They’re Getting Help by David Clensy

They’re getting help

Billy opened his eyes. For a moment he couldn’t remember a thing. He felt nothing, except an ebbing peace that had lasted for perhaps a few seconds, perhaps an eternity. From the gloom, the sheer cliff face of the steel ship loomed above him. High up, he could see the rickety ladder, twisted against the hull, from where it had thrown him like a bucking horse.

It’ll be alright, Billy told himself. They’ll get help any minute.

The silence seemed interminable, though it must have only lasted a matter of seconds. Billy didn’t move a muscle. He lay on his back looking up at the ship. How awkward; how impotent it looked out of the water. He felt strangely calm. Confused, but calm. He was no longer falling. He was on solid ground. Then the voices began. Panicked shouts from the sky.

“Get help!” one man called to another, somewhere high up on the deck of the ship. There were footsteps running across the yard.

Billy lay still. He thought back to the moment he had opened his eyes that morning in the cold damp light before dawn. He had reached out and silenced the jangle of the alarm clock, and turned over in bed, unwilling at first to get out from his warm cocoon. He had drifted off again for a moment or two, before his mother banged on the bedroom door. “Get up Billy!”

He was late. You only had to be a minute late and you’d be sent home. His mother would kill him. He ran through the kitchen, grabbed a crust of bread from the table, and bolted out of the door. The smog hadn’t yet risen. It smelt of ash and brought a grubby taste to his mouth. It was like running through a stained cloud.

Billy only brought home one pound, two shillings and six pence a week as it was. If the gates to the yard were closed on him, he would have a lot of explaining to do when he got home.

In his panic, he decided he didn’t have time to get on his bike, so ran with it down the hill. He ran and ran, past the faceless terraces of redbrick houses that stood shoulder to shoulder, watching him pass, withholding judgement. With each step, one of the pedals would thump against the shin on his right leg. He could feel it bruising as he ran.

“This is stupid,” he hissed at himself breathlessly after a few minutes, before stopping to jump on to the bike and pedalling away down the cobbled road. He felt the wind in his face. The sounds and smells of the waking town merged in the moment as he sped through it all, working the pedals hard.

The river was a constant, but invisible presence in the distance, as he cycled down the hill. It called him with its fog horns amid the gloom.

His mind came back to the present as he heard another voice shout. He didn’t catch the words at first. Then the sound of quick steps on a metal ladder, and suddenly he was not alone. The burly shape of Ronnie Baxter loomed over him, a tobacco-scented silhouette.

“Don’t worry lad,” he gasped, as he fought to get his breath back. “They’re getting help. Just stay where you are. Are you hurt?”

Billy lay still. “I don’t know,” he said at last. His voice didn’t sound like his own. “There’s no pain. I can’t feel anything.” Panic welled inside him. “Ronnie I can’t feel anything.”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry lad,” Ronnie said, and like an incantation: “They’re getting help. They’re getting help.”

Billy breathed deeply. Tears were welling in his eyes.

“I want to go home now Ronnie,” he blurted. “I just want to go home.”

“Don’t worry lad,” Baxter repeated. “Just lay still.”

The gate had been closing as he skidded around the corner with seconds to spare earlier that morning.

“Lucky bugger,” the sour-faced foreman muttered, as the iron hinges creaked shut behind him.

Billy had stopped the bike and was panting like a hunted animal, as he felt through his pockets, searching for his time-card to clock on.

Billy opened his eyes again. Had he lost consciousness for a moment? Ronnie Baxter still loomed above him, almost lost in the shadow of the ship.

“Don’t worry lad,” the older man muttered, more to himself than to Billy. “They’re getting help.”

Baxter removed his jacket, and placed it over Billy’s legs.

“I’m not cold Ronnie,” he said. His lower jaw had started to shake, which made speaking difficult. Baxter reached into his trouser pocket and pulled out a packet of Woodbines. He lit one of the cigarettes and put it to Billy’s lips. He took a long draw and watched the blue smoke rise above him, up towards the towering hull of the ship.

“Christ, it must be bad if you’re giving me one of your smokes,” Billy said.

Baxter laughed. “You’ll be fine lad. You’ll be fine.”

“I must have fallen a hell of a distance Ronnie,” he said at last.

“You did lad,” Baxter said. “God knows how you’re still talking.”

Baxter rubbed his forehead, as if trying to work out his next move. “You’re a Catholic aren’t you lad?”

“Yeah, why?” Billy said, sounding a little incredulous at the question.

“Doesn’t matter. Thought so, that’s all,” Baxter added with a knowing nod.

Billy looked up at the hulking mass of ship that seemed to hang above him.

“I’m not sure I need to resort to the Hail Marys just yet though Ronnie,” Billy laughed. But as soon as he had spoken it struck him as peculiar that even while he lay immobile on the brick floor of the dry dock he had felt the need to try to lighten the mood.

“Then again,” Billy added. “Maybe it wouldn’t do any harm.”

Baxter frowned, and glanced over his shoulder, as if appealing to the empty dock for another source of help.

A fragile smile flickered across Billy’s lips. “But an ambulance would be preferable right now to a set of rosaries,” he said, unconsciously trying to lighten the mood again.

He had been with Ronnie Baxter earlier in the day. His own sandwich had been left on the kitchen dresser, wrapped in a piece of the previous day’s newspaper. He had forgotten to pick it up in his haste to leave the house that morning. The canteen, with its long wooden benches, would be serving egg and chips, but Billy didn’t have any money on him. He had resigned himself to a hungry afternoon when he found Baxter sitting on a toolbox in one of the deserted workshops.

