New York 1900
'Is she crazy?' Fanny Lubrano whispered to her father as he came back from settling the old lady into a seat up in the bows of their tug.
It was a grey March day, the blustery wind coming straight in off the Atlantic, and even in the shelter of the wheel-house it was very cold.
'She has to be crazy to offer me a hundred dollars,' Giuseppe replied, the expression on his weather-beaten face one of utter bewilderment. 'But she sure don't sound like she is!'
Before making ready to cast off, they looked down through the wheel-house window at the old lady. She had the style and poise of the rich women who lived on Fifth Avenue, swathed in a sable coat and matching hat; yet that sort of woman wasn't likely to want a trip round New York Bay in an old tug.
Fanny said she thought the lady was too fashionably dressed for someone of advanced years, and her dainty side-buttoned boots were hardly suitable for a boat trip. Giuseppe was more concerned that she had no companion, and he found her tense stance and the way her eyes scanned the waterfront very suspicious.
'What if she is crazy, Pa, and her folks are out looking for her?' Fanny said suddenly. 'I know she got out of a fancy carriage and the driver said he'd wait for her, but if she catches a chill, we'll be blamed.'
Giuseppe pushed back his cap and scratched his head. 'I guess if we don't take her, someone else will, and maybe rob her too. Besides, she seems to know what she's doing, and about river craft. Asked me how long I'd been working the harbour, about you and where we lived. Goddam it, Fanny, I want to please her, she was right kindly, but maybe I oughtn't to have taken her money, a hundred dollars is a whole lot too much.'
Fanny half smiled at that. Her father looked tough, but he had a soft centre. The elderly, children and the very needy always plucked at his heart strings. She had long since lost count of the loans he'd made to his brothers and sisters which were never repaid; that was one of the reasons why they still lived in a cramped East Side tenement.
'That fur cost a whole lot more than we can make in a couple of years.' She shrugged. 'We never asked her for that much, did we? She offered it. So I reckons we'd better look lively and cast off afore she changes her mind.'
As the tug chugged along past the busy wharves, the old lady took a deep breath of the smoky, fishy-smelling air and smiled at the memories it evoked. Fifty-eight years had passed since she arrived here as a seventeen-year-old immigrant, staying for five years before moving on, and the place had changed dramatically in the intervening years. In her time South Street was crammed with graceful sailing ships, bowsprits half-way across the cobbled quay and drying sails flapping and crackling in the wind. The warehouses, grain stores, saloons and sailors' boarding-houses had been mostly rickety wooden places built in a higgledy-piggledy fashion. Now the ships were mostly steamers, the buildings all of fine, sturdy brick -only the smell, the sounds of rumbling carts, the sailors and stevedores yelling to one another were the same.
Prosperity shone out all over Manhattan. Where she remembered farm land, now there was street after street of elegant brownstone houses. Buildings so high she got a crick in her neck looking up at them, sidewalks paved and the streets well lit. People travelled in overhead trains, and there was even talk of running one underground too. They had huge shops they called department stores which sold everything from furs and carpets to a length of elastic or a set of buttons.
In her time Central Park had been swampy waste ground, and the most desperate of the Irish labourers who built the Croton Aqueduct, that miracle which brought piped clean water to the city, squatted there in squalid shanties with their pigs and goats. The park was wonderful, and she was so glad that the people of the city had somewhere serenely beautiful to escape to, but to her mind the new Brooklyn Bridge was more splendid. While nature had created the true magic of the park, the bridge was an entirely man-made miracle, engineering and artistry working hand in hand to make something which looked fragile and beautiful, yet was strong enough to withstand the elements and the heaviest of traffic.
She felt no sorrow that the city bore little resemblance to the one she arrived in over half a century ago, for she was no longer the excited, wide-eyed girl who had fallen in love with its honest, brash and bold exuberance.
They had both been changed by circumstance, ambition, greed, and powerful men. Yet that honesty she had loved it for was still in place. She hoped she'd retained hers too.
Hearing a peal of girlish laughter, she glanced over her shoulder to the wheel-house. It pleased her to see the tug owner and his daughter working so happily together. They could of course be laughing at her, but that didn't matter.
She had selected this boat purely out of sentimentality on hearing Giuseppe was a widower, and that he worked with his daughter. Her father had been a river man on the Thames, and they had been very close too. When she'd seen their open, friendly faces she doubled the amount she had first intended to offer. The money she'd given them would put extra food on their table, maybe the girl could buy herself a pretty dress. She remembered only too well how young girls ached for something frivolous.
There hadn’t been so many Italians here when she first landed, the immigrants then were predominantly English, Irish and German. Yet from 1845 and onwards, Italians, Poles, Russians, Jews and a great many other races had come here in their hundreds of thousands, each nationality adding further spice and character to the crowded city.
