A New Start

This story came first in last weeks Friday Flash Fiction competition on Authonomy.com. It just fits into the 1000 word limit.

A New Start

The sun was in her eyes. Florrie ducked her head and squinted at the gangway, concentrating on the heavy bags and awkward steps. She turned her head to rub her nose on her shoulder and overbalanced. She teetered on the edge of the deck, but a voice behind her cried, “Watch out, girl!” A hand grabbed her arm and thrust her forward. As she tottered down the slope she wondered again what she had let herself in for.

The advertisement had been short and to-the-point. “Thinking of emigrating?” It said. “A new home in the sun. Able-bodied applicants required for the colonies. No previous experience required.” More importantly, the advertisement did not specify a fare. Florrie hoped that meant the cost of passage would be included in the position. The dirty streets of Glasgow, heaving with people even poorer than herself, held nothing for her. She wanted to go where there was work to do – lots of work. Work that would fill up her empty hours and help her to forget.

The tiny room in the crowded tenement had been a far cry from life on the croft, but it was only the first step along the way. She kept their minuscule home clean and welcoming for Tom at the end of his shift, and prepared for the imminent arrival of the baby. Neither of them was prepared for the arrival of cholera. The disease crept into the close via the pump, everyone’s water supply, and within days had infected half the residents. Tom had been one of the first to succumb.

The baby had hardly lived before he was dead. She tied his tiny body to Tom’s chest with ropes torn from their clothing. It took all her strength to drag their bodies down the stairs to the pile of corpses awaiting removal, and to resist the urge to look at his face one more time. She wanted to lie down with him and die, but her body had been determined to live.

Florrie stumbled off the end of the gangway and dropped the bags onto the quay. Behind her, the man who had steadied her reached for his bag, thrusting a sixpence into her hand. “I don’t know why I’m paying you,” he said, ungratefully, “when you nearly dropped it into the drink.”

Florrie brushed the hair out of her eyes and looked around. She was supposed to be met by her new employer, a Mrs Hargreave. The press of people around the gangway was already lessening, as each passenger made the acquaintance of his or her reception committee. Florrie stood on, until almost all the people had gone. Whoever Mrs Hargreave was, she hadn’t turned up.

Just in front of her stood a large family of children, ranging in age from a boy of around twelve to a snotty, rather grubby baby of indeterminate sex. There were six of them in all, accompanied by a middle-aged man in down-at-heel boots and a brown woollen suit; probably his best, given how uncomfortable he looked in it. He came forward and spoke to the purser, who was striking the last passenger names from his manifest.

“Lizzie Meadows? I’m supposed to meet Lizzie Meadows?”

The purser consulted his list.

“No luck, mate. She died on the way out. Complications of measles. Terrible thing in steerage – carried off three babies and a pregnant woman. And your Lizzie. Sorry.” He turned away, his remorse perfunctory and completely without empathy.

The man’s shoulders slumped. A girl of around nine or ten tapped him on the shoulder.

“What is it, Dada? Is Auntie Lizzie not coming?”

The man turned and looked at the girl. His face wore an expression of hopeless exhaustion, and the lines of recent grief.

“Oh, Netty.” He held out his arms and she nestled into them for a moment. He gazed over her head at the eldest boy, now holding the baby and patting her ineffectually as she cried. “Your Mam’s sister isn’t coming. She died on the voyage. It’s just going to be us. I’m sorry.”

Florrie finished her examination of the dockyards. After travelling halfway round the world she had arrived to exactly the situation that she’d left behind – she knew no-one, she had no job, and she was in a strange place about which she knew virtually nothing. Swiftly, she came to a decision, and addressed the man.

“Pardon me,”

“Yes miss, can I help you?”

“I couldn’t help overhearing. Are you looking for domestic help? My employer seems to be absent, and so I find myself in need of work”

The man took in her slender form, thin face and shabby carpet-bag. Florrie squared her shoulders and held her head high. She was proud of her roots, and there was nothing to be ashamed of in being a farmer’s daughter fallen on hard times.

The baby snuffled, then let out a sudden loud yell. Instinctively, Florrie reached into the pocket of her skirt and pulled out a rag, with which she wiped the baby’s nose. It startled, and looked at her, and she reached out and tickled it under the chin. The baby chortled, and as the boy shifted it from one hip to the other it reached out for her.

Florrie looked at the man. His careworn face regarded hers, his eyes meeting hers with kindness and hope. He nodded as he made up his mind. “Will you come with me, lass?” he asked. “I cannot offer you much pay, for it has been difficult to work these last months since my wife passed. But our home is warm and dry, and you will be among friends.”

The boy exchanged Florrie’s bag for the baby, which nuzzled her chest as she turned her back on the docks and followed in the wake of the father and his brood. She smiled ruefully.” I wished for work”, she said to herself. “I seem to have been given it.”

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