The eerie quietness was more than expressed
that morning, when we woke very early to pack our most important belongings
into two leather trunks.
We were leaving home.
A soft word that had that familiarity to it that could not be replaced by any other common word. A word attached to the communality of safety and love, though love had not been present in this house for years. Tortured silence echoed through the halls. It made them sacred and untouchable like the cloister corridors of a monastery. And maybe that's what it was. A shrine to the ones lost. My sister, Emily, and I both knew that we would miss this old museum of a house. Stuck in a time long before we had claimed our first breaths. Not for the appreciation of art, but for lack of money. Though the former was the most popular excuse. Modernity had not spread to this household and the wealth of industrialisation was even further off.
I turned to my sister, taking in her youth and her naïveté. What made her the child she was, so wrapped in the blankets of societal security and well-cushioned homestead. Both being taken for granted by her. And she put on a brave smile for me in return. I knew it was hard for her, a fifteen year-old, going to Australia. It had its advantages and disadvantages, but for now we had to look past the latter. We would have to adapt to a new lifestyle.
To the changes. Though most would be unbearable. For her not for me, normal rules did not seem to apply to my little sister, she was not as adaptable as most her age. She was a Cancer by birth. Her comfort centred on routine, and of course she had a soft spot for the house that nursed her simple, child-like beliefs and provided her with the security of a child that still had her parents.
"Em, you'll like it there; it's warm and dry all year around, and if you're lucky, which you're known to be, you can help me with my work!" I chuckled as she scowled at the thought of paperwork and important meetings, her expression darkening even more when she realised I was teasing her.
"Forgive me." I smiled. She ignored it completely.
"Will we see the inmates?" she asked, her expression brightening, eyes glowing with anticipation. She had not had a lot of contact to the gruesome of the world, being cut off from the East End and living in a small, but respectable townhouse. They would have torn her apart.
"Of course!" I winked whimsically at her, she responded with an approving smile.
"Pass me your bag." I gestured towards her trunk but she took no notice of it and sat down, looking around one last time.
I was about to reach for the bag myself when she sprang up, walked towards the fireplace and picked up the photograph on the mantelpiece.
Our only family photograph.
She sat down and touched our parent's faces and then mine, studying them, our expressions, as she had done so many times before; the loving faces of our parents and my bright eyes; my sister's scowl for not getting that certain porcelain doll. It made me laugh every time I looked at it, but it also reminded me of the time that had passed since this photo was taken. A decade had come and gone since the fire that took our parents. A decade and still the thought of it hurt my head and stung my eyes, bringing forth tears.
They had said 'goodbye' one last time before they left.
I longed then, for my father to waltz through the door and ask if we were all set, with a twinkle in his eye, ready for an adventure. I wanted my mother to come in and kiss me on the forehead and wish us well and send us off with good luck. I wanted them to smile at me again, to tell me I was doing the right thing and that I was doing well. But of course that was never going to happen.
I could wish as hard as I could.
Oh it wasn't as if they were the best parents in the world. No, far from it. My father was often drunk and took to tarts regularly. Always the same ones too, I knew them by name for one reason and one reason only. I prayed my heart out for them every night, wishing them a better life and a more suitable fate. Poor Bonnie and Lucinda, occasionally Grace. All very young, beautiful women at the time. Aged around 16, 17. They should have been reserved for youths like me, instead they had been pushed out of the working class families as useless girls and been taken in by a woman called Missus Bertha Tribble; a middle-aged widow who lacked attractive features and satisfied herself in collecting girls and making money by exploiting theirs. And now they were being assaulted, daily, by 40 year old bastards like my father. It was an awful business. I couldn't stand what was being done to the misfortunate girls but my father thought otherwise. He believed that visiting them twice or thrice a week would support them financially, wherefore he decided when I was to turn 18, he would take me to a whorehouse. He claimed it was so that I too could learn to aid the lower classes.
And to my horror, to me was presented a young girl, possibly 13 years of age to do with as I pleased. I refused absolutely but then decided to appease my father. I would not violate this child, but if I could stop someone else doing so for an hour, maybe I could contribute to her welfare that way. I stayed with her and we conversed. At first she was frightened, but soon she was telling me of her little brother Tommy, who was stuck at the orphanage. Feeling sympathy for her, I relieved myself of a shilling for her troubles, so that she could save him in a shorter span of time. And that was the reality of my father, the one my mother had so suffered under. Brandy had kept her alive the last few years of her short life. There's a fine line between cure and poison. She had crossed it regularly. The poor woman that she was, tortured by her husband's infidelity. But grief has a way of washing away a person’s sins leaving behind the love they spread and the right decisions they made, even if the monstrosity of what they were far outweighed their beauty as a person. Our father and mother had loved us both very much. Directing that feeling towards each other was what they had had difficulties with. But it lay in the past.
