Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

Archive for August 2012

Riverboats Part 8: Rescue

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Apologies for the lateness. Went to a party for most of yesterday – am hungover as sin today. Blarg.

_

One night we were signing so late into the night that the inevitable happened. We were lying on his bed, and signing while lying on our backs became too much effort so we snuggled together instead.

‘Laneham, I think I’m falling asleep.’

He merely squeezed me tight. I tried to talk out loud to keep myself awake, but it didn’t work. I fell asleep in his arms.

He was gone the next morning, as I had expected, but when I went to breakfast I noticed the winks and nudges of the crew as I walked in.

‘What is it?’ I asked Petey, but he just shook his head and grinned.

Laneham walked in late, and when he did, they all cheered.

‘Good on ya, son!’

‘Nice to see you happy at last!’

‘Bainbridge told us all about it!’

Laneham looked stunned. Frowned. Realised. Blinked and gaped and went red and then frantically signed – but Clark was looking the other way nonchalantly. I realised it was my duty to set them right, but I was so horrendously embarrassed I could only stammer.

‘No – no – boys – um – it’s not th – that, we fell asleep and – and – ‘

I couldn’t continue. I was so mortified.

Laneham explained later that he had tried to leave early enough so no-one would notice, but Clark had ruined it by revealing how he hadn’t slept with him that night.

‘It’s not as if we even did anything!’ I cried.

I know. Don’t worry, it’ll die down.

It took a few days, but he was right. The upside was that he could spend his nights with me now, so we slept in each other’s arms. I still thought of Isabel, and missed her, but that was all. I fended off every dark thought about the feud, which was helped by the fact that we didn’t come across another Hunter boat until London. I felt helpless, so I avoided any thoughts about it all.

Just over two and a half weeks after I came aboard, we were in London.

*

The day started off badly. Clark said something – I don’t know what – about me and so when I first saw Laneham after getting dressed he was standing, red in the face, signing furiously at him.

…I’m sick of your complete lack of respect for her – of your complete disrespect of me and my wishes. I thought you were a bigger man than this.

‘If I was running this ship, we wouldn’t have brought a woman on board in the first place unless we got something from it – like, perhaps, the whereabouts of Archibald Hunter, that you gave up for her?

          He can wait.

‘You never see the urgency in anything, do you? It’s a wonder we get anything done!’

You are too impatient.

‘If I was running this ship –‘

You’re not, because you’re a child!

Clark stared, then tried to laugh in derision and failed. That’s when he looked over Laneham’s face and saw us – me, Petey, Harry and Phil, stood watching them. He stormed away and Laneham sighed, running his hands through his hair. It was a sign of things to come. At the docks some of the goods were damaged and Laneham and Clark argued with the person collecting them, while I found that a nail been uncovered in the bottom of the wash basin, tearing some of the clothes that swirled by it – which were mainly mine. They got less money than they wanted, and I had a skirt and knickers completely ruined.

We all sat around outside on the docks eating lunch, sighing, and I had barely grasped Laneham’s hand and he had only just kissed my forehead when Don jumped to his feet.

‘Captain – there’s someone coming.’

We all stood to see and my heart slowed. A lady was walking towards us, flanked by three men. A lady with a large bustle and hat and an even bigger air of importance. A lady glaring at the crew, at Laneham, and especially at me. Everyone straightened.

‘Good morning, men,’ she said as she approached us. Laneham nodded. The others didn’t reply. I cleared my throat.

‘G – good morning, Mrs Hunter.’

Her eyes swept around everyone in disdain.

‘My, what a sorry bunch you are. It’s a wonder Mr Cooper can’t keep you better.’

Clark and Laneham bristled. She turned to them.

‘You have some nerve, taking a girl from one of My ships onto your own.’

Clark said what Laneham signed slightly before the shapes were formed, as he sometimes did – it was a rare occurrence that proved to me that he truly was his closest friend.

‘Edie came of her own free will.’

‘It doesn’t matter what she did,’ Mrs Hunter said, each word dropping like hail on us all, contempt in every syllable. ‘Miss Heinlein is under My care, and obliged to work on one of My ships. You have no right to take her from that, and that is why I am here to collect her.’

I squeezed Laneham’s arm but he stared resolutely at Mrs Hunter. He shook his head.

‘I suggest you don’t disagree, Laneham,’ she said, relishing the lack of title she gave him. ‘You know who I am, and it is only out of the goodness of my heart that I don’t punish you for kidnapping. If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t even exist to defy me.’

Edie is not going with you and I don’t care what you say.

She raised her eyebrow.

‘I’m sorry, childish miming will have no effect on me.’

And he looked in panic at Clark to translate – and Clark looked lazily back.

Clark! What are you doing? Tell her what I’m saying!

‘Take her if you want, Ma’am,’ Clark said slowly, deliberately. ‘She’s nothing to us.’

We gaped at him, all the crew included. I didn’t have time to contemplate as Mrs Hunter replied.

‘Indeed. Come along then, Miss Heinlein. There are many people waiting for you.’

This moment was always going to come; I had known it was inevitable, and I had been prepared for it, even if he hadn’t. I turned to Laneham and touched his shoulder. He still looked too stunned to respond to anything.

‘Write,’ I said, and kissed him briefly on the lips; a paltry final kiss, but it was all I could do. I ran straight to Mrs Hunter, as if I would die if I disobeyed. She walked away and I turned and waved at them all, and they all waved back except Clark, who was looking at his feet, and Laneham, who stared as if his world was being torn away from him. It broke my heart utterly to see him like that, but I didn’t dare run back – Mrs Hunter had swept me away with her, and I could not swim against her tide.

We got into her carriage and she immediately began to speak.

‘Disgraceful. How Mr Cooper has such villains working for him is beyond my comprehension entirely. That I should have to come down here and speak to them – and you are not blameless, Miss Heinlein! Do not deceive yourself about your goodness. Isabel was beside herself when she came to me. I had never seen her in such a state since her brother died – you would think you had been killed, by the way she acted. She would not even think to do anything except get you back, and was willing to dump her cargo in the river and chase you. Stupid girl – I can’t think why she panicked so. Oh, and she cried very prettily and told me how brave you were to go in her place – but better it had been her! She would have killed the lot of them and come back a hero, whereas you, it seems, have been sunning yourself for the past two weeks! I’ve never known such insolence. To think you did not even try to leave – I know you went through at least two ports – it’s a disgrace. That note you sent her was inexcusable. What did you mean, telling her not to worry? You are some piece of work, girl.’

And so she went on and on and continuously insulted me and Laneham and his crew, with no small impatience at Isabel either, until eventually she said:

‘We are stopping to see your parents. They wish to speak to you.’

I lit up. I hadn’t seen my parents in months – only one short visit since I had gone on the Endeavour. When we stopped at the riverside inn where they worked, I ran out to meet them.

‘My dear!’ they both said, and we hugged, but as soon as I drew back and saw their expressions, I remembered what I had learnt since seeing them last.

‘Are you all right, dear?’ my mother asked.

‘Not harmed at all?’ my father added.

‘Of course,’ I replied, more stiffly than I should have done. ‘You didn’t think Laneham would let me come to harm, surely?’

My mother clasped her hands, and gave me the look she always wore when preparing to explain something tiringly obvious to her daughter. My father looked out at the buildings next to us, and the sky and the birds, as if everything else was suddenly uninteresting.

‘Edie, dear, anyone can change. Especially a boy who runs away to join the Coopers.’

‘He hasn’t changed. Why would you think he would change that way? And he had good reason to leave – didn’t he try to tell you that?’

No reply. Mammy was pressing her lips together as if she was trying to put a thread through a needle’s eye.

‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ I continued, vainly trying to keep the childish pleading out of my voice. ‘You knew he was alive, and you let me think he was dead. Why?’

‘It was easier this way,’ she said. ‘He already broke your heart, girl. Why should we hurt you more by letting you know that he had betrayed us?’

The callousness of that belief – that knowing he was a Cooper was worse than thinking he was dead! – floored me, and I could not reply. My mother shook her head.

‘Oh dear,’ she said at my face. ‘You never change. We knew that if you knew the truth, you would become involved in some awful way like this.’

‘You’re a Hunter, Edie,’ father said, finally coming away from the clouds. ‘Remember that. We can’t have you involved with Coopers, even if it is Laneham.’

‘That’s – that’s stupid!’

‘No, dear, it’s only sense. There’s very bad blood here – try to stay out of it. Don’t get caught in it.’

‘Stay with the winning side,’ father said.

You want me to not become caught in it, and you sent me to a boat filled with vengeance-seekers, who would easily kill the boy you once thought of as a son. That’s what I wanted to say, but I was too sick to say it. A few lukewarm enquiries about Annie and other people I knew, and then we said goodbye. I got back in the carriage with Mrs Hunter, and she seemed pleased that I was sufficiently chastised. We rode in silence until we reached where The Endeavour was docked.

*

‘Edie!’

Isabel ran out and enveloped me, so I pressed against her shoulder and her hair fluttered all around my face and I melted into her.

‘Well, my work is done,’ Mrs Hunter said behind me. In her tone of voice, everything sounded like a disapproval. Perhaps everything she said was.

