BANKSIDE MORNING

 

The Thames wasn’t offering up any answers as Edward turned from the window. His collar cut into his throat like a blade. ‘Not too much starch,’ he had told Mrs Lanegan a dozen times. She never listened.

He knew it gave her satisfaction to hold all the power in domestic matters, now that only he remained in the house. He would never match up to his father, not in her eyes.

He closed the clasps on his bag and lifted it off the floor. It was heavier than he had thought.

One final look at the study made Edward see it somehow as a stranger would. An array of melancholy items revealed themselves: the large seafaring compass his father had given him, which he had never used; the chart of Thames tides he had never bothered to learn. A room full of accusing fingers.

He stepped on to the landing, resisting the urge to enter his bedchamber. It had been his sanctuary all this time, his shelter from the world outside. It whispered to him softly now, but he made himself walk past without a glance.

Coming down the stairs, he saw her standing at the bottom like a gargoyle.

‘Mrs Lanegan.’

‘Master Edward. I trust you had a pleasant night’s sleep?’

Why did her questions always sound vaguely threatening?

‘Very good, thank you,’ said Edward. ‘I’ll be taking a stroll now.’

‘A stroll. I see. Very good, Master Edward.’ Her eyes fell subtly to the bag by his side as he descended. She said nothing and slowly walked off towards the kitchen.

Edward placed a palm on the round wooden block that marked the end of the banister. His pale hand had grown to cover its circumference over the years. The chips and dents on its surface told the story of the house; all the unspoken emotions had seeped into the oak, making it mottled and dark.

He opened the front door swiftly, before fear and comfort could tempt him back upstairs. Just before he closed it he sensed the hunched frame of Mrs Lanegan at the dark edge of the hallway, standing halfway out of the kitchen.

Outside, the vinegar stink from the sewers assaulted his eyes and nose. Children were shouting nearby, and market traders bleated their wares into the chill air. ‘Here, gimme that ball back!’ ‘Get yer pike, yer haddock, yer cockles!’

Rather than walk down the main street and encounter people who might ask where he was going, Edward squeezed through the narrow passage that separated the house from the coal merchants next door.

The networks of alleyways behind the buildings were like tributaries of the river, flowing off into unknown streets. He used to race along these dirty tracks as a child, having escaped the clutches of Mrs Lanegan for a few minutes, muddy faced and happy, running at full speed towards nothing in particular. That was what he missed most – having nothing to plan, no heated arguments in council meetings, no tussling about the rights of the watermen who worked on the Thames.

His father had been a waterman and knew the struggle of trying to scrape out a living. But as soon as his father had started his own business, he became The Enemy. Watermen constantly hounded him to improve their pay and conditions, but he displayed little sympathy – it was as if all memory of hardship had been washed from his brain by the silt water.

And now Edward did his father’s business: he’d had no choice but to take it on after the funeral. The family name had been pulled up from the muddy banks, and it was Edward’s duty to keep it afloat. He was The Enemy now: a role in which he felt sublimely miscast.

‘Eddie lad!’ Edward turned to see Big Kate barrelling towards him. She was heaving a large basket of fish. You could always smell the sea off Big Kate. She ran The Anchor by the docks with an iron fist in an iron glove, so Edward had been told; he had never felt able to socialise with the watermen and find out firsthand. Tough men drank at The Anchor, but Big Kate could reduce any of them to scraps for the dog in an instant.

‘Don’t see you this side of the house offen, Eddie lad.’ No one else dared call him Eddie to his face, even though to many he was still that scruffy faced boy who had never quite managed to fit in.

‘Few errands to run, Mrs Carter. Lovely morning.’ He looked up at the weak sunlight picking its way through the wood-smoked air.

‘Errands is it? You’ll have to fire that Mrs Lanegan if she doesn’t get off her fat arse!’ She rubbed the growth on her cheek as she laughed. Her whole body shook.

Edward’s mouth twitched as laughter bubbled up inside him, but he knew he could never say out loud what he thought of Mrs Lanegan. When he glanced up, Big Kate was watching the uncomfortable look on his face with amusement.

