Welcome to Easy Stories in English, the podcast that will take your English from OK to Good, and from Good to Great.
I am Ariel Goodbody, your host for this show. Today’s story is for advanced learners. The name of the story is The Venerable Mr. Siggs. You can find a transcript of the episode at easystoriesinenglish.com/siggs. That’s easystoriesinenglish.com/siggs. This contains the full story, as well as my conversation before it.
I am very pleased today to be presenting the first advanced story on the podcast.
Why am I so pleased? Well, first of all it means I can talk like a normal person instead of having to talk really slowly and clearly. Not that I hate that, when I’m doing the beginner levels and the intermediate levels, but I just, you know… It’s nice to be able to talk more like I naturally talk!
But of course, I’m not going to talk as quickly or use as uncommon words as I would when I was talking to a native speaker. It’s still aimed at learners. So don’t worry!
So what actually is the difference between this advanced level of story and a native level? I mean, why listen to these advanced stories when you could just go read a novel in English that’s been written for English speakers?
Well, if you’re familiar with the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, or the CEFR, the level of these stories is C1. So it’s the second-to-last level. It’s basically lower advanced.
So these stories are for people who have been learning English for a long time, are confident speaking and listening and reading and writing, but, when they go to read a native-level novel or something like that, they still struggle quite a bit. It’s basically the last step you’ll need in order to really perfect your English.
I know how frustrating it can be when you’re learning a language and you feel like you’ve been learning for ages and you’re not making progress, and every time you try and read something for native speakers it’s like, BOOM. Way too difficult. But don’t worry, this is here to help you with that!
So today’s story is an original story, again written by me. And it’s in a sort of Victorian setting. If you don’t know, the Victorian era is an era of British history, and don’t ask me the exact dates because I don’t know. I think it was, like, 17th to 19th century? Yeah, that sounds about right.
But it’s generally associated with Victorian London. So it was when the Industrial Revolution began and factories came into existence. So the real… the landscape of the country, the landscape of the people, changed dramatically, and there was a sort of clash between traditional British ideals and the modern industrial age.
There was lots of child labour in factories, so children working in factories, children climbing up fireplaces to clean chimneys. Really, a lot of stuff that nowadays we would consider very inhumane, very unethical. But back then, in the Victorian Era it was just the norm.
A lot of really classic English literature comes from this era. Think Sherlock Holmes. Anything from that time. And I actually find that a lot of my writing sort of naturally just ends up being in the Victorian Era, or it is a kind of setting that I come to quite frequently. And I was wondering recently, you know, why is this? Why is it that I am attracted to this Victorian setting?
I think all countries like to idealise their past, especially when it comes to fiction. So Britain is no different. You know, there are lots of works written today that are set in the Victorian Era, or in the transition period between the Victorian Era and the modern era.
But I’m not really trying to glorify the past. I’m actually very critical of this period. I’m critical of nationalism as a concept in general. So I think with my writing I’m trying to use this setting to actually critique aspects of British culture and history.
There is some media, some TV shows and films, that try to make the Victorian Era look glamourous. You know, they try to make it look exciting and interesting, and a cool place to live, and I think that’s just ridiculous because there were so many human rights problems then.
There were so many issues with hygiene, especially in London. Lots of people died because the water from people’s toilets went straight into the River Thames, which is where people got their drinking water. So, really, the Victorian Era is not something we should try to imitate. It is a very bad period of history in many ways.
And of course, it was also the time of the British Raj. So, Britain colonising India, and of course Britain colonising many countries around the world. Colonialism is a huge part of British history, and of course there was mass poverty throughout areas of the country, and even within London. So, yeah, like I said I’m very critical of this era, but it is very iconic. It is a very important part of history and it is a striking period of our society, where we were moving from, sort of, one distinct era of the past into a very different, industrialised future.
I apologise if this analysis is too much information for some of you. I really like analysing things in this way, especially when it comes to fiction and literature, but I know it’s not everyone’s favourite thing to do. There’s a phrase we say here. We say, ‘It’s not everyone’s cup of tea.’ So, it’s maybe not your favourite thing, but hopefully you will allow me to do it for just a bit.
