A Day in the Life of Jean Briggs
A Day in the Life of …Or, should it be A Life in the Day of …? I go to bed with Charles Dickens. I wake up with Charles Dickens. He’s always interrupting me with his speeches, his fourteen thousand letters, his journalism, fragments of his novels and short stories. He’s nosey, too. ‘Any new ideas for a murder? I like a good murder.’
And, then, without notice, he’s gone. Often, just when I need him, he’s silent. Not a word to say. No interest in murder.
I try to give shape to my day, to be organised, disciplined, to prioritize as they say which means, I suppose to put first things first. Monday was washing day– once; Tuesday, baking perhaps; Wednesday, the rack was lowered from the kitchen ceiling and ironing commenced; Thursday was shopping and Friday was for cleaning, hoovering, polishing so that the house was tip-top for the weekend – in case visitors came. Relatives, perhaps.
A maiden aunt or two for whom an untidy house was a cardinal sin. And, speaking of sin, Sunday was church, a good roast dinner and the beds changed. Would that it were so, now. The above routine was never really mine. When I was a teacher, Sunday was marking day, work scheme day, anxiety day, nail-biting day, what shall I do about Alexander Cross day – no prep again! It was often burnt roast day. It still often is. It’s the writing, see. The other week, I picked a lot of blackberries. An autumn fruit compote, I thought. I had to buy plums as there are none on the tree this year. Why? That’s another question. I put the fruit in a pan with some water – and left it. So pleased to be ahead of myself. I went upstairs. Charles Dickens appeared. ‘Have you thought of writing a ghost story with me as the maincharacter? I’d do it myself, only …’‘Not at the moment. I’m trying to write another novel with you as the main character Isn’t that enough?’‘Christmas is coming. Just an idea.’ He vanishes. But, it was an idea. Yes, it was. Suppose Dickens met a ghost, or several … Play with a few ideas. Read Dickens’s own ghost stories. And there was something about going with his sons to hunt out a ghost – in one of the letters, I think. I’ll just look in my note books. That’s an odd smell – like fruit burning. The berries are a blackened mass like sticky tar and the pan is ruined. In the bin with the lot. That night I can’t sleep. I think about my ghost story. I switch on the light and make a few notes. I reorganise the pillows. I remember Dickens’s article Lying Awake in which he refers to the old remedy which said that if you beat the pillow and shake the bedclothes twenty times, and then cool off, you will have sweet and pleasant sleep. I try it. Eighteen, nineteen, twenty … oh, well, twenty-one, twenty-two …
It’s hopeless. I know I won’t sleep now. It’s his fault. But, I come up with some really good ideas. Might as well go into the other room and turn on the computer. I open the document entitled Christmas Eve– the ghost story will take place then. I know it’s been done, but he hasn’t objected. I put my fingers on the keys. My mind’s gone blank. He’s gone again. Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow …So, it’s Monday. Get organised. Put the laundry in the machine. Tackle that pile of ironing from last week. Put the radio on. Turn it up. Loud so that I won’t hear him. He’s bound to appear, but I’ll just keep singing along. I’ll ignore him and when I’ve finished the ironing, I’ll deal with the fridge and the cooker. The cooker! No, that’s a step too far. But first check emails. There might be an invitation to do a talk or a book signing. There isn’t – just an invitation to buy a cashmere sweater at the bargain price of £80.00. I wish. Ooh, just a quick look on Facebook. Someone might have liked my page. I don’t believe it. It’s him.
There’s a quotation from Bleak House about Mrs Rouncewell who believes that an ancient family has a right to a ghost. Ghosts, eh? No, no, no! Get organised, now. In the kitchen, dashing away with the smoothing iron. It’s Radio 3 –Songs of the Auvergne. Not easy to sing along. I never really liked them. Change the station. Radio 4 –Woman’s Hour and women in the boardroom. I don’t think I care all that much. That’s what comes of living in the past. Radio 4 Extra. It’s him, again. It’s a serialisation of David Copperfield.
Young David is working in the bottle factory just as the young Dickens laboured in the blacking factory at Hungerford Stairs. A cup of tea, a chocolate biscuit and a nice serial on the radio – lovely. I deserve a break from all that ironing. And David Copperfield is on his way. to Betsey Trotwood’s in Dover. I settle in. Oh, God. I can smell burning. Someone’s laughing upstairs. Titles. Titles. Laughter in the Dark? The Upstairs Ghost? The Haunted Staircase? I rush to the computer. I have it. He’s there. We’re there. I write until I hear a bell ring. The chimes at midnight, Master Shallow? No, the oven timer. Casserole ready. I’m so organised. And there are clean sheets on the bed. Pillows beaten twenty times. Admittedly, one of the pillow cases is scorched, but it’s comfortable. I lie quietly, listening to the rain and the sound of the river rushing past below my garden. I’ve had a hot meal and written a couple of thousand words. He’s quiet. Not a bad day, all told.
JEAN BRIGGS taught English and Drama in various schools, from Hong Kong to Lancashire. She enjoyed writing plays, especially spoof murder mysteries: A is for Arsenic, B is for Bludgeon, C is for Cyanide were all set in ridiculously clichéd country houses, featuring sinister butlers and half-mad aristocrats poisoning or bashing their way to inheritances. A Lesson in Murder saw the slaughter of half a staff room by a lunatic former pupil bent on revenge –naturally, that went down very well with the pupils. The highest point of her career as a playwright came with a performance of a reduced Hamlet in the presence of The Queen – not an ideal choice, she thought afterwards – almost the entire court of Denmark slaughtered.
Then Jean retired and moved to a cottage in Cumbria. Her players were gone – and her audience. She missed the teaching and writing. What next? A novel, perhaps? It was 2012, the bicentenary of Charles Dickens. Time to re-read him and to discover his articles on the police in his magazine Household Words. An idea was born – suppose Dickens was involved in a murder case? As far as Jean knew, he wasn’t, but he had portrayed murder and he had created detectives: the private detective Nadgett in Martin Chuzzlewit and Inspector Bucket in Bleak House. Dickens explores the psychology of the murderer; he understands human nature; he constructs a narrative; he has imagination, and he knows the streets of London – surely these would make him a skilful investigator. He admired the police so she invented a partner for him, a professional policeman from Bow Street.The idea was worth a try. She wrote the first of the Dickens and Jones mysteries: The Murder of Patience Brooke which is to be published by The History Press in August 2014.The next two cases: Hungerford Stairs and Murder by Ghostlight are finished and another is on the way. D is now, of course, for Dickens!