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Authors: Beryl Kingston

Girl on the Orlop Deck

BOOK: Girl on the Orlop Deck
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Girl on the Orlop Deck

Beryl Kingston

Come cheer up my lads ’tis to glory we steer

To add something more to this wonderful year.  

To honour we call you, not press you like slaves,  

For who is so free as the sons of the waves.  

Heart of oak are our ships; heart of oak are our men,  

We always are ready.  

Steady, boys, steady.  

We’ll fight and we’ll conquer again and again.

 

David Garrick 1717–1779
 

Admiral Sir Kenneth Eaton GBE KCB and Dr Colin White FSA FRHistS MA, historian and director of the Royal Naval Museum.

A
DMIRAL
L
ORD
N
ELSON
, hero of the Nile and darling of the nation, was leaving Portsmouth. It was one o’clock on a fine September afternoon and the air was shore-side busy, pungent with the smell of spilt beer and gutted fish, and boisterous with the cheers and shouts of a surging crowd of locals who had gathered in the narrow streets of Spice Island to escort him from The George to the jetty and bid him farewell. His barge was ready to carry him out to his flag ship, its crew sitting to attention with oars raised; the entrance to the harbour was full of small ships waiting on the calm water to salute his departure; but for the moment, as he walked down the steps by the bathing machines, he was dramatically and obviously alone, his handsome face pale and withdrawn under his black bicorne hat, that pitiful empty sleeve pinned to the breast of his blue jacket, scarlet sash bold as blood across his chest, white breeches and white silk stockings immaculate against the sea-stained wood of the steps.

‘Such a fine good man,’ Molly Simmons said to her neighbours, as they struggled to keep their footing on the slippery cobbles, straining forward for a last look at their hero. ‘I means for to say, when you think what’s ahead of him, poor soul, off to fight them pesky Frenchies, no wonder he looks peaky. They say t’will be a fearsome battle. This could be the last time he sets foot on English soil, think a’ that. I means for to say, the last time we shall ever see him again.’

‘Don’t talk morbid,’ Lizzie Templeman said sharply. ‘You don’t know what’s to come no more than any of us.’

‘Quite right,’ Mary Morris agreed, frowning at Molly. ‘No point meeting trouble half way. If ’tis coming, ’tis coming, and we’ll face it when we must, that’s my opinion of it. Meantime I’ll trouble you to keep
your
opinion to yourself.’

Molly had seen her mistake as soon as the words were out of her mouth and now she regretted them, remembering that Lizzie Templeman had a son in one of Nelson’s ships. ‘Time goes on, that’s the trouble,’ she apologized. ‘You sort a’ loses track.’ And she tried to make amends for her clumsiness by saying something complimentary. ‘Seems only yesterday we was all at your Jem’s wedding. Such a pretty wedding. All them flowers an’ all.’

It had been a pretty wedding, Mary thought. She and Lizzie had made sure of it. A pretty wedding, a good match, and everything starting off so well and now look where they were. There was no sense in the world.

 

It had begun on a quiet evening in March when no one in her family was expecting it. The wind had been blowing all day, which had been a fine thing because it had dried the laundry beautifully, and now the wash was indoors, folded up and put in the baskets and standing in the corner of the kitchen ready to be ironed, and she and Marianne were setting the table for supper. Marianne had made the bread that morning and it had turned out well so she was feeling pleased with herself too, because you can never be sure with bread, and Pa and her brother Johnny were back from the yard and had washed their hands and were sitting up to the table waiting for the stew to be served. A quiet, ordinary, humdrum sort of evening. A time for taking their ease after the hard work of the day.

When they heard the knock on the door, Mary sent Johnny to answer it without very much interest. It wasn’t usual to have callers at that time of night, but the neighbours were always popping in and out for one thing or another. She was rather surprised when he came grinning back into the kitchen with young Jem Templeman following behind him. A handsome creature young Jem, with those thick, dark curls all over his head and those fine, dark eyes and that easy way of walking and he was looking particularly well that evening in a red shirt that looked as though it was new made.

‘An’ what can we do for you, young man?’ Mary asked, stirring the stew. ‘Laundry, is it?’ Most of her callers came carrying bundles of dirty linen and she was always ready for trade.

‘No,’ he said. ‘Nothin’ like that, Mrs Morris.’ And he gave Jack Morris one of his bold looks. ‘Fact of it is, I come for to ask Mr Morris a favour.’

