Cracking fires in small homes is where they return to at day’s end .Along the rivers-edge, stiff men with dejected faces ramble home from the docks – back to the comforting warmth of home, of the burning wood, of the charred coal and the musky scent that pollutes the winter months. In their weathered hands they carry slack bags now empty of the precious meals prepared by their wives that morning. But the hunger has grown back. In their bellies lies a void. And in their eyes a void lies too, darker and aching, gaping into their tired souls. Their voices, now sparse, cackle viciously, full of phlegm and cigarette smoke. One or two of the men leading the pack through the streets whistle sharp notes through the evening air, while others spit sharply and kick stones along the quiet road and talk of horse-racing and car-boot sales.
Their work today, like every other work-day, was laborious and unkind. Without pleasure, without much pay. Their work-slacks are coated in dark red blotches of dried rust, and smell of wet turf and grime. A few of the younger men bend down and pick up light stones. Their smooth surface guarantees a successful triple-skim with the right throw, and now and then they hedge small bets on how many skims they can enforce upon the choppy tide. When it is out and too far to reach, and the smell of dead fish and clumped sea-weed hangs in the air, they throw heavier stones from the strand into the muck and wait for the small wet gray explosions that their force brings about. And they all laugh – even the older men, up ahead, whistling and looking forward to the warmth.
The leading man – one of the dock’s oldest servants – leaves the pack and veers off down a narrow side-street with many puddles; with the darkness now settled in upon the evening, his hunched figure fades quickly, leaving only the rising smoke of his worn pipe as evidence of his leaving. After some time, more of the men make their departures. There are no goodbyes – some doff their flat-caps, others wearisomely wave, but there are no words. The younger men are now quiet, too; their faces are dirtied by light streaks of dried oil, and whilst moving towards their homes, their teeth chatter and some break into short bursts of jogging, their tattered boots kicking the road’s dust into little clouds as they move.
A slice of the moon, jagged and soberingly bright, hangs heavy in the air, as, bit by bit, more men leave the pack. On a dirty step, a child plays with a spinning top. Her movement is clumsy and innocent, and in her hair, a mauve, velvet bow is tied. One of the men – middle-aged, with a wild beard and lanky frame – casts the child a wry smile. She gets up, and skips into the hall-way lying beyond the door, her top still spinning on the wet step. The bearded man looks at his boots, kicks a milk-bottle top into the drain.
Now there are just two men left. The bearded man and one of the younger men. They walk side-by-side, at times humming, at others whistling, but there is no conversation between them. Twelve hours of hard grafting, of physical strain, have taken their toll. After a few short minutes, the bearded man, without word, descends down a short flight of steep steps, leading to a basement dwelling. The door of the small building has a streaked silver oval knob, chipped and in need of applied force to open. The door slowly shuts and the younger man is left on his own now.
He can view his home up head, perched in the middle of a winding hill that starts at the end of the quayside wall. Before moving any further, he perches himself on the wall, looking out into motion of the river. Here and there float tufts of oozing white foam, bobbing along the water slowly. The repugnant odor of emaciated fish looms. He picks up a small stone, or piece of fallen slate – it’s hard to tell which. It is damp, and coated with a thin coat of dust. He blows it off, looks around, sees no one, and elegantly throws it at an angle into the tide. It hops once, twice, three times, four, five. It’s one to tell the others in the morning. He smiles and looks towards his house and knows its warmth.
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