On Wounds of Woe

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Logline or Premise
During the Napoleonic wars, a young woman with a secret past has her life thrown into upheaval, and learns that resilience is something she must fight for, and love may be found in the unlikeliest of places.
First 10 Pages


October 1805

The church bells are ringing… ringing. Ringing for victory; for Victory. For the victorious dead.

‘Mother! Mother, the fleet is in the bay—you can see the ships! If you come with me, I will show you; you can see HMS Victory! The governor says there is to be a grand celebration! Mother… Why are you crying?’

‘I am crying for someone who has died, Ned.’

‘Don’t weep, Mother. The prayer book tells us not to be sorry, as men without hope, for them that sleep in God.’

‘Precocious child, come here. Let me hold you for a moment, if you are not too big for such things.’

He embraces me, his thin arms around my waist, his soft, unruly hair, so like his father’s, against my breast. My son. ‘How old are you now?’

‘You know this, Mother. I was born on St Valentine’s Day, 1798. I am seven.’

‘Then you are old enough to understand: I am not crying because I am sorry for the man who has died, Ned. I am crying because I loved him, and I am sorry for myself.’

‘Was he on one of the ships?’

‘Yes, my love.’

‘Did he know my father?’

‘Yes; he knew your father very well.’

‘Did I ever meet him?’

‘No, Edmund Nelson Anson, my beloved boy. He never knew about you.’

* * *


1 August 1797

HMS Theseus

My Dear Mrs Anson,

I write to you on behalf of Admiral Nelson. It is with the deepest regret that I must inform you of the death of Lieutenant Scott Anson at Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 24 July 1798. He was a good and noble officer, and a credit to His Majesty’s service.

Admiral Nelson was wounded in the siege and has lost his right arm as a result of his injuries. He must return to England; he bids me send you his blessing and deepest regard.

The admiral regrets exceedingly that he cannot write to you personally at this melancholy time. He prays you will remember happier days.

Yours most respectfully, John Castang

I gasp, clutching the back of my chair before sinking into it, my eyes still on the letter. I read it again, and then a third time. My brain does not want to accept what it imparts.

Lieutenant Scott Anson is a fiction. But I fear that I have just lost the one person dearest to me in all the world.

* * *

Henrietta Bowling pours the tea and hands the cup to me. ‘It was a lovely memorial service, my dear, very grave and dignified, befitting a distinguished officer of the Royal Navy. I am sure you might have wished to have had his body to inter, but that is neither here nor there,’ she remarks practically. ‘We shall all end up in the same place at the last.’

I sit ensconced upon one of her old-fashioned Rococo armchairs, in her tiny sitting room adorned with luxurious ornaments, gifts from a lifetime of admirers.

‘You are bearing up well, Eleanor. But do not hesitate to lean on your friends. What good are we to you, otherwise?’

Mrs Bowling is my landlady, but she has become a friend as well. Once a celebrated beauty, she is reputed to have been the mistress of an admiral, although everyone is rather coy about which admiral it was. She is now more formidable than beautiful, even though she is barely five feet tall. And she has reached the stage in her life when she speaks her mind with cheerful impunity.

‘You are not the first woman to bring the child of a dead man into the world, nor will you be the last. Do not do anything rash and remarry just so the babe will have a father. The child will not know differently for several years.’

I have become accustomed to her directness.

‘Has the Admiralty contacted you regarding his pension?’

Since Lieutenant Anson never actually existed, he did not have a pension. I cannot address this deficiency, so I reply simply, ‘Not yet.’

What I will receive, although Mrs Bowling does not know it, is the pay due a widow’s man named Edmund Buckley. Ned Buckley also met his demise at Santa Cruz de Tenerife.

So many to mourn. I look down at my lap, where my gently rounding belly is disguised beneath fashionable widow’s weeds, and wonder what happens now.

* * *

Chapter One

I rest my infant son on my shoulder and regard the solicitor stoically. He is a dusty-looking individual in an old-fashioned wig and a fading black coat. Incongruously, he wears lace ruffles and a dandy’s figured-silk waistcoat in silver stripes. It might make me inclined to like him, except for the fact that I am sure he has called me to his office to turn me out of my home.

Ned nuzzles my neck and twines his tiny fist in my hair, pulling wisps from the pins that keep it arranged. I rub his back softly. He is a quiet baby, apart from the frequent episodes of colic that make him miserable. I am prepared to bargain, beg, and stonewall this lawyer in order to remain in our two rooms until Ned is just a little older. I am not worried so much about finding other accommodations as I am about disrupting my baby’s life. It is bad enough that he has now lost someone else who loved him.

The solicitor shuffles pages on his desk and produces a sealed envelope. He clears his throat several times, as if his voice is something he only takes out of the cupboard on special occasions.

