17th June 1871

Dearest Jenny,

            I write to you, my beloved sister, as I know you will be concerned for my well-being. Believe me, Sister, I am well. Oh, I am stronger than I have been for the last four years. Why, yesterday saw me walk to the ferry boat  – with Ronaldo’s helping hand, it is true, but I did it. Dearest Jenny, please forgive me for not telling you of our exact whereabouts, but my heart races at the thought of Mama and Papa discovering it.

For the first time in four years, a breeze blows soft on my face, not as a supervised invalid in a bath-chair, but with me walking. Yes, walking. Oh, the life here, Jenny, the birds. Ronaldo points them out to me on the marshes and lagoons.

We have rental of a fisherman’s cottage. You cannot imagine the hours I spend lost in painting the most wonderful creatures, stilts, avocets, flamingos. Did you know flamingos’ wings are pale pink until they are five years old?

 I know, too, that you will worry for my moral welfare. Believe me, there is no need, though you may have to administer the smelling salts to Mama. I have foregone her beloved Church of England, Sister. In a Catholic church full of those beautiful blue and white Portuguese tiles, I became Senhora Ronaldo Guterres.

Yes, Sister, I am a married woman. Though, you may think me too young, my seventeen summers have aged my mind more than most. I shudder at the memory of the last four years spent on that couch in the library, the sunlight teasing me, sneaking in through the cracks in those heavy velvet curtains. Lying there supine was such agony for me. And Mama forbidding just one unaccompanied step into the orange-scented air was pure torture.  

Mama, you must agree, kept me almost prisoner. And all to keep me from Ronaldo. I can still see her mouth curling up, and hear the disdain in her voice, native boy …The Portuguese Engineer’s son – an unfit playmate.

 But Love will find its way. I dare not tell you how Ronaldo and myself conversed over the last four years or it would pay off badly for those dependent on Mama and Papa’s employ.

Oh, it is cruel for Ronaldo’s people to be dependent on a foreign mining company to put a roof over their children’s heads and food on their tables.  Our oh-so-English company causes a flush of shame in me even now.

I still squirm at Mama’s Godly project. Did she really have to import English soil for her Anglican graveyard when all over these Portuguese hills beauty bursts with poppies, wild chicory, ox-eye daisies?

 Papa’s mining crater haunts me – those rocks the colour of new blood when it rains.

Dearest sister, I must rid myself of the past, but you will always be in my heart. I will write and hope you may forgive my flight and please write back, telling me how you all fare.

You may write care of: Igreja do Misericordia, Tavira. It is of no use trying to trace me there, for we do not live in Tavira, but we travel there when my darling Ronaldo rents a phaeton, which he does often, as I do so love to drive by the ocean. It is so blue, my dear sister, that my dreams are coloured with it at night.

Your ever-loving sister,


25th July 1871

Dear Eliza,

            It is a relief to know that you are alive. Our mental torment over the last months cannot be described. To fly in that way. Your bath-chair discovered on its side, your blankets in a heap beside it. To this hour, I do not know what made me walk down the drive that dawn. Perhaps I heard something. Hooves or wheels? I cannot be sure. If only I had awakened five minutes before your flight.

Mama has taken to her bed since I shared judicious morsels from your letter. She says we may ready a plot in the cemetery for her, yet dear Mama still managed to eat a hearty pork cheek stew yesterday. I may jest about Mama, yet I believe she may have a point when she requests that I apply to Reverend Smyth for a new governess, with good old Anglican values, for our younger sisters.  Perhaps she is correct in saying that you were influenced by too much painting and music.

Mama is prostrate, concern for your spiritual welfare uppermost in her every expression. You must realise that she only ever wants the very best for us all.  Mama and Papa would beg you to return. They say an annulment could be sought. I merely pass this on.

You mention the mine’s crater still haunts your dreams. Perhaps, as you believe your mind is aged more than most seventeen year olds, you may see the reasons for Mama’s zealous watch over you since that terrible day.

When you tumbled from Ronaldo’s horse into the crater – a broken young girl –  we believed we’d lost you. To see you lie a crumpled doll against the winding gear is an image I cannot readily forget.

 For all her swoons, Mama will not suffer one of her brood to be in danger and she must be forgiven for blaming your terrible injury on Ronaldo’s wild caper. We  refuse to believe your assertion that you dared him to take you bare-back riding – on a stallion of all things. 

You would do well to remember that Papa’s mine does put bread on the table for the people of Sao Domingos. Even those further afield, as far as Mértola, have reason to thank him for gainful employment. 

May God’s Healing Grace be upon you,


How I did it:

English Cemetery at Sao Domingos

The epistolary form has always fascinated me. I studied Samuel Richardson’s Clarissa at university. Clarissa  is often cited as being one of the first English novels, the tale being told entirely through a series of letters. However, its use in flash fiction presented me with some issues. The first being the challenge to convey a story arc in  two short letters as some words are necessarily used up to conform to the letter form. The next challenge was to convey the place and time without making the factual research too obvious.

Of course, the challenge for the writer often comes at the crafting stage of the creative process, which certainly was true for me. In my first draft the sisters’ tones were too similar. I was attempting to create a Victorian tone, I suppose. However, it was only when I went for a walk – in the pouring rain – that my mind emptied enough and then, as often happens, as if by magic, the thought came to me that the sisters must have different tones.

This meant that I had to ‘Kill my darlings’, or in more prosaic language, delete some descriptions even though I liked them. Jenny’s letter originally contained some descriptive snippets, such as her heart ‘fluttered like a trapped bird’. Much as I liked the simile, it had to go as I needed to present Jenny as more practical and dutiful and not at all fanciful. Also, originally Jenny used the words ‘dearest’ and ‘love’ as often as her more effusive sister, Eliza, but those endearments had to go too in order to convey her more conventional and restrained character, which hopefully, increases the sense of conflict and tension in the flash fiction piece.  

I realised on a final reading that in some ways, I was channelling Austen’s Mrs Bennett with Mama as the 3rd draft had her sighing and ordering chicken bone soup while demanding Jenny employ a governess skilled in bible study for the younger girls. But on reflection I decided that this was a little clichéd and ‘told too much’ to the reader, leaving too few gaps for them to interpret Mama’s character for themselves so I reduced this down to one snippet about pork cheek stew and Jenny’s musing that perhaps her mother was right about the dangers of art and music.

The balance between what to tell, what to show and the gaps to leave in a piece of flash fiction is a finely wrought one. I always find it difficult to be an objective reader of my own work. Time helps. Leaving the story for a day and pursuing different activities, be it cooking, socialising, gardening, cycling or walking, always helps to give me the sense of distance to look more critically at my own work.

A piece of writing may seem absolutely fine on a final draft, only for me to see its faults months later. However, in many ways, a piece of writing is never finished until it finds a reader so, despite its probable flaws, I’ve come to the conclusion it is best to share it rather than allow it to lie fallow on the computer, or gathering dust in a cupboard.

Open crater Sao Domingos Mines

If you want to have a go:

  • Choose two characters.
  • Imagine them in two different settings, but make sure not to let the settings take over, just a sentence or two could set the scene.
  • Imagine a point of conflict and difference in how one event is viewed by both.
  • Write two letters, or if you wish to set the story in the present day, use emails or WhatsApp messages  to convey your story arc, ensuring that the tone of the two voices differs.

One response to “Flight”

  1. […] If you would like to read my piece of flash fiction influenced by our visit to Sao Domingos click on: https://campervanbard.com/2023/05/08/flight/ […]


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: