While I won’t post anything from my most recent novel (keeping with my promise not to promote my published work here), I will share a short story I penned around April and revised slightly in June but have never had the nerve to post anywhere else.
Here is a perfect example of the doomed Englishman archetype resurfacing in my work. It’s very telling that I had in mind that he was roughly Jack’s age, if he’d survived the war and lived into the late 40s.
Incidentally, the ending was meant to be enigmatic, though at the time I was going through questions about my gender related to the prevalence of this very male archetype in my psyche.
Farewell, Mr. Bagshot
Wandsworth Prison- 18 November 1946, about 7:45 AM
“I must admit this is the first time anyone’s asked for their solicitor,” the warden, a tall, severe man with thick glasses mumbled. “Most of the time it’s a priest they want to see. Do you reckon he thinks you can get him a last-minute pardon?”
A woman in a smart, professional-looking dress walked alongside him, the hard soles of her shoes tapping lightly on the walk past cell after cell. “Not likely,” she said. “Not knowing him.”
“You know him well, do you?” the warden said, arriving at the condemned cell and reaching for his keys, sliding the big heavy key into an ancient steel door and opening it.
“No better than any other client,” she lied.
“You’ve got fifteen minutes, if you’ve got any business do be quick about it,” the warden bellowed, shutting the door of the cell.
The inside of the cell was white-washed with a single window with heavy bars at one end. Little else except a lone cot with a thin mattress, a table, two chairs, and a single electric bulb in a fixture high overhead furnished the room.
Mr. Bagshot sat at the table, looking as well as a man could be in his predicament. He had a smart tweed suit on, with a red brocade waistcoat and a green bowtie, his mustache immaculately groomed into a perfect pushbroom. In his hand he held a glass of brandy that was half-finished. The solicitor winced as the noxious smell of the cheap brandy- the only nicety afforded a condemned prisoner- hit her nose.
“Ah, Miss Moore! Wonderful to see you!” he said, his warmth genuine and his tone strangely calm. “Well, come on, do have a seat!”
She sat down, scarcely able to look at him. What could she say?
“Hello, Mr. Bagshot,” she said quietly, the name sitting heavy on her tongue as she took a seat across the table from him.
“Oh, come now, let’s not be so gloomy, Miss Moore,” Mr. Bagshot said. “My troubles are nearly over. And it’s Jim now, there’s no business left for us I’m afraid, so we might as well talk like two people who know each other, eh?”
Miss Moore fought back tears, swallowed hard and gazed at the rough surface of the wooden table. In it were carved the names and dates of nearly every prisoner who had passed through this cell; the oldest date she could see, stained dark by the passage of time, was from 1893 and the freshest, scratched only an hour before, was an inscription that read J. Bagshot-1946- Innocent.
“I failed you, Jim.” She forced the words painfully, her eyes still fixed on the tortured wood of the table.
“What utter nonsense, Evelyn,” Jim replied with a curious warmth, taking a delicate sip of the brandy and swirling his glass as if he were drinking a fine Bas Armagnac. “They wanted me dead. The truth didn’t matter, they wanted someone to hang for treason and by God, they chose me. There was nothing you could do. I was dead the moment I walked into the Old Bailey.”
The words twisted at her heart, though Jim had spoken them so nonchalantly. “No, I didn’t do enough,” Evelyn insisted.
“What could you have done?” Jim asked, taking her delicate hand and looking her in the eye.
That gaze… that touch… she couldn’t remember the last time she felt this way about anyone. Perhaps her father might have made her feel this way when she was young. Why, oh why did it have to be a condemned man that brought these feelings out in her?
She searched deep… Jim deserved an answer. He didn’t insist upon it, except for the gentle squeeze upon her hand when she was most lost in her thoughts. But as much as she searched, she could think of nothing; it had been a kangaroo court, a show trial of the worst order, and nothing could have saved him.
“I don’t know,” she finally admitted. “I tried everything I could think of.”
