The scarlet net

 

‘What do you think?’ Sergeant Stanley looked at him expectantly, smoothing his broad moustache with finger and thumb.

Gordon knew that action well. Despite his calm exterior, Stanley was excited by his own theory, keen for the chase. Gordon looked up to the map again. London, speared by a dozen brass pins, red cords looped between them, the capital caught in a scarlet net.

Stanley was viewed as the station’s eccentric, a bachelor at thirty five still living at home with a mother whose wits often wandered. Gordon had visited the small, sooty terraced house where they lived many times for suppers of pie and liqour. Under the flickering gas mantles, he’d viewed the study wall patchworked with newspaper cuttings and photographs Stanley had taken with his box Brownie, monochrome dismemberments brought to life in the musty cellar.

An odd fish, the other officers said. Rumoured to be a regular at the Lyons Corner House in Coventry Street. And the closest thing Gordon had to a friend.

Gordon sat back in his chair, resting his heels on his desk. ‘Tell me again, Sergeant.’

 


 

Notes

Pie and liquor – meat pie served with mashed potatoes and a green sauce made from parsley and jellied eels.

Lyons Corner House, Coventry Street – Lyons Corner Houses were a chain of teashops, now defunct. The Coventry Street one in Picadilly, London was a known meeting place for gay men in the days when homosexuality was still very much illegal.

 

 

 

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What Pegman Saw : A curtain pulling shut


 

When I was four years old, my father left the family home to be a lumberjack.

He’d grown up in the brick canyons of Manchester, under the long shadows of the cotton mills, every breath he took speckled with coal dust. He started work aged seven as a scavenger, plucking cotton threads from under the looms. Thunder with jaws, he called those machines.

It was foggy the morning he left, the smoke twining with the fog so the two hung solid along the twisted alleyways. I watched from my bedroom window as he slipped away, smog closing behind him like a curtain pulling shut.

Years later a postcard came. On the front a painting – mountains with snowy, pointed hats, thick-fringed with trees too many to count. On the reverse a message.

The air is clear and smells of pine

I did not recognise the hand.

 


Written for What Pegman Saw. Go stroll through Google Streetview with them and find a view that inspires. See here to join in and to read the other tales.

Friday Fictioneers : A Criminal Conversation

 

PHOTO PROMPT © Roger Bulltot


 

Light from the computer screen filled Campbell’s glasses, masking his eyes. ‘When might your great-grandmother have been admitted to Northmead?’

Sally handed him the details, the paper damp from her hands. Annie Giddings. DOB 4th January 1886. Last seen Bonfire Night 1903.

Campbell hummed tunelessly. ‘Found her!’ he said. ‘Admitted 25th November 1903 for falling into criminal conversations with low men. Hmm … various treatments … Ah! Failing to recover her wits, a hysterectomy was performed.’

The printer clicked and whirred a copy of Annie’s records. Sally clenched and unclenched her fists, relieved Northmead was a ruin so she wouldn’t have to burn it down.

 


Written for Rochelle Wisoff-Field’s Friday Fictioneers. The best flash fiction prompt on the web. See here to join in and to read the other stories.

I saw the photo and though ‘insane asylum’ then did a search for 19th century teatments for women with mental health problems. Some doctors advocated gynaecological surgery such as relocating the uterus and hysterectomy. Read more here.

Read more on the appalling Victorian treatment of ‘fallen women’ and on the foundling hospitals where many were forced to leave their offspring here (this article is also where I found the euphemism ‘criminal conversation’).

As a side note, 25th November is Saint Catherine of Alexandria’s feast day. Amongst other things she is the patron saint of spinsters.

#tuesdayuseitinasentence : A colt’s tooth

 

‘Alway’s a colt’s tooth, that one,’ Gramma squinted in the candlelight, needle raised like a weapon over her mending.

Mother whisked the crumbs from the table with her cloth. ‘How can you say such things?’ She stopped suddenly, one hand pressed to her stomach, the other holding the rag before her. ‘He has been our verger for twenty one years. He was always … there.’

