This was a long narrow chamber with a row of glowing furnace doors. Wet coal and coal-dust lay on the floor. At either end a small steel door opened into bunkers that ran along the sides of the ship, deep down near the bottom, containing thousands of tons of soft coal. In the stokehole the fires were not yet up, but by the time the ship was at sea the furnace mouths would be white hot and the men at work half naked. They not only shovelled coal into the flames, they had to spread it as well, and at intervals rake out the clinkers in fiery masses on the floor. On these a stream of water played, filling the chamber with clouds of steam. In older ships, like this one, a lead stoker stood at the head of the line and set the pace for the others to follow. He was paid more to keep up the pace. But on the big new liners this pacer was replaced by a gong.
And at each stroke of the gong you shovel, said Joe. You do this till you forget your name. Every time the boat pitches the floor heaves you forward, the fire spurts at you out of the doors, and the gong keeps on like a sledge-hammer coming down on top of your mind. And all you think of is your bunk and the time when youre to tumble in.
As we crawled back, the noise increased, and swelled to a roar as we entered. The place was pandemonium. Those groups I had noticed around the bags had been getting out the liquor, and now at eight oclock in the morning half the crew were already well soused. Some moved restlessly about. One huge bull of a creature with limpid shining eyes stopped suddenly with a puzzled stare, and then leaned back on a bunk and laughed uproariously. From there he lurched over the shoulder of a thin, wiry, sober man who, sitting on the edge of a bunk, was slowly spelling out the words of a newspaper aeroplane story. The big man laughed again and spit, and the thin man jumped half up and snarled.
Louder rose the singing. Half the crew was crowded close around a little red-faced cockney. He was the modern chanty man. With sweat pouring down his cheeks and the muscles of his neck drawn taut, he was jerking out verse after verse about women. He sang to an old chanty tune, one that I remembered well. But he was not singing out under the stars, he was screaming at steel walls down here in the bottom of the ship. And although he kept speeding up his song, the crowd were too drunk to wait for the chorus; their voices kept tumbling in over his, and soon it was only a frenzy of sound, a roar with yells rising out of it. The singers kept pounding each others backs or waving bottles over their heads. Two bottles smashed together and brought a still higher burst of glee.
I caught a glimpse of his strained frowning face. Again it came over me in a flash, the years he had spent in holes like this, in this hideous rotten world of his, while I had lived joyously in mine. And as though he had read the thought in my disturbed and troubled eyes, Lets go up where you belong, he said.
I followed him up and away from his friends. As we climbed ladder after ladder, fainter and fainter on our ears rose that yelling from below. Suddenly we came out on deck and slammed an iron door behind us. And I was where I belonged.
I was in dazzling sunshine and keen, frosty autumn air. I was among gay throngs of people. Dainty women brushed me by. I felt the softness of their furs, I breathed the fragrant scent of them and of the flowers that they wore, I saw their trim, fresh, immaculate clothes. I heard the joyous tumult of their talking and their laughing to the regular crash of the bandall the life of the ship I had known so well.
And I walked through it all as though in a dream. On the dock I watched it spell-bounduntil with handkerchiefs waving and voices calling down good-byes, that throng of happy travellers moved slowly out into midstream.