Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Riverboats Part 1: Laneham

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In summer 2010, while I was working back home on Arran, this story entered my brain from approximately nowhere, and I started writing it with the idea that it would be a short story. It promptly bloomed to 44,000 words, as my stories tend to do. It would have been more if summer had not ended, because when I was back in Glasgow in the autumn, the will to finish it left me (which is a pain because it was quite near the end).

It’s some silly Victorian-era story that was meant to be in a fictional river but then bucked my decision and centred itself round London and the Thames. I did approximately ten seconds of research halfway through and realised this story is so far from any Victorian British reality it might as well be set on the Moon. So just pretend you’re in a parallel universe where all the names are the same but the geography and society are different; where everything cleaves precisely to how my mind’s eye sees it.

It’s not a tale I would like to get published, but I would like to finish it one day. So I’m going to post it here in parts, lightly edited, and otherwise unchanged, and then end it when the time comes. Enjoy.


I grew up on those boats. The boats along the river, carrying cargo from one end to the other, through towns and villages, through London and beyond to the coast. The river was too narrow, too shallow, they said, for the big ships coming from the continent with their spices and silk, and the big cruisers taking more and more people from the cold to the heat. That’s where our boats were, hundreds of them on the river that to me, at five years old, wasn’t narrow or shallow at all.

Mrs Hunter came to our boat with something by her arm.

‘I would like you to take care of this one. My niece found him skulking round outside Laneham station, took pity, and then naturally dumped him onto someone else for care.’

No-one contradicted Mrs Hunter. People had laughed and talked back to her when her husband died and she said she’d keep hold of the river fleet he had had instead of letting her son take it. No woman was strong enough, smart enough for such work, they said. Those men had clearly never met Mrs Hunter. After only two weeks with all her husbands money and power in her sure hands, she had taken over five boats and made the captains of three more bend their knees to her, and everyone quickly stopped laughing.  Now, with near half the fleet directly under her family control and others, like my parent’s boat, in association with her, no-one ever talked back.

‘But,’ my father said, hand opening and clenching to hold his loose trouser legs, showing how he didn’t dare say no, ‘but, why us?’

Mrs Hunter smiled and turned to me.

‘I figured he’d be a nice companion for that lonely little lass of yours.’

I would have laughed because I was never alone in my eyes, but I could only stare at the boy of about seven half-hidden behind her arm, so small he almost disappeared behind its substantial womanly mass. He was staring at the ground so I could only see the dirty light hair that looked almost grey. It matched: pale dirty hair, pale dirty shirt, pale dirty skin.

‘Well – that is very kind of you – ‘

‘Good,’ she said, pushing him forward. Her bustle was wider than he was; her hat better cared for. He raised his head and looked at us all, eyes wide and fearful, darting from mother to father to me. He didn’t dare move, and my parents and I didn’t dare touch him, as Mrs Hunter made to leave.

She then turned and called over her shoulder with an audible smirk.

‘Oh, and he can’t speak either. Can hear, but not speak. I thought you would need to know.’

‘What’s his name?’ my mother called out.

‘I don’t know,’ she said, waving her hand as she walked away. ‘Give him one.’

And that is how Laneham came to be on our boat.

It took me a while to learn what mute meant.

‘Where are you from?’ That was the first question I asked every other kid I met when on the boat. He shook his head. My mother had given him some clothes of my father’s that were far too big for him, so the shirt he sat in was more of a dress. Already it was stained from the food – soup, bread, meat – which we had given him earlier. (He had forced the meal down his throat with such vigour that I’d been amazed that he hadn’t thrown up.) White, blotchy legs stretched out from under the cloth, and I noticed that there were multiple bruises, some new and some faded, dotted all over them like a badly-made painting.

‘Why do you have those? How did you get them?’

I pointed and when he didn’t answer, prodded them. He batted away my hand and shuffled back.

‘Edie, be kind to him,’ my mother called from where she was looking through documents, lists of goods and letters and insurance.

‘He won’t answer.’

‘That’s because he can’t talk.’

‘Why can’t he talk?’

‘Who knows? All that matters is that Mrs Hunter told us to look after him.’

‘Why couldn’t she do it?’

‘Because she’s busy.’

‘But so are we.’

‘Quiet, girl,’ my father said as he came from the back where the crates were kept. ‘Don’t talk back to your mother.’