‘Thank you, thank you, thank you so much, Aunt Hunter!’

‘Don’t ask me again,’ she said, and left. I kept my head pressed to Isabel’s body. I didn’t want to look at her.

‘Oh Edie,’ she said, nuzzling my head. ‘I missed you so much. I was so worried, and I–‘

I jerked away from her. Like with my parents, the initial shock of delight was quickly replaced by remembrance. My look must have said everything to her, because she knew better than to follow me when I walked inside without a word to her.

‘Edie!’

Frances was the first one to see me as I went on board, and I barely heard her voice before she and Helena were on me, hugging me tight.

‘Come on, out the way – oh, it’s good to have you back, chick.’

Mary enveloped me. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed them all – the comfort in their touch and happiness and relief in their voices warmed me in my heart.

‘I missed you all,’ I said when she released me. ‘So much.’

‘You are all right?’ a soft voice came from behind me – Harriet, concerned as always. I nodded.

‘Captain was beside herself – she’s been worrying night and day about what they’ve been doing with you,’ Mary said, in a tone more solemn than I thought she could produce. I spluttered, cursing myself for my selfishness, shamed to think of Isabel worrying while I justified staying with Laneham through another port.

‘Ah, um, well, no, um, they treated me well – um, that is, well, I wasn’t sure at first – I was scared and Clark – um, the first mate, he didn’t like me, but Laneham convinced the other to leave me be and then it was fine, it was all fine.’

They all stared at me, blushing there, and finally Mary said one thing.

‘Oh yes. Laneham.’

With a few other muted words and pats and welcomes, they drifted away, back to their work. Frances stayed by me though, and looked at me sympathetically.

‘Don’t mention him,’ she said. ‘We all hate him.’

To have her say it in her usual simple way made me despair. ‘Why?’ Fanny rolled her eyes.

‘Because he attacked us, and took you away – and he’s the captain’s enemy. I asked Miss Eynham and she explained it all to me – how he knows where her brother’s murderer is, and he wants Archie Hunter and she won’t tell.’

I didn’t reply, too busy trying to fight off the stab of jealousy that had mixed in with all my other emotions. She leant in close.

‘But Edie…please…I’ve known Miss Eynham a long time and she’s always been so good to me. She does what’s best. Please forgive her.’

Isabel walked in and Frances scurried away with a supportive smile. We looked at each other. The dining area was empty except for us.

What an idiot Frances was. I knew I would forgive Isabel from the moment I saw her. But I was still hurting. Isabel, the crew, my parents even – why had they hidden it from me?

‘Were the others glad to see you?’

Her voice was low, neutral. I sat down.

‘Yes. They were worried about how I had been treated.’

She didn’t need to say anything to inform me of her own worry. The fact that she had asked a favour of her aunt was enough. She sat down opposite me and we looked at each other for a second, before she looked down. Beneath her shield of hair, a hand crept out upon the table, searching for another. I placed my hand upon hers.

‘Let’s go to the bedroom,’ she said softly. ‘I prefer talking there.’

So we walked there, ignoring the others we passed, and I felt as if I was in a dream – I was back on our ship, with my girls, and away from the masculine, frightening world of the Sunrise. Had it really happened? Had I really been with Laneham only hours before?

We sat on the bed and I looked at the familiar scratches on the floor.

‘Edie,’ Isabel said, grasping my hand again. ‘Edie…please…are you all right? They didn’t…did they…’

I had to hug her and laugh sadly for her anxiety.

‘I’m fine.’

‘But that ship–’

‘They were harmless, nothing more threatening than dockworkers and Hunter me. And besides, Laneham protected me.’

The name brought on more silence. Isabel couldn’t look me in the eye.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said finally. ‘I tried to tell you…I thought I would, so many times, I told myself I would before you would find out…but I never did…’

‘But why did you hide it?’ I insisted.

‘Because I knew this would happen,’ she whispered. ‘I knew you’d find him and he’d take you away from me.’

There was uncomfortable truth in what she said, but I had to comfort her. I had missed her so much, that I couldn’t bear to see her so despondent.

‘I still love you, Isabel.’

She looked up in surprise.

‘…you do?’

‘He’s not taking me away from you,’ I said. ‘I’m back here now, aren’t I?’

‘You wouldn’t have come back had I not asked Aunt Hunter-‘

‘I was going to come back,’ I said. ‘I wouldn’t have stayed there forever.’

‘You were gone so long,’ she said. ‘I had no hope of you coming back. I thought you must have fallen in love with him.’

I was desperate to change the subject.

‘I saw my parents before I came here. They knew as well. Why did no-one tell me?’

‘You’re a Hunter, Edie,’ she said. I hated how calm, how lacking energy and fire, how damp she was. ‘And everyone knew that you were both inseparable when you were younger. I knew you would find out he was a Cooper, and run away with him. Your parents and Aunt Hunter thought the same.’

I wish I had been able to scoff at how everyone assumed I would love him. How horribly predictable I was.

‘I was going to come back,’ I said. ‘And soon. But what does it matter whether that he’s apparently a Cooper and I’m told I’m a Hunter? He used to be a Hunter as well. Why does it matter?’

She looked as if I had slapped her.

‘It matters because people are dying, Edie.’

I couldn’t speak. I tried, I tried many times, but the utter loathing of what I had just said stopped everything, even an apology. Thoughtless. Thoughtless. Why was I always so thoughtless?

‘Please,’ she said, and I heard tears in her voice. ‘Don’t say he convinced you that I shouldn’t find Alexander Strong – please-!’

I embraced her, threw myself into her arms and held as tight as I could.

‘No, no, no, nothing, he said nothing that convinced me – I tried, Isabel, I asked him but he always refused to tell me where he was or even why he believed in him – you’re still right, you’re still right and he’s still wrong and you deserve to find him – you deserve it.’

She kissed the top of my head.

‘Thank God.’

‘But…I know why he wants Archibald Hunter.’

I explained, I told her everything that Laneham had said in his letter. She was very quiet for a few moments afterwards.

‘We know…we all know…’ she finally said, slowly and deliberately, ‘…that Archie is not a good man, and that’s why he’s been hiding…but I didn’t know…he was a murderer…’

‘He’s the reason Laneham left us,’ I stressed. ‘He would have died if not for Mr Cooper.’

She shook her head.

‘I won’t tell him, Edie.’

‘Why not?’ I exclaimed.

‘I can’t betray my family. Mrs Hunter would never forgive me.’

‘What about an exchange? Surely I could convince you both to tell you each other and then you–’

‘Edie!’

I jumped at her shout. Her fire, her gaze was back and as frightening as always.

‘You…’ She seemed to struggle, then calmed herself enough to speak.

‘It’s not enough. I can’t give up a cousin for my own revenge. They wouldn’t forgive me. I would never agree to it – and Laneham would never agree to it. I know enough about him to know that. And Edie – please – don’t…I…’

She had to collect herself again.

‘You can’t reconcile us.’

‘What do you mean?’ I said, my spirit sinking.

‘We are enemies,’ she said, straightening up and regaining all her rightful dominance. ‘You can’t negotiate between us – you’re now one of the reasons we have to be enemies. You can’t reconcile us; please don’t try. You’re here now – stay with me, and forget about him.’

All my foolish little dreams were sunk in one speech. I could only speak with the pitiful tone of the little naive girl that I was.

‘But I love both of you.’

She stared into me, until I had to look away.

‘He let you go. He obviously doesn’t love you as much as I do.’

‘It wasn’t like that! Clark–’

‘Edie! It doesn’t matter! You’re here now! Please, am I not enough?’

I couldn’t reply. She pulled me close to her.

‘I won’t let him take you again,’ she said. ‘You’re staying with me, where you’re safe.’

I had to fight to keep my tears from falling, to blink them away so they wouldn’t drip on her shoulder and alert her. She sighed and kissed my head again.

‘I was so worried about you. I swore I would never let anyone get you again. I love you, Edie, I love you so much.’

I sat there, my dreams of having both worlds shattered, my hopes for some reconciliation dashed, and only one bitter thought going through my mind.

How can I be safe here?

*

Life settled down so quickly it was as if I had never left. We set sail the next morning and I thought of Laneham, further up the river, and his face as I walked away – and then I thought of Isabel and her fear for me, her relief that I was back with her and unharmed. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t have them both, as much as I wanted to. I couldn’t choose between them. My choice had been made for me: I was to stay on the Endeavour, with Isabel, as a Hunter. And as I had longed for Isabel when I was away from her, I found myself longing for Laneham, and his smile and muscular arms before the day was done. I thought: What a fool I am! To have two people love me, and tell them both I loved them back, and feel dissatisfied with one when with the other! Like a prince complaining that he did not know whether he wanted suckling pig or pheasant, while beggars were starving outside; that was the insanity of my greed. But knowing my insanity did not make me better; it did not cure or even ease my affliction.

Though I did want Laneham, I was still greatly happy to be back with Isabel. The first night I was back I turned from her and slept; the second she hugged me until I melted. Her warmth, her eyes, her body – I had missed her so much, even the little noises she made of happiness, the sighs of content after we kissed were ambrosia to me. And she was so chaste! Kissing and pressing our bodies against each other was enough. It was a relief after the impatience and unknowing pressure of Laneham. Still, now I could recognise those feelings that I had ignored before with Isabel, when we held each other and kissed deep into the night, as the same lust – no, not lust, but a desire – a desire to explore all of her body, feel it all in my hands, to do what Laneham had done to me, to see it on her beloved face.

