The Man With his Eyes Sewn Shut – Part Four

Italian Opera

‘Where the hell is that man?’ Sam was pacing backstage, missing his Iago. Everyone else kept well out of his way, preparing themselves for the curtain to rise. ‘Ned!’

Ned lifted his head from his script which he was furiously studying. This could be it, the opportunity he had been waiting for, but there was a tricky song in the middle of the play, placed in only to comply with the Olympia’s licence which disallowed them from putting on straight plays. ‘Boss?’

‘You were with him last night. Patrick. What time did he go home?’

Ned swallowed and thought quickly. ‘It wasn’t that late, really. We were on Union Street. Left at the same time, but we live in different directions so…’

‘Damn him!’ Sam stormed off, calling to one of the odd-job boys to run to Patrick’s lodgings and see if he could be dragged to the theatre.

‘Looks like it’s me and you again.’ Daniel had appeared as if out of nowhere. For a large man he moved quietly, Ned thought. ‘Funny how things work out.’

‘What d’you mean?’ Ned spoke defensively.

‘Just that the part was supposed to be yours until Patrick arrived in town. Unless he’s so gravely ill that he doesn’t know where he is, Sam won’t trust him again.’

‘I didn’t realise Sam was so quick to bear a grudge.’ Ned thought back to the conversation he had had with the theatre manager the week before. Sam had trusted him. If he found out that Ned had left Patrick in the street like he had, he’d surely blame Ned as much as Patrick.

‘It’s not about grudges as such. More about protecting what we have here.’ Daniel slapped Ned on the back. ‘The Olympia is all about giving talented actors a chance, but we have to earn it.’

‘I’m sure that there’ll be a perfectly reasonable explanation for Patrick’s absence,’ Ned said, his conscience prickling. But any guilt was soon forgotten.

‘Ned! Get changed into Iago’s costume. You have five minutes.’ Sam thundered past. ‘Now who will be my Cassio?’

Excitement carried Ned through the performance, one of his best by the volume of the booing that he received as he bowed deeply, the applause so loud it felt like a soft punch to his body.

‘Incredible work, both of you.’ Sam was waiting in the wings to congratulate Daniel and Ned as they came off, shirts drenched in sweat after two hours before the heat of the footlights.

A young boy came up and tapped Sam’s elbow. ‘Sir?’

‘What? Oh. Did you find Patrick?’

The lad removed his cap and looked solemn. ‘Yes, sir. It’s not good news. I went to where he was living only his landlord hadn’t seen him since yesterday. I walked back the way you said he would have gone, past the river, and a fella there told me that a body was found there this morning.’

‘Dear God.’ Sam sat down heavily on the nearest crate. ‘Surely not.’

Ned felt his body weaken. ‘Boy. Tell us now. Was it him? Was it Patrick?’

‘Yes sir. I went to the morgue, you see, that’s why I took some time gettin’ back. He had a letter in his pocket which was damaged from the water, but when I give his name they managed to decipher enough to pick out his name and the name of the theatre.’

‘The letter that I sent him.’ Sam shook his head. ‘How did it happen?’

‘Fell into the river and drowned they reckon.’

‘Oh lord.’ Ned staggered and dropped to his haunches as nausea overcame him. ‘It’s my fault. I should have walked him home.’

‘Come now, how were you to know?’ Daniel lifted Ned back to his feet, acting as a crutch. ‘This isn’t your fault. It’s not like you left him there to drown. He was on his feet when you left him.’

Ned fell quiet but he knew that envy had bettered him.





The Man with His Eyes Sewn Shut – Part Three

Italian Opera

Click here to start this story at the beginning.

Rehearsals for Othello began in earnest. In typical style, the company only had a week before opening. Nora darted around the stage between scenes, taking her measurements for the costumes that she would have to create, though mostly she only adjusted older outfits that would stand a new use. Her two young apprentices followed her like shadows, marking down the numbers she barked at them.

As far as the actors were concerned, Daniel was in charge and he demanded perfection. Ned was glad to see Patrick sweating as he struggled to keep up.

