This very short story won third prize in the ‘Room to Write’ inaugural short story competition in 2014. If you want to read the whole thing it’s on https://roomtowritepublishing.wordpress.com/competition/our-2014-short-story-anthology/
It’s free to download.
It’s an extract from something much longer I’ve yet to finish. I can see flaws and am itching to edit but won’t. This is what was published.
I’ve edited, couldn’t help myself.
‘I want to keep a photographic record,’ Mrs Stephens says to the visitor, her hand with its soft fingers that have never done a day’s work tight on his arm, digging into the fine wool of his coat. It would be soft to the touch that coat, soft against my skin. Her lips, wet and red, are reaching up to his ear.
‘I want to show how my girls progress.’
She breathes the words. Her eyelashes flutter. Charlotte, her daughter, does it too. It pleases only them and makes them look as if they are about to take a fit.
I am not ‘her’ girl.
Mrs Stephens waves her free arm, the sleeve too tight around her flesh. She tells him what we do, how we work. She doesn’t talk about how the boiling water and the lye that scalds our skin, how our fingers crack and weep, how our backs ache. Her knuckles brush my shoulder as she walks past.
She steers Walter Proctor past the coppers and the pails of water and the mangles. ‘Mrs Conti is an excellent photographer, and, being a woman, she doesn’t engender … excitement,’ she says, looking under her eyelashes, a bead of spittle on her lip. The first time Mrs Conti came she was with her husband, Jack. He has soft brown eyes, a rosebud mouth and a prick big enough to satisfy the oldest whore in Totterdown. We wore ourselves out talking and thinking about him.
Mrs Conti’s come on her own since, pushing that barrow of hers across the city, too tight to pay a boy a penny, stronger than you’d think she’d be. Walter Proctor nods at Mrs Stephens. He must know the patterns on every flagstone for he’s not once looked away from the floor, not once looked at us.
The smell in the room, our sweat, the sour milk smell of the soap, still allows me a whiff of him, coffee, a wood fire doused by water and something sharp, lemons. There’s a heat to him, underneath that buttoned vest and coat. His hands are restless. His neckerchief is so tight against his neck it must hurt. His fingers, long and pale have blunt edges that would press in were he to touch me.
We’ve been sorting the laundry, hiding away the worst of it. It wouldn’t do for Mr Proctor to see the way we stain our petticoats and our bed sheets, to smell the coppery scent of old blood. Mrs Stephens has filled the place with oil lamps. She’s only just had the fires lit under the coppers. The steam from the tubs would make it impossible for Mrs Conti to take a photograph. It wouldn’t do for Mr Proctor to sweat.
I could make him sweat.