Cressida:
The back door is locked. But Cressida bends her elbow into a strong blunt weapon and poises it about six inches from the largest pane in the kitchen window. The move is not unlike one she’s learnt in self-defence classes. A sharp decisive thrust of the elbow is all that’s needed to smash the glass from the centre. There’s a noise, of course. But she stands motionless and quiet for several minutes, knowing that as long as the sound of falling glass is brief, and not repeated, probably no one will investigate.
Carefully she pulls away a few shards of glass still loosely stuck to the putty in the frame – leaving a clear rectangular entry. She reaches in and round to the catch, opens the entire window, and climbs inside. She’s agile and supple.
Inside, she first secures her escape. She unbolts the kitchen-door, and unlocks it with the key the previous occupants have left in the key-hole.
She switches on the light in the kitchen. It probably won’t be seen from the front. It’s a risk, but not much of one. She moves slowly from room to room. Downstairs, there’s nothing to suggest this was not a normal family home. It was a big family, you could tell. And there’s a lot of untidiness.
She goes cautiously upstairs. You might find anything in one of the rooms up there – a corpse, an intruder with a gun. Who knows?
What Cressida finds is a long rectangular mirror on one of the walls. It puzzles her: full-length mirrors have their uses if they’re vertical – but why would anyone want a horizontal one, waist-high?
There is something strange about the glass too. The room is in darkness, so it’s a few moments before she understands that there’s no reflection of herself. It’s a mirror that doesn’t reflect. Her heart is suddenly racing and she feels sweat on her forehead – because she’s realised that she can see through into the next bedroom. Only faintly, because of the dark.
But what is it for?
Seeing perhaps? Watching?
It dawns on her slowly. It’s a large one-way window, carefully fitted into the wall. Three or four people could sit there, in a row, watching.
Unexpectedly shaky, she feels her way out onto the landing and round into the next bedroom – where she finds the other side of the window. But, here, it is a mirror. It reflects. So whatever was happening on the bed in this room could be watched by a small concealed audience in the one next door.
This realisation makes Cressida feel a little sick. Other details assemble in her thoughts as she takes it in – they were children being watched, girls of eleven and twelve perhaps, men doing things to the girls. Or girls made to do things to the men.
Perhaps new girls were made to watch the older ones?
An understanding of this new kind of darkness is flooding into Cressida’s mind. It’s like a disgusting rising tide in the middle of the darkest night. It makes her grimace. She feels such dismay, such outrage, that denial and disbelief inevitably follow hard on its heels. Such things can’t – surely – happen? They don’t happen! She needs time to accommodate this, and someone to talk to about it.
But there’s no chance of that. For at that moment there’s a great hammering on the front door.
The other residents at Cuckoo Farm have their stories too. The two sisters who run the community, for example, are facing big changes in their lives. Naomi – troubled by the practice of forcibly taking unwanted babies from their under-age mothers – is seized by a mid-life need to establish a foster-home at the Farm. Her sister Olivia meanwhile is becoming troubled by the sexual liaison she’s been secretly enjoying for almost twenty years, which now seems – to her, if not to her lover – to be going mysteriously wrong.
Naomi and Olivia, Rebecca and Cressida, all appeared first in The Cuckoo Season (available on Obooko). But here there is a new character: Zoe Whittaker, a bright and clever nine-year-old, involved in all their stories, and preoccupied by an innocent fascination with mermaids.
We are all entitled to keep some aspects of our lives private. But how can we stop those private matters from turning into secrets; and secrets from hardening into taboos so rigid that some issues can never be discussed? For where there are matters that cannot be talked about, wickedness silently flourishes and spreads.