Sean McMahon: A work in progress
London, 1842. England is in turmoil and one young woman must carry the demands of both the living and the dead.
After the death of her mother and imprisonment of her revolutionary father, thirteen-year-old Maggie Power is plunged into a world of poverty and violence. Promising to protect her younger brother - come what may - she scavenges upon mudflats of the Thames, haunted by the
constant shadows of hunger and disease. That is, until a chance encounter with a charitable countess, who rescues her from the brutal streets of 19th century London.
But Maggie’s troubles are just beginning. For the rich life presented to her by the mysterious countess comes at a dreadful price. Slowly she realises she must free herself of the influence of her benefactor - whose dark motives are revealed over the course of the turbulent summer of 1842.
A suspenseful, historical mystery, Dark Remains takes the reader on a journey through the dark heart of early Victorian London.
London, May 1842.
There was no reply.
Maggie cupped her hands to her mouth - ready to call once more, when a small boat, drifting down the centre of the river, caught her eye and distracted her for a moment.
Amid the creeping shadows of the falling darkness, she was unable to make out the faces of those aboard the vessel but recognised the silhouette of a riverman standing tall at the bow.
Behind him a smaller figure sat - a boy perhaps, maybe the son of the man - rowing fluently against the tide. She knew they were dredgers and also knew what it was they were seeking. As the boy rowed, the father - with a hook fastened to the end of a rope in one hand and a lantern in the other - stared deep into the dark water below.
“It’s about time we left,” Maggie repeated, shifting her attention once again to her younger brother. She knew Thomas could hear her perfectly well and waited for him to lift his gaze up from the water. But Thomas shuffled on across the mudflats, moving farther and farther away from the shore, his back arched, his eyes fixed - like the riverman’s - on the water below.
Maggie heaved her body upright and stretched herself straight; every sinew ached of the full afternoon hunched over the mud. The tide had begun to turn, and as she paddled back towards the dock wall, she turned to face her brother.
“It’s been a useless day, Tom. Come on, my little man, let’s get some food and shelter.”
Water and thick, black sludge devoured her ankles and the hemline of her tattered dress clung to her calves. Her voice was tired, her gaze empty, her impatience with Tom growing with every unanswered call sent out across the deserted river bed.
Maggie waited for Tom to turn and offer up his usual litany of excuses: just five more minutes please, Sis? We may find something precious, something that might provide us with enough food for a whole week, a whole month even. Who knows what might cross our paths?
But thirteen-year-old Maggie knew off by heart the harsh lessons of scavenging: miracles don’t happen. Knew that she and Tom were not even genuine mudlarks; that they had been thrust here merely through circumstance; and, more importantly, she knew most of the gangs crowded upon the river at low tide carried with them criminal intentions. Unlike Maggie and Thomas, who searched for meagre pickings, these gangs - the professional mudlarks - were set upon plundering all they could from docked ships and passing barges.
Earlier that afternoon they had set off behind a dozen or so other of the lowliest scavengers - all dressed alike in filthy rags - to search the same stretch of riverbed. They searched for anything: a piece of coal, an unwanted shard of metal, a misplaced coin, even a discarded item of clothing.
And, as always, took great care to avoid other items, of rather less value, flushed from the open sewer further up river.
They continued to search long into the dying light of the mild, spring evening, long after the other scavengers had drifted away.
“Stop being so selfish, Thomas. Come here now!” she called once more to her brother.
Still Tom continued to ignore her.
For a second or two, the man in the boat, distracted from his work, glanced up from the water and looked back to the shoreline where Maggie stood calling.
“Thomas, I’m very cold and very tired.”
She looked towards the dredgers. The man signalled to the boy to cease rowing and fed the rope, with the hook attached, into the water. To set his other hand free, he placed the light to the side of him, which enabled him to release the rope more quickly into the river.
They had a bite, Maggie thought. But their catch would not fight or flail once removed from the water. And the thought of what might appear at the end of the hook sent a shiver swimming down her spine.
“You know how I get when the water begins to rise,” she said, aware of how far the watermark’s wet shadow had progressed up her dress. “Don’t be so selfish, Thomas. Please, come on now!”
For a moment Tom turned to his sister, a smirk rising across his face. “A mudlark scared of water! Whatever next?” he said and returned his gaze back to the muddy water beneath him.
“Yes, Thomas, I’m scared. Not just for myself. I’m scared for you. Scared the most precious thing I possesses may be lost to the water!”
Maggie hauled her feet from the thick mud, tiptoed up the slippery green steps at the bottom of the dock, until she found one higher up to sit upon. As she sat, she dumped a threadbare sack containing a dozen or so hopeless lumps of coal on the step below her.
“Now, are you coming?” She was eager to leave before the dredgers revealed their catch to the world.
“Yes, Maggie, yes. I’m coming. Just -”
“Not just, Thomas. Now!”
Unaware of the boat behind him, and the unease it had stirred in Maggie, Thomas thrust through the shallow waters, skipped across the muddy shoreline - his exposed feet barely leaving an impression - before he pushed past his seated sister and stomped up the stairs. Before Maggie could stand upright, he was halfway to the top.
Rising to catch him up, Maggie looked back to the dredgers. The boy was now standing upright behind the man and they both pulled on the rope, heaving something, or somebody, from the water.
Maggie felt a sickly sensation rising from deep within her stomach. She hesitated. The temptation to wait and see what they brought to the surface overwhelmed her. And so she remained, rooted to the spot, for a little while longer.
Long enough to witness them heave the body into the boat.