GUNPOWDER, TREACHERY AND SEX by JD Revitt (2nd place, Oct21)

If you stroll along the sea front, saltwater wind stinging, hair whipping sticky tendrils across your lips, head straight up the hill, down the first set of steep steps, then turn right slightly, and you will come to an innocuous-looking old door. Bold, yellow, misspelt rude words violate the sun bleached, once-Downing-Street-black painted proud exterior, now peeling and tinged mould green in the top corner, having been partly covered by overgrown trees. Thick cobwebs nestling in rusty hinges, cradling the husks of a dead insect or two gently laid to rest under a dried-out leaf, have long ago been abandoned by the weaver.

It is a large, chunky door, well-made, sturdy with a practical no-nonsense facade. A farmer’s wife of a door if you understand my meaning. Almost unnoticeable, but not quite because it occupies an ornate, curved stone doorway that you can’t stop yourself from touching. They don’t make them like they used to, I guarantee you will murmur to yourself when you run your fingers over the whorls and swirls. A little further down, there is another, identical doorway where the door no longer exists. The exquisite entrance has been filled in, the act likely overseen by an officious man on over-time with a clipboard and several cheap pens in his shirt pocket. So, there is no other door. This is the only one. Unique.

It is locked. I tried it once when I was reasonably sure no-one was watching. The old latch cool, heavy, rough, remained stubbornly in place. I wiped my sweaty palms, covered in flecks of crispy brown metal, on my Laura Ashley long-pleated skirt, which was a shame really, because Laura Ashley has since closed and the rust smears never did wash out. The door has been sealed shut, tight-lipped, for as long as anyone can remember. The absence of an honourable blue plaque noted and the lack of desire for it to be demolished, or indeed, filled in with concrete, a relief. It leads to nowhere in particular but is somewhere of significance.

The door, so the tale is told, often surreptitiously over a pint or two in Ye Olde Dolphin Inn by many a Matlow who proclaim to be a descendant or to know someone who knows someone who is a descendant, protects a cavernous area used as a storage-cum-meeting point. It was utilised by two very different and unlikely business partners which is precisely how the door became infamous and part of local folklore.

The first individual comprising this odd couple was Charlotte Burn. Often known as Charlie Burn because it is a taken-for-granted assumption it is advantageous for one’s career as a pirate to be considered male. Such was the time then. Whether her surname was Burn or whether she became thus known because she had, from time to time, set ablaze vessels at sea after she and her felons had completed looting and, it is assumed, were inclined to destroy evidence, human or otherwise. Others say she simply loved arson, to hear the desperate screams of doomed, dying men as their flaming ship, reflected in the murderous black of the sea, cracked, hissed and spat, sinking with one final gloop, without trace into the cold, murky depths down to Davy Jones’ Locker, leaving only dissipating ripples behind momentarily, until they too, vanished. Whatever the reason, she toasted each victory with a tankard of rum, a distant light in her eyes and a slight smile on her lips.

The second individual when revealed will, no doubt, confuse. This is so, because she was a fragrant, well-dressed, substantial lady named Dora Fawcett who became a staunch activist for women’s rights, long before the suffragettes made an appearance, after a minor disagreement with her husband escalated into significant disgruntlement largely over who’s responsibility it was to manage the servants. Many thought there must have been more to this back story but if it is so, it remains a mystery.

Dora, it transpires, had a similar interest to Charlotte only they did not know it until they met, purely by chance, when Charlotte was holding court in Ye Olde Dolphin Inn about her latest conquest and Dora was attending a secret meeting in the snug at the back with other activists. Their paths collided when they both went to the bar to order more ale (a drink strictly forbidden by Dora’s conveniently forgotten husband). A cosmic cataclysm it seems, although it was not acknowledged by anyone else but they at the time. Dora inhaled the irresistible stench of death, fire smoke and treachery on Charlotte and so the conversation began. Partly fuelled by ale, the flirty, soon-to-be lengthy exchange was interrupted, rather quickly, by much impropriety, apparently, down in the musty cellar, witnessed only by half-empty oak casks. Inhibitions were outrageously discarded during a satisfying voyage of discovery on a pile of old dusty sacks that sighed dust mote clouds under the pressure of Dora’s bare, fleshy white buttocks whilst yeast, hops and lust permeated the air filled with frantic gasps.

Thereafter commenced a mutually acceptable business arrangement, interspersed by episodes of sustained sheer debauchery, much to the dismay of the senior members of the newly formed women’s movement, but tolerated all the same because of Dora’s daring ingenuity. Gunpowder, regularly and forcibly acquired from the seas by Charlotte, was transported to Dora, and then onwards by Dora and her colleagues to institutes that were of no consequence to Charlie, but which represented annoying and unreasonable barriers to Dora and her aspirations to be taken seriously and improve women’s rights.

Of course, the aforementioned door marks the exact spot where the clandestine meetings took place. Whence the gunpowder was smuggled into, where Dora and Charlie refused to refrain, and the point from which Dora and her colleagues collected the gunpowder under the cloak of night, transported it by horse and cart, disguised in milk churns to its deadly destination.

The illicit relationship, despite its illegality, continued for many successful years. Dora Fawcett made her point, albeit in a somewhat dramatic fashion, and became a ‘tour de force’ in women’s rights and an absolute master (or mistress, in this case) in disguise and dynamite. She rose, much to her husband’s embarrassment and his chums bemusement, to the higher echelons of the activist movement. Shunning her so-called society friends, she was adored by many and hated by more. So talented was she, that she was never caught and lived to the ripe old age of ninety-three, ensuring she set a well-established path for others to tread and further plough over the forthcoming years.
Charlotte Burn, on the other hand, whilst sympathetic, failed to understand her friend’s concerns having never been prevented from doing exactly as she wanted. Although she was pleased for her lover and wished her well as they parted company, amicably, when Dora no longer needed gunpowder pillaged from ships. Having inherited a substantial sum from her husband’s inexplicable, premature death, Dora spent her final, perfumed, heavily rouged years in a grand mansion complete with gilt-edged visiting cards, in the heart of London, well away from the sea, wistfully reminiscing the other explosions generously and selflessly bestowed by Charlie.

Charlie decided to diversify and became even wealthier when she opened a gambling house with her ill-gotten gains. It was a huge success but one that did not fulfil. She longed for her old marauding ways, so employed a manager and returned to the seas. Unfortunately, Charlotte consumed too much rum one night, fell overboard her new ship, ‘God Wills It’, and drowned. Never having had a religious bone in her body, it was all rather strange. She was fifty-one years old and most felt the seas to be a safer place despite rumours claiming her ghost roamed the rugged coastline. However, the peace and harmony was short-lived. Charlie’s riches were bequeathed to a secret daughter, who had been raised by her grandfather and who later followed in her mother’s footsteps.

The door, nevertheless, remains steadfastly in place.

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