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Fiction Historical Fiction Inspirational

Lapsang Souchong

London, 1797

Emily’s long skirts flurried behind her as she stepped off the omnibus and weaved her way down Oxford Street. She was making a beeline to the Apothecary’s next to the huge imposing departmental store, Debenhams. The impressive new pavements were so much easier and pleasant to tread, now that those awful long awnings and signs had been forcefully taken down - no longer protruding into oneself. You could actually hear the carriages’ pleasant clip clopping of hooves at times when they crossed over the stone and pebbled pavings. People were no longer overwhelmed by the unending hawkers and costers shouting their wares rudely into one’s face, such as was found in less affluent London streets. ‘Apples! Three a penny! Violets, freshly picked this morning! Carrots, potatoes…’ The gleaming shiny shop windows however, preened and primped with their products tastefully adorned in various arrangements, flaunted their lavish goods at her. Candelabra, napkin holders and fine China set elegantly on a beautiful table adorned with lace and glass cut bowls of flowers delectably positioned. Everything seemed imposing and ridiculous to Emily, the hugeness and profligate nature of it all. She looked around surreptitiously and then semi lifted her skirt so the hem didn't sway and wallow in the dusty mire on the pavement. Less work for the new maid Sara, the better. Sara, an utter Godsend - the way she had been caring for and minding little Thomas; such tenderness and undivided solicitude! Three gentlemen - no rather men, smiled leeringly at Emily and glanced down openly at her ankles as she swept by. One of them even lifted his hat to her in acknowledgement. She lost herself in the throng of the crowd ahead, and kept herself hidden against the wall of shop fronts and the sway of the other pedestrians, but did not lower her skirts. She peered into a window and saw not her own, but Sara’s liquid brown eyes staring at her, as when she had first glimpsed them. 

Oh but the gentleness with which Sara’s husband, Mr Khan looked at his wife, such adoration! Why would Emily tear apart or keep from each other a love so fine and exquisite as that of Mr and Mrs Khans? And to be denied passage back for being a lascar and sneaking his wife on! To leave a poor, destitute, Indian couple, high and dry in the harsh, cold climate of the docks at East London? How callous and careless of their crew! Sara, the beautiful and brave girl, with her slim command of English had gone knocking from door to door in the Pimlico vicinity and been asking if anyone required a housemaid. Emily, still recalled peering through the window in her drawing room, had glimpsed a pretty girl, her liquid brown eyes brimming with tears and as frightened looking as a lamb - taken pity and taken her in.

Of course by that time she had been compelled to relinquish all of her staff, and was still in arrears with her own nanny, cook and scullery maid but had managed to cobble together enough for the housekeeper Mrs Armstrong and written an excellent reference for. Strange how Mrs Armstrong too, had had that same sneer on her face as Mrs Brown when she had been given her notice. The stench and stigma of poverty -a widow scraping together to survive, left an expression of contempt even upon her professional face.  

Emily smiled and looked towards the shop windows. Dear Sara and eventually Mr Khan had been her generous, excellently well timed gift from heaven. Emily clasped her hands even now, in private, desperate appreciation to dear God for sending the couple. It had not been hard work, showing the couple how to prepare simple dishes, how to scrub and wash the pots and pans, clean the house and care for the little household of just mother and young son. Being a simple country girl after all, had put paid to the notion Emily would be left utterly helpless. All of her brushing up on her accent, her clothes, her mannerisms to fit the city circle of wives seemed laughable now! Poor, dear Edward, if he hadn’t stopped at her table of herbs and remedies for sale at the little table in the village whilst visiting a landowner about title deeds down in Sussex, they never would have met. They had discussed some new ideas around herbs and their efficacy, Edward being a bit of a botanist himself, whilst drinking good old hale strong tea, steeped for ages in the pot at a local tea room in the village, and he had stayed on at the local inn from that moment. Emily had never even heard of  Lapsang Souchong! A fleeting, respectable courtship ensued, a speedy wedding and then they made haste to his city home in Pimlico, London. Emily little imagined the marriage would too be as short lived and swift as their own history had been. Sara’s soul kissed the earth in gratitude that she had ever met her Edward at all.

Of course her recent friends, her ‘set’ had balked at Sara, the new maid when they had clapped eyes on her, the last time they had passed by for tea. A definite sneer and downturned mouth all the way through the afternoon, perched on Emily’s comfortable settee as they sipped at her Lapsang Souchong finest. Sara was quite trembling as she had poured the tea into their fine Wedgewood cups. ‘Can’t get the help these days; really it’s too much to mention’ Mrs Brown had remarked quite coolly. ‘This tea is far too strong!’

‘Sara is a very capable girl; as good as any local girl. I prefer strong tea’ Emily had replied sternly. She smoothed her black skirt down and directed her gaze out of the window. Really. How dare they come and try to torment her about her foreign help, so soon after losing her poor Edward, and a sick child and one buried at Kensal Green Cemetery. She remained silent, but where on earth was their Christian sense of generosity and kindness? She had only but buried Edward three months ago.

‘What’s more, Sara is a conscientious hard worker; one of the best I have ever seen’. Sara looked up, surprised, and Sara and Emily had shared a perfectly understood smile.

Now this last declaration had been her fatal error. To have a connection with her maid, reprimand, rebuke and, well, correct the well connected Mrs Brown, wife to local MP for West Hampstead had not been a very intelligent act, Emily was now free to concede. Not that she missed them. But connections were very beneficial and useful to a young, upper middle-class widow, who needed earnings other than the slim pension afforded from her widow allowance, and the meagre rent she was being paid for their modest summer cottage in Cumbria. Little had Emily imagined it was to be a main income for her. Mrs Brown and her obsequious ‘hangers on’ as Emily saw them, had left rather promptly after that. Glared at Mr Khan as they were shown the door as soon as they stood.  Emily had stood unsmiling as they left, and wondered why she wasted the last of her finest Lapsang Souchong tea on them, which she would now no longer be able to afford.

