- The Lighterman
A tailors shop in Brentford. Louisa Fleetwood had locked up the premises for the day and retired to the nearby public house. As she stood and admired the fruits of several decade’s labours, she failed to notice the five year old boy, lurking in the shadows of the gentlemen’s overcoats. Once she had left, and with the shop to himself, the boy emerged from the shadows.
He loved this shop. He liked to smell the freshly pressed gowns. He enjoyed touching the cold, soft silks. He was fascinated by the elaborate stitching of the heavy capes. It reminded him of the many hours he had spent with his mother and grandmother, watching them attentively, as they painstakingly taught him this intricate skill. His grandmother had a most flamboyant style as she sewed. It was a talent that had been passed down, through several generations of his family. He was a boy, rich in imagination and he amused himself by standing on a crate behind the deep mahogany counters. He pretended to courteously serve the passing Dukes and Duchesses, who held his grandparent’s wares in such high regard.
He seldom gave his father’s absence a moment’s thought. In spite of the considerable worldly knowledge he had amassed in his five years, he remained confused about his family’s relationship with his father. He would disappear for months at a time, but his eventual returns to Brentford were always received like the welcome homecoming of a war hero. And yet, the boy knew that his father had not been absent in the course of war action. The family would gather in The Brewery Tap and listen with good humour, as his father took centre stage and recounted his latest adventures. His grandmother, especially, would consume too much ale and slap her thigh vigorously as his father told his latest tall tale. But the boy wasn’t taken in. Although he hadn’t yet achieved the wisdom to be able to name it, he was aware of a knot of resentment that would tighten, as his father launched into another fantastical story. The boy got into the habit of slipping out of the back of the public house and watched in awe as the boatman jostled for a clear position along the River Thames. The boy was unable to read as yet, but had a strong memory and would mentally catalogue each vessel, according to the the striking combinations of colours of the boats. Once seen, he never forgot any of the boats and he could retrieve any barge from his mental log at a moment’s notice. Alongside the colours, the boy would register the state of disrepair of each boat and these features would be added to his formidable taxonomy.
The boy already had the unfocused seeds of a plan, growing in his head. An ancient lighterman by the name of Findlay would regularly wave to the boy whenever he sat in the yard of The Brewery Tap. In the boy’s mind, Findlay must have been at least one hundred years old. His face was battered by a hundred year’s worth of working in all weathers and raw sewage. However, Findlay’s arms retained their youth and the boy had never seen a thicker, stronger pair of arms. They looked as solid, and as wide as the chestnut tree on the Green at the top of the High Street. The boy knew that, one day soon, he would find the courage to leave his position on the yard wall, head down to the riverbank and strike up a conversation with the ancient lighterman. Perhaps the next time that his father visited and the family would be distracted for several hours, the boy could make his escape. He laughed to himself because he knew, with all his heart, that he had the disposition to make this idea come true.
The boy left his position on the crate and said his farewells to the imaginary duchesses. He stood in the centre of the shop with his arms stretched wide. As the eldest son, he was heir apparent to this tailoring kingdom and he was starting to feel pride in this responsibility. Two years earlier, he had been summoned to his grandfather’s deathbed and he remembered the gravity of being placed on his grandfather’s lap, as all the adults assembled around the bed. As he grew in years, the boy recognised the significance of this event. It was the beginning of the succession. A communication to the other sons and daughters, where the future laid. The boy felt pride that day and he felt pride this day. And there was something else, that the boy was unable to distinguish. He skipped to the double window, at the front of the shop. He saw a busy High Street, with ladies shopping, the elegant coachmen going about their business and children playing. And in the distance, he saw the purple and orange of the Majestic Mary, moored for all eternity. If the boy had been able to identify that something else, he might have been shocked to know that it was restlessness.
A tailors shop in Brentford. 13 year-old Thomas Fleetwood stood in boredom at the worn mahogany counter. He had been standing in exactly the same position for an hour and he hadn’t seen a single customer. It was Saturday morning and outside, the High Street was as busy as ever. But not in the shop. Thomas longed for the moment when the church clock struck one o’clock and his Aunt Eliza would arrive to relieve him of his interminable duty. The smells of the shop had long since, ceased to excite him. Now, there was only one smell that invaded every corner of this cell – the stench of death. The death of his grandmother Louisa, three years ago, started the decline of the shop. The death of his father, two months ago, was followed by the grotesque pantomime of Reuben Fleetwood Junior being laid out in his coffin, in the middle of the shop floor, for three days. Laying in State, was how the idiot aunts described the spectacle.
