YELLOW TIDE

Two men walked the shore of Peel Isle, down close to where the whaler ‘William’ had foundered, fifty years previously. Back then were no settlers, no rats, no pigs running wild; there had been songbirds remarked upon by all who heard their lilting lullabies – just memories now. So much change, not all of it for the better.

It was a golden evening, the light playing upon a Pacific Ocean calm as slumber itself. One might be tempted to swim, but only if ignorant of the shoals of sharks cruising the shallows, implacably hungry. On shore, the night birds were emerging to forage among the rocks. Elegant, dainty things - but even they were scarcer nowadays.

“How many?” said the first man. His name was Brother Jacob – a missionary.

“Today, just the one, but that makes around thirty this month – they sail just close enough to be visible. I think they’re taunting us.” The second man’s name was Beech. He was, for want of a better word, an Administrator.

“You’re certain they are warships?”

Beech gave the Brother a withering look.

“I have sent another communiqué,” he said dourly. “But I fear the Mother Country is hanging us out to dry: maybe only the sharks and unfavourable tides protect us now.”

“What do they want, do you suppose?”

“Want? Dear fellow, they want the land beneath our feet, the timber upon our slopes. Tired of centuries fighting amongst themselves, the Meiji are in expansionist mood. Some day, mark my words, this entire ocean will be yellow in thought and word.”

“Not if we fight them,” said Jacob grimly.

“Fight them? With what - whalebone clubs? Spears of sugar cane? We have no weapons worth a wit.”

“I meant spiritually. They may have superior numbers, they may have the ships, but they are merely slant-eyed barbarians: we are people of the Lord. Prayer is mightier than the sword, my friend, and there is more than one form of weapon…”

Bonin Islands, 1875

At eighteen, Tamsin Vauxhall had given herself to the Lord Jesus. In return, the Lord Jesus had taken her hair. The golden tresses that she had nurtured since childhood were lopped from her head, and the remainder was progressively shaved until her crown was smooth and bald as a baby’s. It was, the Brotherhood explained, to remove all trace of vanity. In retrospect she had come off lightly, for women had a difficult time of it in the Brotherhood: a girl she had been vaguely acquainted with had her breasts wrapped in plastered bandages in an effort to stop them growing. When that failed, she was expelled, excommunicated, and never spoken of again. Jesus, evidently, was exacting in regard to females.

But three years on, Tamsin had reached an accommodation. Her hair could never be what it was – for a start the Brotherhood would never permit it – but provided she kept it a boyish length, tucked just under her ears, and swept it slightly rakishly across from a left-hand parting, it looked fine enough. Secretly, she rather liked the look: it suited her elfin concave nose and slender little mouth, set into a surprisingly broad, firm-jawed face whose potential severity was deflected by gorgeously wide, blue-grey eyes. Her hair had changed colour, too – a soft sandy shade with only occasional glimmers of its former splendour. She may indeed have been cured of vanity, but that didn’t mean she had to be ugly.

The Brotherhood was in the business of saving souls, and they did so on a global scale, scouring the furthest corners of the Empire for heathens to convert. However, despite having the might of the Holy Bible behind them, their physical resources were stretched rather thin, especially when it came to the matter of claiming the Far East for the Lord. Where Japan was concerned, they had made it only as far as these islands, a Crown Colony ever since 1825 when they were stumbled upon –quite literally – by an English vessel. And here, after all her training, after all the hazardous sea voyages taking her thousands upon thousands of miles from home; after the sickness and suffering and awful food: was where Tamsin found herself. She was young, she was eager; she was determined to do her part.

Brother Jacob himself welcomed her off the boat, along with the handful of other pilgrims, some of them still a little unsteady on their feet. He took his hands in hers, gazing searchingly into her eyes: she could feel his power, the Lord’s power.

“We’ve been waiting for you, my child. Our movement needs youth to sustain it, and I fear of late we have lacked the gentleness of the fairer sex in our mission.”

“I am ready to do whatever is required of me,” she said, eyes alight with rare zeal. Jacob smiled.

“All in good time, Daughter of Christ. For now, you must rest after your arduous journey. Eat fresh meat and fruit, acclimatise yourself to your new home. When you are ready, I will assign you the work that God has chosen for you.”

*

Over the next few days, Brother Jacob showed them around Peel, and while doing so explained the verities of island life.

“The Colony is largely British, however there are some from the Americas and a few that are native to the Sandwich Islands – it is these latter who are most responsible for the degree of sin permeating our society. It is toward these reprobates that your initial efforts must be directed, in preparation for the greater task ahead.”

“Make no mistake, the land just across the waters is a heathen cesspool,” he further explained. “The yellow barbarians have their own foul gods, and now that they appear to have united, they seek to build an empire to rival our own. The Administrator is in no doubt that invasion is imminent: but unlike him I do not look upon that prospect with fear. For I know the power of the One True Lord is with us, and eventually it must overcome.”

But Mr Beech merely rolled his eyes, and wondered aloud if this was a good time for bringing in newcomers - unless, of course, they were skilled in hand-to-hand combat.

It was on the fourth day that Jacob drew Tamsin aside for a private consultation.

“Child,” he said, “I believe you are at last ready to begin work. Even upon Peel there remain many souls who are not yet saved. It is my intention to turn them to Jesus while there is still time, and one in particular seems perfect for you to tackle.”

