Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for July 2012

Riverboats Part 5: Turnabout

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We were in a foggy port, about to draw in to the boat for the night, when the noise of footsteps made us turn. I shuddered at the memories that came back to me. It was an unknown man.

‘Urgent message for Miss Donnelly,’ he said, panting, holding out a letter. Jane took it, looked at the writing on the front, and rushed inside.

‘That can’t be good,’ Frances said quietly. ‘Urgent letters never bring good news.’

‘Let’s wait for a little longer,’ Harriet said. ‘To give her time to read.’

So we waited, anxiety growing, before deciding to go in. She was at the table, letter in front of her. I could see from a distance that only a few words in a messy hand were scrawled on the paper, the ink smudged because she was crying, weeping openly as none of us had seen her do before.

‘Oh, Janey, Janey, what is it–’

She pushed Mary away and ran off, sobbing even more loudly. Mary immediately ran after her, unable to comprehend how a crying person could want to be left alone, while the rest of us stood around awkwardly. Frances went to pick up the letter but Harriet batted her hand down.

‘It’s rude to read other’s mail,’ she said, the situation making her tone more sharp and like a schoolmarm than I thought possible. We sat and did not have to wait long for Mary to come back through.

‘Awful stuff,’ she said softly, so she wouldn’t be heard throughout all rooms as she often was. ‘Her little sister’s died, and one of her brothers – it’s cholera, they think. Half the rest are sick.’

‘So, does that mean–’

‘Yes,’ she said, guessing Isabel’s question. Normally no-one would have dared interrupt her. ‘She’ll be leaving first thing tomorrow morning, to go back home and tend to them all.’

‘How terrible!’ Harriet exclaimed, as the light left the captain’s eyes.

We all agreed, and talked quietly over the situation. Only Isabel sat without saying a word until Jane came through an hour later, sniffling, red-eyed and blotchy faced. She told us her plans for the next day and apologised to Isabel for the short notice.

‘Don’t worry,’ she replied. ‘You can have all the money you’ve earned this week immediately. You can have more if you need it, for travel.’

She refused, tears leaking out as she shook her head. ‘I wanted to stay – I wanted to stay here with all of you! I can’t – I can’t believe–’ And she started crying again and we all huddled around her until Mary insisted on bed for us all.

‘It’ll be a long day tomorrow,’ she said.

I was still half-asleep when we were up and saying goodbye. It was strange to see her in her dress and travel hat, clutching her bag, looking like a lady instead of the woman I’d known. She said goodbye to each of us in turn.

‘I’m so sorry,’ I said when it was my turn, blurting out all that my heart couldn’t allow me to keep in. ‘For everything. I feel I’ve been bad to you.’

‘No, no, you haven’t. That one time, it doesn’t matter – I’ve no bad feelings to you.’ She sniffed. ‘It’s just how I am, to make fun all the time – maybe I was too harsh.’’

‘It doesn’t matter, as you said. We had fun in the end.’

‘Yes.’ She smiled at me ruefully, brushing my arm. ‘Thank you for the fun.’

When she got to Mary they both collapsed into full tears and wept on each other’s shoulders, talking over each other about their affection and how they must write and keep well.

‘I’ll miss you all,’ she said as her carriage arrived. ‘Ever so much! Thank you for having me!’

And we kissed her and waved goodbye and sniffled ourselves at how horribly sudden it all was. The rest of the day our spirits were low and talk was little.

‘You won’t go now, will you?’ I said to Mary when we were alone doing laundry. She patted my cheek and gave me a sad smile.

‘Of course not, chick, of course not. We all need each other here. I think we all realised today – we’re like family, we really are. And family have to stick together.’

 

That night my mind was too occupied to fully notice Isabel, a relief that I didn’t notice until it was gone. She started talking first.

‘I feel for Jane. I hope she arrives home quickly.’

‘Me too. Though it must be awful – to go from here to taking care of so many ill people.’

I thought, what if she becomes ill herself? And I couldn’t stand the notion.

‘Losing a family member…’ Isabel said quietly, as if she was saying it to herself. ‘Is truly…so painful.’

I turned and looked at her. It was not that I was more courageous than normal – it was that I didn’t think before I asked.

‘What happened to your family?’

She was silent, and I thought she was going to ignore me, and cursed myself for my bluntness, but then she turned on her back and stared at the ceiling. For a long time she stared at it, then she swallowed, and with a deep breath, began to speak.

‘There used to be six of us,’ she said. ‘Seven, for a short time. There was my mother and father, my two older brothers Charles and George, myself and my twin brother, John.’

‘You had a twin?’

‘Yes. My mother died when she had my youngest sister, Anne, and Anne only lived for a year. My older brothers, they went away in the army and the navy.’

She paused and swallowed again.

‘My father looked after us well, on his boat. But they said they wanted to get away from river life and serve the queen and country. He let them go because he still had us – me and John – and we learnt everything we could about our trade. They were so close, only a year apart. And they died close, too – within a year. It all happened in years.

Then there were only three of us, for a very long time. We learnt everything, we were going to keep the family business going, and they didn’t underestimate me for being a woman, because they knew I was equal to John. I missed my mother, and my brothers, but I was happy.’

Her voice dropped to a whisper. I shuffled closer to her.

‘…father died. He wasn’t old or infirm, but he got sick…he left it too long because he wanted to stay on the boat and not see a doctor – he didn’t believe in them. We were there when he died and he was so proud of us, he said, and said he could rely on us, and that he’d soon be with mother and our brothers and sister…and he passed away.’

I blinked as something hit the pillow next to me. It was a tear, rolling off her cheek. I hadn’t realised how close to her I was.

‘So…’ Her breathing was laboured as more tears came. ‘We did it. We kept the boat going. And we did it well to make father proud.’

A long pause. More tears falling on the pillow, mingling in her hair. I felt an acute pain in my heart, hearing it all, and the suspense as I waited for her to keep talking was horrid. Her brother. It had to be her brother. I put my hand on her arm and she gripped it. Her voice choked up.

‘John, he…he would do what so many others do, go to the public house when we were moored for the night. I didn’t like it – I didn’t like what alcohol did to him, or that I didn’t know what he was doing – but I let him because it was what his friends did. I hated being apart from him, I always worried about him, felt I was missing my half…

‘…one night he didn’t come back. In the morning I stepped out the boat and one of his friends was there. He told me that…that he’d been in a fight with a man, and that he’d been killed. And that the man who killed him was called Alexander Strong.

‘I…didn’t know what to do. I cancelled everything. I spent days crying. I felt like my arm had been torn off and thrown away and I couldn’t do anything but sit and cry. It got worse as time went on and I missed him so badly and couldn’t believe he would – would never come back…’

She gulped in air, squeezing my hand, and I had to hug her. She put her arm around me and cried into my head, her voice going higher than I knew it could, like a little girl’s.

‘The only thing that kept me going,’ she said, ‘was the injustice of it all. I went to Aunt Hunter and told her everything and she said Alexander Strong was a friend of the Bainbridges…Mr Cooper’s nephews. And I told her what had happened with Harriet only a month before, and about Helena, and she gave us this ship. She told us to get the Coopers, the people who had wronged us. And so I managed – I got everything, though I just wanted to die. I only kept going for the thought of avenging John – that if I killed this man, then I would be able to face him in the afterlife, and my family, and say that I had done well for them…’

I hugged her tight and for a while she cried. I was shocked when I noticed the tears welling and seeping out of my own eyes as well. It was too horrible – to lose everyone, to go from seven to one – it was too horrible for words. How could she manage so much grief?

Finally she sniffed and let go of me to wipe her eyes and nose.

‘I’m sorry…to burden you with this.’

‘No, no! Don’t apologise – I asked and you told me. It’s…I’m so sorry.’

I kept gripping her arm, feeling as if my heart would burst.

‘You understand, don’t you?’

‘Of course!’

‘How I have to kill him?’

‘Y-yes.’

‘Oh Edie,’ and she held me tight against her again. My arm was getting sore from being crushed between me and the bed, but I didn’t dare move. I breathed her in.

‘I hate that Jane’s gone,’ she said. ‘I hate it. I hate losing people. I wanted us to stay like this forever – all of us, on this boat, working – but I knew that as soon as we found someone we were looking for, it would fall apart. I just didn’t think it would begin this soon…and for this reason…’

She breathed in and out with a shudder, trying to calm herself, but soon another wave of tears was on her and she pulled back and looked at me. The moonlight in the window lit her face as she gazed into me with that stare, those eyes that could melt metal, so intense, so beautiful.

‘It’s dangerous…it’s all so dangerous, and I couldn’t…I couldn’t stand it if you…’ She gulped. ‘Oh Edie…out of everyone here…I would miss you the most. I don’t know how I managed without you…’

And as she hugged me again and I tried to ignore the pain in my arm I cursed myself for how fast my heart was beating, how fast I was breathing. I looked up at her, and she down at me, and we looked at each other and as if time slowed down, we moved – I don’t know who moved first – and our faces were against each other and I could feel her breath on my eyelashes and I thought my heart would give out.

With a quick brush of the lips, she kissed me. I didn’t even open my eyes to look at her, didn’t hesitate – I kissed her back. More, more kisses, becoming longer, more intense, lips moving, until something seemed to snap and we both pulled away, out of breath. The salt in her tears had gone to her lips had gone to mine – I could taste her.

‘Are…’ I didn’t know how to finish my sentence. Neither of us spoke. She grabbed my hand and interlocked our fingers.

‘Don’t think me strange,’ she finally whispered, ‘but I’ve loved you for a long time.’

I had to kiss her again. Our hands split to hold each other’s shoulders, waist, hair – oh to put my hands in her hair at last! Messy, glossy, knotted in places – how wonderful it was! And to have her hands on me…it sent chills through my body.

‘Do…do you love me, Edie?’

I wanted to laugh at the apprehension in her voice.

‘Of course I do!’

‘But you’ve been quite cold recently…’

‘Because I realised I loved you and I didn’t know what to do.’

She blinked in surprise and I laughed and kissed her again, pressing against her with my lips and body and squeezing her hand. We smiled at each other and laughed shakily.

‘Don’t…’ I finally said. ‘Don’t you worry? About this? We should love men.’

‘Men are nothing to me,’ she said. ‘I’ve been around enough men, boorish and handsome and every other type. I can’t see them as exotic or strange or worth being excited over. But women…women are all so different. I love that. I always knew I could love a woman far more than a man.’

I hugged into her. I could offer no explanation. I knew I didn’t have a preference. Isabel was just so different, so unique – I couldn’t have done anything else but have loved her. I still believe that anyone who knew her as I did would have loved her.

We talked the rest of the night – about each other, about when we realised, about Christian – because of course she had been afraid that I liked him. We laughed. We cried as the solemnity of our situation weighed on us again, and we promised we couldn’t be without each other. I had never considered my own health, my own life – it was just something to do, living – but now I thought of it, and I hoped against everything that, for her sake, nothing would happen to me. I wouldn’t want to hurt her. I hoped God wouldn’t be so cruel as to take everything she loved away from her.

