Sunday, July 02, 2006

Symposiasts Period Romance

Our Period Romance has been revived after about a two year hiatus. For those who don’t know, Guy and I tandem write a ridiculous romance fiction without regard to taste, sense or history. Guy got the ball rolling again with the most recent instalment the other week and so now it is my turn to make an addition. To get you up to speed, here is where Guy left us:
"Fermina emptied the contents of the bag onto the sodden mattress. Out fell a bar of soap, a cheaply embroidered red dress, a string of pearls and… she gasped… a battered tiara, similar to those worn by the prostitutes she was once able to spy through her bedroom window at Le Denetrione. Was she about to face what she feared all along? Was this to be her sorry fate? Immediately, she felt light-headed, Aware that she was losing consciousness, she slapped herself hard on the face: 'NO, Fermina. Not this time. I am a survivor. I am not going to give up. I am not going to stop. I am going to work harder. I am a survivor. I am going to make it. I am a survivor. Keep on surviving.' The words came to her as if in a dream. She would survive this.

There was a knock on the door…

And now, it continues.

Alejandro's sleepless mind veered between wearied anguish and frantic panic. To observers, this internal agitation – at times verging on hysteria, truth be told - would have been undetectable. Those who knew him well might have noticed that his eyes had darkened to pitch, if they were observant. But his self-possession was so profoundly ingrained in his manner that even the traces of these most tumultuous days of his life hadn’t pierced the toughness of his façade. It had been a week since he had aided Fermina's escape at the city walls of Madrid. He had continued his journey to the coast, keeping up the pretense that she remained ensconced in the carriage – precious cargo to be delivered to the captain of Las Castellenata for transport to a desolate island convent. Alejandro had paid for the captain’s silence, and would have feared for the safety of the souls on board after the imperiling night of drinking and raging his coin had furnished, were his mind not completely occupied with the urgent need to get back to Madrid and locate Fermina. Every moment he thought of her alone in that city sent a violent jolt through his tensed body. After finally assisting the slumping but still interminably yarning captain up the gangplank to collapse into a group of swabbers, Alejandro sprang back to the carriage to begin the dash to Madrid. He arrived there in the early hours, his seat bruised by the rough roads and the carriage’s furious speed. Returning to the city and to Count Daza’s household, Alejandro was less concerned about his master’s fury should he discover the manservant’s duplicity than he was with Fermina’s safety. The duplicity went on undetected, but he had now been searching Madrid’s lowly quarters for three days and nights and was haggard with worry about his inability to find her. In the midst of this haze he found himself out late at night, walking along an out-of-the-way street that was not unfamiliar to him. With an almost habitual regularity, he seemed to find himself here when he could no longer bear alone the agonising pang of his ardent love for Fermina, which threatened to cut his heart out from the inside. Cursing his weakness, Alejandro disappeared into a nearby doorway under the blush of a red lantern.


The door of Fermina’s cell swung open and once again she was faced with the merry twinkling eyes of her captor. “What a sight you are,” he said, taking in her garb. “Come along, Oranges. We’re putting you to work.”

Fermina remained where she was. A look of irritation flashed across his face. She found it mirrored her own. “You can’t have expected me to follow you blindly, captive or not. Now tell me - where am I, who are you, and what ‘work’ are you putting me to?”

“I’m not obliged to tell you anything at all. There is no ‘captive or not’. There is just captive. And you are ours. We have housed and fed you for a week, now we’ve clothed you –

“Housed and fed me! –“

“Housed, fed AND clothed you. Which we did out of the goodness of our hearts… and the expectation of a pay day. And now you’ve stopped stuffing your face long enough to tell us that you are Lona Francisca from Valencia, and NOT the daughter of Count Daza as we thought. By all accounts, that prize piece left on Las Castellenata four days ago. We’ve had girls go that way, and they never return to Madrid. So now we’re stuck with you. A nobody. And we are quite put out. And you owe us for the trouble we’ve taken. So we’re putting you to work.”

“If I’m so much trouble you could just let me go.”

“You’re only trouble to us because you’re not working. Right now, you’re a drain. And an unused asset. That’s wasteful. We abhor waste. And we run a business to which you are undoubtedly suited. If only by your sex.”

“What business is that?”

“Whores of course.”

Fermina was shocked. And fearful. She felt like a little girl who had only just discovered she was surrounded by adults, and wasn’t as mature as she thought she was. Then, without meaning to, she said the first silly and childish and naïve thing that came in to her head. “Oh. It’s just that the pies were so good, I thought…”

He seemed to smile for a moment, and gave her a softening look. “Ha, well. As far as the city fathers want to know, we are a bakery. Of course they know otherwise. And I suppose we are a bakery too. But really, it’s whores.”

“And I am to go with you now with my pearls and tiara and red dress and be a…?

