I am pleased to present two wonderful examples of fabulous prose this week in Showcase.
First up, we have another of the excellent entries we received in our Flash Fiction competition a couple of months ago. Nicola Franklin’s Displaced uses the 300-word limit to maximum effect, welcoming us into a warm and idyllic neighbourhood, and yet something is off; its inhabitants, who have been ostracised for most of their lives for one reason or another, are generally happy, but there others sitting in judgment over those who don’t meet their limited world view.
I am also delighted to present an extract of the recently published The Philosopher’s Daughters by Alison Booth. The Philosopher’s Daughters tells the story of two sisters in 1890s London. After Sarah marries an adventurer and sets sail for Australia, Harriet stays behind to be with her widowed father. But when he dies and Harriet at last decides to reconnect with her sister, she begins a journey of outward and inward discovery, taking her halfway around the world and into the heart of the Aboriginal landscape. Look out for Alison’s interview with Write On! later this month!
Keep on writing!
Dan (Associate Editor)
Displaced by Nicola Franklin
The church bells hurl out their melodious clamour into the night sky. This cloak of peals marks out my neighbourhood, the street I am on, along the road to the right where a boy spits and scrapes his shoe. Across the park to where a streetlight silhouettes three hooded figures.
I cross the road toward my home. As I pass the houses I note the warm lights radiating from the windows. Dusty smoke on the cold air from fires warming the insides of my neighbours’ houses. People home and comfortable within. Exiled people; self-imposed or some not that fortunate, but all here now under the umbrella of the clanging bells.
We have built a scaffolding of sorts, on top of and through what was already here, us newcomers. We have all shed something to come here. Cast off pretences, social categorisations, and we are largely happy. We laugh and drink and eat and worry together now.
I walk past the dark, beautiful house, not far from mine. The occupant is an exception to my new truth. She sneered at me once. It was so unexpected, it jarred and confused me. I doubted it happened. Another time, she stood arms folded, battle-ready. I glanced to smile or nod, but was beaten down with her face of scorn. Now, I freeze a little inside.
Suddenly a ‘Ha!’ and an arm thrust through mine snatches me from my thoughts with alarm. It is my neighbour, always laughing and loud. I tell her about this woman.
‘Oh, her! She doesn’t need us – her people are scattered far and wide, thousands of them, peering in through portals to see how their high priestess lives, what she wears, how she decorates her home. Haha!’
She smiles at me, ‘What we have is far more important!’
Nicola Franklin, 2020
The Philosopher’s Daughters (extract) by Alison Booth
Chapter 14: Her Resolve was Fragile
Harriet continued to feel paralysed by indecision and by grief. While the days were flashing by like the view from a train window, she’d felt at a standstill for all those weeks since Father’s death. It seemed she was always inside looking out, never a part of the life outside.
Now, standing in the hallway of her house in Gower Street, she felt acutely conscious of the sounds of traffic from the front and, from the communal gardens at the back, the shrieks of next-door’s children, whom she hadn’t seen for months. The clock in the hallway chimed the hour and then continued relentlessly counting down the minutes.
It was time for her to get out of this living tomb.
She couldn’t see any of the children when she entered the garden. But she could hear them crashing around in the laurel shrubbery, somewhere behind the dark, glossy leaves, their screaming waxing and waning as they moved about. All at once, she was a part of the game; she was the centre of a ring of laughing children who linked hands and raced around her, shouting, until eventually the smallest child tripped over and the entire circle collapsed on to the grass, convulsed with giggles. The oldest child, the only boy, recovered first. He stood up and brushed down his clothes – twigs, dried leaves, a couple of strands of spiders’ webs, and possibly even a spider or two. Harriet caught his eye and at once his smile was replaced by a solemn expression.
‘So sorry to hear that your father passed away,’ he said gravely.
He could be an adult, Harriet thought, and a mature one at that. She was touched by his words, touched that he’d even noticed her. ‘Thank you,’ she said, in tones of equal seriousness. ‘It was so sweet of you to mention it. Many people don’t bother.’
‘Lots of people don’t notice anything,’ the boy commented.
She saw he was trying hard not to look too pleased. ‘You do, though, Clive,’ said the youngest girl.
Clive treated this tribute with the disdain of an older brother. He gave his sister a little push. She giggled, perhaps recognising this as a sign of affection rather than abuse, whereupon all four siblings discarded their serious expressions and smiled at Harriet.
‘When’s your sister coming back?’ said the oldest girl. ‘Not for ages yet,’ Harriet said. ‘Perhaps she never will.’ It was only after she’d spoken these words that she realised this was the most likely outcome. Sarah and Henry would never return. Maybe Sarah would want to and Henry wouldn’t let her. He had a knack of getting his own way. People called that his charm. Her sadness returned, and it was all the stronger after its brief absence.
‘Where is she?’ The oldest girl resumed her serious appearance and regarded Harriet with deep concern, almost as if she imagined there’d been another death in her family.
‘In New South Wales.’
