The sea has a pristine look to it this early, flat as a river stone, though the port around is noisy with activity. The air is rich with tar and salt and coal and the after-smell of fish. I cross the gang-plank behind an awkward lad called Fred, a deserter from the Navy, with gangly feet and hands and his front teeth hanging out his mouth. We were paired in the two-week training, and I’ve not been rid of him since.
The top deck is vacant except for a stern-looking boatswain who grunts at us by way of greeting. ‘Morning, Chum,’ Fred says to him. ‘Fine and splendid in’t it? Oh, but she’s quiet around here, and why’s that?’
‘Firs leave’n three months,’ the boatswain says. ‘All knocked out below or else aren’t come back from their follies yet.’ I grin and Fred laughs his goose-ish laugh. The boatswain frowns. ‘Yer not drinking lads ah hope. Should be gawdamn ‘shamed at yur age it’ll ruin ye.’ He turns and walks and we follow him to a hatch. ‘She’s a twin-screw, triple-boiler, triple-expansion vessel,’ the boatswain says as we descend the ladders, informing us of details I have already well memorised. ‘Four-a-two feet ‘tween her perpen’ iculars with forty-eight feet beam and twen’y-nine depth’a hold and her loaded draught be twen’y-six foot. A-proximately five-a-half thou ton, net four-one-five-five. Two-thou ’orse-par. She’ll fire eleven-knots-an’a-half full-loaded.’ When we reach the mess deck the boatswain points out the stores, the lamps and oils room, and the paints room, and next to these his own cabin which he shares with the chippy. Then he takes us into the mess, which stinks of the previous night’s debaucheries and rattles with the men’s snores and moans. There are sixteen berths in all, for the sixteen stokers and trimmers, and another sixteen next door for the seamen. Mine’s a top bunk with right now no one beneath it. I sling my bag up and onto the mattress. One man opens an eye and looks over at us. ‘Hello Chum,’ Fred says. The man’s eye follows us out the door.
We wind along passages and down another set of ladders, the boatswain pointing out what’s what. I know all the words from the training. ‘Afore there’s the ‘frigerated ‘olds. 68,000 average New Zealand carcasses they’ll take,’ he says.
‘Sheep and cattle I hope!’ jokes Fred. I laugh but the boatswain doesn’t seem to hear. Near the engine room, just forward of amidships, the heat is thick and my back damps up fast. We cross paths with several red-faced and filthy men. Sweat runs between my eyes.
‘That were the auxiliary just got off,’ the boatswain says. ‘Headed for a wash. You dirty stokers ‘ave the priv’lig of a bathe afta e’ry watch.’ He points to an elegantly printed notice. ‘Yur not called the Black Gang for naught.’
No STOKERS are allowed on the
Upper Deck or Mess Deck in a Dirty Rig.
Stokehold boots and suits are to be kept
in correct lockers and men coming
from below are to go
direct to their Bath Room.
‘We leave our rig down there?’ Fred says, pretending an ignorance he doesn’t have. He knows the answer already, from his time in the Navy.
‘You an idiot, lad? There’s ladders direct from below.’ The boatswain points them out, and the lockers beside us for the boots and suits. A din of shouting and splashing comes out from the washrooms.
We leave the dark hum of below decks and go above again where the morning sounds of the port make a clang in our ears. The forest of masts and rigs rocks and sways. Gulls circle for scraps.
There are more men above deck now. We follow the boatswain to just below the wheelhouse, where he stands and waits as two men descend the steps. ‘Here’s the new ones, Chief,’ he says to the first, ‘yur new stokers.’ The Chief grimaces at us.
‘Well now, Charles, and how are you then?’ the second man says as he reaches the bottom step, and I see that it is Jimmy Abernathy, though far more finely dressed and presented than previously; I have not encountered him since he left me at the training. ‘Welcome aboard the Maori.’
‘Are you on this ship?’ I blunder.
‘I am,’ he says, and smiles with his green eyes at me.
All about us, men are engaged in various tasks and activities, except for a few standing idle nearby. Fred and I join them against the railing and watch the goings-on. ‘You know what ‘Maori’ means?’ Fred says. ‘Native fellows of New Zealand. I seen one or two. Now I don’t know why they named this boat after them. Don’t know what they might make ‘a that.’ I nod at him. A minute later he says: ‘You know where New Zealand is Charlie? Bottom o’ the world. A cast off island like something forgotten. Worse ‘an Nova Scotia. You ne’r seen a place so empty. I wouldn’t stop there if it were the last shore on earth.’
I am only half listening. Out my other ear I hear the boatswain ask who is on bilge cleaning. ‘He looks like a sop, get him on it,’ the Chief says.
‘And his little buddy there, a poetry-reading counter-jumper who’ll last a week if he’s lucky,’ Jimmy says. The three of them laugh and I realise they are talking about Fred and I; Jimmy must have noticed my reading Robbie Burns on the train.
‘We’ll have fun with that,’ the Chief says.
The boatswain goes off and returns to us with a bucket and a tin can.
‘Let me guess, chum. Bilge cleanin’,’ Fred says.
