Spill The Tea

WHEN: Late October 1836

WHERE: Leeds, Yorkshire, England

WHO: Ladies of Class

WHAT: An Alternative Look at a Familiar Story


Grey clouds gathered in the sky, throwing sporadic, but intense, bursts of rain. It was a dull day; not even the colourful autumn leaves swept up by the wind could bring any cheer; they were but the forecast of yet colder months to come. Outside the main entrance of Lenhurst, that respectable and imposing residence of the Lynns, a woman alighted from a carriage. The carriage was as respectable and imposing as the house itself, it was Lady Margaret’s own. The passenger was, however, not Lady Margaret. She was a young woman of striking beauty, tall, graceful and dark-haired, dressed in the latest fashions. Shielding herself with the hood of her cloak, she ascended the wide stone steps leading to the front door.

All right, let’s get through this.

She entered.

“Miss Bianca Ingram,” announced the butler.

Lady Margaret Lynn welcomed the visitor with outstretched arms. “My dear, I’m so glad you came!”

After asking about Bianca’s family, and subsequently being reassured that Bianca’s mother, the dowager Lady Ingram, Bianca’s brother Lord Theodore Ingram, and Bianca’s younger sister Mary were all well and in good health, Lady Margaret exclaimed: “Isn’t it a frightful weather? This is not helping my rheumatism, not one bit.”

“It’s awful,” Bianca replied.

Not like the day before yesterday, with its glorious golden autumnal sunshine. Bianca was out in town shopping for a new gown, when she bumped into Lady Margaret. “Bianca darling! So good to see you. And what are you doing here all by yourself? Is not Miss Eshton with you?”

“Oh, I’m not staying at the Leas. I’ve got a room at the Mill Cote hotel.”

“The Mill Cote hotel! Fancy that.” When Bianca failed to offer any further explanation, Lady Margaret continued. “You must come to Lenhurst. I’ve been feeling ever so lonely, the boys are in Wales, you know, visiting an old school friend. I’ll send my carriage over. I won’t hear any excuses.”

No, Bianca didn’t think Lady Margaret would hear any excuses. So now she was sitting in the Lenhurst drawing room; a rather overstuffed one, but cosy, with comfortable armchairs, overabundance of cushions, and a big fire. “Has Sir George left for Westminster?” she asked.

“Yes, only a fortnight ago. A new session of parliament, as you know…”

“Do you not normally accompany him?”

“I do, dearie, I do, but I’ve been feeling under the weather the past few weeks, quite under the weather, and that business at Thornfield Hall…” She put the back of her hand on her forehead and closed her eyes.

“Shocking, wasn’t it?” said Bianca.

“Shocking doesn’t even begin to describe it, Bianca dearie. It unsettled me something frightful.”

“You’re quite right to feel that way. It was unsettling.”

“And us, being there only mere months ago. Merciful god!”

“And now all that’s left is ashes.”

“Indeed, funny how the horrid affair met such an end. It seems to me it’s for the best. Of course, one can never be too cautious when it comes to fires. I keep telling George to be ever so much more careful with the pokers, but men never listen… Still, to think of such a stately home like Thornfield, burnt to a crisp.” She shook her head.

“Even the remains aren’t worth much.”

The elder lady tilted her head slightly to the side. “Have you, perchance, been there to have a look at it?”

Who hasn’t, thought Bianca. “Yes, we went there with Teddy and Mary and the Eshton sisters. It is, as you said, my lady, burnt to a crisp.”

“Those nice furnishings.”

“You admired the brocade draperies so.”

“All gone,” Lady Margaret sighed.

“And how about you, your ladyship? Have you fancied a visit to the ruins of Thornfield?”

“Merciful god, I wouldn’t dream of it! I’m positive it would give me nightmares. Hearing about the whole horrible business was enough to make me go lie down for days.”

Bianca conjured up an image of her hostess lying in bed in utter darkness, a wet towel on her forehead.

“And then, I hear people are having picnics at Thornfield ruins! Can you imagine anything so distasteful?”

Bianca’s lips twitched. Teddy and his japes! Truth was, the first sight of the black remains of that once mighty mansion was enough for even Teddy to lose appetite. “Bone chilling,” he declared gravely. When they visited the place the second time, with Mary and the Eshton sisters, her brother was his usual merry self. But there was no picnic—for one, it was too cold for it. They returned to the Leas, to dine with the Eshtons.

Bianca mumbled something in agreement and added: “I do hope you’re feeling better, my lady, you’re looking well.”

The big double door opened; a maid and a footman entered the drawing room, each carrying a tray. They placed on the round oak table a teapot, two cups and saucers, a milk jug, and a sugar bowl; as well as a plate of buttered bread, and a plate of sliced cake. They bowed and departed.

Lady Margaret poured out the tea. “No doubt you’re glad to have some good tea, not the weak brew they offer at those hotels,” she said.

“True,” Bianca nodded. The tea at the Mill Cote was in truth quite satisfactory, but under no circumstances would Bianca say it out loud. “Yours is ever so much nicer than any we had at Thornfield Hall. But so it is, even with a housekeeper as good as old Mrs Fairfax, a bachelor’s household is only a bachelor’s household.”

Lady Margaret put the teapot down. “You forget, dear, Edward Rochester was no bachelor.”

“Oh yes, of course… I meant it more that he ran his house as a bachelor.”

“That he did. See, we always knew him for a womaniser, but we expected he would eventually get married, after all he’d want an heir. And all along,” she shuddered.

“A wife in the attic.”

“Merciful god! Did he not think someone would find out? How did he believe he’d be able to hide her there forever?”

“He certainly had the nerve.”

Lady Margaret grabbed the milk jug and carefully poured a bit of the liquid into her cup. She added two lumps of sugar, picked up a teaspoon and stirred in a slow motion. “I thought, once—you remember that Christmas party at Thornfield some years ago, when you wore that gorgeous amber shawl, you were such a delight to look at, my dear—I was awakened at night by noise coming from upstairs. I’m a light sleeper as you know.” She picked up her cup and drank.

“You reckon it may have been her?” Bianca asked.

“I couldn’t say, I’m sure, but I do wonder now… it sounded like a piece of furniture falling, perhaps a small table or a chair. I can’t tell you what time it was, with everything so pitch black. The next morning I told George, who in that discreet way of his mentioned it to Mr Rochester. It’s such a blessing to be married to a man like George.”

Bianca felt a prick in her chest. Never again, never ever, ever again will she make fun of the Lynns’ marriage. Please forgive me.

“What did Mr Rochester have to say to that?” she asked, drinking her tea. She took it with milk, but no sugar.

“He just laughed it off. Nothing to worry about, only rats and mice, he said. So nonchalant over vermin, I should have suspected something wasn’t right.”

According to Grace Poole, it was always worse when there was company at Thornfield.

“They had cats,” Bianca said. “At Thornfield. They always had them.”

“Yes, of course it was nonsense, but I didn’t think anything of it, not then. Mind you, cats knock things down too, so it may have been a cat, I suppose, but anyways, if I ever thought back to it, I imagined some sort of, shall we say,” she lowered her voice, “indiscreet situation, oh forgive me, my dear.”

“You mean the servants—“

“That’s what I meant, the servants, getting up to—oh never mind that.” She paused. Then she continued: “You know, it’s funny, because that’s what he said. During our stay there last spring, that night there was that commotion. That it was a servant. Do you remember?”

“Yes, a servant with a nightmare,” she answered. “A nervous, excitable woman.” It was always a woman. For Rochester, anything inconvenient or unpleasant was always the fault of a woman.

“We thought he said it to cover up some imprudence the servants got into. Thinking back about it now, about his secret wife… one wonders. Although, I’m sure it was a male voice that screamed.”

Bianca reached for a slice of bread. “I’m convinced it was actually the servants this time.” She bit into the bread. Well, no harm done. All of the former staff at Thornfield got new positions. Richard recovered.

“You were in Italy when the news broke, weren’t you?”

“The news of the secret wife? Yes.”

“The very notion of Edward Rochester marrying his governess raised eyebrows, but at least he was marrying someone. It shouldn’t have come as a surprise, given his behaviour at that party.”

“It didn’t surprise me.”

“I did think about you. I hoped you didn’t really care about him. You didn’t, dearie, did you?”

“Not a bit,” Bianca smiled.

“I’m glad to hear that. One couldn’t have been sure, with the two of you flirting the way you did.” Disapproval filled her voice. “And I must tell you, young lady, you should not be flirting with men as unashamedly as that, and I said so to your lady dowager mother—“

“That was for her benefit,” Bianca interrupted. “For the governess’s.”

“Indeed? How strange. You wouldn’t think there was any need for him to act like that. I mean, she most likely would have been in love with him anyway. I found it quite distasteful.” She wrinkled her nose.

“Edward was fond of games,” Bianca said. She shuddered at the memory of the governess. The governess, always sitting in the corner, crouching behind curtains, staring at her. “I find her creepy,” she told Mary and the Eshton sisters. “I noticed she only stares at you,” Louisa Eshton said. Mary remarked that maybe the girl was just admiring her. “You’re the prettiest of us.”

“More likely it’s Edward she wants,” Bianca said. And he must have been aware of it, why else would he have made her sit in the drawing room with them? Because the governess would never have thought of doing so herself. She looked like someone who knew her place—and in any case, she wouldn’t have found the company entertaining.

“Until it caught up with him.” The words of her hostess brought her back to the present.

“And it did.”

