Garrison Fields

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Chapter 10 - A tragedy

Good thoughts are transient memories, those we would try to forget usually take the shape of the blackest moments of our existence. It is these burdens which we carry along life’s path. They are events, which may strengthen or destroy.

It was in these sorrowful days after the funeral, that life continued as usual. The spring turning to summer and then to a wet and miserable autumn, which in turn had given way to a cold biting winter and the dawning of 1907. It was a particularly hard start to the New Year, the snow laying hard in great drifts. The men in the docks, huddled when possible around their braziers. “Oh, to be a blacksmith on days like these.” That was their cry, but it was not their lot. Nor was it the lot of Albert and Derek as they went down to their boat tied up at the wharf.

The wharf was made of grey granite and the steps leading down to the wooden jetty were mossy with the slime that crept up from the tide mark, a treacherous place to be at the best of times and always a place to have full concentration. Since the funeral, business had been very slow Albert’s mind had not been on it. However, this morning he felt that things would change, the heavy heart that he had, was not fully lifted, but he was now becoming accustomed to his grief and had begun to accept it.

Derek as was his habit, had stopped at the General Wolf’s off-door that morning. The snow was laying thick against the wall as Derek looked to drop his ropes and boat hook by the wall, Albert stopped him.

Here man, stick it o’er mi shoulder.′ He obliged, that was fortunate. Derek didn’t fancy running to catch him up down that cobbled bank in the snow and ice. He smiled.

‘The General would salute you, if he wasn’t a pub!’ With these parting comments he joined his queue of contemporaries. Albert had taken the heavy ropes and boat hooks, rather than them being dropped into the snow. He was beholding to Derek in the past months, it had been Derek who had pulled more than his weight and never complained.

He was now fully laden, with the weight of the ropes propelling him faster than usual. He made his way down to the quay, sliding and nearly losing his footing several times. The extra equipment was heavy, but he was strong enough to carry it and more if needed. The arrangement of the ropes was awkward and nearly, but not quite, got the better of him on more than one occasion. He wanted to make sure he got to the boat before Derek this morning, it was a matter of pride for him, so again he increased his speed, till he was nearly skating down the hill with his load. This made him slip several more times, though he always righted himself, hob nail boots were perhaps not the most suitable footwear for ice and snow, but they were the only good durable footwear available to working men such as himself.

By the time the quay side was reached, he was perspiring under his load. Stopping short of the quay steps, he looked down at the treacherous descent in front of him and pondered for a second on whether to relinquish some of his load and attempt more than one trip. No, the sooner he was down the better. The metal rings that protruded from the quay wall were rusted and the heavy rope that had once been fixed to them had long since turned green and rotted away. Only traces of the heavy knots were now visible and frayed strands from these.

The decision was made. The steps were covered in snow, but that was good, surely there couldn’t be any ice underneath. He now took the first steps placing his boot on the third step a combination of: his hob nailed boots, the snow, the hidden ice, the moss and the extra weight he was carrying all served their purpose at once. He frantically tried to regain his footing, there was nothing he could do to save himself within an instant the extra weight he was carrying took him like a pendulum over the edge of steps, his fingers frantically reaching for the wall where the non-existent safety rope used to hang. He shouted,

‘Jesus - Derek, Derek.’ There was nothing there though, neither the rope nor Derek. Down he crashed, the weight taking him headfirst into their boat. There he lay, senseless, twisted amongst the assortment of equipment arrayed where it fell.

‘Christ almighty,’ shouted Derek, as he saw the disaster unfold. He had been hurrying down the hill to catch up and had with several others hearing Albert shout, raced for the scene. All converging at the same time, half sliding down the quay steps, Derek was at Albert’s side in an instant.

‘Albert, Albert can you hear me.’ He repeated the phrase several times, one of the other men shouted up to the crowd who were beginning to gather at the top of the quay steps.

‘He’s breathing, somebody get a doctor.’ One of the men from the shipyard grabbed one of the apprentices.

‘GET UP THE SUPERINTENDENTS OFFICE AND TELL THEM TO PHONE FOR A DOCTOR.’ The men in the boat knew that they had to get Albert out of the boat and into the warmth. They shouted to the onlookers that they needed some sort of stretcher, within seconds an old green painted door had been lifted from its hinges, there must have been eight or ten men who went down the quay steps. These big men gingerly placed him on the door, as if he was china. It didn’t take long before he was raised up the stairs and then taken to the superintendent’s office to wait for the doctor’s arrival.

It was a deadly hush as he passed. Men not knowing if was dead or alive, pulled off their caps as he went by, the whisper was;

‘Who is it?’ Another. ‘What happened?’

As they entered the superintendent’s office, the office boy quickly cleared the large table of papers in the middle of the room and the door was placed on top of it. It was now, that Derek regained his full control.