‘You look like you could use a drink,’ Ned said to his rival as they finally escaped after a long day during which Daniel had lost his temper three times with Patrick. It was the day before opening and tempers were frayed as no one was ready.

‘I’d forgotten what a slave driver he is.’ Patrick wiped his brow with a torn handkerchief.

‘You’d better not let him hear you use that term,’ Ned told him. ‘Touchy subject around a negro. He’s boxed my ears for less, like he was my senior. I don’t joke around with Daniel Johnson.’

The pair of them laughed conspiratorially. ‘He doesn’t possess the best sense of humour,’ Patrick said. ‘But a drink would be welcome. I suppose you know the best taverns to go to around here? Or at least the ones to avoid.’

They headed to Union Street and Ned’s usual haunt. Ned was surprised to find that Patrick was good company. Full of stories and plenty of gossip about Sam and Daniel, Ned took mental notes of everything. Sean turned up towards the end of the day. Usually he had a quick drink before heading out to work, his day topsy turvy to the average man.

‘You’ve made a friend I see,’ he commented as he and Ned drank, Patrick having staggered away to empty his bladder.

‘He’s not so bad when you get to know him,’ Ned replied. ‘Though he doesn’t seem to be able to handle his drink like we can.’

Sean chuckled. ‘We have had practice, have we not? Well, I’m glad that all is well. I worried about you, not getting the job an’all. It reminded me of Maggie, when you let the black dog take you.’

Ned grimaced then forced out a smile. ‘Patrick’s no Maggie, I can tell you that much. Though his legs aren’t bad.’

‘What’s so funny?’ Patrick had returned and fell onto the stool between the men. ‘Not laughing at me I hope.’

‘Course not.’ Ned leaned across and refilled his new friend’s glass. ‘Sean was just marvelling at our capacity for drink.’

Patrick belched. ‘I’m not sure about that. I should have left some time ago. I’ll have a cracking head tomorrow.’

‘Ha! Well, I shall leave you both to it.’ Sean stood to leave. ‘I’ve a business to run.’

At Ned’s insistence, Patrick stayed until the bottle was empty and Ned acted as a crutch as he staggered to his feet, slurring words of thanks as they manoeuvred towards the door.

Patrick was a lot heavier than he looked, and Ned stopped by the river steps on the way to the address that Patrick had given him. They sat there and Patrick’s mumblings grew slowly quieter as he slipped into slumber.

‘He won’t be up to much tomorrow,’ said an old man who was passing. ‘Looks like he’ll be out of sorts for a while.

Ned nodded, and stood to stretch out his back, preparing for the continuation of their journey. As his back cracked, he had a sudden thought. What if Patrick was too ill to perform on stage? He looked down at the dark head, leaning at an uncomfortable angle against the stone staircase. What if Patrick didn’t reach home? A night outside wouldn’t harm him, surely. Ned had woken up many a morning in a gutter or curled up on a bench that he didn’t remember resting his head upon.

He ignored his conscience, pushed away a twinge of concern, and left Patrick slumped there by the Thames. It was more than likely that Patrick would wake up soon and stumble back home of his own accord. Or so he thought.


The Man with His Eyes Sewn Shut – Part Two

Italian Opera

Click to start at the beginning.

Best laid plans, it is said, often go awry, but Ned had no knowledge of this saying. He woke fresh from his earlier than usual departure from the tavern, and was in good humour as he conducted his ablutions. Sean had walked Nora home before taking up his pitch along the road from the Olympia theatre, and Ned stopped off for a cup of coffee and a bun.

‘I’ll be buying the drinks tonight,’ he told Sean. ‘This role will be the making of me, you know.’

Sean wished him well and it was a jaunty walk that carried Ned into the theatre. The auditorium seemed to hold the cold, Ned’s breath as white as his frozen hands. In the pits he saw Sam McCarthy already sitting ready for auditions to begin. Daniel Johnson, the obvious Othello, was onstage with Kitty who nervously clutched her script.

‘Ned.’ Sam waved him over. ‘Come and meet Patrick.’

A tall young man unfolded himself from the bench next to Sam, reaching out to shake Ned’s hand. ‘Pleased to meet you, Ned.’