Lady Margaret munched on the buttered bread with gusto. “Feel free to pour yourself more tea, dearie.”

Had she really gulped the whole cup already? Slow down a bit!

Bianca poured herself tea. Not perhaps from any fondness of the beverage; she preferred coffee, the quarter Italian in her coming out strongly—but this was too interesting a conversation. “You knew Edward Rochester as a young man, didn’t you, my lady?”

“A little. He left for the West Indies shortly after college, you see. I knew his brother Rowland better.”

“I hear he was quite a character.”

Lady Margaret smiled in reminiscence. “Indeed he was. An exceptional host, shame you never got to attend his parties, but of course, you would have been too young. Great sportsman and charmer, popular with everyone.”

“From what I can tell by his portraits, he was much better looking than Edward too. Although,” Bianca added, “that might just have been the artist’s hand.”

“He was, well, not handsome exactly, I couldn’t have called him that, but much more pleasant looking, though his colouring was the same as Edward’s. Took more after their mother’s side, the Fairfaxes.”

“Rowland never married.”

“No, but it wasn’t out of the ordinary, he was still fairly young, not yet thirty. He wanted to take his time, I guess, but well…”

“Time took him instead.”

“It did.” Lady Margaret sighed and took a slice of seed cake. “Couldn’t keep up with that lifestyle, I suppose. His father died too, shortly afterwards. Or was it before? I’m not sure exactly. Anyhow, they both died close to each other.”

Bianca, mirroring her hostess, also partook the cake. “How tragic!” she exclaimed. To herself, she thought: not.

“Edward had at that time been living in the West Indies for four or five years. None of us heard from him, until he returned to take over the estate.”

Bianca frowned. “Isn’t that strange?”

“You’d think so, wouldn’t you? Not that we were ever close friends… but not even those that were… he had one or two friends from his college days, that’s if he had kept in touch with them at all. Neither Rowland, nor his father ever mentioned Edward’s name and nobody asked. He was all but forgotten.”

That would explain a lot.

“That was the year we were in Nova Scotia, you know,” Lady Margaret went on. “Naturally, we wanted to meet Thornfield’s new master when we got back. But he had travelled. That’s how it was with him, never at home. Always off to London or the Continent, amusing himself with different women. It was disgusting even then. And now, to think that…” she put the cup down. “Merciful god!”

“A wife all along,” Bianca said, picking up her teacup. “Hidden in the attic.” She sipped tea.

“Horrible,” Lady Margaret spoke in a whisper. “And made even worse by the—” she stopped.

“Attempted bigamy.”

“An ugly word, that.” Lady Margaret filled her cup and threw in another sugar cube. The spoon clanged as she stirred. “I suppose,” she said, “he married the woman in the West Indies in haste, and just as quickly got tired of her. I understand she came with money?”

“That seems to have been the deciding factor.”

“I wonder.” She took a sip of tea. “Old Rochester shares some guilt in this, he always favoured Rowland. It wouldn’t surprise me if he left the whole property to him. He was indeed a greedy man. Not that I’m absolving Edward, don’t get me wrong.”

You’d better not be.

“But well,” Lady Margaret sighed. “Old sins cast long shadows.”

“Edward kept that marriage a secret,” Bianca said.

“As if it was something shameful. What woman would like that? I don’t understand Edward’s conduct in this, I really don’t.”

“He didn’t want people to know he got rich by marrying a woman of wealth—and a Creole woman at that.”

“A wife is a wife, Creole or not. I won’t stand for this.” Lady Margaret put her cup down with vigour.

Bianca suppressed a smile. Inside, she rejoiced. Oh this is good, this is very, very good. “He probably didn’t expect Rowland to die without an heir,” she said. “Overnight, he found himself an owner of the Rochester estate—with a very inconvenient wife.”

“So he brought her to England and locked her in the attic and pretended he’s single.” Lady Margaret scoffed. “And then he claimed she was mad and insane. Who wouldn’t be, after a decade in the attic?”

“Who indeed?”

“And then he goes and marries a governess.”

“He wouldn’t dare pull that trick with one of us. But a poor orphan with no close friends or relations…” Bianca left the sentence unfinished. She recalled the surprise in Edward’s face when the girl asked for leave of absence to visit a dying aunt. But you said you had no relations! And the relief upon hearing they were estranged.

“He still got caught.”

“Someone pronounced an impediment to the marriage?”

“That’s how it must have happened, I gather. After all, that’s why they ask, no? When they officiate a marriage.”

If this was a subtle dig at Bianca’s unmarried status, it didn’t bother her. Not anymore. “Obviously.”

“A solicitor stepped forward, with a witness, the secret wife’s brother. A terrible situation for the bride, I imagine, but at least they spared her from something even worse. Though I hear she’s not been seen since.”

“What happened, has she disappeared?”

“It seems so.”

“Do you think that Edward—“

“Oh no, merciful god, it’s nothing like that, she has just run away. Of her own accord. I don’t see why she had to, by all accounts she’s done nothing wrong. She didn’t know he was already married. Sure, she’s somewhat stupid—I heard she didn’t want any of the jewellery Edward had given her.”

“Evidently,” Bianca murmured. You don’t refuse jewellery from a man.

“But that doesn’t mean she should starve or freeze to death out on the moors. You know what I heard?” Lady Margaret leant closer to her visitor. “Edward walked the grounds at night, shouting her name.”

“He did?”

Lady Margaret gave a nod and took a sip of tea.

“And yet still claimed it was his wife that was insane?”

“Funny that, isn’t it? Men always call us crazy. Maybe they should have a look at themselves first.”

“She’s not insane?”

“Of course she’s not insane. She’s even been seen by a London specialist, who confirmed it. There would undoubtedly be some effects of the imprisonment, but otherwise there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s with her brother now, the same man who came to visit that day in Thornfield.” Lady Margaret narrowed her eyes at Bianca. “But surely you know this, you have met with Mr Mason, haven’t you?”

“Once or twice,” Bianca admitted. She wasn’t looking at Lady Margaret. Instead, she was admiring the pretty jasperware pattern on the Wedgwood china. Out of the corner of the eye, she saw Lady Margaret smile. She carefully placed the cup on the saucer. “It is as you say. Rochester lied. She is not mad.”

“Never for a second did I believe she was. I mean, if she was, why keep her in the house? Why not send her to an institution?”

“Precisely.”

“He only hired one woman to look after her, what was her name now—Peel?”

“Poole. Grace Poole.”

“Oh yes, Poole. Was she even a qualified nurse?”

“She’s a seamstress by profession, but has a lot of experience looking after people with certain conditions. She’s a Quaker, you know, from the York Retreat. Her son is the superintendent there.”

“Fancy that,” Lady Margaret took another piece of cake. “Well, she has fulfilled her duties, that much has to be said.”

Bianca agreed.

“And the lady? Mrs Rochester. Is she recovered now?”

Her name is Antoinette. Bianca bit her tongue. “Almost. It will take some time, but Dr Foster is confident there is no reason why she shouldn’t make a full recovery. Rich—I mean, Mr Mason wants to take her to the seaside, before the winter sets in. South of France or Italy. A voyage back to Jamaica would be too strenuous at present, she also suffers from sea sickness.”

“I for one swear by the French Riviera. It has done wonders for my health.”

“I think the dissolution of that marriage will do even better wonders for her.”

“George has been working on that. Would you like more tea, dearie?”

“Oh, I’ll have more, thank you, my lady.”

“As I said, George is working on getting the divorce. Mr Edward Baines, the other member for Leeds, is with him on this. It’s not often you find yourself agreeing with a Whig.”

Bianca smiled. Good.

“So, how was it that the fire started?”

Bianca’s hand, which was lifting the teacup, jolted, and a little of the tea escaped from the cup into the saucer. “The fire? It seems to have been an accident. A candlestick fell down and the carpet and the drapes caught fire.”

“No wonder. The disorder that house must have been in after the housekeeper resigned. Not that I blame her.”

“The housemaid had left too. She was scared of Rochester.”

“Who wouldn’t be?”

Bianca rubbed her thumb on the rim of the cup. “Many contradicting rumours are going around this town.”

“About the housemaid?”

“No, about the fire.”

Lady Margaret raised her eyebrows. “Indeed?”

“At the dressmakers they believe it was the wife that did it, though not necessarily on purpose. The Eshtons have heard every kind of tale by now, from an outside culprit—a vagrant, carrying out revenge for not being given money when he came begging, to the poor dog being responsible. The staff at the Mill Cote are, for some reason, under the impression that it was Rochester himself.”

“Upon my soul!” Lady Margaret’s eyes went wide. “Rochester himself! Now, what made them think of that?”

Bianca took a sip and said thoughtfully: “Remember the speculation about his financial difficulties?”

“Wasn’t that just a rumour?”

“What if it wasn’t?”

Lady Margaret frowned in contemplation. “With the life he led, wasting money on women and who knows what… and then, of course, Thornfield was not cheap to maintain. Taking in that little French girl would have meant additional expenses. Hmm, I see. Still, burning his house down because he can’t afford to run it anymore is a bit of a stretch.”

“It does seem a very risky thing to do, after all, he couldn’t have been sure it would work the way he’d want it to. Why, he could have perished in the fire himself. But who knows what state his mind was in. If he was walking the grounds at night…”

“It makes you wonder if he was the mad one, doesn’t it? You are quite right, dear Bianca, he easily could have perished in the fire himself.”

“As it happens, he got out of it alive.”

