Like The Prose Day 30

I’ve done a quick word count, and my total number of words for the thirty stories I’ve written for Like The Prose this June is 58, 451 – that’s not including any other stories I’ve written as entries for competitions or in response to other people’s prompts.

Today, for the first time, I feel exhausted – which could be one reason why today’s piece is the shortest in the competition at only 384 words. It’s not the greatest piece of writing – the title and the last line are the only bits I’m truly happy with; but the germ of an idea is there and maybe, one day, I’ll go back to it and wrestle it into something I like better.

What’s really important is that I stuck with it, writing something every day, whether or not it was my preferred genre or something I knew. It’s taken me out of my comfort zone and it’s also taught me to look at different styles of writing and dare to experiment. For that, I am grateful.

Meet Me In The Gap Between The Words

You said you would take the blank, white canvas of my heart – and create. A song spilled from your pen, weaving words into a tapestry of vibrant colour, creating a world in which we were the only two. Margins of reality ran down the page of your imagination, ruled by the constrictions of everyday life, but you and I were doodles of defiance and we spattered our joy across the universe we had found together.

For a long time, your words danced across our lives in a whirling bacchanalia. We were caught up in the heady feeling of togetherness, the giddy laughter, the drunken sensation of being inebriated with love. You twirled me in and out of fairy tales and sent me hurtling into space. Every love song ever written was one you had penned for me and the rhyming couplet of us lengthened into a sonnet as you covered us both with a cloak of clichés, hiding us from the outside world. That was then. That was the beginning.

Do all lovers love like this so that every day is Christmas and New Year’s Eve, every exchange a Rachmaninoff Concerto, passion rising to a crescendo of stormy emotion?

 The pristine pages of our history yellow with age. Edges furl as our lives become well thumbed, sometimes ripped through carelessness. A tear stains my face; suspicion stains your heart. Words become distorted as they slide off the page and into reality. We hurl them like plates; twist them like knives. Who would have thought that love could be moulded and shaped into something sharp and destructive? Is your heart full of tears (to rhyme with fears), or tears (to rhyme with cares)?

I set fire to my angry words, the incandescence of my rejection flaming into a blaze of hurt. Its smoke spirals upwards. Now, only bitter ashes remain. All my words are dust.

In the aftermath of grieving, in mourning all the lost phrases and paragraphs and the gut-wrenching feeling of finding that – sometimes – words are meaningless after all, hope rises like a phoenix from the ashes of us.

And I will meet you in the gap between the words where the only thing that matters is the sound of my heartbeat next to yours.

Like The Prose Day 29

Some of you may remember that on Day 9, I wrote a piece in which fictional critics discussed a medieval poem known as ‘The Song of Pardal and Enara’, some of them quoting the poem in its original old English and some in modern translation. We were able to glean some of the story from the comments they made, but today’s piece returns to the two young lovers and retells the story from Pardal’s perspective as he languishes in a cell and reflects on his love for Enara and the unlikelihood of the two of them surviving.

Lovebirds – Pardal and Enara’s Story

            Her beautiful voice – as golden as the hair that ripples down her back – is the last thing he hears.

*

He comes to in a cramped, dingy cell, not much bigger than himself. If he stretches out, his arms hit the wall on both sides before fully extended. He’ll have to sleep curled round, like a dog or cat. His jaw aches. He touches it tenderly, realising that the guards must have hit him time and time again before they dragged him in here. Casting his mind back to the last minutes he remembers, he tries to focus on what has brought him here. How has his life been turned upside down in such a short space of time?

They had both grown up in the same village, sweethearts from the time they could toddle. He can still see her now, only five or six summers old, sitting in the meadow surrounded by daisies. She’d shown him how to thread the yellow and white flowers into a delicate chain and he’d placed it on her head, declaring her his queen. Back then, they hadn’t envisaged anything would ever separate them, but that was when the old king was still alive – before Petyr Ironfist came to the throne.

As his eyes gradually adjust to the gloom, he becomes aware of a small, barred window in one side of the cell. He shuffles towards it, hoping for fresh air. Pressing himself against the cold, metal bars, he takes deep breaths, trying to replace the mustiness of this confined space with something that reminds him of the outside world. And that’s when he hears her.

Her voice floats gently on the breeze, every note as pure and true as a lark. She’s a prisoner too, then: he doesn’t know whether to feel relief or sorrow.

Minutes pass before he’s able to conjure up the strength to communicate with her. “My love? Are you there?”

But his words are as cracked as his ribs and he can only croak his love for her.

“Pardal? Is that you?”

She uses the old nickname, calling him her sparrow, and he responds in kind.

“Enara – my swallow. Have they hurt you?”

He closes his eyes, attempting to see the last minutes in her presence: the two of them standing before the king: he, accused of treason; her only crime to refuse to marry a man she does not love. Her golden voice as she breathes the word ‘No’ is the last thing he hears before an iron fist slams into his face and he crumples to the floor.

Back in the present, he waits anxiously for her response. “His guards have not touched me.” Her voice trembles as she continues. “But he told me that every day I refuse him, he will torture you a little more.”

They could execute him a thousand times over and burn him alive, but that would not be as painful as the thought of living without her.

“Stay strong, my little one,” he tells her.

The king may have caged them both, but he cannot eradicate their love for each other.

*

As hours drag into days and days blur into one another, he finds his mind returning again and again to the happiness they’d known in their village. She was thirteen summers when he’d kissed her for the first time and her lips had been as sweet as cherries. Harvest time came and went, but still he did not have the courage to ask her father if he might court her properly. Instead, they stole away as often as they could, spending innocent hours together, his head in her lap whilst she threaded daisies into a crown for him. He was still a boy; but if he could become apprenticed to the village bard, he would have a trade to offer her father, a way of showing he could provide for a family. From time to time, he longed to kiss her again; but he was too mindful of her virtue to despoil her innocence before they were handfasted.

Now he wonders if he will ever kiss her again.

*

He finds it hard to sleep, his body contorted into uncomfortable shapes by the smallness of the cell, and wonders if she too faces the same difficulty. Her body is smaller than his: lighter, more delicate. When sleep eludes him totally, he imagines that she is lying next to him and that he can hear her breathing. He does not know how many days they have been without one another, only that he feels her loss as keenly as if he had lost a hand or a foot.

Time crawls on. Every day, he is beaten by at least one of the guards and he knows the king hopes his tortured cries will sway Enara to reconsider her refusal. Despite the ache in his gut, the burning pain in his side, he does not cry out: he must stay strong for her sake. But lack of food and sleep is taking its toll: he can feel his body wasting away from lack of sustenance: it will not be long now before the king has no rival for the songbird’s love. He sifts the memories of their last few days together – the precious hours spent walking hand in hand through fields of cornflowers and poppies; and then, sweetest of all, their wedding day when she’d pledged her love for him in front of the village only minutes before the king’s men arrived to carry her away. She is his bride, yet he has still not known her: if the guards had not arrived, he would have carried her to his bed and made her his forever; but it was not to be.

They still communicate – sometimes in speech; sometimes in song. At first, he sings the ballads he sang whilst courting her, and she joins in the refrain – “He lost the girl with the golden hair, with the eyes of blue and the skin so fair. He lost the girl with the golden hair to the king, to the king of the fairies.” – but the emotions are too raw and the words too close for comfort.

As his body debilitates, he begins to urge her to reconsider her vows to him. “Marry the king and save yourself,” he says; but she remains true to him, even though he hears the tears in her whispered refusal.

In his weakened state, his body loses all track of time: past and present merge into each other so that one minute he is a child again, running through meadows with his playmate, and he is then a man, running behind the soldiers as they gallop off with his bride. He is an apprentice bard, learning the notes of the lute as he accompanies his master and they sing of battles and honour; and he is a desperate husband, sneaking into the castle, trying to find his love before it is too late. His own wedding blurs into the one he prevented, the smiles on his friends’ faces replaced with the fury of the king as Pardal steps forward before the crowd of people and declares that Enara has already pledged herself to him.

He wonders from time to time why Petyr did not simply kill him there and then – a sword thrust from any one of the guards present would have dispatched him instantly; and then he thinks of Enara’s tear-stained face and knows that the king is punishing her by keeping her lover alive yet out of reach. They are merely flies to him: he is plucking their wings off slowly to prolong the agony.

*

By now, he is a shadow of his former self: his limbs are withered and his ribs bruised from constant kicking; his chest rattles with the effort of breathing. Nevertheless, he still calls to her from his barred window. “My swallow …”

“Were I truly a swallow, I would take flight and soar through these bars, to you, my sparrow.”

But her voice is so faint that it catches on the wind and disappears.

He begs her again to reconsider her refusal.

“Without seeing you, I know you are wasting away, my swallow.”

Her reply breaks his heart: “Were I a swallow, I’d have no cause to die.”

