From the Time Travel Diaries of Elizabeth Bicester and James Urquhart.
by Bruce Macfarlane
Copyright © 2016 Bruce Macfarlane
All rights reserved.
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Preface by Elizabeth Bicester.
On a number of occasions when we found ourselves home from our time travels James’ sister and her boyfriend, Sean, took us on holiday in their carriage. One would think that such pleasures would be a welcome distraction but you will see that things do not always turn out as expected.
Here are extracts from a visit to the North East which, as usual Mr Rolleston was kind enough to put into a narration. It is provided as a cautionary tale for any other Victorian ladies who find themselves transported in time to the twenty-first century and are exposed to gentlemen of this period.
My description of this ‘adventure’ is denoted by the letter E., and James’ by the letter J.
Comment on preface by James Urquhart
I blame Jill’s boyfriend, Sean. Things never happen in ways that are expected when you’re with him. I put this down to his origins. His parents were from Kerry and as everyone knows that’s where the fairies live.
If you go to Kerry, you’ll know what I mean because when you leave a fairy comes with you. You won’t notice the difference at first because it will be invisible but as life goes on you will hear on the odd occasion from a friend, “Oh, he’s off with the fairies again.” This seems to happen more regularly as time passes.
Suffice to say that Sean has been to Kerry many times and in the process gathered up quite a few fairies.
Hartlepool is a bleak and windswept place lying on a promontory on the north-east coast of England. It is battered by freezing winds from what Elizabeth still calls the German Sea which come down from the Arctic to chill the bones of anyone who wasn’t born and raised there. When the sun does come out it is immediately followed by sea fog or frets which percolate far in land and can last for weeks while the rest of the country is on the beach soaking up the sun. Its inhabitants are divided by the “Slake”- a natural harbour. Those on the headland are called “Cods Heads” renowned for their fishing abilities and those in the town are known as the “Monkey Hangers.” When they meet the conversation usually begins with a preamble concerning the whereabouts of the other’s father at the time they were born and the number of men of the town their mother or wife are “known” to.
The “Monkey Hanger” appellate seems to have originated from the Napoleonic wars when a French ship was wrecked off the coast and all were drowned save a monkey. Apparently the good and patriotic people of Hartlepool had never seen a Frenchman before and mistaking the monkey for one, hanged it. Most people would have kept this deed quiet for fear of embarrassment. But not the people of Hartlepool. Even today a picture of the hanged monkey is proudly displayed on the ties of the local rugby club and the local football club’s monkey mascot has recently been elected as mayor of the town!
We were travelling up to Hartlepool with Jill to meet her boyfriend Sean for the weekend who had been attending an exposition there. For our stay he had managed to acquire temporary accommodation for all of us at favourable rates in the small fishing village of Seaton Carew not three miles from the town where we could enjoy the seaside air whilst regarding the clouds of black fumes rising from the steel works and blast furnaces of Redcar.
I had not seen the great industries of our country before and when I saw the gigantic factories and tall chimneys stretching to the horizon as we passed over the River Tees I realised that much of what I depended on for comfort and enjoyment did not come from the surrounds of my home in Sussex. When we arrived, James and Sean, after much discussion, decided that as it was my first visit to Hartlepool they should show me “a good time” in the town and proposed for the evening’s entertainment one of its exclusive clubs that apparently one reads about in celebrity magazines. As my experience of a ‘good time’ had recently been limited to the fashionable set in Chichester who normally retired by the hour of ten I thanked them and said I looked forward to broadening my horizons. It was agreed that “Club Gemini”, better known amongst the posh as Twins, should be the place of choice. I had not come across any reviews of this fashionable place even though I had been trying to keep up with ‘modern’ society by reading Jill’s magazines and listening to “Woman’s Hour’ on the radio which for some reason lasted from ten o’clock in the morning to four in the afternoon and informed me about a lot of things I didn’t know I should be worried about.
So with no more ado and a quick change of dress we were off.
Well actually we did not dress quickly as I am afraid to say there was much discussion between Jill and me on what to wear or to put it more succinctly, what not to wear. It seems to be considered fashionable in Hartlepool for an evening just wearing one’s undergarments was regarded as overdressed. I was not to be persuaded though and insisted on wearing enough to leave sufficient for the imagination.
The streets were quite empty as the usual gaggle of young ladies who had passed out earlier on the pavements due to misjudgment of the quantity of alcohol in a bottle of gin had been carefully removed by the local constabulary.
We arrived eventually at Club Gemini and after receiving a cursory inspection at the door by the concierge, who looked surprisingly like the french monkey and distinctly gave me the impression that I had personally hanged his great-great-grandfather, we were allowed in.
What a sight greeted us. If there is a God and I’m allowed a glimpse of heaven I think his work would be cut out to improve on the view before us.
