Coming of Age Historical Fiction Romance

In the years before we got a motor vehicle, it was my job to hold Charlie’s reins whilst Papa stowed his precious crates at the rear of our waggonette. Papa trusted me, even with my one healthy arm, because Charlie was docile first thing in the morning. As long as Mama topped up his nosebag, there was no chance of him trotting off. After Papa secured our goods, he’d join Mama and me on the wooden bench and tweak my nose.

Well done, laddie, he’d say, adjusting his lucky hat to Mama’s chagrin. She’d roll her eyes and sigh as Papa clicked his tongue twice at Charlie. He’d shudder as if we’d disturbed his daydreams, snorting white clouds that dissolved in the murk. Our coach’s weary timbers creaked as we nudged forward, trundling over frosted tufts of meadow grass toward the open road. They say the coldest time of any day is the hour before the sun rises. I can tell you from experience that is true. However, part of me shivered with nervous excitement. I’d pull up my collar to keep warm and wonder where we’d all end up. Papa was vague at the best of times, and I had no control or say in the matter.


As a young lad, I was proud to accept the assistant’s role, however I wasn’t naïve to the fact that I added credibility to my father’s sale pitches. I was the moon-faced cherub beside him when he delivered his patter and sold his wares. He was the extravert performer in flamboyant clothes. His range of outlandish hats and loud tartan suits were a novelty act that screamed at high volume. We caused a stir wherever we travelled. 


I know Papa had a dozen favourite hats, however, the red alpaca bowler was the one that was special to him. He called it his lucky hat for good reason; we often had a successful day when he wore it. My mother swore it was vulgar enough to raise the dead or cure the afflicted by itself. Whether Papa was superstitious, it had never failed him and went everywhere with us.

   Our weekend market missions were unpredictable affairs despite their familiar ritual. We’d arrive unannounced at an unsuspecting town, grab a favourable spot, and Papa would begin his performance, drawing inquisitive shoppers because of his commanding presence. Papa had a bellowing voice that turned heads at one hundred paces and once he’d got their attention, they were mere fish in a pond tempted by sumptuous morsels of exotic bait. As eager punters assembled, my mother sidled off to transform herself for her part in the show. I observed my parent’s well-rehearsed act from the sidelines and handed my father sale items on request with my good arm.

   Papa’s unique selection of the latest household goods attracted the town’s lady folk. They couldn’t resist his non-stick pans, fine bone china, and quirky kitchen utensils; especially at his knockdown prices. However, he had an ulterior motive. Papa understood the impact of showmanship and his purpose for gathering an audience was to sell his patent elixir. This was unlike anything you’ve ever dreamed about; it was the cure for all mankind’s ailments. You name it; it would cure it, fix it or mend it, and at twenty dollars a bottle, it was a bargain at twice the price.


Papa had married late in life. Before he’d settled down with my mother, he’d spent three decades searching for plants with magical properties that he could market and sell. He’d travelled the length and breadth of this fair land before roaming south amongst the desert cacti. Papa followed winding trails and sampled the life enhancing powers of the peyote and the aloe vera before recommencing his search for more powerful potions. Rumour had it that holy men in the tropics possessed what he was looking for. Papa followed his instincts and careered beyond his maps and charts, winding up in a rain forest encampment. The curious inhabitants surrounded him, and using his practiced charm, inveigled himself into their midst. He soon discovered they were a wise and ancient people who worshipped a sacred mushroom. Papa had found it at last; the object of their obsession fitted the bill. 

   Papa met their shaman, a healer by trade, who cured people by administering the divine fungus as golden droplets in a tincture. They called it ‘the tears of the gods.’ Impressed by what he’d witnessed, Papa persuaded the shaman to reveal his secrets and then returned home with an urn of the enchanted liquid. Papa never let on how much it cost him, although Mama suspected he’d liberated it while no one was looking, and skedaddled out of sight. The shaman cautioned Papa that it was too powerful to use in its concentrated form and so he set about diluting his treasure and re-bottling it for commercial sale and consumption.

