It was a crisp February evening when I encountered the infamous Sam Jones an eighth time. Not that I had been counting, of course. An unusually cold night for February, I had not expected such weather, and had nothing with me but a light-blue shawl, which served for a largely decorative purpose, and so was no help to my problem. It was a reasonable walk home, and I was starting to hurry, as the sun was setting and I was usually home by this hour. I did not want dear Eden - and especially Father - to worry.
There was almost no traffic at this hour - horse or pedestrian - so I crossed the main road with relative ease. I was almost home, now - Homewood Ave was in sight. It was just as the lamp across the street was lit that I heard footsteps behind me. They weren’t casual footsteps, either - it was a shuffling, a trying-to-be-quiet scuffle. I stopped sharply. The shuffler, evidently, was surprised, as he skidded behind me. I turned around, knowing what I would see.
Sam Jones was the ‘bully’ of the neighbourhood. He was not a real bully - that was the Atkinson gang. Sam was the tease, the one who always found out everything people did not want him to know. No one knew how. But I was not in the mood. I turned back around and stalked off, but it seemed Sam did not want to give up. He jogged around to block my path. A tall boy of 18 - the same age as me - he was the son of the local pub’s barman. Spending so much time around drunken men seemed to have an ill effect on him, and he acted as if he was 10. Right now, he was rubbing his hands and smiling like he’d gotten a wooden horse for his birthday. I rolled my eyes.
“Oi, Lydia. Guess what? I found something out. It’s about you.” His eyes gleamed with excitement, and I shook my head in disgust.
“If you would please move out of my way, Samuel?” I tried to push past him, but got only a few metres before a hand gripped my arm. I tugged my arm out of his reach, and turned around to face him.
“Do not ever do that again.” I snapped. His smile faltered, just a bit. I turned on my heel and was on my way once again.
I could not bear people touching me. My sister was alright - she was only 7, and such a sweet child, too - but even my father patting my back me made me uncomfortable. And if it was a stranger, and Sam Jones, too... That was not something I could let pass. I turned onto Homewood Ave, a shiver crawling up my back at the mere thought of such an animal even nudging me again.
It was only a few more houses to Wrighton Place, a small cul-de-sac edged with pleasant wooden houses. A few had peeling paint, and one had no windows, but it wasn’t Norfolk St, which was hardly better than nothing, in my opinion. We were number 4, and our rent covered maintenance, so the house was in good condition. Our landlord might have been a horrible man, but he did want his houses looking the best. Our house was a weatherboard house - the roof corrugated iron, and the porch a reasonable size. It was, admittedly, a very good house for the three of us. I knocked at the door. I heard bare feet come pattering from the kitchen, running excitedly through the house. Eden’s little face appeared in the door, and I had time only to step inside before she jumped on me. I laughed, and hugged her gently. She burrowed her face into my shoulder, and I carried her down the passage and into the kitchen. The fire I had built this morning was still going, and I was glad to see that Father was sitting in his arm chair. I put Eden down on the rug in front of the hearth.
“Glad to see you are up and about.” I walked over to father and paused in front of him. He smiled at me.
“I’ve been feeling a bit stronger.” He rasped. I sighed, looking at him, and continued on to the kitchen. I opened a cupboard, looking for the soup pot. I could not help noticing how empty the cupboards were looking.
“What did you do today, Eden?” I asked, as she played with the doll I had made her from an old dress and some hay.
“I saw Thelma!” She answered excitedly. “We played with Dorothea and Annabelle.” These were the names of the girls’ beloved dolls.
“We played on the lawn, and picked flowers for our hair. I hope you do not mind. I told Thelma we could.” I smiled.
“That’s alright, Eden. But do not pick too many.” I busied myself in the kitchen, cooking a broth that I hoped would last the week. I did not want father near the food - he may have been cleared, but the risks of re-infection were high, or so the doctor said - so I usually tried to prepare meals in advance. It was easier - I could come home and just warm up the soup a little, and tea would be ready in time for Eden to go to bed at a decent hour. I chatted to father while I cooked, but it was mostly me talking. I found that even talking too much made him tired. I told him about the post office, and relayed to him stories of my day. He seemed content to just sit and listen, occasionally asking questions and chuckling a little. By 7 o’clock the meal was ready, and I sliced a quarter of a loaf of bread, even spreading some butter on it as a treat. After tea, I spent half an hour with Eden, teaching her to read and write. Father watched on, adding in information where needed. I then put Eden to bed, and she slept as soon as her head touched the pillow. I made sure Father was settled and comfortable, and then I went to bed myself.
Bed was a comfort, after the labours of the day, but it also made room for my mind to roar with worries and thoughts. Keeping myself busy pushed such thoughts out of my head, but lying, waiting for sleep let the concerns and misgivings consume me. I was saved by a knock at the door. I frowned, but sat on the edge of my bed and lit a candle. I wrapped a shawl around me as I padded to the door. I heard impatient huffing - it was a man, obviously. I unlatched the lock, and peered around the door. Mr Peters. Of course. I plastered a smile on my face and straightened up.
“Mr Peters! How lovely of you to call in. Come-” He pushed past me halfway through my invitation.
“Your rent is late.” He sniped, stalking into the kitchen and standing by the re. I felt my lip curling into a sneer, and straightened it out into a smile. I raised an eyebrow instead, and took a step toward the tall, thin man.
“I- I must be mistaken, but I was under the impression that it wasn’t due for another week and a half.”
“Really?” He said, arching an eyebrow. “Well, it seems you are indeed mistaken. Rent is now due on the 24th of each month - which happens to be today.” He turned to me and reached into his coat, unfolding a crisp piece of paper - the kind only rich people could afford. I took the paper, scanning it.
“I see.” I smiled at him again. “I was unaware of this change, so I will bring it to you tomorrow.” He hummed.
“I would prefer it today, actually - it is not my fault you did not hear of this news.” He smiled thinly. I resisted the urge to protest - the first time I had encountered the foul man I had ended up with a charge of 10 shillings because I corrected some sums he had mistakenly calculated. I could not stand him, but I had to tolerate him, otherwise we would be out of a house.
I smiled again, and walked over to the cupboard in which we kept our savings. I reached into the tin, and reluctantly pulled out 16 shillings. I folded a leaf of newspaper, and slipped the coins inside. He snatched it out of my hand, and inspected the coins inside before striding out of the house and into the night. Slumping into the armchair, I massaged my temples, which did nothing to ease the pain in my head. Sighing, I pinched the candle out and retired to bed once again, hoping at last for an uninterrupted sleep.
Marie-Alice waddled over to her daughter, smiling gently as she approached her.
“Mama, how long will we be on here?” Lydia murmured into her mother.
“Well, dear,” she replied, “We are meant to arrive in two weeks, your father said. It is but an estimate, though.”
“But I won’t be eleven then?” Lydia asked, her eyes wide.
“No, no. It won’t take that long.” she assured her.
“Good. And will sister or brother be born yet?”
“No, I do not think so. I’ve got a while to go yet.” Marie-Alice stroked her swollen belly and smiled fondly at it. “Do you think it will be a girl or a boy, Lydia?”
“I think it’ll be a girl! I hope it’ll be a girl. Then you should name her Winnie.” Marie-Alice chuckled, a light, breezy laugh that resounded through the cabin.
“Perhaps.” She ushered Lydia under the thin covers of the bunk, tucking in the sides around her. “Maybe.” she whispered softly as the girl’s eyes closed. Lydia felt her mother’s touch on her cheeks, stroking her until she slept, accompanied by the gentle rocking of the ship on the calm seas, and the loud murmurs of the officers’ party rattling on above decks.