Sam handed both men a sheet of paper. ‘As per the posted notice we’ll be going from Act I, Scene II. Daniel, of course, knows the lines back to front and inside out. Do not let this distract you: I will be looking for the most convincing Iago, not the man who can memorise his lines the quickest.’

‘You are auditioning as well?’ Ned failed to hide his surprise. He had thought only he and Robert Stanley had signed up for the role, and Stanley was a milksop mother’s boy who looked ten years younger than his twenty five years.

‘Patrick played Iago in the Bristol production this summer,’ Sam told him.

Ned’s good mood seeped quickly through the cracks in his rigid smile. Patrick and Sam began to talk of the Bristol company, recounting an amusing incident that had occurred when Patrick’s trousers had ripped in a particularly awkward place mid scene. He sat down heavily on the bench and barely noticed as hush fell, Kitty delivering a strong audition that guaranteed her as Desdemona.

‘Next!’ Sam called out. ‘Ned Bennett, that’s you.’

Ned climbed the steps to the stage with legs that seemed less than firm, unsafe even though they were heavy. Daniel shook his hand and Ned took up his spot opposite the African American, always surprised by the way Daniel displaced the air around him, imposing himself on his surroundings.

It did not go well. Ned twice lost his place, stammering as his eyes flitted frantically to find the right words. He dropped the paper in a fluster, Daniel stooping to pick it up, placing a hand on Ned’s arm to calm him. As soon as he could, he leapt from the stage, head down and marching towards the door, intent on making it to the nearest tavern.

Sam came to find him not a quarter of an hour later. Ordering two gins, he pulled up a stool.

‘How did you find me?’

‘Mr Arnold saw you leave and I was lucky with my guess.’ Sam passed a full glass to Ned. ‘Everyone has bad days, Ned.’

‘Was there even a chance, though? Against Patrick I mean.’ Ned downed the gin and winced. ‘You were always going to give the role to him.’

‘Patrick is very good. He’s played the role a number of times, and he and Daniel work well together. I admit, I would have leaned towards him regardless, but I like you Ned. Patrick likes to travel around. He’s not loyal, and I think that you could be a great asset to this theatre.’

‘Thank you,’ Ned mumbled, unsure in the face of this unexpected compliment.

‘I want you to understudy. Play Cassio for me, do it well, and I promise you I will reward you for keeping faith in me.’

It was hard for Ned, to swallow his pride. But this at least was something good. Something he could use to offset the humiliation of admitting to his friends that he had failed. And who knew – perhaps something would happen to Patrick and Ned would be Iago after all.

The Man with His Eyes Sewn Shut – Part One

Italian Opera

The year was nearing its end, the days barely worth noticing as the dark winter nights invaded London. Ned had never minded the cold. Keeps the mind sharp, his father had always said, and since most evenings were spent in the warmth of a local tavern it didn’t matter to him that the streets outside were white with frost. As soon as Ned stepped off stage each evening he came down to Union Street and claimed his spot by the fire. By the time he made his way home he would be wrapped up safe in an ale jacket.

‘It’ll be another year before you know it.’ Sean was Ned’s only friend, often given to such blatant observations. ‘I’ve grand plans for it.’

‘1831 will be a better year,’ Ned agreed, ‘though I’ve not too many complaints about this year. Apart from the Maggie debacle, I’m finally getting somewhere. I’ve got this audition tomorrow but from what I’ve been told the role’s mine.’

‘Good luck to you,’ Sean said. ‘Or break a leg is it you lot say?’

‘Luck is on my side, old friend. Finally.’

‘D’you have the time?’ Sean asked, draining his glass.

Ned pulled out his new silver pocket watch, bought with his hard earned wages from the Olympia. ‘Almost ten o’clock. Nora will be here soon, my friend, never fear.’

‘I’m that obvious?’ Sean chuckled. ‘Another?’

Ned nodded and leaned back in his armchair as his friend walked off to the bar. The flames from the fire played across the shiny watch case as he shone it on his jacket sleeve. He deserved his success, he decided. Had he not struggled for years? Lived in foul lodgings that the rats were not sure about, and lived hand to mouth since childhood?

