Corset Wings was originally published in SFF e’zine, which is unfortunately no longer with us 😦 Anyway I thought it a shame my story died in that way, so have resurrected it for you to read. It’s from the steampunk issue 5. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it. RIP SFF e’zine… (Original artwork for this story by talented artist Kiri Moth and SFF e’zine by Peter Saga)
It’s not the sort of dream that can be made inside a brothel.
“Come back here you thieving Dollymop!”
I run towards Fleet Street, in the clothes of the bloke who beat me. Old men his age can’t run fast and I’m guessing it’ll take him a while to make himself decent enough for the streets. I wasn’t planning on running tonight, but Mrs. Harding told me if ever I needed her, I was to come in disguise.
She’s one of those new age American types, with too much money and a curiosity that could get her thrown in the slammer if she didn’t own half of New England. Her Daddy was some big industrialist in the North East, built Zeppelins and submarines, but I didn’t care for her stories, to begin with, so long as she paid me.
I’ve had my share of female clients, but she mostly wanted to talk. Rambled on about women’s liberation before she bedded me.
The old man wasn’t so pleasant. Fell asleep after a few rounds of treating me like a bruiser, so I left him laying there, thinking he’d be out for a few hours. I misjudged him, can hear him bellow from across town, “Stop that roller!”
I hear pig whistles, duck down a side alley, as the rozzers run past. It’s funny how quiet they were when the old man was beating the shit out of me. Double standards, still I know these streets better than any of them, and Mrs. Harding’s house is only a few roads away. I disappear into the back yards of Kirby Street, and slip by, guised like a proper gentleman. I’ll fit in with the toffs around here, no problem. Although rich folks probably don’t hide in church yards, like I’m planning, unless they’re students from St Bart’s, robbing the dead of their rest.
The whistles have stopped, but I hop over the fence. I like my man drag, it’s better for scaling fences than any skirts I’m used to. “Ain’t so bad, Moll, eh!” I hit the grass, still in my bare feet. “Well almost!” I wish my feet were as big as the old man’s so I could have stolen his shoes as well. “Can’t have everything we want, girl!”
I laugh to myself as I sneak into St Etheldreda’s churchyard. Sway along the stone path onto the grass. My feet don’t thank me for the battering they’ve taken along the alleyways, but it’s dark here and that’s what matters.
I slip into the trees at the back of the graveyard, take out the note Mrs. Harding wrote, just to check I wasn’t imagining her invitation. “My dear, Margaret.” I stop. She wouldn’t call me Molly, said it offended her appreciation of the English language.
I roll my eyes and read on. “My dear, Margaret. You strike me as an open-minded but somewhat restricted young woman.” I duck low as the pig whistles get near again. Hold the note like those Catholic beads my old Mum used to pray on, before she was taken by consumption.
The pigs shout, “Oi, come here!” The whistles get louder and nearer as more rozzers take to the streets. That’s a hell of a lot of whistles for one Ladybird like me. I hear the sounds of other men, a gang of toolers. They’ve been pick pocketing toffs. I relax. Those whistles aren’t for me.
I wait for the feet to run past the streets behind, and then open the note again. It reads. “I have great capacity to see past the confines of this very limiting society, into somewhere more advanced. Somewhere liberating. If you want to know more, come visit me.” She wrote nothing else apart from her address and name.
I fold the note back into my pocket; look at the graves, at the sky, from what I can see of it, through the trees. It’s beginning to rain. I don’t feel safe slipping back to my flat, dressed like a man. People around Whitechapel talk. The East End’s not as big as it seems when you’ve lived there all your life.
I walk quickly to the back of the churchyard, where there’s a break in the fence, which hasn’t been repaired yet. I curse, “Bleeding feet!” and head towards Fleet Street, down a maze of tiny courtyards and passages, easing my escape.
Mrs. Harding’s street is full of grand old buildings, but hers is particularly handsome. I stop outside, check the address. There’s a sign outside, as if it’s some place important. Typical for a woman with a high opinion of herself. It says, “Dr. Samuel Johnson lived here.” And then some dates from last century. Mrs. Harding lives here now, but there’s no plaque to say so. I feel my stomach rise into my throat and then knock. “Mrs. Harding?”
