Chapter 2 – A Run-in with the Riding Officer

Outside, gulls were in full battle-cry and she could hear the shouts and calls from the Leigh men down by the dock. Her ma was yelling up the stairs to her. ‘Esther Wilding, are you wanting your porridge or not? Half the day’ll be gone by the time you move your bones.’ Daylight was not yet showing through the small window in her attic room.

‘Coming,’ groaned Esther. Hauling herself out of bed, she pulled on her dress. She felt like she’d been in a prizefight.

Downstairs, she went to the pantry and pulled up short at the sight of Lucky, sitting at the table in his red bandana, tucking into porridge. He raised his dark eyes. She glowered back at him. Stickler and the dragoons hadn’t got him then.

‘So what have you got to say for yourself?’ Her ma’s hands were on her hips as she cast an appraising gaze over Esther in the firelight. ‘Just look at the state of you, girl. Your legs are cut to ribbons, your face is filthy and as for your hair… You look like you’ve been dragged through a hedge backwards.’ Esther crossed her legs in an effort to hide at least one of them.

Her mother’s full skirts swished towards the pot on the fire and Esther narrowed her eyes accusingly at Lucky. He regarded her coolly, as Betty slopped some of the thin porridge into a bowl and banged it on the pine table. ‘You’re fourteen. You can’t be running round the country in the middle of the night like a savage, Esther. Or at any time, for that matter. You’re a young lady now and you’ve got to start behaving like one.’

Esther stared at a chip of cockle shell on the stone floor. She didn’t see why she had to behave like a lady. She didn’t feel like a lady. Her red hair fell in front of her face. She liked it matted. It was natural.

Her mother hadn’t finished. ‘Lucky has kindly brought us some fine silk and French lace and Mrs Osborne has agreed to make you a pretty dress. Not that you deserve it. But perhaps it will encourage you to behave in a befitting manner. Now eat your mash.’

Esther sat at the table and glumly spooned porridge into her mouth, glaring at Lucky. Overnight, he seemed to have become bent on making her life a misery.

Her ma poured her some ale. ‘I mean, what were you thinking of?’ Esther didn’t have to look at her mother to know her hands were on her hips again. ‘Knowing that Stickler and the dragoons were abroad?  They could have shot you.’

‘But I wasn’t doing anything wrong.’

‘You don’t have to, Esther. We’re vermin to them. You heard him. Rat’s nest, indeed.’

Esther’s porridge was becoming increasingly difficult to swallow. Lucky had hit her, her ma was shouting, she was going to have to wear a stupid silk dress, which she was bound to get dirty. That would mean another telling off… It wasn’t fair. She’d only been trying to help.

Betty wiped her hands on her apron. ‘I’ve got work to be getting on with. You’re to go with Lucky today.’

‘I don’t want to go with him,’ said Esther thickly, through a mouthful of porridge. Did she have no say in this? She was fourteen after all.

‘How dare you back-chat me?’

‘He hit me,’ she shouted. If he was going to tell tales, so would she.

‘Sounds like you deserved it, my girl.’

Tears prickled in Esther’s eyes. ‘He’s got no right, he’s not my father.’ She stood up, her jaw clenched.

‘He may as well be. He’s put clothes on your back and food on the table since your pa got himself killed. You ungrateful little…’

‘Betty.’ Just one quiet word and a look from Lucky stopped the onslaught.

‘Well I don’t know what to do with her.’ And with that, her ma bustled out to the brewery.

Esther stared down at her bowl, breathing hard and trying to contain her tears. Her insides felt like a wrung-out dishcloth.

‘You don’t want to go fishing then?’ said Lucky.

‘Fishing?’ The gloom lifted. Did he really mean it? She’d been on at him for months to take her out in the boat. She wanted to be a fisherman like her pa had been before the war, like Lucky and the other Leigh men. But he’d always said that the sea was no place for a girl.

