An excerpt from my novel Below Blue London, an erotic supernatural thriller set in London's East End... forever changing but somehow, forever the same.
This chapter is dedicated to Birthday Boy Charles Dickens... the greatest English novelist of them all. Although, if this tale is to believed, things might have worked out very differently....
THE OLD CURIOSITY SHOP - 1841
Night is generally my time for walking…. The glare and hurry of broad noon are not adapted to idle pursuits like mine. A glimpse of passing faces, caught by the light of a street lamp or a shop window, is often better for my purpose than their full revelation in the daylight. And, if I just add the truth, night is kinder in this respect than day, which too often destroys an air-built castle at the moment of its completion, without the smallest ceremony or remorse.
That fellow over there. The way his face hangs in shadow, while his frame melts into the black. He dresses as well as his profession will permit, but the ink stains on his fingers give his game away. In his own mind, he could be anyone, he could be anything. But I know that tonight, he shall be mine, so I sidle alongside him, and offer him a smile.
He shifts awkwardly. He thinks I am a streetwalker, as his type often do. But, if I were, would I choose this neighborhood in which to ply my trade, this busy thoroughfare named for the river that once ran fleet beneath it, and from whose quarters every newspaper and publication in the land takes wing every evening? Would I not be better served sashaying around the taverns and opium dens, brightly dressed and gaudily painted, with the price of my wares the first words from my lips?
Instead, I dress as befits the calling I was given’ and, if my words are seductive, it’s because the services I render are worth more than mere money. I offer immortality, in this life and beyond. I offer fame in excess of a man’s wildest imaginings, and success that would cause the most famous to cringe. I offer the greatest story ever told, and seek only a man who is worthy of telling it.
I whisper some words, and his eyes flash with interest. I vouchsafe some truths, and his body responds accordingly. I have a knowledge, and a secret to share, and all it will cost him is time and some words, words that will set down forever the mysteries I will unveil, to bring hope to the hopeless and joy to the joyless, and extract all humankind from the toiling uncertainty that passes as life, with the knowledge that, Hereafter, all will be pleasure.
“What kind of pleasure?” They always ask that, and I always answer like this. I drop to my knees and unfasten his trousers. We are in darkness; walking as we talked, until I maneuvered him into one of the mean blind alleys that runs between every significant building. I take out his tool, soft, heavy, salty, and take a swift nip of Armagnac to enliven his flavor. I roll back the foreskin and angle my head. His knob-end is liquid in my brandy-hot mouth.
He looks at me warily, repeats my words back at me. He does not move away, but I sense his unease, as incredulity fades into disbelief. He suspects skullduggery, some low form of trick, and he looks around nervously for the compatriots he is certain I have stashed in the darkness, who will leap out and rob him, then beat him to death. There are none. I travel alone because the secret is my own; and, though others have been privy to it over the years, their own shallow minds have blotted out its importance, and sent them scampering back to the safety of their own world, where the shadows are dismissed by the flare of a Lucifer, and the truth shrinks back with them, because it is too much to manage.
I am sucking, and he cannot help himself, thickening in my mouth, growing firmer and warmer as the muscles start to fill. I stop and he groans; I stand and he sighs. I grasp his hard cock and push it back into his trousers, fasten them tight and then step away.
“You cannot stop,” he whispers, imploringly.
“But I have,” I reply. “So you know what to do. Be at this address in one hour.” I hand him directions. “And then you’ll discover what happens next.” I patted his still furious erection through the coarse fabric of his trousers. “And don’t forget to bring this fellow with you.”
But already I know he’s unlikely to show. I am a muse, and I seek a maestro. Yet all I ever find are charlatans, so bereft of the depth and perception that their vocation should demand that they might as easily be illiterates, scratching ragged finger nails into the impervious bark of a tree trunk.
Except one. One man had the wisdom to understand what I offered; one had the sagacity to comprehend what it portended; one might have spared me this interminable questing, before it even began. And, had his waking mind not wrestled his dreams and ambitions into bitter submission, we might both now be reaping the rewards of our labors. Instead….
