EYE SPY: Jude Bird – All Told

The Victorian imposter Princess Caraboo began life as Mary Baker, a cobbler’s daughter. Pregnant and destitute on the streets of Bloomsbury, she gave up her child to the Foundling Hospital and for the duration of her son’s short life worked as a maid with local households. A year later – speaking an incomprehensible language and fashioning her clothes in an exotic manner – she fooled Gloucestershire high society into believing she was a princess from an island in the Indian Ocean, had been captured by pirates, escaped and swum ashore to England. She used a bow and arrow, fenced, swam naked and prayed to a god whom she named Allah-Tallah.

 

All Told

 

What does a girl think

walking these grey streets

that show no pleasure in her,

to arrive and find her son has died,

two days before, nine months old?

 

A poor girl, beggar girl, ruined girl pocketed flour and seed and a forest grew.

The trees filled with such birds, such fruit!

 

Who hasn’t wished to be someone else?

To give up the person they were given to be?

Never asked to be.

 

To cut a swathe,

Stitch a new outline,

Fit a crisp, shiny jacket,

Burn down an old life.

To rise up,

To undo.

Princess Caraboo.

 

Did they tell you how she lied?

 

All told how she lied

Buried truths to rot and fester,

Served them up cold.

Spun the wool, pulled it faster.

Some called it bold.

Shy child, I was told:

Pulled the skirts closer,

Afraid to leave the fold.

Floored the mighty, stole their thunder,

Split apart the mold.

Hair through his fingers

Pushed her down harder –

Her girlhood bought and sold,

Faith and trust squandered,

Gave her soul for gold.

Could not hold her son,

Pale and sweet as sugar,

Nine months old.

 

A Monday. A day done. No day can be undone.

 

A flower walks past,

petals trodden,

dragging, the wind

slipping up and down

between her leaves.

She is crying –

she keeps dropping things.

A square of linen, a button

Violet blue. She stops and feels for the wall;

when she looks back at me

her face pricks my heart.

“How many times can I open?”

 

What did she think, walking back from the hospital, down these dirty streets?

 

The cold clasp,

The touch of unknown hands,

The retreat of the blood?

 

Around her the sky

lets

the seeds fly.

 

Jude Bird

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Image: (c) Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives

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