“You see? There was nothing,” Jim said calmly. “They wanted blood and they found a chap with the same name as the fellow they wanted. Didn’t matter that Jim Bagshot from Battersea died when the bombs fell on Dresden. It didn’t matter if I didn’t know the poor bugger from Adam. They couldn’t admit a clerical error after they arrested me. They had to have their pound of flesh and by God, they got it.”
The two gazed at each other, Jim still holding her hand, his eyes softly imploring her not to cry, but it was no use. She felt tears begin to fall, and in only a moment he was by her side, embracing her.
“No, no, Evelyn, please don’t cry,” he insisted. “I’ve had a good life. I’m almost seventy now. I buried a wife and two grown children in the Blitz. My heart broke a long time ago, and I mean that in the most literal way! I’ve got a dicky ticker, dear. Grief can do that. Turns it all big and bulbous and useless, like an old cider jug. I’m going to die soon whether or not they hang me. This isn’t the way I would have wanted, but at least it’s quick. I hear Mr. Pierrepoint is quite the expert in these sorts of things…”
“I failed you…” Evelyn repeated, her voice weaker.
“You did no such thing! Enough of that, now,” Jim chided her gently, wiping a tear from her face. “Now, Evelyn, will you deny a condemned man his last request? I want to see you looking beautiful. Please, don’t let tears smudge your mascara and turn your eyes all red… is that what you want me to remember for the rest of my life? Save the tears for when I’m gone.”
“Sorry,” she said, sitting up straight in her seat and putting on a weak smile.
“That’s the spirit,” Jim said, his smile deeper and warmer… how did he do it? There was no trace of fear, pain, or resentment in him though, she reckoned, he must have been in a dreadful state behind that calm exterior.
Jim returned to his seat and took another sip of his brandy, then looked at the glass. “I suspect you need this more than I do, though. Care to share a drink?” He slid the glass toward her, a sparkle in his eye.
Evelyn took the glass. “Thank you,” she said, looking at it a moment.
“Well, go on, drink up, we haven’t got all day… well, I certainly don’t,” he urged her, chuckling a bit at his own gallows humour.
“Are you sure?” she asked.
“Bah, I’d have much preferred a cigar,” Jim replied.
Evelyn took the glass, held her nose, and drank deep from it, then coughed slightly as the burn of cheap alcohol hit the back of her sensitive throat. “Oh God, it’s horrid!” she said, gagging slightly.
“Yes… not the best I’m afraid,” Jim said matter-of-factly.
At that, the bookcase against the wall slid aside. Three men entered the room. “I need you to come with me, Mr. Bagshot,” said the man in the middle grimly.
Evelyn’s heart fluttered in her chest. “Wait! Wait, please, not yet!” she pleaded.
Jim stood obediently. “Evelyn, it’s no use!” he said as the guards pinioned his arms. “But before I go, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“What is it?” Evelyn said, choking back tears and feeling faint.
The guards turned Jim around and hustled him toward the death chamber where the noose awaited. “I am you!” Jim said, turning his head as far as he could to look at her. For just a moment his eyes met hers- not fearful, but full of earnestness- then they were out of sight forever as a white canvas hood was placed around his head.
“What does that mean?” Evelyn pleaded.
There was no answer. Jim stood tall and proud as Mr. Pierrepoint, the hangman, worked the noose over his head, checking the knot placement. Jim nodded affirmatively, sticking out his chest a bit and turning his nose up as the hangman walked to the lever, his fear betrayed only by a slight tremor in his legs.
Then there was a sharp bang, and Jim Bagshot fell into eternity. It was all over in just a few seconds. Evelyn’s eyes went wide with horror; just out of sight, below the level of that trap door and at the end of that taut rope was the moribund shell of the man who had stolen her heart.
Evelyn felt a tightness in her chest that grew and grew, crushing her until she could no longer breathe. She gasped, her legs buckling as the room began to grow blurry.
Her body hit the floor of the cell, lifeless as the body on the gallows nearby.