I pouted and ran over to him, ignoring the boy completely.

‘But pappy, if he can’t talk then he’s not much company, is he?’

‘Quiet and go play with him. We’re busy.’

I looked at my mother to see how she took this confirmation of what I had said, but she just ignored me. I sighed and went over to the boy Laneham.

‘Can you read?’

He shook his head.

‘Me neither, but mammy’s teaching me.’

I grabbed his arm and tried to pull him to standing, but he shivered away.

‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’ll be the queen then, and you will be my loyal servant. Now, I have to get ready for the ball where the prince will be coming. Go and order the carriage and tell my maids to get me my dresses.’

He stared and I stared back.

‘….mammy! He doesn’t know how to play!’

He hung his head.

‘Then teach him.’

I turned and scowled at this boy, before flopping down in front of him and saying.

‘We’re playing that I’m the queen. Queens get to do whatever they want and they live in castles full of gold and tell everyone what to do and they have to do what the queen says. They have ponies and ballgowns and meet handsome princes which they can marry if they wish to, or not, like Queen Elizabeth did.’

He sat and his face was so attentive that I felt pleased and kept talking.

‘You know what princes are?’

He shook his head.

‘They’re like queens, but men, and they rule, but they don’t do very much apart from attend balls hoping a queen will be there to marry them. Knights are better – they have swords and lances and walk in armour and fight evil men who would kill the queen. And they have horses and fight in battles, but mammy says that there aren’t knights anymore because we have guns and armour is too heavy….oh, a gun is something that pappy has, here, let me show you..’

“Then teach him.” That was the refrain of every protest to my parents over the coming weeks: if he can’t do it, teach him, and I quickly took it upon myself as my duty to teach this boy, during the long, long days between stops, to tell him the tales I knew, to play so I could invent my own, to show him the letters I was learning and how to join them together. It was hard to communicate: he could only nod and shake his head and point, and couldn’t even make noises like my mother said others who couldn’t speak – even those who couldn’t hear – could do. I asked him why and he shook his head to show he didn’t know why either.

It had to give. We were so young and learning to read was too slow, so we started to make gestures for our own sign language. We began with names.

‘You’re Laneham,’ I said, ‘so let’s make an L shape.’ And I did so with my hand. He frowned and pulled up my other hand until I realised that from his view the L was backwards.

‘Ah! Oh, I forgot. So, have an L like this-‘

And he pushed my hand so it pressed against my chest, above my heart, sat back and nodded with a smile.

‘You want this to be your name?’


‘Then  we’ll do that. Now, Edie will be – ‘

And I pointed at myself and he scowled something horrible and made me laugh.

‘Fine, fine, Edie will be…be…’

And he curled his hand into a loose fist and held it at a side view, so it looked like a lower-case E. I smiled.

‘Did you already think of this?’

And he looked away in embarrassment. I laughed and hugged him. He had only been on the boat a week and had shied away from every brush of the arm and attempted pat on the head and shivered every time my mother helped him to put on clothes. But I caught him off guard. I hugged him and it wasn’t the warm substantial embrace of my mother or the oily-smelling one of my father – it was like trying to hold a bundle of mismatched sticks. It was the most uncomfortable hug I ever had in my life, and I tried to release him quickly and go on with making our language, but when I let go of him, I found that his arms were tight around my back; they had fixed there after the initial shock, and he wouldn’t let go. I was surprised, then scared, then finally, I put my arms around him again. After a few more seconds he finally let go. I laughed, this time in embarrassment, and didn’t know what to say while he looked away.

‘…have you never been hugged before?’

He nodded emphatically, and I realised I didn’t know whether he responded in the negative or positive.

‘You have?’

Nod. I smiled.

‘Good. I couldn’t live without hugs. Who hugged you? Your mother?’

He shook his head and shuffled and fidgeted in the way – I would learn – that he did when he wanted to say something, explain something, but didn’t know how.

‘Why don’t you have a mother?’

He shrugged.

‘Where were you before you came here?’

He looked around and pointed at a picture of Mary and Baby Jesus on the wall. I laughed at him. He scowled and tried to find paper to draw on, but there was none around as my mother had found us drawing on them the day before and gasped that we would waste scarce paper – ‘None to get until we’re at the next stop, and it’s expensive you know!’ – on something so impractical. He slumped back against the chest behind him and glared at the ground. I prodded him.