Her only sin was being too beautiful; his only crime was falling in love with her.

“My swallow; my wife.”

But this time, she does not answer.

Faint from hunger and exhaustion, he slumps to the floor, never taking his eyes off the bars at the window. Moments later, there is a flurry of wings as a swallow and a sparrow soar upwards, rejoicing in their freedom.

Like The Prose Day 28

Today’s challenge was more of an editing one than a writing one: I’ve taken my summer solstice story and halved the word count. You’ll have to decide for yourselves whether or not this shorter version is better.

Reduced Magic

            Twilight was falling as Cassandra Updike hurried home from the library. Usually, it would be much lighter than this on the day of the summer solstice, but the weather had been miserable all day, issuing in a dusk-like quality to the evening so that she almost missed the short cut through the wood. Her mind was so full of the revision notes she had been making that she stumbled into the clearing the locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’ quite by chance.

She frowned as she noticed the people who had gathered there. They looked like hippies with the women in long skirts made from some kind of diaphanous, gauzy material and the men wearing tights and tunics. Some of the girls were weaving circlets of flowers and placing them upon each other’s heads and several goblets were being passed around.

 “Excuse me,” she said politely as a tall youth with mocking eyes blocked her way, but he laughed and offered her the goblet in his hand.

“No thank you,” she said stiffly. “I don’t touch alcohol.”

“It’s not alcohol,” he told her: “it’s mead.”

He was pushing it to her lips and the others were waiting expectantly. Exasperated, she took a sip. It was like liquid pleasure going down her throat.

“What’s your name?” the youth asked, his hands putting a daisy chain around her neck.

“Cassie. Cassie Updike.” She never usually shortened her name.

“Well, Cassie Updike, I think you need to relax.” He gently removed the schoolbag from her shoulders and placed it on the ground behind them. “Come and join us for the evening – you’ll have fun.”

Against her better judgement, she let him lead her to the camp fire that was blazing merrily. “You really shouldn’t light a fire in the woods,” she said self-righteously. “If it got out of control…”

“Control’s important to you, isn’t it?” he asked, removing her glasses so that his image blurred in front of her. “Have some more mead,” he said. “It’ll make things clearer.”

She took another sip, telling herself that she really must be on her way soon, but it seemed that her eyes were adjusting to being without glasses because everything was now swimming into focus, the lines becoming sharper the more she drank.

“You haven’t told me who you are,” she said boldly to her new friend.

“Robin Goodfellow,” he said lazily, “but I’ve been called other names.”

“You don’t go to my school,” she said reflectively. “How old are you?”

“Old enough to know better,” he said, kissing her lightly and making her head spin.

“No, really,” she protested.

“I’m as old as the hills,” he teased, grabbing her hand and leading her deeper into the wood.

Abandoning all common-sense, she followed him to a leafy bank covered in flowers.

“Musk-roses,” he told her, pulling her down among the greenery. “And wild thyme and eglantine and…”

But she stopped his mouth with her own. Revision forgotten, she let the midsummer magic surround them both as dusk darkened into night and the sun sank behind the horizon.

*

She awoke with a start in the early hours of the morning. Robin’s arms tightened around her but she wriggled free and began to look for her clothes.

“Stay a little longer,” he mumbled, but she was irresolute.

“I can’t – I’ve got an exam.”

“Come with us,” he said,. “Where I’m from, there are no exams, no responsibilities.”

“I can come back tonight,” she promised, but he shook his head.

“This is the only night of the year you’ll find me here. If you go now, you’ll be waiting twelve more months.”

She paused, torn between wanting to stay and knowing that the exam was waiting. She had a place lined up at Oxford. She couldn’t give that up, no matter how soft his lips, how seductive his promises.

“I’ll see you next year, then,” she said, kissing him on the forehead and retracing her steps.

*

She didn’t go to Oxford, despite her excellent A level results. When the Michaelmas term started, she was three months pregnant, her dreams of an academic career over before they’d begun. The baby she gave birth to in March had Robin’s dark, laughing eyes and every time she looked at him, her heart tugged with love for them both. Her parents, of course, were furious– not least because she wouldn’t marry the father. But how could she marry a will o’ the wisp who had vanished as she looked back to say goodbye?

She would have kept their appointment on Midsummer’s Eve, but the baby was teething and fractious and she dared not ask her parents to watch him. She would see Robin next year, she decided; but by then, she had started her Open University degree and then a post grad to train as a librarian, and the combination of studying and motherhood meant that she was too exhausted to go out in the evenings. It was not until little Robin was five that she remembered her promise and wondered vaguely whether her lover had ever returned.

Robin was still five when the car hit him. He slipped away hours later and then she was on her own once more.

*

From that point onwards, Cassandra retreated into herself. When Covid-19 appeared, lockdown made little difference to her. Since she never went out anyway, staying home soon became an acceptable mode of life.

She was just about to go to bed one evening, when the date leaped out at her: June 20th. Why shouldn’t she go back to the wood now? If nothing else, it might lay some old memories to rest. As if in a dream, she made her way towards the clearing and saw Robin waiting for her.

“I was beginning to think you weren’t coming!” he said with a grin as he took her hand.

She stared at him in disbelief. He looked exactly as he had done the first time; whereas she…

“You don’t look a day older!” she said impulsively.

He smiled at her. “I’m not,” he said.

Time shimmered as they stood there, and it was if the years rolled away and she was seventeen once more, the whole of her future before her.

“If you could put the clock back,” his voice was serious now, “would you? Would you go straight home instead of lying down with me amongst the leaves and flowers and letting me love you?”

Past and present blurred in that instant so that it was 1982 and 2020 both at the same time. And when he led her to the grassy bank, it was a girlish figure who lay down beside him and she kissed him with all the intensity of the seventeen-year-old she had once been and still was.

*

“I need to leave,” she said as dawn began to glimmer across the sky.

“Don’t go,” he said softly, just as he had all those years before.

His arms tightened around her again and she snuggled into their warmth. Perhaps this was the decision she should have made a long time ago before she grew old and empty.

“Come with us,” he repeated; and this time, she nodded and said, “Yes.”

*

It was several days before Cassandra Updike’s body was found in the woods in the spot that locals called ‘the Fairy Ring’. Her limbs were cold and stiff as one might expect, but the beautiful smile on her face made her look years younger.

Like The Prose Day 27

It’s sometimes easy to forget how much we take for granted in terms of gender equality these days. Until the 1860s, women were not admitted to universities – and even then, they were initially not allowed to take examinations. Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (1836 – 1917) is widely known as the first female doctor in Britain, beginning her medical career as a surgery nurse in 1860 and then employing a private tutor to help her with the Latin, Greek, anatomy and physiognomy needed to sit in on medical lectures at the hospital where she worked. After much opposition from male medical students who objected to a woman trying to become a doctor, she achieved her license to practise medicine in 1865 – however, this was almost fifty years after James Miranda Barry, born as a woman in 1789, qualified as a doctor by presenting as male and living his whole life as a man.

My story takes some of the facts about Barry and weaves them together with a lot of invention to show how a girl from Cork renounced her gender to take on a male role in what was still very much a patriarchal society.

Doctoring The Truth

Snip! Snip! Snip! The girl’s long, dark tresses fall to the floor. Her mother continues until Margaret’s hair is shorn as short as any boy’s. “Put your brother’s old clothes on now,” she says, handing over a shirt and breeches.

Margaret looks at her mother. They both know this is the only way for a woman to train as a doctor in 1809, but she’s twenty years old and not flat-chested enough to pass scrutiny as a man. “I’ll bandage your breasts,” her mother says hurriedly. By the time the two of them have finished, Margaret Ann Bulkley has been transformed into James Miranda Barry, an identity that will be kept for the rest of Barry’s life.

*

It is November 30th when James and his ‘aunt’ board the fishing vessel that will carry them from their native Cork across the sea to Scotland. James is aware of his good fortune: some of his late father’s liberally minded friends have written letters and persuaded acquaintances that this fifteen-year old boy deserves to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh. All Barry has ever wanted is to be a doctor, and his uncle’s reputation as an Irish Romantic painter carries enough weight for him to be accepted into the Medical School as a literary and medical student. His short stature and slight figure produce speculation, despite the bandages – but it is not his gender that is in question but his age: the rumour is whispered that he must be a pre-pubescent boy, a child genius, and that he shouldn’t be allowed to sit his final examinations due to his youth. The Earl of Buchan fortuitously intervenes, enabling Barry to qualify as an MD in 1812, and after a year in London, as a pupil at the United Hospitals of St Thomas and St Guy, he successfully qualifies as a surgeon.

The army seems the next logical step. Barry is commissioned as a Hospital Assistant and is soon promoted to Assistant Surgeon to the Forces. His slender, womanish fingers are defter than most of his colleagues’ at making incisions and sewing up again afterwards; and he seems to have a stronger stomach than the other Assistants, taking guts and gore in his stride, never once blenching or feeling faint. At all times, he works with masculine detachment, refusing to let his emotions cloud his judgement.

