Monday, August 28
What we now call the Great Trouble began one thick, hot, foul-smelling morning in August. ’Course, I didn’t know it then. No one did.
I remember that day for quite another reason.
I was supposed to be dead. But somehow he had found me out.
It was early, and dark enough that most mudlarks weren’t on the river yet. I liked this time best. The stink wasn’t quite so bad for some reason. And it was quiet, since most folks in London were still sleeping. The bustle and noise of the old city would start up soon enough.
Thumbless Jake was there, of course. The rest of us scavengers wondered if he ever did sleep. And on this particular morning, Jake was on edge, I expect because of spending so much time wading in that sludgy stink we called a river. So when he spied me snatchin’ up something shiny from the murky water, he commenced hollering like a mad bull about to charge.
And I should know. I might never have been on a farm in all my nearly thirteen years, but I’d seen my share of raging beasts at the old Smithfield livestock market, a fearful but exciting place. They’d moved it two years before, on account of the mayhem caused by throngs of cattle, pigs, goats, horses, and sheep tramping through the heart of the city. I was sad to see it go.
“Give it here, Eel!” Jake shouted at once. He thrust out his long stick and lunged for my ankles.
“Can’t catch me,” I taunted. I skittered out of reach, fast as I could, sticky brown mud squelching between my toes. “Don’t be greedy. It’s just a bit of rope.”
“Liar. ’Tain’t rope at all. I seen it glitter with me own eyes. That’s copper you got there.” Thumbless Jake pointed the forefinger of his right hand--his good one--at me. “Play fair, Eel.”
“Why should I? No one’s ever played fair with me.” I said it, but that wasn’t quite true. Even Jake himself had once done me a good deed.
“Wicked, ungrateful lad,” Jake growled, aiming a huge hunk of spit at me.
Jake had been a blacksmith once, or so I’d heard from Ned (we called him Nasty Ned, on account of him being the worst-smelling lad on the river). “Gin was Jake’s downfall,” Ned had told me. “And then came the day he tippled so much he slammed a great hammer down on ’is own thumb.”
I tried to picture Jake’s muscles as they must’ve been, rippling across his back like ever so many snakes. These days he used his arms for stealing copper off the hulls of ships and trolling for bits of the shiny stuff in the brown slop of low tide.
“You are an eel,” Jake declared. He paused to wipe his face with a corner of his ragged shirt, though I’m not sure why, as both were equally covered in filth. “Slippery and more hard-hearted than most. And that’s sayin’ a lot, with this ’ere pack of mudlarks.”
“I’ll take that as a compliment.” I grinned.
“Hand it over. You poached on my bit o’ river here,” Jake said, his voice almost pleading now. “You gotta stay on the edge. Them’s the rules, lad.”
“You’re always goin’ on about rules, Jake.”
I was bluffing, though, and Jake knew it. In the end, I’d have to give in. A big man like Jake could troll where he wanted. Kids like me had to keep to the edge of the grimy brown river, picking up pieces of coal, rope, rags, and wood at low tide. On a good day, I might collect enough coal to fill a pot and make a penny.
Now that I had my place at the Lion Brewery over on Broad Street, I’d been mudlarking mostly just in the early mornings, when it was so hot even my stone cellar room seemed about to stifle me. It didn’t bring in much, but I needed any extra tin I could get.
“Have a heart, Eel.” Jake fixed me with his wild blue eyes and tried again. “Ain’t we all riverfinders? Put on this earth to try to get by, one day at a time. We’re all we’ve got under this sky. We need to play fair and take care of one another.
“If I’d known that sooner, I wouldn’t have lost sweet Hazel and my kiddies,” he went on, almost to himself, slapping the oily surface of the water with his stick.
“All right,” I relented at last. “You win. It’s yours. Catch!”
The big man lunged and missed, landing flat on his face, sputtering in the churning black water. I laughed and turned to go.
But Jake had the last word.
“You better watch out, Eel.” He rose up, hollering at the top of his lungs. “ ’E’s been nosing around askin’ after you, ’e has. Don’t blame me--I had nothing to do with it. But ’e says a little birdie told him you ain’t dead.”
“What?” I froze, digging my feet into the mud. “What did you say?”
“You heard me, lad. You think you’re clever, but just you watch out,” Jake warned. “I ain’t let on I knows anything about you. But Fisheye Bill Tyler is onto you--and a nastier man never walked the streets of London. He might’ve been an honest fishmonger once. Those days are gone. He’s turned bad. Very bad indeed.”
“What did he say, Jake?” I demanded.
“Why, Eel, he only wants what’s ’is,” Jake replied, trying to wipe streaks of dark mud from his grizzled face, this time with his fingers. “Fisheye said he just wants what belongs to ’im by rights.”
Jake hadn’t touched a hair on my head. But it felt as though he’d knocked the breath right out of me.
“You ain’t seen me, Jake,” I cried. “You hear me? You know nothin’. All you know is that the Thames got me.”
I took a ragged breath, the stink of the river almost making me retch. “You got that? I’m dead, carried out to sea in the arms of this muddy flow. Dead and gone.”
“What did you take of ’is, Eel? You must ’ave done something to make ’im that mad,” Jake called after me, holding fast to the scrap of copper he’d finally fished out of the grimy water.
I didn’t stop. My insides had begun to shake like the last little leaf on a tree when the cold fingers of a biting wind come to snatch it. How had he found me out?
I’d made sure that Fisheye had been told I was dead, swallowed up by the dirty old river, covered by its churning waters. For the last six months, I’d kept low and out of his way. And I’d kept my secret safe.
Until now. How much did Fisheye know? And who had snitched? It might have been Jake himself. Trust was as rare on the river as finding a gold ring. No, I couldn’t trust him.
Thumbless Jake was right about one thing, though. Fisheye Bill Tyler wanted to control whatever he thought belonged to him--pickpockets, petty thieves, housebreakers.
Copyright © 2013 by Deborah Hopkinson. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.