“For all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these; it might have been.”
I could only relate to it. It might have been possible that my family could have stayed together. It might have been plausible that my father could have found a job that would supply for us.
But it didn’t.
My mama had died of cholera, which had its outbreak in our side of town. It had weakened my youngest sister, Eloise, but Bessie-Marie and I were unharmed. My father… I never knew him. He just left after Eloise was born a sickly babe, his head in some dream of a better world, a better life. Had he missed that work and determination brought that? We had nothing else.
My life was a nightmare. A living, walking, breathing nightmare. I entered the workhouse when I was thirteen, and Bessie-Marie wasn’t far behind. Mama had stayed at home with Eloise, who was always sick.
The deal was fair until the cholera, and no one was with Eloise.
Seven years passed of slaving my back for my two little sisters, and myself. No one else. We had survived this long, and we’d make it over the choking smoke, I promised them. Just a few savings more.
There was a hill that I walked by every day to the factories that pierced the low smog, and I dreamed. Eloise would have a bedroom to herself and plenty of food in her stomach to get better, without needing to fight our conditions. Bessie-Marie would have a hand-polished kitchen and a fine set of knitting needles. They would have what they needed.
For me, why, I’d watch them, and I’d be happy to see broad, red-cheeked smiles on their rounded out faces. Perhaps a way out of the factories would please me, but I could be happy with or without money, if the girls could be happy.
I walked by that same hill that morning, daydreaming. Bess’ scarf was tucked into my threadbare jacket to keep out the nip of the winter. Still, my breath puffed out in front of me in large clouds.
The factories were a burst of blazing heat.
I worked in the furnaces, so God knows what I had just inhaled. I coughed as I doffed my jacket and scarf, rolling up my sleeves.
“And the Douglas Hampton seems not to be dead!” Langston jibed from the supervision balcony. “You shaved five minutes off your work time! What were you doing, sightseeing?”
I clutched my shovel and began to work. There’s nothing worth seeing in these parts of town, I wished to shout back. I happened to be the smart-mouthed type, but I had to grow up plenty before I was thrown into Langston’s supervision. He dragged a boy out for mouthing off. I wasn’t going to be like him.
Hours dragged like weeks as I kept the furnaces burning. Somewhere up in the upper levels, they were melting and forging metal materials. There was talk about a new train being manufactured.
Langston had disappeared from the balcony and the other boys began to slow down or stop completely. After the sound of coal being shoveled towards the starving fires had reduced to nothing but friendly chatter, I stopped and removed my black cap to wipe the beading sweat from my forehead and my hair.
“Oi, Doug!” Leroy called. I looked over. “Y’mute now? Hadn’t heard y’say one word since y’got here, mate!”
My friend leaned over the coal carriage and flashed the most lopsided, toothiest grin ever. His face was turned ebony from soot. Only his bright, boyish blue eyes kept him from looking alien.
I smiled softly and shook my head. “Bess said the doctor was stopping by today. She looked worried.”
Leroy’s smile faded. “Ellie?”
I nodded. “Last night she purged everything Bess put in her and she’s weak.” A shudder went through me. Straight after dinner, Eloise had crumbled on the floor, clutching her stomach. She had shivered as I hoisted her up and put her in bed while Bessie wiped up the mess.
My friend grimaced. “I hope it’s simply the weather.” I nodded, but I couldn’t find many reasons my little sister, who should have been able to go to school and have friends, was curled up in bed, still sick to her stomach.
Leroy looked up and bumped my arm slightly until I followed his gaze. We were sitting on top of the coal carriage, so we could see the balcony. Instead of portly, walrus-mustached Langston, a girl - a fine girl, in her silk and satin dress - ran a hand over the rail, obviously overwhelmed. She was dressed in black, like she had just returned from a funeral, and a sheer veil hung over her eyes, which revealed themselves to be bright blue. Her blonde hair was pulled into a bun and hidden under her black hat. She wore gloves, even. She had to be a society sort, unlike us. I cocked my head.
“She’s the master’s daughter,” explained Leroy into my ear, “Imogen Coombs. Y’heard of his recent passing, right, Doug?”