 

The next day it was hard to be normal when we just wanted to hug and kiss and be loving, but we agreed it was best that the others didn’t know. We couldn’t be sure that they would understand and not judge, so it was our secret. Everyone else’s gloom, coupled with the space where Jane used to be, soon brought us back to normal life. I only wished I’d been able to have that unthinking ecstasy for longer.

When I was alone I thought of Isabel’s family. Once again I couldn’t deny her revenge seemed just. This man had taken the last person she loved, the other half of herself, and so cast her out into the world, alone. Of course she would want to avenge that – not just her brother’s death, but what it had done to her. Still, my conscience would not let me condone it. Hadn’t that change brought me to her? Wasn’t she happy to be in charge of her own ship and with so many wonderful women? But still it gripped her, that promise of vengeance she had made to herself, the promise which had once kept her alive but now was nothing but a chain around her neck. I couldn’t condone when I knew would take her from me, but I was powerless. As much as I hated the whole sorry business, I couldn’t think badly of Isabel, and I could not do anything to stop her.

 

Days and weeks passed and I was happy. I should have taken that equilibrium as a sign that things were soon to change once more.

We met a Cooper ship early one morning when I was sorting cargo with Isabel. We’d been smiling and quickly kissing, hoping that no-one would barge in, and luckily we were apart when the shout went up from above.

‘CAPTAIN!’

The door banged open and it was Harriet, looking wilder than I had ever seen.

‘Captain – it’s Sunrise!’

The wad of paper Isabel was holding dropped to the floor, sheets skating to my feet. She stared at Harriet for a second, then glanced at me, then back to Harriet and nodded. Harriet ran off with after giving me a strange look.

‘Is it–’

Isabel cut me off, cursing and swearing like a true sailor, running round the crates and heading for the stairs. I ran to them as well, realising what must have happened, gathering my courage and determination, but she jumped onto the first step, turned and pushed me back.

‘I can handle it, if it’s–’

‘It’s not Alexander Strong.’

I’d never seen her look more uncomfortable. She blinked several times and had to control her breathing, looking to the corners of the room as if looking for guidance. Finally she put both hands on my shoulders and looked at me.

‘Edie, there’s something – oh sweet Lord I’m so weak – there’s something I never told you –‘

CLANG. The boat jolted as we were hit side on. She nearly fell into me and quickly straightened. Screams for her came from upstairs.

‘Stay here,’ she commanded, and ran. I heard her bark orders, and heard frantic words from everyone that I couldn’t make out. Another clang, and we stopped moving. Our boat was stuck in the water.

Dread sickened the back of my throat, I paced backwards and forwards, wringing my hands, not knowing what to do. What was happening? What did she mean? What had she been going to tell me? I didn’t dare disobey her, but…

THUMP. I froze. Male voices filtered through to my level, calling out, and voices shouting back. I shook. Oh God. They had jumped on board.

I vaguely heard Isabel.

BANG.

I was up the stairs before I knew it, heart thumping, oh Lord, please, and I burst out to the deck and–

What did I see first? They all turned to look at me. A gang of men, all with their guns at the heads of the other women, Helena and Harriet with their hands on their skirts, obviously stopped before they could pull their own pistols out. Isabel with hers pointed at two men in the centre. A man with dark hair who was the one who shouted out commands and…

‘Edie!’ Isabel cried, fear making her voice shrill, ‘I told you to stay downstairs!’

The other had fair hair and he didn’t speak. He was tall now, more muscled, and he stood straight and confident, but still…

I stepped forward and everyone jolted from their freeze before the dark haired one pointed his gun at me. I barely noticed. My eyes were on the captain of Sunrise. He had seen me when Isabel shouted my name. Still he had that look in his eyes, the kindness, the boyishness. Grey eyes. Large. Familiar.

‘…Laneham?’

He put his hand on the dark haired man’s arm and lowered his pistol. We stared at each other, and we each took another step forward. Every person, man and woman, bristled, as if each was a different hair on a cat’s back. We looked, just gazed at each other for a few seconds, wondering if the other was a mirage.

Finally, slowly, he brought his hand up, curled, to his chest, and made an ‘e’. Edie. My hand was shaking. I brought up the ‘L’ shape to my chest (it was more awkward to place there now I was older). We looked at each other and let out a shaky laugh, more breath than sound. I thought I must be dreaming.

‘I – I thought you were dead.’

His eyes widened and he started signing, and I was so out of practice and I’d forgotten so much that it was all nonsense to me. I shook my head, said No, no, that’s too fast, tears springing to my eyes. No…this was all wrong.

‘Captain,’ an angry voice came from behind him. It was the other man. ‘We have what we came for. Let’s go.’

‘I’m not going anywhere,’ Isabel said, straightening, ignoring the guns on her. ‘You’ll have to kill me.’

Laneham looked at her, and at me, and signed something to the other man. To me it looked like She here Edie us with lots of flourishes in between. The other man frowned.

‘You don’t mean that.’

Yes, she here Edie ship us.

All the crew of the Sunrise looked between them both nervously as the other man shifted from foot to foot, shaking his head.

‘You – captain, you don’t really mean that. We have Isabel Eynham, that’s what we did this for, you’re not going to just let her go now–’

And Laneham did such a flurry of signing that I couldn’t understand more than a word. The other man kept shaking his head, but finally he put his gun away and sighed in a way that was less like releasing emotion and more collecting his annoyance.

‘Put your arms down men, and leave Miss Eynham. We’re taking Miss Heinlein instead.’

‘What?!’ the women cried, Isabel loudest of all.

‘No – don’t you–!’

She stepped Laneham with her gun drawn and everyone moved to shoot.

‘NO!’ I shouted. She stopped and looked at me.

‘It’s…it’s fine, I’ll go with them. You’re more needed here.’

She looked at me so pleadingly it broke my heart. ‘Edie…you don’t know what you’re saying…’

‘It’s fine, it’s all right.’

I looked at Laneham and he nodded and turned and I didn’t think, made my feet move – like a creaking golem, so unwieldy – to follow him, and the men lowered their guns and Mary, Helena, Harriet, all spoke as I walked past.

‘Edie-‘

‘Edie, don’t-‘

‘You don’t know what you’re doing…’

But Isabel didn’t say a word. She looked like she was going to cry and I didn’t dare look at her again after seeing that.

I kept my head down as I stepped off onto the ship run up beside ours, and Laneham gently guided me by my elbow to below deck. His touch was as gentle and hesitant as I remembered, so much like the boy I knew. The other man came down a few seconds later as we began to move, and I wasn’t surprised to see him raging.

‘What the hell do you think you’re doing? We had her, we had her just where we wanted and–’

Quiet. We talk after.

He looked at me and snorted.

‘You wouldn’t see me abandoning our mission for some cheap whore.’

He stormed off. Laneham must have led me to his room because that happened in the hall and the rest of what I remember happened in his room, but I don’t remember travelling between them. My mind was a mess and I felt sick.

Edie, Edie, he signed as I sat down heavily on his bed. I wouldn’t look at him. He kept signing and touching my shoulders, my face, trying to convince me to turn and look at him and I batted away his over-familiar touch. The tears started to slip down my cheeks and I cursed myself for letting them. When he saw that he stopped trying to make me look at him, and left the room. I curled up on the bed, sniffling, wiping my cheeks, stopping any more tears out of pride, but unable to even consider moving from there or acting in any way. All I wanted was to hide and forget everything that had just happened. And throughout the next few hours or so – it could have been days for all I knew – the same thoughts kept repeating themselves to me.

Laneham is alive.

He’s with the Coopers.

Isabel lied to me.

All three thoughts poisoned my heart.

Written by G.J.

29/07/2012 at 1:12 pm

Savage Writing: Kay, Eye, Ell, Ell.

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The theme was Savage Island. Apparently mine was the savagest of the night.

 

The blade penetrates my back, cutting two of my ribs on the way in, then breaking another as it splits out of my chest. The air rushes out of me and I hang like speared meat. Being stabbed itself doesn’t hurt so much, but when the blade is pulled out it scrapes against my organs and I would scream if I had any breath left in me. Yet that’s nothing compared to the throbbing agony that takes me once the knife and my attacker are gone: a pulse that shudders my entire torso. The blood floods down my body. I crumple to the forest floor.

But once again, I find I am unable to die.

I’m soon able to breathe again and the gaping hole in my chest is gone, leaving me as I was before, except with stickier clothes. I’ll put up with it until I can wash them – I don’t want to go to the crate. I grab my bag from where I dropped it, and check everything is still there: water, dried meat, some squashed bananas, an arm, a hunting knife and my prized kukri. My attacker definitely wasn’t Terri – the last time we fought, I chopped her arm off at the elbow and stole it so she couldn’t heal properly, and I’ve been carrying it around ever since. The limb is still as white and fleshy as it was when she had it, and it’s not gone stiff at all, so I can’t use it as a back-scratcher as much as I’d like to.

I take the kukri, wipe the sweat from my forehead, and set off. It’s a clammy day, and the blood on my t-shirt stinks. The first few times I bled to death, the smell of my own blood freaked me out, but now it’s another weary thing to put up with, like feeding myself and defending myself and sleeping. I think I must have been a scaredy-cat before I came here, unused to blood and death. Most of us were like that. We all woke up by the crate, and inside the crate there was food, water, clean clothes – and piles and piles of knives and other short bladed weapons, with one white cloth covering them all, and four rough capital letters etched on that cloth: K-I-L-L. Alan and I were the first to find the sea, on the south side; Katy and David found it in the north; there was no hint of land out there. Ever since then we’ve been stranded on this patch of floating forest that is far too small for the fifteen of us.

I reach my camp at the south beach, and I gladly wash my shirt and eat a banana. We tried making a raft but the current swept us straight back. We tried to ignore the knives, and what the cloth had told us to do. Nora cried and said we must be in purgatory; she went off to the north-east, sitting by herself for days, praying and crying and saying it couldn’t be true. Then Alan chopped her to pieces and she hardened up pretty fast.

Looking out at the sun on the water, I wonder about Alan again. Merciless Alan. He started it. He’s the one who discovered that we couldn’t die, who killed everyone first. I’d planned to stab him through the throat like he did to me, but one day he vanished. He’s the only one of us who’s gotten off the island so far.

A rustle nearby makes me jump. I grab my knife and throw it at the shadow in the trees, and there’s a grunt before Nora emerges, pulling the knife out of her ribs. She throws it into the sand at my feet and we stare each other down. Last time we met, she stabbed me through the back of my skull, and the explosion of sensations as my brain fell apart like wet paper was a new kind of horrendous. But then, I had broken each of her fingers so she’d give me her serrated knife the time before that.

‘Well,’ she says at last, ‘what are you waiting for?’

‘What do you want?’ I ask.

‘I want you to kill me.’

It’s a trap. I don’t reply.

‘Come on, kill me. Don’t you want revenge for being stabbed in the head?’

‘Why do you want to die?’

