He watched her trail her fingers in the water. Miss Emily Laughton loved the river. Every time she took her weekly trip to town she spent half the ride staring at or playing with the water. This week she’d needed apples for a pie she was baking for the church luncheon on Sunday. Every month the pastor held a luncheon and all the ladies brought their best dishes. Miss Laughton’s specialty was apple pie.
She’d returned to the boat and woken him from his nap in the early afternoon. Her basket had been so full he’d needed to hand it to her after she’d embarked. Her countenance had been jovial and she’d chattered animatedly for a time about how she’d managed to bargain old Mrs. Almassy down to 6 pence a dozen from her original 8. Quite the victory she thought since it meant the whole basket had only cost her 18 pence. He smiled idly as he watched her. She was a happy lass with a kind, gentle disposition, prone to laughter and joy over the simplest of things.
His own wife of five years, god rest her soul, had been of a similar nature. When the coughing had taken her from him he’d thought he’d never smile again. But watching Miss Emily brought lightness to his heart. So like his dear Amelia she was that if he closed his eyes he could almost imagine Amelia was with him again.
He looked up and met her pretty brown eyes beneath the simple straw hat and unruly copper curls.
“How did you come to work on the river, to be here?”
No one had ever asked him that before. Amelia had known of course, but they’d grown up together, scrounging in the waterways and backstreets of London for scraps and dropped coins. No one else had ever bothered to wonder where he’d come from or how he’d gotten there. Miss Emily tilted her head to one side.
He cleared his throat and pushed the boat away from a clump of flotsam.
“Well Miss, it isn’t a pretty tale. Not really fit for the ears of a young lady.”
She chuckled and sat up casually wiping her damp fingers on her snowy white apron.
“I’m sure it’s far more interesting than what’s deemed appropriate for my ears.”
“Unless of course the telling pains you? In which case I’m sorry I asked.”
“It doesn’t make for good conversation, Miss.”
“Do let me judge that Mr. Fletcher.”
He nodded solemnly, memories of the dark nights he and Amelia had spent under docks and hiding inside barrels welled up in his mind. He hadn’t talked about this to a soul since Amelia’s passing. She’d been the only soul to know, to care. They’d lived it together.
“As you wish. The river isn’t always kind or lovely. My own tale is even less so. I came from London. Did you know that?”
She shook her head. It was not surprising. So much about him and Amelia had been ignored when they’d moved here. In many ways the lack of curiosity had been a right blessing.
“Well, Amelia and I, we grew up on the streets see. The river, well it stank and ye didn’t dare to drink it, but it was more alive than the sorry lot we saw in the alleys.”
He glanced back at her to gauge her reaction. She was watching him with rapt attention. He looked back at the river as he guided the boat and continued.
“It was a hard life, Amelia pretended to be a boy to avoid the worst types of folk. We stuck together since we were kids ye see, children alone don’t last long there.”
“How terrible. What happened to your families?”
He frowned and looked down at his hands on the oars. Big hands, like his father’s, strong and sure. His mother’s despairing scream and the letter she’d cast at the fire in hopelessness. The horrid words written there that had spelled the end of life as he knew it.
“They died Miss, when I was nearly 8. Amelia’s family took me in, but they ran afoul of some of the gangs and well…”
The memory of that night, the animal screams of the family as the gang had descended on them. Amelia’s oldest sister dragging the two of them from their beds and screaming at them to run as she bundled them out the window. Her shriek as she was dragged back inside by dirty fingers. He closed his eyes against the horror, the terror of those memories. A soft hand covered his and he opened his eyes.
“I’m sorry Mr. Fletcher. I didn’t mean to bring up painful memories.”
He cleared his throat and took several strokes with the oars before responding.
“I’m just not used to speaking of it. Some memories are best avoided. We fled London when folk started noticing than Amelia was a girl. Too much danger on those streets for a young woman with only me for protection.”
More long soothing strokes with the oars, she watched him in silence. One slender finger idly tracing the weave of her basket as she waited.
“We got ourselves work on board one of the small boats that comes further inland. At the last stop we jumped ship with our wages and headed north. I worked for a spell as a dock hand in a town while we used our pitiful savings to rent space in a barn. Amelia was still disguised as a boy but she was far too pretty to go unnoticed for long. After about a month a few of the young fellows got curious about my pretty brother.”
Her eyes widened in alarm.
“Aye. It weren’t pretty. It was five to one and they thumped me good. Thankfully the scuffle attracted attention and they took off when the stable master showed. He patched me up and sent us on our way, with admonishments that it would be better if I were to make her my wife.”
“You always seemed so much in love…”
Her words were soft and he smiled crookedly.
“Oh aye. We were eventually, in the beginning though it was terribly hard. We were like siblings after all, but eventually that gave way to real love about a year before we settled here. Afore that I’d gotten many jobs working the river for merchants and the like. Eventually I’d saved us enough to settle down and for me to take up an honest trade.”
“Oh Amelia loved it here. She was ever so fond of the farmland and the peacefulness. So I bought us the cottage and started my river business. Wasn’t easy, but we had a good life together. The river was a life-giver for us I suppose.”
What a strange conversation to have after so many years. A part of him was infinitely grateful to her for asking the question. The pain, and sorrow, while still vivid after nearly five and twenty years was relieved some by the telling.
Miss Emily interrupted his thoughts as the boat bumped against the dock.
“Thank you for telling me.”
He nodded absently as he tied off the boat to allow her to disembark.
“Thank you for listening Miss Emily. It’s been a long while since anyone took an interest in me or my story.”
She smiled and took his offered hand to climb from the boat. He handed her the basket of apples and turned to untie the boat from its mooring. Bracing his feet he made ready to shove off from the dock and head home for the day. He needed to visit Amelia and tell her about his conversation with Emily. Were she with him still she’d find it quite charming that the young lady had taken an interest after so many years of going unnoticed by the locals. Besides, she could use some new daisies and roses from the garden, they’d always been her favorites.
Miss Emily held a single apple in her outstretched hand. He looked up into her angelic face lit by a soft smile.
“Don’t forget to come by the church on Sunday. I’ll be saving you a piece of the pie.”