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Friday, 16 November 2012

Story: Mr Guppy's Wedding Day

A while ago I entered a competition to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. The brief was to write a short story or poem inspired by the great man and his work. Although my entry was unsuccessful, I thought I'd share it with you in honour of Dickens's 200th birthday (and a few months!). I took Bleak House as my starting point and the somewhat hilarious character of Mr Guppy. Enjoy...

Mr Guppy’s Wedding Day

Mr William Guppy sat perfectly still, listening for footsteps outside his chamber whilst simultaneously praying none would be heard. He drew his pocket watch to compare the time with the old unreliable clock propped up beside the door. One false move, he always thought, and the contraption would come crashing to the floor. In a fire, perhaps, it would disintegrate completely and block his passage of escape. He’d be left to perish in his bed, no more to love and be loved. For Mr William Guppy was loved, as miraculous as the fact may appear to the world and indeed himself.

It had been four years since his admittance to the roll of attorneys, four years since he took possession of that wonderful little house in Lambeth – six rooms, exclusive of kitchens. He had hoped at the time... Well, he had hoped and his hopes were dashed once more and that was that. He took possession of the house at Lambeth with his mother and Tony Jobling in attendance and had lived a quiet life forthwith.

Then, quite unexpectedly so it felt to him at the time, his mother was no longer with them.

He noticed her absence at the breakfast table that morning with irritation. He had an important engagement that evening which he wished to inform her of so that she wouldn’t raise the alarm around the neighbourhood when he failed to return home on time. It had happened more than once, gaining him something of an unsavoury reputation in the neighbourhood. He resented the inference that he was his mother’s son, even if he undoubtedly was.

After breakfasting alone, he proceeded to his mother’s room. It was the dankest, darkest portion of the house, thus ascribed to her because she failed to desire anything better. In recent months it had become rather fragrant too, due to her reluctance to allow the servants access. The only visitor permitted was Mr William Guppy himself and, as a consequence, he possessed the second key. He used it this morning, dismissing the coldness that settled around the region of his neck as nothing more than a draught from the unstable roof over this part of the house. He must really speak to someone about that.

The room was still. Mr Guppy returned the key to his pocket and gazed around the room, expecting to see his mother in her accustomed moth-eaten armchair beside the window. But the curtains were drawn and the chair was empty. The light that filtered through from the sunlit corridor illuminated what Mr Guppy could only describe as a lump in the bed. A lump emitting a faint odour and a lump with an arm hanging from it.

He had waited quietly with the corpse until the undertaker arrived. His hands fixed in his lap, he tried to acknowledge the fact of the deceased. After all, it was difficult to comprehend the loss of someone who had wholeheartedly believed in him. Although her mental faculties were much diminished in recent years, she still recalled the fact she believed in him.

‘I don’t care for anyone who doesn’t care for my William,’ she would say a dozen times a day. He tired of hearing it – but only occasionally.

‘Yes, Mother,’ he would respond with a courteous smile. The smile had become strained in recent years as business faltered and times grew grimmer but, just as she believed in him, he believed in the power of her words. What else did he have to believe in at any rate?

And now she was gone from him. It was difficult, that he would concede. Yes, that he would concede to anyone who cared to know.

A pale face appeared around the door frame, anxious and extremely welcome in the gloom. ‘Mr Guppy, I just had to come the moment I heard.’

It was the daughter of a lesser client of his, a merchant who obstinately believed he was always right. Good for Mr Guppy, bad for him. But what was his name? Mr Guppy couldn’t grasp it in his present state.

‘It’s Sarah Nutworthy, Mr Guppy,’ she said, stepping further into the room. ‘Mr Nutworthy’s daughter, sir, of Nutworthy’s Shipping.’

‘Of course,’ he answered with an attempt at a smile ‘Permit me a moment of weak memory, Miss Nutworthy, please forgive me.’

‘But I wouldn’t expect less,’ Miss Nutworthy returned, entering the room fully. Apart from her pale face she brought with her a demure blue dress – of the pale variety – and a handful of letters. She held these out to Mr Guppy. ‘Mr Jobling asked me to deliver these. He thinks some of them may be important.’

Mr Guppy looked but hadn’t the stomach to handle them.

‘My sentiments exactly,’ said Miss Nutworthy, tossing them onto the bedside table, beside the corpse now covered with a sheet. ‘There is little business important at a time of tragedy.’

Raising his eyes to her, Mr Guppy asked, ‘Do you really think so, Miss Nutworthy?’

‘But of course. My mother – God rest her soul – almost put a halt to my father’s company at the time of her death.’

‘Ah, I’d forgotten your father was a widower,’ he said.

‘He remarried, sir,’ she replied.

‘Perhaps that explains my forgetfulness, eh, Sarah?’ he answered before recognising his impudence. ‘I mean Miss Nutworthy, naturally. Permit me a moment of impropriety if you would.’

‘I would permit you as much as you desire, Mr Guppy, sir,’ she said, bowing her head as a blush appeared on her pale cheeks. It was the most illuminated he’d ever recalled seeing her – and in the presence of a corpse as well. His eyes flickered back to his mother, but only briefly.

‘Would you really, Miss Nutworthy?’ he asked.

‘But of course.’

Once more his gaze rested on his mother’s blue arm dangling from under the sheet – he hadn’t trusted himself to touch it – and then he looked back to his guest. He was on his feet within a moment, swaying only slightly with delayed shock.

