Tribute by Isobella Stewart

Strange thing, I’ve always wanted to be able to tell someone, really tell it like it was, and now I’ve got the chance, well, feel a bit tongue-tied……suppose it’s because , well just because…………

Donald Cunningham had grown into a  handsome man, he really was, dark eyed and dark haired, not too fat and not too thin.   We’d been at dame school together for a while, then he’d gone to be apprenticed to a printer, and I’d gone into service, so we’d not met for a long time. When we did meet up again, at the circus in Westminster Bridge Road it was like we’d never been apart.  Didn’t much like the look of the woman with him, thin and sly looking she was.  Anyway we laughed and larked like old times,  never mind her looking sour-faced at us.

Didn’t think much more of it and then one day he appeared at the kitchen door of the house where  I worked in Kennington Road, said he was making a delivery or something. Anyway it gave me time to have a word with him, never mind I was in my old working clothes, and covered in black lead from cleaning the grate.   He asked me to meet him on the Sunday when I had my day off.

We met in Hyde Park. It was a lovely warm June day, and everything seemed to be blooming and bright. He bought me some sweet perfumed violets, I can still remember the smell.

We listened to the band playing there, and sang along to the tunes when we could, and then walked around town, arm in arm,  just like the toffs do.  He told me all about his work, and how when he had finished his apprenticeship in St Albans last year when he turned 21  he’d come back to live with his mum in Wilton Street He’d got a job now near Waterloo.

He told me how he’d started on the simple tasks like making the tea, and preparing the ink for the journeymen printers.   He’d never drunk beer before but found that they all did and started too. The temperance movement was always on about the evils of drink,, and the printers and compositors  always told anyone who complained that they needed the beer in the workshop because if a tray of type was dropped, the beer was dashed over them, then the small lead letters stuck together,  and could be lifted more easily to be melted down and recast.      Oh,  we did laugh, and then he went all serious and said  “Liza, you know Jenny who was with me at the circus?”

“Yes” I said a bit uneasy like” what about her?”.

“Well,  I met her in St Albans, she works at Bryant and Mays now  and lodges with me Aunt.   The long and the short of it Lisa, is that she and me, we’re getting wed.

Well, I just stood there, I went cold and was shaking with anger. What did he think it as doing taking me out and raising my hopes, although, to be fair, he’d not actually said anything, but I’d just hoped.”

“Sorry”  he said.  I could smell beer on his breath.

“I was crying by this time, and he put his arm round me.  Really sorry Lisa, honest.”

I shook his arm off, I didn’t care who saw us or what they thought.  “Just take me back – now” I said.  We walked back to Kennington Road in silence.  I was so miserable and I didn’t trust myself to say the things I| wanted to.   Like how much I wanted to see him again.

Anyway I took to talking past where he worked whenever |I could get out on an errand, and one day I did see him again, and although he was married by this time, we took to meeting up when and wherever we could.   It was wrong |I know, but something about him, the set of him, the smell of him, the way he just was, was like food and drink to me.

One night we arranged to meet at Pimlico, near the pier after dinner had been served at the house.    We slipped down on to the foreshore, and cuddled down in one of the boats there, we were as warm as could be under the tarpaulin, because once the sun went down, the air got chilly.  There was a lot of noise around us though from folks at the pub.    I got the idea that I’d like to be rowed in the boat, to a private place, somewhere we could be alone.

Together we quickly pushed  and pulled the boat down to the waterline, and climbed in,  holding on to each other to steady ourselves. I was never much of a sailor.        He knew a bit about rowing all the same.  I loved looking at his muscles rippling along his shoulders in the moonlight as he pulled on the oars, and I thought what it would be like to hold him out there on the quiet water. Soon we were halfway across heading towards Millbank.    All of a sudden we felt a real strong  tug on the boat, like something down there wanted to turn us round and round.

We were being turned round.

He struggled to keep on straight, but couldn’t,  and we were both pitched into the cold dark swirling water.  The weight of my skirts pulled me under straight away,  I struggled to get my head above  the water, but it was only when he yanked me hard upwards,    that I managed it.      He somehow held on to one of the oars and held me up with his other arm.

We heard a shout from the bank. Some of the pub regulars had been watching us. They thought we were trying to steal the boat.  But then they launched another  and with two of them pulling on the oars, they managed across the rough water in the middle of the river and tried to pull us out.  Just as one of them caught my arm and started to pull me upwards.  Just then,  I felt  rather than saw Donald, lose  his grip on his oar. When I looked he just  slipped below the water, just like that. They pulled me on board and then  they started looking for him, but he’d gone. He wasn’t found for five days, and then he was all the way down at Teddington.

They took me back to the shore, and although I felt more dead than alive, they kept asking me questions.  I said he was my husband, well what else could I say?

Of course, there was an uproar when the truth came out.  I lost my position at the house, and his wife ranted and raved like the world had come to an end – well I suppose it had for her.  She’d got one on the way,  and I soon discovered I had too. Only he’d given me twins.      My Mum eventually took me back in, and life went on, never mind the gossips.    I still miss him.    I suppose She put the those words up – glad about that.

Wish I had. Still think he loved me more than her.

I’m pleased someone wants to listen all this time later.


About claire collison

Writer, photographer, creative facilitator, and breast cancer survivor, I am currently Artist in Residence at the Women's Art Library (WAL) My first novel was a finalist in the Dundee Book Prize, and my short stories and poetry have appeared in print and online. In 2015 I was awarded second place in the inaugural Resurgence Prize, the world's first eco poetry competition, judged by Sir Andrew Motion, Alice Oswald, and Jo Shapcott. This blog began as a space for words generated on my walking/writing workshops at the Mary Ward centre in Bloomsbury - Writing the City (WTC). WTC has since grown to include many other venues, including the Museum of Broken Relationships, the Barbican, the River Rom, Southwark Woods, Aylesbury Estate, and most recently, as part of Walking Women festival, An Intimate Tour of Breasts. I have worked with Kettle's Yard, Cambridge, as the recipient of the first Max Reinhardt Literacy Award, designing teaching resources; and for The Photographers' Gallery, helping school children develop visual literacy as part of 'Seeing More Things'. If you would like me to design a workshop or walk for you, please be in touch!
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