Anne bent down and plunged her fingers into the wet mud. Nothing but Thames sludge. She turned and tried another spot. Thames sludge...and a handful of nails.
“What you got there, girlie?” Uncle Johnny stood several yards away at the bottom of the ladder, hands wrapped around the heavy knob of his cane. Anne shuddered just thinking of it, and her back ached with the ghosts of bruises long since healed.
“Just some nails, Uncle.” She dropped the nails into her basket as loudly as she could. Uncle Johnny would want to know she wasn’t keeping anything for herself.
“Good job, girlie! Now keep searching. We don’t got long ‘til the tide comes back in.” Uncle Johnny looked away, surveying the work of his other nieces and nephews.
Anne stuck her hand into another patch of mud. She hated calling him Uncle Johnny, but he insisted they did all the same. “It makes it more legit, see?” he’d say. Still, scavenging in the cold mud was better than what he had some of the older children do.
Her fingers wrapped around something small and oval. Her heart skipped a beat as she felt a thin chain. Probably just some meaningless trinket, something dropped at random upriver and buried at Whitechapel, but...no! She pulled the treasure free. She bent down, as if tying her boot, and glanced into her cupped hand.
A gold locket, filthy but gold all the same, lay on her palm. Anne wanted to wipe away the mud, to clean it up and make it beautiful, but Uncle Johnny would notice if she didn’t go back to scavenging. She sneaked a look over her shoulder, hiding her face in her hair so he wouldn’t see. Uncle Johnny was looking up the ladder, shouting to someone on the pavement above.
Anne stuck the necklace in her pocket, and sank her hand back into the mud. Nothing. She moved to another spot further down the shore. More nails, a pair of battered old boots, and a single knife from a dining set went into her basket. All the while, she thought of the locket. A memory of its twin cast a shadow in her mind; its twin hung around the neck of her mother.
Anne stifled a sob at thoughts of her mother. Her poor, sweet, kind mother, who died giving birth to her brother. Grief drove her father into the waiting arms of Bedlam, and with no one to care for them, Uncle Johnny came knocking.
“‘Ere, girlie, what you doin’?” Uncle Johnny’s shout broke Anne’s train of thought. She looked up – Uncle Johnny headed her way. She wiped her face with the back of her hand, smearing mud into the tears.
“Why have you stopped? We don’t have all day out ‘ere.”
“I was thinking.” The words were out of Anne’s mouth before she could stop them. Her hand flew to her pocket. He’s seen it, he knows I have it, Lord, he means to beat me again, she thought.
“You was thinkin’, were ya? Ya know where thinkin’ is likely to get ya! Anne my girl, you know how I feel about thinkin’. I should ‘ave known. You, with your fancy notions and your schoolin’ – bloody thinkin’!” Dark clouds gathered in his eyes, and his thin mouth set into an even thinner line.
“I was just thinking that maybe we should move down to the next part of the shore – the tide will be in soon, but we’ll still have some time further down before sunset.” Anne forced herself to smile, and hoped that the lie would distract him. Did he see me flinch, does he notice my hand at my pocket?
“Ohhhh! Oh, well girlie, I think you might be onto somethin’! I don’t like thinkin’, but if your thinkin’ is about what’s best for our little family, then I don’t mind at all. Go on, you get down there and I’ll send the rest along.”
Uncle Johnny hobbled away across the shore, shouting at the other children to gather their baskets and head along the river. Anne clutched the locket through the thin fabric of her dress. Her fingers found the tiny wings engraved on its surface, and she smiled. With the money she’d get from the locket, she could rescue her baby brother from Mrs Parfitt. They could leave Uncle Johnny.
“Thank you, Mother,” whispered Anne.