There was one thing missing that would have made life complete. Ned closed his eyes and let his mind focus on the dream that now occupied his thoughts. A thirty year old man was well old enough to be thinking of family life. At one time he had dared to believe that Maggie Lenahan was the woman for him, but she was nothing to Ned now.

‘Mind if I join you?’ A female voice shook Ned from his reverie. Nora had arrived, Sean beaming proudly as he placed the drinks down and fetched her a chair.

‘Long day,’ Ned commiserated. Nora was the wardrobe mistress at the Olympia, a job that entailed arriving before and leaving after the rest of the company.

‘Bloody ballet girls!’ She took a sip of her gin, wincing at the burn of it. ‘Every night they manage to rip their costumes or spill tea on themselves.’

‘The whole place would fall apart without you, love.’ Sean took her hand and she smiled.

Ned shifted uneasily in his chair. He was happy for Sean. Really, he was. He couldn’t stop the needling in his stomach though, the idea that he deserved such attention from a woman like Nora. He secretly thought himself a better prospect than his best friend. More than one woman had called him handsome, and with his newfound fame, why weren’t more of them falling at his feet? Sean was not an ugly man, but no one would give him a second glance. His coffee stall was the source of what little money he earned, barely enough to cover the rent on his room and keep him fed. How he would look after Nora if, as seemed inevitable now, they married?

‘Are you still with us, Ned?’ Sean shook him lightly by the shoulder.

Ned laughed. ‘Sorry, old friend. I’m falling asleep. I’ll leave you two alone and head off I think. I’ve an audition tomorrow to prepare for.’

Taking up his warm overcoat and jamming his hat back on his head, Ned headed out into the frosty air. Tomorrow he would show Sam McCarthy that he was the only choice for Iago and then he would begin his new quest: to find a wife worthy of him.

Click here for Part Two.

A New Life – Part Four

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood engraving by C. D. Laing after B. Sly, 1849. 1849 By: Benjamin Slyafter: Charles D. Laing and Robert SmirkePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

Celine looked out to see Daniel on the street, arguing with another man. The dark blue uniform marked him out as a policeman and her heart sank.

‘What on earth is going on here?’ Maria strode forward and interrupted the shouting men.

‘I’m being accused of theft!’ Daniel blurted.

‘Not theft exactly, ma’am. He has paid for these goods but at a reduced price to that which the vendor demanded.’ The policeman gestured towards a waiting horse and cart, an ancient piano sitting within.

‘The vendor is the rogue. He reneged on our deal at the last moment. That is what I have been trying to make this numbskull understand!’ Daniel hit the side of the cart in anger.

‘Daniel!’ Celine took his arm and moved him away from the policeman and the cart, whose drive looked none too pleased to have his vehicle abused. ‘What happened?’

‘Nora knew this fellow over in London Bridge who was selling off odd pieces of furniture, and she heard that he had a piano that he wanted rid of. I knew that you missed playing and it was going to be an early Christmas present for you. It was supposed to be a surprise.’

‘And it is,’ Celine assured him. ‘So what happened?’

‘Nora was going over to London Bridge on another errand so I asked her to ask the price for me. It seemed like a fair deal, what he offered her, and so I engaged transportation to pick it up today and arranged the funds to pay the man what he’d asked.’

‘And when you turned up this so-called gentleman took one look at you and raised his price,’ Maria guessed. ‘By how much?’

He told her and even the policeman whistled in shock. ‘Double!’

‘Well, that’s a case of daylight robbery if ever I heard it.’ Maria turned to the law. ‘Sir, surely there’s some agreement that can be made. What does the vendor say for himself? Daniel, I presume you paid him the original amount?’

Daniel nodded and the policeman looked troubled. ‘The vendor insists that he did not give permission for this gentleman to remove the item. He calls it theft as only half the requested payment was made.’

‘Very well. Do you have paper? A pencil or something similar?’ Maria asked and the man nodded. She dictated her address to him, his hand stumbling as he realised the location. ‘Have this man send his bill to my husband. We will not pay him the full asking price but if he can devise a fair amount between the two then I am sure the matter can be considered settled.’

