Son of the Mars

The sounds of The Mars linger in his head. They lurk in an unfathomable space in his brain, surfacing only occasionally: a clatter of heavy cutlery on the bottom of a porcelain sink; the early morning shriek of hungry gulls; the whisper of an iron plane as it glides through wood. They bubble up through grey water – these everyday noises – endlessly repeating on a loop. Over the years, he has packed his head full of other places and different people, attempting to erect a sound-proof barrier against the insistent blether from The Mars.

The Mars training ship looks ancient. Otherworldly, like something out of an adventure story. Nine-year-old Charlie McBride sits in an open cart by the shore on the Fife bank of the River Tay. To the north, the outlined city of Dundee lies so far in the distance that he finds it incomprehensible that it is the same place they came from this morning. The underside of his thighs rub bare against a splintered wooden seat and the skin around his knees is damp and mottled with cold. He stares at the black and white ship, imagining huge cannons fired on the barked orders of uniformed officers and scurvy-ridden, press-ganged men scrabbling up rigging to adjust the sails and keep the old hulk on course. In the forenoon of Thursday 18thFebruary 1909, Charlie attempts to re-fashion his punishment as an exciting voyage on the high seas. 

Mr Simons, who has travelled in the cart with Charlie and three other boys from Dundee, gets down from his seat and pays the driver. He gestures to the boys to follow him. Charlie grabs his meagre belongings, wrapped tightly in a piece of sacking and tied with a length of dark green webbing, and follows Mr Simons towards the water. They tramp along a pier as, behind them, cartwheels and horses’ hooves combine to make an inelegant turn, scramble through shingle, and finally clatter back onto the narrow main road. Mr Simons untethers a large rowing boat and climbs down, steadying himself and the craft by holding onto a ragged post sticking out of the water.

“In you get, lads. One at a time.” 

Mr Simons reaches up and helps the boys down into the boat, indicating where they should sit to get the balance right. Lastly, he sits down himself, lays his jacket over his lap, plants his feet hip-width apart and slides the oars into position.

“Push us off, son,” he says, nodding at a heavy-set boy at the back of the boat, “Give it a right good shove.”

It takes twenty minutes or so to row out to the ship. The Mars is anchored off Woodhaven Harbour near Wormit. All four boys silently watch Mr Simons’ forearms pulse back and forth as he works the oars. Charlie sits directly in front of Mr Simons, alongside a boy of about the same age as himself, while the two other, bigger boys sit on the narrower seats at either end of the boat. The muscles in Mr Simons’ wiry arms move as efficiently as pistons. The oars cut like blades through butter but heavy beads of sweat at Mr Simons’ temples betray the true extent of his effort. Meanwhile, the stationary boys shiver, as the air around them grows colder and colder.

As they near the ship, the dark wood of the hull seems to envelope them, blocking out the faraway city on the far shore until they are sandwiched between its blistered surface and the wide expanse of glassy water they have just crossed. 

Mr Simons rows slower, steering the boat alongside a rope ladder. He looks at Charlie.

“You need to climb up to the top, son. Stand up now.”

He takes Charlie’s bundle, unwraps it, and finds a worn, leather belt that once belonged to Charlie’s father. Mr Simons re-packages the belongings and makes a rudimentary backpack by tying the bundle to the belt and strapping it across Charlie’s body.

“Dinna worry McBride. Take your time and you’ll be alright.”

Charlie stands in the boat, his legs threatening to buckle and finds himself utterly unable to take a step forward. Mr Simons takes his hand and places it on the side of the ladder. The rope is huge, so thick that Charlie’s fingers cannot stretch to meet its width, but he holds on and begins to move.

“Keep moving. One step at a time.” 

Mr Simons stands behind him and cups Charlie’s shoulder.

“See the best way to do it, son,” he says quietly, “Is to look straight in front of you and think about the supper you’ll get the night.” 

At first, Charlie counts the steps but, as he gets higher, the ladder slips and sways beneath him and he finds it difficult to remember which number comes next. He hears his mother’s voice counting, teaching him numbers as she feeds the baby in their room at Quarry Pend, off the Cowgate. Charlie is four and his sister Nellie not long born, always crying for food or warmth or company. Her tiny hand forms a vice-like grip around Charlie’s offered finger and now he dredges up a similar strength, holding on to the damp, greasy rope, inching painfully upwards, until he finally reaches the top, where strange hands scoop him on to the deck. Bearded faces scrutinise him for a few moments until he is pushed roughly to the side while they turn back to the ladder and their next recruit.

Once they are all aboard, Captain Lawson delivers a cursory introduction and the new boys are taken below. A disorientated Charlie emerges an hour or so later, with a haircut and thoroughly scrubbed person, clothed in the ship’s uniform of tunic, long trousers and necktie. Extra clothes and other equipment are issued to him and stowed in a sack. Everything, including the hammock that will be his bed, is marked with a number. Two hundred and seventy-two. From the moment of admission, he ceases to be called by his own name and is always addressed by this number, even by his shipmates. They drop the hundred and contract syllables, until even boys who come from as far afield as Glasgow and Inverness pronounce the numbers in a heavy Dundonian accent. Twa-sna-twa is on this ship. Charlie McBride is not on this ship.  He is given into the care of a group of initiated boys, who take him to the dining room where tea, milk and biscuits fill his stomach but do not calm his nerves. 

