‘A highly sensual evocation of place and time, Kate Pullinger’s The Mistress of Nothing is a journey down the Nile that explores the subtle complexities of power, race, class and love during the Victorian era. The book, narrated by the character of the maid, Sally Naldrett, has one of the most distinctive and memorable voices in recent literature.’
– GG Jury citation
Lady Duff Gordon is the toast of Victorian London society, but when she contracts tuberculosis, she and her devoted lady’s maid, Sally, set sail for Egypt and an entirely new life. Sally and Lady Duff Gordon thrive in the new surroundings, learning Arabic, adopting local dress and visiting the tombs of ancient pharaohs. Sally adapts to this new world and to the heady freedom she’s never known before. But freedom and romance are luxuries a lady’s maid can ill afford. When Sally takes on more than her status entitles her to, she receives a brutal reminder that she is the mistress of nothing.
The Mistress of Nothing
Ramadan arrived, the holy month of fasting from dawn till dusk. All activity in the French House slowed to a snail’s pace in the daytime as no one had the energy to do much of anything, except me, and I found I could think of nothing but food all day, even though I was not fasting. Mr Abu Halaweh continued to cook for us, which both my Lady and I thought was beyond the call of duty, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
"Besides," he said to me one morning when I tried to relieve him, "you might poison her with your food."
"Omar!" I shouted, and I attempted to swot him with my spoon but he ducked down low and got away. Then I realised I had used his Christian name, not his Christian name of course, but his given name, and said, "I’m so sorry, Mr Abu Halaweh," I bowed my head and placed my palms together the way he did when he was showing respect and wished I had a veil to draw across my face. In Esher there were always a few servants with whom I never progressed beyond formal address; Sir Alick had a butler everyone, including Sir Alick, called Mr Roberts, even after he had been in the household for more than a decade. There were others with whom I used first names straight away, and others still who didn’t really have names but were known by their position, like Cook, of course. But as soon as I’d said it, Omar felt right to me.
He shrugged. "This is my name. You may use it, I’m happy."
"Please," I said, "you must call me Sally." Of course I blushed, and I paused for a moment at the thought of impropriety, but I shook this off quickly. Our complicity had deepened and, after we began to use our first names, it was hard to believe we’d ever done anything differently.
While Ramadan continued, visitors to my Lady’s afternoon salon dropped away, and Saleem Effendi and Mustafa Agha sent gifts of incense and scented soap by way of apology. Luxor was very quiet. At sunset Omar was able to break his fast; he would have laid a small plate of dates and a glass of water for himself earlier, in anticipation. While my Lady was unable to persuade Omar to join us among the cushions during our afternoon reading session, during Ramadan he did consent to share the evening meal with us, such was the sense of occasion. We took to eating together in the salon as the sky over the Theban hills went from deep and starry blue to black. I would carry in a basin of water, soap, and napkin for my Lady to wash her hands – cleanliness is highly valued in Egypt, so much so that I’ve begun to think we English must appear rather grubby when we travel in this country – then I prepared basins for myself and Omar as well. I lit the many candles while Omar brought the food into the salon on a large silver tray that he set upon a low stool, and we three sat on cushions around it. We had both become accustomed to eating in the Egyptian manner, using the right hand only to scoop up the rice and beans with the delicious herbed and salted bread that he makes. We drank lemonade and tea and toasted each other and all our best qualities. My Lady told jokes and, more often than not, we’d have to explain the punchline to Omar which would prove even more amusing. We’d laugh and shout and every once in a while I’d allow my Lady to persuade me to do my impression of the dancing girl houri whose performance we had witnessed in Edfu. I don’t know why or how this had become my party trick, but it had. Dancing for an audience, however small and familiar: no one in all of England would have believed me to be capable of such a thing. And the most peculiar thing was, I enjoyed it. I enjoyed it enormously. It was a very bad impression, I was clumsy and slow on my feet, but it never failed to make us all roar. My Lady and Omar reclined on their cushions and they applauded me.
We’d grown so relaxed and familiar with each other; I see now that this was extraordinary, that the shifts and changes in our relationships to one another were, for all three of us, unprecedented. My Lady had always treated her staff well, but now we’d moved beyond any of the formalities left between employer and employee. Omar had stuck to the old structures for longer than me, but it was as though the devotion required during Ramadan had produced in him a license, a new sense of freedom. To me, it was all part of the surreal beauty of life in Egypt.
During Ramadan I expected Omar’s appetite to be enormous, but in fact, as the days went by he seemed to eat less and less, and like everyone else in the village, approached life with increasing languor. My Lady took ill, which was hard for us to bear given how well she had been feeling. Not the usual coughing and spitting, but something else, as though the fast-induced sleepiness of the village had worked its way inside her. She said she felt tired, bone-tired, but more than that, I think homesickness had overtaken her once again, unexpectedly. Whenever I entered her room I’d find her either looking at the photographic portraits of her children and Sir Alick that had been sent to her at Christmas or sleeping with the photographs laid out next to her divan, on her writing table.
