Read CHAPTER IX. In a Coffee-Shop of London River, free online book, by H. M. Tomlinson, on

With a day of rain, Dockland is set in its appropriate element. It does not then look better than before, but it looks what it is. Not sudden April showers are meant, sparkling and revivifying, but a drizzle, thin and eternal, as if the rain were no more than the shadow cast by a sky as unchanging as poverty. When real night comes, then the street lamps dissolve ochreous hollows in the murk. It was such a day as that; it was not night, for the street lamps were not alight. There was no sound. The rain was as noiseless as the passage of time. Two other wayfarers were in the street with me. One had no right there, nor anywhere, and knew it, slinking along with his head and tail held low, trailing a length of string through the puddles. The other, too, seemed lost. He was idling as if one street was the same as another, and on that day there was rain in all. He came towards me, with his hands in his pockets and his coat collar up. He turned on me briskly, with a sudden decision, when he drew level. Water dripped from the peak of his cap, and his clothes were heavy and dark with it. He spoke. “Mister, could ye give me a hand up? I’ve made a mess of it.” His cheerful and rather insolent assurance faltered for a moment. He then mumbled: “I’ve been on the booze y’understand.” But there was still something in his tone which suggested that any good man might have done the same thing.

It is not easy to be even sententious with the sinful when an open confession robs us of our moral prerogative, so I only told him that it seemed likely booze had something to do with it. His age could have been forty; but it was not easy to judge, for the bridge of his nose was a livid depression. Some accident had pushed in his face under the eyes, giving him the battered aspect of ancient sin. His sinister appearance would have frightened any timid lady if he had stopped her in such a street, on such a day, with nobody about but a lost dog, and the houses, it could be supposed, deserted, or their inmates secluded in an abandonment to misery. And, taking another glance at him, I thought it probable, from the frank regard of the blue and frivolous eye which met mine, that he would have recognized timidity in a lady at a distance, and would have passed her without seeing her. Uncertain whether his guess in stopping me was lucky, he began pulling nervously at a bleached moustache. His paw was the colour of leather. Its nails were broken and stained with tar.

“Can’t you get work?” I suggested. “Why don’t you go to sea?”

This deliberately unfair question shook his upright confidence in himself, and perhaps convinced him that he had, after all, stopped a fool. He took his cap off, and flung a shower from it it had been draining into his moustache and asked whether I did not think he looked poor enough for a sailor.

Then I heard how he came to be there. Two days before he had signed the articles of the steamship Bilbao. His box had gone aboard, and that contained all his estate. The skipper, to be sure of his man, had taken care of his discharge book, and so was in possession of the only proof of his identity. Then he left the shipping office, and met some friends.

Those friends! “That was a fine girl,” he said, speaking more to the rain than to me. “I never seen a finer.” I began to show signs of moving away. “Don’t go, mister. She was all right. I lay you never seen a finer. Look here. I reckon you know her.” He plunged an eager hand into an inner pocket. “Ever heard of Angel Light? She’s on the stage. It’s a fact. She showed me her name herself on a programme last night. There y’are.” He triumphed with a photograph, and his gnarled forefinger pointed at an exposed set of teeth under an extraordinary hat. “Eh, ain’t that all right? On the stage, too. Met her at the corner of Pennyfields.”

It was still raining. He flung another shower from his cap. I was impatient, but he took my lapel confidentially. “Guv’nor,” he said, “if I could find the swab as took my money, I lay I’d make him look so as his own mother ’ud turn her back on him. I would. Ten quid.”

He had, it appeared, lost those friends. He was now seeking, with varying emotions, both the girl and the swab. I suggested the dock and his ship would be a better quest. No, it was no good, he said. He tried that late last night. Both had gone. The policeman at the gate told him so. The dock was there again this morning, but a different policeman; and whatever improbable world the dock and the policeman of midnight had visited, there they had left his ship, inaccessible, tangled hopelessly in a revolving mesh of saloon lights and collapsing streets. Now he had no name, no history, no character, no money, and he was hungry.

We went into a coffee-shop. It stands at the corner of the street which is opposite the Steam Packet beerhouse. You may recognize the place, for it is marked conspicuously as a good pull-up for carmen, though then the carmen were taking their vans steadily past it. The buildings of a shipwright’s yard stand above it, and the hammers of the yard beat with a continuous rhythmic clangour which recedes, when you are used to it, till it is only the normal pulse of life in your ears. The time was three in the afternoon. The children were at school, and alone the men of the iron-yard made audible the unseen life of the place. We had the coffee-shop to ourselves. On the counter a jam roll was derelict. Some crumpled and greasy newspapers sprawled on the benches. The outcast squeezed into a corner of a bench, and a stout and elderly matron appeared, drying her bare arms on her apron, and looked at us with annoyance. My friend seized her hand, patted it, and addressed her in terms of extravagant endearment. She spoke to him about that. But food came; and as he ate how he ate! I waited, looking into my own mug of tepid brown slop at twopence the pint. There was a racing calendar punctuated with dead flies, and a picture in the dark by the side of the door of Lord Beaconsfield, with its motto: “For God, King, and Country”; and there was a smell which comes of long years of herrings cooked on a gas grill. At last the hungry child had finished scraping his plate and wiping his moustache with his hands. He brought out a briar pipe, and a pouch of hairy skin, and faded behind a blue cloud. From behind the cloud he spoke at large, like a confident disreputable Jove who had been skylarking for years with the little planet Earth.

