Authors: Tom Bradman
TOM & TONY BRADMAN
who had to put up with all the complaining
The National Archives is the UK government's official archive, containing over a thousand years of history. They give detailed guidance to government departments and the public sector on information management and advise others about the care of historical archives.
It was a terrible thing to admit even to himself, but Billy was glad his Da was dead.
was a bit strong, he thought as he looked down at the coffin in the open grave;
would be a better word. He was definitely relieved.
Billy glanced guiltily at Ma. She was standing beside him in the circle of mourners and stared straight ahead, her eyes dry, although her face was pale and drawn from all the crying she had done over the last week. Beyond her, Billy's sisters sobbed uncontrollably. Ada, Nelly, Daisy and little six-year-old Mabel were dark-haired and brown-eyed like Da, and pretty too, while
Billy had Ma's sandy looks and blue eyes. But Billy was tall like his Da.
It was a bitterly cold March day in Belfast and a sharp wind brought the salt tang of the Irish Sea into the graveyard. Ma gripped Billy's hand. The Reverend Magill â vicar of Trinity, their local church â was coming to the end of the service. âTherefore O Lord, we commit thy servant's body to the ground,' he droned. âEarth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust, in sure and certain hope of resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christâ¦'
Then it was over. A couple of men began shovelling dark soil into the grave and the crowd of black-clad mourners moved away. The Reverend came up to shake Ma's hand. âA fine turn-out today, Mrs Fleming,' he said. âBut that's no surprise. Your Robert was always a well respected man.'
âAye, so he was,' said Ma. She looked at Billy and he quickly lowered his gaze. Sometimes he felt she could see right inside his mind. âYou'll be coming back to the house for some tea and cake, Reverend?' she went on.
âOf course,' said the Reverend. âIt's kind of you to ask.'
Ma, Billy and the girls went home in the undertaker's carriage that had brought them. Mabel stopped crying, so fascinated was she by the horses, a pair of coal-black stallions with black feather head-dresses.
Billy stared out at the terraces of red-brick houses. His Da had been a well respected man right enough, but he had also been a difficult man to live with. Especially if you were his son and didn't want to follow the path he had chosen for you.
Da had been a fitter at the Harland and Wolff shipyard, a skilled man, and he'd said it was the best job in Belfast. He'd started as a fourteen-year-old apprentice and couldn't understand why Billy didn't jump at the chance to do the same. They had argued, and Ma had tried to make peace between them, but there could only have been one end to their quarrel.
Two months ago, on the day he'd turned fourteen, Billy had left school and started at the shipyard.
Ma had laid the table in the parlour before they had left for the funeral. As soon as they were indoors she uncovered the cakes and sandwiches.
âWill I be pouring the tea, Ma?' said Billy, keen to help.
âYou most certainly will not,' said Ma, giving him a stern look. âYou're the man of the house now, Billy. Your job is to welcome our guests.'
Someone was already knocking at the door, and for the next half hour Billy was kept busy ushering people in until the small house was packed. There were aunts and uncles and cousins galore, friends of the family and Da's workmates and plenty of people Billy didn't know from Adam. They all murmured their condolences to Ma then stood talking to each other in hushed voices.
Da's workmates stayed in the hall and ended up sitting on the stairs. They reminded Billy of a picture he'd seen at Sunday school, a line of angels ascending to heaven. But Da's workmates were no angels, they were hard like Da. How could they be anything else? Working in the
shipyard was dangerous and they risked their lives every day. Da had been hammering rivets fifty feet up the side of a hull when the plank he was standing on had given way.
âHave you not got anything a wee bit stronger, Billy?' said one of the men. It was strange to see them in their Sunday best and not their caps and working clothes and heavy boots. It was even stranger not to hear them continually swearing and cursing and taking the Lord's name in vain. âWe can't give your Da a proper send-off with nothing to drink but tea. Did he not keep a bottle hidden from your Ma somewhere? Find it for us, there's a good lad.'
âI'll see what I can do,' said Billy, and headed for the scullery. He was used to being given orders. For the last two months Da and his workmates had sent him on errands all over the shipyard, many of them practical jokes. Not that he'd minded being told to ask at the stores for a left-handed bolt wrench or a packet of skyhooks, even though such things didn't exist. He had been more worried by the fact that everything in the shipyard terrified him.
Da had sometimes taken him to the shipyard when he was younger and it had always reminded him of other pictures he'd seen at Sunday school â those of Hell. The shipyard was a place of sound and fury and constant movement, of sudden showers of sparks and clanging steel and men having to do ridiculously dangerous things as a normal part of their jobs.