“And lost his sight and one hand in the process. It’s a miracle that the wife was able to escape, what with her locked upstairs.”

“Mrs Poole saved her. As soon as she saw the severity of the fire, she grabbed her—probably out of an instinct of a long-term carer—and they made it out before the main staircase collapsed.”

“Indeed, Mrs Poole acted well, for all they say that she drinks.”

“I hear it’s a common vice in nurses and carers—a difficult profession. Anyway, it’s likely that the whole experience will help sober her up, now that she’s back with her people.”

“It must be no easy feat saving a full human, in the middle of the night.”

“It certainly took courage. Apparently they ran all the way to Leeds, and stopped at the first inn they came across. Mrs Poole has been putting her earnings into the savings bank. She sent a message to her son at the Retreat, who came to fetch them. Antoinette—that’s Mrs Rochester’s name—has been there ever since, looked after by the Quakers. Her brother’s staying there too, he’s very pleased with her condition.”

Let her be taken care of; let her be treated as tenderly as may be.

Richard’s words, again, still causing that burning sensation down her spine, that strange mixture of pleasure and pain around her heart. Let her be taken care of; let her be treated as tenderly as may be…

“Did Mr Mason not have any idea about what Rochester did to his sister?”

“He says he knew nothing.”

I swear I didn’t know… he appeared a decent gentleman. I encouraged the match! Never will l forgive myself for that. You have to, Bianca told him. “For both of your sakes.”

“Only over the last couple of years his mistrust towards Rochester grew,” Bianca added. “He was mostly in West Indies or Madeira. He’s a merchant, you know.”

“I remember he said so when he came to Thornfield. You know, I always wondered why he’d left so abruptly. He was gone before we came down to breakfast the next day.”

“Rochester sent him away.”

“Did he? He couldn’t risk Mr Mason revealing his secret, I suppose.”

“But at least Mr Mason finally learned the truth about his sister.”

By getting stabbed by her?

A minor point, Bianca told herself.

“It must have been quite a blow to him. Rochester probably fed him a pack of lies.”

“Oh he did—strange sickness, needed to be isolated, and other such nonsense. Which made Mr Mason think, if that was so, then why invite company to Thornfield?”

“Exactly what I have been saying!” Lady Margaret’s voice was nothing short of triumphant. “Wasn’t that also the night there was that disturbance?”

“Was it?”

“It was, because I remember he arrived when that gypsy woman was there. And the disturbance happened on the night of that day, because when the screams woke me up I thought of her first. You know how one’s mind plays tricks when one’s being awakened.”

“You’re right,” Bianca admitted, trying to keep annoyance out of her voice. Mention of the gypsy woman, however, gave her a chance to change track. “You know that was really Rochester in disguise?”

“I had an idea. I think we all did, secretly. Telling fortunes to young and unmarried ladies only! A real fortune teller would not exclude anyone.”

Bianca nodded. She and Louisa detected the deception straight away, Amy didn’t catch it till later. Mary, too kind-hearted to suspect anyone of such trickery, believed her to be only a beggar woman. She had no faith in fortune tellers. “We played along, you know how he liked to have his fun.” Bianca said. “Anyway, he got everything wrong. Apart from Teddy and Amy’s engagement, which was obvious.”

“Quite right that, it was about time those two got together.”

Bianca smiled. She couldn’t disagree.

“More cake, dearie?”

“No thank you, my lady, I think I’ve had enough.” She couldn’t eat any more. The last dregs of tea remained at the bottom of her cup. Lady Margaret still had half a cup. Bianca waited.

“So this Mr Mason,” Lady Margaret said, “does he have any ties to England at all?”

At last, the final item.

“Some cousins down south, but from what I gathered, he only keeps a minimum contact with them.” They disapproved of his father’s marriage to a Creole woman. “But he’s about to make new ties.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes. He and Teddy have become good friends.”

“Oh. How nice.”

Bianca swiftly raised the cup to her lips to hide her smile. All in good time.

She asked about Lady Margaret’s sons and received a brief account of both of theirs comings and goings, and future plans. Finally, the hostess put an empty cup down. “I sure have enjoyed our little conversation.”

“So have I, Lady Margaret. Thank you for inviting me—I am much honoured. The tea and cake were lovely.”

“Oh it’s a pleasure to have you young things, my dear. We should organise another party for next year. When is the wedding to take place?”

“As soo—. You mean Teddy and Amy’s wedding? Next spring. April, or May at the latest.”

“Excellent. Spring weddings are the best. I hope we’ll see each other there.”

“Will you not come for a visit to Ingram Park?”

“I would love to, dearie, but I’m leaving for London the day after tomorrow to be with George. I am well enough to travel now.”

Bianca smiled. “Well, have a good time there. No doubt it’s thrilling to be in the middle of action.”

“It sure is. One day I’ll tell you all the stories.”

Lady Margaret accompanied her young visitor to the entrance. “Look, the weather’s cleared up.”

It was so. In place of the grey clouds, there were white ones. Bianca exited Lenhurst into the smell of autumn. She climbed into the carriage, waving at Lady Margaret from the window. The driver cracked the whip and the carriage was off.

Bianca leant back and relaxed.

That went well.

Richard was expected the next day. They’d leave for Ingram Park together, so that the proper announcements could be made.

“I think it would be good if we got married.”

She laughed. Then looked at him. “Wait, you’re in earnest. Why?”

“Why not? That way, I can protect you both.”

“Pure marriage of convenience only?”

“Of course, let there be no doubt about that.”

He knew it would be advantageous to her, but— “What’s in it for you?”

“I often felt that having a wife would be only beneficial for my business. Especially now that I own that mill. A lady of class, with a talent for social gatherings. You’re the right woman for that.”

“That I am. But don’t you want a wife that will be—well, a real wife?”

“No. I don’t care for that stuff. Just not interested. I can’t explain it.”

She thought for a bit, then said: “I think I understand.”

“Deal then?”

She nodded. They shook hands.

“We’ll have to keep up some sort of appearances,” she said.

“I’m sure that won’t be a problem. Would you like me to get you some jewels in London? What do you like—diamonds, rubies, emeralds?”

“Rubies will be lovely.” She liked rubies.

“Wait, Richard,” she called after him, as he was walking away. He turned back. “Yes?”

“Do you still have scars?”

He smiled. “Why—do you want to see them?”

“God help me, no. I just wondered.”

“They’re on my arm and shoulder. I pray they don’t fade. They’re but a reminder.”

“I don’t think you really need a reminder. But if you want them to be…”

“Look after her,” he said. “Please.”

Bianca nodded.

*

The carriage came to a stop outside Mill Cote Hotel, in the heart of Leeds. A porter rushed to open the door and help the lady out. Bianca thanked him and went inside.

She entered her hotel room.

Antoinette was sitting in the armchair by the fireplace, reading a book. She shut the book when Bianca came in. “You’re back! How did it go?”

Bianca took off her cloak and hung it on the hook. She walked to the armchair, leant down and kissed Antoinette. “It was a blast.”

She sat down in the armchair opposite Antoinette and recapitulated her visit to Lenhurst, almost word-for-word, from time to time raising her eyebrows in imitation. “In-deed?” Not out of a wish to disrespect Lady Margaret, she was past that now, but merely to entertain Antoinette. And Antoinette was entertained. She laughed; a healthy, hearty laugh, ringing like joyful bells. Oh how blissful it was to hear her laugh like that!

“The mood is in our favour,” Bianca concluded. “The people we need to be on your side are on your side. We couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome.”

“Have they really turned against him?”

Antoinette would not speak his name. The name of the man who was her husband, her tormentor.

“It’s not that surprising, what with everything. You know what it’s like, when a scandal breaks, every idiot proclaims how they suspected all along, but at least in this case it works to our advantage.”

“I cannot yet believe it. I thought… I was afraid that they would support him, that everyone would always support him.”

“That’s just it. He wanted you to think that. In reality it’s not the truth. People only tolerated Edward because he was the master of Thornfield. The same goes for the women he was throwing money at. They never liked him. It was Rowland that was popular, though from what Lady Margaret said, he was just as rotten as Edward, albeit in a different way. It’ll be all for the best when that line finally dies out.”

“How clever of you to think of that dress shop.”

“It was the best place to come across her, ostensibly by accident. Though she likely guessed. Lady Lynn’s not stupid, you know. She doesn’t let just anyone ride in her carriage.” Bianca’s face sobered. “How I used to mock her and Sir George! And yet, no one else in the whole world has helped you—helped us—more than him. Well, let this be a humble lesson to me.”

“He’s been so kind to me. The way he immediately agreed to arrange the divorce when Richard approached him. ‘Certainly, leave it with me,’ he said. But… sometimes I worry that one morning he wakes up and changes his mind.”

“That he won’t. Richard purchased that small flax mill in Holbeck. Which means—“

“Which means he gets the right to vote, I know. But I can’t help how my mind works.” She put her head in her hands. “I’m so afraid to hope. These past weeks, since Thornfield burned down… it’s been the best time of my life. When I was with him, the most I dared to dream of was being free. Being away from Thornfield and him, that was all. I’d have been quite content to live out the rest of my life among the Quakers. Feeding pigs and chickens, working in the garden, even baking, once I learned to do it right. But this… Bianca, I am not used to happiness. What if it gets snatched away from me, what if I don’t deserve it?”

“You do.” Bianca reached out and took Antoinette’s hand into hers. “You deserve every bit of happiness that comes your way. With time you will see. Don’t rush it, you’re still healing. Mr Poole said you’ve made an amazing progress.”

