Ella leaned on the wall and watched the Thames lapping against the stonework below. She came here every night and watched the water, whether by the light of the moon or of the gas lamps. It was a connection to the life she had left behind to become a governess, and though the water looked murky during the day, at this time she could pretend that it was as clean as the river back home.
The water stirred, a shadow approaching the bank. Ella watched, expecting the shape of a duck to emerge from the darkness. If she had been a duck perhaps she could have swum away from London and found a life of her own. But that was just wishful thinking. All the feathers in the world wouldn’t have given her a purpose, something to swim away to.
The shape grew into something larger. Gaslight gleamed off a pair of long curves with a cluster of shining points below. Half a wheel-rim reached up out of the water and hooked onto the wall not a dozen feet from where she stood.
Amazed, Ella watched as the creature dragged itself out of the water. It was as tall as a woman, its body made of an old barrel with wheel rims for arms. Underneath, a flattened metal plate had been shaped into something like a fish’s tail. The creature turned its head and she saw a face made of old tin plates and rusting gears. A ticking emerged from the hollow of its mouth.
Now she was frozen not in amazement but in terror. What dreadful things might this machine monster be here to do?
It turned its head once more, stretched out with its arms, and dragged itself away down the road.
Ella sagged in relief against the stonework. No sooner had her heart stopped racing than a ticking once again caught her attention. Another machine dragged itself out of the river using arms of chain and pipe. Trailing pond weed like a ragged gown, it followed the first one up the street.
As a thudding sound announced a third machine arriving on a mud bank below, Ella almost ran away to raise the alarm. But by now her fear was passing and curiosity was triumphant. She watched as something fish-like lay flopping on the mud, gaslight glinting off tin scales.
Ella stared in wonder at the machine. This junk couldn’t have reshaped itself, so who had turned it into such a marvellous imitation of life? Who was down there beneath the water, crafting machines from cast-offs, not yet knowing that a fish could not swim on land?
Perhaps there was wonder in the city after all. Perhaps she didn’t have to flee to find her own purpose.
She looked at the river again. Whoever was down there, she had to meet them, but she wouldn’t be able to see them in the dark of night and the murk of the Thames.
Perhaps if she scratched a message into wood she could sink it and begin a conversation. Perhaps, if she was lucky, and if they understood that there was someone friendly up here.
She hurried down a set of steps to the mud bank, pulling a ribbon from her hair as she went. The mud squelched and soaked her boots but she didn’t care. She strode up to the fish, tied the ribbon around its tail, and lifted it out of the mud. Then she strode out into the water, its icy current tugging at her skirts, and set the strange machine adrift. It sank beneath the surface with a ticking of gears.
Ella walked back up the stairs, skirts trailing damp behind her like pondweed. Tomorrow she would come in the daylight, not to be reminded of what she had left behind, but to see what new wonders she could find.
* * *
If you enjoyed this story then you can get more like it straight to your inbox every week by signing up to my mailing list.