Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

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.

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Written by G.J.

29/07/2012 at 1:12 pm

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