I have never been in a bordello but if you asked me to describe one I think the sight before me would have provided an adequate impression. I can only say that as we passed through a heavy curtain I was greeted by a sea of semi-naked gyrating ladies of various sizes wearing clothing that would have brought a blush to a dollymop. They seemed to be dancing to a fast, loud and rather repetitive form of African music emanating from the ceiling. I say seemed to be dancing for I saw no one who understood the correlation between the musical tempo and the movement of their bodies. In my time, in order to be able to dance at a ball or soiree, it was customary to wait until asked by a gentleman. Here no such requirement was needed. In fact, I saw groups of men, shirtless I should add, gavotting by themselves with no regard to the half-naked doxies around them. I could not begin to imagine how much consternation, not to mention disappointment, must be engendered amongst the mothers of these young debutantes who having prepared their daughters for a ball for over a year in the hope of attracting or palming them off to the men of their choice found themselves confronted by these dancing monkeys. James has told me that it is a well-known fact that there is a high correlation between how much clothing with which a woman will cover herself and the availability of men in her town. When I tell you that apparently most of the men in the town either worked at sea or spent their evenings in their working men’s clubs you may get an indication of the vision that met our eyes.
I noticed James was quite enjoying the scene though when questioned he insisted that he much preferred me to be dressed the way I was. Sean, however, who had lived in a country for some time where in general women wore more sober attire, looked distinctly unsteady on his feet.
At some point there was a general announcement by what looked like the door monkey’s cousin that there would now be a “Sussies” Competition. This was met by screams of delight and a general rush to the stage by dozens of ladies.
A group of the more attractive and less inebriated ones managed to clamber on to the stage and to the whistles and roars of the mainly female audience proceeded to lift up their skirts and dresses to reveal a surprising variety of stocking tops and suspenders.
Well, I realised now what is meant by the seven steps to heaven. Up to now I had obviously only been on the first rung!
Words fail me! Not least because James and Sean suggested that we should join in this competition. When I questioned them about being asked to join a line of drunken strumpets showing my ALL as though I was on display in a brothel for the whim of its customers James said it would have no effect on my reputation as we would not be coming back the next evening. Realising by my look that he had now overstepped the mark by some distance he then tried to mollify me by saying that if I had worn my red embroidered stockings, (I have come to suspect a vision of me wearing such items and nothing else occupies a significant part of his brain) I would have won the competition hands down. I thanked him for thinking I would do well in this line of work but said I regarded a bottle of cheap champagne as not sufficient incentive to join those trollops on the stage. I was also pleased that Jill declined their suggestion to join me in a rendering of that infamous interlude from Offenbach’s operetta. Though when I questioned them on why they thought I should do this to my horror James said he had ‘heard’ from my cousin Henry that I had performed quite a remarkable rendition of it while at Girton. How that story got out beyond the walls I have no idea but I will interrogate my sister Flory very closely next time I have the opportunity to meet her.
By now Sean needed to be propped up by Elizabeth and me. She told me later that he didn’t blink his eyes for almost 20 minutes and was unable to answer even the simplest questions such as “would you like a drink?” or “May I remove that dead cigarette hanging out of your open mouth?”
Eventually when the display of fine legs and lingerie had finished our girls suggested we leave before our eyelids became permanently attached to our foreheads. They guided us reluctantly back to the exit and out in to the fresh air. When we arrived back home and recounted the evening in detail lest we forgot anything Jill sent Sean upstairs and told him not to come back down until he had thoroughly washed himself in bleach and carbolic soap, for it seems that the reputation and habits of the ladies of Hartlepool were already well-known to him.
The following morning after this exceedingly late evening Sean decided we should all go off to Whitby, the well-known fishing village on the Yorkshire coast to taste what he called the heart stopping cuisine of a famous fish and chips emporium and to look for vampires. I thought he was still a little light-headed from the previous evening’s excesses for my only knowledge of such creatures were in the laudanum filled minds of Byron and his friends but nevertheless he seemed to be quite in earnest so we agreed. James also thought Sean looked a little peaky and eventually persuaded him that he should hand over control of the car. Though I must admit he did not look much better.
We were driving along towards Middlesbrough, a town whose only claim to fame was that it had been voted second worst place to live in England, and were admiring the view of the billowing clouds emanating from the cooling towers of Europe’s largest chemical works and enjoying the fragrance from the local incinerator and River Tees at low tide, when Sean suddenly announced he was feeling a bit queasy. With quick dexterity he managed to wind down the window in time to give one of the best projectile vomits I have ever seen. Unfortunately, the back windows were also open. Personally I was never very good at fluid dynamics at college but I expected better of Sean who had trained to be a meteorologist and should have understood the subtle nature of wind, vortices and laminar flow. Instead of spraying and improving the surrounding countryside of Teesside, the substance travelled in a backward direction. To be fair some did go out of the window but most inexplicably returned through the back window.
I was conscious of a deafening silence from the rear compartment where Jill and Elizabeth were sitting. I pulled over and slowly turned round to see if they were alright. I don’t know whether you have seen one of those machines which spray pebbledash onto houses in England but the apparition before me reminded me of the effect that one of these machines could have on human beings. Though where the diced carrots came from I don’t know as I did not remember our eating them at dinner the previous evening.
