Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

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.

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Written by G.J.

15/07/2012 at 11:45 am

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