Molly sits in the café and plays the game from her childhood, Let’s Make Believe. She adjusts her posture and pretends she is a lady, that the pain in her ribs is because her corset is too tight, and the empty feeling in her stomach will soon be filled with a tier of dainty sandwiches and petit fours.
When she was a girl, she would pretend she was the illegitimate daughter of Fredrick Bidlick, the youngest son of the Lord of the Manor. Throughout those near empty-bellied years, Molly embroidered the tale. Fredrick had been sent away to join the army, and Molly pretended it was because his father had discovered her birth. Wanting to hide the identity of his son’s bastard, he sent Fredrick away to escape any scandal. This fantasy warmed her at night as she lay beneath a threadbare cover. She would listen for the horse’s hooves that would signal she was about to be rescued like all the secret princesses in the fairytales her mother told her, but all she heard was her father’s snores. They rattled the cobwebs that hung from the eves of their tiny house like so many nets to catch her dreams.
Her father was a tenant farmer or, as he liked to say, “A farmer without a farm.” When he said that, her mother would tut and say, “Be grateful for what we have, Thomas.” Her own father had been a tinker, so her mother had grown up never knowing where her next meal was coming from. According to Isaac, the gardener for the big house, when her mother had arrived in the village, he had never seen a more beautiful creature. “She had such cheeks, just like a Dittisham plum, and her hair was the color of pitch. She drew men to her like a magpie to a shiny object, so she did. I even threw my hat in the ring, but she only ever had eyes for your Da,” he’d told her.
So it wasn’t difficult to believe the dashing Fredrick might have succumbed to her mother’s charms; Molly knew how easily a pretty girl could turn a man’s head. She had inherited her mother’s porcelain complexion, dark eyes, and her fair share of attention from the boys in the village. Still, she had not inherited her mother’s gratitude or contentment with what life had given her. Molly’s life was always so much better in her fantasies.
When Molly turned sixteen, she liked to pretend she had stayed at the May Day celebrations and danced around the maypole like all the other village girls. She can almost remember the taste of apple blossom as the stars swirled overhead. And she still liked to make believe that she never lost the baby when her father punched her stomach after he found out what she had really done on that last happy May Day.
As she nurses the drink that Daniel has placed in front of her, Molly pretends her son, whom she had christened Sebastian, is tucked up safe and sound with her mother in Dittisham. She sips the green fairy liquid and smiles as she starts to feel blurred at the edges. It helps her forget the bald patch hidden by her hat and her bruised ribs. And it makes it much easier to make believe Daniel loves her, and this will be the last time he asks her to make coin.
Daniel signals with his eyes toward a man dressed in a soiled frock coat and stubble on his chin. Molly knocks back the absinthe and makes believe her soul has left her body so she cannot feel the rough thrusting or taste his pickle brine breath as the customer smashes his face into hers.
Molly feels hands around her throat, then she is flying toward the pearly gates, and there is Sebastian, a golden halo circling his head. But she must have drunk too much absinthe because if he is in his bassinet back in Devon, how can he be in heaven? And suddenly, Molly knows this is not make-believe anymore. She knees the man in his privates, and when he folds like a cheap handkerchief, she darts out of the alley. Daniel looks up, the smoke from his pipe smudges his features, but as he uses his stick to push himself to his feet, she sees him clearly for the first time. “Mol?” he asks, raising his eyebrows, “Wot ‘appended? Did you finish the job? I’m not giving him back his coin, so you get back in that alley, girl.”
Molly turns on her heels and starts running. She knows Daniel won’t be able to chase after her with his bad leg. She used to tell people it was a war wound, wanting to pretend he was a hero, but he actually got it falling down the stairs. That evening he’d said the soup was too salty and slapped her around, and then he made for the stairs. Molly’s small dog, Monty, had bitten his leg, which, coupled with the gins he’d drunk, sent him tumbling. After the accident, he stopped using his fists to beat her, preferring to use his stick, and Molly pretended Monty had run away instead of being put in a sack and drowned in the river.
As she weeps for the girl she might have been, she promises herself this is the last time she’ll pretend. Molly steps into the bath; it is colder than she expected, and the stars twinkle like a crystal chandelier overhead as she floats on her back. Sebastian is in her arms, and he giggles as Monty licks his face. She softly soaps her son’s head, and then she disappears beneath the surface of the Thames.
NOVEMBER 2023 AUTHOR OF THE MONTH at Spillwords.com
Adele Evershed was born in Wales and has lived in Hong Kong and Singapore before settling in Connecticut. Her prose and poetry have been widely published. She has been nominated for the Best of the Net for poetry and the Pushcart Prize for poetry and short fiction. Finishing Line Press published Adele's first poetry chapbook, Turbulence in Small Places, in July. Her Novella-in-Flash, Wannabe, was published by Alien Buddha Press in May. Her second poetry collection, The Brink of Silence is available from Bottlecap Press.