I didn’t act on it for a week. I burned and breathed too heavily when we kissed.

‘The others don’t know,’ she said. ‘Still. I worried they might realise when I was so upset, but I don’t think it even occurred to them that we might be more than friends.’

‘It doesn’t occur to most people,’ I said. She must have caught the hint of sadness in my voice, because she gave me such a look that I had to answer.

‘…I told Laneham.’

‘What?’ she cried. ‘How could you?’

‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘He didn’t believe me.’ Only when I looked at her did I see how betrayed she was, and once again hated myself for hurting her so much.

‘I’m sorry…but I had to explain to him, when…um…’

‘He advanced on you,’ she said, a flat statement, disapproving in a way so like her aunt. I nodded.

‘I knew it. Men can’t be trusted,’ she said. I wanted to both laugh and cry at such a statement. I kissed her instead and we left the topic. I was hiding it from her. Had she asked if I loved Laneham, I probably would have denied it. Fear of causing her more pain overcame all my intentions of honesty so quickly, and it was a weakness I could easily forgive whenever I saw her tense at the mention of him, or my time away.

A week passed and my hands started to wander from her hair to her face and neck, and from her back to her hip. She said nothing the first night I did it, but the second night my hand wandered further to her waist and she stopped and looked at me quizzically.

‘…what?’ I said.

She didn’t reply. I tried to kiss her again but she was unresponsive. She stroked my face and looked into me and I knew she had found me out. I knew it.

‘You kissed him, didn’t you? You’re more forceful now.’

I blushed but did not speak.

‘You said you loved me.’

‘I do love you!’

She shook her head and I pressed against her, holding myself tightly to her.

‘I love you, Isabel. I do. It’s only that I have these…new feelings. I…I don’t know what to do.’

It was true. It was the best way I could put it. I thought she might be disturbed, frightened even as I had been with Laneham, but when I looked up at her she merely nodded.

‘I understand.’

‘Really?’

She smiled softly in the way that I desired – the gentle, sisterly way that made her even more appealing.

‘Of course. I have those feelings too.’

I rejoiced and kissed her and she pushed me away firmly.

‘Calm down, Edie,’ she said. ‘Let’s not get carried away.’

‘But we’re both women!’ I said. ‘We can do whatever we like!’

She stroked my cheek and chuckled.

‘Let’s enjoy ourselves. Slowly.’

I sulked inside and hated trying to calm myself, but it was worth it. Isabel was as gentle as I knew she would be, and as loving as I knew she was. We watched each other for signs of what worked, and smiled, and talked, and giggled, and kissed and loved each other. That night I lay in her arms and thought I should be happy to be with her forever.

*

The next day the letter came from Laneham. I hadn’t forgotten that I had told him to write. The letter had been waiting at port for a few days, the messenger said. I grabbed it out of his hand and stuffed it behind my apron, hoping that no-one had seen him come since I was the only one outside at the time. Breakfast was another strained affair for me and Isabel – every day we had to remember not to show our love for each other in the company of the crew. Today I was slightly relieved for that sanction, because she would have noticed how distracted I was, wondering what the letter said. Later, when I was alone with the laundry, I sat down and read it.

My dearest Edie,

          I can hardly believe that you’re gone from me once more. When you last saw me I was so stunned at your being taken from me so suddenly that I could barely say farewell; I now regret that with all my heart. It was very like Mrs Hunter to take you in such a manner, and I should have foreseen that Clark would betray me in such a way. I hate to admit that I have not been able to sufficiently punish him. He dared me to bring it up with his uncle, which of course I could not do, and I had few other ways to punish him and not compromise his important position on board. He gained what he wanted, but he knows that I shall never believe in his decency again, and only time will let him realise how that damage is not worth his petty dislike of you.

I hope you are well. Life has returned to its dull routine without you. I hope Miss Eynham and her crew are treating you as you deserve to be treated, though I doubt she can give you all the love I would give in her stead.

We have returned to the S-route and are currently near Rainham. Please let me know if our paths are to cross once more. I will happily risk everyone’s wrath to be with you once again.

                   All my love,

                             Your Laneham.

 

How it annoyed me! What a disappointment of a first letter! To hear that he hadn’t had the courage to tell Mr Cooper that I had been on the ship – surely he would find out anyway! – and was letting Clark rejoice in being rid of me, and then to insult Isabel in such a way! I considered tearing it up, then settled for folding it roughly and throwing it into the corner, before picking it up again and stuffing it in my apron. I resolved that I wouldn’t reply, that I would never reply, and that I was done with Laneham and all his crew and all his feud and all his unreasonable hatred of Isabel. I kissed her with extra happiness that night and assured her forcefully that I loved her, and I thought I had made my choice.

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Written by G.J.

27/08/2012 at 2:34 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

Savage Writing: Naked Bouncy Fun Time

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Funny how, considering how silly the theme for this week was, mine was the only non-serious story.

 

This is Karen. She is short and has a tiny arse compared to her breasts. She likes swearing at the phone after she’s hung up on someone she hates. She dislikes the persistent smell of naan bread that wafts out of the bakery near her house. Her favourite word is “sclerotic”, not that she knows what it means – she just likes it because it sounds like both a mental condition and something someone smart would say on the TV. Her shame is that she actually hates romantic comedies and prefers pretentious artsy films, but her boyfriend keeps taking her to see rom coms and she loves the dogged look of concealed hatred he wears too much to tell the truth. She is standing with her forearms crossed to cover her nipples, and trying to remind herself of the new phone she’s going to buy with help of the money she is given here. She is curiously unconcerned about covering her nethers.

 

This is Phil. He has a bald spot on the back of his head whose existence he ignores, and the hair on his arms is considerably darker than the hair on his legs. He likes long walks on the beach; he dislikes that that’s a romantic cliché because he just likes seeing his two dogs playing in the water while he thinks up grand scenarios in his head – of espionage, and cowboys, and what he would say if aliens came down on him at that moment (so far he’s convinced he’ll start with “Don’t touch my dogs!”). His favourite word is “fudd”, which he learnt on a holiday up in Scotland one year and has been using with glee ever since, to the mystification of his friends and family, who think he is just pronouncing the word “food” weirdly and in strange contexts. His shame is that one day when he was a teenager he stole the cap from a beggar and ran away with it, only to throw it away as soon as he got home because it stank of piss. Unlike Karen, Phil is most concerned with covering the region between his legs, even though he knows what he signed up for. He’s joked to his pals that he’ll spend today’s money on a lap dance, but in truth he’s going to buy six bargain-bin action films and a bottle of gin and combine the two this weekend.

 

This is Doctor Mark. Mark is not a medical doctor – he did a PhD in politics before doing animation at college – but he likes having people to call him “doctor” anyway so he feels better about sitting in front of a computer all day. He likes mentioning to strangers in the pub about polygon modelling and rendering because it makes him sound really smart. He dislikes doing this when his best friend Jeff is in the pub with him, because Jeff’s an astrophysicist and that’s so much sexier than computer animation (except today, of course). Mark’s favourite word is “Nietzschean”, which he likes to throw into every inappropriate point in conversation, both because it makes the other person struggle in ignorance and confusion and because it’s fun to say. His shame is that he came up with this idea on a whim and later found an excuse to justify him doing it, and also that he gets a perverse throb from seeing both Karen and Phil at his mercy.

 

And this is Ekaterina. She is Mark’s assistant today, and she is currently behind the window in the video room, hiding her face behind her clipboard as she tries not to laugh. She likes trying to see how many different coloured hair clips she can fit on her head to hold up all her layered bangs. She dislikes how constantly cold air-conditioned computer labs are, and how she has to take a cardigan to work no matter how hot it is outside. Her favourite word is “schadenfreude”. Her shame is that she only agreed to help with this ridiculous video because she thinks Mark is kind of hot, even though he reminds her of her brother in a weird way. She watches as Mark explains the purpose of the video, and the ethics and anonymity. Then he gives a quick demonstration of the movements they are to do, before turning and pointing to her – the signal to start recording. Karen and Phil start jogging on the spot and doing star jumps, and the screens in the video room fill with trackers on all their wibbly bits. She rests her forehead on the clipboard in quiet hysterics. On the paperwork this study is titled ‘Adipose Physics.’ On her own paper, Ekaterina has crossed that out and written instead, in block capitals: NAKED BOUNCY FUN TIME.

 

Written by G.J.

23/08/2012 at 10:43 am

Riverboats Part 7: The Impossible Triangle

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Clark was not impressed that I was going to stay. The others were too frightened of both him and Laneham to express any inclination either way.

Clark should have been the captain of this ship, Laneham told me that night. But Mr Cooper decided I was better, and told me that it would do him well to have to listen to someone else for once.

I had never been so grateful to someone I had never met.

 

As the next few days wore on, I grew bolder. Laundry had run out but my boredom stayed the same, so – trusting in Laneham’s word – I took to turning up in places and helping the crew, first without a word on either side except for requests – more rope, move this, thank you – and eventually blooming into conversation. It was Petey that started it, the youngest one of the crew.

