Where the salt water meets the fresh water there is a line in the river. Just above that line is The Republic of Raft, not so much anchored as lazing alongside a ramshackle landing stage, dreaming of gamblers on paddle steamers and fine ladies languidly dipping white hands and long plaits in the water.
It was the thin days of January but this year the snow had only glanced the surrounding countryside. The Raft itself rarely froze in; its proximity to the salt water kept its path clear for a quick getaway. Dadder Raft insisted that if needs be, the Old Girl - by which he might have meant the either the Raft or Mammer - could sail coastal waters but her days hauling to Holland were probably over.
Mammer assured us little Rafts that she and Dadder had sailed the seven seas, but we rather doubted this as Dadder had none of the compulsory elements of a sea captain. No wooden leg, no parrot, not even a spy-glass or a turtle-neck jersey. Besides, Dadder could swim and everyone knows sailors are allergic to water, which is why they never drink it. Did you ever see a sailor drink anything but rum? Of course not.
School had begun again and we trudged down to the Board School which had its compensations at this time of year. In the corner the Board had provided a hearth big enough for a dragon to live in, surrounded by great iron railings. Our teacher, Miss Mavis, did not care for being cold so her high-seat desk had shuffled closer to the fire and she chose to conduct as many lessons as possible with us sitting in a circle on the floor next to it. The wooden floor was hard on the bum but then again, it was warm to the touch and far, far away from the incomprehensible maths cupboard which shivered far away at the back of the classroom where a disgruntled stuffed badger lived on the top shelf because nobody could think of what else to do with it. A stuffed adder, quipped Miss Mavis, might have made more sense.
The school caretaker, lumbering along in his regulation blue dungarees and carrying the symbols of his office, a broom and a bucket, came in to the classroom at break time to top up the grate. Sometimes there would be faint footprints of coal dust as if a Santa had got lost and fallen down a chimney out of time. Burton Coggles, whose dad had been down a coal mine, said that the caretaker was really Santa and this was his cover job, you could tell because if you looked in the coal dust there were tiny sparkles.
Back at the Raft, Mammer and Baba cuddled up to conserve a little warmth. We did not appreciate it, but food grew scarce in January and Mammer began to choose us over herself. Her paying work of sewing tended to drop off just after Christmas, so she caught up with repairs, but always there was the difficulty of where dinner was coming from. Or at least, coming from legally. Dadder was a marsh man, a wet bob, so in absolute terms he could never starve, not even if he ended up eating the roots of reeds - you can, they are edible - but that diet grinds the teeth to nothing. Protein is what you need, and that means a certain flexibility of attitude.
Up river was an Old Empty Water Mill which stood adjacent to Squire Bragg's farm. The mill housing, the habitable shack at the bottom and the mill pond had been in the care of the Last Daughter of the Last Miller but she had died and the Remaining Relatives had set to squabbling about the sale of it. For the moment, reasoned Dadder, it was the property of the Estate of the Last Daughter, not yet passed legally in to anyone else's hands.
He slipped down to the mill pond because it was here that a colony of carp with mouths the size of half-crowns grazed the still surface of the pond. Where there was weak sunlight slanting through the bare branches the carp would sunbathe. Here, he had laid out a net in the shallows, pegging it down but leaving the mouth slack so that it could be lifted, just a few inches, and instantly create a prison which only the most determined jumper would get over. Dadder didn't like nets, them being too much in the nature of 'evidence' if the water bailiffs called, but this wasn't the river so they didn't have any authority, not even allowing for the fact that the pond was fed by, and flowed into, the river.
While the Last Daughter had been alive there was no trouble. She agreed that so long as they shared the catch, and it was purely for personal use, they would harvest what they needed and no more than that. There didn't seem to be any shortage of fish the size of cats, they took a pair, another grew in its place. That, after all, is the point of a carp pond. But she was gone and there are flocks of black-coated solicitors who might want to argue the finer points of testamentary law.
Besides, personal use wasn't directly what Dadder had planned. This was a variation to the bargain. His idea was to take a catch to the fishmonger who was would pay cash as the sea boats were not going out so often this month, leaving his slabs looking bare. Carp is all very well but cash is king.
The sun was well up when he slid two of the fish out of the net and into a canvas bag slung under his arm, offering a prayer for the soul of the Last Daughter, and slipped away brushing his footsteps out behind him so that you would never know that so much as a cat had been down to the water. Reluctantly he left the net laid out so as not to disturb the bed of the pond anymore than it had been, but if someone cared to look they would find it.
