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24/01/2013

SHRIEKING GULLS

Sara Sha'ath

The duck boards over the mud flats were precarious, just a collection of haphazardly placed planks stretching all the way from the rail track to the pumping station. Martha and Jane were walking on borrowed land; the spoils of years of battle between man and sea. As they stepped on each duck, light brown sludge bubbled and seeped through the gaps and holes.

In the distance, Martha could see a row of fifteen or twenty heads, little more than dots, and pink tones suggesting shirts off in the sunshine. The workers had stopped for lunch. Behind them the dark bulk of pumping equipment was still, hydraulic elbows paused mid-punch.

“It’s like shells,” Jane said, looking at the shimmering fan shapes in the mud, left by the spitting chute of the dredger. It would have been beautiful if it weren’t for the stench of refuse. At the other end of the site, they were filling the land with the contents of Southampton’s dust carts and drains, crushing the waste with mechanical rollers before dumping the soft dredged silt over the top. The smell was burnt-out, rancid.

Overhead, seagulls shrieked. Martha kept her eyes low, holding her baking tray as level as she could. The pasties they had made that morning were still steaming, tucked under her whitest tea towel to keep off the flies.

“Be careful,” Martha said as Jane took a sliding step.

“I’m being careful, Mum. It’s slimy.”

“Just be careful.”

Martha had one eye on her feet and one on the row of mud-spattered, scrawny-legged workers ahead of them. She’d heard that some of them had travelled from as far away as Wales, work was so scarce. They lived in a shanty town of disused crates and lean-to shelters at one end of the site. She felt for them; even now, at the height of summer, a night by the water would be cold and exposed. Martha heard a shout, so faint on the breeze she wasn’t sure if it was a gull; she looked up. The men looked like they were staring back at her, but the sun was too bright for Martha to tell.

When they reached the platform, they were met by a man in an oil-stained vest with salt and pepper grey in his hair. His sunburned shoulders were peeling, greyish flakes curling away from boiled-pink flesh beneath.

“You want to watch yourselves on them ducks,” he said, helping Martha up the steps. “Plenty of men stronger than you two been swallowed up by that mud.”

He took Jane by her elbow, courteous, but a little too close for Martha’s liking.

“Fall off it at night. One too many, most likely. Nothing left by morning but a cap floating on the mud and a pay packet sitting lonely in the foreman’s office.”

“Don’t they call out for help?” Jane asked.

“That’s enough of that,” Martha said, guiding Jane away. “She doesn’t need scaring.”

Now she was close she could see she’d timed it perfectly; as well as the row of workers at the edge of the platform there was another ten or so just knocking off, finding a spot in the sun to stuff their pipes or unpack sorry-looking bits of lunch from pound tobacco tins. Martha smiled. The relief of being on solid ground made it easy to smile.

“Pasties,” she said, trying for the singsong tone of the Tuesday market men. “Best pork pasties. Still warm. Tuppence each.”

The man in the vest tugged at the edge of Martha’s tea towel.

“No you don’t,” she said. “That’ll be tuppence first, thank you very much.”

He grinned and put grubby fingers into his pocket for the change.

“She sounds like my mum,” he said over his shoulder, raising a murmur of laughter.

“She sounds like my missus,” said the man next to him, drawing close to put two pocket-warm pennies in Martha’s hand.

“She don’t look like your missus.”

“Don’t I know it. More’s the shame.”

Someone said something Martha didn’t quite hear. They all laughed, loud this time. She felt her cheeks flush redder, but she pretended not to notice, taking the cloth off her tray. The smell of freshly-baked pastry rose into the warm air.

After they’d sold more than half the pasties to men who queued with surprising patience and good grace, they walked a circuit of the platform, Martha taking the money and Jane holding the tray. She stood close, not venturing far beyond the circumference of her mother’s hem. Martha tried to ignore resentful looks from workers who didn’t have tuppence to spare. Some glowered, most avoided eye contact altogether. At the peripheries of her vision she noticed small details: bits of mud-caked sacking tied to feet; a bruise, the size of an iron, splashed across a shoulder blade; a tattooed woman legs splayed, eels for hair; a head resting listless against the wall, neck too tired to support it. They stepped over a man lying still in the sun, ribcage like a half-built ship. He could have been sunbathing or dead. She pulled Jane a little closer, tried to keep the confidence in her voice.

“Pork pasties. Tuppence each.” She had misjudged it. They would never sell another dozen. Martha felt a trickle of panic in her chest. In the kitchen, when it was just her and the stove and a bright idea, she’d been confident she could make this work. She would make some money – enough for a week’s groceries – and get her first good night’s sleep in weeks.

