The following is an excerpt from a novel I’m currently writing called ‘Playing with Fire’. Set in the Victorian era, it features a recently orphaned girl of seventeen called Magda Soulditch who has relocated from India following the death of her parents, and been begrudgingly taken in by the wealthy and notorious Mordaunt family who are distant relations of hers that she’d never known about until now. Magda, is determined to rise above her station and acquire true power so that she is never helpless again. And the Mordaunt family hide a closet of secrets, and play power games that Magda will have to navigate if she is to succeed in her quest.
I actually had no intention of writing a novel and started writing this by accident when I was going through an emotional crisis and did a character writing exercise to distract myself. I knew I wanted to do a period piece that didn’t feel archaic, and to deal with colonial relations, historical change and to have a supernatural bent. I also wanted a strong, motivated female protagonist, who was different to your run of the mill heroine, and male counterparts who were sexy, dangerous men. Suddenly a few pages became something more and now I have a third of a book filled with characters that seem to be speaking to me, or through me. And I’m still going.
And here’s an excerpt from what I’ve written so far :
PLAYING WITH FIRE – excerpt
by Gita Irwin
Percival Hanbridge had promised me sherbet. I’d heard a lot about this sweet, so I hinted to Percival that I’d like to visit a sweet shop. I had never been to a proper sweet shop since setting foot in England. My aya was always trying to curb my appetite for fear of me putting on too much weight to fit into the heavy corseted dresses I had to learn to wear, just prior to arriving in Mordaunt’s Close. I never thought I’d say this, but I really miss saris. They’re much less cumbersome than these dresses. The saris would never again see the light of day, alas. They were packed at the bottom of my suitcase, hidden under my papers. Sometimes I took them out at night and held them against me in the mirror and tried to remember my father’s words chanting the holy Sanskrit tales, or my mother sewing in the backyard where the ripe mangoes filled the trees and the monkeys snatched pistachios out of the stainless steel trays on the balcony overlooking my lake in Kerala. Those days were gone, and I had to adapt to food with terrible names and worse flavours like ‘spotted dick’ and ‘yorkshire pudding’. I complained to Percival about the monotony of the English diet and he assured me that they had very nice sweets nearby in the village. I remembered my aya’s warnings about confectionary, but sherbet was light and easy to eat, or so I was told. Encouraged by Percival, I expressed my passion for sweets with much enthusiasm and intemperate language. English manners be damned, I thought.
“Bloody awful,” I said, waving away my Yorkshire pudding piece on my fork, like it was a bad luck charm. “We should go today, just so I can get the taste of this gastronomic disgrace out of my mouth ! In fact, we should go now. This instant !” When the maid’s back was turned I hurled the offending meat item into the dustbin behind me.
He laughed at me but he happily agreed.
Percival ordered a small carriage and he lifted me up to the top, where I settled myself next to the drivers seat whilst he took the reins and then we were off.
The horses went at a brisk pace and the carriage was steady. Percival was an even-handed whipster’ who controlled the horses smoothly.
The countryside outside Mordaunt’s Close was austere but beautiful in a strange unrelenting kind of way. Meadows blended with sharp hills, and jagged rocks jutted out of slopes, covered in a frosted grass of the deepest green. The sky was a cool, pale cobalt split with clouds that threatened to become overcast but wasn’t quite there yet. It was a day that had some bite in it. I had on a cashmere scarf around my neck, and a fitted coat to keep out the cold. English weather was still taking some getting used to.
Along the trip I noticed how quiet the land was, and told Percival.
“It is strange for this time of the year. I mean, it’s not winter yet so you should still hear some robins or cuckoos at least.” Percival responded. He blinked about him as if just noticing the country he was in.
As we drew closer to town, I heard the clatter of horses and wagons. We’d caught up to some other travellers. Several carriages were ahead of us. They were driving their horses at a hard pace and seemed in a hurry. I looked at Percival.
“Is it usual for this road to be so busy at this time of the day ?”
“No. It’s not”, Percival looked troubled. He gave the horses a flick, and urged them to go faster.
“Anything the matter ?” the ride was getting a bit bumpier and I held onto the side rails hard.
“I hope not. Just don’t want to be left in the dust that’s all”, he said but I could see he was distracted. We hit a hard bump and lifted off the floor. Percival sharply tugged the reins and I decided not to talk anymore so he could concentrate on controlling his team of horses.
When we arrived at the village, there was a queue of carriages and footman. And a crowd of people were gathered around the water fountain at the centre of the street.
“Is something on ?” I asked him.
“There does seem to be more stage coaches than usual,” he agreed. “just wait here, I’ll have a look”.
I watched as he jumped down and went to one of the pedestrians and asked. They looked dark and leery at him. Percival backed away. What was going on ? It was almost like they had an issue with him. He looked nervous, and confused. Then several people moved in front of him with some purpose and I couldn’t see him. After a minute, the crowd parted and I saw him follow a man down a narrow lane across the road. I called out but Percy didn’t hear me. Curiouser and curiouser.