The reeds on the lonely riverbank whispered "fisssshhhess" as Dadder slipped by, lamenting two brothers who would now sleep with the humans.
Dadder marched past the Harbour Lights, in to the open shop with its marble slab and winked at Mr Baker the fishmonger. It was a trick of fate that the baker was called Mr Butcher, while the butcher was called Mr Grocer, but then fate has a whimsical sense of humour. Mr Baker took a peek in to the bag and held up two fingers. Dadder responded with four, and they closed at three. The bag was emptied under the counter. Due to the sensitive nature of the fish they would not appear whole for fear of provoking queries, questions, unwelcome comments, but they would be displayed in neat fillets under no name. If asked, Mr Baker would say "wytch bream". "Wytch" being another word for "best not ask".
Stopping for a swift ale at the Harbour Lights, Dadder enquired if anyone had seen Squire Bragg and was reassuringly told that he had last been seen taking a train to the Spa, where he intended to sweat out the port and Stilton which had given him gout over Christmas. While the Squire was away his man was taking it very easy so he shouldn't be about much but was probably going to be on the dominoes team that evening. Dadder nodded his thanks, which might duly show up in the form of a few coneys liberated from under the Squire's hedges, a form of pest control for which he didn't charge the Squire and didn't trouble him with the knowledge of it, neither.
The bar shut shortly, the landlord being a great believer in late lunches for landlords, and Dadder took himself over to see Mr Grocer -who had now opened after his own lunch - where he handed over a note written in Mammer's italic script: "1lb of minced beef, please".
That was nearly all the business of the day so Dadder hurried back upriver while there was still light and pulled out the last of the potatoes from the sack in his shed and two onions. Not much to work with but in the sea-locker Mammer had a tin of tomatoes and there was a dab of butter and a drop of millk in the cool tin which nestled beside the boat.
Ahead of the return of the little Rafts, ravenous from school, Mammer fried the beef in its own fat, then the onions and tomatoes, laying them down in a pie dish. On top of that she put the mashed potatoes. The great metal pie dish was left on the top of the pot-bellied stove, keeping hot and cooking very gently.
Back in town Miss Mavis had finished reading the class an episode of "Moonfleet" had looked out of the school room window and come to the conclusion that she didn't trust the sky. It looked grey and sulky, as if ready to pick a fight with the ground. Swiftly she divided the children in to the believers and heathens, put Leonard the class Jew in to the Wendy House, and whisked the believers through The Lord's Prayer, shooing them out of the door and telling them not to dawdle but to get home before the weather closed in.
Burton Coggles remembered to knock on the Wendy House door to tell Leonard to come out, who answered as if he had been asleep and not listening at all. The Wendy House was made of hardboard with a cloth roof, and not much bigger than a kennel. Leonard increasingly looked like Alice, growing until she filled up the White Rabbit's house. This impression was inadvertently fostered by Leonard's father who believed in buying shoes with room to grow, so that Leonard trip-slapped about in footwear suitable for an apprentice clown.
Most of the children lived in the town so Miss Mavis had no concerns for them, but the Rafts had to go along the river bank and she considered them a feather-headed brood, harmless but with less wit than the ducklings on the pond.
She sighed and, regardless of the cold, she gathered her coat, scarf, hat, gloves, galoshes and umbrella - still rolled at this stage - and pointed it to emphasise the way. "Come along children, time to go home" and she marched us smartly down to the path which would become the river bank. We had to huff to keep up; she was small but she travelled like a determined little tug bringing a liner in to dock.
At the bend of the river, where the water is still salt but you can see the Raft, she stopped and pointed towards our craft with her umbrella. " Run along now, I can see smoke from the chimney and I can smell something delicious."
"Come with us, Miss"
"No dears, I need to get home before the sky makes up its mind."
We ran towards the wisp of hope.
"And anyway" she muttered to herself "there are enough mouths there to feed already".
When we got to the Raft, we turned to wave to say we were alright. Standing on the raised bank she was outlined against the sky, the wind tugging at the hem of her coat. The pink grey dusk had changed her clothes to the dark bronze of a statue and she rested on her furled umbrella like the knight guarding a tomb in the church. Her hat stood like a heavy circlet on her head. The line of angry cloud in the heavens held back - or seemed to - while she stood between us and the fated rain.
Miss Mavis looked back towards the Raft, hearing with relief the distant clink of spoons on enamel plates. On the air was a faint aroma of cocoa telling a story of a voyage from the far Americkees to Holland, but where it came from she could not fathom.