‘Mrs Anson, I have here before me the last will and testament of Henrietta Bowling of Gibraltar. It is very concise. Mrs Bowling, as she styled herself, has disposed of her property, and the entire contents therein, in bequest to you. This is the freehold.’ He lays a document on the desktop and slides it across to me.

I am certain I did not hear him correctly. ‘To me?’

‘That is what it says here, Mrs Anson. “Having no known living relative…,”’ he pauses and clears his throat again, ‘ “… and they having had no interest in it, nor any entitlement to it even were they still living; I do hereby give and bequeath my entire property to my tenant, Mrs Eleanor Anson, widow, of the same address.” It is duly witnessed; and was prepared by myself upon 28 February of this year.’

Only a month before she died. She did not tell me she was ill, and I was too preoccupied with Ned to see it. She had even rocked him and soothed him during his bouts of colic in the depths of the night. Grief threatens to swamp my little boat of composure.

The solicitor clears his throat once more and raises his face to me, and I see desolation in his eyes. I realise with a jolt that he is as grief stricken as I. He acknowledges the recognition on my face and drops his eyes to his papers again before speaking softly.

‘I loved her,’ he admits frankly. ‘We were together for twelve years. I never knew why she chose me.’

‘Mr Winter… I am so sorry. I did not know.’

He makes a wheezy choking sound. For a moment I am horrified that the man is going to cry in front of me, before I recognise it as a rusty chuckle.

‘No one did. I asked her to marry me many times. She told me she was not the marrying kind.’

He picks up the envelope and offers it to me. ‘This letter is addressed to you alone. I received a similar one. She did not want any emotional farewells. Take it home and open it there.’

I accept the envelope and slip it and the freehold into Ned’s basket. ‘Mr Winter. Is there anything of hers that you would like to have? Please come and take whatever you like; she had more things than I know what to do with.’

He shakes his head. ‘I have those things that were important to me already.’ He bows his head and looks at me over the rims of his spectacles, an effect that makes him look both shy and earnest. ‘She asked me to look after you and the baby. I suppose you have inherited me along with the property.’

A tear slips unbidden down my cheek. I bite my lip and compose myself before telling him, ‘Then please know that my home will always be open to you, Mr Winter. I trust Mrs Bowling’s wisdom implicitly. And I am bewildered and humbled by her generosity.’

‘There was a side of Henrietta few people were privileged to see,’ he murmurs. ‘She guarded it carefully.’

‘I hope you will tell me more about her. I feel I was only just beginning to know her.’

‘She said you have lived the sort of life she always wanted for herself,’ Mr Winter says. ‘She adored you.’

* * *

‘My dearest Nell,

If you are reading this, then I am dead.

I have always wanted to write that! Forgive me my dramatical turn, my dear.

I am leaving this house and all that is in it to you. There is no one else likely to lay claim upon it. It was given to me, and I am giving it to you.

Elwood has been instructed to give you the freehold. He has kept it for me for many years; but should he decide to retire now that I am gone, it should be in your possession. I suggest you find a reliable solicitor to look after your affairs, as Elwood has always looked after mine. Regardless of whether he continues to practise law, go to him should you need anything, and he will see to it. He may not look like much, but he is a formidable opponent and will be your champion.

Look after Elwood for me. I do not want him to dissolve into dust, as he is likely to do without supervision. Remind him it was my dying wish that he buy himself a new coat.

My greatest regret is that I will not get to see darling little Edmund grow up. Remember what I said, my dear. Do not remarry in haste. A great love affair can never be replaced with a mere substitute. Wait for the right man, who will love Ned as his own. I have no doubt Ned will grow up to be a man of character and accomplishment, like his father.

Forgive me for choosing not to tell you about the cancer. Elwood knew, but he was the only person apart from the physician, who, since he could do nothing for me, was dispensed with. Do you like that? ‘I dispensed with the physician.’ I suppose it would have been wittier if I had said I dispensed with the apothecary. But that would be untrue. I have had an excellent relationship with the apothecary. Laudanum is my friend.

I plan to slip away quietly when all the world is sleeping. I have not told Elwood; I do not want him to agonise over my decision. I am only expediting the inevitable. He and I will meet again.

As, I trust, will we, my dear girl.

I am off to meet my Maker, from whom no secrets are hid. Thank goodness He knows all of mine already. I shall not need to recount them.

Yours most affectionately,

Henrietta Bowling

I sit by the fire in one of the slightly ratty wing chairs, Ned in one arm and Mrs Bowling’s letter in my other hand. The letter is a powerful evocation of its writer and makes me want to laugh and cry at the same time.

