Horrible Wife Murder

This story was created as part of the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Competition 2018. This was my first ever go at writing flash fiction and my first ever competition. The following details were received for round one at 5am on Saturday 14th July and I was given 48 hours to research, write and upload before 5am Monday 16th July – it’s midnight in NYC which is cooler.

Round one

  • Word limit: 1,000 words
  • Genre: Historical Fiction
  • Location: Flea market
  • Item: leather belt
  • 3,000 participants, competing in groups of 30 people. Top 15 in each group allocated points (eg 1st place 15, 2nd 14 and so on).

Horrible Wife Murder

Synopsis
Based on a real crime in the Yorkshire market town of Skipton, England in 1880, this is a tale of Victorian scandal and ruthless murder. As 15-year old Elizabeth Blades retraces the steps of her murdered mother through the market square, she discovers that sometimes the most difficult journey is the one into your own past.

The name Skipton could be traced back to the Old English for sheep (sceap) and town (tun). It was a fact that my father had told me many times as we had walked its cobbled streets. His story would bring to life a farming community, whose green pastureland had been carved up and turned into the patchwork of mills now employing hundreds of workers.

The canal ran through the middle of town, like an artery taking the lifeblood of woven goods out to the nearby city of Leeds. What hadn’t changed he’d say, lowering his voice to make sure I knew this fact would be important, was the market square sitting at the heart of everything.

The tannery was positioned at the top of the square, next to the slaughterhouse, so the animals could be killed and skinned before the heat left the body. The carcass would go to the butcher’s stall and the skin would come inside, dirty with gore. Father was grateful it wasn’t his work to sort. He was the currier and he took the cleaned skin and finished the tanned hide, ready to be turned into shammy cloths, shoes and belts.

As I cross the market I can feel the stares burning into my back. I have been expecting this. After all, I am Elizabeth Blade. I am the daughter of Margaret Blade, the dead woman. I am the daughter of Henry Blade, the murderer.

I’ve taken this route often, looking for my mother when she went searching for gin. One time I found her slumped on the cobbles, a teardrop of blood running down her cheek. Our neighbour Mrs Fowler had walked past, laughing. “She’s definitely a fallen woman,” she’d said. She didn’t think I would understand, but I did.

This memory still stings and I shake it away. I’m standing outside The Unicorn Inn now. It was here that the inquiry had been held on the evening of Monday 3rd May, to determine how my mother’s cold, bruised body had been found slumped against the bed the previous morning. I’d stared at William Cowman as he’d introduced himself as the foreman. Dressed in a blue pilot cloth jacket, fustian trousers, and black top billycock hat. 

The last time I’d seen him was the evening in question. He had his back to me and I could just make out the outline of a woman, her petticoats raised. As his fingers searched the folds of fabric and the folds of skin, her eyes had met mine. The flash of recognition quickly dulled by the effects of the liquid in the bottle she held against her lips. She had closed her eyes and arched her back so he could get his shilling’s worth. I had turned and run home.

When it was my father’s turn to speak at the inquiry his voice filled the room. “I asked her where she’d been and said the children wanted looking after. She answered she did not care a damn for them and I had no need to care as I was not the father to one of them. My passion getting the better of me I seized her by her neck and we struggled. I left the room to make her some tea but when I returned she had given over breathing.” All eyes were on my father as he spoke and the reporter from the Herald had stopped writing.

It was a tallow candle that I had used to light the bedroom that night. The wax was formed from slaughterhouse fat and the smoke smelt of decay. I’d found my mother moaning on the floor, my father’s belt at her feet. He was so proud of that belt. He’d told me the craftsmanship was all in the leather, everything else was just decoration.

She’d clung to me and told me everything. There had been 13 children – only four of us had survived. The others she called her lost babies. Some had been pushed into the world in silence, perfect apart from the blue of their skin. Some had reached a few years old, only to be taken by consumption. 

After each one she had disappeared to the market square, searching for ways to forget. That’s where the man had roughly taken what wasn’t his. Where the thread of my life had started. All she could remember was pain and his red hair, the same shade as mine. She sobbed as she told me and I had stroked her face, holding her tightly as I rocked her to sleep.

