Well, I meant to post this on Halloween, but I forgot (as in, I was too busy covering the flat in velvet and candles ahead of our Halloween party). But anyway, here’s a Victorian-gothic short story of mine that was selected for publication in the “Show Us Your Shorts” story anthology 2016. I’m currently adapting it for a stage version.
A salty breeze. A coastal road. All is still and lilac-bathed.
Picture it now, from your vantage point on the hill: the sea, brooding over the jewel what has been stolen from it. The sky above, bruised and recoilin’ from its wrath. In the distance, creaking around the bend, a tiny cart, growing larger and larger, like the burn from a candle flame spoiling a canvas.
In the cart is a tall wooden crate, bound tight with rope and nailed shut. Through a crack you think you glimpse, for a moment, a sea-green eye, wild with rage.
The ‘orse is spooked; it snorts and tugs those reins. But the driver, an old humpback whale of a man – he don’t flinch. Around his neck hangs a silver key. His ears are stuffed with wax.
In the theatre, we have a name for he who brings bad luck: a Jonah.
According to the good book, the almighty well and truly got the spike with Jonah. Sent a storm to sink his ship and, to save their own skin, the sailors chucked the poor cove overboard. After that, it was all plain sailing for them — but not for Jonah. He got swallowed by a whale.
At Drury Lane I’d been the Jonah. From the moment I arrived it was one sag and non-sensation after another. Two months in, Mr. Harris — old Druriolanus himself – called me into his office and told me to, uh – make other arrangements!
The old cur.
Now, theatres are nothing if not superstitious; once you got the curse, it don’t lift. From Holborn to Waterloo Road, wherever I managed to charm my way in – and charm I can, when I put my mind to it – whispers of the curse would follow. And sure enough, strange and sinister coincidences would suddenly be recalled, the finger of blame would wend its way to me, and I’d be told to sling my hook.
But did I crawl home with my tail between my legs? Did I heck. How could I? Giddy fool that I was, my thespian turn had earned me a name as a right Duke o’ Seven Dials. Oh, there was plenty back home who’d be happy to put my eye in a sling. Bring me back down to earth with a fearful fright.
And so I forgot Covent Garden, forgot my hard-learned airs and graces, forgot the Shakespeare and the Sophocles and the slippery wit of that new cad, Wilde. Left to try the last of my sorry luck at the insalubrious establishments of the East End.
That’s when he found me: Silas. One part showman, one part thief-master and five foot ten of blustering blubber. Promised me the moon and stars. Said I’d have the whole audience in my pocket – if I’d only lighten their pockets for him, first.
Silas, the great Leviathan, who swallowed up the years of my life, one by one, without even taking the care to remember my name. And yet, I believed – silly bugger that I was –if I could only bring him fame, he would somehow lift the curse.
I’d been to see the living mermaid at Bayswater and stopped to take a gander of Portobello Market when I felt his fishy gaze on me.
So, he said. It’s sea monsters you’re after?
How he knew I’d come from the Aquarium was a mystery to me and I told him so. He gave a grin of sorts with his slit of a mouth, small eyes rolling in his gnarly head.
I’ve better than that to bait you with, my boy.
I followed him down the cellar steps. The arch of his mouth gleamed like a hook.
On the tips of my toes I peeped through the window to the auditorium. There was Bella, prancing about in her unmentionables, doing something truly indecent to “The Turner’s Oppor-tuner-ty”
Miss Crotchety Quaver was sweet seventeen and a player of excellent skill. She would play all the day, all the ev’ning as well, making all the neighbourhood ill –
And there, watchin’er, was Silas.
Gravy dripping in his beard, shovellin’ scran into his sauce-box, all the time watching Bella’s thighs like they was afters.
And to keep her piano in tune she would have a good tuner constantly there. And he’d pull up the instrument three times a week, just to keep it in proper repair –
No one could say our Bells weren’t a cracker. Her C sharp had been known to shatter a champagne glass.
and first he’d tune it gently, then he’d tune it strong /Then he’d touch a short note, then he’d run along / Then he’d go with vengeance enough to break the key / At last he tuned whene’er he got an oppor-tuner-ty!
Just as Bella reached her crescendo, Silas took a glug of ale and smashed his mug down on the table.
All right, my bushel bubby, That’s enough damage done. Walk your chalks.
But Silas! You said –
You ‘eard me!He waved his fork in her general direction. Hop the twig!
An eel’s head slimed across the floor.
Bella’s face turned red as her hair. She snatched up her clothes and stormed out near knocking me down on the way. I coughed.
Ooaroo?He said, through a mouthful of food.
Eli, boss. Been ‘ere five years.
