Author's Note: This story is mostly based off of the books. I do not own or claim to own any of Patrick O'Brian's characters, but a good many of the characters are mine. Also, it has been brought to my attention by a reviewer that I had some anachronistic errors. The cigarettes only popped into my head because of Angela's Ashes (I'm not going to explain why here) and I just kept writing without thinking--by the time I typed it, I wasn't really concerned with the error. The reviewer also pointed out that Joe would not have had his own room--I also realized that, but I wanted him to have his own bedroom for the purposes of those sections. And thanks to Marion, I thought of a new addition to the plot.
"Joseph! Joseph Brian Nagel--this is your mother, now open the door or I'll have your father break it down." Joseph sat on his bed, staring at the closed door. He was fourteen and old enough to understand that when his father did come back home, he would be too drunk to even open his son's door.
"Joseph, please open the door," his mother pleaded.
There was a small crack in the door just big enough to see through. Joseph could see one large blue eye--his mother's. "You promise you won't yell?" he called, getting to his feet.
"I promise I won't yell," she replied softly. He opened the door and she went on loudly, "But when your father comes home, you're going to get such a spanking!" She grabbed him by his ear and pulled him out of the room. "What were you thinking? Miss Henry has been nothing but kind to us, and you go and do an awful thing like that. You know how much she loves those birds."
"We were only playing," Joseph interjected.
His mother narrowed her eyes. "Who were you with?" Joseph bit his lip and she cried, "Not that Peter Wells again! I told you already, Joseph, you're not to have a thing to do with that lazy boy. He's gotten you into enough trouble as it is. Besides," she began, "you're not to be lazing around as he does--his family has all the money in the world. We work in this family, Joseph."
"Father doesn't work!" Joseph burst out angrily. "I seen him at the pub--spending all the money he makes at the shipyard! He's a drunk and you know it!"
His mother's hand came swiftly across his face, stinging horribly. "Shame on you for speaking of your father like that!" Joseph stumbled back a few paces, lightly cupping his cheek in his hand. He didn't look at his mother, but slowly backed away from her, toward the wall. She had never hit him before; that had always been his father's job. She eventually left the room, and it wasn't until after midnight that someone entered his bedroom.
Joseph had just awoken from a restless sleep to the sound of dripping water from a leaky gutter pipe outside his window. His eyes flew open when his creaking door was opened.
"Joe," came a raspy voice. "Joe…it's your father speakin' to ya!" he nearly yelled.
Joseph sat up and looked straight at him. His father's whiskery face was glistening with a mixture of sweat and ale in the dull moonlight as he stumbled through the room. "Father, it's late…you should be resting."
"Now you listen, boy," his father slurred, "you take care of your mother. When I'm gone, you take care of 'er, you 'ear?"
Joseph nodded quickly, glancing at the bottle in his father's hand. He stood up bravely and cried, "You've spent it all, haven't you? All the money--you've wasted it all on that!" He pointed at the nearly empty bottle.
His father stumbled forward. "Now you watch what you say to your elders--make your mother upset, it will."
With a glare at his father, he turned to climb back into his bed.
His father, however, was not finished. "Hey!" he said loudly, swinging the bottle against the doorframe. It shattered and he took no notice. "If I ever catch you down at the yards again, you'll have a whipping waiting for you, you 'ear? I nearly 'ad to beg for me drink." He stepped closer until he was standing at the edge of Joseph's bed. Shards of glass cracked beneath his worn shoes. "Where'd you put my wages, son?" He began rummaging through drawers.
"I didn't take your wages," Joseph retorted. "You probably spent them all on whisky and forgot."
His father grabbed his nightshirt and pulled him close to his face. Joseph turned away from his hot breath. "Don't lie to me, boy! You stole them!"
"I didn't," Joseph shot back. "Only you're too drunk to tell!"
At that moment, his mother burst into the room. "William! Lord, put him down." Joseph was thrust back onto his rickety bed. She rushed over to her son, putting a comforting arm around him. "William, this is your son! What's come over you?"
"He's gone and stolen my wages, that's what!" his father shouted.
"I didn't, Mother, I swear I didn't!" Joseph cried earnestly, clutching his mother's arm. "I wasn't at the shipyards today!"
"He's a dirty liar, Molly, always has been," his father sneered. "Rotten thief stealing from his own family and probably using it to buy useless trinkets from those bloody gypsies!"
