Eva Amy Harkness looks old before her time; she steers the butty through all weathers and seasons, except when they’re “frozen in” and have to wait for the ice breakers to go through first and clear the channel. It’s 1885 and, though a few boats have those steam engines, she’s happy just to steer the butty, the long wooden tiller clamped under her left armpit, as it dutifully follows behind the horse drawn barge in front. She patiently peels potatoes in a pan on the roof for supper later.
Carrying coal up from the Kent coal fields via the Medway and ashes back to Kent for brickmaking, this is the part of the journey Amy hates. Folk from the nearby buildings and shanties use the cut as a midden to chuck their rubbish and waste. She wrinkles her nose against the stench and pulls her shawl more tightly around her. The boat scrapes along the bottom and eventually comes to a halt. The Alice will not make the Kingsland Basin tonight.
“The pounds are down,” yells Stan from the counter of the Alice, “someone has opened the paddles on the lock and emptied the pound. The bastards!” And now they come creeping through the fog with buckets and bowls and bags to help themselves to coal to keep their families warm tonight.
Amy dodges stones thrown from the bridge to keep them from interfering. There is nothing she or Stan can do. They’ll just have to take the loss when the cargo is weighed.
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