Hilty watched his knuckles glow white as the vibration of the rivet gun gave way to the prickling creep of a traveling numbness. His fingers and arm stung like his eyes and his ears rang louder than morning, and he paused before the next rivet.
As as he did, his body anticipated the end of the day and tried again in vain to sweat a coolness against the heat of molten metal and the stifling air of the monotonous machinery.
He took a now damp rag from his belt and cleared his forehead and wiped his eyes as he scanned the factory floor of the greased and glistening one hundred men that pushed and levered, drilled and sparked and were lost in plumes of hissing steam.
Some were hidden behind visors of the reflecting red of furnace fury as it hypnotically opened its metal jaws and spewed its product to the awaiting assembly. Others, the lucky ones who were further down the chain, received the metal almost cold and pressed it to shape and popped it with rivets from heavy drills, the bulging biceps of one arm identifying their position in the shipyards hierarchy.
Hilty stuck the rag back into his belt buckle and finally, through wiped eyes and from a cooler station, he spotted The Body through a lull in the venting steam.
The tattoo of the eagle that adorned Hilty’s massive bicep expanded its wings as he waited for The Body’s to look at him and then bent his arm up and down in a mimed, chain-pulling action, of the end of day horn.
The Body shook his head in a negative and smiled, and then the horn blasted, shrill and long from the mezzanine galley above and Hilty winked at The Body, who gave him a disgusted nod of exasperation and a two fingered expletive in response.
Hilty would eventually make a mistake with the time, but it wouldn’t be until later.
The horn ceased but the steam continued hissing as it released its pressure, and the decibels dropped appreciatively as tools were rested and levers stalled and the rush of quiet but smiling, tired workmen, buoyed with the adrenaline of Saturday night, began to queue beside the pieces of part built hull and anonymous metal as they snaked their way to the time cards and the clock that punched them out.
The Body punched out first and opened his shirt to the cold of the shipyard night as he lifted his face to the moon that shone down from above the imposing gantry’s of Samson and Goliath, the iconic cranes that dominated the Belfast skyline and reminded its citizens of more peaceful days when the world watched on and Harland and Wolff built the biggest and best marine engineers could design.
He threw his bag to the dock and his denim jacket over a bollard that once moored the Titanic, before she was finsihed and then released down the gargantuan slipway and into the hands of an errant captain, and took a cigarette from his box of Benson and Hedges.
He nodded to departing workmen as he cupped his match against the sea winds and shivered as his wet shirt stuck to his cooling skin. He boyishly smiled and accepted the taunts that were thrown in the spirit of camaraderie the workers intended as they filed by, to the gate on the east pier as they merged with the incoming nightshift of less upbeat mood.
‘Hey Body, cover that bony rake of a chest before the sea gulls get ye’
‘Hey Body, turn sideways and I’d mistake ye for that fag ye have in your gob’
‘Hey Body, watch that crack there, ye might fall through it’
He pressed ‘play’ on the tape deck he carried in his inked canvas bag and listened to the Bay City Rollers warbling ‘Bye Bye Baby’. The Body inhaled the tobacco deep into his young lungs and waited.
‘Howse life treatin ye’, he could hear Hilty holler to one of the scaffold crew working on the 330,000 tonne merchant ship currently in dry dock and nearing completion, the biggest ship of 1975 but still to be named. The crash of the sea, the whistle of the wind, and a large element of pure disinterest on The Body’s part, prevented him from knowing or hearing the response to Hilty’s question, the question he never stopped asking. He had more on his mind tonight and wished Hilty would hurry up and stop his yakking with the punching-in night shift.
“Did ye see that fella on ‘Top of the Pops’ last night, spittin image of you he was” one of them called to Hilty.
“Let me guess Showadywaddy?, heard that one before, great for the women on a Saturday night let me tell ye boy” and they shoved each other playfully with the bravado of the young with nothing on their mind other than their immediate needs and instant gratification.
The Body was getting agitated with the wait and before Hilty was close enough has asked
“Did ye get it?”
Hilty put a hand to his ear
“Did you get it?”
“Get what?” Hilty asked with a grin as he dropped his bag next to the canvas of The Body’s, one different from the other only by the graffiti they had scribbled and the pictures they had penned on the rough grain of the khaki material.
Hilty howled at the moon above Samson and Goliath to the cheers of some of the departing workmen, and opened his shirt to the breeze. The Body was about to ask the same question again when Hilty held up his arm and produced the small silver foil package between tired forefinger and thumb.
