Hilltop: A Literary Paper. Volume 1 Number 3
That morning on the bus I knew I'd be taking the day off work. The disastrous effect of absenteeism on national industry didn't worry me. It was a clear summer morning, mist rising off the seaside lagoons, gulls gliding on a gentle wind—too good to spend sweating over hot steel in a foundry, As the bus passed by the works I could see plumes of steam against the black ramshackle roofs. They were getting ready for another day, without me. I was free to do what I liked; the thought gave me a sudden feeling of recklessness and power.
In town the streets were empty. The water waggon had been past, and the gutters were still clean and dripping. I walked down by the wharves to look at the ships. There were only a few tugs, like bedraggled ducks, moored at the land end of the main wharf; but further out lay a Home boat riding in the water. One could see a gun turret at the stern and the strange blunt antennae of radar. I strolled towards her, eating my sandwich lunch and throwing pieces to the gulls that dived and squabbled in the scummy green swells. The dark blue uniform of a policeman showed for a moment from behind a shed. I turned back towards the gate, trying to look casual but feeling as though I had been caught out in a crime.
The feeling of guilt stayed with me as i went up town again. Tomorrow I would have to tell the foreman I had been offcolour. He would believe me, but it was a shabby kind of lie. And one of my mother's friends might see me in town and mention it to her—more explaining to do. I stopped by the Crown Hotel and rolled myself a cigarette. It had just opened. A girl knelt scrubbing the steps; the shining swing-doors beckoned me in.
The barman was publishing glass. "A great day"—the phrase was worn and meaningless, what he had said a thousand time before. "You going out to the trots?"
"I might be later on." I bought a handle and drank it slowly, discussing the chances of various horses. Then an old man with redrimmed eyes and shrivelled face shuffled into the bar. He knew the barman. Soon they were talking about Harry who had died and George who had gone up north. I could drink in quiet.
After about five beers and sourness had gone and I was no longer conscious of my third-best trousers. My face in the bar mirror seemed mysterious and handsome, the face of a Don Juan or young genius gone to seed. The bar was filling up—business-men having their morning quick one, old soaks feeling the tide rise again after the night's dryness. The sun glittered on the coloured rows behind the barman's head. I was ready for anything. Then the swing-door creaked to let in a stocky red-faced youth in a leather coat and sailor's jersey. He propped himself on the bar and ordered a double rum. The English burr in his voice was like a draught of seawind. I remembered the Home boat down at the wharves, tall and self-possessed beside the scrubby tugs.
I was wondering how to speak to him without seeming intrusive when he saved me the trouble. "Got a match, mate?" he asked. I gave him a half-full box and told him to keep them. "Have a rum," he invited. "That chemical muck goes through you like a dose of salts."
I finished my beer and join him. He stood with his coat open, one foot on the brass rail. His eyes were a hard blue, set far apart, with high cheekbones and brows slanted a little. He drank his rum neat as if it were lemonade. I mixed mine with a good deal of cloves. As the drink loosened his tongue he became more talkative. Peter Johnson was his name, from Manchester. He had spent eight of his twenty-four yeras at sea, but was still an A.B. "i've not got the college learning to pass the exam," he said. "But I can splice a wire cable and take my turn at the wheel with any man. I've been logged half may pay for coming aboard drunk, but they can't say anything about my work." He had been torpedoed once in the North Atlantic and spent twelve hours in the water; had seen the backside of every page 11 port from Aberdan to Buenos Aires. To his family he was a black sheep; his mother, the "old lady," had never forgiven him for being a jailbird with his name in the papers. He had been arrested for stealing a radio it seemed a clumsy theft done when drunk. He had a girl in England and another in America, and his worries seemed to hinge on keeping them both ignorant of his whereabouts. "I'm married already," he said. "I'm married to the sea. I can't keep away from it. Every time's the last time, but I get restless after a month on shore and sign on again. You want to be a sailor, Jimmy. It'd make a man of you."
By twelve o'clock my head was swimming and the floor undulated gently. Whenever I shut my eyes I fell down a black shaft towards the centre of the earth. Pete was less drunk. "Come and have a binder," he urged me. "I've not had a feed since yesterday." I let him lead me into the street. The movement and fresh air sobered me a little. We found an upstairs grill room and sat down to slabs of steak flooded with Worcester sauce. I was happy again, but felt as if I were cased in glass that might splinter at a touch. Sweat was standing out on Pete's forehead. "Come down to the boat," he said, "and meet the boys. We'll go back to the boozer after. The old girl sails tomorrow and she's short-handed. You can sign on as a deckhand."
The idea seemed a fine one. To cut clear from the whole tangle of shore life, father, mother, job, morning and evening anxiety. Strange pubs, foreign girls, myself a man among men. The world I knew drowned in an always widening wake. I could go in the clothes I stood up in. "All right," I said, "let's go."
We paid for the meal and climbed down the stairs to the street again. A curdled pale blue sky stood over the sunny buildings. Above iron-roofed bungalows the dark green bush belt slept like an animal. The town had never looked more beautiful to me. Down on the wharves a fresh wind wrinkled the harbour water.
I remembered the policeman. "Maybe they won't let me come on board," I said.
"We'll dodge up when there's no one round," he said. "The b— bosun's the only man likely to squeal."
We climbed the steep swinging gangway. I felt I was leaving my life behind me, coming into a new dangerous world. Wood smell, tar smell and paint smell carried with them the unique atmosphere of a ship. A blast of music came from a radio in the fo'c'sle. The officer superintending the loading of cargo took no notice as Pete led me forward. We entered a narrow corridor that led us to the crew's quarters. Three men sat eating at a wooden table—one lantern-jawed, who spoke with a Yankee twang; the one a tough-looking curly-headed Irishman; the last a huge Swede, who said nothing but lay back looking out the porthole, chewing slowly at a hunk of dried beef. Pete introduced me. I could feel their faintly hostile scrutiny, like that given to a new boy at a boarding school. The drink was wearing off, and with it my sense of confidence.
Red, the Yank and the eldest, offered me a seat and a cup of black coffee. I sat down warily and rolled a cigarette. The sour hot coffee cut through the haze in my mind. The small room oppressed me. Theirs was a strange world, a jungle almost, where a know ledge of Mozart's music or figures of speech would count for less than nothing; only the quick blow and native cunning could give security.
"You ever been to sea?" asked the Irishman.
"No," Pete answered for me, "but he's thinking of signing on for this trip."
"You'll find it hard. You got to be tough to make a sailor."
Suddenly I knew that I would never sail with them, tomorrow or any other day. The tought had been a childish one, springing from an unearned holiday and too much to drink. I looked at Pete. Red baby face and aggressive build, he looked like someone who had lost his way and couldn't find the road back.
"I've got to see a cobber up town at four," I said. Then to Pete, "See you tomorrow maybe, same place."
I walked quickly down the narrow corridor and out to the head of the gangway. As I clambered down to the wharf a cloud came over the sun, darkening town and harbour. My head ached and my legs were tired as I went on towards the bus station.