So successful is he in his career path that he is soon posted to Cape Town with a letter of introduction from his former patron, Lord Buchan, to the Governor, Lieutenant-General Lord Charles Henry Somerset. Fortunately for Barry – but maybe not so much for the Governor’s family – Lord Charles’ daughter becomes ill with cholera soon after the young doctor’s arrival and Barry is sent for at once. He looks at Lord Charles and hesitates, not wanting to promise a cure he isn’t certain can be delivered; but it’s the sight of the girl’s mother, Lady Francesca, that finally sways him: she’s sufficiently like his mother to tug at his heartstrings and make him swear to bring her daughter back to full health.

The daughter’s miraculous recovery is, in fact, a result of common sense rather than divine intervention. James is intelligent enough to realise that poor sanitation and contaminated water supplies are responsible for much of the disease prevalent in the South African capital and immediately sets about advising the family to boil all their drinking water whilst he administers calomel and opium to the ten year old girl. Once she is declared out of danger, Barry is welcomed into the family, becoming a close friend of Lord Charles and a favourite of Lady Francesca. When Charles asks him to become his personal physician, he cannot refuse for he is already more than a little in love with this handsome man who is less than ten years older than Barry himself. Although he likes Lady Francesca, he cannot help the intense attraction he feels towards her husband; and the evenings the two men spend together, sequestered in Lord Charles’ study with a bottle of port (for Charles; Barry is teetotal) and some good cigars only add to his confusion.

One night, as the lamps are burning low, Charles asks Barry if he’s ever had a woman. “I’m not that way inclined, Sir,” Barry replies. Lord Charles’ eyebrows shoot up, but he says nothing. Such unnaturalness is reviled or at best ignored in 1817. Taking the biggest gamble of his life, Barry begins unbuttoning his shirt, determined to show his friend his true self. Once he has divested himself of his breeches, Lord Charles understands fully. They agree afterwards that Lady Francesca would only be upset were she to learn of the new relationship between her husband and his physician.

It is two years later when Lady Francesca comments that Barry is putting on weight, little dreaming that her husband has fathered an illegitimate child. Lord Charles, afraid of scandal, suggests that the pregnancy be terminated: the African women, he says have herbs that can induce a miscarriage. But James has sworn the Hippocratic oath, promising “not [to] give to a woman a pessary to cause abortion” and to “abstain from all intentional wrong-doing and harm”. His career and reputation are on the line, but he must adhere to the promises he has made.

Eventually, a compromise is reached. James will absent himself from the governor’s family for a while, ostensibly to visit a distant cousin who is recently widowed and in her sixth month with child. Lady Francesca is immediately sympathetic, offering to let the poor creature stay with them for her confinement; but James refuses, claiming that the lady is too ill to travel. He returns five months later, bringing with him a two months old baby: his cousin died, he says, and he is the only surviving relative the child now has. Lord Charles’ wife, charitable to a fault, immediately insists that the little girl become one of the family. “For you are my adopted brother,” she says, smiling fondly at James, “and so this little one shall be my adopted niece.” James and Charles swiftly resume their former intimacy, although this time, they are more careful – which as just as well since James has no other female kin who can be used to explain a baby’s appearance.

Little Margaret – named for Barry’s sister who, he says, died when he was twenty – is three when her adopted Uncle Charles appoints Barry as Colonial Medical Inspector. At first, James is angry with his lover, seeing the position as a bribe to ensure that their affair remain secret; but Charles assures him that the post is well deserved and, indeed, Barry’s accomplishments in the ten years he spends working in the Cape are staggering: in addition to his work improving sanitation and water systems, he improves conditions for enslaved people, prisoners and the mentally ill, and sets up a leper sanctuary, causing Lady Francesca to exclaim in admiration, “It is no wonder that we women are known as the weaker sex for anyone seems like a lazy and ineffectual individual when compared with the tireless devotion to duty of our dear Doctor Barry!”

In 1827, the thirty-eight-year old Barry is promoted to Surgeon of the Forces. He is still unable to believe that he has advanced this far in his army career without ever undergoing a medical examination, but officers are exempt from such administrative nonsense and this has certainly been an advantage for someone who entered the ranks as a Hospital Assistant, never expecting to advance so rapidly in such a short space of time.

He bids a fond farewell in 1828 to the Somersets, knowing that he is unlikely to find another adopted family in his new post in Mauritius. There is no question about Margaret accompanying him – how can a single man take care of a small child? – but he knows he is leaving her in good hands with her natural father and foster-aunt. Once in Mauritius, he quickly carves himself a niche as a favourite with the officers’ wives who all flirt with him shamelessly, allured by his gentle hands and soothing bedside manner.

For someone who is often cold and abrupt when issuing orders, Barry is surprisingly sensitive when it comes to coaxing hypochondriacal women back into health. “Come now, Mrs Fanshawe,” he tells one lady who claims to be suffering from extreme melancholia, “no one with eyes as pretty as yours can stay sad for long. Put on a pretty gown and receive some of your friends and you will be feeling back to normal in no time- particularly,” and here he lowers his voice roguishly, “when not one of them will look half as ravishing as you do in your lavender tea dress!”

“Doctor Barry!” the woman replies, simpering into her handkerchief, “you would make a very good woman!”

Barry’s heart pauses momentarily.

“But I would much rather see you become a very wicked man!” she continues coquettishly.

Barry relaxes once more. His secret has not been discovered after all.

“Madam,” he says gravely, “I am truly flattered – alas! I prefer the company of men.” He holds her gaze for an instant, allowing her to take in the meaning of his words.

If anything, this confession makes him even more popular with the army wives, for each one determines to succeed where all others have failed. Undeterred, Barry continues to charm them all whilst preserving his identity as a somewhat effeminate but excellent doctor.

He has been in Mauritius for a year when a letter arrives from Lady Francesca telling him that Lord Charles is very ill. Risking his career, Barry departs immediately for England where the Somersets have their family residence. He tells himself it is time he saw his daughter, but Charles occupies his mind fully, first on the journey back to Cape Town and then on the long voyage from Africa to Portsmouth. While the boat cuts through the water, he muses on his lover’s symptoms. He treated Lord Charles for syphilis years ago when the man developed blotchy red rashes on his soles and palms and started losing his hair. He’d thought at the time that the mercury injections he’d given had eradicated the pox, but what if Sir Charles has merely been experiencing a latent stage until now?  Has the syphilis returned; and, more worrying still, does that mean that he, Barry, is also at risk?

He is shocked to see how visibly Charles has aged when he finally reaches the family seat in Worcester. The once handsome face is now disfigured by weeping sores and skin and bones seem irreparably damaged. He examines Charles methodically while Francesca waits outside the room. It is as he thought: the advanced stages of Cupid’s disease are affecting Somerset’s internal organs and cardiovascular system, and even mercury injections will be of little use now.

It takes two years for Charles to die. Barry is aware that he could be court-martialled for leaving his post without permission, but he cannot abandon his grand passion. He and Francesca take it in turns to nurse the man they both love, she remaining as oblivious to Barry’s true feelings as she is to his gender. He has never explicitly said what ails her husband, but he thinks she has guessed; and he is amazed at her fortitude in continuing to care for a man who has been so constantly inconstant.

The funeral takes place one wintry morning, the weather aptly reflecting Barry’s frozen heart. He is a valued family friend, a so-called ‘adopted’ brother, but there is no suitable outlet for his grief and he feels like Hamlet, forced to watch in frustration as Laertes flings himself into Ophelia’s grave. He cannot mourn Charles as a lover so his tears must go unshed.

Leaving England soon after this, Barry finds himself posted first to Jamaica and then to Saint Helena. It seems he is fated to spend all of his career abroad when he is sent next to the Leeward Islands and Westward Islands of the West Indies. As he did so effectively in Cape Town, Barry focuses on improving what he can, tacking both medicine and management as well as the conditions of the troops. No one is surprised when he is promoted again – this time to Principal Medical Officer: when it comes to administration, he is a whirlwind, seeing immediately what needs to be done and organising everyone and everything effortlessly.

In 1845, more than thirty years after becoming an army medical officer, Barry contracts yellow fever and takes temporary sick leave, returning to England for the first time since Charles’s death. By now, his daughter is twenty-six and married to a country curate. It is a good match for a girl who is technically illegitimate and Barry feels grateful to Francesca for treating his so-called niece so well.

Once recovered and cleared for duty, Barry is sent to Malta. Now in his fifties, he shows no signs of slowing down, dealing with a cholera epidemic in 1850 and earning the grudging respect of most of the officials he has so far offended. Feeling he has nothing to lose since Somerset’s death, he now cultivates rudeness to the point of making it an art form, yet this does not prevent him from being promoted to the rank of Deputy Inspector-General of Hospitals in Corfu. The post is a prestigious one, but Barry has set his heart on the Crimea and is disgruntled to have his wishes thwarted. He compensates by spending his leave there instead.

