Novels and short stories show off my creative side in a way copywriting cannot. Documenting the first is hard, while the second is relatively easy. Below is a 1,000-word excerpt from a short story of mine called The Ghost of Shamwick Gallows. I’ve added a little backstory to get you up to speed. Enjoy!
The Ghost of Shamwick Gallows is set in a fictional 19th century English town called Old Haven. It features one of my recurring protagonists, Kara Wetherby, a well-to-do young lady by day, and the town’s notorious – and presumed to be male – thief by night.
Shamwick Gallows serves as Old Haven’s lunatic asylum. Rumour has it the place is haunted, but don’t they say that about every crazy house these days?
Kara enters willingly into the long, dark corridors of the Gallows. She needs information from an inmate, and can’t get it without first being a patient herself. Fooling the asylum’s staff proves difficult – and surviving against the male inmates close to impossible.
Fortunately for Kara, she’s got more up her sleeve than just an Oriental fan…
‘Get your hands off me, you filthy beast! I am a lady, and as such I need – no, I demand – a certain level of respect. Touch me with those dirty mitts again and I will see to it that they’re chopped clean off.’
Lady Kara Wetherby had arrived at Shamwick Gallows with half her wits, deprived of a good night’s sleep by the tap-tap-tapping of an overgrown spindly tree against her bedroom window. Faced with an asylum watchman who reeked of gin, Lady Kara was losing what was left of her manners. She had come to visit an inmate. If she wanted to be felt up by a lout with rat’s breath, she would have pottered down to the local pub and saved herself the carriage fare.
‘I don’t care how long it’s taken you to get here, Miss…?’
Kara did not offer her name, and the moment swiftly passed.
‘Well, never mind, we don’t take visitors who ain’t family.’
‘I could’ve lied to you,’ said Kara. ‘Told you I was his relative. I did not because I believed you would have a measure of decency, at least enough to let me see the man myself.’
The asylum watchman let out a laugh. His teeth, black as a raven’s wing, made the breakfast in Kara’s belly look for the nearest exit. She swallowed her disgust just slow enough for it to register.
‘Don’t matter what you think of me,’ said the watchman. ‘I don’t pay attention to none of it. You think I haven’t had worse come to these gates over the years, farmers going on about their crazy wives who sleep on blankets of dead pigs because they can’t bear to part with them? Just last night—’ The asylum watchman stopped himself. ‘Well, there’s been a lot of fruitcakes passed through ‘ere, let’s leave it at that. A lady like yourself should know better than hitching a ride across town with folk you hardly know. What would your mother think?’
‘She’s dead,’ said Kara.
‘Oh.’ The watchman suddenly found the floor too fascinating to ignore. ‘I’ll see about a carriage to get you home, Miss,’ he said after the awkwardness passed, leaving Kara to stand outside the asylum alone.
The red brick exterior of Shamwick Gallows was too new; a paltry disguise against pedestrians. As a child, Kara had snuck behind curtains during tea parties, listening to debutantes confess to having a deranged uncle or two swept away into the ramshackle asylum. ‘It’s better for him,’ they had said. Even then, Kara knew better. She despised the silver-spooned misers who frequented her family home, and was glad when her father became too pre-occupied with work to entertain their company.
Shamwick Gallows was the centre for unique experiments, or so the prattling gentry said. Such information was far from reliable. Kara treated it with the same level of suspicion that had kept her from enjoying fairytales as a child. As far as she saw it, superstitions were for the naive and the feeble. Kara, being neither, wanted nothing to do with them.
The asylum watchman returned. Soon after, a respectable carriage ferried Lady Kara Wetherby off home. Watching the streets of Old Haven bleed together, the girl had not even the semblance of a plan.
Kara came like a thief over the threshold of Wetherby Manor. A cardigan was slipped on while she ranted and raved to the four walls. How stupid. To have gone all that way, wasting a perfectly fine autumn morning. Better to have waited until she had unearthed – only figuratively – a relative of the last man to see her mother alive. To find a scrap of parchment bearing the name of her late mother’s tutor was a stroke of luck – and bribing a local official into blabbing about the man’s admittance to the town’s insane asylum frankly quite clever. It was the rushing in and blowing any chance of speaking to him that made Kara’s skin prickle with self-hatred.
Abandoning the entrance hall, Kara trailed her fingers along wallpaper until it led her to a doorway. The curtain on the door of her father’s laboratory was drawn. Fevering away again, she thought. Once a pleasant conservatory-cum-greenhouse, the room had become her father’s den and then, worse, a workspace. Kara busied herself away into the manor’s smaller sunroom, laughing at the awful state of things.
It was something to be rich. That was true. But to be deprived of warmth, to never be looked at and only looked through – that was enough to set the most beating of hearts to stone.
Kara sprawled over an armchair, her legs dangling off the side. The morning sun had faded. Around the sunroom, Kara spied an ornamental quill, a gift from some distant cousin or other, and contemplated writing a letter to the Shamwick Gallows Head Warden, Mr Charles Deadbury (Denbury, surely? she mused, otherwise that is just unfortunate), outlining a comprehensive list of failures, from the gutter-level guard on the gate to the emaciated draught horse that had swift-administered her ride home. Kara decided, after a brief spell, that unless the letter was etched in blood, the Head Warden was unlikely to take it seriously.
The girl squirmed in her chair.
No, she thought, something more would have to be done. An outright scandal. What if…? No, a lady couldn’t procure that much excrement in such a short amount of time, and certainly not in heels.
Far better, Kara reasoned as the last drop of blood fled her feet, to use the one tool at her disposal: that of gold and silky silver.
She could hire an accomplice. A distraction. The man would have to be a commoner (the thought sent shivers up Kara’s spine). But if it meant getting to the person she most desperately had to meet, it was worth it, wasn’t it?
Still, where could one find a labourer at this hour? Did they linger outside public houses, inhaling the smell of spent hops through cracks in the walls, till the owner deemed their humiliation sufficient and threw open the doors? A young lady of Kara’s age, no older than fifteen, would be ruined by eyeing such a place.
Her head teeming with questions, Lady Kara skipped upstairs to retrieve her purse. Passing a piece of silverware, a wicked idea fought its way forward.