By Judy Rigby
They threw my children overboard. That’s what the doctor tells me, but I know it isn’t true. They are here with me in the berth.
Mother has let me have her easy chair; to finger the fine brocade upholstery soothes me. When I nurse the baby, I can see mother nursing me. She sits across from me and watches me. I am in her arms, and baby is in mine.
‘That’s right Ellen,’ she says. ‘She’s a fine, bonny baby, and you are looking after her, I can see that.’
And so I am.
There! Baby is crying now, can you hear her?
I pick her up and rock her to sleep against my breast in my mother’s chair. She sent it to me when the trouble began. It’s the one from the parlour, did I tell you?
The trouble is in my stomach, it never lets up. At first I thought it was sea-sickness. You can have no idea of the effect the sea has on some constitutions. And yet, now that we have entered a warmer climate with calmer seas, as England lies further behind us and Australia closer, my stomach continues to distress me. It heaves one moment and drops and empties the next. The doctor comes, but he doesn’t help. He pats my hand and whispers in the corner to Edward.
‘Ellen, you must understand,’ the doctor says to me.
‘What? What must I understand?’ I ask.
‘They’re dead,’ says the doctor. ‘All the children, except Fanny, have died. I had all three bodies thrown overboard.’
‘But the baby?’
‘She’s gone, too. I’m sorry.’
‘No, look! She is here with me, in my mother’s chair!’
I have confounded him. He cannot find a reply.
He glances over his shoulder at Edward, turns back to me, and pats my hand again.
Poor chap. He seems lost, disoriented even. He is quite mad, I’m sure.
Such a pity. I do so need him to help me with my stomach.
Fanny is by my side. ‘Go up on deck and see the sunset,’ she says.
Yes, perhaps I will take a stroll around the deck.
Fanny has lost weight. Perhaps her stomach ails her too.
‘Mother,’ she says again, ‘Go and see.’
‘But, my chair, Fanny,’ I say, ‘I will only go if you look after the chair.’
She nods, her face too small for her eyes.
Do you think it’s always been that small?
Ah, that explains it! You are right of course! Her eyes have grown.
Standing up, I feel unsteady and lurch towards the stairs. As I climb, a red light plays at my feet. On deck, a crowd has gathered, their faces turned towards the sky.
It is red, awash with the blood of the martyrs, blood dripping everywhere!
‘So beautiful,’ somebody nearby says.
‘The heavens declare the glory of God, so they do,’ says another.
What is the matter with them? You and I can see that it’s blood, can we not?
The sky has turned to blood, it’s the great and terrible day of the Lord, that’s what it is, Doomsday! I have to warn them, these poor simple-minded creatures.
‘Doomed! Doomed! We are doomed before the great and terrible…’
Arms encircle my waist from behind and pull me backwards. Other arms lift my feet off the ground. I am floating, the bloody sky looks down on me, but not unkindly I fancy.
‘Of course not,’ you say. ‘Surely you are ready to meet your Maker?’
Indeed I am.
Voices murmur around me.
‘Poor love, she can’t get over it.’
‘I hear tell she doesn’t even believe it.’
‘Probably never was strong enough for the journey.’
‘Those poor children.’
Poor children? Who could they mean? Nothing poor about my children – they are always presentable. Look at how well kept they are. I have maintained all Mother’s standards. I haven’t let a single thing slip. I’ve even managed to keep their clothes clean while others have let their children become filthy. Everyone agrees that my children are the neatest and nicest children on board. Mother will be proud of me.
You must tell her how well I have looked after the dear children. Promise me that you will.
I awake, startled. The morning watch bell announces the start of another day.
‘Ho, Mess!’ The steward is already coming to give out the rations of the day. People scramble to collect whatever meagre rations will be apportioned. I cannot abide the morning clamour, which has increased as our voyage has gone on and supplies have dwindled.
‘Boiling water!’ Another cry is added to the din. I feel quite stunned by the sound. I find I cannot rise and call for Edward. His hand, already on my shoulder, strokes my arm.
‘Shall I call the doctor, Ellen?’