‘Let’s play pretend!’

I quickly learnt to read him very well. He would scowl when frustrated or humiliated, frown in concentration while trying to read, look uninterested and to the right side when bored or discontented, and rarely – so rarely – so rarely I didn’t see it until months had gone by – he would smile. He could make no noise, so every smile was worth far more than the hundreds I doled out every day. As you would expect of two children growing up with only the other for company, we became very close, so that at each port he would hide behind me even though I was younger and smaller, would grab my arm when unsure or afraid (feelings I knew very little and didn’t understand). Large sailors and merchants would peer at us and I would smile and introduce myself, and he would hide and wilt under their stares.

I remember one such stop where the men had been rough, and their blackened hands had scratched my cheek and they pushed Laneham and laughed at him for being the charity mute that Mrs Hunter had foisted on These Poor Folks, and I stuck my tongue out at them and got scolded by my parents. I was angry all the rest of the day, and Laneham only sat and stared. For two days he refused to communicate, even though I wanted to make new gestures for “cruel, ignorant men”, before we arrived at our next stop and I brightened. This was Annie’s stop.

Annie was one of the many friends I had at various stops on the route, all the more prized because she was my age and a girl. She had been ill last time we had been there, so this time, a month or two after Laneham had been on our boat, was her first meeting with him. I introduced them and she stared and he tried to hide behind me, so I began talking to her, to save him from having to do anything. After a short while – the talk of six year olds to others often lacks the vigour of more adult conversations – we grew bored and I suggested we play pretend, and that the boxes and crates of the shipyard would be a great ball-room, except Annie wanted it to be a ball-room under the sea so the crates were old shipwrecks and giant clams as well as the palace. And I turned and said to Laneham, who was standing there, that he would be my servant, and to fetch me some pearls from the sea-bed, and he shook his head.

‘What do you mean no? You’re my servant!’

And he straightened and I realised that he was older than me and taller than me and probably stronger than me, which was a surprise to my arrogant child-mind. He held an imaginary sword and swung it diagonally. It was a sign we had made up the night before: “knight.”

I smiled.

‘What? What? Oh,I don’t understand!’ Annie cried.

‘Laneham will be my knight,’ I said, smiling. ‘And when the pirates ride in on giant squid he will save us all.’

And he smiled and spent the rest of the play hacking at the giant squid and duelling with pirates, while we danced and occasionally stopped to cheer him on. Annie declared it the end of the ball and I commanded Laneham to kneel as a good knight.

‘For your bravery, I hereby promote you to a prince. Arise, Prince Laneham.’

Annie said ‘My pappy says that’s not how princes work,’ but I didn’t hear her, because Laneham stood, and a smile spread wide across his face, and I could only stare in wonder at how he looked when he was happy.

‘Annie! Edie! We’re going!’ someone called, and we had to run back to where the adults were. My parents started at the sight of Laneham, still smiling.

‘My,’ Annie’s mother said, ‘isn’t that something. He looks almost handsome like that.’

And I thought yes, yes, he does, and I felt proud because he was my Laneham and I had made him that way.

He stopped smiling by the time we went back onboard, but because they had seen it, my parents paid more attention to him. You see, the smile proved he was human, and loveable, and so they began to treat him more as one of their own instead of an encumbrance. My father began to take him up to the bridge and show him the controls, and explain how the motor worked, and my mother began to adjust the clothes that she had begged from her friends for him, so that they fit instead of  hanging off his skeleton.

He stayed with us for years. He became my father’s surrogate son, and taught him everything he could about our boat and trade, while my mother fretted and tutted about having another handful though she sometimes admitted that the mute was often less work than her own flesh and blood. We eventually learnt to read, but our sign language was prized for how fast and – preciously – how secretive it was. He still gripped my arm when we met the other sailors and men at the docks, but when we were alone in the boat again he’d sign what he thought of them and would do such hilarious impressions – standing up straight with his meagre chest puffed out and swaggering, or hunching up and squinting and pointing his finger in elderly anger, and more – that mother would come through and wonder at me lying there on the floor screaming in laughter and Laneham smiling, smiling hard at making me so happy.

I asked him once.

‘Why are you so afraid of the men at the docks?’

