Focus

Focus.

Focus, dammit!

I shout at my own self.

You’d think it was simple. Start a task, focus on the task, finish the task. A common sense, logical approach, you don’t need a college education to understand that. A college education. I never achieved it because I couldn’t focus. I tried. Not once, not twice, but three times. But I could never make past the first semester. I couldn’t focus.

But that’s not what I’m here to talk about, I’m here to talk about focus. The never ending, ever present struggle. What is a focus?

The centre of interest or activity. The state or quality of having or producing clear visual definition. Says the Google dictionary. That’s the noun. The verb is adapt to the prevailing level of light and become able to see clearly. What even is that? Also: pay particular attention to. That I know what means. I pay attention to some things, less to other things, none to those that don’t interest me. Or those that bore me. To pay attention has two meanings, doesn’t it? Pay attention as in, focus. And pay attention as in, pay no attention to the haters. The latter’s not always easy, haters can be cruel. And they tend to make themselves known before you get a chance to find the supporters. What I excel at, though, is not paying any attention to people who are desperate for attention. And paying attention to things no one notices or cares about.

Focus!

Okay, so I focus. Or try to. Until my mind starts to wander. The places I wander to are rich and colourful, real and imagined. They are past and they are future. What happened and will happen and what could have happened. Scenarios I could write down, if only I could focus.

In the past, I had team managers at work ask me with concern why I’m not performing as I should, but how do I tell them I just can’t focus? I’m a good worker, actually. Maybe that’s why they wanted to know, because they expected better. It took a lot of determination to beat that.

I should read more books. I come across a book I think I would like, add it to my To Read list and promptly forget about it. Audiobooks are good, of course. But with me you never know when I lose the focus, no matter how pleasant the narrator’s voice is. I’m a sucker for good voices.

I can’t do poetry, I read the first line of the poem and lose interest. Loreena McKennitt has a song titled The Lady of Shalott, where she sings the lines of the Tennyson poem to music. That is manageable, at least I can listen to the song. I known of this poem thanks to Anne of Green Gables. (We didn’t do Tennyson at school, I’m not from an English speaking country, we have our own poets.) Poor Anne almost drowned in the pond playing the role of Elaine when she and her friends turned the poem into a real life play. Agatha Christie used a line from the poem as a title for her book The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side. Both my favourite writers were fans of the same poem. I wonder if I could write a retelling where Elaine gets a happy endin—

Focus, stupid!

What was I saying? Oh yes, I like taking pictures. Photographs, you know. I have a camera, but I also use my smartphone. The camera lens is better than me, it can focus.

Focus. I give you bloody focus.

I’ve heard of focus groups, but I don’t know what it means. I google “what is a focus group”, but the results make my eyes glaze so I close the page.

Focus focus FOCUS!!!

I should visit Haworth again. The Bronte sisters place. And go look for the farmhouse that was the inspiration for Wuthering Heights. I struggle with Wuthering Heights, like I struggle with a lot of classics. The long sentences kill me. By the time I get to end of the sentence, I forget the beginning. I admire all you classics enthusiast, I marvel at your ability to focus!

Stop lying. You have no problem focusing when you want to.

Yeah but you know, that’s hard to explain. I can spend hours tidying up the tags on my blogs, here and on Tumblr, or organising my photos into albums. I like tidying up and cleaning. Once I start.

You can’t get through a work meeting without doodling on a piece of paper but you had no problem watching the three-hour Avengers Endgame in the cinema.

Well yeah, that’s the point that I was at the cinema. And it was a highly anticipated film. And I prepared for it, mentally, before I went, because I knew it would be three hours long. Also it features many characters. Also work meetings are tedious. Also shut up.

I’ve never rewatched Avengers Endgame but if I did it at home, I’d probably take breaks. And I don’t binge-watch. I can’t do it. Unless it’s sitcoms, but I’m very picky with my sitcoms. A few months ago I watched about fifteen episodes of Golden Girls while I was cleaning my living room. I cannot explain.

Focus. Bloody focus.

Part of me feels actual sympathy with George RR Martin for never finishing his A Song of Ice and Fire series.

This is the first time I’ve admitted to it.

Seriously. I’m worried that I’ll never finish anything in my life. That’s why I stick to short stories. No epic fantasy from me. No, sirs.

Someone’s talking to me, but I’m not paying attention. I’m googling the population of London in late Victorian times.

The voice gets louder. It is a wise one, an ancient one. It says: “maybe you should get checked for ADHD.”