Yet Giuseppe didn't speak with an Italian accent, so he must have been born here, and perhaps his mother had been Dutch or German to give him those blue eyes and fair hair. His daughter - Fanny, he'd said her name was - reminded her of herself at seventeen. Thick blonde hair, eyes as blue as forget-me-nots, and a similar sturdy, no-nonsense look about her. It seemed strange that she wore men’s clothes, but then she supposed a long dress on about was hardly practical. Besides, she herself had resorted to wearing men's pants a few times back in'49 out in the West when it wasn't safe to look too feminine in a town overrun by hard-drinking, gold-seeking men.
As the tug approached the Staten Island Ferry her heart quickened, for just behind it was State Street, where she'd lived when she first arrived here. Sadly the quaint little wooden house and some of its neighbouring fine Federal houses had been demolished to make way for offices and warehouses.Few people lived in this neighbourhood now, they had all moved further uptown. Wall Street was now a street of banks and financial institutions; Trinity Church at the top of it, which had so many memories for her, was one of the few remaining old buildings. She thought it sad that the church's elegant spire, the highest landmark when she arrived here, would soon be hidden by the giant buildings New Yorkers seemed to love so much. But then Americans didn't appear to have nostalgia for old places.
Yet Castle Clinton was still much the same, though in her time it had been an island, reached by a walkway from the Battery. The shore area had been reclaimed for many years now, filled in with tons of rubble and grassed over to make Battery Park. Castle Clinton had become a clearing-house for immigrants, now it was an aquarium, but back in 1842 it had been a concert hall, with a green around it, and it was there she met Flynn O'Reilly.
She closed her eyes for a moment, remembering his first kiss. It seemed odd that after all these years she could still recall the magic of it, and all the turbulent emotions he awakened in her heart.
'I wonder what would have happened,' she thought aloud.
'To who, ma'am?'
She was startled to find the young girl at her elbow looking quizzically at her. Yet she wasn't embarrassed. One of the few advantages she'd found in becoming old was the freedom to do and say exactly what she pleased, even talk to herself.
'To me, if I'd run off with my first love,' she explained with a wide smile. 'My life might have turned out quite different.'
Fanny was delighted the old lady seemed to want to talk. Aside from intense curiosity about this odd passenger, her working life was male dominated, and she often longed for female company. So, armed with a warm rug as an excuse to strike up a conversation, she'd approached her to see if she was cold.
'Was he rich?' she asked, keeping her tone light.
The old lady shook her head, her faded blue eyes twinkling with merriment. 'Oh no, just a poor Irish lad.'
'Then it's a good thing you didn't run off with him,' Fanny retorted. 'There sure as hell ain't many Irish men who make their fortune. But there's many a brewery made one from their drinking.'
'They might drink, but they sure can love,’ the old lady replied reflectively. ‘I think I'd sooner have passion than riches.'
Fanny was thrown for a moment. While well used to her own kind making earthy comments about the opposite sex, she hadn't expected a remark like that from a real lady. She offered the rug, explained that the wind would get up once they were out in the bay, tucked it around the lady's lap, and then, taking a deep breath, she blurted out her question. 'Why did you want to come out here, ma'am?'
The old lady looked appraisingly at Fanny for a moment. She was wearing a threadbare, far too large seaman's coat and a striped muffler wound round her head and neck. The tip of her nose was red with cold, yet her blue eyes sparkled with interest. She thought it was yet another thing they had in common, she had always been incurably inquisitive too.
'I guess old age makes you sentimental. I wanted to see all the changes,' she said, waving one gloved hand towards the shore. 'You see, honey, I was your age when I first came to New York, I only spent a few years here, but it kinda coloured and shaped my whole life. Now I've got a yen to go home, and I want new memories to take with me along with the old ones.'
'Which state would "home" be?' Fanny asked.
The old lady laughed, not a dainty little tinkle, but a deep, throaty belly-laugh.
'Which state would home be?' She repeated the question, mimicking Fanny's accent. Then laughed again. 'Honey, you have pleased me. For half a century I've done my damnedest to sound and act like an American. But everyone I ever met guessed I was English the moment I opened my mouth. Then just when I'm about to leave, you take me for a Yank. Bless you.'
'Well, I'll be jiggered,' Fanny said, sinking down on to the bench beside her. She had noticed something unusual about the woman's speech, but in New York there were as many different accents as there were saloons. 'I had the notion you were from one of them fancy mansions up on Fifth Avenue! Do tell me about yourself. That is, if you've a mind to.'
'My name's Matilda Jennings,' the old lady said in a crisp, dear voice. 'I have come from a fancy mansion today, but I was born seventy-four years ago in a part of London that's as bad as anything you've got here on the Lower East Side.'