She keeps her eyes focused on mine. She’s a decent killer because she has eyes full of fervour: it all switched from God to murder once Alan got to her.

‘Because I want out of here.’

I laugh.

‘Alan got out,’ she says. ‘Why him over everyone? He was the worst one of us. It’s been driving me mad, thinking about it, but now I get it: he’s gone because he was the worst. This is purgatory, right? Then Alan was so evil here that he was sent to hell.’

I vaguely remember those terms. Nora has the best memory of the before-time than any of us.

‘So if I outlast everyone – if everyone kills me until they’re all taken to hell – then I’ll win, won’t I? I’ll be let out of here, for being better than everyone.’

Her hubris doesn’t even sicken me anymore.

‘You think I’ll play along with your plan to be the last one standing?’ I ask. She shrugs.

‘I think you’ll be happy to kill me indefinitely. You still have Terri’s arm, after all.’

I grab my kukri and I split her skull open. A few minutes later, her eyes burst back into life.

‘Ooh, that hurts,’ she says, laughing. ‘I –’

I don’t know whether she’s right, about me or Alan or the island. But she asked to be killed indefinitely, so that’s what I’m going to do. I cut her head off because it’s the fastest way, and when she comes back she smiles at me for that second before I decapitate her again…and again…and again…and again…

Written by G.J.

26/07/2012 at 2:20 pm

Riverboats Part 4: The Man From Scotland Yard

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One day as we were sailing along, and Helena and I were outside, I noticed her squint suddenly.

‘Is it a boat?’ I asked.

‘No,’ she said, frowning. ‘It’s something in the water.’

We kept sailing forward, up to it, and by now I could see it, a small smudge on the river. As we came closer, and I could still only make out a blot of beige and black, she jerked back and gasped.

‘It’s a person!’

‘What?’

‘Run inside and get the captain! There’s someone in the water up ahead!’

I ran and Isabel came to see, and ordered Harriet to slow us as we got closer. It was definitely a person – with blonde hair and black clothes – and as we came close we saw they were holding onto a plank of wood, barely keeping afloat. We nearly came to a stop beside them, and we reached out a barge pole to pull them on. Only then did they stir, and loosely grab it.

‘Take him on board,’ Isabel said, no hesitation.

It was a man, in his mid twenties perhaps, with stubble on his cheeks, turned red and bloated from the cold water. Once on deck he coughed up water before flopping and lying still.

‘This is some strange fish you’ve caught,’ Mary said.

‘He’s wearing a uniform,’ Harriet noted.

‘Police.’ Frances gulped. ‘I recognise it.’

‘What’s a policeman doing in the river?’

‘We’ll have to ask him.’

‘More importantly,’ Jane butted in as if impatient, ‘Where is he going to stay? We’re overcrowded as it is!’

‘I wouldn’t mind a nice young man like that in me bed,’ Mary said with a smirk. ‘He can take your spot.’

Isabel frowned at us all. ‘He’ll sleep on sheets on the floor of the pantry. He’ll be grateful for anything after being in the water so long. He’s not getting near any of us.’

I felt the atmosphere tighten as we looked at each other and realised that this was one of those very rare things – something that rattled the captain.

‘He’ll need someone by him in case he wakes or dies,’ Harriet said softly. ‘We should take turns. I’ll start.’

Isabel stood from where she was crouching and turned.

‘Good. You can watch him if you like – I have better things to do.’

With that she stalked off, leaving the rest of us to haul him into the pantry.

 

He woke just as I was switching turns with Frances. She was pale with worry when I came in, holding a cup of tea to her chest and staring at him.

‘I ‘ate police,’ she said softly.

‘Because of your husband.’

She nodded, stood, and just as she turned round to go his hand lifted and grabbed onto her skirt. She shrieked like nothing else, I jumped and nearly clanged into the doorpost, and the tea – which luckily was lukewarm – flew over everything, mainly me.

A barely audible croak came from the floor.

‘Sorry…to startle you…miss…’

Frances and I both leant against the door, chests jumping up and down in fright. She squeaked and ran. I swallowed and gulped and tried to calm my breathing as I sat down next to him, wiping the droplets from my face.

‘It’s…okay,’ I said. He fixed his bleary eyes on me as best he could. He stank of filthy river-water and I wished that we had kept him outside, because I didn’t want to have to taste that smell on dinner later.

‘Where am I?’

‘You’re on the boat Endeavour,’ I said. ‘We pulled you out of the river.’

Endeavour?’

‘Yes.’

‘…the woman boat?’

‘Yes.’

He closed his eyes and smiled. Before he lost consciousness again, I thought I heard him whisper one word.

‘….Jackpot…’

 

He woke up when again when Mary came through to get food for dinner and she was very vocal about the smell affecting the food. He didn’t say any more, just stared, so we left him alone. I had to help Mary with the meal and we didn’t see him again until dinner was being potted up.

‘Smells good.’

We all looked up in surprise as he staggered to the table, rubbing his eyes. He stopped and looked, seeing there was nowhere to sit.

‘It’s fine,’ he said, ‘I’ll wait…’

‘Oh for God’s sake,’ Mary burst out, covering her nose, ‘hasn’t anyone got clothes that’ll fit him?’

‘I should think you could answer that best,’ Jane murmured, loud enough to hear.

Mary was about to open her mouth when Harriet’s quiet voice stopped her.

‘Does anyone have any very loose clothes?’

‘My nightdress might fit him, but God help me if I’m gunna let him near it without a wash!’

‘The man’s been floating for who knows how long!’ Helena burst out. ‘What sort of women are we if we object to helping him?’

And both Mary and Jane and Harriet all started talking at once until a voice shouted above them all.

‘Everyone be quiet! Give the man some food. Mary, get your nightdress, and Harriet, get some water for him to wash after he’s eaten!’

We all stared at Isabel, red in the face, looking so peeved that none of us knew what to do. Finally, Frances spoke:

‘…we don’t have enough food for him.’

Isabel looked at her, then at all of us in turn, before shaking her head.

‘He can have mine.’

She stood and left. The man scratched his head as we all looked around in shock.

‘Um, so…maybe this ain’t the best time but…um…’

We all stared and he quailed, coughed, swallowed, and resumed speaking.

‘First of all, thank you all so much for taking me on board.’ Pause. His eyes spun from corner to corner to avoid looking at us.

‘Secondly, um, allow me to introduce myself. My name’s Christian McNeil, and I’m a bobby – a policeman – in London. If it’s at all possible to take me back to London while on your travels, I would be eternally grateful.’

Silence. The atmosphere pressed on me and I couldn’t stand how awful this must be for him.

‘We’d have to ask the captain,’ I finally said, ‘but we’re on our way to London anyway. There isn’t room, but…’

‘I can sleep on the floor, anywhere, even on deck,’ he said hurriedly. Everyone was looking at me and I stumbled over my words in my reply.

‘Well I’m sure that Isabel – I mean captain – n–not that I can speak for her – or anyone else! – but I’m sure as good people – we – well as Helena said – we couldn’t have just left you, so…’

And I trailed off, too embarrassed to keep going. Another pause.

‘Thank you, Miss…?’

‘Oh, I’m Edie, and this is–’

‘Well, it’s agreed then,’ Jane interrupted. We stopped. She put a spoonful of stew to her mouth and met my eye.

‘He can have your food.’

And everyone hurriedly began to eat.

 

We gave him a bucket of water, cloth and Mary’s nightdress, and left him in the dining room with a sheet and orders of where to put his clothes.

‘You can wash them,’ Mary said. I didn’t argue. After dinner everyone went away – probably to gossip in the other rooms – while I gathered the washing together and cleaned the plates. As I went by the dining room door I saw there was a pile of clothes outside, so I bent to pick them up, and was in the processing of standing up again when the door opened and my head banged into Christian’s body.

‘Oh sorry!‘ we both said and then looked at each other.

He was wearing Mary’s white floral nightdress, the cotton stretching over his shoulders and billowing at the front. The frilled neck hung around his stubble and from underneath the frilled skirt a pair of hairy legs poked out.

We both burst out laughing.

‘I – I – I’m sorry,’ he said, laughing with me, ‘I was just going out to put those clothes away-‘

‘No, no,’ I giggled. ‘I have them. Goodnight, Mr McNeil.’

‘Call me Christian,’ he said. I smiled.

‘Goodnight.’

I walked to the washbasin and back to the room with a smile on my face. Isabel was there, in bed. I hadn’t seen her since dinner and annoyance still emanated from her back, dampening my happiness. I got into bed without a word to her, and though I considered talking to her, I decided against it and fell asleep with her anger beside me.

 

The next morning the first thing I heard was a gale of laughter as Mary and Jane discovered Christian in the nightdress. Soon afterwards everyone came through and sat there howling while he stood with a smile, glad to be the entertainment for these previously hostile women. Isabel said quietly to me, while Mary went to get food and the others sat down to talk to him:

‘You weren’t laughing.’

‘I was.’

‘But not as much.’

‘I saw it last night before bed. I laughed more then.’

‘Oh.’

And her lack of response annoyed me as I did the washing before we sat down to eat.

Now that everyone was more amenable to the idea of having this man on board, we all listened to him talking at breakfast.

‘So, Mr McNeil, pray tell how you ended up in the river,’ Helena said with an affected accent.

‘You ladies can call me Christian. And it’s a long story, the short of which is that I was chasing up some men for some crimes in the city, talking on their boat, when their skipper decided it was best to run, evidently forgettin’ that I was still on board. So they made off with me and, well, we had a little scrap, and I ended up tossed aside.’

‘Thrown overboard!’ we all exclaimed.

‘Who were these men?’ Isabel asked, her first words addressed to him since he came on board.

‘Some men by the name of Bainbridge, I think.’

The others shifted a little and glanced quickly at the captain before looking away. With a small shift of her eyelids and lips her previously neutral look turned to steel.

‘Coopers. Good thing you’re with us.’

Christian shook his head. ‘Yeah, yeah, don’t think I haven’t heard about this fight between the two families. You’re Mrs Hunter’s niece, ain’t you?’

‘Her cousin’s daughter.’

‘Indeed. And the rest of you?’

‘Doesn’t matter,’ Isabel cut in before anyone could answer. ‘They’re my crew and that’s what matters. They are Hunters if they are on this ship.’

He grinned. ‘No offence, m’lady, but I wouldn’t exactly call this tub a “ship”…’

She stared him down as we all gulped. Our spoons lay idle as we all forgot our food.

‘You may be as insolent as you like,’ she finally said. ‘Do you think I got this far without hearing any cheek from men such as yourself? Your words are meaningless to me. Just remember your manners, Mr O’Neil, and that I am taking you onto this ship’ – she pronounced the word with fervour – ‘out of Christian kindness, despite the lack of space and provisions.’

Silence. He went bright red and didn’t dare correct the mistake in his name.

‘F-forgive me, Miss Eynham.’

With a forceful gesture she took up her spoon and started to eat again, and we all followed.