‘Permit me, Miss Nutworthy, to offer you some tea if I may. I am being a truly terrible host.’

This time she only nodded, taking his arm as they left the room.

‘How is it,’ he questioned as they descended the staircase, ‘that you come to visit me alone?’

‘But I don’t,’ she answered with a sweet smile. ‘My father will take tea with us.’

From that moment forth, Mr Guppy had found himself swept towards marriage. He proposed himself, of course, but only after repeated hints from the intimidating Mr Nutworthy. It was impractical, his prospective father-in-law said, to expect a girl still of attractive age to be escorted around the park with a man who did not intend to marry her. Mr Guppy, to whom these occasional walks had become a beacon of solace, wholeheartedly agreed. As a consequence, he found himself engaged to be married.

After that it had all moved rather swiftly. He could barely recall a time when he wasn’t engaged to be married to Miss Sarah Nutworthy. His days – when not taken up with business matters – were spent with Mr Nutworthy and his wife discussing the finer points of married life. It occurred to Mr Guppy once or twice that the present Mrs Nutworthy was hardly a model wife but as there was no blood relation between herself and Sarah he had hopes of Sarah becoming a wonderful spouse.

Mrs Nutworthy’s relish to dispose of her stepdaughter was evident to all who cared to notice it. Mr Guppy noticed it but thought it impudent to discuss his potential mother-in-law with anyone at all. He had never imagined there was so much to getting married. But today was the end of one passage of his life. A death had led into marriage but Mr Guppy still couldn’t fathom how it had happened so quickly.

The dreaded footsteps outside his chamber arrived. He expected the knock to be hard and fast but it was soft, dainty even. A nettle settled in the pit of his stomach.

‘Come in, Mr Jobling,’ he called, though he knew it was not he.

In entered Mrs Nutworthy, as young and spritely as her husband was old and curmudgeonous. Beneath the fluttering eyelashes there rested a woman as sharp as the day was long. He knew it and she knew that he knew it, yet the pretence between the two of them continued.

Mr Guppy rose to greet her. ‘My dear Mrs Nutworthy, what’s wrong?’

‘Why should something be wrong?’ she asked.

He checked his pocket watch again. ‘I would’ve thought you’d be helping Sarah with her...her preparations.

I suppose there are preparations?’

She chuckled mirthlessly. ‘There are, Mr Guppy, there are. But I’m afraid Sarah’s not making them.’

As his heart leapt, he managed to look perplexed. ‘Can I enquire why not?’

‘What do you know of a woman’s heart, Mr Guppy?’

‘Astoundingly little, madam,’ he replied.

‘Do you know there are women who feign love to one while harbouring designs on another?’ she persisted.

‘I have heard of such creatures.’

‘Sarah is one of them,’ Mrs Nutworthy said with a sad flourish of her hand. ‘I admit that I was perhaps too eager for her to marry you, Mr Guppy. You seem a trustworthy gentleman, not as handsome as one would like but you do have to take what you can find when a girl gets to Sarah’s age.’

He stretched his lips into a smile. ‘Quite.’

‘This morning, however, I discovered her exceptionally upset. When I coaxed the truth out of her, it seems she’s in love – I use the term loosely – with a draper’s boy from Peckham.’

‘Is that so?’ he asked with semi-interest.

‘It is, Mr Guppy.’

‘I see.’

Mrs Nutworthy left a decent pause before adding, ‘I do apologise for the expense of the wedding and the household alterations. You have mine and Mr Nutworthy’s sincerest regard.’

‘Where is the kind gentleman?’ he questioned, mainly because he thought he should.

‘Comforting his daughter I don’t doubt.’ A spasm of discomfort shot across the woman’s face, quickly hidden by her hand. ‘I shan’t keep you further,’ she went on. ‘I am only sorry the marriage could not be brought about.’

‘It is my deepest regret that it could not be,’ he said with as much sincerity as he could muster.

He escorted her to the door, intent on seeing the last Nutworthy out of his home once and for all. Alas, on the threshold was another member of that family – the kind Mr Nutworthy himself. He was flushed, obviously out of breath, and carrying a note in the hand unoccupied by his umbrella.

‘Mr Guppy, sir, ignore my wife. That’s it, old chap, look at me, not at her. Whatever she has told you, I find it within my power to retract.’

‘Retract, sir?’ His very heart was hurting now.

‘Retract indeed! I’ve had it out with Sarah, all this draper’s boy nonsense. It’s an infatuation, not like the bond you share. At length she agreed. The marriage will go ahead and all this silly bickering can be put down to wedding nerves, eh?’

Mr Guppy attempted to exchange a look of horror with the dear Mrs Nutworthy. Unfortunately, that lady’s features were contorted with delight.

‘The marriage goes ahead!’ she exclaimed.

‘Indeed it does, with all the arrangement just as before.’ Mr Nutworthy tapped Mr Guppy on the shoulder with his umbrella. ‘Do you know what she said, old chap?’

Mr Guppy looked up, unable to remember where or who he was. ‘Said, sir?’

‘When I said she’d marry you, Guppy, she said, ‘but of course’ as if it were never in doubt.’

‘Never in doubt, sir,’ Mr Guppy repeated. ‘I’d wager not.’

Read my review of Bleak House here

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