I posted a lot of excerpts from my historical novel A Weaver’s Web to writing sites Helium and Bubblews (see links below). Helium is finishing up in a couple of months and Bubblews may be on its last legs, so I thought I should post a few excerpts here.
This is one I posted to Helium and it was ranked 1 of about 140-170 novel excerpts under Suspense for a year or so. Albert Wakefield goes to the asylum to rescue his mother Sarah.
Then, one cold night Albert left his house late in the evening when most people were in bed and walked to the asylum. He had on George’s coat. Under it was the sack of material, tied around him with rope. When he got to the gate, he saw that Brody had already come out of the building and was waiting for him. She unlocked the gate and peered up and down the street. All was quiet. She beckoned him in and relocked the gate.
“Three shillings,” she said, holding out her hand.
Albert gave her the money.
“You pay the rest to the woman you see. This way.”
He followed her to the main building and they went inside. She carried a lamp that lit the way along a corridor, up some stairs and along another corridor. They came to a door and she stopped.
“Some of the women are in here. The rest are in the next dormitory. If they talk to you, they’re interested, but there are some quiet ones who are willing too.”
“I’d like a nice young one who’s not too mad.”
She sniggered. “They’re all mad, but there are some young ones, mainly in here.” She opened the door to the first dormitory. “I can recommend the one in the third bed on the right.”
They went in, Albert rather hesitantly. In the light of Brody’s lamp, he could see two dozen or so narrow beds, very close together, a woman in each one. Most appeared asleep, though several were awake and scrutinised him. Others chatted or sang or moaned and it was hard to tell if they were awake or sleeping. He looked at the third bed. The occupant was awake and gave him a blank stare. He scanned the women as they lay in their beds, hoping to recognise his mother. But he didn’t. Then one called out to him.
“Over here, love. I’m cheaper than the rest,” a woman said and laughed. She was all of fifty.
“I’m better though,” said another. She wasn’t much younger.
Someone else said to him: “Hey, why’s your head so skinny and your body so fat?” This one was younger but ugly.
“It’s a thick coat.” He pulled it in as tightly as he could. “It’s cold outside.”
“Hurry up and choose, will you,” Brody said.
He went over to the young woman in the third bed and knelt beside her. She was good-looking and no more than twenty and smiled at him. She lifted the top of her blanket a few inches.
“Sarah Wakefield,” he said softly but clearly, “do you know where I can find her?”
The girl immediately put her bedding back down. “She’s a hag. Why would you want her?”
Albert got to his feet and drew his hand back, like he was about to slap her, but stopped, knowing such action would get him thrown out. “Where is she?”
“Next room.” The woman pointed behind her head.
Miss Brody came over to them. “Now what’s the matter?”
“Can I look in the other dormitory?” he said.
“Why? They’re less willing in there. What’s wrong with the women here?”
“This one’s not interested and I don’t like the others.”
The young woman raised her eyebrows. “Two shillings,” she said and lifted her blanket again.
“Too expensive,” Albert said.
Brody shook her head. “What’s your problem, sonny?”
“I’d like to see in the next room.”
“What would your mother say?” the young woman said and burst out laughing.
“Shush, you stupid girl,” Brody said. “And you,” she said to Albert, “if there’s any more nonsense, I’ll charge you extra or send you on your way.”
She led him hurriedly into the hall and to the other dormitory. This one was the same as the first one. He could see a number of eyes looking at him, some peeping over the top of their bedding, but no one spoke.
“Perhaps if you take your coat off you might appear more attractive to them.”
“I’d rather keep it on.”
“But you can’t get into their beds like that.”
“I’ll remove it in due course.”
“Hey, fellow,” a woman of thirtyish said at last, “you got one and six?”
“She’ll do,” Albert said.
“I’ll be back in five minutes.”
“All right, ten, but hurry.”
Brody left the room, taking her lamp with her. Albert could see her silhouette. She was standing just outside the doorway. The room was quite gloomy, but he knew he had to act fast, and quietly. He went over to the woman who had called him. As he got to her bed, she held out her hand for payment. He ignored it.
“Sarah Wakefield,” he said, “where is she?”
The woman gasped. “She won’t be interested, I know. Besides, she’s old enough to be your mother.”
“Just tell me which bed.”
“I don’t think I should. You might harm her. She’s a nice old lady.”
“I won’t hurt her.”
The woman said nothing, so Albert took a shilling from his pocket and offered it to her.
