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Authors: Jess Richards

Tags: #General Fiction

Snake Ropes

JESS RICHARDS

SNAKE
ROPES

For Kate,
because she makes up words:
Mitt nitt jub.

and

for Mr Blight,
who lives in the Thrashing House:
a man I’ve never met.

Mary

The tall men in boats are coming. I see them through the window, close to the beach. My little brother is sat on my lap. Him puts hims hands on the table, leans round and looks up at me. Hims brown eyes have my reflection inside.

I smile at him, stroke the curls on the back of hims head where them need a wash. I say, ‘Sorry Barney. I’ve got to get you hid, them’re coming.’ Him grips on my neck hard, buries hims face in my hair and I carry him across the room. Him is so warm and I want to hang on to him, but I put him down by the cupboard door, and hims face trying to look all angered makes me want to laugh, but I dun.

I hide him in the cupboard behind the boxes. Give him a blanket to keep him warm. Tell him, ‘Shush now, and dun even breathe if them opens the cupboard door.’

The tall men are all skinny and pale, with long dark coats and black hats with big brims on them. Them give us goods for our stuff. Trade them calls it. Da says it be more like theft and if we lived on a main land we’d get a lot more than what them give us. We’ve got to survive on what we can get. No one here goes to the main land, and no one wants to. Our boats aren’t strong enough, we dun know the way, them can’t understand
us, we’re fine as we are. We have so many reasons; them stretch as wide as the distance to cross to take us there.

I stand at the window watching. Nine boats long and thin, like the men. Two in each one, rowing with long oars. I sort the piles of broiderie, put the ones them will like best on top. Da’s left the fish out in the cold room, ready for the tall men.

Barney grumbles loud in the cupboard so I call out, ‘Now dun fret, you’ll not be shut in the dark for long, it’s just till them’ve gone.’

The tall men dun move to speak to one another. Silent as shadows, everyone says, but when the tall men do speak, them pick the words what’ll get what them most want. Not like us folks what live here, we sometimes chatter out whole bunches of tattle. Perhaps we should lock just a little behind our lips, then we’d get more back.

I’ve got to be watchful with Barney. Three boys on the island were took in the last three months. Three men what go drinking with Da, each of thems sons are gone. Dun think them’ve got blown off the cliffs, we all think it were the tall men what took them.

Since our Mam died we struggle to get by. Da gets fish from out the sea and I do broideries for selling to the tall men. My broideries are lovely, everyone who sees them says so. I do all the flowers what grow in the summer before the wind sweeps them away, and all the butterflies. Mam left boxes and baskets full of threads and linens. Them said at her funeral that she were the best broiderer this island’s ever seen. She taught me some before she died but I got better quick; Da said we’d be eating grass and drinking air if we were to live off just hims fishing. Him says now I’m sixteen, I’m old enough to trade with the tall men alone.

I did well last month – the batch I’d stitched raised the tall men’s eyebrows and got us more goods from them than the month
before. The colours sang in the sunlight on this table, as if my hands had stroked them into the fabric, rather than jabbed them through with the needle. Some pictures are more difficult to bring to life than others, pulling and drawing, pulling and drawing.

Not a sound from the cupboard. For a three-year-old, Barney is good and quiet for me, when him knows I mean it. I cross the room, whisper at the door, ‘Them’re coming. Keep quiet, good boy.’

‘Dun like it in here, is dark and smelly.’ Him snuffles.

Hims bunny doll lies on the floor next to the cupboard door. I scoop it up, open the door a crack; hims brown eyes are all teary behind the baskets of linens. Him reaches out hims hands.

‘Here’s your moppet. Just stay put. I’ll cradle you when we’re done.’ I close up the door.