I nodded. “How could I not?” I asked. “Langston made a big sobbing monologue yesterday that was a pain to listen to- in more ways than one.”
Imogen had swept the area with a certain surprise and disgust, but then her gaze landed on me. I grinned and gave her a small salute. Was that too light for her after losing her father? Against my expectation, she weakly smiled back and waved delicately. Like a princess.
Imogen, in such a poised and perfect manner, floated down the stairs from the balcony and guardedly walked through the chamber, a kerchief over her mouth and nose. She shifted her skirts enough that they would be safe from the soot and coal on the ground as she made her way to Leroy and me.
“You work in these sweltering conditions,” she said in a faint - yet still regal - voice. Was this what fairy princesses sounded like? “Every day?”
I nodded lightly. “I missed five minutes today, though, I’m so disappointed,” I said, dripping of sarcasm. “We love it here.”
Leroy laughed and nodded. “Don’t get me started on the list of virtues I admire in good ol’ Langston,” he played along.
Imogen’s eyes sparkled. She was smiling. After a moment’s pause, she gave me her hand, and I shook it. “Imogen Coombs,” she said. “I inherited the factory from my father and I intend to make a few changes.”
I raised an eyebrow. “Why change paradise?”
“My, what a smart-aleck I have as an employee. He wouldn’t want to frustrate his new boss.” She grinned sweetly, but there was triumph in it as I slumped, almost submissively.
“I’m Douglas Hampton,” I said. “Most who boast higher society over my stench call me ‘Oi, that rancid bloke’, or, the friends call me Doug.”
Imogen’s eyes sparkled again as she stowed her kerchief in the pocket of her jacket. “Nice to meet you, Douglas.” She turned to Leroy, who straightened immediately under her piercing but alluring gaze.
“I’m Leroy Bridishire,” he stated. “I never had a boss of the… the female realm.”
“Be prepared, then, Leroy,” she replied. “I’m glad to be of your acquaintance.” She turned back to me. “If you’re concerned about the changes of ‘paradise’,” she began with a prick in the last word, “then meet me for dinner at the Coombs Estate. Seven sharp.”
Imogen didn’t wait for an answer. She just turned and soared up the stairs again.
What in the whole, bloody Earth just happened? A girl had a quicker tongue than me.
“Eloise?” I didn’t wait for any ‘good afternoon’s or ‘how was work’s. Those came later. I hung my hat on the rusted nail that served as a coathanger by the door and pulled my jacket off. The room was still chilly, as we couldn’t afford firewood, but I didn’t care. Eloise came first.
Bessie-Marie opened the curtain that separated the kitchen from their room and I noticed her eyes were red with tears. My heart stopped and dove into my stomach, which dropped as I covered the house in two strides and entered the room.
The doctor was still there.
He was hunched over my sleeping sister, whose face was slicked with sweat, red with fever, and her dark hair - the same color as mine - was plastered to her face. She was trapped in thick blankets, though she still shivered. A bowl at her bedside told me she was still getting sick, even though I doubted she had eaten since her incident last night.
This wasn’t fair. She was fourteen. A lovely, talented girl, and if sickness hadn’t kept her jailed at home, I could see her enjoying school, marching home with a chalkboard tucked under her arm. How was this image too much to ask?
“If anyone had called me sooner,” the doctor sighed, kneeling back, “then I may have been able to do something.” He looked up at me with tired eyes. “Mister Hampton, does she eat often?”
I shook my head. “She doesn’t eat much a day at all,” I replied, as Bess hid herself under my arm. I felt her tears on my shirt. “She always feels sick.”
The doctor nodded. “What is your water source?”
Bessie shrugged. “Wherever. There isn’t much clean water around here at all.”
He closed his eyes. Wrong answer.
I prayed. I prayed for a treatment, that I could fix my little sister. But on the contrary, I prayed that she could get better on her own. I couldn’t pay for anything. We’d be dead, scraping for food, if I could even pay a fraction of the price of medicine. I couldn’t do that to Eloise nor Bessie.
