The Remarkable Miss Digby – Chapter 1

Following the Arab agent across the old town of Damascus, in search of a house, Jane is conscious of a growing sense of defeat. Memories from her past scratch like a hair shirt and she must force herself to keep going and not give up on her plans, vague as they are.

She walks down narrow curving alleyways, walled in on either side with high blank walls, interrupted only by heavy wooden doorways shut tight against the filth and hubbub of the town. Upper floor rooms float like frail timber boats across the street to meet their neighbours on the other side and the only light in the street comes from a narrow bar of sky.

Jane unwinds the scarf from around her neck and covers her nose and mouth with it for protection against the dust and the squalor. She trips over a pile of rotting rubbish and almost steps into a heap of dung. Barefooted children kick a ball about in the dirt. Skinny cats roam, and somewhere a donkey brays, the sound as forlorn as convicts’ chains.

The agent, a lean man with black oiled hair and eyes that gleam with good humour, turns and calls out to her. ‘All is arranged, Miss Digby, you will see, next house is good.’

He walks faster and Jane hurries after him, keeping a watchful eye on where she places her feet and at the same time on the yellow braided hem of the agent’s robe, so as not to lose sight of him. She wraps her own coat more closely around her.

It’s a relief to arrive at the main thoroughfare where the merchants take pride in their shops and the smells are of coffee and spices and sweetmeats. Jane’s spirits lift a little but she’s tired and more than ready to return to her rooms at Dimitri’s Hotel. Straight Street is a press of people, mules, donkeys and camels, and she must twist and turn constantly to avoid being jostled. This is the third day of her hunt for a suitable house. She tells herself she is looking for somewhere to settle, refusing stubbornly to admit that what she really seeks is a place to hide. As she trudges along that street called Straight, she begins to doubt she’ll ever find it.

It’s late afternoon. The temperature has dropped and the sky turned to slate when they step through the Bab al-Salam, an imposing stone portal that separates the old town of Damascus from a sparsely populated neighbourhood of wider streets and a reviving abundance of trees. Ten minutes later they reach a solid wooden gate near the Bab Menzel Khassabb. The agent beams at Jane as he produces a bunch of keys and with a flourish releases the padlock and pushes open the gate. For the first time that day, he lets Jane enter first, as if he is already distracted by the size of the commission he’ll earn from the wealthy English lady.

Jane’s first view through the gate is of an airy courtyard and, straight ahead, the main door into the house. Next to that is the liwan, a room with only three walls, the fourth side open to the courtyard, a cool place to sit and entertain when the days are too hot to be inside. To her right is a second, larger gate through which she glimpses a tangled garden curling in unruly frolic around the house.

‘More than three acres, maybe five,’ says the Arab. He waves his right arm in a wide sweep to show off the property, as proud of the place as if it were his own.

He unlocks the door to the house and follows Jane casually at a distance as she explores the rooms. She opens every window and pushes back the shutters, letting in gusts of wintry air and light which falls in mote-speckled bands across the floors. There is an atmosphere of neglect; everywhere she looks there are spider webs and the chitinous remains of bugs. Downstairs it’s impossible to ignore the pungent odour of cat pee and large mottled patches of mildew.

Jane is not deterred. The more she sees of the place, the more she likes it.

Upstairs, halfway along an enclosed terrace, she lingers to take in the view. Damascus is spread out before her, an appealing muddle of flat grey roofs, glistening white domes and minarets, winter gardens hidden behind walls, and, less than a mile from where she stands, the icy meandering of the Barada River. From this vantage point, she can see south past the towers of the great Umayyad Mosque towards the Christian quarter on the other side of town.

Immediately behind her to the north is an oasis of olive and citrus groves, and apricot and apple orchards, a valley of green that stops in a severe line where it meets the desert. There, the land is bleached to the colour of bone, arid and interminable all the way to the horizon.

The local muezzin begins his call for evening prayer: ‘God is great. There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. Let us kneel before him.’ The chant fills the air, binding the neighbourhood, and Jane returns downstairs, half expecting the agent to excuse himself for ten minutes to visit the nearby mosque. He makes no sign, content instead to wait while Jane finishes exploring the property.

A late burst of sunshine has dropped to a low flaxen seam by the time she enters the garden where a volary of tiny birds rises from one tree and flits over her head to settle in another. She watches them disappear like nebulae into the leaves and shadows.

Jane pauses. She feels in that gathering dusk like the birthday girl at a party no one deigns to attend. The future frightens her. She is forty-six and for the first time in her life fully conscious of how alone she is in the world. Her family doesn’t want her, her children are either dead or in someone else’s care, and society mocks her. She knows what people used to say about her, that ‘the Lady Ellenborough keeps as many men as she does horses, so she may ride astride in the evenings and side-saddle in the mornings’. More than twenty years have passed since she left London and its malicious gossips, yet their barbs still sting.

Why suffer past insults with so many new ones to support? Jane concedes the latest injury may have driven her finally and for ever from Europe.

The agent appears at her side. ‘Miss Digby, you like this place?’

Oh yes, she likes it.

She shakes off her memories, clears her mind of regrets and scans the garden again. She sees the perfect site for stables and wonders why she hadn’t noticed it the moment she entered the garden.

The agent jangles his keys like a lure. It’s time to go, but yes, she wants this place and is impatient to get back to the hotel and begin the process of acquiring it.

As the agent shuts up the house and locks the door, Jane feels a little of her old optimism creeping back. Syria will be a new beginning. She will make a home for herself here, reconcile herself to a quiet life. Better to be alone and unhappy than have others make a fool of her.

Before the agent closes the gate, she takes a last look across the courtyard and notices a slab of Aleppo pine on the lintel over the front door. There is a name carved in it, so worn with time as to be almost indecipherable: ذالملا نمآلا. Jane asks the agent what it means.

He smiles and his face is transformed by its sweetness. ‘This is Almaladh Alaman. The English, I do not know . . .’ He murmurs to himself, searching for the correct translation. ‘Maybe you say shelter, or refuge.’

‘Or sanctuary.’ The word is a bonbon, soft and fragrant in her mouth. She repeats the Arabic words quietly to herself, like a mantra: Almaladh Alaman. It is surely a sign. This house is meant to be hers and she will keep that name.

Jane fancies she can hear the gossips again, tuning their forked tongues. To hell with them. A wrong decision is better than no decision and where would she be now if she’d done only what society deems suitable? Sitting among starchy matrons, no doubt, pretending to be amused by games of cribbage when all they ever promised was boredom.