The Secret River

The Secret River by Kate Grenville Read Free Book Online

Book: The Secret River by Kate Grenville Read Free Book Online
Authors: Kate Grenville
Tags: Fiction, General
whispered, Fancy, Will, scissors just for nothing but grapes! The only grapes Thornhill had ever known were the few he had picked up from the ground, broken and muddy, when the market was finished.
    Thornhill preferred the stories they told each other about their futures. They would have children, naturally, and her strong husband, that Freeman of the River Thames, would make a good thing of life as a waterman, and later on he would go into the business with her father.
    Thornhill could hardly believe that life had given him this corner to turn. Only the calluses on his palms and the ache in his shoulders reassured him that it was real. This was no fairytale, but the reward for a man’s labour. He lay in the dark, listening to Sal wonder aloud whether she would like a boy first or a girl,and rolled his thumb over the calluses as if they were so many sovereigns.
    Seven years of ferrying the gentry from one side of the river to the other had sickened Thornhill for that work. Once he was a freeman he chose to work on the lighters, rowing loads of coal and timber. Not everyone had the strength to manage a fully laden boat in the treacherous eddies of the Thames, but he did. He had never been afraid of hard work, and it was cleaner than truckling to gentry for a few extra pence.
    It meant also that he could employ his brother to give him a hand. Rob was not up to much in the brains department, but he was the strongest man on the river, and biddable. Rob’s calves would bulge, his arms strain and the placket at the back of his britches would open below the button, threatening to burst, as he heaved up a sack of coal. But he could work all day for no more than what would keep body and soul together.
    Together, the Thornhills made a good pair.
    A year after they were wed, the child was born, a healthy boy. He lay crowing, crying, exclaiming, making prodigious amounts of fawn-coloured shit and great arcs of piss when unswaddled. They had him christened William, but he was always Willie. Another William Thornhill in the world was not too much, not when it was his own son.
    The baby lay gesturing at Thornhill in a secret code, blinking slowly at the figure bending over him, pointing to his father’s nose with a tiny finger as if to pronounce on it. The powerful little red mouth was never still, the lips pursing, puckering, spreading, pouting, the fists jerking at air, expressions flickering across his face as constantly as waves on the surface of the ocean.
    He loved to pick his son up and feel the weight of him against his chest, his small arms around his neck, the innocent smell of hishair. Loved to watch Sal, sitting by the window smiling to herself as she stitched another tiny smock, or bent over the boy crooning. He heard her humming as she went about her tasks. She could not keep a tune, but for Thornhill that wavering melody became the sound of his new life. He went about smiling at nothing.
    In the year of the boy’s second birthday, winter came early and sharp. The winds and the clouds were such as Thornhill had never seen before. They were always enemies of the boatmen, and this year the hardness of the wind and the quality of the cold was all they talked about, up and down the river. It was going to be a bad winter.
    When clouds scudded overhead and dropped a shower of rain, his coat, that could turn the water if it did not come down too heavy, was soaked through and the wind off the river sliced through the worn-out wool. It scoured his cheeks and made his whole face red, swollen, stone-like. He could bear it as well as the next man. He did not complain. It was as pointless to complain about the weather as it was to complain that he had been born in Tanner’s Court in Bermondsey in a dank stuffy room rather than in St James Square with a silver spoon waiting to have his name engraved on it.
    It was almost a relief when, in the small days of January, the pool above London Bridge grew a pearly skin like the cloud on

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