“Tell me, please.”
She felt the coin, not being able to see it properly in the dark, before taking it. “This side, four beds further along.”
Without thanking her, he went straight to this bed and stood at the foot of it. All he could see was a lump in the shape of a person, but there was no sound or movement. He felt a nervous tingle go through his body, not so much because of the risk of what he was about to attempt but because he hadn’t seen his mother for so long. He called: “Mum … Sarah,” in a soft voice to try and gently waken her and not frighten her. Instead of waking his mother, he woke the woman in the next bed. She sat up with a start and pulled her blanket up around her shoulders.
“You scared the devil out of me, young man,” she said. “You’ve come to the wrong beds. We’d rather starve than …”
“Is that Mrs Wakefield, next to you?”
“You’d do better in the other room.”
By now Albert felt he was losing patience. Precious minutes were passing. “She’s my mother,” he said louder than he meant. He checked for Brody and was thankful she stayed outside.
“You must be Benjamin.”
“No, it’s Albert.”
“But she’s told me you’re in the colonies.”
“Is this Sarah Wakefield? Tell me,” he pleaded.
The woman looked over to the next bed. “Sarah, are you awake?”
With those words, he knew it had to be his mother asleep in this bed, his dear mother who brought him and his family through all the hard times, only to be discarded when prosperity came their way and her health and composure failed her. Here she was. Here she had been for three years, locked away, out of sight.
“Mum,” he said.
The woman rocked Sarah’s bed. “Wake up, dear. It’s your son. Wake up.”
She stirred. “What is it, Rosanna?”
“Your son is here.”
She suddenly sat up, instinctively pulling her blanket up to her neck. “Who?”
“It’s me – Albert.”
“But you’re over the high seas.” Sarah squinted at the large black shape near the foot of her bed. “You must be in my mind. Go away.”
“I’m real. Look.” He squeezed in between the beds.
“You’re too big to be Albert.”
“It’s a big coat.” He bent over as far as he could so she could see his face better.
She studied it. “Albert? Is it really?” She put out a hand to touch him and see if he was real. She touched his hand, then his chin. “Good Lord, I think it is.” She stared at him, still not totally sure.
“I’ve come to get you out of here. Quick, get up. We must hurry.”
“But …” She looked at Rosanna.
“Go. You may never have another chance.”
She started to get up, slowly, unsure if she should leave, or if she wanted to. This was now her home and the women her friends, her family. Albert beckoned her to come out from the beds. But she just kept staring at him. He reached for her and seized her arm and pulled her towards him. At first she resisted but then went along with him.
“Sit here a minute,” he said, tapping the end of her bed.
Sarah sat on the corner of it, shaking from nervousness and the cold.
He undid his coat and removed the bag of cloth. He pulled back the bedding and emptied the bag onto the bed and spread the pieces out, shaping them into a long, thin pile resembling a person. Then he pulled the blanket over the top. On the pillow, he placed an old mop minus its handle, an item he had retrieved from a rubbish pile near his house. He bunched it up into the shape of a head and took his mother’s nightcap off her and put it on the mop. Sarah watched, dumbfounded, still not fully aware of what was happening. He took off his coat. Every few seconds, he looked up to make sure Brody wasn’t coming.
“Stand on the bed, Mum,” he said. Again she hesitated, so he pulled her to her feet. “Come on, get up there.”
She knelt on it at first, then got to her feet, found her balance and stood at full height.
“Climb onto my back.” He positioned himself. “Put your arms around my shoulders first.” He took the backs of her knees and gently hoisted her up, surprised at how light she was. “Now hold on tight.”
Then came the hard part – getting his coat back on. Albert leant down and picked it up off the bed. He hooked his hand into the sleeve, held his arm up and wriggled it until the coat was over his shoulder. Getting the idea, Sarah took hold of it and flipped it over her back and was able to pass the other sleeve to him. With plenty of shaking and twisting and straining, it was on. But her head poked out above the collar, behind his. She slid down a few inches and he pulled the collar up over her head. He fastened the buttons down the front and took a tentative step towards the door. Rosanna and the other women, most of whom were now awake, peered from behind their bedclothes as the spectacle unfolded. They knew what was about to happen and they whispered encouragement to the pair. Some brought their hands together in a clapping motion, but without the sound, while others shook their fists in delight.
Albert had taken about six steps when Brody came to the doorway.
“About time,” she said and shone her lamp at him. “You look even heavier than when you came in.”