As the years pass, his interest in the Crimea grows as England becomes part of an alliance of several countries involved in a war there with Russia. Reports have filtered through to England about the horrific conditions for the wounded soldiers and Barry is desperate to help in some way but is refused. His frustration grows when he hears of a woman some thirty years his junior who has been sent there, under the authorisation of the Secretary at War, Sidney Herbert, with a staff of 38 women volunteer nurses that she has trained herself; and he wonders bitterly whether he too might have had the same opportunities as a woman in the field of medicine had he, like Florence Nightingale, been born to wealthier parents. When he finally meets the woman during a visit to Scutari Hospital in 1854, he cannot avoid becoming embroiled in an argument with her.

“Do you think,” he asks somewhat aggressively, “that you would have accomplished more had you been a man?”

Nightingale, who has taken exception to his heavy-handed approach and tactless manner, replies spiritedly that she has for some time believed that women can be equals to men.

“It must be easy to follow a career when your father gives you an income of £500 per annum,” Barry says acidly.

“No amount of money can compensate for the struggles women have to face in defying the social codes expected of them!” she exclaims in a passion. “Were you not a man, you would soon realise that!”

And, indeed, Barry is aware that he would not have been able to study for a medical degree as a woman – let alone qualify as a surgeon or join the army. Nevertheless, he cannot help feeling irritated that she has carved out a name for herself without having to put on a pair of breeches.

In later years, Nightingale will remember their meeting, calling Barry a blackguard and claiming that he “behaved like a brute”, and it will be Nightingale’s name in the history books and not Barry’s.

A last official posting to Canada sees Barry continuing to improve sanitary conditions. A strict vegetarian, he takes a keen interest in the common soldier’s diet as well as that of their families and does what he can to educate them about nutrition. As before in The Cape, he fights for better medical care for prisoners and lepers, inciting the wrath of officials and military officers when he campaigns on behalf of the poor and other underprivileged groups. Florence Nightingale may be improving nursing standards in a few hospitals in the Crimea, but he, Barry, will affect thousands more lives in the British Empire.

Pushing himself so hard begins to take its toll and the army forces him to retire in 1859 due to ill health and old age. Barry is seventy by this time, although his records claim he is sixty-five.  He lives quietly in London for another six years before finally succumbing to dysentery and dying on 25th July 1865.

It is only now that Barry’s secret is discovered. He has spent 56 years as a man, insisting on always undressing in a room on his own, but the charwoman who lays him out goes to the press with her scandalous story, condemning contemporary doctors for not knowing that the man she has been cleaning for was really a woman. All of a sudden, many people claim to have “known all along”; whereas the British Army, embarrassed by the woman’s story, seal all records of their former employee for the next one hundred years. So successful are they in suppressing the truth that over a hundred and fifty years after Barry’s death, his name and true identity remain virtually unknown.

Like The Prose Day 26

Today’s story asks the fundamental question “What makes us human?” If you had to decide whether or not someone was a robot or a human, and you could ask only one question to help you decide, what would it be?

I’ve taken my inspiration from modern day game shows/reality TV – and the answer to the above question may surprise you.

What Makes Us Human

“So, Laura – are you going to be able to tell whether you’re dating a human or an android?”

The TV presenter’s teeth are unnaturally perfect as he smilingly asks the question. He sits opposite Laura, the backdrop behind them both proclaiming ‘The Perfect Partner?’ in massive letters. A banner travels across the screen: ‘Sponsored by AI Unlimited.’ The audience waits expectantly.

Laura twiddles a brunette ringlet in her fingers, obviously trying to give the impression of thinking hard – although the whole audience knows this ‘reality show’ is scripted. “I guess so,” she says at last. Turning to face the camera, she laughs. “I mean, how hard can it be, right?”

Larry Loveheart – it’s his real name; he changed it by deed poll – winks at the audience. “Well, if AI Unlimited have done their job properly, then you should have your work cut out deciding which of the guys you’re going to meet in a few minutes is actually real!” The crowd applauds. “But first, let’s remind our audience what you’re looking for in the perfect boyfriend…”

He takes a sip of the clear liquid in the glass in front of him as the camera cuts to a pre-recorded segment: Laura is in her bedroom, opening her heart to the millions of viewers she hopes are watching her.

“I want a man who’s good-looking, and tall –”

“How tall are you?” a voice interrupts.

“Uh, five eight, I think. And he should be intelligent – you know, with a college degree – and be kind to animals and be respectful.”

“What do you mean by ‘respectful’?”

Laura appears to be thinking. “He should be honest,” she declares at last. “I don’t want a cheater. And he should treat me like a lady. I’m all for feminism, you know, but I still like it when a man buys me flowers or opens a door for me.”

There is some jeering from the audience at this last sentence. Larry Loveheart ignores it, turning to face the camera once more.

“Well, let’s see if either of the guys we’ve brought here tonight is going to live up to your expectations. Let’s meet Date Number 1!”

There is more applause as the back-screen splits in half to reveal an aesthetically perfect young man in his twenties. Classically handsome in a blond, Scandinavian type of way, he has several members of the audience literally on the edge of their seats with excitement. As the crowd cheers, he makes his way down the steps towards Laura and then kisses her on the cheek.

“Laura,” Larry Loveheart can tell that she likes this one, “Sven is twenty-six, he’s a marine biologist and you’ll be happy to know he’s six feet tall!”

“Can’t I just make my choice now?” Laura asks impishly, reading off the autocue.

The audience laughs, but Larry shakes his head.

“No, we’re going to let you meet Date Number 2, and that’s Marco from Italy!”

Once more, the back-screen splits open and the audience erupts again as a second man descends in Laura’s direction. Marco is equally tall and handsome, although this time in an olive-skinned, dark-haired-with-come-to-bed-eyes kind of way.

“Marco is twenty-seven,” proclaims Larry. “He’s also a male model –” (cue wolf whistles) “with a degree in literature and he owns an Irish wolfhound named Mitzi!”

Laura looks from one man to the other, obviously confused.

“So,” Larry remarks chattily, “any ideas at the moment which one of these guys is the real deal, Laura?” Without waiting for a response, he appeals to the audience. “What about all of you? Which one would you choose?”

He holds the pause just a fraction longer until the fade to commercial.

*

Audience figures for the pilot episode are phenomenal. Social media is flooded that week with people speculating about which of Laura’s dates is really human and which the AI imposter. There’s also a lot of interest in just how realistic the android might be. ‘Do you think,’ tweets one curious fan, ‘that their date’s over at the end of the evening – or does it go further than that?’ The press is equally prurient, hanging outside Laura’s flat to see if she’s on her own when she leaves for work the following morning and printing obviously posed photos of the nights out. She is snapped with Sven at the cinema and with Marco at a nightclub, and there are pictures of her with both men (although not at the same time, obviously) in some of the most exclusive restaurants, causing bookings to skyrocket.

Laura, meanwhile, feels increasingly more confused. When she is with Sven, she loves the way he listens intently to everything she says, leaning in close, fixing her with those hypnotic blue eyes. His lips when he kisses her are so soft and real that she thinks he must be human; but Marco’s lips are just as seductive and his attention equally flattering. One of them has to be a robot – but what if the TV company’s just messing with her head and they’re both of them real men after all?

*

The second episode sees her back in the studio, flanked on either side by her two dates. She has six weeks to make up her mind, but how can she bear to part with either of them? The audience is also indecisive with half of them rooting for Marco and half for Sven; while the general public has been voting with its wallet, placing staggering bets on one or the other until the bookies stop taking any more wagers.

“So,” Larry asks Laura as the camera pans from her to Sven to Marco and then back to her again, “have you decided yet?”

The autocue flashes her prompt. “Do you mean have I decided which guy I want to keep on dating, or which guy’s the robot?” she asks playfully.

The audience applauds and there are yells of “Sven!” and “Marco!” in equal number.

Larry settles comfortably into his chair. “Well, let’s look at some of your highlights so far…”

A montage of dates flashes across the screen. Laura and Marco walk hand in hand through a park, stopping to gaze at squirrels and delighting over one who boldly approaches them, sniffing at Marco’s shoes. They feed ducks; they buy ice cream. The camera pauses as Marco notices a blob of ice cream on Laura’s nose and gently kisses it away. The audience sighs, high on romance.

We then see footage of Sven taking Laura to the aquarium, wearing his marine biologist hat as he explains the different species of fish. The audience fidgets slightly, wanting something a little more physical. They enter a room with an enclosure full of rays and Sven shows her how to stroke the delicate, pancake-like creatures. His arm steals round her waist as she does so and the audience sighs once more as he hugs her to him before leaning over and kissing her on the lips.