Those evenings that my Lady was too unwell to join us, Omar and I continued with our new tradition of sharing the meal, the windows of the salon flung open to the night. As well as bats, the eaves of the French House were populated by tiny owls that looked as though they had hopped straight from a hieroglyphic frieze, and there was one that would sit on the windowsill and watch us eat. By now the night air was warm and soft but still cool enough to provide a welcome contrast to the day. Omar and I would lie back on the cushions and talk late into the evening; I think we were both surprised by how much we had to say. And we said most things at least twice, once in English, once in Arabic, with many digressions and explanations along the way. I had never spoken so freely with a man, and Omar had never spoken so freely with a woman: I know this because he told me.
"I never met my wife," he told me, one evening, "before the day I married her."
"That doesn’t seem to me like such a bad way of doing things," I said. I found myself thinking of the little maid, Laura, who had got herself into such trouble in Esher. "What was it like," I asked, "the first time you saw her?"
He smiled and shook his head and when I did not understand his reply, said, "I don’t have enough words in either language."
I marvelled at the conversation: a man had confided in me. The night breeze ran across my skin; the little owl hooted then flew away. I felt as far from Esher as it was possible to be; it was as though not only did I inhabit a different land, but I inhabited a different body.
Luckily my Lady recovered from this latest bout quickly and needed none of the special treatment that we all so dreaded. She decided to mount an expedition to the Valley of the Kings before the nights grew as hot as the days. Omar organized the little ferryman to take us across the river in the late afternoon, and donkeys to carry us once we reached the other side. The path to the Valley is long and winding, and for a time we travelled alongside the fields where the crops were ripening. The soil is so enriched by the annual summer inundation of the Nile that farmers can plant two or sometimes three crops in rotation, and once the barley and lentils have been harvested, they sow follow-on crops of maize and cotton and sugar-cane; they use an ingenious system of canals for irrigation, water-ways built in ancient times. The soil is black and rich and pungent as far as the annual Nile floods reach; but beyond that, as though a line has been drawn, the ground turns scrappy and hard as the desert begins. I find the division between the voluptuous green flood plain and the white stony hills quite alarming, as though the land has issued a warning: go beyond here and you are doomed, beyond here you will not survive. My heart sank as our little procession turned away from the plain to head up into the Valley, and I struggled not to show my apprehension; my Lady and Omar were so engaged in their discussion of the landscape and the farmers that my Lady had met and spoken with on previous outings to this side of the river – several of whom came out to greet us as we made our way past their small-holdings – that they did not notice the grim look on my face.
The sun began to go down and the hills turned as red as hot coals in the dying fire of the day; we reached the Valley at twilight which in Egypt gives a glorious soft warm light. Now that we had been in the country for more than half a year, I felt I should be accustomed to its beauty and its mysteries, but I was not, nor would I ever be. The Egyptian people live among the ruins of their former selves and they accept as given the strange and monumental remnants of their past. A whole valley, high up in the hills, where the tombs of kings and queens have been carved deep underground into the stone, filled with treasure, then opened and plundered and sealed and re-opened and plundered yet again. The bearers had brought torches with them and we entered the tomb of the Pharaoh Sety. The walls were painted in exquisite tableaus and the colours were perfect and bright. Omar pointed out to me the ceiling with its painted vultures flying toward the back of the tomb, and Sety himself standing before falcon-headed Re, the Sun God. I felt awe-struck by what I was seeing; the air in the tomb was very dry and the torches were burning hard, throwing out an intense yellow light. I turned to my Lady to say, once again, that I wished I could read and interpret the hieroglyphics, but my Lady was deep in conversation with one of the bearers. Instead of discussing the tomb and its elaborate and meaning-laden decoration, as usual my Lady was asking the bearer about his family – how many children, where did they live, were they all healthy?
When it was time to return home, we made our way out of the Valley of the Kings and mounted our donkeys, my Lady and myself both complimenting each other on our dress-sense which made riding a donkey if not comfortable, at least less perilous and a little more dignified. The bearers extinguished the torches and, for a moment, we were blinded by the night. But night is not dark in Egypt; the moon and stars were so bright and the night sky so clear that as we came down from the Valley, the Nile was laid out before us in the distance, more dream-like and gorgeous than any tomb painting. We picked our way out of the hills back down the stony lane and the night was so quiet we were reminded of where we’d just been: the realm of the dead, a valley of the dead, a place where the dead had been disturbed in their rest over and over again.
Novel (paperback), WINNER OF THE GOVERNOR GENERAL’S LITERARY AWARD FOR FICTION 2009, McArthur & Co (Can), Serpent’s Tail (UK)