Where new writing finds its voice
Short Story


Alix Nathan


Maria. Maria! Come immediately!’ Brighthelmstone, 1788. The benefits of seawater.

During the day Robert carried her to the bathing machine. Most nights she sat up, watching the moonlit sea, listening to waves pounding the garden wall, her beautiful profile framed by a half-open window. The sea inspired her, she said.  She wrote reams of poems, distracting herself from pain, humiliation.

That night she’d heard the knocking of a boat against the wall.

‘Come, Maria! Come!’ The table held pens, paper, letters, laudanum. I tucked a fallen blanket under her lifeless legs and we watched two fishermen beach the boat. From it they carried a man, laid him gently on the stones, wrapped a sail around him, pushed the boat out and rowed away.

‘A murder!’ she said.

‘Hush, Mama. Calm yourself.’

The men returned, dragging sticks and branches from the boat and built a fire. She sucked in her breath.


Not so. In the moon’s brightness we watched them sit their limp friend up, hold out his hands to the flames, pat his cheeks, push a flask between his lips, fan the heat towards him.

She called to Robert, who came from his loft, tousled, bleary-eyed, pulling on his greatcoat. We saw him run into the garden, spring over the side wall on to the beach as the men rowed off. All he could do was confirm death in the embers’ light.

But no one took away the body. No one identified it, buried it. For days bathers came and went, some on their way to the hot and cold baths – hygeia devota. They stared, threw up their hands, pressed kerchiefs against their faces or walked past, self-absorbed.

She couldn’t bear it, she said. Abandoned, unclaimed, she saw the dead sailor as herself, discarded by the world, unjustly treated. When she heard that he could not be buried because he ‘didn’t belong to the parish’, Robert posted up her proposal for a subscription to raise money for burial. When this failed she sent him with a little money to local fishermen who dragged the rotting body to the cliff and covered it with stones. Uncommitted. Unprayed for.

I remember it. The cold night, spark-shadowed bulk, hopeless acts of revival, the furtive retreat. More, I remember her declarations of tragedy, gestures of indignation, performance of melancholy. The nib scraping new poems on to the backs of envelopes.

‘Maria, Maria, come quickly!’

Bath was worse, without the virtue of salt breezes. She could not sleep at night after a day of immersion in intolerable heat – how we sweated in our brown linen jackets and petticoats in the sulphurous steam, pushing away the useless floating bowls of pomander – and the water in the Pump Room disgusting to drink. Nor was it better out of the water in the crowds of ogling, hobbling sick. Each day we spent hours on her dress, her hair, in case she should be recognised.

‘I need not remind you that Royal Heads have turned, Maria. I shall not lose my looks though I have lost the use of my legs. You may not understand, since you cause no heads to turn, but can at least imagine.’

‘Maria!’ Here in Englefield, in our cottage ornée, old acquaintances still called and for each she would perform tragic beauty or woman of wit, once adored, now maligned. We prepared hair powder, muslins, ribbons, gauze neckerchiefs, caps,
books, papers, the Prince’s miniature. Alone again, she wrote and wrote, and we posted her collection of poems with the ‘Haunted Beach’, her ‘favourite offspring’.

‘I shall never forget that horror,’ she said.

There was an accident. One morning, lifted from her bed by Robert, she hit her head badly on the sloping ceiling.

‘You tossed her?’ I asked him later.

‘She made a sudden movement. Clutched my arm: “Robert, I know … ” but she never said, you see.’

Towards the end, I slept on a cot in her room. Visitors had become sparse, for few care to enter a sick room, but there were letters by the dozen, providing envelopes on which to write the Memoirs.  She worried so much about finishing the second half entitled ‘completed by a friend’.

‘For they will think the friend is you, Maria, and what better advocate for a wronged woman than her innocent daughter?’ I shrank from her look.

And now she’s dead, the final, gruelling dropsy over. How often I held her to help her breathe, counted out the drops of laudanum, wiped her, cleaned her, brushed back her damp hair. Had she done the same for me? The Memoirs tell me nothing of my life except where, as a baby, I helped entrance Mr Sheridan. I remember only nurses. Names, places, dresses, poems, a life of beauty, fame and injustice in which I played almost no part: a passing reference. Did Godwin notice me, or Pindar, when they, two lone mourners, came to walk the coffin to its grave?

In 1788 I was fourteen, no longer a child, useful at last. For twelve years I have tended, nursed, accompanied, approved, averted my gaze, kept the tradesmen from the door. Over the Channel they lit their flare for liberty until it died, blackened beyond recognition. I, too, needed my revolt.

Robert, footman, groom, obliged to buy his own boots, who carried her countless times from bed to chair to commode to couch to carriage, up stairs, down, day and night. I remember that night in Brighthelmstone. For in the corridor leading to the pantry Robert held me in his arms. His greatcoat smelled of sea and burnt branches.

Yesterday he said: ‘I have carried her that often I know the feel of her body better than I know yours. That shouldn’t be.’

At last we can marry, live here. The cottage is mine – it’s all I have – and Robert can find employment nearby. Our expenses would be few for we’d see no one.

Or I could attend the voice, still sounding, that would tolerate no scandal but her own.

‘Maria! Come immediately!’

Live alone, write begging letters, publish the Memoirs. Live alone, hold up the image of my famous mother for whom Royal Heads turned, pat its cheeks, draw its hands to the flames. Push a flask between its lips, fan the hopeless heat towards it.