‘How come cap’n took you on our ship, miss?’

The other man nudged him but I needed conversation.

‘We grew up together.’

‘But Clark said they grew up together.’

‘I knew him before Mr Bainbridge. When he was a boy – he would have been about twelve when he met Clark.’

‘Really?’ His eyes widened and the other man looked up in surprise as well. ‘How did you talk to him? With signs?’

‘Yes, he started them with me, and with Clark he made more so I have to learn more now.’

‘C-can you teach me some?’

‘No.’

He frowned at the pretty smile I gave him.

‘Why not?’

‘Because it’s ours.’

‘But Clark knows it–’

‘But I don’t talk to Mr Bainbridge.’

They both looked down, shifting, not wanting to acknowledge the dislike between us. It was a small, trivial conversation, but it started more, and I realised that most of them were harmless. We talked about different types of boats, about weather, and with some about the north of the country and Ireland, where I shared what I’d learnt from Jane and Mary. I felt foolish for my earlier fear of them all. I often thought back to my childhood, because this was like some strange retelling of it, where I was on a boat with Laneham and everyone was a friend. Except that wasn’t true, and Laneham was the different, and yet the same, and he fascinated me because of it.

I grew proficient at signing very quickly because we would talk and talk for hours at night before he would go to bed, and I would often sign and talk simultaneously so he could correct me. We remembered old times together and I tried to remember old letters from my parents.

‘I can’t believe they never replied to you. They must have thought you were dead as well – they wouldn’t keep that from me. It must have been Mrs Hunter.’

He knew it was a stretch, I could see it in his face, but he humoured me.

Whatever they thought, it seems many people were intent on making you think I was dead.

‘That doesn’t matter now…’ I said, but it did. Yes, many people. There were words which haunted me: “There’s something I never told you.” When would she have told me if we hadn’t been attacked? Would she ever have revealed it to me?

Do you ever see Annie?

‘Oh yes!’ I said, glad for the change in subject. ‘I see her quite often. She’s engaged to this man, Alfie, I think his name is – another relative of the Hunters. Why – don’t tell me you’ve never seen her?’

Not for a long while. Her family only work for the Hunters now, which is a shame, because some of us were fond of her.

I nodded, dampened. I kept forgetting that he was a Cooper now. It would plague me occasionally throughout the day and that’s when I had to work to distract myself, because when I thought of the Coopers and the Hunters my spirit sank into a black hole of doom and despair and no hope for any bright future – just death and revenge and more death and my inevitable tangling in the web.

He touched my chin. He had always done that to get my attention, but more often now he did it without signing afterwards, as if he just wanted to look at me, and I would look into his large grey eyes and wonder at how much he had changed. “He looks almost handsome like that”, Annie’s mother said once. She hadn’t done him justice.

You are so sad now, he signed after gazing into me. I could meet his look comfortably again, meet his eyes for minutes at a time, because as much as he was the captain of this ship, every day he proved more to me that he was still My Laneham in there.

Sad?

Under everything, you’re sad. You weren’t before.

I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to explain how I had been so hurt when he left, how I had supported my parents and the ship all alone, how I had been sent away to work for strangers, how while I loved the river and the people and the docks and those I travelled with, I wanted to escape so badly from the crush of their problems and the two families fighting. I struggled and he waited for a reply and I couldn’t. I changed the subject.

You’re…bigger.

He smiled, a small bittersweet smile with his eyebrows raised, that I had never seen on him before. I hated it. It made him look old and worried.

People grow.

You’re more… I sighed, returning to speech.

‘You’re more confident. You don’t hide. You command everyone here and you hold their respect…you used to be afraid of everyone.’

With good reason. But C. and – I didn’t understand the sign but I assumed it was Mr Cooper from what he said – helped me. They taught me how to be strong.

‘…I could have taught you that.’

I knew I sounded sulky. Another smile – I wanted to hit him if he kept doing that.

You were always strong. You don’t understand.

I laughed bitterly and was about to protest when he pulled me close into an embrace. Arms remained by my sides; I was too surprised to move. He pulled back and looked at me and this time – stupid cowardly Edie – I couldn’t meet his gaze.

I missed you. So much.

I pulled myself further onto the bed so my back was against the wall, and pulled my legs up to my chest. It’s hard to describe the mess of confusion that I was. My thoughts were scattered, there was a looming threat I could perceive, and I didn’t want to fall too far in.

‘I miss my boat.’

His brows lowered.

‘You…you’re not close here. You hired these men and they don’t even try to know each other very well and you and Clark don’t know them. You’re not family like we are on the Endeavour. I love them all and I…miss them all, as much as I miss my parents.’

Clark is my brother. The others don’t matter. I don’t need a home here – I have work.

‘I need family,’ I said. ‘I can’t stand being away from the people I love.’

He gave me another strange look, and I know because I made the mistake of glancing at him as I spoke. He touched my arm as a goodnight and went away.

 

The next day he sent in Petey with my breakfast. Petey was very talkative and insisted I come eat with the rest of them but I ignored him and only thought what this might mean. When I ran into Clark – as sometimes happened – I was only further perplexed.

‘As useful as you are, I don’t agree with having a woman on board,’ he said as I gave him his laundry. ‘Distracting the crew is expected, but distracting the captain is dangerous.’

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ I snipped. ‘I haven’t seen him all day.’

He merely raised his eyebrow and turned his back to me.

I wondered, then, whether Laneham would visit me that night, and if what I had said had that had offended him so much. I didn’t need to ruminate for long, as he came to my room early after dinner and immediately spoke to me.

Tell me, he signed, have you ever is there have you met many men?

‘What do you mean? I know the clients and dockmen and some of the other crews, you know that.’

His hands flew more as he was agitated, making his signs harder to distinguish.

Have you met any other men for anything?

‘Umm…’ I swallowed, my brain whirring with implications of what he was asking. ‘Well, no, except Christian – but he just came on the boat because we found him!’ I added hastily, seeing his look, and then I explained finding Christian in the river, wondering how I had omitted it before.

‘But as for what you mean, I didn’t like him at all, he was rude to us and just – just not nice.’

Laneham nodded, relieved. Unthinking, I kept talking with the same fake gaiety, trying to ease the situation, which proved to be my mistake.

‘It’s funny, because I had to say all this to Isabel, because she was certain he liked me, but I know he didn’t and even if he did well it’s nothing because I didn’t like him at all, as I just said.’

He immediately gave me his “I hate that woman” frown. Still I kept talking.

‘Uh, well, you know she’s very protective of everyone on her ship, we’re all her family you see, and well I have no-one else so we all became really close–’

My breath died as Laneham took my hand and moved close, very close, his breath on my face again, and those eyes that I couldn’t meet as easily as normal because they were like hers, so, so…

‘Laneham, what–’

He put a finger gently to my lip to hush me, and from there his hand stroked my cheek and my skin tingled under the touch, and from there to lightly hold the back of my head, and then, then he moved his body in close and I could smell him and he closed his eyes and how beautiful he looked, in that second, eyes closed and face against mine and my eyelashes automatically fluttered shut as he kissed me.

He backed away slowly, judging my reaction. I sat, frozen, unable to think of anything except Isabel. He brushed the back of my neck and my body shivered automatically and he looked at me so lovingly that I prayed for God to strike me down on the spot. He wanted me to speak, act, do something, give him a sign – and I acted without thinking, which is always my downfall. God help me, he was so gentle and beautiful and kind.

I kissed him again.

Only after the third kiss, when he opened his mouth fully and his other hand came around my back, did I stop and pull back.

‘I…’ And I cleared my throat and I hated myself. ‘This is…uh…complicated.’

Instantly he brought his hands to his sides and shifted away, a horrible mix of hurt and anger. I had to look away and rub my nose, my neck, wring my hands, anything.

‘I…well, Isabel and I…we love each other.’

He laughed. The laugh of someone that can’t even make a sound with their throat is awful. It’s nothing but short bursts of air being shot out of his mouth, and makes a horrible wheeze.

‘Don’t laugh!’ I cried. ‘I know, it’s…it’s not right, not Christian, but I love her and she loves me. And you hate her and she hates you…and you…’ I looked at him. ‘You…’

I love you.

‘But…why?!’

That was the question that had pressed me most since he first kissed me. He only smiled.

‘You haven’t seen me in years! We were like brother and sister! How…how…’

He tilted my chin and kissed me again before I had the chance to stop him. Then he signed.

I always loved you. You’re still my Edie.

I shook my head, still not understanding.

I always wanted to be with you. That’s why when I saw you, I took you here. If you were changed, I would have put you back, but you’re still my Edie, only sadder. I want to make you happy. I love you.

This…is strange.

I signed it because I couldn’t make the words. There was a lump in my throat though I didn’t feel as if I would cry at all. My heart felt as if it was being split into two parts and the confusion and ache overwhelmed me.

Please…leave. Tomorrow, we talk.

He looked so worried that I had to touch his cheek and try to smile in encouragement. He left and I did not sleep until very late that night.