I lay down my quill, studied my writings for a moment, then sighed loudly. Instead… I would never say that I hate any man, but I can find no other word for Charlie Dickens.
It is not simply because he called me a liar without using that word; that he mocked my beliefs with no glimmer of humor; or accused me of trickery, with no clue how I tricked him. I could forgive him for any of that. Nor is it because he has risen so high in the public esteem, while I still occupy the same lowly station I was born into. That is capricious fate at work, and no man or woman can control her machinations.
I hate him because, if he had only listened to the story I gave him, rather than the ones he so callowly set down in print, his reputation would now be set forever. Instead – who will read his words in ten years time? Who will care for his sentimentalities when he is dead and gone? “Who,” people will ask as they sling his moldering maudlinities onto the rubbish heap, “was Charlie Dickens anyway?”
Things could have been so different. We would have made a great team. Close my eyes, and I can still watch it unfolding – lecture tours in luxury, our writings bound in gold, an audience with Royalty, and more society memberships than we could ever know what to do with. Not bad for the grand daughter of a Poplar shopkeeper, and the son of a debtor who wrote court reports for a pittance.
Yes, he was a writer even then, but scarcely one you would recognize. Would-be writers were everywhere at that time; I know, because most of them passed through grandfather’s shop at one time or another, either searching out bargains to assist them in their trade… writing implements, blotters, or simply inspiration… or seeking to sell off another family treasure, to tide them over until their ship came in.
That’s what Charlie was about, the first time he crossed our threshold. I never did discover what he was doing in these parts – he always behaved like a city soul, with no reason whatsoever to be traveling this far east. But here he was, marching down West Ferry Road with such a look of determination that I know I wasn’t the only person to stop still and watch him pass. Except he didn’t pass. He walked straight in through the open door, sought grandfather out from the shadows at the back, and lay half a dozen trinkets down on the desk.
“I wish to sell these.”
Grandfather never even looked at them. “Not interested.”
“I was told you never turn down a bargain.” The visitor appeared young, but he had the voice of an old man. Or perhaps it was merely weakness; he looked as though his last decent meal came at his mother’s breast.
“You was told wrong. I’m not interested.”
Grandfather’s a curmudgeon and no mistake. I stepped forward. “I apologize, sir. My grandfather is correct, he isn’t interested. I do the buying here. My grandfather does the selling.”
“A sensible arrangement.” The young man straightened up, tapped his collar self-consciously, and held the objects out towards me. “And who do I have the pleasure of addressing?”
“You can tell me if it’s a pleasure once I’ve given you my price.” Then, relenting a little, “Nell Trent. And you, sir?”
Introductions were exchanged, small talk was made. Yes, he was a writer. No, he had not yet published more than a few words. But yes, he had very high hopes for the future, and I bit my tongue and refrained from remarking that, if a man could live by ambition alone, there’d be a lot less starving in the workhouse. I examined his offerings, and was surprised to discover that they really weren’t bad. The gold was high quality, the silver was better, the cast was solid. I could go… I named a price, pitching low, just to see how he’d react.
He knew his own mind. “I was hoping for a little more,” he murmured.
“How much more?” He told me, and I laughed; threw back a figure that I was certain he’d reject… oh, I can haggle all day if there’s nothing else to do… and was astonished when he accepted it. “With one provision.”
“What’s that, then?”
“That you allow me to take you to the theater tomorrow evening. And perhaps a meal beforehand?”
Well, he’s a cool one, after all. I looked him up and down. The clothes weren’t bad, the beard was trimmed, his accent was honest, and he had nice eyes. Quite a toff, in other words. But despite all that, I liked him. “Why not?” It wasn’t as if I was any kind of disgrace to look at either, and if I needed new clothes, I’d just go through the shop. We have a wardrobe that is fit for a Queen. We met on Blackfriars Road, outside the Royal Surrey Theatre, dined at an eatery a few houses down, and then turned towards the night’s entertainment. The posters advertised Esmerelda, or the Deformed of Notre Dame, and I suppressed a little shiver at the thought of what such a title might conceal. But my companion kept up such a constant stream of chatter that I never discovered what was unfolding onstage.
