by Kat Otis
The river Thames collects the rubbish and sewage of London's residents.
Mudlarks are poor children who survive by scavenging for that rubbish in the mud
at the river's edge. They work in crews, each with its own territory, each with its
Jennet trotted down the Temple Stairs and wondered if she had mistimed her
arrival. The Thames was retreating towards the sea so most of the stone steps lay
exposed to the afternoon sun, but she couldn't see any of the riverbed beyond the
end of the stairs. One of the watermen - a gruff, heavy-handed man named
Edward Averell - sat in his boat at the bottom of the stairs, so the river couldn't be
too shallow yet.
When she reached the last of the exposed steps, she carefully slipped her right foot
into the water and greeted the river. The Thames answered her, telling her
everything she needed to know for her crew to safely scavenge on its riverbed.
The tide would turn in two hours; at the moment the Thames ran knee-high over its
riverbed for almost a rod's length from the river wall, before becoming much
deeper; the current was stronger than usual today because of storms further inland.
Jennet pulled her foot back out of the water, severing her link with the river. She
waved to her second-in-command, who waited with the rest of her crew at the top
of the Temple Stairs. "Reade!"
Reade waved back before he began shepherding the crew down to the river. One
of the younger girls - Bess - came careening down the steps at a speed which
made Jennet wince. If Bess slipped and broke something, she could end up
crippled. But Bess made it all the way down without trouble and stopped at the
edge of the water, barely reining in her eagerness.
"No more than a rod away from the wall," Jennet said. "Remember that today!"
"I will," Bess promised, like she always did, then leapt into the water and began
While Bess played, Reade set the rest of the crew to work on the other side of the
stairs, scouring the riverbed for anything of value. The new girl - Jennet had
dubbed her Kensal because she was new-come to London from Kensal Green -
hesitated for a long time at the bottom of the stairs. Reade finally had to push
Kensal off the stones and he rolled his eyes at Jennet before he followed Kensal
out onto the riverbed.
Jennet shared some of Reade's impatience. After a fortnight, Kensal really ought
to be over her fear of the river. It wasn't as if the girl hadn't understood Jennet's
rules when she joined the crew - those who wanted to be fed had to work
whenever the river was shallow. Only the two youngest boys were allowed to stay
on the stairs; they were far too little to go into the water, so they were in charge of
guarding the others' finds.