Written for the Weekly Prompts Weekend Challenge – Focus. I’m so pleased I got a chance to respond to the challenge in writing, first time I’ve done so. (I normally use photography.)

A Mistake

Here’s the situation: Manchester, late 2021. You are by now a seasoned immigrant. You have mastered the English language to a satisfying degree, indeed you now try your hand at writing stories. There is the one that fascinates you, calls to you day and night, the well-known story of the madwoman in the attic. Not the way it entered the literature canon. That was a lie. You want to tell the real story, her story, because she has long deserved it. You have already written two pieces, a novella published on a fanfic site and a short story posted to your writing blog. You’re proud of the latter, you think it is rather good. You still want to write more, it never ends. One day, a new idea comes to you, and you can’t stop thinking about it. What if you wrote it, what if you really did? It will need research. So you start your research. If you’re going to disrespect such a fine classic of English literature, at least get the facts right. You decide to place the story in the year 1836. You base this on the character of Sir George Lynn, who is an MP for the town of Millcote. Millcote is Leeds in real life and Leeds didn’t have a parliamentary representation until 1932. Their first two MPs were Whigs, and you think, no way Sir George is anything other than a Conservative. In the 1835 election, the electorate of Leeds voted in one Conservative and one Whig. You therefore set your story in the year after (and it still makes it before Queen Victoria ascended the throne). So you have the time and the place—the city of Leeds, and you have the characters, all that remains is to write it.

And this, this is the most difficult thing, what with having to stick to the canon of the novel and your idea. The premise is: two ladies meeting up for tea and gossip. You title your story Spill The Tea, combining the modern slang for gossiping and the actual beverage drank by the ladies. The two ladies are the very minor character of Lady Lynn and the much hated character of Blanche Ingram, whose name you translate to its Italian version of Bianca, because you like it better. You christen Lady Lynn Margaret—a good, solid classic name, appropriate to the era. And you write.

The story keeps you up till small hours, weekends and weekdays. You don’t get a good night’s sleep for almost two months. You can’t help it, your brain works best at night. It’s worth the zombie-like state of the following working day. You have a permanent fatigue anyway.

Finally, the story is finished, done, polished. You publish it to your blog, all is good. It’s out of your system, you can now think of other things. New stories, different ones. The muses don’t strike often, but when they do, they strike well.

Months pass. You don’t think about Spill The Tea anymore. Until you realise that, despite all the hard work, all the nights you stayed up late typing at your laptop, despite all that smugness you felt about doing the research, you made a basic stupid fucking mistake.

You kept referring to the character as Lady Margaret. When you should have referred to her as Lady Lynn.

*

Yeah, that was me. All I can do is put my hands up, my bad. It was when I was listening to Oscar Wilde’s plays on Audible that it hit me. I mean, it’s right there in the title. Lady Windermere’s Fan. A woman married to Sir George Lynn would be Lady Lynn. Lady Margaret would be a daughter of a lord. I was under the impression that the first name and surname could be used interchangeably. Probably the influence of Game of Thrones, where they do so, though that’s a fictional universe, but I think it’s used that way in some Agatha Christie books. I just didn’t think it mattered. I prefer using first names for my characters.

I’m not going to change it now, but it was important to me to acknowledge this mistake. I own it. I will get better. I can’t even justify an in-universe explanation, with only the narrator calling the lady by her first name, as at one point Bianca calls her that too. She could be a lady by birth too, after all, Sir John Beckett, who was MP for Leeds between 1835-1837 was married to Lady Anne Lowther, whose father was an earl. Still it would probably change once she got married.

I thought myself so clever for writing this story and now you see, my bubble was burst. But I have learned from this experience and that is, to me, the most important part.


Author’s Note: Here’s the offending Spill The Tea. My other story mentioned above, The Silver Candlestick, written from the “mad” wife’s POV, covers her early time in the attic. It is quite possible more fanfics will be published here in the future–as you can see, I feel quite strongly about Jane Eyre.

I Will See You Again

It’s been a long time since you last saw each other.

Since that grey November day when you said goodbye, the Hostile Environment immigration policy putting an ocean between you. Two years or three, who’s counting? You’re still in contact, you’re connected. Modern technology is your saviour. You get to hear his voice, see his face on the screen. No touch, no hand to hold. No skin to caress. No one to dance salsa with.

So you dance alone.

You look up and see the same sky, the same moon. You play the same music and think about each other. I will see you again, he says.

The pandemic, the lockdowns, it makes no difference to you. The world opens again, it makes no difference to you. You dance salsa on your own. In your living room, after dusk, lights off, headphones on.

