by Natasha Head and Morgan Farnham
This story is a satirical response to ‘The Strawberry Girl‘ and our research and thinking on how work can cure ‘mental diseases.’
We set this story in 1891, 30 years after ‘The Strawberry Girl,’ at a time when questions about gender roles and identities were being regularly questioned in the popular press. The story shows how mental health can be regarded as a tension between these modern ideas and the persistence of older ideas and texts, Mr Parker is reading daringly modern fiction while his ‘sensible’ wife is still reading the Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine that had ceased publication in 1879. Meanwhile Mr Jenkins spouts mainstream advice from the 1860s. What stories will Mr Parker choose to live his life by?
Mr Parker, overall, was an accomplished man, with a successful career and thriving family. His clerical role at the local bank meant that his family was provided with a stable and satisfactory income, even if it did mean that his day-to-day life followed a strict routine. Mr Parker’s family was made up of his young and pleasing wife, and their two children, George and Alice. Mrs Parker took immense pride in her husband’s clerical role, and insisted on stocking their home with carpets and prints. The young wife had an enviable reputation for domesticity, and it came quite naturally to her: whilst her husband provided money, she provided a sanctuary of calm. Quite often, you could find second-hand copies of the now long-defunct Englishwoman’s Domestic Magazine on her worktable, offering up ideas for traditional domestic inspiration and creativity: none of the modern New Woman or greenery-yallery nonsense for her. She was sensible.
Anyone looking into Mr Parker’s life might have been swept over by a pang of jealousy, for he had created the most picture-perfect world of domestic bliss anyone could wish for.
His normal day would begin at dawn. As soon as the light hit the window of their airy upstairs bedroom window, Mr Parker would swiftly dress, kiss his wife and children goodbye, then leave for work. In order to arrive early, as he always liked to do, Mr Parker would take a shortcut, past an unsavoury industrial factory. The longer route would take him through Moorland Park, a quaint green filled with flowers and fresh air. He often wondered what it was like early in the morning. After clocking in, Mr Parker followed a routine of administrative work. He would greet everyone courteously, perform tasks graciously, smiling and copying and typing, smiling and copying and typing, right until the clock struck 5 o’clock and it was time to return home to his perfect family life.
Of course, dinner was ready when he returned home, and he was greeted by the happy faces of his family waiting patiently for him at the dining table. After his children had been put to bed, he and his darling wife would spend some quiet time together. Mr Parker was fond of fantastical novels, much to his wife’s disapproval, as most of her friend’s husbands had keen interests in science and politics. For one precious hour every night, Mr Parker transformed himself into the glamorous Leo Vincey in Rider Haggard’s She or (surprisingly risque in the respectable Lippincott’s Magazine) explored his secret hedonistic desires as Dorian Gray.
For many months, Mr Parker ritualistically lived his life as one continuous loop. As the weather grew hotter, and less tolerable, in one spontaneous moment Mr Parker decided to change his route to work. He couldn’t quite believe that his legs were able to move him in a new and exciting direction, but they did. And for the first time in a long time, Mr Parker felt alive. He felt so alive, in fact, that he decided to circle right around the green and head straight back home to his wife.
Naturally, Mrs Parker was rather shocked to find her husband back at the house merely half an hour after he had left for work. She feared the worst, but nothing could have prepared her for the crazed look in her husband’s eyes as he explained to her his thrilling change of course. He begged her to relieve herself of the day’s domestic chores and to take to the green. His impassioned plea frightened her, and took her aback. She had read about fits of passion, and the mere thought of her husband becoming caught up in such nonsense was too much to bear. Mrs Parker was overcome with worry and began to feel faint. She quickly ordered her husband away, and told him to walk out in the open air, following the instructions of an old weekly newspaper on how to cure a fit of passion. Overcome by a wave of disappointment, he complied, and headed out again in an attempt to calm his nerves.