‘I’m his partner, let me through.’ He was thus admitted to this inner sanctum. The room was warm; a small black stove in the corner warmed it. All in the room, stood round the injured man, waiting for the doctor. The Superintendent now took charge of events, ascertaining who the injured man was from Derek. Such was the condition of Albert, that Derek asked the superintendent not to send the boy for his wife, just yet.

‘Let’s wait see what the doctor says, then I’ll gan and get his wife.’ It allowed him to gather his thoughts and think of what to say. They waited, a rolled up coat was placed under Albert’s head, he gazed up at everyone looking out of half dead eyes, looking into his makers kingdom above him, he did not make a sound, his breathing was laboured but regular, he just stared into eternity, most in the room gradually drew back from the scene, until Derek was the only one stood by him.

It may seem strange, but Derek had never physically touched Albert in his life, in what might be considered an intimate way. He would have ruffled his hair when they were children or slapped him on the back as some sort of horseplay. Now, for the first time in his life, he gripped his hand and talked as if they were alone, about Jane, the children and what a wonderful life he had to look forward to; he continued talking until the doctor entered.

The docks had a retainer with the local surgery of Doctor Broad, it was the man himself who attended this morning striding into the Superintendent’s office accompanied by his registrar. Who as he put it, “needed to see a bit of real life, outside the surgery.” He went straight to the injured man while the Superintendent came forward to offer the knowledge they had of the accident. Dr Broad performed his examination on the prostrate patient. Nodding and occasionally said.

‘You d’say,’ the words only being said to placate the Superintendent and keep him talking. Suddenly, he stopped and stated.

‘I now this man - I have attended his family.’ Looking round him for an explanation.

‘Yes Dr., Its Albert Burns he’s a Foy boatman from up Kimberley Street and this is his partner.’ Came the reply from the Superintendent. Dr Broad looked at Derek and then down at Albert.

‘Well you won’t be going out in your boat today.’ turning to his registrar.

‘Your opinion please Doctor?’ After a small hesitation, a preliminary diagnosis was made. Dr Broad then continued.

‘We’ll get him up to the hospital... Mr Thomas, I’ll use your phone now, if you please.’ Within seconds arrangements were made for an ambulance to pick up the patient, it was after this was done that Dr Broad talked to Derek and the Superintendent, informing them of his preliminary findings.

‘Well gentlemen, he’s had a bad fall as you know... The good news is that he hasn’t broken too many bones, but he has managed to land hard on his head and shoulder... I believe that he may have some swelling inside his head which we’ll want to resolve straight away... It’s bad, but there is hope. He’ll have to be operated on immediately, to relieve the pressure. Who is his next of kin?’ Derek divulged to him all particulars, and the registrar duly noted everything required.

It was now that the sound of the ambulance could be heard drawing up outside, it had made good time. The two burly porters alighted the stairs and the people who were still congregated outside made way for them to enter, Dr Broad greeted them informing them of the particulars of the incident, which they required.

At which point one of the porters was dispatched back to the ambulance to retrieve a stretcher. He returned with a canvas stretcher collapsed over one shoulder and a coarse yellowish cotton pillow and grey rough blanket in his other arm. He struggled through the door throwing the blanket and pillow over Albert’s legs. The other porter now aided the first by helping him with the stretcher. They pushed the split bars back to their straight position, locking them in position, thus giving back the stretcher its rigidity required to transport the patient.

The table in the Superintendent’s office was large enough to accommodate both the stretcher and the door Albert was currently residing on, If they swung the door round. Its length going over the width of the table. They performed this action under Dr Broad’s auspices and the stretcher was now placed on the table next to Albert. There were enough men present to make light work of moving Albert from the door to the stretcher. On Dr Broad’s, words of command they lifted and held him and then with other men standing on the opposite side of the table received him and gently laid him on to the stretcher. The last actions being the pillow and blanket being suitable arranged by one of the porters. The job being declared well done by Dr Broad. The door was opened for the stretcher to be taken to the ambulance.

They left the superintendent’s office with their load, the snow crunching under foot. Most of the initial crowd had cleared now. The few who were left looked on and whispered to each other as they passed. The Registrar, opening the rear doors of the ambulance, to allow the stretcher access, was slid into its position. Dr Broad observing the loading now briefly talked to his registrar giving some last-minute instruction.

With Albert securely on board the Registrar kicked the snow from his over shoes and stepped up into the ambulance. One of the burly porters accompanied him into the back of the ambulance, banging the side of the ambulance hard with his hand twice, to signal to the driver that all was ready and that he might proceed. The ambulance lunged forward, as the two horses took up the strain, the burly porter swinging the rear doors of the ambulance shut. The gathered men, the Superintendent and Derek now stood watching the ambulance slowly disappear as it was obscured by the snow which swirled around it.

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