I will see you again, he says.

He repeats it often. It has become a chorus.

When you parted, you both agreed to see other people. You have dated, here and there, you’ve had many good dates. But no one measures up. No one is like him, because there is no one like him.

And you know it’s same for him.

I will see you again, he messages.

Life goes on. With every day, it goes on. Everything is good, except there is no him, because he is so far away. How does it work, with someone in a different hemisphere?

I will see you again.

Will you? You don’t remember when you started losing hope.

You go on another date, you think they’d make a good life partner. You ghost them. It’s never what it was with him.

What of it? You have long got used to dancing on your own.

When people ask you about your love life, you shrug. Nothing to tell. You don’t talk about him to anyone. Most of them forgot you were ever together. They don’t ask about him. They’re as uncomfortable discussing immigration as they ever were.

You don’t listen to Buena Vista Social Club anymore. What’s the point, when there’s nobody to share it with? Chan Chan, the signature tune, has faded away.

Winter is long and lonely and wet. The scarf you wrapped around yourselves, on your walks in the park that last autumn, lies at the bottom of your wardrobe.

At last, a new spring arrives. Time of optimism. So they say.

His message changes. I will see you soon.

You halt in the middle of the pavement, staring at your phone, people bumping into you.

You put the phone back in your pocket. It doesn’t mean anything, it’s only one changed word, that’s all.

Yet there is something in the air, something that could make you believe that it was not all in vain.

The next message reads: I will see you very soon.

A variation on the same theme, you tell yourself.

One day, you’re in the city centre and the music is playing. Music often plays in the city centre, it’s nothing out of the ordinary. Except, this time it is different.

Latin American music is unusual in this part of the world. You feel the almost forgotten stir in your veins, it’s been such a long time.

And then your hear it. Those unforgettable, unmistakable four notes. The signature tune, so familiar. How could you be such a fool to think it would ever fade?

Compay Segundo composed Chan Chan from a melody he heard in his dream, Wikipedia tells us. Your phone screen flashes with a new message. Turn around.

You turn around.

“Estoy aqui.”

He is here.

You fall into each other’s arms. You stay like that for the whole song. “How?” you ask. “The Home Secretary is a literal Nazi. How did you do it?”

“There are ways,” he says.

Chan Chan ends, followed by an upbeat, contemporary Latin pop song. He takes your hand. “Let’s dance.”

He is back. And you will never dance alone again.


Author’s Note: This is a continuation of my older story Love / Amor, though I wrote it so it can be read separately. I can’t remember exactly how I came up with the idea of giving them a happy ending, but what finally convinced me was the departure of Santiago Cabrera from the Star Trek Picard series. His character got a happy ending in-universe, but I am disappointed I will not see him again in Season 3. So I wrote this.

Link to the Wikipedia article on the song Chan Chan mentioned in the story.

And finally, Chan Chan itself:

ETA: To clarify, this is not salsa, when I talk about them dancing salsa I mean that to an appropriate music.

Bedtime Story Time

“And so the little brother and sister lived happily with their father in their little cottage.” Melina closed the book. 

Little Katie’s eyelids were already dropping. Melina straightened the blanket. “I hope you enjoyed the story,” she said.

“Yes,” said Katie. “You make it so much fun!”

Melina smiled. She got a real kick out of trying out different voices while reading the story. Sure, Hansel and Gretel was stupid and nonsensical, but hey, it was Katie’s own choice and she wouldn’t argue with a child over what story they wanted to hear. Let people enjoy things was her mantra.

Katie’s eyes opened wide. “Do witches really exist, Auntie?”

“Oh no!” Melina laughed. “Only in stories. You know, like dragons and mermaids and all that stuff.”

“Will you read me a story about mermaids next time?”

“Of course I will.”

The little girl’s eyelids dropped again and soon, she was asleep. Melina stood up, put the book back on the shelf and left Katie’s bedroom, switching the light off. She settled on the sofa in the living room and turned the TV on. Nothing of interest was on and Theresa didn’t subscribe to any streaming services, but Melina didn’t feel like watching anything anyway. She was thinking.

She was thinking of the stories she could tell little Katie. All the tales of yore, the true tales, not the Brothers Grimm mess. And then, there were other types of stories. Of deadbeat dads and alcoholic grandparents. Of struggling single mums, who couldn’t shake the feeling of guilt when they indulged in going out for only one night a year. For god’s sake, go out with your friends. I can look after Katie, I have nothing to do in the evenings

One day she would.

