I’d like to thank everyone for the amazing response to my last blog and the short story The Girl from the Paper-Mill. The comments and e-mails I received in the wake of that post were nothing but kind and inspirational. With that in mind, I’ve decided to serialise Ellen’s story for viewing on the Intellectual Plane.
As stated in the opening remarks of the previous post, I’m not sure how her story will unfold. Nor can I promise that her story will appear in regular instalments. I don’t plan stories or resort to plotlines – all my fiction is dependent on how and when the characters decide to show up and tell me what direction they wish to go. However, as and when she shows up and lets me in on her plans, I am happy to pass on the details to you.
Ellen is a complex character and she likes to run away and hide for long periods of time. The last time she appeared in my consciousness was five years ago and up until today, I never imagined I’d ever hear from her again. And even though she has returned, she is still keeping me guessing as to her next move. Its equal parts exciting and frustrating because while she’s a creation of my imagination I know little about her. Before today I didn’t even know her full name!
Writing is a difficult activity and writing Ellen’s story is especially challenging. As I wrote to friend and reader earlier today and contrary to the opinion of the fictional Melvin Udall, it’s not easy for a man to write a female character!
And it’s to readers like my friend whom I owe a great debt of gratitude for providing the motivation to persevere in telling Ellen’s tale.
To her and my other readers, please accept my heartfelt thanks and I hope you enjoy the journey.
THE GIRL FROM THE PAPER-MILL
BY CHRIS O’CONNELL
Night is the best time to be out on deck. The ship churns a white froth at the stern that reflects the soft white glow from the ship’s lanterns. Some nights the moonlight causes the tops of the waves to glitter as though a million gas-lights were blinking on and off in the distance. I imagine each flash as a musical note, the lights playing a soft plinking melody just for me.
Once when I was a little girl and my mother was still alive I accompanied her to the waterfront near the paper-mill. Along the way we passed a tavern and from inside came the cheerful sounds of someone playing a piano. I asked my mother if we could stay and listen to the music but she shook her head.
“There’s no time Ellen! We need to get back to the factory!”
“Enough Ellen! And let that be the end of it! Not another word!”
I wanted to protest but one look from her cowed me. But I never forgot the melody we heard that day.
After my mother died and the grief-stricken days at the paper-mill and the nights in the dorm room closed in, I’d shut my eyes and recall that music. And I’d imagine a happier place; a better world, far away from the paper-mill and its stench of decay and old wood-smoke, its sounds of rough rasping fabric and the gap-toothed leers of the foreman and his helpers.
Now here, on the deck of a tall-ship I feel free. The ocean is wide and clean and the salty tang of the breeze carries me and the ship miles from the cloying odours of the factory. The waves and the moonlight play music for me – or at least in my imagination they do.
Most of the passengers prefer to walk the bow decks from where they can look towards our destination looming somewhere out in there the darkness.
I try to avoid the other passengers. I wish I could be brave and walk amongst them without the fear of discovery coiling around my middle and making my heart race. I still wear the foreman’s clothes and cloth cap, though I’ve since bathed the garments in saltwater to remove his stink. I loathe these clothes as much as I loathe their original owner. I feel tainted by them.
Yet they are my only possessions, other than the nightdress I was wearing when the foreman attacked me a few days ago and the money bag that I stole from him. As far as the other passengers are aware I am merely a quiet man who is silent at meal-times and spends each day alone in his berth. If they knew the truth, they’d send me back to the paper-mill… or worse.
But here on the stern deck of this tall-ship and under the moonlight I don’t want to think about that. I just want to hear the music of the waves and the whispers of the breeze. I imagine a soothing voice on the wind, not unlike my mother’s voice. It tells me that all will be well.
It comforts me.
“A beautiful night!” remarks the man.
Startled I whirl around, gripping the rail for balance. He holds up his hands, palms outward. His expression reminds me of the nervous wide-eyed gape of the foreman’s horse whenever the whip cracked. My heart is hammering so loudly that for a moment it drowns out the roar of the sea-wash.
I stare at his hands. White palms, reflected in the moonlight. The man is of medium build and dressed in a brown tweed suit. Short dark hair parted neatly down the middle. A pencil thin moustache drawn into needle points.
“I’m sorry!” he stammers. “I didn’t mean to startle you.”
I manage a brief shake of my head in reply.
Slowly he lowers his hands and clears his throat. “The name’s Bradshaw. Tom Bradshaw. I don’t believe we’ve met.”
I take a deep breath and shake my head again, this time so hard that my cloth cap nearly spills over the side of the ship. Desperate to retrieve it I release the rail and snatch at the hat.
“Is everything quite alright?” Bradshaw asks as I jam the errant cloth back on my head.
I want to scream at him to go away and leave me alone, but the fear of discovery is greater than my fear of him.
“You shouldn’t sneak up on people!” I growl.
When I look up again he smiles warily. “Well, I’m sorry. But from where I was standing you looked like you were about to fall asleep. I was worried you might go the way of your hat and fall overboard!”
“But I didn’t lose my hat!” I say inanely.
“I can see that” Bradshaw smirks.
I sigh and turn back to the sea, hoping that he will leave. Instead he approaches the railing and rummages in the inside pocket of his jacket. For some reason I feel the hairs on my arms and neck stand up. Sometimes the foreman’s helpers would bring bugs and worms into the factory in their pockets and throw them at the women there. I resist a shudder.
But instead of something slimy and crawling he produces something almost as obnoxious: a cigar and a book of matches.
“Sure is a nice night” he says and pops the cigar in his mouth. He strikes the match and cups his hand around it to shield it from the ocean’s breeze. Then he exhales a long plume of foul smelling smoke out over the water.
“Oh I’m sorry!” he chuckles and reaches into his pocket again for another rolled leaf. “Cigar?”
“No thank you.”
He nods and stuffs the tobacco back in his jacket. “I do so love a good cigar! These here are from Amsterdam. Picked them up from this fine seller on the Velsen-Noord; a real quality establishment! You sure I can’t interest you in one?”
I clasp my hands together to still the trembling there.
Before I can reply he asks “So what line of work are you in Mr…?”
I blink. I’ve never had to use an alias before and so without thinking I give my real name. “Name’s Fisher.”
“Well pleased to meet you Mr. Fisher.”
He extends his hand. Reluctantly we shake. For a moment I recall the foreman’s hands on me and I almost cry out in panic. Then Bradshaw withdraws his hand and resumes babbling about his career.
“I’m in the textile business” he drawls. “Silk mostly, but wool too. Thing about the Dutch is they sure know how to make cloth. My customers will surely love the supply I’m bringing back home.”
“And where’s home?” I ask more to myself than to Bradshaw.
“That’d be Philadelphia. Is that where you’re headed, sir?”
I shake my head. “I haven’t decided yet.”
“Oh so this is a pleasure trip then? And just what line of work are you in?”
I bite my lip. “Paper” I whisper. Then I clear my throat. Bradshaw’s cigar smoke leaves an unpleasant tickling in my nose. It makes me recall the wood-smoke in the paper-mill. I give into the urge to flee.
“Excuse me” I murmur. “I’m not feeling so well.”
“Yeah the sea will do that if you’re not used to it” Bradshaw calls. “Was nice meeting you!”
Quickly and without a backward glance I stumble to my berth and close the door tight behind me.
(Copyright, Chris O’Connell, 2012 – 2017. The right of the author has been asserted.)