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Authors: Angeline Trevena

The Bottle Stopper

BOOK: The Bottle Stopper
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The Bottle Stopper

“Too much trouble, and you’ll end up just like your crazy mother.”

 

Maeve was six when they took her mother away, and left her in the care of her Uncle Lou: a drunk, a misogynist, a fraud.

 

For eleven years she’s lived with him in Falside’s slums, deep in the silt of the Falwere River. She bottles his miracle medicine, stocks his apothecary shop, and endures his savage temper.

 

But as his violence escalates, and his lies come undone, she devises a plan to escape him forever. Even if it means people have to die.

 

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The Bottle Stopper

 

Angeline Trevena

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bogus Caller Press

 

1

Maeve felt her stomach lurch. She pressed her lips together and swallowed the bile back down. Breathing through her mouth, she dragged a sack, stuffed with damp rags, from the corner of the storage room. Positioning it in the centre of the space, she sat down, and crossed her legs.

To her right was a pile of glass bottles, not one the same as another. There were blue bottles, green, brown, clear, the occasional yellow. They were different sizes, some were round, some square. The only bottles she was instructed to discard were the ones marked with the word 'Poison'. Apparently, it was bad for business.

To her left was a pile of equally mismatched corks. After years of practice, she could quickly judge which cork would fit which bottle; matching them like unsuspecting participants in an arranged marriage. At least, in the slums, that was something she'd never have to worry about.

Also within reach, was a crate of plant cuttings to push into the bottles. Some were nothing more than riverside grasses, others were flowers, weeds, twigs, lavender. The odd few were actually herbs, but Maeve couldn't identify them. Nor could she identify whether any of the plants were poisonous. Their purpose was merely aesthetic. If people were lucky, they would get a sprig of wild garlic or mint. Something that may help to disguise the vile taste of the medicine itself.

In front of her was a barrel containing Uncle Lou's miracle medicine. Proven to cure any ailment from the common cold to broken bones and irregular heart rhythms. This was the source of the stench that turned Maeve's stomach. Little did Lou's customers know, it was nothing more than water from the putrid river that flowed past the slums.

Uncle Lou's apothecary shop stood along The Wall, under the imposing shadow of the cliff face that rose up behind. Further along the street, the buildings parted for the rough staircase that cut its way through the rock, and up to the next level of the city. The buildings along The Wall, leaning casually back against the cliff, were the oldest in the slums, having stood there for several generations. And while they were a mismatched row of hodgepodge buildings, built by hand from found materials, they were a far cry from the shacks that sprawled before them. Their bricks weren't a uniform colour, their windows didn't match, and you could easily point out the extensions and alterations that had been made over the years. But they boasted such luxuries as electricity, and indoor toilets.

As Maeve filled and stoppered each bottle, she stacked them into a small wheeled cart. It was only after much begging that her uncle had supplied her with it. It was a child's toy, the kind that usually carried wooden bricks. Maeve wondered which unwitting child he'd stolen it from.

She dragged the cart through to the kitchen, the bottles chattering as they jostled for space. She shushed them, gently easing the cart over the pits and dents in the wooden floor.

She could hear her uncle in the shop which occupied the front of the building. A small hall joined it to the back of the house, split into the kitchen and storage room on the ground floor, Maeve's bedroom and a bathroom above, and Uncle Lou's bedroom in the attic space. Every room was small and cramped, the staircases steep and narrow.

Maeve crept across the hall and crouched on the bottom stair. She enjoyed listening to the different voices of the customers, and catching glimpses of them through the glass-panelled door that joined the hall to the shop.

It was easy to distinguish which level of Falside the customer came from. The strength of Lou's phony French accent was proportionate to the weight of his customer's wallet. The  richer customers were served with bottles from the top shelves. The contents were, of course, identical, but the bottles were fancier, and sold at a higher price.

“Madame, can you ever truly put a price on your poor father's health?” Uncle Lou was saying. “Your father, who has raised you, protected you, and chosen for you so wisely. Does he not deserve the best? The most potent, and fastest working medicine? Do you not want him returned to you as soon as possible? Think of your children, and how much they would miss their beloved grandfather. Imagine explaining to them that he had died because you wanted to save money.”

After a moment, Maeve heard the chink of coins. She watched as the young woman stepped in front of the door. She wore a high-necked pale blue dress, her blonde hair drawn up in an intricate weave of plaits. In her gloved hands she held a tiny blue bottle. Maeve remembered it, there were vines and grapes embossed around the neck.