“Where’s your food?” Baxter had asked.

“It’s at home,” Billy said. “I left the house in a rush. Overslept.”

The middle-aged man turned his weather-worn face into the newspaper wrapping that rested on his own lap. He reached in and produced a sandwich, which he handed to Billy.

“You can have one of my butties lad,” he said, patting his belly as he added: “I need to lose weight anyway.”

“Cheers Ronnie,” Billy smiled, kicking at the dirt on the floor of the workshop as he ate. “I owe you one.”

“I’ll remember that next time a rat gets into my work bag,” Ronnie laughed. “Here you are, sit down for a bit,” he said, raising himself up from the toolbox with a theatrical groan. Billy nodded an acknowledgement and squatted down on the box as he ate.

The older man paced in front of him, lighting a cigarette and smoking it slowly as he gazed out towards the shaft of sunlight bursting through the open door at the other side of the workshop.

“It makes you sick anyway,” he said after a while.

“No, it doesn’t, in fact it’s quite a nice butty,” Billy quipped, between mouthfuls. He had a nervous habit of making little jokes whenever the mood seemed to darken.

But Baxter wasn’t listening to Billy. There was a high horse to be ridden, and he already had one foot in the stirrups. “To think of them,” he continued, working himself up as he spoke, “the big wigs – over there in the main building getting the full silver service. It’s all white tablecloths and waitresses for the managers you know.”

Billy nodded and smiled as he brushed the sandwich crumbs from his lap.

“I think I’d rather eat in here with you anyway Ronnie,” he laughed.

Billy opened his eyes. Baxter was holding out the Woodbine once again towards his mouth. Billy tried to lift his hand to take it, but he couldn’t move his arms.

“I can’t move Ronnie,” he said, panic rising again in his voice. “I can’t move at all.”

Baxter put the cigarette to the youngster’s lips.

“Take a drag,” he said. “Don’t worry lad. It’ll just be the shock. They’re getting help, I promise.”

Billy lay still and tried to calm himself with thoughts of home. What would his mother be doing now? Putting on a stew. Chopping the veg. His mind wandered back to days on the beach when his father was alive. He could see his dad’s smile as he splashed Billy in the waves. He could hear his laughter. It was a crisp, clear sound. Not like a memory. More as if he was back there with his dad on the beach.

Then the smell of Baxter’s cigarette clouded his memories once again. Baxter had put the cigarette to his mouth, and he took a long, slow drag from it.

The afternoon had started well enough. He had carried the toolbox for Baxter up on to the ship, dodging the sparks fanning out from the welder’s arc as he skidded across the silver worn deck. The high crane creaked as it lowered a nervous load down to a rigger waiting deep in the bilges.

Baxter had followed him at a leisurely pace and Billy had a moment or two of grace, to turn and look out at the river, with its perpetual movement, the brown-grey mountain ranges of waves that seemed to stretch as far as he could see into the distance.

Below, the riveters’ hammers were raging against the echoing hull. Baxter arrived panting, dabbing the sweat from his brow with an old grey handkerchief. He held out a hand to take the toolbox from the youngster.

“Cheers for that lad,” he coughed. “We’re none of us not getting any younger.”

The memory of Baxter’s coughing brought him back to the present with a jolt. That’s when he felt for the first time that he and Baxter were not alone in the shadows of the dry dock. There were others, watching silently; nervously. There was a sense of concern around him; a sense also of foreboding. Those who had come before. Others who had fallen – who had slipped from other ships, stumbled from other ladders, lost in their own moments of panic. He could just about hear their whispers.

Billy swallowed hard and tried to focus on the imposing hull of the ship, rather than on the shadows beneath it.

“I’m scared Ronnie,” he whispered.

“I know you are lad,” Baxter muttered. “I know you are. They’re getting help. They are getting help.”

As Billy lay there, he was suddenly consumed by the sensation that his mouth was filling with saliva. But he couldn’t find a cough within his throat to clear it. He gasped with a new kind of panic in his expression, as if he had fallen overboard in a stormy sea rather than on dry land.

“Calm down, calm down lad,” he could hear Baxter pleading.

Billy lay there on his back, gasping like a fish out of water. Baxter held his shoulder, looking always over at the metal ladder that led down into the dock. “They said they were going for help,” Baxter muttered to himself. “Where the hell are they?”

“They’ll be here soon,” he whispered to Billy. “They’re getting help.”

But Billy’s head was spinning. The world was turning hazy around him. The ship was now a mere shadow. Baxter was reduced to the shape of his shoulders. Then even the whispers of those who had come before were silenced. There was a ringing in Billy’s ears, which swelled rapidly into a droning noise, and gradually Baxter’s words were fading; echoing; reverberating; increasingly indecipherable from the hum in his head.

“They’re getting help,” Billy told himself. “Any minute now.” He lay a while drifting in and out of consciousness. The sound of the river lapping in the distance merged with the sound of harsher waves crashing within his head. Gulls crying overhead merged with the whistling scream of the hum.

Billy opened his eyes. Through the wall of internal noise, he realised he could hear steps hurrying towards him. They echoed across the floor of the dry dock. Out of the corner of his eye he could see the old priest approaching, clutching a Bible in one hand and a black leather case in the other. A new terror surged through him. The help had arrived.

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