“God no! We have no idea about you. My goodness child! We don’t want you upsetting the customers. I mean, you may turn out to be a profitable acquisition for us. Who knows? It’s always hard to tell at the beginning. But you’ll be cleaning the rooms until we can trust you enough to do the real work. So come along, Oranges.”

Feeling that danger was now more distant, Fermina found herself flooded with relief and compliantly attentive to her employer’s instructions as she followed him through a complicated network of decreasingly ramshackle halls. Eventually, he left her in a circular room onto which five red doors and one brown door opened. She had entered through the brown door. They were presently all closed. Before he had left her there, her captor had been quite emphatic that she not attempt to open any of them, especially the red ones. Also, it was essential, he had made plain, that she keep the cauldron of scented water in the centre of the room at a rolling boil at all times. There were lines strung across the room at different points, upon which soft heavy cloths hung drying, and on the floor there was a hamper of folded cloths of various colours, ready to be put to some use. A hatch in the floor connected her, she had been told, to the kitchen and laundry, and she was to yell down any orders for food, drinks, towels or other comforts and deliver them to the rooms IF REQUESTED. Requests would be made by the whores on behalf of the customers. She was to help the whores in any way they asked. They would let her know what she was to do. And so, Fermina de la Saint Amour found herself all alone at some nexus point in a Madrid whorehouse, waiting for a whore to appear. And eventually, one did.

“You’re new,” she said.

“I am,” Fermina replied shyly.

“Hmmm, very new. I’m Dolores. People cal me Dolly. You’re people now, so you can do the same. Could you hand me one of those cloths? Mine are the blue ones. What’s our resident Great Wit calling you?”

“Oranges, I think. It was Contessa but I think he’s mad about that now. Er sorry. Hello, I’m Lona. Um…” Fermina was quite flustered. She had passed a thick blue cloth to Dolly. And then Dolly had done something entirely unexpected. With bored efficiency, she had dunked all but a corner of the cloth into the boiling scented water, hitched up her skirt and with the now steaming wet cloth given her nethers a bracing once over. She’d then casually thrown the used swab back into the cauldron.

“Leave that in there a minute and then hang it with the rest. I’m going out for a break but I’ll be going in there shortly,” she said, pointing to one of the red doors. Fermina followed her every move with astonishment, and just kept nodding at Dolly’s instructions. “He’s in there already, but the room’s a bit messed up because we’ve been without one of you for a few days. So go in and clean up. Replace the old towels with fresh ones. And bring the poor man a beer. Aw, don’t fret, pet. I wouldn’t ask you to go in with a man in there, this being your first night and all. But he’s harmless. Lovely really. He comes in sometimes, tries to forget someone he’s desperately in love with. You’ll get used to him. You’ll come to appreciate him, really. Usually just passes out from the pain of it all. Very intense.”

At this point she seemed to lose her thought, but came out of her reverie upon sighting Fermina’s overwhelmed face. “Relax girl. He won’t try anything. Only troubled me once, and it was no trouble, let me tell you.”

Dolly departed through the brown door with a friendly wink in Fermina’s direction. Fermina, trying to keep her head together, decided to focus on simple tasks. She fished the blue cloth out of the cauldron and hung it out to dry. She lifted the hatch door. It took a while for her to find her voice, but eventually she yelled tentatively, “BEER. TOWELS?” And was greeted with “RIGHTO” from the steamy noisy murk below. She heard a pulley jerking, and a platform laden with the requisite BEER. TOWELS? jolted gradually up towards her. She pulled them through the hatch and turned to face the door. There was a man behind that door. A man in a whorehouse. Behind that door.

As she entered the room she heard snatches of manful groggy singing coming from the occupant splayed out on the linen-shrouded bed. She couldn’t make out all the words, muffled as they were by his face being buried in his pillow. Additionally, the tune was often rent by powerful sobs. Fermina gently shut the door behind her so as not to be detected, and went about in the darkness of the room, placing the fresh towels and a tankard of beer on the table at the foot of the bed. As she scoured the room and scooped up laundry, she paid close attention to the intelligible scraps of his mournful tune which served as an accompaniment to her activity:
My poverty revealed,
I would like to try your charity
Until you cry, "Now you must try my greed."
And everything depends upon
How near you sleep to me

I stand in ruins behind you,
I love to see you naked over there
Especially from the back.

So let me judge your love affair
In this very room
Where I have sentenced mine to death.

Just take this longing from my tongue
All the lonely things my hands have done.
Untie for me your hired gown,
Like you would do for one that you love.

Like you would do for one that you love.
There was silence then. Fermina turned and saw the man was watching her. Well, she assumed he was. As much as she could tell in the dark and separated by the diaphanous curtain hung around the bed, he seemed to be sitting up with his head turned in her direction. In a voice cracked with trouble and regret he said, “Love me. Love me. Say that you love me.”

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