Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Imminent Baby Challenge Day Ten: "The Scourging of the North"

Two weeks to go now! Hasn't time flown?

Today's word was suggested by my brother-in-law who gave me the word 'Circassian circle' - a Scottish country dancing term - because, although he is a genuine nice man, he can also be a 'wit' when he wants to be (aka a massive pain in the bum). This then got the random genre 'dieselpunk'. Considering that I knew nothing about either before I started, I have done my best!

However, in recognition of how annoying he's been with this, in this short story his current home town of Aberdeen is burned to ash by an English aristocrat. It was strangely satisfying.

So, ladies and gentlemen, I give you - "The Scourging of the North".

After this, I'm going to be taking a short break to get more baby stuff ready and then I'll be right back!

The Scourging of the North

Aberdeen was burning very satisfactorily now.

“I do believe,” I said to my partner for the evening – a ravishing young thing from a very good family - “that our dear captain has indeed plumped for phosphoric shells this evening.”

The crowd, amused by the conflagration, applauded genteelly from their deck chairs. Our Captain, a nouveau riche named Fairfax, had proven himself an artist with conflagrations, although the so-called “Granite City” was proving itself more of a challenge for him. I saw it as an excellent way to illuminate the new year – 1928, though the actual celebration was still another few hours away.

“I do hope they don't surrender early, Charlie,” she said, turning those captivating lips towards me. Caroline? Cecilia? Charlotte! Definitely Charlotte. Good family, long history, owned textile factories in the Midlands before the Revolution.

“That would be dreadfully dull,” I agreed, taking a sip of my wine and letting my gaze wander across the deck. Charlotte would be an acceptable match for someone of my breeding, but there were better on board. I was loyal, but only to a degree.

I was conflicted about staying on deck. The guns had fallen silent – finally! - while Captain Fairfax assessed the damage to the city, but the smell of cordite hung rankly on the air. It had spoiled the taste of the haggis we'd been served for dinner – to commemorate the reconquest of Scotland – but it might possibly clear before the dancing began later if there was enough of a breeze. I was looking forward to dancing the Circassian Circle with this dear young thing: what a wicked idea to dance like the natives as their country burned!

“Are there any shore batteries here, Charlie?” she asked, clutching at my bicep with wide eyes in mock terror.

“My dear!” I laughed, patting the smooth skin of her hand. “This isn't a London or a Plymouth. The Red Flag will fall easily and quickly here. We are quite safe. There will be enough resistance for Fairfax to have his fun, but that will be all.”

Cecilia took a long sip of her own wine; she was becoming intriguingly inebriated.

A waiter appeared at my elbow, one of Fairfax's crew but scrubbed up and shaved. The lower classes could almost look presentable when they made the effort, except for the bitter stink of engine oil around this man's pores.

He avoided meeting my eyes, as was proper, but that industrial smell was nauseating. Could the man not have rinsed the smell of oil off himself before coming on duty? Did he not own soap like a decent member of society?

“More wine?” he asked, voice trembling.

I pursed my lips; Charlotte tittered behind her hand.

“You oaf!” I snapped, standing up and drawing myself to my full height. “Do you have the faintest idea who I am?”

“No, my lord,” the wretch stuttered, terrified.

“Now you remember my title, you cretin!” I yelled, enjoying exercising naked power in front of my dear Cecily. “I am the Baron of Cranley and you will refer to me as 'my lord' or I'll have the skin flogged off your back, by God! Now – give me that wine and take your awful stench somewhere else!”

The man stood there, trembling and frozen in fear. I snatched the bottle from him and dismissed him with a wave of my hand; he scurried away below decks like the scrubbed-up vermin he was.

“Charlie, you were magnificent!” Charlotte said, applauding very softly.

I smiled and bowed slightly, making sure that I refilled her wine glass to the top as I did so.

“My dear, the lesser classes simply need reminding of their place periodically,” I said, returning to my deckchair. “All of this hot air about Socialism confuses them and they've neither the education or the breeding to see through it. It's a kindness to them, really.”

“Charlie, are you quite certain of recovering your family estate?” she asked.

My lips thinned. It was the alcohol that made her impertinent, but it would be worth the investment.

“My dear,” I began, smothering my irritation with the good manners that only breeding provides, “the southern coast of England is all but retaken. The British Expeditionary Force might have died in the trenches of France but these Slavic mercenaries seem to be just the ticket, sweeping the Reds before them! I've heard that Parliament might be reinstalled in Westminster by the end of the month!”