‘You must visit her,’ said Clive.
Could he have any idea of the distance? Probably not, but he certainly had the ability of his class and sex to make decisions for others. Yet he had a point. There was nothing to stop her visiting Sarah now. Nothing to stop her travelling, nothing to stop her doing all those things she’d dreamed of doing and never thought might be possible.
Nothing apart from those other commitments that had once given meaning to her life. The Women’s Franchise League. Charles, whom she knew was missing Father too. Aunt Charlotte and Violet. How could she tear herself from those connections and head off into the unknown? She didn’t have the courage to do that. Not now, not so soon after Father’s death. Yet she found herself saying, ‘Perhaps I shall visit her there. Such good advice.’ She said this to keep Clive happy, she told herself, that was all.
Clive grinned back, delighted at being thought helpful. Then the four children, as if they had a collective mind, remembered their usual – and important – mission of having fun and flew off in pursuit of it, shrieking.
* * *
‘My dear Harriet, I bumped into Mrs Next-Door just now in the street, and she says you’re going to the antipodes to see Sarah! Is it true?’ Aunt Charlotte asked breathlessly after Rose had shown her into the drawing room, where Harriet was sitting in front of the fire.
‘It was merely a passing thought. I haven’t made up my mind to do anything.’
‘What a marvellous adventure it would be, but really you simply mustn’t rush into anything too quickly so soon after poor James’ death! And without talking it over first with your family too.’
Aunt Charlotte sat down in Father’s chair and fanned herself. Harriet didn’t need to ring for tea; Rose had anticipated her and appeared with a tray.
‘Are you going to marry Charles?’ Aunt Charlotte asked, when she’d drunk a cup of tea rather quickly. She picked up a napkin and fanned herself with it.
‘I don’t know. Probably not, but who can say? Anyway, he hasn’t asked me again.’
‘You could revive his proposal, that’s something we women know how to do. Or you could ask him yourself, after all, you’re a liberated young woman.’ Aunt Charlotte laughed as she helped herself to a scone.
‘I’m not at all sure that I want marriage. You know that, Aunt. Surely you haven’t forgotten our conversation before Sarah married Henry.’
‘People do change, my dear. But why not go to the antipodes anyway? There’s nothing like a prolonged absence to help decide. You’d soon learn what was important after six months away. Charles is a good man.’
‘I know. People are always telling me that, although I’m quite capable of observing it for myself. You said I shouldn’t rush into anything and now, barely two minutes later, you’re talking about marriage and long voyages.’
‘I was simply thinking aloud. Or perhaps talking it through with you is a better description. Actually, the more I think about it, the more I am of the opinion that a sea voyage would be good for you. You’ve often said you’d like to see the world.’
‘There are my speaking commitments at the WFL.’
‘Lydia Buxton won’t mind finding a stand-in. There are plenty of others she can call on, you know. The number of supporters is growing all the time.’
‘Then there’s my painting.’
‘Dearest girl, you’re very talented but that’s simply an excuse. You can do that anywhere. I’m sure they have canvas and paints out there. You’re always talking about the light. Just think of what it would be like in New South Wales! And you could check up on Sarah first-hand, you girls have always been close. The Morgans are in Sydney too. You knew them very well when you were a child. They were almost like family.’
‘I’ll make up my own mind.’
‘I’m sure you will, my dear. But just remember I can help you with the house and anything else if you decide to let it out.’ After Aunt Charlotte left, Harriet glanced around the drawing room. She loved this house but how shabby and unloved the furniture looked. And how vacant the room: it was lost without her father, as she was too.
Through the window, she could see the pale washed-out sky, bleached of all colour. How drab it all looked. She thought of Sarah’s letters, her descriptions of the light and the landscape, of a country she would love to see. Perhaps she should go to Sydney, for a year at most. She could reassure herself about how Sarah was faring.
The next day she found out that there was one berth left on a steamer leaving Southampton in two weeks’ time. She booked it at once, before she had a chance to change her mind. That evening she wrote to Sarah and the following morning sent a telegram to Sarah and Henry advising them of when she would be arriving in Sydney.
Her remaining days in London were frenetically busy, filled as they were with packing her trunks, sorting out her father’s library with Charles’ assistance, arranging to let the house, seeing the solicitor, making the myriad little arrangements necessary before a long absence from home.
Her resolve was fragile though. The sight of Charles closing the last box of books moved her almost to tears. She wondered how she could leave behind this good and dear friend, and for such a long time. He’d always been a part of the family and now she was throwing that friendship away, as if it counted for nothing.
His head was bent over the box, and amongst the smooth dark hair were several silver streaks that she’d never noticed before. Leaning towards him, her heart full of tenderness, she was about to touch his head when she thought better of it. It was too soon to commit, far too soon. And she wasn’t throwing away his friendship, she was simply testing it a little.
Alison Booth, 2020
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Could he have any idea of the distance? Probably not, but he certainly had the ability of his class and sex to make decisions for others.