THE BARGEMEN - JOSEPH DARLINGTON
The bargemen are silent and eat mustard from the jar. Inside their boats they carry secrets. Outside they are painted with angels.
Emily liked to watch them from her window. She watched them swing round the corner by Mrs. Barry’s house, then slowly putter-putter along down to the lock. They were all hunched up in coats and hats, one on the front and the other on the back. On the side of the boat this morning was a golden angel. She had a seed in one hand and a tree in another, and behind her were the stars of the midnight sky.
As they reached the lock the man on the front jumped off. He held a metal rod that he stuck on the lock and jiggled. From behind, Emily thought, he looked like he was plucking chickens. The man on the back sucked up a big spoonful of mustard, sat and waited.
Emily liked to watch them after school. In the springtime, days were long and she could look out at them till 9 o’clock some nights. She liked how slow they were.
“Emily?” came a shout from downstairs. “Dinner!”
“One minute!” she shouted back. They had turned the handle and the barge started sinking down. She liked to watch it sink down. From her window it looked like it sank out of sight, into the deep forever.
She watched it go and then ran downstairs to Dad.
“Not watching those bargemen again, are you Emily?” Her father raised an eyebrow as he poured the orange juice. “I’ve warned you about that before, haven’t I?”
Emily nodded sheepishly. Her Dad was the vicar of Avon Murray. Her mum had died when Emily was a baby. People would always be coming around for advice or help, or sometimes just because they could. It was a rare night when there was just the two of them at the table. Emily sipped her juice.
“Is anybody coming around tonight, Dad?”
“Not tonight, Emily. Although I shall have to take a short trip to the church later.” He smiled and ruffled her hair. “You’ll have your run of the house!”
“Can’t you stay here and watch Bake-off?” They used to always watch Bake-off together.
“I wish I could, pumpkin, but Frigg has something important to discuss with me. It’s too urgent to wait, apparently.” He turned from the counter and sat a plate down in front of her, adding chili flakes to his own before pulling up a chair. “It’ll just be you. But you’re big now. You can manage.”
Emily frowned and picked at her food. It was a thick gammon steak with radish and avocado. Her Dad had grown them on his allotment. His vegetables were the talk of the town, and every year he was a shoe-in for at least one prize at the Avon Murray Fruit and Veg Hullabaloo. Competition for Best in Show was brutal, but he’d managed it last year, and three years before that, and then back in 2012.
“Grown with love” was his motto, and he said it now over the radishes.
“Dad,” Emily asked, “can I have mustard on my gammon?”
The reverend swallowed. He set down his knife and fork, steepled his fingers and narrowed his eyes at her. “Emily, what did I tell you about those bargemen?”
“It’s not about the bargemen Daddy, it’s—”
“I know what it’s about, Emily. You can’t fool me.” He watched her frown, her sad eyes picking out the lumps in the squashed avocado. He spoke, quiet but stern. “What did we say about the bargemen?”
Emily mumbled, “that they’ll drag me down to hell.”
“What’s that?” He lifted a hand to his ear.
“That they’ll drag me down to hell.” She sighed.
“That they’ll drag you down to hell.” The reverend smiled. “That’s right! Now, eat your radishes.”
Emily hated science lessons. At school it was taught by Mr Hanley, and he always had it in for her. It was extra annoying, because she loved science at home. She had lots of books about the way things worked, and dinosaurs, and rocks and plants. None of it seemed to come up at school though, it was just a lot of burning things in Bunsens.
“What was this one’s picture?” Sally Martins asked. Sally sat next to Emily in science class, and she liked the bargemen too. She liked to look at the different angels on their boats and then draw them in her secret notebook. “Was it an angel?”
“They’re all angels, Sally!” Emily sighed. Sally didn’t live near the canal so she didn’t know as much about the bargemen as Emily did. “All of them have angels on, except the holiday ones and—”
“And they’re not real bargemen, yes I know!” Sally furrowed her brows. “I mean, cos some have big angels and others have pictures where the angel is hiding. Like the one with the coal mine and the angel was hiding in the miner’s lamp.”
“Well, this one was just an angel.” Emily told her. She held her nose up high and dabbed at the air with her finger like she’d seen her Dad do. “And it had a seed in one hand and a tree in the other.”
“Wow!” Sally’s eyes widened. “A whole tree.”