My setting in this story is actually… it’s a mix of scifi, science fiction, and the Victorian setting. I’m not really sure if I managed to do that sucessfully. But I think it’s an interesting concept and hopefully you’ll enjoy it.
So, listen and enjoy!
The Venerable Mr. Siggs
A dark cloud descended upon the lake late that afternoon. Quentin and the others had breakfasted on the terrace, enjoying the spring sunshine, and gone for a walk along the winding paths that spotted the hillsides, and by the time they got back, the cloud was hanging there, spitting rain threateningly.
Such changes in weather were to be expected, even appreciated, within that thin belt of mountains, but this was no ordinary cloud. For one, it came lower than any cloud before it, its vaporous fingers lightly caressing the surface of the lake. Furthermore, amongst its writhing mass, sparks of rose and violet leapt and then evaporated, like sparks dancing over the eye.
Despite this abnormality, hardly a word was spoken of it.
‘Good thing we stretched our legs early!’ Quentin said cheerily as they climbed the hill leading up to the house.
Perhaps it was out of desire to avoid disagreeing with his statement of normality that they kept quiet. So it fell to Quentin to continue the pleasantries, lest he suffer social embarrassment, and he added, ‘Yes yes, a very good thing indeed.’ This made them all breathe an internal sigh of relief, as it clearly marked his speech as self-directed. They retreated to the drawing room, sat down with books and cards and embroidery, such empty things as one passes one’s time with on a cold afternoon while on holiday.
However, none of them could quite stay focussed on the task before them. The gaping window at the end of the room, looking out over the lake, and the colossal cloud hanging over it, pulled their attentions repeatedly. Quentin frequently peered over the edge of his novel, such that he lost his place and reread the same page a dozen times. The three girls embroidered their rose petals as one misshapen lump, and the men at cards did not even notice that their deck was missing all its aces, which Humphrey had stolen for that queer habit of his.
Soon, they were all staring directly at the great cloud, which seemed to bubble and expand, darkening the glass with its presence. By four p.m. it had filled up the entire window, and when Cordelia entered to bring them their tea, she loudly cried, ‘How dark it is in here!’, and turned the light on. And yet, they continued to stare.
‘Honestly, you’re like a class of schoolchildren unable to concentrate! It is only a cloud, after all, and a miserable one at that.’
She pulled at the great scarlet ropes on the wall, so that the curtains shut and the cloud disappeared, and they all awoke as if from a trance.
‘There. And I suppose you’ve forgotten, Quentin, that Mr. Siggs wishes to see you by the lake tonight?’
Quentin jumped from his seat. ‘How could I forget! Come help me dress myself, Cordelia. I shall have to go without my tea.’
Quentin usually took his time dressing up to go out, trying on various waistcoats, slicking and unslicking his hair, spritzing every perfume bottle until he found the scent that fit the “mood” of the evening. But tonight he did not have time for such luxuries. Cordelia was in an unstable mood, and wished to leave Quentin so she might go and prepare dinner. Besides, Mr. Siggs would probably not even notice the queer turn in the weather, let alone whether his companion wore a waistcoat with a brown or red edge, and what thickness was the chain of the stopwatch decorating it.
So he opted for a smart, black waistcoat and blazer, his favourite stopwatch, which was a little worn, and a sensible bowler hat. Cordelia flew around like a hummingbird, dressing him with such unnecessary haste that she nearly popped off a button, so finally he shooed her away and dressed himself.
‘I’m off!’ called Quentin as he stepped out of the house. He heard some goodbyes from his fellow holidaymakers, as well as the sound of Cordelia shuffling around in the pantry like a rat.
Outside, the air was heavy and damp, and seemed to crackle, as if it might explode into a thunder storm at any moment. The cloud covered the entire lake precisely, like a tablecloth.
‘Good thing I brought my umbrella,’ Quentin mumbled, and with a smile on his face made his way down the rocky path.
