This story was written for the NYC Midnight Short Story Challenge round 1; I was set the genre romance, I had to work in sailor, and needed to feature an orphanage.
By Lauren McMenemy
Written February 2014; 2500 words
One day, he never returned. Just didn’t come back. Of course, we all suspected he’d been press ganged, but there was no way to know for sure. At least not unless he wrote a letter, or if we found a witness. Just, gone. Lost to us.
He’d have stood no chance: Edward had grown tall in the preceding year. Filled out. Muscular from working in our laundry. He looked beyond his 15 years. And the gangs have a way of sniffing out the strong.
She didn’t take it very well. She’d joined us a few years previous, aged 11, her sailor father lost at sea, her mother lost in childbirth. No other family to claim her, so she came to us. A beautiful child, right on the cusp of adolescence. We knew she would be trouble as soon as we set eyes on her. Even with the separation of sexes at our particular establishment, we were still progressive enough to allow inter-mingling in the dining hall. It had gotten us a reputation; one of the few establishments not run by the state or the church, instead owing all to our benefactor, it was only the truly destitute and alone who ended up with us. The sort of children who didn’t have a reputation to ruin, that even the church deemed lost, and with no real prospects of a respectable life beyond our walls. They could stay with us until 16; after that, they were on their own. We couldn’t afford to keep them anymore, and they were old enough to make their own way in the world.
And her, Ramona, exotic and ethereal, with her porcelain skin, her big blue eyes framed by long lashes, her raven hair like silk – she was striking, even then, as a child. She arrived in the summer, alone and silent, big eyes pleading for affection. She was sent into the lion’s den at her first meal, and Edward claimed her as his own. Took her under his wing. Just one year older, but old enough to know that she was something special, something to cling to. Something precious. Quietly he took her, beyond approach from his peers: she was officially his.
From afar, we had watched his respectful distance and his close eye on her. All the other children knew she belonged to him. She doted on him, as one would a big brother or a close uncle. As time drew on, and adolescence dawned for them both, we watched as they grew ever-closer. It was a given; he’d turn 16, leave our walls, and one year later – having set up a life for them – he would be joined by Ramona, and they would live happily ever after. We watched them; still so innocent, yet an inescapable electricity surging between them. It was palpable. I was jealous.
But just as the world inside our walls was changed by the arrival of Ramona’s spell, so to the world outside was changing. The century had turned. Napoleon was on the rampage. We had seen the rise in the gangs roaming the seaside, looking for men. Strong, seafaring men. In the end, they settled for anyone. The Navy needed men to send to certain doom on the high seas, to keep the Empire fires burning bright, to keep the French at bay. Sometimes, the gangs would lie in wait out at sea and board the merchant ships, stealing the best and brightest; more often than not in our little slice of the seaside on the outskirts of Portsmouth, they simply roamed the streets. On the prowl. They didn’t care who they took; even the visiting American sailors were in danger and moved only in packs while ashore.
And we could see those Impress men had their eye on our boys: a plentiful supply of 15-year-olds with some idea of the power of the sea and no one to miss them when they were gone. We overlooked the foreshore; our children often came from a line of seafaring stock lost to the waves.
We feared for our boys even more than usual at that time. And I, as always, feared for Edward. He was special. I vowed the gangs would not take him away from us. I would watch over him.
Mr Hudson, as head of the establishment, asked me to speak to the boys one day. He felt they would listen more to me, being closest to their age and a former inmate. It was June; the sun was bright in the sky, and I stood at the window watching the dockyards in the distance. I asked, without turning around, if any of the boys had thought of entering the Royal Navy. Some said they had; it was, after all, a fairly respectable career for an orphan with no prospects and no ties. Good pay – if unreliably delivered and often withheld – and a uniform to give a certain gravitas that they did not receive in their current social state.
But Edward… his eyes had burned that day. His ferocity made my hair stand on end. He saw no point, he said. What was the point in joining the Navy only to die alone at sea? He had ambition and a life waiting for him on the other side of our walls.
Johnson, the eldest at the time and certainly the most forceful and vocal, called out: “They’ll get you anyways. May as well join than be pressed, get the better pay and the money upfront.”
“Nay,” replied Edward. “I’ll be an apprentice. Get Protections. Make a life for myself; a future for me and…” He blushed.
Johnson swooped: “Enough of your daydreaming and your lovesickness, Kettering. Don’t be a fool. Ain’t no Protections for an orphan, trade or not. No one’s looking after us. You’ve only got yourself to rely on, and the only people with their eye on us is the Impress. They’ve been watching this building for years, just waiting for the day we turn 16 and are turfed out on the streets.”
I couldn’t counter their fears. Johnson was right. I’d seen it happen year upon year. I was lucky; I was crippled and of no use on a boat headed for the continent. I had escaped and stayed within the establishment’s protection; most were not as lucky. Those boys – those healthy, strong, striking, masculine mini-men at the very beginnings of their lives – they stood no chance when the Empire called.
Johnson volunteered later that day. We couldn’t stop him; he was 15 and of age. We didn’t hear from him again until…
Edward’s eyes continued to burn after that day. I had awoken something in him, and it scared me. He knew he was getting noticed, that his time was short. I accompanied him to the supply store one day and saw it for myself; the men with Royal blessing were following our every move. I could hear his breathing increase; his barely-audible cursing. I made sure I referred to Edward’s age in a loud voice – and may have knocked a year off to be safe; “a young boy of 14 has no right to be chasing after a female inmate, Kettering” – and noticed the men fall back. They couldn’t take him if he was 14. If they knew he was 15, though… Then we’d all be in trouble. Ramona would lose him. I would lose him. I couldn’t let that happen.
