Story In A Bottle - Literally An Old Tale
I wrote this, believe it or not, about two years ago, all of which time it has been tucked in a drawer. Thought I would pull it out for this prompt, as I am juggling too many things, (as usual:-P)and don't have time to form a new one. It seems to fit with bottles and sea journeys, so I am telling it here:
Working Title: “Max Wellgrave – Adventurer”
It was dull in 1853 Sussex, especially for Max Wellgrave. He lived in a thatch-roofed stone manor with his elderly mother and father, self-possessed as he saw them, living twenty years in the past. He was a late baby, welcome, but late. His only excitement was his uncle, a kind of mad wizard who lived in an old cottage at the bottom of the garden on their estate. The property had been in the family since three generations passing. Max was sick of the town, the predictable questions and queries, and the river. Everything centred on the river. The town, trade and the river. He knew its history backwards, and told Archie, his uncle, as much, idling as he did by his cottage that spring afternoon.
Spider webs decorated the frame of the small doorway like ethereal embroidery. He had to stoop to enter, being tall and rangy. His tidy blonde hair and small beard gave him the look of a Norseman rather than an Englishman, and comments like that, from people he knew, made him self-conscious, and made him want to get away. He didn’t know where. Just somewhere that wasn’t here. And people mistaking his name was another dreadful bore, “Oh Maxwell Grave” they would say, on meeting him for the first time. “No,” he would say, correcting them, “Max Wellgrave”. One old local man said “Might as well be in the grave with a name like that!” before he shuffled down the sleepy main street. He’d been 17 then and gone home to his mother and father so moody he hadn’t talked for a week, just glowered at them as a person did at that age. But now he was 21 – ready to take on the world.
“Uncle Arch,” he said, folding his arms as he watched the steam from the distiller curl into the crisp spring air. “I want to go adventuring to other parts of the world.”
Uncle Archie looked up at him through heavy lidded eyes and white, bushy eyebrows. The metal rims of his spectacles glowed in the muted sunlight that shimmered like gold dust through the small windows of the cottage. They were in the kitchen, or Uncle’s ‘laboratory’, as he called it. He fancied himself as a kind of alchemist, taking after the family talent for medicine and pharmaceutical pursuits, but with a twist. The methodical reliability on fact the others in the family had was balanced by a distinct "madness" in Uncle. But he was charismatic, which made him more of an eccentric than a menace. He passed Max a cup of steaming tea, hot off the hob, and took one for himself sipping it. After a long period of silence Max was well used to, Uncle spoke.
“Splendid. But where to go, where to go.”
“I thought to the Gold Rush. The American or Australian fields. I’ve been reading Pa’s papers.”
“Intriguing,” said Uncle, “What do you hope for?”
Max put down his cup to thrust his hands self-consciously in his trouser pockets, “Adventure. To get away, before I get caught up in Pa’s business forever.”
“People go to gold fields to make their fortunes. Your fortune is set out for you, already you are fortunate,” said Uncle, slightly wounded by his favourite nephew’s wish to throw away everything provided for him, by his father and all the fathers before him.
He was making plant oils for medicinal tinctures to be sold at the family dispensary in the town, and had done well, as the boy would do after him.
“It wouldn’t be forever,” said Max, feeling annoyed and hemmed in by the family line that preceded him.
“You can’t mix oil and water,” said Uncle, vaguely, “Can’t mix it.”
Max shrugged his shoulders. Another one of Uncle’s moods coming on, he thought.
“Whatever you say, I will go. I’m twenty-one.”
“You still can’t mix oil and water.”
“Whatever you say, Uncle,” he said, fumbling in his pockets until he found a penny. “Heads, America, tails Australia.”
Max tossed the coin as Uncle looked up at it spinning, his eyes following it down to the floorboards. It clattered and rang, then fell tails up.
It was done; Max was off to Australia. Melbourne to be exact, and then Ballarat. That was where he was going, he thought, standing on the deck, face to the wind. Everything would be different. No ridicule, no locals who had known his since he was a baby, no parents to remind him what he ought to be doing. His leather bag was stuffed with his clothing, food from his mother, books from his father and from Uncle, a bag of fine gold dust in his vest pocket. Why the man had given him gold, when gold was what he was looking for, defied explanation. He shook his head at his eccentric uncle and went below deck to his quarters, grimacing slightly at the cramped conditions, the plank-hard mattress, the forlorn lantern swinging with the motion of the vessel and the large, black spider crawling up the wall. Ship life was grand, Max thought. For five months he kept to himself, alternating between like and dislike, but too proud to admit it was not as easy as he had imagined.
