I write of writing, mostly, but also of love, tea, love of tea, roses, tea roses, poetry, ROSE POEMS, and work. I aim for scripturiency, concinnity, and prolificity. I post Weekly Writing worksheets and hold weekly online write-alongs.
Here’s a fun writing worksheet to explore your own or your character’s clothes. I don’t think you need to be a fashionista to develop a keen interest in clothes – there’s a lot more to the subject than first meets the eye! What are you wearing right now, and what does it reveal (or conceal) about your character?
Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a princess who worked in an office in a tall tower. No one knew she was a princess, although had they been told, they wouldn’t have been surprised, for the princess was always gracious, even when the magical equipment failed – which it frequently did – or when there was a fault with the hourglasses that made time run too fast or too slow – which it frequently did. She remained calm and unflustered, almost as if she didn’t notice, because she had read many fairytales in which princesses faced terrible dangers and seemingly insurmountable obstacles that they invariably overcame. She often wondered how she would behave in a similar circumstance, and if you read on you will see that she very soon found out.
The princess worked as a scribe on the seventieth floor. Every morning she said, “good morning,” to the porter at the great gate, picked up the parcel of letters that it was her task to sort and translate, and walked up the seventy flights of steps to the office she shared with a dozen other clerks. She was never late. But that morning, a bird had flown into the window of her carriage, and she had stopped to pick it up and help it recover, and then she had walked some way into the woods to let it free, and when she arrived at the great gates of the tower, the porter had already begun to push the wings shut. The princess dashed through the gap. Then she paused, regained her composure, greeted the porter and picking up her parcel, entered the tower with unrushed, but quick and purposeful steps.
As soon as she was inside, she felt that something was different, but she shrugged it off, thinking it was because she had never been late before. But when she had walked up the seventy flights of steps and into her office-hall, what should she see but a great, hulking dragon towering over her workmates.
“You’re late,” bellowed the dragon.
“I’m sorry,” said the princess. “I’ve never been late before. It’s just that-”
“Get to work,” shouted the dragon. Her voice made the windows rattle.
The princess took her seat, untied her parcel of letters, and began sorting them. The dragon walked up and down, her wingtips scraping grooves in the wooden floors, and her glittering eyes fastened on the figures below her.
Out of the corner of her eye, the princess could see her friends sitting on either side of her, huddled in fright over their desks, and writing furiously.
“Fasssster,” hissed the dragon.
The others scratched faster at their parchment, but the princess continued at the same pace. The dragon bent its head until its muzzle was inches away from her face. The princess could smell the dragon’s smoky breath.
“Why aren’t you working faster?” rumbled the dragon.
“I’m trying to be careful,” said the princess. “I don’t want to make a mistake or I will have to start over.” All the stories she had read about dragons were running through her mind, and although she kept her voice steady, she felt a little trembling in her stomach. Dragons not infrequently ate princesses. They trapped them in castles for centuries. They… No, she wouldn’t think of that. But what if she wasn’t strong enough to face a dragon after all? What if she wasn’t that sort of princess? What if she was more of a failing sort of princess?
As if sensing her doubt, the dragon bared its razor-sharp teeth. “Work fasster,” it hissed. A drop of its spit landed on the princess’s parchment and burnt a hole in it.
The princess swallowed, and nodded.
She found that she could work faster, after all. The letters that would have taken her until the evening, were finished by midday. She noticed that the scribe sitting next to her had also finished, and was eyeing the hourglass, as if wondering whether it was working right.
The dragon had fallen asleep, but her tail still twitched and occasionally whipped the air as if still alert.
When the tower bell tolled twelve, only one scribe was still writing, a rather slow, meticulous man whose special joy was finding mistakes in other peoples’ letters. Some of the workers had been annoyed by him, but the princess had always thanked him for his corrections, and after a while he found no fault with her. But now the dragon yawned, slowly uncurled her huge bulk, and sat on her haunches, regarding the man. He became aware of the scrutiny. He looked around and saw that everyone else had finished their work. He gulped, and put down his pen.
“Too ssslow,” said the dragon. She reached out, and with two pointed pincer-like talons plucked the man from his desk. Then, before anyone had a chance to do more than gasp, or scream, she swallowed him whole.
The princess watched in horror as the man wriggled down the dragon’s throat and into her belly.
“No, you can’t do that! Spit him out!” said the princess.
A few of the others shouted in agreement, but they were all shaken by what they’d seen, and afraid that they would share the poor pedant’s fate.
The dragon paid them no heed. She lumbered to the filing cabinets that lined the room, opened the drawers, and flung the contents out.
“Ssort them,” she commanded.
The scribes all looked at each other in confusion, wondering what to do. Then one woman stepped forward, kneeled on the floor, and began sorting the scattered papers. The princess knew that the woman had a large family and could afford neither losing her job, nor being eaten by a dragon.
But one man shook his fist at the beast. “Why should we clean up the mess that you made?” he demanded, angrily.
“Yes. We’re all trained scribes,” said another, taking heart. “Why should we do this pointless task?”
With one lightning-fast leap that defied her huge body, the dragon was upon them both. She hooked them each on one claw, and threw them one after the other, headfirst into her maw. Then she swept her long neck along the ranks of those that were left, eyeing them one by one.
“No questionssss,” she hissed.
As one, they all knelt down, including the princess, and began collecting and sorting the papers into piles.
When they finished, the sun was going down, but to their dismay they found that some of them had organised the pages by name, and some by date. They tried to keep the dragon from noticing, but she seemed to be able to sense their error. She woke from her afternoon nap, yawned, lifted her distended belly off the ground, and unfurling her wings, fanned them so that the papers flew to all four corners of the room.
“Finissshhh the work,” bellowed the dragon.
The princess felt her heart sink. They had all been working without break since morning, and they were hungry and exhausted. She wanted to argue with the dragon, but she was afraid too. If she were eaten, she would have no hope of helping the others. So she kept silent, but one man couldn’t contain himself. He had always prided himself on being timely, and was always the one to set the hourglasses in the morning.
“It isn’t right,” he said, his voice trembling. “The last bell sounded over an hour ago. We need to get home to our families.”
“No!” shouted the princess. “No, please don’t!”
But it was too late. The dragon didn’t even bother to pick him up, but bending her neck, closed her huge jaws around the man, and then lifted it and let the morsel slide down her long throat.
The princess was shaking with fear and rage. A few others moaned and sniffed, but there was nothing they could do. They went back to work. At midnight, the dragon woke, stretched, sniffed the air, and without a word or glance at the frightened scribes placing piles of papers back in the filing cabinets, she waddled to the ledge and flapped upwards, into the night.
This ordeal was repeated the next day, and the next, for a whole week. The princess’s skin grew sallow; her hair fell out in clumps; and her heart beat tremulously. At night she had nightmares of sorting papers, and of travelling down the dragon’s neverending throat. The king and queen had long ago turned their castle into an orphanage, and they were very busy with their charges, as well as with the running of the land, so the princess didn’t want to bother them with this problem. She thought that perhaps dragons weren’t so uncommon after all. The princesses in the stories she had read had dealt with dragons and she felt that if she were to become worthy of the title, she would have to do so too.
She descended down to the family crypt, and she knocked three times on her grandmother’s tomb, as she always did when she needed advice. Then she sat on a stool, and waited. After a while the torchlight flickered, and the princess felt her grandmother’s familiar, warming presence.
“What is it, my child?” asked her grandmother. “Why is your skin so sallow? Why is your hair falling out? Why is your heart beating tremulously?”
“Oh, grandmother. A dragon has taken up residence in the tower where I work, and she makes us work fast, and hard, and long, and she gives us tasks which are no use to anyone. And if we complain, she eats us whole. I don’t know what to do, but I can’t go on like this.”
“You must do something. It’s your duty as a princess.”
“I know, grandmother, but what can I do?” asked the princess, in despair.
“Go seek the dragon-slayer who lives outside the village,” said her grandmother. “She can help you. Take her my signet ring. It’s in your mother’s jewel box.”
So that night, the princess stole into her mother’s room while the queen was reading the children a bedtime story, and took her grandmother’s signet ring. Then she saddled the king’s fastest horse and rode out of the castle, to find the dragon-slayer.
When she reached the dragon-slayer’s house outside the village, she knocked on the door. A beautiful woman answered, and invited her in.
“Yes, I’m the dragon-slayer,” she said. “How will you pay for my service?”
The princess turned the ring around and around in her pocket, but he couldn’t bring herself to part with the precious heirloom. “I have nothing to give you,” she said, “but if you need, I can write letters for you, and arrange your papers.”
“I don’t need a scribe,” said the dragon-slayer. “But I suppose you can do the cleaning, and the cooking, and laundry, for I am far too busy to do those things myself.”