Mr Parker decided to walk without quite knowing where his destination would be. It seemed to be getting hotter than ever, and so he decided to sit down for a drink. He called at the Queen’s Head, ordered a small pale ale and went to a bench on the green. In the summer air, with the birds chirping, and his ever-burning desire to escape from his mundane life, Mr Parker fell into a deep sleep, dreaming of adventures which he would never have. He woke with a jolt, unknowing how much time had passed since he fell into his boozy slumber. To his horror, his most prised jacket had been misplaced – no, it had been stolen! Mr Parker was afraid: it contained what was left of his daily allowance, but he quickly decided to squash the doubt in his mind and continue with his journey to find inner peace.
Mr Parker found himself wandering down a bustling street. Perhaps this was finally the beginning of something spectacular! The street was full of life, coloured advertisements splashed down every wall and busy market stalls buzzing in the heat. With an optimistic step, and a tear becoming hot in his eye, he finally felt content with his exploration. All of a sudden, out of nowhere, two young boys tumbling down the street pushed Mr Parker off-balance. Mr Parker lifted his grazed hands and realised that he had fallen into a pile of horse manure! Many sniggers arose from the less-than-reputable onlookers, and Mr Parker felt his dream slipping away beneath his fingers.
He walked on, until the town clock was in view, and he realised that it was lunch time. It was then that he spotted his colleague, Mr Jenkins, who was clearly on an errand. He approached him with a worried look on his face.
“Parker! Dear God, what happened to you, old sport?” exclaimed Mr Jenkins. “Have you been robbed? Where is your jacket? And your shirt – why, it’s ripped to pieces! I haven’t seen you in the office all morning! And now, I rather wish I hadn’t run into you at all!”
“I’ve had the most horrendous afternoon, I thought I might have needed some fresh air to clear my head and all I’ve got to show for it is a lost jacket and an awful smell!” Mr Parker grimaced, “I thought I needed to escape the life that had been laid out in front of me.”
“Oh, well we can’t be having that now, can we?” said Mr Jenkins, somewhat placated. “You have a wonderful life in front of you, a sensible wife, two perfect children. You know what you need, Parker?”
“Work!” exclaimed an enthusiastic Mr Jenkins, “We all get the odd moment whereby our passions lead us off into an unusual path, but we must repress it, and to do that we must apply ourselves to our work. You need to cease this foolishness, go home and count the ticking of a clock for one hour and by the end of it you’ll be itching to get back to your desk. How does that sound?”
“Well, I suppose I could try it. Thank you for your advice. And, um, if you would be so kind as to perhaps forget our encounter? I wouldn’t want the bank thinking ill of me.”
“Consider it forgotten, I bid you a good evening, Mr Parker. I hope you find what you’re looking for!”
The sun had finally started to set, releasing the town from its fiery grip, and Mr Parker had circled back to Moorland Park. There was a humble buzz on the green, from the trees, the flowers and a young family who were laughing together playfully. Suddenly, he longed for his sensible wife, and their two perfect children. He saw how foolish and irrational he had been, and silently thanked Jenkins for his sound advice. Perhaps all that he truly needed was his family, and his dreams for adventure were mere childish fantasies. Mr Parker raced home. Dishevelled and smelly, he burst through the door and called his wife.
“My love, I have been so foolish!” he exclaimed, “You were right! All it took was a walk in the open air, and look what has happened to me. I have been almost to the gates of hell today and the journey has shaken off my discontent. I am quite myself again. My passion has been extinguished. I am quite content with my life.”
His wife was indescribably relieved. She fell into his open arms, and they embraced with a warm tenderness.
Mr Parker did as advised and spent that same evening staring into the hands of the old grandfather clock. From then, he enjoyed his ritual of waking up early, and heading to work. He put every ounce of himself into smiling and copying and typing, and worked harder than ever. He put away his daringly modern reading. It seemed the more he worked the happier he felt, and he was even sad on some occasions when the 5 o’clock bell came. The bank manager saw a great improvement in Mr Parker’s performance and offered him a small promotion.
Thanks to Mr Jenkins’ discretion, Mr Parker’s fit of discontented passion was never spoken of again.