It felt almost like yesterday when I was asked to leave my class at the boarding school and was led to the principal's office. I had feared that I was in trouble, but the man that was behind the cherry-wood door wasn't the principal, nor was he any other teacher I knew. A man in a black suit with an equally black bow tie and a crisp white shirt with neatly folded and starched collar corners that had neither a crease nor a smudge. A stout stature and red hair are the only bodily features I can remember clearly. His immaculate attire, top hat and all, and his reassuring smile and calm attitude increased my nervousness. I felt my pulse quicken uneasily. Why was I here? I looked at the escort and then back at the man but neither their expressions nor their postures could help me understand what was going on.
The man sat me down and told me calmly that what I was about to hear was going to be a shock to me. His welsh accent was a surprise that quickly subsided when he paused and wanted me to know that I would have to process the following information slowly.
Then he spoke.
My mind stopped working.
I choked on my own words as I stuttered
"I'm so very sorry. My deepest condolences, Mr Ford. It seems the only one who escaped the fire alive was your aunt, Josephine Henrietta Ford, but we do not know of her whereabouts at this time. We have alerted the housekeeper at your estate and they will send for someone to pick you up immediately. As you are an adult and her closest member of kin, you now have full custody of Emily. And the house and all that is in it is entailed on you. James Rufus Horatio Ford." He showed me the will and the line that revealed the inheriting parties.
"The money your parents have left you is to be split up between the both of you evenly. They possessed a total of..."
An endless silence passed as his eyes scanned the page.
I almost threw up then, frantically trying to get up but the man stopped me.
"Please, take a moment to process this information, I know it's hard...there are a few things that we need to work out…" he handed me a sheet to sign: it was the adoption sheet for Emily.
I signed in scrawny letters and handed him the sheet. Then, regardless of his attempts to try and sit me down, I got up and pushed past him, only to stumble towards the door and lose consciousness...
My sister was five years old then. Too young to understand but she still remembered our parents clearly. She just couldn't remember at what point they had disappeared.
She held the photograph close to her chest cradling it before lowering it down into her suitcase, wrapped in clothing. Her eyes found mine and I nodded. She handed over her bag and got up from the red and gold embroidered chair that had once been so dear to mother. Small curls of blonde hair fell into her face as she rifled through her belongings to see if she had forgotten anything. Ice blue eyes glinted in the light of the electric lamps inside as they assessed her own competence prior to this moment. She had skin as fair as her hair but her freckles gave away her personality. In one word, free. Maybe a little precarious.
I took her hand and pulled my sister into my arms. She closed her eyes and I wondered what was awaiting us... Blind chaos?... But we needed to go.
"Come on, love. We'll miss our boat!" I whispered and she nodded as I let her go. Heaving the luggage to the door, I tried to carry the two trunks at once, unsuccessfully. Emily took her own and managed to carry it, or drag it rather, to the closest cab. Its stout driver looked up but shook his head, causing his tattered bowler hat to move out of position; he wasn't on duty yet. Despite the fact that he was not working however, he put aside the newspaper he had been studying and took Emily's bag. I eyed him closely, not trusting him at first. Then, slightly irritated, I remembered. Emily was able to get what she wanted without having to ask for it. And it always caused me to have to watch for her whereabouts and ultimately her wellbeing.
I felt our hopes rise as we approached the next cab driver, so high I feared that they would bump into the signs hanging over the doors, lit up by the orange street lights on these dark streets. I ducked instinctively, only realising my actions when Em was shaking with laughter.
"What on earth are you doing?" she chuckled.
"Winning the lottery." I answered, to which she replied with a laugh and an
“Oh? And what’s the prize?”
“Your sweet, sweet smile. What? It’s oh-so dear to me!” I teased and she boxed my side. Trying to dodge her was not an option. Laughing, we turned our eyes back to the street.
We found a free cab at last and thankfully it was on duty. I gave the first driver tuppence, thanking him and he touched his hat with grubby fingers.
"Thank ye, mister." he smiled appreciatively and left us in the hands of the new driver, clearly a friend of his.
We gave the driver the address in Portsmouth and I helped Emily to get into the hackney cab, following her in. We leant back into the seating and Emily put her head on my shoulder, trying to sleep for the couple of hours we would be in this cab. I closed my eyes too, but only to imagine what it would be like. If it would be the same in Australia as it had been. I saw the towering gates of the prison and the people; the villains and the humourless guards, and the irrational inhabitants that had chosen to move there and make a better life for themselves in the land of chains. Were we part of their group? Were we as irrational, as thoughtless as them? Could we exceed the stereotype of the pioneers that braved the dangers of living in Australia? I thought about it for a second before Emily's even breathing brought me back to the present. Mustn't think too much. I tried to clear my head and closed my eyes once more, this time to try and sleep. It was still very early.
By the time we arrived, Emily was already fully awake again. She had woken halfway into the journey and had decided not to go back to sleep, taking in what was around her. She had marvelled at the little towns and villages and big cities we passed, she had wondered at the animals in the large fruitful pastures. She wasn't too much of a bother, after all, we were in the countryside, Em's favourite place in the world. The little farm houses and cottages that were far from anything, the small hamlets no one had heard of and the calm, natural feeling of familiarity; of home.