“Well, I only checked the room is not locked from the outside twice, while you were away. But I didn’t spend all that time here, I was downstairs having a cup of coffee, and I even struck up a conversation with that middle aged couple we saw at breakfast, the Morrises.”

“You did? That’s wonderful! What did you talk about?”

“York, mostly. I told them I used to live with the Quakers. They didn’t pry. I reckon they imagined I was at the Retreat nursing a broken heart, that I was abandoned by a man I loved in the past, perhaps even at the altar—I introduced myself as Miss Mason. The absurdity of it quite amuses me.” She smiled.

“I quite like that story. It may prove useful in the future, in case anyone gets too nosy.”

“We should be careful about telling too many tales, or else we’re as bad as him.”

“Not if it’s for a good reason.”

“Yes, but heed this.” She picked up the book she had been reading, opened it at the spot marked by a folded page corner and recited:

O, what a tangled web we weave,
When first we practise to deceive!

Marmion again?” Bianca laughed. “Alright then, we’ll make sure the web we’ll weave is not too tangled.” Her tone turned serious. “For people like us, some amount of deception is necessary.”

Antoinette closed the book. “I know that, I do. But—“

“I know. You’re still haunted by the past. But I promise you, it will get better.”

“It’s not what happened to me, it’s what I did. I did attack Richard.”

“And good thing you did. For one, it finally forced him to confront the situation. And two, his screams awakened the whole house, which happened to include a certain someone. A certain someone, who’d already had some suspicions, what with Rochester’s inexplicably flirtatious behaviour towards her at Leas, and his insistence that the company should transfer to Thornfield, when that was never the plan—which Mrs Eshton is still sour about, for she was a proud hostess. At Thornfield, the certain someone’s suspicions increased. And then came that fateful night. Unsatisfied with the host’s feeble explanation, the certain someone, unable to fall asleep again, indulged in a bit of snooping, observing the governess running errands for her master between his bedroom and upstairs. Finally, at the crack of dawn, the certain someone woke up her notoriously morning-hating brother, and persuaded him to investigate in the attic. Never one to miss an adventure, the brother agreed. So upstairs they went, and discovered a hidden door, a door that led to you. You know the rest.”

Antoinette smiled, then sighed. “Still, I wish there could have been another way.”

“There was no other way, Antoinette. You lived with a cruel, violent man, and so cruel and violent must also be the methods with which you free yourself of him. You were locked in the attic for ten years. You were no prisoner trying to escape justice. Your escape was the justice.”

A tear came to Antoinette’s eye. “The way you say it—you’re a poet, Bianca.”

Bianca stretched her hand to wipe the tear away. “You’ll turn me into a poet if care is not taken. I would write odes about you, and maybe someday I will, but for now I need to focus elsewhere. Richard’s coming tomorrow. He’ll have the licence ready. We’ll leave for Ingram Park and get married as soon as possible. I will have to do a lot of acting for that, most of all where my mother is concerned, which will require all my energy. I mean to get through the ceremony by pretending my groom is you.”

“Take care, then, not to say my name by mistake.”

“Ah, worry not, my love, I have been practicing, repeating I take thee Richard. You know there was once a man who said the wrong name at the altar?”

“Was it Colonel Ross? Someone at the Retreat told me the story. The woman he wanted refused him, so he married another one, whom he didn’t love. The poor bride!”

“He was stupid, like most men.”

Antoinette laughed.

Bianca sat back and watched her lover. She looked beautiful—her hair, dark and thick and glossy, was coiled around her head in a braid, with a few curls falling on the side of her face. Her golden brown skin glowed; the horrible bluish tinge was gone. Her eyes, deep and dark, hid no more sorrow. It was the eyes… and the hands, she had pretty hands… that made Bianca, in those early morning hours in the attic of Thornfield Hall, see a woman, a whole woman, in place of the inhuman creature her brutal husband claimed her to be.

Antoinette… My name is Antoinette. He calls me Bertha, but that’s not me.

“No, I can see it’s not.”

A few clandestine meetings in the attic, and Bianca knew she had to save her, if it was the last thing she would do.

Grace Poole agreed to co-operate. With Teddy’s help, they traced Richard Mason, and the three began working on a plan to rescue Antoinette. But just as they were about to execute the first step, fire consumed Thornfield Hall.

The hours following the news of the fire were soul crushing agony. Now that she’d finally found love… but in the evening a message came from Antoinette and Grace. We are safe in Leeds, leaving for the Retreat tomorrow. In her relief, Bianca had to run to her bedroom to cry. She left for the Retreat herself, as soon as she cooked up a story to tell her mother. She and Antoinette had been together ever since.

She spoke now. “Sir George says you’re free to go anywhere you wish. We’ll travel to Italy first. Yes, Italy. Rome, Florence, Venice, Lake Como. A distant cousin of mine has a villa there. And we’ll winter on the Amalfi coast.” She sighed. “If only I had more than my small legacy. And you—”

“Richard has enough means for all three of us. You need to let it go, Bianca. My husband squandered my fortune. Nothing will ever recover it. It doesn’t matter. I’m free. You can’t put a price on freedom. Or love.”

“That doesn’t mean you can’t have some money as well.” Bianca stood up and went to sit on the arm of Antoinette’s chair. She put her arm around her.

“Richard says there’s still something left from father’s legacy,” Antoinette said. “And also, apparently, the governess girl is an heiress—an uncle she never met left her quite a large sum.”

“And Edward will soon be free again.”

“You reckon she’ll go back to him?”

“It’s possible. If so, history is bound to repeat itself. It’s different this time—he’s a broken, friendless man, maimed and blinded, and Ferndean Manor is far from the grandness of Thornfield. But—”

“He’s still a vindictive man, likely even more so.” Antoinette rested her head on Bianca’s shoulder. “I did my best to warn her. But I could do no more than tear up her wedding veil. She failed to understand the sign.”

“We can only hope she’ll have more sense. If she doesn’t,” Bianca shrugged, “that’s not really our concern. We shall live for ourselves and everyone else be danged. What do you say to that?”

“I say yes.”


Author’s Note: If you’re going to give an English Literature teacher a heart attack, at least make it worthwhile! I am no bird, no net ensnares me, my ass. Author is indeed a Jane Eyre heretic.

This story can be read as a sequel to my previous story The Silver Candlestick, or separately. There is no mention of Antoinette’s bisexuality in The Silver Candlestick, though I usually do headcanon her as bisexual. (I have many versions/universes in my head.) I changed Blanche to Bianca because I like it better (she gets called that once in the book) and I made her part Italian. And lesbian, obviously.

Lady Lynn doesn’t have a first name in the original book, but I wanted her to have one, so I gave her one.

Richard’s quote “Let her be taken care of, let her be treated as tenderly as may be” is taken directly from the book. I’m always surprised that such a beautiful quote gets ignored, but of course, it would mean either admitting Bertha’s (or Antoinette’s in my case, as in Wide Sargasso Sea) humanity, or admitting that Richard actually cares about his sister. The line “look after her, please” is lifted form the Sherlock episode The Abominable Bride, written by Mark Gatiss and Steven Moffat. (It was “look after him” actually, the line was spoken by Mycroft Holmes to John Watson and the “him” was Sherlock. A similar situation if you ship Johnlock–a brother asks a same-sex partner to look after their sibling.)

I use real place names; Millcote in the book is Leeds, but I named the hotel Mill Cote as a callback. Grimsby Retreat, where Grace Poole’s son is superintendent, is York Retreat.

Rochester’s gaslighting is no work of my imagination–it’s right there, in the text.

As ever, thank you for reading.

#TeamMadwoman

The Pursuit

Last night I dreamt about you again. About the first time we met.

I was running through the forest, pursued by I knew not what. The creatures chasing me were as dark as the night, and in the forest, it is a dark night. I thought I knew the forest, I had walked through it many a time, but all that was clear to me was that I was lost. It seemed to me that on that night, the forest was cursed, or was it me that was cursed? The trees were closing around me. My pursuers were getting nearer, their snarls becoming louder. I wished for a place to hide, but feared derailing from the well-worn path. Instinct told me I was running in the wrong direction, away from the town, instead of towards it. Still, I ran. The forest had to end somewhere. But the further I ran, the thicker the trees got. I wouldn’t be able to run forever, but I could at least do my best to run for as long as possible, after all, there must be a limit to their strength too, surely? I was surprised at my own endurance, even as I allowed myself a small chuckle, you will not catch me that easily. No sooner had I uttered that chuckle than the trees parted in front of me.

I slowed down. Did the trees—move? They didn’t. It was a clearing, a little glade. On the far side of the glade there was a black shape, approaching me, growing larger. I halted.  Ambushed, I thought, this is the end. As the shape moved closer, I saw, in the moonlight, that it was a rider on a horse, and that rider was you. You raised your gloved hand, fingers spread-out. The creatures behind me went quiet. They must have retreated, for when I turned back to look at them, they were gone.

“Need a ride?”

It was you, offering me your hand. I took it, and you lifted me up into the saddle. I thanked you for saving me, but you shrugged it off with, don’t mention it. As if it was no big deal, as if it was not my very life that you just saved. “To town?” You were smiling, and, even then, I wondered if it was the most enchanting smile I’d ever seen.

We set off. “So I was running in the wrong direction,” I said. I explained to you that I had been babysitting the daughter of my friends in the village, and was taking my usual shortcut back home to town, when those creatures sprang out from nowhere, and started chasing me.

