“Rosamund! Rosamund! Come here, I say! Help me with this confounded thing!”
“I’m going to damn well change my name Father, one of these days, so help me!”
Father and daughter engaged in a stand-off, both too frustrated for different reasons to notice that they mirrored each other exactly. Fists clenched and planted on hips, legs wide apart. Neither would move. Well, not until The Confounded Thing emitted an almighty crunch and belched a vast cloud of oily, sooty smuts.
“Father, look at me! Your Confounded Thing has ruined my outfit! I have nothing else to wear!”
“My dear, I am sorry, but you know I am under a deadline. Livermore and Company are depending on me,” Mr Akers stared at his daughter as she wiped her face with the back of her kid gloves, smearing oil over her formerly perfectly made-up face. Her outfit was ruined, a dress he had indebted himself to Solomon Brothers for an amount that made his stomach knot and roil in fear. The payments to be made were exorbitant, all for naught now, so it seemed.
“I don’t care about Livermore and Company. I care about Henry, about meeting his mother, for goodness sake. Don’t you want me off your hands, don’t you want me to leave home, marry well, be free from dirt and grime and your Confounded Thing?” Rosamund wished that the damned machine wasn’t polished to such a reflective sheen, wished she couldn’t see the mirror of the ruin of her one and only tea dress. For a few moments she had felt beautiful, ladylike even. To be freed from britches, from singed and scarred leather aprons and gauntlets had been a blessed relief. A fleeting relief, now it seemed.
Mr Akers threw his own gauntlets to the floor. “Damn it all, Rosamund, I don’t want you off my hands. I just want more for you than this. Your mother –“
“Mother is dead and buried. She would tell you to hire a Monkey-Wrench to assist you. There are plenty out there, you know.”
“But they cost money!”
“They’re trained. They’re engineers. Father. I am neither of those things,” sighed Rosamund. “Short-term expense for long-term gain. Just find one, and leave me out of it. Please.”
“Rosey, darling, we’re so close, so very, very close! You’ve grown up with The Confounded Thing, it’s part of you!”
“Well, I wish it wasn’t.” muttered Rosamund, marching upstairs to change into her funeral outfit, the only other presentable clothes she possessed and so unsuitable for afternoon tea at Henry’s family seat, surrounded by real ladies and real gentlemen. She would look exactly as she was – a misfit. Henry would be mortified. His mother would write her off as unseemly, and that would be The End. Their hopes and dreams dashed by her father’s impossible invention.
Henry Underwood checked his pocket watch again. Ten minutes until she arrived. Ten minutes until the Carriage chugged down the sweeping drive and deposited Rosamund into his arms, until she appeared from the billowing steam like an angel descending from the heavens. Oh, she was such a sweet relief, such a breath of fresh air – tinged with city soot, admittedly – compared to his dull, dull country life. He let his dreams soar for a moment, imagining living with her in the heart of the hustle and bustle, surrounded by inventors, engines, moving staircases, squinting into the sun to watch another marvellous, impossible Aer-O-Ship take to the skies. If only Mother would give her blessing. And there lay the rub. Mother was as impossible as the Aer-O-Ships themselves. She had paraded an endless stream of shallow, vapid debutantes in front of him, and each had been worse than the last. How on earth would she react to Rosamund?
He was jolted from his thoughts by the crunch of pneumatic tyres on gravel and the sight of steam belching from the boiler perched precariously on the Carriage’s roof. ‘Please don’t let her be wearing her top hat, not the goggles either,’ he thought guiltily. He should trust her. She had said Mr Akers had bought her a dress, God knew how, and so she would be perfectly… acceptable.
“Henry, oh Henry, I’m so… sorry!”
An avenging angel dressed entirely in black, as if in deep mourning. In God’s name, what was she thinking?
“Rosamund? Are you hurt? Your face,” gulped Henry, swallowing his disappointment.
“Oh, no, did I miss a bit? Those damned smuts get everywhere,” Rosamund shook her head, a hatpin pinging to the ground, a curl falling riotously over her forehead in response. Any other time, Henry might have found it endearing. Not today. He stood, arms folded across his chest, watching as she dug a cracked hand mirror and a suspiciously grey handkerchief from her bag, licked the handkerchief and dabbed at the oil streak on her cheek.
“Father had another problem with The Confound – I mean The Transporter. My dress came off worse. I had to change into this. Will I do?”
“Henry? Henry! Is the young lady here?” A voice floated from the house, imperious, demanding. “What on earth are you doing, keeping us all waiting?”
“Coming, Mother!” Henry fairly rushed towards the steps like a startled deer.
Rosamund watched her suitor, a whisper of doubt floating like the steam emanating from the departing carriage. Where was his spine? She strode towards the house, steeling herself for the ordeal ahead.
“Henry tells me your father is an inventor, my dear. Of what, exactly?” Lady Underwood stared at the unusual creature perched uncomfortably on the edge of the Louis IV chair. She certainly was not Henry’s usual ‘type’, as she understood them.
“Many things, Lady Underwood. Sometimes, it’s hard even for me to understand, and I’ve been by his side all my life. At the moment, he’s creating a Transporter for Livermore and Company.”