*

Episode Three offers more of the same. The audience is becoming ridiculously invested in these characters to the extent that every newspaper every day carries photos and articles about the nation’s three favourite people. Meanwhile, someone puts forward the theory that perhaps Laura is the android; and the rumour is fuelled even further when the television network declines to comment.

In all this, Laura finds herself fluctuating on a daily basis. When she is with Sven, she thinks he’s The One: the perfect boyfriend she’s always dreamed of; but the following day, when she sees Marco, she finds herself preferring him. Her emotions are a ping pong ball, ricocheting around in an endless volley for the audience’s amusement.

*

By Episode Seven – the final one in the series – she’s spent six weeks with Sven and Marco and pre-orders for AI Unlimited’s ‘Perfect Partner’ droid have gone through the roof. She’s still no closer to making a decision: she likes both of them, even – dare we use the word? – thinks she may be in love. But tonight, she will have to decide and tell the world not only which man she thinks is a robot but which one she wants to pursue a relationship with.

The opening credits roll across the screen as the camera pans across the studio audience, some waving banners with ‘Select Sven!’ and others proclaiming ‘Marry Marco!’ in large colourful lettering. When it finally rests on Larry Loveheart, everyone leans forward expectantly. The network’s promised a big surprise for tonight’s finale and they can’t wait to find out what it is.

Ever the consummate professional, Larry rattles through his greeting with ease before turning to Laura and giving her an encouraging smile. “So,” he says, “it’s been six weeks since your adventure started and tonight you’re going to tell us which one of these wonderful men is a robot – if you guess right, you win a substantial cash prize and, more importantly, the opportunity to keep the Perfect Partner droid.” The audience claps and whistles. “As we all know, the Perfect Partner is the latest in a series of ultra-realistic androids from AI Unlimited, our sponsors for this show. Let’s just listen to what their CEO, Martin Jackson, has to say about this product.”

In the segment that follows, Jackson explains the rationale behind his company’s decision to ‘construct bespoke significant others’. “It’s all very simple,” he says, making direct eye contact with the camera. “You choose your specification and we programme the droid to act in accordance with everything you’ve asked for. We can include an anti-nagging function, for example, or a romance chip…” (Cue studio laughter.) “…for all those women who’re fed up with never receiving cards or flowers on anniversaries or birthdays. Basically, we’re giving you all the best bits of someone’s personality with none of the flaws. And we’re just as careful with the outer packaging too: thanks to a recent technological breakthrough, every droid we make has synthetic skin and body parts that feel and function just like the real thing. In addition, the lithium battery has been adapted to last for seventy years which should be more time than most people need!”

The camera returns to Larry, flashing his impossibly white teeth in a smile that doesn’t quite manage sincerity. “So, there you go: the Perfect Partner is exactly what it promises: someone who lives up to all the expectations you’ve given the company. Laura, let’s just remind ourselves what you said you were looking for.”

We’re back in Laura’s bedroom, watching her once more as she specifies a man who’s good-looking, tall, intelligent and respectful. As she repeats the word ‘honest’, the video clip freezes and Larry turns to Laura, his expression now almost predatory.

“Honesty’s very important to you, isn’t it, Laura?”

“Well, yes, but…”

“So how would you feel,” Larry continues relentlessly, “if I said that one of your dates may – and I have to emphasise that word may – have cheated on you this week?”

The audience gasps. Laura’s face turns white.

“You said last week that you found it hard to decide, Laura. Well, you have the opportunity now to ask both your dates a question that might help you make that decision.”

Laura turns first to Sven. “Sven, have you cheated on me?” she asks.

Sven looks hurt by the suggestion. “Sweetheart, why would I do that? You know I love you!”

The audience sighs with relief.

She now addresses Marco. “Marco, I’m going to ask you the same question: have you cheated on me?”

Marco’s face crumples as he gives his reply. “I’m sorry, Laura. I love you, I really do; but earlier this week, a girl approached me in a bar – you were seeing Sven that night – and…” His voice breaks. “Well, one thing led to another,” he finishes awkwardly. “I’m so sorry, but I can’t lie and pretend it never happened.”

The hurt in Laura’s eyes in unbearable as she hears this confession. Meanwhile, the audience starts to boo Marco.

“So, does that make your decision any easier?” Larry asks. “After all, you did say you wanted a boyfriend who was honest – someone who’s ‘not a cheater’.”

“I…” Laura’s floundering, but it seems like the surprise isn’t over yet.

“We’ll be back after the break,” Larry announces jovially, “with yet another twist before Laura chooses her Perfect Partner. Stay tuned!”

As the cameras pull back, Laura tearfully faces Marco. “How could you do this to me? I just don’t understand.”

*

The audience is buzzing by the time the final segment starts. But then Larry drops his bombshell.

“Laura, you’re understandably upset with Marco, but how would you feel if we told you we made him cheat on you?”

“What?” Laura looks confused.

“In fact, we told both your dates to cheat on you this week – as this footage proves!”

In a daze, Laura watches the film that now plays. Marco is sitting in a bar. A pretty girl approaches him and starts making advances. At first, Marco tries to ignore her, but eventually he allows her to sit down next to him and the two share a bottle of wine as they indulge in conversation. She’s obviously doing her best to seduce him, but he remains resolute – until the end of the evening when she gets up to leave, then turns and plants a kiss on his lips. The camera zooms in to Marco’s surprised expression, then to their lips approaching again. The second kiss lasts much longer and the audience is obviously expecting him to follow her outside, but instead, he waves her goodbye and she leaves on her own.

“That’s how you cheated on me?” Laura sounds amazed. “You didn’t sleep with her: you just kissed her?”

Marco nods, looking ashamed. The audience buzzes.

It’s now Sven’s turn. He’s sitting in the same bar, at the same table, when the same girl approaches. The scene plays out like the one with Marco – except when the girl kisses him at the end, Sven looks around furtively before following the girl outside. Cameras pick out the two of them climbing into a taxi together and disappearing off into the night.

There is a shocked silence. The audience cannot believe what it’s just seen.

Laura looks at Sven. “You lied to me!” she accuses.

He looks embarrassed. “I didn’t know they were filming.”

“But you lied,” she repeats.

“Only because I didn’t want to hurt you, Babe.”

The audience mutters angrily.

“So, Laura…” Larry takes charge once more. “Which one of your dates is the android?”

“Marco,” Laura says without hesitation.

“And you’ve come to that conclusion because…?”

“He was honest with me,” Laura declares. Her eyes glisten with tears. “He didn’t try to save himself like Sven did – he told me he’d done something wrong, even though he knew it might stop me choosing him as my boyfriend.”

“Well, Laura, you’re – absolutely right!”

The crowd goes wild.

“So,” Larry continues as the noise dies down, “who are you going to choose as your boyfriend? Will it be perfect Partner Marco who’ll never lie to you; or love rat Sven who cares more about himself than you?”

The crowd’s keyed up for her to say Marco’s name, but when she utters “Sven” there is a chorus of disbelief. Even Larry looks surprised.

“Do you mind telling us why Sven and not Marco?” he asks politely.

Laura sighs. “I think, maybe, I didn’t know what I wanted. I thought total honesty was important, but when it comes down to it, I was happier not knowing I’d been cheated on. You see, Sven’s lies didn’t just protect him: they protected me as well.” The audience’s outrage rumbles. “AI Unlimited gave me what I thought I wanted,” she continues, “but they’ve given me something I know I can’t live up to myself. That’s why I’m picking Sven, with his human flaws – I guess I’m just not perfect enough for a Perfect Partner.”

Like The Prose Day 25

Today’s piece is a little difference since I haven’t actually written any of it myself. Instead, I’ve experimented with a form of Dadaism called ‘cut up writing’ which seemed to lend itself quite well to writing from the perspective of a character whose mind is fragmented so that he is emotionally and mentally ‘in pieces’. I will leave you to decide for yourselves whether the object of his infatuation is real.

In Pieces

From the first day I saw her, I knew she was the one. She stared in my eyes and smiled. She was more beautiful than any woman I’d seen. Her lips were the colour of the roses that grew down the river, all bloody and wild.

How can I tell you that I love you but I can’t think of right words to say? When you are too in love to let it show. But if you never try, you’ll never know.

“Oh, my love, my darling! I’ve hungered, for your touch. My nights are oh so lonely – come and lay down your head.” (You’ll be mine tonight.)

Do you know what you have done? Do you know what you’ve begun?

When you love someone, it will ignite your bones. Between the tick and the tock, I know you. I feel my arms around you like a sea around a shore.

In silence and darkness, we held each other near that night. We prayed it would last forever.

*

Tender nights before they fly; golden days before they end. How can it last forever? I was all right for a while but it breaks your heart in two to know that she’s untrue. I’m caught up in a whirlwind and my ever-changing moods ignite my fear. No room for conversation.

