Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

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.

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Written by G.J.

22/07/2012 at 4:18 pm

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