The sound of footsteps makes me nervous, heavy and mechanical. She must have one of those protocol butlers the paper sellers have been shouting about. The door opens. I’m right, as a creepy looking seven-foot man-shaped thing stares at me through the steam, which powers its motors. It hisses, “Come in, Margaret,” as if it was expecting me. Its mouth is full of smoke, which warms the hallway.
I ask, “Where’s Mrs. Harding?” It motions for me to follow it into the house.
I’ve never seen so many books, as I’m lead from the entrance, past a spiral staircase, through doors hidden in walls, rooms behind rooms and more staircases going downwards until I can feel the air getting thinner. The creature turns and points to another door and says, “Mrs. Harding’s through there.” It holds back, as if it isn’t meant to go further than this room, but holds the door open; until I can hear more engines, feel a rush of cold air, like on the London underground. I can hear steam trains, echoing from somewhere in the distance, smell the grease and stale air.
I walk towards the door and ask. “She’s got a train track in her house?” The steam man doesn’t answer. He just hands me a book from one of the many shelves. It’s entitled “Corset Wings, by Emilia Harding.” I open it up to the first page, a diagram of a strange looking flying machine is scrawled on it and underneath, written in her handwriting and inscribed to me, are a few words.
“Dear, Margaret. I dream of turning corsets into wings, of building metal and brass around your bones, the skin of a new woman, released from something constricting.” I stop reading; feel a sudden urge to turn around, and run back out onto the streets, but the mechanical man pushes me through the door and slams it shut.
I feel a rush of cold air, as I pound on the closed side, “Let me back in!” I’m in a tunnel, with oil lamplight; it’s a train platform, completely abandoned apart from me. I holler. “I’ll call the police!” I claw at the edge of the door, to try and prise it open, but it’s jammed tight. I drop the book, as it’s no use to me, clamber down the embankment, figure the train track leads somewhere out into the London sewers. Better I return home covered in filth than a skin of metal and brass. I mumble. “Lunatic!”
I don’t need her stupid book or her creepy butler to find my way out of this place. I knew I shouldn’t have come here. That mental cow’s probably turned her old Man into that robot, for all I know. I shiver and give the door one last glare, as the light behind it is switched off. I don’t plan on getting on Mrs. Harding’s train after reading her creepy plans for me.
I wish I had shoes as I scramble over the track, in the opposite direction to where I heard the train. There’s enough space at the sides for me to crawl behind if anything approaches. “No rich lunatic’s turning me into an experiment!” My old Mum always told me I got my stubborn streak from my father, but neither of them are any use to me at the moment, so I concentrate on not tripping over the track. “You are an idiot, Molly Baker.” Serves me right for stealing the old man’s clothes. I doubt they’d find my body if it ended up down here permanently, not that they’d look for it in the first place, being that I’m not that significant in the world above.
“Margaret! What are you doing down there?”
I look up at a woman standing on the platform, peering down at me. She’s holding some gadgets in her hand, and blowing out cigar smoke as she reaches down to help me off the track. I step backwards. “Mrs. Harding!”
She looks confused, from what I can make out through the gloom. “Well, yes! Who did you expect?”
I motion to the door her butler pushed me through as she sighs and realises I’m not going to accept her gesture. “I have rights you know, same as you. Now let me out of here.” She’s a small-framed woman, and I’m used to fighting men if I have to. I clench my fists. “I’ll not ask you again!”
She glances towards the door, and walks, quite absently; as if she has no plans to turn me into a machine and picks up the book I left on the platform. She mutters, “You dropped my book!” I begin walking further down the tracks, as she doesn’t seem to have anything that can stop me.
I shout. “This is ridiculous! And my name’s Molly!”
She replies, “Where are you going?”
I answer, “Away from you!”
She waves the book at me. “But I gave this to you!” I stop. She says. “You’d better get off the track, you’ll get squashed!”
I growl, “I’m not coming near you after that butler thing slammed the door on me and left me here!”
She frowns, and raises her eyes, gives the door a hefty yank until it opens. “This door? Well, I’ve been meaning to get it fixed! And these butlers are not really designed for semantics, so I’m afraid your cries for help wouldn’t have been understood.” She motions towards the room, turns the light back on, and says, “I heard you screaming from my laboratory, thankfully!”