The princess felt great dismay, but agreed to do the work. It was her duty to help the others, and she would undertake whatever was necessary.
The beautiful dragon-slayer went to drink at the inn, and the princess tied on an apron and began mopping the floor, which was filthy.
Work faster, she thought, looking at the clock. Although she was tired to her very bones, she still had a lot of work to do.
Once she had finished cleaning, she began cooking an enormous wild boar that the dragon-slayer had told her to roast. With difficulty, the princess turned the heavy animal on the spit, her arms aching so much that she began to cry.
“Why does she need so much food, anyway?” she wondered. But then she checked herself. Don’t ask questions, she thought.
It was almost dawn by the time the cooking was done, and she had hoped to return to the castle to get some rest, but she still had the laundry to do, and the dragon-slayer wouldn’t help her until all the work was done.
Finish the work, she thought, and filled the tub with water, and began washing the dirty garments that the dragon-slayer had left her. Many of them were covered in blood, which made the princess fearful. Was is dragon’s blood or was it the blood of the dragon-slayer herself?
A little after dawn, the dragon-slayer returned.
“Have you finished?” she asked.
The princess collapsed in a heap on the floor, overcome with exhaustion. “Yes,” she whispered.
“Good,” said the dragon-slayer.
“Are we going to slay the dragon now?” asked the princess.
“Oh, no, your work isn’t done yet,” said the dragon-slayer, carelessly. “Come back tomorrow night.”
The princess couldn’t believe that she would have to endure another day such as this. But endure it she did, day after day for another week.
At the end of the seventh night, the dragon-slayer finally said, “yes, it’s time. Come along.”
The princess followed her, dragging her feet. They went to the tower. The great gate was deserted, the porter gone. Ivy had grown all the way up to the roof, and the stonework had begun to crumble.
“Dear, dear, is this really where you work?” asked the dragon-slayer. “It looks deserted.”
The princess, too, was surprised. Only a fortnight ago, the tower had been in pristine condition, all the stonework newly pointed, the gates well-oiled, and the porter dressed in his starched shirt. Now as she pushed one wing open, the hinges squeaked and protested. As she walked up the path, the weeds slapped against her legs. As she climbed the steps, a bird flew up to its nest on one of the window-ledges.
“I don’t see any dragons here,” said the dragon-slayer, as they entered the office-hall where the princess worked.
The room was empty, and looked long-abandoned. A few old sheets of parchment were strewn on the floor, but even as the princess picked one up it crumbled to dust in her hands.
“I don’t understand,” she said. The days of incessant work had left her confused. She couldn’t remember what time it was, or what month, or even what year. And was she really a princess, or was that something she had dreamt, a long, long time ago?
Then she felt something in her pocket. It was her grandmother’s signet ring. Wishing only for the comfort of something familiar, she slipped it onto her finger.
Suddenly the room returned to its normal state, as if a stage curtain fell away before her eyes. There sat her colleagues – those who were left – still writing frantically at their desks. But they were changed. The work had left them looking haggard and thin, and more than one head drooped and nodded.
The princess heard a rumble beside her. Where the beautiful woman had stood moments before, was the dragon herself, crouching as if getting ready to strike.
“You!” said the princess. “You were the dragon-slayer. You tricked me!”
“Yessss,” hissed the dragon. And leapt.
The princess stood firm. The dragon had moved with tremendous speed, but as the princess watched, she saw everything slow down, as if someone had dropped one of the hourglasses. The dragon’s dark maw parted, its rows of teeth appearing one by one and growing larger as they approached. Then all at once there was a brilliant flash, and just as slowly, the dragon was thrown backwards, clawing at the air as she crashed through the window, taking part of the wall with her, and then disappearing from sight. The sign of the sigil ring hung in the air, drawn in light, then faded to smoke and was blown away. The scribes felt the earth tremble as the dragon’s body hit the ground far below. She was dead.
A cheer rose from everyone in the tower. Then the other scribes turned to the princess. They had recognised the sigil of the royal house and knew the princess for who she was. They knelt before her, and swore to follow her lead.
The princess didn’t know what to do. She had worked night and day for a fortnight, and now that she was standing there doing nothing, she felt unbearably empty-handed and anxious.
“We must get back to work,” she said, and went to her desk, where the day’s packet of letters were waiting for her.
The others slowly returned to their desks too, though more than one thought that they deserved the day off.
“We must work faster,” said the princess, scratching so quickly with her pen that her lines became jagged and illegible.
When she finished the letters at midday, she looked around for more work to do. She strode to the filing cabinets, pulled out as many pages as she could, and began sorting them, this time by date.
“Princess, what are you doing?” asked the woman who had first fallen to her knees to do the sorting. “Do you want us to help?”
“We must not ask questions,” said the princess, her fingers flying as they shuffled the papers.
The others, not knowing what to do, followed their princess, and began sorting the pages as they had done for so many days before.
The princess tapped her fingers impatiently, waiting for them to finish. When they did, she began rearranging the filing cabinets themselves, pulling out the drawers, then the folders in the drawers, then the papers in the folders. The last bell tolled, but she showed no signs of stopping.
“Princess,” said one man, “the work day has ended, and we are all weary. Don’t you think we should be going home?”
“You worked longer hours for the dragon. Surely you won’t give up now that I have rid you of her. We must finish the work,” she said.
The scribes looked at one another and felt guilty for their lassitude. They went back to work.
When the princess returned to the castle that night, she realised that she wouldn’t have to go to the dragon-slayer to clean her house, and cook her food, and do her laundry. But this new freedom terrified her. She ran to the broom cupboard and took out a mop and bucket, and began furiously washing the floors. The castle was large, and she would have to work as she had never worked before if she wanted to finish all of her chores before the night was over. As she worked, sloshing soapy water all over the hallway, two little princesses saw her, and ran to tell their mother.
The queen rushed to see what was the matter with her daughter.
“My dear, what are you doing?” she asked. “The floors are perfectly clean.”
“I must work faster,” said the princess. “I still have the cooking and the laundry to do.”
“What do you mean?” asked her mother, worried that the princess was feverish. “Why should you do the cooking and the laundry?”
“Because the dragon-slayer told me to.”
“I went to see the dragon-slayer to kill the dragon. Grandmother told me to.”
“Is there a dragon in our lands?” asked the queen, alarmed.
“No, I killed it,” said the princess. “But I’m sorry I can’t talk anymore. I have so much work to do.”
“My poor daughter, the dragon must have cursed you,” said her mother, laying her hand on her daughter’s forehead. “You have forgotten that you are a princess. Here, sit down.”
The princess resisted, but the queen pushed her daughter firmly down into the chair.
“Such a curse can only be countered with a blessing,” she said, and spoke these words over her daughter:
“May you love your work, and never forget that you are a princess.
May you quest to find meaning in your work, and never forget that you are a princess.
May you work only as long as you love the work, and never forget that you are a princess.
Remember, it is your duty to all the people in your land.”
She kissed her daughter on the forehead, and as she did so, the princess felt a great weight lift from her, as if something as large as a dragon had flown up from its perch on her heart.
The curse was broken, and the princess lived, and worked, happily ever after, and never again forgot that she was a princess, or, in time, a queen.
I really wanted to write something this week that would fulfil (or at least, attempt to fulfil) what I believe is my work as a writer: to make my readers think and feel about their life in a new way.
When I thought back to the last short story that really made me think, I realised that it was a fairytale. And then I remembered the last fairytale I wrote (which was only a very short, simple story intended to illustrate the One Page Novel method) and how many people wrote to tell me that it had moved them to tears! So I decided to write a fairytale, and if you’ve never written one yourself, you’re denying yourself much enjoyment!
When I come to edit this story, I would love to add a frame narrative, as if the fairytale were part of a collection, possibly with several alternative morphological elements (from Propp). I don’t know if it would annoy readers more than amuse them, but it would certainly tickle me!
“Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are princesses who are only waiting to see us act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.” – Rainer Maria Rilke
No one is harder to empathise with than people who claim to love school. I hate it here. I stare out of the window, while Mrs. Waugh drones on about… something. It’s a beautiful day and the sun glints blindingly off the waves on the sea. I would love to go for a swim, but the beach is off limits.
“Miss Webb, can you repeat the last word I said?”
“Said,” I say.
“Sometimes I think you enjoy provoking me,” says Mrs. Waugh.
Jack, sitting next to me, mouths the words along with her, unconsciously. He’s working out his latest plan on paper. There’s a timeline along the top edge of the page, and it’s cross-referenced with a detailed map of the school below it. I don’t think anyone has ever put so much effort as he has into escaping.
“Mr. Moxley, would you mind telling me what you’re doing?”