Much of what he spoke of was nonsense, as is so often the case with these self-made intellectuals, convinced that every thought in their head is original, every idea in their quill has never previously been written. Truthfully, I would wager that I’ve spent more time in books than he ever has; the shop is open all the hours God sends, but customers can be scarcer than snakes needing shoes, which leaves me plenty of time in which to devour the volumes that are heaped in one corner.
Still I found him entertaining and, when he asked if we could meet again, it scarcely seemed worthwhile to feign demure surprise. Besides, at least one of the directions in which his inclinations seemed to lean was one in which I have a great deal of experience. Most people have a mind for the so-called supernatural. But few have a mind that is open as well. Charlie was one of those few.
My name is Nell, you know that already, and I work for my grandfather, in his curiosity shop – so named not for the nature of the items we sell, but because it encourages passers-by to feel curious, and come in to discover what merits such a name. And they are rarely disappointed.
Just a few yards from the dockyards, where the treasures of the empire are unloaded from great ships, and a few more from the mean streets where entire families survive on what they can pawn, we sell (and buy) the wonders of the world, from furniture to furs, from jewelry to jugs. It would be a dull soul indeed who did not find something to take his fancy buried amongst our stock.
But my tale is not about the business, it is about the building from which we conduct it, a brick and clapperboard construction that seems to lean in every direction at once, and carries on its crumbling shoulder every one of the centuries that have elapsed since it was first erected by the old ferry road.
My grandfather purchased it long, long ago, a tavern that had fallen upon hard times – and one wonders just how appallingly its last owner conducted his business, that he could go broke selling alcohol and tobacco to sailors! The shop was opened on one floor, the remainder was retained as living quarters, and first my mother (God rest her soul) and then myself were born within its walls. But the walls have secrets that no man might believe. Except Charlie. He believed.
My bedroom was most peculiarly sited, directly above that corner of the tavern where – although there is no indication of such usage today – the men once gathered to smoke their opium. And, when I was first beset by my visions and dreams, that is what I assigned them to, some leftover vapors that clung to the fabric, and infiltrated my sleeping mind.
It was the nature of the dreams, however, that perplexed me so, and ensured I could never relate them to anyone else.
Were they sinful? Perhaps, although they did not feel that way. Were they obscene? You might think them so, although that, too, is not an observation I would trust. All I know is, long before I even thought to wonder what goes on between a man and a woman, when the lights are down and the shutters are drawn, their most intimate actions were playing out on the walls… no, in the very air of my room.
It was as though a magic lantern show was taking place, but it was unlike any magic lantern I had ever witnessed. No static display of trickery and travail. The images moved and writhed of their own accord; I might have reached out and touched them… did so on more than one curious occasion, but my hand simply sailed through the forms that seemed so solid – “like phantoms!” breathed Charlie, as I told him about them, but I shook my head. Not phantoms, for there was no sense of a spectral presence, no ghostly shivers up my spine, or hairs standing fearful on the nape of my neck. The actors were there, but they were not there. And, though I could not hear them, I could smell them… odors that quickened my heart and moistened my loins… and taste them… flavors that tormented my senses and weakened my virtue.
Did I tell Charlie about that? That one morning I awoke with my passions so enflamed that I slipped out of the door before the household was awake, and made my way down to the dockyard, to find a man… any man would do… who might quench the fires that were blazing within me? I did not, and perhaps that would have made a difference.
There are magazines (I know because I have seen them, in my grandfather’s study and my brother John’s bedroom) where stories such as mine are published with abandon, and accompanied by engravings that should make a maiden blush. Had Charlie only known the full extent of my experiences, and written it up for one such magazines, would he ever have strayed into the world he now inhabits, of pumping out so much calculated bilge, to be sold a chapter a week to a baying populace?
I think not. He would have launched a career in another world entirely, one where it was his own heart that dictated the stories he tell, and not the rapacious demands of the common herd – most of whom cannot even read for themselves, and gather instead to hear showmen tell the tales. I mentioned that my experiences might have been caused by the inadvertent inhalation of a certain drug. Well, these readings, too, are a drug, one that is forcibly and deliberately inflicted upon the populace, to keep them down and in their place. Sentimental stories, the opiate of the masses. And Charlie, my Charlie, is the means by which it is forced upon them.