‘Then ’tis wheels,’ Jack said, because he was always ready for trade too. ‘Is that the size of it?’

Jem grinned, showing his nice white teeth, and Marianne watched him admiringly. He really was very handsome. ‘No, sir,’ he said. ‘T’en’t wheels neither. As a matter a’ fact …’ and then he lost confidence for a second and hesitated, for, despite his bold appearance and his easy smile, he was more unsure of himself and more easily put down than anyone would ever know, or he would ever admit.

‘Well come on then, my sonny,’ Jack Morris said, laughing at the
hesitation
. ‘Sit ’ee down an’ spit it out. We don’t bite.’

‘Well then,’ Jem said, sitting on the nearest chair and gathering his courage, ‘’Tis like this here, sir. I come to ask your permission to come a-courting.’

The words had an impact like a bomb exploding. It would have been hard to tell which of them was the most surprised. Young Johnny’s eyes were as round as saucers at the thought that anyone should want to court his sister, Mary was beaming fit to split her face and Marianne was blushing with disbelief and pleasure. She could feel her cheeks turning red. He couldn’t mean her, surely to goodness, not when he was so
handsome
and she was so plain. Because she
was
plain there was no denying it. It was a private sorrow to her. When she was little, she’d watched the fine ladies driving about Portsmouth in their carriages or out shopping in the fine new shops, and she’d thought how tall and superior they looked with their haughty faces, all those long noses and big eyes an’ all, and their fine clothes and their white hands, and she’d wondered if she would grow up even half as pretty. But she hadn’t, of course, although she’d watched the mirror every day. She looked what she was, the daughter of a
wheelwright
and a laundrywoman, short in stature, plain in feature, altogether ordinary, with nothing about her to catch the eye. Her legs were too short and her face too dull, with little grey eyes and a blob of a nose, and she wore hemp and linsey-woolsey and her hands were always red-rough with soda and scrubbing. They were red and rough at that moment. And yet she was the only one he could mean and he was looking straight at her and smiling. My dear heart alive! she thought.

Her father was the first to recover. ‘Well now,’ he said, ‘as to that, ’twill need some consideration.’

‘I finished my apprenticeship last week,’ Jem told him. ‘I’m a master carpenter now, master carpenter an’ cabinet maker, what’s a good trade. I means to set up a workshop hereabouts, which should make me a good livin’. Which bein’ so, I needs a wife to help and support me, like. So
what I means for to say is, I been watching your Marianne in church, ever since I was ’prenticed, admiring her like an’ thinkin’ about it, an’ I’ve talked it all over with Ma an’ Pa, what’s agreeable to it, an’ now I’d like your leave for to come a-courting.’

‘My stars, Jem Templeman,’ Jack said, laughing again. ‘You don’t beat about the bush.’

The laughter was encouraging. ‘Is that yes or no, sir?’

‘Well as to that,’ Jack said, ‘you’ll have to ask our Marianne.’

Jem turned towards her and looked directly at her for what seemed a very long time, half bold, half hopeful, but not saying anything, while she tried to catch her breath, for really he’d taken it quite away. But when he spoke he was splendidly proper.

‘What do ’ee think, Miss Morris?’ he said. ‘Shall we walk out after church on Sunday?’

She accepted his offer at once before he could think better of it. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I would like to.’

So that Sunday they walked out of the town and into the countryside, she in her Sunday best and he in his new red shirt and, after a long silence during which they both wondered what he was going to say, he told her all about the work he was going to do and how he was going to hire a workshop and how hard it had been being apprenticed and what a long time it had taken. ‘Seven years from start to finish, what seems for ever. I was fourteen when I began.’ And she listened and marvelled to think that he would confide in her. She might not be the prettiest girl in town but she knew how to behave.

It was quite a relief to him that she listened so well and said so little because he’d been awake half the night wondering how this courtship would begin. Wanting a wife was simple. ’Twas what everyone did. You got to a certain age, you found yourself a job, you settled down, you looked around and found a wife to cook for you and mend your clothes and share your life, bed and board sort of thing. Even to think of it was a pleasure. Bed and board. What could be better? ’Twas just the persuading of her that was the problem, for, if he was honest, and he prided himself on being honest, he really didn’t have the first idea how to go about it. He’d seen plenty of courting couples walking out,
naturally
, hand in hand, or with their arms about each other, or kissing in quiet corners, but he didn’t know how they’d managed to get the whole thing started. What were you supposed to say? And what if you said the
wrong thing? But now they’d taken their first walk together and he hadn’t said anything wrong and it had all gone well. She’d listened and she seemed to like him and she’d certainly approved of what he’d said. When he escorted her back to her parents’ house at the end of it, he was smiling with satisfaction. ‘I will see you next Sunday,’ he said.

