by Katie Stevens
“Hurry up, woman,” growled Wesley Bookman. “Yer dawdling wi’ bring ye naught but the back o’ me hand.”
Mary-Ann Bookman, far younger, far prettier and far taller than her disgruntled husband, continued her careful toilet, unperturbed by his fit of temper. He stomped crossly to and fro in the entrance hall of their modest town house, snorting furiously like a deranged bull. Mary-Ann pinched her cheeks and gave her hair one last pat before she opened the door to her bedroom and swept down the stairs to her waiting husband. He glared at her silently then gave a strangled grunt before grabbing her arm to drag her through the door.
Mary-Ann resisted her husband’s effort to lead her forward. He let go and stared at her, his cheeks blooming with barely concealed anger. Despite his worst threats, Wesley was afraid of his wife, ever since the day she had pushed him beyond endurance and he had given her a well-deserved slap. He admitted now that it was an ill-conceived action, in the middle of the kitchen with a variety of weapons to hand. Mary-Ann, no weeping flower, had turned on him in a flash and he found himself sat hard on his backside nursing a headache.
“Touch me again and I’ll poison your food or slice your gullet in your sleep!” she had whispered in his ear, hissing like a witch’s cat. From then on, no matter how often his fingers itched to strangle her, which was often, he kept his distance.
He glared at her balefully as she stuck that overly strong, stubborn chin in the air and stood rooted to the spot, just outside the door where the whole of Manningham might witness their private business.
“I am not moving until you tell me where it is we are going, husband.” She spoke with her soft, well-bred accent that shrivelled his insides. He had taken her to wife in good faith. Her father, a good-for-nothing scoundrel, had actually required him to pay for her and Wesley had, believing that her plummy tones and her lady-like manners would advance his standing within the town. What a fool he had been! She was nothing but a haughty shrew and he would soon be well rid of her.
“We go to Bradford, now shif’ yerself, woman, before I lose me temper and box yer ears for ye.” She gave him a little grin which only infuriated him further, but half of Manningham was watching, most knowing what he intended and he did not wish to give more fodder to the gossips. “I’ve business to atten’ to and it’ll be the wors’ for ye if all yer preening has made me late.”
Mary-Ann sat in the dog cart, rattling down the rutted track to Bradford until she felt as if her bones would shake loose. A slow, cat-like smile spread across her lips, her body tense in anticipation of a well-laid plan. She had to remind herself several times that without Lucy Caldwell it would never have happened, but she still could not douse the small glow of pride at her careful manipulation and her patience.
It was at Lady Beth Jamus’s house that it started.
“Mary-Ann, ye are looking particularly lovely this evenin’.” Lucy exclaimed the moment they were sat together in a quiet corner of the lavish drawing room, perched on a red velvet love seat. Lucy had been trying to gain a private conversation all evening. The wicked streak in Mary-Ann had made her toy with Lucy, teasing her by standing alone and then disappearing at the last moment. Bored of the game, she decided to allow her her say. Lucy heaved her enormous bosom, corset straining against her fleshy waist. “I know what ye have been up to Mary-Ann.”
Mary-Ann was startled and saw the older woman turn beetroot red but still met her gaze fiercely.
“Do you now?”
“Aye, I saw you coming out o’ the door o’ the Red Dragon in Bradford when I was visiting me auntie.”
“I see.” Mary-Ann determined she would not make this confrontation easy, keeping her voice calm and unconcerned, her eyes skimming the room. Inside she was wound tighter than a mill house cog.
“I am glad I did for I have a proposition in mind, which under the circumstances ye mayn’t find too distasteful.” Little Miss. Hadley strolled close by, pretending to smell a lavish arrangement of peonies. Neither woman was fooled by her performance and they sat quietly watching the card play until she grew bored and moved on with a scowl.
“I am listening,” Mary-Ann sighed.
“Ye don’t much care for yer husband.”
“No, I have made no secret of it. He is a lout, ill-tempered and selfish.”
“I have buried two, wi’ five bairns to show for it. The three eldest have left me now and the two girls already out seeking marriage. It leaves a woman with an empty house, and with no husband, an empty purse too.”
“You might consider taking in lodgers,” Mary-Ann suggested helpfully.
“I might, or I might consider taking me a husband.”
“Anyone in mind?”
“I think yers would about suit.”
There it was, the words spoken and the idea sown.
“But what possible use could the wretch be to you?” Mary-Ann burst out, unable to hold in her disbelief. The room became silent and all eyes turned to them, hungry for gossip. Mary-Ann pulled herself together and Lucy stood and gave a slight curtsy to the room.
“My apologies ladies, Mary-Ann and I were just comparing the various benefits of our men folk.” Laughter spread around the room.
“What might those be?” asked their hostess with a grin.
“Well, all o’ mine had the good grace to die early.” She sat down, seemingly oblivious to the shocked silence that greeted this pronouncement. A few muffled sniggers and much tutting of disapproval could be heard as play continued. Lucy turned to Mary-Ann.
“I know Wesley, we grew up together, we were sweethearts.” Mary-Ann raised a brow in surprise. “I know he has a filthy temper, but I’ll manage ‘im well enough. I’ve a mind to live out me later years in comfort, which Wesley will provide.” Mary-Ann opened and closed her mouth torn between admiration at Lucy’s certainty and indignation that she had clearly thought this all through with the focus being on acquiring her husband. “He’s done ye no good,” Lucy continued, taking her silence to be hesitancy. “Yer a young, attractive woman and I would presume ye might like to have some babes of yer own. I assume he is incapable?” Mary-Ann flushed with anger as much as embarrassment. It had been her only hope for the match which her father had sold her into. Her consolation was to be children and the mean old man could not even mange that.