Not satisfied with watching on the sidelines, I got down from the coach, gingerly putting my foot into the grooves so I wouldn’t fall. It’s pretty damn difficult to get down from a coach on your own in these ridiculous heavy dresses I had to wear. Now if I had a sari on – different story.
“Do you need some help, miss ?” a familiar voice said by my elbow. Halfway down the carriage, I turned to look into the happy freckled face of Hugh Fortenbrass. I nodded. He held me by the waist and lifted me down to the ground. I thanked him.
“And where is your companion, the dashing Mr Percival”, he enquired. His green eyes glinted merrily in the afternoon sun, and the rays lit his chestnut hair.
“That’s what I’m trying to find out. He went to ask about what was causing this commotion and now I’ve lost him” I said, worried. Raised voices were coming from the gathered populace at the water fountain. Some men raised their fists and others hurled curses. They were restless and agitated. I’d never seen them like this before.
“We’ll have a look for him”, he gestured towards the crowd near the water fountain. “Two more girls have gone missing and the inspector hasn’t found anything. People are angry, naturally. And they believe that one of us are responsible”.
“One of us ?” I tried to sound casual, but all my senses were heightened. I knew our family conducted experiments that involved some of the locals, but they were all paid, right ? And returned to their dwellings as far as I could tell… But we were of the Mordaunt lineage, feared and feted, and many a dark deed was laid at our door in ages past. If girls are missing in the Close then all the founding families would come under suspicion, including the Hanbridges, the Fortenbrass, and the Mordaunts. I tried to tamp down my rising alarm. And Hugh Fortenbrass confirmed my fears.
“The lords and ladies of the Close, of course. When ever something goes wrong, the local heathens are quick to blame the gentry for their troubles. Ungrateful wretches. Always the first to beg us for coin when the crops wither or their brats have the croup”. His jovial expression disappeared under a scowl, and then reappeared again as if nothing had happened.
“Nothing to trouble a lady with, Ms Magda. We better have a look for young Percival. Make sure he hasn’t gotten into a fracas. It’s probably best you stay inside the coach. I’ll just be a minute”
“No, I’m coming with you,” I protested vehemently. “I’d be safer there then left behind in here”.
He though about that for a second and then nodded. “stay close then, Miss”.
We walked into across the street into the narrow path where Percival had gone. There was no sign of him. Hugh gestured to me, then pointed, and I stepped forward and looked at what he was pointing to. There was Percival’s quizzing glass on the corner. How odd to leave that ? In laid with gold, it was worth some money. Not the kind of thing thieves leave behind.
“I think he’s gotten himself into trouble, Miss Magda. I don’t like the looks of this”, Hugh stroked his moustache thoughtfully as he looked around, and his brow furrowed.
“Neither do I”, I agreed. Then, like Hugh, I surveyed the place. The path was a dead end. It led to a shop that was closed. They couldn’t have dragged Percival back out into the street, as we would have seen them.
That left one of the fire stairs, but which one. Clearly Hugh was contemplating the same thing, as he went close to one of the stairs and looked up, only to have the afternoon sun glare in his eyes.
There were four fire stairs, two on each side. All of them went up about four storeys into the surrounding buildings. And there was no sign to indicate they’d taken Percival into any of them. The doors above were all firmly closed, and the shuttered windows were frosted rather than see through. And I couldn’t see that much inside of the windows past the second storey.
“Maybe we should call the constable”, Hugh looked worried. But not as worried as me. The Fortenbrass connections may help but it might be too late by then. With local feeling rising against the founding families, we could all be targets.
Hugh looked around, and called out for help but he was met with silence. He ushered me to stand in a corner behind one of the stairwells so I wouldn’t be easily seen and he handed me a gun. He indicated to me that he’d be back soon.
Hugh walked back out of the alley onto the main street, and returned one minute later looking frustrated.
“The constables have their hands full with that mob. They can’t come right now. They said they’d be along shortly”. He knew I was worried and he knew there was reason to be.
“It could be too late by then !” I flared. Clearly the Fortenbrass connections weren’t of help to us now. He stood near me restless and upset. I was too, but I’m not a Fortenbrass, I have other options. The Mordaunt blood flowed in me, and something else did too. It was to this something else, that I reached out. Closing my eyes, I murmured the words to summon her. A rush of energy flowed into me, and with it came shards of images; a cobwebbed room, a bunch of ruffians attacking Percival, and one man with a gold tooth behind a yellow door.
I opened my eyes, and saw Hugh Fortenbrass looking at me in consternation. And something else was mingled there – fear and recognition.
I had no time to ponder that. I’d worry about that later. For now, we had to rescue Percival.
Scanning the four fire stairs again, I saw the one at the back left hand side of this alley, had a yellow door on top.
I made my way to the back one, and motioned Hugh Fortenbrass to follow me.
“I think he’s up here”, I said.
“And how do you know that ?” he looked at me like he was seeing me for the first time.
“Just a feeling”, I was getting anxious, so I snapped at him “Look, I don’t have time for whatever it is that’s bothering you. Percival is in trouble and he needs our help. If you don’t want to join me, then at least lend me your pistol and I will go up there alone if need be !”
