He hunched broad shoulders inside his heavy black wool coat and shivered, grimacing. “Bitter,” he agreed, getting to his feet. “And I swear, it gets darker earlier.”
“You always say that,” I said, and tucked my hand into the crook of his elbow.
There was no full moon, no wisps of mist rising from the autumn-chill ground on this Halloween night. It was cold and damp and it smelt of wet soil and bitter coal-smoke from the little cluster of houses nestled at the foot of the Vale of the Red Horse.
Possibly, the smell of rank, wet decay came from the coat of Captain Nathaniel Rackhay, casualty of the first battle of the English Civil War, on this very hillside, three hundred and sixty years ago –
“And a week,” he said wryly. “Three hundred and sixty three years. And a week. But – who shall count the hours, unless they be sunny ones?”
Handsome bugger, was Captain Rackhay, for a man who was dust for every other night of the year. Big, and broad-shouldered, with a lion’s mane of fashionably dishevelled fair hair, a swashbuckling grin, and one raffishly missing canine tooth that gave him the look of a cavalier Errol Flynn – which comparison, given that he’d been a cavalry captain in the Army of Parliament, would have appalled him. No, I didn’t fancy Nathaniel Rackhay, living or otherwise. For a dead man, he fancied himself sufficient for both of us.
“It’s freezing,” he grumbled again, and pulled his tawny silk scarf up further about his throat. “I’m sure it never used to be this cold.”
“Yes it did. They reckon that if there’d not been such a hard frost, the night after the battle, hundreds more would have died. The cold saved their lives, you see. Stopped the bleeding.”
“Bollocks,” he said cheerfully, and tugged the silk scarf away from his throat to show me the glistening grey-blue ropes of muscle and ragged artery where a Royalist sword had taken him, just above his breastplate. “Would have done me as little good were it as cold as Acheron out there. Those as God meant to die, died. Speaking of which, madam – ” he cocked an eyebrow at me, with a wolfish grin that I suspect he thought was irresistible – “we have an assignation with them, I believe?”
I’d known Rackhay for six years, now, and he still didn’t give up. He was one of the vainest of the Edgehill ghosts, though not above claiming the old war wounds pained him, if he thought the sympathy might get him somewhere. He wasn’t the only one who disguised the more disfiguring of his injuries, in the faux-candlelight of the pub. There were a number of ragged felt hats worn slantwise, and carefully-arranged lovelocks artfully concealing shattered skulls; pinned-up sleeves where the glint of bone showed through shot-tattered fabric. It amazed me that the locals never noticed – or at least, seemed not to, as a knot of young farm labourers in fleece jackets and jeans chatted perfectly amicably through a dozen ragged grey pikemen in buff leather, clustered at the bar.
“Miserable old turd,” Rackhay said without moving his lips, nodding to Sir Edmund Verney, hunched glowering on a bar stool with his pint held huddled against his chest by the bloody stump of his left arm. The King’s standard-bearer had left his severed hand on the battlefield, still clutching His Majesty’s precious banner, though there had been precious little else left to identify its bearer. I did not like to look at Sir Edmund. He’d been caught under a flying cavalry charge, and he looked like it; but more than that, he was furious. He had been cold-furious for three hundred and odd years, and his temper wasn’t getting any better. He gave me one simmering fiery glare, and then he returned to his contemplation of his pint.
Too often in fiction we like to see characters with a disability as “brave” or “tragic” – something that can be mended, or magicked away, or ignored, or overcome. Sweet, and gender-neutral, and slightly romantic, but broken: a thing not quite right, that can be made “right” – and socially acceptable – by an external agency, under the right circumstances. Because that’s the point of fiction, isn’t it? We can edit out the things we don’t want to know about, airbrush over the horrid bits, especially in historical fiction.
Well, I’ve been reading a lot lately about the soldiers in the first World War who suffered facial disfigurement, and the reconstructive surgery they were (and weren’t) offered. It’s been an ongoing battle in my head, around Thankful Russell, hence the research around facial disfigurement. Because it’s so hard not to slip into romantic hero mould and have him just lightly damaged but noble, like a sort of 1640s Heathcliff – dark and brooding and, well, Ross Poldark. After all, he’s handsome, right, our Russell? Fair and elegant and rather stunning from the right side – he can’t be too disfigured, not so it shows: that’s not how it works in books, he’s got to be just a little bit enigmatically damaged.