“Yes, Brother,” nodded Tamsin eagerly.

“I do not pretend it will be easy – this soul was born of an unfortunate union, and has fallen far towards the abyss. To save it you will need to visit this island’s darkest corner: you may see the lowest kinds of evil, things the Lord has sheltered you from before now.”

“I am ready,” said Tamsin decisively. Jacob smiled at her warmly, then his face turned serious again.

“One other thing: in order to carry out this task, you will need to be disguised…”

*

The clothes were too big for her, and they itched viciously as though made of sackcloth. Tamsin felt utterly conspicuous, yet as she made her way through the dock area nobody gave her a second glance. Amidst the usual sprinkling of fishing-boats, two larger vessels were moored: a freighter loading bundles of cut cane; and a whaler, part of whose cargo was already being flensed on the foreshore, producing an indescribably unpleasant smell.

It was late afternoon when she found the tiny house, and she was not alone. A queue of sailors was curled around it: some smoking, some chatting, some just standing surly with hands in pockets. Tamsin regarded them curiously, unsure of what was happening – they paid her no mind whatsoever. So, despite her doubts, the mariner’s clothes Brother Jacob had prevailed upon her to don had worked. With her hair tucked under a narrow cap, evidently she was a convincing enough sailor-boy. However, while she may have looked the part, she was assuredly not a seaman, and whatever these men were waiting for was no business of hers. She decided to jump the queue.

“Where d’you think you’re going, Junior?” growled one old salt, his cadence American. Tamsin put her head down and kept walking – thus it was she collided with something very soft and very large.

“Can I help you?” said a heavily accented voice, in a manner at once pleasant and mildly threatening. There before her stood an immensely fat, brown-skinned woman with wild hair and a mouth that looked like an abandoned graveyard.

“Yes,” said Tamsin, summoning her nerve. “I wish to see Delma de Villiers.”

“Of course you do,” said the woman snidely. “Problem is, so do all these others, and they at least have the brains to stand in line. Now you,” she grabbed Tamsin’s ear, yanking her painfully around, “can get back to the end of queue and wait your turn, you little runt.”

The men laughed and jeered as Tamsin slunk back to her place, her face burning and her ear throbbing. Forcing back tears, she told herself to trust in the Lord.

*

By the time she reached the door, the sunset was fast ebbing. No-one else had joined the queue behind her, but still it had moved forward at a witheringly slow rate. Each man who went into the house was there for some time – the interval seemed to vary from ten minutes to nearly half an hour. When they emerged the men seemed jaunty enough, whistling and smiling: some, however - and it was mostly the younger ones - appeared somewhat stunned.

At the door the huge woman still stood. There was not a flicker of recognition as Tamsin approached. She put out a hand and flexed it impatiently.

“Come on,” she barked, “this ain’t no charity - payment up front.”

Tamsin fished in her pocket, even though she had no idea what she was supposed to be paying for. Recklessly she dropped her entire allowance into that massive palm. The woman’s demeanour instantly improved.

“Go right in,” she said, with an awful gap-toothed grin. “Delma’ll be with you shortly.”

The hovel had but two rooms. The first, in which she sat down, seemed to fulfill all daytime functions: kitchen, diner & living space. Through the slightly open door to the other room Tamsin could see the corner of what was evidently a large bed, and two things immediately struck her. First, the bed appeared to be shaking. Second, there were sounds coming from the other room - curious, human sounds. Tamsin left her chair, and stepped silently forward until she could see fully into the second chamber. What she saw turned her white as the linen shirt that scratched her shoulders.

The man ahead of her in the queue – a craggy, handsome figure of about five-and-thirty – lay on his back, quite unclothed. And astride him, riding as if he were a pony, was a lithe, olive-skinned young woman with long, fabulously curled, raven-black hair. She was not naked, not entirely - a short, stained yellow chemise covered the upper half of her modesty. However her bottom half was resolutely on display – it too, boasted black, riotous curls. With sick fascination Tamsin watched this woman flex athletically up and down, tummy muscles rippling as her body effortlessly absorbed what appeared to be a huge male member, though Tamsin was in no position to judge, having never actually seen one before. The man’s straining face wore an expression whose closest approximation Tamsin could fathom was religious ecstasy; the girl, by contrast, appeared utterly bored. At one point she looked directly at Tamsin, and winked.

“Delma,” the man was moaning, “let me come inside you. Please, let me…”

“Oh no you don’t,” she snarled. “Not unless you plan coming back for your little bastard in nine months’ time.” She jerked suddenly upwards, falling back on her haunches. The man’s penis wavered uncertainly, straining toward the ceiling – she grasped it with one hand and began to pump furiously. He bucked and shouted, and a thin white worm seemed to fly up, splashing onto the girl’s smock like warm milk.

“There now,” she said, releasing her grip. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

The man dressed hurriedly. As he stood to leave, he said:

“I love you, Delma.”

“Oh, give me a break,” she snapped. She was facing the wall, away from him. He blundered out past Tamsin, didn’t seem to see her at all. After some hesitation, Tamsin stepped into the bedroom.

Delma was just taking off the soiled chemise; she hurled it into a corner, then turned around.

“Oh God, another virgin,” she sighed. “Not yet old enough to shave, by looks of you.”

