I have finished the final draft of my book! I have been writing everyday for the past two years, often for as many as six hours a day, and now I don’t know what to do with myself. I am a past master at wandering off course and having a little chat, so to keep the plot moving without deviation, hesitation or repetition, requires a great deal of concentration, discipline and hard work. Developing characters, remembering who’s who, changing names, venues, sticking to an accurate time line, moving paragraphs and chapters around and remembering where you have put them, is mind-boggling. I am not complaining – far from it – I love writing, I love the challenge of keeping all the plates spinning, but now I have stopped I feel bereaved.
I shall leave the manuscript alone for a week or two now – we’re actually having a short holiday, then I’ll read it through yet again. If I am happy with it it’s off to the proof-readers, amend the text accordingly, format it and get it printed. This had been a long gestation,
The title has changed more times than I can recall, ROSE REMEMBERED, ROSE’S WAR, FOUR MILES FROM PARADISE, THE NINE LIVES OF ROSE, but now it is finished I am sure A FAR BETTER THING is the one. It is appropriate, intriguing and familiar enough to stick in the mind. So, to whet your appetites, I am posting the beginning here and now, It has not yet been proofread, so please be forgiving if there are typos etc. I will welcome your comments, which you can write on my face-book page – JB books and Things. I really hope you enjoy it and, most importantly, want to read more. If it proves popular I shall post the next installment,,,so let me know.
I am now off to find something to do…sleeping is very tempting.
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A FAR BETTER THING by Jennifer Button
Dawn stretched, yawned then stretched again. The daily battle to push back the night was both tedious and hard. Her light was too weak to count as daylight. It lay like another layer of litter on the un-swept cobbles., Ignoring the mangy dog, that rubbed its back monotonously against the railings of number twenty, she crept past the rat-run separating twenty-two and twenty-four, paused briefly on the top of the steps down to number twenty-six. Then, without hesitation, or regret, crossed to the pavement on the opposite side. It would be mid-day before any light touched the odd numbers, and those unfortunate enough to live in the basements, either odd or even, would never witness it. Such was the splendour of dawn. This was Paradise Road, Hackney. The year 1905.
Despite the repetitive, inauspiciousness of each day, down stone steps, in the basement of number twenty-nine, on June 28th a miracle was taking place. A baby, its head no larger than the halo of light around the solitary candle, was entering a world it had not chosen and in which it was not welcome.
The baby ─ breached, turned, yet, still alive ─ arrived fists first. It had beaten the odds. Bloodied and exhausted it screamed with such ferocity, its untested lungs should have burst. This baby was angry, seething with a precocious sense of injustice. It seemed to know that the poverty and squalor of its surroundings made it was one of life’s unfortunates. Its mouth was wide, with a pink, wet tongue which waggled frantically, as it gulped in the fetid air, searching for words it had yet to learn. Frustrated at having no other means of expressing its disgust, the baby bellowed and hollered, exerting such force, it blew the only candle out.
“Bleedin’ night births, more trouble than they’re bleedin’ worth.” The midwife cursed, as her knuckles rubbed her aching back. It had been a long night. Fumbling and swearing, she stubbed her toe on the table leg, found a spill, lit it from the ashes in the stove and relit the wax stub. Ma Thompson didn’t like night births. They took too long. She didn’t like this baby. It was also too long. Ma preferred short babies. They popped out easily, like shelling peas. Or else they died quietly and quickly. It was different when they were long, different again when they came breached. Ma had been a short baby. She was still short, barely four-foot three. She was also was fat ─ although no one dared to say so, to her face. However, Ma’s rotundity had not equipped her with a jovial nature. Moaning came naturally to her. In fact, it could be said, if one dared, that Ma had a miserable disposition. This, and the fact that both hard work and babies were anathema to her, rendered her totally unsuited to her profession as midwife. On this particular night, she had been tested to the limit, on all counts.
The candle guttered back to life to reveal Ma holding the screaming wretch at arm’s length. The infant hung stiffly, gripped too tightly by its bony ankles. Ma relaxed her grip and the child began to writhe, like a daddy longlegs prepared to sacrifice a few limbs to gain its freedom. The midwife raised her square hand and brought it down on the shrivelled, red backside. It was an act of sheer spite, as the baby had been screaming angrily for a good five minutes, and was obviously very much alive.
“If this ain’t the ugliest creature I’ve ever ‘ad the misfortune to deliver, I’ll eat me knickers.” Such an observation might well have been true, but it was unnecessarily cruel, as Ma had brought more wretched children into the world than she had downed gins. The exhausted mother cradled her new-born, with Ma’s words ringing in her ears. She handed over a shilling and watched Ma gather her things and leave. With her thick plaid shawl pulled tight, Ma waddled up the steps, crossed the cobbles, and stepped into the burgeoning light. In a little while her spiteful words would be echoing through the pubs and dens of Hackney. They would be repeated and repeated, until the sun retreated from the cobbles, as Ma, having completed her circuit, propped up the bar of the Cock Inn, on the corner of Paradise Road.