I had a strange dream. Something about a piece of paper with a rock on it, slowly sinking, pulling me with it. I couldn’t make out what it was supposed to mean, but I was glad to leave that land of allegories when we arrived in Portsmouth. We got out of the cab and it rocked as we set foot outside. I paid the cabdriver the fare and looked around. It was not crowded; at least people didn’t walk in those unbelievable masses that seemed to flock around each shop and were the biggest danger for a cab driver. No, it wasn't like London, it was a little quieter. There were a few automobiles, more than anywhere else I would guess, even more than in London which isn’t surprising as it would be incredibly hard to drive. That is, if you were able to drive at all. There were, however, quite a few hackney cabs that made their way around town, dropping off people and picking them up. People like me and Emily. People that ran from and to something. People looking for a new life or returning to an old one.
I dug my hands into my pockets and pulled out the tickets for the ship. They were tattered and old. I had bought them months ago and made the mistake of leaving them on the desk in our study. It meant that over the span of time I had held them and pondered. What would it be like? Would I really do this? Would I take Em with me? Thankfully you could still see the figures on it, printed in black ink. It was one of the new steamers we were taking. My hands found my pocket watch and I checked the time; it was 7:43 in the morning. It was Thursday, the 26th day of the 3rd month of 1891. Our ship, the “Aberdeen” was situated by the old Navy Quays, in the Gunwharf Quays. We were early, she would leave at 09:00 sharp, but I felt that we should reach our destination for now in order to avoid stress in the more becoming hours of the day.
I heaved my suitcase along the cobbled streets of this harbour town.
Time seemed ambiguous in this town. It was always half crowded, cold, the overcast sky was always one of the many shades of dirty grey and the pungent odour of fish, rotten food from the weekly markets, sewage and smoke always graced the people with its presence, be they locals or foreigners. The only independent factor was the light source; whether it came from the lanterns or the sky.
We made our way to one of the public houses. Ramming down the door handle, pulling and heaving in the suitcase was harder than I thought it would be; I had packed for 6 months. But none the less I tried, succeeding in the end by pushing and dragging. Em followed suit, stemming open the door with her hip and pushing herself through the crack that remained between the heavy door and its frame. Inside were only five or six men sitting at a separate table. A pitcher of ale rested in each of their hands and a small sea of bowler hats occupied their heads. Discoloured, worn clothing hung from their forms.
Dock workers. Of course.
Their small, dark eyes followed us around the room like a pride of lions. My hand found Emily's and we retreated into the opposite corner to safety.
"Oi, Travis! Get me summet to drink, will ye? I'm dyin' o' thirst 'ere." One of the men held up his pitcher and showed the empty inside to the landlord. He nodded quickly and hurried over, snatching the metal cup and marching back to his place behind the counter.
The place was homely, with a delicious warmth that was more than welcome after a morning of travelling. Several tables and old wooden chairs were tucked into corners. The support beams and white washed walls gave away the age of the house and the stained wavy glass in the window that had seemed rustic, I realised, were truly useless as they left what was behind them a mystery. The gas light lit up the room in an orange glow which made the place cosier, yet more reminiscent of what we had left behind. The parlour, the staff, the house...
The landlord looked over at us and I smiled a pained smile. He took it as a signal and came from behind the counter to greet us.
"Sorry, mate, didn't see ye. What would ye like?"
"Do you know if there are any chophouses around? We're looking for a place to eat. Our boat is leaving at 09:00."
"We're a chop'ouse. But there's one down the road if yer lookin' for a bigger choice." The man looked at us expectantly.
"No, we'll stay. What do you have?" I looked up at him and he smiled victoriously.
"'ouse specialty? We've some new lamb in, came jus' last night. We 'ave some lamb chops with gravy and carrots."
"Anything else?" I knew Em wasn't fond of eating young livestock but if that was all they had it would have to do.
"Nah, sorry, mate. That's all we got today. This week was busy and our usual pork didn't come in. We're all out." I turned to Em.
"Just get it, I'm starving!" She muttred, clutching her shawl closer.
"All right, two lamb chops. And some tea please if you've got it."
"Course I got it. Who do ye take me for?" The man chuckled and returned to his place.
"Travis! Hurry up, will ye? I'm waitin'!" The man called and the landlord nodded respectfully.
Quickly filling a pint in pious dignity, he slammed the cup of ale onto the counter, resulting in little waves of the drink spilling over the side and wetting the area around it. The man got up and walked up to the counter; his feet were loud thuds on the old wooden floor. Swiftly, he raised the vessel to his lips and drank a swig, drowning his thirst in beer. His Adam's apple flicked back as he swallowed the bitter drink and he grinned, revealing teeth that were the colour of what his clothes should have been. Treacle-brown.
Travis mentally noted the man's reaction before turning back to the tea.
Licking his lips, the dock worker returned to his table and the thunder of conversation began again.
A minute later the landlord arrived back at our table with two mugs of black tea, the colour of rust.
I took a sip of the liquid, putting it back down in disgust when I realised what it really was. Yet another case of hedge leaves coloured with red lead.