Tamsin was unable to speak. Not only had she never seen a naked man before, she had naturally never seen a naked woman either. And she could never have dreamt that when she did, it would be somebody quite as beautiful as this. Her body seemed utterly perfect, at once slender and curvaceous – her breasts were pert, firm, poised upon the cusp of voluptuousness; taut nipples of madder brown jutted provocatively up and out. Framed by its torrent of frothing ebony, her face was unexpectedly soft: nose, chin and cheekbones a pastel sketch of sienna and ochre shades. The only vivid points were unblinking eyes of deep moon washed grey, and lips that seared scarlet without benefit of paint. The eyes sheltered under flaring brows that matched the wildness of her tumbling locks.

“Well?” she said impatiently. “I haven’t got all night, boy.”

Tamsin at last found her voice. “I don’t want to sleep with you.”

Delma’s cheeks bubbled as her lips curled into a smile, making her look suddenly much younger.

“A shy one, eh? It’s been a while. But I bet there’s part of you isn’t shy…”

Playfully she grabbed at the crotch of Tamsin’s britches. Upon encountering nothing but fabric, she snatched back her hand as Tamsin started violently. Momentarily bewildered, she looked deep into Tamsin’s eyes; then she ejaculated a harsh, humourless laugh.

“Oh my God: you’re one of those girlie-boys, aren’t you? You wanted to be man when you grew up, so you cut your hair, dressed up and ran away to sea. Now you pray your shipmates never notice you don’t get stubble; or that your chest is a strange shape; or that the only thing to spring out of your fly-button is a bloody mess every twenty-eight days. Well, if you think I’m going to help in your deception, you can just piss off – I may be a whore, but I’m no pervert.”

“I didn’t come for that,” Tamsin pleaded. Her voice sounded pathetic, even to her own ears. “I came… I came to tell you about Jesus.”

Again a look of stunned incomprehension fell on Delma’s subtle features. She sat down on the bed, then automatically fished under it, extracting a filthy, dark-green robe. After wrapping it about her shoulders, she ran a weary hand through her hair.

“Look – it’s been a long day, and I’m very tired. So will you please stop wasting my time and go?”

“But I can’t go,” Tamsin blurted, stepping forward. “I’ve come to save your soul.”

Delma threw herself down on the bed, pounding the mattress with her fist.

“I don’t need my soul saving, dammit! All I need right now is some sleep.” She buried her face in her arms.

“Could I…” Tamsin asked feebly, “Come back some other time, perhaps?”

“Yes, whatever – come back tomorrow, but for now just PISS OFF

Tamsin emerged from the house into twilight. There was no sign of the fat woman, and the docks had fallen silent. She lingered a moment, uncertain what to do, then set off in the direction of the beach. As she passed by the bedroom wall, she thought she heard the sound of muffled sobbing.

*

Moonlight glittered off the sighing ocean, and turned the rocky shoreline into a stark vista of snow and ice. A sharp breeze, faintly chill, knifed in off the water. Tamsin sat down upon a smooth stone, snuggled deep into her manly clothes, and let loneliness flow in upon her like the tide. She was desperately homesick, and worse, well out of her depth in this place so distant it did not feature on most maps. She gazed out towards the starlit horizon: strange lights seemed to flicker there. Could it be the waiting Japanese fleet at anchor? She shivered, closed her eyes, and prayed for guidance.

In the midst of prayer a faint scuffling, scratching sound penetrated her consciousness. Warily she opened one eye. Off to her right, a substantial shape moved with long, careful strides: a bird she recognised immediately, even though she could not fathom how such could exist so far removed from where she had first known it. But a heron it undoubtedly was, albeit smaller than the ones she’d seen regularly in England. It was also, however, far more spectacular. Even starched by moonshine its colours were striking: a black cap, vivacious plumes of snowy white upon the breast, tail and tops of its legs; a back which seemed grey but which she assumed must be a kind of golden russet brown. Its bill was stout and straight and sharp. But the most striking feature, not visible until it came close and turned its head, were two astonishingly long white plumes jutting from the back of the head, and curling in a majestic sweep down around the neck towards its crop. As the creature worried away tenaciously under rocks, extracting morsels of food, Tamsin felt her heart lift. It was a glimpse of home, albeit exotic and surreal: more, it was a lesson in persistence and a sign from above. She shifted to get a better view, whereupon the bird cranked instantly into a clumsy takeoff and flapped heavily away. Tamsin slumped back on her rock, and lulled by the distant waves, she dozed.

*

It was not far past dawn when Tamsin rapped upon the hovel door. She had to knock for some time before there was an answer – Delma squinted blearily out at her, as if even this pale daylight was dazzling. She still wore the filthy green robe.

“Oh, fuck – it’s you,” she sighed. “Don’t tell me you waited out here all night.”

Tamsin nodded. “Can I come in? You did promise.”

With a resigned shrug, Delma admitted her.

“Is that woman here?” Tamsin asked. “That awful, fat woman?”

“That awful fat woman happens to be my mother,” Delma replied deadpan. “And no, she’s not here. She’ll have been straight to the tavern to drink the profits: probably sleeping it off under somebody’s boat. Don’t expect to see her ‘til noon at least.”

“Do you really live in this dreadful place?” Tamsin wanted to know.

