‘Tell us about your mistress‘s previous employment,‘ they said looking at her lapsed in the shadow of the woman she once was before our sojourn together began.

One

The first that came was a sailor. Short, bad breath and a limp—and why she entertained him I will never know. I heard from the other side of the door. ‘Is it as clean as the Kumano shrine?‘ he asked.

She giggled. We all heard her. Raucous I would say she was, and naturally he joined in. He had this leather pouch around his neck that I thought might be full of money, but I was wrong, just as I was mistaken about the milk for our gin and the firewood I was sure was on its way.

Afterwards when I went back to empty the chamber pot and rearranged the linen there she was in her peignoir, moving like water and singing to herself. It shocked me because my mistress has never been a happy woman. Things fell into place when I saw the boot full of money at the bottom of the bed.

Two

The second was different. He was titled, not that she could brag about it but he came with a coat of arms and six black horses. He had a dog: a surly thing that he thumped down my lap as he fell in the door drunk.

He would never dawdle and no wonder. I caught sight of him once through the mirror she kept on the stand near the washbowl, and he had a wizened little stump between his legs. Two of his toenails were black and he had a birthmark the shape of County Mayo on his buttocks.

‘That will be all,‘ she snarled.

There was no ha, ha, ha, or bubbles on this occasion. He didn‘t even give me so much as a florin to keep my mouth shut because I supposed he had a wife: a grand sort of woman, with a hat like an aviary. I could imagine her prancing about St Giles saving souls with her bible. Whilst all the time his lordship was here quaffing the servant‘s ale and giving my mistress no pleasure.

‘No pleasure at all?‘ I queried

She settled the matter with a nod

Even all the emeralds in Christendom were not enough to tolerate him one more hour.

Three

The third was an altogether different kind of fish. If you didn‘t know the kind of house this is you wouldn‘t have had a clue he was coming here for that. He was a well turned-out sort of a fellow but as wide as a bog. There was a whiff of violets about him but there were fleas in his wig. Not that she would believe me.

‘Leave the gentleman‘s wig alone,‘ she snapped.

When I came in to scoop up the laundry, empty the pots and take her a cup of tea: ‘White or oolong?‘ I asked.

When she drinks it my mistress likes to think of the silvery tips of unopened buds and imagine each head being plucked from mountain peaks in spring.

She is very fond of mountains is my mistress.

The third fellow was rather too sure of himself for a man with a belly like a barrel and wig full of fleas. I had seen it before. He got his feet as large as meat plates under the table. He stayed two whole nights. Consumed all the wine, ate all the bread and sent me out to get him kippers.

She was disappointed even though he promised next time he would bring a ruby for her navel.

My mistress got her ten guineas but that didn‘t stop her.

Four

The fourth fellow was far too young for her of course and far too beautiful. She found him. I say she found him but really I think she caught him. He was flapping his wings and swooping around and she did what the cat does when it sees a butterfly. She put out her tongue and swallowed him whole within a blink of an eye, without pretending she was coy, or fluttering her eyelashes. She did it without even slightly reddening her cheeks.

My mistress, it has to be said, is the most monstrous liar.

She told him something that made us all laugh.

Not that he made enquiries about her virginity. He sat by her side sipping wine and gorging on meat and even when the guests had gone he didn‘t suspect a thing.

My mistress winked at me shortly before his first frisson. I knew that this meant she expected me to employ some chicanery with a soiled sheet.

I think she was smitten because he was the very first one that she didn‘t make pay.

What larks: she had nights at the theatre, dresses with veils, hats and gloves and more gloves.

That was until the day we found she was in pod. I thought her brain had begun to soften when she refused to see a certain physician I know. I thought she had gone quite mad when she announced she wanted to keep it.

‘A sprat will stretch and leave you ragged,‘ I began.

Hours later the baby was gone.

Five

The fifth one was a great spear of a man and a doctor of letters. American or Canadian I think. She stumbled across him. I mean it—she quite literally fell at his feet in the National Portrait Gallery of all places.

I marvelled at the linings of his jackets. I brushed one against my cheek just to feel the sensation of silk against my flesh.

For her it was the thought of leaving this tiny island and perhaps the possibility of marriage.

My mistress was sure it was time.

I told her to be very careful. Men like the doctor are wary of such things. I warned her not keep dropping marriage into the conversation the way she used to drop her H‘s.

He came here twice and on both occasions there wasn‘t a peep. Not one whoop of exaltation or celebration. There wasn‘t a minim of worship. Not one small sigh. There was nothing.

When I went in to change the sheets she was sat writing a letter that would change everything.

Even the word marriage was as unfavourable to her now as the pox.

Six

He was an artist. He paid in boiled calf heads, calves feet in jelly, crimped fish, soused pig‘s feet, pressed duck and well-hung pheasant.

