BOOK PREVIEW – Money, Tough Love and Sunshine
26th August 1918
That evening, as the Kalyan set sail, Alfie felt a pang of loneliness. The ship gently pulled away from the dock where a gathering of solemn looking people were waving goodbye to their loved ones. The Kalyan sailed along the river to the Thames Estuary, accompanied by a few Thames barges with their deep red, billowing sails catching the breeze, as they silently edged their way up river. As a lad, Alfie had often watched the barges from the banks of the mighty river as they silently ferried cargo, with their wide hulls that sat deep in the water and their profusion of red canvas. The barges had been part of his life; he wondered what would replace them in his new life, and how long it would take to feel that comfortable familiarity.
As the lights of the shore dwindled into darkness, Alfie went to his cabin to consider dinner. He didn’t feel like being sociable, so he chose to take his dinner in his room. The food was delicious and the bottle of brown ale quite delightful. Alfie slept fitfully, even though he found the placid rocking of the boat comforting as he drifted off.
The following morning, Alfie showered, dressed and went to the dining room, where the maître d’ escorted Alfie to a table with three other guests. As introductions were made, Alfie realised two of his table companions were British and the other Australian.
“So where are you from, Alfie, old chap?” asked the man to his left whose name was Marcus Smith.
“I was brought up in Mile End,” said Alfie. “’Ow about you?”
“I hail from just outside of Leicester and went down to Oxford where I read law.”
“Very nice,” said Alfie. “And where are you off to, then?”
“Ceylon, actually. Daddy has a rather large investment in tea, so I am off to oversee it for a few years. Not looking forward to it a damn bit, as I detest hot weather, but I must do my duty to my family.”
Alfie turned to the Australian. “Going ’ome, mate? You must be lookin’ forward to that!”
“I certainly am, mate,” he replied. “My name is Walter Donaldson, if you forgot – to be honest, I’ve forgot yours, sorry.”
“I’m Alfie Norrington. I am terrible wiv names – if I forget your name, please don’t be offended,” he said to the table. “So, Walter, where do you come from in Australia?”
“My parents run a beef cattle property up in Armidale, which is north-west New South Wales. If you hate hot weather, Marcus, you would not like where I come from. Summer days sit around a hundred Fahrenheit, and it can go significantly higher – I’ve seen up around a hundred and eighteen. The droughts are the worst; we can go years without decent rainfall, and when it comes it’s like a torrent, often washing away some of our land. The creeks and rivers flood, but soon after the land turns green again and we know the good times are back.”
The last man at the table was Graham Cunningham. “So, Alfie,” he said in a soft Scottish accent, “what takes you to Australia?”
Alfie told the story of his promise to Trev, how and where they met, the good friends they became and Trev’s death. “So I am fulfilling a promise to a mate, but at the same time I am keen to explore any and all business opportunities,” he concluded.
“Well, if I can be of assistance, I am a chartered accountant on my way to Sydney to build a practice,” said Graham. “We should keep in touch, Alfie.”
“That’s a good idea, Graham, we’ll do that.”
After breakfast, Alfie went onto the deck and found the weather quite bracing. The sea was white as the wind rolled the waves over on themselves, not unlike the wavy, grey hair of an older man.
One of the crew approached Alfie. “Morning, sir. It’s a bit brisk!”
“You can say that again,” replied Alfie.
“It is forecast to become much worse, with gale-force winds and heavy seas as we pass through the Bay of Biscay.”
“When will that be?” inquired Alfie.
“Quite soon. It will take us two days to pass through it until we reach the north-western tip of Spain, when the seas will lighten and the gales will abate.”
“Thank you for that. I didn’t catch your name?”
“I’m Captain Davies. Enjoy the trip…?”
“I’m Alfie Norrington. Pleased to meet you, Captain.”
“You too, Alfie Norrington.”
“Captain Davies, do you have a moment or two?”
“Certainly. How can I help?”
“Where have more Allied ships been lost during the war? Is it the Mediterranean, or the Bay of Biscay?”
