I could hardly credit it. Wrighty had been married to Jane for forty years. I couldn't think what to say, but after a dozen more wagons or so, I shouted, 'Don't take on, Wrighty!'

'I was always home to her directly!' Wright shouted at the train. 'I was never a stop-out!'

'Your missus is a decent sort!' I shouted back, 'You must be able to…'

But I couldn't think what.

Suddenly a flying, flimsy brake wagon signified the end of the train, and Wright and I stood in silence, the empty tracks before us.

'Let's go into the office and put a brew on,' I said, but Wright shook his head. I tried to pull him back from the platform edge in case he had it in mind to wait for another train, and pitch himself in front of it. I thought: This is more like the kind of drama that happens when you've missed the last tram, and I pictured Jane Wright: a sensible woman with a lot of grey hair. She smoked cigarettes and had a smile that was fetching on account of teeth that went in. I'd never been able to make out what she saw in Wright, who didn't have a nice smile, or any at all come to that. After forty years of marriage, that might become rather wearing.

Wright turned away from the platform, saying, 'Weatherill's told you what's going off in Scarborough, has he?' and he was about back to normal, in that he was asking questions instead of answering them.

'He has that,' I said.

I saw that the offer of whisky had just been a ruse on Wright's part to achieve… well, something or other to do with his own difficulties.

'Walk you home, shall I?' I said, and he gave a half nod.

'When are you off, then?' he said, as I collected my bike.

'To Scarborough,' I said. 'Sunday.'

'You going on your tod?'

'No, the Chief's fixed me up with a mate. A driver. We're going there as a footplate crew. Don't tell anyone, mind you,' I added, grinning at him.

'Weatherill's putting a train driver to police work?' said Wright. 'That's rum.'

So he hadn't heard that part.

'The Chief has it all planned out,' I said.

We'd come out of the station, and turned down Leeman Road. I was pushing my bike, and Wright was occasionally colliding with it as he walked. We came to the beginning of Railway Walk, which was a kind of dark alleyway running along by the main line. Only you couldn't see the railway for the hoardings that were all down that side. From the railway they were bright, cheerful things advertising Heinz Beans, Oxo and whatnot, but on Railway Walk you just saw the shadowy backs of them, and the tall sooty timbers holding them up. Wright lived along one of the terraced streets that ran off the Walk on the other side.

Why had he been glooming at the coal train? Perhaps he was a regular on the main 'down' at eleven o'clock? That train came through every evening at about that time. It wouldn't stop in under half a mile and so presented a nightly opportunity for anyone wanting to make away with themselves.

'This is you, I think,' I said to Wrighty as we contemplated Railway Walk. But he made no move.

'Has the Chief let on?' he said '… He's dead certain that Leeds bloke was done-in.'

'Well…' I said.

'And that it was somebody in the lodging house that did him.'

'I'll get in there,' I said, 'and I'll run the bugger to earth!'

I eyed Wright, giving him the chance to say, 'Good luck with it,' but he moved off without a word, zig-zagging somewhat.

I climbed onto my bike, and set off for Thorpe. As I rode, it came to me that I ought to have asked Wright whether I might mention his trouble to Lydia, who was quite pally with Jane. I was assuming she'd stick up for marriage in general. But maybe she in turn would leave me for Robert Henderson. She wouldn't have to coach him up to being a big earner. He was that already.

Chapter Six

'They're all aft, skipper.'

The words revolved in my mind, a problem waiting to be solved. I first thought: That grey man talks just as though he's a sailor; wears a sailor's coat too. I did not want him to be a sailor, for sailors were in the habit of travelling further afield than it was normally convenient for me to go. But I took heart from the way that he was lighting a small cigar. Any sort of man anywhere might light a cigar.

'I feel ill,' I said, or anyhow I thought the words, and there was some sort of a connection between my thoughts and my lips, for some sound came out and it must have served well enough because the man replied:

'Just wait until we get some sea,' although it was really more like 'Just wade undil we get shum sea.'

'You'd best look out either way,' I said. 'I'm going to be sick no end.'

I tried to rise from my coal bed, and the two men, one above, one below, watched me do it. I found my feet after a couple of goes but it took an effort to stay up; I wanted to go back to sleep on the coal. I slowly looked down at my boots, feeling myself to be thinner than I was before… and there was stuff all down my suit-coat. I contemplated it while trying to steady myself on coal. I raised my hand to the stuff, and I did not know my own hands. They were red, and I could not shake the notion that they had been stained by beetroot juice. When had I been near beetroot? I looked hard at them in the night sea light, which was partly moonlight, and partly something ghostly made by the waves. It was not beetroot. The redness was under the skin. Poison. I wiped my hand again over my suit-coat. The stuff was vomit… and my North Eastern company badge was missing.

'Where's my top-coat got to?' I said, and then: 'I've a hell of a thirst.' The top man, the skipper, seemed ready for this because he held a bottle of water. He dropped it down to the man below, who passed it to me. I held it with my stained left hand as I drank, and stood with head spinning as the water took effect. It made me feel better in some ways, worse in others. The grey man held out a tin of cigars.

'Do shmoke?' he seemed to say.

I could not read the words on the tin; there seemed to be a picture of a blue church but it was covered in coal dust. I took a cigar.

'What's happened?' I slowly enquired. 'Have I been pressed into the fucking navy?'

No reply.

'Why are my hands red?' I demanded, but there came no answer, only the flare of the match rising up to my face. The cigar was lit, and the grey man threw the match onto the coal. There was just enough light for me to see it go out.

I looked up. The man above, the skipper, had been away – must have been away, for he now returned. He held a ladder, and he too now wore a tunic with brass buttons. He lowered the ladder, and placed the top of it by a wooden beam that helped support the roof of the great coal hole I was in. The grey man indicated the ladder with a turn of his head. Was I supposed to be smoking the cigar, or climbing the ladder? I contemplated the burning cigar, and dropped it. I was not up to smoking just then, and it struck me that I had been far too long on my feet. I wanted to sit down on the coal again, but at the same time it was necessary to rise from it, and escape the black air of this underworld. I climbed the ladder using not so much my feet as the memory of climbing ladders, and when the rungs ran out I was for a moment in a cool breeze at the top of the highest tree in my home village. The name came to me slowly: Thorpe-on-Ouse. But I stepped from it onto iron, where I stood face to face with the one set in authority over the grey man.

He held a small revolver, and behind him was a whole ship with more than a breeze blowing over it. I saw the expanse of the fore-hold running up to the great bulk of the mid-ships, with high-mounted lifeboats either side, tall masts, where derricks with steam winches were fitted, great white-washed ventilators for sucking air into the iron worlds beneath, and the whole thing set upon the roaring, crashing sea under the thousands of stars. I wanted to congratulate the fellow on the effect, to shake his hand, ask him, 'Now how did you manage all this? And how do you ride the thing with only the two of you on board?' For there wasn't another soul to be seen.

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