Today's free story is from Meagan J. Meehan. I jumped in to post this story for her because her computer has started an identitiy crisis after an update and first needs to be coaxed out of its problems before she can post again. So, here we go - enjoy!
The Pauper’s Puppets
by Meagan J. Meehan
The crowd roared with laughter as Judy repeatedly smacked Punch upon the head with a club. The Punch & Judy shows consistently attracted lots of viewers but on sunny days the small corner of the marketplace was absolutely packed. Ed loved the shows and made a point never to miss one, although for the past month he had trouble concentrating on the humorous storylines. Instead, he stood in the same place during each performance just to see her—the angel named Shirley.
She started working on the fruit stand four weeks ago. She was the niece of Mrs. Magwell, although no one would guess their relation. Shirley was pretty and slender—unlike the large, booming-voiced, often frightening Magwell. Ed had noticed Shirley from the moment she arrived, but he fell head over heels for her when he heard her laugh uproarishly at a Punch & Judy show.
Ed worked as a blacksmith’s apprentice across the street from the fruit stand and he stole glimpses at Shirley as often as he could. He started to collect mental notes about her and form an idea of what she was like. She was pure cockney in accent— just as common as he was—but there was something classy about her. She seemed somehow regal, which made him scared to approach her. This was odd since Ed could usually talk circles around anyone without hesitation but his nerves were dwindled to nothing when it came to her. Not that he had any delusions about her; Shirley wasn’t exactly Queen Victoria’s idea of a screeching violet. He’d seen her talk down scoundrels and loiters and once she had even taken a swing at an overbearing wino. And so, Ed simply watched her from a distance and dreamed of approaching her.
Shirley was a working class girl, thus Ed was flabbergasted to see her in the park one day spying on a group of actors. They were locals who belonged to a lowly theater troupe. On nice days they often rehearsed their lines in the park although this time they were talking funny, as if they were attempting to gain access into Bedlam Mental Asylum. Ed wasn’t the most well educated person in London, but he recognized the strange word style of the play: Shakespeare. It figured that a quality girl like Shirley would be into such fancy whims. She was obviously impressed and awestruck by the display before her. In another life she had probably been a princess who commissioned such plays!
Ed’s first reaction was one of utter dejection. He didn’t know the first thing about Shakespeare! Then he took a hard look at the scruffy actors and their frayed costumes. This wasn’t Buckingham Palace! The theater was located three blocks from the docks and the actors came from the same common un-entitled background as he did. It was 1881, far past the time when only the high born or exceptionally fortunate could strive to make something of themselves. If these third-rate actors could learn the whole play surely he could learn a few lines!
Luckily, Ed knew how to get a hold of someone who knew a great deal about Shakespeare. The blacksmith often did repairs on a coach owned by a professor of literature at the local university. The coachman owed Ed money from losing a backstreet game of dice. Instead of cash, Ed had the fellow repay the debt by securing a copy of a book of Shakespearean plays. The coachman was delighted by the offer. He was slow to part with his hard-earned cash but delivering a book would be simple. The professor was a kindly man who supported the working classes quest for knowledge. Within three days, Ed possessed the desired book.
Shakespeare proved to be quite difficult to decipher. Ed could make neither head nor tail of any of it. Secretly, he strongly assumed Shakespeare had been mad—who else could think to speak this way? Of course, Shakespeare had written for royalty and everyone knew most of them were around the bend! Yet Shirley liked this stuff and she didn’t seem to be a raving lunatic. Therefore, Ed submitted himself to nearly a month of painstakingly examining the texts. He carefully selected what he assumed were suitably romantic lines and then learned how to apply them into speak-able sentences. He practiced as often as he could since many of the quotes were certifiable tongue twisters. On one memorable occasion the blacksmith overheard his young apprentice shouting about nightingales and fairies as he shaped horse shoes and nearly sent for the doctor, thinking poor Ed was having some sort of fit.
Despite all his efforts, Ed’s legs turned to jelly whenever he saw Shirley and he could not bring himself to speak to her. Had he been forced to motivate himself to do the deed he probably never would have mustered up the courage. Then one day the blacksmith suspiciously sent him to the fruit cart. He claimed he desired an apple and was too tired to purchase one himself, but Ed suspected his boss knew about his crush and wanted to see the event through. This knowledge did not fill Ed with joy, he quiet expected Shirley to scorn him. Having the boss watch his rejection would be even more embarrassing.