 

Naturally we let him do all the heavy work while he was there. He fixed some leaks and shifted loads and didn’t complain at all. Since I was one of the strongest still, I sometimes helped him, and so we would speak to each other. I was the easiest for him to talk to, since everyone else had decided he was my “problem”, and so would leave any duties involving him to me, though Helena took an obvious interest in him.

‘Is the captain always so harsh?’ he asked later that afternoon.

‘She’s not harsh at all.’

‘Really?’ He gave me an impish smile and I felt compelled to defend Isabel.

‘You insulted her by insulting this boat.’

‘But you understand – had you seen real ships, sent to India and Africa, you couldn’t compare this to them.’

‘We see those ships often in London. But they’re not important to us, and this one is, so it’s our ship.’

He leant on the crate and considered me.

‘You’re a strange lot. Same with sailors. The water turns their minds.’

‘To settle in one place on land is even stranger to me.’

‘You’ve always lived on the rivers then?’

‘Yes.’

‘Where are your family?’

So I explained what had happened and he nodded.

‘So you’re the only one without a grudge here then?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘That blonde girl – the one with the big – nevermind – Helena, was her name, or Harriet? – she told me you’re all out to kill some Coopers or something.’

‘Well, most of us aren’t, actually, but it’s why the captain took this ship. Jane and Mary are only here for work, and Frances just to stay alive.’

He sighed. ‘It’s been giving us so much trouble. It’s not just fishing bodies out of the river – your rivalry spills over when you’re moored and on the land. I’ve seen some men who have been shot by this sorry business – that shouldn’t be. Such constant revenge taking – don’t you think it’s idiotic?’

It took me a long time to reply to him. I wasn’t sure what I felt and had to consider every part of my mix of feelings.

‘I did use to,’ I finally said. ‘Part of me still does, but…for Harriet at least…her life has been forever changed. Her son will grow up without a father and she will barely be able to support herself and always be lonely, because of one man, when she thought she’d have happiness…I can’t imagine how she feels but I can understand how…you can’t just let someone be when they have ruined your life.’

‘And so her son is growing without a mother instead!’ he cried. ‘Doesn’t she see that?’

‘Yes,’ I said sadly. She had visited him each time in town and always came back crying and cursing. ‘But…she still can’t let it be.’

‘I thought women would be more forgiving,’ he said. ‘But being in the police has changed that. You’re just as vicious, really.’

I agreed with him reluctantly.

 

I barely saw Isabel when he was with us. Though she had given Christian consent to stay with us until London, she never said another word to him. At mealtimes she was silent and let the others talk with him, and left as soon as she was finished. It was as if she couldn’t stand to be in the same room with him for very long. Whenever she was near him she watched him intensely, seeing every blink and twitch, as if searching for an answer to some important question…or else she considered him generally suspicious. I decided that must be it – she didn’t trust a man on board her ship, especially one so disrespectful to her. I understood that – but then why were her eyes so often on me as well?

It wasn’t until the last night before we were due to sail into the capital that she spoke to me again, something more than rudimentary questions of work. She still kept her back to me as she began.

‘Do you mind working with Mr McNeil?’

Helena had corrected her as to his name only the day before, when the embarrassment was too much for her to bear.

‘Not at all. I like having the help.’

Pause.

‘I think Helena has taken a fancy to him,’ I said gaily, trying to lift the leaden atmosphere. ‘She’ll be disappointed when he leaves.’

‘Stupid girl,’ Isabel muttered. ‘I should have expected it of her. But what about you?’

‘What do you mean?’

‘You like him.’

‘Yes, but only as an acquaintance.’

‘Really.’

‘Yes!’

‘But he has taken a fancy to you.’

I turned to face her back, astounded.

‘Nonsense! I doubt he’s taken to me more than anyone. He’s a man on a ship full of women, of course he’ll flirt with all of us.’

‘You don’t see what I see, Edie.’

‘I see a young man. That’s all, nothing more or less. I’ll be glad to have the space and food back when he’s gone.’

‘I can’t believe you.’

‘Isabel! Why are you being so stubborn? I feel nothing for him!’

She turned.

‘I can understand how easy you are with all of us, but to act that way with a man? You don’t really think it can be taken the same way.’

‘I’m myself with everyone – it is the same to me!’

‘So all the things you’ve told me about your past, your feelings – you’d tell him the same?’

I blushed and hoped she wouldn’t see in the grainy darkness. Her eyes were like two bulletholes, boring into me. I looked at my pillow.

‘Of – of course not. That’s…different.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I – you’re my best friend, Isabel. I can tell you anything. I wouldn’t do that with anyone else.’

I glanced and had to look away again, away from that intense gaze cutting into me.

‘You promise you feel nothing for this man?’

‘Absolutely nothing. I find him…some of the things he’s said about the feud, this ship, you…I find him irritating and insolent. I could never love a man like that.’

‘What sort of man could you love?’

‘I…’

And I looked at her and couldn’t answer.

‘I will never marry,’ she said, when I didn’t reply. ‘Men are nothing to me.’

Still I said nothing. Eventually she tired of waiting and said goodnight, turning away. I thought for a very long time. What sort of man could I love? Someone strong. Someone powerful, yet kind. Someone thrilling, yet who feels safe when I’m close to them. Someone with depths. Someone who cares about me.

I burrowed under the covers and pressed them to my face, stifling my breath, revelling in their scratchiness, trying to calm the panic that was rising over me; trying to ignore Isabel’s body next to me. It was too much. The revelation…was too much.

 

Christian waved goodbye to everyone with a smile the next day and trotted off with his fellow policeman to tell them of the wonderful time he had had while on a “tub” full of beautiful, unpredictable women – though really we were quite predictable and only two of us (Harriet and Isabel) were beautiful. I sighed in relief once he had gone, while Helena moaned.

‘Oh, I missed that smell! The sweat of a man! Being around women all the time is so tiring, don’t you think?’

She didn’t direct this question at anyone in particular so naturally Jane and Mary answered.

‘I wouldn’t count being on this boat as being entirely around women,’ Jane sniped, though she laid off her usual glance at me.

‘Now, now, Jane, hold your tongue. But yes, a man is nice every so often – but I tire of them far quicker than womenfolk. Think they’re so great and high and useful – they don’t know who does half the work, work they don’t even think of!’ And she snorted.

‘It doesn’t matter,’ Isabel said, and I rejoiced to hear her calm, quite tone had returned. ‘Now we can go back to how things were. I prefer normality.’

And she had that most wonderful smile; the slight curve of her lips and hopeful tone and light eyes. It brightened my heart. We all got back to work and Helena was the only one who complained about the loss of Christian McNeil from our ship.

We slipped back into normality for the next few months. Christmas passed by without incident. Harriet and Helena went back home, and I thought of doing the same, but I couldn’t afford to miss so many days of work, since we had to keep moving and delivering the whole holiday with two missing. I still received the occasional letter from my parents when we were in town, saying that they were doing well and hoping that I was as well. I always wrote back positively, though being on the boat grew more and more straining with time.

It wasn’t Jane or anyone else. Indeed, Jane and I seemed to have a mutual respect for each other now, since we both knew we could endure each other’s dislike with ease. She would make comments – ‘My Miss Heinlein, your arms are looking bigger than ever,’ – ‘Are you sure you’ve never been to the continent, Miss Heinlein? I dare say you’d fit in with the moors there,’ – and I would smile sweetly and reply in the affirmative, occasionally making my own – ‘Are you planning on having any children, Miss Donnelly? I’m just wondering how you could feed a babe with something that isn’t there, if you understand,’ – ‘My, Jane, did you knock over the lentils in the pantry? You’re absolutely covered – oh, my mistake, it’s just your freckles, not dirt,’– and she would arch her eyebrow and reply tartly and then we would smile at each other. No, my problem was deeper than that. It was with myself.

Since the night before Christian had left, I had been unable to stand being around the captain for more than was necessary. And how many hours did I realise it was necessary to be near her! Time that had flown by previously – meals, evenings, steering, hauling crates and checking lists – was now torture to me. Even the sight of her, bending her face down to her soup spoon, strands of her hair curving out over the table and bending with her, eyelashes fluttering downwards – even something as simple as that became too much for me. I had analysed and watched her so often in the past, but now that I had realised my intent behind those gazes, I couldn’t even stand to glance at her. And yet I must. Eyes are drawn to beauty and the forbidden; and so I ended up looking at her just as much, yet feeling twice the pain. Talking to her at night was still my greatest happiness, but when I stopped thinking – in the silence between sentences – it would all crush down on me. I knew I couldn’t go on like this, but didn’t know how to change anything. Still the days went on and my feelings didn’t smother me as I thought they would. As they must.

Normality meant that we still passed Cooper ships. I became an expert in patching up bullet-holes. Still we never saw anyone that we were after.

Written by G.J.

22/07/2012 at 4:18 pm

The Confession Bar

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It was after closing and all the staff had gone home for the night. I was putting the last glasses away when he came in. Early forties, half-bald, and drenched; water poured off of his nose and chin and shoulders as if a cloud was above his head, raining only on him. He left a trail of water behind him as he walked to the bar and sat down on a stool.

‘You must be the Drowned Man,’ I said.

He nodded. I looked closely, but he had no briefcase or hat and was wearing a generic grey suit, so he could have been from any recent decade.

‘Fifties?’ I suggested.

‘Sixties,’ he said. ‘Nineteen Sixty-Two. Has it been long?’

‘Not too long,’ I said. This is what I always say to them. To let them know that they’ve been dead for decades or more usually upsets them, considering how hard they’ve struggled to get out the ether and come to me.

‘So what happened?’ I asked, as always, watching as his droplets ran down the metal of his stool. Having a man soaking all my furniture was still much preferable to the night before, when the Burned Man had visited me, a scorched black husk that I could barely keep my eyes on.

‘Got stuck in the car,’ he said. ‘It was raining , and I swerved to avoid a bicyclist, and ended up in the ditch. I couldn’t open the doors and the place flooded with me inside.’

I nodded. He coughed a fluid-filled cough.

‘So why are you here?’

They come to me when they want to get something off their chest. That’s what a barman’s always been for, right? From the looks of him, I guessed adultery – the least awful of the crimes that they confess to me.

‘That night, I was on my way to meet my wife’s sister.’

‘“Meet”?’ I raised an eyebrow.

He nodded, looking across to the fridge full of cider opposite.

‘Louisa knew I was having an affair. I drove straight from work so I wouldn’t have to hear her accusations before I left. But she thought it was some floozy from the company; she had no idea that Janey and me had been seeing each other for years. I was planning to lie to her and tell her it was a girl from work, just to spare her the truth.’

He stared down at his hands as if there was an invisible pint between them. I reached down to my folder, hidden amongst the other managerial folders, and flipped through the pages, until I found the last typed page before fifty blank ones.

‘So your actual question is about them?’

He shuddered, shaking water everywhere. I made sure to keep the folder away from him.

