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Polly on the Shore

Polly paused in the entrance of The Fiddler’s Green as the surge of noise washed over her. Smoke and whisky fumes mingled with the salt smell of the harbour outside. Sailors, raucous in their evening’s freedom from the mistress that ran their lives, laughed and sang at the top of voices more used to bellowing above the ocean’s roar.

Polly raised a hand to Pat behind the bar and nodded to several recognised faces. She wasn’t sure she’d call them friends though a couple had been lovers once.

“Usual, Poll?” Kenny yelled from his accustomed seat at the end of the oak bar.

She shook her head; not tonight. She wasn’t here to check on her staff. She was looking for a solution; something she hoped to find amongst the less drunken patrons.

Dice rolled and clicked on tables around her as she squeezed past. Coins changed hands as the luck rolled back and forth.

A card game was in full swing in the back corner. She moved closer, recognising all three of the players hunched over their hands and their moonshine.

“Evening, gentlemen.” Polly smiled briefly at them. Captain Carter, she had reason to remember, was no gentleman but the other two were captains of their word. Respected men in a rough world - no mean feat in the area of Salvation known as Sailor Town.

“Polly, do join us.” Captain May towered over her as he stood to pull up another chair. She’d feared his size once; thought he’d crush her as she lay. Such a big man for her first paying customer had almost had her running home. She’d cried afterwards, scaring him until she’d managed to convey that the tears were relief and gratitude. After the violence of her father, he had been a revelation.

“Let me get you a drink.” May strode off, pushing his way through the rowdy sailors and returning almost immediately with a small shot glass and a fresh bottle.

“I hear you bought another inn.” He filled her glass. “There’ll be nothing left for you to buy soon.”

“Just making a living.” It had been a long road up.

“This a social call?” Captain Stour was older then his fellows. His hair was almost completely grey, his beard shading towards white.

“No, I’m looking to hire.”

“Going into shipping now too, Poll?”

“No.” She ran Sailor Town - or as near as made no difference - but she had no interest in what they did on the water. “One job; that’s all. I can pay.”

“No question.” Carter leered showing yellowing teeth. “We could discuss other things than money. You’re still quite a beauty.”

Polly shuddered and shook her head quickly. It was years since she’d worked in any of the brothels she now owned. She wasn’t going to revert for a man as insensitive as Carter.

“Money,” she said firmly. “You can name your price.”

“Sounds serious, Poll.” Stour’s blue eyes bored into her. “What is it you want, lass?”

They’d make her spell it out despite the talk of the town.

“I need someone shanghaied.”

There was a small silence.

“I heard about your mum,” May said eventually taking pity on her. “I . . . I’m not sure it’ll be easy finding who did it.” He looked away, studying the cards lying forgotten on the table, unable to meet her gaze.

Polly understood; she’d known it wasn’t going to be easy.

“I can give you a name,” she said, digging her nails into her palms to keep from shouting. “My father killed her. He hit her,” she paused and then said deliberately, “again.”

“Your father was a good captain before . . .” Stour began but Polly cut him off.

“My father was fucking me long before any of you paid to do so.”

Now none of them met her eyes.

She took a steadying breath. “I’m not asking you to kill him. Just put him on a boat and get him away from me.” She looked round at their troubled faces. “If you want to, look at it as putting him back where he belongs. Getting him back where he might learn to be a good sailor again; the man he was.”

“He’ll never be that.” Stour refilled his glass and downed it in one, his eyes not really seeing her. “He lost it to the bottle.”

“Too many do,” May agreed, “when Lady Luck calls in her debts and they lose friends and ships to the ocean. Water and fortune are hard mistresses.”

“So that excuses what he did to mum and me, does it?”

“We never said that, lass.” Stour covered her hand briefly. “Of course it was wrong.”

They wouldn’t have done anything about it though, Polly thought bitterly. Most sailors didn’t have a family life beyond what they could buy from the Madames before the coin ran out and the next tide called.

Polly could not remember meeting any of these men before the night she had smashed the rum bottle into her father’s face and run into the dark.

Fierce loves and friendships bred by shared endeavour on the open sea rarely translated to the land if a sailor found himself a wife and settled down. It was a sort of betrayal to abandon the call of the salt even if it was a choice bred of despair as her father’s had been.

Her own despair had led her down more profitable paths but the inability to settle down was the same.

These men were some of the closest she had to friends; old lovers, business partners, good men. Even so they could still excuse what her father had done to her because he was someone who had fought the waves with them and lost.

May picked up the cards, idly shuffling the suits. “Care for a game, lass?” As if the topic was finished; her irrational desire over and done with.

“Please take him away. I’ll pay.”

“I’m sorry, Polly. I can’t take money from you to shanghai an old friend whatever he became.” Stour stood. “He’s not the man he was . . . in many ways. It would kill him.” He squeezed her shoulder briefly as he passed and headed for the door.

Polly fought back tears. She’d had this same conversation - or one very similar to it - three times already tonight. The captains of Sailor Town valued what she provided but she was still ‘of the shore’ and her father had been so much more.

She closed her eyes briefly. He had been more; greater than he’d become.

She could remember - just - the love and joy of a successful captain home from the sea before a cruel mistress had taken his livelihood and fifty men and left him a broken shell.

She had meant it; she didn’t want him dead.

Not now.

She wouldn’t have cared if the bottle had caved in his skull the night she left but she’d moved on.

Moved up.

It didn’t change the fact that she wanted him out of her pubs with his boasts of how he’d ‘sorted’ his wife.

Carter also stood up. “I’m sorry.” He shrugged awkwardly and left.

May continued to shuffle.

“I suppose I can’t convince you either.”

“I won’t be paid to take your father away, Polly.”

“I thought . . .”

He held up his hand. “Those on the shore live by money. That’s the god you worship but every sailor knows that it’s Fate that rules. Your father lost the cast when the Mary Ellen went down.”

“I know.”

“No, you don’t child, or you wouldn’t have thought you could buy a sailor’s future. That’s not how it goes.” He handed her the cards. “Cut them.”

Puzzled, she cut the cards and handed them back.

“One card, Poll. Highest card wins. If you win, I’ll take your father on as crew. If I win, you’ll forget it, put your money away and leave him to rot here on shore.”

He waited for her nod before dealing them a card each.

Without pausing he flicked his over.

The ten of spades.

Polly hesitated. Would she really give up her quest so easily? Except May was wrong; she did know about luck. More than money had led her feet to Madame Sherrie all those years ago and put her feet on the bottom of the ladder. Fortune had smiled on her all the way up. Sometimes you got dealt the bad hand first and it was your debt to call in when the dice rolled the other way.

Taking a deep breath, she slapped the card over and drew her hand away.

The Knave of Hearts.

She looked at it in silent amazement for a long moment before realising Captain May had stood.

“You won’t see him again, Poll, unless I can bring you back a changed man.”

She knew as she watched him wend his way towards the door that she would never see her father again.

She sat there a long time, shuffling the deck of cards and watching sailors trading their wages away to line her pockets and wondered why it felt like such a hollow victory.


Emma is a teacher who writes in her spare time, mainly crime and fantasy short stories, often inspired by her involvement with folk dance and song. She has published several short stories in anthologies and her first novel, Journeyman, was shortlisted for the Crime Writers Association’s Debut Dagger Award.

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