‘Better eat up and be quick about it, then. You’ll be needing that.’ Lucky knew he had her. Esther would have made more of a show of reluctance but he was on his feet and striding out the door. She shovelled in the last couple of mouthfuls and ran after him. He was a tall man with about one step to her three and she had to jog to keep up.

You could tell the Leigh men from the landlubbers by their weathered faces and a certain roll in their walk. As Esther and Lucky got to Strand Wharf, she saw the two silhouetted masts of the Fortune – a beautiful ketch that, in the first light of dawn, appeared to be outlined in gold. Her heart swelled. She was finally going fishing.

Then she saw Dillon aboard. He was Lucky’s boy. Not his true-born son but his junior shipmate. She’d forgotten it would mean spending a day with him. But Lucky had only paused to have a word and, by the time she’d caught up, he was striding off down the wharf again.

She hesitated, looking from the thin, dark-haired boy to Lucky.

‘Dillon’s doing some repairs to the rigging and nets,’ Lucky called back. ‘We’ll take the other boat.’

She treated Dillon to a royal smirk, intended to annoy him. He gave a hint of a smile, as if some private thought had amused him, and carried on sorting out the fishing nets. Why didn’t he behave like the other dockside boys. Normally she’d trade insults with them. Once or twice she had even got into a scrap. But somehow they’d end up friends. It was how things worked. But Dillon seemed to consider himself above all that. He was too quiet by half, she thought, running off. But she wasn’t going to let him bother her.

***

They set sail with the tide in a flotilla of smacks and bawlies and other fishing boats. Life didn’t get better than this, thought Esther, looking out to the horizon where darkness had given way to light. ‘Ahoy there, Bobber,’ she called out, waving madly. He raised his hand, although he appeared to be looking back towards Hadleigh Castle because of his stray eye.

Lucky seemed to be able to sail the boat single handed, but she hoped he’d let her help.

‘Can we go out in the Fortune another time?’ she asked.

‘We don’t need her for fishing. I need her for longer trips to France and Holland.’

‘Why’s that?’

‘Because she’s balanced in high winds. I can sail her on the mizzen and jib.’

‘So she’s just used for smuggling then?’

He gave her a sideways glance. ‘Free-trading, yes. A necessary evil in this day and age, what with Mr Pitt bleedin’ us dry.’

She knew he preferred to call it that but it meant the same thing. Not paying tax, which was so high on brandy, baccy and tea that no poor man could afford it.

‘Now, we’ll have less of the smuggling talk,’ said Lucky firmly, busying himself with ropes and nets, his foot on the tiller.

Esther wanted to ask if smuggling was really treason, as Stickler had said, but she bit her tongue. No point in spoiling a day’s fishing.

‘And there’s to be no more running about the country in the middle of the night, do you hear me?’

‘I was only trying to help,’ she grumbled, thinking she was in for another telling off.

‘I know.’ He ruffled her hair. ‘But I’m big enough to look after myself and I don’t want you getting into trouble.’

She turned her face towards the wind to blow her worries out of mind. Closing her eyes, she breathed in deeply, enjoying the briny tingle in her nose. Her hair flamed behind her.

‘Are we going right out to sea, Lucky? Will we see Nelson’s fleet?’

‘No.’ He chuckled. ‘We’ll be working close to.’

‘But we could go round by the Kent coast aways couldn’t we?’

‘Maybe.’

She grinned and jigged up and down and nearly lost her balance as the boat came up to meet her.

‘Careful. Feet on the deck, Shrimp. Here, you take the tiller.’ It was his pet name for her. ‘Right. Your job is to keep us straight. See the mill there.’ He pointed to the Kent coast. ‘Aim for that now. It’s very important.  We don’t want to beach ourselves on the sandbank.’

Esther took the role seriously, not taking her eyes off the mill. She was steering the boat; she was sailing. If only her friends could see her. They used to go cockling on the mudflats when they were little, but that was hand-dredging when the tide was out. It wasn’t the same as fishing. With Lucky, who knew the seas better than anyone.