‘I hate to think what happened afterward,’ he said. ‘That Louisa would have realised that I was on my way to her sister, that Janey would have told her, that I would’ve made them hate each other when they were already grieving…I need to know what I did. What my mistakes caused.’

He was an executive of a company that sold cigarettes and targeted young people, but obviously he wouldn’t think there was any problem with that. I can’t let my modern sensibilities get in the way, obviously. I’ve had men who have murdered children confess about betraying their brother, because they didn’t see anything wrong with killing slave children or their enemy’s family, but betraying kin was the biggest disgrace.

I watched as the ink, dot by dot, appeared in the empty box underneath the Drowned Man’s profile. He watched my face as I read; I imagined that his brow would have been sweating had it not already been covered. Finally, I snapped the binder shut.

‘The truth is, Janey did confess,’ I told him. He sagged visibly. ‘In fact, when you didn’t show, she called your wife, worried about you, and told her the truth. Louisa hated you with a passion then, and said she would never speak to her sister again. And when she found out you were dead, and she could never confront you, she hated you with a bitterness that can only be imagined.’

He put his head in his hands. Drips fell from his bald pate onto the bar.

‘She tried to keep Janey from the funeral, but your children cried – they loved your sister – so she let her in, and they supported each other through it, hating you and loving you the whole time.’

He raised his eyes to me. ‘What else?’

I put the binder back in its place.

‘Louisa remarried a few years later. She died of heart troubles in nineteen eighty-eight. Janey is still alive today. Do you want to hear how your children are doing?’

He shook his head. ‘No. It was Louisa I was worried about. Did she have a happy life without me? Were her and Janey happy?’

“Happy life” is a meaningless term to me, so I answered as I always do:

‘Yes.’

He sighed, closed his eyes, and nodded.

‘Thank you,’ he said. With those words, the water ceased falling from his body, and dried before my eyes, until he was a smart-looking businessman again, with the soft glow of the peaceful on his outline. He wiped a tear away from one eye, sniffed and opened his eyes again.

‘I’m glad. That’s all I wanted to know – that I hadn’t ruined them.’

Most of the people who come to me are self-centred that way. Everyone’s hardier than they think they are. He stood off the stool, and turned to leave.

‘Who’s tomorrow?’ I called after him.

‘Tomorrow’s the Hanged Man,’ he said. ‘Goodnight, barman.’

‘Goodnight.’

He left the way he came in – phasing through the locked doors – and I put away the last glass and finished up for the night.

Written by G.J.

18/07/2012 at 11:54 pm

Posted in Short Stories

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Riverboats Part 3: Isabel Eynham

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The next day we were in port, offloading, talking, joking as we always did, when a young woman with shoddy clothes and mousy brown hair spilling out of her cap came running up to Isabel.

‘Miss Eynham! Miss Eynham!’

A frown was the only sign of surprise she gave. ‘Frances? What are you doing here?’

‘I’ve nothing, Miss Eynham,’ she panted. Everyone was staring but she only had eyes for Isabel. ‘You don’t understand – he took everything from me.’

‘Your husband?’

‘Gambler. Debter. In jail now. Thank the Lord I never had a child to care for – but I’ve nothing, Miss Eynham, my family’s all gone and just these past few days I’ve been on the street and I haven’t et and I need somewhere so when I saw you I–’

She collapsed into tears and Isabel merely stared for a few seconds before realising she must act.

‘Frances, Fanny, please, there is the church, the poorhouse–’

‘Please, Miss Eynham! Please! Take me with you!’

I’ll never forget Isabel’s eyes at that moment. She had that uncomfortable knowledge that her conscience would not allow her to follow her head’s advice.

‘We have no room, Fanny, we have a whole crew.’

‘Please, please, I’ll do anything, anything, just please, even a roof over my head would be luxury!’

Again the discomfort. Another soundless sigh. She looked to us, as if for answers. Before Jane could open her saucy mouth I pinched her, so she glared at me in silence instead of speaking.

‘This is your ship,’ Harriet said quietly. Isabel nodded solemnly, and turned to Frances, bent down, and whispered in her ear. Frances’s head jolted up in disbelief, before a fresh flow of tears burst forth.

‘God bless you, Isabel, God bless you,’ she choked out. Isabel straightened and turned to us, huddled there.

‘We only have three rooms. Frances, you’ll go with Harriet. Edie can be in my room.’

Why did she choose me? I never understood that. Why choose the newest one, the least familiar one? Maybe she had started even then, even when I was still afraid of her. I moved my things into her room in embarrassed silence and she was kind and courteous the entire time, and I couldn’t say a word for my awe of her. When we shared her bed I turned away from her and shivered to have her so close to me. Maybe I had started even then. Maybe it was that early that I was drawn to her.

I had grown used to Harriet’s body and thought nothing of it if one of the others was occasionally undressed, given the wafting thin sheets that separated us. But Isabel was very private and no-one had ever seen her naked until I shared a room with her.

Her hair was so long and often messy unless she tied it, flying in strands over her face and spilling over her shoulders. She was so pale, unlike me and the other tanned girls, with a few brown freckles sprinkled over her arms and cheeks, so pale they were sometimes hard to notice. And her body…she was thin and little-breasted, so thin her ribs were visible, and yet still a little fat clung to her wide womanly hips – a boy’s top half, and a woman’s lower regions. I thought she would be unconcerned about this, as we were all about ourselves, but I soon realised that she dressed very quickly and faced away from me, as if ashamed.

‘May I talk to you?’ I asked on the second night in bed.

‘Of course.’

‘How did you come to have this ship?’ I hastily added ‘If it’s not too impertinent to ask.’

‘I told Aunt Hunter that I was going to kill Alexander Strong. We talked about Harriet and Helena and she gave me this ship that she took off the Coopers in a fight. Said that we should follow our revenge. We knew we had to have an all-woman ship. We hired Mary and Jane and set off.’

‘Oh,’ was all I could say. I didn’t dare ask why she wanted to kill Alexander Strong. After a pause, during which I thought she might have fallen asleep, she asked:

‘What was it like, being alone as a child on a boat?’

‘Umm…’ I didn’t know what to think of her asking this. ‘Well, sometimes it was lonely, especially when I was older, and I didn’t have Laneham around. When I was younger I made friends with everyone at port, but after he left I…I felt very lonely…’

‘Laneham?’ Her voice was low and neutral.

I told her about how he came to us, how we played and had our own language, and how he left. I couldn’t hold the tears back as I described it. Years I had relived it, and yet I had never told another soul of that night. Why did I confide in her? Maybe I already trusted her.

‘So you have never seen him since?’

‘N-no…I’m sure…he must be dead,’ I gulped. ‘I wish I could see him, wish I could learn what had happened but I’ll never know…never know what scared him so much…’

I wiped away my remaining tears. Isabel didn’t speak for a very long time.

‘You are a good, kind girl, Edie,’ she said, patting my arm before turning away.

 

Frances settled in very well. Her gratitude to Isabel was beyond all bounds. She fawned and fussed and brushed her hair and the captain put up with it very stoically, though as I began to read her better I understood how she disliked attention.

‘You know,’ Mary said to me one day while preparing dinner. ‘I said to the captain that me and Jane could leave. It really is too crowded here now, and we’re only hired help, but she wouldn’t hear of it. Said we were like family.’ She sighed. ‘She’s too good for this world, she really is.’

‘She’s very guarded,’ I observed, hoping that Mary would divulge more information, as always.

‘That she is. Poor soul’s lost many people she loved. Her aunt and this ship are all she has. I know how she feels – after so long around some of the worst people you get sick of the ‘ole human race and just want to sit away from them and tell them all to bugger off.’

I wasn’t satisfied. I brought it up again that night.

‘Captain…’

‘Yes?’

‘You asked the other night what it was like being the only child on a boat. Does that mean you had siblings?’

A long pause. I hoped I hadn’t offended her.

‘Yes.’

‘It-it must have been fun, having so many others around.’

‘…..Yes.’

And I didn’t dare ask any more. Eventually she said in a whisper.

‘You can call me Isabel.’

I struggled with what to say for a long time.

‘…good night….Isabel.’

 

She smiled sometimes. When we played games, card games and charades and Mary and Jane sang rude sea songs, she would smile, sometimes only a little, sometimes quite strongly, but she never laughed, and many smiles were made while facing the ground, as if embarrassed of them. It entranced me. I made it my mission to make her laugh. I told the jokes I knew and stories and made comments to her in the hope it would make her even giggle, but nothing.

At the same time, my relations with Jane were deteriorating. She was constantly rude to me more than the others, and vaguely insulting in such a way that I could never confront her directly. Then one day my hair pins started to go missing. I thought nothing of it, until more and more disappeared and I only had one left. I asked around. Jane shrugged.

‘I have them.’

‘What do you mean you have them?’ I cried.

‘I thought you didn’t want them.’

‘They were in my bag!’

‘You weren’t using them.’

‘How could you possibly-!’

‘Here.’ And she got up and gave me one out of her own hair. ‘I’ll give you the rest tomorrow.’

And I asked the next day and she put it off and off until I exploded. I shouted at her for stealing them and she merely raised an eyebrow, marched off, and came back, tipping them onto the floor in front of me.

‘There you are. Now, you really need to calm down, Edie. It’s not good to be so angry.’

And I thought I would hit her but I only made a strangled noise. After she left the room I heard her laughing outside.

‘Don’t let her get to you, hun,’ Mary said as I picked the many pins off the floor. ‘She’s only tryin’ to wind your spring. If you ignore it, she’ll get bored. That’s what we do.’

But I couldn’t stand the thought of it. So I decided to see what it was like to be the others; I decided to formulate a revenge.

 

It was frustrating, creating and throwing away plans that were deemed too harsh or not harsh enough or too petty or too accidental seeming. I wanted her to know it was me. I considered likely retaliation, but realised what the others knew: the thought of achieving revenge was so tantalising, so appealing, that any consequences seemed blurred and unthinkable, and anything else was outshone by the promise – by the fantasy – of what it would be like to finally feel satisfied, feel proud, feel vindicated. And this was over hair pins and insults! I wondered whether a revenge for something more serious would feel far sweeter.

Yet I instinctively knew it would not, knew it could only make them feel worse. I saw how the others tensed every time we passed a Cooper ship, and saw the grimness on their faces when they sometimes fired shots. I saw how quiet and determined Isabel always was, and how Helena would sometimes mention her man and Harriet her husband and both would sink into a glowering silence. Their vengeance was their shadow – often lagging behind them, sometimes pushed in front, but always attached to their every step and always dragging them down into the earth. This is why I learnt to treasure Mary more than anything – she was so practical and sensible about the whole thing that it was relieving.

‘It’s awful, it is,’ she said once, while helping me to air the washing. ‘But what can you do? People are always gunna fight, ‘specially ones so close together as river folk. It blows up in the faces of everyone.’

‘Did you ever see anything like this on land or in the sea ships?’

