Read The River Folk Online

Authors: Margaret Dickinson

Tags: #Fiction, #Sagas, #Historical, #Romance, #20th Century, #General

The River Folk

BOOK: The River Folk
6.92Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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This book is a work of fiction and is entirely a product of the author’s imagination. All the characters are fictitious and any similarity to real persons is purely coincidental.

For Dennis, Mandy and Zoë

Contents

Prologue

Part One: Bessie

One

Two

Three

Four

Five

Six

Seven

Eight

Nine

Ten

Eleven

Twelve

Thirteen

Fourteen

Fifteen

Sixteen

Seventeen

Eighteen

Nineteen

Twenty

Part Two: Mary Ann

Twenty-One

Twenty-Two

Twenty-Three

Twenty-Four

Twenty-Five

Twenty-Six

Twenty-Seven

Twenty-Eight

Twenty-Nine

Thirty

Thirty-One

Thirty-Two

Thirty-Three

Thirty-Four

Thirty-Five

Thirty-Six

Thirty-Seven

Thirty-Eight

Thirty-Nine

Forty

Part Three: Lizzie

Forty-One

Forty-Two

Forty-Three

Forty-Four

Forty-Five

Forty-Six

Forty-Seven

Forty-Eight

Forty-Nine

Fifty

Fifty-One

Fifty-Two

Fifty-Three

Fifty-Four

Fifty-Five

Fifty-Six

Fifty-Seven

Fifty-Eight

Fifty-Nine

Sixty

Prologue

1934

‘Daddy, I’m sorry. Please, let me come up.’

The young girl stood at the bottom of the ladder leading up from the cabin on to the deck of the ship that was her home. The sliding hatch above her was open and through it she could see the stars. But tonight, they held no fascination for her.

‘Daddy,’ Lizzie cried again, her voice rising with fear. It was not being left in the dark confines of the cabin that frightened her, nor the sound of the 7water lapping against the side of the vessel, nor even the gentle rocking of the ship as it was lifted on the river’s evening tide. The girl scarcely noticed any of these things, so much a normal part of her life were they. The terror that was gripping her heart, squeezing the breath from her body and making her legs tremble was the sound of her parents on the deck above her. They were quarrelling, shouting at one another and it was she, Lizzie, who had made her father so angry.

‘Mam,’ she tried again, but the cry froze on her lips as she heard her mother scream. And then, though she could hardly believe it, she heard the sound of a slap. In the lonely darkness, her chin trembled and tears filled her eyes. Surely her daddy wouldn’t hit her mother. Not her daddy. He had never raised a hand to anyone in his life as far as she knew. He had never smacked her, Lizzie thought, not once. Not even when she was her naughtiest and stayed on the riverbank playing with her friend, Tolly, instead of coming on board ship when her father was ready to sail. More than once, he had missed the tide because of her. But even then, he would just look so disappointed, so hurt by her naughtiness, that she wanted to fling herself against him, bury her face in his neck and say, ‘I’m sorry, Daddy. I will be a good girl. Truly, I will.’

It was what she wanted to do now, but, when they had come back to the ship from visiting her grandmother, her father had said sternly, ‘Lizzie, go below.’

For once, she had not dared to disobey him but now, as she heard her mother cry out again, this time followed swiftly by a splash, she climbed the ladder calling out shrilly, ‘Mam. Mam!’

Her father was leaning over the side, searching the inky water. He called her mother’s name, a wailing sound that echoed across the river through the darkness and made the child shiver. She had never, in all her life, heard her father sound like that. So desperate, so stricken, so hopeless.

The long, drawn-out sound was borne on the wind and lost in the deep, shadowy waters of the river.

‘Mary Ann.
Maaary Aaan!

Part One
Bessie
One

1919

Bessie Ruddick slammed down her rolling pin and wiped her floury hands on her pinafore.

‘I aren’t having that racket coming through me kitchen wall,’ she muttered. She stood listening for a moment to the sounds of a man and woman quarrelling in the house next door that had been empty for several weeks.