Da and his workmates made light of it and told black jokes about men being crushed unexpectedly or mistakenly sealed into tiny compartments at the bottom of hulls. Billy had listened, taking it all in, and a small, frightened voice inside him had said,
I will never be brave enough to work in this place
He couldn't have admitted that to Da, although Da had eventually guessed how he felt. Da had taken him to one side and said that everyone was scared at first, but he just had to get over it and not let himself down in front of the other men.
Billy had said nothing, and knew he would never be the man his Da wanted him to be.
What was going to happen now? He hated
the idea of staying on at the shipyard, but he hadn't talked to Ma about it, and with Da gone they might need his wage to help support the family. What else could he do, anyway?
Mabel popped up and pulled his sleeve. âMa wants you, Billy,' she piped.
Billy sighed. Apparently Ma could read his mind through several walls and a whole crowd of people. He turned round and headed for the parlour. It looked like Da's workmates wouldn't get their hands on his whiskey just yet.
Ma was sitting on the best sofa with the Reverend Magill. He was sipping tea, a plate of crumbs balanced on one knee. âThe Reverend wanted to see if you're all right,' said Ma, her eyes telling him to
stand up straight and behave
âIt's a hard thing for a boy to lose his father, Billy,' said the Reverend. âBut at least you have your mother and sisters and a job with good prospects. You must be proud to know you'll be following in your father's footsteps.'
Not if I can help it, thought Billy, seeing in his mind a picture of Da walking along that plank and falling. âI'll do my best, Reverend,' he said.
âIt must be a grand time to be working at the shipyard,' said the Reverend. âThe big ship is a wonder, so it is. You can see it ten streets away.'
âGrand, yes,' said Billy. He did feel proud to be working on the big ship, as everyone called it, even if he only did lots of fetching and carrying.
âAnd unsinkable, at least according to the newspapers,' said the Reverend. âMind you, anyone who knows his classics might call that
Billy hadn't a clue what he meant. The Reverend often came out with stuff that went over his head. âThe ship's near finished. Then it's sea trials.'
âI know,' said the Reverend. âI hear they've already taken on some crew. Tom Gibson's son has signed up and he's not much older than you.'
Billy stared at him, then glanced at Ma, their eyes meeting before he looked away.
âWell, thanks for the tea and cake, Mrs Fleming, but I must be off,' the Reverend went on. âI'll see you and your family next Sunday.'
âFetch the Reverend his hat, Billy,' said Ma.
Billy saw the Reverend out. But all he could think of was what he'd just heard. Maybe there
something else he could do.
Maybe he could get a job on the Titanic.
Reverend Magill had been wrong about one thing, Billy thought as he left for work the next morning. You could see the big ship more than ten streets away. Over the last three years the Titanic had slowly risen beneath a framework of huge gantries until it was a mountain of iron and steel that dominated the city's skyline. From a distance the men working on it looked like ants.
At the end of his street Billy joined those men, a tide of Harland and Wolff workers heading for the shipyard. They were happy, pleased to be in work, proud such a great ship was being built in their city. The Titanic had
kept all sorts of trades busy â fitters and welders and platers, of course, and carpenters and decorators and upholsterers since the internal fitting out had begun.
Billy yawned and rubbed his eyes. He had passed a restless, sleepless night, wondering what kind of job there might be for him on the Titanic. It went without saying that the ship would need lots of sailors and stokers for the huge engines. But Billy had heard about the fancy restaurants and beautiful luxury cabins and he hoped there would be better, safer jobs for boys his age.
The tall wrought-iron gates to the shipyard were wide open and Billy went through with everyone else. However, instead of turning to the left and heading in the usual direction, he turned right and made for the long red-brick building that housed the offices. He pushed open the door and went inside.
A polished marble floor stretched before him. Billy walked across it to a wooden counter. A man was leaning on it and writing in a register. âExcuse me,' said Billy. âWhere are they signing on crew for the Titanic?'
The man pointed his pen at the stairs without looking up. âThanks,' said Billy. He climbed the stairs to a landing where a pair of double doors led to a large hall.
Half a dozen tables stood round the walls, men in dark blue uniforms sitting behind each one. There were chairs in front of them for the men being interviewed. More men and a few boys sat on chairs in the middle of the hall, most in caps and working clothes, others in smarter outfits.
Billy was in his working clothes. He hesitated for a moment, then sat beside a boy in a suit.
The boy looked Billy up and down with a smirk and turned to a man on the other side of him to whisper something. They both laughed.
âNext!' called out the man behind the nearest table. The boy in the suit was whispering to his friend again, so Billy stood up and went first. He glanced round as he sat down and saw the boy in the suit glaring at him.