On Distant Shores – Episode 35

“Of course she is welcome whenever she is able. The First School does not turn away willing pupils,” Maggie said.

“I think your aunt wanted to turn me away,” Seamus said without rancour, and Maggie managed a small smile.

“She had her reservations, I confess, but you have surely put them to rest.”

“Have I?”

“You have done well here, Seamus.”

“May I call you Maggie?”

“Yes, of course.” She was not used to such formality to begin with; things were different on PEI. “We’re not so different, you know,” she told him. “My aunt came here from Scotland with my father and his family twenty years ago. She wasn’t born in this country.”

Seamus shrugged.

“Wherever we came from doesn’t matter so much. It’s the difference in our stations now.”

“My station isn’t so grand as my aunt’s,” Maggie confessed. “My father is a farmer on Prince Edward Island, up in Canada. I’m a country girl at heart.”

Seamus’s mouth twitched in a smile.

“Are you? I’m a country boy. Born and raised in County Mayo, until we came here.”

“You see, then,” Maggie said, and for some reason her voice had fallen to a whisper.

Seamus nodded.

“Even so,” he said, taking a step back as if to distance himself from her. Maggie felt a flicker of disappointment. “Thank you for allowing Aisling to come,” he said. He paused, seeming to want to say more, but then simply ducked his head in farewell.

Maggie watched him leave the schoolhouse, and did not stir until her uncle’s man came to the door in his greatcoat, asking her if she was ready to return home. When Margaret told her that evening that she needed to stay home at least for another day, and asked if Maggie could manage the school by herself for a little while longer, she assured her aunt that she could. And secretly Maggie’s heart began to sing.

* * * *

Isabel’s first sight of Calcutta was of low-lying buildings shrouded in a weird yellow haze. When she’d heard that they were entering the Hooghly River which led into the city, she had gone on deck the same as the other few passengers who had braved the four-month journey to India, including her chaperone, Katherine Daylesford, wife to a missionary in Midnapore.

“There it is,” Katherine said as the ship cut through the sluggish water, passing an odd assortment of small brigs and skiffs, piloted by men with white turbans.

For several hours the ship had been passing what looked almost like English houses, with wide verandas and gardens running straight down to the river. Isabel had been heartened by the number of people, even ladies in dresses like her own, who had come on to their verandas to wave their handkerchiefs at the ship as it passed by.

“This is Garden Reach,” Mrs Daylesford explained, “where many of the English who work for the East India Company live.”

Soon the English houses of Garden Reach gave way first to the imposing Fort William, with its large green maidan, and then to the city proper, the cluster of hovel-like buildings and odd pagodas intermingled with fine British buildings such as the splendid Government House, built to look like an English country manor. Isabel did not know what to make of any of it.

She blinked, the humid air like a wet blanket draped over her, the mosquitoes that had plagued her since the ship had entered the Hooghly whining around her face, no matter how many times she swatted at them.

“It is a beautiful city, is it not?” Katherine said, but Isabel could not agree.

In truth, everything about this journey had been strange and uncomfortable. She had never travelled on a ship before, despite her brother being a merchant sea captain. The cabin had been tiny, with everything nailed to the floor, and Isabel had been dreadfully sea sick. When the ship put into port at Malta and then Cairo, she had been appalled by the dust and noise and even the strange fruits and vegetables she was meant to try but could only look at dubiously.

Now, as she gazed at this exotic and bizarre place – and surely Burma would only be more so – she felt a flutter of panic and wondered, certainly not for the first time, just what she had got herself into.

Alan Spink

Alan is a member of the “Friend” Fiction Team. He enjoys working closely with writers and being part of the creative process, which sees storytelling ideas come to fruition. A keen reader, he also writes fiction and enjoys watching football and movies in his spare time. His one tip to new writers is “write from your imagination”.