 

It wasn’t in anything I had read, not in the Bible or other religious books. It wasn’t adultery and but I knew it must be sinful. All I could consult was my own heart, and after hours of pain and thought, it reinforced it to me: I had fallen in love with two people. I thought of Isabel and her intensity, her inner pain, her beautiful hair and laugh and her soft body, and yet I thought of Laneham and his command, his devotion, and his beauty and his figure and his scent – and I wanted both. I could not choose, constantly deciding on one then knowing I must have the other. I considered neither – Isabel was jealous and had concealed Laneham from me, while he had that capacity for violence and was hiding her brother’s killer for no good reason. I decided, resolutely, for about half an hour, that I would leave both and never see either again. But at the thought of their kisses and embraces I relented – her kiss softer, his embrace tighter, and the comparison began again. Had I known I was falling for Laneham until he kissed me? Of course I had. It was natural and easy to love him. It had taken me a long time to realise with Isabel, and a long time to fall in love with her, but then I had known Laneham before and it was so easy…

All night I debated, backwards and forwards, until my body was crying desperately for sleep though my mind was still undecided. Then, when I was at my most frantic, thirsty, exhausted, angry at myself for being in this situation, the revelation came upon me:

I could not decide. Therefore, I had to have both.

I mocked this decision at first as the stupidest thing I had come up with all night, evidently a product of a tired brain. But we were on different boats. They would not go near each other. When with one I could devote myself to them alone, and then to the other when I was with them. They would be jealous, they would, but I could appease them, surely. Men in the Bible had two wives; why couldn’t I have two loves? As long as they didn’t have to fight over me, it could work. It was horrifically greedy and unfair to them, but it was the only solution which could benefit us all. It could work. It must work.

That thought allowed me to sleep. It could. It must.

 

I woke early, tired and yet awake, and with a lightness that I had not felt in a very long time. I walked to the dining area and all the crew looked up at me in surprise.

‘Good morning,’ I said to them all.

Clark sulked silently, but I had expected that. The others chatted away as normal, though often having to cough and nudge each other when a crude remark was said. Laneham brushed his fingers against mine under the table and looked at me questioningly.

I smiled.

He beamed.

We ate.

 

Work kept him away for a large part of the day, as it would do – everyone had a part to play, and everyone kept to it. We all sat down again at lunch and Petey and Harry grew bold enough to ask me questions about my life, and specifically about my old life with Laneham. I described our old boat and the problems that made it unworthy for travel.

‘You get a lot of boats not sea-worthy now,’ Harry said. ‘Partly from all the holes in the hull from gunshots.’

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘we often have that problem…’

A cough, and someone changed the subject. Mentioning my other, Hunter ship, was not comfortable for anyone.

At dinner, when discussing the cargo, the subject came up again.

‘It’s a pain in the arse – pardon my French, miss – a bloody pain in the arse, them families that only deal with Hunters. Keeps a lot of good work from us.’

‘Keeps a lot of things from us,’ Petey added.

‘And no doubt makes them wait longer to ship their goods,’ I said.

‘Precisely! I don’t know why they bother.’

‘Maybe Mrs Hunter struck a deal with ‘em,’ another chimed in.

‘Yeah, she is one for striking deals, isn’t she?’

Laneham signed and Clark spoke for him.

‘She doesn’t mind using people either. Edie and I are examples.’

We explained how he had come to our ship initially. After a discussion about how immoral it was to foist a child onto a poor family, and whether it was more or less immoral than the alternatives, one asked:

‘What about you, Miss Edie? He said you were an example as well.’

Laneham touched my leg in apology.

‘Well, after our boat sank Mrs Hunter sent my parents to work in land-trade and sent me onto the Endeavour.’

‘She’s some work, Mrs Hunter! Sending people this way and that with no say! Mr Cooper wouldn’t do that, would he boys?’

Clark’s voice broke through the assent.

‘My uncle isn’t above dictating what others do either. It’s the position of the privileged.’

The others looked about uncomfortably, but I looked to the first mate and thought how it was the first sensible thing I had heard him say.

‘I – I suppose we must hope that such people are kind to us,’ I said, looking down at my food, hoping that this could be the beginning of a more neutral relationship. I hoped too much.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ he spat. ‘Kindness isn’t a concern to them. They do what they think is best for themselves. In your case it got her niece another crew member with experience. In Laneham’s it took a mute off another niece’s hands. No-one acts selflessly in this world, Miss Heinlein.’

He looked from me to Laneham as the captain signed at him, a cutting motion across the mouth: stop talking. I said nothing the rest of the meal, and afterwards Laneham ran after me to his room.

Don’t hear him.

I shrugged. I was far from offended with what Clark had said; I just wished he could say more than a word to me without venom.

‘He makes sense.’

Laneham had to write his next line because he didn’t have enough signs for it.

Just because an act is self-interested, doesn’t mean it is not kind.

My heart warmed, both from the comfort in those words, and from what they showed in he who wrote them. I looked at him and couldn’t resist wrapping my arms around him.

‘Thank you,’ I said. When I drew back and saw his face, it was flushed and lovely. We kissed and a twinge swept through me, a thought of Isabel, but I had had all day to reconsider my decision, and I had stuck by it despite all my doubts. I could love each, fully, at a time. It was no harm to any of us.

My thoughts had distracted me from the kiss, and I was shocked to realise how animated he was. His hands ran through my hair, behind my back, over my shoulders, down my waist – I had never kissed Isabel like this. He was escalating, breathing heavily, kissing too deeply, and I had to pull away. He gasped for air.

His red face, his gulps and gasps, his trembling body and the inability of his hands to leave mine – I had been warned about this, but had never truly expected to find it: Passion. Lust.

I sat down on the bed, not knowing what to do, and he sat next to me and started to kiss my temple, my cheeks, my neck, and I squirmed away and had to sign.

This is too sudden.

But I love you.

You’re scaring me.

He blinked and sat straight, looking like a lost puppy.

‘Laneham…’ I began, losing the concentration to sign all I had to say. ‘This is new to me. I need time, to adjust to you, and how you love me, and – and myself.’

He nodded.

This is new to me too.

‘Really?’

He nodded sheepishly. I don’t know what I had expected. Perhaps part of me expected the handsome captain of a ship to be a prodigious lover of women, but thinking of Laneham, of course that was absurd. I knew he didn’t work by halves: he feared fully, he commanded fully, and so he would love one woman fully. But had he waited this long for me? Had he started to love me when I still saw him as a brother – saw him almost as a ward?

As if he read my mind, he answered.

I realised I wasn’t happy with other women, so I didn’t try. Maybe I hoped that one day you would stop hating me, because I always imagined that you would be a wonderful woman.

I laughed and embraced him, and gave him a small kiss. I had never known gratitude so keenly – gratitude was always tempered by obligation to others such as my parents and Mrs Hunter and Isabel. But Laneham had waited freely, blind to how I may have changed with the years, trusting that I would be worth it after all that time. I was flattered to the extreme that he should trust me so.

You are too good, I signed.

He shook his head and I kissed him again. I’d forgotten how easy and habit-forming it was to give little kisses all the time.

‘But please…understand that I’m not ready. This is all so sudden and new…I need to prepare…and…’ I picked at the covers. ‘I can’t get pregnant,’ I whispered.

He nodded earnestly. I didn’t look to see what he signed next; I was afraid of the possibilities of what he might say in reply.

We talked for a little longer and then kissed and said goodnight. I felt horribly let-down by the whole affair; bewildered, intrigued, and very very frightened. It won’t be like this with Isabel, I thought. But if she was to have a lust like a man, then I knew that at least now I would be prepared for it, and equal to counter it. I was still very young. Sexuality was too new, too adult, for my liking – for though I heard others talk about it so often, to be confronted by it for the first time was terrifying.

I thought for a while, but the previous night of mental exertion had caught up to me and I was soon oblivious to all such concerns in the land of sleep.

 

When I look back on it, I can hardly believe it was only a few weeks that I was on board the Sunrise. Everything happened so quickly at the beginning, and then in the two weeks afterwards I became so used to the ship and crew it was as if I had been there years. I did laundry and other odd jobs, talked to the crew, had meals with them all and they accepted me easily. I spoke to Clark as little as possible, since he would only make snide remarks.  I amused myself by wondering how much fun he would have had with Jane, constantly identifying my faults and slandering me, though I had never felt such an undercurrent of hate from her. I didn’t avoid him, because that was weak, not to mention impossible, but I never sought him out and I tried to ignore him as much as possible. The captain stopped trying to scold him into civility; we all knew it was impossible.

Every evening Laneham spent with me; hours and hours of talking until our hands were too tired to go on or until we ran out of subjects. I had so much to explain to him about our boat – and more importantly, its captain.

She’s a very proud, snobbish woman.

Not at all. She’s…

‘Um…’ There were still so many words I didn’t have a sign for. ‘She’s intense, but-!’

-she’s kind to everyone. She commands well.

His look was deadpan, disbelieving.

‘I won’t ever be able to make you like her, will I?’

No. Not unless I see all of it.

It had to come up again, before long:

You said you loved her.

I do.

As a sister?

I blushed.

More.

But you love me.

I love you both.

He shook his head.

But you can’t love her as you love me.

But I do.

But – his signs were harder to read as he fidgeted in agitation – that’s not possible. Women don’t love women as they love men.

