by Aubrie Elliot
“He was a squirrelly little bastard, he was,” the tiny world-worn man said as he leaned over his tobacco pouch. With nimble movements, he sprinkled the brown leaves onto the white parchment then rolled it to and fro between his thumb and index fingers. “Aye, he was that. I never liked the man.”
“Oh, why is that?” I asked as I quietly slipped my pen from my jacket trying, hoping, not to distract him. His eyes were lively, but his face was an inscrutable mask of wrinkles.
“He were a little fellow. One that wouldn’t think twice to cut a man down to size to show ’em where they belong, if you know what I mean.”
I nodded my head. Isambard Kingdom Brunel had been a small man, barely five foot, and sickly. His achievements had been great, though, so I held my tongue.
“When did you first meet him?” I prompted.
“Now, you know that don’t you boy or you wouldn’t be talking to me, would ye?” he challenged then sat back and looked me over. I felt my jacket tighten over my shoulders. With effort, I stilled my hands which had begun to tinker with my pen. We were silent for a bit. In the stillness, I couldn’t help but notice that his fingers were thick and stained from years of work and hard tobacco. As I stared, he met my gaze and held it. Satisfied that he had my attention, he relaxed and peered distantly through the small window that provided the only light to his little boardinghouse room.
“I was a riveter on the paddle steamer, the Great Eastern. That’s where I met the man, but it’s not him you’re wanting to talk about is it?”
“No sir,” I fumbled, “No, it’s not, I…”
“No, you’re wanting to know about Jackie,” he interrupted. “Oh aye, I read about him in the paper, I did. He’s why you’re here.”
I nodded. The news had been reported. Whilst the Great Eastern was being dismantled for scrap at Birkenhead, a skeleton had been found down low in its innards. It seemed a sad and scandalous end to a ship that had never lived up to its potential. My editor had sent me out to find someone who might have known the poor bugger.
He liked dirt. I hated it, but he put the pounds in my pocket, so here I was. The Birkenhead News was nothing if not on top of a scandal when it heard one. I could only hope that London might pick it up. Ah, now there was a thought. I closed my eyes and tried to focus my thoughts. I couldn’t get anywhere just dreaming, now could I? Here was a fellow willing to talk about this damnable ship and its ghastly contents, and I was pissing away the story with daydreams.
“Jackie you say? Now, who would that be?” I encouraged finally gathering my wits about me.
“Oh, aye. It’s his bones they found.”
“Now how do you now that, sir?” I bent down and took paper from my satchel. I couldn’t help my thoughts from straying for just a moment to Edison’s new gramophone. With that wonderful invention, my hands and mind would be free to listen for once, but those “new fangled things” weren’t to my editor’s taste, so I worked my words with ink and pen instead.
“Why, I knew the man. I was there when he was lost.” He flicked a long ash into an old tin on the table beside him, snubbed it out and began the whole process again.
“Then, why don’t you start proper-like at the beginning?” I scribbled a title and the date quickly at the top of the page, Gareth Goodwin Concerning the Great Eastern, August 21, 1890.
He looked at me hard. “I’ll be doin’ just that, if you’d just sit still there and let me talk.” He fidgeted a bit, sucked on his cigarette, and when he was sure he had my attention, he started again. “Jackie and I queued up early for the job. The damn Irish were everywhere trying for a spot of work. A man had to get to the yards early if he wanted a job.”
He shook his head at the memory, then shifted back, “Jackie were a young lad, and I liked him straight off. He couldn’t have been more than twenty if he was a day. I took him under my wing, you might say, he didn’t have no family, like. It was just him. Good strong lad, too. Got to know him while we passed the time waiting in line to sign our names.
“We were in that line the better part of the day, I’ll tell you. Mr. Brunel was there, too. You wouldn’t have thought the master engineer would be, but he was – all high and mighty in his throne, if you please, watchin’ the boys as they came to speak with the foreman. Now, we didn’t know that o’ course. I remember standin’ there telling boss what I could do, and I could feel Kingdom’s eyes on me. Kingdom that’s what we called him, like ‘Kingdom come.’ That’s what we used to say. We’d work till Kingdom come, and that’s what we did. It never failed that we’d start on somthin’, and the man would show his face and have us do it all again. He were a little prick he was.”