How can I tell you that I love you but I can’t think of right words to say?

Cold stares and angry words fall in pieces from our faces.

“You’re not the man who gave me everything I’ve ever wanted – that was someone who could do no wrong. That was someone who you left behind a long time ago.”

I long to tell you that I’m always thinking of you but my words just blow away.

“We cannot live together.”

 We cannot live apart.

Between the tick and the tock, your features are changing. Every time I look at you, I can see the future and I’m sad that you’re throwing it all away.

There’s nothing I can say. I promise you I will learn from all my mistakes. Is there nothing that I can say to make you change your mind?

Throwing it all away. Someday you’ll be sorry.

Can’t you see what you are doing to me? Can’t you see what you have done?

I watch the world go round and round and see mine turning upside down.

How long before the pain ends? Tell me where living starts.

The past is knowledge – the present our mistake and the future we always leave too late.

*

 Her lips were the colour of the roses that grew down the river, all bloody and wild. But I’m caught up in a whirlwind: I’ve more pain than I can bear. Caught up in a whirlwind and my ever-changing moods ignite …  Every flame that ever moved you, touched your lips but never mine. Do you see we shall never be together again?

I kissed her goodbye; said, “All beauty must die.” With a careful hand, I tear your body to the ground, smother your cries. Her lips covered red, she feels the pain with surprise. Past. Present. Between the tick and the tock, the dust settles all around me.

Now see what you’ve gone and done.

My trembling subsided. Tears ran down my face. She was more bloody than any woman I’d seen. All bloody. Take a look at the beautiful river of blood.

Can’t you see what you have done?

Tears come streaming down your face when you lose something you cannot replace. The past is knowledge – the present our mistake … Now I’ve lost everything. All of my life.

*

It used to be a sweet sensation when we held each other between the tick and the tock in a world I used to know before. Now I’ve lost everything, I miss you more. I look and you’re not there. I would search everywhere just to hear your call.

*

The grey of evening fills the room. Daylight turns to moonlight. I reach across to touch her but I know that she’s not there. I almost believe that she is here in the glow of the night. Aching back, my breath coming fast, my feet getting lighter, I feel kind of dizzy. I need your love. And when the morning comes upon us, I’ll be holding you so close to me.

Author’s note: This piece is composed entirely of lyrics from the following songs: ‘Where The Wild Roses Grow’, Nick Cave; ‘How Can I Tell You?’, Cat Stevens; ‘Fix You’, Coldplay; ‘Unchained Melody’, The Righteous Brothers; ‘Smallcreep’s Day’, Mike Rutherford; ‘Ruby Love’, Cat Stevens; ‘In the Glow of the Night’, Genesis; ‘It’s Over’, Roy Orbison; ‘Crying’, Roy Orbison; ‘Ever Changing Moods’, The Style Council; ‘Burning Buildings’, Elton John; ‘You’re Not The Man’, Sade; ‘Throwing It All Away’, Genesis; ‘Snowbound’, Genesis; ‘Afterglow’, Genesis; ‘The Last Domino’, Genesis.

Mostly complete lines have been used, but in some places, I’ve split several lyrics to form one sentence.

Like The Prose Day 24

24th June is National Writing Day in the UK and this year, First Story have set a nationwide challenge to write a 24 words story in 7 minutes, starting with the words ‘One day…’

I’ve decided to try several of these throughout the day, aiming for a different genre in each one. Each story starts with ‘One day’, but I have also added the genre in bold so I can keep a record of all the different styles I attempt. In the spirit of the day, I will aim for 24 genres.

  1. Celebrity Romance: One day was all it took for them both to fall in love – but their separation and divorce dragged out for several months.
  2. Environmental: One day, the sun rose in the west and set in the east – and that’s what global warming has done for the entire planet.
  3. Horror: One day, the dead rose from their graves, zombies stalked the streets and Jessica discovered that she had chipped one of her expensive nails.
  4. Action adventure: One day, a fearless adventurer travelled to the Antarctic to retrieve a long-lost artefact. After many hair-raising experiences, he died without reaching his goal.
  5. Fantasy: One day, Gandalf sent dwarves on a quest with Bilbo. They escaped trolls, found a ring, battled a dragon and were back by teatime.
  6. Sci-fi: One day in the future, a giant meteorite will hurtle towards the earth. People will panic but the big name movie stars will survive.
  7. YA: One day, a daisy told her that he loved her, so she waited for him to ask her to the Prom. The daisy lied.
  8. Up-lit: One day, the lonely man on the autistic spectrum realised he was perfect material for an uplifting tale about how anyone can find love.
  9. Rom-com: One day, she met a man she hated on sight; but after many mishaps, they fell in love, married and lived happily ever after.
  10. Classic literature: One day, Cathy’s father brought home an unkempt urchin. Cathy and Heathcliff loved each other passionately, but their tragic relationship was doomed to fail.
  11. Thriller: One day after the pandemic hit the world, a journalist with integrity began to uncover a conspiracy. Would he live to tell the tale?
  12. Western: One day, a stranger rode into Dodge City, swaggered into the saloon and ordered a tequila. “We’re all out of that,” said the barman.
  13. Fairy tale: One day, the three bears came home to find someone had eaten all their porridge. “I should have locked the door,” said Father Bear.
  14. Crime: One day, a body was found in the library, leaking blood all over the First Editions. Poirot and Marple were both baffled by this.
  15. Comedy: One day, an incompetent university lecturer attended his professor’s house party, insulted the guests and set fire to a bed. Not so lucky, Jim.
  16. Mythology: One day, Theseus entered the labyrinth and slew the fearsome minotaur. Ariadne wept at her brother’s loss and again when Theseus callously abandoned her.
  17. Classic children’s fiction: One day, Alice fell down a rabbit hole and found herself terrorised by talking animals, a psychotic Hatter and some rather dubious playing cards.
  18. Political satire: One day, the government told people to stay home and save lives; now we’re told to go to the pub and save the economy.
  19. The American novel: One day, George left Lennie on his own while he went out with the other hands. Who could’ve known Lennie would kill Curley’s wife?
  20. Russian literature: One day, Dimitri Vlostovsky heard that Marina was accused of killing her husband. Crime and punishment merged into one the more vodka he drank.
  21. Supernatural: One day more was all she needed to achieve her goal of escaping the otherworld and taking human form. Unfortunately, the Ghostbusters got her.
  22. Shakespearean: One day was all it took for Romeo to marry Juliet, kill her cousin and be banished by the prince. They both died later.
  23. Historical: One day, Cromwell, received some unfortunate news: the king wished to execute Anne Boleyn and marry another. Love always made him lose his head.
  24. Autobiographical: One day, I will write something that truly comes from the heart and not because I am merely following someone else’s random writing prompt.

Like The Prose Day 23

These days, emails and texts have replaced the art of letter writing, but what happens if the email address has a mistake such as a .com instead of a .co.uk? This story is based on a real experience when I found I was receiving emails for someone else with the same name as me – although real life started and ended with a polite message to the sender to let her know of her mistake. In this story, I imagine what life would be like for two people who meet via a wrongly sent email and whether such an occurrence would ever end in something more than friendship.

Sender Unknown

Francesca Greenstone rereads the email, feeling perplexed.

“Hi Fran,” it begins. “It was good to see you and the kids last weekend. I think Mum enjoyed having us together under one roof again, despite the noise. Any thoughts for a present for her birthday? J x”

What kids? she wonders. And, Who on earth is this person?

It’s obviously a case of mistaken identity: the only friends she has whose names begin with J are Justine and Julie from work, and they never get together at weekends. Besides, she thinks now, wrinkling her forehead as she tries to remember, she spent most of last weekend in bed with a migraine. Whoever this email was meant for, it definitely wasn’t her.

*

It takes another three emails – one thanking her for choosing the scarf which “Mum really loved” and the other two asking about holiday plans – before she can pluck up the courage to reply, apologetically, that “I think you’ve got the wrong person.”

Almost immediately, she receives another message. “So sorry. I must have mistyped my sister’s email address – she’s Fran Greenstone too, but .com and not .co.uk. Jon”

Greenstone isn’t a common name. A part of her wonders whether they might be related in some way, but she’s too reserved to ask. Besides, if his sister has children, she’s probably married and inherited the name ‘Greenstone’ as part of the deal.

*

She doesn’t hear again from Jon for weeks, is on the verge of emailing him to check he’s okay when another erroneously addressed message pops up on her screen. Her feeling of pleasure at noticing the signature is dispelled instantly as she peruses the contents. His wife has left him and he is struggling to cope.

Impulsively, she types a response. “It’s me again – the wrong Fran. I’m so sorry about your wife.”

