The Stoker

His eyes could pierce my very soul
His scowl could match my frown,
His hatred seemed to lurk beneath
The coal dust on his brow,
The stoker of the 'Antic Queen'
Was sallow, hollow-cheeked,
A voice that echoed, like the clang
Of echoes, from the deep.

He worked the vessel's engine room
Built up a head of steam,
He sprayed each layer of coal across
Like someone in a dream,
It glowed white-hot, he'd slam the door
And cast his shovel clear,
'A pox upon you, Derek Sloane, '
He'd call, when I was near.

I'd make believe I didn't hear,
Go through the bulkhead door
And make my way back up on deck,
I'd heard it all before.
His wife had tired of all his moods
Had eyed me through the crowd,
She'd left the stoker for me then,
The lissom Ann O'Dowd.

She'd always had a roving eye
I knew that from the start,
But reason has no part to play
When love attacks your heart.
We'd had a month of jollity
She'd wrecked my only bed,
When I went back to sea
The lovely Ann had filled my head.

We'd only been at sea a day
When I was sent below,
To see why steam in number two
Was building up so slow,
And then it was I saw O'Dowd,
I'd thought him still ashore,
Or coaling on another ship
En route to Singapore.

He came up to my cabin once
His shift was at an end,
And told me he had plans for Ann,
A coffin for a friend,
Then leered and sneered, 'I've said enough,
But you remember this,
Your Ann's as good as dead, old chum,
Before you leave this ship! '

I brooded on his words for days,
There wasn't any phone,
I couldn't use the radio
Without it being known,
I couldn't tell the Captain as
He wouldn't understand,
I had no proof of anything
That Tom O'Dowd had planned.

We hit the Bay of Biscay and
A fog came rolling in,
You couldn't see a dozen yards
Around the 'Antic Queen',
We cut our speed to seven knots
And edged on through the murk,
The foghorn sounded off and on
The sky was getting dark.

All that night we kept a watch
Until at early light,
A tanker nosing through the fog
Came steaming, out of sight,
She hit us just behind the bridge
And buckled plates without,
I rushed down to the engine room
To put the fires out.

O'Dowd was lying on the coal,
All covered in its dust,
The sea was pouring in too fast
To leave it all to trust,
I swung the heavy metal door
And sealed it from the tide,
O'Dowd jumped up and hit the door,
With terror in his eyes.

He screamed at me to open it,
I watched him through the port,
But regulations told me
To do nothing of the sort,
The ship was the important thing
And sometimes men must die,
But secretly, I smiled within
For Ann was safe and dry.

O'Dowd stood back and stared at me,
And realised his fate,
His wicked eyes stared through me
As the water lapped his feet;
I couldn't hear, but I could see
Him mouth two words of note,
He shouted 'parcel bomb', and drew
His hand across his throat.

The water rose, washed him away
I raced up to the deck,
The ship was listing badly
It would shortly be a wreck,
We got the lifeboats out by chance
Along the starboard side,
And drifted out as 'Antic Queen'
Turned turtle, rose and dived.

Three days it took to get on home
I couldn't contact Ann,
She wasn't answering the phone,
I took a cab, I ran,
I saw the note hand scribbled there
That lay, it seemed like hours,
To read that Ann decided she'd
Be true to all her vows.

She'd gone back to O'Dowd, she said,
Her husband, right or wrong,
I'd be all right, she said, I'd find
Some woman; just be strong.
I raced around to where O'Dowd
Had lived in Ratton Place,
The wall had blown out in the street,
Of Ann, there was no trace.

He'd left a bunch of flowers there,
A present tightly wrapped,
A note to tell his darling wife
That he would take her back;
She must have opened it, I think
A smile, a look serene,
O'Dowd had laughed the final laugh,
Down in the 'Antic Queen'.

20 March 2009

by David Lewis Paget

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