“That is a bloody good question, Alfie. I don’t know the answer, but I do know some ninety-eight merchant ships have been sunk in those bodies of water since the start of the war. Mines and submarines have been the main cause for shipping loss, and they exist in both waters. My instinct tells me the Bay of Biscay has seen more ships destroyed than the Med, purely because it is closer to the Baltic home of the U-boats. Additionally, the Straits of Gibraltar are regularly attended to by a couple of HMS minesweepers, and submarine hunters are continually prowling for their arch-enemy. Good news is that the Bay of Biscay will be kicking up a massive storm as we sail through it, keeping those silent hunters well away from the area.”
“Fank you, Captain,” Alfie replied. “I feel a little better now.”
As the captain retreated below deck, Marcus approached. “Alfie, old chap, what are you up to?” he asked. “We need a fourth hand for bridge. You know the other chaps; they sit on our table in the dining room.”
“’Course I do, but I dunno ’ow to play bridge.”
“You’re a bright chap; you’ll pick it up damn quick, Alfie. Come, come, follow me.”
Soon they were seated at a card table, Alfie partnering with Graham against Marcus and Walter. The rules of the game were explained to Alfie, as was the bidding system, which Graham suggested Alfie ignore for this afternoon’s session – he would school Alfie after this game.
Alfie was completely bemused for the initial five or six games, but gradually picked up the gist of it, and was soon engrossed. After a few more rounds, Alfie found the game easy to follow and score, and was looking forward to better understanding the bidding system.
Suddenly, the ship began to roll and pitch, roll and pitch, and people seemed to be disappearing to their staterooms. The game was halted as Graham and Walter went off to lie down, feeling queasy. Marcus soon followed, leaving Alfie alone.
As he stepped into the bar in pursuit of a scotch with water, he noticed an attractive blonde woman sitting at a table by herself, reading a newspaper. He’d seen her somewhere before on the ship, which was now beginning to shudder.
Alfie approached her. “Hello, I’m Alfie. You seem to be handling this storm very well?”
“Hello, Alfie, I’m Tilley,” she said, “and to be quite honest wiv you, I fink I’m gonna spew any minute now. See ya!” And Tilley disappeared.
There was hardly a soul about, so Alfie decided to go out on the deck – but the door was locked tight, with a large sign on it that read: “Due to extreme winds and seas, the outside areas of the Kalyan will be unavailable to all passengers until further notice.”
The only course of action left was to change for dinner (it wasn’t called tea on the ship, so Alfie called it dinner like everyone else), and sample the culinary delights on offer tonight.
The dining room was empty apart from the waiters and a couple of passengers scattered around. The service was impeccable and the food delicious. The ship was now pitching and rolling in a most exaggerated way, much worse than earlier, with the shuddering of the propeller becoming more urgent. The claret Alfie was drinking with his meal kept spilling on the white tablecloth, so he downed the contents of the glass and passed the bottle to the waiter for safekeeping until tomorrow. Alfie then bade the waiters goodnight and stumbled up to his room – not because he was inebriated, but because of the behaviour of the ship.
He lay in bed that night, smiling to himself as he gripped the side of the bed every so often to prevent himself tipping out. Sometime during the night he fell asleep, still gripping the bed, but he was woken twice, rather abruptly, as he rolled off the bed onto the floor.
For two days and nights, the storms raged. The Kalyan was bereft of people as Alfie walked about the lower decks. Then the storm abated, the winds dropped, and the sun poked its head out from behind ominous-looking clouds. The ship came to life: people milled about, looking considerably relieved that the storm had passed, with some seeking out food and some most certainly seeking out liquor – at 11 a.m., the bar was three-deep.
Alfie chatted to Graham about bridge, specifically the Strong Club System, which Graham and Alfie had adopted for bidding in the game, going over it half a dozen times or more. This afternoon would see them playing Marcus and Walter if they rose from their sickbeds.
As they spoke, Tilley, the woman Alfie had met at the bar, approached. “I’m sorry I ’ad to run the other day, Alfie, but I was ’orribly sick and continued being seasick until this mornin’,” she said.
Alfie thought she was looking remarkably well and very pretty. “That’s alright, Tilley – can I get you a drink?” he asked.