So it was decided. A plan was set to make the incorrigible old fool believe it his idea.
They were close to the market place when Wesley stopped the cart, sawing on the reins, the poor pony’s mouth rock hard from years of ham-fisted handling. In typical fashion, Wesley jumped down from the cart leaving Mary-Ann to slither down gracelessly. As she straightened her clothing she was aware of him standing before her. He thrust something at her stomach, her hands clasping it in reaction. It was a rough rectangle of wood with a string of hemp knotted across the top. She turned it over. He had neatly scrawled in chalk, “WIFE FOR AUCTION”. Mary-Ann tried to still the flutter of panic stirring in her gut.
“Stop standing and staring, woman. Put it on!” He gestured to her neck and Mary-Ann felt an invisible noose tighten around it choking her. He tutted and snatched it from her hands and put it over her head. He had a short stick in his hands, much like the one she had seen the farmer’s boy use to drive cattle through the streets. Wesley gave her a sharp poke in the ribs.
“Move on then. We’ve not got all day and folk is waiting.” She was so stunned she obediently did as he bid.
They drew a crowd. Mary-Ann couldn’t look at the sea of faces they had drawn as they processed to the market. She had hesitated as two young women stood in open-mouthed horror, reading the sign around her neck. She closed her eyes hoping for a brief respite from her utter humiliation. Wesley gave her a prod hard enough to bruise. She turned to him and growled. He held the stick up threatening to use it on her. She turned away, this was, after all, the only possible means of release from marriage to this repugnant man, short of murder. Rat poison in his dinner suddenly seemed an infinitely better way to go about this business.
The worst moment was when some came forward to inspect her as if she were a fine heifer. She snatched her hand away as one tried to see the state of her palms. Another tried to prize her lips open to get a view of her teeth, she snapped them at meaty fingers which were snatched away just in time. Fortunately it appeared Wesley had some sense of decency, as a hand strayed towards her breast he gave it a sharp crack across the knuckles with his stick.
“Ney, none o’ that!” She could not bring herself to feel any gratitude; the sign hung heavy around her neck, the hemp burning against her skin. Her stomach contracted painfully in protest at this indignity. All she could do was remind herself this would soon be over and she would be free of him.
She barely heard the muttered agreements with the auctioneer and almost missed the argument between the alderman and the deacon.
“I demand to speak with Mr Pruckett!” Deacon Adams announced in querulous tones. Mary-Ann’s eyes flicked up from their contemplation of the muddy puddle near her toes. The deacon was so red in the face she worried he might die of an apoplexy on the spot.
“The mayor is not in residence today, ye must address yer concerns to me,” the alderman said in weary tones.
“This is an outrage against the moral righteousness of this great town. God will not suffer two people He joined within His holy sight to dispose of vows made in His name. There will be retribution,” the deacon declaimed grandly.
“Deacon Adams.” The Alderman was pinching the top of his nose, his eyes screwed tight against the piercing indignation of the deacon’s tone. “This is not an unusual way to dispose of a marriage nor have I heard of any suffer from God’s wrath, who have found new happiness through such an act. I am informed that both parties wish it. Who are we to question the mysteries of God’s will in such matters?” He nodded to the auctioneer who pounded his gabble and set the bidding before there could be any further interruption.
She barely followed it, withdrawing from the scene completely once the bidding reached a pound. Fear and dread rose like bile from her stomach, burning up her throat. Her ears were ringing in alarm so loud, she jumped when she felt a firm hand on her shoulder.
“Come then, lass. It is done.” Wesley was suddenly kind, something he had never been in all the six years of their marriage. He led her through the crowd to an inn situated at the edge of the market. The innkeeper ushered them into a private room at the back.
“Out o’ the frying pan and into the fire,” Wesley muttered as he pushed her into a chair.
He was there, her new husband. She was too afraid to look at him, wondering desperately if she had done the right thing.
Papers were signed, her own name written in a shaking hand, then gulped as Wesley left the room with barely a farewell. That was it, the sum total of the past six years. A life shared, no matter how acrimoniously, was suddenly rendered in an instant and he had just turned away with barely a farewell.
So it was done and now at the end of it all her courage deserted her.
“Too late for regrets now, my love.” She gasped and pressed her fist into her sternum afraid it might break under the rush of joy. A smile broke out across her face and she turned the irrepressible beam up at him.
“You did it!” her voice was hoarse with relief.
Robert Parr knelt before her and clasped her tight through the brief storm of emotion, which had been suppressed through all the fear and uncertainty.
“No, you did,” he whispered as she hiccuped into his cravat. “My God, you’re brave.”
Eyes dabbed, nose blown, she gave him another beaming smile. “So what do we do now, husband?”
She allowed him to pull her to her feet. He raised her hand to his lips and planted a tender kiss on her palm.
“Well, dear wife, it has been a most unusual day. Shall we retire for the evening?” She slid her hand into the crook of his arm.
“That is an excellent idea.”
As they left the inn, Mary-Ann smiled to herself. Yes, if it were not for Lucy Caldwell and her desire to reclaim her childhood sweetheart, perhaps Mary-Ann might never have had the wherewithal to reclaim hers.
Following a degree entitled Bachelor of Arts in Theatre Acting Devised Performance and a year at East 15 Acting School, Katie Stevens has excelled at having a vast multitude of random and not very well paid jobs. Excellent training for her role as mother to two intrepid, fearless and courageous little boys. She regularly sacrifices the house work to engage in flights of fancy, epic adventures and heart-warming interludes. Whenever there is a spare moment she hides so she can have a quiet scribble. Her favourite saying, which resounds throughout her tiny corner of England’s South Oxfordshire woodlands is, “I’ll be finished in just a minute!”