Read by Suzanne Goldberg
My darling Amelia,
Affectionate greetings from Lower Brookmire – though I can hardly think you shall have time to read my letter, being so swept up in the dizzying world of balls, promenades, picnics, house-parties and all the other entertainments that London in the Season has to offer! However, Mama has desired me to acquaint you with the tidings, such as they are, from our little village; and thus I lift my pen.
It has been rather an eventful week, all told – Reverend Rammage has a fearful bad cold in the head: his sermon on Sunday was enlivened by an astonishing variety of coughs, throat-clearings, hoarseness and nasal detonations such that the text (Corinthians 10:13) was all but lost. Mama insists I reproduce it for you here, since London is a pit of vipers and she does not wholly trust Aunt Bertha’s guardianship of your moral welfare, especially if she’s seated near the punchbowl at a dance.
Most instructive. I assure you I call its wisdom to mind daily myself – as, says Mama, ought you.
What other news? Ah yes! One of Farmer Merwood’s sheep gave birth to a lamb with two tails – he was rather disappointed, grumbling that had it had two heads instead, he might have pickled both and sent the jar to the Royal Society – but it is awfully charming to watch the little creature suckle, with both its tails whirring like skipping ropes.
Oh! The maid has entered to say that Cousin Georgiana (Georgiana with the birthmark, not Georgiana with the immensely fat baby) has stopped by for tea: Mama has desired me to finish my letter alone before joining them in the parlour. It shall be my pleasure as well as my duty to do so, dear sister.
Thank God she’s gone. I swear she was practically in my lap trying to read what I’d written cos she’s still pretending she don’t need glasses. Silly old cow’s been watching me like a cat with a bird since you been gone, I dunno how you stand it! I know she’s, like, literally mental about preserving our honour and reputation, but fuckinell nobody’s maidenhead’s worth this much, not even the Virgin Mary’s.
Meely, you would not even believe what went down at the Cummerbunches’ ball last Friday week! I mean obviously the actual ball was dull as a charity visit (why do so many of Papa’s tenants suddenly fall ill when you’ve got a party to go to? And it’s always consumption or rickets or something grim). But oh my days … OK right, wait, I’ll tell it from the start and I swear you will so absolutely shit.
So me and Ma rock up in the barouche about seven, tarted up best we can in last season’s gowns, and that’s when I remember the garrison’s gone off to France (not that Ma ever let us within rifling distance of a uniform) and so there’s like no fit blokes left at all. Nobody worth mussing your petticoats for, anyhow – just maiden aunts and squires’ daughters far as the eye can see.
I was like, FML, pass the fuckin Portugal wine and let’s get this bloody flange-fest over with. But I winched up my décolletage just in case, cos you never know who’s looking. I was wearing your blue muslin gown – the one your maid had to sponge after Roger Rammage showed you his topiary (who’d have guessed he had a signet ring there, and him a vicar’s son?)
Silver lining though, I knew I was looking hotter than a joint of gammon, cos those screwface Cummerbunch twins, Cordelia and Cecilia, were shooting bitch-stares at me all through the cotillion. Honest Meely, of all the people what die in infancy, how come them two got missed?
After the quadrille I found a corner and sat down, wishing I could swoon like Mary Eversholt did when John Courtenay fingered her at Sophia Jennings’ wedding breakfast. If you faint they take you to lie in the library, and I reckon Mr Cummerbunch must have some French etchings in there, or Scotch whisky at least. But I was literally expiring from boredom, counting the buttons on the footmen’s frock-coats and trying to get a glimpse of their britches, see if they had more to offer than sherry and sweetmeats.
Then who struts up but Edwin Rammage, second son of the Reverend and the most uptight, up-himself, Scripture-quoting pious prick in three counties? You remember him – runty little bugger – always trying to cockblock his big brother till Rog got fed up and lamped him one, said a gelding kicked him.
Anyway, Edwin’s filled out and grown up a bit since he went up to Cambridge and now he’s sort of all right looking except for that holy-haughty expression he always wears, like a seraph what needs a good shit. So yeah, I wasn’t exactly turning cartwheels when he swept me a low bow and “begged to enquire whether my dance-card was yet replete”. (I know, right? What a twat).
I confessed it was not, but announced I had a “headache” and desired him to fetch me a little wine-and-water. I really wanted him gone cos he was standing directly in front of the Cummerbunch twins who I was pretty sure were talking about Captain Swiving of the Fusiliers, gestures and everything. I know you said his skill as a swordsman didn’t match the splendour of his weapon, but they looked like they wouldn’t mind giving it a polish.
But when Edwin came back he just stood there all puffchested and grinning, like a retarded pigeon who can’t take a hint. Ignoring my yawns, he fired off pleasantries till I realised I’d have to insult him unpardonably, or fake a fit, to get rid. I was just working up a bit of froth when the band launched into a lively gavotte.
“Allow me, Miss Openshaw,” he begged, “I know you are fatigued, but I should not forgive myself – nor deserve, indeed, to be forgiven – if I did not implore you to confer upon me the inestimable distinction of your hand in this dance…?”
Hashtag: sigh. But you know I love a gavotte, so ... Fuckin all right then.
“Good sir,” I simpered (cos two can play at that game) “the honour is wholly mine. I only pray my faltering footsteps will not impede the fleetness of your own.”
Cos I’m crushing your toes like a Colonial rebellion if you start getting handsy.
