APPRENTICES Grimsby c.1880 Consigned to the hellbound lurching of smacks, we were a back street surplus, a poorhouse dross with tainted blood. Worth less than slaves or cattle that have to be bought or reared, we were the spillage of couplings in damp infested rooms. A lost brood of liars and thieves, predisposed to mischief, we were damned from the moment our lungs cleared – swaddled in filth and howling. Hollow chested, intractable, we were unfit for a uniform or even a grave on some frittering ledge of the empire. So fetched up here instead in this port of outlaws, signed over to masters whose pockets jangled coin, but soon grew intolerant of stubborn mumblings and fumbled attempts at fourteen to match the skills and muscles of men. For each God-bothering skipper there were plenty more who’d bait us or look the other way when deckies, cooks and mates tried to tame us with ‘good natured ribbing’ that always went too far: their mock ‘executions’ and acts that ‘never happened’. We came in our thousands to learn the value of a rudimentary trade, with droves absconding to the haven we found in Lincoln Gaol: written off, released. Others perished hauling lines, or slipped from the rigging, barely missed, their details logged in a spindling script. HOMEWARD The slow haul back you think of little else but a stamping ground less bleak than Faroes, Fair Isle, Viking, but still have work to do. Scouring, swabbing and sluicing down the gangways, decks and quarters, you grease moving parts, while all things that shift and roll are stowed away, until there’s nothing out of place to snag the agent’s curmudgeonly gaze, or give him scope to knock back your wages… With a lathering of cheap carbolic soap, some aftershave and a slap of Brylcreem you’ll scrub up yourself, good enough at least, with cash on hip and a clean shirt, for the tarts that shoal in shadows around Riby Square or come across for trade in the warm lee of certain boozers – The Kent Arms, The Humber, the fractious dives where ale flows freely and mind-numbing gregariousness absorbs the wad you’ve slaved for; and while you’re flush you’ll pull her in, some girl that’s caught your eye – her hands softer than braiders’ hands, but in their way as skilful. DRINK He has a way with a pint that hints at who he is. It starts as the ale is drawn, his eyes moving from the barmaid’s chest to her grip on the polished wood of the pump. Along the tilted side of the glass, the liquid rises as if spelling danger, or re-establishing an equilibrium, while the over-lively froth gushes forth like loose talk before it drains into the slops; and when the measure’s attained, with a small headspace left, she sets it up on the counter for him to assay. He pauses briefly, holds it up, then gives it a quarter turn, staring into it like a talisman, or the dark mirror that shows him what he needs to see. TRAWLERS Gale-battered survivors of distant water, they trawled a featureless nowhere to make ends meet. Enduring iron cold and routine extremes of oceanic storm, they hove past torpedoes, mines, gunboats. Sweeping channels to keep them clear for North Atlantic convoys, they netted scrap for years, ending up as pawns in Cold War, Cod War, and scuppering deals. Holding their own against the worst that arctic skies and deep swells muster, they came to grief on a creeping tide – twelve miles, fifty and then two hundred… While here’s one that’s found its anchorage beyond breakers’ yards, where unindentured boys with rods fish for tiddlers and the Sainsbury’s trolley, sunk for a lark, may still one day be salvaged.