Based on a true event
It was the final day of their holiday on the English canals.
Up ahead, Kim spotted the next lock and called to Mandy who was in the cabin below. She appeared with a windlass in her hand and stepped ashore as the boat glided to a gentle halt against the canal wall. She walked to the far end of the lock and began closing the first of the downstream gates.
The gate was heavy, but by applying a sustained pressure to the swing-beam, it inched slowly shut. She looked across the lock towards the second gate, but was more than surprised to see someone already there, pushing against it. The figure hunched over the beam appeared blurred and indistinct. Mandy was puzzled, certain there’d been no one there when she began work on this side.
A low rumble permeated the ground as the gates sealed with an angry hiss. Thin fingers of darkness crept over the lock strangling the last light from a dying sun. Mandy shivered, startled by the sudden eerie gloom and an icy breeze that scraped past her bare ankles. The mysterious figure on the other side, straightened, clambered stiffly onto the beam and began shuffling slowly across towards her. Too afraid to move, Mandy remained rooted, wide eyes fixed firmly on the approaching figure. In a desperate search for reassurance, all she could manage was a faint, dry throated, “Good evening.”
“Good for some, per’aps,” growled the stranger who neither smiled nor looked directly at her, “but others may n’t think so. What are the likes of you doin’ abroad on such a night?”
“I’m with my husband,” replied Mandy, still feeling confused, “in the narrowboat.”
“I see no boat, no ‘usband . You wouldn’t be tryin’ to put one over on an old woman, would you?”
Mandy spun around, staring in disbelief. It might be dark, but if the boat had been there she would certainly have seen it. She turned back, ashen-faced, “No, of course not. He . . . they, were both there a moment ago”. Gripped by doubt and disbelief, her legs began to tremble and she stumbled backwards against the swing-beam.
“There, there, lovey,” said the stranger in a softer tone, “you ‘ave nought to fear. Come sit ‘ere next to me and I’ll tell all.”
Mandy hadn’t the strength to decline. She sat down beside a woman of similar age to herself, but one who looked much older from having lived a hard life. She had dark hair, parted down the middle, showing signs of grey at the roots. Her clothes, which echoed a style from the past, hung loosely about her and were in need of repair.
“What is your name, love?” enquired the woman, who no longer appeared so fearsome.
“Miranda,” replied Mandy, who preferred to use her full name.
“Pleased to make your acquaintance, Miranda. My name is Christina. Christina Collins.” She continued in a graver tone, “I too once ‘ad an ‘usband, and was on journey to meet with ‘im when a dastardly event o’er took the course of me life. I’ve uttered not a word of it before, but this night being the anniversary of such black events, I feel need to speak.” She pointed up the canal, “Yonder, is where they threw me in.”
“Threw you in! What do you mean, threw you in? Who threw you in?”
“Them men. Three of ’em there was. Ugly brutes, by nature as well as by looks. On the day previous, I went to Toll Office seeking ‘elp. I told ‘im in charge I feared they might meddle with me, but ‘e paid me scant heed. I said they was drinkin’ too much, but ‘e said that ain’t a crime. Told me to report ’em on arrival in London.”
“London is a long way from here,” interjected Mandy, “Is that where you were going?”
“Yes me dear. I was to meet with ‘usband. E’d found work there and sent money for coach, but to travel by freight barge were a lot cheaper. We was not of means, as you might say, so a few shillin’ saved meant a lot.” Christina paused. Her shoulders slumped and head fell forward as she recalled these details.
Mandy placed a comforting arm around her. “Please go on,” she encouraged.
“Durin’ daylight weren’t so bad. I walked along towpath with ‘orse. Big strong fella ‘e was, good-natured too. Took no notice when them men yelled at ‘im. Knew ‘is job was to pull, and did it well. Weren’t ’til after dark that I were filled with deep forebodin’. They’d bin drinkin’ steady all day and by nightfall was fully drunk. I took up me place to sleep, but by light of oil lamp I saw ’em casting lusty looks in me direction. I withdrew as deep into shadows as I could, for you see I ‘ad no space of me own. They was sneerin’ and makin’ lewd suggestions. Then they made their move.”
“Oh my God,” whispered Mandy. Had you no way to defend yourself?”
“I jumped up, ‘I’m a married woman,’ I shouted. ‘eld up me ring to show ’em, but they just laughed and tore it from me finger. Then two of ’em threw themselves upon me. The third took no part, but neither did ‘e try to stop ’em. I put up as best a fight as I could, but them was big ‘eavy men and I ‘ad no chance. ‘ardly ‘ad I begun to scream than a monstrous gnarled ‘and slammed down upon me face, closing not only me mouth, but me nose as well.”
Mandy gasped for breath. She turned to look at Christina who was tugging down on her skirt as if trying to prevent it from being lifted. Her eyes had frozen in a wild stare. Mandy felt sick and helpless.
“Yes, they killed me alright. Dumped me body overboard, and next day proceeded fourth as if nought ‘ad ‘appened. But they didn’t get far. Me body was found and them men was soon appre’ended. They was tried for murder in a court of law, and found guilty. The two what raped me was ‘anged and the third, transported.”
Long into the night, the two women sat side by side, silhouetted by the light of a ghostly moon. Save for the plaintive cry of a distant owl, it was silent. There was nothing left to say.
“What’s keeping you down there?” called Kim’s voice, “Other boats are approaching and we’re causing a traffic jam.”
Miranda raced up on deck, relieved to find the sun still shining!