The Death (and possible murder) of Tom Rawlinson
I don't usually do this, share work that I intend to submit for publication. But I've decided that I will, because I'm not going to be submitting my work anywhere in the very near future. It might as well see a little light for a while before being stuffed back in my drawer. I'm not giving you much, mind; just an appetite-whetting amount will suffice. But if you wouldn't mind, I'd like some feedback in return! I have four chapters that I'd like to share with you, from three different projects.
The first is the opening of the novel that I started for NaNoWriMo, and is called The Death (and possible murder) of Tom Rawlinson. It's set around the 1720s, in my home town of Lancaster, and involves a wealthy family of shipping merchants (very loosely based - by a very small thread - on my own actual ancestry - ooh, la di da!). This is not like anything I have tried to write before, but I found it to be tremendous fun. You may not like it at all; this is fine.
But here it is, my soul laid bare for your scrutiny and criticism; do your worst:
'Do you think they can see us?'
'Your family - do you think they'll be able to see us?'
'Who the hell are you?'
'Name's Henry, Henry Wilkinson. How d'you do, sir?' Henry smiled cheerfully, and doffed an invisible cap.
'What the devil's going on?'
'You heard me, how did you get in here? Martin, get this bloody vagrant out of my house.'
'Looks like they can't see you, or hear you,' Henry tactfully lowered his eyes, and gave the old man a moment to digest the facts.
'You get out of here, you hear me? Get out.' The old man looked as though he was going to get out of bed, but remembered himself and stayed where he was. 'Martin, did you not hear me boy? Get this boy out of here.' The old man looked at his eldest son for the first time, and stopped moving instantly.
Martin raised his eyes to the ceiling and a faintly detectable smirk played at the corners of his mouth. He checked himself quickly, and replaced the smirk with a look of heavy sadness. None of the other men and women crowded around the bed seemed to have noticed.
'Well lads, the old man has gone, and no-one can be sadder than I.'
'Leave off Martin, you're not foolin' anybody. We're all glad he's dead. Tom Rawlinson was a bloody bad sod, and not a single soul will mourn his passing.' This from the old man's second son, William. Tom Rawlinson stared at him, mouth open in disbelief and absolute horror.
'Well now, William, we all know your mind. But there are those of us who loved our father, God rest his soul.' Martin made as though to wipe away a tear.
A loud guffaw erupted from the other side of the bed where the third son, Nathan, stood.
'Martin, you're a bloody liar. You hated him more than any of us. You've only stayed in this pox of a town so long because of the will.'
'Why would I stay for William?' Martin questioned innocently.
'Pillock! You know full well I'm talking about my father's will, you bloody slime.'
'I don't know what you're on about, dear brother.'
'I'm going back to work, I've had enough of this. I've seen he's dead, we all know that leaves Martin as the head of the family, worse luck. The company will be dead in the water within the year, and we'll all be on the streets, so let's get on with it, shall we?' Nathan took his wife's arm and headed towards the door. 'Come on Sarah, let's leave the vultures to it,' and with that the couple were gone.
Martin dabbed his eye once more, and carefully avoided William's gaze. William watched his brother for a few moments. Then he spoke, carefully.
'Father,' he glanced at the bed, 'dear father, would not have wanted us to disagree over anything.' He rocked back and forth upon his heels, chewing his bottom lip thoughtfully. Martin raised one eyebrow and glanced sideways at his sibling, but remained impassive. He did not seem to be in a rush to leave.
William took a few steps towards his brother, so that he was standing shoulder to shoulder with Martin. In hushed tones, so as to hide his words from his own wife and Martin's, he said 'I'll split it with you.'
Martin chuckled silently.
'Split what, William? Funeral expenses? I should think so. He was your beloved father as much as mine.' The smirk slid back onto his face.
'Ah, hmm,' William smiled, 'of course, Martin. I would be only too happy to share that particular cost. But that would depend heavily on whether or not we two received equal shares in the estate. Father would not have expected me to contribute based on my meagre salary.' He lowered his head ingratiatingly.
