Monday, 4 November 2013

NaNoWriMo Day 4 Word count 1055

The face shifted out of focus and she felt the cool cloth move away from her forehead. She hear the sound of water dripping and her forehead became dry, hot and achey. A moment later it returned. At first blessedly cool, it suddenly became unpleasant and drippy. A trickle ran into her ear and she tipped her head to avoid it.

The voice scolded gently and instructed her to rest.

Over the next day or two, the scolding became more familiar.

It was days before she was well enough to sit upright, and in the time she lay in bed the nurse – Mary – alternated between singing and telling stories to entertain. When the doctor visited, Mary told him at great length of the prayers she had recited, the Rosaries she had sung. But in his absence the reality was that Mary had little faith that words were enough to heal.

Once, Melissa asked her to explain why the difference. Why she went to such lengths to expound upon the religious element when it simply wasn't present. Mary was quiet for a few minutes, then muttered something that may have been “what doesn't kill you makes you stronger”.

She sighed, relaxed into the had wooden chair which was her station beside the bed and took Melissa's hand in her own, large callused ones. “My dear, I tell you this because I believe you have lived a life for which many here would shun you if they knew of it. This far it has not marred you, but you must know that here, such a life carries dangers.

“I have seen girls abandoned on the streets – beaten, abused and with their souls barely intact. They were, many of them, there for one reason. A man had taken the only thing that a woman is valued for in this world. A woman must be a maid until she is wed, and she is not allowed freedom in the company of other men until she is safe with child. It is the only way a man believes he may prove that the firstborn son and heir is his own.

“It matters more in wealthy circles, of course. In your circles the fall for an unwed woman who has known a man is much farther, the shame much greater and ...” She paused, before abruptly switching tack.

“Amongst us common folk, innocence doesn't have to be retained until the wedding night. An agreement is often enough to formalise the affair. And many a poor young girl has believed in the sanctity of that agreement, until the next day, or week, when she sees her swain using the same sweet words on another maid. There's not many men will wed a girl, however sweet or lovely, once it's known she is experienced. They see it as shameful. And of course, those swains that take the maidhood believe it is something to boast about, so it is well known when a young woman has been duped.

“The girls who can't stand the shame, or have no support from their family run away. They all make their way to a city in the end. And, for many of them, there swiftly comes the realisation that they have nothing to trade. There isn't much call for farm girl's skills in the city. These are the girls without references, without finances and without luggage. They have nowhere to go. And the only barrier between them and prostitution is time. Eventually, enough time passes and they become desperate and hungry.

“In this city, madam, there are hundreds of girls who started as good, churchgoing, religious girls and, because they were too trusting or innocent at a time when dreams should be coming true, they now would choose to spit in the eye of any God that offered to help. Those that are healthy and still hungry, ashamed and unable to mingle with the good, Christian folk who sneer and spit on them. There are many who are much less fortunate.

“Through this city, syphilis runs like a river. One splash and you're tainted for life. The girls – they sell themselves to anyone with a few coin. And often, alongside the coin, they get the disease. It's not always visible, you see. In some, you see the warped limbs, the pocked faces and the onset of insanity. But in others: in others it lurks silently and waits for a new victim.

“The doctor is a man of faith, but he wouldn't help one of those poor girls if she lay crying in the street, because he is a man of money first. Those girls help each other, when they can. A few are thoroughly gin-soaked just to bear the worst of it, and every now and then even those who bear the most hatred will slip an extra shot into the bottle. Because they know, you see. They know how bad it can get and they hope that when it is their turn, someone will take pity.

“Prayers don't help, madam. People help. But these doctors will only help the people who pray and keep themselves clean. I was here when the fever first mounted and when you started talking, I made sure we were alone from then on. No-one here knows you have chosen to lay with men and I won't be the one to tell them. But I want you to be careful madam; you haven't been tainted yet, but make sure you protect yourself from the disease. Otherwise, money or not, you will find your life becomes a lot less pleasant from then on.”

She collected the various belongings from around her chair and walked towards the door.

“Mary! You're not leaving?”

Her smile was grim. “I can't stay forever, madam. And I don't like the suspicion that I might be about to put the touch on you. I make my living fair and clean, madam. Good day to you.”

“No, wait!” the cry was slightly high pitched and the feeling of it leaving her throat was agony. She dropped back, clutching at her throat, eyes wide with shock. Mary turned and continued walking out.

“Mary,” her voice was hoarse, but insistent. “Mary, I need you to stay, please!”