Maeve picked up her own long braids, and twisted them up over her head. As she released them, they dropped back down heavily. Her dull hair was escaping in places, tufting out like marsh grass. The ends were tied together with old pieces of string. She sighed.

She looked down at her own tattered gloves. Goodness knows where Lou had found them. She'd cut the fingers off herself to allow for a better grip on the bottles. There was a sizeable hole on the palm of one, and she picked idly at the loose threads.

“My life will never get better,” she whispered to herself.

Leaning forward, Maeve lifted a vase of dried flowers from a side table, and slipped the grubby table cloth out from under it. She ceremoniously laid it over her head like a veil, standing slowly, her head bowed reverently.

“I do,” she whispered, extending her finger for the ring. She snatched her hand back. “But not to you, you fiend.”

She looked up at the ceiling and spun around. There was a large ceiling rose above her, the sort that should host an impressive chandelier, but this one had never had so much as a bare light bulb hanging from it. She span around and around, faster and faster.

“I will marry for love!” she called out as she stumbled. She scrabbled for the table, but fell onto her knees, bashing one against the edge of a loose floorboard.

The door to the shop flew open, and Uncle Lou's sharp nose poked through the gap.

“What the hell are you doing?” he demanded. “I'm trying to run a business here, trying to keep a roof over your head. I don't have to, you know. Too much trouble, and you'll end up just like your crazy mother.” He stabbed the air with a bony finger. “Now, shut the hell up.” The door slammed shut.

Maeve turned and wandered up the stairs. She gently closed her bedroom door behind her, and climbed onto her bed. Leaning on the small window ledge, she gazed out over the muddied slums beneath her, and across the Falwere River beyond.

2

Maeve woke to a familiar sound. Above her, a woman giggled, high-pitched and shrill, while Uncle Lou's bed thudded and squeaked in rhythm.

It was still dark outside, and the moonlight pooled on Maeve's bed like milk. She knelt up and watched the moon's reflection fracture on the surface of the river.

She rubbed at her wrist. She'd been dreaming again. She could still feel the ghost of her mother's fingers locked around her arm, the burn as she was wrenched away. Maeve had only been six years old, and she clung onto every memory she still had of her. Her hair, her voice, her smell. Her strange stories. Her screams as they dragged her away.

It didn't feel like eleven years had passed since.

Stepping down onto the cold floor, Maeve tip-toed to the door and opened it a crack. She winced as it creaked. She slipped through the narrow gap and made her way downstairs, expertly avoiding any stairs that squeaked.

In the kitchen, she found some left over ham, just a few slices which were beginning to harden at the edges. She found some bread and, after shearing off the stale end, cut herself two slices and pressed the ham between them.

There was a large jar of mayonnaise on the table, and Maeve unscrewed the lid to breathe in its scent. Her stomach rumbled at the eggy smell. The sauce had separated slightly, and Maeve stirred it back together with a knife. She spread a generous helping into her sandwich. She couldn't remember the last time she'd had mayonnaise.

Carrying her food through to the shop, she settled herself onto the cushioned window seat. There were only a few lights outside, a few houses where people were up early for work, or late after a night in the bars or brothels.

Maeve didn't hear Uncle Lou until he reached the hall, his companion falling down the bottom few stairs.

“Get up,” Lou hissed. “And get out.”

Maeve pressed herself into the corner.

They came into the shop, Lou helping the woman stay on her feet. Her dress was unbuttoned, revealing a stained corset beneath. Her tangled hair had come unpinned, and she gripped her scuffed boots in her hand. She twisted around, and lay her cheek on Lou's bare chest.

“Don't throw me out darling,” she slurred, stroking his face with her spare hand. “Make love to me again.”

“That was not love.”

“Please, Louis.”

“I'm finished with you.” He pushed her away, and she stumbled backwards, knocking bottles from the shelves as she scrabbled to save herself from falling. She collapsed onto the floor, sitting amongst the broken glass and stinking river water.

“Now look what you've done!” Lou grabbed her by the hair and dragged her, screaming, to the door. He unbolted it and threw her out.

“You owe me!” she squealed.

He threw a handful of coins at her. “The rest will pay for the broken bottles.” He shut the door and bolted it. The door thudded as she threw something against it. Lou muttered something under his breath and disappeared back upstairs.

BOOK: The Bottle Stopper
5.28Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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