Later, I could hear my father pacing the kitchen and when he’d opened the bedroom door he’d let out a high-pitched cry. Like the noise the wind would sometimes carry from the slaughterhouse.

I stop suddenly. I have arrived at the market stall I want. I reach into my bag for the belt, a perfect circle of leather. I remember how I had picked it up from the bedroom floor, still rocking my mother back and forth. I’d been stroking her neck and whispering, my lips pressed against her pale shoulder. I’d felt the weight of the belt in my hand as I’d looped it around her neck and pulled back hard. 

He’d been wrong Henry, the man who wasn’t my father. It wasn’t the origin of the belt that determined its quality. The beauty was in the journey it had made. Each process one step away from the blood on the slaughterhouse floor, one step away from the pickling of flesh, one step away from the skin stretched out taut. It was what it was in spite of its beginnings. 

The man behind the stall is shouting across the bench, interrupting my thoughts, “If you’re flitting that belt I’ll give you three shillings.” I smile, shaking my head. Slipping the coiled leather back into my bag, I move into the crowd of the market, disappearing into the darkness.

This is the original work of the author Hannah May and copyright belongs to the author.

Thoughts and feedback

Historical fiction is a real challenge in a short time: you have to build a convincing world that roots the reader in the period and balance that with the journey of the story.

I’d read a news article titled ‘Horrible Wife Murder’ from 1880 in the Craven Herald archive, so that’s where this idea came from. I was intrigued by the ambiguity – what was horrible, the murder or the wife?

Looking back on this story, I can see I tried to cram too much in. I think this is the first draft of the start of something bigger than a flash piece. I received 8 points for the story and everyone progressed to round two.

What the judges liked:

  • {Judge 1732}  Chilling! What a great look at what the poverty of Victorian Englan could do to people! Great descriptions of the girl, the father and keeping in line with the ‘speech’ of the times. And a down-right scary end! 
  • {Judge 1892}  The writing is gorgeous. Your descriptions are both lyrical and powerful. They’re poetic and visceral, helping readers clearly picture what’s going on. The dialogue felt very realistic for the time period and added to the environment. 
  • {Judge 1858}  I loved the narrator’s voice. I can picture the town in my head and am willing to take the journey with her as she tells the story. The setting is powerful as well.

What the judges felt needed work:

  • {Judge 1732}  You know, I looked at this and began thinking of ways to help with pacing like exchanging a pronoun here and there for a proper or another common noun. But wondered if it would kill the style of 19th-century writing. I would it give a try. If you have 5 pronouns in a single paragraph swap maybe one with some type of noun. It will add just the touch of variety modern readers like. Great story!
  • {Judge 1892}  I still have some questions and confusion even after rereading this several times. Why exactly did Elizabeth kill her mother? To get revenge on her? To frame Henry because she was angry he wasn’t her real father? Because she has evil in her blood? The pieces are in place, but I need some clarity to better understand Elizabeth’s character and motivation. 
  • {Judge 1858}  I don’t quite understand the ending. Why would she kill her own mother? Did she want her father to go to jail? Or was she trying to put her mother out of the misery of being known as the town “slut”, so to speak? Maybe leave a few more clues for your reader so that it makes sense as to why she kills her mom.
  • {Judge 1732}  You know, I looked at this and began thinking of ways to help with pacing like exchanging a pronoun here and there for a proper or another common noun. But wondered if it would kill the style of 19th-century writing. I would it give a try. If you have 5 pronouns in a single paragraph swap maybe one with some type of noun. It will add just the touch of variety modern readers like. Great story!
  • {Judge 1892}  I still have some questions and confusion even after rereading this several times. Why exactly did Elizabeth kill her mother? To get revenge on her? To frame Henry because she was angry he wasn’t her real father? Because she has evil in her blood? The pieces are in place, but I need some clarity to better understand Elizabeth’s character and motivation. 
  • {Judge 1858}  I don’t quite understand the ending. Why would she kill her own mother? Did she want her father to go to jail? Or was she trying to put her mother out of the misery of being known as the town “slut”, so to speak? Maybe leave a few more clues for your reader so that it makes sense as to why she kills her mom.

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