“Oy!” Mr Hanley stopped at their table. “What are you two jabbering on about, eh? Talking about your boyfriends? Well, we’ll have less of that, please. Get that Bunsen lit.” He picked a taper up from the table and pushed it at Emily. “And once it’s lit, I want you two concentrating. It’s dangerous stuff is sulphur, and I’ll not have you two gassing the whole lot of us because you’re talking about boys.”
“Sorry, Mr. Hanley.” Sally smiled.
Mr Hanley grimaced at Emily. “I think we both know who the real chatterbox around here is.”
Emily lit their Bunsen and moped. Mr. Hanley only hated her because her Dad’s allotment was right next to his, and her dad’s veggies always beat Mr. Hanley’s at the Hullabaloo. Mr. Hanley’s allotment was filled with high tech equipment and special trays for seedlings and homemade plant foods. He took most of it from the school, Emily reckoned. His plants looked like they were trapped in a science lab.
Her dad didn’t use any of that. “Grown with love” was his motto. He’d used the same watering can his granddad used, he said, and a pair of plyers and some prayers. That was all the reverend needed. It drove Mr. Hanley crazy.
Emily watched as Sally put the sulphur in the test tube and the test tube over the flame. A yellow vapour started to rise off the crushed up tablet. It smelled like farts. So that was why all the boys had been laughing!
“My dad says that Hell smells like sulphur,” Emily whispered. “Andhe says that the bargemen will drag you down to Hell…”
“Emily!” Mr. Hanley shouted. “What are you whispering about?”
“Nothin…” Emily frowned.
“It’s okay, Mister Hanley,” Sally spoke in her defence. “We were only talking about sulphur.”
“Oh, yes? And what were you saying about sulphur, Emily?”
“Sir,” Sally responded. Emily’s head was now lowered. “She was just saying that Hell smelled liked sulphur, sir. And she would know cos her Dad’s the reverend, isn’t he?”
“HELL?!” Mr Hanley barked. “Why, there’s no such thing as hell! Children your age should have worked that out by now. Emily, I won’t have you spreading your father’s cruel lies in my classroom!” He lifted his arm and pointed. “Five minutes in the time-out cupboard!”
“But, Mr. Hanley…”
“Quiet, Sally, or you’ll be going too.”
Emily rolled her eyes and went to stand in the time-out cupboard. It was actually the store cupboard, but if Mr. Hanley didn’t like you, then that was where he’d send you as punishment. Emily stood in there frowning as Mr. Hanley shut her in and told her to think about what she’d done. Five whole minutes she’d have to wait. Boring.
As she stood there she thought about the bargemen. About how they keep going all day long, moving slowly and never get bored or tired. The man at the back only moved one arm to turn and the other to eat his mustard. The man at the front was even more still. He only got up to turn the thing on the lock.
It was then that she had an idea. The storeroom was full of science stuff. Pipettes and Bunsen burners and weights and lots of other metal and glass things. She let her eyes wonder around the room until she saw… What was it? A wrench or something? Emily thought, maybe this would turn the lock!
She could borrow it, too. Easy. Mr Hanley borrowed things all the time for his allotment, so why shouldn’t she? She’d bring it back. Moving slowly, cautiously, carefully, she lifted the wrench and measured it against herself. Yes, it’d just about fit.
She pushed it up her jumper and waited till her time-out was over. Once she at the table she would hide it in her bag and be home free.
It was Sunday afternoon when she got her chance to try the wrench. Her dad had sent her home after the morning service and she would be in the house on her own until dinner. That left her lots of time.
She sat at her window, watched and waited. Soon, she thought, soon the bargemen would come. The wrench sat on her bed, waiting.
At about 2 o’clock she heard that promising hum. As she watched a new barge putter-puttered around the corner by Mrs. Barry’s house and started slowly gliding towards the lock. Along the side was painted a poor shepherd boy being surprised by an angel. The boy had been eating a picnic lunch and as the angel reached its arms out towards him one hand seemed to point down to the jar of mustard open by his sandwiches.
Emily waited till the barge was almost at the dock. She had to be precise. Close enough for them to know she was doing it for them, far enough away that the man up front didn’t jump out himself. She waited. Waited. NOW!
