Ah, yes, Robert of Mali. I wanted to have a brief appearance by Mary Bennet, so I started to think about what her likely post-Pride and Prejudice character trajectory might be. And it struck me that she could quite easily become a bit radicalised, and that in turn led me on to think about what kind of unexpected relationship she might have ended up in. I think the lesbian angle had already been done with another character in “Lost in Austen”, so that option wasn’t really available to me. Instead, I ended up with her marrying an emancipated slave, which seemed to tick all the right boxes. It then struck me that it might be quite cool for him to speak only in Bob Marley lyrics, and so the character of Robert of Mali was born.
I have to say I did have my doubts about the, well, political correctness of all this, and when it came to the editing process we eventually agreed that using one of the greatest mass crimes against humanity in history as a comedy prop wasn’t necessarily a good idea. Besides, there might be problems with the Marley estate over the use of the titles. So Robert’s surname became Somersett in homage to this celebrated case and he was given a LOT more to say. I was rather sad to see the back of ‘’Scuse me while I right this skiff’, though…
Mary Repeal-the-Corn-Laws, née Bennet, lived in a small, ramshackle cottage a short walk away from the main square. The floor of the front parlour and most of the furniture were cluttered with revolutionary tracts and sheet music. Mary fussed around, picking them all up and piling them precariously on top of the battered old pianoforte that was pushed up against one of the walls.
‘You still play, then?’ said Elizabeth, nodding towards the instrument.
‘Yes … yes, I most certainly do,’ said Mary, with enthusiasm. ‘In fact, our love of music is one of the things that brought Robert and myself together — ’
At this point, a dark-skinned man entered the room and bowed to the occupants.
‘Ah, there you are — ’ began Mary, but she was interrupted by Colonel Sutherland.
‘Splendid! I wasn’t aware that you had one of these,’ he said. ‘Didn’t look the sort who could afford one, if you don’t mind me saying so.’ He turned towards the figure in the doorway. ‘Make mine nice and strong, with plenty sugar. Quick quick!’ This was accompanied by a peremptory sequence of claps.
The newcomer looked at him with a bemused expression, and Elizabeth was aware that the temperature in the room seemed to be dropping unseasonably quickly.
‘Ah,’ said Sutherland, oblivious to the prickling atmosphere. ‘Not so good on the old lingo, eh? Tea?’ He mimed the pouring of a pot. ‘Drinky drinky?’
‘Colonel Sutherland, I think — ’ said Elizabeth, trying to stop him before it was too late. Mary looked as if she really wanted to say something but was prevented by her lower jaw being attached to the carpet. But Sutherland had already moved on to miming the act of adding sugar and stirring.
‘Swirly swirly? Stirry stirry?’ he was saying. ‘Um … mixy mixy?’ As he was evidently failing to make himself understood, Sutherland now addressed himself to the rest of the assembled company. ‘Y’know, you’ve got to watch it with these johnnies — they’ll take you for a ride if you’re not careful. My brother-in-law — made a dashed fortune out in Jamaica — he used to say the only thing the buggers understand is — ’
‘Wickham,’ hissed Elizabeth. ‘Do something!’
Wickham looked nonplussed for a moment and then suddenly pointed out of the window, apparently at random.
‘Look! Over there!’ he said ‘In the tree!’
Everyone peered in the direction where he was indicating.
‘Ah,’ said the dark-skinned man with a smile. ‘Three little birds!’
Elizabeth breathed out. Before Sutherland could say another word, Mary spoke up, her voice filled with emotion.
‘May. I. Introduce you. To my husband. Robert of Mali?’ she said. Elizabeth and Wickham offered their hands to him in turn, as did Colonel Sutherland, although the latter was unable to meet his eye. To say that his face was a picture would be to overstate the potentiality of human portraiture. No artist in history could ever come close to capturing the full glory of his visage at that moment. It was a richness of embarrassment.
‘Oh, Robert,’ said Mary, breaking out into sobs. ‘Will it always be like this?’
‘No, woman,’ said Robert, kneeling down next to her and putting his arm around her shoulders. ‘Don’t cry.’