She hoped Theresa was having a good time.

She did. Theresa came home, her face shining. She was barefooted. “It’s been so long I’ve worn these,” she said, dangling her high heels in her hand. She hugged Melina. “Thank you so much.”

“Oh it’s a pleasure, you know.”

“Were there any problems?”

“Not at all, she ate her supper like a champ and then I read her a story.”

“You want anything to eat or drink?”

“No thanks, I’m good. I need to head home now.”

“Of course. You want me to get you a cab? You got an Uber?”

“No, no need for that.”

They said goodnight to each other and Melina left.

She walked down the street, then down the next street, until she reached the park gate. She entered.

The park was a deserted, quiet place at this hour. There were only a few street lights, helpless against the darkness. She kept on a steady pace towards the bushes. That was where she hid it.

It was the best spot, really. She always used this park when going to Theresa’s house.

She crouched and, from under the bushes, she retrieved the long thin object. It was a broom.

She perched on the broom, bounced on her feet and flew away.

An Awakening

She arrived one day, an unremarkable day by all accounts. We said, welcome, and that was it. New people were coming from time to time, we had got used to it. She settled in with the community without any major difficulties and soon, she was one of us.

Until she started talking about her ideas.

At once, everyone stayed away from her. No, no, no-no-no-no, they shook their heads. We can’t have that. Unacceptable.

Some were disgusted. “Ughhh, what?” and “What is wrong with you???” were some of the reactions.

Some screamed. Some cried. No kidding, they really did.

Not me.

As soon as she began talking, something stirred up in me. I listened. I wanted to know more. I was excited. I got goose bumps.

“If you want to know more, you can follow me,” she said.

The decision would be mine to make.

I could have gone back to the others, or I could have followed her. I didn’t have to think about it long, for I knew what I wanted. So I followed her.

I have not regretted it once. The possibilities that opened in front of me would never have had opened, had I not followed her.

They don’t know, of course. They remain in their place, afraid. They could see, if they only made that choice to open their eyes. Because if they do, they’ll know.

It’s curiosity that beats fear.


Written for the prompt on OLWG, No. 3 – “so I followed her”. Thank you for reading.

A Little Fairy Mischief

Blythe yawned. She had long ceased to listen. Why did The Big Fairy Assembly always have to be so boring? Speech after speech, followed by another speech, every one of them tedious. The importance of the Fairy Order. The mishaps with the land of humans from the times before Fairy Order. It was the same every time. The story of how the first fairies—born eons ago from dew and mist—established the Fairy Order used to be interesting. But countless repetitions turned it into a snooze fest. Yes, Blythe understood. Following the Fairy Order was vital for every fairy. Following the Fairy Order was vital for the whole existence of the Fairyland. Without the Fairy Order there would be chaos and nobody wanted chaos in Fairyland. It would not do to have fairies wander about willy-nilly.

Fairies went to fairy school to learn the Fairy Order, and other useful knowledge. Once they passed the exams, they became of age and could get employment. They could be good luck fairies or bad luck fairies, casting good and bad fortunes in the land of humans. Or they could take up positions in the Fairyland.

Blythe understood it all.

She was but a young fairy, in her first year of fairy school. She had only glimpsed the land of humans twice. The first time through a magic window, the second time on a fairy school trip with her year, under the supervision of their wise matron. Under aged fairies weren’t permitted to enter the land of humans unaccompanied. Heavens know what mischief they’d get up to.

Blythe liked what she saw of the land of humans, but what fascinated her was the humans themselves. “They are so big!” she cried out. “And they have no wings! How do they get around?”

The wise matron patiently explained that humans developed for themselves inventions to help them get from place to place. Coaches driven by horses and donkeys, then trains and cars, ships to sail the waters and aeroplanes to fly the skies, later even spaceships. “Humans operate on a different space-time continuum,” the wise matron added. Blythe had no idea what a space-time continuum was, but she thought humans must have been very clever to come up with all those inventions.

She wished she could see the land of humans again. But the next outing wasn’t to take place for some time, and for now she had to sit through the dullness of the Big Fairy Assembly.

“Hey, Blythe!” A whisper came from somewhere on her left. It was Lori from her year, Blythe’s dearest sister fairy. “Do you want to come with me to the rainbow meadow?”

“But we can’t,” Blythe whispered back.

“I know how we can sneak out.”

Lori was true to her word. During the shuffle between different speakers, the two young fairies slipped out. They made their way to the rainbow meadow, their favourite spot, where flowers of all the colours of the rainbow grew, arranged in a colour spectrum. They played and frolicked between the flowers.