'Naturally,' Martin kept his eyes lowered, and seemed to be enjoying himself. The smirk threatened every moment to break into a grin. 'And naturally William, I couldn't presume to know the details of Father's Last Will and Testament. But in all likelihood, he will have set aside a sum for his burial, wouldn't you say? And in any case, you were ever the dutiful son, and Father knew only too well the strength of your regard for him - he talked of it many's the time.' William reddened somewhat. 'Yes, William, I am absolutely positive that there will be no need for you to worry. You'll get exactly those bits of the estate that you ... deserve.' He looked directly at his brother for the first time, unsmiling.
William's colour deepened, and he looked as though he was struggling to breathe. 'Bugger you, you back-stabbing filth. You never were a brother of mine.' He moved to leave, but caught his foot on the bed post and stumbled, only avoiding falling headlong into the door by catching hold of the heavy oak dresser. Martin's wife, Rachael, covered her mouth, but could not quite disguise her giggles.
'You're not questioning my legitimacy, William? I know who my father is. Can you say the same?'
William stopped in his tracks. He spun on his heel to face Martin, his eyes ablaze. 'What do you mean?' he said, his voice low and dark.
Martin raised his hands hurriedly, his eyebrows lifted in mock astonishment and innocence. 'Nothing William, nothing brother. I must have been mistaken.'
Maria, William's wife, tugged at his sleeve. 'Sweetheart, pay him no mind, he's only after riling you.' William took his wife's hand, but still glared at Martin.
'You tell me what you're on about Martin, else I swear to God Almighty, I'll wring your twisted little neck.' William clenched his empty fist and his hand shook.
Martin's smirk finally did break into a grin, as he struggled to suppress a bellyful of laughter. 'Run along William', he said gently, and gestured towards the door as if sweeping his brother from the room. William stood his ground for a moment, until a gentle nudge from Maria broke his resolve. He stalked out of the room, dragging his petite wife behind him.
Martin grinned more widely as the door swung closed. He breathed in deeply, then sat down at his father's bedside, resting his elbows on the satin-covered eiderdown that was laid across the remains of the dead man. He moved his face close to his father's and whispered.
'Well, old man, it's all mine now. And things are for changing round here, make no mistake. They thought you were a bad bugger, but they've not known they were born.' He chuckled darkly, and then smiled up at his wife. She came to stand beside him and he grasped her hand in both of his own.
'This is it Rachael, it's our turn now.' Rachael giggled once more, as she looked down at her father-in-law's body cheerfully.
'And perhaps the first thing we should do, my love,' she said, her voice warm, with heart-felt emotion, 'is make your dear mother more comfortable?'
'Oh quite right, my sweet,' Martin stood and wrapped his arms around his wife's waist, lowering his head to kiss her throat. Rachael sighed with pleasure under his caresses, and giggled as he breathed into her ear. 'My mother will be very unhappy in the big house without the old man, and we should certainly help her to move her household to Meeting House Lane.'
'Oh yes, I'm sure she would be happier being so much closer to town, away from the merchants and the company. She'll not want to be bothered with the shipyard and all of that.'
Martin stopped his wife's mouth with a kiss, and she surrended to his urgent attentions, remaining silent for some moments. He released her, and immediately headed for the door.
'Come ladies, there's much to be done. I must speak with my mother, and tell her her husband's dead,' and he left the room with an unmistakeable air of authority and purpose. Rachael swept after him, with a very pronounced spring in her step and undoubtedly a song in her heart.
It was only at this point that Tom Rawlinson noticed another person in the room. His young granddaughter, Martha, stood alone in the corner, near one of the great sash windows. She had remained hidden in the shadows all this time. But now she stepped away from the wall and edged towards the bed. The shadow of Tom Rawlinson watched as the girl dried her eyes with a lace-trimmed handkerchief and reached out to touch the still warm hand. She jumped in fright as her mother, Rachael, bellowed from the bottom of the stairs.