‘I know, I know,’ said Mary. ‘It’s just every time I introduce you to someone new, we have to go through all this. There’s so much — ’
‘ — things to say,’ said Robert.
There was an awkward silence.
‘I — ’ began Sutherland, getting up from his chair. ‘I … think I need some fresh air.’
Mary nodded, sniffing. ‘Mind the catch on the back door,’ she said. ‘It keeps — ’
‘Jamming,’ said Robert.
Once Colonel Sutherland had left the room, the tension eased a little.
‘Don’t be too hard on him,’ said Elizabeth. ‘He’s … old.’
‘I know,’ said Mary, brightening. ‘We may have to wait a long time for attitudes to change, but I know we won’t be waiting — ’
‘ — in vain,’ said Robert.
‘So … how did you two … come to … meet?’ said Elizabeth. She felt as if she were clinging on to a runaway stallion. This was all so far outside her realm of understanding of social norms and conventions, and yet … and yet … her sister seemed happy. Perhaps this was the way things might be between men and women in the future. Maybe one day, too, there would be universal suffrage for both men and women, mankind would travel to the moon and communicate with each other instantly wherever they were on the planet. And wherever you looked, there would be pictures of cats lolling around.
‘I had a big argument with Father about the fundamental principles of collectivism,’ Mary was saying, ‘and I accused him of being a crypto-fascist. Mother took his side for once — I don’t think she ever liked me much, to be honest — and so I stormed out to seek my fortune in the world. As it happened, the Meryton Workers’ Revolutionary Party was organising a coach party to Bristol to protest against the slave trade, so I tagged along with them.’
‘You ’tagged along’?’ said Elizabeth. ‘Surely a young lady on her own — ’
‘The MWRP does not hold such chauvinistic attitudes, sister. Am I not just as capable of holding a gun as any man?’
‘I don’t know,’ said Elizabeth, struggling to follow the sudden switch in direction. ‘Are you?’
‘And is it not written,’ said Mary, ignoring her, ‘that power comes from the barrel of a gun?’
Elizabeth was feeling more than a little lost. She did wish that Mary would stick to the point sometimes.
‘So, Bristol, then?’ she said.
‘Yes, well, our group arrived earlier than the rest, so we decided to go out for a boat ride around the harbour. But a freak storm blew up whilst we were out, and we capsized. For a moment I thought we were about to drown, when this extraordinary man — ’ here she glanced at Robert ‘ — came swimming towards us. He took hold of the side of the boat and then simply said to us — ’
‘ — ’scuse me while I right this skiff,’ said Robert.
‘And that’s exactly what he did.’
‘He saved your life?’ said Elizabeth, looking at Robert in an entirely new light. ‘But — what — ?’
‘He was escaping from a slave ship. A sort of one-man — ’
‘ — exodus,’ said Robert.
‘Obviously, I changed my plans then and there and I decided to devote my life to him. Then I heard him sing, and I fell in love.’
‘Great heavens,’ said Elizabeth, suddenly realising that Mary’s life was a whole lot more exciting and romantic than her own, with or without the aliens.
Up until now, Wickham had been completely silent. But now he looked hard at Robert of Mali and spoke in a solemn voice. ‘Sir, I salute you,’ he said. ‘You are an inspiration to us all. Tell us what we should do to defeat these dastardly aliens!’
Robert looked back at him and fixed him with a steely eye.
‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Stand up!’
‘Stand up?’ said Wickham.
‘For your rights,’ said Mary.
‘Get up!’ said Robert.
‘Stand up?’ said Elizabeth.
‘Don’t give up the fight,’ said Mary.
Elizabeth and Wickham stood up, just as Colonel Sutherland came back into the room. He glanced around.
‘Are we off then?’ he said.
‘Yes!’ said Elizabeth, punching the air. Then she paused. ‘Mary, you never did tell us where we could find Lord Byron and Charlotte.’
‘Oh, them,’ said Mary. ‘Two doors down. You can’t miss it. It’s the one with the terrible mural of the dolphins outside.’