“I had the water tested around here,” he explained, “and there was rust. I did my best to call for clean water. When was the last time this girl bathed?”
“Maybe a week or two ago?” Bess said, hugging me. She was scared and she expected me to be brave. To be honest, I was terrified.
The doctor nodded. “I have heard of this disease where rust enters a wound and the body contorts in spasms. While you were gone, Mister Hampton, this girl has finished my diagnosis.” He ran a hand through his thinning hair. “I’m afraid this is past my knowledge, and the disease is also past help.”
Eloise whimpered and her little body stretched out. I held her hand in mine and kissed her wrist. “Hold on, Ellie dear, please,” I said, tears in my voice. I saw the cut on her arm that the doctor had implied. Sure enough, it was infected, and I never noticed.
“D-Doug?” she wheezed. She squeezed my hand weakly.
My brown eyes widened and I nodded. “Yes, Ellie. Do you need anything?”
“My… back hurts,” she groaned quietly. “My stomach… hurts. I’m so very tired…”
I shook my head. “Please don’t fall asleep,” I requested desperately. I felt that losing her would be too much. “Just keep squeezing my hand.”
Eloise disobeyed. Her eyes didn’t open. “Can I go to sleep?”
“Not yet,” I said. “We’ll get you better first.”
“I won’t get better.”
“Don’t say that,” I ordered, maybe a little too harshly.
The doctor stayed behind the curtain, allowing Bessie and me to stay with Eloise.
“But- the angel said I was coming.” Her brow furrowed as she sighed and shifted on her back. “She’s smiling so warmly, and- and- I want to go.”
I frowned. “Stop.”
Eloise, eyes still closed, smiled so brightly I imagined she saw something that couldn’t have been from here, as nothing in this city could have been that beautiful. “Goodbye,” she whispered. Her hand loosened. “I love you, Doug.”
“Ellie!” I exclaimed, holding both her wrists. The tears tracked down my rough cheeks. “No, Eloise Hampton, come back!”
I didn’t remember much of it afterwards.
Did I go to work the day after? Did I not? Some blurs of time had gone by, and I had forgotten if they were days, weeks, months… Whatever it was, Langston was sour when I pulled myself back to the sweltering factory, which ran just as before.
“Where were you, Hampton?” the supervisor roared. He stormed over and clipped me good on the cheek. I didn’t fight back. I fell over and hit the ground hard. I grunted and pulled myself back up. “Four weeks, Hampton! You left your post for four weeks!”
So that was how long it took for me to trudge back in the real world.
My dreaming was over. I had Bessie left, yes, but what good would it do to dream to save a life that was gone? Eloise was my motivation to buy property on that green hill, and she was gone. Now I was working for two mouths, two bodies, two souls. It seemed so solitary. So silent. Bess and I hadn’t spoken since our dear sister had passed.
Leroy had only a guess as to what happened, and he looked both afraid of Langston’s wrath and concerned for me as he entered the factory.
“My sister died four weeks ago,” I said sullenly, routinely doffing my cap and my coat. With the rituals of rolling up my sleeves and getting reprimanded over with, I went to my furnace and billowed the fire, stocking it with coal.
Leroy let out a sad start. He was Eloise’s best friend and dearest confidante, and he surely cared for her. I turned and saw his face. He was crushed and staring at me with shock and condolence in his gaze.
Langston swept very swiftly with a frustrated gesture. “Who gives any care, Hampton?” he growled. “You’re off payroll!”
I felt as if any daze left in me was knocked out and my eyes widened. “Please, sir, I still have another sister to feed and myself and we’re not doing well-”
I earned myself another stinging cheek as I felt myself fall into the coal carriage. Leroy was there to pick me up.
“Get out, now, Douglas Hampton, lest I call the constable on you!”
“Langston, get out of my factory!”
I looked up and saw Imogen, bristled and appearing to be ready to shred Langston to pieces, clutching the rail of the balcony. Her eyes were set on him, and he shrunk, like I had done.