It must be let again, Bessie thought. The noise grew louder and now she could plainly hear the man’s vulgar language. There was a thud and then a woman cried out, ‘No, no, don’t. Please, don’t . . .’

‘That does it,’ Bessie said aloud. She marched out of her own house and, turning to her left, covered the few strides that brought her to her neighbours’ door. Balling her fist, she thumped on it. She waited a few moments, but when no one answered, she bellowed, ‘I know you’re in there, ’cos I’ve heard you.’

Across the yard, Minnie Eccleshall appeared in her doorway. ‘What’s up, Bessie? Trouble?’

‘You mind your business, Minnie Eccleshall, and let me mind mine.’

Minnie only grinned, folded her arms and leant against the doorjamb. Sparks were about to fly and there was, like as not, going to be a bit of fun.

A sash window grated upwards and Gladys Merryweather poked her head out. ‘Am I missing owt, Min?’

‘Nowt to speak of, Glad. Just our Bessie on the warpath.’

‘Right. I’ll be down.’ Gladys’s head disappeared and seconds later she emerged from her own house to join her next-door neighbour. ‘You told Phyllis? She wouldn’t want to miss this.’

‘She’s out. Gone up town.’

‘What’s it about?’

Minnie shrugged. ‘Dunno. But whatever it is, it sounds serious.’

Both women jumped as Bessie thumped the door again and shouted, ‘Come on out here, mester, where I can see you, instead of skulking in there.’ She raised her hand to batter the door once more, but as she did so it was pulled open and her fist almost met the nose of the man standing there.

‘Oh. There you are,’ Bessie said unnecessarily, for a moment caught off guard.

‘Whaddo you want?’ The man’s voice was gruff and uncouth.

Bessie folded her arms across her ample bosom, behind her, she knew that Minnie and Gladys would be nudging each other. Of course, they knew the signs. Oh, this newcomer to Waterman’s Yard was in for a battle royal.

‘I want,’ Bessie said slowly and clearly, ‘a bit o’ peace in me own house. I don’t want to hear you shouting and bawling through me wall.’

She heard Minnie laugh and say in a voice deliberately loud enough for Bessie and the man to hear, ‘That’s nowt to what he’ll hear when our Bessie gets going at her lot. She’s a nerve.’

‘Shush,’ Gladys tried to warn Minnie. ‘Don’t let her hear you, else . . .’

Bessie ignored what was going on behind her and wagged her forefinger close to the man’s face. ‘This is a respectable neighbourhood, I’ll have you know.’

His thin lips curled. ‘Respectable? You don’t know the meaning of the word, missis. You river folk, washed up with the tide, you were. All along the river.’

Bessie’s glance raked him from head to foot. The man was unshaven with more than one day’s growth of stubble on his gaunt face. He wore a grubby, collarless striped shirt, a black waistcoat with only one button and stained trousers. His thinning hair was black and, to Bessie’s disgust, so were his fingernails.

‘I want to meet your wife, mester.’ A note of sarcasm crept into Bessie’s tone that only her listening neighbours recognized as she tried a different tack. ‘Just to make her feel welcome, like. See if there’s owt we can do to help.’

‘There ain’t.’ The man began to close the door but it was to find that Bessie’s bulk had stepped firmly across the threshold.

Bessie Ruddick was a big woman in every way. She stood as tall as any man – taller than a good many. Her shoulders were broad, looking as if she could swing a sack of coal on to her back without a second’s thought. Her face was round and jolly and, usually, her eyes shone with merriment. But at this moment her cheeks were blotched red with fury and her eyes sparked fire. Her voice was deep and resonant and when Bessie Ruddick got angry, her bellow could be heard by the ships passing by on the River Trent that flowed just beyond the road leading to the yards and alleyways.

‘’Ere,’ he began, but, caught off guard, he was no match for the big woman.

‘You there, love?’ Bessie bellowed, calling into the dark interior of the house.

Unwisely, the man caught hold of Bessie’s arm. ‘Now look ’ere, you keep your nose out of our business and get your fat arse back to your own house.’

