A mudlark's mourning
It is barely six in the morning, and the acrid mist already hangs low enough to obscure the dome of St Paul's. The sky is only set to thicken as an ever increasing amount of coal fires are lit; perhaps ten per household in freshly blackened grates. There is no wind to carry the fumes, so all is still. It is bitterly cold for December. The air bites at Robert, leaving red marks beneath his oversized, threadbare clothes, as he trudges onwards. He makes his approach to the water, and his feet slip at the static river's edge. Robert sits in the grime to rearrange the mud on his face with the back of his hand.
'Wish I were sleeping,' he calls over his shoulder, while stretching scrawny arms to the sky.
There is no response, just the methodical panting of someone struggling to get closer. Sighing, Robert lifts his left leg and places its ankle on his right knee. He starts to unwrap his shoes, loosening the long cotton strips, which would once have made a fine chemise. Mr Hobbs dipped them in glue to harden them for a better use. Robert glances back at him now. He is the closest thing he has to a father and good enough too.
'S'alright for you Hobbs,' he says, watching him take another swig of his flask. 'My head is banging... can y'give us just the one drop.'
Mr Hobbs gives a guttural laugh, the type he usually saves for the whore house. 'Beer was good enough for you last night me boy, and so it should be. If your dear ma could have seen you; she would have done me in. God rest her. You turned ten not fourteen, you cheeky blighter, and don't you forget it!'
Robert smiles and stands up, entrenching both feet back in what the lives of London leave behind. Staring at the ground, he hopes that they've left something behind for him.
'John's been drinking a whole year; he reckons it beats the water,' he mumbles to his chin.
Suddenly his cheeks flush and he grabs at the mud in front of him. 'Look at that Mr Hobbs, a whole shilling and it's not yet seven. It's got to be a good day now, eh?'
Robert turns to press the coin into Mr Hobbs' hand as if it were a treasured secret.
Feigning nonchalance Mr Hobbs wipes it clean at the corner of the undershirt pulled from his trousers. He slips it into the crudely fashioned pocket added to the inside of a threadbare waistcoat too embroidered and once too magnificent ever to have been made for him.
Robert can't keep from smiling. He picks up his pace and continues to search the shore like a famished seagull. He finds something. It is turning to rust and half covered with seaweed, but both unsalvageable and unidentifiable. He moves on: to the distant sound of coaches, pulled by horses, and men working in the brewery.
The normality is broken by gay voices and occasional laughter in the distance. Robert looks up with a scowl. It is Kate, Rascals and John working the riverbed further up, so Robert starts moving with a heightened sense of urgency. Life is competitive. He can sense Mr Hobbs watching him with one of his rare smiles; it turns into a hacking cough which bends Mr Hobbs in two. Trying to recover he looks out across the swamp they call the River Thames.
'Bobbie...' he wheezes. 'Ma boy, look at that. '
Robert turns at his call and squints into the distance following Mr Hobbs’ weak, hurried gesticulation. Adrenaline is the tonic Mr Hobbs needs; he gives a productive no nonsense cough, spits out the resulting phlegm over his shoulder and stands.
'Pass ma stick Bobbie, it's a body... a skirt too, bout time I got another, why should them down there have all the luck.'
Mr Hobbs nods his head in the direction of the miniature Rascals and Kate both huddled over potential loot on the beach and takes his hooked stick off Robert. He starts wading purposefully towards the lady floating face down in the centre of the river. At waist height he stops. At any moment the earth beneath his feet could drop away and take him to his death. He turns back expecting Robert's presence, but he is still staring into the river.
'Blast Bob's, step to would ya, do you want them bastards down there to catch on and beat us to her? She must be in the only bloody part of the God forsaken river that's actually moving.'
Robert jumps into action and grabs a rock to heave at the body. He stumbles with it towards Mr Hobbs.
'If I wanted world to hear, I'd just holler for help... imbecile child, that lump of wood,' he says pointing.
Mr Hobbs wades further down the river, takes the wood off Robert and lays it out in front of them like a plank. Before catching his breath, he already has Robert by the scruff of his neck. Mr Hobbs anchors himself with a foot wedged in the log, and pushes Robert out in front of him, prodding him onwards with his stick. Before Robert can understand what is happening he can barely sense his toes on the log. He feels connected to the shore solely by his jacket hooked on the boat hook. He flounders, barely feeling afloat. His inability to swim might bother him now, but for the fact that he knows no one who can, and doesn't realise it is possible. The smell of sewage is unbearable; he feels like he is drowning in pig swill. He almost calls out, but doesn't. He wants so badly to make Mr Hobbs proud. He knows he is indebted to him.
He reaches out and grabs hold of the woman's pale, blue arm. It seems to twist away from him, happy in its final resting place, but Robert forcefully reaches for it again. He takes hold of it firmly, too firmly. His nails sink into the flesh like maggots enjoying yesterday's meat. Robert's bile burns the back of his throat as he and his prize are pulled to shore.
Mr Hobbs can hardly hide his excitement. It is infectious and Robert's need to vomit dissipates. They are hardly on dry land a second when Mr Hobbs is taking off his jacket, and pulling at Robert’s. He silently wraps and knots them around the boat hook, threading ends, or pulling and tying, under a woman with hair falling about her waist. Her eyes are closed and any features are already puffed up and sliding from her face.
With hushed whispers Mr Hobbs continues to direct Robert, and they begin the laborious journey of half carrying, half dragging her to the local police station to wait for a reward from her family, or a hospital who want to harvest her organs for medical instruction. Families usually pay better. Neither will expect silk petticoats, money or jewellery to be recovered, so as mud larks Mr Hobbs will have Robert relieve the body of them first. Before they leave the beach the party stops in a dark alcove to do just that.
There is disappointment. The dress was expensive, but is far too spoilt. She wears no petticoats at all. Her money is all spent, and her jewellery lost or sold.
'What happened Mr Hobbs, ya think?'
'Who knows ma boy, another fallen lady, or perhaps she was murdered and robbed.' He gives her a nudge with his foot and shakes his head.' It's a waste, that's fa'certain, she's hardly a grey hair to her head.'
Mr Hobbs looks at Robert and grimaces at his downtrodden face.
'Don't worry son. It gets easier with every one and in a week we'll be eating like kings. What do ya think to pigs' trotters? '
Robert smiles as Mr Hobbs gingerly runs his hand over the matted curls to the boy's head.
'In mean time we'll drop her off and use ha'penny for a nice hot tatter from Arthur Dawes. Better get you in something dry too Bobs. So pike on, grab an end. Lets get moving.'
With that Robert grabs the makeshift stretcher with new found strength and thinks only of the street vendor. A week later he lends the unnamed woman hardly another thought when she isn't claimed: Mr Hobbs still returns with a handful of cash. For a week they will indeed live like kings, kings of the sewer.
Story originally published here