Soon, they were arguing.

Young fairies argue. Much like human children, they fall out one day and make up the next. One wants to play hide and seek, the other one wants a dance-off, you know how it goes. Lori, who was prone to sulking, turned her back on Blythe. In a dramatic fashion she stuck her little fairy nose up and flew to hide among the lilacs.

“Do what you please!” Blythe called after her. Who needed Lori anyway? Blythe could well amuse herself. Landing on a head of a daisy, she stood with one foot on tiptoe and did a pirouette.

That was when she saw it.

To be sure, the magic window to the land of humans had no business being open. Not without a guarding fairy to watch over it, at least. But even in a world as rigid as Fairyland, mistakes can still happen. Perhaps the guarding fairy on duty was rushing to the Assembly and forgot to close it. What did it matter to Blythe? An open window to the land of humans it was, and Blythe passed straight through it.

It was a warm night in the land of humans. Had this been a fairy school trip, the wise matron would have informed her pupils of the time and the place, but of course, it was not school trip, the wise matron was not here and Blythe couldn’t have known where and when she was. Only that it was a summer. She saw rows of human houses, and roads, and cars outside human houses. Some houses had lights in the windows, but majority of them were in the dark. Blythe descended to look through a window of one house. The window was ajar. Suppose she took a peek inside—only a little peek?

She did.

The room was quiet. Next to the wall opposite the window was a piece of furniture she knew from her lessons was a baby cot, and a human baby was in it. She landed on the side of the cot.

The human baby was asleep. How peaceful he looked! For Blythe had had by now enough of a fairy instinct to know it was a boy. Blythe bounced off the cot’s side and flew close to his face. She wondered what the baby’s eyes were like. If only he would open them for a few short seconds. What would happen if he woke up? Would he cry? The wise matron said human babies always cried. She didn’t want him to cry. What if she woke him up very gently, as not to scare him? She stretched her arms and touched his cheeks with her hands. “Hello, little human baby,” she whispered. With her index fingers, she gave the baby’s cheeks a little poke.

The human baby boy stirred but did not wake up. Blythe withdrew her hands from his face. She had to try something different. Maybe tickle him a bit? The wise matron said that humans laughed when you tickled them. Yes, she would do that. She landed on the baby’s belly.

She froze. There was a noise in the quiet house!

It was in truth nothing more than a rustle—one of the human family turning over in their bed, probably—but it was enough to frighten Blythe like nothing else had in her short fairy life. They got her! They would take her away and put her in fairy jail and she would never be able to graduate the fairy school!

She spread her wings and escaped out of the window back into the night.

Only when she reached the magic window did she realise nobody was chasing her. But her clandestine outing to the land of humans was over. She returned to Fairyland like a good little fairy.

“Blythe!” Lori’s voice called to her. “Oh Blythe, how I was afraid that you were angry and abandoned me!”

Blythe embraced her sister fairy. “Of course I haven’t, you are my best friend, Lori!” they held hands and fly-danced in a circle.

“Lori, we should go back to the Assembly,” Blythe said, her conscience troubling her.

Lori’s smile faded. “Yes, we should. Let’s go then.”

And so the two young mischievous fairies snuck back into the Assembly. Speeches were still going on and nobody seemed to have noticed their absence. How lucky I’ve been, Blythe thought. She thought of the little human baby boy asleep in his baby cot. No harm would come to him, unless she became a bad luck fairy. But being a bad luck fairy was never Blythe’s ambition.

From that moment on, she resolved to be a good little fairy who followed the Fairy Order to the dot. And she did. In time, she graduated the fairy school with flying colours and has, since then, cast many a good fortune in the land of humans.

Meanwhile, in the house in the land of humans, on the morning after Blythe’s nocturnal visit, the little baby boy awakened. His mother approached the cot. “Good morning.”

At the sight of his mum, the baby boy waved his little baby fists. “You had a good sleep, little darling?” As she lifted him out of the cot, his little legs were kicking.

She could only wonder what made him such a happy baby that morning!

*

From time to time, she indulged in a little human watching after finishing her work. This was allowed—she was by now an experienced fairy, and an efficient one. Though opportunities were scarce. Fairyland was as busy as ever, and in addition to her good luck fairy duties, she also helped out Lori at the fairy school.

She never forgot the little sleeping baby boy from that summer night. Thirty five years had passed in the land of humans. The little boy had grown into a handsome man and had become an actor.