“Damn revolutionaries!” Cecily said, her voice tight as she cursed. “Damn them all!”

The sudden disappearance of her tenderness shocked me: our conversation had prodded a sore tooth. But why? Perhaps a family member had died in the trenches of France. The endless war against the Hun had drawn more and more men in its cold embrace until even solid burghers had baulked, poisoned by Marx's radical poison. That wasn't it, though – a combat death was something for an aristocratic family to be proud of.

A cold feeling dropped into my stomach.

Many of the country's finest families had managed to flee the revolution, but some had lost everything they'd owned to revolutionary rage and short-sightedness. Was Cecilia's family one of those now dependent on the charity of others?

Perhaps this match wasn't everything I'd hoped for.

“My dear, I hope you'll excuse me for a moment,” I said, standing. “I'm afraid the wine has gone to my head. I must take a turn around the deck and take the air for a moment. I do hope you'll forgive me.”

Without waiting for a reply, I spun on my heel and threaded my way through my reclining peers. Bertie, Earl of Lichfield, was around here somewhere. He'd know Cecily's background; Bertie knew everything about everyone. It was so damn dark on the deck, though: ostensibly as a military precaution, but actually, because it was more conducive to drunken canoodling amongst the gathered aristocrats.

As I drifted towards the stern, peering myopically into every deck chair's shadow, I could see the rest of Fairfax's task force following in convoy. With a mighty whoosh, a ship behind us launched a salvo of rockets high up into their air, accompanied by a sigh of admiration from the gathered onlookers. I didn't even know that the Royal Navy had rockets that could be launched from ships, but it's amazing what a exiled fleet funded by enraged and extraordinarily wealthy émigrés can achieve. Another barrage lit up the beaming faces of my friends, before returning us all to darkness again.

The salvos of rockets landed with rolling thunderclaps in the Aberdeen's scorching heart. I suspect they'd been launched more to see what they could do, then any military objective: there weren't many more rebel cities left along the coast.

The brief illumination from the rockets revealed Bertie, sitting quite by himself towards the rear of the dreadnought's deck, nursing a glass of champagne.

He turned when he heard my footsteps.

“Ah Charlie,” he said quietly, touching the scar on his face where his beard didn't grow. “How...ah...are you, old chap?”

My social circle had the utmost respect for Bertie. He'd been the only one of our number to volunteer for the trenches in 1920, as an officer naturally, and only narrowly escaped the destruction of the Expeditionary Force in '22 as he'd been invalided out of combat: winged by a Hun sniper no less! For all the excitement he must have seen, the man who'd come back from war was much quieter than the man who went.

“Well, my friend, very well!” I boomed, trying to compensate.

“G...good,” he said, turning back to watch the burning city.

The stutter was an affectation from the war too, but none of us minded.

“Could I trouble you for some information?” I said, settling beside him. “Does blonde Cecilia's family know if their factories are still intact?”

He turned back to me; the roaring flames from Aberdeen bathed his scar in light.

“Cecelia H...Hood? There's not a lot of information c...coming out of the Midlands these days,” he replied, as if reading from some internal encyclopedia, “especially now that the 'People's Armies' are in f...full retreat from the coast, but all accounts the Hood family's factories are abandoned and still intact.”

“Thank you, my friend, thank you!” I boomed, clasping his hand and pumping it. “I declare myself smitten once more.”

Bertie waited patiently for me to leave. His attitude was a puzzle. Yes, the war might've been unpleasant but everyone was expecting him to buck up once the Allied armies (minus the Expeditionary Force) crushed the Hun and freed the Royal Navy to liberate the Home Islands from socialist terror. For some reason, seeing the Navy in action like this made him more introverted, rather than less.

I wandered further into the darkness, lost in my own thoughts now. The sound of water churning got louder as I approached the stern of the ship and I leant on to railing to look down at the frothing sea, reflecting shards of blood-coloured light from the city's demise.

“A revolution that begins in fire will inevitably end there”, I said tipsily to myself. “People never learn from their mistakes.”

There was a strong smell of engine oil behind me in the inky black and a sensation of movement.

“Correct, my lord,” came a quiet, yet venomous, reply and a strong shove to the small of my back.

I spun over the railing.

I flew down through space towards the black water. The whole situation was mystifying.

I heard shouting and screaming from somewhere high above me and the sound of many footsteps surging onto the dreadnought's deck.

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