“Miss Coombs,” he began, as if she was being unreasonable, “this man has lagged on his payroll for four weeks now, and-”
“Get. Out.” Her voice was stormy and dangerous. She descended the stairs and stood an unremarkable height before Langston, yet she dominated him, in both rank and guts. “This man held his mourning alibi. I see you’ve never done that, as you have no heart.” She poked his chest with a hard finger, and he winced. “I don’t need constables on him. I don’t need you.” She turned to me, but she wasn’t finished. “Pick up your last paycheck and leave my payroll, Langston.”
Langston’s eyes widened. “I haven’t been anything but loyal, Miss!” he blubbered.
“It hurts when it’s pointed at you, yes?” Imogen had her hands on her hips now, and again, the short lady stood triumphant. “As you walk out, imagine Douglas walking away, struggling to feed his little sister.”
Langston scowled at me, and, red-faced, he trudged up the stairs, and disappeared out the door.
I raised my brow and whistled, impressed. I didn’t want her to see me wounded. What would I do with a stranger - especially a girl - pitying me? “Blimey,” I pronounced the two syllables. “You shredded Langston.”
She turned to me again, and I saw her face was sad. No. She shouldn’t feel sorry for me. I wasn’t that person. I had pride, though at my caste, it was a capital - fatal - sin.
“Words can’t describe how sorry I am,” she said quietly, rubbing her arm. “Your sister…”
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and sighed. I couldn’t be as crushed as I was inside. Who knew what she’d think of me?
“Yeah,” I said, trying so hard not to sound heartbroken. “She was sick a long time. I saw it coming.” Imogen looked confused. I shook my head. “I’ve never taken sympathy,” I explained, “and I don’t intend to lest I start crying.” That was to come across as a joke, but then my voice got in the way and I choked it out.
She looked down at her fine shoes. “That was why I hadn’t seen you at dinner.” My boss again met my eyes. “Would you join me tonight? My offer stands.”
My brow furrowed. “Do you often take in peasants?” I asked, trying to be humorous. At least it kept me from thinking about Eloise. I couldn’t really think about what I lost right now.
Imogen’s lips turned upward slightly. “I may start a tradition with you. Who knows, Mister Hampton?”
The friendliness in her tone made me smile. “Call me Douglas please, Miss Coombs.”
How many courses did the high and mighty eat?
“Blimey,” Bessie-Marie whispered under her breath. Imogen told me to invite her so they could become friends, and so the two of us were devoured by this enormous mansion. I thought the queen herself would live in such a place, not just the society kind.
Dinner was done in courses of all sorts of delicious foods I never tasted before. Or imagined. Minced meats made with real minced meat, genuine bangers - and mash - and a whole heap of salads.
I had combed my hair to the best of my ability - though Bess had to do it again - and I had found my father’s finer clothes. Though now, in such a place, I still felt like a pauper.
Imogen waited until all the plates were cleared away from the long table and she turned back to us. Any cordial smile melted into a sad stone face. “How long had my father been running the factory so?” she asked.
I shrugged slowly. “I’ve been working there since I was thirteen and I can’t say anything seemed to have changed before I got there.”
Imogen took in a long look at me, like she seemed surprised. “Nothing changed for you?” she breathed. “How old are you, Douglas?”
“Just passed my twentieth… I think.”
Her brow crinkled further, like it was trying to knit itself. “So you’ve been working in the furnaces for about seven years?”
Bess frowned as she nibbled on her umpteenth crumpet. “Furnaces?” she echoed. “You told me that you worked-”
I covered her mouth and shook my head. Imogen looked at me, probably wondering why I kept a secret. Bess knew the furnaces were the dangerous jobs, and so I had told her this long that I had a better stance. Then she wouldn’t worry about me getting burned or killed by toxic fumes. That was my concern. Not hers.
My sister looked at me, incredulous. Afraid. I hadn’t taken my hand from her mouth. Slowly, I did just that, and Bess’ gaze landed on discomfited Imogen, then back on my pitiful, embarrassed self.