Gramma chuckled, sucking on her teeth as if they were barley sugars. ‘Verger or no, I’ve spied him over my prayer book, eyes on bonnets and bodices rather than the altar.’

‘Gramma, really,’ I said from my stool near the fire. ‘You mustn’t say such things.’

She tutted. ‘I’ve known that man all his life, Natty – I’ve known men all my life.’ She shot me a lewd wink as Mother returned to her fussing. ‘And I tell you – Verger Mason always had a wandering eye. Now the world knows he has wandering hands too. Well. No surprise to me.’

Mother stopped punishing the table and hurried from the room. Gramma went on attacking her stitching, lancing the fabric as if it were a barrel filled with fish. After I’d got her to bed and began to redo her mending, I heard Mother crying in the room above, the low keening of a heart fit to break.

Logs snapped and spat on the fire as I settled to finish my work.

 


Written for Stephanie at Word Adventure’s #tuesdayuseitinasentence. See the word – this week it’s COLT – and create a tale.

I’d never heard of the expression colt’s tooth until I did a quick search for this post – it refers to a young man’s wanton desires but can also mean an older man who keeps a younger woman. I rather like it.

 

What Pegman Saw : Bloody Meadow


 

The snow was falling harder, building on the frozen ground, settling on shoulders.

‘There was a vision,’ said Tom.

Davy hunched lower. Flakes fell on the back of his neck, a cold serpent of meltwater trickling down his back.

‘An angel,’ said Tom, ‘a bright torch of hope in her hand. A sign of our victory.’

Davy adjusted his cap but the flakes kept falling. ‘Do you have a crust? My gut’s afire.’

‘Did you not hear me?’

Shaking his head, a drift of snow dropped from Davy’s cap into his lap. ‘God’s bones, I shall freeze before an arrow’s shot. Tell me, could the lady not be for our enemies encamped over the brow of the hill?’

‘Well-‘

‘Could it not be the Lord of Flies promising a swift death and a short drop below?’

Tom stared at his hands.

‘Believe in iron and your wits. And pray the Lord take you.’

 


 

Written for What Pegman Saw, the prompt that uses Google Streetview as its starting point.

I saw the sculptures of the soldiers led to war by some seemingly supernatural bugler and recalled similar medieval instances – visions and portents of victory or supernatural protection. Strange that despite this supposed protection, hundreds of men would still die …

And the snow? Well, the medieval battle that always sticks in my head is the Battle of Towton, fought during the Wars of the Roses. Supposedly the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil, it was fought in a blizzard on Palm Sunday 1461. The site of the battle was afterwards dubbed Bloody Meadow.

 

 

What Pegman Saw : No amount of riches

 

This week Pegman takes us to Pena, Portugal.


 

‘Beautiful, isn’t it?’ He watched her face closely, a smile playing at his lips, never warming his eyes.

She was careful to control her expression in front of him, keep a light burning in her own eyes, even when cold lead seemed to fill her chest. A painful lesson she had learned early in their marriage – he must always see what he wanted to see. ‘It is truly beautiful,’ she said.

The Moorish arches, streams twining through tree ferns and palms, the mountainside hugged in green … Yes, beautiful.

Another beat to examine her expression and he was satisfied. He released the grip on her arm, turned to talk to one of his men, his attention pulled to something more important.

Her husband was a brilliant man, but one thing she knew and he did not. That no amount of riches can fool the prisoner they are free.

 


Written for What pegman saw, the prompt with Google streetview at its heart. See the pic and write a tale and visit here to read this week’s stories.

 

 

The Devil of Moravia : Aunt Gloria finishes her tale

Clock face and dialImage : Pixabay


For over a year and for nearly forty instalments, the story of the Devil of Moravia has slowly unfolded on this blog. Now the time has come for the very last part.

Special thanks to all those who have followed the terrible tale of Edmund William Spencer – thank you for sticking with him and with me. Very special thanks go to Joy from Tales from Eneana and to Amanda of Mandibelle 16 for their kindness and encouragement. And for being – as far as I’m aware and forgive me if I’m wrong – the only people other than myself who have read every instalment. Thank you so much, ladies.