That galvanised Hugh into action. He clambered up the staircase fast, with me behind him going as fast as these voluminous skirts would allow.
“Hugh, there’s someone nasty behind that door. Better ram through it”, I called out to him. He looked down at me and nodded.
When he got to the top, he rammed his large frame against the yellow door. And it gave way. I heard a yell behind it, and the unmistakable thud of fists. I saw a blunderbuss drop to the floor. Then a man screaming as Hugh dragged him to the staircase and held him over dangling by his legs.
“Where’s Percival ? I’m not going to repeat myself.” I stared at the man, he was a lower level hoodlum with a cuffed shirt, and bleary eyes, a pathetic snivelling creature who went for easy targets. He was flailing and bellowing but I felt no sympathy for him.
“He’s with the maester, they’re holding him”, the ruffian whined.
“Who’s the maester ? Where ?” I barked at him.
“Why don’t you sodden gentry bastards go to hell ! You Hanbridges and Fortenbrass brought this curse upon us with your power hungry ways !” he cried out.
“What’s he talking about”, I turned to Hugh who was holding the man as if it were no effort at all.
Hugh growled at the man “Heathen superstitions. The bastards won’t settle for their fair share.”
“Fair share of what ? What’s going on ?” I asked Hugh, and then looked at the dangling man.
“God is my witness”, the man sniffed.
“If you’re not careful, you’ll meet him shortly”, Hugh rumbled and lowered the man over the fence so he could see the concrete four storeys below beckoning.
The man screamed.
“Where. Is. Percival ? Where. Is. The. Maester ?” Each word shot out of me like a fist. The man shook, and answered.
“In the fourth room, there’s an attic. They’ve got him there”, he spurted out. Then Hugh Fortenbrass made as if he was going to drop him anyway, releasing one leg. The man shrieked. Hugh then pulled the man close and clobbered him. The desperate ruffian went out like a light, and Hugh swung his unconscious form back over onto the staircase and flung him on the stairs.
I walked through the yellow door, carrying the blunderbuss that I picked up, determined to take all comers.
“You’ve got nerve. I’ll give you that, Miss Magda”, Hugh said with an admiring tone. He gestured me to follow him through the large warehouse rooms.
This fourth storey warehouse had obviously been used as storage of munitions. There were old canons, and shell casings, and boxes of discarded weapons lining giant shelves with ladders attached to them.
Rusty chains and cuffs hung off the wall on one side. Wooden boards that were stripped of paint and had holes punched through them, lined the other wall. And running across the room were these three massive shelves, with the creaky wooden ladders. A set of pre-Napoleon era canons were rusting away in a corner, covered in dust. At the other end of the room were four doors. Labelled numerically in Roman Numerals.
Both Hugh, and I dashed towards the fourth door when it opened, and out came the man with the gold tooth. The one I saw in the vision. He was holding a pistol. Behind him was Percival Hanbridge, bloodied and roughed up, being held by two more ruffians. The pistol was pointed at Percival.
“You come any closer, and your precious lad gets a hole in his head for the bargain” the gold toothed man sneered. He was a bit better dressed than his fellow ruffians and was clearly the leader of the gang. He wore a chocolate coloured tweed suit with a waistcoat and vest that was stretched across his rotund shape. His hands were encased in black gloves, and his boots were black and polished. He wore a set of thin rimmed square spectacles that magnified his beady dark eyes. Bewhiskered, bearded, and with very prominent front gold teeth, he resembled a malign beaver. Admittedly, an upmarket one.
Hugh had a revolver trained on him.
The gold tooth beaver smiled at Hugh’s revolver with a sinister grin.
“do you really think you’re goin’ta get that pig sticker off before I blow your friend’s brains all over the floor ?”, the beaver said.
Hugh stepped forward with menace “I might be game to try, Mister. I’m a fair shot”. The beaver clicked back the trigger on his pistol and pressed it right against Percival’s skull. Percival moaned in pain. This wasn’t going well.
It was time to try out my negotiation skills.
I dropped the blunderbuss, and stepped forward.
“I gather you are the Maester. ?” He nodded so I continued “and you are upset for something, Mr Hanbridge’s family have done ?” I let that enquiring note hang in there as I wasn’t sure what it was and hoped the beaver would enlighten me.
“Aye. His blighted family. And his”, he gestured at Hugh Fortenbrass. “They need to pay what they owe. Blood bonds are not so easily set aside in this neck of the woods, missy”.
I kept my tone conciliatory and sympathetic, “I can only imagine they’ve caused you great distress. Perhaps we can come to some arrangement and I can offer something to fix the debt that’s owed to you”.
“And who are you, Missy ?”, He looked me up and down, assessing me. His tongue flicking across his gold buck teeth. “And what exactly are you offering ?” he gave me a look that was like a touch, and I immediately felt disgusted but swallowed my distaste, and pretended I didn’t hear any implications in that sentence.
But Hugh did, and he was furious.
“This is Miss Soulditch. And you’ll speak to her with respect !”, Hugh thundered.