“Yes, please. Can I ’ave a Bloody Mary please.”
“Coming right up.”
Alfie turned towards the bar, excusing himself to Graham, and ordered Tilley’s drink and a beer for himself.
“Shall we take these up on deck?” he asked as the drinks were served. “It’s a glorious day now, it’d be a shame to miss any more of it.”
“Good idea, Alfie, you lead the way.”
They sat in the sunshine, enjoying the warm weather, the fresh sea air, the drinks and each other’s silent companionship.
“So where do you hail from, Alfie?” Tilley asked after a while.
“I’m an East End boy from Mile End. ’Ow about you?”
“Camberwell – not far from you, really. What did you do for a quid?”
“Well, quite a few fings, really.” Alfie told Tilley of his work as a cellar man and his experience in the army, as well as his stint in hospital and friendship with Trev.
“Long story short,” he concluded, “poor Trev died, and I promised to take a letter and some fings to ’is mum in Sydney. Here I am, keepin’ me promise and lookin’ forward to stayin’ in Sydney for the foreseeable future.”
“That is a luverly fing to do, Alfie,” Tilley said. “You’re a nice man.”
“Fank you, Tilley. What did you do for a quid back in London?”
“Before I answer that – I reckon we are almost the same age,” said Tilley. “When were you born, Alfie?”
“A second after midnight on a snowy old day, the first day of 1900. What about you?”
“October 7th, 1900. You’re a little older than me.”
“But you look younger than that,” said Alfie, putting on the charm.
“Oh, shut up, Alfie!” she said, gently punching him on the arm. “I’m off to freshen up for lunch. Fanks for the drink – I’ll buy you one this evening.”
The pattern of each day soon fell into place for Alfie who liked a certain amount of order in his life. He had breakfast at 9 a.m., followed by his exercise regime, which was a hundred each of press-ups and stomach crunches. Alfie then went up to the deck where he strolled around purposefully – still exercising, but not too strongly. He often spoke with other passengers, including Tilley, who had become a rare sight at dinner and in the ballroom.
After lunch (he called it lunch now), he played bridge with Graham as his partner, always against Marcus and Walter. Alfie had become remarkably good at bridge, often beating the more experienced pair. Normally the four shared a couple of bottles of wine during the afternoon, and post-bridge, Alfie would have a short nap prior to showering before dinner. Most nights, after dinner, he would listen to the music and the singers, who were extremely good.
The ship’s first port of call was Gibraltar, the British-held speck of land on the Iberian Peninsula.
“You going ashore, Marcus?” Alfie asked.
“No, old chap, full of Johnny Foreigner,” Marcus replied. “No, I’ll stay here and enjoy a few snorters before lunch – in fact, long before lunch. Go and enjoy yourself, Alfie, and wear a bloody hat! That Mediterranean sun can be fierce.”
“Fanks for the tip, Marcus,” said Alfie. “I’ll be back for bridge just after two.”
In fact, Alfie was back before lunch, as there was very little to see apart from a few apes, a lot of tunnels, and some shops selling knick-knacks for the tourists. All four bridge players were seated and ready to play at 2 p.m. Graham and Alfie slaughtered Walter and a rather tipsy Marcus – before Marcus fell soundly asleep at the table, causing much consternation as he snored like a bulldog puppy.
That night, before dinner, Alfie saw Tilley in the bar alone and wandered over.
“Hello, Tilley. Can I sit ’ere?”
“’Course you can, Alfie. Are you alright?”
“I am as good as gold, but I’m feeling that you ain’t as good?” said Alfie.
“You can say that again, Alfie,” Tilley sighed. “I am really frightened about what my life may become in Sydney.”
“Why?” said Alfie. “What ’ave you got to be frightened of Tilley? You are young, you are beautiful and you are obviously bright, wiv a big future ahead of you.”
“Look, Alfie – you don’t know me, you don’t know anyfing about my life, and you don’t know where I’ve been or where I am goin’. You are a luverly bloke, but please don’t involve yourself with me and my life, as it will only end very badly for you. Goodnight, Alfie.”
With that, Tilley got up and walked off in the direction of the staterooms.