Thomas’s mother was another cause of his disquiet. Giving birth to her sixth, surviving child, just seven weeks before his father’s death, had given his mother a clear invitation to neglect her duties within the shop. Aunts, and uncles, and cousins, came and went, but none of them seemed to share any enthusiasm for the business that his grandmother had given her life to. They may have had enthusiasm for the shop’s takings, but as the stock dwindled, so did the shop’s reputation. The other thing that was seriously dwindling was Thomas’s commitment to restoring Fleetwood’s to its former glory.
At twenty five minutes past one, Thomas had changed out of his formal work clothes and was running expectantly towards the river. This was his first visit to the river since his father’s wake, and he had an unfamiliar uncertainty about him. Trapped within the prison of the shop for over eight weeks, Thomas fretted that he had forgotten everything he had learned over the past seven years. Trying in vain to remember even the most basic of skills, he became even more frit. Solidly built for his thirteen years, he even imagined that he had lost a considerable amount of strength, during the official period of mourning. He had half a mind to turn turtle and return to the tailors. His mother would have been delighted, and his aunt would have been off like a whippet to join the rest of the family in the alehouse. “Keep going, Thomas. Keep going.” In the distance, he could see Findlay working hard on the deck. Thomas kept going.
Thomas was keen to set to work, but Findlay was in the mood for some lunch. He offered Thomas some bread and some ale, and together they sat in silence, save for the noise of the pigeons who had suddenly appeared in the expectation of some crusts. They had chosen the wrong barge. Thomas was ravenous and he had never seen Findlay waste a morsel, in the course of their acquaintance.
“Sorry to hear about your Pa.”
Thomas nodded. He didn’t want to talk about his father. The minute that he had just set foot on the boat, a preposterous idea had occured to him. Sweating with the excitement of his idea, he wondered how, or whether, he would be able to put the idea into words. Thomas needed help, but Findlay’s next utterance proved that he would have to be very courageous.
“Expect you’ve been proper busy in the shop? Great responsibility on your shoulders now, lad.”
Thomas could feel a lump in his throat. He got up and walked to the stern of the boat. For a brief moment, he wondered if he had gone deaf. The traffic on the river was as boisterous as ever, but all Thomas could hear was silence. He couldn’t understand the evidence of his own eyes because the only vessel he could see out on the water, was a solitary warship, docked on the opposite bank. A man and a woman waved to him and through squinted eyes, Thomas could see that the man was carrying a small baby. For a moment, Thomas suspected that there had been something untoward in his ale, because he would have sworn on the bible that the baby was his grandmother, Louisa. Thomas remembered the family stories about his grandmother having been born on a warship, but this was the makings of lunacy.
Thomas’s musings were cut short by a loud splash and a chorus of effing and jeffing. Three familiar lightermen, all wretchedly drunk, were trying to drag a fourth man from the brown, muddy water. After a few minutes in which Findlay had joined in the rescue, the man was pulled out, onto the bank and he immediately started at fisticuffs with his three rescuers.
“Chuck him back in,” laughed Findlay, as he reboarded his barge.
All his fears evaporated and Thomas leapt across the boat, grabbing Findlay by his arm.
“Findlay. I want to start my apprenticeship straightaway. Tomorrow. Please, Findlay. I have never been more certain of anything in my life.”
“But what about the tailors shop, Boy? Your mother will be expecting big things from you. You’ve got duties.”
“I’m not a tailor. I never have been and I never will be.”
Thomas looked back across the Thames, but the warship had disappeared whilst he had been watching the fracas.
“Please, Findlay. I was meant to be on the water. That is in my blood too.”
Findlay looked angry. In fact, he looked very angry. Thomas continued his pleading.
“If I’m going to start my apprenticeship to become a lighterman, I can think of no better teacher than you.”
Findlay threw a loading crate into the water. Thomas became fearful that he may try to flog him. Findlay finished off the last of his ale, in one swallow. He looked at Thomas, and Thomas thought that he detected a wry smile.
“Tomorrow morning. 7 o’clock. Be late, and that’s the end of my time.”
Findlay strode off the boat and into the public house. Thomas fished the crate from the water, dried it off and sat down on it. He remained deep in concentration, until his thoughts were interrupted by the warm rain. He smiled a deep smile to himself.
“I had better finish off the rest of this ale before I break the news to Mother that I am now a lighterman.”
It was late afternoon in a comfortable riverside cottage in Brentford. Mary Fleetwood was having a little sit down, after preparing the stew for this evening’s supper. Her precious daughter, Emma, had not long come home from school and was entertaining herself, making some jewellery out of some tin that her father had collected from work.
