The Utterly Unflappable Mrs Jones
Devenish College, Northern Ireland
What on the BLT19.co.uk website inspired you?
I was inspired by a mixture of The Law Times and the British Workwoman periodicals, as well as the illustrations, which helped me envision my characters. My biggest inspiration was, however, Charles Dickens.
‘Look at it!’ I had cried, hurling the ball of paper at my good friend, the illustrious Doctor Jameson. ‘Just look at it!’ He unravelled the missile and examined it, puffing pensively on his pipe. His face scrunched in a remarkable likeness to the paper, his expressions understandably confused – the paper, once a very important witness statement, was now a completely illegible mess. There wasn’t a square inch of writing clear from the flooded ink. Jameson puffed out a perfectly round ring of smoke, leaning his ample frame on the mantelpiece.
‘There’s another clerk you ought to be rid of.’ He said, stating the obvious.
My reaction to this statement was later described as ‘a rage any steam engine would envy’ as I ‘bellowed and roared like a bull’ at my good friend. I was asking (rhetorically, of course, as law is my practice) something along the lines of ‘was this not what I was saying all along?’
To be entirely truthful, my little legal practice had suffered such a tiresome bout of terrible clerks I was fully under the opinion that I was under some curse, possibly by the fellow whom I had failed to save from the gallows in September. When I had finally overcome my fury (an episode greatly exaggerated by my good friend at many dinner parties), I flung myself down on the sofa, inconsolable.
‘That’s the fourth clerk this year,’ I lamented mournfully, ‘If I get one that’s stupid, something like this happens. So then I get a clever one, and he’ll be as dishonest and crooked as a corkscrew. It’s a vicious circle! I’m at my wit’s end!’
‘Get married then.’ Said Jameson, as if it were the most natural answer in the world. I choked on thin air.
‘How on earth would that help?’ I exclaimed, ‘Another hassle and expense that would complicate matters even further.’
Jameson smirked. ‘You recall my marriage last year?’
‘Most vividly – I never thought you’d bother.’
‘And you are well acquainted with my dear little wife Sophia?’
‘And you know her to be the sweetest, most gentle creature – fair-haired, doe-eyed and with hands like a porcelain doll?’
‘Indeed I do; she is truly delightful. So delightful I often wonder why she married you.’
‘AH!’ grinned Jameson, pointing a sausage of a finger at me, ‘Say you were feeling poorly and wretched. Would she not be the ideal creature to accompany you in the fearsome Doctor’s Surgery?’
My jaw fell and hung somewhere near my knees. The genius! How could he find more loyal an assistant than his wife? And such an affable, charming little doll – she would be a perfect hand-holder, soother, comforter.
‘And I don’t suppose she troubles you for holidays or pay?’
‘Why should she? My devoted little wife vowed to honour and obey me, and the darling does it all out of the goodness of her heart. My surgery tools are so clean you could pick your teeth with them. Why don’t you find yourself a clever lady in a spot of bother with the law, save her and take her on?’
I was astounded. I knew my friend to be an eccentric, but I knew him now to be deviously genius. Thus, I began searching for my final clerk – a decent woman to make my wife. Naturally, in my profession of criminal law, I met many women who would no doubt make me a loyal companion; many pledged everlasting devotions to me following my role as their knight in shining armour- though the villains were never evil stepmothers as much as they were local policemen doing their jobs. I have done my best to shy away from thieves and fraudsters, vagabonds, drunkards and prostitutes – my reforming zeal only stretched so far. I avoided murderesses for obvious reasons. Eventually, the perfect case finally arrived. She was my ideal vision. Tall and stately, with wiry brown hair scraped back and swept up in a mix of elegance and determination, the governess entered the room in a cloud of quiet despair. Hands clasped over the front of her black dress; she told me her sorry tale of her crime – accused by her employer (who I knew to be a nasty, vindictive woman, I’d dealt with her type before) of stealing a silver bracelet from her young charges. I knew this to be false, and I soon proved it in court. Yet I knew it worked in my favour; Miss Royton would never work again with such a reference, and she left the court with the same quiet despondency she had arrived with. I saw her leaving, her neat head bowed, perhaps even a tear – this was my chance!
I hurried after her and called ‘Agnes!’ She turned in amazement; governesses seldom have use for their Christian names.
‘Mr Jones?’ She asked, recovering herself at once.
Oh, be still, be still my beating heart! That prim, proper, controlled demeanour – never would I find such qualities in any half-witted clerk! ‘My dear Agnes!’ I cried. Her mouth fell open in shock. ‘Consent to be my wife, I beg you!’
‘Sir,’ she gasped. ‘Whatever brought this on?’
Evidently, my fiancée was not to be wooed by an outpouring of emotion. Perhaps that was for the best. I quickly switched tactics.
‘Agnes I know you to be a competent, intelligent woman, who, through no fault of your own, find yourself shunned and without means. Now, I can’t profess to be a lord, duke or viscount -nor can I promise you a life of the utmost luxury. But I propose security, and respectability, and I offer myself to you as a decent, hardworking man. May I have an answer, please?’
