Swylce

Musings and Writing of GG Alexander

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.

 

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Written by G.J.

12/08/2012 at 7:04 pm

Posted in Riverboats

Tagged with , , , ,

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