“I would very much like to experience the powers of this room for myself,” says he.
“I wager you would,” answers I, as his hand strays onto my knee and begins to hoist up the fabric of my dress. I slapped it away. “But, for that to happen, we would need to remove my grandfather, and that never happens, not even for Church.”
“I will come to you at night, place a ladder to your casement, and effect my entry like a thief.”
“In full view of the entire street,” I mocked, “with the dock workers passing by at all hours, and the Runners on the look out for smugglers and light-fingers. You would be lucky to place your foot on the lowest rung.”
“Smugglers,” he breathed, his eyes ablaze with sudden inspiration. “You will smuggle me in during the hours of business, while your grandfather is busy elsewhere in the shop, and your brother is at his apprenticeship. I will secrete myself in a wardrobe or cupboard, or under your bed or any such place, and when all is at rest, I will emerge.”
“You might have a very long and hungry wait,” I cautioned.
“I am patient,” he responded, and so it was agreed.
I wondered what my intentions were. The morning that I went abroad, explicitly to scratch an itch, was ancient history now, but it was not an occurrence to be repeated. Away from my own room, it felt crude and savage, and the beauties I had envisioned were lost in the grime of barefaced reality. Though I scarcely let the man touch my body, and touched nothing more of his than a fist could wrap around, I felt filthy for days, and took so many baths that my grandfather finally filled the tub up with coal, so I could at least do something useful when I carried it in from the scullery.
Charlie, though – Charlie would be on my home territory and, if the room worked its magic, then anything that transpired would be a part of the spell. Although I wondered, for all his apparent worldliness, just how far into the sensual world he might venture? I had watched (and, in a peculiar way that I cannot describe) experienced deeds that I’d never imagined in the past; that I couldn’t imagine any two people ever undertaking without guidance of some sort. Had he ever… would he ever… I would soon discover the answer to that.
“I am considering adding your story to my Posthumous Papers of the Pickwick Club,” he announced, as soon as we were alone. It was the novel he’d been working on for what he described as years. It sounded trite and banal to me, but I smiled encouragingly. He continued. “Even if nothing of a spectral nature should occur this evening, still the waiting alone should be of ripe amusement.”
I was pleased that he was taking our vigil seriously. I had wondered whether he would – a young man, surreptitiously admitted to a pretty maid’s bedchambers, might well have more pressing concerns on his mind than mere recording. But Charlie did not only arrive with pencil and paper; while he lay beneath my bed, awaiting my return, he had somehow scratched out the rudiments of a story. My story.
I scanned the pages while we talked, sometimes of frivolities, sometimes of more serious fare, but never of our reasons for being here together. Perhaps he feared that by mentioning them, he might prejudice his chances of experiencing them; or, more likely, he was shy. Certainly the distance between us as we sat, him by my dresser, myself near the bed, conveyed a tangible notion of nervousness, and I was wondering now whether such a powerful emotion might somehow serve to deaden the sensations that the room naturally exuded.
But what would become of our experiment, if I were to try and hasten things along? I knew what happened in that room every night, of the scents and scenes that played out all around me. I knew, I told him laughingly, that they were not a figment of an overactive imagination, “an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese.” (How strange that he should write that down).
He did not share that knowledge, though, and that was the obstacle that I must overcome. Although I ached to hold him in my arms… had been aching all day, if I were honest to myself… I knew that to do so would render our entire vigil immaterial.
He rose and walked to the window, drawing back the curtain an inch and peeping down to the street below. “How many spirits are abroad, do you think? Lost, lonely, floating among us, unable to communicate…” his voice trailed off. “But I forgot. You do not believe in spirits, do you?”
Was he teasing? I wasn’t certain. “I believe in phenomena that we do not understand. If I felt I was merely the subject of a haunting, you would not be here. But these are not ghosts. They are truths, attempting to push back the veils that we have drawn over our natural humanity, in the name of science and progress and decorum and manners. Perhaps the figures I see have died in our world, but they are not dead. They have simply passed on to another realm, where they live the lives that our society prohibited them from enjoying in the past. That is what I summonsed you here to witness, in the hope that you will put it into words that will bring those prohibitions crashing down.”