She turned and grabbed the wrench then sprinted out her bedroom, down the stairs and back, through the kitchen, out the back door, through the garden and the back gate and… yes! They hadn’t reached the lock yet, but the man up front was standing up, ready. Emily ran out in front of them with her wrench.
The bargemen didn’t stir as Emily took up position at the lock gate. She lifted the wrench and tried to attach it. It wouldn’t go. Panicking, she tried it at a different angle, and then a different one again. She tried using the other end. Nothing worked. Her hands were growing slippery with sweat. Finally, finally she got some kind of purchase but then, no, she couldn’t move it. It entirely refused to budge. The panic was rising in her now. She felt like crying.
She looked to the bargemen and they were stock still. Expressionless. Like they always were. They stared at her with the wary eyes of horses. Then, the first man on the front stepped forward. He lifted his lock key and swung it, launching it in an underarm arc to land by Emily’s feet.
“Thanks!” She smiled, dropping her wrench and taking up the lock key. “Thanks so much!”
She felt herself tearing up as she felt the key drop into position, felt it give easily, turning, and in her hands there was the feeling of teeth cranking around, the whole lock moving, the power of water rushed through her arms.
The barge began to sink down into the lock. She watched it go and felt butterflies in her belly. Should she? She did.
Feeling something move inside her she dived out over the water, landing in the boat itself. It rocked wildly, the two bargemen holding on to the cabin to steady it. She could hear the water rushing out below them, see it draining off above. She was in the barge. She was here, with the bargemen. The whole world looked different from the water.
And the barge kept on sinking, lower and lower and lower.
She handed the key back to the bargeman at the front. He took it and set it aside. Helped himself to a mouthful of mustard straight from the jar. The barge kept sinking, lower, lower, lower.
Surely they were sinking too far? Emily thought. Surely it cannot go any lower?
Lower, lower, lower came the waters and the stone walls of the lock kept rising ever higher into the air. Emily felt like they were being lowered down now into the grave. The clear sky was so high above them now. In its place were two walls of wet stone, and two narrow gates. They kept going, lower, lower, lower. Always down.
As they dropped, the air grew cold. There was a sound of draining water, a sound of drips from above, and all else was silence. Emily looked around at the two bargemen. They looked back, their eyes showing no emotion, no intelligence. They reached a depth where the shadows sloped in on them. In the dingy half-light their eyes glimmered like the wet rock.
“Are we going down to Hell?” Emily asked. There was no reply. They kept lowering.
She could not say how long it was before they stopped. Time gave up on her. It was dark. The boat became still. The water was at rest.
“What now?” Emily asked, afraid to know the answer.
Nothing but silence, and then, from the gate in front of them, a creak. It began to move. Inside, through the crack, Emily could see an unearthly golden light. It hung in the air and rippled on the water. The bargemen were still and silent. Two statues in the dark.
Then, with a heave, the gates creaked open and they were moving out into a huge cavern. The cavern held a large pool, black as night, and parked on the far shore were a whole fleet of barges. Twenty or thirty of them were lined up against the rocky shore. Above them towered a statue. Twelve foot tall. It was an angel, Emily realised, theangel, from the boats. They putter-puttered slowly towards it.
The golden angel lifted both arms aloft, her fingers splaying out. From her sleeves and fingertips grew golden branches and vines, each bursting with crystal flowers. Her robes clung hard to her body, vast and imposing. Around her feet a circle of bargemen raised and lowered their heads in worship.
They hit the shore. They disembarked. Following the two stout bargemen, Emily approached the statue.
Getting nearer she saw that the angel stood upon a pedestal. The pedestal was surrounded by large ornamental urns, all overflowing with tiny black seeds. In the flickering golden light she could make out writing:
Rockborn. The Sword and the Light.
She stepped forward, lowering her head in rhythm with the bargemen. The men from her own boat had joined the circle now. She could not tell which they were. In the gloom they all looked identical. Short, squat, their flat caps dipping into dark.
She approached one of the overflowing urns. There too, was a carving:
“Consider the mustard seed. From the smallest shall grow the most high. Some fall on thorns and are eaten by worms, some find good soil and grow good fruit.”
Emily’s eyes were wide with wonder. She gazed at the overflowing urns and up at the golden angel. Then she turned back to the bargemen. Their heads dipped slowly, up and down.
They wouldn’t miss one seed, surely?
