The Figurehead

By Bill Kirton

Historical fiction

Paperback, eBook

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3 mins

Chapter 1

Bessie Rennie was on her usual Sunday morning beach trawl. It was the one day of the week when she could comb the sands in peace. Most of the other residents of Aberdeen were either tucked up in their granite villas, curled in blankets and sacks in the poorer areas of town or lying about the alleys and closes around the Mercat Cross, sleeping off the mayhem of a normal Saturday night. The prostitutes in Mason’s Court were having a well earned rest and none of the Castle Street traders would be setting up their stalls on the Sabbath. The yards hung motionless on the masts of the ships in the harbor, some of them with sails still bent on them and gathered up into tight bunches. The decks were empty and the quays deserted, echoing back the clicks and rustles of the rigging in the quiet air. Any citizens who were up and about would be getting ready for church. Bessie was safe to forage.
She was looking for whatever she could get but hoping, as usual, that one of the frequent wrecks along the north east coast would send her a body or two, their pockets still holding purses, watches or anything that might persuade a pawnbroker to part with a couple of shillings. So far, she’d been wasting her time. With a half moon still bright in the sky, she’d started near the river Don and worked her way south towards the Dee, collecting just three bottles which might fetch some pennies in Ma Cameron’s public house and a waistcoat which was so far gone that not even she would think of wearing it. Her habitual muttering to herself was becoming progressively more blasphemous as she castigated the citizens of Aberdeen for being so sparing with corpses on their beach.
She’d almost reached the pier at the end of the harbor when she saw the sort of bundle she’d been hoping for. It was high on the beach near the wall which ran along the north east edge of the village of Footdee, protecting it from the sea, the sands and the big easterlies that snarled in from Scandinavia. She peered hard as she climbed through the soft sand towards the dark shape, fearing that it might be just another tangle of tarred ropes or seaweed that the tide had flung ashore. But her breath came faster and a smile cracked her leathery features as she saw that the long dark cylinder stretching out from the side of the bundle had a hand on the end of it, and that the twisted material at its seaward end was indeed a pair of trousers which clearly still had legs in them.
As she came closer, her smile developed into a little cackle of secret delight that her patience had been rewarded. It was a man. But he was dressed not in the rags of a sailor or the tatters of a wrecked mariner who’d been floating a long while in hard seas, but in a pair of woolen broadfall trousers with a cravat at his throat and a full jacket. Over this was a heavy overcoat and, hanging loosely around his neck, a light-colored scarf. From Bessie’s perspective, more items of clothing meant more pockets. Then, as she stopped beside the body and bent to begin her search, her excitement was stilled as quickly as it had been generated. This man came from no shipwreck. His hair, still wet, was plastered across most of his face but she recognized him at once. It was Jimmie Crombie, the shipwright from Waterloo Quay. His sodden clothes were not the ones he would wear to work but the sort of thing he’d put on for a night out.
Bessie could guess what had brought him here. It was a familiar story. Too much Saturday drink, a staggering walk home along Regent and Waterloo Quays and, in the darkness before the moon had appeared, a stumble over the edge into the harbor. The river would then quickly grab him and drag him along the channel beside the north pier, slamming him against the rocks that regularly claimed ships trying to make their way in or out of the harbor mouth, and then twirling him round the corner onto the beach. It had happened to so many over the months and years that, at last, there was talk of erecting pillars and chains to guard the quay’s edge. They would be too late for Jimmie, though. His jacket and shirt had been torn open on the top left hand side of his chest and Bessie saw the scrapings and batterings he’d suffered as the river had bounced him along its rocky banks and down into its depths. The flesh of his face, shoulder and chest was raw, shining silver and black in the growing light, the skin peeling back from it here and there and the cuts and grazes stretching down out of sight inside his shirt.
For Bessie, it was a dilemma. If he’d fallen in after a night’s drinking, the odds were that he’d still be carrying some money. But this was not just some strange soul who’d tumbled from the deck of a passing barque; it was one of her own. And everyone knew she never missed a Sunday morning on the beach so she would have to tell someone that she’d found him. She stood looking at the watch chain that stretched across his belly and wondered what to do.



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