Mary Ann had just been given the belt for the third time today from her stern arithmetic teacher Mrs Devlin. The first time was for staring idly outside the window, the second time was for failing to recount the 11 times tables, she forgot what the third one was for, what she simply couldn’t forget was the searing pain that belted her frail fingers as the thick, leathery strap thundered down onto her palms as her fellow pupils winched at the horrific sight at it.
Holding her hands under her arms attempting, but failing, to numb the pain, she whimpered back to her classroom seat and awaited the freeing school bell which would signal her freedom.
When it eventually did ring everyone cleared their chalkboards away and walked out in single file out the door, until Mrs Devlin let out a bark.
“Will Mary Ann Spencer please remain behind, the blackboard does need cleaning”, the rest of the class hurried off and Mary Ann reluctantly stayed behind.
Clapping together dusters, unearthing all sorts of grit into the air, she choked and started to cough as she wiped a damp rag along the knowledgeable board.
“Will you please refrain from that horrid coughing, I’m trying to read my periodical”.
She continued to clean as she glanced at the headline of what her teacher was reading.
“Professor Ernest: The man who used science for the devil”
The headline caught her attention, she loved science and was always keen on learning new things about how the world worked. However she didn’t have time to ponder which wonderments were taking place behind the scenes of such an esteemed scientist such as Professor Ernest’s laboratory, for long as hunger was starting to get the best of her. The usual Tripe would be what she would have to look forward to at home.
Her home life wasn’t any better than her school life. Her father, Trevor Spencer worked in a steel mill and was a heavy drinker. Whatever money he earned was spent on giving him a hangover which he would wear off by beating his children. Her brother Percy was two years younger than Mary Ann and a very sickly child, he couldn’t handle much of his father’s beatings. Mary Ann would often throw him out the way of her father’s path and take his thrashing for him. Mary Ann’s mother died when she was only four, tuberculosis took her and her mother Martha remains only to be a fading memory to her now.
She asked politely to her teacher if the blackboard was clean enough in which she didn’t even look up from her newspaper nor even say a word, just simply drew her crooked hand up and gestured for her to leave the class, leave her presence.
She started the journey home. Staring at the cobbled streets as she dragged her scrappy shoes along the pavement, hearing the voices of London around her, the clipclopping of the huge horses hooves against the cold ground and the banter of salesmen on the street bawled around her.
“Awrite luv, ‘ave a gander at me half penny fruits, farthing an apple now ye can’t be fairer ‘n ‘at now can we my lovelies.”
His voice was full of London charm as he impressed the passing ladies by juggling his merchandise playfully, waiting till he was in full show Mary Ann sneakingly stuck three apples, two pears and up her dress and set out to hastily leave the scene of the crime.
‘This ought to see us through the night’, she thought as she tried not to drop them all.
She found her way home and started unloading her loot onto the bed in which she shared with Percy.
Mary Ann was only twelve years old but she was well adapted to the foggy streets of London. She attended school twice a week while her younger brother worked for an industrial firm sweeping and cleaning the machinery. He would earn very little for his troubles but it gave him something to work for and it allowed Mary Ann to attend school twice a week.
It was now four O’clock that evening. She had just over an hour to clean herself and get something to eat before heading out to work herself. Normally she would sleep before leaving for her own employment ventures but Mrs Devlin had swallowed up most for her reality escaping sleep.
She worked in a hospital doing a variety of tasks, most of which involved cleaning. She would go to bed at night still hearing the excruciating screams of patients as doctors and nurses pulled and yanked away at them in an attempt to make them well. It was grueling work and she earned less than what her brother would make but it gave her an excuse to leave the terrors of her home.
Mary Ann walked into her working quarters and put on the clothing required to her work and set off with a rusty bucket filled with cloudy water and a rag. She slithered unnoticed into various rooms within the building and on her hands and knees she starting scrubbing away the blood off the floor, a task that she would be doing for the next seven hours.