Did it work? You ask. 

Back in the rain forest, Papa had seen blind men gain their sight and the lame walk again. This was the real deal, as far as he was concerned. The thing is, if you’d ever met Papa, you’d understand how he operated. Once he believed in something, there was no persuading him otherwise. Black was white or white was black; it didn’t matter. If he believed a thing to be true, he knew it was true, and that’s what counted. 

That’s all fine, but how did your mother fit into this arrangement?

My mother? It was six months before his big discovery when they fell in love. Mama was a single mother working at a local repertory theatre when my father encountered her. He fell for her looks and humour and begged her to take his hand in marriage. She listened to his amazing stories and agreed to give him twelve months’ grace to make his fortune. On his triumphant return, they got married with me in tow, and that’s how their business got started. 

Did I miss something?

They agreed to work together. 

So she helped him sell the elixir?

Yes, in a manner of speaking.

So, they were business partners?

The thing is, sometimes, his clients needed proof about the elixir. 

So she drank it in front of the crowd?

Yes, and it cured her as well.

It was a con trick?

I think that’s harsh. 

They used a little dramatic licence?

My mother would assume a disguise and join the crowd as it assembled in front of the wagonette. Papa made grand claims about his cure-all potion and, when his audience got excited at the prospect, he’d ask for volunteers. He expected most people would hold back and Mama was the one brave soul who’d raise a hand. They figured the odds were against being unlucky and bumping into anyone who’d witnessed our previous performances. 

So, your mother was a willing accomplice? 

Mama relished the chance to transform her appearance, imitating a range of ailments with the careful application of her stage make-up. She was a born actress and exhibited enthusiasm in all her roles; hurling her walking sticks into the air or removing a head covering with a dramatic flourish, declaring the return of her sight to all who’d listen. It was all very theatrical. 

Queues of chattering clients would then gather around the rear of our waggonette. That’s when the proper business started. Papa administered the remedy as a tincture. He dispensed single droplets of the essence with a pipette, further expounding its benefits, as it dissipated into a thin dilution. I collected the twenty-dollar bills with aplomb and watched as the crates of elixir vanished; receiving further cash advances on a promise to return.


Sometimes Papa deemed it necessary to depart from our venues at short notice. This occurred when demand outstripped our supplies and he feared for his life. On one occasion, a bearded man with a tatty black eye-patch remembered my family from a previous date in a town on the northern frontier. Bad-Eye-Bart, as he was known, had a tough reputation for getting his money’s worth in the horse-trading business. It was a matter of pride. He’d purchased two bottles of the divine liquid a year ago. It had no effect on his complaint. Bart roared in a fury as the reality of his purchase dawned on him. He cursed Papa, but wrote off his loss, assuming he’d never see us again. 

   On the day in question, Bad-Eye heard Papa’s idiosyncratic sales talk from the far side of the market place. His single eye narrowed as he recalled the woman in the dark veil Papa cured of blindness. Bad-Eye may not have recognised my father’s “lucky” hat, but he spotted me guarding our kitchenware with my withered arm pinned over my chest inside a limp sleeve. He stared in my direction with the intensity of a cobra poised to skewer its prey. All else faded into the background as he levelled a gnarled finger in my direction, mouthing the words, I see you, boy. I choked and tugged at Papa’s trouser leg as Bad-Eye melted into the crowd again. Papa reached a climax in his performance and ignored my urgent alarm. 

   The horse-trader kept his counsel as the proceedings developed, but when Papa introduced the elixir, Bad-Eye squinted his one good eye at the exuberant raconteur. 

My father was playing to the gallery and our audience loved every moment. Papa made incredible claims about the wonderful life enhancing potion and embellished his discovery with lavish descriptions of life in the rain forests and tribes of men who live for two hundred years. 

