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Historical Fiction Prose

An Opening: Ferry

Autumn 1886 

Get thee out of Thy country, and from Thy kinship and from Thy father’s house, unto a land that I will show Thee  

Genesis 12:1 

Katherina is standing at the bow of a ship. A ferry. Eine Fähre. It’s evening, and the sun is inching towards the horizon, bleeding crimson. The air is salty and still. She turns her head. Behind her, yellow fades to indigo as a thin crescent moon appears. The stars shine sharp and cold over the continent, but Germany is behind her now. That new country, knitted together by willpower alone. She’s leaving everything. Tante Lisette, Tante Mariechen, Onkel Heinrich, her school-friends and the ruins on the hill behind her grandfather’s house. Can she still call it her country, if she never goes back? 

Around her, a few passengers take quiet evening strolls along the deck. She can hear smatterings of German mixed in with the strange new tongue she’ll have to learn. To her, English sounds indistinct, like someone talking around a boiled sweet. 

She turns back to look out to sea. West, towards her new home. Tomorrow, they’ll be landing in Harwich. For now, all she can see is the sea stretching for miles all around, mirroring the sunset. It’s eerily calm. She tries to picture Tante Dora in her head, but it’s been years since they’ve laid eyes on each other, years since Dora moved to London. Will she even recognise me? Katherina thinks. It’s the same every time she ends up on another relative’s doorstep. Katherina is that you? If you carry on like this, you’ll be too tall to marry!  

Her hand slides into the pocket of her coat and clutches at the crumpled paper covered in her uncle’s scrawl. She’s been taking it out, smoothing it, studying the words for days; the paper is limp and worn from so much folding and unfolding. Katherina could recite the address, directions and names backwards by now. But she’s unsure how to say the English words. London Liverpool Street. It has a strange rhythm. Lon-don Liver-pool Street. The ‘r’ is all wrong, too soft and slurring. She practiced with Onkel Heinrich, but she’s convinced she’ll never get it right.  

A breeze quickens and pulls at the strands of hair escaping from her hat. She stands with her back straight in her first long dress. She is travelling alone; she even has her own cabin. Her uncle has organised everything. 

Get off the ferry at Harwich and find the train station. It should be down the main road towards the centre of town and off to the right. If you get lost, ask someone to help. It’s not unusual to find someone who speaks German in a port town. If you can’t find anyone who speaks German, they can point it out to you. Once you’re there, take the train to London Liverpool Street. Get off at the last stop. Aunt Dora will meet you there. She’ll take you to her home in Epp- 

“Guten Abend, Fräulein.” Good evening, miss. 

Katherina jumps, her hands gripping the railings. A woman is standing next to her, staring out to sea. She is small and slight and elegantly dressed in wine-coloured brocade with a large bustle. The woman’s German has a distinct accent. English, maybe, but Katherina’s not sure. The woman smiles at Katherina over her high-necked collar. Her hands are tucked into a fur muff. 

“Guten Abend,” Katherina’s greeting comes out as an embarrassing croak. She coughs to clear her throat.  

“Aren’t you afraid?” The woman continues. 

“Entschuldigung?” says Katherina. Excuse me?  

“I said, aren’t you afraid?” The woman repeats. Katherina understood her the first time, she just hadn’t a clue what to say. She gathers herself. 

“No. Should I be?”  

“You are travelling alone, aren’t you?”  

Katherina wonders if the woman has been watching her. A hot trickle of anxiety starts to pool in her gut. She decides there’s no point in lying. The ship is neither large nor full. 

“Yes, I am.” 

“I would be afraid.” The woman says, frowning. 

“I’m not sure I follow. And we haven’t been introduced.” Katherina is starting to feel stupid, and she hates feeling stupid. 