Her shift was over and she was close to fainting. While walking out the building she noticed a familiar face walking in. It was Professor Ernest from the newspaper. She had never seen anyone famous before so naturally she put her exhaustion to one side and followed in pursuit to see where he was going.
He was a man who carried his height with grace. His face consisted of a marvelous moustache gave him such a sense of character and charm. He had such a suave gait that allowed him to walk gracefully and freely around the corridors of the hospital. Mary Ann followed him down the basement. She kept a bit of distance which proved to be unwise as he shut the great wooden basement door behind him leaving her alone. Failed in her quest she thought it best to just go home and get some glorious sleep. She turned round and the basement door swooped open.
The Professor waltzed out and nearly tripped over his stalker.
“Goodness heavens child I nearly went and squashed you” announced the eccentric fellow.
She merely blushed as a response.
“My my you look rather worn, come inside and I’ll see if I can get you some soup you look like you could do with some,” he said with a sympathetic frown. In which Mary Ann responded by swiftly walking into the warm toasty room.
It was marvelous. All sorts of scientific apparatus were set up. Clear tubes intertwined along the room with red and blue liquids traveling within them, ending up in some unknown destination. Steam spouted out of mangled looking machinery. It was loud and dirty but it was the greatest thing Mary Ann had ever seen.
She had just finished her soup and set about asking questions to her host.
“What is it you do here sir,” she said almost whispering.
“Oh well my young lady I’m afraid you are just too young to understand,” he said laughing.
This annoyed her slightly. “I go to school you know!” she said with pride.
“Oh I know you do,” he said looking at her hands still pulsating from the belt that struck her earlier in the day, which drew another sympathetic frown from the professor.
“Very well youngling. You see I make people better.” He stated.
“Like a doctor”? She interrupted.
He smiled, “No a doctor merely treats temporally. I take it a step further and try to make it so the body never has to suffer illness ever again, free from sickness forever. However my research will never succeed.”
“Why’s that?” Mary Ann said with sheer wonderment in her eyes.
“Oh I was declined the chance to use live human subjects for my research, so I can’t prove that my design works." He stood up and walked over to his desk and started shuffling through papers.
“So you can make anyone feel better forever,” she said, immediately thinking of her sickly brother.
“I know I can, the science is true however just because people don’t understand it, they denounce me as a devil!”
“Can I bring you my little brother, he suffers desperately from fatigue, he is a frail but sweet boy who has to works most of the week. Please can you make him feel well?”
His eyes darted around to the young girl, surprised at her offer. Seeing a chance to finish his experiments he wasted no time in answering.
“Yes, bring him here tomorrow and he shall feel invincible!” he said enthusiastically.
She smiled and hugged the professor before hurrying out the basement, up the stairs and away to her home.
She ran into her home, it was more of a slum but it was home to her. As she opened the door she ducked with fright as a piece of log fire smashed against the wall. Her father was home and ran out of money.
“Where d’you hide it you little shit”! His voice was bellowing and more worryingly, unwillingly sober.
Percy was doing his usual ducking and diving routine, he was small so could easily swoop under and around the table. Trevor had the stamina to outlast his weakly son so it was only a matter of time.
“Come on, Daddy wants a drink”, he double backed around the table and caught Percy; Mary Ann ran over to him to free her brother from his grip but she was easily brushed aside by her agitated father. He was rattling his son like a piggy bank, hearing the chinking of coins but unable to work out where exactly they were coming from. He ripped off his sons scrappy shirt to reveal a money pouch wrapped around his neck which took Trevor a few firm yanks to finally rip it free from Percy’s now bruised throat.
He counted it up and stormed out the house. Leaving the children to deal with the carnage he left behind.
“We’re running away tomorrow Percy,” said Mary Ann trying to catch her breath.
Percy could only nod in agreement.
“So you say this man can make me all better” said Percy with a whimper.
He got a confident nod which was enough for him so he smiled back and gave his sister a hug.
They sat outside the same door Mary Ann walked out of in excitement the day before as they awaited the arrival of Professor Ernest.
It took him longer than expected to arrive; when he eventually did he brought with him several papers, documents and a very serious expression.
