Off topic: Flash Fiction Challenge entry for round 2: Might and Power

I promise I’ll get back to the agri-writing shortly, I have a couple of blog posts I’ve been working on to do with interesting ideas and on seasonal activities, plus it’s a great time of year for photographing weeds and writing weed profiles. However, before then:

I’ve entered the NYC Midnight Flash Fiction Challenge. In each round of the challenge, you are assigned a genre, location and object, and have to write a story of 1000 words or less with those constraints. In this round I was assigned:

Genre: Historical Fiction
Location: A brothel
Object: Tiger skin rug

Here’s my story, proffered up for review by other FFC writers. My own take on the story: it was fun to write, but challenging to pick a historical time/place that I knew well enough to write in at short notice that would also be easy to understand by judges who don’t have my shared cultural background (it’s being run and judged in the USA). It’s not like I can spend a chapter setting the scene or anything 🙂 I think I succeeded, but I won’t know til the judging’s done.

Might and Power

Perth, Western Australia, 1899

Madame looked at the little card like it was a tiger snake. Georgette craned, but Madame turned it into her palm. “Never you mind”, she said. “I’ve been invited to walk in Kings Park this afternoon”. By Mrs Vittoria Burges Phillips, member of the Karrakatta Club, colonial gentry by birth – and the wife of the Chief of Police. The last person who should be extending a social invitation to the proprietor of a brothel. Under containment, the police turned a blind eye to the illegal running of brothels as long as they did what they were told and There Was No Trouble. Madame couldn’t see how a social connection with the Chief’s wife was anything but.

***

The band played under the grandstand. Madame saw Mrs Phillips strolling idly with a friend nearby. As she approached, the two older women “accidentally” matched their pace to hers. “I know it’s awkward”, Mrs Phillips said kindly. “We’ll pretend this is all coincidence and be quick. We need your help.” Madame looked at her in surprise. “We?” she asked.

“We, the women of Western Australia”, Mrs Phillips replied passionately. “The men are dawdling about letting us vote. The Member for East Perth keeps bringing it to Parliament, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union has lobbied and lobbied, the Newspaper has come out in support. And the petitions still cannot pass. You heard that the Karrakatta ladies and I have joined the WCTU to form the Women’s Franchise League.” Madame nodded. “We think we’re close”, Mrs Phillips continued. “We have a new petition. It’s powerful. But we need to give each Member of Parliament the argument they like best, and we need them to think they came by it themselves.” She looked at Madame. “The WCTU doesn’t want to admit that there are any women not innately virtuous. I don’t have that problem. I hoped you might care to help”.

***

Madame watched Lyall settle himself into the couch of her private sitting room with his whiskey glass in hand. Madame didn’t normally ‘entertain’, but lately she had made certain exceptions. Lyall sipped from his glass and sighed. “So tell me. Surely you, as a worldly woman, would agree that most women would not want the hardship of having to vote”.

“I certainly wouldn’t want the hardship of having to argue it in Parliament”, Madame laughed lightly. “How you do that for us is wonderful. That is, I assume you gentlemen are arguing”.

“After that line about ‘Ladies, like cats, are best at home’? Always. If I never have to hear Vosper and Illingworth at each other again it would be too soon. Then the Member for South Fremantle got worried it would double the vote of married men over single men”.

“Is that a bad thing? A man too poor or sloven to get a wife might not deserve as much of a vote.”

“Do you think so?” he said, surprised.

“I’m not sure”, she said drily. “We don’t see very men in here who don’t have wives”.

A bell tinkled, and Madame moved to the door with an apologetic “Just a moment”. She opened it, and three demurely dressed young ladies raced in. “Madame! We’re ready to attend the Temperance rally, have we permission to leave?” They suddenly realised there was a guest present, and discreetly turned. Madame raised her eyebrows. “You have permission to improve your manners. And yes, you may leave, but please remind the others I may not be disturbed”.

Their enthusiasm barely dampened, the ‘girls’ curtsied. Together they giggled “Because a government of the people, for the people and by the people should mean all the people and not one half!” and tripped out the door in a flurry of gloves and pamphlets.

Their acting was perfect. Lyall didn’t seem to have any idea the “interruption” was planned, just reclined lazily back into Madame’s couch. “And there”, he said lightly, “go perfect examples of women who should never be allowed near a voting booth. Can you imagine what decisions they’d make?”

Madame could, quite well. Sarah would insist that businesses pay all the money they owed to, just at random, a laundress. Georgette would like the legal status of spinsters reconsidered. Clara simply wanted a limit to the hours a husband could be forced to work.

But what she said was “Certainly. Thankfully, here in the more civilised settlements, such votes would certainly be drowned out by all the well-bred ladies and wives.” She looked distant for a moment, sighing “It’s such a shame there are no women but our kind out amongst all those migrants on the Goldfields”. And then she seemed to come back to herself. “Another whiskey?”

She saw the seed of the idea take, the Member for Perth’s brow momentarily furrowed and then a brief smile as the political advantages unfolded. She smiled to herself, satisfied, and poured a practised dram of whisky into the glass he held forgotten. She reached up to her neck, unbuttoning one more tiny button on her high collar and fanning herself against the heat until she saw his eyes start to track the movement of her throat. Then she sat on the tiger skin rug at his feet and tugged off his shoes, massaging his feet as if she were one of her own ‘girls’. He closed his eyes, relaxing.

***

In late July, a letter arrived. Madame opened it privately and smiled, then showed the ‘girls’. It was a copy of the arguments for suffrage presented to Parliament that week. Casually inserted at number 8 was “Because it would add might and power to the vote of civilised settlements”. The words “might and power” were circled, and in Mrs Phillips’ handwriting underneath, “Thank you”.

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