Friday, February 12, 2010

The Last Night of the Emily Rose - Part 1

The Last Night of the Emily Rose


For Rolf ~ Happy Christmas darling {}

by Ranger

22nd December 1838
The little white cottage on the bank was half lost in the fog that rose from the canal. Only the lantern hung above the door was clearly visible from where Daniel sat, his arms wrapped around his knees, the fog slowly dampening his shirt against his shoulders and back in a clammy chill like a ghost's hand against his skin. It did nothing for his temper.
Inside the cottage it would be warm, with the fire flickering light off the red brick walls and the kitchen filled with the smell of baking, but perversely Daniel was glad to be sat outside in the cold and dark and the fog, with nothing but the crisp smell of the water in his nose to chase away the scent of fresh bread. Bread made by Maria, who had no place in the cottage.

"And no more have you." Maria had said briskly when he had lost his temper and told her as much this afternoon. "A great lad your age should be married – or living in town, working for a living. It's disgraceful."
"Leave the lad alone," Daniel's step father had said heavily from his chair, "He works well here and he earns his keep."
But Maria had only looked and sniffed and carried on baking in a way that made Daniel determined to starve rather than sit in front of a plate she filled. If it was easy to leave a house where one was not wanted, he would be gone tonight – as he had reached the point of going a dozen times in the last months alone. He certainly was entirely too old to be living with a man who was kin only by marriage, although James Pytchley was a decent soul whom Daniel respected if not actually was fond of. Save that he and James Pytchley had run the white lock keeper's cottage in detatchedly uncommunicative but peaceable co operation since Daniel was a child, and James Pytchley had no one else, and had mentioned no one else, until his sister Maria had climbed down from the carrier's cart in Weedon Bec with her basket of belongings and taken possession of the kitchen.
She had been a housekeeper somewhere in Banbury- Daniel pitied the family of the house she kept, having seen Maria's savage ways with dust and order, despite her excellent cooking. And now they had gone abroad and Maria was in want of another position and until she found one intended to keep house for her brother. But the peace of the cottage was shattered, and she only looked at Daniel with pointed nosed disgust like a rat with spectacles, sniffed and turned away as though he were a grease spot she could not polish away. And James would say nothing. He only hunched his shoulders still further, closed his mouth and kept on working.
The lantern of a narrowboat came into view around the bend of the canal, moving silently through the fog. The water and the boats made no sound, they moved like ghosts when the weather was still. A moment later Daniel heard the soft steps of the shirehorse on the bank, and the creak of someone leaning on the heavy lock gate to open it for the boat. They were working late. It was not unknown for boats to run through the night, but most of the trade boats were now moored outside the pubs further up the canal at Weedon and the crews would start again at five in the morning, taking their loads through to London or to Birmingham. Daniel, who had lived on the canal all his life had never seen either place, or been further from home than Daventry, all of eight miles from the village. The horse whickered in the darkness, its shambling footsteps halting which meant the boat was in the lock. The gates creaked as someone closed them, then there was the rapid and noisy clatter of the lock key being wound and the sudden gush of water as the water level in the lock began to drop.  

Maybe there was work in Daventry. Or the farms in the next villages. Maybe someone would pay bed and board for a hired man. Who could do nothing. A sullen, gangly, tongue tied boy who hated company, who hated the other youngsters in the village of his age and always had done, who didn't catch the eye of any of the few girls in the village although none of them would have given him a second glance. Emma Dunkley's boy, the gossip ran in the village. We all know what SHE did and we all know what blood's in HIM. And brave James Pytchley, keeping another man's bastard instead of sending the boy to Weedon Bec workhouse where he belonged.
The water was beginning to pour more slowly, a sign that the waterlevels were nearly equalised, and Daniel waited for the sound of the gates creaking open. He was still waiting when he heard the shockingly loud grate of metal on stone, a man's voice abruptly raise in a scream and another man's voice shout from the direction of the lock.

Daniel was up on his feet and running before his eyes had picked out where he was going, but he had played on these banks all his life and he knew exactly where to step. Scrambling the steep bank around the side of the cottage he climbed onto the lock gate and crossed the canal, looking down into the lock itself where the boat was only a few feet below the wall, the lantern light filling the stone and water pit. He recognised the boat immediately; he knew it well. The Emily Rose and her two man crew. The old man was bent in the rear deck of the boat and the tall, wide shouldered young man was standing with an arm around him, his face heavily shadowed and his thick hair hanging in his eyes. Daniel still recognised him instantly with the same rush of shock and confusion that always struck at the sight of that face. Jonah Ballard.