I clench my fists tighter, in case she’s tricking me, but she nods to her house, as if she is inviting me to leave. “I thought you were more curious and perhaps a little more open minded than this, Molly, but don’t let me stop you. I’m sure you have other plans out on the streets tonight?” I clamber onto the track, seeing my opportunity to make an exit, push past her, smell the cigar smoke as she stubs it out on the wall and extinguishes it with her boot. She frowns, I follow her eyes as she looks down at my feet and says. “You don’t have any shoes!”
For such a clever woman she likes stating the obvious. I snatch the book from her and turn to the first page, read out her threats, so she knows I’m not frightened of her. “Says here, you plan to turn my flesh into metal and brass!”
She puts on some reading glasses, and squints, a slight smile on her lips, as I put my foot in the door to stop it closing. “Oh, that’s so endearing and at the same time quite frustrating. You’ve taken my words literally. I can see now, why you look as if you’re ready to grind my head into the wall!” She grins, “I’m not keen on brutality, but I understand why a woman in your position resorts to that kind of behaviour. It won’t be necessary, Molly!”
She pats my shoulder as if this is all cleared up, and says. “You can leave if you like, I’ll find someone else.” I stand in the open doorway, as Mrs. Harding walks away from me, as if she’s forgotten I’m here, but she turns and mutters. “If you want some shoes I think I have a pair in my laboratory, you can use.” She disappears back into her laboratory, leaving the door to slowly creak closed, but not enough, for me to remain uncurious about what’s behind it. I sigh, curse myself for being so nosey, and place the book in the door to the house, so it doesn’t close on me if I need to make a run for it later. “It’s a wonder you’ve reached twenty five, Molly!”
I peer into Mrs. Harding’s laboratory. I’ve never seen one before, but I’ve read about them. This one looks cluttered, with bits of engine parts littering the floor, steam rising from half made contraptions, and Mrs. Harding running around frantically, looking for those shoes she promised me. She turns and trots over to me, quite thrilled that I’ve entered her workhouse and passes me some flat looking boots. “These were my sister’s, they should fit you!”
They look quite new. “She doesn’t need them?”
Her mind seems to wander, as if she doesn’t want to think about my question too deeply and replies. “She died.” I take the gift reluctantly, not quite sure how to accept a dead woman’s shoes, or reject the offer, but put them on, as my feet are raw.
I ask, “How?” hoping it has nothing to do with her experiments.
She lights another cigar, and waves me into the workhouse. Says absently, “Accident at work, things go wrong, but without experimentation, no one gets anywhere.” She gives me a curious look, and touches my face, but not in the same way she did when she paid me. “You’ve been in a fight?”
I nod. “Bad customer, that’s all. Nothing new!”
She removes her hand and says nothing else, looks slightly angry, but then begins to walk across the room, as if she wants to show me something. “Before you go, you may as well see what I was making for you, had you chosen to stay.” I step over bits of engine; all types of materials lay haphazardly across the floor and worktables. I can see a large wing stretching outwards, made of soft red cloth, and a second, attached to what looks like a corset. She points at it, her eyes not quite right, as if she is so absorbed and obsessed, she’s forgotten the world around her. “This is my new experiment!” Her eyes get crazier as she points up at the ceiling as if she can see things that I can’t. “Men and women use Zeppelins and large flying machines to conquer the skies, but think about what would have happened if poor Icarus hadn’t flown too close to the sun? We’d be a world of bird people, free to fly unhampered by gravity and hopefully society. I deal in gravity as it’s much more predictable than the people who govern us.” She begins tightening something loose on one of the wings. “Imagine how vibrant the skies would be if Leonardo Da Vinci had lived in this age!” She can see from my expression, I think she’s obsessed, but instead of stopping, she lifts up the corset and says, “Try it on?”
The wings trail behind, like a bridal train, looking heavy in her arms. I must admit I spent last night wondering about Mrs. Harding’s plans for me, in a bed full of bumps and broken springs. I look at the wings and admit, “They do seem beautiful!” Strangely I begin removing the man’s jacket and shirt, “I suppose wearing it won’t hurt!” She smiles as I raise my arms up, for her to wrap the corset, watch as she ties the strings, feel the weight of the wings, and ask, “Where would you fly something like this?”
She smiles, and nods towards the workhouse door, to where the sound of a steam train gets louder, “You want to find out?”