"I took you earnings," his mother stepped in. "Now, would you quiet down? They can probably hear you both all the way to London!" She said this in a hushed but urgent voice.
His father stuck a hand out, palm up. "I'd like me money now, Molly." She reached into her pocket and pulled out a pouch. Once it was in his hand, he counted it and walked away. "Go back to sleep, darling," his mother said softly, kissing his forehead.
Joseph awoke the next morning to an empty house. His father was gone for good, he assumed, since he had taken all of his belongings. The tobacco from the bedside table was gone, as well as any bottles that contained more than a drop of whisky or ale. Perhaps he had a mistress, Joseph thought, and he was going to live with her.
He sat on Peter Wells' brilliantly painted porch, throwing small rocks and pebbles onto the cobbled street. It had been a week since his father had left them and Joseph's mother had allowed him to freely visit Peter's house. She said it gave her more time to look for a job without worrying about where he was and what he was doing, but Joseph knew she only sat on her bed or in his father's favorite chair sobbing into her worn hands or her dirty apron.
It soon came to the point where Joseph spent more time at Peter's home than his own. He had never been a happy child, but being with Peter and the Wells family did make him feel as though he was happy. He had even formed a special bond with Peter's elder sister, Emeline. She was four years his senior at eighteen, but it didn't seem to bother her, so it didn't bother him either.
"Joe, not here," she whispered, a smile playing on her lips. "My parents will be home any minute. Besides, it's bad luck to kiss before the wedding."
"You're making that up," he said, kissing her lips.
She pushed him away, having to pull her own lips from his. "We'll have plenty of time for this later," she said softly.
"But you'll be going off to a university soon," he said, holding her hand.
"You'll come visit me, won't you?" Emeline asked, her blue eyes wide and hopeful. "I couldn't bear it if you didn't come. I shouldn't be going to a university at all, but you know how parents can be."
Joseph put a finger to her lips. "Shh." He gently pulled her into a passionate kiss.
Suddenly the door flew open. "Emeline?" her father called out. Moments later her mother appeared with an oil lamp.
Emeline pushed Joseph away and ran to her mother. "He came at me, Mother! He said if I didn't let him have me, he'd slit my throat!"
Joseph looked at her with a mixture of hurt and fury in his eyes. "Mr. Wells, I didn't do nothing at all! She's lying!"
Mr. Wells grabbed him by his arm and pulled him through the house and out the door. "I knew you'd be trouble from the start, Nagel. I saw the way you've been eying my daughter. Now, get out!" He threw him down into the street.
Joseph waited for the door to slam shut before he walked away. He hadn't been home for nearly a week, but he knew his mother probably hadn't even noticed. He pushed open the door. It was completely silent and dark. The candles had all burned out. "Mum?" he called. There was no reply. He stepped into the kitchen. There were a few dirtied plates and cups from a meal or two, but she wasn't there. He started down the hallway. Maybe she was reading and hadn't heard him calling. "Mother?" The door to her bedroom was closed and he tentatively opened it. What he saw made him turn away. She had taken her own life. She had tied a rope to the beam in the ceiling and hanged herself.
"No," he murmured when he was able to look at her. He pushed the bed so it was underneath her dangling feet and cut the rope. With a sickening thud, her head hit the wooden headboard. He sat down on the bed, cradling her delicate head in his arms. Angry, bitter tears fell from his eyes. If he had been there, he would have been able to stop her. Perhaps it was because of him that she did it. It was his fault….
In the days that followed, Joseph became angrier with himself and everyone around him. The church refused to give his mother a proper burial because of her sinful death. He scorned the church and never returned. Instead, he found a nice plot of land by the sea and buried her there, below a tree. And instead of making a headstone, he carved her name and birth and death dates into the tree. Joseph hoped that whoever owned the land had not see him.
He knelt next to her grave and set a bouquet of wildflowers next to the tree. "Well, you always said you'd wanted to come 'ere. I knew you would've liked to've seen the sea at least once…I'm just sorry I never took you here meself. You'd've really liked it." He pushed his shaggy hair out of his eyes, breathing deeply. "I wish you would've told me what was botherin' you. Maybe we could've talked it out. Maybe I was feeling the same dark, scary loneliness…"
Joseph spent the next few years of his life wandering aimlessly about the city, doing odd jobs for local shops and people. When he was sixteen, he acquired a permanent position with a carpenter and learned the skills of the trade. And at seventeen, he was drafted into the Royal British Navy.