He laughed sadly. “You think that one man has that power?”
“If he does not, then he is not the man I believed him to be. You said yourself, you wish to make a mark on the world, and that your weapon will be your pen. Well I am offering you the ammunition that will fuel that weapon.”
He stepped towards me, a sympathetic frown on his face; then paused, his expression suddenly startled. I turned towards where his glance was frozen, and I froze myself. Standing beside me, looking kindly down, a naked youth clasped his erect penis, stroking it vigorously, as it twitched in his hand.
I turned away, looked towards Charlie, and he, too, had a partner now - a woman, tall, jet-black and beautiful, a great ebony mane sweeping down across her shoulders, masking her vast, bare breasts. He reached towards her, ran his hands through the tresses. “I don’t believe it. You are real. I can touch you.”
“And I can touch you,” she replied, although I would not swear that her voice was audible. Rather, it sounded in my head, bright and chiming, alive with a laughter that swallowed my unease and flooded my heart with happiness.
The man had moved closer, stroking my scalp with one hand, while the other guided his erection close to my face, ran its smoothness lightly over the flesh of my cheek, my forehead, my chin. I didn’t move, I couldn’t. The sensation, so strange, but so compelling, bound me to my chair, and then my tormentor was before me, gently parting my legs so that he might stand between them, then bending slightly, to caress my shoulders and breasts.
My clothing dissolved at his touch, but my nakedness did not shock me. Nor did I flinch as he leaned in to kiss me, first on my lips, then on my breasts, then – as he knelt, and spread my legs wider – on my sex.
I had seen the act so many times, as I lay in my bed alone at nights, and how often had I mused upon the sensations that it must produce. But nothing I imagined had prepared me for this, the wet warm questing that, at first, just felt strange, but which gained in excitement as it gathered intensity. Hands clasped my hips, pulled me closer to that searching tongue; and then raised me slightly off the chair, so that my arms and feet supported my weight and a single finger probed between my buttocks.
I wriggled slightly, to aid its passage, and the sensation between my legs grew sharper; I wriggled some more, and heard myself gasp.
My eyes were closed and I could not bear to open them, not even to marvel at Charlie’s predicament. His gasps were certainly audible, and it seemed certain his pleasure was marking time with mine, was perhaps a few steps ahead of me, for suddenly he groaned and then fell deathly silent – so silent that, now, I did open my eyes, to watch his erection as it subsided, while his partner raised herself to her feet, and forced a thin, dripping finger between his lips.
He suckled it willingly, and I felt my fever rising, felt my body tense as my muscles tightened, and then experienced such release that I’d never felt before, raising me high into the air before slamming me back down.
I gave a cry and it was stifled as fingers clutched my jaw. But I did not want to be held. I broke the grip and slipped to the floor, pushing my partner onto his back, grasped his penis and licked at its tip.
The taste was strange. I needed to think, to balance its flavors against my desire. I laid it to one side, kissed his stomach instead, then ran my tongue up, towards his chest. A nipple caught my eye, and I sucked hard upon it, as hands grasped my legs and pulled them apart. I was straddling his loins and he entered me hard, brushing aside the maidenhead that I thought would surely slow him, and I felt myself unfolding, yielding to his strength.
Deeper he sank and deeper, until it was as though his length was inside my throat, pushing aside all my internal organs. I pushed back, willing him to enter even further, wanting now to taste him with every fiber of my soul, and feel him through every nerve end. I wondered how long he could maintain this fierce strength, and how long I could withstand it before my body exploded again, but an instinct that I had never imagined now took hold of my body. I rode him fast and furious, my ears echoing to the sucking splashes of flesh against wet flesh, my breath coming in sharp, hard gasps that shocked me with their intensity… or were they mine, or Charlie’s partner, as she echoed my movements on her lover’s face, and galloped towards a finishing line that I thought I alone was approaching.