“I suppose now’s the time for the don’t-take-the-forest-shortcut-after-dark lecture,” I said. Days were getting shorter, I didn’t realise how dark it would get.

“On the contrary,” you shook your head. “Roam the forest whenever you want. They will not bother you anymore.”

I don’t know what it was about your voice. It was calm, and warm, and so reassuring, but there was iron in it too. I supposed there had to be. “They don’t usually wander that close to human habitat,” you added.

You talked to me about the forest. You knew every inch of it, you rode there every day. I said I’d never seen you there. Although, aside from that shortcut, I didn’t frequent the forest that much, not lately.

“I have seen you,” you said, “taking the shortcut.”

You threw it in there, casually, then continued your narration about the forest, the trees and plants, and how it changed with the seasons. The forest in autumn was magical.

“There’s a horse chestnut tree on my shortcut,” I said, “its leaves in autumn are pure gold.”

You smiled. “There’s even nicer ones deeper in the forest.”

As if, I thought, after tonight. But then again…

Sometimes, a smile is enough to tempt one back deep into the forest.

“Do you go to the village often?” you asked.

“Once a fortnight, at least. I visit my friends, the ones whose daughter I babysat tonight. I help her with schoolwork, she likes me.”

“You must be a good aunt to her.”

“I try.”

We reached town. I dismounted at the end of our main road. “I’ll make my own way from here,” I said. “Thank you.”

“I said, don’t mention it.”

“I meant thank you for the ride, you only said not to mention it for saving me.”

You laughed. “Pleasure.”

I patted your horse’s head. It was a beautiful beast. Not many people still rode horses in this part of the world.

“I’ll see you again soon,” you said.

“Will you?”

Our eyes met. You smiled again. You knew then, didn’t you? Perhaps you had known for a long time, before our meeting in the glade. I stood there, under the lights of the street lamps, my mind already turning our encounter into a story I’d one day tell my friends’ daughter, a story too fanciful for adults, but easily wrapped up in a fairy tale. You might have been a knight. No sword, no armour, but you did have a horse. But why was he dressed in all black, auntie?

Foolish notions!

How could I have known, how could I have had any idea that I would never be the same again, that the memory of your smile and the tiny dots of light in your slate grey eyes would stay with me forever, how could I have known?

And yet, something in me could not just let go. Those creatures. They don’t usually wander close to human habitat, you said. So why were they there, why tonight? And—my reason returning—why had no one ever heard of them? In a village, where they never missed a chance to tell tales, where any rustling of leaves could spark the most fantastical stories?

They will not bother you anymore.

But, what were they?

And earlier, you said: “I have seen you before. Taking the shortcut.”

I could have just say goodnight. Or—

“So,” I said, “how did you do it? How did you stop the monsters?”

Still smiling, you leant down and spoke: “Oh, darling, don’t you know? I’m the greatest monster of them all.”

The Conclusion

The Observer picked up the cup and drank. The coffee was lukewarm by now; it had been a long day. Still, they drained the cup and placed it back on the saucer. Outside, the smooth glass surfaces of buildings reflected the blood red of the setting sun. It was quiet in the boardroom, the only sound being the humming of the air-conditioning unit.

The Observer straightened the stack of papers on the desk. They cleared their throat.

“I have made a thorough study of the matter,” they spoke in a determined voice with perfectly accented English, “I have consulted every party involved, perused every piece of material related, and I hereby conclude that, contrary to the previously held assumption, immigrants were not stealing jobs from the native population.”

The Knife Is Sharp

It’s just you.

It has been just you for a while.

You don’t think about the people that used to be there, in the past, not anymore. The painful memories can still haunt you. You got away, each time, you survived, at a cost of not letting anyone else come close. You grow to like it that way. Your life is quiet, peaceful. From time to time, you dream about the great, the impossible, and of one who would understand. But it’s only dreams. All the beautiful things that you love, you enjoy them without company. Most importantly, you have yourself.

Then he enters your life.

At the most unlikely moment of all unlikely moments, in the most unlikely place of all unlikely places. It is like that sometimes. He stands in front of you, tall and imposing, and your first thought is, how can a man’s eyes be this dark? For his eyes are dark, so dark, they are filled with darkness. He smiles and stretches his hand towards you. “Come with me.” His hand is slim and pale, with a large black ring on his middle finger.

You take his hand.

A new world opens to you. He takes you everywhere, gives you everything. His minions wait on you hand and foot. Surely this is too much, you think. It is too much. “Anything worrying you, my love?” he asks. You tell him. He laughs. There is no such thing as overindulgence, he answers, put that out of your mind. So you do. After all, why shouldn’t you enjoy life to its fullest, after… after everything.

He takes your hands into his. “I have known fear too.” He speaks in a low voice. “And pain. And despair.” He gently rubs his thumbs over your knuckles. In that moment, you understand what you share. And you’re not afraid anymore.

You embrace the lifestyle and the lifestyle embraces you. The dreams have come true, the impossible has become possible. He is real, the one that understands. It’s you and him now, the two of you. Your companion to enjoy your beautiful things, and he shows you even more.

Still, you cannot forget the knife. He always has it with him. He lets you hold it and admire it. It’s exquisite, he gushes, exceptional work of craftsmanship. You see your face reflected in the blade. It is of an unusual silvery colour, the blade; the hilt is black. Even from a distance, at a glance, one can see the knife is razor-sharp.

So? What use is a blunt knife, anyway? You hand the knife back to him, he slides it in the scabbard on his belt. He offers you his arm. “Shall we go?” And you go. To pleasure, joy, happiness. And luxury, always luxury.

The grand midwinter ball approaches. He’s talked about it often, you recognise it as the most important event of the year. Your gown has been made for you, a rich red brocade. When you try it on, you never want to take it off. You swirl in it, yes, it’s the real thing. “I can’t wait for the ball,” you tell him, and he smiles.

The day finally arrives. You dress up in your red gown, he’s in his usual black. The ball takes place at a castle in the mountains. It is an old castle, hundreds of years old, with battlements and towers and turrets. The great hall is all lacquered dark wooden floor and long mirrors, several crystal chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The music plays loud and clear and you dance. You spin around on the dancefloor, under the dazzling lights; there are numerous other couples, but you only have eyes for each other. You know he finds you beautiful. He doesn’t have to say it. Those dark eyes of his have not looked like that at anyone else. So you dance, step and slide in a flawless harmony—who knew you could dance this perfectly?—and it feels like you’re flying. You twist backwards, his arm holding your waist. You just want to show off, he says, smiling. He likes it.

And that’s when you ask the question. “How long will this go on for?”

“How long will what go on for?”

“This. Us. Our life together.”

“That, my dear, depends entirely on you.”

“So I can stay as long as I want to, and leave when I want to?”

“Oh no, it’s not that simple.” He throws his head back and laughs. “This has only been a prelude.”

“A prelude to what?”

“To something bigger. And better.”

“For how long?”

“For eternity.”

Shivers run down your spine. “And how will it be done?”

“You only need to use the knife.”

The knife. You should have known it would have to be the knife.

He leads you outside, to the gardens. It’s dark, the moon is a waxing crescent. The ground is covered in snow, but you’re not cold. You’ve not felt cold since you met him. Snow in the night has a different colour, silvery grey. A bit like the knife.

The knife.

“For all of those who have hurt you,” he says, patting the scabbard on his belt.

“But that’s in the past.”

“Is it?”

His question makes you pause. The past it may be, but the scars haven’t faded, if they ever will. “I have everything I want now—and you.”

“You didn’t think that would come without a price, did you?”

Did you?

“N-no.” No, it would not come without a price.

“If you use the knife, everything will be yours.”

“What if I don’t?”

“Nothing,” he shrugs. “You go back to your previous life. But you will remember this.”

“Can I think it over?”

“You don’t have much time. It’s got to be tonight, before midnight.”

That still gives you several hours yet. The night is long, after all, it is midwinter.

“What would you prefer me to do?”

He doesn’t answer. You stand there quietly. You hear music coming from the great hall, another waltz. An owl hoots.

The knife is sharp, you think, always so sharp, razor sharp. But the knife has never been sharpened, you know that for a fact. It has never been sharpened, ever, in its entire existence. And how long is that existence? The history of time, your inner voice whispers. No, this is no ordinary steel. This is devil’s steel.

“This castle,” you gesture towards the very structure, “it belongs to you, doesn’t it?”

“It does. So do many things.”

Yes, they do. “You, too, can have it,” he continues. “If you take the knife.”

But you can’t, that is just it. It’s not you. This has been amazing, for sure, but—

“Has it even been real?”

“Of course it has. I said a prelude, not an illusion.”

“But my old life—“

“Is still there. Your job, your apartment. You can return.”

You liked your job. And your apartment.

“I will not see you again.”

“You won’t.”

You look into his eyes. It seems as if they deepen, and you feel yourself falling into that darkness. You and him for—what was it he said? For eternity.

You pull back. You cannot allow yourself to become that. Not even for him. 

“Why me?” you ask.

“You must know why.” His voice softens. “You and I, we are the same.” He stretches his hand towards you, but this time you don’t take it.

You shake your head. “I can’t.”

Somewhere down beneath your consciousness, you knew what he was, from the start. The dark eyes. The power. The decadence. “I know the truth,” you say.

“I never lied to you.”

“You didn’t tell me who you were.”

“You didn’t ask. In any case, you know now.”

“About those things that happened to you… in the past… that was true as well, wasn’t it?”