Fanny's mouth dropped open in shock. She hadn't met many English people, but those she had spoken to had created an image in her mind that England was filled with castles, palaces and grand mansions. Not one of them had ever admitted it had slums too. But surprised as she was by that, she was more astounded to hear this woman's age. Where she lived people rarely reached sixty and looked ancient long before that. Yet this woman had walked onto the tug unaided, her step was sprightly, and though her face was lined, it had a softness, her skin a clarity that a woman of twenty years younger would envy. 'You're kiddin' me?' she retorted. 'You can't be that old!'
Matilda didn't reply immediately, but instead slowly peeled off her soft leather gloves and held her hands out to Fanny. 'So what do you see there?' she asked.
Fanny's own hands were calloused from hauling ropes, red raw with the wind and water, yet the old lady's proved that age could be even more cruel than the elements. They were big hands for such a dainty, slender woman, the backs puckered with wrinkles and engorged purple veins. Her knuckles were swollen and misshapen, and a couple of nails were missing, leaving ugly scar tissue.
'You've had to work very hard,' Fanny said in a low voice, stunned because she hadn't expected that. She turned the hands over and looked at the palms, running one finger over the skin which felt very dry and crackly, like leaves in the fall. They were the hands of a very old woman, yet as she held them, suddenly she didn't feel as if there was a half-century separating them.
'They are ugly, and better out of sight, ‘Matilda said reflectively, slipping her gloves back on. 'But they tell you a great deal about my life, you can probably guess that they've scrubbed floors and dug fields, but there'sa lot more hidden. They've soothed babies, shot guns, driven wagons, buried the dead and plenty more besides.'
Fanny wanted to ask how she eventually got rich enough to afford such a lovely coat, but she knew that was too impertinent.
'Once I began to make money,' Matilda continued, 'I spent a fortune on creams and potions, but it was too late, nothing could make my hands pretty again. I was so ashamed of them I always wore gloves. But I'm old now, and vanity fades, just like heartaches do. So I tend to look at them and remind myself that it wasn't my brain or my looks which got me through the bad times, just these hands and my will. I was lucky they were both so strong.'
Fanny felt a surge of intense admiration for the plain-speaking English lady. She had grown up surrounded by immigrants, and mostly they were the kind that ran out of ambition and energy a few weeks after they got off the boat. They stayed in their squalid, overcrowded tenements, and as the years went by they blamed others for their poverty and lack of success. Yet this woman in her expensive furs was proof not only that with a will, courage and determination anyone could make it out of the Lower East Side to Fifth Avenue, but that you could still retain kindness, and humility too.
'I thought at first you were crazy,' Fanny said hesitantly, all at once very ashamed for prejudging her. 'I'm sorry.'
Matilda took the girl's hand in her gloved one and squeezed it. 'Fanny, perhaps I am crazy, wanting to smell the East River on a cold March day, and see sights I know will stir up painful memories. Even crazier for wanting to go back to a country I've almost forgotten, and almost certainly outgrown. But when you're as old as me you get that way. I have a hankering to see if the river Thames is as wide as I remember, if the Tower of London can still scare me. I guess too I want to die in my own country where no one knows about the more scandalous parts of my history.'
Fanny's eyebrows shot up into two inverted Vs.
Matilda chuckled at her shocked expression. 'Oh yes, Fanny, I've been quite a girl in my time, but that’s long story and much as I'd love to tell you about it, this might be my last chance to look at the old sights and remember how it all came about.'
Fanny knew that was a signal for her to go. She wasn't hurt for she sensed Matilda meant exactly what she'd said. She got up and tucked the rug more securely around her. 'I'm real glad I met you, ma'am,' she said. 'You enjoy your trip and if you want anything just holler.'
'I knew I was right to choose this boat,' Matilda said with a warm, appreciative smile. 'You put me in mind of myself as a young girl.'
Fanny went back to the wheel-house and Matilda concentrated on the view across the bay. The sky was dark grey, the wind strong and bitterly cold, but that suited her, she didn't want warmth and bright sunshine slanting her mind towards only the happier memories.
As Giuseppe steered towards Ellis Island, she found her eyes remained glued to the majestic Statue of Liberty, even though it had no place in her past. It had been erected only a few years ago, just as Ellis Island with its new immigration department was a recent development. Yet goose bumps came up all over her as she gazed on it, staggered by not only its vast proportions, but the sheer beauty of it. She hoped it would give all those poor huddled masses arriving in America the comfort and inspiration that were intended.
Giuseppe slowed right down as they approached Ellis Island. The huge new immigration building was impressive with its domes and spires, yet it was already dubbed the 'Isle of Tears'. A German steamer had just docked and a thick stream of passengers was pouring down each of the gangways. Although she knew their voyage across the Atlantic had taken less than half the time her own had, as the tug drew nearer she could see from their pale, drawn faces and the stoop of their shoulders that for most of them the journey had been an unspeakable nightmare of overcrowding, rotten food and sickness.