RizpahBy Jan Holm
A private room above the Red Lion Inn, Shoreham, Sussex, on a damp Friday in October, early in the nineteenth century. Alfred Lord Tennyson sits, his head in his hands, surrounded by balls of screwed up paper.
‘Damn it to hell! It will not do, no, it will not do indeed. The story should touch the heart, but this is tedious as a Good Friday sermon.’ He glances out the window at the market stalls in the street below. ‘I will take a glass of burgundy before my journey, and waste no more time on this frippery.’ He kicks angrily at the paper and leaves the room.
In the bar below Tennyson sits brooding by the fire.
‘Excuse me good sir, be you the famous poet?’
Tennyson nods, shifting along the settle to avoid the worst of the stench of fish coming from the old woman.
‘Yes, I am indeed, madam’. He looks annoyed, taking his hankerchief from his pocket and pressing it to his nose. She lowers herself onto the bench next to him. He notices the grime deeply ingrained in her hands, the greasy stains on her layers of clothing. She edges closer, glancing suspiciously at the market goers by the bar. Tennyson places his folded cloak and bag in the space between them, to avoid further intrusion, she appears not to notice.
‘I be Phoebe Hessell, and I have a tale for ye sir.’ She scratches a scabby wart on her chin before continuing. ‘A wrong I did long ago, but it do weigh heavily on my mind the closer I get to my grave, it would be a blessing to rid myself of it sir.’ She looks longingly at his plate of bread and mutton. Feeling mellowed from the wine and a little intrigued, Tennyson calls loudly across the room, his cultured voice competing with the local burr.
‘Inn keeper, bring food and ale for this lady.’ The inn keeper grins and mutters to his cronies.
‘Not the first gentleman Phoebe Hessell ave conned,’ he winks, ‘and not the last either my boys.’
Phoebe dips crusts from her bread into the ale, sucking the pap with obvious relish.
‘My teeth aint wot they were sir, but I’ll save the meat for later.’ She thrusts the hunk of fatty mutton into the pocket of her filthy apron. Tennyson clears his throat, then pulls out his hunter time piece, frowning at it.
‘You say you have a story for me madam?’ Phoebe grunts, her mouth full of soggy bread. ‘I beg you tell it, for I am to travel to Brighthelmstone on the afternoon coach.’ Phoebe stuffs the remaining scraps into her apron and swigs the dregs from her cup, wiping her mouth with the corner of her shawl.
‘I were not like you see me now, bowed down with a century of toil, no sir, I were in me prime in those days. It were nothing for me to travel the coast road to Seaford and back, selling fish, with Nero.’ Seeing Tennysons’ incomprehension she laughs, a cracked sound that reveals the two remaining yellow teeth in her lower jaw. ‘He be a donkey sir, he be only a donkey.’ She stares into the fire, smiling, her gums working soundlessly. Tennyson clears his throat again, rousing her from her reverie.
‘Every October I remembers it and it makes me heart bleed,’ she sighs. He tuts and pulls out his watch again, pointing to the dial.
‘I have exactly thirty five minutes for your story madam, then my coach leaves.’
Phoebe pulls herself up straight, as if under orders.
‘Right ho sir, right ho. It were autumn, like I said, 1792. In them days, a lad from Shoreham took the mail to Hove on horseback. He were just stopped in Goldstone Bottom for a piss, when young Jimmy Rook and Edward Howell stole a letter from his bag. Jimmy were a simpleton, worked for farmer Rigden, no harm in the boy at all. He were led on by Howell, he were older, a tailor mind you, and he should ave knowd better. Of course Jimmy couldn’t keep his mouth shut, told everyone in this very inn about the half sovereign they stole from the letter.’ Tears pool in her bloodshot eyes, she wipes them away with the back of her trembling hand. Tennysons’ face softens.
‘Don’t upset yourself so, I’m sure it wasn’t anything to do with you.’ She stops sobbing and looks him in the eye, her face tragic.
‘But it were sir, it were, I was the one what informed on him. I told the magistrate. I just thought they’d get a flogging, learn em a lesson.’ She stares down at her cracked boots for a moment, then continues. ‘Jimmy informed on Howell, they was both arrested, hanged em on the spot where they committed the crime they did.’ Tennyson lets out a low whistle.
‘That is indeed a harsh punishment for the taking of half a sovereign.’
‘You avent heard the worst of it sir. Their bodies was covered in pitch and gibbeted. They stayed in that iron cage til their bones dropped through to the earth below.’
‘Yes, on my travels I sometimes see such things at crossroads. Barbaric, truly barbaric, it should be abolished in the name of God.’ He grimaces in disgust. The tears flow unchecked down Phoebes’ cheeks.
‘It broke her heart, she was like a wrath. Every night she walked to Goldstone Bottom to collect each bone as it fell, until spring, when the last one dropped through. She took er sack of bones and buried it at dead of night, in Shoreham churchyard.’
‘Of whom are you speaking?’ Tennyson looks perplexed.
‘Why Jimmy Rooks’ mother of course. It killed her, poor soul, all that traipsing in winter weather, she took a chill and was in her own grave, the very week after she buried her son.’
A horn sounds outside in the road.
‘Coach to Brighthelmstone gentlemen’, bawls the landlord. Tennyson stands, gathering up his cloak and bag. He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a silver shilling, pressing it into Phoebes’ palm.
‘A touching tale indeed, I thank you for the telling of it. It will be the subject for an affecting work of tragic poesy.’ She slips the coin down the front of her dress, glaring at the landlord, who is chuckling knowingly at her from the door.
‘I’m relieved by the telling of it sir, truly relieved.’
Tennyson does not go to the coach, but returns to the room, where he pens Rizpah:
The loud black nights for us and the storm rushing over the down,
When I cannot see my own hand but am led by the creak of the chain
And grovel and grope for my son til I find myself drenched with rain.
I gleaned the bones for this story from Judy Middletons’ ‘A History of Hove’ (1979). It is very unlikely that Phoebe Hessell would have met Tennyson, but her story undoubtedly influenced his writing of Rizpah. Phoebes’ eventful life deserves its own story. She now has a bus named after her.
This page was amended on 09/04/2014