As they rounded the corner of the station, they stepped into the shadow of the pumps and felt the cool relief of shade, though here the smell of refuse was worse. There were stooped figures clambering over piles of rubbish, heads bent down, looking for anything salvageable – old clothes, scrap metal. About fifty yards away, there was a man with a rusty pram, picking among the ash from the clinker trucks. He was almost completely black from head to toe. He looked their way, his eyes bright white against his filthy skin.

“Looking for coal. Bits that ain’t been burned.”

She turned away from the scavenger to see a young man next to her who had spoken. He was one of four standing in the shade with neither tobacco nor lunch. They weren’t much older than Luke. The one who had just spoken moved gingerly, a skinny lad with joints too big for his limbs. His trousers were torn, revealing running sores on his legs. The gaps between his fingers were in much the same state. Martha wondered if it was just impetigo or something infectious. If it had been Luke, she would have had him at home resting with a cold press on those sores. She felt a pang of distress for him and yet his expression made her draw closer to Jane. All four of the boys had their hungry eyes on the pasties left on the tray. Martha could see they needed them, probably hadn’t eaten in days, but the painstaking sums in her housebook said it wasn’t her concern.

“The pasties are tuppence, boys. I can only sell them for tuppence.”

“One penny. I’ll give you a penny for two,” he said.

Martha wasn’t going to be drawn in. She knew they didn’t have a farthing between them. She tried to arrange the cloth back over the top of the tray and ushered Jane round the corner. They followed.

“Give us one.”

“I’m starving.”

“I’ll have it tomorrow. I’ll give you sixpence tomorrow. A shilling.”

Martha felt a hand on her elbow and instinctively pulled away. She almost tripped on the tallest of the lads who’d circled round to the other side of them.

“Mum!” One of the lads was taking the tray from Jane’s hands. She jerked it out of his reach and walked faster.

“You stay away,” Martha said, trying to keep the anxiety from her voice. She spread her arms wide in front of Jane.

“You stay away,” the boy with the sores mimicked and his hand shot past her.

She saw him taking a bite, his cracked lips closing round pastry, and her arms moved before she knew what she was doing. She pushed him hard, so hard he hit the floor face first with a dull crunch. The pasty broke into pieces on the mud-flaked boards. Martha’s breath stopped solid in her throat.

“Oi, enough of that. Leave them alone.” Two or three of the older workers walked over and all of the lads, apart from the one on the floor backed off. Martha watched, horrified, as he got to his knees and started picking up the mush of pastry, scooping it into his mouth as fast as he could. His cheek was bruised, blood spotting, spots joining into drips. She had done that.

“Don’t worry about them, love. Little pricks don’t know how to treat a lady.”

Martha half-turned, barely registering the man in the vest. She couldn’t take her eyes off the boy, licking bits of mud and onion off one hand while the other now clutched his face. The man in the vest picked up her tea towel from the floor, folded it neatly with his tattooed fingers and handed it back. Then he touched her face, just gently, stroking two rough fingers under her chin. It was a long time since Martha had been touched like that. It felt as though his fingers had left a mark, a tingling trail of sweat or grease. He smiled, showing blood red gums, yellow teeth.

“What’s for lunch tomorrow?” he asked.

Martha took a breath and thought about the coins in her purse. She became aware that Jane was clutching her arm. She took the tray and held her hand, though she wasn’t sure for whose benefit.

“Kidney pies tomorrow,” she said.

With shaking hands and a thumping heart, Martha managed to sell a few more pasties then got the two of them off the platform as soon as she could. Her purse was heavy in her pocket. She’d thought she’d feel good about it – she wanted to show the boys they wouldn’t have to worry – but instead she felt a little sick.

“I’m sorry, Jane,” she said. “I won’t make you do that again, I promise.”

Jane was staring at the mud, her face bleached. Martha thought about the boy’s bruised cheek, blood spots ballooning. They walked the boards in silence.

When they were almost back to the tracks, Jane put an arm out to stop her and pointed at the ground. Crossing the boards by their feet was a tiny army of sludge-coated pea crabs, glistening in the sun. They zig-zagged their way back to the ocean, regrouping, following the rivulets of seawater sweating from the flats.

“The ocean will take what it’s owed,” Martha said, under her breath.

A loud, shuddering growl made them both start. The pumps were back in action, pounding the water from the earth. Soon the pile drivers would join in too – a clamour of industry to drown out the crash of the waves.

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