She’s not expecting him to answer, but he sends a brief line, thanking her for her support and promising to try not to make the same mistake again. Does he mean marrying the wrong woman, or emailing the wrong person? she wonders, thinking about how lonely he must feel – how lonely she herself is – with no significant other to share life’s ups and downs.

*

Over the next few months, he emails her regularly, laying bare his heart as he talks about the break-up and how much he misses his wife. She too knows the pain of abandonment – was going to get married years ago but was left, not at the altar but at the reception, when she caught her hours-old husband kissing another woman. Wisely, she mentions none of this in her exchanges with Jon – this isn’t about her: it’s about him and getting him through the pain. From time to time, she allows herself to dream that their virtual relationship will blossom into something more; but she’s never even seen a photo of him, knows next to nothing about him apart from the pain he’s poured out recently. Instead, she is his shoulder to cry on, the sounding board for his questions, the safe harbour in his sea of confusion. If only, she thinks wistfully from time to time, someone loved me enough to miss me like that.

*

Gradually, as time passes, his venting becomes more infrequent and so do his emails. It’s almost as if fate conspired to push both of them together at a time when Jon needed it most but is now gently prising them apart again so that life can begin once more. If she feels a twinge of loss at his withdrawal, she says nothing: serendipity introduced them but didn’t promise a happy ending. Perhaps sometimes, she thinks, friendship has a predetermined shelf-life, and the date on her connection with Jon has already expired.

She still checks her inbox on a daily basis, but his name has been absent for months. From time to time, she tells herself that this is a good thing, that he’s moved on; nevertheless, she finds she misses those emails from a man she didn’t know.

*

Christmas comes, and with it an e-greeting from some website or another, depicting an animated snowman and other suitably festive clichés. The message reads simply, ‘Thanks for helping me out last summer, J x’

She dutifully sends a reply: some carol-singing mice who squeak ‘We wish you a merry Christmas’ when the attachment is opened. She’d much prefer a physical card, but they’ve never exchanged addresses or even phone numbers: they exist for each other only within the shadowy world of the internet.

*

For some years, their communication is intermittent at best – birthday wishes; the odd joke. He’s met someone else now, and so has she; but she still dreams of what might have been, rereading all of his old emails on the nights when Rick’s working late. It isn’t cheating, she tells herself: she and Jon never kissed, never even met. All the same, she can’t resist letting her mind wander into the realms of ‘What if …’ She still doesn’t know what Jon looks like, but she imagines someone tall and dark, perhaps with curly hair; visualises them meeting by chance in the city, on a train, in the park … She feels as if her soul would recognise his, as if something inexplicable would draw them together. Lying in bed, she tries not to picture his hands cupping her face as he kisses her tenderly; attempts to shut out the longing she feels to see him just once, to put her mind at rest.

*

It seems like a cruel twist of fate when the final misdirected missive for his sister turns up in her inbox, but at least the wedding photo shows her what Jon looks like, smiling at his new bride with all the optimism of fresh love. Her hand hovers over the ‘download’ icon, then she thinks better of it and presses ‘delete’ instead. Closing her laptop, she turns to the man sitting next to her and tries not to think of the emails that she will no longer receive.

Like The Prose Day 22

Today’s piece is another one that takes an historical figure and imagines what may have inspired his work. William Blake was a visionary artist, a poet and a radical thinker – if you want to have a look at some of his artwork, click here: https://www.google.com/search?q=william+blake+paintings&sxsrf=ALeKk02G0ZmV1QBZVHr8W4GXdilRfmKC7g:1592900331410&source=lnms&tbm=isch&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwiY8amTwJfqAhVaUhUIHcuHBE8Q_AUoAXoECCIQAw&biw=1366&bih=625

Angels Dancing

He saw angels dancing.

Will must have been around eight or ten when he first saw the angels. He and some other boys had been playing on the common when he looked up to see a tree filled with glorious, radiant creatures, their bright, angelic wings bespangling every branch like stars. For a moment, he could not move, captivated by the shining beauty he saw before him. Seconds later, the vision disappeared, but Will held the memory, hugging it tight as he fell asleep that night and carrying it around with him for months afterwards.

The next time he saw them, he was in his chamber, busily working on a sketch for his mother. He had already tried several times – albeit unsuccessfully – to capture the sense of awe he had felt at that first meeting; but the seraphim that flowed from his pencil looked clumsy and awkward on paper – almost, he thought, as if it did not want to be recorded for human eyes.

It was as he was thinking thus that his eye caught sight of a hazy shape in the corner of the room. Without turning his head to look at it properly, he knew it was the angel he had been attempting to draw from memory. Keeping his gaze firmly fixed on the paper in front of him, he said slowly, “I know you’re there – and you’re real. Will you stay for long enough to let me copy your likeness?”

He said afterwards that the angel hadn’t uttered audible words yet it had spoken to him as plainly as his mother when she told him to blow out his candle or his father when he talked to him about books. He somehow knew instinctively that this time the being would not vanish as abruptly as before, and so he began turning his head little by little until he was staring at a creature made from fire and stars and sunlight all at the same time.

“Write this down,” said the angel, and its voice was the sound of many waters and its eyes burned into his very soul: “The angels of the Lord shall walk this earth again and great and terrible will be the suffering of those who choose not to believe.”

But Will was too busy trying to sketch the flowing robes and mighty wings to pay much attention to the actual words being said, and so, with a sigh, the angel shimmered out of existence – or at least out of the plane of existence as we know it.

*

Will’s mother was quite taken with the angel pictures he presented to her over the next few years. By now, he had been enrolled in drawing classes at Pars’s drawing school in the Strand. He was still an avid reader, and many of his sketches reflected his love of the Psalms, in particular, the ones that described the Lord of Hosts seated in a chariot made of thunderclouds or hurling bolts of lightning across the sky. For Will, Norse mythology and Christianity seemed to combine and his paintings were mysterious and vibrant, depicting fearsome battles between angels and demons, light and dark, fire and ice.

He did not tell anyone about the vivid dreams he had in which the angel that he had seen in his room visited him again, night after night, telling him that he was to use his eyes and ears and write down the evils he saw.

*

He was fourteen when he became apprenticed to an engraver, leaving his family and going to live on Great Queen Street where James Basire ran his business. Often, whilst running errands for his master, Will would find his gaze being drawn towards the injustices he saw. The angel’s words echoed in his mind: “And thou shalt use thine eyes and thine ears and shalt make a record of the evil that men do.”

There was plenty to note down. For the first time in his life, he became aware of the plight of the poor as day after day he noticed the marks of weakness and woe written on men’s faces, and his heart railed against the Church that turned away beggars and refused to help those who were most in need. What was it our Lord had said to the Pharisees? He had compared them to whited sepulchures full of rotting bones and that now seemed an apt way to describe the hypocrisy of established religion. At night, he drew the suffering he saw; but his heart was set on capturing it all in a series of engravings that would show the Almighty’s displeasure with the vipers who professed to be His representatives on earth.

Gradually, he began to detect the true face of humanity. It was as if he were seeing with the angel’s eyes and not his own – had that heavenly messenger been sent not merely to open Will’s eyes and ears but to give him a voice as well? Fragments of judgement danced in his brain: King and Church alike must be held to account for the suffering they had imposed on their fellow men and it was up to him, William Blake, to sever the mind-forged manacles the people wore.

*

He was twenty-one by the time he left Basire. He was now a fully qualified engraver and he longed to use his talent to fulfil the angel’s directive. He would produce a pamphlet full of the scenes that had so touched his heart. Others needed to know how tiny children as young as three were apprenticed to chimney sweeps and often died before reaching their tenth birthdays: their faces might be blackened with soot, but their souls shone far whiter than those of the priests who refused to intercede for them. There were so many innocents suffering needlessly, but he would record their misery and the songs of woe that surrounded them.

By now, he was a student at the Royal Academy and, to his delight, he found that he had kindred spirits there: others who felt as strongly as he did that some kind of social reform was needed. This conviction was further strengthened when he was caught up in a mob whilst en route to his old master’s shop in Great Queen Street and found that he was part of a crowd storming Newgate Prison. He could have sworn he saw the angelic host at the front of the crowd, waving flaming swords and encouraging the angry men to set the captives free.

It was now that his friends cautioned temperance. Will had already attained a reputation at the Academy due to his strange paintings. It was not just the style – figures painted in bold brush strokes with muscles and sinews standing out in stark relief as if to call attention to the physical power they contained: it was the subject matter itself. Where his contemporaries painted scenes that were easily recognisable from life, Will’s canvases were full of supernatural beings, and judgement and terror dripped from every tableau. He protested that he merely painted what he saw, but Joshua Reynolds and the other tutors were not impressed. Will was not concerned with Reynold’s disapprobation: the painter might be the president of the Academy, but Michaelangelo’s work was far more interesting to a young man who saw angels.