“Well, that’s rich – first you insult my mother, then you insult my home. Anything else you want to get off that not-so manly chest?”

“I’m sorry, I…” it took a moment for Tamsin to realise Delma was joking, especially as her expression never seemed to vary. She shrugged helplessly. “I’m not very good at this – it’s my first time.”

“Well, I’d offer you some breakfast, except there isn’t a scrap of food in the house. So best make your pitch quickly, before the both of us starve.”

Tamsin swallowed. “Well, I… I just wanted to say that no matter what you’ve done, Jesus loves you. And if you turn to Him, all your sins will be forgiven.”

“Sounds good,” said Delma thoughtfully. Tamsin studied her face a moment, checking for signs of irony. Then she reached into her pocket and extracted a tiny volume.

“This is a Condensed Gospel – it will introduce you to Jesus and the Bible. If you’ll read it, I can answer any questions you may have.”

“I’ll do that,” said Delma with apparent sincerity, taking it from her. “By the way, pretend little sailor-boy, what do I call you?”

“Tamsin,” said Tamsin, blushing. It had occurred to her to refer to herself as ‘Sister Tamsin’, but this seemed hopelessly pretentious.

“Well Tamsin, when you come again, don’t bother dressing up – just be yourself.”

Tamsin stared at her. “You mean… you want me to come back?”

Delma nodded. “Make it tomorrow morning – I shall be, uh, busy again tonight, and somehow I don’t think you’d get past Mama a second time.”

Tamsin hesitated. “Do you… like what you do? With those men?”

“Of course not,” Delma whispered, without looking at her. “I hate it. I hate them

*

Back at the Mission compound, Tamsin expected righteous fury from Brother Jacob. As it was, he proved remarkably understanding.

“You made contact, that is what matters,” he observed. “Always the crucial step is to get them to open their doors. What did you make of her?”

“She’s foul-mouthed, and lives in abject squalor,” Tamsin replied. “And yet, there’s something vulnerable about her – I think she wants to turn.”

“She is your senior by barely a year – that’s why I thought you might have a chance to get through. Think on it, Tamsin - twenty-two, and she has already seen more of life than most do in three-score-and-ten.”

“But I don’t understand why she does it,” Tamsin grumbled. “Why she…” her vocabulary did not stretch to the sordid realms. Jacob patted her shoulder.

“To survive, my dear. Think on your heron – all things do what they must to survive.”

“I can’t see why Delma must: I doubt she’d do it at all if not for that monstrous mother.”

“Do not be so quick to judge, Little Sister,” Jacob rebuked. “Her mother’s name is Coco: she left her native land for love of an American sailor, one Frank de Villiers. But even before the birth of their child the cad abandoned her; jumped a freighter back to the Colonies. Forced to raise a daughter on her own, she turned to the only resource she possessed, which back then was her great beauty. It turned her prematurely old and mean-spirited, from which fate I hope you can save Delma. But no-one is beyond God’s reach, and I still have faith that Coco will herself one day see the light.”

*

When Delma’s mother returned home, she was beaming, and not just from residual effects of alcohol.

“No fartin’ about with sailors tonight, my girl,” she shrilled. “Tonight, I have secured you a special

Delma hung her head. “I hate specials,” she moped, “especially if it’s the usual bastard.”

“Now darlin’, don’t be like that. Gentleman has already paid.” She wafted a handful of sovereigns in front of her daughter’s eyes. “So you be a good girl an’ do as you’re told.”

“On one condition,” Delma countered, regarding her mother steadfastly. “He has to let me read something while he’s at it…”

*

The following morning, Tamsin took an elliptical route down to the hovel. She was trying to sort out her feelings, analyse why she looked forward to this meeting with such nervous, excited anticipation. This should have been work – the battle of a Christian soldier wielding the Holy Spirit against the forces of Satan. In truth, it felt more like going to visit an old friend: but why? Perhaps Brother Jacob had spoken truer than he knew when he talked of she and Delma as contemporaries, and likewise when he commented on the Brotherhood’s dearth of young women. But was she really so pitifully lonely that her heart cried out for a… a whore’s company? Surely not – not with Jesus as her constant companion.

To be sure, the dream hadn’t helped. Her rough, solid camp bed couldn’t be classed as luxury, but after a night spent on shore it felt like purest indulgence. She’d slept soundly at first, until the dream invaded her subconscious. She dreamt of the nameless girl, the one who’d been expelled from the Brotherhood those years back in England. In memory Tamsin couldn’t even picture her face, but here she was perfectly rendered, all red hair and radiance. She was peeling off the bandages that had bound her breasts, endlessly unwinding them, and Tamsin was helping. The excitement she felt was illicit, unseemly, but vividly intense. When the last thread fell away, something like a tide of frothing cream splashed from the girl’s chest all over Tamsin’s hands – she awoke to the disquieting sensation of wetness upon her brow, under her arms, and… elsewhere.

Once again, nature itself intervened to show her the true path. From an overhanging tree her step flushed what was unmistakably another shape transplanted from English skies: a pigeon. She caught only a glimpse of the streamlined form, but it left a deep impression of lilac-grey head and breast; deep green wingtips and tail; and a flashing metallic purple back. It put her in mind of Noah’s dove, the emissary of hope and the promise of renewal. She took it as confirmation that, whatever her confusions, the cause was just: God wanted her to continue.