A few women have brought thems trade down to the beach, and are handing over woven rugs and baskets to a pair of tall men what’re stood by the boats. Fourteen of the tall men walk up the beach in pairs, them head to the path what leads up the cliffs, to other homes of folk what do trade. One pair of tall men come towards this row of cottages. Them need the agreement of two to make the decision of one. Just as we’re suspicious of them, them dun trust us not to argue, especially where thems goods are concerned. Thems coats might be covered in seaspray and salt when them have crossed the surging waves to get here, but them are well stitched, as if somewhere on the main land there’s a great old woman who sits there with needles for fingertips, stitching in straight perfect lines, with the threads tucked away so them will never escape.

The knock, four raps on the door. Four raps again.

I open the front door.

‘Miss Jared,’ says the tall man in front. I swallow a laugh, everyone here calls me Mary.

‘I’ve got the broideries ready.’ I step back and sweep my hand towards the tabletop by the window. I wish the sun would shine in and make the broideries look alive. Today them look dull and faded.

Them lean over the broideries, long pale fingers fondle them. I wonder why them dun take the girls, only the boys. Something boys can do what girls can’t. But what that could be I have no idea; everyone knows boys are only of use if them take to farming or fishing.

One has a pair of glasses balanced on the end of hims nose and I wonder if him wears them out at sea. Him glances at me over them, without a squint. Can’t be that bad sighted then.

‘These are quite … elaborate.’

‘That’s what you wanted last time.’ I bite my lip.

‘Slightly overexpressive,’ mutters the other one, hims eyebrows raised.

‘You said …’

‘Not
this
extravagant. Not what was meant.’ Hims voice is low and steady.

‘Just tell me the price you’re suggesting.’

‘The women won’t like the more … elaborate ones. It’s the simple ones we can sell.’

‘The ones you passed over last time?’ My voice sounds shrill and both the men straighten up, near enough hit thems heads on the beams.

‘We are at the behest of fashion, Miss Jared. We can give some as tokens, as gifts, if women choose to buy the plain ones. They want rustic.’

‘So you’re saying last month them wanted drama, now them’re wanting dull?’

‘Precisely.’

‘Well, I dun know how them can change fashion faster than I can make them. Why them can’t just stick with thems likes from last month for a few weeks more.’

A thud from Barney, in the cupboard.

I stamp on the floor.

Them dun notice.

I fold my arms. ‘So, how much?’

‘Ten units for the lot,’ says one, hims lip twitching.

‘Well, I think I’ll hang on to them till them come back
in
fashion.’

Him breathes in like I’ve just jabbed hims chest with one of the needles.

I stamp to the front door and open it. The wind blows in the smell of the sea. I stare at the floor, twirl a strand of my dark hair around my finger and pull, hard.

‘Twenty, then. You wouldn’t want to be seen as a charity case, I’m sure.’

‘Dun care about being seen as a charity case, we’ve got to eat.’ I glance up at hims cold blue eyes and swallow hard. ‘Thirty.’

‘Twenty-five, final price.’

‘Take them.’ I smile. ‘Do you want to do the fish? It’s out in the cold room.’

We go around the side of the cottage, and the cold room door sticks – the wooden door is guarding the fish. I can feel the tall men’s eyes on me. My hair, my waist, my backside as well, no doubt. Them’re all eyes, the tall men, each and every one.

I yank at the door as hard as I can, it whaps against my boot and springs open. In the dark, the dead fish eyes ogle me from the half-cask barrels. It’s so dark in here and I’m shivery just
stepping inside. Ash, soot and straw are spread all over the walls to keep the ice frozen. It works. Da’s left the fish sorted and packed in the barrels I wrench out of the ice in the floor. Five heavy barrels and them dun even offer to help.

Pulling the last barrel out, I hear the back door slam and glance at the side of the cottage. ‘So then.’ I glare at the two tall men. ‘What am I getting for this lot?’

Them move further away, so them can see the whole lot of fish all together. Them hiss prices back and forth and glance up at me every so often. Taking thems time, as always. Just want to get a good long stare at a single young woman. The wind musses my hair up and I dun bother getting it off my face. I wipe my pink wet hands on my dress. I stink of fish. Good.

Eventually a trade is offered, I needle them up a little and settle. It’s a good job Da’s got a daughter, for the tall men offer far more for what girls and women make with our hands than what fishermen drag out of the sea.