‘Is Dillon a good sailor?’ she asked.

‘He’s becoming a fine sailor. Can navigate too, taking bearings from landmarks, and soundings with a lead line. He’s getting to know the seabed like he knows Leigh dockside. Keen as a north wind, he is.’

This was disappointing. But Dillon wasn’t there today. And she thought that Lucky spending time with her was his way of saying sorry.

‘Right, Shrimp. Tiller to starboard when I say.’

Esther watched him carefully, waiting for the word, as Lucky loosed the main sheet.

‘Ready about,’ he called and she pushed on the tiller as he’d said. The sail flapped like a flag, making a beating sound as the boom came across the boat. Then it caught the wind on the other side and they tacked back towards the Essex coast.

‘Where am I aiming for?’

Lucky sat by her at the tiller, adjusted course and pointed to a church. ‘That’s the way. Well done, Shrimp.’

Esther glowed. She had successfully steered the boat. They passed Sheerness dockyard and the big ships, the imposing twin towers of the church at Reculver and finally the lightboat on the Nore, a naval anchorage marking the beginning of the North Sea, where the mutiny had happened when she was little. People still talked of the scandal. She imagined the men hanging from the yardarm and shivered. ‘Is it true the mutineers were in league with the French?’ she asked.

Lucky glanced at her and looked away. ‘They wanted better conditions on board ship.’

‘But still, to endanger the fleet, in a time of war,’ she said, repeating what she’d once heard Tolly say.

‘There are times when you have to follow the rules, Shrimp. And there are times when you have to break them.’

Lucky’s reply was unexpected as she’d only ever heard the incident spoken about with shame and disapproval.

In the waters around Margate, they cast the net. Didn’t seem much to it really. Sometimes she and Lucky were quiet, enjoying the serenity of the sea in the winter sunshine. And other times, they talked of fishing and smuggling and her pa. Lucky told her a story about a scrape they’d got into. Laughing, he said: ‘He was wild, your pa. Wildman Wilding they called him.’

‘Wildman Wilding.’ Esther caught onto the name before it blew away on the wind. ‘I can’t remember pa anymore, not really,’ she said. ‘I just have an idea of him. I remember him carrying me on his shoulders and looking at the boats. And singing to me once.’

‘Aye, he were always singing. Never in tune, mind.’ Lucky smiled and gave her an affectionate squeeze. ‘I don’t suppose you would remember him. You were only five when he went to the wars. But he was a good man. Ugly as sin, but a good man.’ He chuckled.

‘Do you think he’s in heaven?’ she asked.

He didn’t answer for a moment. ‘I’m not a church man, Esther. I know nothing of heaven or hell. I only knows that no man is all good and no man is all bad.’

She couldn’t stop her bottom lip from trembling as she said: ‘I don’t like to think about him lying cold at the bottom of the ocean.’ Her pa had died at the Battle of St Vincent when she was seven.

‘Esther, you mustn’t think of him that way.’ Lucky pulled her towards him as a tear escaped down her cheek.

‘I don’t know why I’m crying. It were ages ago.’ She’d never make a Leigh man if she blubbed.

‘Don’t mean you miss him any less,’ he said, kissing the top of her head. ‘Hush now.’ He smelled comfortingly of the sea and wood smoke. ‘He’s right here with us. He’s in our memories…’

‘But I can’t remember him. I can’t picture him anymore.’

Lucky held her face. ‘He’s in you. I see him in you all the time.’

‘You think I’m ugly?’

He gave a throaty chuckle. ‘No. I was joking about that. He weren’t ugly. Not as handsome as me, obviously. But he weren’t ugly.’

Esther made a sound that was half-laugh and half-sob.

‘Besides, you look more like your ma. You’ve got her red hair and her beautiful green eyes. But the mischief in them is all your pa.’ He tapped the tip of her nose with his finger.