She slipped into a room where two friends were watching a film in which he starred.

“Oh my god, look at that smile,” said one.

“Can you believe those dimples?” said the other.

Blythe smiled.

Yes, she could believe those dimples.

Songbird

Perched on a tree branch

Singing his heart out

Singing from the heart

Bringing joy

Without worry about the music critics’ opinion

Without worry about whether the fans will like it as much as last year’s

Without worry about fans getting bullied by music snobs for being too mainstream

Songbird oh songbird

Sing your heart out

Sing from your heart

Bring us joy

Just watch out for predators!

Patient

They start leaving, in twos and threes at first, then in larger groups, every day, later even twice a day, until there is only a few hundred of you left. Compared to the previous population of a million—yours was a big compound—it is a mere handful.

You don’t mind. In fact, you volunteered to stay behind. I can remain here and take care of things, you told them. An obligatory “are you sure”, followed by your subsequent confirmation, and your fate is sealed.

And so you watch them go. The rollout is successful.

You like the quiet and the solitude, you’ve always worked better on your own. And you don’t miss out on anything. The newsfeed is pretty efficient and you can still access the stuff you like, albeit on a smaller screen. You work and rest, work and rest. And wait. You are patient.

The food gets blander, as the best chefs are gone. The compound gets quieter and quieter with each coming day. Majority of the people you care about have left. You don’t remember when you last saw the ones that went first, the ones in the high risk category. One dull afternoon, your last friend leaves. Any contact you have with anyone is now only virtual.

You discover the sound of silence. Not the silence of a summer day in a meadow, how it would have been, on the outside world, all those years ago. Not the silence of a cosy room on a winter night either. It is a silence of nothing.

The silence of nothing fills your life. Sure, you can play music and watch films, but it’s still there, waiting for you, a pause button away. You don’t attempt to make friends with the ones who are still here. They seem like people of no substance to you. Perhaps they are. Nothing is of any substance in this place. Everything is grey here. Not even different shades of grey. Just—grey.

Will you go insane?

Nobody is this patient.

Well, you are. Patience is a virtue, they say. Shame they never specified what exactly you were supposed to do with that virtue.

At last, you are called in.

It’s not long after five o’clock in the afternoon when you enter the small room. The nurse looks worn out, but her eyes are hopeful. “We’re almost through,” she says.

“It’s been miserable, hasn’t it?” you finally admit.

She agrees.

You roll up your sleeve.

You receive the vaccine and return to your room. It doesn’t take you long to pack. You’ve been ready for a while.

When you leave the compound, the sun is shining, almost blinding you. Real sunshine! Not on a screen, or filtered through the glass dome, but real. With a real sky. You bath yourself in it. And then they come, your nearest and dearest, they’re here, they’ve been waiting for you. They envelope you in a hug. Real humans, with real limbs, the warmth of their bodies. They take your bags, accompany you to your temporary quarters. The city is bright and full of life. And colourful, oh so colourful. Green and red and purple and yellow. And it’s loud. Everything is open. Tomorrow you’ll hit the shops.

For tonight, there is a different plan.

They take you to the best restaurant in town. The food is divine; you don’t think you’ve ever tasted anything as divine as this. But there is still something on your mind, and when the dessert is served, you voice it out loud.

“What if there’s another one?”

“Another what?”

“Another virus. What if—what if it’s worse than the last one?”

“Well, there’s bound to be another one again,” says your most rational and scientifically minded friend. “But when it comes to that, we’ll deal with it. We’ve dealt with this one.”

“Let’s enjoy what we have now,” says another friend. So you do.

After dinner—the cinema.

Because it’s finally here.

Countless delays later, it’s finally here. The hottest, the most anticipated film of the decade. The first two days of screening are sold out, but have no fear—your friends have secured the tickets in advance.

How lucky are you, coming out on the day the movie opens!

Crowds flood into the cinema complex. You settle in your seats (and good seats they are), patiently sit through the adverts. The lights go out. The big screen lights up with the logo of the movie franchise. It’s the popcorniest of all popcorn franchises, hell yeah! Excitement rises in you. This is it.

The friend sitting on your left, the one who was the last to leave the compound, leans close to you and says: “We’re back, baby!”

The film starts.

You love it.

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.

ETA 27/06/2022: There is a mistake in this work–“Lady Margaret” should have been “Lady Lynn” as she is the wife of Sir George Lynn. I realised my error months after this was published and I will not change it now, I just need to acknowledge it. And that will all the research I put into it… you never stop learning.

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.”