I’ve been collecting women recently. Ordinary women. Ornery women.
It began innocently enough. Last year, I came across an article that caught my attention, and I googled the name of the woman involved. Nothing.
I googled the name of her husband. Lots.
I tried to find out more about the woman. Failed. Tried to forget about her. Failed again. She popped into my head at odd hours; laughed at me from behind my back.
I couldn’t find out any more about her story, so I did the next best thing. I made it up.
Turns out, making up stuff is fun. Before I stumbled across Miss Brown, I’d only written nonfiction. But writing fiction, even the type based on real life, is liberating. I’ve been plugging away at it ever since, compiling a collection of pieces inspired by the lives of pioneering women.
To keep things fair, I write about women whose lives are already documented. To keep things manageable, I choose stories that relate to travel or transport. To keep things challenging, I limit the length of the pieces to five hundred words.
I research the women as best I can; try to place them in their historical context. The facts of their lives support the interior life I imagine for them. And some of those facts are astounding: circumnavigating the world disguised as a boy; being sentenced to hang for piracy; designing, building and racing aircraft.
Each woman I discover, ordinary or ornery, leads me to another. So far, I’ve found pirates and pilots, engineers and emigrants, prostitutes and proselytizers. The women are fascinating in their own right, and together they offer an insight into the challenges of being female throughout history.
I hope I do them justice.
And Miss Brown? Here’s the article I found her in:
The marriage of the famous airman, Walter Brookings, and Ms. Brown, the daughter of William Brown, a former Lieutenant Governor of Pennsylvania has been annulled by the courts of San Antonio, Texas.
The two had met at Palm Beach, Florida, the fashionable winter resort where Brookings was flying a seaplane. Brown told the court that she had been ‘hypnotised’ by Brookings after he had agreed to allow her fly with him. In the course of that flight – with the plane at 1,000ft – Brookings had proposed marriage to Brown and she had accepted. The wedding took place immediately, but Brown told the court that as her husband’s hypnotism had worn off, disillusion had quickly set in. She further said that she no longer admired her husband, except for his skill in flying.
Brookings (25) had previously been married and divorced.
And here’s my version of her story. Hope you enjoy.
The Airman’s Wife Petitions for Divorce
When I say I was hypnotised, I do not mean in a conventional sense. I did not fall under the spell of his eyes. My senses did not depart at his quick smile and ready laugh.
I admit I thought him handsome when I first saw him leaning against the plane. When he caught my eye and patted the wing, I did not hesitate.
We followed the curve of the coast, the seaplane’s shadow chasing us on the sand. Men raised their caps in salute. Boys ran after us until they were too tired to run any more.
Looking down, I began to understood the immensity of the ocean. I watched the waves approach the shore, saw how they turned back on themselves at the last minute.
We veered inland, flew over Lake Wurth. Above us, clouds stretched in a thin white line.
‘Higher,’ I shouted, and leaned over his shoulder. When we reached a thousand feet, he turned his head and mouthed the words, ‘Marry me!’
I said yes.
What came afterwards was not intolerable. But I was shocked when he said I could no longer fly with him. Anger pooled in my heart. I couldn’t bear the thought of him soaring above me while I stayed on the ground. When he asked if I was jealous, I laughed.
I was never jealous of the girls he took up in the plane, had already seen the way they looked at him. I knew there’d be girls like that at every race, every exhibition. I knew he’d smile at them and enjoy their company. I would have endured it all if they understood the gift he had given them.
But they were all so silly. Content to have their photograph taken with the famous aviator, thinking they stole a march on me when they kissed him behind the hanger. Your honour, I swear these girls must be blind.
It was not the man that hypnotised me.
It was the view.
“No thank you,” I say. But she is not so easily dissuaded.
“You want to save money,” she says. “Yes?”
I tell her I have a policy not to sign up for anything on the doorstep.
“You are right!” she exclaims. “So many people come to your door. Do you know how many electricity companies there are?” She tilts her head skywards, pauses for a moment.
“Six,” she says. “There are six.”
“Also,” she says. “Dog’s Trust.”
I reiterate my policy, smile to show it’s nothing personal.
“When I take this job,” she says, “I cannot believe what I have to do. Coming to people’s houses. Asking them questions and checking their meters.”
She steps a little closer, leans towards me.
“They don’t like that,” she says.
I glance behind her, mutter something sympathetic.
“The people on this street,” she says. “I’ve never met such nervous people. Not since I take this job.”
“Not one will let me in,” she says. “Why are they so afraid?”
I shrug my shoulders; tell her I need to get back to dinner. “I’ll check the offer online,” I say.
Her eyes narrow.
“The discount online is 6%,” she says. The discount now is eleven.”
She holds the clipboard in front of me, focuses intense blue eyes on mine. I hesitate longer than I should, before shaking my head no.
“Tsk,” she says. “Tsk.”
Then, lifting her chin upwards, she smiles. A wide, open smile.
“It was very nice to meet you,” she says.
And turns away.