We came together, and then we came together, rolling in one another’s arms, while the men looked on, their eyes bugged with delight as we stroked and provoked one another’s body, tasting and teasing the tart, sweaty corners, delighting in the delirium that is the realm of the poetess Sappho.
I wondered whether the men might follow our lead, and suspect that they did. But my eyes would not focus as my pleasures increased. Locked in an orgasm that consumed me like fire, my mind could concentrate only upon prolonging the moment for as long as I could, as wave upon wave crashed down on my body, and I know my screams would have awakened the neighborhood, had anyone else but myself only heard them.
And then it subsided, and I sat up to see Charlie lying beside me, his face a mask of ecstasy, his body weak and drenched by exertion. We were alone in the room, the first rays of the morning sun filtering through the curtains.
He spoke first. “Who were they?”
“I don’t know.” It was true. I had never seen those faces before, nor anyone as striking as the black girl. “It’s never happened like that before. I’ve felt things, of course, but only as echoes, or ripples that spread from some far agitation. I have never been a part of it like that.”
Charlie was dressing. His eyes refused to meet mine. “I should leave. I need time to think.”
“You think I tricked you, don’t you?” I could see distrust in his every movement.
“I cannot say. Something happened that I don’t understand, and that is the only explanation that makes any sense to me. I don’t know how you did it, if you did do it, but it is easier to believe that some human agency masterminded this, than to believe that I spent the night tupping a creature from another dimension.”
I could see his point. He was frightened and confused, and there was no other explanation, if you refused to believe the truth. But I was angry as well. “What about the story?”
“I don’t know. I don’t know if I can write what you’d like me to write, or whether I even want to. It was one thing when this entire affair was simply a perplexing mystery. Now….”
“Now,” I wheeled on him, “you would rather brush it under the carpet, forget that it ever happened, and get back to writing up trials and lawsuits, while you dream about the day that someone might deign to publish your Picknose…”
“Pickwick,” he corrected me.
“No matter. Well, good luck to you, mister Dickens. You’re not the only writer in the world, you know, and if you were, what a pretty pickle the rest of us would be in. There’s plenty more would jump at a story like this… a chance like this. And I’ll find one before you’ve even published another sentence.”
“I’m sure you will,” he said sadly, and was gone, from my room, from my life, but not, I regret, from my awareness. Six years have passed since that fateful night, and Charlie… I apologize, it’s Charles now… Charles Dickens is everywhere, and I’m still here, sleeping in the same room, tossing to the same dreams, imagining the same bright futures. Except even I sometimes wonder whether I should care so passionately.
There are, I have realized, only two types of writer in this world, those who take note, and those who take notes. I thought Charlie was the rarity, one who could actually splice those two skills together, and maybe he was. Certainly he has caused a veritable splash, first with his Pickwick, and Nicholas Nickleby, and then the sorry saga of the orphan Oliver Twist. In fact, the last time I saw him…the only time I’ve seen him since he fled from my chamber… he was on his way into his publisher, with the last installments of that tale, as I was on the way out, my crumpled manuscript rejected out of hand.
We exchanged a few pleasantries, made some small talk, and then hung, immobile through a lengthening silence. Finally, he asked if the room was still as he remembered it. “It depends,” I answered, “upon what you remember,” and I handed him my manuscript. “Mr Chapman called it fanciful,” I smiled, blotting out the stronger, harsher terms that the brusque little publisher had also resorted to. “But you may find it amusing.”
“I thank you, Nell,” he said softly, and he began to walk away. Then he turned back to me and smiled, softly. “And I swear, if there is anything that I can do with your story, anything at all, it will be done.”
Well, he did it alright, in 41 weekly parts, and I might not have even cared if he’d only told the truth. But he pilfered my text and he hijacked my name, and he wove such vile and putrid melodrama that any right-thinking person would rather vomit than read more than a few lines of his bilious frippery. And my story? It continues on from where it ended, another night, another encounter, another hour spent waiting for a man who never comes.
Then into bed with the whispers and the gasps, the feelings and the fevers, the energies and the ecstasy. And a secret that I’ll probably take with me to the grave. That death is not the end. It is merely the first premonitory shudder of an orgasm that will last all eternity.
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