Authors: Nicola Pierce
he twentieth of April 1910 is a day that I can never forget. The only thing I can't remember is exactly what day it was. It definitely wasn't a Sunday because that was my only day off from my job at Harland & Wolff's shipyard in Belfast. And it wasn't a Saturday either, or else I would have finished in the early afternoon, as Saturdays were just half-days. Saturday was also the day we got paid, when the line out the door of the accounts office was longer than the massive ship I was helping to build.
Nevertheless, I remember everything else about that day. For instance, I got up, as usual, at 5:45 a.m. and put back on the clothes I had worn the previous day, which I had left on the floor beside my bed, ready and waiting to be picked up again. After that, I made my way, quietly as possible, so as not to disturb my mother, down to the kitchen, stretching my legs to overstep the creakiest part of the stairs.
On winter mornings I needed to light a candle and even put on my old jacket because downstairs was always so chilly at that hour. Fortunately, the mornings were a lot brighter in April. On the whole, I didn't mind the early start, though even I had to admit it was easier to get up when the sun was already in the sky and the birds were singing loudly and, so it seemed to me, much more cheerfully than in December or January.
In the kitchen I threw cold water over my face and dried it with the tea towel, something I only did when it was safe to do so. Then I cut myself a thick slice of bread, carelessly covered it with jam, and began to eat as I took the lunch my mother left for me, jamming it into my jacket pocket. Her never-ending sadness over my father's death, along with her constant dislike of me, didn't stop her from making the cheese sandwich. In fact, it meant a lot more to me than I realized at the time, that she continued to make it; that and washing my work clothes on Saturday evenings, after I went to bed, were the only things she did for me now.
I left the house still chewing on my bread. It seemed important to both of us that I be gone before she got up for her factory job. To be honest, it was a relief to shut the door behind me and join the crowd of workers heading in the same direction, to the shipyard, where I could forget about my mother's unyielding gloom and my sometimes utter loneliness for the family we used to be with Da.
Three years had passed since he died and I already felt a whole lifetime older than the child I used to be. He had gone fishing in a storm, with his friend, Daniel, in a flimsy rowing boat that must have completely collapsed under the battering of waves and angry winds. Nothing was ever found, at any rate, of either the little boat or its two passengers.
At 15 years of age I was one of the youngest of this army of employees and maybe I was one of the proudest too. It was Da's brother, my Uncle Albert, who got me the job. He was one of the draftsmen and spent his day in a huge, open room, standing over the longest desk I've ever seen. It was here that the ships we built were first sketched out with all the complicated mathematics and line-drawing. Uncle Al would tell me that he hoped one day to be able to send me to college to learn his trade, but I much preferred working on the ships themselves, being up close to them as they took shape in front of me.
That morning, just like any other, I kept my eyes focused over the roofs of the neighbours' houses for my first glimpse of
. I couldn't help it; every time I caught sight of her my heart would jump just a little. She wasn't alone; on her right sat her sister, the
, who was the older of the two, work having started on her a few months earlier. Therefore, she looked like a proper ship, while
was mostly still a skeleton, with just the bare bones, ribs, clavicle, and femurs on show. But
would be the greater one: the biggest, heaviest, most expensive ship ever to be built in the whole world. As Charlie, my boss, would say, “We're making history, boys, imagine that!”
The nearer I got to the shipyard, the larger the crowd grew. Something like 20,000 men worked at the yard, though not all at the same time. I worked the day shift with Charlie and the others, while at night you could see the hundreds of torches swarming all over the two ships as the night shift took over.
“Sammy, over here! Look at him, Ed; he's the only lad I know who smiles his way to work.” Charlie's curly black hair was sticking out at all angles from beneath his dirty, soft cap, which was always pushed that far away from his forehead it was a wonder it never slid off â reminding me of how my father used to wear his.
“Aye, well it's a lot better than having to look at your miserable mug of a morning.” Ed always had something smart to say, no matter how early it was.
