Hugo in London
by Marina J. Neary
In 1854, at the height of Crimean War, Victor Hugo, the legendary French romantic, comes to London in search of inspiration for his next novel. He meets Jocelyn Stuart, a delusional young benefactress, who promises to show him “the real England.”
Hugo disguises himself as a sailor and enters Bermondsey, where he immerses himself in a world of boxing matches, circus performances and gang wars. Roaming London’s most notorious slum, he encounters Dr. Grant, a Cambridge-educated opium dealer; Wynfield, a charismatic bandit; and Diana, a sickly servant girl who bears a disturbing resemblance to Hugo’s dead daughter. Their surreal adventures become the basis for Hugo’s subsequent novels.
When danger befalls Hugo’s new friends, he vows to protect them, even if it means turning against his old friends and risking his own safety. How far will a grieving father go for the memory of his child?
Infused with dark humor and melancholic folk ballads, Hugo in London is a tribute to one of France’s most prolific literary icons.
Golden Anchor Inn in the slums of Bermondsey. Hugo is lying on a mattress, half-unconscious, stirring occasionally. Diana is sitting on an empty beer barrel, sharpening knives, singing a robber ballad in faint, blood-chilling voice.
DIANA: Sing to me of burning castles,
Hanged thieves and sunken ships.
Light the candle and hold your fingers
Where the hot wax drips.
Wynfield enters quietly and stands behind her back. Diana’s hands freeze, and her singing interrupts.
DIANA (with faint hope): Are you hurt, Wyn?
WYNFIELD: Not a scratch. How did you now I was here?
DIANA: I smelled the boxing ring.
WYNFIELD: Don’t mind me. I just came for my cigars.
DIANA: (Lifts her hand) Hear that wind?
WYNFIELD: What wind? The air is perfectly still.
DIANA: If you listen closely, you can hear curses and laughter. Those are the voices of dead sailors who drowned at sea. The feast never ends. A Dutch sailor told me that.
WYNFIELD (stands behind Diana): Keep mingling with sailors. They’ll tell you all sorts of things.
DIANA: But it’s true. I hear voices, calling out from the fog. It’s a pity you aren’t hurt. (Sighs with disappointment and resumes sharpening knives): You know how I love pouring whiskey over your wounds.
WYNFIELD: Not tonight, wolf-cub. Kip pulled a prank on me. He let me fight a fat French sailor with a belly as soft as a pillow. I don’t know what he did on a ship other than peel potatoes in the galley.
Hugo begins stirring on his mattress. Wynfield places his fingers on Diana’s shoulders. She continues to sharpen the knives, but her hands begin to shake. Wynfield pulls the pins that hold her blouse together, then leans over and kisses her neck.
DIANA (shudders): Burn in hell, Wyn! I almost sliced my finger off. You’ll cripple me and make me completely useless. I thought you came for your cigars.
Wynfield, amused by her commotion, chuckles lightly, pulls the rags back over her shoulder and secures them with a pin.
WYNFIELD: There. I won’t distract you anymore. Carry on as if I weren’t here at all.
DIANA (with hostile nostalgia): Recall the times when you’d crawl into my bed and tell me tales of horror? We’d lie under the same blanket and sip opium from the same flask. Now you have new drinking mates.
WYNFIELD: That doesn’t change our bedtime ritual. I can still crawl into your bed and stay with you until you fall asleep. What does it matter where I am when your eyes are closed? And in the morning, I’ll barge in, whistling, pull off the covers, and you’ll growl at me and hide your head under the pillow.
DIANA: One morning you’ll find a dead crow in my place. Soon I’ll be prancing on that ghost ship, drinking with Dutch sailors. And you’ll still be trapped in this filthy box. And you’ll hear me laughing at you from the other side.
WYNFIELD (tries to conceal anxiety): Now, what was our agreement? We don’t talk about such things. You aren’t dying. Who’ll sharpen the knives?
DIANA: The old bear will replace me in no time. And you’ll have all the whores in Southwark to console you.
WYNFIELD: But I don’t want just any whore. The only whore that interests me is the one whose initials are J.S.
Diana jumps to her feet and points one of the knives towards Wynfield’s chest. He recoils, laughing.
DIANA: You haven’t been stabbed in a while.
WYNFIELD: Not by a little girl. I don’t believe this knife is sharp enough.
DIANA: There’s only one way to find out.
WYNFIELD: I wouldn’t advise it. If you make a mess, Dr. Grant will make you mop my blood off the floor.
Copyright © 2008 by Marina J. Neary