“So you and Jackie were employed by Mr. Brunel?”
“Sure enough. The Eastern Steam Navigation Company had bid to build it for him. They weren’t too particular who they took on. I suppose it was for the size of the thing. I heard tell there were more ’en fifteen hundred of us all told.”
“Two thousand or thereabouts,” I added, proud that I had done some homework on the subject.
“We were glad for the work. The pay was good enough. A man could put some meat beside his greens, if you know what I mean.”
I nodded, and he went on.
“The work was damnable hot in the summer, and like to freeze your hands off in the winter. You ever work with iron boy?” It was his turn to take my measure as he watched me write. His eyes twinkled a bit. For my part, I was all too aware of my thin and ill-kept fingers stained black with the ink that was my trade.
“No, I think not. Let me tell you, it’s an unforgiving lot. All we’d look forward to in a day was sending the lad to the pub with our pails in the afternoon.” He bent his head away from me and went on, “that was when a man could drink a good beer, but I’m getting’ off me story. You see, the Great Eastern was an iron ship, timber and iron. Most thought Kingdom was a fool. Too big they said, too wide and long for its mooring, not that I cared a lick. All we knew in a day was the iron and rivets. Pounding work it was. You see, the timber boys would build about the frame of the thing, and we come behind with the iron, laying it on, molding it, then beating it into place. Two hulls it had. One for the sea, you’d say, and one for the passengers. Betwixt the two were the scaffolds. The foreman would go through there with his torch and check the rivets. Kingdom would do it too when he had a mind, all official-like puffing away on his big cigar directing his man to take him down. He’d have a hammer in his hand and knock away at the panels. Christ, that were a sound it made.”
I took a deep breath thinking about that dark cavernous crawl space. I shivered. The Great Eastern had been five or six stories in height. Light would have been a long way off from top to bottom. I could barely imagine men working and sweating in its miserable bowels while they listened in the shadows to life just beyond reach, outside those unyielding iron walls.
“I had to go down there once. I’ll tell you once is enough for any man. I felt like Jonah down there. Little Miss Hope was right when she called that boat the Leviathan. It were a monster that.”
“Who was ‘Miss Hope’?” I asked. I had heard the Great Eastern called by this name before, but only as a curse, not a true appellation.
“Why, she was Kingdom’s daughter. Wouldn’t you know he found some lady to see him kindly and make a family with him? I would’na figured. That Hope was a pretty little thing, all curls and lace.” Gareth seemed distracted for a moment as if he could see her smiling at him through the haze of memory. He stood up then and shuffled slowly towards the kitchen. I listened as he opened a cabinet and then to the clink of glasses. He returned presently with two tumblers and a half-filled bottle of single malt scotch.
“This story will take a bit more lubrication, if you follow my meaning. Down your medicine now.” He poured two fingers for himself and two fingers for me. Lifted his glass and tossed it back quickly. I did the same. We set them down together with a gentle thud on the small table between us. Gareth filled them again and took his to hand, gently rocking it between his palms.
“Jackie and I worked together for most of four years. He was a good boy and a hard worker. It was good work. You could look at it at the end of the day and be proud. But that wasn’t enough for Kingdom. It wasn’t going fast enough. I heard tell that the money had all but run out, and he was makin’ up the difference. Everyday we worked was money out of his tight pocket. Things got hard for ’im, and when things got bad, he just passed it along to the rest of us.” He took a drink. “One day, late in the day at that, Jackie got called away to fix a rivet somewhere abouts on that cursed boat. I waved ’im off till the morrow. That’s the last I seen of him.” He poured more scotch into his glass, raised it, and took a hard swallow.
“That’s how you know it was Jackie they found?” I asked with the unfortunate sound of frustration in my voice.
“I said that was the last I saw of him, not the last I heard from him.” There was anger in his words. I sipped my drink and nodded encouragement hoping to calm him a bit.