Delma did not answer her first knock, nor her second. Perturbed, she tested the door and it swung limply open. Delma could be glimpsed immediately, lying on her front in bed, her face turned away to the wall, presenting only that wonderfully vivid hair.

“Delma? It’s me, Tamsin – are you all right?”

The only response was a muffled cry that could have meant anything. Tamsin advanced cautiously, noting two things as she did so: first, the open volume plopped face down upon the pillow; second, the disturbing way Delma’s hands clutched almost arthritically at the coverlet.

“Are you ill?” Tamsin asked. As she leaned over the bed, she saw Delma’s face drawn into a mask of discomfort, soft cheeks heavily tear-tracked.

“No,” Delma hissed through gritted teeth, “but I don’t think I’m up to Bible study just now.”

Tamsin lingered, uncertain. Then, in one of those ineffable moments of pure decision, she tore back the covers. Delma’s slender tan backside was heavily bruised and battered; she had bled profusely from a place Tamsin preferred not to think about, far less put a name to.

“Does it hurt?” she breathed.

“Only if I’m dumb enough to try and sit on it,” spat Delma bitterly.

“Is there anything I can do?”

“I don’t recommend trying to apply a bandage, if that’s what you’re thinking.”

“Wait here,” said Tamsin, immediately cursing herself for such a redundant outburst. Blundering in the other room, she found a cloth and what she presumed was an old chamber pot. She cranked a few precious squirts of water into the pot - the cloth was dipped, wrung: at last to be dabbed delicately between Delma’s buttocks, blackened and yielding like spoiled fruits. Delma mewled and flinched a fraction, but otherwise was rigid as a corpse. For Tamsin the experience was both intimate and repulsive: in her mind she tried to equate it with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples; but in truth this was a whole other order of self-abasement.

“Who did this to you?” she whispered.

“Oh, someone. Someone more important than you or I, that’s for sure.”

“But why?”

“It’s a ‘special’ – back door only - and this one likes to ride rough. No creams or lubricants: not even spit. Apparently makes it more… exciting when he comes.”

“I’m sorry,” said Tamsin feebly, “I don’t understand what you’re saying.”

“Good,” Delma sighed wearily. “Hopefully a nice girl like you never will.”

“Is that any better?” It felt like she had been dabbing at that unseemly spot for hours. Something stubborn was mixed amid the dried blood – something that flaked and crinkled like rice paper.

“Much, thank you.” Delma shifted suddenly, turning over. As she did so her eyes widened, and she essayed half a smile. “You’re wearing a dress.”

Tamsin couldn’t stop herself turning scarlet. No-one at the compound had even noticed her smock. “Do you like it?”

“Simple, but it suits you.”

“Is there anything else I can do for you?”

“I’m going to try and get up,” said Delma decisively. “Then you can tell me more about Jesus.”

*

Brother Jacob was working away at the compound’s dainty vegetable patch when a shadow fell across him.

“Just what d’you think you’re playing at?” asked Beech, with bridled aggression.

“Planting,” said Jacob drily. He wiped his brow with a theatrical flourish.

“Don’t be funny – doesn’t suit a man of God. I thought we had an agreement: I let you alone to do your good works, provided you stay out of my business.”

“You’re correct, of course,” Jacob replied, studying the dirt that flecked his trowel. “We had an agreement. However, if the threat from the north is as imminent as you claim, then it behooves each of us take appropriate steps. Has there been a response to your latest plea for aid?”

“There has not,” said Beech tersely, “as you well know.”

“Then unless you plan on organising an armed militia, Mr Beech, I will assume we are defenceless. That being the case, you can have no complaint if I call upon forces of a spiritual nature.”

Jacob didn’t need to look to know Beech’s face was clouding. The Administrator took an apparently casual step, deliberately crushing one newly planted seedling.

“Don’t trifle with me, Brother – not at such a time as this. You may find that even the Almighty cannot help you, this far from civilisation.”

*

Tamsin did her best, talking endlessly, but it was obvious Delma wasn’t taking any of it in. The carefully sifted and edited testimonials of John, Luke, Mark and Matthew made no impact upon cloudy grey eyes grown unsettlingly vacant. Tamsin flicked the tiny volume shut.

“I think you should go outside,” she said abruptly. “It might help.”

Delma looked at her with an air of utter stupefaction.

“Go out - me? I can’t possibly go out.”

“Why not?”

“Because I’m a fucking harlot, is why not,” Delma barked. “I can’t be seen in public, with you or anybody: I’m not allowed out of doors.”

Tamsin’s mind whirled, but even as it did things began falling into place, like the tumblers of a lock. She understood, clearly, why Brother Jacob had chosen her, and why the need for disguise and subterfuge.

“Are you telling me,” she said slowly, “that you have never left this house?”

“Not for years,” Delma muttered sullenly. “And then, only at night.”

“Do you have any decent clothes?” Tamsin’s thoughts were bounding ahead.

“There’s a dress hung in the garderobe,” replied Delma, uncertainly. “Mama makes me wear it for clients who like the virginal look. But you can’t be serious about…”

In a trice Tamsin located the garment: an aesthetic ivory gown, light and flowing. Its expensive look and feel made her wonder if it had been purloined. Nonetheless, she held it out to Delma.