“Come in children and please sit over there Mary Ann," he signaled a chair for her to sit in. “Percy is it? You come with me and can you sign your name here please.”
Percy looked at the quill in confusion; his un-education was now proving obvious to the professor who asked Mary Ann to sign for him which she did with a hopeful grin.
The Professor smiled and took Percy into another adjoining room Mary Ann followed suit but was stopped.
“No you wait here, having something to eat. You can read can’t you, there’s books over there, feel free to enjoy, we will be some time.”
As they walked in Percy looked back, with a hopeful grin to his sister, finally believing that his life will be better, that he will be able to fully provide for his sister so she perhaps could attend a better school or even start life anew away from London, away from their father.
Mary Ann smiled to her brother as they closed the door behind them. She took an apple and a gorgeous hardback from his desk and started to read as her brother and the Professor went into the rest room.
It came clear that no amount of books or precious food would be able to comfort Mary Ann as her Percy’s screams overcame her.
They echoed through the basement. Noises of sawing and hammering combined melodically with the screeches and squeals of her brother. She could not escape it as it bounced off all the stone walls to give the illusion that it came from all directions. She ran up to the door and pulled and pulled, but it was locked.
“PROFESSOR PLEASE STOP!” she pleaded at the top of her lungs.
Ignored, she ran over to the other door which was also locked, she was trapped, trapped and with nowhere to go with only her little brothers screams of terror and pain to keep her company.
She ran into a corner on the cold stone floor and curled up into a ball and placed her hands over her ears, trying helplessly to dull out the wails, it was unsuccessful.
After ten hours, the door slowly creaked open.
Professor Ernest walked out and Mary Ann looked up from her shivering body to see what atrocious outcome had transpired. He dawned a triumphant smile and bore no signs of struggle or misfortune around his physique, he looked as normal as ever.
“Wh … what have you done to my brother,” whimpered Mary Ann trying to find her feet.
“Why don’t you take a look for yourself, Percy would you please come out and show your sister how you have improved,” confidence swirled around his words as he spoke.
Mary Ann heard a thick clunking coming from the darkness from the mysterious room.
Percy walked out and Mary Ann let out a high pitched shriek!
A thing walked out, it seemed to be double the size of what Percy was. A Metal apparatus was welded to its back, churning on like an engine, sputtering out smoke. Its legs had swirling cogs stitched to them, powering them. Its face contained only what looked liked Percy’s eyes but the rest of the features was unrecognisable, devoid of all emotion and a strange metal chimney like pipe was sticking out the side of its mouth and going back inside to its nose before coming out its right ear. Random metallic platelets where screwed around the rest of the body and its arms were now operating under some bizarre looking pulley system which was controlled by thick interlinked chains.
“Isn’t he marvelous, totally indestructible I think? I just knew I could do it.”
Mary Ann vomited.
“Look, he can no longer obtain cholera as commonly as he now can purify any dirty water by boiling it from within his now iron clad stomach. Also tuberculosis is no issue as I have strengthened his lungs by sewing into them a fine ultrathin sheet of lead that will absorb any dangerous airborne particles.”
Looking at his creation with tearful joy he continued.
“Percy’s legs will never tire, I have added copper coil which is wrapped around his femur and tibia. He might be able to jump higher thinking about it; more testing would need to be done naturally of course.”
Still obvious to Mary Ann’s look of horror at what had become of her brother the Professor continued further.
“Now finally for my most significant feat. The engine looking device on his back runs off simple coal which powers the new arm mechanism. They now have the power to lift extraordinary weights and crush the thickest of steel. Excess steam is expelled through in new inner piping system which you can see is expelled out with the right ear.” The professor took a seat and basked in his engineering accomplishment.
Mary Ann looked on to her brother looking at him through her small dainty hands. Looking for a sign that Percy was in there, somewhere.
The only sign she could see was a faint tear that seeped out one of its glistening eye.
© Copyright 2016 Jonathan McQuillan. All rights reserved.