 The horrendous images of the hoof mark, ground and punctured into Edward’s handsome cheek still terrified her at night, when she would wake up trembling and sweating and even now she inwardly shuddered. She must try to remember instead his kind, polished face and his tender kisses all over her eyebrows and eyes he would wake her with in the morning - though at times not just the emotional, but the sensual longing for him took her breath away. 

Her dear Edward, had been kind and patient, and encouraged her reading with him every evening whilst he perused and pored over his legal documents and law society volumes. Emily’s interest had always been herbs, tinctures and remedies for common ailments. She would scribble notes in her little diary and built up a good list of herbs and remedies to recommend for the cold, fever, different types of the cough, female issues and cramps associated with those and topical ointments for skin complications, and tease her Edward quoting Miss Woolstencraft whenever she got her little book out for notes: “A girl whose spirits have not been dampened by inactivity, or innocence tainted by false shame, will always -

be a romp…” giggling at her own brazeness, and he would sternly look at her with the light laughing in his eyes. She recalled with some guilt now, the beautifully crafted arbour he had lovingly put together; how his long tapered fingers had sawed, smoothed and sanded the slender strips of wood and how he had paid such, such close attention to detail and diagram and nailed the arbour perfectly to the shady alleyway entrance to the side of their garden. Emily was to have grown herbs and fruits that needed more sun and warmth. Now it stood empty, untended to and forlorn. It was just that, it was too painful to twine plants and seedlings around. It all brought Edward back to her, too sharply. She sighed into the gut of her stomach and looked up. Here was the Apothecary. 

These kinds of Dispensing Apothecaries were now in more demand than ever, and Emily stepped proudly into the Apothecary searching for the proprietor, the elderly Mr Watts. 

She swallowed tears back of abject sadness and vowed to make good and raise her and Edward’s son with love, honour and respectability. Mr Watts was serving an elderly well dressed lady, wrapping a tincture in brown paper and handing it over. 

 ‘Take it three times a day and the cough should vastly improve’.

The lady took it smilingly, pocketed her change and made her way to the door. She smiled kindly at the pretty lady who had entered. ‘They stock everything here’ she added happily, raising her eyebrows in admiration. Emily  nodded, and both her and Mr Watts waited for the lady to leave the shop.

‘Hello Mr Watts’.

‘Good morning Mrs Warner. So how are you feeling about starting your first day today?’

‘Splendid, simply splendid!’ returned Emily. She took her long black coat off and Mr Watts lifted a flap on the counter so she could hang her coat in the inner room where more herbs, fermented juices and powders were neatly lined up on shelves and clearly marked. She smoothed her hair down and wisely thought she had made the right decision to add no rouge that morning. At least the hem of her skirt was clean. Mr Watts spoke as Emily mentally prepared for the day, fishing her little note book from her carrying bag.

‘How is your little boy doing - I’ve been afraid to ask.’

Emily coughed with trepidation, but then answered with confidence and positively: Yes, there have been one or two pox marks on him. We have been plagued with the Speckled Monster!’ she attempted a little laugh which somehow sounded wrong, so she quickly stopped. ‘But we will be going forward with the new inoculation procedure they have developed.’

‘Oh!’ Mr Watts looked surprised.

‘Yes, I have read about Mr Jenner and his practice from the inoculation of a young boy and I believe it has protected the young boy for evermore. It’s new but all good things are met with fear at first, so we must embrace the future, otherwise how are we to progress? It will just be a small incision on little Thomas, and they’ll insert a sample of the chicken pox, and then he’ll carry the immunity. Yes he will be fine.’

Mr Watts regarded Mrs Warner with consternation, as she stepped forward to the counter to begin her first day. She was so young, and had no one to advise her. Should he take the role of father figure or pastor, and guide her as one among a lost flock, as he had been rereading passages from the Old Testament of late?  Perhaps urge her to not mix with things she had no idea of - but she stood tall and fine, glancing out of the window and there was a sizzle of a flame, like lit embers in her eyes, alive and glowing, and he realised she would not be swayed. To bury the pretty daughter who had been ensnared with the pox had been bad enough. To try nothing now would be inhumane - he saw this plainly. But her poise and courage were admirable...he couldn't help but be caught in her fervour for the future.

September 16, 2021 11:28

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5 comments

Palak Shah
17:22 Dec 11, 2021

I loved reading this and it was a great story and the ambiance created is awesome. Well done :)) Could you please read my latest story if possible? :)) Thanks :))

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Ananya Voss
16:53 Feb 21, 2022

Yes I will. Thanks for your comments. Sorry been a bit unwell but better now. I'll read your story yes :-)

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Palak Shah
17:04 Feb 23, 2022

Thanks Ananya :))

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19:19 Sep 20, 2021

I really enjoyed this - I lovely image of the time. I too have chosen Jenner as my history changing reference if you want to take a look? Though I think it was cow pox, not chicken pox they used for a vaccine? You've really captured a lot of atmosphere in this piece and beautifully outlined some of the prejudices and social structures of the day (though some sadly still pervade to this day). I loved Emily's character, overcoming adversity and looking out for those less fortunate, educating herself, boldly getting a job. Thank you for the re...

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Ananya Voss
21:34 Sep 20, 2021

Thank you Katherine! I've commented on yours. I liked it a lot.

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