Thinking back, I can pinpoint it to that day, the change in Edward. It was like he had nothing left to lose after our debate about futures. From a quiet innocence, he became flagrant in his demonstrations of ownership over Ramona, and she didn’t seem to mind at all. I kept a close eye on them, just to make sure they were safe. That Edward was safe. Couldn’t have him being pressed before his time.
But Edward grew more savage as his 16th birthday loomed.
One wild and windy night in the depths of that January – that most maudlin of months, when the winter seems interminable – I saw Edward sneaking out of the front gates, headed for the beachfront. It was two weeks until he would have to leave our establishment. I watched from the attic window – where my modest quarters had lain since I “graduated” the establishment’s care and transferred to supervisor – as Edward squeezed through our broken gate and crossed the path to the sand.
And then I saw Ramona waiting for him on the other side, wind whipping her raven hair around her like seaweed in water. It must have been at that point I decided to follow them, but it was like I was possessed. I had to make sure they were safe. Nothing could happen to them. To him.
I quickly threw on my coat and made for the foreshore. It was after midnight; all was quiet. Even the gangs were asleep by now, or hanging around the taverns looking for prey. The moonlight played on top of the gentle waves as they lapped at the shore; the sand was brittle and cold beneath my bare feet. It had been safest and quickest not to lace my boots.
And then I heard the giggle. To my left, beyond the pines, a distinct and girlish giggle. And a second voice, shushing.
My feet took me towards the rendezvous.
From the shore, I gazed at them. Without visual contact I knew exactly who it was: Edward and Ramona. I wondered how often they snuck out here, how far gone the romance was. As I stepped closer, that train of thought was answered for me. Ramona’s bodice open; Edward’s trousers loose. Their lips entwined with passion. It was truly a vision; like a painting by a Renaissance master. Two beautiful souls, two troubled beings, brought together by love and by danger and by passion. I couldn’t take my eyes from them. I knew then that Edward was doomed.
They cried out in passion, and I cried in pain. I couldn’t fathom why, at the time, but I knew I was breaking inside. And Edward looked up, and saw me. And I ran.
I ran haphazardly across the sand, stumbling and falling and crying as I went. I didn’t know why it had effected me so much, but I knew I needed to get back to the establishment, to the safety of my attic, away from those dangerous eyes that had stared right through me just moments before.
The establishment loomed before me, its great imposing structure made ghostly by the clear night and full moon. No light came from inside as I squeezed through the gates and around to the servant’s entrance. Quietly up the stairs and to my attic. Safe and sound. And I lay on my bed, always too soft but tonight feeling claustrophobic, and I calmed my breath. And I fell asleep and dreamed of Edward’s black eyes burning through me.
I woke late that day; a note pushed under my door read simply: “I know.” I dressed quickly and headed down to breakfast, but the children had all gone to lessons already. It was then that I saw him, standing at the top of the stairs, staring through me again. Eyes burning bright with passion and danger and power – most of all with power. He descended and came to me, standing nose to nose, uncomfortably close. I coughed. He nodded to the door behind me, and I walked backwards. He closed the door behind him. And stared.
“Good morning, Edward.” I tried to smile, but it was unnatural.
He grimaced. “So now you speak. Why didn’t you make your presence known last night?”
“I’m not sure what you’re talking about, young man.”
“Yes you do. You were watching us, on the shore. Me and Ramona. Did you enjoy the show?”
I coughed again. No words came to me.
“Here’s what you’re going to do, Baker. You’re going to find a tradesman who will take me on. You’re going to get me Protections so I can make a life for me and Ramona.”
“How can I do that?”
“I don’t care. But I do know that if you don’t, I’ll tell Mr Hudson that you’re depraved.”
He stepped forward, nose to nose with me as before. Except this time, the devil that possessed me the night before came back.
And I kissed him. Fully and with passion, on the lips.
And he pulled back with disgust. And he punched me, square on the jaw. Then he stormed out of the front door, never looking back.
It was only later that day, as the swelling started to become visible, that I realised Edward had marched out of my eyesight, and into that of the gangs. And when he didn’t return… of course, everyone else assumed he had been pressed. I wondered if his absence was because of my depravity, but I went along with the gang theory just in case.
Ramona spent her days staring out the window at the dockyards, as if she was willing him out of whatever ship he had been assigned to and back into her arms. As her stomach grew with his child, she withdrew even more. No one could get her to speak. I had heard tell of lovesickness, and now saw it with my own eyes; I felt it with my own broken heart, too. I had driven Edward away from us both through my lack of composure. Why couldn’t I just admire from afar, as I had done since his power became clear to me? As I had done with the others before him? Admire from afar, never interfere. It had been my motto until that day, and it had served me well.
Edward’s son arrived with us at the end of the summer; he was named for his father. When the baby was two months old, Johnson arrived at the door of our establishment. It was over a year since he had volunteered; he was a shell of his former self. Sallow skin, grey, broken. He asked to see Ramona. He carried a letter. I told him I’d see that she got it; I kept it for myself.
“My darling girl,” it read. “That degenerate who was watching us in our passion made me so angry that I couldn’t control it. You know you’re the only one who can control my anger. My love, if only you had been there when I confronted Baker. I may not have marched out of the door and into the arms of the Impress…”
I tore it up.
Johnson said he did not know what had happened to Edward; he heard rumours of his ship being taken by typhoid, but there was no confirmation. Whatever his story, Edward was lost to us. Disappeared. Gone.
I’m sure the new intake will yield a replacement for me to watch over.