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The Merchant Mr Hancock, of 15 Union Street, Deptford

Imogen Hermes Gowar

November 1787

Jonah Hancock’s office was built wedge-shaped and coffered like a ship’s cabin, whitewashed walls and black skirting, beam pegged snugly to beam. The wind sang down Union Street, raindrops burst against the windowpane, and Mr Hancock leaned forward on his elbows, cradling his brow in his hands. Rasping his fingers over his scalp, he discovered a crest of coarse hair the barber had missed. He idled over it with mild curiosity but no irritation: in private, Mr Hancock was not much concerned with his appearance; in society, he still wore a wig. He was a portly gentleman of forty-five, dressed in worsted and fustian, an honest match for his threadbare scalp, the silverish fuzz of his jowls, the scuffed and stained skin of his fingertips. He was not a handsome man, nor ever had been (and as he perched on his stool his great belly and skinny legs gave him the look of a rat up a post), but his meaty face was amiable, and his small eyes with their pale lashes were clear and trusting. He was a man well-designed for his station in the world: a merchant son of a merchant’s son, a son of Deptford, whose place was not to express surprise or delight at the rare things that passed through his hands, but only to assess their worth, scratch down their names and numbers, and send them on to the bright and exuberant city across the river. The ships he owned—the Eagle, the Calliope, the Unicorn—crossed and re-crossed the globe, but Jonah Hancock himself, the stillest of men, fell asleep each night in the room where he drew his first breath.

The light in the office had a murky cast to it, full of storms. The rain came down in sheets. Mr Hancock’s ledgers were spread out before him, creeping with insect words and figures, but his mind was not on his work; instead he had drawn from his waistcoat pocket a greasy page with one ragged edge, folded into neat quarters. He had begun to smooth it out when there came a scuffling from the staircase outside the office.

‘Ah,’ thought Mr Hancock, tucking the paper away hastily. ‘That will be Henry,’ but when he turned around from his desk it was only the cat.

She was almost upside-down on the stairs, with her tail in the air, her hind paws splayed wide, and her brindled body stretching down to the landing where her forepaws pinning a squirming mouse to the floorboards. Her little mouth was open, teeth flashing in triumph, but her position was precarious. To right herself, he calculated, she must let go of her quarry.

‘Whisht!’ said Mr Hancock, ‘begone!’ but she snapped the mouse up in her jaws and pranced across the landing and out of sight. He heard the thrum of her dancing paws and the dampish thud of the mouse’s body hitting the floorboards as she flipped it into the air again and again. He had watched her play this game many times, and he had always found her enquiring, open-throated cry unpleasantly human. He turned back to his desk, shaking his head. He could have sworn it was Henry coming down the stairs. In his mind’s eye the scene had already taken place: his tall thin son, with white stockings and brown curls, pausing on the landing to grin into the office whilst all about him the dust motes sparkled. Such visions did not come to Mr Hancock very often, but when they did they always disturbed him, for Henry Hancock had died at birth.

Mr Hancock was not a whimsical man but he had never been able to shake the notion that, the day his excellent wife had died in childbed, his life had diverged from its proper course. It seemed to him that that the life he ought to have had was continuing very nearby, with only a very thin bit of air and chance separating him from it, and every now and then he caught a glimpse of it as if a curtain had momentarily fluttered aside. In the first year of his solitude, for example, he had once felt a warm human pressure against his knee during a card game, and looked down in fond expectation of a stout little child hauling itself to its feet beside his chair. Why was he so appalled to discover instead the left hand of Moll Rennie creeping towards his crotch? On another occasion, he had bought a brightly-painted toy drum that caught his eye at a fair, and had carried it nearly halfway home before he remembered that no small boy would be there to receive it. The years had passed and still, every now and then, Mr Hancock might hear a voice carried in from the street, or feel some tugging at his clothes, and his natural thought would be Henry, as if he had had a son all along.

He never saw his wife Mary in this way, although she had been a great blessing to him. ‘A most excellent woman’, as he had thought to describe her on her gravestone, or else ‘most estimable’, he had not been able to decide. ‘Dearly beloved wife of…’—but his sister had objected.

‘Too much!’ she said. ‘Such an outpouring! And they charge by the letter. Have some restraint.’

He did not expect her to understand his feelings for Mary. She had been nothing much out of the ordinary—a shipwright’s daughter, with heavy white thighs and four teeth missing on the top left—but she was kind and wise, and she had chosen to join her life to his. ‘What a thing!’ he had marvelled, giddy with the miracle of it, ‘what a thing, eh?’—the dizziness of possibility, the mere notion that this happiness might be bestowed upon him. She was thirty-three when she died, a placid woman who had seen much of this world and was amply prepared for the next, and although Mr Hancock backed down on the inscription, he chose for her a headstone carved with a great ship, sails ever-billowing. He did not doubt where she had gone, or the possibility that he might one day join her there, and for him this was enough. He only mourned their child, who had passed so swiftly from birth to death, exchanging one oblivion for another like a sleeper rolling over.

Beyond the pages of his ledger, beyond the tops of the houses, the masts of tall ships swayed. Other merchants of his fortune had moved away: they opened shops and set up home in Soho, Mayfair, &c, for although Deptford had been convenient for their grandfathers’ business it was not convenient for theirs. Perhaps if Mary and the child had lived Mr Hancock would have done the same, but alone he had no instinct for change. He gained a great comfort from watching the daily progress of the naval ships, and knew no life beyond the rhythm of the dockyard, where ships left gleaming and laden, and returned – when they returned – battered and ragged. He understood what it was to load one’s faith and fortune on board a ship and push it off into the unknown. The man who awaited a ship was distracted by day and wakeful by night, prone to fidgeting, with a bitter taste rising in the back of his throat. He was snappish with his family or else overly sentimental; he hunched over his desk scratching out the same calculations over and over again; he bit his nails.

From time to time, however, there was something more. A man might intuit that one particular voyage was not only to be a success but that it would be special. It would change everything. If he were sensible he would know that such optimism was dangerous, and yet still he would go about his business with a perceptible smugness, and in his private moments he might be gripped by a great childish glee of anticipation. Mr Hancock did not set much store by these fancies, but he nevertheless, so late in his life, he felt again a stirring of hope: the opening-up of possibility like the first revelation of sunlight in a sky densely-piled with clouds. He had received no word from the Calliope, which with the right wind he expected to return from Canton in the summer, but he had come to believe that its cargo would be of a very particular importance to him.

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