“Science project,” Jack says, not even looking up at the teacher.
“And should you be doing your science homework in history class?”
“No, Mrs. Waugh,” he says, but continues sketching the outline of a streetlamp.
Mrs. Waugh sighs and back away. It’s typical that she would let Jack do whatever he wants. I notice that she has a limp – did she have that this morning?
The class resumes. No one is paying attention. Agnes is practicing picking a lock under the table, Joe is reading a comic book, and Hilary is embroidering a handkerchief. There’s a hole in Jack’s jumper, at the elbow. I inspect it sidelong, considering how I would mend it. “Make do and mend.” That was the motto during the war. Darning won’t do for this hole, though, no matter how carefully I catch the stitches. The yarn has worn too thin and I’ll have to put a patch on it, sewing around the tear in a wide circle to keep it from unravelling.
After history there’s mathematics. No hope of seeing Jack there – I’m in the dumb class. Then after that there’s geography, and then music. In the evening, when I get back after detention, there’s a pow-wow in the dorm room I share with Judith. She, Jack, and Imogen are sitting on the floor, inspecting the plans that Jack had been working on during Mrs. Waugh’s class. They all start guiltily when I enter, and Judith throws a blanket over the papers, then sighs and pulls it away when she sees it’s me.
“Hey,” I say. “Are you going over your escape plans?”
Jack laughs. “Yeah.”
“How was detention?” asks Imogen.
I know she’s trying to show me up in front of Jack, but she’s wasting her time.
“Great,” I say. “You don’t know what you’re missing.”
“How do you still get detention when your mum’s on the school board?” she asks.
“Equal opportunities,” I say.
Jack laughs again, which cheers me up. I climb up to my bunk, tuck my legs in so no one can see up my skirt, and sit looking down at the three of them.
“So what’s the plan?” I ask.
“It’s secret,” says Imogen. “So we’d appreciate it if you don’t mention it to anyone. Especially Hilary’s lot.”
“My lips are sealed,” I assure her.
“Basically, we’re going to completely cut off the lights through the forest, because no one should be walking through there after dark anyway-”
“And if they are, they probably don’t want to be seen,” says Judy. Is it my imagination, or does she wink at Jack?
“Yeah,” continues Imogen. She points at the plans as she explains the rest. “Then this section will be scheduled to be lit only during outdoor activity times, this section we’ll wire all alternate lights separately, and for the floodlights… we’re trying to figure that out right now.”
“So what’s the perfect time to escape?”
“Umm… I don’t know, after the teachers retire?”
“It doesn’t sound like you’ve worked anything out,” I say.
“I’m pretty sure Mr. Compton is more interested in the efficiency of the system than the potential for truancy,” say Imogen, at her snootiest.
It finally dawns on me that they really are working on a science project, and not an escape plan. I’m deeply disappointed. “What’s your project for, again?” I ask.
Imogen throws up her hands.
“We’re trying to find a more efficient way to wire the lamps around the school grounds,” says Judy.
“Aaand, why would you need to rewire them?” I ask.
“In case of a power shortage,” says Imogen. “But Mr. Compton suggested the project, so Hilary’s lot also jumped at it, and Mr. Compton thought it would be a great idea if our groups competed. That’s why it’s important that you tell no one.”
“Tru… who’s in your group?” asks Judy.
“I work alone.”
“It’s supposed to be a group project,” says Imogen. “Teamwork is one of the grading criteria.”
I shrug. “Who cares about grades, anyway?”
Three pairs of eyes turn towards me. They’re silent, but their expressions say it all. Are you insane?
It occurs to me that they all actually believe that getting good grades will earn them a good job, or the love of their parents or something. My parents couldn’t wait to dump me in boarding school, and they haven’t been to visit since. Grades have nothing to do with it.
“Do you at least have a project?” asks Imogen.
“Sure,” I say. “I’m going to plan my escape. The irony is, I won’t be here to present it.”
“Well, I look forward to reading your report,” says Imogen. Apparently, she can be witty too.
“Let’s get to work, or we’re never going to finish in time,” says Judy.
They start debating the finer points of electrical wiring, but I can’t follow the first thing they say. I lay down on my bunk and wonder whether I should hand in a science project after all. I’ve always daydreamed about escaping, but now I think that a methodical approach could actually work. If only Jack would help me.
I must have fallen asleep pretty fast, because when I wake up – still in my uniform – I can’t remember having figured out a single detail of my escape plan. I ask Judy if they’re going to get together to discuss the project again, but she says no, they have to study for the history test.
“There’s a history test? Mrs. Waugh didn’t mention it.”
“Yes, she did, Tru. Twice.”
That evening, Jack comes over to our room again to study. Judy insists that I join them, and I’m not sure if it’s because she knows I like Jack, or if she just needs a third person to quiz them on the flash cards.
“Jack has the syllabus,” says Judith. “And I have the textbook marked up for each topic.”
“You have the syllabus? How did you get that?” I ask, taking the sheet from him.
“I asked Mrs. Waugh for it, of course.”
“But they’re not allowed to hand them out to students, are they?”
“What do you mean? Why wouldn’t they?”
“I don’t know. I thought they were secret or something.”
Jack shakes his head, more out of disbelief than disagreement.
How do I keep saying such stupid things? I look over the syllabus, trying to hide my embarrassment.
“Why do we have to learn how gas masks work, anyway? I thought school was supposed to prepare us for real life,” says Judith.
Jack looks at each of us in turn. “If I tell you something, will you promise to keep it a secret?”
“I’ve been studying the syllabi from the past few years, since the start of the war,” he says. “Most of the core stuff stays the same, but every year they add a bit more about survival. See, four years ago they added a lesson on foraging, then the next semestre a whole week on harmful chemicals, then water purification, rationing, building shelters, repairing gas masks, mending clothes…”
“What are you saying?” asks Judy.
“He’s saying that the teachers have been preparing us for the aftermath of chemical warfare,” I say.
“Oh my god,” says Judith. “Do you mean the world is going to be destroyed? Are we really all going to have to wear gas masks all the time and wear hideous clothes and have to sleep in hammocks?”
“It’s probably just a worst-case-scenario,” says Jack.
“Oh my god, what if it’s already started?” asks Judy. “What if the world outside is being destroyed and we have no idea? Maybe that’s why the ferries stopped.”
“Wait, the ferries stopped?” I ask.
Judith rolls her eyes.
“How are you not aware of anything?” asks Jack. “At first they said it was the weather, then repairs, but it’s been months.”
“Oh yeah,” I say. “I remember now.” That must be why my parents couldn’t visit. I hope they’re OK, but I’m sure they will be. They always know how to take care of themselves.
“And see, this year they’ve added a lesson on the history of chemical production.” Jack points. “That wasn’t there before.”
The thought of a war tearing up the world outside is terrifyingly at odds with the cosy camaraderie I feel studying with Jack and Judy. Jack is so close that every so often our hands or feet touch, and each time a pleasant little electric shock courses through me. Lights out comes too soon.
The next day I don’t have history, or any hope of seeing Jack. I wish I’d asked him if he wanted me to mend his jumper, so I could have an excuse to to see him when I returned it. I’m prepared for a boring day of classes, unalleviated by the promise of an hour spent in close proximity to Jack, but to my surprise he comes up to talk to me during break.
“Hey, Trudy. Umm… this might sound very inappropriate and forward of me, but I couldn’t help hearing the other night that your mum’s on the school board. Is that right?”
The sentence that had started out so promising disintegrates like the waves on the sand. I swallow, and nod.
“I was hoping you could put in a word for me. The prefect exams are coming up, and I’d really like to pass and become a teacher.”
“You can’t become a teacher!” I say, horrified.
“You… you’re too good to be a teacher.” I almost say “too good-looking”.
“I’m not sure what you mean by that, but it’s what I want,” he says.
“But… you’ll have to be chipped. You won’t be you anymore.”
“It isn’t that serious. You’ve seen our teachers. They’re nice, aren’t they?”
“No, they’re not! And I thought you wanted to escape as much as I did.”
“No, I want to stay,” he says, looking confused. “Look, if you don’t want to talk to your mum, I understand. I know it was a long shot. It’s just… I don’t have the influence or resources that some of the other applicants have.”
Of course not. There are students who come from wealthy, influential families and can easily buy their way in. And Jack’s still wearing a torn jumper. I touch the elbow, and feel an overwhelming tenderness towards him. He works so hard.
“I can mend that for you,” I say. “And if you help me with my science project, I’ll talk to my mum about your application.”
“Thank you,” he says, shaking my hand.
Not exactly what I had in mind, but I still thrill at the feeling of his hand in mine.
“What’s your science project?” he asks.