Esther grinned and cuffed her tears.

***

Late in the afternoon, they hauled in the net. A couple of hopeful terns wheeled above in hope of an easy snack. Esther didn’t like to see the fish slapping in their silver death throes on the deck and helped throw them in the koff, a floating fish box, which they would tow behind them to keep the fish fresh until they were landed. One slipped out of her hands as she saw a cutter rounding the coast into the mouth of the river.

‘Lucky,’ she said, nodding in its direction. ‘Isn’t that the King’s boat?’

‘Oh hell,’ he muttered and worked more quickly. ‘We’ve not got anything he’s interested in. Unless we have to pay duty on fish now.’

Esther rushed to get the last of the slippery fish in the koff. There were a couple more she just couldn’t keep hold of, but Lucky had already thrown the fish box into the water astern and secured the attached rope to the boat. They made sail, Lucky joining her at the tiller, but the customs men were in a much bigger boat and gaining on them fast.

‘Ahoy there. Heave to,’ came the inevitable cry. ‘Heave to, I say.’

‘God’s teeth. That’s Stickler with them. Anyone would think we were in a man o’ war on the high seas, the way he’s going on,’ muttered Lucky.

Esther followed his lead in ignoring the calls and held to their course. This was a time to break the rules, it seemed. She could hear her heart beating. They couldn’t get hanged for this, could they?

‘Shouldn’t we stop, Lucky?’

‘We’re not doing anything wrong.’

She eyed the King’s boat without turning her head. ‘But he’s almost upon us.’ Her insides tumbled with excitement at this grown-up game of dare. Her ma would have a fit, if she knew. The button eye of a dead fish stared up at her.

Lucky’s hand was over hers on the tiller. ‘Keep steady. Damn the man. What’s he about?’

What was Lucky hoping to achieve? He couldn’t outrun the cutter. A shot whizzed across the bows. She didn’t have time to think. She didn’t have time to cry out. Acting on instinct, she threw herself on the deck.

‘What in God’s name are you doing?’ yelled Lucky. He took control of the tiller and came off the wind. The sails went slack. ‘I’ve a girl aboard, for heaven’s sake, hold your fire.’ Esther got back on her feet warily, eyes wide.

‘Just a warning shot,’ Stickler called, coming alongside. His voice was like treacle laced with arsenic. ‘You were ignoring a King’s officer. And please don’t take the Lord’s name in vain.’

‘I didn’t dream you were hailing a fisherman going about his legitimate business,’ Lucky lied.

Stickler took no notice and, instead, turned his reptilian face to Esther. ‘A girl? Fishing?’

‘Is there a law against it?’ said Lucky.

Esther looked from one to the other, caught in the crossfire.

‘Natural law, aye.’ His small eyes flicked over her.

‘Fishing’s in her blood.’ Lucky’s voice took on the hard, blunt edge she recognised from the night before. But this time he was defending her. In her blood. Esther swelled with pride. She’d have to remember that when he was telling her that boats were no place for a scrap of a girl.

Stickler seemed to lose interest in her. His attention moved to Lucky but he was talking for the benefit of his leering crew. ‘Lucky, they call him.’ Stickler hauled up the corners of his mouth. The effect was more a grimace than a smile. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure.’ He paused, presumably allowing Lucky to fully appreciate his meaning. ‘You’ve tubs out, I’ll wager. Collecting some you dropped earlier, are you?’

‘Just fishing, Mr Starks.’

‘Fishing, you call it now. Stand by, I’m boarding you.’

‘Please do.’

Although their words were polite, their manner was hostile. Esther gave a shiver as she watched the riding officer slither down the rope ladder and land with a soft thud on the deck. Night had begun to fall, the embers of the sun sliding behind the Kent marshes. Stickler’s chinless profile was silhouetted against a blood red sky. The golden waters were turning black.

