The final module of the MA in Creative Writing course I followed at Chester University was one Victorian Sensation Fiction - ie, like so much of the course, bugger all to do with creative writing, rather than the history of English literature. Just two students attended the classes, myself and a girl who also felt sorry for the very nice lecturer on to whom it had been dumped. She asked us to write something short in the Sensational style, which naturally opens itself up to having the piss taken out of it. I enjoyed writing this, obvious a joke though it may be.
Despite the trembling of her fingers, Virginia succeeded in turning the key silently in its lock. She leant her cheek against the door’s rough green baize in an attitude of listening, although she had no expectation of eavesdropping on murmured conversation, nor of discerning soft cries of passion through such a substantial barrier. That her husband was not alone, however, she knew. Annabelle was with him. Annabelle: still no more corporeal than a name, whispered in sleep, yet the fount of all Virginia’s fears, an invisible well-spring that had been steadily undermining the foundations of her marriage this long year past. Today – this minute – Annabelle would be exposed. She would become flesh.
For a moment of quavering uncertainty, Virginia seemed to flutter against the door, like a moth against a windowpane, desperate to reach the illuminating flame that would serve only to destroy it. She whispered a prayer, steeled herself and then, with the instrument of her pale, fragile shoulder, forced open the door in one decisive movement.
At last she had penetrated Archibald’s inner sanctum, his secret world. At first all her fevered senses could discern of it was a blur of candlelight glimmering on mahogany and costly ornaments, enriching the shades of damask upholstery and bed curtains. Her eyes came to focus on Archibald, upright and indignant in the centre of the room. Then she saw, standing beside him, Annabelle. The reality of her husband’s lover was so contrary to any expectation she had conceived that she was almost robbed of the power of speech.
‘I thought…’ but she was unable to express what she thought. It was left to Archibald, recovering from his surprise more smoothly, to do so on her behalf.
‘I know what you thought, my dear,’ he said. ‘You thought I had a mistress. Well, you were not mistaken. This is my mistress. This is Annabelle.’
‘Your mistress?’ Virginia choked out. ‘A mistress I could have borne. But not this… this apparition.’
She could find no other word to describe the parody of a woman now flouted before her. There was rouge, yes, and scarlet lip-gloss; an auburn wig; a selection of fine woman’s undergarments: a pink silk slip, suspenders, a rakish garter. But it was not a woman who wore these becoming attributes of a woman. It was not a woman who regarded her across the chamber, blinking shyly as if waiting to be fawned upon by the outraged wife rather than reviled by her.
Virginia wished to scream, to rage her disgust at this simpering creature, but her horror stifled her. Covering her eyes, she staggered back and her bustle collided with a delicate marquetry table, unbalancing an Oriental vase. The ornament shattered in an explosion of eggshell china. The shock of the crash released Virginia’s pent-up emotion and she began to wail her torment.
Annabelle, too, became distressed and Archibald hastened to calm his mistress, rather than his wife. He fell on one knee and patted Annabelle’s neck, dislodging her wig.
‘There, there, my little one,’ he crooned. ‘It’s just my wife; my horrible, noisy wife.’
Annabelle drummed her hooves in panic and a cascade of pellets pattered onto the carpet. At the sight of this, Virginia collapsed in a faint among the fragments of the vase. In the ensuing peace, Annabelle grew calmer and allowed herself to be comforted by her fond patron. Ruminatively, she began to chew her wig.