THE HOUSE IN WHITECHAPEL
600 words. He had an image of a young woman. She walked into a room in a country house in England carrying a bunch of wildflowers. Outside, in the garden, is a young man. The woman is conflicted; she wants to talk to him and she doesn’t. Ian McEwan wrote 600 words about this image and let it brew for months. Then he wrote ATONEMENT. I love a bit of insight into an author’s process. He tells this beautifully in his BBC interview, which you can see here if you have the BBC iPlayer.
I viewed a Grade II listed Georgian house in Walden Street, Whitechapel in London a year or so ago. The row of terraced houses sit behind the hospital where John Merrick’s bones reside, you may remember him as The Elephant Man. The façades of the houses were admittedly a little bleak looking. This area where Jack the Ripper owned the streets for a time is not an area in which I would normally look at property, but I ran across photos of the interior and felt compelled to see it. The estate agent graciously left me alone to roam three floors of the painstakingly restored house. The restoration was so complete, and so bewitchingly sympathetic that I felt goose bumps walking through it. The rooms inspired a piece of flash fiction.
Mrs. Jenkins arrived at No. 6 Walden Street, her arms laden with packages. Thanks to her servant Emmie, she purchased a new pair of boots, a bonnet and a fine piece of meat from Smithfield’s.
Mrs. Jenkins’s housekeeping money afforded her two servants, but she chose to keep the money and double Emmie’s workload for the same wages – a pittance. She was certain that Emmie was grateful to have a job at all, and good heavens, she was no tyrant. Certainly not! Hadn’t she given Emmie the room in the eaves rather than the floor of the damp wash house at the rear of the property? She might have sent her to the cellar to rest among the potatoes and the occasional rat.
Mrs. Jenkins was well aware that Emmie could not stand up straight in the room without bumping her head on the wooden beams that ran across the ceiling. On rainy nights, of which there were many, Emmie slept with the air of damp clothing that hung from the beams; the overflow from the small stone wash house ate her oxygen. When Emmie crossed the few steps from the door to the bed, she brushed against Mrs. Jenkins’s large pantaloons and Mr. Jenkins’s shirttails. Chilled from her employer’s wet laundry, she shivered on a thin sheet.
It was just after three o’clock in the afternoon. Mrs. Jenkins relished this hour of the day. Emmie was out on errands and Mr. Jenkins was yet to arrive home smelling of iron, timidly awaiting his tea like a bad dog and begging for the use of her ear for his never ending monologue of the day’s events. The only reason she married Charles Jenkins was to live in this house. It wasn’t as spacious as she would have liked, still, not one of her friends could boast as many rooms and floors as she.
Everyday at this time she climbed the stairs to her husband’s sitting room where she rummaged through every drawer, every paper and every cabinet shelf. Inspection was complete after she checked under the cushions and rug. There would be no secrets. Then she climbed up the last flight where the steps suddenly narrowed and wound around like a tightly coiled snake. Emmie had rubbed the wooden stairs just this morning with polish and her sweat.
Today Mrs. Jenkins found a farthing coin tucked among Emmie’s undergarments. She almost fainted with outrage. How had the waif managed to save it? She spoke aloud in her distress: “Good God in heaven - I must be paying her too much! No, no, there goes my generous nature again. How did the girl manage to steal it?’ She quickly slipped the coin in her pocket. Mrs. Jenkins had no idea that a month ago, on Emmie’s day off, for she was only allowed one day off a month, her uncle had surprised her with the coin.
Mrs. Jenkins turned from the girl’s attic bedroom and began to make her way down. It must have been the marriage of her slippery new boots to the freshly polished wooden steps, for Mrs. Jenkins lost her footing and fell down three flights. The last thing she heard was the crack of her skull against the wall. The last thing she saw was the coin as it rolled across the bottom step.