‘I want you to know, Lucky, that I’m on to you,’ Stickler threatened quietly. ‘So don’t try to outwit me. I’ve God, King and country on my side.’

Esther got the feeling Stickler wasn’t expecting to find anything aboard he just wanted to brandish his authority like a cudgel. Her jaw clenched. She hated bullies.

‘I know you’ve got the big guns,’ Lucky said, sitting aft as Stickler peered below deck. Under his breath, he added: ‘Just not the wit you were born with.’

‘What did you say?’ Stickler stood up.

The pride she’d felt in Lucky giving Stickler his answer, shrivelled at the oozing menace of the riding officer. He sounded like he might decide to shoot them after all. If only she were big enough to kick his skinny arse overboard. An idea came to mind but did she dare? She shifted slightly down the boat. Stickler was still eyeballing Lucky and neither of them paid her any attention as she released the main sheet.

‘I said,’ started Lucky, but the wind caught the sail and the boom swung across the boat. Esther heard the crack as it hit Stickler and got a glimpse of the soles of his boots as he was knocked clean overboard. There was a satisfying splash and angry cries went up from the cutter. Lucky stood up, astonished, then inclined his head questioningly at Esther.

She called out: ‘Sorry Mr Starks, sir. I’m just a girl. I couldn’t have secured the sail properly.’ She looked at Lucky and shrugged guiltily.

Stickler spluttered, struggling to stay afloat in the water as his men fell over themselves to pull him out.

She couldn’t read the look on Lucky’s face. Had she done wrong? But then she heard the barely contained laughter in his voice as he looked at the bedraggled riding officer and said: ‘Do you need a hand, sir?’

‘Blast your eyes, you blackguard. I don’t need…’ A wave took the rest of the sentence.

‘I’ll be on my way then. Good evening, sir.’ Jerking his head to the tiller, Lucky said: ‘Come about, Shrimp, the tides on the turn. He moved with cat-like grace against the darkening sky, securing the sail once again.

As the sails snapped taut, Stickler bellowed: ‘You’ll be laughing on the other side of your face when you’re hanging from the yardarm, Lucky.’

With the wind behind them, the boat skimmed over the waves like a stiff-winged fulmar leaving the revenue cutter sulking behind them. Lucky gave into his laughter, but Esther was worried. ‘Won’t Stickler have it in for you now?’

‘No more than afore.’ He chucked her affectionately on the shoulder. ‘I couldn’t believe you done it, Shrimp. You’re a bloody marvel, and no mistake. A chip off the old block. That was your pa.’ He whooped and guffawed, wiping tears from his eyes. ‘Did you see the look on his face?’

Esther felt the giggles bubble up. ‘Pouting like a codfish,’ she said, mimicking Stickler’s wet indignation. Lucky stooped to pick up the dead fish, waggled it and said: ‘I’ve God, King and country on my side.’ Esther’s belly hurt with laughing.

Other boats appeared, spirit-like, around them and sitting next to Lucky, she felt like a true mariner, an old salt. ‘Lord, girl, you’re frozen,’ he said holding her hand between his great, calloused paws. She was shivering, even in the woollen jersey and the oilskin he’d given her. ‘Come here and let me warm you.’ He drew her towards him. ‘Time to get us some broth to fill our bellies and warm our bones.’

***

The laughter of the Leigh men turned to raucous song as Esther and Lucky approached the Peter Boat. Tolly’s gravelly voice rose above the others, carrying on the night air.

A landlady of France loved an officer, ’tis said

And the officer he dearly loved his brandy-o.

They followed the voices back to the inn, Esther singing along.

Now said she “I dearly love this officer, tho’ his nose is red

And his legs are what the regiment calls bandy-o.

‘Lord girl, we’ll never make a lady of you,’ Lucky chuckled. The candlelight flickered as they opened the wooden door and the roaring fire crackled in welcome along with the men’s voices, as they broke off from their song. Esther breathed in the sweet smell of burning applewood.

