David Llewellyn. Trace Memory

November 1953

It was a foggy night in Tiger Bay. The moon, jaundiced by the fumes of industry, reflected like a shimmering penny in the black sea of the channel, while the fog-smothered silhouettes of warehouses stood out like tombstones against the night sky.

It was a cold night, too, and the four of them shuffled from foot to foot and clapped their gloved hands together in an effort to keep warm. All of them — Frank, Wilf, Hassan and Michael — were thinking of hot baths and warm beds, and a few hours' sleep before they'd be back at the dock and waiting for another ship to come in. They shouldn't have been there at this hour, a little after midnight, but orders were orders, and besides, the boss had promised them extra pay for their efforts.

Even so, Frank, a burly man with a face full of burst capillaries and a tattoo of a naked woman on his right arm, had been complaining about it for much of the night. What was the point of a ship coming in to dock for one measly little crate? What was so bloody important about this crate in the first place?

Wilf was a little more complacent about being there. His wife was a dragon, and everyone knew it. No wonder he seemed more than happy to be standing on the edge of the dock at this ungodly hour, smoking Woodbines and talking about the football.

Hassan didn't say much, but then he never did. His English was still a long way from perfect, and when he swore it was usually in his native Somali. At twenty-six, he was closest in age to Michael, but tall and broad across the shoulders; quiet but handsome, with dark inscrutable eyes and a smile which, though it only made very rare appearances, lit up his face.

Michael was twenty-four, the youngest of the group. He was still referred to, by the others, as 'the lad' or 'the boy', being baby-faced and awkward; curly black hair and blue eyes, and a faraway dreamy look, as if his mind were often elsewhere. Though they had worked together the best part of eight years, he was still the target of their occasional jokes, both verbal and practical. His first few weeks in the docks had been full of pointless errands, like the time they'd sent him away to buy tartan paint, or the time they'd told him to pick up an order of sky hooks. Tonight the focus of their ridicule was Michael's date with Maggie Jenkins.

It was a date he hadn't even wanted to go on in the first place, having been coerced into it by his friends and workmates. He'd taken her to the Capitol Cinema on Queen Street to watch a double bill of Destination Moon and The Day the Earth Stood Still.

After the films, they had gone for a milkshake at Mario's on Caroline Street, where Michael had tried to do an impersonation of Richard Burton after Maggie told him how much she loved the actor's voice. Sadly it hadn't worked. She'd laughed and told him he sounded more like Paul Robeson with a cold.

'Didn't even get your hand in her blouse?' asked Frank, lighting up another fag and chuckling. The others laughed, even Hassan, who seemed to have an innate understanding of dirty jokes, if little else.

Michael blushed and shook his head. He didn't like it when Hassan laughed at him, but he was used to it by now.

'Look out, lads. Here she comes,' said Wilf, pointing out at the sea. There, coming through the shallow fog, was the grey hulk of the Facklatrafat, a Swedish cargo ship. It was only a small vessel, by the standard of some of the ships out there, but still, to Michael and the others, it seemed awfully big for just one crate.

Only a few hundred metres away, two men stood in front of the red-brick, gothic facade of the Pierhead Building, watching the progress of the Facklatrafat as it came in closer to the dock's edge. In physical appearance, they could hardly have been more different. The younger of the two, Valentine, was tall, gangling almost, with his hair Brylcreemed back above a high forehead. A deep scar made a canyon of the left side of his face, starting in one corner of his mouth and travelling all the way up to the top of his ear. The older man, Cromwell, was short and stout, dressed in a trench coat and trilby. At a passing glance, he resembled the actor Orson Welles, all owl-like intensity and beady eyes.

'I still don't see why they couldn't wait for Nelson-Stanley to bring it back to London,' said Valentine, sniffing and rubbing his nose with the back of his hand.

Cromwell breathed heavily and looked up at his companion.

'Nelson-Stanley is in the Arctic for another three months. We couldn't leave it there that long. Not that close to the Russian territories. If the word from London is to be believed, those bloody Reds were already looking for it, although how they knew about it is anyone's guess. That bastard Philby, most likely, or one of his lot. Careless talk and all the rest of it.'

'Right you are, Mr Cromwell. Right you are.' Another sniff, another wipe of his nose. 'So how big is it?'

'How big?' said Cromwell, chuckling to himself. About the size of a football, so I'm told.'

A football?' asked Valentine. 'A ship like that for something the size of a football?'

Absolutely, Mr Valentine, absolutely. You know what they say. It's not the size that counts…'

Valentine smiled, but only on the right side of his face.

The crate was now only twenty feet off the edge of the dock, being lowered on a thick hemp rope. On the deck of the Facklatrafat, one of the crew hollered to the crane operator, 'Sakta! Sakta!'

'Can you hear something?' said Frank.

'Yeah,' said Wilf. 'Someone talking in Swedish.' Frank tutted. 'No, not that, you bloody idiot, something in the crate.'

Wilf cocked one ear towards the crate and frowned. 'No, Frank, I can't.'

'Listen. Listen a minute. Can you hear it?'

Michael followed Wilf's example and tilted his head so that one ear was aimed towards the crate. Frank was right. He could hear something. A strange, throbbing sound; familiar and yet at the same time unlike anything he had heard before.

'Yeah,' said Michael. 'I can hear it.'

'Me too,' said Hassan.

The crate was lower now, low enough for Hassan, who was taller than the others, to be able to touch it if he stood on his toes.

'Shaking,' he said. 'Like inside, there is something shaking.'

'Look, mate,' Frank called up to the man on the deck. 'What's inside this thing? What's that noise?'

'Jog forstar inte,' the man replied, shrugging.

'Bloody marvellous,' said Frank. 'They all speak double Dutch. Fat lot of use that is to us.'

'It's getting louder,' said Michael.

The crate lowered further, so that it was now only a few feet from the ground.

'I still can't hear anything,' said Wilf.

'No, well you wouldn't,' said Frank. 'You're bloody deaf from your wife nagging you all the time.' The others laughed, and that was when the crate exploded with a blinding flash of light, and a force great enough to rock the ship towards its starboard.

Michael was blasted across the edge of the dock, one side of the crate hitting him face-on and carrying him ten metres until he fell to the ground with a heavy thump. A plume of intense heat erupted from the other side of the crate, sending a shard of wood through Frank's throat and a heavy iron nail into Wilf's chest. Hassan was blown from the dock into the side of the ship. He was unconscious when he landed, face down, in the water.

As fragments of burning wood and sawdust scorched into cinders rained down around the dock, another object came clattering down onto the cobbles: a metal sphere, no bigger than a football, and ruptured on one side. Had anyone been conscious to see it, they would have noticed a dull glow the colour of burning sulphur, and heard the sound of that throbbing as it grew quieter and quieter. The glow too died out, leaving just an empty metal shell.

It was mere moments before Cromwell and Valentine arrived on the scene. Cromwell was out of breath from running, but Valentine had barely broken a sweat. All about them were the bodies and the burning remains of the crate. On the deck of the ship, the Swedish crew were swearing and cursing, but neither man could understand

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