He was supporting the old man and took no notice of Daniel stepping down to the roof of the barge and finding their snatcher rope before he climbed back to the canal side and hauling with his full weight manhandled the barge to the side where he tied it and moved to open the lock key still further to raise the barge the last few feet. It seemed to take forever for the last of the water to gush through and the barge rose an inch at a time until the deck was level with the canal side. The old man was clutching his arm and Daniel knew what had happened without asking. In the dark where it was impossible to see the lock walls it was easily done. An incautious hand on the side, a sway of a loaded barge against the lock wall and fingers were crushed, arms broken. The lock keeper's cottage door opened and James Pytchley took the lantern from the doorway, carrying it with him across to the lock. Daniel tied off the boat close against the canal side and stepped down into the Emily Rose, collecting their boat lantern from the foredeck. The old man was shaking all over and the hand he was clutching was shining with blood in the lamplight. The young man steadying him looked white in the face and it took a sharp pull from Daniel before he let his grandfather go and allowed Daniel to manhandle him up onto the lockside where James Pytchley took him. He lifted the lamp to see better as Maria came out of the cottage with a blanket, calling sharply to bring the man inside at once and shut the door against the cold, then nodded to Daniel.
"Bring the doctor."
"We can't pay." Jonah Ballard said hoarsely from the boat. "We've got the toll and that's all."
James Pytchley grunted.
"Well there's t'nurse at Stoke Bruerne, she'll help boat folk for free, but you'll not get that far with a crushed hand and bleeding. Best get the doctor and you can pay when you've delivered your load."

Jonah didn't answer. Daniel stepped around the old man that Maria was wrapping in the blanket and climbed from the canal side to the bridge and the road, following it into the village. A minute later he heard the ring of boots on the frosty and compacted earth and looked around to see Jonah catch him up, his face grim and silent. And despite himself Daniel swallowed hard on a lift in his stomach. He had never expected to be walking anywhere with Jonah Ballard.
They walked swiftly and in silence into the village and across the green to the cottage where Daniel banged hard at the cast iron knocker on the red door. The doctor himself answered, took one look at Daniel and picked up his coat and bag.
"What is it?"
"My grandfather." Jonah said shortly. "Crushed his hand in the lock, it's bleeding badly, but we can't pay you now."

"Boat folk." The doctor shut the door and strode across the green with Daniel, leaving Jonah to follow. "You're not the first and you won't be the last, and you'll be paid when you deliver your load, that'll be soon enough for me. What are you hauling?"
"Apple logs and green." Jonah had to lengthen his stride to keep up and his deep voice for the first time sounded a little breathless. "From the farms at Everdon for the Christmas markets."

"So you're needing to get to London for Christmas Eve." The doctor remarked. "That why you're running through the night?"
"We needed the pay."
It wasn't unusual. Most of the boat people lived hand to mouth, paid from delivery to delivery as the boats moved up and down the Grand Union canal from Birmingham to London , and every couple of weeks for years the Ballard boat had passed through the lock on its way up or down, under the hands of Jonah and his grandfather. They had reached the lock keeper's cottage and the doctor went in without knocking, going through to the small parlour where the lights were bright and Daniel could hear the voices of James and Maria Pytchley. Jonah didn't follow. In the firelight of the kitchen he was stooping slightly to keep his head from the low beams and he was shivering slightly despite the heavy felt jacket that all the boatmen wore.  Daniel latched the kitchen door and went to the fire where the kettle stood, filling one of the china cups with strong and bitter tea. Jonah took the cup that was thrust at him with faint surprise, but he meekly sat down on one of the benches at the kitchen table and sipped.
He seemed still bigger in the confines of the kitchen: Daniel had been aware since he first began to take notice some years ago that Jonah was tall, although he was not heavily built. More long-boned, with long limbs and wide shoulders and ash fair hair under the cap he had forgotten to take off.
"Fen tigers." James Pytchley had said once to Daniel in one of his rare moments of garrulousness, nodding at Jonah and his grandfather as their boat moved out of the lock and on towards London. Despite his white hair Jonah's grandfather was built in just the same way

"Old Cambridgeshire blood from the marsh fens. Tall. Fair. Saxon blood. The fenmen threw out the Normans when the rest of England was invaded, fiercest fighting men in the south. Hard as nails." 
Daniel had never looked at Jonah since without hearing the words 'fen tiger' in his head. He had never in his life seen a tiger – or even a picture of a tiger- but it seemed entirely right that Jonah should be connected to so an exotic and powerful animal. In dreams he would not have mentioned out loud under torture, Jonah prowled with his long, powerful hands and quiet voice, still more tiger like than he was in the brief glimpses Daniel caught of him week to week as the boat went through the lock. Jonah had often given him his slow, incendiary smile that made his eyes light up and lit Daniel up quite as badly. If Daniel went down to open the locks, as he did if he saw the boat coming, Jonah would come to help him and say something cheerful about the weather or the day without minding that Daniel was too entirely tongue tied to do anything more than scowl in confusion and operate the locks. And then Jonah would drop back down onto the boat and it would glide away down the bend in the lock and out of sight for another few days.
And now here was Jonah sitting in the kitchen, with his long elbows propped on his knees, cradling one of their china cups in his big hands, with his face as white as paper.
Daniel hovered by the stove, throat drier than paper, unable to look across the room in terror of blushing and with no idea what to say. James Pytchley came out of the parlour, saw what Jonah was drinking and grunted, going to pull a bottle from a cupboard.
"Put some of that in it lad, you need more than tea. The doctor says he's got fingers broken, nothing that won't mend. He won't be taking that boat anywhere tonight though."
Jonah watched the slop of the amber fluid into his tea without expression.
"We have to have the boat in Camden by dawn Christmas Eve. If it doesn't make the Christmas market it won't sell."