“It was. I told you I never lied.”

He doesn’t lie, you know. He doesn’t need to. Your eyes fall on the black diamond on his finger. “I should have known you were the villain all along,” you say.

You won’t mind going back to your old life, you were quite happy living it. But can you truly live again, without the only one who ever understood you?

You will keep the memories. Some sweet memories, at last. You’ll relive them, over and over again.

But your souls have touched.  Nothing will ever compare to that, ever.

“So, what’s it going to be?”

His tone, as if he was asking what you want to order for dinner, is charming and infuriating at the same time.

But you have no time for either.

The knife is drawn from the scabbard. The hand that holds it is steady.

The blade glistens in the moonlight.

His lips curve into a smile, and it’s that type of smile that thinks it knows you better than you know yourself.

Music still flows from the great hall, couples are dancing, and the knife is sharp.

You look him in the eye.

“I’m not like you,” you say.

He holds the gaze. “But if I’m the villain,” he says, amused, “why is it your hand that is holding the knife?”


Inspired by OWLG #225 prompt “look the devil in the eye”, which I slightly modified by changing “the devil” to just “him”. Thank you for reading!

The Home Secretary

The Home Secretary was in a foul mood.

It was half past eleven and she had not shouted at anyone yet. No immigration raids were scheduled for today, and no disturbances from last night were reported. The junior civil servant, her always reliable punching bag, called in sick. Upon her return, the Home Secretary would get to shout at her with double, or even treble, fierceness, for taking a sick leave. But for now, there was no junior civil servant to shout at. And she wanted someone to shout at. She needed someone to shout at. Someone other than the housekeeping staff, that is. Shouting at the housekeeping staff was for beginners, and she was no beginner. She was the Home Secretary, in position for three years.

This is what happens when you get drunk on power, said her most senior of the civil servants yesterday. Then he resigned.

Why did she think of that now? Shut up, shut up! She grabbed a notepad and threw it against the wall.

Truth was, the past two years had been amazing, more than amazing. Raids, deportations, fortified camps built for the illegals and the detractors. New Special Guard established to tackle immigrants and disobedient citizens. Most importantly, the Royal Family was no more—their assets had been seized by the government, the members taken to the Tower of London and, one by one, promptly dealt with.  She was present for all of it, right in the heart of action. Her most glorious moments. The ginger prince and his American wife were the only ones to evade the guards, but even they couldn’t escape their end. While on the run, their car exploded. Probably an inside job. Bits of their bodies were still being discovered. The American wife’s head, found rolled away from the rest of the remains, was displayed on a pole by the Tower Bridge for a while. It was so deliciously medieval. The Home Secretary laughed and laughed.

But it had been weeks since. The euphoria had worn off. What next? Eventually, you’re going to run out of immigrants, was what the most senior civil servant said. The one that resigned.

She stood up and went to the door. Stopping with her hand on the handle, she remembered a conversation she overheard yesterday in the toilets on the first floor. She rarely went to the first floor, thus the two women felt they could speak freely, never expecting the Home Secretary to grace their toilets with her presence. (She wouldn’t, but being on the first floor at the time for some business… well, when you have to go, you have to go.)

“I don’t know how long we can keep this up,” said the first woman.

“About the migrant boats in the channel, you mean?” said the second woman. “Them going the other way, towards mainland Europe?”

“Yes, that. It was only a matter of time for the media to find out the truth, and we can’t shut all of them down. I don’t know how we’re going to spin this.”

“Surely the public cannot tell from the footage which way the boats are sailing.”

“The problem is the migrants. They’re white.”

“You know that migrants can be white, right? Say they’re fleeing the evil European empire, the Fourth Reich… or whatever the Prime Minister called it the other day.”

“I’m not sure we can. They’re visibly our people. Also up north, the Scots are building a huge wall, and there isn’t any way we can make it look like it’s us.”

“I sense multiple nervous breakdowns coming.”

“I almost wish for one. Easier handled than working here.”

The second woman sighed. “I should have gone to Scotland when I had a chance.”

Throughout this exchange, the Home Secretary sat on the toilet, motionless. So they knew. Everyone knew. When she got back to her office, in rage she threw a stapler at her punching bag junior civil servant. Likely that was the reason for her absence. Who cared?

Well she did. Because now there was nobody to shout at.

Before she could push the handle to open the door, her intercom bleeped. “The Prime Minister summons you to Number 10,” said the timid voice of her PA.

At last something good! She checked herself in the mirror, adjusted her hair, applied lipstick. She smiled at her reflection. Her smile was legendary. It was only the haters that called it a smirk. So what if she was smug, she had a lot to be proud about. No other Home Secretary in history had achieved so much in such a short time. And the Prime Minister was her personal friend and strongest ally. Nothing and no one could topple her. Those that had tried, lived to regret it. If they lived.

Except that Weasel Face, who still kept himself in the upper echelons. One day, she’d get him too. Not to worry.

She strutted down Downing Street, giving the reporters something to watch. Outside the Number 10 door, there was another annoyance—that confounded cat sat right on the doorstep, cleaning himself, one leg sticking up. “Shoo!” She was about to kick him, but Larry—for that was the cat’s name—anticipated the attack and bolted. Oh, how she hated him. So many times she implored the Prime Minister to get rid of him, but he wouldn’t hear of it. “He’s the Chief Mouser to the Cabinet Office,” the Prime Minister said.

“So? Strip him of that position. Not like you haven’t done that before.”

“Sweetie, you don’t understand. He catches mice. Plus, a pet makes a good PR.”

Good PR. As if such a hateful creature could make a good PR!

She composed herself. After all, it was just a cat. The door opened, she was ushered in. Everything will be alright, she assured herself, the Prime Minister will find a way. He always did. Or his advisors did. Which was the same thing.

“Prime Minister,” she said as she entered his office, another name on her tongue, the nickname that she was one of the privileged ones to be allowed to use.

She halted, open mouthed, frozen, one foot lifted. It wasn’t him!

“Wh-where is the Prime Minister?” she stuttered.

In front of her stood her biggest enemy, the Weasel Face. “I am the Prime Minister.”

“How, why? What happened?”

“The previous Prime Minister is no longer the Prime Minister. I have taken over.”

“Where is he?” she asked in a whisper. “Did he…” she couldn’t pronounce the word. Resign?

“He had an accident with a kettle this morning,” explained Weasel Face. “He’s been taken to the hospital.”

She leant forward. “An-an accident with a kettle?”

Weasel Face shrugged. “He’s not used to making his own tea. I don’t know what exactly made him do it today, whether servants were unavailable, or his wife was sleeping in. In any case it doesn’t matter. He’s decided to retire from politics completely. As soon as he recovers, he’ll be leaving for his new villa in the Caribbean.”

“I-I…” she wrung her hands. “I cannot believe that.”

“Well you should. I called you here to tell you that you’re dismissed from the position of Home Secretary. You have one hour to gather your things and leave.”

“You can’t do this!”

“Oh yes, I can.”

She swallowed. Of course he could. He was the Prime Minister.

“You’d better hurry up back to Marsham Street and start on it now. Oh and by the way, here’s your replacement.” He waved his hand towards the other end of the room.

From the shadowy corner emerged the figure of her former most senior civil servant. The very same one that gave notice yesterday.

“You!”

He gave a laugh. “Surprised?”

She suddenly remembered how closely he hovered around her coffee cup yesterday. She burst out: “You put laxatives in my coffee!” That’s why she had to go use the first floor toilets. It made sense now.

“My dear lady, I think you’re being hysterical,” said the new Prime Minister. He approached his desk and pressed a button. Behind her, the door to the office opened. “Take her,” he commanded. She turned. Special Guard, her pride and joy. There were two of them, each grabbed her by one arm. She could kick and scream all she wanted, they were strong and trained, she made sure only the best men, always men, were recruited into the Special Guard. Without a word, they dragged her out of the office, out of Number 10, out to the street.

Thrill rose among the reporters, cameras clicked, capturing the moment of defeat and humiliation of the woman who mere minutes ago had swayed down the street so mightily. Larry the cat sat in front of the line of reporters and stared at her. It was you, she thought, it was you that caused that kettle accident. She let out a hysterical shriek. It was so absurd. And yet… as she was being carried away from Downing Street, her and the cat’s gazes locked, and she could swear those treacherous green feline eyes were full of gloating triumph.

*

“Just what I needed today,” grumbled Dave, the older one of the Special Guard.

“Is it today that is your anniversary?” Joe, the younger guard, asked.

“It is. I made that booking six months ago. God knows if I get off work in time.”

Joe nodded sympathetically. You had to book well in advance these days. No immigrants meant little to no hospitality staff. “What time is it booked for?”

“Seven. Jane has long wanted to go to that restaurant. I was hoping to surprise her. I had to pull some strings to book a table. Why the idiot had to have his kettle accident today of all days,” Dave sighed.

“Don’t worry, we’ll come up with something.” Joe knew Dave and Jane were devoted to each other. He didn’t want them to miss their anniversary dinner.

“If you have any ideas, that’ll be great.”

“I may have some. But first, let’s deal with this bitch.” He nudged the former Home Secretary with his elbow.

“I made you!” she shouted. “Without me you wouldn’t be where you are!”

They ignored her.

“We don’t have time for this,” Dave said. “Let’s just throw her in a van.”

“It won’t take long,” Joe pleaded. “I know you hate her too. Please. Just one punch.”

Dave gave in. “Alright then.”