Greetings and claps on the back were exchanged. Then Lucky cleared his throat importantly. ‘May I introduce Shrimp Wilding, a sea-dog in the making.’ They all cheered and Lucky held Esther’s arm aloft in a gesture of triumph.

Tolly patted her on the shoulder, his pale blue eyes twinkling. ‘Well done, lass,’ he said and began packing the bowl of his white clay pipe with tobacco. It was a new habit. The old one being drink. Tolly was a stocky man with sandy hair and strong, handsome features, even if his beard didn’t quite cover his pock marks. His smile could light your way home in the dark.

Coming over shy at all the attention, she went to the fire to warm herself, leaving Lucky to tell them about Stickler. Her ma gave her a withering glance. ‘No good’ll come of it.’ She banged some mugs of ale on the table so they splashed. ‘And you,’ she added, giving Lucky a clip round the ear, ‘shouldn’t be encouraging her. What were you thinking of, you fool, getting the girl into trouble with the law.’

‘Stop fussing woman.’ Lucky caught her hand and pulled her onto his lap, laughing. He kissed her cheek and whispered something in her ear.

‘I’ll have less of your sauce,’ she said, getting up and flicking him with a dishcloth. She was telling him off but the way she smiled at him told Esther a different story. Although her ma, at thirty, was getting on in years, she looked younger and prettier with Lucky. Perhaps it was because he made her laugh.

This was her family, thought Esther, looking round the taproom. Her ma, who was disappearing into the pantry, Mr and Mrs Osborne behind the bar and the Leigh men, who had strong arms and hands that were cracked and calloused from water and rope. There was Tolly, puffing on his pipe; Big Jim laughing and thumping his fist on the table like a lump hammer; Bobber with the stray eye; and Lucky, whom Esther liked best for his calm way and his stories of smuggling and adventure.

It was then she saw Dillon among the men, his nut-brown face making his eyes look all the more blue. He nodded to her and ran a hand through his tumble of dark hair. She flicked her head up in greeting. He was an odd fish, Dillon Murphy – a waif that Lucky had found hiding on his boat when he was in Ireland many moons ago. The boy hadn’t talked for about a year and everyone thought he was mute. But, even so, Lucky had given him a job on his boat and a roof over his head, thinking the boy would talk in his own time, which proved to be the case. Lucky thought he’d suffered a shock but no one knew for sure.

Her ma brought her a bowl of stew. ‘There you are, poppet.’ She didn’t seem angry anymore about the trouble with Stickler. Esther ate hungrily.

Tolly’s voice rose above the general hubbub. ‘So Dillon, I hear you were left with the needlework while Esther were afishing and putting Stickler in his place. Reckons you might be out of a job.’ His grin revealed a perfect row of white teeth.

Esther tried not to smirk as she glanced at Dillon and caught a dribble of stew on her chin with the spoon. She liked Tolly. He was good fun, at least when sober. He could flare up when drunk.

‘Aye. Could well be, by sounds of it,’ said Dillon, with a glimmer of a smile.

She’d make as good a fisherman as Dillon any day, she thought, mopping up her bowl with a hunk of bread. She’d not only gone fishing, she’d had her own run-in with the revenue men.

‘She’ll be beating you in an arm wrestle next.’ Tolly laughed. Esther often arm-wrestled Tolly and sometimes he let her win. But she was getting stronger and could beat a lot of the dockside boys.

‘Leave the boy alone,’ said Lucky with surprising sharpness. Tolly was only teasing. Surely Lucky realised that. They crewed together often enough on the smuggling runs.

‘I reckon I could beat him.’ Esther pushed the empty bowl aside and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. She held her arm out, bent at the elbow and clenched her fist to show her muscles.

Lucky rolled his eyes and Big Jim laughed. ‘The girl’s a fighter. You’ve got your hands full there, Dillon.’

‘Bet she’s got a right hook like her ma too,’ said Tolly scratching his beard.