“Put it on,” she commanded, then averted her eyes while Delma hooped cloth over her head and shimmied into a softly feminine silhouette. Somehow, bizarrely, there was an intimacy about watching Delma dress that had not attached to their prior interaction. A brush of hair and Delma was transfigured into an image of tawny Pre-Raphaelite perfection. Slightly awed, Tamsin took her hand and led her like a child to the front door.

“This is insane,” Delma muttered, but she did not pull back. Outside, she blinked in the sunshine like a newborn, swaying uncertainly and gasping. Indeed, Tamsin thought she was ill until she realised Delma was merely gulping in fresh air the way thirsty nomads devour water. Below them the sea sparkled enticingly, stroking the shore. Tamsin slotted her arm through Delma’s, and out they strolled like country cousins on a seaside jaunt.

Tamsin tried talking more about Jesus, but once she’d got over her shock, Delma essayed more parochial matters.

“What’s he like, your ‘Brother Jacob’

Tamsin smiled shyly.

“He’s not at all what I expected. Back in England the elders are so stern and imposing, but Jacob – uh, Brother Jacob – is gentle and understanding. I’ve never known a man like that.”

“Sounds like you’re sweet on him.”

Tamsin flushed vehemently, and almost pulled her arm away.

“Don’t be absurd – he’s an elder. The Brotherhood would never countenance it.” It occurred to her that her denial was both excessively vehement and vaguely phrased – fortunately, Delma let it go.

“What about England? Any sweethearts there?”

“No,” Tamsin answered. Her purity should have been fervently declared, but at that precise moment she was vaguely ashamed of her lack of experience. Embarrassment then led her into an utterly stupid mistake. She said: “What about you?”

Tamsin stopped dead, put her hands to her face and prayed, half seriously, for instant annihilation.

“Oh Lord, I am so sorry,” she cringed.

“It’s alright,” replied Delma indolently. “Some of them are nice to me, you know. They bring me gifts from overseas, which Mama always sells. But they all have a woman, or women, waiting halfway round the globe.”

“That man I saw, the other night,” began Tamsin hesitantly. “He said he loved you.”

“Some’ll say anything to try and convince themselves they haven’t bought you: they’re the ones that are truly dangerous.”

For some unspoken reason they reversed direction when they resumed walking, heading back towards hovel and harbour. Close to a cobbled slipway they were abruptly confronted by two large and menacing figures.

“Well, well,” said the first man, “do my eyes deceive me? Is the whore abroad in daylight?”

“Walkin’ out, she be,” sneered the second. “An’ look what she be walkin’ out with – be that a boy in a dress, or a girl gone all mannish?”

“Whatever, they’re a pretty pair for this dismal outpost, and I’m sure they’d be more than willing to show us hospitality, if we took them somewhere private.”

They stepped close, regarding the two women the way housewives peruse joints of meat. Tamsin could feel Delma tense at her side, ready to flee. She reached down into the lining of her dress and drew forth her gospel as though it were a pistol.

“I am of the Brotherhood,” she snapped, voice high and angry. “I am an emissary of the Lord Jesus: I wield the power of His gospel. You are worthless sinners, and you will step aside.”

And they did. Recoiling from the brandished Word, they parted not unlike the Red Sea. With a firm tug of Delma’s arm Tamsin proceeded resolutely between them. Keeping her eyes fixed steadfastly ahead, she did not permit herself to exhale until they reached the hovel door.

“That was… amazing,” Delma gasped, moved seemingly near to tears. “You are so brave.”

“It was the Lord’s bravery, not mine,” said Tamsin, quavering. She held up a hand, which trembled violently. “I was absolutely terrified.”

Delma would undoubtedly have hugged her at that moment, had not there come a shout like a distant explosion, a report of pure fury from not too far away.

“Oh shit, it’s Mama,” Delma spat. “You’d better run – not even Jesus could save you from my mother’s wrath.”

“But what about you?”

“I’ll manage – I’ve learned how to deal with her.” Her voice dropped to a whisper. “If you’re still feeling brave, come back tonight – late. If it’s safe, I’ll have a candle burning. Now: go!”

Tamsin had a brief glimpse of something like an angry brown bear shuffling towards her: she took to her heels and ran, fast as her underskirt would permit.

*

Tamsin missed the moon. Cloud had rolled in overnight like droppings of raw cotton, stealing the stars and bringing a chill to the air. The shore became a treacherous series of obstacles and traps; the sea was a hissing, malignant black vortex. Even the beautiful night herons seemed deterred by the darkness. She was alone, on a secret errand even she did not understand: ordinarily the Holy Spirit would be at her side, but tonight she was not sure.

At the hovel candlelight flickered timorously, throwing elusive glimmers across the ground. Tamsin opened the door with something close to insouciance – it was beginning to feel disturbingly like home.

“Delma? Is it safe to come in?”

Muffled acknowledgement from the bedroom. Delma was curled upon the bed, green robe wrapped tight about her, arms encircling her drawn-up knees. In the guttering light she was like some wingless, stranded fairy. At Tamsin’s entry she essayed a wan smile.

“Where is she?” Tamsin asked.

“Where d’you think? After she was through… disciplining me, it was obvious I wouldn’t be able to work, so off she went on a major bender. Took the last of the ‘special’ money with her, so I guess tomorrow will be busy.”