“What are you taking about?” The former Home Secretary’s voice lost its viciousness. It was now as timid as the PA’s voice on the intercom.

She received her answer.

Joe raised his fist, the powerful fist of a former amateur boxing champion, and with full force landed it right into the former Home Secretary’s mouth.

She howled. Blood poured down her chin, several teeth were broken. “Gosh, I was sick of that smirk,” Joe exclaimed with relief.

“You know what, Joe,” Dave said. “I bet that felt good.”

*

Violence does, in truth, recoil upon the violent, and the schemer falls into the pit which he digs for another.

Sherlock Holmes, The Adventure of the Speckled Band by Arthur Conan Doyle


Author’s note: This story is a work of fiction. The events and characters, with the exception of the cat Larry, are fictional. Any resemblance to real people is purely coincidental.

The Silver Candlestick

Antoinette rubbed the candlestick with her thumb.

It was a solid object, silver plated and heavy, with ornaments carved along the rim of its round base. How old it was, she could not tell. It may been in the family for twenty, thirty years, or have been a part of Edward’s mother’s trousseau.

Or maybe Edward stole it from someone else’s house.

The candlestick was empty, the candle having burned out. A new one should be brought up soon; grey daylight pouring into the room was getting darker. The sky was overcast, doubtless it would soon rain again.

The room was medium-sized, with mismatched pieces of furniture. A bed, a nightstand, a wardrobe and a dresser, two armchairs—at least those were of the same set—and a small table. Dull brown carpet. No mirror, no pictures hanging on the walls, no vases of flowers or trinkets. The wallpaper was an ugly yellow shade with a green pattern resembling leaves. She disliked it on first sight. One afternoon she found herself staring at it so hard, she could make out monsters hidden behind it. This was her life now. I shall go mad in here.

She stood up and walked to the window. Small, dirty, and could be open for only an inch, but it was a window. Window to the world. It existed, she reassured herself of it. A yard, an unimpressive garden, and beyond it—the moors. Stretched away to eternity, the horizon shrouded in a mist. Her feet ached with longing to get out, run out there, to those moors and run and run and run, never to return. But she would have to wait. That one time she tried to get away, they caught her before she could reach the main road. She hadn’t thought it through, she just ran. And she didn’t even have any warm clothes, it was so windy on the moors. She would have died of exposure. Next time, she would be cleverer. She would plan it out. She’d act as if she was resigned to her fate in the attic, and secretly plan her escape. He’d see. One morning he would enter the room and find the bed empty. She’d be gone.

The moors only looked like they stretched for eternity. They must end somewhere, England was an island. She also knew there was a city, Leeds, not ten miles away. If she could only get there, she would be able to contact Richard to ask him to come for her. She didn’t know which direction Leeds was. But she would find out, she would. He’ll see.

The wind rose, making whistling sound up in the roof. Antoinette shivered. It was so cold in England. She thought of Jamaica, of Spanish Town, the blue skies and palm trees. The St Jago de la Vega cathedral with its stained-glass windows. It used to be her favourite. Then she got married there.

She didn’t know that Edward was… like that, then. Nobody did. Richard was so certain it was a good match. “He’s from an old family, from Yorkshire in the north of England. The second son.” How could her brother have known? Edward presented himself as the perfect English gentleman, albeit not an heir. (She was the one with the wealth.) She had fancied she could love him even, despite his ugliness. Most of all, she believed they could make it work. She had been determined to make it work. Mutual respect and trust, if not love. So much she wanted to please him. Edward, dear, tell me what you want… just talk to me, please… She would have broken her back for him. But he only turned away from her, grumpy at the weather, the food, everything West Indian.

Edward became more withdrawn when the news of his father’s death came, yet he didn’t seem to mourn too much. The crease between his eyebrows deepened. She also suspected he hated his older brother. And then he died too, the brother, unexpectedly. Unmarried and childless. Overnight, Edward became the owner of Thornfield Hall. That was what the seat of Rochester family was called. One morning at breakfast he announced they would be leaving for England to settle there. “As you wish,” she said. Even if she had a choice over the move, why oppose it? Richard was often away on business trips and her parents were dead. Moving to England might be for the best. If nothing else, it would make Edward happy.

Her naivety would have been laughable if it hadn’t been so tragic.

Because he got even worse. Everything changed for the worse after that voyage.

Surely it was not her fault that she was so seasick, she didn’t want to be seasick. For once she stopped worrying about his moods, all her energy poured into surviving till the end of the voyage. “For god’s sake, Edward, no one chooses to be seasick!” she snapped at him once at dinner. An elderly couple at the next table stared at them. “Be quiet, woman, you’re causing a scene,” he retorted. All the better for you, she thought, reading sympathy on the faces of the man and the woman, sympathy not for her but for the poor Englishman stuck with a horrible Creole of a wife. So this is how it’s going to be. By the time they finally landed in Liverpool, she had almost lost the will to live. In the carriage to Yorkshire, she leant her head against the window and alternated between dozing off and watching the countryside. England didn’t look that bad. She only needed to get used to the climate, that was all. It shouldn’t be too hard. She wouldn’t be like Edward in Jamaica. Everything would get better, once they got to Thornfield Hall.

Oh, how foolish she was!

No more did she harbour those illusions. And she could kick herself now for being so stupid the time she attempted to escape. That was when he locked her in the attic. “You’re unwell, Bertha,” he said. “You need to stay indoors.”

He called her Bertha now, he said it was more English. She suggested that he used Antonia instead of Antoinette, if he wanted an English name. He gave her a confused look.

“Is Bertha not your name?” he asked.

“It is but you know very well I’ve always been called by my middle name.”

“I don’t know any such thing. Bertha is a perfectly good, respectable name.”

She didn’t deny that. She just didn’t like it. “It was for my paternal grandmother,” she said.

“And your paternal grandmother was English.” That apparently settled the matter.

It couldn’t have been as long ago as it seemed. In the attic, time measured differently. Days were weeks, weeks were months.

Sound of steps outside the door, key in the lock. Edward entered the room.

“Your dinner will be here shortly,” he said.

She wouldn’t thank him for not starving her to death, but still, food was some comfort. “I will need a new candle too,” she said.

“I will bring you one.”

He spoke almost kindly. A stranger overhearing their conversation—the elderly couple from the ship, for example—might conclude Edward was a caring husband. “I have hired a nurse for you, a Quaker,” he continued, “she will be here tomorrow. Her name is Grace Poole. She will look after you.”

“I don’t need looking after.”

“Yes you do. You know you do. She will be a company for you as well. I have to be away a lot.”

“You didn’t mention that before.”

“I did. You forgot again.”

He didn’t. She would have considered that good news, and she heard no good news since her arrival to England.

“Where is it that you have to go?”

“London, the Continent. Places.”

“You should take me with you.”

“You know I can’t.”

“I am your wife.”

“Which is precisely why I can’t risk you getting any sicker.”

She put the candlestick on the table. “That’s not the reason.”

A faint smile appeared on his face. “What is the reason, then?”

“You want to act like you’re unmarried, so you can seduce women.”

He laughed. “My dear, you truly are unwell. What the devil gives you such ideas?”

“Tell me then,” she lowered her voice, “why have there been no visitors to Thornfield? Why has no one come to greet me, as the new lady of the house? Where are your other relatives, friends?”

“You’re making up tales, Bertha. The staff know you’re here.”

“What staff? A footman and a housemaid, who’s clearly new here. A cook, who never leaves the kitchen. You don’t even have a housekeeper.”

“Hear, hear! Is Thornfield not good enough for you? I don’t remember having a legion of servants in Jamaica.”

“Don’t pretend you don’t understand what I mean!”

“What has got into you, Bertha?” He sounded almost amused. “This is not you. I cannot believe it. Look, here’s Mollie with the tray.”

He stepped into the corridor. It took all her willpower to remain sitting in the chair.

Edward put the tray with food on the table. “Here you go. Eat some, it will make you feel better. Let me go get you a candle.” He went out.

She sighed. What got into her, indeed? It wasn’t that she was wrong about what she said—she knew she wasn’t—but why say it out aloud? He’ll think you even crazier now. She rubbed her temples. Oh, to hell with it. What did she care if Edward chased other women? She didn’t want him anyway. They stopped sharing the bed a lifetime ago. Was it worse than locking her in the attic?

I need to get out of here. Richard, I need to send a word to Richard, he will come for me. It was pointless to write him letters from here, Edward would never send them.

And then her chest tightened, and her heart stopped beating, and the blood froze in her veins, you stupid, stupid-stupid-stupid-stupid, you are not getting away anywhere, ever again, you will never get out of here, and she let out a cold, bitter, menacing chuckle that scared even her own self.

She missed her chance. That Grace Poole creature was coming to keep a watchful eye on her. She would stay in the attic forever.

She grabbed the candlestick and clutched it till her palms ached.

The door opened, Edward returned with the candle.

“You haven’t touched your dinner,” he remarked.

She threw the candlestick at him.

It barely hit his shoulder. He looked at her with shock. “So is this what you are like? Violent, is that it?”

He picked up the candlestick and placed it on the table. She had never seen his eyes this cold.

“Now you listen to me, Bertha,” he said slowly, in an icy tone, “I will not tolerate this kind of behaviour. If you attempt to attack me again, I will put you in restraints. I shall not have any disobedience. Do you understand?”

“I understand more than you think,” she said, in equally icy tone.

“Good.” He put the candle in the candlestick and lit it. “Now eat. Mrs Poole will arrive early in the morning.”

