SHORT STORY FOR THE WEEKEND: The Big Ship by Mick Cooper
Here is the latest in the series of short stories written by members of the 390-strong Portsmouth Writers' Hub
The big ship had been docked for about 24 hours, and was taking on provisions for the long journey ahead.
The city streets around the harbour were buzzing with hundreds of people. Many families and individuals had set out to see the brand new and amazing vessel, the biggest that had ever been seen.
The hotels and shops were doing good business with all the interest and the pubs were full of seamen determined to spend their last penny on the last booze they would get on this side of the ocean.
All police leave had been cancelled and the side streets were full of ladies plying their trade, and pickpockets were becoming instantly rich.
There were pleasure trips on small boats around the harbour to see the big ship from water.
George had been down to the docks several days before and signed on as crew at the shipping office.
Most important of all, he had obtained his pay book, without which he would not be allowed to join the ship.
He lived in a two-up, two-down house just a few streets from the docks with his widowed mother and two younger brothers Sam and Harry.
A good job was hard to find, and George had been lucky, by being in the right place, at the right time. Many of the men in his neighbourhood would have killed for the job he had.
Sam had been nagging George to let him have the pay book and swap places, but George was having none of it. Sam tried all manner of bribes, but was refused every time.
George was pleased to have the upper hand and to be envied by so many. His job was valuable, bringing riches he had rarely known before in his life.
George, and several of his friends who had also been taken on as crew, decided they would have a last night drink before the morning departure.
They usually frequented a number of the many pubs in the area and on their last night ashore, had no intention of leaving any out.
It was a night of alcohol and smoking, dirty jokes and swearing. And there was a time when George and his pals almost got into a fight.
It was around 1am when they were thrown out of the last pub. They staggered away and George’s pals pushed him in through his front door, and he tumbled noisily into his bedroom, thumping down on the bed in a heap.
Sam was woken by the noise and swore at him. Soon the room was quiet again and all were asleep.
Sam woke at about 7am, and after dressing, looked down at the sorrowful mess that was George. On the floor, by his bed, was George’s pay book. ‘He’ll have no use for that today,’ thought Sam, and he went downstairs.
After a slice of dried bread and mug of tea for breakfast, Sam returned to the bedroom. ‘Hmm, I’ve got a good place for this,’ he said. ‘He won’t see the world today’, and with that, he tucked the pay book into his back pocket.
He grabbed a few pieces of clothing and quickly rammed them into a small bag. Sam went down and looked into the scullery. ‘Mum? I’m going out,’ he said.
‘Where?’ She enquired.
‘George won’t make the ship today, he’s out cold,’ he tried to convince her.
‘You’ve taken his book! He’ll be mad when he gets hold of you, he’ll break your neck!’
Sam smiled in disbelief, ‘He’ll
have to catch me first, tell him...’ He thought for a moment. ‘Tell him I’ll buy him a drink when I get back, a big drink for the big ship.’
‘I’ll give him your message,’ she said, ‘And then your life won’t be worth living.’
Sam left the house and made for the docks.
There was still an hour before crew were due on the big ship, so he called into the pub on the dockside to quench his thirst for the last time before boarding the ship.
The pub was bustling with other crewmen who had the same idea. There would be no chance of any good beer once on board, so he bought a small bottle of rum and slipped it into his bag.
The streets were packed with people moving in all directions, children playing games and running under people’s feet.
On the dockside a band was playing loud triumphant music, people were dancing and laughing, and merriment was everywhere. Streamers cascaded from the sides of the steamer.
The ship sailed on the morning tide, with Sam working in the engine room.
Several days later, George was on his door step, throwing stones into the gutter and watching the world go by. Rays from an early April sun were threading themselves through the gathering shower clouds.
George had been in a wretched mood for days and was determined to give his brother a good hiding the next time he saw him.
He heard someone shouting his name. He looked up and saw one of his pals rushing down the street.
‘Hey George,’ he yelled. ‘Have you seen this?’ He held out a newspaper that flapped in the breeze as he ran.
‘What is it?’ George asked, but really he couldn’t care what it was.
‘The ship, it’s sunk,’ said his pal. ‘Would you believe it? It got almost all the way across to the USA and then she struck an iceberg, and about 1,500 people have been drowned.’
George got to his feet hurriedly and wrenched the newspaper from his pal’s hands.
He tried, with difficulty, to focus his eyes on the print.
His blood ran cold, and his legs became unsteady at the realisation of the facts.
‘Sam’s on that!’ said George. ‘He took my book and went in my place. The poor lad.’
How would he tell his mother? George combed his fingers through his hair and wondered.
‘Oh dear, ma will be... she’ll be...’
He didn’t finish his sentence. He just turned and went into the house, slamming the door behind him...
Portsmouth-born Mick Cooper is a retired musician and photographer who runs a website on the history of popular music in the Portsmouth area. He has had three books published, between 1984 to 2000, on the history of Portsmouth Football Club, and has been a member of the Writers at Lovedean group for 10 years.
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