The good worm over at whimword runs a fantastic weekly flash fiction contest which I have been intending to enter for some time. This week’s prompt of “antimacassar” was too fine an opportunity to pass up.
My first instinct was to play with the sound of the word, maybe introduce an antimatter macaw or rasta aunt to proceedings. I also had a go at attempting some sort of lipogram, an attempt that had a swift, necessary stop put to it. Floundering slightly, I decided to do a little more research into the word itself.
An antimacassar is a small, traditionally crocheted, covering for the back or arms of chairs. Its name comes from a type of hair oil, popular in the 19th century, which the antimacassar was designed to protect against. Interestingly, according to this unimpeachable wiki-source, Annie Chapman, second victim of Jack the Ripper, was said to have made antimacassars. Evidently, this was a lead to follow up on.
Known as Siffey to most folk (because of a brief fling with a local sieve-maker) and Dark Annie to her friends (on account of her wavy, dark hair), Annie was actually born Eliza Ann Smith to unmarried parents in Paddington, 1842. Annie had moved to White Chapel following her divorce from her first husband, which had, for a while at least, left her with a settlement of some 10 shillings a week. Unfortunately this income had ended upon the death of her former spouse and at the time of her murder she was living in relative poverty with the intriguingly named Edward ‘The Pensioner’ Stanley in Crossingham’s lodging house, Spitalfields. She had recently not only quarrelled but ended up in a physical altercation with another Eliza, Eliza Cooper, over either a bar of soap or a local hawker named Harry. On nights like the one in question, when she could find no customers for her crochet work and needed money for her lung disease medication, Annie would go out to earn it the old fashioned way. The ingredients for a story were coming together.
Too many ingredients as it turned out. At least for a story that would conform to the whimwords very reasonable 500 word limit. My angle, I thought, would be to disguise the nature of the story until the end. Instead, I would introduce Jack as a writer who was in some sense creating the women that he has committed to the history books through his murderous acts. But in trying to fill my flash with as many of the intriguing details of Annie’s life as possible, I inevitably faltered before finishing. I had something conceptually interesting but over-long and incomplete. With little time and few options, I panicked and posted this instead. The story was to end with a line enumerating the possessions found by the police on or about Eliza’s body: “two pills in part of a torn envelope, a piece of muslin, a comb, one crochet hook and an antimacassar, unfinished.”