As Silas Hawkins’ mother would say,
“Today I am serving up a steaming bowl of this is how it is.“
I was sitting here at five this morning trying to decide what to put on the blog today, and not coming up with any ideas. I am currently heading towards the crisis/climax of ‘The Larkspur Legacy’ (first draft), and my head is full of times, dates, relationships, twists, clues and explainers. I don’t have much room for anything else. So, for inspiration, I turned to my collection of folders and files where I sometimes jot ideas, and there, I came across a folder titled ‘The Castle’. Having no idea what this could be, I opened it and found the file:
Cast of characters
The cast of characters also contained a brief synopsis, and here it is:
- Fleet saves Alder from a beating. Inventor sees, gives him the chance to escape with him to the distant castle.
- Fleet has no choice
- Fleet will only go if the mute comes too – Mute wants to, neither have homes/families (at this stage)
- Journey at night
- Arrive at castle not knowing what’s in store.
Believe it or not, those notes are what led to The Larkspur Mysteries, and in particular, the characters of Fleet and Joe Tanner. It’s always interesting to see how one idea can lead to another. I wrote one chapter of this thing, decided it wasn’t right for this idea, and set it aside.
In the absence of anything else to entertain you with today, I thought I would post some of that first chapter, as a bonus read while you wait for something more interesting to come along. For some reason, I can’t get these pages to layout the text as you’d see it in a book, so apologies for that, and also for the state of this rough draft extract of a chapter that never was – or hasn’t yet been. (It might appear in ‘Barbary Fleet and Other Matters; The Clearwater & Larkspur Companion’ later in the year.)
The year is 1889, the place is London
A penny bought most things in Leather Lane market. A glass of sherbet, a live mackerel, a comb, a crab, or four windfall oranges with skin as discoloured as the winter-bitten cheeks of the hawkers who lined the crowded path between the stalls. Hard-bake morsels and gown pieces, an inch of braid or a soft potato, finest dates from the Arabs with stones to break teeth, and spices from the Indies laced with bean flour and alum. Everything was sought and anything was available.
‘A posey for your lady, Sir?’ Fading aconites offered in a gloved fist across a tray of crumbling heather; a purple gift of poison in flowering form.
‘Enamel buttons for your coat, young man?’ Drilled and ready. ‘Three-a-penny,’ and recently clipped from the jaw of a corpse.
Onions and old iron, scraps and scabbards, lucky tickets to win a slaughtered lamb, or a brace of pigeons hooked by the feet, necks swinging. Kentish turnips and hops, Suffolk fabrics in stash, stack and bundle, Norfolk eels contorting in the melting ice, and Whitstable oysters whistling their asphyxiation on dry, wooden trays.
Hands that grabbed with, ‘Good fortune for you when you buy a bunch, Sir,’ and toothless mouths that spat, ‘Then the devil will take ye, rantallion,’ when answered with ‘No, thank you.’
Barbary Fleet didn’t need heather, whether charmed or cursed, and he was not a rantallion, not that he was able to prove it without exposing himself. He had no need of Arabic dates or doctored anise, twisted twine or dead men’s teeth to fasten his darktail coat, he had come to the market for a purchase of vital importance, and he knew where it was to be found.
So intent was he on his mission, he failed to notice he was being followed.
Edging between the canvas stalls and clouds of smoke wafted from the chestnut braziers, he ducked the awnings of skinned hares and alley cats, left the polluted stream of bargain hunters, and took the pavement. If the market were a cobbled canal of hucksters and tricksters, the pavement behind the stalls was its towpath, quieter and lined by semi-respectable woodcarvers and tailors. Suited men and women in aprons who didn’t need to sing their wares like desperate chanteurs de rue, and grab at every passing farthing as though it were their last chance, but who stood behind tinkling doors folding cloth and blowing dust from chisels with smiles prepared and welcoming.
Fleet didn’t need them either, nor did he need the annoying drips of gutter rain that tapped his hair, or the wind that leapt from alley openings to slap his already pounding head. The piles of rotting offcuts and steaming dog stools were other inconveniences he could have done without as he picked his way towards his destination at Drift Corner, and the pocket-dipping urchins who swarmed at his tails like flies at the midden were as aggravating as his foolishness.
