This story first appeared in Stephen Jones’ Fearie Tales: Stories of the Grimm and Gruesome (Jo Fletcher Books). The title came from nowhere; I was thinking about pirates and ports, bordellos and brides – as you do – and the name came to me, a place where you pass from land to sea and those who watch you go or wait for you to come back, weep.
I liked the idea of a girl who is terribly plain amongst all her beautiful sisters, but the sisters aren’t cruel to Nel. Her mother is, though: Dalita is a terrible woman, the epitome of a mother trying to relive her life through her favourite daughter. I have a whole history in my head for her, how she fled her own family and marriage, and made her own way in the world, how it turned her tenacious nature harsh and hard, and how – even though she’s got a strong idea of family – she sees even her own children as a means to an end.
Although her plainness is a source of some distress Nel finds a way to use it to her advantage – she’s able to pass unseen when others would attract attention and so she can collect secrets as well. I love Nel, I love how she learns and changes and becomes something else in this story, how she takes her courage in her hands and goes out into the world to make things right, even though she is, at the end, someone who can no longer hide.
By the Weeping Gate
This house here in Breakwater, this one, by the Weeping Gate where men and women come to wait and weep for those lost to the sea. This house is very fine, given the notoriety of the canton in which it resides; indeed, given the notoriety of its inhabitants.
The front stairs are swept daily by the girl who tends to such things (more of Nel later); the façade is cleverly created, a parquetry of stones coloured from cream through to ochre, some look as red as rubies, all creating a mosaic of florals and vines (the latter use malachite tiles). There is nothing like it anywhere else in the port city and there are uncharitable souls who whisper its existence is owed solely to the artisans’ truck with magic. The windows are always clean and shine like crystals, but none may see inside due to the heavy brocade drapes hung within.
Come to the door, look at its intricacies, all carved from ebony, bas-relief mermaids and sirens, perched upon jagged rocks with the sea throwing itself against those ragged angles. The knocker is surprisingly plain, as if some tiny attempt at good taste was made; it’s merely brass (highly polished, of course), with a slight ripple pattern so it looks something like a piece of rope. The house was not built by its current occupants – they have shifted into it, grown like a kind of hermit crab into a new shell – but by a sea captain who quickly made then lost his fortune to the ocean and its serpents and pirates, its storms and violent eddies, its whirlpools and deceptive coasts with rocks sewn just beneath the surface. After that, another man purchased it, an ill-famed prelate with no flock, who spent his days delving into dark mysteries, talking to spirits and trying to create soul clocks so that, if he might not live forever, he could at least access another lifetime. His departure from the city was encouraged by a nervous populace. The abode lay dormant and lonely for several years until this woman came along.
Tall and striking with jet-black hair, skin the colour of wheat, and eyes like brown stones. She dragged behind her three small daughters, their features enough like hers and distinct enough from each others’ to say they had different fathers. No one knew whether she bought the property or simply set up shop there – a lawyer did descend a few weeks after her presence was noticed, but by then her business was well-established (it took only a week).
The solicitor rapped the knocker, peremptorily, a look of displeasure on his face and entered when the door was whisked open. He came out some time later, features quite changed and set in what seemed an unfamiliar arrangement of happiness. He walked somewhat stiffly, now, but this did not seem to bother him at all. He became a regular visitor and was content to leave Dalita to her affairs (and her offspring, who continued to increase in number), and if his wallet was a little heavier and his balls a little lighter each time he left, then so much the better.
For all its decorative glory, the house does not have a delightful marine aspect. Perhaps that is unfair. By peeking out one window, inching one’s body sharply to the left and pressing one’s face hard against the glass, one might see, through the tight arch of the Weeping Gate, a sliver of water. It is, it must be said, a strip of the peculiarly unclean, slightly greasy liquid that lines the port, infected by humanity and its waste. But then, no one who ventures this far comes for the sea view.
The house has no wrought iron fence, nor tiny enclosed garden; it simply sits cheek by jowl with its street, which is muddy in times of rain, dusty in times without. The cries of the gulls are not faint here, nor is the smell of fresh, drying or dying fish.
Once inside, however, incense and perfume, a heady opiate mix, negates any piscine odours (and others more personal, leisure-related), and anyone setting foot in the spectacular red entrance hall will immediately lose hold of their fears or concerns. The richness of the decor and the beauty of the girls, their charm, their smiles, their voices (coached to pitch low and light), combine to wash away all imperatives but one. After a single visit, even the most nervous of trader, wheelwright, tailor, sailor, princeling or clergyman – in short, anyone who can scrape up Dalita’s hefty fee – will be content to wander the requisite dark alleyways to the house by the Weeping Gate.
And in truth, with time the locale became strangely safer – mariners keen to earn extra coin were easily recruited to run interference in the streets. Thieves and ruffians learned quickly not to trouble those walking in a certain direction with a particular gait, lest they find themselves faced with consequences they did not wish to bear. The longshoremen were known on occasion to shift some of the more inconvenient street-side debris further away from the house. No need to scare the punters.
Gradually, Dalita’s clientele increased, and soon enough she took fewer habitués herself, becoming fussier, more miserly, with her favours. But as each daughter came of reasonable age, so too did the number of employees of the house; firstly Silva, then the twins Yara and Nane, then Carin, next Iskha, then Tallinn, and finally Kizzy.
Asha was kept aside, held back for finer things.
And Nel, too, was kept aside, banished to the kitchens.
Iskha, taking her fate in her own hands, ran away and should not have been seen again.