Alfie was concerned as well as intrigued. Tilley seemed desperately unhappy about her previous life and the life she would be leading in Sydney. There were certainly overtones of violence, but where from? Her father, or possibly her husband? Alfie didn’t have the answers or even the questions to ask, but he would keep his eye on Tilley to ensure she did nothing stupid while she was in that frame of mind.
A few days later, Alfie awoke to the sound of foreign voices. Through his porthole, he could see dock workers unloading goods from the Kalyan by crane, then moving them by hand to trolleys for storage. They had arrived in Marseille: a melting pot of Mediterranean peoples and cultures, with the highest murder rate in France. Alfie had heard talk that Marseille was a cesspit of robbery, rape and torture, and that various gangs operated in the city.
After breakfast he ventured ashore, knowing the dangers but also wishing to set foot in the sunny end of France. He asked Marcus to join him.
“Oh, dear boy, if there is anything worse than a Frenchie, it’s a Frenchie sunning themselves,” was the reply. “I don’t like them, never have, never will, and I would rather watch an orphanage burn down than spend one minute ashore in their smelly country!”
Alfie got the message loud and clear. Alone, he wandered into Marseille, through the docks and out to a wide street. Deciding to watch the world go by, he placed himself in a café a mile or so away from the docks and ordered a cup of coffee from a sad-looking waitress. The beverage was thick and black, accompanied by a dish of ice cream. The waitress indicated to scoop the ice cream into the coffee, which Alfie did. It was delicious, and he nodded to the waitress to show he was enjoying it.
On the opposite side of the road, Alfie spotted Tilley. Reflecting upon her mood some days ago and the things he had heard about Marseille, he decided to follow her, at a distance. He paid for his coffee, leaving the now less miserable waitress a tip, and began his detective work.
Tilley nosed around in shops selling a variety of goods, from leather shoes to hats. Then she wandered up a small alleyway and Alfie closed the distance between them. Tilley turned a corner out of sight, so Alfie really stepped up the pace – then he heard a scream that pierced the air and sent a chill up his spine.
He ran to the corner intersection and saw, on the other side of the road, a smallish Arab man holding a six-inch knife at Tilley’s throat. The thief was around fifteen yards away from Alfie and had not yet spotted him. Very quietly, Alfie walked towards him, until he was close enough dive at the man and knock him over. Alfie hadn’t really thought past that point when the thief saw him and made eye contact.
Alfie saw an evil born out of desperation in those eyes. In a fraction of a second, he yelled at the top of his voice while jumping directly at the thief. Alfie hit him hard around the waist and they tumbled over onto the hot cobblestones. Alfie landed a good punch to the thief’s sternum – then he felt a flash across his right cheek.
The knife had deeply penetrated the skin below Alfie’s right eye, the wound running three inches down his cheek. Alfie didn’t feel it; he concentrated on turning the thief face down on the cobblestones. Then he smashed the man’s face into the ground and kneed him hard in the bollocks to disable him. Alfie took the knife, kicked him in the kidney for good measure, and indicated to a distraught Tilley that it was time to go. The thief lay prostrate on the ground as they escaped, Alfie losing blood from the ugly wound on his face.
“Fank you, fank you Alfie,” said Tilley, “you just saved my life!”
“We need to get out of here very quickly,” Alfie replied. “He is most definitely a member of a gang, who will have no problem killing us both.”
They ran to an area filled with shops and people, where Alfie could relax while Tilley looked at his wound.
“You will ’ave to ’ave stiches, Alfie,” she told him. “’Old this cloff on yer face and we’ll go back to the ship and see the doctor.”
Tilley was shaking uncontrollably by the time they reached the ship. She collapsed in the doctor’s surgery and was seen to before the doctor treated Alfie. He stitched Alfie’s face, informing him regretfully that it would leave a permanent scar.
“You’re lucky, though, Alfie,” said the doctor. “An inch higher and you would have lost an eye; an inch lower and you would have had a wider mouth by some measure.”
Alfie went up to his stateroom to rest. He didn’t stir until the next morning, by which time the Kalyan had left Marseille and was heading for Port Said.