'Martha, get down here girl. Don't be touching that dead body - the old man's ghost'll haunt you if you do.'
Martha lowered her hand, and backed away towards the door. She pressed her fingertips to her lips, and then blew the kiss towards her grandfather.
'Goodbye Grandpa Tom,' she whispered, before she turned and flew down the stairs.
Tom stared out of the window, having left his body and the stares of his family some time ago, not noticing the landscape of the city with its backdrop of rolling hills. He saw nothing except what was behind his own eyes. He was brought back into the room when Henry Wilkinson cleared his throat. He looked at the young man, or at the ghost of him.
'So, that's it then?' he stared imploringly at Henry. 'I'm just dead, and that's it?'
'Erm, yes Tom, that's certainly it. You can't not be dead now. That can't be undone.' Henry rocked on what would have been his heels.
'So, what happens next?' He looked down at his body, which he had been unable to face doing thus far. The body looked no different than he remembered when he had been in it, except that his face seemed to be fixed on backwards.
'Yes, where do I go? Am I to be judged? Do I move on?'
'To heaven?' Tom started to become agitated. 'I'm dead, am I not? Do I not now move on to the next life?'
'I don't know about any of that Tom. I only know about this place. But you can go wherever your fancy takes you Tom. This place is as big as the world. You can go to any part of it.'
'So am I not a ghost?'
'A spirit really Tom, a spirit is a better description of what you are.'
'Is this my soul, then?'
'I don't know about a soul Tom. Maybe.'
Tom stared down at his corpse again, utterly bewildered. 'I was just sleeping,' he said to Henry. 'I was just having some well-deserved rest.' Henry nodded in sympathy.
'That's oftentimes the way it happens, Tom. Mostly it's unexpected like.'
'Just having a sleep,' repeated Tom, more to himself than to Henry or the corpse now, 'and then I had a full day of work planned. The Adventurer's leaving for the Americas today, and I'd Letters for the captain, and words for the slave master.'
'It'll carry on without you Tom, it always does.'
'Aye, but will it though? You heard my sons just now. Nathan had it right, the company will be bankrupt within the year and Martin will have spent the fortune on his flighty wife.' The spirit of Tom Rawlinson began to pace back and forth between the bed and the window. His feet made no sound on the bare boards, and he stopped and looked down to see if there were in fact any feet at all. There were. He looked at Henry.
'Am I here, or not?' His voice held a faint edge of panic.
Henry smiled, and nodded once.
'Have I ...?' Tom frowned, searching for words. 'Have I unfinished business?' Raising one eyebrow he looked questioningly at Henry.
'Oh, most spirits have unfinished business of some kind. But as to whether that makes a difference here, I don't know.'
'Blood useless, waste of time,' Tom muttered under his breath. He paced back to the window. 'Do I just stay here then?'
'You can stay if you want to, or you can leave. Some spirits like to stay with their families and just watch. Others prefer to leave right away.'
'And go where?' Tom whirled around to face the other spirit, nearing the end of his patience now. Why was this Henry even here? What had Tom's death to do with him?
'Wherever you like ...' began Henry, infuriatingly impassive.
'O! Damn and blast boy, do not repeat those same words over and over!' Tom strode towards Henry, facing him head on. 'Advise me as to what I should do ....' he pleaded, and then grudgingly, 'if you would be so kind.'
Henry smiled kindly, and laid a hand on Tom's shoulder. Tom flinched under the touch, and looked down to where Henry's hand lay. He could feel it, though not in the way he would have done had he been in possession of his physical body. But he felt something, a sensation that registered where his brain would have been.
'Tom, I might suggest that you go and see how that young lady is faring, the girl that left the room just now.' Henry let his hand drop.
'Martha? You mean my granddaughter?' Henry bowed his assent. 'Why?'