His face falls. “No way. I’m not helping you escape. Are you mad? There could be a war going on outside. Didn’t you hear what I said yesterday?”
“I did. And you also said that the ferries weren’t running. How do you expect me to talk to my mum if I can’t see her?”
“Won’t she attend the board meeting this weekend?”
“She never attends any meeting,” I lie.
He considers. “No, no way. I want to be a teacher. What kind of teacher would help a student escape school?”
“A really good, kind-hearted one who wanted the best for his pupils,” I say, sweetly.
He shakes his head. “I’m sorry, Trudy. Ask me for something else. I can’t help you with that.”
I sigh. “Jack. I didn’t want to do this, but you leave me no option. If you don’t help me with my science project, then I’ll let Hilary know about yours.”
“No! You wouldn’t do that. That’s blackmail.”
“That’s just part of the plan,” I say. I should feel awful, but behaving badly isn’t something new for me.
He gazes into the distance, thinking. He probably hates me now, but after a few moments he says, “alright. I’ll help you.”
“Tonight,” he says decisively. Mr. Compton is going to show us the control switches for the streetlamps. I’ll try and make sure the courtyard and forest stay off.”
I hadn’t expected it to be so soon. I thought he’d prevaricate and delay. But this is what I wanted. “I’ll be ready. And… take off that jumper.”
Back in my dorm room I cut up a brand new school skirt – it’s not as if I’m going to be needing it now – and round off two pieces of fabric into patches. Then I sew them with more care and patience than I’ve ever taken over anything, onto the elbows of Jack’s jumper. When Judith leaves to take a shower, I hug the jumper and take long, deep breaths of Jack’s scent. I’ve never loved anyone like I love him, and I’m doing my utmost to leave him behind. What’s wrong with me?
I meet Jack around one in the morning, by the servants’ staircase. He looks miserable, but his expression softens a little when I hand him the mended jumper.
“Thanks. Where’s your bag?”
“Your bag full of your things, and provisions.”
“Oh, I don’t need anything. I have some chocolate buttons in my pocket. Want one?”
He shakes his head, and I feel like he’s trying to hide a smile. “I took care of the lights,” he says. “And I brought a flashlight, because I didn’t think you would think of it.”
“But I don’t know how we can get out into the courtyard without being seen by the porter.”
“We take the laundry lift, of course. I can’t believe you don’t know that.”
It feels good to be able to teach Jack Moxley something.
We wheel each other down. The lift squeaks, but the porter doesn’t come to investigate. Jack keeps the flashlight off until we reach the woods, then he flicks it on when we’re out of sight of the main school building.
“Where are we going?” I ask, belatedly.
“I’m going to take a boat?”
“Yeah, how else would you get away?”
“I don’t know. I guess I just didn’t think about it.”
We walk on in silence for a while. I wish this could be my life. Just walking around the woods in the dark with the boy I’m in love with.
“Tru, why do you hate it here so much?” he asks, as we’re nearing the boathouse.
I like how he calls me “Tru”. “I just hate being told what to do,” I say.
“If you hate that, you’re not going to enjoy married life much.”
“Who says I’m going to get married?”
“I don’t know. I just thought, since you don’t care about grades or going to university, or getting a job, you’d want to settle down to domestic life.”
“Well, you’re wrong. I don’t.”
“Then what do you plan to do when you escape school?”
“I don’t know.”
“Doesn’t that scare you, not knowing?”
“Doesn’t becoming a teacher scare you?”
“Of course not. I like the idea of knowing that I can stay at school. I love it here, far from the madding crowd. Whatever’s going on in the world outside can’t touch us here. I think you’re very brave to be leaving. Brave but foolish.”
“Thanks,” I say. “I think.”
Jack flicks off the flashlight when we reach the edge of the woods. The night is perfectly still, and quiet, and before my eyes have adjusted to the dark, he kisses me. Once, quickly. Not on the cheek, or on the forehead, but right on the lips. Then, without giving me a chance to process things, he takes my hand and leads me around to the front of the boathouse. He somehow has a key and reaches out to unlock the door, but it’s already open. He turns to me. There’s just enough light for me to see him put a finger to his lips.
We tiptoe in. I’ve never been in the boathouse before. There’s a small stock room with boot-racks and boat stuff. I have no idea what any of it is, but the door that leads from this room is ajar, and light is slicing across it. I swear under my breath. Jack moves carefully towards the door, and I do the same. It’s a miracle that none of the floorboards creak. Through the gap in the door, we watch as Mr. Compton unbuttons Mrs. Waugh’s blouse. I feel a mixture of disgust and fascination. She’s a married woman! Or… I assume she is. I realise I’ve never thought about it. I suppose she could be a widow.
But Mr. Compton just loosens her breastplate. I see a few blinking lights, and all the internal workings of Mrs. Waugh’s body. She’s as tidy on the inside as on the outside.
“Are you sure about this?” Mr. Compton asks.
Mrs. Waugh nods, lips pursed.
He reaches inside her and pulls out a part. There’s no change in her expression. He takes the part and walks over to an engine standing on a workbench nearby. I can’t see it very well, but it looks like it’s been cobbled together out of all the wrong pieces. He starts the motor, and under cover of the noise, Jack turns to me.
“That’s what they’ve been doing,” he whispers. “They’re using their own parts to build a motor for the rowboat.”
I remember seeing Miss Clark a few days ago, with some loose wires wound into her hair bun. “I thought they were just getting old,” I say.
“That’s how you can escape.” He points at the motor.
But through the hum of the engine, we don’t hear Mrs. Waugh’s footsteps. Suddenly, the door opens, and she’s standing in front of us, her chest still open and tufts of wires bursting out from the empty slot where the part used to be. Was it her heart? I wonder. Is that the price of becoming a teacher?
“Mr. Moxley, Miss Webb,” she shouts over the noise, then gestures us inside.
I don’t understand what’s happening. I look at Jack, but he’s looking into the room, and his face is white. I follow his gaze and see a woman leaning on the edge of the boat. The engine stops.
“Trudy, dear, how nice to see you.” There’s that tightness in her voice that means I’ve done something wrong, but she has to wait until she can rebuke me for it.
I swallow. “Mum, this is Jack Moxley. He’s the best student in our year.” I hope that’s a fair introduction.
Jack steps forward and shakes my mother’s hand. “How d’you do, Mrs. Webb?”
“Mr. Moxley, would you mind waiting outside?” asks my mum, although it’s more of an order. I hate how she can be so rude while sounding so polite.
“Of course,” says Jack. As he passes me, he whispers, “good luck”.
“Now, Trudy, dear, I’ve arranged things with the headmaster, and he’s agreed to let you stay on as a prefect, and then, as long as you’re a good girl and pass your exams, you can be a teacher. Isn’t that wonderful?”
“No!” I shout. “No, absolutely not.”
“Now, Trudy, we’re not going to argue about this. I’ve had to pull a lot of wires to get you this opportunity.”
I start to back away towards the door, but Mr. Compton is standing in the way.
“Be a good girl. You know this is what’s best for you,” my mum continues.
To my horror, I see Mrs. Waugh approaching. She’s wielding something… is it a teaching chip? Are they going to implant me right now?
“No!” I scream again. “I want to leave. I can’t stand another day here. Let me go!”
But Mr. Compton clamps his hands around my arms, and Mrs. Waugh keeps approaching until she’s looming over me.
“Miss Webb? Miss Webb, are you with us…?”
I think people like either school or university, and rarely both (though frequently neither). I definitely hated school, and I’m still surprised to hear schoolmates say that they enjoyed it. On the rare occasions I was able to skip school, I remember spending the whole day at the library, reading the Romantics. It was the best thing I did!
So the protagonist has a little of me, but also quite a bit of my best friend, whose ability to ignore the world around her while she daydreamed was (and still is) legendary. It turns out that an inattentive narrator gives you a lot of leeway – maybe too much? – and I liked the idea of paralleling her detachment with the detachment of the school from the rest of the world.
One area that writers most frequently ask me to help them with is writing dialogue. Specifically, I get asked how to write “realistic” dialogue. I agree that it’s important for dialogue to sound “natural”, so that the conversation doesn’t appear contrived and conveniently planted to please the plot.
But in my humble opinion, I don’t think “realism” is something you need to aim for in writing dialogue. “Real-life” conversations tend to be haphazard, fragmented, and… boring. Fictional dialogue always has a purpose to fulfil, and information to convey. The dialogues I admire most involve characters using words in clever and succinct ways that in fact more closely resemble an idealised conversation than a realistic one.
That being said, becoming a better listener of messy real-life conversations can make you a better writer of fictional ones. It can also make you a better person!
What are people really trying to say to you?