As Tamsin stepped closer, she could see fresh bruises like violets upon the sandy skin.

“Did she hurt you?”

“Not bad,” Delma shrugged. “I’ve had worse. She knows better than to touch my face or my tits, so that helps.”

Tamsin slumped desolately onto the bed.

“I want to take you away from all this,” she said abruptly, a catch in her throat. She meant to add, ‘for Jesus’ sake’, but somehow couldn’t force out the words. Delma seemed to sense her confusion, reaching out to pat her lightly on the back.

“It’s alright,” she whispered, “just now I need a friend, not a priest.”

Tamsin smiled feebly. She was on the verge of tears, and despised herself for her weakness. Desperate to break the spell, she suddenly blurted:

“I’m so glad she didn’t hurt your breasts.”

That sounded frankly bizarre, so, blushing, she tried to extemporise:

“I mean, I… I think your breasts are beautiful. Not that I’ve seen anyone else’s. Except mine, of course. I…”

She let her voice trail off, and looked at Delma despairingly. To her surprise, Delma smiled a rare, warm smile, teeth flashing momentarily.

“Do you want to see them again?” she asked bluntly. And before Tamsin could make any kind of response she uncurled herself slightly, easing open the upper part of her gown. The candle’s glow stole across perfect hummocks of tawny flesh, etching soft curved shadows like sunrise over low hills. Tamsin found herself staring quite openly: for all the gibberish she had just emitted, she was right about one thing – Delma’s breasts were truly beautiful. And as she stared, Delma read the unspoken thought framed in her expression.

“You can touch them, if you like,” she said evenly, with just the faintest timbre.

Tamsin pursed suddenly dry lips, the baldness of the invitation catching her utterly off-guard. Her hand felt strangely disembodied as she reached across, her fingertips alighting on silky smooth, softly yielding flesh. The curious tension between buoyancy and pliancy was innately fascinating; she tried to focus on that, rather than the disturbing intimacy of the situation. It was a game, she told herself, as might be played between best friends or sisters. But if this was all, why did her heart beat so?

Delma inclined her head, sweet breath escaping her lips.

“Your touch is soft,” she murmured, “gentle - nothing like those animals.”

Emboldened, slightly flattered, Tamsin intensified her stroking, gently kneading a voluptuous curve that rebounded endlessly, pleasingly. Her palm inevitably brushed the broad russet mesa of one nipple: it too yielded, but then seemed to swell and stiffen beneath. Delma sighed, eyelids fluttering, and for all her excitement Tamsin knew she must stop, before it was too late. But too late for what?

Delma’s open robe slid slowly, inexorably off her shoulders, creeping down to expose her slender midriff. The sudden sight of a vicious bruise upon her ribcage arrested Tamsin’s caress – her fingers flowed to the spot, as though she could somehow draw it out with mere touch. Delma winced.

“I’m sorry,” Tamsin whispered, biting her lip. “She beat you badly, didn’t she?”

“It was worth it, just to go outside for a while. It was worth it, to be with you.”

Tamsin stared deep into the grey eyes, encountering nothing save her own uncertain reflection.

“What can I do?”

“Perhaps you could… kiss it better.”

Delma lay back on the covers, her breasts flattening into soft ellipses flowing from the sweeping chasm of her sternum. As she drew up her knees slightly the rest of the gown fell away, exposing dainty midriff and the subtle contours of her hips and thighs. Letting her head fall to one side, she fixed Tamsin with a look that both beckoned and challenged, the faintest twist of a smile at the corners of those luscious lips. There was a throbbing in Tamsin’s temples, a dry ache in her throat: she was no longer certain if she was in control of her actions. But nonetheless she leaned across and lightly kissed the patch of spoiled skin, earthen and salted. Trying to tell herself that Jesus would so the same, she likewise put her lips to a smaller blemish just above Delma’s navel; and another, linear welt below her right knee. Yet it seemed Jesus had long since departed a room heavily silent save for the faint dab of dry lips and the sweet sighs of a woman, naked and soothed.

“ Tamsin,” Delma’s voice was almost a purr, “you’re making me wet.”

Tamsin couldn’t speak; could barely breathe. Damp fronds of her own hair fell across her eyes, spangled with dewdrops of perspiration: heat was rising from Delma, from that dread delta too close to ignore. It seeped through the pores of Tamsin’s own pale skin, filling her, making her feel sticky and faintly unclean.

Delma’s hands lifted to Tamsin’s face, fingertips cupping her chin, drawing her gently but relentlessly forward. The unyielding grey eyes were mesmeric as thunderclouds in summer. Their lips met: Tamsin exhaled heavily, shuddering; it felt like her soul as well as her breath was being taken. Sinuous lips, slick and sweet, pressed up to hers, making her mouth moist; making everything moist. Brown arms enfolded about her neck, softly possessive, and she knew she was lost.

“You want me, don’t you?” whispered Delma, eyes flashing silver in the candlelight. Tamsin shook her head, but it was nothing like a denial. They kissed again, Delma’s tongue darting up like a flame, searing between Tamsin’s slender lips and flickering briefly, teasingly behind the pearl shield of her front teeth. If Tamsin had any last protest, it was muffled and stillborn in that moment. Delma uncurled one long, thin brown arm; her fingers sought Tamsin’s, guiding the snowy hand between her thighs: Tamsin flinched, gasping, at the sultry wetness.