'Well, she seemed to be the person most affected by your death. That might be what I would do in your place, to see if there might be anything I could do to ease her pain.'
'Ease her pain? How could I do that?' Tom spat his question in disgust. 'I'm dead. Or perhaps that had escaped your attention?' He returned to his muttering, 'bloody imbecile.'
'Tom,' Henry smiled placatingly.
'Stop calling me Tom, rancid little upstart! I'm accustomed to being addressed as "Sir" by the likes of you,' Tom growled.
'When you were alive Tom, yes, but now you are not.' Henry no longer smiled, but still wore a mask of patience.
Tom glared at him but said no more.
'You are still physically of this world Tom. You are holding onto your form. Should you choose to no longer exist as Tom Rawlinson you are free to let go at any point. Nothing binds you, except yourself.'
'I don't understand.'
'You don't need to understand right now. You have died, you are existing on a spiritual plain, until such time as you choose to stop existing. This is all I can tell you that is of use. Here there is no higher authority, there is no God that I have heard tell of, there are none but us.'
'What? Just you and I?'
Henry chuckled, 'No Tom, Sir, just us spirits. We are many.'
'And what do you do?' Tom found himself interested, despite the animosity he felt towards this obtuse and irritating boy spirit. Henry looked to have been aged sixteen or so when he had died.
'Observe my family?'
'Only today. I was aware that your spirit was about to break free of your body, so I stayed to help you.'
'Hah!' Tom spat. 'Help me! To welcome me to the spirit world I suppose?'
'Precisely,' Henry grinned.
'Well, and now you wish you had moved on before I passed over I suppose?'
'Not at all. You are taking the news of your death tolerably well, Sir.'
'Yes, indeed. Many's the story I've heard of new spirits in hysterics. Robert Gillison of Marsh Lane climbed back into his dead body and refused to leave it for a fortnight. He stayed with it even after they'd reduced it to ashes.'
'Robert Gillison, died two month since?' Tom smiled, feeling a faint glint of pride in himself. He'd been hardy as a live human being, he could be so still as a spirit.
'That's right,' said Henry. 'He's feeling better now. You really would not know that he had spent a week inside an urn.'
Tom stared dubiously at Henry. He was beginning to feel that this was all too simple, but it already felt to him as though he was letting go of his body and his family. This thought brought him back to his senses.
'Martha,' he said, with an air of business-like authority. 'You said that I should follow Martha.'
'Or any of your children, it's up to you entirely Tom. There are no rules here. Only the laws of science apply.'
'Science? What on earth are you talking about?'
'The normal sorts of forces that acted on your body when you were alive also act now on your spirit in this plain of existence.'
'But I don't breathe, or eat, or touch. I'm not real.' Tom held his hand up to his face, in front of his eyes so that he could examine it properly. Something was there, though what it was Tom could not fathom. He appeared now to be composed of some kind of very find dust. He glanced at Henry, through his hand, then lowered it hurriedly, scowling at being caught out at something so natural and naïve.
'I will leave you now Tom. You have long been desiring my absence.'
Tom felt the panic rise again, and he instantly felt ashamed of it. He affected nonchalance, and tried to ignore Henry, turning his attention to the window once more. When he looked in Henry's direction again, the young spirit was no longer in the room.
'Wait!' Tom cried out. Henry appeared at the door.
'How can I find you again, should I ... need you?'
'Oh, I'm not sure Tom. I think I will just know if you do.'
Tom shook his head and raised his eyes to the ceiling. 'Do you really know anything about this ... this plain Henry?'
'No Tom,' Henry chuckled, 'I do not,' and he turned to leave once more.
'Wait?' Tom asked, rather more politely than he had hitherto spoken, 'how long have you been dead Henry?'
Henry smiled. 'Oh, many a long year, Sir, many. I can hardly recall exactly, but I think nigh on eighty years.'
Tom nodded. He should have guessed so much from the mode of Henry's dress.
'I'll be alright now Henry. I'll just sit a while and find some peace.'