As is often my habit when I nurse my son, I have taken off my gown and dressed in the old woollen dressing gown that once belonged to Admiral Nelson. It is warm and comforting, and sometimes I imagine I can still smell the scent of its former owner, a subtle hint of lavender and bergamot.

Ned has finished feeding and has fallen asleep against my breast. I lay aside Mrs Bowling’s letter and carefully shift him to my shoulder, rubbing his little back and hoping the milk does not disagree with him tonight.

At seven weeks old, he has lost the helpless look of a blind puppy, but he is not as round and rosy as I am told he should be. He still has dreadful episodes of colic that make me ache for him, and sometimes he vomits the milk back up after feeding. Mrs Castillo, the baby nurse, has told me it is not unusual, and I should not worry unless he begins to do it regularly.

His father was subject to bouts of indigestion, too.

One-Eyed Jack, my cat, swaggers in from prowling Mrs Bowling’s apartments. ‘Apartments’ is probably too grand a word for the three rooms upstairs, each one filled with things that I shall have to sort through and find owners for. The very thought is exhausting.

Jack was once a ship’s cat, and he possesses the character of a pirate—which is ironic, since it was a Royal Navy ship he belonged to. He is territorial and possessive, and suspicious of newcomers, so I was apprehensive about his reception of Ned. I was astonished when, a week after Ned’s arrival, Jack decided to share my lap with the baby and curled up beside him, purring. It calms my son to hear Jack purr, and it did not take me long to realise that before he was born, when Jack used to sit against my belly and purr, Ned was hearing him.

Jack plunks himself on the hearthrug and regards me critically, then lifts a leg behind his ear and begins grooming his ankle. ‘Exhibitionist,’ I tell him. He ignores me.

Long after I am sure that Ned is deeply asleep, I continue to hold my son. He is the bridge between a life that is past, and one that is just beginning.

You might be tempted to say that I have the luck of the Devil and as many lives as a cat. Whether that is true I cannot confirm, because this is only my third life. And as to luck… well, it was not always so.

* * *

Chapter Two

Mr Winter shakes his head.

‘I do not understand. Must you take in a tenant?’

We have finally cleaned out the rooms upstairs, but I have no particular desire to occupy them. I am happy with my ground-floor rooms and garden.

‘It cannot hurt, Mr Winter. And it has been terribly melancholy having them sit empty.’ A thought occurs to me belatedly that makes me want to bite my tongue. ‘I hope you do not mind. I know those rooms were her home. Perhaps it is too early to think of it.’

Elwood Winter shifts Ned against his breast, where the baby is gumming his shirt ruffle. He doesn’t mind if his ruffle is damp; he adores Ned. ‘It is not sentimentality, Mrs Anson. I just wonder if you are prepared to deal with a tenant when you already have a business to run and an infant to raise.’

‘Perhaps a self-sufficient tenant, then.’

He sighs. ‘I will see what I can do.’

When Mr Winter has gone and Ned is sleeping, I slip the letter out of my pocket, where I have been carrying it since it arrived. I take it into the garden in the fading light, to the little bench by the lemon tree. Written in a careful, erect script, the letter reads:

HMS Vanguard

8 May 1798 Gibraltar

My Dear Mrs Anson,

The fleet has been in the Bay of Gibraltar for the last four days, but I have been too much occupied with business, always business! I had greatly hoped to see you, but we sail tomorrow if there is a fair wind, and my opportunity has passed. I shall send this letter by way of Mr Pownall at the shipyard.

I hope you are well, dear Nell. I know that Mr Castang wrote to you and told you I had lost my right arm. At times I felt I had already lost it after Cape St Vincent; perhaps it was inevitable. But apart from a brief cold last month, my health has never been better!

What think you of my left-handed script? I know it is nothing like what you had become accustomed to, but I am satisfied with it. My first attempts were barely legible.

The next time we are in Gibraltar—I hope it will be for longer!—I will be certain to visit. Until then, God bless you!

Yours most affectionately,

Sir Horatio Nelson

I remain in the garden as dusk falls, my mind thousands of miles away.

* * *

The rain falls gently on the garden, on the lemon tree, the olive, and the damask roses. There is a tapping at the street door. It is the new tenant.

I pick up Ned in the crook of my arm and carry him with me to the door. When I open it, there is a naval officer standing there, the rain dripping from his hat. He raises his head, and I see it is Nelson.

He steps inside and reaches for Ned, but his right sleeve is empty. He cannot hold the baby.

I set Ned in his cot and take the admiral’s hat and coat, his waistcoat, and his shirt.

He shows me what remains of his arm. I cradle it against my cheek and bathe the stump with tears.

I wake. Ned is grizzling to be fed.

I shiver in the pre-dawn chill and get up to take the dressing gown from the wardrobe. As I slip it on, I discover that my cheeks are wet.