“You said you were safe,” she said guardedly. “I trusted that you’d never have any emergency.” She stood quickly. “You know, Doug, I’m not as angry that you have a job in the furnaces as I am that you lied to me this long.” She smiled at Imogen. “Thank you for dinner, Miss, but I feel slightly ill, so I’ll wait for Doug outside.”
She left storming out of the dining room.
I let out a sigh, closed my eyes, and rested my forehead on the tablecloth. “I am ruined,” I said slowly.
Imogen shook her head slightly. “I’m sorry this is a struggle,” she said quietly. “If I had known-”
I halted her with my hand and shook my own head. “I don’t need sympathy, Miss Coombs,” I said. “I just need to keep this job.”
Imogen nodded. “You’re not in jeopardy of losing it.”
I let out a sigh of relief and smiled. “Thank you.”
Imogen rested her chin on her laced fingers and smiled. “But a promotion would fall into a different category.”
I cocked my head. “What?”
“With Langston gone I’ll need a new supervisor and secretary.” She straightened the tablecloth slightly. “Can you read and write?”
I frowned. “I can, not very fast,” I replied. “My mother couldn’t pay for education past readers.”
Imogen nodded and summoned a servant to bring in dessert. “We’ll put you to the test next work day.”
Months had gone by. I had more meetings with Imogen, and the factory was taking turns in right directions. I even wore a stiff collar, trying to look official-like. I took notes and I even found time to learn the typewriter. Given, it was slow, but I learned. Bess was relieved I wasn’t in the furnaces, so that was a benefit. What money I was making gave us firewood, fine quality food, the chance to bathe regularly, and even quilts. Who knew that learning how to type on a typewriter could result in a life with some luxury?
Eloise still affected me. I still felt I could’ve done something, even when Bessie and Imogen both insisted I wasn’t at fault. The thought of her pushed me. Motivated me. I could make a difference in those still left in my life. I could work for the welfare of Bess, who had recovered and had entered the sewing companies. She tailored clothes for both of us, ones that actually fit. What a blessing, as Imogen said that, as secretary, I was the face of the factory.
“The locomotives are in full swing,” I said to Imogen as she came into her office. I had come early to practice with the cumbersome typewriter and to talk with Leroy before work hours. “Just need to manufacture the parts and send them to MacTaggart’s before the roads are finished.” I flipped through a few pages of paper as she sat down at her desk. “In other words, Miss Coombs, ‘Blimey, your supply is in full bloody demand.’”
Imogen laughed at me and took the reports. “Thank you, Douglas.” She skimmed over them and nodded with satisfaction. “Since I had you running the numbers, I dare say we’ve become more successful.” She smiled brightly and began writing down the payrolls.
I stuffed my hands in my pockets and shrugged. “What can I say? The stiff collar suits me.”
She smiled again but didn’t look up from her work. I chuckled softly and turned to leave her in concentration.
“Douglas,” she called, as if changing her mind.
I turned and nodded. “Yes, Miss Coombs?”
She shook her head. “If I get to call you Douglas, you have every right to call me Imogen.”
“Excepting the fact that you’re my boss.”
She smirked, daring me. “It won’t hurt you to call me by my first name.”
I nodded slowly and approached the desk, one hand holding my fist behind my back professionally. “Yes, Imogen?”
She was satisfied as she stood and rounded the desk. “Would you mind if I stole you from work for a day?” She pulled on her gloves. “You’ve been so helpful to me that I would like to give you a holiday.”
A holiday sounded amazing. I nodded. “Anything to get out of this stiff collar.”
Imogen laughed. “You said it suited you.”
“It doesn’t mean that it’s comfortable in any shape or form.”
It was the first time in a very long time that I saw the sun that had hidden behind the smog.
While I drove the high carriage, I was distracted by the finer parts of England, away from the dim light and the overhanging buildings, standing like vultures ready to devour their victims. Over here, after a few hours of riding to Bristol, the sun was like a golden jewel in the sky and the land was green. It wasn’t bloated with buildings, and the carriages weren’t bustling by, taking their leisure.
Life had to be lived.