At a point in his familiar reminiscences my dwindling interest vanished, and I noticed again, through the window, the house fronts of the place I knew once, when Poplar was salt. The lost sailor himself was insignificant. What was he? A deck hand; one who tarred iron, and could take a trick at the wheel when some one was watching him. The place outside might have been any dismal neighbourhood of London. Its character had gone.

The tap-tapping on iron plates in the yard next door showed where we were today. The sailor was silent for a time, and we listened together to the sound of rivets going home. “That’s right,” said the outcast. “Make them bite. Good luck to the rivets. What yard is that?” I told him.

“What? I didn’t know it was about here. That place! Well, it’s a good yard, that. They’re all right. I was on a steamer that went in there, one trip. She wanted it, too. You could put a chisel through her. But they only put in what they were paid for, not what she wanted. The old Starlight. She wouldn’t have gone in then but for a bump she got. Do you know old Jackson? Lives in Foochow Street round about here somewhere. He’s lived next to that pub in Foochow Street for years and years. He was the old man of the Starlight. He’s a sailor all right, is Jackson.

“The last trip I had with him was ten months ago. The Starlight came in here to the West Dock with timber. She had to go into dry-dock, and I signed on for her again when she was ready. This used to be my home, Poplar, before I married that Cardiff woman. Do you know Poplar at all? Poplar’s all right. We went over to Rotterdam for something or other, but sailed from there light, for Fowey. We loaded about three thousand tons of china clay for Baltimore.

“The sea got up when we were abreast of the Wolf that night, and she was a wet ship. ‘We’re running into it,’ said old Jackson to the mate. I was at the wheel. ‘Look out, and call me if I’m wanted.’”

The man pushed his plate away, and leaned towards me, elbows on the table, putting close his flat and brutish face, with his wet hair plastered over all the brow he had. He appeared to be a little drowsy with food. “Ever crossed the Western ocean in winter? Sometimes there’s nothing in it. But when it’s bad there’s no word for it. There was our old bitch, filling up for’ard every time she dropped, and rolling enough to shift the boilers. We reckoned something was coming all right. Then when it began to blow, from dead ahead, the old man wouldn’t ease her. That was like old Jackson. It makes you think of your comfortable little home, watching them big grey-backs running by your ship, and no hot grub because the galley’s flooded. The Wolf was only two days behind us, and we had all the way to go. It was lively, guv’nor. The third night I was in with the cook helping him to get something for the men. They’d been roping her hatches. The covers were beginning to come adrift, y’understand. The cook, he was slipping about, grousing all round. Then she stopped dead, and the lights went out. Something swept right over us with a hell of a rush, and I felt the deck give under my feet. The galley filled with water. ’Christ, she’s done,’ shouted the cook.

“We scrambled out. It was too dark to see anything, but we could hear the old man shouting. The engines had stopped. I fell over some wreckage.” The sailor stroked his nose. “This is what it did.

“Next morning you wouldn’t have known the old Starlight. All her boats had gone, and she had a list to port like a roof. You wanted to be a bird to get about her. The crowd looked blue enough when they saw the falls flying around at daylight, and only bits of boats. It was a case. Every time she lay down in the trough, and a sea went over her solid, we watched her come up again. She took her time about it.

“The engineers were at it below, trying to get her clear. They had the donkey going. In the afternoon we sighted a steamer’s smoke to westward. She bore down on us. I never seen anything I liked better than that. Then the Chief came up, and I saw him talking to the old man. The old man climbed round to us. ‘Now, lads,’ he said, ’there’s a Cunarder coming. But the engineer says he reckons he’s getting her clear of water. What about it? Shall I signal the liner, or will you stand by her?’

“We let the Cunarder go. I watched her out of sight. We hung around, and just about sunset the Chief came up again. I heard what he said. ‘It’s overhauling us fast, sir,’ he said to the old man. The old man, he stood looking down at the deck. Nobody said anything for a spell. Then a fireman shot through a companion on all fours, scrambled to the bulwarks, and looked out. He began cursing the sun, shaking his fist at it every time it popped over the seas. It was low down. It was funny to hear him. ‘So long, chaps,’ he said, and dropped overside.

“We waited all night. I couldn’t sleep, what with the noise of the seas running over us, and waiting for something to happen. It was perishing cold, too. At sun-up I could see she might pitch under at any time. She was about awash. The old man came to me and the steward, and said: ’Give the men all the gin they’ll drink. Fill ’em up.’ Some of ’em took it. I never knew a ship take such a hell of a time to sink as that one.

“I sighted the steamer, right ahead, and we wondered whether the iron under us would wait till she come. We counted every roller that went over us. The other steamer was a slow ship all right. But she came up, and put out her boats. We had to lower the drunks into them. I left in the last boat with the old man. ‘Jim,’ he said, looking at her as we left her, ’she’s got no more than five minutes now. I just felt her drop. Something’s given way.’ Before we got to the other ship we saw the Starlight’s propeller in the air. Right on end. Yes. I never seen anything like that and then she just went . . .”

The sailor made a grimace at me and nodded. From the shipwright’s next door the steady, continuous hammering in the dry-dock was heard again, as though it had been waiting, and were now continuing the yarn.