For some reason the girls just stared at us without a word which continued for quite some time while we endeavoured to clean their clothes and the car.
After we had returned to Sean’s apartment in silence, washed ourselves and changed our clothes we were persuaded to return to Whitby for this Jill and I agreed was by far preferable to experiencing another ‘good time’ in Hartlepool. As it was getting late James said we should book overnight accommodation there and reserved a place by phone. I am pleased to say that the second journey to Whitby that day was uneventful and the fish and chip supper supplemented by endless quantities of buttered bread and tea went some way to remove the odour of that morning’s exploits which for some reason followed us across the moors.
Once refreshed Sean said we should go and look for vampires. He said that apparently a certain Count Dracula who was of this ilk had landed here by ship inside a coffin accompanied by what Sean called his female assistants. Legend had it that he was buried in the grounds of Whitby Abbey and as it was nearly dusk and vampires only come out at night an ideal opportunity to meet him had arrived. I had read a little of these creatures and although I had come to the conclusion they were figments of the deranged minds of Polydori and his friend Byron, the abbey silhouette by the evening sky on the cliff above cast a little doubt in mine.
Legend also told there were hundred and ninety-nine steps up to the abbey from the quay on which it was said no one had counted more than one hundred and ninety-eight. For if you found the last one a local superstition recounted the devil would appear and snatch you away. Sean said he had found there was a hundred and ninety-nine steps every time he had climbed up to the abbey but so as not to invoke ‘Old Nick’ he had always stopped counting at one hundred and ninety-eight. How Jill coped with his blarney I do not know.
When we got to the top we wandered around the graveyard looking for signs of Dracula. We eventually found one that had a large skull and crossbones on it and all agreed that was where he was buried and we could desist from looking around furtively in the shadows for him. We were about to return when I noticed the Methodist chapel behind the wall and Sean suggested before we depart we have a quick look inside.
Inside the chapel it was now quite dark but we entered nonetheless, our footsteps echoing on the wood and tiled floor. At the end of the hall we noticed what looked like coffins on trestle tables. As we approached I counted four and that they were open for the lids were carefully stacked against the wall. At this point normal people stop, make excuses about remembering a previous engagement and leave immediately. Not Sean. “I must have a look.” He said. And walked across the floor and looked in the first box. He then turned with an expression I imagine he had when he first saw the apparition of the Pope on the bedroom wall of his grandfather’s house in Kerry and then to reinforce what we already feared shouted at the top of his voice, “They’re empty!”
Nothing would change our opinion that the Count and his female servants had risen from those coffins and were now lose amongst us. We left and walked very fast, no, to be truthful, we RAN back to the steps. I am sure there were more than two hundred steps back down but I did not count nor look back.
I arose early in the morning for some solitude to write up my diary primarily to ensure that at a later date they would confirm that the memories of the last two days were not the result of a short and pestilent fever. It was still quite dark. As I entered the kitchen I espied what I thought was a small figure on the stove. I instantly froze for the previous evening’s escapade was still fresh in my mind. I turned slowly and saw not the Pope, as Sean had recounted he had seen at his grandfather’s house as a child, but the Virgin herself! I am not of the Catholic persuasion and do not normally suffer the guilt which that particular religion encourages in its flock but at that moment every misdemeanour I had done against the teaching of God flashed into my mind. I was surprised how many came flooding back before I remembered I was also living in sin!
The scream from the kitchen and the absence of Elizabeth next to me had me out of the bed in an instant.
“What’s the matter?” I said as I reached the hallway and saw her outline in the kitchen.
She was staring and pointing at something behind the kitchen door. Telling myself to keep as calm as possible and trying not to imagine that Dracula or one of his maid servants had found our apartment, I entered.
My exclamation wasn’t quite as loud as hers but gave the same impression. There was the Virgin Mary standing on the cooker!
This is not good news for an Atheist for I believe the punishments for breaking God’s commandments are nothing compared with denying his existence. And for a moment there in front of me was proof that he did exist, or at least his mum did.
But as I contemplated this, and more importantly how I was going to form an apology for doubting in him, sanity returned. I moved closer. I was reprieved! It was just a painted alabaster figure of the Virgin.
“Sean!” I shouted.
“What’s the matter?” He said when he eventually staggered in dressed in what I can only describe as Wee Willy Winkie’s nightgown.
“What? Oh that. I’d bought it in a shop for me mother and left it in the car. I thought I’d bring it in for safe keeping.”
It is not often one hears in the presence of an image of the mother of God such a stream of profanities as James released in the direction of Sean. I must confess I agreed with many of his sentiments even though I didn’t understand all their meanings or exactly the direction of their biological application. Suffice to say I could only hope that the Virgin, whom I noticed on the stove was looking quite shocked, would forgive us when she realised this little episode had prepared her in good stead for her arrival at Sean’s family in Kerry.
This story appears in Three Tales Out of Time
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