"Whose load is it?" James Pytchley asked with some gruff sympathy, slopping brandy into his own cup and sitting down at the kitchen table. "Drink that down lad, you're shaking."

Jonah took an automatic swallow. "From the farms at Everdon. There's money owing to them. And to us if we don't make the run."

"You'll make it up after Christmas," James Pytchley began, but Jonah shook his head.
"This was our last run, the boat's being sold. She's going to Weedon wharf for selling on St Stephen's day, we can't afford the rent on her now. Grandad's hands are too stiff to handle her and I can't run the boat fast enough on my own – we need to make two trips a week at least to pay for her, and now we're barely making one."
"He arthritic?" James said with pity, nodding at the parlour. Jonah took another gulp of tea.
"Both hands. Worse when he's cold. He can't hold a rope now- most likely how he got his hand trapped tonight. I warned and warned him-"

"Can't tell any old man anything." James said with rough comfort. "What will you and he do when the boat's gone?"
"I can find work enough to keep his cottage." Jonah said with an effort, still looking into the mug. "Although the rent's long behind. We've made only one run a week for near two months now, and with the tolls that's bare enough to break even. What will you do with him tonight? Where can I take him from here?"
"He'll stay here with us." James said with grim decision. "The doctor won't have him moved, and I'm the lock keeper – responsible for what goes on in my lock. It'll be a day or two before you'll be able to take him anywhere, shock gets bad in an old man."

Jonah drained the cup and got to his feet, ducking automatically as his head came too near the beams.
"Then I'll thank you and I'll take the boat on myself. I'll be back by morning on St Stephen's day, I'll pay you and the doctor then and take him back with me to Weedon."
"You won't owe us anything, I'm paid to keep the lock." James said matter of factly. "Can you manage that narrowboat alone?"
"I'll try." Jonah said grimly. "Better than not trying and no hope of pay at all."

Daniel took a breath, trying to open his throat wide enough to speak. He was shocked by James taking the words directly from his mouth.
"Dan'll go with you."

Jonah looked directly at Daniel and Daniel felt his face go scarlet, and not from the heat of the fire.
"Can you handle a boat?"
"He's been handling them all his life." James answered when Daniel didn't. "He's a good lad. And for a chance to see London he won't ask for paying."
Paid? To step on a boat with Jonah Ballard? To leave the cottage even for a night and see the canal all its way to London ? Daniel shook his head hard. James gave him a brief glance of exasperation and jerked his head at the stairs.
"Get what you need then lad and be quick. Doesn't say much," Daniel heard him add to Jonah, "But he's at least got SOME sense in there."

Yes. A little. In the parts of him not entirely preoccupied with Jonah. Daniel ran up the stairs to the attic room he'd slept in for as long as he remembered, grabbed jacket and cap and a dry shirt. There was little else of use to take. Jonah was standing waiting in the kitchen doorway and he opened the door as Daniel came down.
"I'm grateful Master Pytchley –"

"Get on." James interrupted shortly. "The pair of you, you're wasting time. If you're safe to handle that boat with brandy inside you."

Jonah looked at him blankly, pausing in the doorway. "I'm teetotal – we both are."

Most of the boatfolk tended to one extreme or the other. James Pytchley stifled a grin and pushed the young man out of the door.
"Medicine for shock, that was all you had son. Go safely."

And nothing more than that was said. Daniel buttoned his coat and followed Jonah's rapid stride down the tow path to where the big shire horse was waiting patiently, tow rope stretching back to the Emily Rose still roped in the lock. Without comment Jonah went to open the lock gates and Daniel to unrope the snatcher from the lock side. The boat immediately began to drift free, and Daniel stepped swiftly from the lock down onto the gunwale of the boat as it began to move. Jonah clicked to the horse, stepping down from the lock gate onto the rear deck to take the tiller. The horse began to pace quietly onwards down the tow path, and for the first time in his life Daniel watched the dark banks and the little cottage by the lock slide away out of sight behind him.
Continue on to Part 2 of The Last Night of the Emily Rose
 Copyright Ranger 2010

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