Leaving aside his controversial paintings for the time being, Will found himself becoming more engaged with politics. Through the meetings of The Society for Constitutional Reformation, he was able to voice many of the views he had hitherto been forced to keep secret; he eventually grew bold enough to start expressing these ideas in other social settings where they attracted the interest of a young woman, the sister of his friend George Cumberland. Will began to court the raven-haired beauty, thinking that she would make a good wife for him; however, she found his talk of angels disturbing and when he proposed marriage some months later, she refused.

Dejected and despondent, Will struggled to see his angel for a while. What good was it to paint hidden mysteries when the simple pleasures of life were denied him? He became morose, often sitting and staring into space for hours at a time without producing anything on his canvas.

It was as he was leaving the Academy one day that he quite literally bumped into a stranger walking down the street. Catching sight of some engravings tucked under Will’s arm, the unknown gentleman asked if he was an artist. Upon hearing that he was, Mr Boucher introduced himself and asked Will to dine with himself and his family that evening. Will would have refused were it not for the angel standing behind Mr Boucher, nodding his head approvingly.

That evening, Will found himself pouring out his heart to the Bouchers and their daughter Catherine, recounting the story of his lost love. “Do you pity me?” he asked, addressing the remark directly to Catherine. The girl blushed. At nineteen, she was five years younger than Will; and whereas Mary Cumberland had been his intellectual equal, being well-versed in the satire of the day, Catherine was illiterate. Nevertheless, there was something about her warm, green eyes and soft curves that attracted him – “Freya in human form,” he thought distractedly – and from that moment on, he began to woo her in earnest.

*

If Mary had driven his angel away, Catherine welcomed him with open arms. “Is he here now?” she would ask as they strolled hand in hand through the London streets and, “What is he telling you to observe?”

The two were married later that year and Will immediately set about teaching his wife to read and write. Putting aside his ‘Songs of Innocence’ until a later time, he began to write poetry that was more traditional in nature, inspired by the Elizabethan poets he so admired. Once he had enough for a slim volume, he printed enough copies of ‘Poetical Sketches’ for his friends and other interested parties. If he could make a name for himself as a poet now, the public might be more likely to take an interest in his political ‘Songs’ once they were finished. The poems were riddled with mistakes which Will hastened to correct with handwritten notes and did not achieve the admiration he had hoped for. Was this a reflection of his human pride, he wondered, in writing from his own heart and not penning the words the angel was giving him?

It was then that he decided he must return to his mission. He began walking the streets again, this time noting everything the angel showed him. He would write two pamphlets, he decided: ‘Songs of Innocence’ would show the world as most people saw it, and ‘Songs of Experience’ would reveal the shocking truth of man’s selfish existence, chronicling the evils that were rife in London. At Catherine’s suggestion, he illustrated each poem with one of his experimental inverse engravings. Art and literature would combine for the glory of God!

*

Throughout the years that followed, Will was faithful to the angel’s prompting, teaching Catherine to engrave so she could help him in his work. He returned to his painting, producing wild and wonderful canvases depicting man’s foolish pride and God’s immense glory. When people asked him what inspired his imagination, he replied simply that he painted what he saw. And in his mind, there were always angels dancing.

Like The Prose Day 21

Some writers like to set their stories in actual places – several of my novels are Birmingham based, for example, and make reference to landmarks such as Cannon Hill Park or New Street Station; whereas other people prefer to create their own landscapes, inventing towns and villages and painting pictures of imaginary countryside. Today’s piece mentions a real place (the Tower of London) and a real person (Queen Victoria) but the rest is completely fictional. Writing in the style of a brochure for visitors, I welcome you to the story of The White Elephant Gift Shop and Tea Room.

The White Elephant (A Visitors’ Guide)

            Visitors to the Tower of London often ask about the unusual gift shop. The White Elephant dates back to Victorian times and was built to commemorate the death of Rani, the white elephant presented to Her Majesty in 1877 by Prince Bir Chandra Manikya as a symbol of his respect to the new Empress of India.

Legends concerning the beast’s origins are well known in the Tripura State: it is told that Brahma, the Creator, originally made all elephants white and that the pachyderm was the purest of all his creatures; but as time went by, the elephant became proud and haughty and looked down his nose at the smaller animals beneath him, and so Shiva, the Destroyer, was granted permission to torment the elephant with termites that burrowed into his skin, causing him to roll on the ground in agony. Then Brahma took pity upon his favourite and allowed the mighty beast’s movements to crush his attackers, but he had rolled in the dust for so long that his once white skin was now grey. And so it was that the elephant received the colour he wears today; but once in a blue moon, a white elephant is born and is celebrated for its wondrous colour, and these beasts are revered as symbols of purity and are worth a king’s ransom due to their rarity. And any man who owns a white elephant must not put it to work but must care for it, bathing it daily in milk to maintain the colour of its skin; and it will not eat hay and fruit like other elephants but must be fed with the finest honey and with Yangmei berries and Pu Wei grass (which is purple in colour).

History records that Her Majesty was at first delighted with the gift, thinking that it might enable her to reopen the Tower of London menagerie which had been forced to close in 1835, two years before she came to the throne. However, most of the surviving creatures had already been moved to Regents Park to the institution we now know as the London Zoo, and her plan was further thwarted when she was reminded that animals at the Tower had, in the past, attacked and even eaten visitors and keepers.

The Queen was now faced with a dilemma: she had a large and somewhat temperamental white elephant which she could not house at any of her residences (in case the beast panicked and began to rampage: a creature that size could do irreparable damage to any of the royal grounds and buildings) and yet she could not give it away since to do so would be viewed as an insult to Prince Bir Chandra Manikya and Tripura State – if not the whole of India. Since her role as Empress was a recently announced one, she did not wish to say or do anything that might be perceived as inflammatory, wishing instead to establish her reign as a wise and gracious leader.

The problem was further complicated when Rani the elephant became ill. The finest animal doctors were sent for, but whereas their knowledge of dogs and horses marked them out as veterinarians par excellence, they confessed themselves at a loss to know how to treat this rare and exotic herbivore. Eventually, the Queen’s own physician was sent for and he prescribed washing the creature with a lotion of his own creation which, he claimed, contained herbs native to India that would restore the elephant’s vitality. In addition, she should be given meat twice daily to build her strength. These instructions were followed to the letter, but unfortunately the creature died, being ill equipped to digest the beef steak that had been fed to her by well meaning but ignorant keepers.

In order to avoid a diplomatic incident, a story was concocted that the elephant had contracted a rare disease whilst in transit; and since British ships were at the time renowned for their superiority over those of the other nations, it was suggested that the elephant had not been adequately housed in the hold during her journey from India and that she had inadvertently been exposed to germs which, although harmless to humans, were fatal to pachyderms. Her Majesty generously did not demand compensation for the loss of her elephant but magnanimously declared that she would honour the creature’s memory with the erection of a pavilion to be known as The White Elephant in the grounds surrounding the Tower. The gift shop you see today is housed within the original pavilion and its stunning architecture attracts visitors from all over the world on a daily basis. (Editor’s note: Due to Covid 19, the gift shop will remain closed for the foreseeable future.)

Patrons of the gift shop will notice immediately that all the stock has been carefully chosen to reflect the White Elephant theme: purchases are unnecessarily expensive whilst at the same time being utterly useless. Past favourites include: a Left Handed Spoon, made from wood with a carved elephant on the top (retailing at £27.99); an elephant-shaped, silver-plated Photo Frame with intricate metalwork that obscures most of the picture placed inside (£45.99); a cuddly Toy Elephant made with extremely rare white beaver fur (not vegan-friendly, child-friendly or fire-resistant; does not comply to British Safety Standards; RRP £950.00); and an elephant shaped Notebook, bound in genuine white elephant hide with an ivory pencil (RRP £600). (Editor: These items may be purchased online at www.whiteelephant@thetower.com.) The gift shop has had some slight refurbishment in recent years due to unsolicited arson attacks by various animal rights organisations, but we remain confident that it will endure its status as one of the Tower’s main attractions and that the newly opened White Elephant Tearoom at the back of the gift shop will continue to do a roaring trade in Jumbo Sausage Rolls, Elephant’s Foot pastries and Indian tea.

If you would like to make a booking, please see our website for further details. Coach parties and children’s birthdays can only be accepted with six months’ notice. Terms and conditions apply. (Editor: Virtual tours are currently available, including our Children’s Party Pack which offers interactive handling of the online goods, using the VR goggles provided, a song for the birthday child by Rani, the white elephant (played by a well known actor), and a boxed birthday cake in the shape of an animal. (Due to high demand, we cannot guarantee that this animal will be an elephant, but previous customers have praised the anteater, armadillo and wombat cakes they received in the Party Pack.) Your child will also receive a special elephant shaped birthday card from Rani.) All major credit cards accepted.

© whiteelephant@thetower.com, 2020