Use this worksheet to…
Think back to a conversation you had recently and consider how well you listened to and understood the other person.
Write out and study a short dialogue from a book or film.
Write your own fictional conversation. You might like to use the speech bubbles to note down each character’s goals for the conversation
What do they want the other person to do?
What do they want to say?
What do they want to hide?
What are they unaware of (in their own or in the other character’s speech)?
Separate the speakers of a conversation (by folding over one side of the worksheet) and study them separately.
How easy is it to tell the voices apart?
Who is in charge of the direction of the conversation?
Is it possible to fill in the other side of the conversation?
Are there any utterances that don’t convey any information?
He had heard many of his fellow officers complain of homesickness, but as William Parker sat on the port gunwale of the Nephele and watched the coast of Lemnos drift slowly below them, he could not imagine such a feeling himself. That morning he was assisting Mr. David with the spyglass. William’s task was to spy out shoals and coves and other geographical features that could prove useful to the Admiralty, while Mr. David, looking through the gridded scope, copied the shore’s outline onto a roll of paper. Mr. David had himself designed the small table which sat on his lap and allowed him to feed blank paper and roll up used paper as required, through the use of a hand-crank on one side. William greatly admired Mr. David for his ingenuity, and offered to help him as often as his midshipman duties allowed.
“Possible site for landing C1,” William reported, lowering the spyglass and pointing to the corresponding spot on Mr. David’s chart. The gentleman duly noted this in his precise hand.
Their progress was leisurely. The wind had carried them almost to the southern tip of the island when the lookout called. A ship had been sighted due west, and William regretfully left Mr. David and joined the officers on the poop deck to await orders. The Captain was inspecting the ship through his glass. William trained his own borrowed glass down to the western horizon. It was difficult to make out much about the ship at this distance, but it was one of theirs – probably a 36 or 38-gun frigate – and it was lying at anchor with its sails furled.
“Mr. Peter,” said the Captain. “Give the order to start up the engines. Mr. Mayhew, set a course west. Mr. Simpson, order the men to beat to quarters.”
The men waited at their stations and the Nephele’s engines propelled her towards the strange ship. As they neared, William could see figures on the deck, but only a few. The crew slowed the Nephele down expertly until it hovered almost directly above the stranded ship – it was the Pegasus – and threw down the mooring ropes. William couldn’t see any damage from where he stood, but perhaps the ship was taking on water.
The seamen of the Pegasus made fast the mooring lines. The Nephele was almost still – only swaying gently with the breeze and up and down slightly as the swell caused the Pegasus to tug on the ropes. Lieutenant Simpson stood up on the bowsprit and called down.
William couldn’t hear the reply, but Mr. Simpson turned to the Captain and explained. “They say a French frigate attacked them and headed due south. They were in too much of a hurry to stay and sink the ship.”
“And what happened to the rest of her crew?” asked the Captain.
Mr. Simpson shouted down, and again reported the answer to the Captain. “Taken prisoner,” he said. “These men only escaped because they’d rowed ashore to gather provisions. It sounds as though the French are planning a surprise attack.”
“Hmm.” The Captain thought for a few moments.
“We ought to give chase,” said the Lieutenant. “The Nephele can travel much faster than a frigate.”
“Yes,” said the Captain, “but not if we’re hampered by the Pegasus. On the other hand, if we are required to use force, we will need its guns.”
The Nephele wasn’t a man of war. Cannons were too heavy for the light airship, and apart from a large hunting harpoon at the stern, she had no weapons. Her main purpose in a battle was to provide reconnaissance. She had never been in a real battle, however, so her usefulness was still unknown. The French had observation balloons, but nothing as sophisticated as the Nephele. Nor would they, unless they could unlock the secret of the distillation of ideal air.
“Even if we were to take the Pegasus along, she couldn’t stand up against a whole French fleet. But if we spy them out, perhaps under cover of darkness, then we may have enough time to return to ten-”
“That is a fair point,” cut in the Captain. “We have no time to lose. Throw down the ratlines and help the seamen on board. We will return to aid the Pegasus once we’ve found the French.”
William was turning to oversee the men, when the Captain detained him. “Mr. Parker, would you help Mr. David put away his instruments and stow the charts in my cabin?”
William was a little disappointed not to be able to see the boarding manoeuvres. He thought that one day he would enjoy climbing up the ratlines to the airship himself. It would be dangerous, but thrilling.
Mr. David had already folded away his table and writing equipment, and William helped him carry them back to the Captain’s cabin where they were kept safe. Mr. David opened the lap-table, and William helped him remove the paper and roll it into a tight cylinder which they tied up with string and placed on the desk for the Captain to seal. Usually the Captain would have followed them into his quarters to perform this duty, but today they found themselves waiting.
“I expect the Captain will be busy questioning the new seamen,” said Mr. David. “You should get back on deck.”
As he was leaving, William heard a sound like a gunshot. That was strange. No one on board the Nephele was allowed a gun or powder because of the danger to the inflammable air. As he emerged on deck, the shouts and cries began, and it took William several moments to assess the chaos that had overtaken the usually disciplined crew. They were fighting, but not amongst themselves. The ship was suddenly crowded with strangers, and from among the din that reached him, he realised that they were speaking French. William looked around for the Captain, and could just discern him in a dense knot of fighting, near the point where the ratlines were attached. The Captain and his men were trying to cut away the ladders and stop the enemy from swarming up to the airship. They had been tricked.
William considered cutting the mooring lines, but unless they were released in tandem, the ship could tilt dangerously. It was already leaning with the weight of the men fighting near the ratlines. William drew his rapier and rushed to join them, but he couldn’t get near the Captain. Then he noticed the harnesses that he and Mr. David had used for securing themselves on the gunwales. They were meant to be used for repairing the ship, so they could be lowered and wheeled along the hull. Not entirely sure of what he planned to do, he sheathed his sword, then he jumped onto the gunwale and slid himself into a harness. From this angle, he could clearly see the stream of men swarming up the mast of the Pegasus like bees, and onto the ladders than hung down the side of the Nephele.
William began working the pedals that operated the harness wheel. A few men had noticed him, but they were hampered by the need to hold on, and the threat from above them as Lieutenant Simpson managed to break through the barricade of Frenchmen on deck and drove his sword down into the uppermost man on the ladders. The man cried out, then hung limp, impeding the others. William pedalled desperately. As he neared, he drew his sword and holding it with both hands, began to swing and saw at the ropes of the ratlines. A man fell from deck, nearly colliding with him. William was afraid it might have been Mr. Simpson, but he couldn’t tell. He heard the man’s scream, and the awful sound of the body hitting the ship below. He swung harder, hacking blindly now because of the sweat dripping into his eyes. Finally one rope broke, and a few men swung and danced in the air before losing their hold and plummeting to their death. One man pulled another along with him in his attempt to save himself.
William’s arms ached from the effort, but he wheeled the harness further along in order to tackle the next rope. This brought him even closer to the enemy, and as he swung the blade once more, with his failing strength, one of the Frenchmen drew his sword and slashed at him. William tried to parry the attack, but his assailant’s sword sliced across his upper arm and through the leather harness. Ignoring the pain, Will held on to the harness and continued to swing his sword single-handedly. It was no good. One more hit from the Frenchman and the sword flew out of his weak grip. The Nephele swayed, and brought William closer to the ratlines. The Frenchman landed another blow, this time catching the rope from which the midshipman hung. William looked up at in alarm to see the rope fraying. He began to wind himself back up towards the deck – a harder task than letting himself down, especially with an injured arm. He was almost there when he heard the unmistakable creak and whip of a rope snapping. The Nephele leaned dangerously to port and her hull crashed into the Pegasus’s mast. William heard cries and the sound of shattering wood. The airship gave a violent jerk, as if to shrug off the Pegasus and its crew, but the motion was enough to break the harness rope. William reached out his hand to grab hold of the gunwale, but missed. Everything around him slowed down as his mind raced. Try to hold on. No. What about the ratlines? Too far. The Nephele growing smaller. One or two faces turned towards him. Lieutenant Simpson, his expression horrified. William was going to be smashed against the deck of the Pegasus. Or maybe he would catch the side of the ship and his back would be broken. It would be fast. And the last thing he would see would be his ship. It was sinking against the mast of the Pegasus, pushing it over too. Then the Pegasus’s hull was on his left, and then the waters closed over him, obscuring the Nephele from view. His last thought was that she had saved him, and he must save her. Then nothing.
A wave rolled over him. Stinging salty water filled William’s nose and mouth, and he came to, coughing and flailing in the dark. His hands clawed up rough sand and he realised he had drifted to shore. He struggled to his feet, spitting out water and rubbing his eyes free of brine. In the light of the stars he could just discern the outline of the beach, bordered by outcroppings of rock. He stared out to sea, but with no moon in the sky it was a vast, impenetrable blackness. It seemed likely to him that the sea had carried him towards the western coast of Lemnos, but he had no idea of his position, or where he might find the nearest village.