Slowly Bessie looked down at the dirty hand on her arm. Then, only inches away, her gaze met his. Suddenly, the man found his waistcoat and shirt grasped by two strong hands that almost lifted him off his feet.

‘’Ere . . .’ he tried again, but found his breath somewhat restricted as the neckband of his shirt cut into his throat.

‘No, mester. You look ’ere.’ Bessie, though his nearness repelled her, thrust her face even closer to his. ‘I heard you shouting at your missis and then I heard her cry out. Now unless I’m putting two an’ two together and makin’ five, you hit her, didn’t you?’

The man’s arms were flailing helplessly and his face was beginning to turn purple.

‘Leggo, you owd beezum.’

‘Now, now,’ Bessie warned, tightening her hold. ‘No rude names. Else you’ll have my Bert to deal with when he comes home. When you hear his boots tramping down that there alley, you’d better hide, mester. My Bert doesn’t like anyone being rude to his missis.’

Minnie and Gladys clutched each other, convulsed with laughter. Even from the other side of the yard they could sense the man’s fear.

‘He – he hasn’t met Bert Ruddick yet, then?’ Minnie gasped.

‘Can’t have, Min.’

The man, still in Bessie’s grip, had found a little strength. ‘Elsie,’ he called weakly. ‘Elsie. Come here, woman. Quick.’

As a thin, timorous woman appeared out of the shadows, Bessie loosened her grasp and the man fell against the door. He backed away from her, his hand to his throat.

‘You’re mad, you are. We’re not stopping here, Elsie. Pack yer things, we’re going.’

The woman drooped. ‘Oh Sid, I can’t move again, I . . .’

‘You’ll do as I say . . .’ he began, his voice rising, but when Bessie took a step towards him, he backed away and turned towards the inner room, almost falling over his feet in his haste to escape. ‘She’s mad, I tell you. Just get rid of her.’

Elsie tried to smile weakly at Bessie, but tears welled in her eyes and she touched her bottom lip where blood oozed from a gash.

Softly, Bessie said, ‘Did he do that to you, love?’

‘No, no. I – er – fell. Tripped over a packing case. You know . . .’

Bessie shook her head. ‘No, love, I don’t know. My feller’d not lay a finger on me.’

Despite everything, the little woman smiled as she murmured, ‘No, I don’t suppose your feller would, missis.’ The smile faded as swiftly as it had come and she sighed heavily. ‘I’m sorry if we disturbed you.’ She glanced back over her shoulder and then moved closer as her voice dropped to a whisper. ‘You haven’t seen a little lass about the yard, have you?’

Bessie shook her head. ‘No, love. Your lass, is it?’

The woman nodded. ‘She’s run off somewhere . . .’ She jerked her head backwards. ‘When he started. I’m worried she might get lost. And with the river so close . . .’

‘Not from round here, then?’ Bessie said. She was only trying to make friendly conversation, but Elsie’s eyes widened in panic.

‘No, no. Never even been to Elsborough before, till Sid . . .’ She broke off and dropped her gaze. Then she mumbled, ‘He’s looking for work.’

‘Aye well, it’s not easy. Just back from the war, is he?’

She heard the woman pull in a sharp breath before she said, hurriedly, as if latching on to Bessie’s question like a drowning person grasping for a lifeline, ‘Yes, yes, that’s it. Just home from the war.’

‘Elsie . . .’ Her husband’s voice came warningly out of the shadows behind her.

The woman jumped and then stepped back nervously and made to close the door. ‘I must go. If you see our Mary Ann, send her home, will you?’

‘Aye,’ came the man’s rough voice again. ‘You do that, missis, ’cos I’m going to tan her backside for her when I get hold of her, so you might hear a bit more yelling and screaming.’

Bessie raised her voice and shouted, ‘I’d better not, mester, ’cos next time, I’ll bring my Bert with me.’

Across the yard Minnie and Gladys leant against each other, tears of helpless laughter running down their cheeks.

‘Bye for now, love,’ Bessie was saying to the woman. ‘I hope you’re going to be happy here in Waterman’s Yard.’

BOOK: The River Folk
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