It was a strange thing, youth. The daring of it and the untried ideas resisted the wisdom of older people. Older, later back in Sussex, Max Wellgrave was to recall that first taste of freedom again, when he was married, sons gathered around him, and retell it with more favourable elaboration than had been the case. The story grew more fabulous, urged on and expanded, like the eyes of his sons listening in fascination. In truth, he was an utter disappointment at adventuring.
When he got there, knee deep in yellowy mud from the persistent rain, hardened officials and merchants pressed the requisition tent, tools, and provisions on him, plying him for exorbitant sums of money in return. He knew what sheep felt like robbed of their fleece; poor. He had never tasted this particular flavour of lack, wrapping itself around him like an immobilising, dense fog. It was not like home where he could have what he wanted at a fair price. It was not what he expected.
A man in bedraggled clothing forced his stay in his tent, reminding him of Uncle. His strange mutterings were better than nothing on the empty, windy nights when the tent flapped and wheezed with cold. The man who sold him his licence at a premium, eyeing his clothes when he made his reckoning higher than usual, scoffed at his name.
“Never heard of a well grave, boy. England, aye, I’ll give you a week at that. No more than a week, sonny.”
“We’ll see about that,” said Max, traipsing away through the mud, only as defiant as the mud would allow.
No matter where he went in the world it appeared he could still find humiliation. What was the point in being here with nothing, when he could be humiliated at home with everything? he wondered, stiff in his stretcher from cold.
The old man who invited himself to stay with Max had been at the diggings for two years, jumping newcomer’s tents as they arrived. People jumped each other’s claims in the same way. This was the diggings; forced to live by your wits. Uncle’s bag of gold was still in his keep, a reminder of home. He kept it to himself with great secrecy.. He had been careless with precious things at home.
Max had failed at everything he put his hand to on the diggings, not that he admitted it when he got home, little more than a month spent. When he started developing the symptoms of what his family medical knowledge told him was the initial stages of pneumonia, it gave him pause for thought. He’d been so cocky he hadn’t included any medicine in his bag. Toward the end of a month, lying awake in his canvas stretcher, he looked at the old man, muttering in his sleep. He had been naïve to the extreme, excited by newsprint. How Uncle would laugh…if he left quickly he would be spared the shame of coming home in one the medical beds on board the ship home.
Next morning Max handed ownership of his licence, tools, tent and provisions to the old man. “Keep well, old man,” said Max, shaking his hand soundly, leaving the freezing fields. It was five months before he was home. The latter part of the voyage was spent in sunlight, a stark contrast to the winter he had left behind. On the deck basking in it daily, he purged the pneumonia virus that might have killed him, under the advice of the ship's medical man. He pondered the meaning of the gold dust from Uncle, safely in his vest pocket. He also thought of the wisdom he had gained, until he finally landed at Southampton. Met by his elderly mother and father, he settled back into their fold, the town, the trade and the river.
Uncle hadn’t come to greet him, and later he met him in the sunny cottage again, now in late summer, as had been their usual habit. Max didn’t mind it so much now, seeing everything as he did through fresh, wise eyes. He still stooped to go into the small doorway, smiling as he laid eyes on the familiar figure of Uncle bending over his work and the curl of steam from the distiller.
“My boy,” he said simply, clasping his wise hands over Max’s younger ones. “You have returned, as I expected. You will follow in the family footsteps, heal the sick with medicine.”
They spoke of many things, and Max was more candid with Uncle, who seemed to know everything before he spoke of his non-adventures anyway. He was always glad of news of the world, never surprised by its peculiarities. Max handed the bag of gold dust back to his uncle. Their eyes met. Uncle nodded, tossing it back on the wooden bench.
“Of all people you would know oil cannot be mixed with water,” said Max, with gratitude in his smile, “I ought to, after all your lectures. Two unlike substances cannot be blended. I am a Wellgrave to the core. I cannot be anything else.”
They looked at the small bag of gold dust on the wooden bench. Max knew he was deserving of the old, wise family name.
“You and all the Wellgrave men before you tried to escape their calling. You are a Wellgrave to the core.”
“Like a fool I went searching for gold,” Max said, “You wisely said I had it already.”
“And now you know the difference, you have gained wisdom.”
Uncle turned back to his work, distilling tinctures from plants for their dispensary in the town. Max drew nearer the work, fascinated now by what he had thought commonplace before. Suddenly the curl of steam rising from the distiller intensified as Uncle Archie, becoming excited, knew he had reached the point in the process where the oil separated from the water to become valuable. The old man smiled and quickly made ready to inspect the precious oil in a glass beaker. Max pulled a chair across the floor, eagerly, to watch the master at work.
# (May 2004)
copyright Monika Roleff 2006.