‘Maria, I can’t let you do this,’ Daniel protested.

‘Call it an early Christmas present from the McCarthy’s if you must, but let us get this infernal instrument into the house. Celine, your neighbours are staring at us.’

Celine turned to see Mrs Carlisle watching the commotion from her front step. She cursed inwardly: this was hardly the best impression to make on her new neighbour. Celine tried to smile and raised a hand in greeting but Mrs Carlisle did not return either gesture. Instead she turned and walked back into her house.

‘Oh dear,’ Maria said.

The matter with the piano was soon resolved, but when Celine went to call upon Mrs Carlisle that Thursday she was told that the mistress was out. To make clear the insult, she saw Mrs Carlisle clearly through the window as she returned to the street, watching her leave with a face of stone.




A New Life – Part Three

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood engraving by C. D. Laing after B. Sly, 1849. 1849 By: Benjamin Slyafter: Charles D. Laing and Robert SmirkePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

It was Maria McCarthy who stood at the door.

‘Come in,’ Celine stood back to admit her friend. ‘I apologise for the bareness of it all. We are still a way from having this set up as a proper home.’

‘No matter.’ Maria hung her cloak from the stand in the hallway. ‘I was just passing and I thought I would see if you needed any help. Has Mrs Simpson arrived yet?’

‘Ma’am.’ Ruth Simpson came down the stairs with her freshly written letter. ‘I came today, and I owe both of you a great deal for this opportunity.’

‘Mrs Simpson has already been a great help. I realise that I know nothing about running even as small a household as this,’ Celine confessed as she lead the way to the morning room.

‘Ma’am, will fetch you tea before I go out?’ Ruth asked Celine.

‘Oh, yes, if you would I’d be most grateful.’ Celine smiled, signing the letter and handing it back to the efficient cook.

‘Stop being grateful,’ Maria advised once Ruth had disappeared down to the kitchen. ‘You are her employer. You pay her to fetch tea and to cook and I hope to clean. You do need a maid though I would say if you want those soft white hands of yours to stay so.’

‘Yes,’ Celine sighed. ‘I am not cut out for housework. Daniel has to set the fires as I seem unable to do it. I don’t know how these tiny girls manage with such strenuous activity day in, day out. It took me an entire day to clean the windows last week, only for them to be filthy again the next morning.’

‘Such is life in this filthy city,’ Maria said, looking around her. Celine was embarrassed to note that the floor was not well swept. ‘Let me ask around and find you a young girl. You need not pay much and she can share Mrs Simpson’s room.’

‘Thank you, Maria.’ Celine wished that the tea would arrive. There was no distraction from the substandard furnishings of the room. ‘I met a neighbour. Mrs Carlisle, a doctor’s wife. She has invited me to call on her on Thursday.’

‘That is good news.’ Maria raised an eyebrow. ‘And she has met Daniel?’

‘Not yet,’ Celine confessed. ‘But I was honest and told her that he is an actor. I would not say that she was impressed by that fact but she took it in her stride and made her invitation subsequently.’

‘That is a good sign, Celine, only do practice caution. I doubt they see many men with skin as dark as Daniel’s on these streets.’

‘Yes, Maria, I will.’ Celine felt like a child being lectured by her mother. ‘How is Sam? And how is your health?’

‘Sam is hardly at home these days,’ Maria confessed. ‘But he does seem more excited about the prospect of becoming a father than he was. He has already had the nursery furnished and secured a nursemaid, and it is still months until the baby is due.’

‘That is good. I know that Daniel is keen for us to start our own family, only we must have the house in order first.’

Ruth Simpson entered then with the tea tray. ‘Ma’am, I shall be away to the Carlisle’s and then to the shops.’

‘Very good.’

Ruth was gone but a moment before she came rushing back in, Celine spilling tea into her saucer as she looked up in surprise.

‘Begging your pardon, ma’am, only you must come quickly.’

Celine and Maria both jumped to their feet, Maria less sprightly due to her burgeoning stomach. Following Ruth out of the front door the source of her panic soon became clear.