She chewed her lip, looking much younger than I knew her to be. I held my hands out to her as though I expected her to run into them. She didn’t, but she swallowed twice, wiped her teary eyes and nodded. We married the very next day, the moment we sourced Agnes a new dress. We walked briskly down the aisle, her in grey silk, me in the black coat and tails I’d bought when I was called to the Bar. We had a brief honeymoon on the Isle Of Wight before returning to the practice with my new wife – the unflappable Mrs Jones.
From the moment she sat down at the desk outside my office, it was as though she’d been there since her cradle. Suddenly, the paperwork cluttering the hall in messy mounds disappeared, reappearing in marked filing cabinets. These miraculous events continued – appointments were made and kept, every wooden surface shone glossy and rich, tea was served on the hour piping hot, accompanied with scones, crumpets, pastries, cakes – all depending on the day!
Perhaps the most remarkable feature of my new companion was the transformation of my clients. Unruly criminals, they were no longer – suddenly, they were meek little schoolchildren trooping in to see the headmaster. See, my capable wife! Everyone was treated accordingly; those weeping with woe were consoled with tea and a caring arm around the shoulder. The unruly, raucous and uncouth, were treated to a warning eye, one that could make any man quake in his boots. Only on one occasion did I ever hear her husky voice exceed its usual clipped tones. A serial offender (Tonson by name, disorderly by nature) announced his arrival by a huge roar. ‘JONES! DID’YE MISS ME?’ Of course I didn’t; the man seemed intent on driving me to early retirement. Or the grave. Perhaps both. The stench of stale drink and whatever on earth he had rolled into on his last excursion to the gutter was spreading through our pristine premises like ink through blotting paper. Poor pale, well-mannered Agnes was grimacing; she did not like this man. I peeked through the glass partition and saw that he had flung himself into the chair closest to the desk and Agnes. She continued with her work, pen hardly stalled by her unwelcome visitor. Sadly Tonson, a man who craved attention more than he craved air to breathe, was determined to gain her attention.
‘Ye a fan of limericks, missus?’ He asked. Agnes, a statue of decorum, shook her wiry head. ‘Wait’ll ye hear this one,’ Tonson grinned, flashing his stubble and toothless black gums at her. He cleared his throat and began, ‘In the month-‘ I didn’t hear much more, but I deduced it to be rather unsavoury.
‘MR TONSON!’ The shout shook us both.
With a crash he fell out of his chair, and I jumped up and headbutted the sash above me. Agnes was standing above him, bony finger outstretched, a most uncharacteristic stance for my meek little wife. For once, I saw the governess, the independent worker, the fearsome disciplinarian she had once been.
‘Either you learn to control yourself with a modicum of dignity or seek your legal advice from elsewhere!’ She roared at the disgraced man pulling himself upright on the leg of the desk. ‘Do I make myself clear?’
‘Yes ma’am.’ Mumbled the previously incorrigible delinquent, who arranged his gangly limbs into a suitable sitting position on the green leather seat and sat. I returned to my desk, flabbergasted.
That night I sat in my armchair, watching my wife engaging herself quietly in her embroidery. Her face was bloodless, and she wore her signature considered expression. I had thought she looked rather tired last night; tonight, she looked similar.
She looked up at me. ‘Yes?’
‘Are you contended, my dear?’
She looked at me, hand still hovering over her work, face in a rare state of confusion through the dimness of our parlour. She looked at me as she weighed her emotions.
‘I don’t quite understand you.’ She said delicately.
‘Are you happy here with me?’ I persisted, ‘Would you be happier if you were still a governess?’
Agnes breathed out and frowned. ‘I don’t miss the employers. I miss the children, sometimes, but I like having a home.’
I had a feeling we both knew what she left unsaid. She missed her money, her status, her independence. She had surrendered that to marry me. Better an unflappable Mrs Jones than a wretched Miss Royton. I felt a pang of guilt. I smiled at her.
‘You were a godsend to me, Agnes.’ I smiled. ‘You’re truly worth your weight in gold.’
She smiled back at me, perhaps one of the most genuine smiles I’d ever seen from her. ‘Thank you for rescuing me,’ She said. ‘I’d much rather be with you than in the gutter.’
‘That’s not exactly a compliment, Agnes.’
‘Perhaps some of your cynicism is rubbing off on me.’ She said, tilting her head towards me, almost playfully. I surveyed my wife bemusement, laughing silently. Her mouth went back into a line, and she seemed worried again. It was only after I’d taken a mouthful of cocoa that she spoke again.
‘Benjamin,’ She said, catching me unawares with my first name, ‘I believe I might be with child.’
Disaster ensued. I choked. Cocoa went all over the carpet. Poor Agnes watched in mild dismay – those stains probably wouldn’t come out without a fight. ‘Wh-when-‘ I coughed, ‘How-‘
‘I think you know how,’ Agnes said icily.
‘Well, obviously,’ I blushed, ‘But – heavens. This is quite a shock to me.’
Agnes fixed me with a very withering look. I was starting to feel like one of her charges. Perhaps, given the mess I made, she was going to send me to bed without supper. What a fly in the ointment! My master plan lay in tatters. A child! I’d never even considered such a hindrance!
‘Oh Agnes… What do we do?’ I cried, totally flustered.
‘Well,’ said Agnes briskly, ‘That would depend on whether you would rather advertise for a clerk or a nurse.’