By Michael Barrington
As the ship pulled away from the pier, the people on the dockside seemed to shrink in size until they were swallowed up in the mist, as if some giant had cast his cloak over them. Joe pulled his threadbare jacket closer around himself and clasped his elbows as if the gesture would create some warmth, then picked up the small sack containing all his belongings. A shiver went through him as the biting wind cut through his clothing, forcing him to take shelter in a crowded, smoky saloon below the main deck. Once the ship hit the open seas having passed the Dublin North Wall break water, it immediately began to roll from side to side then from stem to stern as the waves and wind increased. It had begun its ten-hour laborious journey to Liverpool.
The scene looked like a medieval painting of hell without the flames. Bodies occupied every inch of space, men, women, and children squeezed together, sitting, standing, sprawling, kneeling, lying. Some unable to get through the heaving mass of people to the WCs, puked where they were sitting or wretched in corners. People were moaning, their cries mingling with those of a hundred babies, while others stricken with the ordeal of sailing and fearing for their lives, were praying the rosary out loud. The smell of unwashed bodies, packed like sardines, vomit, and spilt beer was overpowering and with most of the portholes closed, the thick fug from smoldering cigarettes, made his eyes water and burn. But it was this or being frozen on the top deck now sprayed with foam, together with the risk of falling overboard.
He had never been on a ship before and was feeling so nauseous he wondered how he would last the journey. Having arisen at dawn the previous day to take a coach to Galway, then train to Dublin, he had already been on the road for more than twenty-four hours. And since the ship had to wait for the tide, which delayed its leaving port, it meant he would spend another night without sleep. Clutching his sack, he wedged himself between the edge of a wooden seat and the steel wall dripping with condensation but close to a half open port hole and tried to breathe in some fresh air.
What had started out as an exciting adventure was quickly changing into a miserable, depressing and physically demanding challenge. But he was determined not to give in to his sadness. It had been hard leaving his mother and his brother James; he knew he would miss them. He feared for her especially, knowing that she had to stay, and he felt guilty. She would have to continue living with a man who was a physically abusive alcoholic. Had she not been a catholic, she would have left him long ago. But the words divorce, or separation did not exist in the catholic dictionary. So, she was imprisoned in an impossible situation. It was on his dream list that once he had made sufficient money, he would bring her over to live with him in England.
During that terrible night, forced to stand just to ease the pain in his cramped body, he realized his stomach was slowly adapting to the ship’s pitch and roll and he was hungry. Through the dim and dirty saloon lights he could see people dozing, sleeping, snoring, crying, their pale faces taking on a sickly jaundiced look. Turning to the wall, and trying not to attract attention, he extracted a large baked potato from his sack; he had one left, which his mother had prepared with butter and salt. There was also half a cheese sandwich remaining. Smarter than he, she had advised him he needed food for the journey, an issue that had never crossed his mind. As he thought of her, he put his hand into his jacket pocket and let his fingers feel the last gift she had given him, a silver sixpence piece.
“May the road always rise to meet you, my son,” she had said, “and may you always have money in your pocket.”
The sack contained everything he possessed. He had bought it from a tinker while visiting the open market in Strokestown weeks before. It looked sturdy and large enough, made of canvas with a draw string around the neck, a smaller version of the type often used by sailors. For two pence it was his. Obsessed with the thoughts and desire of leaving home, this was all part of his preparation.
In it he placed two clean shirts and his working pants, extra suspenders, a pair of socks, a woolen night shirt and his best boots. These were his pride and joy which he usually only wore on a Sunday. He had bought them used in the market, but they looked new.
He made two decisions about what he would wear for traveling. He would look his very best to impress people, so that even though from his accent they might believe he came from the countryside, he knew how to dress. But he also thought he might have to do a significant amount of walking, so after cleaning them well, preferred to use his old comfortable boots. He carefully put his ‘new’ ones in the sack. In a small, old, oblong metal box he had shaving materials, a comb with a small brush and a tiny pair of scissors for trimming his newly sported moustache. In that same box was an envelope containing a small picture of a chalice given to him by his mother the day he made his first communion. Rattling around were seventeen shillings, his life savings. The only other contents of the sack were two pencils, a notebook, and a well-used copy of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens which he had found by accident one rainy night on the pavement near his lodging. He had dried it out and read it at least four times.
Prior to being fired as an apprentice from McCourts victuallers where he had been learning to bottle Guinness, he had been saving a little money each week. Additionally, his uncle Fintan who took him in, had given him two shillings.
After eating, he cleaned his hands on the sheet of newspaper she had used for wrapping the food and stuffed it into his sack. As a child he had always been taught to be tidy, to pick up things that fell to the floor and not create litter. Even amid all the chaos and filth around him, he still recalled his mother’s words and made a mental note to throw the paper overboard later.
It was a relief getting off the boat and with legs feeling like jelly, he joined the throng worming its way through the disembarkation hall and into a damp Liverpool morning. Not knowing the way to Lime Street railway station, he wanted to ask somebody when he saw a tall well-dressed man complete with top hat and cane, who was scrutinizing people as they passed through the main gate. He was staring at him.
“Excuse me, sir,” Joe, said “but could you tell me where I can get the train for Manchester?”
“Well, young man, it’s your lucky day,” he replied, “It just so happens I’m traveling there myself. We could walk there together.”
As they reached the window where tickets were purchased, after obtaining his own, the stranger said, “Joe, you will need three shillings.”
They had exchanged names earlier and with “Just call me Bill,” they had set out. Trying not to show the contents of his sack to the people around him, Joe walked over to a bench, and with his back to the crowd, took out his metal box and the three shillings needed.
Bill knew everything about trains and Joe found himself sitting in a compartment opposite him near the door. There were six seats facing each other and close to departure, when they were all taken, passengers continued to enter, standing between them. To give himself a little space, Joe having watched people putting luggage and packages on the racks above their heads, did the same.
It was warm in the compartment. It was also a relief after such a horrible night, to rest comfortably on an upholstered seat and relax having been told he had a two-and half-hour journey in front of him. The gentle rocking of the train and the hypnotic sound of the wheels clacking on the rails, gradually lulled him to sleep. The train stopped at every station along the line; but Joe was oblivious to people exiting and entering.
It was only when he woke up with a jolt as the train slowed and jerked its way into Central Station station, Manchester, that he realized Bill was no longer there. And as he looked up at the rack above his head, neither was his sack.
One thought on “The Crossing”
Loved this story, can’t wait to find out what happens next.