In spite of the strange sensation of lying in a hammock, he sleeps all the way through the first night, but tears sting his face on waking. In the admissions ledger it is written that he is nine years of age, deserted by his father, has a mother who works at a mill and has an infant to support; he has been ill fed, is in rags, can neither read nor write, and is likely to become involved in petty crime. His previous character is described as uncontrolled and neglected. His height is four foot seven inches and his figure is stout with fair complexion, brown hair and hazel eyes. He wipes his face and tries not to think of his mother pushing cloths into gaping windows to stop the draughts.

Charlie soon learns that each Mars day is much like the next. Only the weather changes.

Friday, 6thJune 1912 and the boys leave the ship for their annual holiday at Elie. Charlie has been to Elie three times before and is looking forward to it. Seven days with no work, no lessons and no shipboard rations. He prays for good weather so that he can run across the pure expanse of Elie beach and plunge his bare feet deep into the grains of the earth. If he is lucky and the sun shines, everything will be tinder dry: the red brick of the granary store gifted to them by a benevolent local businessman; the striped bedding in their make-shift dormitories; the soles of their boots as they walk smartly to church on Sunday; the blushed stone of the harbour wall as it bakes their skin. 

Three hundred uniformed boys are ferried from The Mars and then march over twenty miles north to south through the burgh of Fife. They leave Woodhaven in the morning, and tramp via Guardbridge, Peat Inn, and Largoward, halting at an interval of rest at each of these places. 

At Elie, he watches holiday makers on the beach. Courting couples, groups of elderly ladies and gentlemen and families from the linoleum factories in Kirkcaldy and coal mining towns that pepper the landscape for miles around. These city dwellers arrive like refugees, desperate to jump into clean water but the Mars boys cleave to the land like an alien race, relishing their freedom to roam. Like spiders who have been carelessly swept down a plughole and have negotiated the precarious footholds leading back to the surface, the boys are determined to put as much distance between themselves and the sea as possible. Instead, they play all day and into the evening on the beach. Games are organised by the officers: sprinting, leap-frog, rounders, football. Football is the best as far as Charlie is concerned. He sometimes plays in his dreams, so much does he miss it aboard ship.

He remembers playing with other lads in Quarry Pend on days when he was sent out from under his mother’s feet and, later, on waste-ground behind factories when he should have been at the school. A makeshift ball thudding on cobbles, ricocheting off walls and trapped in a tangle of limbs and swear words. Knackered afterwards, they wandered through streets, scavenged at pubs for cigarette douts and came up with elaborate ideas as they sucked on the taste of smoke and residue of cheap alcohol. Feeling grown up they pilfered some lengths of rope from a cart in the High Street and sold them down the docks, jumped a queer fellow for the money in his wallet in an alley just off the Cowgate and graduated to thieving from shops and the open windows of villas on the outskirts of the city.

The football match at Elie is glorious. The boys are organised into two full teams and sweep across the sand, dribbling and passing. Using their Mars numbers to communicate, they attract curious glances from a crowd of spectators. 

“Ower here, twa-erry-seeven,” shouts Charlie

The ball glances off his foot and crosses the goal line. 

“Twa-sna-twa. Ye wee beauty!” 

For a few seconds, Charlie is ambushed by his teammates but they quickly spread out again, eager for the game to keep moving. He flexes his toes, gripping a strand of dry, knobbly seaweed so that it trails behind him as he returns to the melee. On board ship the hold often serves as a gymnasium and Charlie likes the drills and the chance to perform on the bars and the horse, but playing football on the beach at Elie is a lantern-slide entertainment come to life. 

He was Jonah in the belly of the whale. Patiently sitting it out. Waiting for deliverance and repenting for all he was worth. Keeping his nose clean, his head bowed, and singing every hymn they told him to. God had had the decency to spew out Jonah after three days and three nights. The Dundee authorities lacked the big man’s work ethic and took their time. Charlie was released from The Mars almost five years later, two days after his fourteenth birthday.

Quarry Pend pales in January sunlight and Charlie finds his mother and sister gone. The wife on the ground-floor tells him they left months since. Regardless, Charlie climbs the steps to the old room and pushes open the door. Inside he stands and stretches his arms up to the ceiling and then out to the sides, marvelling at how small the space has become. A piece of faded cloth that his mother stuffed into a gap at the window has worked loose and is balled up on the bed-frame. Charlie pulls it taut, releasing a cloud of acrid dust that fizzes in a shaft of light cutting through the gloom. He lays the cloth back down on the springs and stares at the pattern the elements have painted on it, tracing the protected lines of colour that remain, a secret map back to that which he has lost.

He leans against a damp, stone wall and takes papers from his inside pocket. A letter of introduction to a Mr Paterson, supervisor at the cooperage where an apprenticeship has been arranged for him and a similar letter addressed to a Mrs Coutts who has a room for Charlie to board in.  He folds both letters up again and returns them to the safety of his jacket. From behind his ear, he retrieves the farewell cigarette gifted to him by the harbourmaster at Woodhaven and lights it with a match from a box by the stove. He smokes in silence until he has no choice but to admit it is time to go.

©  Sarah Smith 2016