“Don’t lose it, it was the only one he had and cost me 20 fags”
The Body rubbed it between his fingers and eyed Hilty with a suspicious glance. Reading his mind Hilty shook his head “No chance, I told them it was for me” and The Body accepted it hadn’t been tampered with.
They stood in silence as Hilty took one of The Body’s Benson and Hedges and the Bay City Rollers stuttered to a finish only for Hilty to rewind it back to the beginning and press play again. The Body nervously fingered the foil package he now had in his overall pockets and stood on the bollards, occasionally jumping from one to the other in the version of shipyard hopscotch they played at dinner break, jumping from bollard to bollard with only a one leg landing allowed and falling to the sea the ultimate failure.
Hilty watched his friend with a smile and threw stones at him while he jumped and flexed his arm as he felt the pins and needles of recirculating blood beat its way through.
By the time Box arrived the tape deck was playing ‘Bye Bye Baby’ for a third time and cigarettes had been extinguished with a flick to the water.
“What about ye?” Box asked in the vernacular of a Belfast greeting
“Aye grand” Hilty responded. “Have ye got the keys?”
Box dangled the ring with the hanging keys and a tag of worn leather.
“Car”, he fingered the large silver one,
“Baths”, he held up the little brass piece,
“And Bar” he grasped the long cylindrical key and smacked his lips together, “But we can’t go in there, too many people”
Box had a face of black dust and the accentuated whites of his eyes reflected the light from the welding sparks that now resumed as the nightshift kicked off. He heard the scrape of metal on stone as some other poor bastard took over the backbreaking shoveling of coal into furnace that Box had just finished, and he smiled at his night ahead.
At seventeen he was the youngest of the three by a year, and was the lowest on the yard-skill totem pole. But a boxing gym cunning and the instinct of a leader had allowed him punch above his status both inside the ring, and in the yard, and he was already the assistant shop steward in the growing union of ship workers, a position that gave him access to the crane drivers’ locker rooms and the keys he had just pilfered.
“Showers, lets go, and shut that thing, we’re not supposed to be here remember’
They intentionally sauntered towards the exit gate, Box leading the way and Hilty resting a heavy arm on The Body’s bony shoulder, calming him and slowing him down before he prematurely ran out of energy. They stuck to the shadows where the dock lights failed and within minutes had diverted their course and opened the old deck plank door. Soon they were naked and soaping their bodies in the cold green tile of the Supervisors Baths, cold water and silence until The Body cleaned his penis slightly too vigorously and yelped with the agony of plucked pubic hair.
Hilty finished first and dressed in his crombie and drainpipe trousers and searched through The Body’s canvas bag for smellies and wax. He splashed his face and as he put the Old Spice back into the bag he noticed the glass cube and the camera attached to it.
The Body squinted through lathered hair that hung over his face.
“Flash, ye stick it in the camera and twist it around, lets you take pics indoors”
Box tuned off his cold spray of water and Hilty threw him his towel. He twisted the flashcube and pointed the camera at The Body, naked and squirming.
He pressed the button and the intensity of the flash surprised them.
“Ah lads c’mon would ye, I’m bad enough as it without you two acting the maggot”
“Just takin a picture of the last night of the virgin” Hilty said as Box dried his hair and laughed at his friend. He lightly punched Hilty in the arm.
“Leave him alone, he’s nervous. Hey Body, maybe you should pull one off before we go, keep ye goin longer later on tonight like”
“‘Ye think so Box?”
Hilty and Box laughed louder than they intended and had to cover their mouths over the giggles that escaped. They flicked towels to The Body and made him jump around naked, finally telling him to hurry up and get dressed and shut up his questions.
As The Body began drying himself Box combed his own long hair and put on his bell-bottomed jeans with the tartan turn-ups and belt buckle shaped like a silhouetted lady. He used the Old Spice and popped a fag behind his ear as Hilty finished his grease back of hair and pulled up his metal stringed tie around his thick neck, his crepe wedged teddy shoes adding inches to his already substantial height. Box tied his Dr Martin boots with white laces and he was almost finished when The Body held up two pieces of underwear.
Box and Hilty stared at him. A pale skeleton of a virgin boy with long fair hair and red angry blotches around his groin from too much scrubbing, dancing from toe to toe on the cold tiled floor and a helpless look in his searching eyes.
He cut a pitiful figure and his friends looked on in silence, ridicule dancing upon their tongues and protective friendship swelling within their hearts.
Box finally nodded to the pair on the left and quickly turned away.
Hilty took some tomato ketchup sandwiches from his bag as they waited for The Body to finish his never ending beautification, and handed one to Box.