‘We do,’ I said, getting annoyed. He looked at my expression and relented, as if he was the same dependent boy again.

But you’re with me now so it doesn’t matter.

‘I thought about it…’

He looked at me and all the courage I had gained from irritation drained away, but I pressed on. He should be the first one to hear my idea, my one chance of survival.

‘When…when I go back to my ship, I’ll have Isabel again. But when I see you again, I’ll have you. It’s simple.’

Far from the outrage or derision I expected, he looked alarmed.

You’ll go back?

Of course.

But…I love you.

‘I can’t stay here,’ I said, signing at the same time for emphasis. He grabbed my hand and gripped it and I knew what he wanted to communicate: I love you. I need you. I don’t want to lose you again.

‘We won’t lose each other,’ I said softly. ‘We’ll write, and visit sometimes. But at the moment, I’m indebted to Isabel and Mrs Hunter, and I’m required to work. I’ll have to go back. In the future, we’ll see.’

But I had no concept of the future. I could only see myself on the Endeavour forever, with Isabel, and had recently added week-long visits to Laneham in my vision. I knew that marriage must happen at some point, but I had never desired it greatly. I only wanted a boat and a family of people around me – and that was the Endeavour.

He kissed me to console himself, and as often happened we worked ourselves into a state. Initially every touch of his hand on my body made me shiver with excitement, but as the days went by they became comforting…alluring.

I feel I should explain myself. We, the boating people – we were all notionally religious. We married and were buried on land, in a church. But we couldn’t have church, could only pray to God and Jesus and Mary while sailing, and after a few Sundays of reading the Good Book we would inevitably be too tired and forget and sink back into routine for months until someone dredged it back up again for another few Sundays. I knew vice and virtue, but everything else was so remote – so far from my life – that I had learnt to trust my heart as a child and never reconsidered it. I knew a man to lay with a man was sinful, but women were not mentioned; they must be married, and good wives, and that was all. That is how I could fall in love with a woman and not be ashamed; and it was how I could feel pleasure in Laneham’s touch, in his body, and not feel ashamed.

How hard it was to stop! How I wished sometimes that I could lost my sense and be swept away in passion! But no. We could only go so far.

And that was why I knew marriage was inevitable. He didn’t mention it, but he knew as well; I guessed he took it for granted that, as my parents had wished for so long ago, he would marry his love Edie, and have a boat with her and carry on the family business, even though our boat was sunk, I loved another person, and he was called to death.

 

Written by G.J.

12/08/2012 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

Savage Writing: Mind the Rocks

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Task this week was to write a horror script. This was a little experimental for me – not sure I would get the points across – and upon questioning at the end I feel I explained too much. I won’t make that mistake here.

MIND THE ROCKS

SCENE: A CLIFFSIDE PATH, JUST BEFORE DAWN.

(Characters: Bob is an old-aged Yorkshireman. Ellison is a nervous-looking young man)

BOB ENTERS, AND ELLISON HESITATES BEFORE SPEAKING TO HIM.

ELLISON

Bob, are you there?

BOB

I’m right here, Mister Ellison.

ELLISON

Good. I was worried I may be imagining things.

BOB

Isn’t good for your health to be up so early, Mister Ellison.

ELLISON

I haven’t been able to sleep. Every night I dream that I wake, eat and dress, then walk out of the cottage, down this path, and right off the edge of this cliff. I never hesitate or stop to consider otherwise. I fall into darkness and then there’s nothing.

BOB

Now, now, Mister Ellison. Calm yourself. You came out here to rest your mind after all – to let that fresh sea breeze soothe you. Don’t it feel good, Master?

ELLISON

I don’t know, Bob. The longer I’m here the more I doubt myself. It’s been three weeks, hasn’t it? Three weeks, and already I feel I can’t remember my wife. My dear Emily.

BOB

She was a wonderful lady, master.

ELLISON

Yes. You know, here in this light, I feel as if I can see things which aren’t there. Right now, if I look closely, I can see a girl standing at the edge of the cliff, a child. She’s looking at me with eyes like Emily’s. Large brown eyes.

BOB

Emily had blue eyes, Mister Ellison.

ELLISON

She always wanted a boy. She wanted me to continue the Ellison name. But I was always partial to a girl, a demure child, an obedient child. Perhaps I worried that if I had a boy, I would become like my father. God rest his soul. But this girl now, she has eyes full of rebellion like Emily. If you forbid a person from action, they only strive to do it more, don’t they? She was that kind of person. I told her not to swim, so she swam. And she sank my child with her.

BOB

Hey, hey, Master, calm yourself. You’re here to keep your mind away from painful thoughts aren’t you? Don’t dwell on such horrors. I can’t imagine the grief you must be in now, but do not sink under it, do not fall into it. You must be strong.

ELLISON

I’m not strong, Bob. I’ve never been. That’s why father always sends me away to lonely country holes by myself –

BOB

God rest his soul. We don’t speak ill of the dead, Master Blake.

ELLISON

Yes. Yes. I don’t speak ill of him. But I see that girl over there, and I want to walk to her, and speak to her. And even if she was not there, I would want to walk to that cliff anyway, for these dreams I’ve been having. To see the water, and the rocks.

BOB

Careful, now. You might lean too far over the side.

ELLISON

I wouldn’t. I would not. But then I’d at least be with my dear Emily again. That girl over there, Bob – can you not see her? I swear she looks as real as you.

BOB

There’s nowt over there, my lad.

ELLISON

She is there. I see her. She’s the spirit of the child that Emily drowned, I know it, she looks so reproachful and her eyes are large and blue and filled with tears. What did I do wrong, Bob?

BOB

Nothing, Master. She went for a swim, and the tide took her down. Don’t think on it – it’s too awful.

ELLISON

It is too awful. I can’t bear to think of it. My father would be so saddened to see me now, wouldn’t he? He thought I would do well for him, but I’m weak. I couldn’t marry as he wanted and give him an heir. Are you sure you cannot see her?

BOB

It’s the light playing with your eyes.

ELLISON

I can’t trust myself recently. I can’t trust my memory at all. I think of Emily and I try my hardest but I can’t remember marrying her, or discovering she was with child, or any such memories. I tried to find photographs but was told there’s nothing.

BOB

She didn’t like this new technology.

ELLISON

No, no she didn’t. But when I think of her, all I can remember is that awful day she went out swimming.

BOB

You asked her where she was going and forbid her from swimming, and she smiled and said she was merely going for a walk by the cliff.

ELLISON

Yes, yes. I must have told you this before. Just for a walk by the cliff. That’s why this child is here now, looking at me. I killed her, Bob, I killed them both with my words.

BOB

Don’t think such awful thoughts.

ELLISON

I want to go to her. I want to go and apologise. I feel I must see the edge of this cliff.

BOB

Now Master Blake, this is just a passing weakness –

ELLISON

It’s not a weakness! Don’t you understand? I have to atone somehow. And why do you call me Master Blake? My father’s dead, isn’t he? I’m – I’m the head of the Ellison family. You do as I say.

BOB

Beg pardon, sir. Force of habit. What I mean is, your father always worried about you. He never thought you were able to stick to your word on owt, and always thought you were too weak to stand horrors. You’re a frail lad, and given to fancy. If you’re seeing visions, clearly you’re not strong enough yet to be out here.

ELLISON

I am strong enough! I am. I am the master of the house, Bob, and I see that girl over there with my two eyes. You’re deceiving me, aren’t you? You’re testing me, like Father always did. You don’t understand, neither of you. I am strong enough for this. I am going to go and touch that girl and bring her to you, and prove she is there.

BOB

You can’t do that, master Blake.

ELLISON

I can, and I will. I’ll show you, Bob – I’ll show you I’m not mad!

EXIT ELLISON. BOB LOOKS AFTER HIM.

BOB

After so many years, I’m sure your father will be glad to hear that you said that, Master. Mind the rocks on your way down. Mind the rocks.

Written by G.J.

08/08/2012 at 11:15 pm

Riverboats Part 6: The Sunrise

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Some time later a note was passed under the door. It had my name written in plain capitals. I ignored it for a few minutes, sheer stubbornness taking me over, saying to myself I wouldn’t hear any excuses, but I knew even then that I was going to read it. I had to know. I couldn’t torture myself with questions any longer.

 

Dear Edie,

I understand you may be shocked and concerned to discover only now that I’m alive, and a captain on a Cooper ship. I have known for some time that you were on one of Mrs Hunter’s boats, and it hurt me to think that you thought so little of me as to never even attempt communication. Now I see that you were deceived, and I’m relieved to know you still think well enough of me to trust me and come aboard this ship.

I know you will want to know why I left your family years ago, but there is so much about me that you never knew that I can’t help but take this opportunity to finally tell you everything. It will take some time to teach you the sign language that I have developed with Clark, so it is best I put it in writing for now.

I was abandoned as a baby and taken into the care of a minister and his wife, as I once tried to communicate to you. They were kind and the best of parents, always patient with my disability, and I only wish it could have stayed that way. Unfortunately, my father died and left the vicarage to his grown son, who couldn’t have been more his opposite. My mother tried her best but she was still grieving and couldn’t contradict the man of the house. He treated me very cruelly. (Here the full stop was thick and slightly smudged, as if he had dripped ink on it for some time.) I hate to think back on those times. His treatment of me was seen as just by nearly everyone, because I was such a burden. It was then that I grew so wary of others, a trait you always chided in me.