Mary had a lot to occupy her thoughts. Earlier that afternoon, her brother Henry had paid a surprise visit. Against her better judgment, Mary held a true affection for her brother. He could be the complete rogue, but as everyone knew, his charm and humour had got him out of many scrapes. This was the second time that Henry had visited in as many weeks; a rarity, but a sign of his persistence whenever he gets a bee in his bonnet. For the second time, Henry had made his proposal that was so ridiculous, so impossible that Mary wanted to laugh him out onto the street. But she hadn’t, because something had been stirred. For the past few years, Henry had been doing some work for an American, a Mr Vanderbilt. Henry’s tales often had to be taken with a pinch of salt, but this one appeared to be true. The story went that Mr Alfred Vanderbilt was one of the richest men in America and Henry first encountered him when the American visited England, with the intention of initiating the London to Brighton coach rallies. Mary couldn’t deny that her brother was an expert horseman and groom, and it seemed that Mr Vanderbilt recognised the value of Henry’s knowledge and took him on the payroll. Henry had already visited Americs twice and now, Mr Vanderbilt was offering to fund the whole Daubney family to relocate to New York. Henry was not a man to take no for an answer and Mary could feel her resistance to the plan, weakening. Henry left her with the firm ultimatum that she had to come to a decision by the weekend. The ship to Ellis Island sails a fortnight, today.
How could Mary broach the subject with Thomas? She was absolutely sure that he would say “no”, but her greatest fear was that he might say “yes”. Despite the interference from his family, they had a good marriage and Mary was not sufficiently henpecked that she had to defer all the major decisions to him. Yet, just this once, she wished that that was the case because she couldn’t bear the burden of forcing her husband to chose.
They had a good life together. Mary wished that they had been blessed with more children, but Emma was a good girl, and the apple of her father’s eye. Thomas was an excellent provider and they never went without. He had proved the doubting Fleetwoods wrong and his decision to take to the water as a lighterman had long since been vindicated.
After the death of old Findlay in 1895, Thomas had taken sole ownership of the barge and brought in the kind of business that Findlay would never have imagined possible. Thomas was well trusted and his reliability, and adeptness on the water, was well recognised by the many traders who sought him out whenever their commerce brought them to London. Just in the last year, he had taken on three lightermen apprentices from the workhouse and he had confided in Mary, that once the three boys achieved their licenses, Thomas fully intended to purchase a second barge. “If my grandparents could build up three tailors shops in ten years, there is no reason why I cannot achieve three boats in the same time.” And Mary knew that Thomas would make good of his word.
What perturbed Mary was that Thomas was now thirty two. He had been working on the river for the best part of twenty years. He had expressed no desire for change, quite the contrary, but a man can become restless, especially when presented with new opportunities. Mary knew little of America, but Henry’s accounts had painted a picture of America, where everything was bigger than England. She imagined bigger rivers, with bigger boats. Bigger pay packets to buy bigger homes. She knew that it would be hard for Thomas to refuse such adventure.
Mary’s thoughts were interrupted by a loud knock on the door. Emma dashed into the room, but her mother was already in the hall. Emma took the lid off the stewing pan and sniffed the pungent aroma. She was hungry. Disconcerted, she thought that she heard a scream from the hall, followed by the sound of something heavy being dropped.
Suddenly, the parlour door opened and a man entered, carrying Mary in his arms. Frozen in fear, Emma relaxed as she recognised the man who she had seen playing cards with her father in the yard of The Brewery Tap.
“Don’t be afraid, Emma. My name is Walter. Your mother has had a terrible shock.”
At this point, Mary regained consciousness. She looked deathly pale and as if, she might collapse again. She seemed to have forgotten that Emma was in the room.
“How, Wally? How could he have drowned?”
“We don’t know for sure, pet. There’s been some boats, down all week from the North. Muscling in. No respect for us men who have been working the river, for years. They were getting Tommy’s gander up. Anyway, this morning, Tommy and a couple of the other lightermen decided to row out and have it out with them….:
Both Mary and Walter appeared startled to suddenly hear Emma’s voice.
“Mummy. Has something happened to Daddy?”
Mary took Emma in her arms.
“I’m afraid so, darling. Daddy has had a horrid accident. Please, Wally. Do go on.”
“Well, that’s about as much as we know, for sure. Our men tried to talk to their men, who thought it was all a joke. I could see Tommy rowing back, in a rare old temper. Cussing and kicking the side of his boat. And when I looked back again, he was gone. His boat was empty. Two of the lads dived in, but the tide made it treacherous and they had to stop. They thought the world of your Tommy, giving them a job. They’re proper broken up about it. Anyways, his body washed up, not an hour since. I’m so very sorry, Mary.”
That was that. Mary thought that her heart would stay broken forever. Emma disappeared into herself. Of course, America was now out of the question. What would people say? And there was an inquest to be had. Mary knew that her place was in Brentford.
Findings of an inquest held on 1st March 1900:
Thomas Fleetwood, aged 31 and a lighterman from 35 Grosvenor Road, Brentford, died at Brentford Docks on 26th February 1900.
The cause of death: Accidental drowning.