A ‘story-script’ written on the theme of ‘Chancing Your Arm’ – performed at Flight of Fancy, part of London Storytelling Festival, Leicester Square Theatre, November 2012.
It is not a truth widely known that Madame Clench’s Salon of the Flesh was the most visited attraction in the London of 1826. There was no Georgian equivalent of Time Out to herald it as a hidden gem. It was hidden for a reason, and that reason was decency. Its patrons were furtive, its joys unbugled, its only souvenirs the impish memories in the minds of all who went, and in the case of Frederick Muldoon one life-ruining instance of the clap. But his is not our evening’s story…
It was, for a long time, just your ordinary whorehouse. Ramshackle, perverse, and full of the stench of sex and waste. But Madame Clench had a fancy to grasp out of the muck and onto the petticoats of finery.
MC Stoke me, if all around me ain’t scrubbers and ‘ores. I know I’m in the business of ‘ores, but by christ don’t I tire of just how whorey it all is. You! You are a whore!
Whore Don’t I know it and ain’t I good at it!
MC Your gaudy but thorough milkings of the butcher get me the fattest geese I’ll give you that, but oh how I yearn for more.
Class. A quality she neither had nor could emulate.
Madam Clench, in another life, might have amounted to something more than a crusty-mouthed madam, but class was a cruel parent, and few get over the savage kick in the extremities it doles out at birth. Yet still she dreamed.
She longed for etiquette, silk and love. What she had was coarseness, customised flour sacks, and the grunting of artless men too cowardly to get their cocks dirty at home with their wives.
Then, one day, Madam Clench spotted a chance and she took it.
It was a bright morn, and she was attempting to sashay like a lady through the flower market. She tried her best at it, but she merely looked like she was kicking away hungry spaniels. Just as she was breathing in the succulent boughs of just-burst lilies, she saw a girl and stopped mid-breath.
The girl was an angel, her golden head like a shining halo in the sunlight, her skin like porcelain might have been had it been made by a deity instead of mere men.
She was drawn to the girl like a bee to the brightest of flowers. She knew not how to approach her and instead stood gawping. Then a chance presented itself. The girl turned light as a lilting breeze and a ribbon fell from her hair. Madam Clench stumbled forward and took it up with a victorious shriek.
MC Aaaooh, girl, your ribbon!
A chance. The chance, though it remained as ineffable as the unsettling aroma wafting aloft from Gunt Picklebot’s cellar. It pulled at her like the glint of a gem in the mud.
MC Oh, poor wretch, look at the state of you – you look lost in the ways of London. Permit me to escort you back to my humble but consoling abode, where I shall tutor you in how not to Die, for it’s certain that’s what you’ll do here, wafting around in your ridiculous innocence. Come on.
And, without quite knowing why, the girl followed her.
After tripping through the rancid gutter shit of the cheery streets, they arrived at the house that was home to anywhere between 2 and 20 whores, depending on the fluctuations in moods and morality. The best whores are the most fickle in all regards.
MC ‘Ere we go. Sit at the table. I have a table you know! I dragged it from Mrs Smythe’s rooms as she lay dying of the pox. So, dearheart, tell Madam Mumsy Clench what the syphilitic spittoon you’re doing here?
GIRL I came to London…for love.
MC You came from France – spouting tit of Romance – to London – the weeping wart on the face of England – for love?
MC By Christ. You’ll be dead on a barrow within a week.
The girl looked at her, her eyes filling with great big beautiful French tears, and fell on the stolen table. Madam Clench watched the display and tried to reacquaint herself with emotion. Then she caught sight of the girl’s arms, outstretched in hopelessness.
MC Marie Antoinette’s Knicker-drawer! Those arms!
The girl looked up enquiringly at Madam Clench.
MC Yes. Arms. They’re like the dreams of angels caught in wisp-like form, like ivory butter softened by the sun, like giant pearls forged into the celestial boughs of heaven’s trees… You could make a ruddy fortune as an ‘ore you could.