“No, you see we were being pushed, pushed I tell ye to get the job finished. We were fittin’ the last deck. The floors had been laid. Everything was being done at once, don’t you see? There wasn’t no time. I came back on the next day, but Jackie wasn’t no where about. Come Monday, I started asking after the lad. No one had seen him. Finally, I got up my courage to ask foreman. He was a good man in a bad place. I remember he took his hat to hand and said that Jackie was lost. I didn’t take his meaning at first, but then I understood. It was a bad bend in the iron down below. He must of had to climb down, down deep to get at the thing. He must,” his voice choked him, but he continued, “he must of gotten lost or mixed about. He never came up. They closed that section the next day or the day after. Everything sealed up. Foreman would have remembered, but Jackie wasn’t workin’ with the usual boys, so they didn’t look after him. They just kept on with their own work. Nothing could be done. Foreman said that no one could survive down there, not for long at least, he said. The air was bad he said. We both knew different.”
“You think someone could live in between the hulls?” I was incredulous.
“Oh, aye. Not much of a life, but he could have lived, and, God help us all, I think he did, poor lad. There was water in that hell-space, rats and the like. If he kept his wits about him, well…” his voice trailed off. It was my turn to take a long pull from my glass. The thought of the rats climbing and scurrying along in the dark was enough to make my skin crawl.
“Go on please,” I finally prompted after I had collected myself.
“You see I went down to the lower decks after I’d heard. Mostly I think because I didn’t want to believe Jackie was gone, lest ways not gone that way. I took a hammer with me and went down to the boiler and engine rooms way down deep at the bottom o’ the ship. I tapped along the bare iron walls for hours it seemed. Then somewhere, something, someone, tapped back. It was a soft little sound. I barely heard it. I thought my mind was playing tricks on me. I tapped with the hammer again. Back the little sound came. I tapped the hammer twice; twice back was the reply. Then, by heaven, came a sound I hope to forget. There was a wail like a child high-pitched and desperate. It’s a sound that haunts me. I beat the wall thrice; and thrice was the reply. I’m not too proud to tell ye there were tears in my eyes. We had to get him out. It was Jackie in there for sure. I flew out of there and stumbled my way topside. It seemed forever until the sun was on my face again.”
“Where were you going?”
“To Kingdom. By God, he wasn’t going to leave little Jackie down there, not while the Lord kept breath in my lungs. I found him too. He was in the cockpit with papers all laid about like a little duke making plans for his land. I rushed in and just started jabberin’. I was half out of my wits, I was. He knew it too. The bugger said I was hearin’ ghosts, and I needed to keep my mouth shut. Nothin’ worse, he said, than starting ghost stories before a ship left her dock. He called for his men. They pulled me screaming from the room. I pushed ’em off and ran fast as my legs could carry me to the foreman, my foreman. I told him what I’d heard. I begged him to come down to the bowels and have a listen for himself.” Gareth drained his glass and poured us both another.
“What did he say?” I inquired.
“What did he say, you ask? What did he say?” His voice had gone quiet and bitter. “Why the bastard didn’t say nought. He sent me home. He said my mind was gone with grief, and I needed to rest.”
We sat there both staring into the scotch bottle. This time I poured the drinks. My stomach was burning and sour. My mind kept turning over and over the picture of a man staggering waist-deep through foul water and eternal night. I knew no amount of good or even bad scotch would make that accursed vision go away.
“Jackie took his revenge, though.” Gareth said softly. His voice took me off guard.
“Oh, what do you mean?”
“You see, the Great Eastern launched in August of 1858 and started her sea-trials in January o’ ’59. Kingdom was aboard her as she made her way to Hastings at the start of the trials. He was down in the engine room looking over things, so they say, when he had a fit of sorts, ran screaming out to the top deck. His hair was wild and all the color was gone from his face. He kept on and on about the knocks and taps of the great turbine.” Gareth smiled then. “He died just ten days later. I think it was the explosion that finally took him down.”
“Oh well now, the engine blew just about that time. Jackie had the last word on the subject you might say. It was the last for him. Laughing he was. Laughing ‘cause he found a way to make those engines sing Kingdom’s death knell. God Bless ‘im.”
We toasted to Jackie, and sometime later I bid Mr. Goodwin farewell. It was a long walk back to the office. I was grateful to God for every sunlit step of it.