Avya? As what? Back end o’the ‘orse?
Front end, sir.
He laughed at that. A great, spluttering laugh that sprayed food as far my feet.
Boss, I said, there’s someone ‘ere I’d, er – like you to meet – for the audition. The Siren audition.
He gave me a dirty grin. Lor’, what you done? Greened ‘er dress and promised ‘er a part? Well, my nug, I hope for your sake she can sing!
Oh, she don’t sing, boss. You don’t wanna ‘ear ‘er sing.
He stared at me then, chewin’ slowly with eyebrow raised, like a cat watching a mouse, deciding if it’s worth the trouble to kill it.
She’s a siren, boss, I said. Honest to god. She’s a real siren.
Alright– he said at last – Let’s see ‘er
I gave the girl the nod and she stepped out onstage, claws scratchin’ at the boards, the silver chain dragging behind her. The long white robe I’d put her in for modesty fell to the floor. Underneath, she was smooth as a pebble, hewn and polished by the tide. Her wings twitched and shivered. With a fearsome burst of power they began to fan apart — but caught on the chain of silver that looped them together.
‘Alf-chewed meat hung from Silas’ mouth. He began to choke. And I mean really choke — falling through the table, convulsing, blue-lipped, on the boards. With all my might, I crunched my arms around his huge waist. Bone and gristle skidded across the floor, leaving him gasping and rasping and raising his fat, shuddering paw to the girl – who stood, still as you like, the light from the window illuminating her wings and hair like a halo, looking for all the world, like – just like –
An angel! Myangel!
The stupid old fool.
Silas, the wily old cove, might’ve had an epiphany but he hadn’t lost his head. All through rehearsals the sign stayed up – ‘Siren – the sauciest show of the year!’
Painted in that twirly, half-done French way, with a redhead in her bloomers that looked a lot like poor Bells.
(A light comes up on Bells, posed as if in the poster. As ELI says the next line, the light fades out, as another light fades up on SILAS, on his knees, gazing in adoration at the SIREN, who sits on a swing suspended from the roof)
It was only when the tickets were sold and the crowd half-cut with gin that the new posters went up: Salvation! Silas serenading on his fat knees; his angel-girl with wings asunder.
From behind the curtain, I squinted at the art-made-flesh. Perched on ‘er swing, the girl was calm itself. Her wings still chained in place. Beyond, the crowd stank and cursed and roared.
Cat got yer tongue, yer chalky tart!?
I looked to the pit. All manner of scum was in tonight and all of it fuming. They’d come for a song and a scandal, all said. A pretty mute as a fat man’s cherub was hardly up to snuff. It’s all-a-cock, I muttered to myself, as a rotten onion skirted Silas’ head. Another cursed shipwreck.
’Scowenon? I looked down to see Silas’ newest foundling tugging at my sleeve.
They’re mad as hops, I said. It’ll be blood or beer for Silas tonight.
The toe-rag chewed his grubby lip.Why don’t it sing, Eli? In the stories they sing, don’t they? Yeah. They do. A feather drifted softly to the floor.
There she was, my slice of myth, dragged through sea and storm – for what? A nest of half-rats. A mob so used to tricks and freaks in travelling fairs it knew not what it saw. That gazed on a true thing of art, of epic, and cried for dugs and ditties.
A bottle smashed by my feet. In the shock of it I tripped, all but pulling the curtain down with me. A cackle ran around the hall. I glowered into the demonic hullabaloo, hating them — hating them all. I knew, now, I was no Jonah. Silas would never let me go. I would never tread the boards as anything more than a pantomime fool. The pit had got me, good and proper, and it would never spit me out.
Ripping the chain from my neck, I darted helter-skelter across the stage to the girl. The silver key slipped into the lock, as though with a sigh.
As her wings tore apart, the chains burst open, tiny links crumbling to dust as they scattered over the crowd. Confusion stopped the tongues of the mob. The siren breathed in, power flooding her body like a great wave. And she began to sing. I remembered the ear-plugs just in time – only the first unearthly note had broached my drums. But the crowd were taken in and done for.
They moved towards her, slow and dreamlike at first, then ravenous, a mad crush of bones and skulls. These scum, these creatures of the pit, the cursed dogs who drowned my dreams. Now they would drown, in a whirlpool of rage.
Picture it now, from your box on high: the sordid stage, the seedy din, made noble at last – London’s base half-rats clawing for beauty, baying for myth and epic as once they bayed for the creamy legs of a chorus girl. Picture it now, Ladies and Gentlemen, and tell me it is not a glorious thing.
A candle tips and blazes across the boozy floor, the flames leap up, but still the siren sings and sings. And I, cursed Jonah, am spat out at last.