He shook his head the way he did when he didn’t want to answer, but I persisted.

‘You’ve met most of them before – why are you still afraid? They’ve stopped teasing you as well.’

He shook his head again and frowned at the ground. I moaned and moaned and eventually he gave one sign that mimicked a sword going through the heart. It could mean murder; he meant danger.

‘They’re not dangerous! What are you talking about?’ I didn’t comprehend this fear that he sometimes said, about being afraid of strangers. Strangers were just friends I hadn’t made yet; danger was storms and lightning and holes in the hull and diseases that passed along the filthier parts of the river. That’s how I was so friendly to everyone I met, and so cavalier with danger. Often Laneham would pull me down from walking on walls at the dock edge, or the sides of the boat when river traffic was heavy, though I never believed that the other boats would kill me if I fell in.

He looked at me. As he grew older I had noticed that sometimes he would give me a look that was almost adult in its sternness and I hated it, hated how he looked down on me then.

Every man is dangerous, he signed. I laughed.

You’re silly.

I never understood his fears. I was so trapped in my own happy world that I never even tried to understand what might have caused them. Was that my downfall? It doesn’t matter; what happened next would have occurred no matter how understanding I was of him.

It was unexpected. I wasn’t quite eleven years old when we were docked at town that time. We played outside until the street lamps were on and reflecting in the fog. We had been playing hide and seek and I realised, after a long time of hiding behind a small outhouse, that the smog was low and thick and that I was a far way from the boat. As more time went on and Laneham didn’t find me, I began to panic. Being lost was one of the things I did fear – the boat leaving without me as my parents give me up for dead, as I knew they could. I decided that just once I could forfeit a game and decided to walk back home. It was hard since I could barely see more than five feet in front of me and after some time of walking I banged into a tall man with a fine moustache.

‘Edie? The Heinlein girl?’ he exclaimed as we both blinked in recognition. He was the owner of one of the nearby factories who sometimes asked us to transport his wares – matches or paper, I can’t remember which. I explained that I was trying to get home and he sighed at me, and walked me to the dock.

‘Edie!’ my mother cried, hugging me. ‘Where have you been?’

‘I found her wandering by my factory’ – had I really been that far away? – ‘ and she said she was lost.’

‘Oh you silly goose,’ mother said to me, relief adding warmth to her scold. ‘You know you shouldn’t stay out in the fog like that. Thank you so much, Mr Craven.’

‘Glad to help, ma’am.’

And he tipped his hat and walked away.

‘Oh, to think that he of all people should have found you! What will he think we are, letting our daughter run wild on a night –’

‘Mammy,’ I whispered. I never whispered. She stopped and looked around and realised what was wrong. My father came out from inside and looked between us, both silent.

‘Where’s Laneham?’

‘I lost him,’ I whispered, staring at the ground, so sure they would scold and perhaps even spank me for being so careless. Instead there was silence.

‘Oh Lord,’ mother finally said.

‘He’ll come home,’ father said. ‘He’s a nearly-grown boy, he’ll find his way back.’

The hours went by and he didn’t come back. My parents put me to bed but I sat and stared into the darkness and heard them speaking to each other in quiet, solemn tones. I couldn’t sleep. Though he was a boy, and older, I still felt so protective of him – I had taken him so far away from the dock, I had wanted to play hide and seek, and I was responsible for him, because he was my Laneham, my responsibility. I thought of some of the stories I had heard of bodies turning up in the water, or boys being kidnapped and forced into the navy or army and never seen again, and I felt every second pass by with a flinch, because I knew that we had to leave first thing in the morning, no matter what. They had said to me ever since I could remember: if you’re not on the ship, you must be left behind. Looking back, I don’t think they would have left their only child alone to take care of a job, but I always felt as if the jobs were this immovable thing that had to be done Or Else, and not anything, not even a daughter being left behind to homelessness and death or worse, would stop it. The boat would move on tomorrow, and Laneham would be left behind and I would be alone again, and every minute passed by and I could not sleep.

Eventually my parents came to bed. I lay there for perhaps another hour before I couldn’t stand it and got up, feeling my way in the dark until I got outside. The street lights were still on and I could hear the noise of town far away. The smog was still thick on the river so I heard it before I saw it.

