Garrison Fields

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Chapter 2 - The morning chorus

As they joined the throng it became a vast snake of humanity winding its way down to the docks, every now and then a face would appear and bid them:

‘Morning Albert... Derek.’ Faces they had known all their lives, faces they would know until they died. There was no sociability; where are you going, what have you been doing? This was known. They had been at work; they were going to work and would until they could do so no more.

They trudged together onwards for several streets the only sound being the metal in their boots striking against the cobbles and the low hum of muted voices talking together. The gas lights were still lit and danced invitingly in the cold air suggesting a warm allure. On and on they trudged, down the hill they went, the grand procession snaking ever closer towards the docks. Eventually, they reached a beacon of light: The General Wolf public house. By all accounts the largest pub in the town. A queue of men, maybe ten or so were standing at a side door, the off-door, each waiting to have their flask filled, or topped up for the day ahead. Derek joined the queue, as was his custom and Albert said his usual anecdote.

‘Off to see the doctor for your medicine then.’ The usual reply came.

‘Better than any medicine you’ll get from a doctor, his doesn’t keep the cold and damp out.’ The grin that came with it was that of a schoolboy.

He joined the queue of men, as if waiting outside the headmaster’s study. Talking and chatting to the others in the queue all with their hands plunged deep in their jackets, collars pulled up, kicking and stamping their boots as if in the artic. On walked Albert, leaving Derek to get his medicine. It was only a few more minutes down to the quay where their boat was moored.

Sometimes on a quiet day he would hear Derek, running down the hill after him catching him up, skating down the flagstones coming to an abrupt halt next to him; like the cheeky schoolboy he had never grown up from.

Otherwise, he would arrive at the boat as Albert was preparing it, with a yarn told to him in the queue or some other gossip. But what could not be overestimated was that any story told to Derek, would have grown threefold by its next telling!

In the queue Derek waited his turn. Only two or three could be accommodated within the small room at the side of the General Wolf, the off-door usually was the place of choice on an evening where older ladies not wishing to be observed or to timid to venture into the snug would go for a bottle of stout, rumoured to give longevity and sufficient vitamins to keep the doctor away for indefinite periods. Wives and children would be sent for a jug of mild n’ bitter for their husbands dinner and the child that spilled it could expect a stroke of the belt.

On mornings, it was the domain of the working man, a small supplement to their daily diet, many shipyards were supposedly dry, but working outside on a metal ship in the middle of winter was not a job for any but the toughest, and a drop to keep you going through the day, well, who would worry, and perhaps a mint to keep the breath fresh afterwards. Eventually, Derek reached the door squeezing himself inside he grinned as he managed to close the door behind him the heat instantly met him.

‘Brrrrrrrr that’s better.’ he stated, all were friends and agreed. Shortly those queuing in front were served and left and new friends squeezed in behind him. He was now at the front of the queue; he placed his can on the mahogany counter and unscrewed the lid.

‘The usual... if you please Mr Dunbar, and I’ll be taking a box of swans from you as well, on the slate till Friday if you don’t mind.’

‘Right you are Derek’, he was a regular of Mr Dunbar’s, both on a morning and an evening and on Sundays he was even known to attend afternoon worship, as it was called, at the General. He had never abused their arrangement and was always punctual with payment. He was a most amicable regular, never a spot of trouble from him, and most enjoyed his company and general jovial nature. As such Mr Dunbar would for these morning excursions receive payment at the end of the week, after all, you wouldn’t expect a man to take money out with him on a morning, knowing full well he would be rowing into the North Sea within the hour.

Derek took his filled pipe from his pocket and opening the box of swans on the counter, took the first one out and struck it. It spluttered for a brief second before igniting, placing it over the bowl of the pipe he slowly drew in the flame, blowing out the match with the same smoke and dropping it to the floor.

From the same pocket he now took a small piece of oil cloth and wrapped the match box in it. He always lit his pipe in the General, just in case the matches were damp, after all he didn’t want to be at sea for ten hours without a pipe.

They didn’t exchange many words, it was a little bit too early for each of them if the truth was known. Derek’s concentration on the can was short lived, as the can was being filled he glanced round the little room, in front of him there was the mahogany counter, the only thing darker than the counter were the stains ringed in to it, to each side of this counter in the narrow room were shelves with bottles of all size neatly arranged, from the hardest of liquor too stouts, and near the front bottles of lemonade and some candy, indeed it would not be unusual for a child to be treated to a lemonade and candy while the parents might be inside for a drink or two. You would often see them playing or standing quietly outside waiting for their parents to emerge, and now he gazed past the half-pulled curtain behind Mr Dunbar to the bar beyond, a place he knew well. The curtain served two purposes, it was always pulled slightly ajar to allow the barman to see anyone entering and requiring serving, but equally there were many especially amongst the women who did not want to be observed entering the General, even if on behalf of their husband. The can was filled, they bid each other good morning and Mr Dunbar always adding.

‘And good hunting’, a reference to Derek’s task of seeking out ships and getting them safely moored.

With the can-lid checked for tightness Derek lifted it by the handle and left the off-door, stopping briefly to pick up the heavy rope and other paraphernalia which he had dropped on his entry to that confined little room. With everything about him he set off at a brisker walk than before down to the quay and their boat. The briskness in his walk was as with any addict, was that his perception of his own addiction was greater than that which others saw, and thus he would always try to overcompensate to justify his actions or disguise them. Consequently, in half the time it had taken Albert to reach the same spot he stood at the top of the quay steps.

‘Good God Albert is that all you’ve done, we’re ganning out t’day y’nar, not the morrow!’ He bellowed down. Albert looking up saw that huge grin, within a second the large thick rope he was carrying was thrown from the top of the quay into the back of the boat.

‘Why, that cleared the ice off nicely man’, then not taking into account the wet and moss covering the quay steps, he took them two and three at a time, jumping the last couple into the boat. They both laughed like two schoolboys.

‘I see you’ve got your medicine, and it seems to be working already.’ With that they made their boat ready for sea, un-tethered it from its mooring and pushed off, all along the quay Foy boatmen were doing the same, the hunt was on.

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