“I’m sorry, my dear. My name is Mrs Brightwell. But you can call me Ilse. A pleasure to meet you.” Ilse inclines her head. Her eyes are a deep brown, like the coffee her father used to sip in the mornings. It contrasts with the blonde hair sticking out from underneath her elaborate, feathered hat. The knots and braids are starting to pull loose ever so slightly.  

Katherina has no idea what to do now, doesn’t know if Ilse wants to be greeted as an equal, or be deferred to. Her clothes hint at wealth. Should she curtsey like a girl? Should she offer her a hand? Incline the head, or bow? To get it wrong could be an affront, but so could doing nothing. It’s already too late, she thinks. 

Ilse seems to sense her discomfort, and briefly puts a hand on her arm. It’s warm under her soft leather gloves. She looks to be in her mid-twenties, so she’s not old, just a good decade older than Katherina. 

“Ilse’s a German name.” Katherina blurts out, then grimaces. But if Ilse is bothered by Katherina’s bald observation, she doesn’t show it. She only lets out a short peal of laughter that carries over the quiet deck and the sea. 

“Indeed it is. My mother was German. She fought to name me. She said it wasn’t fair if my father got both names, and I suppose she was right.”  

Ilse pauses for a while, seemingly lost in a memory. 

Katherina shifts from foot to foot. How to continue the conversation? “And your surname?” the question is out of her mouth before she can shut it. Her father always told her to speak less and think more, especially around strangers. But her father is far away now, and this woman has a presence. The warm kind of presence that makes you say things. 

“My husband’s. I haven’t been Mrs James Brightwell for long.” 

“Congratulations. Did you move to England recently?” 

“No. I grew up in London, where my father grew up. So, I’m not quite one or the other. My mother’s family are always imitating my accent.” Her face darkens for a moment, like clouds over the sea. “Actually, I’ve just been visiting them in Kiel. With James,” she adds. 

Katherina is a little surprised at how Ilse seems to take everything in her stride. From the scant details she’s picked up about the English, they’re supposed to be reserved. But then again, having barely spoken to anyone outside her own family, she’s out of her depth. Finally, she remembers her manners.  

“I’m Katherina. Katherina Schäfer.”  

Ilse smiles. She has pretty white teeth. “You might want to re-think being Katherina. Or are you content with it being pronounced incorrectly from now until eternity? By the people over there, I mean.” Ilse tilts her head towards the West, towards the sunset. “Katherina,” Ilse says with an exaggerated English air, drawing out the th. There’s a mischievous twinkle in her eye. 

Katherina grins. She turns away slightly, thinking. Ilse reminds her of happier times long ago, times she spent with Tante Lisette amongst her mother’s friends, talking and singing songs. They would let her try on perfume and tell her stories about her mother before her lungs gave up. Until her father came to take her back. She remembers the flash of sorrow in Tante Lisette’s eyes. Then, home was quiet again. Fraught. 

A nickname. It’s something she’s never considered before. Maybe she’s right, Katherina thinks. A new beginning. 

“I’m only speaking from experience.” Ilse tips her head conspiratorially. “Half of my receipts still have Lisa on them. Part of me curses my mother for not calling me Jane, God rest her soul.” 

A comfortable silence settles between them. Katherina is curious about her new friend’s mother. She wants to tell her that she lost hers, too. That she can hardly remember her mother, not even if she closes her eyes really tight and thinks as hard as she can. But something is holding her back. She hasn’t breathed a word of it for years, not to anyone.  

Ilse looks at her sideways. Part of Katherina wonders if she’s reading her thoughts. Katherina shakes her head. No, that’s stupid. 

“Katherina,” Ilse turns to her now and looks her straight in the eyes again, “be careful. If I’ve noticed you’re travelling alone, so have others.” Ilse darts a look around the deck. Kitty follows her gaze. A few metres to their right, an old man coughs into a dirty napkin. A seagull is perched on top of one of the stacks, squawking. The sky has now faded to a dusky pink.  

“Lock your cabin to-night.” Ilse squeezes her arm. 