The boatswain eyes him hard. ‘Yur no new to this are ye?’
‘Only we learned in the training, chum.’ We did not, but Fred’s a fast lier.
The boatswain raises an eyebrow then hands Fred the bucket and me the tin. ‘Tie the bucket and yell it up to him o’re there.’ He nods at a ship’s boy leaning against a hatch. ‘E’ll throw it over - won’t you lad?' the boatswain yells at the boy, who stands up straight and nods. I follow Fred down the ladders, away from the daylight and noise and activity above decks, back into the deep hum of the ship.
‘Close call weren’t that?’ Fred says on the third ladder. ‘Can’t let on I know this job.’ We reach the bottom of the ship, where our footsteps echo as if in a great drum, and pass along the passageways in the thick heat, along walls black with coal dust. The door to the engine room is open. Fred puts his head in. ‘Reportin’ for bilge cleanin’, sirs,’ he yells out. An engineer wipes his hands on his trousers and comes over. He has a pipe in his hat.
‘New stokers are you?’
‘Firemen, yes,’ Fred says.
‘We say stokers down here.’ He leads us through the engine room. The air is stale and wet. ‘Normally you’ll come down the far hatch and the ladders, but you can go through the bulkhead today. Cool as it’ll ever be down here for you two. Haven’t fired the main boilers in a week. Only the auxiliary today. Here we are, then.’ He pulls at a heavy metal door. ‘Close it behind you,’ he says, then goes on his way.
It is dead quiet in the stokehold. Dark and rank.The place looks abandoned, as if we’ve arrived moments too late to a gathering, with everyone else moved on. I cough on the coal dust and it echoes like we’re in a grand church. There’s the drip, drip of water on metal and wood. A hot, metallic smell. The boilers stand black and cold with their great mouths closed up. Through the light of the single oil lamp I make out the sliding doors to the bunkers, hung like a dungeon with chains and pulleys, and the steam pipes running up the sides of walls and along the ceiling above the furnaces. The water pumps stand one on each side of the stokehold, their brightly polished brass and copper winking.
We lift the floor plates and set to work. It’s a pretty mess down there: coal-dust, ash, oil, water, other rubbish. It has a good stink to it. I scoop while Fred sweeps and shovels it into the bucket. He works slow. I sit and drum my hands on the bottom of the tin between bucket loads.
‘What’s your rush, Charlie? You’re only in for more of’a same only in the heat. Slow down.’ Fred hooks his full bucket to the rope and yells up, then turns back to me. ‘You got no idea in your mind how it’s going to be, do you Charlie? The heat and the noise and the grime, going on and on and on. The distances going forever and every port same as the last. Tenerife, Cape Town, Hobart, Wellington, Napier, Lyttelton, Rio, Montevideo, back to Blighty. Port leave. Drink and women. Illness and exhaustion. Do it all again a week later. And again and again and again, round and round the world. What did you sign for? A five year were it?’ I nod. ‘Two and you’ll be jumping. You’ll go mad with it.’
The coal dust is everywhere in the stokehold and our clothes and faces get thick with it. Fred bangs the dust out of his shirt sleeve and wipes his face.
‘It’s a long while, Charlie. Yes, siree. A long while.’ I stop scraping my tin for a moment and look at him. He sighs, but I don’t know what about.
Fred and I are assigned different watches. After we are done with the bilge cleaning, the boatswain takes me to meet mine on the upper decks where the men have been mustered for announcements. ‘You’re gonna disappoint them, lad,’ he warns me. ‘A counter-jumper you is, can tell by yur pretty an’ educated voice.’ I don’t correct him. ‘You’ll be down and out first watch and they’ll hate yer for it. The guy before you name of Jones he were twice your size and ‘e won ev’ry gawdarn arm wrestlin’ competition he ever had. Stoked with power and speed enough for two. Strength don’t equal wits though. Misjudged the firebox, didn’t he. Blowback knocked him out flat and burned his right arm to smithereens. Ha!’ We approach a group of men. ‘But here they are. This be yer watch.’ He leaves me then, and I stand tall and put my hands in my belt loops, squeezing to show there’s more to me than might at first appear and that I’ll do a fine job alright. I might not win every arm wrestle, but I work harder and faster than most men and take pride in the fact.
‘Name’s Pete.’ An older man nods at me. He has thick hands and a creased face.
‘I’m Pete too.’ A boy with freckles steps forward. He shakes a long flap of brown hair out of his eyes. He looks barely fourteen. ‘Young Pete, if you like.’
‘Ciro.’ A short, tea-skinned man with black eyes and hair like crow’s feathers and an unlit cigarette stuck to his lips. ‘The Italian, if you like.’ He mocks the younger Pete’s high-pitched voice and laughs and glares at me all at once, then puts out a hairy, muscled arm, and squeezes my hand.
‘Jani,’ a large, brown-haired man says to me, and nods.
‘A Finn is he,’ says the Italian. ‘Silent bastard…’
An hour later, the anchor is raised and we are called below for mess cleaning.
Above decks, the south coast of England disappears to a thin streak.