“That’s what you do to me,” Delma sighed, soft features blurred with pleasure. “No man ever does that – I never ached for one of them the way I ache for you.”

Trapped by longing, crushed by guilt, Tamsin could make no rejoinder. Delma kissed her again, tongue twisting and dancing like tidewater forced between rocks. Her free hand draped indolently down Tamsin’s back, clutching towards the hem of her smock, gradually drawing it forwards and up. Only dimly aware of all that was happening, Tamsin felt air, cool and incongruous around her thighs and buttocks. Delma’s first hand released its grip upon her, then curled up decisively to her pudenda. Tamsin moaned, violently shuddering, as her vulva seemed to open fully, greedily at the merest stroke of a fingertip.

“Heavens, you really do want me,” Delma grinned coquettishly.

Their next kiss was, for the first time, initiated by Tamsin, delicately probing her tongue between lush, infinitely welcoming lips. There was no longer any question of what was going to happen: her need had been exposed, and it yearned for fulfillment.

“Take off your dress,” Delma whispered. “Let me see your body.”

Tamsin rocked back onto her haunches, hooking her hem with her elbows and rolling the garment up around her head before ducking out from under it as though it were a garland. Seldom could such a simple, everyday action be so invested with epic significance. Delma gazed hungrily upon the lissome loveliness the Brotherhood had laboured to conceal: unexpectedly full breasts hanging poised and delicate as dewdrops, crowned by blushing russet buds; a tight, boyish midriff curving imperceptibly into the narrowest of hips; impossibly thin and delicate arms and legs inelegantly yet fetchingly tangled. Between thighs taut and spring-curved as bows soft lips glistened through a veil of gossamer grey down.

“Do you… like it?” Tamsin’s eyes were wide and her face drawn, slightly fearful. Delma rested her cheek in her palm, half-smiling in that characteristic, heart-stopping way.

“You impressed me as a man,” she said. “As woman, I adore you.”

Tamsin blushed, pulling her knees together as though to conceal her femininity. Nudity was not natural to her, especially in company.

“You said… you said you weren’t a pervert.”

“I’m not,” Delma’s stare was direct, melting Tamsin’s soul thoroughly as wax under guttering flame, “but I still want to make love to you.”

With a nurse’s gentleness she unpicked Tamsin’s knot of limbs, setting her arms at her sides and opening her legs. Tamsin shivered as her desire was fully unveiled, glutinously moist yet aching and desperate as thirst. Sex had never entered her world before - its sudden arrival was dizzying, terrifying.

“Don’t be afraid,” Delma whispered, kissing her softly, almost chastely. Tamsin felt lush, heavy hair, faintly dampened with perspiration, as it brushed against her shoulders and chest, clinging just above her bosom. The kiss inevitably intensified, a sighing, gasping swirl of lips and tongues; their breasts touched in a complex fusion of softness and tension. Delma’s mouth dropped away, a moment later suckling wetly upon Tamsin’s straining teats; lips billowed, tongue flickering. Tamsin closed her eyes, letting her head fall back, and tried to find words for what she felt. There were none, only sweetly inarticulate moans of surrender.

Delma’s hair was like a frothing black tide as it swept across Tamsin’s ribs and hips, her mouth descending provocatively. Lips grazed the tight little crease just above Tamsin’s navel, then a tongue tip darted shivering into the dainty recess itself. Tamsin could feel her excitement bubbling uncontrollably: her thighs trembled and she didn’t know what to do with her arms. And then Delma licked her - a slow, sustained, curling flick of her tongue between swollen, glistening labia. Tamsin’s body seemed to fizz and surge, jumping back: her shoulders impacted hard against something as though magnetised (she couldn’t tell if it was headboard or wall), and she cried out a high, raw note. Delma licked again, probing deeper, teasing her open: Tamsin felt herself pouring, like menstruation but softer, sweeter, almost unbearably so. The muscles in her thighs and stomach fluttered as Delma’s tongue speared in upon her pulsing clitoris – Tamsin’s head rang with bizarre notions, like an urge to kiss her own shoulder and to scream obscenities (she knew none). A terrible sense of inevitability, of time running out, took hold of her, fleeting thoughts of death and resurrection running rampant through her mind.

“It’s too much,” she pleaded, struggling to form words. “I can’t stand it…”

But this was a lie – her body could stand it, gleefully holding fast and impaling itself upon that unflinching tongue, her vulva fused with Delma’s mouth in suffocating confluence. Palms flat against the hardness behind she braced herself, gritting her teeth and trying not to scream as orgasm took her for the first time. It was not beautiful, romantic or even particularly pleasurable: simply something that had to be, a passage sure as birth or puberty, a moment not to be savoured or even vaguely understood, merely experienced raw and catastrophic. Her body thundered, and she knew she cried out though she could not hear herself above the roaring of blood in her ears and temples. The aftermath, so swift upon her, left her weak as a kitten, trembling and parched. She opened her eyes slowly, to look upon Delma’s gorgeously ethereal face, shiny and wet at the lips and nose. With shuddering fingers she touched her glowing cheek.

“What have you done to me?” she whispered, breath surging from her.

“I may be mistaken,” Delma shrugged, “but I think I just made you come.”

*