“Do you mean The Livermores? The inventors of the Aer-O-Ship?”
Henry stared at his mother, almost concealing his shock, but not quite. The other ladies in the salon, aunts, cousins, family friends, all leaned forward with great interest. Really, this was most unseemly. Ladies had no business being interested in matters of industry, let alone inventions.
“Why yes! The Transporter is of greater import even than the Aer-O-Ship, marvellous though it is, of course. The Transporter is intended –“
“- to take us through the middle of the earth, to Australia! Oh how marvellous not to circumnavigate the globe, not to suffer intolerable seasickness, not to spend time with people for weeks on end that you really would prefer never to meet again!” Lady Underwood clasped her beringed hands to her chest like a young girl. “Such a torment, not to mention a terrible bore! Tell me, my dear, is this Transporter nearly complete?”
“Oh, er, we, I mean Father, is tending to a few final checks, and then Livermore’s will take delivery for testing. I imagine the next few months will see huge progress,” said Rosamund, crossing her fingers in her lap.
“Can one see it?”
Rosamund stared at Lady Underwood, momentarily silenced. Had she heard correctly?
“Oh, Mother! Really! Mr Akers is terribly busy, I’m not certain that he would welcome interruption at this moment,” protested Henry, his cheeks flushing a most unbecoming shade of red. Rosamund could hardly tell if he was scared, embarrassed or both. Embarrassed by what, she wondered, another doubt lingering like a ghost in the back of her mind.
“I am a keen patron of the invention industry, my dear. I would be most interested to see such a lauded device in its developmental stages. Tell me, does your father possess the Voice-O-Matic?” Lady Underwood waved at the object in the corner of the salon, a finer and spotlessly clean version of the one in Mr Akers’ workroom. “You may call him and tell him we will be there within the hour.”
“Father! Lady Underwood is here. Father!” Rosamund hooped her hands around her mouth, hooting like an owl, the only sound that Mr Akers would respond to when buried in his work. She watched him crouched over his bench like a question mark, half frustrated, half overwhelmed with love for him. One day, he would be able to rest, if he wanted that, of course. She suspected he did not.
“I am so sorry, my lady. I become somewhat absorbed at times,” Mr Akers shoved his goggles to the top of his head, taking Lady Underwood’s silk-covered hands in his own dirty leather gauntlets. “I am delighted to meet you. Please, do come through and meet The Confoun- I mean, The Transporter.”
Rosamund glanced at Henry suspiciously. He had been unnervingly quiet in the Carriage, had refused to meet her gaze. He was ashamed of the prospect of her father, of her own living conditions, that was the only conclusion she could reach. She could see his romantic idea of her existence collapse like a house of cards as they neared the bowels of the Invention Quarter. He had never visited, had never wanted to. He had been happy to meet her in the teahouse where they had first crossed paths. Little did he know that she had been there to take delivery of some almost stale buns from her waitress cousin – there was no way she could afford to take tea there, let alone eat. He had assumed, and she had not dissuaded him. The filthy, stinking reality of the Invention Quarter had assaulted his sensibilities with each turn of the Carriage’s wheels, whereas his mother seemed to revel in the noise, the confusion, the sheer energy of the soaring engine houses. She had come alive.
“I would be most delighted, Mr Akers. I am so very grateful you could spare the time for us. I do hope it’s not too much of an imposition?” Lady Underwood smiled girlishly, blossoming under the inventor’s frank gaze.
“Well, I would be lying if I refrained from sharing that I am under a pressing deadline, but I can never say no to my daughter, and certainly not on such an occasion,” Mr Akers smiled back at the well-dressed woman, wondering how she would manage to avoid dirtying her expensive looking taffeta. His daughter had made a rare connection indeed. Although Rosamund and her young man didn’t look entirely at ease with one another, standing far apart and avoiding eye contact at all costs. There was a story there, for certain.
“Mr Akers, I know Lord Livermore. I shall report back to him this very evening and he will extend his deadline, I can guarantee it,” Lady Underwood grasped Mr Akers by the hands, ignoring the oil seeping into her gloves and the coal dust creeping across her skirts in great waves. “Take me to The Transporter, I beg you!”
Rosamund smiled fondly, watching as her dirt encrusted father and the silk clad Lady Underwood stepped across the threshold into the vast engineering room towards the shining Transporter. She felt as if something was blossoming between them, and was glad. It was an unusual meeting of minds if ever there was one.
“So tell me, Mr Akers, do you have a pet name for The Transporter? I have heard that this is common amongst you inventors.”
“We call her The Confounded Thing, Lady Underwood. She has been somewhat demanding throughout, I must confess.”
“A trait common to the female of the species, so my late husband was fond of telling me!” Lady Underwood laughed graciously.
Rosamund turned to Henry. He looked terribly out of place. “Well?” she asked.
“I have something to tell you, Rosamund,” gulped Henry, shifting his feet in the dirt.
“Never mind, I already know. You can find your own way home, I suppose. Your mother will be here for some time. At least she isn’t a snob, even if you are.”
Henry watched Rosamund follow his mother and Mr Akers towards the engineering room. “Confounded Thing,” he muttered.
Something a little different for you… a steampunk love story!