This was a typical greeting from my workmates. They were the two riveters in our squad and I was their catch-boy. The riveters were the kings of the shipyard and one day I hoped, to Uncle Al's mild disappointment, to be just like them. It wasn't an easy job and I suppose there was plenty of truth to Al's warning that I'd be “as deaf as a lamppost by the time you're 25.”
Jack, always the last to arrive, was the heater-boy. Two years older than me, he was the most unambitious person I had ever met, but he was also one of the most likeable. He sidled up to us, a lazy grin on his broad freckled face, hands in pockets: “Mornin' all!”
Ed nagged him mercilessly, doing his utmost to unsettle Jack's yawning self-confidence. “Hmpphh! Afternoon, more like. What happened this time? You couldn't eat your kippers fast enough or maybe your butler overslept?”
Jack, who was never serious about anything, was more than happy to answer Ed's silly questions: “If you must know, I had to escort a very nice girl to her place of work.”
As usual, Ed refused to let him have the last word, “Well, from now on have her escort you here instead.”
We joined the thousands that stood outside the shipyard's green gates. It was Ed who decided that we meet early before the gates were unlocked at 6:20 a.m. He had never forgiven Jack for arriving too late, one morning, to get inside the gates before they closed at 6:35 a.m. Jack had to wait outside on the street until 7:30 a.m., which was the next time they opened. This meant that he lost an hour's pay for himself and probably for the rest of the squad, as I ended up doing both his job and mine. Of course, this slowed us down and fewer rivets could be hammered into place, and since we got paid per rivet, every single second mattered.
The rivets are like big, stubby nails that bolt down the sheets of steel all over the outside of a ship's body. Charlie loved to explain what we did in one short sentence: “It's us who put the flesh on her.” Before the rivets were handed over by me, to be hammered into place, they had to be heated to the right temperature. Jack's job was to pluck the rivet out of the fire, using his tongs, only when it was a certain shade of cherry red, and roll it down the chute, to where I was waiting. Snatching it up with my own tongs, I would sprint as hard as I could, presenting the inflamed rivet to Ed and Charlie, whether they were on the ground beside me, or 60 feet up in the air.
On that April morning they took their places way up the side of the ship, as
's underbelly had already been coated over with steel. I'm sure I was very fit from all the running and climbing I did. Since the spring weather remained calm and sunny, I didn't have to worry about the wind catching me unawares halfway up the ladder, trying to knock me off my balance or the tongs out of my sweaty grasp.
Both the night and day shifts were made up of dozens upon dozens of rivet squads. I imagined that the noise of the constant battering against the rivet heads, from a thousand different hammers, could be heard for miles around Belfast, and maybe even miles out to sea. Now, that was something to consider. How far out could the banging be heard? The terrific noise was why so many riveters went deaf in later years.
That afternoon, during our lunch break, I asked Charlie if he thought the hammering could be heard as far as the coast of England, which I knew wasn't too far away, on the other side of the Irish Sea.
“Aye, surely, and those who hear it probably think it's the sound of church bells on the wind.”
Not one of us in the squad had ever been to sea. It didn't seem fair that we would make these ships with our bare hands but never get to sail on them once we were finished.
Many a Sunday I spent staring out beyond Belfast Lough, wondering what it would be like to be completely free of land, and to be standing, instead, on a grand floating island that moved from one side of the world to the other. Imagine that. Everywhere you look, no matter what side you are on, all you can see is water and more water. I wanted to know if the sky and sea ever met. When I stood down at the docks and looked out into the distance, I could just about convince myself that they did.
“What in God's name is he daydreaming about now?” growled Ed. He was pulling on his after-lunch cigarette and staring at me in exasperation, making Charlie laugh and Jack's grin even wider than usual. They all waited expectantly while I blushed the perfect shade of cherry red, I'm sure.
Shyly, I shrugged my shoulders and offered up my thoughts to them. “I was just thinking, wouldn't it be lovely to be able to go with her when she leaves?”
