Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

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.

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Written by G.J.

08/07/2012 at 5:32 pm

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