I really do hate myself for not running away, but she hasn’t turned me into what I thought, in fact this is the opposite of imprisonment. I admit. “I’m not going to fly this, you understand?” She looks hopeful, but nods, as the noise of an approaching steam train blocks out my voice. I look towards the door and peer back at the enormous wings, disabling my exit. Before I can ask her to remove them, Mrs. Harding rushes over to the doorway, turns a lever until the mechanisms unravel into a hatchway large enough for me to see out onto the platform as the train hisses and stops.
Without turning back to look at me, she rushes towards the train, so I follow her, my feet a little warmer in her sister’s shoes, the wings surprisingly light, as if the weight has been balanced by all the mechanisms attached. The platform fills with steam, like the sea when warm tides mix with cold. Before I wonder how I’m going to fit on the train, Mrs. Harding unravels another door, until a gangway rolls down onto the platform, wide enough for me to step into the cabin.
The cabin is lit from inside, and there are other people, some dressed in modern clothes, others, like me, have strange contraptions fitted. Mrs. Harding hops on, buzzing, despite me saying I won’t fly her strange device, she says. “We’ve only got one stop, I want to show you a most liberating site, Molly!”
I can’t imagine anywhere liberating in London, but I humour her. “These trains go to the moon or something?” I look around at the people; some of them look like they belong in lands quite removed from London. Maybe the moon isn’t such a wild guess. Mrs. Harding doesn’t laugh with me; in fact she sits down and motions for me to hold onto the handrail above.
“Better hold tight, this train goes fast!” I prepare myself for a bumpy ride, close my eyes as the train fires up, can smell the steam, hear the whistle from the chimney as the doors close. “We’re here, Molly, it’s our stop!”
I open my eyes, onto daylight. I swear it was nighttime in London. There’s a cliff outside, and the seaside, I can hear seagulls and smell seaweed. Mrs. Harding gets out of her seat and takes my hand, as the door opens and leads me out. No one follows, as we step onto the new platform. I can hear ice cream sellers and the sound of fairground rides. Mrs. Harding grins and points up at the sky, to where I can see others like me, human flying machines. She says, “This is New England. My father owned this beach and left it to me after he died. You can stay here on the ground and watch if you like?” She motions towards a beach hut, and passes me a key. “You can store your wings in there?”
I study the beaches; hear the drawl of foreign accents, similar to hers, “I’m in New England?”
She nods. “I told you the train moved fast!”
There’s always a price, but she hasn’t told me what it is, so I begin to unstrap my corset. “I’d better go home!” She doesn’t stop me, as I protest. “This was a bad idea.” A woman who uses Ladybirds for sex probably has ulterior motives. I accuse, “So what do you get out of this?”
She looks confused again. “I told you. Possibility, a reason to live, a place to realise my passions. I want to share my inventions, Molly.”
She looks sincere, but distracted as a young man wanders past, eating ice cream, identical wings strapped to his own corset. He grins at Mrs. Harding and says in an American drawl, “Hi, Emilia, you going to join us today, or go back to that stuffy laboratory of yours?” He glances at me, “New recruit?”
She shrugs. “Maybe not!”
The man looks me up and down, attempting to remain neutral, but I can see he thinks I’m a coward. “Ah, the British are so conservative!”
I retort, “Mrs. Harding find you in a brothel too?”
He frowns at me, as if he thinks I’m crude. Mrs. Harding simply looks at the sky, admiring her work, as if she isn’t part of the conversation. A normal woman would have gone an embarrassing scarlet, by now, but not her.
The young man offers his hand to me, despite seeming unhappy with my manner. “Zachary Turner.”
I reply, “Molly Baker.”
He continues. “I’m not a prostitute, although some think lawyers are lower on the social order than hookers, which is probably why I spend most of my free time on this beach!” I return his gesture, growling at his undertone. I don’t like being accused of cowardice, and as he lets go of my hand, I realise why I took the train, why I didn’t return to the rain, the dark streets of London, crawl back to my filthy bug ridden bed, dressed like a Ladyboy.
I turn to Mrs. Harding. “I’ll do it, Mrs. Harding!”
She looks a little shocked but pleased as I strap my corset back on. She helps me tighten it, and says. “Call me Emilia.” And adds, “We’re equal here!”
I feel my arms tingling, the bones of a new woman, emerging from something restricting, a beautiful new creature, as the possibility of flight brightens up my dismal past life, and I leave the brothel far behind. “Thank you, Emilia.”