He walked out of the room and locked the door.

The wind threw first drops of rain against the window. The candle was burning, the flame dancing on the wick like a young maiden at a ball. Once, long ago, that was her too. It was at a ball she was introduced to Edward Fairfax Rochester, a ball organised by the Elmbridges for their youngest daughter, who had just come of age. “Handsome he certainly is not,” Cecily whispered to Antoinette’s ear and giggled. He wasn’t, Antoinette agreed, and had no fortune either. But that didn’t matter, because she had. He was so charming at that ball, a flawless nobleman, and not a bad dancer, he even made her laugh once or twice. The only thing she wondered about was why he had to cross the Atlantic to find a rich bride, whether there weren’t any heiresses closer to home. But she didn’t dwell on it. More likely he just longed to travel to West Indies. This landscape was so different from his own, he told her, fascinating. And she believed him. Everyone did. Even Richard was fooled, her brother that was so sharp in business matters. Edward played his game well.

The new master of Thornfield Hall needed no inconvenient Creole wife any more. He was free to go about his life pretending she didn’t exist. Seducing good, unsuspecting women, then discarding them like an old newspaper, once he got bored. He would dismiss Mollie and the footman and hire new servants who would never learn of any wife. The only one who would know would be Mrs Poole, her gaoler, paid to keep her locked and to keep her mouth shut.

Could she, with time, turn Grace Poole into her ally? Make friends with her, talk to her about things. Tell me about your family, Mrs Poole. Where did you grow up? That sort of stuff. And with time… Which way is Leeds?

Unlikely. Edward would sure pay Grace Poole a large salary, there would be nothing in it for her to break her loyalty.

She was trapped.

Torrents of rain raged against the windowpane, but it was a storm she wanted. Wild, like her rage. Her eyes would stay dry from now on, no more tears, only rage. Trapped. An attic room with forgotten furniture, small window and horrid wallpaper, this was her lot. Death would be her only absolution.

Death…

Unless Edward dies first.

How? A healthy man of not yet thirty?

Unless

She didn’t exactly imagine killing him—difficult to accomplish in her situation and besides, she would never get away with it—but there were always accidents. If she could earn Grace Poole’s trust, after a while, she might let her out of the attic sometimes. Quakers were supposed to be good people.

Antoinette looked at the candlestick. The poor thing didn’t deserve to be thrown against Edward. “I’m sorry I misused you like that,” she said and caressed it. How beautiful the dancing flame was! Fire really had a beauty in it, now that she thought of it. Accidents

She sighed.

She picked up the fork and tucked into her dinner.


Author’s Note: As you no doubt were able to guess, the protagonist of this story is no other than the madwoman in the attic from Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte, a character that has long had my fascination. In the book, her name is Bertha Antoinetta, in Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys’s prequel, she is called Antoinette (after they marry, Rochester starts calling her Bertha). I simply combined the two. As it is technically a fanfic, I tagged it as such. I like playing with these characters and imagine different scenarios and headcanons, though this is the first time I’ve written a story from her POV.

Thank you, Short Story Generator for giving me an idea! (A seriously useful and funny website full of generators–try it out!)

The detail about wallpaper is from the short story The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, which I jokingly refer to as the Madwoman in the Attic Origin Story. Like Jane Eyre, it’s also in public domain and you can read it for free here. (I’ve just realised that the writers are both Charlottes.)

The bit about Antoinette wanting a storm wild like her rage was inspired by the line “she wanted a storm to match her rage” from A Feast For Crows by George RR Martin. The she in question is Cersei Lannister, another one of my favourite characters, who also happens to be hated (sometimes so viciously it worries me) by the fans of Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire.

And last but not least, many thanks to tnkerr of The New, Unofficial, On-line Writer’s Guild, one of whose weekly prompts have, erm, prompt me to write this. The prompt was “it might burn down your house”. In the end I didn’t use that line, it didn’t fit the story, but it definitely sparked my imagination, so credit where credit’s due.

So Much For Nostalgia

It’s always like that when you go back there. The place where you spent your childhood. You immerse yourself in the memories as the years come flooding back; you and your friends are climbing the trees, playing hide and seek, chasing each other in the little grove. The grove is still there, so are the houses, but strangers live in them now, and the old playground has been rebuilt. You used to have a sandpit. Kids these days have no such thing. It was a different time back then, with no smartphones, no video games. The summers you spent outside, returning home only to eat and sleep. You didn’t need technology to find each other, because you always found each other.

But things have changed now, you’ve all grown up and lost touch. Everyone moved away. You don’t come back often, you’ve got more interesting places to go, but sometimes, just sometimes, when you’re in that mood to visit the ghosts of the past, you make your way there, careful to avoid people. You don’t want any intruders.

And then, once your cup of reminiscence is full, and you’ve seen everything you needed to see, you walk away. Return to the present. You take your smartphone out of your pocket and scroll down the updates. You answer emails. You may video call your favourite nephew when you get back home, he’s excited to tell you about the new things he built in Minecraft. You listen attentively, and end the call hoping to see him soon. You get your Deliveroo app on, make an order, and, when it’s delivered, you settle down in front of Netflix.

No time like the present!

I Fall In Love With You Every Day

I fall in love with you every day.

I fall in love with you every morning. It helps me get out of bed. 

I also fall in love with you every time I’m having my breakfast. Breakfast is the most important meal of the day, they say.

I fall in love with you multiple times throughout my workday. There is no regularity to it, it may come at any hour, any minute. One thing I know for sure is that it happens when I’m not concentrating. And you can bet there will always be a time when I’m not concentrating.

I fall in love with you when I’m preparing my dinner, and then again when I’m eating it. I fall in love with you when I drink coffee or have a snack. I drink a lot of coffee and I eat a lot of snacks.

Then I fall in love with you when I watch a movie or an episode of a TV show, and I have to press pause, so I get to experience that moment again. When I’m reading a book, I have to pause my reading to fall in love with you, before I can continue. 

To be sure, I fall in love with you while doing even the most boring tasks. Doing my shopping at the supermarket, or cleaning the house. Washing the dishes, always when I’m washing the dishes it is the best when I fall in love with you. 

When I exercise I fall in love with you too, and it helps me exercise better. And that is a good thing because exercise is good for you.

The weekends are the best, of course. They give me plenty of free time to fall in love with you.

I fall in love with you every day. 

You see, I need to.

Because if I didn’t, life would become unbearable.


Written for the OLWG prompt. Thank you for reading!

The Camera Smiles

It has been sitting quietly in its bag for months now, untouched. The bag, covered with dust, has blended so much with its surroundings, I no longer see it. It’s become invisible. The reproachful look of why you not love me anymore is gone. It has given up.

You might wonder what it’s been like for it, the emotions it has been through to end up in this state. First there would be confusion, what is happening, why am I not being used? Then fear. Has she found another one, a better one, does she not need me again. Then anger. After all I have done for you! Followed by sadness. So this is how it will be now. It ends with—nothing. Just emptiness.

Look, I swear it’s not my fault. What was I to do, with the year we’ve just had? Nowhere to go and nothing to do.  Better people than me have succumbed to hopelessness. It’s not my fault.

Or so I tell myself.

There is always something to do, it used to tell me then, before it stopped talking to me.

I think it might be dead. Even though it’s never been alive because it’s not a living creature. It’s still dead.

It’s a tragic end.

Then comes that Saturday.

It’s winter and it’s cold. I open the window in my living room to get some air in. The flock of starlings have finished their weird loopy team flight thing they do and settled themselves on the tree next to my house.

And all at once I know. I know I have to get that dusty bag and open it and get it out.

So I take up the dusty bag, open it and get it out.

The lens cap got stuck, I struggle with removing it, but eventually I do. I point the lens at the tree and take a picture of the starlings. I take multiple pictures. And not just of starlings.

It’s alive. It’s alive!

And finally, the camera smiles.


OWLG prompt

The Journal

This year, I vow on the first day of January, I will keep a journal.

No, not some pretty pastel-coloured notebook, its pages filled with drawings and calligraphy and glitter—nice as that is, it’s not really my thing—but a digital one. I install an app on my phone and resolve to update it at least once a week. Most of the time, I manage to keep up with it. I log my thoughts and feelings, inspirational quotes, make lists of movies and TV show I’ve seen, upload pictures and videos, and more importantly—inspired by the guy with orange skin almost starting a World War Three on Twitter on the second day of the year—the world events. Though most of that is not in any way uplifting. Fires, floods, human rights abuses, narcissistic leaders, events strangers than the fictional plots I watch on the screen. Rich old men sending army of trolls after a teenage climate activist. From the Far East, news of a novel virus emerge. A once great nation commits an ultimate act of foolishness, based on campaign of lies and manipulation. The world shakes its head and I keep typing and tapping on my phone, snapping, screenshotting and saving pieces of news from the media, all media, real or fake; I’m creating an archive. Sometimes I save bits of conversations from WhatsApp, or texts, I talk to people. Some are concerned, some aren’t. Some can only respond with emojis, others with reaction gifs. Everyone’s glued to their phone anyway. The virus is moving closer. Then the panic buying starts and into my journal I add a photo of empty supermarket shelves.

It takes me some time to finally realise that I’m chronicling the end of the world.


Author’s Note: This short piece of prose was inspired by the song Doom Days by Bastille, particularly the line “I think I’m addicted to my phone, my scrolling horror show, I’m live-streaming the final days of Rome”, lyrics by Dan Smith.