Warning – This story includes some sensitive issues that might upset some readers.
Bill could hear the hum of machines as he sauntered up the street towards the black, iron gates. Men dressed in flat caps and heavy boots traipsed into the shipyard. It was raining and the water seemed to clean up the place. The yard was big – cranes lined along the edge like trees in winter.
‘Dawkins!’ Bill looked over to see Barrett, the yard manager, waving him over. ‘I need a word,’ he said and walked away from the gates towards a row of two storey buildings that held the shipyard’s offices. Bill walked toward the offices and followed Barrett up a steep flight of stairs, along a landing, and through a door so low that he had to stoop to get through. Barrett’s office was lined with wood, and a desk stood in front of a window that looked over the yard. Bill closed the door and stood looking at Barrett.
‘I’ve been told to get rid of you,’ Barrett said.
‘Hold yer horses,’ Barrett replied, ‘let me finish. I’m not going to do that. When you’re here, you’re a good worker. The problem is when you’re not here – you know?’ Barrett looked over at him.
‘I can’t make any more excuses for you, Bill. I know you have difficulties from the war – many of my workers do. But I can’t have you not turning up for work for days on end. I’m going to have to dock your wages. And if you have more than one day off a week in future, don’t bother coming back.’
‘That’s the end of it.’ Barrett walked to the door, opened it and left the room. Bill heard his footsteps on the stairs, as he stood looking after him. He knew this day would come. He knew he could not keep wandering off. But he also knew that the General Strike had made employers nervous and they would be careful not to sack him without good reason. He ran down the steps and out into the yard.
Scaffolding dwarfed the ship he was working on. He threw himself up the ladder and walked along the planks until he reached the deck. Opening his toolbox, he started to work.
Shipyards in London were few and far between. Many jobs had been sent up North to larger shipyards in Newcastle. When he had come back to London after the war, he could not get work. He had queued at yards and sought employment as a carpenter at various companies. Eventually, he got a job as a maintenance man in the Rotherhithe Infirmary where Grace worked as a domestic.
He loved his sweet girl. Her warmth and love had got him through the war. Dreams of holding her tight had been constant and he had felt lonely without her. He longed every day for her letters. One night, after two days of heavy warfare and little sleep, he woke to find one on his pillow and he delved into her words for the comfort they gave him. He felt so selfish that he wanted to be with her all the time and hated to leave her to travel thousands of miles away because of the Hun. Having dreamt of the day he would be able to stay, he now felt selfish when his dreams returned to the sea.
The shipyard stood by the Thames. The water lapped up to the dry dock and the fog blew in and out of the yard. Smells of oil and sawdust melded together. Bill drew the aroma into his nostrils as he worked. It was as familiar to him as breathing. He came from a family of shipwrights – his father and grandfather both held memberships to the trade union. He had apprenticed early in life. It had been expected of him.
The thud of machinery and men hollering fell into the background while he focused on finishing the cabinets. It was nearly lunchtime when he felt a hard prod in his back.
“Oi! Dawkins! Oi! You ignoring me?”
He looked up. The sunlight hit his eyes and he squinted.
“You got that money? Smiffy’s asking for it.” A tall, bald-headed man looked down on him. It was Jack – the local loan shark.
Bill shook his head. “I ain’t got it, mate.”
“You ain’t no mate of mine,” Jack replied.
Bill stood up and looked square into Jack’s eyes. “I ain’t got it! If I ain’t got it, I can’t give it to you!”
“Smiffy’ll go see your missus next week. You better get it to me before then or she’ll hear about it.” Jack pushed his unshaven face close to Bill and then marched away.
Bill started to chase after him and then thought better of it. No need to start fighting at work. Anxiety rose up his chest. How was he going to pay Smiffy off? He’d only borrowed the money because he’d spent days roaming and needed to pay the rent.
“Look out below!” The shout brought him out of his angst.
Bill turned and saw the hook on the boom slice straight into Jack’s head. He looked away. He grew faint. The sounds of the yard dimmed and he felt himself fall. The edge of the scaffold caught him as he went down.
He lifted his head and dropped it back down. Shouts boomed out across the yard. Everyone was focused on Jack, and Bill hovered on the edge of consciousness.
“Bill!” Someone slapped his face. “Bill, you all right?” They shook him.
As he opened his eyes his vision swam and curved. He closed them shut and shook his head.
As he opened his eyes again, his vision was steadier.
“I’m all right,” he mumbled and sat there for a moment. When he tried to get up, he felt sick. Men were running in the yard and Jack’s body had been covered. The day was over. It would take hours for officials to take stock of the situation and Bill needed to move. Shaking as he stood up, he held onto the railings.
Wasn’t he harder than this? He’d seen worse in the war. Trying to pull himself together, he held the railings and trudged to the end of the plank. Grabbing the ladder in his hands, he climbed down. Men were standing around the yard waiting for orders. They talked quietly among themselves and smoked. Accidents in the yard happened. They just did. You got used to it. But for now, they smoked and talked.