Being eighty years of age he expected nothing of her other than to lounge on the bed naked. He would stand on the window seat and bark instructions. He never laid a finger on her as such.

She would move this way and that. Put her hands behind her head, turn on her stomach or roll on her back. Then of course he wanted to watch her eating, bathing and putting her corset on. There was something about the tensions in her muscles that interested him. She complied.

Then one night he wanted to watch her sleeping and she let out such a cry.

I wondered what had happened. He promised truffles but it was no use

‘He has to go,‘ she bellowed.

Seven

There was seven, then there was eight, followed by nine who was really a ghost the way he flitted backwards and forwards through the passageways.

‘I could have loved nine,‘ she said.

She was sitting by the window at the time, the afternoon sunshine pouring in behind her. She was straddling the piano stool and her fingers were moving up and down on the keys that stuck.

‘I could have loved him la, la, la,‘ she sang.

I went about my work until she asked me to come and turn the pages.

Not that she can read music you understand. She learnt to play by ear.

‘La, la, la I could have loved him but I didn‘t,‘ she trilled, then slammed the piano lid down, only narrowly missing my fingers.

Ten

She didn‘t love ten either, A candlemaker, he was shortly followed by a sous chef who paid her in pastries. Then there was thirteen who was a military man. He was the man who shot the rats and threw her complete work of Shakespeare on the fire. Fourteen was a foreign gentleman, a big tipper if I am not mistaken. Fifteen came too quickly. Sixteen was something in shipping; he reeked of sawdust and rabbits. Seventeen was gone before I arrived. He left his half of the peach on the tray next to the empty plate. Eighteen was a baker and he liked to manhandle her buttocks. Nineteen was a corsetiere from Paris and he liked her to play the cello for him. Twenty was a bearded fellow who hid under a hat and kept his hands in his pockets.

I think this was when I began to lose count.

The next one I recall was so keen you could feel his eyes undressing you. She called him her darkle. Some say she loved him; I really couldn‘t say. At first all his talk of her body as the orient excited her. He liked to find certain rivers and swim out to sea until he met the ocean.

He called what was between her legs not her commodity or her sex, but ‘my Americas‘ and she called him Christopher Columbus until the man with the glass eye stole her heart. He was compiling a sort of compendium, a catalogue of the erotic. My mistress would have done just about anything to appear in it.

‘I want my sex to be famous for men to revel in the pleasure it gives them as if it was a burgundy,‘ she announced.

And it was for a time.

A fine little oyster, a tasty nut to crack, she was described as.

The next ones had certain tastes.

I didn‘t want the details but she could never keep anything to herself. The things they did with their tongues were abhorrent to me.

Wild roses, a hint of liquorice, mingled with blackcurrant, one wrote about the taste of her sex.

Cinnamon, vanilla, something rather like crème caramel, another argued.

Oaky and as buttery as a good chardonnay, the third one said.

‘Where do these men come from?‘ she screamed.

‘From the four corners of the world,‘ I said.

‘Something must change,‘ she insisted.

So we travelled around Europe for a time.

The first one on foreign soil wanted marriage after one night which made her chuckle.

‘What a woman you are,‘ he said.

Well she might chuckle having never allowed him to put his penis inside her. Having taken it in her hand and him so befuddled and his head so decayed he had no idea.

Then something that neither of us could have anticipated happened.

She was introduced to a dark-skinned man. He was a thoughtful sort of fellow. A gentleman and quite humorous with his love of rosewater and plums dipped in sugar. Then he asked me if I would shave my mistress‘s sex until it was smooth as an egg.

My mistress refused.

The fact was she didn‘t think it quite natural.

‘But none of the men who painted it or poets who wrote odes about it complained,‘ she said.

Yes it was true—there was a picture of it in all its beauty hung in the private study of a lord no less.

She wondered if he wasn‘t suspicious.

‘You mean he fears the clap or something worse?‘ I asked.

She nodded. It turned out it was just the oriental way of doing things.

However it was the promise of a whole wing in his harem that made her reconsider.

Harem life did not suit her. It wasn‘t just the mahjong or the back biting that stifled her; it was the fact he wanted to cut her sex. Apparently it made her nice and tight so only he might fit her like a key.

‘Do that to my commodity? Cut my sex, the very thing that has made my name on both side of the Atlantic. I don‘t think so,‘ she exclaimed.

‘No my poor pet,‘ I cooed.

We romped home but nothing was the same after that.

There was a hint of piety about London and the eyes of the men had grown colder. The river still stank and the women in their hats still beat bibles.

My mistress was in denial. It was as if she couldn‘t see that she was old hat now, even to the men from the rottenest of rotten boroughs.

‘I will rise again. I am sure my sex is still as buttery as it ever was,‘ she chorused, lifting up the piano lid and striking up a song.