– The Scavengers –

 

 

‘The journey of a lifetime’ was how the local travel agents described it.  ‘An opportunity never to be repeated’ was what they claimed in the glossy flyer that they had posted to households throughout Edinburgh.  And they were correct.  Early in August 1998, for the first time in her thirty years of sailing, the QE2 would be docking at Leith.  We could board her there and sail on her overnight to Southampton before joining her regular five-night cruise across the Atlantic to New York.  In New York, we could stay for a couple of nights at The Towers, the more exclusive part of the famous Waldorf Astoria hotel.  Finally, the pièce de résistance, we could return to Scotland on a specially chartered flight of Concorde.  The QE2, the Waldorf, Concorde – it was a not-to-be-missed, three-things-to-do-before-you-die-in-one opportunity.  Although it was still very expensive, the whole package was being offered at just a fraction of what it would cost us if we booked the cruise, the hotel and the flight separately; the price of a one-way Concorde flight alone was prohibitive to all but the super-rich.  What’s more, the QE2 would be practically on our doorstep; instead of the long, inconvenient journey down to Southampton that people normally had to endure before embarking, we would only need to take a fifteen-minute taxi ride to Leith Docks.  No complications, no hassle, no fuss.  We couldn’t resist, so we booked.

 

Only a week or so before the departure date, we received a letter from the travel agents informing us of a ‘change’ to the arrangements for boarding the QE2.  It turned out that for one reason or another Leith Docks would not be able to accommodate the QE2 after all.  The liner would be sailing further up the Forth estuary and would moor instead off Hound Point, a short distance from the Forth Rail Bridge at South Queensferry.  Passengers would now be required to assemble on the morning of departure at a hotel in South Queensferry, where they and their luggage would be checked in.  They would then be taken by coach to the Hawes Pier, from which they would be transported by ferryboat to the QE2.

 

Suddenly, our complication-free departure had become somewhat less so.  But what the heck.  The taxi ride to the hotel would be only slightly longer than one to Leith.  And South Queensferry – the Ferry, as it is known locally – was more than familiar ground.  In fact, I was brought up in the Ferry.  My dad is buried there.  And my mum.  And Patricia, my little sister who died as a baby.  Another of my sisters still lives there.  My three remaining sisters live close by, as does my brother.  I left the Ferry when I was nineteen to live in Edinburgh initially and then Fife, but I returned to the town fifteen years later when my first marriage broke up.  Only a few years after that, I met Alison, my second wife, with whom I began a new life in Edinburgh, where we’ve been ever since.

 

Now it seemed that the Ferry was luring me back one more time.  The hotel at which we had been asked to assemble was a reincarnation of the Forth Bridges Motel, where I had worked when I was still at secondary school, first as a cellarman and later, having lied about my age, as a barman.  Squatting below the giant framework of the Forth Rail Bridge, the Hawes Pier was an integral part of my childhood.  The stretch of rocky shoreline that begins there and curves eastward to Longcraig Pier was my summer playground, a place for skiffing stones and hunting jellyfish and catching crabs and lighting campfires during the long school holidays.  It was from the Hawes Pier, on countless occasions and in all weathers, that I, either on my own or variously accompanied by my parents, my siblings, our relatives, our neighbours or my friends, boarded the ferryboats for the crossing to North Queensferry.  And it was from there, on the day of the opening of the Road Bridge in 1964, that I watched in sadness as the last ferryboat service departed; some said that the spirit of the town died that day.  With so many memories associated with it, perhaps the Hawes Pier was a more fitting location than Leith Docks from which to embark on that ‘journey of a lifetime’.

 

 

Early on the first Sunday in August, Alison and I (and our luggage) duly travelled by taxi to the appointed hotel.  It was a blustery sort of day, with the sun making frequent, short-lived appearances from behind big, fluffy, fast-moving clouds.  After completing the check-in and customs procedures, we joined the noisy throng of excited fellow-passengers.  Their and our excitement was quickly blunted, however, when we were all informed that the QE2’s progress had been delayed and that there would be a wait of at least another two hours before we left the hotel.  There followed what seemed an interminable amount of moaning and muttering and milling about; some of the posh passengers even formed a committee for complaining to the travel agents about, among other things, the inadequacy of the hotel.  But at last the shout went up: the QE2 had been spotted coming up the Forth.  Virtually everyone promptly rushed outside into the huge public car park that adjoined the hotel.  Situated high above South Queensferry at the approach to the Road Bridge, the car park provided a panoramic view of the estuary and its two Bridges.  There, away to the east, gliding gracefully towards us, growing larger by the moment, was the majestic form of the QE2.

 

Shortly afterwards, our complaints forgotten for the time being, our excitement returned intact, we were all herded aboard a fleet of coaches, which sped down through the town and along the promenade to the Hawes Pier.  As Alison and I alighted from our coach, we noticed for the first time the large number of people who lined the promenade to catch sight of the QE2.  We saw another group of spectators directly opposite the pier; gathered round the wooden tables outside the Hawes Inn, their mission seemed to be to scrutinise the passengers as they streamed from the coaches and paraded down the pier to board the ferryboat.  So much for a fuss-free departure.  Like many of the other passengers, we were not pleased with this degree of public exposure, which, naturally, provided another ground for complaint by the posh committee.