Eventually it seems he persuaded my mother that I couldn’t be housed any more – probably that the money would be better spent on his own children. I was not told this. I was told I was going to school, otherwise I would never have stepped on that train. But when my mother said goodbye once I stepped on the train, I realised the truth. She cried as if her heart was breaking and apologised for her weakness, before he dragged her away. I knew then that I had been abandoned.

I rode until the end of the line at Laneham station. I had nowhere to go so I stayed there, afraid to venture beyond the station, hiding from the unsavoury characters that visited the place at night. I can’t remember how I stayed alive, for I don’t remember eating or sleeping at all – it is all dream-like to me now. But one day, as I loitered around a train, a young well-dressed woman saw me and asked how I came to be there. I shied away but she was persistent, and the more distressed I became trying to explain to her that I could not answer, the more piteous and pleased she seemed, deciding I was a poor, delightful pet and that I should come with her. I tried to refuse but she was so kind and offered food and a coat, and in my state I couldn’t resist.

When we returned to her home – I vaguely remember a stately townhouse – she argued with a man there for a very long time – her husband, of course. He insisted I couldn’t stay and she argued and argued until eventually she called her aunt round to discuss the matter. This was Mrs Hunter, of course. It took a great deal to convince her that I was not deaf but merely couldn’t speak, and she scolded her niece for what seemed like a very long time, until eventually saying she had a place for me. Then this lovely lady, that I had grown attached to in only a few days, explained that I had to go away, and nothing but fear of Mrs Hunter made me leave. That is how I came to your family: scared and sure I was only going to be abandoned yet again.

But as the years went by I began to feel secure with your family, and I hoped for my future for the first time. Then, as you know, something happened – and that is why I am here right now and not with you, on our own boat on the river, as I always imagined.

When we were playing that day I ran too far, and became lost. I wandered around the docks as it became dark, and though I was scared, petrified even, and running from every noise I heard, I still managed to find my way to the scene of an argument between two men. I turned the corner and had barely seen their faces when one pulled out his pistol and shot the other.

I was so stunned that I could not move, so the killer saw me. I ran, but he caught me, and surely planned to kill me as well, but luckily when he saw my face he realised who I was, and that I literally could not tell anyone what had happened. He laughed as if it was a joke, and pointed his gun to my head, and I was certain I was going to die, but he threatened that if I ever, by any way, told anyone what had happened, he would kill me – and not just me, but all of you as well, since he knew Mrs Hunter and he knew us, and he knew Mrs Hunter favoured him over us, so your lives depended on me. He said many other cruel things, and eventually let me go. I ran back to you, unable to be comforted, certain that I was going to die, and that I would be the cause of your deaths as well.

That is why I left. I worried he would be at the next port – and if not, it was still possible he would see us next time we were in town, and what if the police questioned us, knowing we were in that area that night? I stewed for days, and realised I was putting you in too much danger, and that I had to leave.

I forced myself to walk away without saying goodbye, because I knew that the moment I saw your mournful face, my resolve would break.

I spent a day wandering around the dock, too afraid to venture into town, when finally a dockworker recognised me and asked what I was doing. I ran, now even more afraid of strangers than I had been, but that evening, as I was dreading my first night alone in years, a well-dressed man found me and insisted I come back with him. I refused again and again, but he finally convinced me. I thought I would certainly be hurt, but he took me back to his home, fed me and let me sleep, and the next day asked me to write how I came to be away from the Heinleins, as everyone knew I had been with them. I refused but he was so kind and considerate to me, and finally – after considering what our route might have been – he guessed the truth: I had seen a man murdered in Chesham. I wrote down what had happened – how he deciphered my awful scrawl I do not know – and he promised that I would be safe with him, because he was Mr Cooper, and even if this man carried great favour with Mrs Hunter, he was nothing to Mr Cooper for he was as powerful, if not more, than Mrs Hunter. I drew and described the man as best as I could, and after some discussion with his family they agreed it must have been Archibald Hunter. He then told me that the man I had seen killed was Mr Grey, Mr Cooper’s brother-in-law, and he thanked me for letting them know who the culprit was. Because of that, he said, we were allies against him, and because of that, and because he knew I was a good worker, he would take care of me, and make sure I came to no harm.

I became the companion of his nephew Clark, who is my first mate on this boat, and that is how we developed more of the signs that we created. We learnt everything about commanding a ship, and when the time came he put us in charge of the Sunrise. During this time I tried to write to your parents numerous times, and I even tried to find them in port, but they never replied. Instead I was told by one of Mrs Hunter’s associates to stop bothering her people, and that the Heinleins expressly did not want to see me. I assumed you must hate me for abandoning you, since you would never care whether I was a Cooper or not. I wish I had tried harder, for it never occurred to me that you may have been deceived.

So now you see what happened, and how I came to be here. Only one other question remains: why did I board the Endeavour? I’m afraid the truth may be hateful for you. Ever since we learnt of each others’ existence, Miss Eynham and I have been at odds. We each have what the other wants. As a relative of Mrs Hunter, she knows Archibald Hunter’s whereabouts, since he has been carefully hidden for years since the murder, and Mr Cooper still seeks justice. I, meanwhile, am one of the few people who know of the whereabouts of a close friend of the Bainbridge family: a man named Alexander Strong. I am sure you will have heard of him. Thus, Miss Eynham and I each have the information that the other desires, and I boarded the Endeavour with the plan to take her and force the information out of her. I did not expect to see you again, though in hindsight I should have known that hers was the ship you would most likely be working on.

I’m sorry if this seems sudden; I could not resist the opportunity to tell you everything, and explain myself after years of guilt and sadness. Rest assured I do not mean to use you as leverage against Miss Eynham; you are worth more to me than her. I can find out Archibald Hunter in other ways, but I may never get this opportunity again. Please, I’m begging you, stay here with me.

I will come through an hour after posting this under your door. Ask me anything. I will teach you the language. There are many things you may not know, if my existence has been kept from you. If you cannot stand the thought of remaining on this ship, you are free to leave at the next port, but I beg you not to.

I missed you.

                             Yours faithfully,

                                                Laneham.

 

I can’t describe what I felt reading this. All I know is that when he opened the door a few minutes later, I ran to him and embraced him, as I should have done at first. He was my Laneham, and finally – after years of deception and shame and heartache for us both – I had him again! Despite the pity for his past, the anger, and the rumbling fear in my gut when I thought of Isabel and what this all meant – despite that, I was joyous and my heart glowed to have him back. We beamed at each other to know that we were together again.

 

‘I’m…so sorry.’

Why?

‘For…not trying to find you, for everything you’ve been through, for…’ I plucked at a thread on the cover of his bed, where we were sitting again.

‘For not helping you that night.’

He shook his head and gave my shoulders a little shake, before sitting back and signing. I had to ask him to write it down.

It was impossible. You tried your best but I couldn’t be helped.

He explained each sign to me for each word and flourish I didn’t know. I smiled and sighed at how much I had forgotten and he was patient.

‘…Is Mr Cooper a good man, then?’

Very good.

I thought of all the gunshots and shouts I had heard while hiding under deck, and all the sneers I had heard said about the Coopers, and the wild Bainbridge boys, and Marlows and Greys, and most of all about the the stiff and formal and heartless Mr Cooper himself. I couldn’t reconcile that with my Laneham. And there was one part of his letter that I especially could not square with my heart.

‘H…have you ever met Isabel?’

A stern look cast itself over his previously boyish face and it frightened me how adult he was now.

Not until yesterday. I told you what our relations are.

‘But Laneham…she’s a good person. She…‘ I blushed as I heard the words come out of my mouth. ‘She’s a wonderful person.’

His eyes narrowed and he didn’t sign anything in reply.

‘She – she told me why she has the ship, why she’s after Alexander Strong, and I believe she’s right. So…why shouldn’t you tell her where he is? Especially if it will help you.’

He signed so fast and furiously that again I had to tell him to slow down and write what I didn’t know. It didn’t help greatly though – in such fervour his writing was little more than a scrawl.

She will kill him if she finds him and I can’t let it happen. He is my friend.

‘He killed her twin brother!’

He blinked in surprise, then shook his head.

I don’t know what happened, but he would not have done it without reason. He’s a good man.

I had to look away. My mind was too full to consider this on top of everything else. Luckily my stomach rumbled and the topic changed. He raised himself from the bed and walked to stand in front of where I was sitting.

Food?

I nodded and he left. All I remember after that is hearing talk outside the door, of crewmen and the familiar voice of the second in command, still petulant from earlier. Eventually Laneham opened the door again and beckoned me out of the room. I didn’t want to go. It wasn’t until I walked out of the room that I realised how afraid I was of all the other men. They stared at me and winked at each other and I felt both shamed for no reason and terrified for good reason.

Laneham turned, saw my look, and grabbed my hand, leading me to the dining area. I had never felt so grateful for a gesture in my life.

Once there he signed a little to the second in command about introducing me. He looked at me with contempt and said ‘I don’t think she needs introducing,’ but Laneham made some sign I hadn’t seen before – a threat, it seemed – and he shifted and cleared his throat.