And he ain’t. The stories of those young men in the early twentieth century were heartbreaking – young men who’d lost their beauty by shrapnel, by machine gun, by fire, and who came home to find their sweethearts turning away, or that nurses didn’t want to remove their bandages because they didn’t want to see underneath. Their children cried to see them. Many of them turned to drink, many committed suicide because they were –
“..not meek and biddable, He was not grateful. He was sullen-mute and his cheek was an agony for most of his waking hours, itching and burning and throbbing. He whimpered and sobbed through most nights. He was barely worth the pennies Parliament paid for his care.” ( -A Cloak of Zeal)
I used to work with a man, some years ago, whose face had been badly burned in an incident at his old workplace and who had ended up having to be redeployed because he could not bear to be looked at. He’d grown a beard, which was possibly not one of his better ideas, because it had grown in patchy and fair over the scars. (He was rather gorgeous, actually, with or without the scars, but he wouldn’t have believed me if I’d told him.)
I had a really interesting review of the short story in which Russell meets the lady who will eventually become his wife (which is called “Si Tu Dois Partir” and it’s available in the anthology “Steel and Lace” HERE) in which it was described as the story of two less physically-fortunate people who manage to find a touching and meaningful love. I get that, I get that absolutely, but why on earth should the fact of Russell’s scarred face preclude him from romance? Imagine a hero who isn’t sure if he can still kiss a woman, who slurs his words when he’s tired, who’s not prepared to meekly put up with being stared at by the curious and patronised by the great and the good. Imagine a man with a conspicuous facial disfigurement who’s still got a sexual identity, who is bloody good at his job, and who, every now and again, falls off the wagon when the strain of conforming to everybody else’s normal is too much for him.
Thankful Russell’s not pretty, not any more. Get used to it.
To commemorate the execution of the three Leveller Martyrs on this day in 1649, A Wilderness of Sin is free to download to your Kindle on this day only.
They’re Rosie Babbitt’s lads. And if he doesn’t speak for their fair treatment, no other bugger will….
Someone sent me a review of Wilderness earlier on and I am still pondering this one. Lots of bits in my head but heck, if you read my meandering regularly you’ll know all about that.
My late father was a jazz musician in the Swinging Sixties, playing the club scene. My mum has always told me the story of how they first met – you have to imagine, Michael Caine with a tenor sax and the incredibly glamorous, slender, black-haired dolly-bird in matching mini-skirt and knickers, in a smoky dive where you had to buy chips to stay after pub closing time because that made it not a pub and therefore not subject to the same opening hours legislation. Anyway. I am responsible, he told her, very seriously. I am responsible for making all these people happy.
And I think in that respect I am my father’s daughter (although I look nothing like Michael Caine). I read the review, which was a wonderful piece of writing in its own right, and I was very flattered and I sat about looking smug and the cats looked at me oddly and then I thought – yes, and that’s going to go Out There. People will read that and think, that’s an author who can write, who can entertain me, who can maybe teach me a bit about history, who can make me feel like I’m there. And actually, that’s a hell of a responsibility.
On the one hand – there will be more hands going on than Kali here – I’ve got Rosie Babbitt muttering darkly that he’s bloody sick of being called a Crophead, with his hair halfway down to his backside, and how come people don’t know that half of it’s cobblers – there was no more poets in the King’s Army than there was in Parliament’s, and even Cromwell’s fearsome Ironsides were just lads doing a job, wanting to get home, wanting to get paid. And Russell with his head up, quivering like a greyhound, passionately declaring for freedom of thought and conscience, and the poorest he that is in England having the same right to a voice as the richest. And Het in the background, carefully piecing them all back together, having the same problems as wives and mothers through the ages: trying to keep a safe, secure roof over her family’s head, bringing up her children right, trying to make a pound stretch till payday.
So there’s that lot, the fictional lot, wanting me to tell it like it was, to make the lived experience of ordinary men and women in the 1640s real to you guys. On both sides, King and Parliament. Not people in books who talk in thees and thous, but people like me and you, who loved and hated and felt just like we do. Had favourite foods, got cold, worried about the state of their linen. And, you know, I hope I do a sort of okay job there. Someone told me once they could imagine bumping into Rosie Babbitt out shopping, to which I could only think God help them both, then, for I’d not imagine he’d be good at queuing.
And then on the other hand there’s the real lot. The people (who will remain nameless) whose good opinion matters to such an extent that the Babbitt-boy keeps the cursing down to a dull roar unless under extreme provocation. Who expect good writing, and a bit of adventure and a bit of sweariness and a bit of romance and a bit of intrigue, and who’d be disappointed if they got less. Who are proud to say they know me as a friend as well as an author.
So. Well. It’s hard work,.then.