Just then, a ray of sunshine burst through the window with a rudeness that reminded Madam Clench of the time she lanced Tilly Bristow’s boil. Her shudder was disrupted by Revelation. The girl! This exquisite French idiot was her chance! She was her route out of the tedious dire muck!
It was nearing two weeks later that Madam Clench plonked the girl down behind a curtain and smeared her in lanolin.
MC Gives you a nice sheen in the lamplight.
The other whores stood around with venom in their eyes. How was it that this newcomer, this Parisian prude, was attracting so much attention?
MC BECAUSE SHE’S SODDING CELESTIAL, YOU SODDEN-BLOOMERED BINTS!!
…Was how Madam Clench answered their new-sprung fears.
GIRL Madam Clench? Perhaps zis is after all not a good idea? What will men see in the unplucked obedient blonde virgin from Montmartre? I have none of the charm of zese girls.
MC And none of the venereal woes either. Just trust me, my girl. Trust me. You need not any of their sluttish ways – you have something far more valuable. Place your arm out through the curtain, just one lovely bloody arm, and let mystique do the rest.
She stared into the girl’s eyes, as blue as the river Seine had never been, and she felt a shiver run through her. Those eyes were swimming with trust.
GIRL You know, Madam Clench, in France we ‘ave a word zat sounds like ‘arm’…
MC Oh yes, dear?
GIRL Yes. It means, how you say, ‘soul’.
GIRL Yes – âme. Soul. Heart.
The whores cackled in the doorway.
WHORE Soul she says! She’ll be scrubbing her soul out of her dress along with the souls of half of London’s gentry.
MC Don’t you pay them any mind. You inspire the thought of eternal bliss in the minds of gentleman, then these scrubbers will tend to whatever the men’s wretched anatomy throws up afterwards. And I’ll collect the coins. Be celestial my dear. Be celestial.
And with that Madam Clench pulled the curtain shut and withdrew from the room. She hastened herself to the parlour to attend the first influx of guests, but something did not feel right in her chest – and it wasn’t the hurriedly gobbled pasty stolen from Will Tyker’s stall.
The men soon gathered – they had been hearing of the Angel’s arm hot on the breath of London throughout the past week and were hungry for a sight of it. Madam Clench corralled them in the parlour until they were giddy with lusty promise. She went to pull the lace across the window for privacy, and when she turned around the assembled men had sprung from the room and were halfway up the stairs, their polished boots heavy on the bowing wood. She ran up after them, squeezing herself through the throng to hold them back from the curtain.
They all stood agog, staring at the arm – the soft-sheened protrusion of a faceless girl. It seemed lit by a light that was not of the room. It seemed not of the room itself, not of this world – it had the aura of a fleeting thing, a paused hummingbird’s wing, or a snowflake frozen in the air.
MEN Who is she? Does she not speak? What is your name, girl?
Madam Clench closed her eyes and bit her lip. Her name. She had never asked. She had never thought to ask. She was just Girl.
MC Tell them.
GIRL My name…is Beatrice.
Madam Clench opened her eyes, and steadied herself against the wall. Beatrice. That was her name. She had always loved her name as a girl – thought it surely the name of a lady – but had not used it since she fell into vice. She was doomed to just be Clench, the unloved woman in a thousand dirty laps.
The men wanted more. They clamoured. They stepped towards the curtain, the arm was not enough. They wanted all of her. The pulsing hand of a disgraced earl thrust out to draw it back.
Then, Madam Clench let out such a cry that the whole city seemed stopped for a moment.
The men all turned, their shock worn like gaudy carnival masks. The girl’s arm quivered, still trusting.
MC No! She’s too good for any of you. She has…soul, and I will not chance it for all my life to come.
Something in her voice spiked shame into the hearts of the men. They left. And the memory of that resplendent arm, that briefly upheld sanctity of something pure, stoppered their lust for a good while to come.
Madam Clench pulled back the curtain, looked at the girl who had her eyes shut tight, and took her hand gently.
MC Come on, cherub. You can help me in the kitchen instead. I never got good at peeling spuds. I always ‘ad me chops around a duke, dear.
And something which could so easily have been lost, was not.