The noose was too loose; the trap door stuck.
‘Lydia Steptoe, you are, by dint of serendipity, free to roam the earth, jejune and fancy free’
The voice removed the sack. It was Mr Kipling.
‘None other’ said James Hayter, glowing with avuncular warmth
‘Are you pulling my leg?’ said Lydia.
‘No, dear lady. The rules are clear as almond slices. Now off you trot, and sorry for the cock-up.’
Hayter doffed his manky indigo topper and indicated the door marked ‘Exit’
The lights went orange. The cluster of onlookers began to hop on their right legs. Lydia stepped down from the rickety scaffold and scuttled toward the door. Before pushing the bar she turned
‘For what was I condemned to hang, James Hayter?’
‘Wasting court time with mediocre card tricks’
‘Seems a bit harsh’, she thought nodding mock penitence
Outside it was dark. The cathedral bell rang six-fifteen. A Hansom cab was waiting. The driver smiled a welcome. Lydia jumped in.
‘Where to, Lydia Steptoe?’, said the Cabby, ’My name is Sylvia Sims’
‘Hounslow please, Sylvia Sims.’, said Lydia, ‘and don’t spare the horses.’
‘Right you are Ma’am’.
Sylvia cracked the whip, off they sped
Hounslow was beautiful. Lydia cried.
‘Here we are, Lydia Steptoe’, said Sylvia Simms opening the carriage door with consummate aplomb.
Lydia composed herself and blew her nose on the black satin curtain before jumping out. Sylvia caught her and they kissed at last.
Love hides in familiar faces.
Love hides in the strangest places
Lydia Steptoe was falsely tried on trumped up card-trick charges. Sylvia believed it beyond all reasonable and unreasonable doubt. With Sylvia beside her Lydia found it easy to forget. Without her she never stopped thinking about it, talking about it, dreaming about it. She knew she was losing her mind, but what could she do?
Sylvia Sims knew this too and was uncomfortable with her chosen role. What could be done to help? How was there to change it? Her cabby work afforded her the leeway to sniff around Hounslow. What if she found out what had really happened. What then? How would Lydia cope when she found out. Sylvia was stuck until …
‘…and the one that got away, eh, the little doxy…’
A pair of Siamese twins had paused beside the Hansom to have a smoke.
‘the Girlies are most displeased, there’s mutterings of sacrifice’ said the other half. The rest was about shoes. They finished their pipe and left, leaving Sylvia Sims curious. She followed picking out the odd word above the traffic’s din.
The Siamese went into a Mrs Hopper’s Milliners. Sylvia trotted past. Was she losing her mind as well?
‘And so it follows, that the Siamese twins know something…’
Whoa! Hold your horses, thought Lydia— a League of Siamese Twins inveigling naïve young lesbians into performing absurdly in Court, and then fitting them up with Capital offences. Surely, not. It simply made no sense. And the overheard words. The murder in Deptford that implicated Christopher Marlowe. Why would Siamese twins be talking about that? None of it added up, Sylvia was losing her mind. She would have to be very kind to her.
‘You are very kind to me, Sylvia Sims’ said Lydia, shuffling the deck.
‘We’re all stark raving here, Sir. It’s a certified madhouse’ said Lionel Barrymore, pulling on his long clay pipe in a broad Norfolk accent.
‘Yes, I know Barrymore I live here’ said Marcel Duchamp’s sadistic first cousin, Matt Mutt, kicking the legs from under Barrymore’s milking stool. The venerable thespian fell to the floor with a sickening thud, blood trickling from a nostril.
‘Not this time you don’t’ growled Matt Mutt and finished him off with a handy gargoyle.
‘What about a trip to the coast, Lydia Steptoe?’
‘Which one, Sylvia Sims’
‘…the Norfolk Coast’
‘Yummy!’ said Lydia, hopping with joy.
‘Bring me John Clare, Mister Lush. I will with him gas’ said Matt Mutt
‘Yessir’ said Lush, ‘Rightaway, sir’ and duck walked down the corridor. Matt Mutt spun playfully on his shooting stick in the epicentre of the panopticon.
‘It’s like driving back through time, Sylvia Sims’ said Lydia Steptoe as they neared Braintree.
‘Yes, like turning back the clock.’
Two days steady progress, sleeping under the stars, living off bread and cheese,
drinking cold, stewed tea. Bliss.
The jester morriced up cautiously to the parked Hansom, giggles and yelps issued
from the gently rocking cabin in the gently mocking rain
‘What’s that?’ said Lydia Steptoe, sitting up abruptly
‘Tinklings, little tinklings. Sweet little tinklings’ said Sylvia Sims, kneeling.
The tinkling stopped. Sylvia stuck her head out. It was a harlequin.
‘Hello John, how are we today?’ asked Mutt of Mad John Clare, who stood on the threshold adorned with pondweed and wode.
‘Newton. I have been Newton’ said Mad John Clare with a nod and a wink.
‘Did you thrive, dear John. did you fare well?’
‘Farewell, Master Mutt. Have I not just arrived?
‘Very good, sharp John. Now, let’s cut to the chase—have you any words for me?’ said Mutt, quill poised over paper.
‘Alligators like potatoes, carrots favour oliphants, whispers mimic silent shouts, craven alma maters fade to grey.’
Mutt wrote it down fast, his tongue protruding in rapacious avarice. Mad John Clare began to jig. First just little footsteps, then spinning and leaping, and falling writing floribundant on the cold marble floor.
‘Lush! Lush! Come take him to the icebath, he fugues’
Lush swiftly despatched Mad John Clare, pulling him away by the hair, screams echo like a wild cat down the long gallery.
Why must one feel the urge to disclose all, to give it away, to confess in bundles? thought a rain sodden Will Kempe. People may not, after all, be as stupid as they look. And there is great humour in subterfuge. There is until it gets out of hand, then everything unravels. Yes, the simpler the better
‘Sir, you are in distress?’ Sylvia enquired from the Hansom, pulling up her ruffled drawers.
‘No, ma’am. Just Morris dancing, bound for Norwich. A nine day wonder!’ Kempe said dripping, forlorn with mock gusto.
‘Good Lord! You’ll catch your death!’ Sylvia Sims upbraided the pathetic harlequin with intense dismay
‘Who is it Sylvia Sims?’ said a hot, dishevelled Lydia Steptoe from behind.` ‘Will Kempe is my name, invisible lady. Minstrel and actor.’
‘But you’re dead’ said Lydia Steptoe
‘Lydia! Really.’ Sylvia Sims exclaimed, ‘How could you?’
Will Kempe wept Harlekan Tears…