Read Between Two Seas Online

Authors: Marie-Louise Jensen

Tags: #Juvenile Nonfiction, #Family, #General, #Juvenile Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Historical

Between Two Seas

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© Marie-Louise Jensen 2008

 

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Database right Oxford University Press (maker)

 

First published 2008

 

First published in this eBook edition 2011.

 

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ISBN: 978-0-19-273275-0

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For Helle

 
Acknowledgements
 

Thanks to my fellow MA students and the staff at the Bath Spa University, especially Julia Green and Karen Saunders. Also to the helpful staff at Grimsby library and Erik Christensen of the Bangsbo archive for his valuable information about Skagen and Frederikshavn in the 1880s. And to Karl Taylor for a much-needed painting lesson.

ONE
 
Grimsby, July 1885
 

I
’m heading for the privy across the yard, carrying my mother’s full chamber pot, when they catch me. Three tall girls emerge from the passageway that leads out to the street. Two of them block my way forward to the outdoor privy, the third cuts off my retreat to the safety of the stairway. I turn to face them, my back to the wall.

‘Where do you think you’re going, Marianne?’ demands one girl.

Her name’s Bridget. She’s hard-featured and scrawny and lives downstairs in the same tenement building as I do.

One of her skinny arms shoots out and shoves me hard. I’m not expecting it, and I fall heavily against the wall. The chamber pot hits the stone with a dull
thunk
, and shatters, spilling most of its contents down my dress.

‘Oh, look what you’ve gone and done,’ Bridget cries, malicious delight lighting her eyes. ‘You’ve got it all down you!’ She sniffs at me and then turns to her companions, holding her nose. ‘She stinks like the kennel!’ They all laugh. I try to slip away while her back is turned, but she pulls me back and slaps me hard across the face. I lift my arms, covering my face, before she can do it again.

‘And how’s your filthy mother? We all know what she is!’ Bridget’s voice rings out, loud and confident.

I don’t answer her. If I say anything at all, they’ll mock the way I speak. I don’t have their broad Grimsby accent.

‘Speak up, Marianne,’ cries another voice. ‘We can’t hear you.’

‘Marianne?’ taunts the third. ‘Who’d want to Marry Anne?’

They screech with laughter.

‘Marry Anne? No one marries a bastard!’

I stand still, waiting for the right moment to make my escape.

‘Where’s your pa then?’ It’s Bridget’s voice again. ‘Or doesn’t your mother know which one he was?’

‘Whore’s brat!’ the voices cry.

Their crude words ring in my head, but I’m past being upset. It’s mostly lies, and I’ve heard it so many times before. I’m just desperate to get back to my mother.

She’s lying upstairs, dying.

One of the girls is pinching my arm. I look down and see her filthy fingernails digging into my flesh. I slap her hand away and it works like a signal. They all close in, pulling my hair, pinching me, yanking at my dress.

I spot a gap and throw myself at it, tearing myself away from their cruel fingers. I knock the youngest girl flying into a pile of horse dung. I can hear the others scream with rage, but I’m free now, fleeing across the yard and up the stairs.

I slam and lock the door of our attic room behind me. Panting, I lean against it. My eyes seek my mother, lying quietly on her bed in the darkened room. Her rasping breathing is harsher than ever.

With trembling fingers, I wash my hands and remove my soiled dress. I only have one other, besides my best dress. Once I’ve put it on, I go to sit down by my mother. Her frail hands clutch the blanket. I take one of them in mine and hold it, hoping to comfort her. I can see she’s in pain. There is fear in her eyes.

I can’t even afford to get a doctor for her. It’s always been a struggle for the two of us to manage, and now that she’s sick, we have barely any money left. I haven’t told her, but we are also behind with the rent. How shall we manage? I don’t want to think about that right now.

‘Can I do anything for you, mother?’

A small nod of the head.

‘What can I do?’ I ask.

Her eyes dart sideways to the slate lying on the chair by her bed. I put it into her hands and help her to sit up a little, propping her with pillows. She’s no longer able to speak, and writing is becoming increasingly difficult. She grasps the slate pencil and begins to trace out a word. Her writing is shaky.

Sewing Box

I’m puzzled.

‘I’d like to sit with you a little, mother dear, before I work some more.’

I can’t sew by her bedside; the room is far too dark. I need to sit right over by the window to see what I’m doing. My answer was not what she wanted. I can see her frustration as she slumps back on the pillows. I stretch out a hand and tenderly smooth back some stray strands of hair from her face. She clutches at my hand a moment, her eyes entreating me. Then her hand drops. She’s exhausted even by this small movement.