Now that he’d discovered how to talk to her, the next Sunday was easier. He told her all about his master, Mr Henderson, and what a stickler he was. ‘Allus had to be the best you could do. Take your time, he used to say. Take your time an’ then you won’t spoil the wood. Very partic’lar about that he was.’ And she listened again. On the third Sunday he told her about his parents’ pie shop and what hard work that was. ‘Which is why I made certain to have me a trade.’ And she listened again.

By the time they’d been walking out for a month, Marianne felt there wasn’t much she didn’t know about him except whether he loved her, although she assumed he must do or they wouldn’t be keeping company and that was now such an established thing that her neighbours were beginning to talk about it. It disappointed her that there’d been no love talk between them – and surprised her, too, for her friends were always telling one another what nonsense men talked and she’d been quite looking forward to it – but maybe that would come later. For the moment it was enough that he’d singled her out and they were known to be courting.

Then one evening, he arrived at her house with a bunch of daffodils and without saying a word, thrust them into her hands. Now that’s a deal better she thought, lifting them to her face to smell them. Flowers were known to be love tokens. Everyone said so. And this is my first. My very first. She thanked him kindly and found an old jug to put them in, arranging them prettily and smiling at him all the time. And when he suggested that they should take a turn about the town she went with him happily.

It was a balmy April evening and because she was so grateful for the flowers she put her hand in the crook of his arm as they walked along and gave it a squeeze. Now, she thought, we shall have some love talk, surely. He might even propose.

‘Where are we goin’?’ she asked.

His answer was rather a surprise. ‘To Mother Catty’s,’ he said. ‘I got something to show you.’

So they walked through the alleys to Mother Catty’s lodging-house, which was a small narrow building, where the amiable Mrs Catty plied her trade as local nurse and midwife and let out her rooms to augment her earnings. The door was ajar, as it usually was, so they walked into the hall which was very dark and smelt of cabbage and old shoes, and Jem led the way up the staircase, taking care to avoid a broken tread, up one floor, up two, until they reached the top of the house, where there were two closed doors giving out to a small landing.

‘Here we are,’ he said, and opened the nearest door with a flourish. ‘This here is our room, what I’ve took for us.’ It was a wonderful moment. Our room, what I’ve took for us.

It was a small square room with a shuttered window looking out over the backyard and a fireplace with two trivets. There was nothing in it except for a brass bedstead with no mattress, an empty coal scuttle and, standing in rather splendid isolation in the middle of the room, a
brand-new
chest of drawers, smelling of new wood and varnish.

They stood side by side with their hands on the wood. ‘I made this,’ he told her proudly. ‘An’ ’tis the best thing I ever done. What do ’ee think?’

‘’Tis a fine piece,’ she said, and meant it, for she could see what care he’d taken with it. ‘

I shall furnish this place with everything we could want,’ he told her and walked about the room showing her where the furniture was going to be put. ‘A table and two chairs under the window, don’t ’ee think? An’ some shelves here for our pots and pans and so forth, an’ a washstand in this corner, where ’twill be neat an’ tidy. You shan’t want for nothing, I promise you.’

It wasn’t exactly love talk, but it was the next best thing. My home, she thought, standing in the middle of the room and gazing round at it. My own home, where I can have a table an’ chairs of my own an’ a
washstand
an’ a chest o’ drawers.…

‘So we’ll call the banns, shall we?’ he said.

That wasn’t exactly a proposal either, but she said ‘Yes’ at once. Now, she thought, he will kiss me. She did so want him to kiss her, or put his arms round her, or even do some of the exciting things that married folk were permitted to do. She didn’t know what they were, because she’d only heard them spoken about in hints and whispers but the whispers had been too breathy and the hints too sly to leave her in much doubt
that they were pleasurable. She lifted her face towards him, ever so slightly but enough to show that a kiss would be welcome. Oh surely he’ll kiss me now, she thought.

But, to her great disappointment, he didn’t. ‘Good,’ he said. ‘I’ll arrange it on Sunday.’

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