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The Boatman

I felt pity for them.

Their shapes silhouetted against the orange dance of the city aflame which licked at their heels like so many eager hounds. The smoke choked their dry throats and their ears filled with the sounds of death and the all-consuming fire. I pulled my kerchief tight against the foul air and remembered these were the same types that had treated me and mine as lowly dregs before today, they would not deign to acknowledge me even when I did doff my cap and now the tables were turned I must think of me and mine. I could see them reaching out with hands dripping gold and pearls beseeching my attendance for their rescue. Proving with their riches they could pay their passage.

Only young Jed and I could deliver them to tomorrow.

But I must choose my passengers carefully, not too big and not too strong and not too many. The boat must be safeguarded before all else or we could all end in a watery grave. I could not rush this deliberation and could not pull in where the mass groaned or they would swarm the boat in their desperation.

Then I saw them; the portly merchant, his wife, maid and bairns, a little away from the main hustle on the derelict wharf of an unused goods yard. I eyed their riches and then pulled ashore to let them aboard. The wife filled my ears with gratitude while the merchant crossed my hand with riches. They sat facing forward as we pushed off from the wharf; just as others seeing the boat near shore surged to catch us. I pulled us out into the smoke-filled river, covering my face and eyes from the smoke.

I gave young Jed the nod, and with quick work of the oars, we dispatched this group, like those before and slipped them reduced of their golden gifts over the side and turning prepared once again for the shores of the river Styx to rescue our next fares.

[This was a writing task for 'A sense of place' at Cambridge ICE - To write about the Great Fire of London 1666 from the point of view of a boatman helping Londoners escape, I just took it in a slightly different direction.]

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