‘I’m sorry, mother, I didn’t understand: my sewing box or yours?’

She jabs at herself with the slate pencil, and I go to fetch her sewing box. Sewing and embroidery is how we make our living, and our sewing boxes are precious possessions.

Mother gestures slightly and I understand I’m to open the box. I lift out the tray containing all her threads and needles. Underneath I find a small heavy package wrapped in waxed paper.

‘Should I open it?’

A nod.

When I unwrap the paper, coins tumble out on the bedcovers, gleaming gold. Sovereigns. I’m speechless with amazement. Here is more money than I have ever seen together. I stare blankly, and then pick up a couple of the coins and weigh them in my hand. They feel smooth and heavy.

‘Mother, we have been going hungry and doing without medicine for you, and all the while you had these hidden!’

There are two letters folded in the package with the money. One is sealed and addressed to Lars Christensen. That’s my father. The other has my name on it.

‘Do you want me to read this?’ I ask, holding up my letter.

Her slight nod shows me that she does. I take it over to the window.

 

May 1885

My dearest Marianne,

I am writing to you before I become too ill to explain what this money is for. For many years I have been saving so that we can travel to Denmark together and find your father. I never saved enough. Now that I cannot go with you, there will be enough for you to go alone. Travel to Skagen and find him. Give him my letter. Please tell him I have loved him and waited for him through all these years. Seek a better life, Marianne!

Yours affectionately,

Your mother,

Esther.

 

This letter fills me with conflicting emotions. The mention of Denmark sends a thrill through me. Throughout my childhood it’s been my fairy-tale land, the stuff of dreams.

But my mother’s calm assumption that she’s going to die appals me. I imagine her sitting down and writing this letter, months ago, accepting her fate, and tears prick my eyelids. I try to blink them back, but one escapes, trickling down my cheek and gathering on my chin. I brush it away quickly and return to my mother’s bedside. I stroke her hands, her face, her hair.

‘I love you so much,’ I whisper brokenly. ‘I want you to grow strong again, to get well, so that we can go together.’

Mother shakes her head very slightly and frowns at me. I realize, perhaps for the first time, that she lost the will to live some time ago. She’s given up. Another tear slides silently down my face, and again my mother shakes her head. She doesn’t like to see me cry. She wants me to be strong.

I take a deep breath, and count the money: it seems a fortune to me.

‘Mother, let me fetch a doctor and buy some medicine for you with some of this money—I beg you!’

She shakes her head more vigorously than before and a spasm of pain crosses her face. She begins to write again. Slowly, tortuously.

Promise

‘Promise what? That I won’t get a doctor? That I’ll go to Denmark?’

A father I’ve never met, I think bitterly. A wild goose chase. Wasting a fortune going to find a father who doesn’t know I exist and might not welcome me when he does. I can’t help thinking that if he had wanted to, he could have returned years ago.

Perhaps with my mother, it would be exciting to go, but how can I do a journey like that alone? I’m sixteen, and I’ve never left Grimsby. The very thought is terrifying.

But mother’s eyes beg me, desperate. I drop to my knees and take her trembling hands in mine.

‘Mother, I promise to go to Denmark and look for my father if that is what you wish me to do. I swear it if that will comfort you. But surely there is more than enough money here for the journey. Please, please let me get a doctor.’

Her face is set and stubborn. She won’t give in now. And I’ve made a promise I must keep. My mother grows more peaceful.

It doesn’t last, however. By the early hours of the morning she’s no longer able to bear the pain. She is writhing and twisting in the bed, unable to make a sound, wild-eyed and sweat-drenched. I can’t watch her suffer like this. Mother has been everything to me all my life; she needs help now.

‘Mother!’ I try to speak calmly and clearly, though my voice shakes. ‘I’m not breaking my promise to you, but I am going to get a doctor!’

I can’t tell whether she has heard me. Frantic, I run downstairs to Mrs Forbes. She is the only person in the building who has ever spoken kindly to me. One of the few respectable people who does not flinch at the sight of me, as though my illegitimacy were a visible stain. I hammer on her door.

Mrs Forbes appears, candle in hand, nightcap on her head.

‘Is it your mother?’ she asks.

‘She needs medicine,’ I tell her, and my voice is hoarse with fear. ‘But I can’t leave her alone.’

‘Of course. I’ll send my son for the apothecary at once. Go back to her, my dear.’

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