She waited until they dipped right down, the peaks of their flat caps pushing the dirt. She darted out her hand and took a single seed, pinched in her careful fingers. She pushed her hand into her pocket and walked back, out of the circle. As the bargemen raised their heads again, she was back on the boat. She would wait there for them.
It took a long time for them to finish. Their heads lifted and lowered, raised and dipped for what seemed a lifetime. But, sure enough, they eventually tired of their worship and sloped back to the boat. Emily was sat there, in the dark, silently waiting.
They pushed off into the pool, their boat freely floating for a few minutes as the man at the back initiated the engines.
“Can you take me home?” Emily asked them. The man on the front looked her in the eye, his mouth had and unflinching. Then the engine burped to life. They began to putter-putter on.
There were more than a dozen small rocky pathways that they could take, though both seemed to know the exact one they aimed for. Slowly, and in silence, they move into it. Emily felt the pitch black wash over her and lay back. She would wait. She would attune herself to the slow puttering and the flow of the water.
In a short while she was home.
“How could you run off like that?” Her dad was screaming at her. “Leaving the back door swung open… I thought you’d been kidnapped. We had the whole congregation out looking for you.”
“I’m sorry, Dad.” Emily sniffed. Her face glowed red.
“You will NEVER—you hear me?—NEVER run off like that again!” He shouted, waving his finger.
“Go to your room.” He pointed, standing tall in his reverend’s outfit. “I can’t bear to look at you. You are grounded.”
For the next week she spent every night up there, locked in her room. She read her science books and texted Sally about the bargemen. She didn’t tell her about her adventure though. Instead, she kept the mustard seed to herself, for this was surely what it was. She kept it on her table where she stared at it and pondered.
Where? She wondered, would be the best place to plant it? She didn’t want thorns to get it and she certainly didn’t want worms to eat it. What she wanted was good soil. Find good soil and grow good fruit, the urn had said.
There was only one place for it really, or maybe two.
That Sunday was the Avon Murray Fruit and Veg Hullabaloo. Her dad would be there with his vegetables, “grown with love,” and so would Mr. Hanley with his “Frankencumbers”, as her dad had taken to calling them. It looked like Mr. Hanley would finally get his way this year. After all the years of trailing along picking up second place to the reverend’s first, Mr. Hanley had finally cracked some new scientific formula and his crop now looked far more promising than her dad’s.
Not that Emily really cared. She was mad at her dad for locking her in her room. He just didn’t understand. Whenever she did anythinghe just went crazy and over the top. Maybe Mr Hanley’s veg was better.
Sunday afternoon, a week since her journey underground, Emily sneaked out through the back garden and ran down to the allotments, mustard seed in hand.
When she got there she saw that, as predicted, all of the fruit and veg that had been growing all spring had now been picked for the Hullabaloo. Each allotment was now nothing but nutritious, empty soil. She walked through the mud until she found her dad’s and Mr. Hanley’s allotments.
Standing there, she couldn’t decide. She held the mustard seed in her hand and thought hard, but she just didn’t know where to put it. Was Mr. Hanley’s super-soil the best place for it to grow? Or was it her dad’s plot, “grown with love”? She didn’t feel very loved. Not by either of them. But it must, she told herself, it mustbe one of them.
So she turned around and closed her eyes. She felt the mustard seed in her hand. Its tiny weight. Its little, hard potential. In her head, she said a prayer for it, then launched it backwards over her shoulder.
Just then, a gust of wind ripped through the allotments. She turned and saw the mustard seed lifted high up into the air. Gulping, she chased after it.
It rose over empty bushes and forlorn tying sticks, rattling through the air with Emily’s tiny fingers grabbing at it behind.
It plunged, pirouetted and plopped right in the canal.
Emily stood by the bank. Her hands were lifted to her mouth. She watched it as it floated, then watched it as it sank. Then, from around the corner, she heard the putter-putter of a barge approaching. She looked up and saw that it was the two who had taken her on her journey those seven days ago. Their eyes were hard and fixed on her. The man on the back had a mustard stain at the side of his mouth. They watched her as they passed and she, red faced, bleary eyed, watched them until she couldn’t take it anymore.
Emily ran home. She pulled tight her curtains. She wouldn’t pay heed to the bargemen ever again.
Joseph Darlington is a writer based in Manchester, UK. His work concerns rural, small town life on the meeting point between dimensions.