‘It was smaller on t’sea. Personal – one person didn’t like one, they fought, they got flogged – easy. Barely any deaths by others’ hands. But on land there’s no captain in control, so men will form gangs sometimes, families against one, and it’s awful, but it’s rare. Where I was from, we were so small everyone was like family, so I never saw nothing like it til I came here. Hope I don’t see anything like it when I leave.’

‘Will you go?’

She sighed.

‘I don’t know, chick. When they come on this ship, I say – the day a Cooper sets foot on this ship and tries to take us over, that’s the day I leave, Jane or not. I can’t stay in this silly business that’s not mine forever.’

I patted her arm and gave her a sad look so she would know I didn’t want her to leave. She nodded and turned to go. Behind her back, I pocketed Jane’s bloomers that had been in the laundry. My own business was underway, and I understood that I was too far in now to stop.

 

It finally happened, the day I had been waiting for – when I heard the tell-tale signs of someone searching for lost clothes.

‘If Jane’s missing something,’ I told Mary off-hand, since we were the first up and dressed, ‘tell her I might know where it is.’

She narrowed her eyes. ‘What are you up to?’

I merely smiled and ran to the deck. I didn’t have long. I took my finished product – the result of late sewing in the pantry by candlelight – and pinned it as best I could to the flag line, before raising it, needing two attempts to secure it properly. Finally it hoisted, just as I Helena and Isabel made their way to the deck for the usual morning look-out. Both stopped. Looked. Glanced at each other, and at me.

‘Edie….what is that?’ Isabel asked calmly, tucking her hair behind her ear. My heart beat slightly faster with nerves as I realised the trouble she could give me for such tomfoolery – moreover, I was a little disappointed she didn’t see the funny side. I opened my mouth to answer, but never managed a response before a shout came from below.

‘Heinlein!’

Jane came stomping up in her favourite red dress that she wore some Sundays. I had forgotten about that habit – even better. She looked at the ground as she went carefully over the steps up, and luckily as she looked up the wind blew a little harder and showed the flagpole addition in all its glory.

Nine bloomers, some new and some faded, all loosely stitched together to make a sheet, blew in the wind – my own frilly patchwork flag.

‘EDIE!’ she shouted and pointed upwards. ‘What is that?!’

I smiled, barely suppressing my laughter, not daring to look at the others in case they weren’t even amused. Just behind her Harriet, Mary and Frances were looking out at the commotion.

‘It’s our new flag,’ I said. ‘I call it, “Ode to an Irish Woman.”’

She was speechless. Her mouth flapped open and stuttering sounds came out as she looked back and forth from the bloomers to me to the bloomers again.

‘E-Edie! Take them down this instant!’

‘I think it lends a nice air to our boat.’

‘EDIE!’

‘Ho! Endeavour!’

What luck! A Hunter ship was passing by and we hadn’t even noticed. We all spun round and Jane’s pink cheeks turned a deeper shade at the sight of them.

‘We like your new flag, girls!’

‘Thanks!’ I called with a grin. Jane pointed and stamped her foot.

‘No!’ she shrieked. ‘Don’t even – don’t think – this is all her-!’

And she never finished her condemnation of me, because a gust of wind blew under her red dress and lifted the skirt. It did not lift far – not even above the knee – but it was enough for all the male sailors on the other ship to see her legs – and to guess that all the bloomers she owned were on proud display instead of her person. She clamped her hands down on her legs to keep the skirt in place, turned a deep shade of crimson, and ran away. And if she made a noise, I didn’t hear it, because of the laughter that followed her – of the sailors on the boat, and of us. Helena and Mary clutched their stomachs and Harriet covered her mouth. But Isabel – Isabel, the captain, who barely smiled – I stopped my own laughter, because it was such a sight to behold. She was doubled over laughing, wiping the tears away from her eyes, her hair spilling in front of her face – what a face! So creased up! So smiling! I couldn’t laugh when I saw it, I was so mesmerised by the new sight. And the sound! So high and girlish, so unlike herself, except for the slight screech with each gasp for breath – and it kept going and going and going.

‘Oh! Oh! Edie – how wicked – what a rascal you are!’ she said. And I started to giggle again, and soon we were all in fits, still laughing because Isabel was laughing, and none of us could stop until the other boat had long passed us.

 

The aftermath was swift. I took down the flag and undid the stitches. Mary offered to take them to Jane. We all sobered up and sat around for breakfast.

‘You have to apologise,’ Harriet said.

‘What?’ I started. ‘Why?’

‘It was a very cruel joke.’

‘You all laughed.’ I looked pointedly at Isabel and she just looked at her bowl.

‘That doesn’t matter.’

I opened my mouth to reply when Mary came back in with a sigh.

‘She refuses to come down. Can’t face us after that, she says. Poor soul’s crying her eyes out.’

‘Truly?’ I couldn’t believe it. ‘It wasn’t that harsh!’

‘You humiliated her.’

I put down my spoon with a clang and sat back, folding my arms. ‘It was just a joke. I was getting back at her, she knows that. She’s overreacting.’

‘It doesn’t matter.’ Harriet kept talking and Mary kept nodding. I glared at them both, and at Isabel and Helena, studiously keeping their faces in their bowls. Frances was away cooking.

‘So what? She’ll stop crying. It wasn’t much. She takes worse insults from the other sailors all the time.’

‘But still, you have to apologise. Do it after breakfast.’

‘No.’ I shook my head. ‘I won’t be told to apologise.’

They all looked at me and I tried not to quail under the four disapproving stares.

‘Look, chick,’ Mary said. ‘You were in a petty fight, but it’s too far. You have to say sorry and then it’ll all be over. I daresay you taught her a lesson.’

That last line was so scolding – their looks so cold – and my own pride, my sense of my own goodness and my happiness in achieving what I had worked on for so long was so bruised that I couldn’t take it. I scraped my chair back from the table.

‘No-one ever asks any of you to forgive.’

I didn’t have time to register, as I stood up, the flurry of movement until the slap hit me hard across the face and I staggered back, nearly falling over the chair and onto the floor. When I focused my eyes again I saw Harriet standing in front of me, her hand raised and a wild, furious look in her eyes.

‘Don’t you DARE compare your stupid squabbles to us! This is a meaningless fight and you’re being a petulant child! Some of us here have lost everything – EVERYTHING! – so don’t you DARE act as if you’re above us!’

And I stepped backwards until I found the door and I ran to the pantry and I did what any other sixteen-year-old would do: I sobbed into my hands at being told the brutal truth. I had experienced misfortune, but never – not since Laneham had left that night – had I ever hated myself as much as I did that day. It was an unfamiliar feeling to me, and the sting took a long time to disappear.

Isabel came in after some time.

‘Edie,’ she said softly. ‘We need you in the storage.’

I sniffed, and nodded. I just wanted to stay there all day, but I knew I couldn’t. I didn’t want to face them, but I knew I couldn’t escape. I had to face it. After she left, I straightened, pinched my cheeks to regain my sense of self, and got up. I didn’t go to storage. I went to Jane’s room.

‘Can I come in?’ I called through the sheet.

No answer. It took me some minutes to think of what to say, and how to phrase it.

‘Jane…I’m sorry. I only intended to make that flag as a joke. I didn’t consider that anyone would see it. It was wrong of me.’

Silence. I looked at the floor and felt I should sink to the river bottom, I seemed so heavy. I sighed and started to walk away, having failed, when a voice called after me.

‘Your hairclips are in your bag. I’d taken some more, so I put them back. All of them.’

I turned, but I couldn’t see her beyond the sheet. Even so, the smile couldn’t stay off my face.

‘Thank you!’ I called back, and I was sincere.

We all had dinner together happily that night. No-one mentioned what had happened that morning and Jane made fewer snide remarks about my cooking compared with Mary’s. Everything was back to normal…nearly. In bed, I didn’t want to mention it, but I had to.

‘Isabel…’

‘Yes?’

‘…It was nice to see you laugh earlier.’

Pause.

‘…Have you been trying to make me laugh?’

I was embarrassed to hear it put so bluntly.

‘Ha, perhaps.’

‘Why?’

I couldn’t answer that. How do you tell a person that you decided they needed happiness? That they deserved a smile and that you wanted to see one more than anything? How can that be anything but patronising?

‘Well,’ she said finally after receiving no response. She shuffled close and gave me a quick squeeze around the middle, where I was facing away from her.

‘Thank you.’

I couldn’t sleep after that.

 

Life was normal for a while. We passed boats and either insulted them in good humour or shot them. Some remarks were made about Jane’s bloomers, but luckily she laughed and took it in her stride. ‘You wanted that flag,’ she said to them. Sometimes they freely admitted it.

When we passed Cooper boats, we never managed to hit anyone, and we never saw any of the people we were searching for.

Isabel smiled more often now. In bed at night we talked about the others and our work and the stories we had heard when we were younger. Sometimes it was hours and hours before we would sleep, and sometimes the atmosphere kept me awake, choking ideas pressing on me and keeping sleep away. I wrestled with the urge to play with her hair while she slept, and sometimes I woke in the middle of the night and she would have moved closer to me while asleep.

Most days I was very tired.

Written by G.J.

15/07/2012 at 11:45 am

Savage Writing: Mr Power and the Olympic Rings

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Theme for this week was “Mr Power”. This is another testament to me holding the muse hostage.

 

Me and Jackie are watching the Olympics Men’s Gymnastics, and I’ve decided to call three of the competitors Mr Prance, Mr Preen, and Mr Power. Jackie tried to add ‘Mr Parker’ for one of the American ones, and when I asked why she shrugged and said ‘Like Spiderman’ and I said he didn’t look like any incarnation of Spiderman, and then we got onto a debate about the characterisation of Peter Parker throughout the different comic eras and completely missed the vault final. I don’t care – vault is the most boring event anyway. It’s not like the beam where you’re always hoping that they’re gonna slip and fall on their crotch (which would then endlessly repeat in the highlights, like they do with the Winter Olympics whenever an ice skater falls on their arse).

Anyway, by the time we’ve agreed that Spiderman is shit compared to X-Men anyways, it’s time for the rings and Mr Power is up. I call him Mr Power because when he flexes, his muscles are bigger than his head, and within two seconds of him supporting his own weight on the rings, all the flesh of his shoulders threatens to encase the rest of him and we’re squealing and going ‘Gross!’ His real name is at the bottom of the screen: he’s called Oleksandr, which is Alexander but spelt stupid, and I won’t even attempt to pronounce his surname, but it looks like someone ate the second half of the alphabet and threw it up again.

‘I hope he wins,’ Jackie says, ‘he’s a lot nicer looking than the other guys.’ She says this because most of the other guys are Chinese, and Jackie is racist.

The commentators know the names of all the different positions Mr Power is in, as they always do. I know with the swingy-bar events if you do the same technique over and over then they name it after you, which is pretty cool, but then these techniques are always named after the surnames of the Russian or French guy that used it a lot, so instead of a twisted-half-super-cross-majigger, it’s a Hermashermanov instead and it just doesn’t help. The one where it most looks like his muscles will eat his head is called an Iron Cross, which is pretty easy to remember since it’s like self-crucifixion; it’s definitely the most Metal-sounding of the techniques the voiceover guy is saying.

