Short-Story Competition 2020
(Cantonal School Beromünster, Switzerland)
The Man Who Drowned and Swam Again
What on the BLT19 website inspired you?
When browsing the periodicals on this website, I noticed that temperance was a common theme, especially in the British Workman where there were advertisements for the Temperance Society, who, among other things, acted as a sort of support group for alcoholics. In Victorian times, alcoholism was seen as a character flaw, rather than as an addiction and an illness. In reality, the horrid living and working conditions of the working poor are to blame. Life was hard and that’s why they drank. I empathized with the desire to drown one’s sorrows with a bottle of gin, but at the same time, I recognized the dysfunction it brought with it. These adverts were not just put into these work periodicals because their target audience was reading them, but because sinking into toxic habits ruins every aspect of your life; and, most significantly, your work. Work was often the very reason these people became alcoholics. Like Benjamin in my story, the poor rarely worked because it fulfilled them. Instead, they worked to feed their families. But what if life has taken so much from you that you lose the motivation to do anything? This is where Agnes comes into play. She’s an example of a person who grew up in the same tragic world as Benjamin, but somehow managed to use it to her advantage. By taking his children, she gives him the incentive to turn his life around. Sometimes all you need is the help to help yourself. This story is an updating of the kind found in the British Workman: it is still set in Victorian times but its style is more late nineteenth-century realist to make it more acceptable to late-twenty-first century readers.
The Man Who Drowned and Swam Again
The elegant, high-heeled shoes that stepped into Benjamin Thompson’s flat seemed out of place. They did not match the dust and dirt that covered the old hardwood floor, and neither were they made for kicking empty beer bottles out of the way. And yet they walked, underneath a ruffled skirt, pulled up to keep it clean, towards a man who lay next to the sofa. His sister took a moment to examine him. He was pathetic to look at, passed out on the floor, in a shirt half-done-up, filthy. A stench of liquor and old sweat came off him, and it made the corners of her mouth twitch in disgust. She had the urge to bathe him like a dog that had played in the mud. Instead, she poked him with her foot.
“Ben,” she said firmly. “Wake up.”
Benjamin only began to snore. His head fell to one side, exposing a face flushed with intoxication, and a mouth wide open. Tousled brown hair fell over his brow. It took a few slaps to his cheek to finally wake him up.
“Agnes?” he gasped, darting upright.
“Yes, dear,” she said, and retreated to her usual upright and poised position.
“What time is it?” The drunkard rubbed his eyes, looking up to the woman that was towering over him.
“Six o’clock. But what does it matter to you? You don’t seem to have the need for a clock.”
“Can I get you anything to drink?” Benjamin asked, his words drowned in a yawn.
Agnes grabbed him by the arm, as he was struggling to get to his feet.
“I’d rather you wouldn’t. Sit down.”
He did as he was told, lowering himself on the sofa with an annoyed sigh. She seated herself next to him.
“Benny, I took the children.”
He blinked his brown eyes.
“I took them away, Ben. Carl came to me, clutching his brothers and sister by each hand, weeping. He came all the way to Camden: it must’ve taken him all day! He came into the shop and he begged me to help him.” His sister’s voice quivered ever so slightly as she told him. “He begged me to help you.”
Silence filled the room. Benjamin Thompson looked at her with an illegible expression. She supposed it was something between disbelief and anger.
“You didn’t even notice they were gone, did you?” she said. Agnes felt compelled to slap him again. When he continued to stay silent, she went on, “They miss their mother. And I know you do too.” A little twitch in her jaw betrayed her sudden sweetness of tone.
“You know nothing,” her brother replied, turning his face away.
His gaze was glued to a portrait on the other side of the room. The late Josie Thompson.
“I might be a woman, Ben,” Agnes said. “But I know a broken man when I see one. And it pains me that it’s my own brother.”
“I am not broken!” he said, starting to his feet. “Watch yourself, Agnes!” A sudden wildness took hold of his face, giving him the air of a rabid dog.
“Benjamin, I do not mean to insult you,” Agnes said. “My concern is for the children.”
“That’s none of your bloody business, I take good care of them, I do,” he growled.
The man started pacing up and down the room, the floorboards squeaking under his heavy steps.
“Is that so?” Agnes scoffed. “Most days you are too drunk to remember your own name. Take a look at yourself.” Her finger pointed at his stained, unbuttoned shirt and his bare feet. “Unless you go find work again and earn your wages, you are not capable of taking care of anyone.”
“I’d rather die than go back to the factory,” Benjamin replied, burying his face in his hands. “You break your back for someone else, twelve hours a day for the rest of your life. And for what? So that you’re too poor to afford a good doctor? So that Josie had to die anyway?”
“Because your wife died, should your children now starve to death?” Agnes got up from the sofa, walking slowly towards him. She couldn’t conceal the anger in her voice anymore. “You need to get your affairs in order. Until then, Carl, Jack and Mary will stay with me. I’ll find work to keep them occupied.”
“I am their father, you can’t keep them,” he said, getting louder and louder. “I’ll call the coppers on you.”
“No copper worth his salt would take you seriously like this,” she said. “Don’t you understand? I’m doing this because I love you! Because I want to keep you and your family out of the workhouse. Wait,” she said, searching her dress pocket for something, and producing a piece of paper. “This is from the British Workman.”
Join the Temperance Society. Take the Pledge today! the paper clipping said. Underneath the bold letters, there was a woodcut illustration of a drunkard couple in the street.