Esther put her elbow on the table in a challenge.

‘I don’t want to arm-wrestle you, Esther,’ said Dillon, who had gone red.

‘Well, if you’re scared to,’ said Esther, removing her arm. The men laughed.

‘Esther, that’s enough,’ warned Lucky.

Tolly removed the clay pipe from his mouth, holding it at the base of the narrow stem. ‘The boy can fight his own battles.’

‘Yeah, come on Dillon, you can’t let a girl get the upper hand,’ Bobber chimed in.

Dillon raised his eyes to the ceiling. He put his elbow on the table. Esther, glad of the chance, matched him. Their eyes locked. Esther knew hers looked determined. Dillon’s were uncertain, which gave her the advantage. They gripped hands across the table and the fishermen gathered round. His palm felt warm against hers, his fingers fine-boned but firm in hold.

Tolly counted them in and she moved quickly, knowing it was hard to fight back once your hand was heading for the table. She took the advantage, determined to show him. Inch by inch, her arm quivering, she pushed him down. He resisted, not showing the strain in his face but there was worry in those striking blue eyes. She was every bit as good as Dillon. Fancied himself grown up, but he didn’t have the arms of a proper Leigh man yet.

Then, in the midst of the good-humoured jeering and encouragement, she hit a wall. He had found some reserve of strength, yet strangely he looked more worried as he fought her back to the centre point. A muscle pulsed in his jaw. He broke eye contact to glance at Lucky, who was to one side of them, and she caught Lucky shrugging at Dillon. It must have been some kind of signal because her hand went past the pivot of their elbows and was being pushed lower. She was being taught a lesson. The muscles in her arm were tiring. It wasn’t worry, she realised, but pity in his eyes. He could have beat her all along, she thought, swallowing the tears that were threatening along with her pride. She hated getting beat. But she would take it on the chin. Pretend she didn’t care. He was two years older than her after all.

Suddenly, there was no resistance and his arm swung the other way, the back of his hand hitting the table. He’d let her win.

Amid the cheers and jeers, Dillon said quietly: ‘I don’t want to fight you, Esther.’ He met her eyes briefly before lowering his own. Esther scowled and discreetly rubbed the sore muscle in her upper arm, feeling cheated and belittled.

‘What am I to do with you, girl?’ Her ma had pushed past Lucky to lash her tongue in Esther’s direction. ‘Tell me, how am I to make a young lady of you?’ She tutted, dug Lucky in the ribs, firmly placing the blame there, and bustled off. Lucky ignored her, staring at Tolly, who drew long on his pipe and blew smoke.

The men moved back to their table, the arm-wrestle already at the back of their minds. ‘Over a hundred thousand men he’s massed at Boulogne,’ said Big Jim.

Refusing to look at Dillon, Esther was glad, for once, to listen to the conversation about the French war and Napoleon Bonaparte, who was a bit like Mr Pitt, the Prime Minister, and King George rolled into one. There had been talk of old Boney invading England this past year but a hundred thousand men? She couldn’t picture that many soldiers.

‘He won’t come over here though will he?’ she asked.

‘He’s planning on it. Massing barges as well as men,’ said Tolly. ‘It’ll be worse now the Dons are on board.’

The Spanish were on the French side. It was in the newspaper. Lucky often read the news out loud for those who couldn’t read, which was most of the Leigh men.

‘He’ll never get here by sea, not with our fleet in the way,’ retorted Lucky. ‘Anyways, Boney’s nothing to be afeared of, my girl.’ The chuckle had returned to his voice and she was glad that he wasn’t annoyed with her over the arm-wrestle. ‘He’s short, that’s what’s wrong with him. And like all small men,’ he wiggled his little finger at this point and everyone roared with laughter, ‘he likes to throw his weight around.’ Esther shifted uncomfortably and avoided Dillon’s eyes.

This post (c) Lisa Bratby 2010.  All rights reserved.

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