As The Body covered himself in enough talcum powder to choke the air Hilty swatted him and Box twisted the flashcube and took another picture.
“Lads I’ve only two more flashes left, would ye ever stop, there for later on after I’ve, ye know like”
“We’re goin” Box announced as he put the camera back and lifted up all three canvas bags from the tiled floor.
“I’m not ready for jaysis sake’, The Body protested, dressed only in a purple shirt and dangling gold chain hanging heavily from his skeletal frame, and a tight fitting pair of black y fronts. He tried to quickly shove his other leg into his white flared trousers.
“It takes two hours to get to their village, where is it again?”
“Portaferry” Hilty advised through another ketchup sandwich
“Aye, Portaferry, and I have to have this car back before yer man up there knocks off the nightshift. So if you want to ride this lassy of yours tonight ye better get a move on. By the way, are ye sure she’s a lassy?”
Hilty coughed his bread on to the floor as he laughed and The Body smiled as he closed his slim gold coloured belt buckle and slipped his foil pack into his pocket.
“Knockers like me sisters” he said as he pulled on his tight leather jacket.
“You’re a sick bastard Body” Hilty said as they eventually closed the old deck plank door and locked it as they had found it.
The Ford Cortina was easy to find in the sparsely populated shipyard car park and Box counted the spaces either side so he knew what space to repark it in. There were no arguments over who drove, Hilty and The Body didn’t know how to, and Box had the keys anyway.
“Anybody know the way?” The Body asked from the backseat as they waved at the sullen security guard at the gate, taking care to keep their face in shadow.
Box shook his head in annoyance and Hilty pointed through the windscreen.
“We’ll save twenty minutes if we head for the Shankill Road and we’ll get a turn for Strangford”
“Do I ever make a mistake with time Box?"
“What?’ The Body protested as Box shot him a look through the rear view mirror.
“I’ve never been there, she’s a pen pal for fuck sake, I don’t know where it is, that’s the postmans job”
Hilty put a tape into the car tape deck and cranked up the speaker as he rolled down the window and howled at the moon again and ‘Bye Bye Baby’ filled the air. He took off his crombie and threw it into the back.
“She better have those friends you promised, I’ve got a horn on me that would stop a bull”
Box muttered under his breath as Hilty rolled the window up and they turned in to the Shankill Road.
“What is it’ The Body asked, suddenly nervous at the tone the unflappable Box had used.
“RUC or Army?”
Hilty switched of the Bay City Rollers and counted three armoured cars of the British Army. He strained to see a land rover of the Royal Ulster Constabulary amongst them; too many lights polluted his vision. But then he saw a flashing blue strobe as an armoured Land Rover pulled on to the path.
“Looks like both, something must have happened”
“Aye there was a bomb here this afternoon, three British soldiers killed and a wee lassy comin home from school” The Body advised from the back.
Box spun around and Hilty grabbed the wheel in a hurry
“Why the fuck didn’t you mention that when we said we said we were going down the Shankill for Chrissakes, we’re in a stolen car ye stupid…”
Box turned back to the steering wheel and Hilty held up his hands in a gesture of calm.
“We’ll be fine, they don’t know its stolen, Body you keep your mouth shut when were stopped ye hear?”
The Body stayed silent and their Ford Cortina slowed to a crawl as Box dipped his headlights as the road sign told him.
He stopped the car and pulled the handbrake on. He put both of his hands on the steering wheel. Hilty leaned forward and put his hands on the dashboard, knowing the drill.
Two soldiers and two RUC moved from behind their APC, rifles propped into shoulders and temporarily pointed towards the ground. The two soldiers that approached the driver and passenger window raised them slightly, the other two, the RUC, went to the front and rear, one to read the registration number and report it back to their control, the other to search the boot of the car. Box hoped there was nothing in it.
“You. Roll your window down SLOWLY”
Hilty did as he was told.
“You. Now you roll your window down VERY SLOWLY”
Box did as he was told too.
“Howse life treating ye lads” Hilty attempted with a smile
“Are you being fucking smart with me boy?” the soldier pointing his rifle at Hilty shouted, spittle already formed on his mouth and Box could see fear and venom in his eyes. Boxed kept his hands on the steering wheel but leaned over slightly
“No he’s not, he says that to everybody, that’s why we call him Hilty – H. I. L. T. Y. – How is Life Treating You, understand?”
The soldier beside Box shoved the muzzle hard against his temple
“Are you getting clever boy? What’s your fucking name?”
Box knew the RUC constable in front of the car was now getting a name from his control, the name of the owner of the Ford Cortina.