“Yard’s closing. Go to lunch. Come back later.” The announcement was made as Bill wandered out of the yard towards the bus stop. He hopped onto the first bus that came along.
Jumping off in Bermondsey, he strode down a backstreet. Warehouses lined the cobble-stoned alley that ended by the river and The Angel public house. It had started to rain as he marched through filth and when he entered the pub, he removed his coat and shook it. He looked briefly around the room and spotted Albert at the bar. The tables between him and the bar were crammed with customers.
Albert could always be found in the Angel at lunchtime. He told Bill that even though the place was falling apart he found comfort in its creaky wooden floor and tatty red curtains. Bill knew people were surprised that they were brothers because they did not look alike. While Bill’s frame was strong and muscular, Albert’s was short and fat. Bill knew it was wrong to say, but likening Albert to a pug would be kind.
Bill slapped Albert on the back and gave his order. “Pint please, George,” he said pulling himself up on the shabby barstool. George grabbed a glass from the shelf behind the bar.
“You look rough,” Albert said, “You all right?”
“Accident at the yard.” Bill said, as he watched George. Because of a knife attack the previous year, George’s face was heavily scarred and his eye twitched constantly as if he was winking.
He placed Bill’s pint on the bar.
“Thanks,” Bill said. He took some coins from his pocket and passed them over the counter. Gulping at his bitter, he was aware his hand was still shaking.
“What happened?” Albert asked.
“Crane hook.” Bill pulled out his tobacco and offered it to Albert.
Albert winced as he took the package. “Was it bad?”
“You don’t look right. Probably best you go home. They might close the yard.”
Rolling a cigarette, Bill bent to lick the paper and smelt the sweet tobacco.
“Jack got hurt. He’d been on to me about that money. Smiffy’ll tell Grace.”
“Grace will not be happy. Here, I can help.” Albert went to pull his wallet from his pocket and Bill reached over.
“No. No. Albert.” He held Albert’s arm down and shook his head.
“What’s a brother for if he can’t help? I ain’t got much but I can give you a few nicker.”
“I’m a selfish brute,” Bill said. “You’re a good man, Albert, and I’m a selfish brute.”
“Now, let’s not have any of that. We have to help each other out. I keep an eye out for you and you do the same. Always been like that.”
Albert was right. The two of them had been inseparable when they were little. Bill had taught Albert how to ride a bike. They had rode to Smiths for a penny mix on a Saturday morning and sat on the steps together munching sweets and chatting. Even when Bill moved to Portsmouth before the war, they wrote to each other every week. Bill wasn’t much of a letter writer but would struggle to put something down for his brother. They were best mates. Bill didn’t have any close friends. He knew blokes he would drink with and there had been girls before Grace, but nothing serious. He told Albert more about himself than anyone.
Bill shook his head and looked into his beer.
“So, what else is going on?” Albert said. “Grace all right? She must be nearing her time. How’s Arthur? You have to bring him round to our house soon. Mum would like to see him.”
“We’ll all come round this Sunday.” Bill said. “Got this letter.” He dug around in his pockets and handed the letter to Albert. “Francis wrote to me about America. Says I should take Grace and Arthur there.”
Albert read the letter and set it down on the bar. “It’s a long way away,” he said, “What does Grace think? She’s near her time. Won’t she be upset? I don’t know if she would move so far. But now her mum and dad have gone, she might.”
“I haven’t told her,” Bill said.
“How would you get there? How would you find work?” Albert’s brow furrowed and he played with his cigarette.
“I might have to go first. Then send money to Grace. You could come too,” Bill said. He avoided Albert’s eyes and picked at his sleeve.
“I don’t know about that. I like it here. I’ve got my job and I’m happy with it. I don’t think you should go. If it doesn’t work out, you can’t just come back. You’d be stuck there in a distant country with a bunch of bloody foreigners.”
“Americans aren’t foreigners. They’re like us.”
“No one’s like us, Bill. I’m English and I like living in England. You won’t get me to travel to far-flung places. I’d miss this town and my pub. It’s a long way.” Albert shook his head, “It’s a very long way.”
Bill smiled at Albert. “You old stick-in-the-mud.”
“I know what I like,” Albert replied and punched Bill in the arm.
The flat was dark and quiet when Bill got home that night. He knew instinctively that Grace was at the hospital. She was near her time and that morning had looked fit to burst she was so big. He had teased her and laughed at her roundness and then placed kisses on her dimpled cheeks.
“Oh Bill, you do go on so,” she had said, delighted with his affection.
He lit the gaslight near the door and saw the letter on the table.
Grace is in labour. We have gone to the hospital. It is 2 o’clock. Arthur is with us.
Joy and trepidation filled him as he raced down the stairs and up the road.