The Cock, a weather-beaten, timber-framed public house, had clung to the north side of Paradise Road for four centuries. Rumour had it that Ma had seen them all. She was certainly as weather-beaten, and made of similarly sturdy stuff. The locals were well aware that Ma had spent the night battling in the dark, damp basement, delivering the Grubbs’ firstborn, while the father, Thomas Grubb, was in the Brewers Arms, downing yet another pint.
By ten o’clock, after a full day imbibing, Ma was merrily enjoying centre stage at the Cock, when her performance came to an abrupt halt. A voice, like the voice of God, sounded from the far corner of the bar.
“Well, that’s anuvver little bleeder doomed to die.”
The words cut through the hubbub and smoke, like the sword of St Michael. They slashed the smoky shadows, cobwebs and myths which obscured the dark inglenook, where Bugle Bob held court. Bob was by far the oldest resident of Hackney, possibly the whole of London. His armchair, stuffed with the hair of dead horses and living mice, was wedged between the hearth and the unlit fire. Beside it, snuffling, and smelling no sweeter than the chair, lay a fat, red-eyed bulldog, called Wellington. Like those of his master, the dog’s bloodshot eyes had seen it all, so now he seldom opened them, preferring to sleep out the few remaining days of his overlong life.
His master’s head nodded, not necessarily in agreement with his own pronouncement, but because he had little control over it. The head nodded continuously, as did the battered cap, which balanced miraculously on the slippery, bald surface of his head. With each dip it flapped and bounced, bouncing and flapping again with each rise. Having gathered momentum the cap continued to nod long after each word had turned to vapour. Bob’s fingers were gnarled and distorted from life and arthritis. They strummed a steady beat against an equally misshapen tankard. Like Bob, this pewter jug had seen better days, plus a good many that had been far worse. It was reputed that, in his youth, Bob had blown a bugle at Waterloo, but such glory days were long gone. Bob seldom if ever spoke of them. In fact he seldom if ever spoke.
The old man raised his draught of porter to a toothless gap, where once plump, rosy lips had blown the call to charge. The sweet, dark liquid pumped down his throat in quick gulps, while some escaped to stiffened his beer-soaked muffler. Triumphantly he slammed the empty tankard down. A loud belch, thick with the stench of halitosis and ale, permeated the air. Undoubtedly, this brief utterance had been Bob’s longest speech within living memory. In consequence a cheer rose from the company, acknowledging they had witnessed an event as historic as the glorious battle itself.
The pewter tankard was refilled many times that night. Smacking of shrivelled gums and the occasional belch assured the audience that Bugle Bob had washed his hands of the infant’s fate. The stage was free again for Ma Thompson. With a courteous nod to the old soldier, she continued.
“I’m telling yer, the miserable little blighter loosed such an ungodly ’oller me blood fair froze and I very near dropped it. That yell was so ’orrible it carried clear ’cross the street to rise up over these very chimneys.”
Her stumpy finger pointed skyward, the view thwarted by the blackened beam that ran between nicotine-painted plaster. All eyes looked up hoping to catch the vapour trail of a cry, as it floated over Hackney’s roofscape.
“Y’ought to ’ave ’eard it! Gawd, it rose ’igher than the turrets of the bleedin’ workhouse, curled twice roun’ St John’s holy spire an’ vanished in the foggin’ mist wot ’angs over the Marshes.” Ma’s round body shook, from her feather-trimmed black bonnet to her over-stuffed boots, as she forced herself to relive the awful memory.
A gory description of the birth followed, told with such comic detail that Mrs Crumble fell off her stool ─ although not a drop of her precious port and lemon was spilt. While Mr Partridge, the po-faced butcher from Birdcage Street ─ renowned for keeping a finger on the scales while weighing out a pound of scrag ─ pissed himself. Encouraged by this effusive response, Ma continued with her vicious impersonation of the unfortunate child. Her face contorted into a hideous gurney. Multiple chins wobbled, hawkish eyes disappeared in folds of wrinkled flesh. In her excitement she mimicked the clenched fists, and squeezed her glass so hard it shattered and had to be replaced, refilled of course by the landlord.
The landlord of The Cock was a triangular man, from the width of his broad titanic shoulders to his small, nimble feet. He was known throughout Hackney as The Bodger, a name he had earned during his days in the bare knuckle ring. As a landlord, he knew that nothing kept his till ringing more than a tale well told, and Ma’s performance tonight was worthy of the Hackney Empire itself. The laughter and the liquor flowed freely, until eventually, just before another dawn arrived, he rang the bell and the curtain descended on the night’s proceedings. His takings were well up and he was delighted to have made such a good return on so small an investment.