“Sorry officer, we’re just going for a pint, just finished working down the yard”
“Do I look like a fucking officer to you boy?”
The boot of the Cortina was closed and Box heard the RUC constable give the all clear, the RUC in front received a cackle on his radio that Box couldn’t make out but then he seemed to nod all was fine.
Both soldiers dropped their rifles slightly towards the ground and Box felt Hilty breath out.
“Hey you in the back, what’s in the bag?”
The Body clutched his canvas bag tight with fear, the nervous energy of the entire day catching up with him and felt the sweat soak his shirt. He wondered how he would smell later on.
“Just stuff officer’
Box closed his eyes and waited for the soldier to berate him again for the ‘officer’ title, but it didn’t come.
“Empty it, SLOWLY”
The Body hesitated until both soldiers raised their rifles again and pointed them at his head.
“Do as they say, empty your bag Body” Box said and the soldier nearest him smacked him with the butt of his rifle, hard enough so Box felt a trickle of blood seep to his collar and he had to grip the wheel tight to stop his hands from moving.
The Body removed the Old Spice and put it on the seat beside him. He took the tape deck out and the soldier beside Hilty said
“SLOWLY, what’s that? hand it here”
The Body handed the tape deck over the shoulder of Hilty and the soldier immediately handed it off to the RUC at the front of the car.
‘Check it out’ he commanded.
The Body continued his decanting, his overalls, his dirty underwear, his denim jacket, some letters from the pen pal he was going to finally meet, and hopefully do more with, as she had promised. He then took out the camera. The soldier gestured for him to hand it over and The Body stretched his hand around Box’s head.
And then there was a blinding flash.
Box couldn’t see, and closed his eyes as he heard The Body say ‘aw shit’ and then the soldier shouted.
There was a momentary pause, milliseconds, and then Box felt the car move and air rush past his face followed by a loud bang in his ear. More bangs followed and he felt Hilty shove against him and some wetness hit his face and a smell of acrid smoke fill his nose. He thought he could hear the hiss of the steaming shipyard as the car seemed to deflate and more bangs rocked it from side to side. He had sharp pain in his right hand and felt more wetness hit the back of his head and he realised they were being shot at, the Cortina being riddled with bullets.
And then there was silence.
Box finally opened his eyes but there were no soldiers, just muzzles pointing from behind Armoured Personnel Carriers and smoke polluting the air. He turned to The Body lying back against the seat, his face was now gone and his pen pal letters were spread against the back window with pieces of his flesh and brain. His gold chain hung around his ear.
Hilty fell further sideways, his face now on Box’s lap, blood dripping from his mouth as he gurgled bubbles from his nose.
Box was confused, dazed, his ears ringing and his eyes stinging from the heat of the furnace.
“Hilty wake up, I have no more coal, no more coal for the furnace, what’ll I do?”
Hilty moved his head and opened his mouth, coughing blood into the air and bringing Box back to reality.
“Jesus fucking Christ, Hilty.. Hilty wake up”
Hilty opened an eye and grabbed Box by the collar, his Eagle expanding as he bent his arm.
“Box… it was…’
Hilty gasped for air
“Camera…Flash….mistake …but …they……cover…up…. put you …away”
Hilty gurgled some more.
The soldiers began to scream from behind their barricade.
Boxed opened the car door and the screams intensified as his hearing began to return. He realised the camera was in his lap, lying against the bloody mess that was his gasping friend.
Box looked back at the body of The Body as he shifted himself in the car. He hesitated as he saw blood roll to the little foil package in The Body’s lifeless hand.
Box kissed the head of his dying friend and his tears dropped to Hilty’s forehead.
“I can’t leave ye”
Box picked up the camera.
He twisted the cube to the last remaining flash.
He pressed the button.
The intense light sent the soldiers scurrying for cover behind their APC’s
And Box began his run
© Cathal 2010
I’ve been thinking about writing a series of stories exploring why the Irish left Ireland and travelled to countries afar. I began with The Segregated Fields of Aran and thanks to all of you that took the time to read it.
“Bye Bye Baby” is set in 1975, (300 years after the Segregated Fields of Aran) and explores another reason why many of us left.
This is an apolitical story, the ‘side of the fence’ the characters were on isn’t relevant, hence I gave them nicknames, actual names would only designate them from one side of the conflict or the other, as was the actual case during this period of history and to some extent still remains.
Needless to say, there were victims on ALL sides.
I apologise for the length, it took a hold of me like few other stories have, I don’t know why, I think it’s because of the friendship and the characters.
Sorry again for the length but it means I will be even more appreciative if, while you’re dropping by, you get a chance to read it.