I sip my diet coke and secretly hope Mr Power will beat the other guys, purely because I’ve already made him special by calling him Mr Power, so he’ll be letting me down if he doesn’t do well.

‘Hey, you know yesterday a British guy got a medal for the first time in forever. We never win at gymnastics–’

‘Shh, Mr Power’s doing a handstand.’

The handstand is incredibly boring so Jackie continues.

‘But it’s always weird when we win things that we don’t usually win. I think they said the last time anyone had won a medal at gymnastics was in the bloody Victorian era or something, nineteen-ten or something like that. We’re just shit, aren’t we?’

Mr Power is out of his handstand and holding himself horizontally, and you can see the sweat dripping down his face. Even straining like that, you can still see his bright blue Eastern European eyes.

‘Hey Jacks, do you think they shoot anyone not good looking in these countries? Like the police come round to your house and shoot your baby if it’s ugly? I swear every last one of them is goddamn beautiful. It’s not fair.’

Jackie swirls her bendy straw around her fancy pint glass (she stole it from an expensive pub two years ago).

‘I dunno, Kat, it’s just genetics and stuff, innit?’

We both sip our diet cokes, and I think about how much I hate diet coke but I have to drink it anyway.

‘You fancy him, don’t you?’ she says as Mr Powers prepares to finish.

‘No-o,’ I lie, because searing-blue-eyed, blonde Eastern-European men are completely my type, even if they are so muscley I think they’re gonna grow and grow and then crush me to death, like at the end of Akira.

We watch as Mr Power swings himself around, up into the air, spins and lands perfectly on two feet, without a single step back like most of the other gymnasts have done. He stays squatting for a few seconds before straightening, and Jackie makes a crude remark which I purposefully do not hear (though maybe I snicker a little bit). Mr Power leaves the mat and wipes his face with a towel, and Jackie immediately switches allegiance when a swarthy Italian man comes up to the ring. He’s not interesting enough to merit a nickname, so I let her to swoon and squeal in equal measure at his Iron Crosses as I pour some vodka into my drink, and I don’t see his turn at all because I’m too busy gagging at the unholy alliance of Imperial Vodka and Aspartame in my glass.

Two glasses later, and the last guy – a slightly less blisteringly attractive ex-communist – stands straight. Me and Jacks are too busy giggling and making a pretend-gay-porno involving the competitors to realise what’s going on until the announcer states the final results of the Men’s Rings: Mr Power has won the bronze, behind the two Chinese competitors.

‘Aww, that’s a shame,’ Jackie says, because she is racist. I’m happy though. Mr Powers hugs his coach and smiles, also happy. I motion a toast towards him on the TV, say ‘Good on you, Mr Power,’ and then Jackie starts talking about the next event and we pour ourselves another drink.

—-

In 2004 my brother and I were watching the men’s gymnastics at Athens and noticed the two gymnast brothers, Paul and Morgan Hamm. He made up a story as a joke that their daddy never wanted them to be gymnasts, and we continued on like it was a bad 80s film. Reality decided to follow our tale: Paul was in the lead, then fucked up on the vault (“This is the down point of the movie”) and finally brought it back on the last apparatus (the parallel bars, I think) and he won gold. 

I frickin love the Olympic gymnastics. I frickin hate diet coke and Imperial vodka.

Written by G.J.

11/07/2012 at 10:48 pm

Riverboats Part 2: The Endeavour

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It seems strange to say that the boat became much quieter after Laneham left, since he rarely made much noise. But I did not have my constant companion, the one person who would always listen; talking, laughing and playing seemed pointless without him, so once he was gone, silence descended on us for long spells.

 I had never known loneliness until he was gone. I spent more time with my mother, originally to ask if it was my fault and to try to gain comfort from her reassurances, and later because I went through puberty and had to ask for her wisdom. Laneham’s desparture affected both my parents, though they weren’t as vocal about it as I was.

‘I often think about Laneham,’ mother said unexpectedly once, two years later, when the pain had cooled enough for us. ‘It’s very sad. We were happy, knowing that he would marry you and take over the boat and business.’

‘I wouldn’t marry him, mammy. He’s –‘ –I still used the present tense sometimes– ‘like a brother.’

‘Well, even so, it’s sad how things change. We’re the only boat now, not controlled by the Hunters or the Coopers, since McBain’s daughter married James Cooper and he took their boat. And the river is so full of turmoil between the fleets…’

‘Is that why pappy makes me stay inside when it’s busy outside?’

‘Yes.’ Her face was lined with worry. ‘It’s a bad business, the fighting between them. Best we stay out of it, though without Laneham to take over now I don’t know what we’ll do…’

One unexpected and unpleasant difference these years was in work. My parents were old, and I had been an unexpected late child after years of stillbirths and infant deaths, the only one out of seven to survive. We felt the loss of a young man when carrying cargo and repairing the boat and as they grew older and stiffer I was burdened with more and more work, while the boat began to fall apart. Holes appeared faster than I could patch them; water began to cover everything, dripping down the roof and running under the desk and soaking my clothes before I picked them up in the morning. We mentioned it to each other, but it was too painful to discuss: our livelihood was falling apart.

The boat held on for five years after Laneham left. Then we received another visit from Mrs Hunter.

She had been to our boat since we had taken in Laneham, seeing him with pride when he was hear, then seeing us with sighs after he was gone, hurting me with her assured words on young men and the attractions of town and their infidelity and ungratefulness. I didn’t realise until I grew older how sharp she was; I didn’t know that for years she had been seeing the signs of decay in the boat and watching them carefully, until her final visit.

‘I’ve come to say to you,’ she said, ‘something very important.’ Her hat was smaller and less ostentatious with each visit; it seems she grew more practical in her attire with each year, despite her continued grandeur and boldness.

‘What is it?’ father said. Mrs Hunter was the only woman he was afraid of.

‘You cannot stay in this boat,’ she said. ‘It will be the death of you. I am most surprised none of you have died of fever or chills already.’

It was true I had become acquainted with cold and constant coughing recently, as had my parents, which caused me no end of anxiety.

‘It is true that she’s getting old,’ father said, ‘but all she needs is some repairs. She can hold on a little longer-‘

‘She has held on long enough, Mr Heinlein,’ Mrs Hunter said with such force that we all blinked and started back a little. ‘I refuse to have a shipwreck and three lives on my conscience. You will scrap this boat at once.’

‘But Mrs Hunter, we simply cannot afford another boat,’ mother said. ‘We do not get enough work now to be able to buy another one.’

‘And why is that?’ Mrs Hunter said and we all looked away. She nodded gravely.

‘Of course you know why. You are good people, but you are too old for such manual labour as this. Look at that daughter of yours! Look how muscled and tan she is becoming, like a man, from working when you cannot!’

The remark stung, but it was the truth. The men at docks had started to laugh at me for how I tried to lift the weight of packages all by myself, straining and heaving and the developing muscles pulling in my arms.

‘I must insist. You will scrap this boat and take up residence in my town. I daresay you could find very respectable occupations in land-based trade.’

They were horrified, not for what she said, but what the implication was for me.

‘I will not let Edie live in town,’ father said. ‘She’s not made for servant work! Can you imagine how anyone could take advantage of such an innocent girl as herself?’

I blushed but Mrs Hunter was as composed as ever.

‘She is still fit for river life. I have already planned a place for her on a boat, captained by Mr Eynham – my cousin by marriage – by his daughter, and a few others. It will perhaps be larger than she is used to, but I’m sure she will be very useful to her.’

I wanted to object but didn’t dare say a word. Away from my parents! Living with strangers! I couldn’t stomach the thought. But what were we to argue? I couldn’t stomach the thought of being a servant in town either and that was the only respectable occupation I could hope for there. What were we to do? Our boat was dying and my parents were failing and we had no other option bar drowning.

Our boat sunk and we grieved for her and the years she had kept us. My parents were to be escorted to their new home in town while I was to be taken to my own future, alone. We hugged and promised visits and letters if possible, and my mother cried while my father shook his head in shock.

‘I can’t believe it has come to this,’ he said, looking at where our ship had disappeared underneath the water. ‘Look after yourself, chick.’

We said goodbye, and I was escorted to the Endeavour in another part of the dock. I barely noticed anything as I walked, so absorbed in the image of my home being destroyed, clutching my few belonging close to my stomach. Finally my guide stopped.

‘This is it.’

It was a larger ship, and longer; I was surprised it fit in the river so well, and wondered how it managed the smaller channels. A white, handsome ship, that was what I saw, and a tall young woman standing on its deck, her long black hair blowing all around her in the breeze.

‘So,’ she called, ‘you must be Miss Heinlein.’

She stepped down to the dock and offered me her hand to shake. Her grave look went right into me, her beautiful brown eyes.

I shook her hand.

‘Pleasure to meet you,’ I said quietly. Her look softened to one full of pity as she took my arm.

‘Come on board,’ she said quietly, and with those words she captivated me. That is how I met Miss Isabel Eynham.

We walked on board and she showed me the room I’d be sharing with another girl. I say ‘room,’ because the cabin had been split into parts by long sheets hung from the ceiling, and I was shown to one such part, with a chest and squeaky bed and little else. I found it strange that they should have such privacy.

‘There are only women on my ship,’ she said. ‘I don’t like men, and Aunt Hunter is happy to save girls like yourself by giving them to me. With you it makes a full crew. What are you used to doing on board?’

I told her I did documents and moved things and other general duties, but was little practised in actually sailing the boat.

‘So you can do nearly anything. That’s good. Set yourself up here. We’ll call you through for dinner later and I’ll introduce you to everyone.’

With that she gave me a quick nod – full of her aunt’s brusqueness, I thought – and left. I sat on the bed and stared at the floor for a long time, my head full of reminiscence and anxiety, missing my parents already and wondering what they were doing, how they were coping, how they would manage without my help. Then my thoughts turned to myself – how was I going to cope? I’d never been apart from them for a day in my life. And now to be in a place where I’d have to answer to this woman who was so serious that she scared me…I sat there and thought of it all and gulped down the tears that threatened me. No, I would not cry. I would overcome this, I would persevere, and I would gain enough money to one day buy myself and my parents another boat and then we could begin life again. The plan was easy to form; the only hesitation I had was how long it would take to complete, because I had years to work, but my parents might not have as long. I pushed the worry away and concentrated on my plan, burying all my pain, and it was with such resolve and a head held high that I went to dinner.

There were six of us on board, four of whom I saw as I entered for dinner. Isabel was there, hair still loose and immaculately straight, as if it had never seen the wind. Opposite her were two blonde women introduced as Harriet and Helena and I knew immediately that I was going to forget who was who and mix up their names. Next to Isabel was Jane, a plain girl with red hair, and finally – coming through with the dinner she had cooked for us – was Mary, the oldest of the group, and the biggest and brashest of all.

‘Is this is the poor soul Mrs Hunter has given us?’ she said, spying me. Her accent was loud and northern. ‘My word, she’s a small thing, in’t she?’