Usually, Quentin would walk to the top of the small hill a few minutes down the path, and, peering over the edge, he would wave to Mr. Siggs, who would be sat on the pebbles reading a book, or staring into space. Yet again, the cloud ruined his usual routine, and at the top of the hill he was surrounded by thick fog on all sides, and could not see below.
‘Goodness, what unchanging weather we have today!’ he muttered to himself, as he carefully navigated the path. ‘Had Cordelia informed me, I would’ve brought a mackintosh, and now I fear I shall be soaked through when I come to meet the venerable Mr. Siggs.’
As he climbed down the hillside, Quentin could not push down a feeling of terror. It started in his stomach, the size of an acorn, and gradually expanded, laying roots and growing branches and vines, which curled up his throat, so that when he tried to make a cheery remark or sing a tune to himself, only a strangled mumbling fell off his lips.
When Quentin reached the lake, he was both relieved and puzzled. It had felt so much like purgatory, that walk from the house, that he found himself somehow disappointed not to arrive at Heaven or Hell. He looked around him, but could barely see a metre in front of his face.
‘Quentin,’ called a deep voice through the fog.
Quentin jumped. It was Mr. Siggs’ voice, of course, but the queer atmosphere made it sound different. Demonic, even.
‘Where are you?’ Quentin howled.
‘I am here.’
Quentin turned around and let out a shriek. Just inches away from him stood Mr. Siggs, his unnaturally smooth face glittering in the fog like salt crystals. That peculiar beard of his, which hung in two lumps from his chin, and yet was almost as smooth as the rest of his face, wriggled, one side after the other, like two fat slugs. His lips—the pieces of skin were so thin and pale that Quentin would hesitate to even call them that—curled into a wicked smile.
‘I apologise for frightening you, dear friend.’
‘That’s quite alright, sir!’ Quentin said with a cheery laugh. ‘Terrible weather we’re having, isn’t it? No, you are not a bit at fault for my surprise. It is the cursed precipitation that is to blame.’
Mr. Siggs ran a hand over his face. His skin vibrated like gelatine. He often did such a gesture. It appeared that he was wiping off excess sweat or moisture, but in reality his face grew visibly wetter afterwards.
‘It is in relation to this… weather that I have called you here.’
He looked up at the cloud. Now that they were below it, Quentin could make out a thin outline of something moving inside it, something circular and obscure.
‘Oh? Have I the good fortune of receiving another one of your inspiring lectures? I would be deeply appreciative. You have already taught me so much.’
‘Not a lecture. An invitation of great importance.’
‘My, we are in a dramatic mood today, aren’t we?’ said Quentin, then hesitated, as he was not sure the teacherly tone was welcome or appreciated by his companion. He added, ‘I suppose it is this weather—funny how the simplest things can drastically change us! How unstable human minds are.’
‘It is not the weather,’ Mr Siggs replied dryly. Though “dry” was a poor word to describe the man. Everything about him was slick, even slimy. His voice in particular sounded like a Wellington boot landing in cow dung.
‘Oh? Have you by chance taken ill?’
‘My mission is almost at its end.’
‘Your mission! I had no idea you were a religious man. Though now that you mention it, it makes a great deal of sense. At which parish do you preach, Father?’
Mr Siggs’s face folded and unfolded. His black olive eyes squeezed, and his beard did a little dance. Quentin finally realised what the two lumps of hair reminded him of: crab claws.
‘My mission is of great importance. To you and your entire planet.’
‘Are you a journalist? A spy? A soldier? I cannot aid you if I know not your purpose. Speak now. Nobody shall hear us in the fog.’
The olive eyes began to water.
‘I am not sure you are ready.’
Quentin found his patience was rapidly deteriorating. He had entertained this man, with all his whims, for almost four weeks now. Had he not been a most gracious host? Had he not earned the right to gain some information about the mysterious Mr. Siggs?
‘And what must I do to prove myself? Sir, I remind you that I am here vacationing, and that you are no more, presumably, than a temporary acquaintance of mine. Any task you have for me, providing it is as demanding as you suggest, I am well justified to dismiss, even outright reject.’