He was still attached to the remnants of the harness. He pulled it apart, and as he was taking off his wet coat, he felt the weight in his pocket and realised that it was the spyglass. He had forgotten to return it to Mr. David. He couldn’t see the instrument in the weak light, but he thought he would probably have to take it apart and rinse out the brine. Still, it would be useful for starting a fire. He took off his shirt, and inspected the cut on his arm. It had been washed clean by the sea, and although it ached, he felt sure that it would heal quickly. He tore the hems of his britches and tied them together into a bandage around his arm, pulling the knot tight with his teeth. Then he wrung his clothes out one by one, and felt warmer for the exercise, until he dressed once more in the cold, clinging fabric.
He didn’t know how long he would have to wait until sunrise, so he began searching the beach for driftwood. Before long he had built up a small pile, but the sky was already lightening. He picked up the spyglass where it lay safe on top of his coat, and looked through it. The lenses were misted with water, and dried salt. He inspected the device, and discovered that the brass pieces unscrewed quite easily. Once he had them apart, however, he realised that he didn’t have a dry cloth to clean the glass. He wiped away the moisture as best he could, put the instrument back together, and stowed it in his coat pocket. There was no point in building a fire now that the sun was rising. He needed to find food, and a way to warn whichever British ships were in the Aegean, that the French were preparing for an attack somewhere south of Lemnos.
Putting his squelching boots back on his feet, he clambered up the hill at the end of the beach. It wasn’t very high, but it allowed him to see that he was on a small headland. He scanned the horizon in every direction, first with his bare eyes, and then through the murky spyglass. No Nephele. If the French had managed to overpower the crew, then they must have driven the airship to join with the rest of their fleet in the south, probably leaving the Pegasus behind. William would have no hope of reaching them, and even if he did, what could he do by himself to help the crew? On the other hand, if the crew had managed to repulse the French, then the Captain would have returned to warn the British ships, as Mr. Simpson had suggested. William hadn’t been aware of any other British ships stationed in the Aegean, but clearly his superior officers had. But where were the ships, and why were they there?
William’s stomach growled loud and long. He wondered whether he might be able to catch a fish… Fish! That was it. They had seen several fishing boats as they floated along the coast. Of course it would be one of the main food sources on a small island like this one. If he was on the west coast as he supposed, then he could follow the shore northwards and hopefully encounter those fishing boats. They would lead him back to whatever settlement they came from. And perhaps they would be able to help him find a British vessel.
The shore was difficult to navigate, and several times he had to take detours inland, but around midmorning he caught his first sight of a fishing boat, and soon after he came upon a girl shepherding her goats. She started when she saw him, and looked afraid until he held up his hands and showed her that his scabbard was empty. She must have been about his age, dark-haired and olive-skinned. He tried a few words of Ancient Greek, but she shook her head. Then he resorted to gesturing, and motioned to his mouth and rubbed his belly to ask if she had food. She reached into the leather satchel that hung around her shoulder and took out a chunk of white cheese and some bread wrapped in a handkerchief. The sight of the food was almost more than William could bear, but he waited politely as she cut into her provisions and offered him half of the bread and cheese. He ate greedily, and when he had swallowed the last bite, she held out a flask of water for him to drink.
“Thank you,” he said, hoping that she could understand his gratitude from the tone of his voice.
He looked around and pointed down the rough path that she must have taken. “Is this the way to the village?” he asked. She nodded, and said something that he, in his turn, didn’t understand.
“Goodbye. And thank you.”
He saw the village almost as soon as he began walking down the trail. It was built into the crook of a sheltered bay, and a row of brightly-coloured fishing boats were still pulled up on its beach.
Before he descended, he took out the spyglass again, unscrewed it, and tried to wipe it clean with his now-dry shirt. Then he put it back together and scanned the horizon. There was still no sign of either the Nephele or the Pegasus, but he saw a small merchant ship heading north.
He folded up the spyglass, and headed down to the boats. One of the fishermen was just stowing his nets, getting ready to head out. He looked wary when he saw William approaching, but not afraid like the shepherdess. Once again William tried to speak a few words of Ancient Greek, but the man shook his head. He must have been a Turk. William picked up a stick and drew a picture of an airship as best he could in the pebbly sand.
The man nodded, and made some motions which William understood to mean that he had seen the airship pass by on the previous day, far out in the west.
“Did it go south?” asked William, indicating.
The man nodded again. Then he pointed at William and said something that sounded like “English”. William nodded vigourously.
The Turk took the stick from him and drew a rough shape in the sand. William recognised it as a map of the island.
“Ingiliz,” said the man, jabbing the stick at a point on the eastern shore.
“English?” asked William. “That’s where the fleet’s moored?”
The man nodded again. Then he called out to another man who was hitching his pony to a cart. They exchanged a few words in what sounded like a mixture of Turkish and Greek, and then the Turk gestured William to the cart. When William looked uncertain, the man drew a line on the sand-map, from west to east.
William understood that the man with the cart would take him across the island to the English. He shook the Turk’s hand. “Thank you. Thank you.” Then he walked to the cart and, despite receiving neither acknowledgement nor invitation from the driver, he hopped on, and within a few minutes was on his way.
The cart’s progress was slow, and made slower when shortly after noon, the driver stopped, tethered the pony, and went to take a nap in the shade of some olive trees, leaving William to chafe at the delay. Afraid that he would be left behind if he fell asleep, but feeling an overwhelming lethargy, he took off his coat, folded it into a pillow and made himself as comfortable as possible in the small cart. Nor did he wake until nearly sunset. They were driving along the track, and when William turned to look at the road ahead, he saw that the sea was now in front of them. He watched eagerly for a sight of the English fleet that the Turk had told him were stationed on the eastern side of the island.
But he was yet to see a ships when, an hour later, the driver pulled up in a village much like the one they had left. William jumped off, stretching his legs and looking around.
“English?” he asked, spreading out his hands.
The taciturn driver spat out an olive pit, and pointed to a house near the shore.
William was afraid that he had travelled all this way across the island for nothing. The sun was setting and he wanted nothing more than to eat a warm meal and drink some water.
He walked to the house that the driver had indicated. There was a light inside, but no one answered when he knocked on the door. Then he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. A tall man was dragging a boat ashore. William watched as the man reached into the boat and deposited several fish – some of them still alive – into a wooden bucket. Then he turned and headed towards the house, only noticing William when he was quite close. He gave a start, and although he couldn’t say exactly why, William could tell at once that the man was English, and of course the man could tell by William’s uniform that he was a midshipman of the Royal Navy. They regarded each other for several moments.
“Well, younken, how can I help you?” said the stranger at last.
William wondered what an Englishman was doing on this remote island. “My ship was overrun by the French,” he said shortly. “I was thrown overboard. I need to find the British fleet and get help.”
“Huh. Good luck with that.”
“Do you know where the fleet’s moored?”
“I don’t know that there is a fleet.”
“Didn’t you see any ships pass by?”
“Oh, I see plenty of ships pass by, but I take no notice of them. I like living a quiet life. I get my fish from the sea, and my fruit from the tree, procul discordibus armis.”
William looked past him at the sea, hoping against hope to see a familiar sail, but there wasn’t so much as a boat in sight.
“Is that the mainland?” he asked, pointing to the horizon where a series of hazy hills rose up and melted into the sky.
He Englishman followed his gaze. “That’s the island of Tenedos directly to the east. Behind it is the mainland.”
“How far is it?”
“The mainland? Oh, nine, maybe ten leagues. I wouldn’t go there if I were you, though. At least not until the Sultan makes up his mind which side he’s taking.”
“What do you mean?” asked William, following the Englishman inside. “I thought he had a treaty with Britain.”
“He does, but old Boney has other plans. He wants access to the Black Sea, but he can’t just sail through the Dardanelles.”
So that was why the French ships were grouping in the Aegean. If the Ottomans switched sides, then the French navy would defend them against the British.
The Englishman had begun gutting the fish.
“The treaty forbids fighting ships from entering the straits, doesn’t it?” William asked.
“It does, and even if a ship does enter the Dardanelles, the way is so narrow that the Turks can easily bombard them from both shores. They don’t stand a chance. You have to engage the Ottomans in open water if you want to best them.”
The Englishman invited him to stay the night. He cooked the fish, which was delicious, and, his tongue loosened further by some strong-smelling liqueur, he talked late into the night about ships and politics. For a man who professed a desire to live a quiet life, he seemed to be very eager to discuss naval battles, and soon William was convinced that the Englishman was just what he had suspected – a former seaman. Whether pensioner or deserter, commoner or officer, William couldn’t tell, but he mistrusted the man, and was careful not to give away any information about the Nephele.
William lay awake after the stranger had fallen asleep, thinking. If the British were mounting a force to oppose the French, they would need a safe harbour where they wouldn’t easily be seen by trade vessels on their way to Constantinople. If he were to choose a location, where would it be?
A sudden idea caused him to sit bolt upright. Tenedos, the man had said. That was the island that the Greeks had used for cover, to trick the Trojans into thinking they had retreated. If it had worked for them, surely it would work for the British navy too. Without knowing exactly why, he felt a deep certainty that Tenedos was the place. He was also certain that the Englishman wouldn’t help him.
Moving as quietly as he could, William picked up his boots and tiptoed out of the door. The pebbles bit into his stockinged feet as he made his way to the boat that was barely visible in the starlight. The sea was as smooth as a sheet, and made only the barest murmur as it met the shore.
What was he doing? He had never rowed for more than half an hour in his life, and then it was only a short way up the Thames. Now he was considering rowing ten leagues in the open sea, possibly against a current. It was madness, but William was desperate. He felt a pressing sense of duty, and a growing frustration that he wasn’t doing enough to save his fellow countrymen. What if the French mounted a surprise attack and destroyed the British fleet, all because William was too slow in bringing them the news? He would never be able to forgive himself.
So he pushed the boat as quietly as he could into the water, jumped in and began rowing.
How he made it through that dark night, William never knew. After just half an hour of rowing, his arms and back began to protest, the cut that he had forgotten about beat the Heart of Oak, and his hands blistered. Worse, the persistent blackness played tricks on him. Again..
The small smoking room is crowded with passengers waiting to view the cast off. They lean into the tilted glass to get a glimpse of the black criss-cross of the mooring mast through the thick fog. A few people are seated at the tables, some more nervous than others. One man is reading the newspaper, his face obscured. The woman with whom I’m sharing a cabin is talking to a man at the window. Our eyes meet in the reflection.
Then there’s Mr. Cooper. He’s smoking a cigarette, facing away from the promenade, one arm slung across the back of the chair, and his hat on his lap. He’s watching my every move.
The airlock door closes with a hiss and suck behind me. The reading man folds back a corner of the paper with one finger, scrutinises me, and then goes back to reading. I recognise him as a Service man. I find a seat near Mr. Cooper, and take out my cigarette case. I pick out a Turkish, slip it into the holder, and look around for the bartender to light it.
“Allow me,” says Mr. Cooper, reaching across to hand me his cigarette. “Around here you need to be Prometheus himself to find a flame.”
I thank him. The spark winks back from the dim windows as I borrow his light.
“Careful with that fire,” snaps one of the passengers, a man with a German accent, a pinched, lined face, and fingers clenched around a leather satchel.
“Yeah, yeah,” says Mr. Cooper, taking his cigarette back. “You don’t mind if I sit here.”
The zeppelin begins to drift and turn, and a searchlight slices into the room, moving from pane to pane.
“God, I hate flying,” he says. “Give me a ship any day over one of these flimsy affairs.”
“Why did you choose to take the zeppelin, then?” I ask, although I know the answer.
“You know why,” he says, then under cover of the chatter from the crowd, leans towards me, and continues in an undertone. “Look, the pater put me in charge of your protection. Last minute. He said you might not have got the memo, so I’m telling you straight. Now, I don’t know what makes you special, besides what’s plain to see, I mean, and I don’t want to know, but if I don’t let you out of my sight, I hope you won’t take offence or try to avoid me or go calling the Captain, because let me tell you, I hate this kind of job more than any other, but I ain’t got a say in the matter. So that’s that.”
I take a draw on my cigarette, studying him. The “memo” had said that he was in his late thirties. Dark hair, light eyes. Six foot six. About thirteen stone. A short scar on the right side of his jaw. Unmarried. Next of kin: a sister – Mrs. J. Marshall – in New York.
He should be easy to manage. “I’m sure you will find me most compliant, Mr. Cooper.”
At dinner we’re once again seated opposite each other. The windows of the dining room are a perfect mirror for the tables all around us. My berth-mate greets me politely as she walks past. She’s eating with the man from earlier. Mr. Cooper has dressed in a hurry, and it shows. I reach across the table, loosen his bowtie, and retie it.
“Thanks. I didn’t want to let you out of my sight for long, but I guess there was no rush after all.”
“Did I keep you waiting long?”
“Yeah, I can’t see what a dame as beautiful as you has to do to get ready.”
“I’m not a dame, Mr. Cooper. At least, not yet.”
He chuckles. “Ri-ight. There’s someone important in Room 10, though. I saw them getting room service. Don’t suppose you know who it is?”
“No idea. But if they’re eating in their cabin, they must have a larger room than I do.”
“You’re telling me. If I were any taller, my feet’d be sticking through to your side.”
I can still feel the airship rising as we begin dessert. A chanteuse is doing her best to entertain the diners. The piano has been removed due to the weight limit.
“I wonder if we could convince your roommate to a swap,” says Mr. Cooper. “I’d like it better if I could keep an eye on you.”
He knows we wouldn’t be able to share a room, not unless we were married.
“I think you’re close enough, Mr. Cooper.”
“Call me Jim. If you’re in any danger, bang on the wall. I’ll come straight away.”
“What danger could I possibly be in? Are you imagining that my cabin-mate will try to suffocate me in my sleep?”
“She looks like she might,” he says, glancing at the stout, middle-aged woman.
“I think it unlikely. Who would be foolish to kill someone on board a zeppelin?” I ask.
He raises an eyebrow. “I guess you haven’t been reading the papers, lady.”
“Yes, I have. And that is precisely why I find it unlikely. Surely safety measures have been taken to ensure such things don’t happen again.”
“Oh, sure, sure,” he says, waving the waiter down to refill our glasses. “No danger at all.”
Mr. Cooper’s standing outside my door the next morning. He takes his job seriously.
“Good morning. Sleep well?”
“Yes, thank you. Do you mind if I write a quick letter before breakfast?”
He looks dismayed, but gestures for me to go ahead.
We enter the writing room together. The wrinkled German is there, reading a book. I sit at a table and write out a few words. The code comes naturally. I pretend that my pen is leaking and splatter the page with ink. I crumple up the sheet, throw it away, and start another. I need confirmation that I have the right man. Mr Cooper waits, looking out of the window with his hands in his pockets.
I will have to find a way to stop him following me.
I know the best places to get a man alone, even on such a crowded airship. I can use some gentle persuasion on the watch officer, and he’ll let me pass down the emergency hatch into the keel, and from there I can make my way unseen to the cargo holds. It’s dangerous, walking along the narrow gangway, but there’s something reassuring about the strength of the intricate metal framework, like black lace against the canvas. There are often cars, trunks, mail bags, and crates in the hold, and once I came face to face with a frightened stowaway. There’s also a hidden section for smuggling, made to look like a spare gas cell. I discovered it on my second trip.
The best way to get rid of a body isn’t to hide it in the hold, however; it’s to dump it overboard, either out of the stern, or from the catwalks that lead to the engine cars. There’s the chance of being seen by an engineer, of course, but over the ocean it’s a clean job. No one will ever recover the body. And if one Nazi spy doesn’t come back from the keel, then the officer on watch is happy to forget that he existed. But guns are dangerous near the hydrogen. There’s always the possibility of a spark, or of a puncture. The only advantage is that while the engines are running, no one will hear a gunshot. Cooper’s right. The sea’s a safer route, even with the threat of the U-boats.
A few months ago one fool tried to hide a body in the airship’s ballast tank. The corpse clogged up the conduit and the ship had to circle for hours while the engineers worked to siphon off enough water to land. Plenty of time to discover both the dead man – one of ours – and the murderer – one of them. Shoddy work. I’ve spent months studying the layout of the airship, and I’ve never been caught.
Rain patters steadily against the fabric of the dirigible, syncopating the drone of the engines. I can feel that the ship has picked up speed. Now it’s just a waiting game, a succession of breakfast, lunch, and cocktails with my companionable watchdog. I hear someone refer to me as “Mrs. Cooper” and Mr. Cooper – Jim – doesn’t correct her. Neither do I. As we near home on the second evening, the blackout blinds come down.
When I return to my cabin to dress for dinner, the room is empty. There’s a piece of paper tucked under my mattress. I unfold it, read it quickly, and then tear it into tiny fragments. Then I take out a leather stole from my trunk and rip the lining away. Inside is a small pistol. I load it, then hide it in my purse.