I’ve got enough sense to do the best trade I can, and also enough sense not to help them once them’ve paid. The tall men take the broideries and go down to the boats. When them come back, I get them to put all our goods on the path by the front door. I count them up while the tall men come back and forth to drag the barrels of fish down to thems boats.

I take some of the jars and cans of main land foods into our cottage and put them just inside the front door. The jars and cans are worth one unit each. I go outside to get more of the goods. There’s a box with the words
exotic fruits
printed on the side.

‘What’s this meant to be then?’ I call out to the tall men who’ve just grasped another barrel of fish.

The tall men look up. ‘Five units.’

‘But it’s strange-looking things I’m sure can’t be eaten.’

‘Happy enough with them on the mainland,’ says the one with the glasses.

‘Joyful, no doubt, to send them to us,’ I mutter.

Them carry on hauling the barrel, and I knock on a yellow thing shaped like the sun, but squashed. ‘What’s this then?’ I hold it up.

‘Melon,’ calls out one, and them both stare at me like I’m simple, so I take the box indoors, put it on the table by the window and go outside to get the rest.

There’s a tin of varnish and a pot of white paint worth three units each, seven boxes of matches and two packets of firelighters. There’s a small sack I’ve never seen them bring before. It’s got red words on it, but I dun know what’s inside, for the words are in foreign. Dun ask them about that one. Maybe the foreign will make sense later, when I’ve opened up the sack.

The three units of ice are in great sacks made from the clear shiny stuff them call plastic, thick layers of it. I put it in the cold room and kick the door shut behind me. I watch the two tall men emptying the last of the barrels into the crates in thems boat. The tall men never forget the ice, for it’s needed to keep the fish fresh. Still have to trade them for it, but. Main land folks must stink of fish. Whole lot of men here do fishing, and there’s a fair few cold rooms on the island, as well as a smokehouse. But the fish is all traded, for none of us like the taste.

I think the tall men must have one great huge boat what picks up all nine of the oar boats. Them keep it just over the edge of the horizon. For if them dun have a quicker way to get from the main land to here than just oars, then the ice would melt on the journey.

Not that I’d say anything to the tall men, for however them do it, them’re the only folks what bother to brave the distance to us.
Back inside, I watch the tall men roll the empty fish barrels back up the beach to the cold room. Them leave them stacked up outside, so the other tall men know them’ve got our trade and dun come knocking twice.

I call, ‘Come out Barney, them’re done.’

No answer. Him must have fallen asleep in there, or be messing with me.

I cross the room, open the cupboard door. The moppet sits on top of a basket, its ears askew.

Barney’s blanket lies there rumpled, without him on it.

My head goes bang bang with the throb in it. I open the boxes at the back, pull Mam’s linens out of the baskets. No Barney.

I tear through to the bedroom, look under hims small bed, under my bed, rumple up the bedclothes in case him is hiding. In Da’s room, I rummage through the wardrobe where Mam’s clothes still hang, but there’s no Barney. Back in the main room I check the cupboard again and under the table.

I open the trapdoor in the floor and climb down the ladder into the storm room. Light a candle and check in the shadows. Nothing. I slump down on the floor.

Barney’s mine. Him can’t be took like the others. Him is too young.

If Mam were still alive she’d be shouting about this. She shouted so often, even when Da gave her a bruise for saying Barney were hers but not hims. Them shared me. Dun know why she wouldn’t share Barney as well. Maybe she thought Da dun bother enough with me, so a son would be just another thing for him not to bother about. Or she could have loved Barney best.

I loved him best.

I want to shout like Mam would’ve done, only I’ve got all the shouts stuffed in my chest and them dun want to come out. Barney’s been mine since Mam died. Da said after her funeral, ‘Him is all yours Mary, through an’ through. Nowt to do with me, so you got to work hard, do a lot of broideries to keep him fed.’

Always has been my arms Barney wanted.

I’ve always wanted him in my arms.

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