 

But soon enough we were on board ‘Maid of the Forth’, the local ferryboat that on any other day would be operating cruises from the Hawes Pier to Inchcolm Island off the Fife coast.  Alison and I sat outside on the upper deck, our backs to the shore and the mob of onlookers, our faces set against the stiff breeze that swept along the estuary.  Looming high above us on our right was the series of immense granite pillars that marked the southern end of the Rail Bridge.  Between two of the pillars, we had our first clear view of the QE2 in all her length.

 

After a short wait, the ferryboat’s engines roared into life, their noise competing with the high-pitched chatter of the other passengers on the deck, and the boat set off in the direction of the gap between those same two pillars.  I turned round to take a last look at the shore.  The din behind me vanished suddenly and the brightness of the day faded to a murky grey.  The memories flooded in.  I was viewing the same scene as before – the same section of bridge jutting out over the sea on one side, the same length of pier on the other side, the same strip of seaweed-strewn shore sandwiched between them – but the scene had been transported to another Sunday in August forty years earlier.

 

 

It is early in the morning and overcast.  The tide is out, the shore now an expanse of black mud and wet, slimy rocks and glistening seaweed that slopes down to the far end of the pier.  Seaweed also clings to and envelops the now exposed feet of the granite pillars that straddle the shore.  It will be some time yet before the waves return to surround the pillars and the water is high enough for the first ferryboat service of the day to commence.  With no traffic on the road above and the town still asleep, there are no sounds, only the distant cries of the handful of gulls wheeling in the wide grey sky high above the estuary.  Soon, though, the silence will be shattered when the first northbound train thunders its way across the bridge.

 

Two figures, a man and a small boy, both clad in black, are picking their way through the mud, their backs stooped, their heads bent low.  The man is wearing a red kerchief round his neck and is carrying a small sack.  He is still young, barely in his thirties.  The boy, his son, is eight years old.  They are searching for coins which have been tossed into the Forth for good luck by train passengers crossing the bridge and which have then been washed ashore by the tide.  ‘Forth Bridge money’, it’s called; pennies usually, but also threepenny bits and sixpences, even florins and half-crowns on occasion.

 

You can tell that the boy hasn’t done this before.  Standing a few feet to the side of his father and slightly behind him, he watches the man carefully and then tries to copy his actions; looking underneath the rocks, lifting the fronds of seaweed and shaking them, scouring the mud for the tiniest glints of copper or brass or silver.  Suddenly, there’s a big grin on the boy’s face.  He has spotted the flash of a florin.  It’s there among those moss-covered boulders, at the bottom of a little pool of water left by the departing tide.  Wait, though.  In his haste to reach down for the coin, the boy slips on the wet moss and falls forward, his hands outstretched instinctively to lessen the impact of the fall.  His father is beside him in moments, helping him up, consoling him, examining the palm of his left hand.  One of the lines across the palm has opened up and is seeping blood.  The boy is crying now.  Speaking softly to him, the man takes off his kerchief and ties it tightly round the boy’s hand.  After a short while, the boy’s tears subside.  The boy says that he’s fine now, so they continue with their search for a while longer.  The man is not convinced, though.  He watches his son for some moments.  The boy has remained in the same spot since the fall, probably not daring to move again.  His clothes are wet and muddy.  The man is sure that the boy is shivering.  It’s time to go, he decides.  There’s a fair weight in the sack already.  It’s been a good morning’s work, a good haul.

 

Soon they’ll begin the trek back home.  The slow climb up the steps of Jacob’s Ladder.  The long trudge along the path that runs parallel with the railway line.  Then along Station Road and up the hill to their own street.  Feeling awkward in their muddy clothes, they’ll nod sheepishly to people they pass in the street; neighbours, dressed in their Sunday best, on their way to chapel.  Once they are home, the man will soak the coins in a basin of soapy water.  Later, he’ll scrub the coins with a nailbrush.  He’ll clean off the mud and the slime, but he won’t be able to remove the verdigris, the telltale blue-green signs of Forth Bridge money.  Plenty of it circulates in the Ferry; collected clandestinely like this morning, stained in the same way.  When he has finished cleaning the coins, the man will be chided again by his wife.  She has already scolded him for bringing back the boy soiled and hurt, and for showing up the family by parading their poverty in front of the neighbours.  Now she’ll complain about the money, as if it carries a stigma.

            ‘You can scrub it all you like, Derry,’ she’ll say sharply, her brogue accentuated by her annoyance, ‘but it’ll always look and smell of the Forth Bridge.’

 

The man will smile and shrug.  ‘I’m just trying to help,’ he’ll reply.  Then he’ll add, ‘There’s no shame in being poor, Mary’.

 

 

            ‘Are you okay, darling?’ Alison asked, touching my knee.

 

There were tears in my eyes.  I took her hand and squeezed it.  ‘I’m fine,’ I said.  ‘Just some old memories.  I’ll explain once we’re alone.’

 

I turned back to the shore.  The man with the red kerchief round his neck and the sack over his shoulder was still there, but he was like a ghost now.  He was waving to me and smiling that lopsided smile of his.  He was saying something, but I couldn’t hear his words above the hubbub behind me.  ‘Bon voyage,’ I think he was mouthing.

            ‘I’m sorry, dad.  Sorry for falling and cutting my hand,’ I wanted to shout, but the ghost had disappeared by then.

 

 

– o –

My Blog - writer's block
Foreword
Foreword
The Barman (2009)
Foreword
Synopsis
Synopsis