‘She’ll be about the same height as me,’ Jane said with a smirk and Mary laughed.

‘Ey, like I said – she’s a dwarf next to captain.’

‘Now Mary, be good,’ one of the blonde ones said in a mild voice. I sat down next to her, too afraid to sit next to Isabel or the narrow-eyed red-head. Mary plonked herself down with a sigh and everyone started to spoon heaps out the pots. I took a few potatoes and some beef and pretended to not notice how I spilled a few with my shaking hands.

‘So your parents are in London now?’ the other blonde one said. I looked carefully and saw she had a bigger nose and bigger breasts while the other, who had spoken before, was more delicate. Now to find out who was who again.

‘Y-yes, Mrs Hunter has them renting a room while they set up in land-based trade.’

‘Well, I wouldn’t live on land for anything,’ Mary said. ‘Nowt better than sea-faring folk, and river-faring when you can’t get them. It’s a nice community here compared to up north, in’t it Jane?’

‘They’re rougher,’ she said, with a gleam in her eye. I realised she had an Irish accent. ‘Burly near-convicts the size of horses, the lot of them. The kind that would eat you up for breakfast, Miss Heinlein.’

I was taken aback but only looked down at my food.

‘People said that something similar me when I asked Aunt Hunter for this ship,’ Isabel said quietly. She looked up at me and again that gaze went straight through me. ‘You just have to persevere.’

Jane looked awkward and blustered her way out of what she’d said – ‘Well I was just saying a girl who’s never been on another ship or further than the canals wouldn’t know what to do with a real ship full of big Irish or Cumbrian men, because they were very rough, you know one time’ – but no-one said another word in agreement or disagreement afterwards. After the captain had spoken.

I was sharing with the delicate looking blonde girl, who I learnt was Harriet. Late that night, after playing cards and checking the cargo, we went to the room and I didn’t know what to do when she changed in front of me.

‘You’ve never been around many other people, have you?’ she asked gently. I shook my head.

‘I understand. I was the same when I came here. I’d only ever been with my family and then alone with my husband for so long that it was strange to have so many other people, other women, around. I’m glad captain understands, and put up these sheets. She’s very private herself.’

‘Your husband?’

‘He died.’

That was all she would say and I would never dare ask her to say more on the subject. I changed into a nightdress, shivering, and curled up in the covers. There were all the familiar sounds of the ship moving at night – the rush of water outside, the creaking of wood, and the faint rocking to accompany that lullaby. I had been through too many emotions that day, too many changes, so I fell asleep quickly though I wanted to stay awake and think of my parents over and over again.

I dreamt of Laneham.

When I woke, too early for any to be awake, the dream fell away from me and I couldn’t remember what had happened in it at all, but I knew Laneham had been there with his shy twelve-year-old smile. I sat and brewed in my own guilt. I thought about him occasionally, and wondered what had happened to him, and whether any of it was my fault. It always led me to tears, because maybe if I had been more supportive he wouldn’t have left, and because of that he was almost certain to be dead, because in the horror that is the town, a young person alone was – I had always been made to believe – destined to die. I pulled the covers over my face and cried quietly to myself, before a foreign touch made me jump and sit up. It was Harriet.

‘Don’t cry,’ she said. ‘Everything will be fine.’

I wiped my tears and assured her I was fine, but she curled round me and gave me a motherly hug.

‘I cried for two days straight when I came here. I wanted to have my husband’s old boat but they wouldn’t let me. Then I had to give James – my little boy – to my parents to look after while I worked here. I thought my heart would break, being apart from him and my husband, but the pain leaves after a while. You will be fine. You’re stronger than you may think.’

I didn’t believe her but her words comforted me. We got up, ready for the day ahead.

The first few months passed by quickly on The Endeavour. I would help Mary with cooking and shifting cargo while Jane looked after documents and Isabel and Harriet looked after the ship. I grew to like Mary’s loudness, for it broadcast her feelings with such sincerity that I couldn’t help but admire her.

‘We’re a right mixed bunch,’ she said, one day after I had arrived and we were preparing dinner. ‘I’m from up north near Leeds, as you might have guessed’ – she laughed – ‘and I used to work on the Irish ships with Jane before we ran. Too much disease and death, far too dangerous for me health – I was with child, at the time, you see – so we left and made our way here. And I told me husband to follow me and he never did, the git, and I never saw him after, though I send him money to look after my boys and girls back home.’

I was shocked.

‘He won’t care, he’s got enough women to help with them – I fancy he tells them I’m dead. Wouldn’t be surprised if I go back home one day and he’s been married five times in my absence. My eldest one writes me, though, and they’re doing fine.’

‘Harriet told me that her son lives with her parents in town.’

‘Aye, poor soul. Never said a bad word in her life, that one, and for her troubles she’s had everything taken from her. But it’s for her husband that she’s here, and that’s why her son’s away.’

‘What do you mean?’

She raised her eyebrows.

‘You don’t know? She’s here so she can kill John S. Cooper.’

My arm stopped beating the eggs as I stared at her.

‘Wh….?’

She looked at me quizzically.

‘You can’t surely say you’ve been blind to it, all the trouble between the boats?’

‘Well, my parents would always order me inside if a Hunter and Cooper boat passed by each other…I only ever heard shouts.’

‘No guns? My, they were far more civilised than usual around you.’

‘You mean – they actually….kill each other?’

‘I’m not sure who started it. I’m an outsider so I don’t know, but for years now the Coopers have been killing the Hunters and the Hunters killing the Coopers. All revenge, see. John S. Cooper shot Harriet’s man for some reason, probably some revenge on another one who’d been killed, so she’ll kill him, and then someone’ll kill her, and it’ll all go on and on.’

‘That’s horrible!’ I felt sick hearing it all. I thought it was merely work disputes – I didn’t know murder was involved.

‘Aye, it is. The Irish had their fair share of feuds, so I’m used to fighting. Jane wanted me to come here with her because the trade was good, and convinced me to stay once we found out about it. Said a little bit of fighting was good at keeping you alive.’

I instantly resolved to avoid Jane even more than I had been doing. Every time she passed she made a snide remark or a veiled insult, and I when I mentioned it to Harriet she said she did so with everyone, except the captain.

‘So…Harriet plans to kill this man if she comes across him?’

‘And she will. We pass by the Coopers every once in a while and have a spat, but he’s never there yet. When she finds him, she’ll leap on board and destroy him even if she’s surrounded by a boatful of men. That’s why we’ll have to back her up.’

I shook my head in disbelief. She asked me to get some supplies for her and laughed at my solemn face when I came back.

‘Still thinking on it? You are an innocent girl. Most people on the Hunter ships have someone or two they’d like to kill. Helena wants the Bainbridge girl who stole her man, and Isabel only started this ship to get Sandy Strong. They’ve all been wronged, and I’ve pledged I’ll help them, though I know it only keeps the sorry business going.’

I brooded over it the rest of the day and all the next. How had I been pulled into such a mess? My parents, bless them, had shielded me from the worst, and now I was too far in – on a ship which only existed because of revenge and would sail until it was satisfied – to leave.

From then on whenever we passed by another boat I saw the tension that took over everyone for those few brief seconds until Helena – who had the best eyes – shouted out its name.

‘It’s the Queen Mary,’ she’d shout and everyone’s shoulders would settle down once more.

Jane smirked at me.

‘You’re not normally on deck when we pass. Want to see it?’

I suspected her but hoped there was no harm in following. Out on the deck Mary was looking with a raised eyebrow as the a few men stepped out of the Queen Mary. The first one to spy her called out.

‘Hey ho, it’s the Endeavour! Hallo Mary Bell! As pough-faced as ever!’

‘Sure you’re not with another child, Miss Mary? You’re big enough for one!’

Instead of taking any offence she merely smiled.

‘You wish I were, Parker, and you wish it were yours.’

‘If I tried to lay on top of you, I’d sink into you like jelly.’

‘You’d bounce right off!’ the other one added.

‘Of course you would, Tom, your dart’s so small it can’t stick into anything.’

And so the insults flew back and forth in good humour. It was strange to see Mary give as good as she got. I’d only ever overheard the sailors joking while in the docks.

‘Where’s that tim you keep about, love?’

‘She’s away stealing all our money, of course.’

‘Wonder you’re not broke – she takes all the money and you take all the pies!’

Jane stepped up and joined in, giving me a saucy look that stated ‘You stay here because you couldn’t handle it.’ If I’d been younger I might have tried, but the years alone had shrunk me in spirit, and wit was never my strong point anyway. I stepped back into the cabin and passed Isabel.

‘Captain,’ I said.

‘Don’t worry,’ she said. ‘We’ll have passed soon enough.’

‘I don’t mind,’ I said truthfully. ‘As long…’

‘What?’

Her stare was never fierce or critical; sometimes, such as now, it was merely curious; but it was the intensity of each emotion that always made me nervous.

‘As long as what?’

‘…as long as we don’t come across a Cooper boat.’

Her eyebrows lowered and all the gravity came back to her.

‘I wish for it. But to not wish for it, to have no reason to want to see a Cooper…you are lucky.’

And she walked past.

We met one the next day.

‘It’s…’ Helena squinted, then an unmistakeably steely look came across her eyes.

‘It’s the Egyptian.’

‘Come on,’ Mary tugged at my arm, ‘we should–’

And she couldn’t finish her sentence for Isabel and Harriet springing onto the deck. The sailors on the other boat came out as well, and everyone tried to see who the others were. Helena went bright red and reached up her skirt.

‘Why that no-good–’

The first shot was fired from the other ship. We all ducked down and Mary and I sank onto the steps to below deck. The noise was louder than I expected – piercing shots on either side. I covered my ears and shivered, fear overwhelming my desire to look, until Helena started to shout.

‘You’d better run, you no-good bastard man! When I get a hold of you and that whore of yours, it’ll be the end of you!’

Incomprehensible shout back. She fired another shot in disgust then tramped down the stairs past us, and I may have been imagining it, but it seemed as if she was struggling to hold her tears in. Isabel came down calmly to sit beside us. Her gun was smoking too.

‘Little damage,’ she said. ‘Unfortunately we were too far apart to do much to them either.’

She put her gun away and exhaled heavily; a soundless sigh. Disappointment? It wasn’t until later that Jane skulked out of the shadows and whispered to me.

‘We’ve never once met Alexander Strong. He must know. He must be hiding on land so she can’t get her revenge.’

And I realised from the damp mood at dinner that they were all disappointed – everyone had been frustrated again. Helena didn’t appear. When I saw her the next morning, all she said when she saw another boat pass was ‘I should have jumped ship.’

It was a horrible realisation, when I understood that they liked it; they liked the idea of jumping ship, mid gun-fire, and delivering justice, their own lives be damned.

I had no fire in me. I thought that I, with my lack of bloodlust, was a coward. And though I knew that I should not regret it, on that boat, I did.

Written by G.J.

08/07/2012 at 5:32 pm