So here is the final part. And we end where we began, with a very special Auntie and her very tall tales. See below to experience the Devil’s world.

Onetwothreefour, fivesix , seven, eight, nine, ten, eleven, twelvethirteen, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty, twenty one, twenty two, twenty three, twenty four, twenty five, twenty six, twenty seven, twenty eighttwenty ninethirty, thirty one, thirty two, thirty threethirty four , thirty five and thirty six.


 

‘Edmund died?’ My tongue felt gummed and gluey, as if I hadn’t drunk for days.

Aunt Gloria plucked another cigarette from the crumpled packet, twisting it into the holder, leaning towards me with an expectant air. I fumbled with the matches, taking two attempts before the tobacco began to glow and crackle.

Through a fug of smoke I saw Gloria shrug. ‘We all die, darling.’

‘I know that. I’m not a child. It’s just … Not in stories. At the end of stories evil loses and good triumphs.’

She stretched her legs out before her, wriggling her painted toenails. ‘The Devil was slain and Edmund did the slaying.’

Exasperated, I said, ‘But you hanged the hero. No one hangs the hero.’

‘Not much of a hero. Killing those two young girls.’ Taking a long drag she stared at me through squinted eyes. ‘Besides. In real life every story has the same ending.’

‘But I thought … Edmund and Frances …’

Her lip curled into a bitter smile. ‘True love conquers all?’ She pulled the cigarette from the holder, stubbing it into the full ashtray, her fingers coming away grey at the tips. She opened her mouth to say more, but the spark suddenly left her eyes. Pulling her knees to her chest she stared at the swirls in the hearth rug, both of us lapsing to silence until the back door slammed open and shut.

‘Fi! Where are you, Fi?’

It was my brother Fred, back from fishing, his face glowing from the fresh air.

‘Dad and I caught the biggest carp. Well, almost caught him. The blighter wriggled free before I could grab the net.’

The door went again. ‘Who has left muddy waders on my kitchen floor? Frederick Edmund Spencer, come here this instant!’

I looked up then, at Gloria, her chipped nail polish, her grey roots and smoke stained teeth. It was as if the story had changed me a little, as if my childhood was falling away and for the first time I saw what Gloria was – a rather lonely woman spending the summer where she wasn’t truly welcome or comfortable because she had nowhere else to go.

I avoided spending anymore time alone with her that holiday. Edmund’s story had been too dark – it seemed to stain the air between Gloria and I. And soon the summer was over and I was back at school and Edmund’s story – Gloria’s story – receded to the back of my mind, swamped by Geography lessons and hockey cups and English Grammar and Home Economics.

I thought of Edmund from time to time over the years, wondering how Gloria could know his story if his confession had really been burned, dismissing the Devil as a ridiculous fiction borne out of a lonely Aunt’s need to be liked. But still I searched The Clock every time I visited Gran’s, slipping my fingers between the cogs, scouring the panels with a torch. Perhaps that’s why Gran left it to me, why it stands now, a silent watcher over my own family.

Gloria died on the day my first marriage was annulled. I found her timing ironic – the eternal spinster aunt dying on the day I regained my own independence. She left a will, though the list of possessions made pitiable reading. Her flat was rented, the furniture rented too – even her furs were fake. She left an antique fishing rod to Fred which he sold to a friend at his club within days. He hadn’t fished since that summer I was twelve.

To me she left a large manilla envelope. Inside there were several sheets of a heavy paper covered with lines of sloping handwriting so dense the whole was more ink than paper. My fingers trembled as I flicked to the last page and read the inscription.

… Finished on the eve of his execution, the 5th day of May, 1799 …

The pages whispered as I straightened them, as if Edmund himself was trying to speak again.

Finally, I read the dedication on the envelope written in Gloria’s own thin hand.

For Fiona Frances Spencer. So you always remember your family’s brave past. 

And below, Old Noah’s words.

Know who you are. Embrace it, no matter how dark, no matter how squalid. Only then will you triumph.