It was a blissfully beautiful Tuesday afternoon but the clear sky did nothing to calm Ed’s raging nerves. Shirley looked prettier than ever with her blonde hair gleaming gold in the sunlight. He trembled as he approached her. She glanced his way, settled her blue eyes upon his brown ones, and offered him the friendly smile she gave to all her customers.
“What’ll yer have then?”
“I burn, I pine, I perish! I’ll not budge an inch, take thee at thy word!”
“Wot? ‘Ave you gone bleedin’ crackers?”
“I—uh—I dreamed a dream tonight—”
“You haven’t woken!”
“Uh—Did my heart love till now? Fore swear its sight! I never saw true beauty un—”
That was as far as he got before Shirley brought a large sweeping broom down upon his head.
“OY! That hurt!”
“Get outta here! I’ll call the coppers on you and they’ll have you to the madhouse, they will!”
Again she smacked him. Despite his surprise and pain, Ed was impressed by how strong she was. She wasn’t nearly as dainty or helpless as one would be lead to believe.
“Ow! Wait! I’m not bleedin’ crackers! I was speaking Shakespeare! Don’t you like Shakespeare?!”
As he begged for mercy, his hands remained protectively on top of his head. For a moment the beating subsided; then one particularly hard “whack” reigned down upon him.
“You’ve been spying on me!”
“What? No! Well, not really—”
“Ow, okay, okay! I saw you in the park one day—by accident! You were watching them actors and you seemed to be enjoying yourself. I’ve noticed you around at the stand and at the Punch & Judy shows every week! I’m more of a Punch & Judy fella meself! I just got that bloody Shakespeare book and learned it to impress you!”
“Impress me?” Shirley seemed genuinely shocked. The broom was poised in the air but hadn’t come down again…yet. Ed felt his face flush. He couldn’t believe everything he’d just admitted in one long breath but she had surprised him. He had never taken such a whooping from anyone before, least of all a girl! He was aware that a crowd had formed to watch the scene. Some children were pointing at him and snickering.
Ed wished he could crawl into a hole and die. Instead he replied to the girl of his dreams, who had actually turned out to be something of a nightmare. “Yes, I wanted to talk to you for a while now. I wanted to make a good impression. So much for that!”
“So you’re not a complete nutter then?”
“No more than the average bloke.”
Shirley’s face softened as she gently put the broom down. Never again would Ed look upon the object without associating it with effective weaponry. “I hope I didn’t hurt you too much. Reckon you need a doctor?”
Despite his throbbing head, Ed offered a wan smile. “No need, I’ll be okay.”
“I feel bleedin’ awful!” Shirley exclaimed. “I get a load of nutters coming up here all the time. I thought you were simple or something! I’ve actually seen you at the Punch & Judy shows too. You laugh really loud, contagious is what it is.”
She helped him to his feet as the crowd dispersed, uninterested now that the brutal broom assault had come to a peaceful halt. Ed’s heart leapt when Shirley put her hand on his arm.
“The show’s on again tomorrow,” she reminded. “We can watch it together if you’d like, although I wouldn’t blame you for never coming anywhere near me again.”
“No, it’s fine! I’d like to stand with you, as long as you don’t bring that broom along.”
She laughed then, and the spell of distrust and tension was broken. They did stand together during Punch & Judy the following day and they laughed even harder at the cartoonish violence, a reminder of their eventful meeting. Over the following weeks they made an effort to spend time together since they never seemed to run out of things to discuss.
All the Shakespearian reading hadn’t gone to waste. Ed combined his newfound love of language to his original love of Punch & Judy. Subsequently, he wrote a Punch & Judy skit based on the incident of his and Shirley’s tumultuous introduction. He even made his own puppets and performed the piece for Shirley as a birthday present. She was charmed by its cuteness and the amount of thought and time Ed had dedicated to the task. Shirley firmly believed that cash-strapped Ed’s creative gift was better than all the diamonds in the world.
Ed was inspired by Shirley’s’ support. Eventually he became a writer of Punch & Judy skits for the very puppeteers he had so enjoyed watching. The profit earned from his storytelling talents came in handy once he and Shirley got married and started a family; a fairy tale ending for a working class Romeo and Juliet.