My stomach heaves, I attempt to sit, thinking to throw up, but nothing comes. My stomach teeters and then drops, so that my head spins and I am thrown back.
‘I will, Ellen, I will send Fanny to fetch the doctor.’
I am dreaming that I am at home. I am a child again, playing in the parlour.
I know, I’m not allowed to play in the parlour, you are right, but I am in my dream.
I sit Lizzie on Mother’s easy chair and smooth the skirt of her blue dress. I settle baby down beside her and lean Horsey against the chair. I run my fingers through his mane.
It’s mother. If she finds me here, she…
‘She’s not responding, I’ll have to bleed her.’
Did you say something?
Oh, the doctor is here.
I cannot lift my head.
Edward, can see what he wants, my dream beckons me back.
I look around for somewhere to hide, but first I’ll have to move the children, put them somewhere safe. But the parlour door slams before I can gather them up, so hard that the teacups on Mother’s tea tray rattle in their saucers. I am surprised; we do not slam doors in our house.
There is a swishing noise and my feet are wet. Water covers the floor. It is flowing in from under the door. I test the door and find that it won’t open.
Yes, that is curious, precisely, as you say, because it doesn’t have a lock.
Still, I do not feel alarmed. I have only to bang on the door and someone will come to see what the matter is. Such a noise, so far out of the ordinary in this house, will attract immediate attention. My fists on the door, however, seem not to make any kind of sound.
When I don’t receive a reply, I cast around for something heavier. So much of Mother’s things simply will not do. Her china tea set with its pink floral pattern, her crystal water set with its lead-cut decanter and glasses and her pair of rose porcelain vases will all shatter on impact. The brass base on the mantle clock would be heavy enough, but I cannot imagine using it.
Exactly – the glass case will break, but more than that, I love it too much, as well you know.
The first tendril of panic curls around my chest before I notice the fireside set, standing erect on the hearth, the black iron contrasting against the blue and white square-tiled surround. Perfect, and yes, before you say it, the only obvious choice.
Still, no one comes. The water by now is above my knees, has begun lapping onto the seat of Mother’s chair. The children are in danger, I can see that, but I cannot think of what else to do. Surely help will come.
‘Here, Ellen, take a little nip of brandy. It will help restore you.’
The fire in my throat forces my eyes open.
‘There! She’s coming around.’
Edward’s face comes into view above my own.
Isn’t he a dear? I want to reassure him, to tell him the children and I are well, but I cannot rise out of my dream.
The water covers the chair now and is over my own head. The children have not moved from the chair. I can see them all lined up exactly where I have placed them.
I am sure you will agree they are the best-behaved children.
The parlour looks the same as always even though it’s now almost full of water. You would have thought that Mother’s things would fall over or move about underwater, but nothing is out of place. Everything, I assure you, is as it should be.
There is her chair and its matching footstool. On the table beside it sits her embroidery and her leather-bound prayer book. The tea tray is laid out as if she will serve at any moment, and on the mantle, the clock sits between the rose vases.
Above the mantle hangs a gilt-edged mirror in which I can see myself. It is my wedding day and I am in my gown.
You will remember my wedding gown, how exquisite it was.
Now, as I look at my reflection, the silver embroidery seems to shimmer under the water, yet the silk fabric drapes as it should despite the water. The puffed sleeves retain their fullness and the wide neckline shows off my fine-boned shoulders. I look radiant and expectant.
Edward’s face is before me again.
‘You must tell the doctor to come to our wedding dinner, Edward. He has been so kind to me. There will be enough. The cook has prepared roast pig and a turkey. Promise me you’ll ask him.’
I would so like to stay here, underwater, in the parlour.
The water is cool.
I am calm.
Best of all, it is silent.
The clock does not chime, the children do not cry, the steward does not call out, the doctor does not chide, Edward does not plead, and the bell does not toll.
But I know I cannot stay, and I can see you know it too. Perhaps you have known it all along.
A noise has crept into the silence – a steady, rhythmical sound.
It is familiar and very close.
More than close, it is inside me.
I am breathing!
I am still alive then…
I suck in air as I surface, choking on their names.
Image by: Tim Marshall