Tap tap tap – it was the sound of feet. Tap tap tap, very quickly, with an irregular rhythm from the person stumbling while they ran. I straightened and strained my eyes to look, and saw a shadow appear over one part of the smog mere seconds before Laneham burst out of it and ran onto the boat, falling just beside me with a crash into the outside wall.

‘Laneham!’ I cried, and I had one moment of happiness. Then he looked up at me and I dropped to my knees, and instinctively raised a hand to touch him.


He batted my hand away. He was gulping in air after running, wheezing, and every muscle in him was shaking. In the faint street light that reflected off the fog, what worried me most – what destroyed any relief I felt in having him back – was the look on his face.

Complete terror.

‘What happened?!’ I cried. He shook his head, turning away, curling up and clutching his knees, still shaking though he was regaining his breath. I pushed him gently and – for the first time since he first came aboard our boat – he flinched at my touch.

‘Laneham! Please – what’s wrong? Where were you?’

He didn’t even bother to shake his head in refusal; ignoring me, he stared out at the buildings, shivering. I pulled at his arm enough to finally dislodge his grip on his knees.

‘Come on, let’s go inside.’

I lit a candle though I knew my parents would scold me for such extravagance. He looked even worse in that light, with the shadows collecting under his eyes and in his cheeks.

‘Oh Lanny, Lanny, I’m so sorry, I shouldn’t have left you, I got us lost, I’m so sorry…’

I kept nudging him, prodding him, hoping for some response, hoping he would turn and reassure me it wasn’t my fault, but he didn’t do a thing. He just shook, and refused to look at me.


Even trying to physically turn his head only caused him to shy away without even a glance.

I couldn’t help it. It was after midnight and I’d been worrying for hours and he wasn’t even looking at me, so I sat down and cried, right in front of him. That made him finally acknowledge that I was there, but he didn’t act, didn’t move, didn’t do anything but look at me blankly, before lowering his head into his arms and shaking. I cried myself out, and sat with him, hoping he would stop, he would sit up and reply to me, but he didn’t. I was exhausted, and soon petulant anger rose in me as my conscience battled with my animal desire for comfort and sleep.

‘Laneham,’ I finally said, in a softer tone. ‘Come to bed.’

And he stood up suddenly and walked through to the beds. I barely remembered to blow out the wick before following, hoping that this was a good sign before I remembered: we couldn’t communicate in the dark. It was another way of running from my questions. And because of that I wanted to cry again as I lay my head down, but worry had taken all my energy, and  – despite the emotions and questions that crowded my mind  – I soon fell into uneasy dreams.

My parents were happy that he came back; my father even cracked a smile upon seeing him. All relief turned, like mine, into concern very quickly upon seeing how he shrunk back into the small boy we had taken five years ago: silent, unhappy, afraid.

‘What happened?’ mother asked.

‘I don’t know!’

I regretted letting the despair enter my voice as it only made her worry more.

He didn’t communicate as we sailed the next few days. I wrote messages and signed in front of his eyes and talked loudly to him constantly, but I never got a response. He looked as if something was haunting him, something terrible, for his eyes were purple with lack of sleep and fear and he would curl and shake when we let him be, as if the air was attacking him. And I had never known a stress like those days, days of constant worry and self-blame and reproach, spending every second I could trying to coax out what had happened until my parents would drag me away to work.

We reached our next stopping point three days later: London. I was sure he would refuse to go outside, would want to hold onto me while we met others, but instead we stepped outside together and he looked at the sun, deep in thought. We took the crates out the boat and my parents were talking to those come to collect it and I was going to join in when something made me turn – I like to think it was a whisper of fate, telling me to look at Laneham. He was on the dock, and he walked around the crates and packages but didn’t seem to see them. Finally he looked again at the sun and turned towards the buildings nearby, and walked away, steadily, walking with purpose. I watched and took in every detail about him as he walked further and further out of sight.

He didn’t come back and we had to conclude that he had done it out of choice. I cried bitter tears and spent weeks wondering if it was somehow my fault, that somehow I had made him leave, and wishing and praying futilely for God or someone to bring him back, or at least let me know what made him leave. I received no answers and after weeks and then months and then finally years, I gave up and realised that I would never see him again.


Written by G.J.

01/07/2012 at 6:11 pm

One Response

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  1. I’m hooked now – going to have to go through the archive and read every part of this 🙂


    23/08/2012 at 12:47 pm

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