A New Life – Part Two

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en

V0013513 The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood en Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images The British Museum: the entrance facade as intended. Wood engraving by C. D. Laing after B. Sly, 1849. 1849 By: Benjamin Slyafter: Charles D. Laing and Robert SmirkePublished: – Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0

By the day of Ruth Simpson’s arrival, the Gower Street house was looking like a home. There were curtains hanging in the dining room and the matrimonial bedroom, nets in the attic room designated for Ruth. She had a bed as well, an old cast iron bedstead that Daniel had bought at auction. In the kitchen was a fine big wooden table, a dresser with drawers full of utensils. Enough for the new cook to carry out her duties.

            ‘Please let this be the last day of burnt toast,’ Daniel grumbled as his wife struggled before the fire, unused to such manual labour.

            ‘You could have prepared your own,’ she retorted.

            ‘I’m joking, dearest. You must admit that you will enjoy having someone around to do the cooking.’

            ‘And the cleaning I hope. This house is already covered in coal dust in only a few days,’ Celine climbed to her feet and sat down with a plate of charred bread.

            ‘Don’t work the poor woman into an early grave,’ Daniel warned, scraping the worst of the cinders from his portion. ‘You will have to help Mrs Simpson you know. We cannot afford a fleet of servants like Mrs Harper or your father have.’

            Celine’s nose wrinkled. ‘How much work can one house be?’

            ‘My love, just bear in mind that you may want to learn a few practical skills. You don’t want to lose your cook inside of a month through exhaustion.’


Mrs Ruth Simpson arrived at midday, a small ancient carpet bag all she had with her when she pulled on the bell.

            ‘Come in!’ Celine flung the door open. ‘It’s so wonderful that you’re here at last.’

            Ruth stared up at her new mistress. ‘Ma’am.’ She curtseyed clumsily and walked into the house, looking all about her. Celine knew that the new cook was only ten years older than her, yet looked much older. The poor woman, she thought. A life of misuse and hard labour had taken its toll.

            ‘I shall take you upstairs and show you to your new bedroom.’ Celine lead the way. ‘I hope you will find it comfortable.’

            The small room was quite bare, with just the narrow bed made up and a small table, but the sun streamed in through the window nett and it looked quite acceptable, Celine thought.

             Ruth put down her bag and untied her hat. ‘Ma,am, I shall get started right away. I shall find the kitchen myself but can you tell me what you want me to prepare for dinner?’

            ‘For dinner?’ Celine had not even thought. For a week she and Daniel had subsisted on pies that he brought home to her, and one evening they had been invited to visit Sam and Maria. ‘Well, shall I leave that up to you for this evening?’

            ‘Very well. What food is there in the pantry? And do you have any preferences? I assume the master will like a bit of meat. Which butcher do you use?’

            ‘I’m sorry. There is no food, only a morsel of bread and a dab of butter. Some milk. I have not…I’m not very good at this, am I.’ Celine sat down on the bed and covered her face with her hands.


            ‘Sorry, I – I don’t know what Daniel’s preferences are. He eats everything I’ve ever seen put before him so…And I don’t even know where the nearest butcher would be, let alone if they are any good. I’m sorry, Mrs Simpson, I am not used to running a household. Forgive me.’

            Ruth Simpson looked at her kindly. ‘Ma’am, this is my first job as a cook, but I did work as a scullery maid some years back, and I’ve seen how a house is managed. Now, do you know which houses along the street are well run? I can find out from their cook where the best butcher is, and arrange for our food deliveries. All you need worry about is being able to tell me each day what you’d like me to cook. And leave me a little money to pay the bills.’

           Celine smiled and nodded. ‘I can manage that. Try the Carlisle’s house two doors down. They are a doctor and his wife. Surely their house will be run like clockwork.’

            ‘I shall go there directly.’ Ruth put her bonnet back on. ‘From there I can go to the shops. I’ll write out a letter for you to sign. That way I can get everything on credit and bring you the bills to settle when they’re due.’

            Celine breathed out, her panic subsiding. She may have been new at this but look, she told herself, a happy husband, an efficient cook, all inside of a fortnight. And was that the doorbell? She left Ruth to write out her letter while she went to see who her first official visitor could be.