“Over here,” Imogen said eagerly. I halted the horses and tethered them before one of the buildings. I hopped out and helped Imogen onto her feet, and she excitedly dragged me into the town.
And what a holiday we had! I tried my first ice cream, and I felt I tasted Heaven after I wolfed down mine and finished hers. She and I took a ferry down the river and came to the end at an archery field. Imogen said that she had come often when her mother was alive, and they had shot arrows straight through the bull’s eyes every time. I had never touched a bow in my life, so I dare say I did well with that acknowledged. The sun dipped down and, as summer was heading on quickly, it meant that it was late. After Imogen had her say and had me experience the entire town, I took her hand and hiked her up to the tallest hill.
The sun was melting like my ice cream as I sat down on the grass, and she gracefully knelt beside me. Her lacy parasol shadowed her blonde curls, which were done up in a coil on her shoulder.
Despite the knowledge that she was my superior - in work and rank and everything to be listed - I believe I fell in love just then. I can’t, to this day, pinpoint when I had become captivated by her lovely eyes and her gentility, but one day I had, and I still believe strongly that it was just then. Perhaps I was in love with her the moment her tongue defeated mine all those months back.
Imogen sighed and smiled at the dusk hour. “How can something be this beautiful?” she sighed.
I smiled, my eyes never leaving her. “A question yet to be answered.”
She pulled off her gloves and rested the parasol beside her, and she faced me. “Have you ever left London before today?” she inquired.
I shook my head. “At least, not this far.” I turned my head back to the sunset. “I had dreams of searching for my father, though,” I said quietly. “I had a lot of dreams.”
“Like the dream of the little house on the hill?” she guessed.
I nodded. “A lot of dreams.” I frowned. “Who told you that?”
“Bessie-Marie,” she replied. “We talk often. She says you speak of me plenty.”
Oh, blimey. Bloody, bloody, bloody-
Imogen smiled. “It’s sweet, Douglas.” She played with her gloves. “I think of you just as much, so that’s fair.” She swallowed and her shoulders tensed. Was she looking for something? Acceptance? Denial?
I nodded and looked down at my hands. In the silent moment, I noticed my fingers were knotted up in themselves. “So… I talk about you, and you think about me.” I rose my brow and whistled. “A sure bloody web of familiarity.”
Imogen didn’t look at me. Was I being too light? Too rough? “I mean, Douglas, I’m very taken by you,” she said quietly. “Your strength and determination impress me, your humor and gentility are so endearing, and I cherish your presence.” She sounded like she said it without a breath. Inhaling, she shyly smiled at me. “I… I love you, it appears.”
She probably didn’t want to see my candid - presumably borderline insane - reaction to this, so I ignored my heart beating and nodded, gently meeting her eyes. I think I smiled, but her gaze made me very numb, I could never tell you.
“I love you back, it may seem.” My hand covered hers and she knitted her fingers in mine. I rubbed my thumb over her hand. “Boss.”
She laughed and kissed my cheek. My eyes brightened and I faced her.
“You try that again, Miss Coombs, and I may kiss you right back,” I warned playfully with a chiding wag of the finger. My other hand was still enveloping hers. She did so again and I caught her, kissing her softly. “You’re quite the daring lady, Miss Coombs.”
At that moment, the ‘might have been’s stopped rushing through my head. Imogen had been brave enough - had prodded me - to chase my fears and worries away. The memory of Eloise was alive, but it didn’t hurt. The memory of my mother existed, but I had no guilt. In that moment, everything became perfect.
Well, I’m an older man now, and that was long ago. Imogen has chased away my fears since she came into my life, and she continues to do so. Her quick tongue replied ‘yes’ to mine, and we now live our lives remembering London and our young days. Our children had come and in a flash they grew up, but we remember that day when we decided that a Bristol sunset is the best place to profess one’s love.
There are no more ‘might have been’s, now that there are ‘happily ever after’s.
Our charter's facilitator asked me to enter this story into a writing contest, as long as it was 1000-5000 words. No problem. Except it was a problem. So, to capture the same sentiment of the basic novelette in 5000 words, I created an abridged version.