‘Everyone, this is Miss Heinlein, one of the captain’s “friends”.’

They tittered. With two steps Laneham strode to him and boxed his ears so he nearly fell into the table, cutting every laugh short. The first mate looked up at me and, in a mechanical manner, introduced every member of the crew – I didn’t even try to remember their names – ending with himself.

‘And my name is Clark Bainbridge. Call me what you like.’

Laneham nodded and at last we sat down. Eating was a strangled affair. Laneham’s violence had shocked me right through and the contempt of Mr Bainbridge bore into me, along with the sense that all the rest were watching me – sizing me up – leering at the woman. I nudged Laneham.

Please me eat in your place.

He understood. After dinner I went back to his room and remained there the rest of the night, the many thoughts and worries and considerations stifling me. Isabel, Laneham, Clark, Mrs Hunter, Alexander Strong, Archibald Hunter, Mr Cooper, Laneham’s father’s son, my parents, Jane, Harriet, back to Isabel. It was too much. I eventually escaped into an uneasy sleep, only vaguely noting that Laneham did not return to his room that night.

 

Where you sleep?

I was trying to improve at signing. A lot was coming back to me, but the new developments he had made meant I had to learn more than I had to remember.

With C.

I assumed he meant Clark Bainbridge. I disliked how similar it was to both Laneham’s name and my own.

You can come out onto the deck today.

I shook my head. He gently tilted my chin up to look at him.

If they touch you, I kill them.

I wanted to laugh but he was so serious that it died in my throat. He put down my breakfast, smiled to cheer me up, and left. As I ate, I pondered how strange it was to have him comforting me, instead of the other way around.

 

It was boredom that drove me out of the room: I couldn’t stand to be alone with my thoughts any longer so I ventured out. The crew pretended not to notice as I walked by, though I could feel their covert glances. They didn’t say a word to me and I was glad. Eventually I found the cargo hold and walked down to it. Clark was there.

‘Is there anything I can do?’

He ignored me and continued writing. I traced my fingers across one crate and delighted in seeing him eye them down with apprehension.

‘I normally do this work on my ship. Or laundry.’

‘Laundry is fine,’ he said curtly. ‘Good woman’s work.’

I didn’t rise to his jibe.

‘Then I might do that. Also, thank you for letting the captain sleep in your bed last night.’

‘Don’t thank me. I was surprised he didn’t sleep in yours.’

He strained so much to sound civil – it would have amused me in any other situation.

‘You really do think I’m a whore, don’t you?’

He started from my unexpected bluntness.

‘Well – I wouldn’t say – the captain – ‘

‘We’re merely friends who have not seen each other for years. Are you so shocked by that?’

I had given him enough time to compose himself during my reply.

‘You are too naive, Miss Heinlein. Please, you’re on a boat full of men. Be wise.’

‘Laneham has behaved like a perfect gentleman to me. I trust he won’t let me come to harm.’

‘You’re in no danger from me, I assure you.’

This topic was making me sick.

‘And what if Miss Eynham had come on board instead of me?’

He snorted and turned back to the crates.

‘Oh please, no man would touch that witch.’

The next thing I knew I was being pulled off him by two pairs of strong arms as I shouted obscenities at Mr Bainbridge. My blows had nearly knocked him to the floor. He straightened and felt the back of his head, before speaking to one of the people who had come in behind me.

‘Some heifer you have there, captain. I couldn’t even get the beast off of me.’

Laneham walked up to him, but I could barely translate what he said, the rage blinded me so.

What did you do?

Nothing.

Laneham stared him down and Clark got redder and redder in the face.

‘Some brotherly loyalty, this!’ he finally exclaimed. ‘Immediately choosing her side over mine! Have you forgotten me already?’

I know you. You said something against her. He stepped closer, his back to me, and signed so quickly in Clark’s face that I couldn’t catch anything. Clark looked at the ground and I rejoiced that Laneham had once again taken my side; but when he turned to me, I saw the same scolding look directed at me as well.

Go, was all he signed, and I shook off the arms holding me, glaring at the man who had restrained me, and walked away holding my head high, though inwardly I felt as if I had been punched as well.

I spent the rest of the afternoon doing laundry. Wringing the water and the ache it gave my arms were both satisfying. I hated everything. I wished I was back with Isabel. I wanted her embrace and her kiss more than anything else.

 

I skipped dinner so Laneham brought it to me instead. Before he left, he sat next to me and told me not to let Clark annoy me, and again not to worry about the men on board.

‘I want to go home,’ I said quietly.

He squeezed my hand and repeated that I could leave at the next port, which we would reach the day after tomorrow, but added that he wished I would stay.

‘Do you really? I’m just causing trouble for you!’

But I want you here yet.

‘Why?’

He didn’t say anything. I couldn’t resist questioning him more – he brought out the child in me, the honest, open, petulant child I had been with him.

‘Why were you so angry at me earlier?’

His brow clouded as I had seen it do only once before, the previous night. I guessed the reason before he pointed to the name on his letter.

Isabel Eynham.

 

The next day was more laundry. I only saw a few of the crew as they came in to take some and give some more. Some tried to thank me but I ignored them all. I sang songs to myself to occupy my thoughts. I didn’t see Clark at all and was grateful for it.

 

When Laneham came to his room that evening, I was sitting in my bloomers and one of his shirts while my dress was drying. I remembered when he had first come to my family and had seemed just as ridiculous, with the sleeves past my hands and collar sloping to one side of my neck and making the entire piece off-centre. He hesitated when he saw me like that, and I was aware that I should cover myself up and tell him to leave but I was lonely and – compared to how naked Isabel and Harriet had seen me! – I was covered enough, so I beckoned him in to talk. He sat down on the bed and kept his eyes resolutely on my face.

Talk at me, he said. Tell me what has happened since then.

We sat on the bed together, eventually moving to lying down, and I talked and talked and grew more confident and animated with time, telling him first quietly about my parents and our ship sinking, then describing each of the girls on the Endeavour, and their lives, and relations, and when I stole Jane’s underwear I laughed at the memory and he smiled and gripped my hand, and finally how Jane left and everything up until I was taken on board. I trailed off. He signed something.

You are very loyal to Miss Eynham?

He added in the sign which indicated a question at the end.

‘Wh-what do you mean?’

Clark insulted you but you only attacked when he insulted her.

I was embarrassed that I had been so obvious, too embarrassed to reply at first.

‘She’s very good to me. We’re…we are close.’

I avoided his gaze, and only looked at him again when he touched my shoulder gently with his hand. He locked his eyes on mine as he signed.

I’ll be good to you. I want us to be close again. Please, stay.

His expression was so earnest. I felt – for the first time since I followed him – that my head was clear enough to finally stand back, and look at him, take all of him in. He had changed, but not too much. He smelled of work and sweat, and he was so grown, so muscled and strong, compared to that skinny frightened boy. Underneath his commanding attitude, his contempt for Isabel, and that burst of violence I had seen, there was still the gentle boy I’d loved, I knew it, but years of men and river feuding had buried him. I wanted him back – I had always wanted him back, and now he was here I would cry if I could not get him back. How could I leave him, after all this time apart, without finding him again?

I relented. I agreed to stay on the Sunrise after port the next day.

Written by G.J.

05/08/2012 at 6:29 pm

Savage Writing: Sun-kissed.

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Wednesday updates may be a little spotty for the next few weeks while I write up my dissertation. Riverboats will continue as normal.

This was the 250 word challenge for the Leeds Savage book that we’ll be publishing soon. (The other pieces I submitted for the book were this, this and this). I decided to do something a little different from normal, and realised it’d be good to put here now considering my past 7 updates have all been in first person perspective and this is skewing my image. I’m really a traditional third-person past kind of writer, but I think third person present and second person are underrated for their immediacy and impact.

 

You’ve never understood the term ‘sun-kissed.’ For you, the sun has two settings: ‘on’ and ‘off.’ ‘Off’ is the natural state: entire weeks smothered under a dome of cloud, whether there’s rain or none. ‘On,’ however, is far worse. ‘On’ is burning. ‘On’ is sweat and smell and discomfort, and the reminder that you will never be a story-book person who is immune to these things, but are doomed to your sticky, mortal unattractiveness. ‘On’ is exposure, being forced to strip to baser layers and show your white-and-purple pimpled flesh. ‘On’ is mass exhibitionism and mass judgement, hating every beautiful girl and non-beautiful girl and every topless and non-topless man, and sure you’re hated in turn. ‘On’ is glare on your screen and the nagging feeling that you should go out, because You Should, but you have no reason to, so you sit and struggle with You Should and the glare all day.

But one day, perhaps, you are restless. You have some spare change, and you’re low on milk, and the sun looks ‘On’ but you need milk and need to move and you can’t see your screen anyway.

Then you step outside and it is not ‘On.’ The temperature wraps around you like a baby’s blanket. There is no harshness or unkindness in the air. The rays touch your arms and your face gently, like a mother, and it is as if the world is hugging you, and saying, ‘It’s okay.’

You sigh as you finally understand: sun-kissed.

Written by G.J.

02/08/2012 at 4:01 am