“Why?” Katherina asks, frowning. Her mind has been too caught up in other things to give the matter any thought. But Ilse has jolted a vague memory of her uncle telling her something similar. 

Ilse casts her eyes to Heaven and crosses herself and mutters an English prayer under her breath before replying. 

“Have you ever travelled before?” 

Katherina hesitates before replying. She knows that Ilse must look at her and see a child.

“No, I haven’t.”

“I thought as much. And alone at that. Trust me. Don’t talk to any men, lock your cabin to-night, and you’ll be fine.” She smiles again, this time reassuringly. “Which cabin are you in?” 

I’ve already told this woman so much, thinks Katherina. There’s no hiding on this ship, either. She takes a breath. 

“Number four.” 

Ilse smiles. “You’re only two doors down from me, then. I’m in number two. If there’s any trouble, anything at all worrying you, come and knock for me. Any time.” 

All Katherina can manage is a tentative nod. 

“So, I really must be off.” Ilse has turned brisk and smooths out her skirts. “James must be wondering where I am by now. I told him I was only going for a breath of air. He gets terribly sea-sick, you know. Awful company.” Katherina could swear Ilse winks before she walks back down the deck, skirts swinging behind her. After Ilse leaves, Katherina feels strangely lost. The breeze is pulling at her and the air now has a cold edge. It’s September, but the nights are already drawing in. She runs through the conversation in her head, once, twice over. Is she missing something? Katherina doesn’t know why she should be afraid. Strangers had only ever been kind to her. The man stamping her papers had given her a strange look and asked her some questions, but that could hardly be considered an emergency. 

Eventually, Katherina returns to her cabin and undresses, careful to lock the door. She hangs up her coat and hat. In her loose white nightgown, she sits on her bunk in front of the tiny mirror and starts to pull out her hairpins, then brushes through her hair. The same as her mother’s. Katherina remembers it tickling her face as she put her to bed at night. The soft murmur of her voice. 

 She stares at her reflection. Long nose, full lips, tired eyes. At some point, someone must’ve come in to leave a small pitcher of water in the basin below the mirror. It’s gone stone cold, but she pours some out and splashes her face with it regardless. 

Through her porthole, she can see that it’s pitch-black outside. She can hear the gentle creaking and swaying of the ship. Footsteps pass above her and, in the corridor, doors open and shut. The small cohort of passengers are settling themselves in for the night. She’s pleased she hasn’t gotten sea-sick like she’d feared. She opens the drawer in her narrow bedside cabinet. In it, there’s two Bibles: one written in what looks like Danish, and one in English.  

Katherina picks up the English one, leafing through the pages. They’re thin, yellow, and well-thumbed. She wonders how many other passengers have opened this book and looked for guidance. The church in Witten had been a safe haven for her, and her grandmother was devout in the best sense of the word, but Katherina doesn’t often pray.  

If she concentrates really hard, she can guess at one word in ten. After a few minutes, she gives up and lays back on the bed. A wave of fatigue blurs her eyes and a pang of homesickness twists her stomach. What is she doing here? Thoughts of Onkel Heinrich flood her mind. The smell of his pipe tobacco clinging to his scratchy tweed as he hugged her. His kind, crinkly eyes as he waved goodbye to her in Deutz. Don’t worry, my child. It’s for the best. Katherina had cried until her head hurt, but knew it was the truth. Grandfather wouldn’t provide for her. Father had kept showing up on Heinrich’s doorstep, hurling abuse and threatening to pull her back by the hair if they didn’t give her willingly. 

She lays awake, staring at the ceiling, for what feels like hours. Time moves strangely at night. Every now and again, she can hear a passenger coughing or turning over in their bunk. The walls are thin.  

Her last thoughts before finally falling asleep are of seagulls, pearly white teeth, and Onkel Heinrich, dressed as Moses, parting the Red Sea. 

By annaputsover

Translator and English tutor

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