He bowed till his fringe practically brushed his britches, and we stood up together to dance.
“I hear the elder Miss Openshaw is blessing the ballrooms of London with her presence this season,” he said, as we joined hands.
“Indeed she is,” I admitted, “her letters proclaim that she is passing the most charming time in the world!”
Edwin smiled in an odd, meaningful way. “The charming are ever charmed, as they say! My brother Roger praises her beauty to the Heavens, and speaks most warmly of your sister’s lively and affectionate nature.”
“Ay,” I said carefully, “she is a sweet, gentle maid.”
Edwin cocked his head and frowned as if recalling something. “Gentle? No, I do not think that was how Roger put it after he squired her home from the Michaelmas Hunt. He said – what was it – ‘I’ve never met so eager a horsewoman; when she has a stallion between her thighs she rides him roughshod in pursuit of her pleasure.’”
I nearly dropped my fan, Meels. I remember that Hunt – you could barely stand up after. Doctor Frobisher thought it was the palsy and told us to pray for your safe recovery.
“Roger swore,” Edwin continued airily, as we stepped together, “that Amelia’s cries when she sighted her quarry could be heard all the way to Meryton.”
“Indeed?” said I, dry-mouthed, “My sister does love a good fox.”
Edwin raised an eyebrow. “No more than she loves a tumbler of gin after, I hear.”
We danced in awkward silence for a measure or two. I was like, what the actual fuck? Is he trying to freak me out? Or blackmail me? What’s this weirdo even want? I’d just decided which foot I was going to stamp on as I swooned, when he leaned forward and murmured softly, “And yourself, Miss Openshaw?”
I gulped. “The musicians’ playing is distinguished rather by volume than virtuosity, sir – I must respectfully beg you to repeat yourself.”
He licked his lips, glanced over at Mama deep in conversation with the Reverend, and said, very quietly but very clearly: Do You Want To Get Fucked Up?
My breath stopped in my bodice. My bosom heaved beneath its garnish of Antwerp lace.
“Fuck yeah!” I whispered. “I’d set that chaise longue on fire just to get high off the horsehair. Lead the way mate!”
Five minutes later we were sitting under an ornamental bush, giggling like Bedlamites as we passed a hipflask of brandy between us.
“Where’d you even get this?” I asked. Mama only ever lets us have two glasses of punch in a night, and they water that shit down something awful, so this had got me half-wasted already.
Edwin leaned back and belched. “Chawed it off my Dad, innit?”
I was beginning to suspect that Roger and Edwin weren’t so different after all. Perhaps it was the loosening moral effect of a Cambridge education.
“Hang on,” I said, “the Reverend told my mum he only ever drinks Communion wine. He said the Spirit of Christ is sufficiently intoxicating for him.”
Edwin smirked. “Yeah, he’s full of that Jesus wank. But he still gets a quart of Napoleon off the Bisport dockmaster whenever he does a baptism.”
“What, you mean it’s smuggled?” This was proper scandal.
“Course it’s fuckin smuggled.” Edwin rolled bleary eyes. “Think my dad’s some sort of mug?”
I didn’t know what to think, so I just shut up and drank. No wonder the Reverend bangs on about temptation. Practice what you preach, eh?
Then Edwin took a couple of briar pipes from an inside pocket and passed one to me. “Everybody smokes one at King’s,” he said smugly, passing me the tinderbox.
I peered inside the empty bowl. “What about tobacco?”
“Oh,” said Edwin, “when the heir to a ropemaking fortune shows you his hemp fields, you rather lose your taste for tobacco.” He pulled out a small, fragrant linen bag. “This shit will blow your tits off.”
Alas, Amelia, time’s winged chariot gallops apace and I had hardly turned over the last sheet of my missive before Mama hurried back into the room, quite incensed at having been left to converse alone with Cousin Georgiana.
“What in the world is keeping you, child?” she scolded. “Surely the tidings from our little village cannot be so extensive as to necessitate” – she squinted – “six pages’ description?”
“Innocent gossip merely, Mama,” I assured her. “Who wore what at the Cummerbunches’ ball, the delightfulness of the recent weather, a curious new fashion Edwin Rammage brought back from Cambridge – nothing of especial note. Little fancies to entertain my dear sister.”
This seemed to satisfy her, but now I fear I must join them – and thus I bring this epistle to a close.
They say London boasts all the pleasures the civilized world has to offer, Meely, but a toke or two on Edwin’s pipe makes even Lower Brookmire a vastly diverting place to be. He’s taking me mushroom-hunting tomorrow: he “swears down” that it’s a pastime infinitely more rewarding than I might suspect.
All my sincerest devotion,
Your sister, Susannah
(c) Sam Carter, 2017
Sam Carter is a long-term student from Nottingham. Stories have appeared at Liars’ League London, Hong Kong & NYC, and in anthologies from Leicester University and Arachne Press. Darling Amelia is a sort-of sequel to 2011’s Darcy’s Progress, starring Austen’s hero as a gold-digging Cockney geezer.
Suzanne Goldberg’s theatre credits include: Macbeth (National Tour), Miniaturists (Arcola Theatre), A Big Day for the Goldbergs (New End Theatre), Who Will Carry the Word? (Courtyard Theatre) Moll Flanders (Southwark Playhouse), Soho Streets (Soho Theatre), The Cherry Orchard (Greenwich Playhouse), & Theatre Souk (Theatre Delicatessen). Suzanne regularly narrates for RNIB Talking Books.