Who wagers their last five shillings on a bait dog? Who, but a romantic dolt would risk home and hunger on a lone pup because he couldn’t resist the lure of the underdog and believed its handler when told the money would save the hound from a fight? Who but Barbary Fleet would cry when the fight was over, not because he had lost everything bar one shilling, but because the pup lay twitching in its own blood, its sad eyes fading? Who, but a lonesome, straggle of a man like Fleet would spend ten of his last pennies on Shadwell gin with no thought for bread or board because he believed everything would come right in the morning?
‘But you saved tuppence,’ he told himself, swiping away the investigations of a pocket-dipper. ‘You won’t find anything in there, young Sir,’ he said, lifting the child by its collar and turning it away. ‘I should try someone whose pockets jangle like sleigh bells, rather than gasp for sustenance.’
Nearing Drift Corner, he reminded himself that, somehow through his drunken stupor, he had saved tuppence for an exceptionally good reason, and that reason was now upon him.
It came in the form of one of the prettiest girls he’d seen in this part of town. A girl not yet twenty but edging towards it with the hope that youth would remain while experience blossomed, and yet, unlike himself, she was short, demur and employed. She stood at the junction with her tray suspended from her waist but just above his knees, rearranging her wares while singing a tuneless air about a variety of knots and the usefulness of brass-tipped laces. Her ochre eyes were fixed nowhere but in her imagination, and her hair was crammed beneath a straw bonnet.
She returned from her daydreaming, and her song ended abruptly when Fleet announced, ‘Your meal ticket for the day has arrived, Miss. Are you eager to attend it with care and quiet, for its head rages like the storm that sunk the Hesperus taking with it the skipper’s pride in the way a dog’s death has wrecked mine?’
The girl blinked at him, and said, ‘What?’ in the same flat, disinterested tone with which most people greeted Fleet.
‘I need two of your penny laces.’
She tutted, and lifted a pair from her tray as a washerwoman might lift a stranger’s soiled underclothes.
‘I thought as much,’ Fleet bowed his head. ‘The clue is in your signage, Miss. There, where it states, “Tuppence a pair.” May I suggest — purely for the entertainment of your clientele — you consider something more akin to a challenge in your advertising?’
‘What?’ That time, it was more of a grunt than a question.
‘For a man whose head is as close to combustion as his stomach, the distraction of a conundrum is more soothing than an apothecary’s powder. Perhaps, if your board simply stated, “Laces” or even, for the uncertain, “Boot laces”, your customers might have cause to enter into an absorbing dialogue, and your trade would entertain as well as serve.’
‘D’you want the bloody things or not?’
The bustle of the market was of more interest to her than conversation, as she swayed the laces and yawned. However, when Fleet opened his coat to retrieve his wallet, her gaze slid back into place. He was tall and slender, but not willowy, and he didn’t dangle like her wares, but held himself erect as if self-assured, which, beneath his well-fitting suit, he was not. The girl’s eyes strayed to and fastened upon, the landscape between the bottom of his waistcoat and the rise of his trousers. It rested there an impolite second before travelling to his face and greeting it with an indecent grin.
‘Or would you rather have me for a shilling?’
She winked, and Fleet sighed.
‘I fear your conversation is as unalluring to me as your sex, Miss.’ He dropped two pennies into her tray, took the laces and twirled them around an agile finger until they were coiled like a ring. ‘And there we have it. I would doff my hat, but it has gone the way of most everything else once in my possession. Should you require a Broadway Topper — an American import, I fear — you will find one at leisure in Cohen’s pawnbrokers just off Drury Lane. Thus, Miss, I can only wish you a good day.’
His laces bought, he looked for a place to raise his feet and insert them into his boots, wondering whether he shouldn’t have used the last of his money on something more practical like a meal, but decided that the appearance of tied boots would be more beneficial to a prospective employer than flapping footwear, and approached a step. Glancing at the engraved glass door, he read, “Mouthgot’s Intricate Plasterwork” and thought it a good a place as any, but wondered, ‘Whose mouth has plasterwork and why so intricate?’
As you can see, Fleet started out as a swaggering, slim youth, which is not how he is portrayed in the Larkspur series. As for the mute, and the Joe Tanner character, he enters this scene as Fleet is tying his new laces. Perhaps I will post that section of the chapter another time. For now, Joe is currently engaged in a treasure hunt along with the other Larkspur Academy men, and as I have left them on pause, I need to get back to them and see what they do next. I’ll let you know more about the progress of ‘The Larkspur Legacy’ on my work-in-progress blog on Wednesday. Have a great weekend.
Oh, and if you don’t know what a rantallion is, Google the word. It’s a fun one to use as a counter-insult.