Only Charlie knew who I was talking about. Ed, however, got the wrong end of the stick and was a little shocked. “What? You have a girlfriend already and you didn't tell us? You're a bit too young to be getting so serious, don't you think?”
Jack added his bit, more than likely just to annoy Ed, “If he's big enough, he's old enough.”
“No, no, I meant
.” I pointed to
, causing Jack to roll his eyes toward the sky. Ignoring him, I turned to the older men, to plead my case: “Wouldn't you like to leave here, just for a while, and see the world from such a magnificent ship, and get a look at the passengers, to see where they're going and why?”
Both men took a second or two to think about this and then they both nodded, although Ed was quick to say, “Just for a while, mind. Belfast will always be home to me.”
Charlie was typically more expansive. “Imagine going first class; it would be like living all day, every day, in the best hotel in the world. I've always fancied seeing America myself. Is that where you'd like to sail to, Sammy, take in the bright lights and tall buildings of New York City?”
“Maybe. I suppose, but I also think I'd be happy enough to just stay on board her for the rest of my life and never have to live in a house again.”
Ed stubbed out his cigarette as the buzzer sounded out for us to return to work. “Daft bugger! Just be careful what you wish for, hey? That sounds a bit silly to me.”
We packed up our things and headed back to our individual posts. Ed couldn't resist bellowing a last instruction to me before he and Charlie began to climb the ladder: “Just keep those rivets coming and maybe you'll make us all rich enough to come with you on your lifelong voyage. Ha! Ha!”
Ed always laughed louder than anyone else at his own jokes. In fact, he didn't care if nobody else laughed at all.
“You should never tell him anything important” was Jack's parting shot as he headed off in the direction of his furnace.
The next couple of hours passed quickly enough. I tried my best to keep count of how many rivets I delivered but, as usual, I lost count after 12 or so. I did have a strange moment when I was coming back down the ladder, in the late afternoon. I thought someone was calling for help, but I must have imagined it. It would have been impossible. Even if somebody was hurt â and I did take a few precious seconds to look around me, but could only see men and boys hard at work â there is no way I would have been able to hear them. I forgot about it as soon as the next boiling rivet rolled down to be collected.
Ed and Charlie were moving farther and farther up the ship and they both look pleased with our performance rate. I picked up the rivet, with the tongs, and ran to the foot of the ladder. The sweat was running down my back, causing, at least, a certain coolness as long as I kept moving. It was only when I was standing still that the heat was suffocating. As I climbed, a flash of movement or colour caught my eye. A dog? I was quite high up; maybe it was just a rat in the ship's belly. We had to chase them off from time to time, rats the size of small dogs, although they would rarely show themselves this late in the day. Ach, it was nothing. The heat must be getting to me. I would ask Charlie for a quick mouthful from the bottle of water he kept at his side.
Suddenly I heard barking as clearly as if a dog were at my feet. I stopped climbing, to catch my breath. The barking was loud and frantic, confusing me as I watched only men alongside me, beneath me, and above me. Where on earth was it coming from? My heart was pounding from all the exercise and from something else as I became aware of the distance between me and the ground. For the first time I felt a little queasy at the sight. It made me feel cold and shivery, as if I was coming down with the dreaded flu.
I longed to scream at the invisible dog to shut up. Then again, maybe the barking was inside my head. One thing was certain: I needed to get off this blasted ladder, and I needed both hands to do so. I let go of my tongs, allowing it and the glowing rivet to crash below, and began to creep downward, shutting my eyes in a drastic effort to calm myself, feeling for the step below me with my trembling foot. However, my hands were clammy, even wet, and I couldn't, wouldn't, trust them to keep me safe so I brought my foot back to the original position, with some relief. I was stuck, once more, unable to move up or down.
The only thing I could think to do was call for help. Clinging blindly to the ladder, I shouted out, praying that someone would notice me. Only I couldn't hear my voice; instead I heard a whole lot of other calls for help. Babies were crying, not one but hundreds. What was happening to me? The dog kept barking and all these voices were swirling around and around me, making me dizzy;
help us, please help us, somebody help us