Quentin paused, sensing he had gone too far. “Oh damn my tongue!” he cursed himself. But Mr. Siggs did not react, aside from an unreadable spasm of the shoulders, so Quentin continued, ‘Please do not misunderstand me. I am exceedingly grateful for the knowledge you have passed onto me. I have not heard such fascinating lectures on the cosmos from Oxford professors themselves! And your accounts of intergalactic battles, while humorously presented as fact rather than fiction, are stunning. You have shared a lot with me, but I am afraid all I can offer you in return is my friendship. Will that be sufficient?’
Mr. Siggs pondered for a minute, and then gave a gargled sigh.
‘No, but it shall have to be.’
Quentin felt a deep vibration. Above him, the cloud twisted violently, and the dark shape within it began to descend.
Cordelia stood by the great window until late into the night. The great cloud had evaporated around ten p.m., at which time an audible sigh of relief passed through the household. But Quentin had yet to make his return.
‘Why, Cordelia!’ Alyssia said almost mockingly, ‘you look like a wife awaiting her husband’s return from the war. Don’t worry so much about Quentin. I’m sure he’s simply gone to spend the night at the Robinsons. Or perhaps his new friend has a beach house that they’ve decided to sleep in.’
‘Don’t say such wicked things!’ Cordelia snapped at her. She did not appreciate the nature of this woman, one of Thomas’ girls who hung around him like flies, and she especially did not appreciate the suggestions made about her master’s habits. It was none of her business, and certainly none of Alyssia’s.
‘He said he would be back at the same time as usual,’ Cordelia said coldly.
‘Well, men are often loose with their word, I find.’ She yawned, her mouth gaping open in a most unfeminine way. ‘I merely came down to collect my gloves, but I cannot sleep with a good conscience knowing you are down here, alone with no fire, awaiting Quentin until the early morning.’
‘There is quite enough warmth left from this afternoon’s fire.’
This was not true, and Cordelia had to resist the temptation to pull her scarf tighter against the chill.
‘Do come up to bed,’ Alyssia said, laying a hand on her shoulder. ‘You will, won’t you? It’ll be so awful here, in the dark and cold.’
‘I shall light more candles,’ Cordelia said, eager to move away from the girl’s touch. But then she remembered that she had left the box of matches in the kitchen, at the end of a long, dark corridor, where gloomy portraits stared down from either wall, which even she felt some superstition about.
‘Oh, alright, if only to still your worries.’
Alyssia linked arms with Cordelia and walked with her to the door. There was something charming in that naïve youth, that simple joy of doing things together, anything together, that allowed Cordelia to forgive Alyssia’s perseverence. They tripped once or twice on the stairs, and Alyssia started to laugh so much that Cordelia worried she might wake Humphrey.
‘Dear me! What a state you are,’ Cordelia whispered bitterly, once they were safely on the landing. ‘Now do quieten down and go to sleep.’
‘Oh Cordelia, I will so miss the villa.’
‘As shall we all. But one can hardly spend all year going for walks and reading!’
With that, she shooed the girl into her room and climbed into bed herself, her tired bones creaking along with the old mattress.
Quentin did not return. Not the following morning, nor any morning afterwards. A thorough search was held of the valley, the lake, and the surrounding countryside, but not a hair was found.
Mr. Siggs had disappeared as well, though when the holidaymakers made enquiries with the locals about the man, they received vacant stares. As far as the people of the valley were concerned, he had never existed.
The strange cloud over the lake was never explained, but it was soon forgotten about by all except for Cordelia. She took Quentin’s disappearance the hardest. Even after the group’s return to England, she often wandered the roads at night, as if he might show up at any moment, singing to himself, unaware of how long he had been absent.
She frequently stopped and stared up at the stars, but they did not reveal any clues about where he was.
I hope you enjoyed the story. You can support the podcast by leaving a review on iTunes. Search for Easy Stories in English, give us a star rating, and say what you like about the show. It would really help us grow. Thank you for listening, and until next week.