‘What’s in the bag?’ she asked.

‘Just papers.’

‘Looks heavy.’

‘And some books. Big books.’

‘Books is it? Well, books ain’t my business. Though they do for toilet paper if we run out!’

She set off down the alley, still laughing to herself.

Edward knew she was suspicious, and wouldn’t be able to resist gossiping about him as soon as she got back behind the bar. ‘Errands, he says. Whatever could they be that the old trout couldn’t do for him? He’ll have secrets, I shouldn’t wonder, that she knows nothing about.’ Some drunken halfwit perched on a bar stool would no doubt nod and burp agreement.

***

The bag was getting heavier in his hand as he entered the graveyard. His parents’ headstones lay side by side, like two stiff figures sitting for a portrait.

He gripped the top of his mother’s headstone. He always felt it speak to him. On warm summer afternoons it would say leave this place, make your mark on the world; on cold winter mornings it would urge him to stay indoors and carry on coping quietly, in the family tradition.

On this spring morning, it was difficult to decipher what was being said, as if it couldn’t make up its mind. Or its advice was no longer required.

He looked over to his father’s headstone. It never spoke to him at all. At least the old man’s consistent, Edward thought bitterly. I’ll give him that.

A tired-looking old gentleman entered the graveyard and made his way falteringly to the paupers’ graves in the corner by the oak tree. Edward left the man to his pilgrimage.

***

Edward switched the heavy burden of the bag to his other hand so he could open the small gate leading from Mutton Lane to the quay. The water was calling him.

The quay was bustling with men. Crates and sacks were being lifted, link chains of iron hauled towards barges. Hoarse shouts filled the air like herons: black curses about the weights being moved, zealous young watermen advertising for trade. The older men showed less zeal, simply wanting to reach the end of the day with some jangling coins in the pocket to spend in The Anchor or The Half Moon.

Edward couldn’t deny the bustle of life that swirled around him, but he always felt like its still centre. He could never let himself go and be caught up in the dance.

It was obvious the men had noticed their employer’s arrival: some quickened their paces, others shouted even louder. Some glanced and smiled to each other – a secret language of dissent and ridicule.

He spoke to no one as he entered the quay’s central square. His watch showed ten o’clock. He knew the men were looking at the bag and contemplating its contents: too big to be holding his usual invoices and ferry logs. It could have held two cannonballs, judging by the way his slender frame was lopsided by its bulk.

Edward made his way to the water’s edge and placed his burden on the ground. The Thames was pulsing as fast as his heart. He watched the ripples form and disappear on its surface, always flowing, changing, moving on.

After what seemed like an age, he looked down to the bag and picked it up. It was time to do this, the water was telling him to. He straightened his back, gripped the handle tight and took a sharp breath of air into his lungs.

Then he turned and looked towards the far corner of the square by the coal warehouse. A coachman stood there, waiting for his first fare of the day. His horse was snorting hot breath from wet nostrils, its hoof scraping the cobbles impatiently, wanting to move.

Edward walked back across the quay, the men’s eyes like little arrows piercing his skin. He dropped the bag in the centre of the square and kept walking. The men glanced over their shoulders as they lifted crates and rolled barrels. Edward could almost hear their thoughts as he walked towards the coach. What’s he doing? Why has he left the bag?

He nodded to the coachman and stepped into the carriage. With a crack of the whip they were away across the cobbles. When the coach was out of sight, Edward knew one of the men would venture to open the bag. The man’s jaw would fall as he saw the money, all of it, bar the small wad in Edward’s inside pocket and the envelope he had left on the desk in his study, the words ‘Mrs Lanegan – for everything’ written in a trembling hand on the front.

How the men shared it out was up to them. It was theirs now.

As Edward bobbed on the hard seat, he looked out of the side window. The water sparkled up from the bank, lighting the inside of the carriage like candles.

A young boy with a ball came rushing past the other way and was gone, on his way towards nothing in particular. Edward permitted himself a smile as the coach clattered its way out of the city, out of everything, into the crisp morning beyond.

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