Benjamin slapped her hand away.
“You come into my house, insult me and wag this piece of paper in my face,” he said pointing his finger at her. “What gives you the right, Agnes? I’m sorry that I can’t whore myself into success like you did,” he yelled.
Benjamin Thompson was tall, and in times past intimidating, but the man that stood in front of Agnes today was a mere ghost of him. She stood up.
“I did what I had to do,” she said with narrowed eyes. “I will do the same now.” She walked past him, ignoring the glare that followed her.
“That’s so easy for you to say, sitting around all day behind your damned sewing-machine! I can take care of them!” he shouted after her, panic suddenly taking hold of him.
Agnes paused with her hand on the doorknob. “Then prove it.”
As the door closed behind her, her brother sank to his knees. He exhaled deeply, and his breath quivered; hot tears filled his eyes, and when the world began to blur before him, a mournful yowl left his lips. A tiny darkness began to form within him and with every sob it expanded, finally taking hold of his ribcage, pressing out every breath he took in. He shot to his feet, pacing the room trying to shake the pressure from his lungs. His eyes widened in panic. “I can’t breathe!” he thought. It was Josie who saved him. He forced himself to look at her portrait, into her dark brown eyes, which, even in death, could still soothe him. His breathing eventually returned to normal.
As soon as he could think a clear thought again, his first instinct was to reach for the bottle of whisky that was lying on the floor. But he stopped in his movement, for next to the bottle was the newspaper clipping his sister had dropped. He examined the picture. It was ridiculous: a man and a woman, both with bottles in their hands and flushed faces, walking through a dimly-lit street at night, singing loudly. Around them were passers-by who laughed at them behind their backs. “I’m nothing like that,” he thought. “Josie was nothing like that.” He looked around his room, then back at the piece of paper. Take the pledge. Agnes wanted him to become temperate. What’s there to live for then? His gaze moved further to the right, to a photograph with three small faces on it. “Agnes took them. I failed them, Josie.” Benjamin felt his throat close up again. But before he had a chance to sink to the bottom of himself again, a thought entered his head. It’s not too late.
While her brother began to resurface to the air, Agnes tried to be the branch his children could hold onto, as the current so unforgivingly pulled at them. They lived with her and her husband in a small but comfortable flat above her tailor’s shop. With her pride in the business, she inspired them, for she had sacrificed everything to make it to this point. The Thompsons had never been people of great means, but some of them had an iron will, and Agnes would make sure her niece and nephews would be shown the right path to take. She would do this on her own, if she had to. But there came a day when she could not believe her eyes.
“Auntie Agnes!” little Mary cried, as the bell above the shop door announced an unexpected visitor. The broom she had held, which was twice her size, hit the floor, and the child ran into her father’s arms. Squeezing the tiny body sent a warm wave of relief through him. He buried his face in her golden hair.
“It’s all right, girl,” he said. “I’m here.”
His daughter’s cry set three pairs of feet in motion above the shop. Benjamin heard steps descend the wooden stairs, two pairs hasty and excited, one heavier and slow. As the door behind the counter flew open, boyish whoops filled the room, and his younger son flung himself at him.
The two children talked over each other. “Father, we missed you! Where have you been? Are you alright? Look at my new doll! You won’t believe what Scotty Robinson said at school!”
“Settle down, children,” a calm voice came from behind.
Agnes slipped into the room with her usual controlled movements, Carl behind her. The boy looked tense.
“What brings you here, Benjamin?” Agnes said.
Gently pushing the children away, Ben stood up from his crouch. He was wearing a clean shirt, and his hair was neatly combed out of his face. He looked good.
“I wanted to buy some gifts for my children,” he said.
His sister raised an eyebrow. The man reached into his trouser pocket and set down a few coins on the counter.
“I’d like some things from your shop window. The little brown hat, the green dress and the grey jacket, please.”
Agnes looked at the money in front of her for a long time. When she finally took it, a smile softened her face.
“Very well, dear brother,” she said, looking up at him.
The skin around her grey eyes wrinkled in a smile, as she gave his hand a quick squeeze. The younger children, who had exchanged looks out of eyes wide open, began to jump up and down in joy, as Agnes retired to the back room to pack the clothes. Carl stood perfectly still. When Benjamin finally held the clothes in his hands, his breath was shaking a little.
“Carl,” he said, crouching down to the boy with the curly crop. “I am so proud of you for doing the right thing. You have every right to be angry with me. You saved your brother and sister, and for that I cannot thank you enough. I promise I will make it up to you.”
Carl put the little tweed cap on his head, nodding silently, even smiling a little.
“Jack,” Benjamin continued. “I hear you are such a hardworking lad. Keep right on, it’s the proper way to go. And don’t let a little cold wind stop you,” he said, placing the jacket around his shoulders.
When Benjamin finally got to Mary, the little girl was impatiently wringing her hands.
“Don’t worry dear, I haven’t forgotten you,” he said smiling, handing her the light green cotton dress. “You are taking after your aunt; do you know that?” He said it to his daughter, but he was looking at Agnes.
She, leaning onto the counter, tears in her eyes, followed his words closely. While in a grateful embrace from his daughter, Benjamin Thompson said, “Mind her, will you? For she is the best gift that life can give you.”
At that Agnes rushed towards them and wrapped her arms around her brother.
She kissed him on the forehead and murmured “Welcome home.”