Any volunteers? He asked, challenging the crowd with his arm extended. Is anyone brave enough to try the miracle cure?

The sea of people reeled back and drew breath. There was silence as my father searched the congregation for my mother. 

Someone raised an arm. 

I volunteer! Called out, Bad-Eye-Bart.

Years later, Papa admitted he expected the occasional beating as an occupational hazard. He knew one day his luck would change. Papa’s hand shook as he pointed into the crowd. He tried to ignore the man with the eye-patch, but his voice faltered as the man pushed through the huddled throng.

Any more volunteers? Papa asked. 

The crowd remained static, slowing the bearded man’s progress, requiring him to elbow his way through. 

You over there! Papa said, locating my mother. Please step forward, madam.

Before either Bad-Eye or Mama could reach Papa, a surge of bodies parted ranks for an old couple. With arms outstretched, they threw themselves at Papa.

Please! The old man said. My wife needs your help. 

The desperate fellow pleaded with Papa and the old woman clutched his sleeve.

Yes! Yes! Please step forward. Papa said, grabbing a bottle of the elixir with his free hand and pouring out a large measure.

The old man helped his wife take hold of the full glass. He cupped her head in his hand as she tilted back, allowing the golden liquid to pour into her mouth. The audience pulled back to give the couple space as she swallowed the last drops. 

Bad-Eye halted his progress. 

My mother bit her lip. 

All was quiet except for Charlie’s snuffles behind Papa. 

The old man wrapped his arm around his wife’s twisted shoulders.

She wheezed as she inhaled, straining for air. 

He leaned toward her, covering his mouth. 

No one dared to make a sound. 

The old woman coughed and spluttered and her husband caressed her pale cheek with the back of his fingers. She shivered her head in a brief spasm and turned to gaze at her husband. Papa was the first to witness her down-turned mouth change shape. He told me it was like a snowdrop opening its delicate petals on the first day of spring. Her lips widened, displaying her teeth as she smiled, staring into her husband’s adoring eyes.

It’s a miracle! 

My father blinked and searched for my mother. 

It’s a miracle! The old man said, hugging his wife as she cried with joy.

Papa caught mother’s eye. 

She shrugged her shoulders. 

He nodded in response.

A genuine miracle had happened for all to witness. This was a solid endorsement that catapulted our sales figures into the stratosphere. Everyone wanted the elixir now, and they’d do anything to get their hands on it. We had to leave straight away, before the human tsunami destroyed our waggonette or worse.

The End

December 16, 2022 07:42

You must sign up or log in to submit a comment.


Graham Kinross
04:22 Feb 02, 2023

Far more uplifting than the Lost Continent one I just read. A nice change of pace.


Howard Halsall
09:05 Feb 02, 2023

Yes, that latest one is dark although there are moments of humour…. HH


Graham Kinross
12:02 Feb 02, 2023

It’s light in tone in the middle until you realise what’s happening.


Howard Halsall
12:46 Feb 02, 2023

A sinister twist is always unsettling and in this case it changed the tone of the tale completely….


Graham Kinross
21:57 Feb 02, 2023

It really did.


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Show 1 reply
Wendy Kaminski
15:19 Dec 16, 2022

This was so awesome, Howard! Excellent narrative voice, and just all-around excellent story-telling, too! Couldn't put it down. :)


Howard Halsall
18:21 Dec 16, 2022

Hello Wendy, Thank you for reading my story and leaving your positive response. I’m glad you enjoyed it and relieved that it all made sense :) Take care HH


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
Elijah Cooley
13:19 Mar 24, 2023

why do you have the #? I hope that doesn't come over as rude or anything...


Howard Halsall
18:48 Mar 24, 2023

It indicates a little breathing space :)


Show 0 replies
Show 1 reply
RBE | Illustration — We made a writing app for you | 2023-02

We made a writing app for you

Yes, you! Write. Format. Export for ebook and print. 100% free, always.