The pier at the end of the world
There was no more east left. Somewhere, beyond the sunrise, past an invisible line known only to cartographers, it circled round to being west again.
El stood on the easternmost edge of the easternmost pier, whenever she could do so. She watched the gulls and the ships and the ocean that went all the way around the world while she was stuck in place.
Trapped in Portsmouth Bay. A crowded town huddled in the space between the sea and the cliffs, where masonry was chipped out of the stone spine and elaborate buildings sometimes carved into it. Where the kings’ palace had yet to see a mote of sunshine. Where windows were either too much bother or too expensive, and the less affluent houses were designed to float away during the big storms.
East had been the direction to go, once. And here in Portsmouth Bay, they had run out of east to go.
El could still feel the need to go east. It pushed. It pulled. It drew her here to the easternmost pier and made her cling with her toes and lean into the wind coming west. It helped her gain a fix of air that had been more east by sniffing deeply of the ocean scent. Made her dream of going… anywhere but Portsmouth Bay.
And on days when a beast of a wooden ship blocked her view, she would perch on one of the boathouses or a handy roof, or somewhere else tall enough and watch the crew and the cargo cycle in and out. And seethe in resentment as it sailed away again.
Her feet wanted to go, to take her away. Her heart yearned to travel. Unfortunately, they were all stuck to a body that wasn’t allowed on a vessel without special precautions.
Women and seamen don’t mix, went the old joke between bawdy fishwives, but that’s not what they say when they come to port!
Every time El asked about that one, she got her ears cuffed for her trouble, and nothing resembling an answer. Or an explanation as to why it was so funny.
She had tried to work out what the rules were, once. One ear still rang from asking about it, whenever she got a cold. Women were allowed on houseboats because they were houses more than boats. Yes, even when they were washed out to sea by a storm and found their way back to a different place.
Boats were not houses even when men lived their entire lives on them and that was that. And stop asking about what makes them different, brat!
Today, another ship was blocking her perch, so she watched it in jealous fascination from the eves of a warehouse. Her knees tucked up under her skirt and her arms wrapped tight around them. It was almost time for Boss Joss to get her new winter gear, so everything she had to wear was both short and thin.
“Ho, little sparrow,” called one of the officers of the ship. “Why don’t you sing?”
Sparrows were poor girls meant for ‘a bad end’ because they hung around the docks and sang for pennies. Asking how that was bad got another drubbing, but El had not earned such punishment, this time. She’d just watched it happen to someone else.
“Voice like a crow,” El called down. “Ain’t nobody’s bird nohow.”
“You’re four stories up,” he noted. “Aren’t you feared of heights?”
El shrugged. “Cliff’s taller,” she said. “Boss Joss sends me up it for ingredients.” Squab and cliff-shrooms and eggs and some moss that made an interesting tea for the right kind of affluent clientele. She had to wear special gloves just to get it. And use a special bag.
“Bare-hand and bare-foot?”
“Yeh…” El frowned at the man. “Why?”
“You’re wasted as a girl,” said the officer. He shook his head and went on his way.
El thought no more of it until it was time to go back to work at Boss Joss’. The officer was there and haggling with Boss Joss over the price of a girl. Joss had never rented neither Sparrow nor soiled Dove, so the argument about selling one made no sense to El.
She just got on with getting on with things. Up and down the flues before the fire-set, unclogging the grease-trap, rinsing herself off before scrubbing the baths, the kettles, the sinks and the pots. Washing anything else always got the rest of her clean to Boss Joss’ satisfaction, so she left the cleaning until she was properly filthy.
She was finishing up on the floor - every Friday, whether it needed it or not - when her progress was stopped by the officer’s boots.
“Hello, El,” he said. “How would you like to be a boy on my ship?”
El stopped to boggle at him. “Can’t exactly grow a pizzle for you…”
The man smiled and opened his coat, then his shirt. Revealing a bound swell of breast. “Pizzles aren’t necessary,” he whispered. “Talent is.”
The next dawn found her high in the crows’ nest, breathing deep the exhilarating air of freedom as the ship sailed away from port. An entire ship full of women! Who could have thought it?
She was one of Hen’s Hags, now!