I wait for my cabin-mate to begin snoring, and then I wait some more. I have a good sense of time, and I can make the rendezvous without a clock, but when I’ve crept out into the corridor I check my watch in the lamplight and I can see that it’s five to three. If I run into anyone, I can pretend that I’m sleepwalking. The ship is silent. I’ve taken the precaution of pulling on my fur coat, but my feet are bare so I can move quieter.
I make my way unhurriedly down the stairs and through the hatch. The metal of the ladder is freezing cold, and so is the gangway. I stand shivering in the belly of the beast, listening to the sound of the canvas flapping, the girders moaning, and the engines chugging at low speed.
I hear footsteps behind me and turn. It’s the serviceman I recognised the previous day. Then he gives the password, and I give mine. He leads the way to a trunk in the hold. He unfastens the straps and opens the lid to reveal a radio with a large battery, a coiled antenna, and a morse key.
“How did you get that on board?”
“Let’s just say, I pulled a few strings.”
“And what are you going to do with it?” I ask. I know exactly what he’s going to do.
“The crew will be radioing false coordinates to throw off the Luftwaffe. Did you know that?” I shake my head. “We’re going to give them the correct landing time and location,” he says. “I’m assuming that’s one thing you do know.”
“Good, help me carry this to the stern so we can unroll the antenna.”
He hands me the radio box, but I’ve only taken a few steps down the gangway when there’s a scuffle behind me. A crack, and a grunt of pain. I turn to see the agent wrestling with Mr. Cooper. One of them is holding a knife. It glints in a sudden flash of lightning. I place the radio down, and take the pistol out of my coat pocket.
The agent has the upper hand now, and the knife is bearing down. With a growl, Cooper twists out of the way, throwing the agent off balance. He tackles the man from behind, and they crash into a stack of trunks. The agent has the knife and he slashes blindly. Cooper jumps out of the way, holding onto the struts to steady himself. At the same instant they both become aware of the gun I’m holding.
“No!” says the agent. His warning is punctuated by a roll of thunder. “You’ll ruin the entire mission. Don’t shoot!”
So, he doesn’t know everything, after all.
“You’ll ignite the gas,” shouts Cooper. “Don’t do it!”
But I shoot anyway. The look of astonishment on his face is worth all this standing around in the cold. He staggers, then slips in his own blood and falls. Another flash of lightning and the skeleton of the ship lights up like an x-ray.
Cooper swears. He’s panting, but he helps me put the radio back in the trunk, and then we jog back to the hatch, and climb back onto the passenger deck. I head up the stairs to return to my cabin, but Cooper pulls me down the corridor and into the men’s shower rooms. They’re empty at this time in the morning.
“Is it true what he said? Are the Germans going to attack us?”
“It’s quite possible, yes.”
I realise he’s bleeding. There’s a gash across his left arm. I try to peel back the shirt to get a look at the wound, but he pushes my hand away.
“And you were going to help him. Why?”
I hold one of the facecloths under the tap. “Because that’s the plan,” I say.
“What kind of plan is that? You realise he would have killed you if I hadn’t been there.”
I look up from cleaning his wound. “I hadn’t realised.”
“Yeah, well, you’re welcome.”
“Don’t forget I saved your life too.”
“I won’t. But if he didn’t send the intel, then the Germans won’t know when and where we’re landing, right?
I take another facecloth and tie it in a tight bandage around his arm. “He may have sent the information on already. It’s possible this was just a test.”
There’s a sound at the door, and before I can react, Cooper’s pulled me into his arms and is kissing me with unnecessary passion. I ball up the bloody facecloth, and secretly tuck it into my pocket.
A man clears his throat, and we break apart, and then exit apologetically.
“You should get some sleep,” Jim says. He’s looking tired, but I can’t let him leave.
“We should be getting close. I’m going to wait it out in the smoking room.”
He sighs. “I really hate this job.”
The smoking room is empty. I draw the blinds to reveal a dim view of clouds. The thunderstorm is already behind us, a brief glimmer in the distance.
I make my way carefully to the bar and open up a couple of bottles and sniff the contents. It’s too dark to see the labels, but I find the gin and manage to pour out a couple of glasses.
I bring him the drink, and he downs it in one gulp.
“Is your arm hurting you?” I ask.
“I’ve had worse.”
I sip mine slowly. We’ve taken every possible action to ensure that the plan pays off, but it’s still possible that this is my last taste of gin.
“Are you thinking about the man you just killed?”
“No. Are you?”
“You know, for a minute there I thought you were going to shoot me.”
“Were you afraid?”
“No, but I was fixing to be disappointed. I mean, every beautiful woman turns traitor, don’t they?”
I find a cigarette and place it between my lips, but Jim plucks it out and tosses it away.
“I wasn’t going to light it.”
“Yeah, but I was.”
Then he leans in and kisses me again.
It’s half an hour, maybe an hour before, far below, the first sparks begin to fly. It’s just possible to make out the shadows of the fighters as they dart over the clouds, but there’s no knowing whether the explosions are British planes or German.
The alarm bells begin to ring, but they’ve all been muffled with rags. After a few minutes I hear footsteps running down the corridor outside, and a dull thudding as the crew bang on doors to wake people up. It would be better to let them sleep.
A plane falls in a spiral of fire, and the black outline of another fighter crosses it. Two more explosions, like the reflection of fireworks in water.
Jim lifts two parachutes from where they hang on the wall. “Put this on.”
I shake my head.
“Put it on.”
Suddenly a bright circle appears in the night, like a full moon rising out of the clouds. It’s the airship’s searchlight. It jerks this way and that, and finally settles on a Beau, tracking it across the sky, losing it, finding it again, until the enemy swoops in and destroys it.
Jim swears. We turn and tear out into the corridor, sprinting towards the stern. We run past the crew’s quarters, dodging one or two people who don’t know what’s going on.
“Through here. The electrical room.”
Jim grabs my arm to stop me.
“Stay here. I mean it.”
I nod, then as soon as his back’s turned, I take the pistol out of my pocket and follow him inside.
It’s difficult to see in the cramped room. The light seeping out of the searchlight outlines the metal surfaces of the generator and engine, and the wet floor. There’s a crewman lying face-down, and the black liquid that’s pooled around him must be blood. Jim steps over him, and I follow, holding the gun cocked.
The airship shudders and jolts as the first Messerschmitt gets it in its crosshairs and sends a sprinkling of machine gun fire into the balloon.
The figure manning the light laughs in triumph. Then I see his face.
It’s the man I shot. He’s so intent on his task that he doesn’t notice us behind him.
Jim turns when he hears my voice, and sees the gun in my hand.
“What the hell are you doing? This thing must be leaking like a sieve. You’ll blow us all up.”
He’s right about the leak. The airship has started to settle with alarming speed, and the sound of flapping canvas suggests that the balloon has already deflated considerably.
I take aim, but Jim steps in my way.
“Move!” I shout. “The ship’s full of helium, not hydrogen.”
The agent hears me this time. He turns to look at me, and his face becomes suffused with rage. Then the zeppelin tilts, sending Jim and I tumbling hard into an engine. My hands are covered in blood – or is it engine oil? The small pistol slides in my hand so I can’t aim it.
I bring up my other hand to help pull the trigger, and I realise that Jim is slumped against my shoulder, unconscious. I fire shot after shot. The glass of the searchlight explodes into the night. Then the spy slumps forward, lifeless. Then a ball of fire blossoms in the sky, and keeps blossoming, its heat licking us and lifting the ship like a piece of paper dancing over the hearth. I wonder what I do know, after all.
This story was inspired by a dream of two spies on an airship, and a little speculation about how passenger zeppelins might have been used during the Second World War if the Hindenburg disaster hadn’t put an untimely end to their operation. For a start, it seems certain that Germany would have stopped all transatlantic flights, and the LZ-129 would probably have been pressed into service transporting Nazi officers. It had already been used to distribute propaganda pamphlets, much to Eckener’s dismay.
With the rest of Europe falling, Britain would be the only viable location for a landing, and the US would be the only country with the resources to build, maintain, and fuel airships. Perhaps they would even recruit Eckener and his engineers. Considering ships were the main means of civilian transport between the US and Europe, I think a few passenger zeppelins would have been a welcome addition, though no doubt only the wealthy and influential would have been able to find a berth. However, it does seem more likely to me that the US would focus on military dirigibles, and that passenger airships would be just about the worst place to dispose of spies!
For this story, I wanted to focus more on language, and experiment with:
POV – I love quiet narrators who don’t reflect too much on their own emotions, and I tried to use the “femme fatale” role to thwart expectations.
Atmosphere – I tried to use film noir imagery, with stark black and white contrast and themes of “watching”, and “love”.