God save the Queen thought Billy as he pulled an eight- inch crowbar from the poacher’s pocket of his donkey jacket. He wedged the crowbar between the padlock and the door of the freight wagon. Pop!
The tunnel in which he stood cut as deeply into the Saddleworth Moor in the West Riding of Yorkshire as the gash from the dull edge of the padlock that now ran to the knucklebone of his right hand. The pain shot up his arm and out of his mouth in a hiss that threatened to become a scream of spit and profanity. Blood dripped down the cold steel of the crowbar into an oily puddle around his work boot on the dirty gravel that banked against the wooden sleeper of the rail track. He cast the yellow beam of his paraffin lamp across the ragged wound and thought again to curse out loud. He imagined the echo of his voice bouncing in the darkness on stone walls out toward the arched speck of light which framed the first of the freight wagons he’d counted on his way into the tunnel.
“Blimey! That’s a bad un, I’ll wager,” he said with restraint, stoically pushing aside the throbbing pain. “Another one for the yard.” he mumbled, wiping a smear of blood up the side of his thin face and sharp nose as he pushed back a flop of dark, greasy hair. “Best get a move on, Billy boy, before you either freeze or bleed to death. They’ll all be playing Tiddlywinks by the time you get back to the tea shed.”
He slid his crowbar back into his work jacket and kicked the broken padlock against the tunnel wall, then turned his attention to ripping a strip of cloth from the bottom of his under- shirt using his teeth and uninjured hand. His exposed skinny belly dimpled in goose flesh against the cold as he pulled the cloth loose and wrapped the wound. He looked at his hands and realized they had taken a fair beating in the past few years since becoming an apprentice tapper.
Other than playing football, going into the train yard where his Dad worked had been his favorite thing to do as a young boy. Billy loved the long early morning walks to the yard and the customary stop in at the warm, sweet-smelling bakery near the yard entrance. He fondly remembered Dad asking for a half a fresh loaf and two pasties as he flipped a shilling to the baker’s wife with a wink.
Billy overheard the lads in the yard whisper of his Dad’s prowess. He was dapper with his smooth black Brilliantined hair and had a way with the women, they would say. He owned the nickname of his craft, The Dapper Tapper, a rite of passage, an identity just like Jack the Horse who ran the draft horses or Harry Two Bellies famed for his obvious protrusion.
Dad had smelled of a combination of Woodbine cigarettes, hair cream, and Old Spice. Back then Billy was proud that he saved all year to afford a Christmas gift for Dad. Every payday at the paper shop was a step closer, another sixpence in the tin
under his bed and, with the help of Mam for any shortfall, he could afford the gift of Old Spice. The aftershave was distinct in its white ceramic bottle with the red windjammer “Grand Turk” schooner emblazoned across the front of it. He knew Mam liked the smell of it on Dad too.
What he liked best was when they’d go into the large Victorian workshop with its high glass skylights, whirling vents, and metallic taste in the frigid air that sat heavy in the back of your throat. Upon entering the shed, Dad would lift him up to punch his timecard for him, and the clock would give off a great “Thunk!” as Billy was swung down again in a single sweep.
Together they would navigate the shop with its rows of workbenches and well-placed tools and machines. There was always some large piece of machinery being repaired, parts of the great beasts that roamed the yard in darkness when the workers went home each night. Locomotives, cranes engines, boilers and giant rag tooth cogs, each looked like a fossil from a prehistoric animal waiting to be put back together just as he had seen in the basement of the glorious Manchester Museum, which they visited the year before he finished school.
Dad would direct him to the worker’s tea shed where they made huge mugs of steaming, milky, sickly sweet tea with four spoons of sugar in each mug. Even at his young age, Billy knew this was a luxury Mam’s food coupons could never afford out- side of the government-run yard. He would eye the rim of the chipped porcelain mug with its dark brown veins running through the glaze like rings from an ancient tree, each ring telling a story, fixed in time amid the banter and humor of Dad’s fellow workers. He would imagine the millions of cups of tea past and present like some stacked ancient forest where the great iron beasts lived and roamed.
Wheel tappers and shunters were types of railway workers commonly employed on British railways, Dad explained. Both worked in the rail yard with the hundreds of rusty steel and wood freight wagons upon which the railways depended for moving goods around the country. Dad said shunters were responsible for the sorting of wagons bound for a variety of destinations and ensuring empties were returned to their owners or points of loading, but he and Billy were of the noble clan of tappers, as he inferred his Scottish heritage as a right to the trade. Billy knew it was Mam’s father who got his dad the job in the yard after the war.
Dad proudly said that tapper was a skilled job that required inspecting wheels on the train bogies, making sure they were sound, and the axle boxes weren’t too hot when they arrived in the station. Using a long-handled wheel-tapping hammer, he would strike the wheels of the bogie and hear if it rang true. A wheel with a crack in it would give off a dull sound. Dad showed him with the back of his hand how they could deter- mine whether the axle box bearing was running hot and had enough grease to lubricate the axle. Wheel tappers were vital to the smooth running of the railways as a cracked wheel or overheated axle bearing could lead to delays and loss of revenue, or even life, if there was the disaster of a crash when a wheel failed at high speed.
“We don’t need anything like the great crash of 1923 when we lost four souls at Diggle Junction,” Dad said solemnly.
Billy understood he was expected to follow in his dad’s footsteps as a tapper. He had a fantasy of playing football for Manchester United, though he knew he was too small and probably not good enough. He’d thought of attending university as an engineer, but his headmaster told Mam he wasn’t that clever.
With the bleeding staunched, Billy set about revealing the contents of the wagon he’d relieved of its lock. He had ignored the “Do Not Break” that was stamped in raised red letters next to the Royal Seal for the Bank of England on the aluminum tag running through the lock and the door handle.
“It’s not like it’s the first time I’ve broken a lock for the gaffer on a bloody door,” Billy said aloud, anxiously in conversation with himself. “The gaffer did say to find out what’s in it. No whiskey or nylons in this one I’ll hazard a guess, judging by that tag.” He leaned his slight frame against the heavy wooden door as it gave way and slid open enough for him to shine his lamp inside.
Earlier that day Billy had walked into the small tea shed that adjoined the workshop, where the air hung heavy with the stink of work and labor; a pleasant odor in the sense that it let him know where he belonged, among the sawdust, iron filings and good old sweat that lived in dirty overalls. Almost three years into his time and this was his final year as an ap- prentice tapper. For now, six-months away from becoming a Journeyman, he was still on the lowest rungs of the ladder every man in the room had climbed. The kettle was coming to boil on the potbellied stove that served to heat the room.
Billy had mastered the temperament of the hungry cast iron mouth in the last few years, and God help him if he let the fire go out in a train yard full of coal.
He grunted the usual, “’Alo,” to his gaffer, Harry Two Bellies and the three workmen huddled in the room, each with a sandwich of coarse bread and thick cheese wedges shoved up against their faces. His mouth-watered for the ham and cheese buttie he knew Mam had packed in his lunch pail.
“I could murder a big cup of tea,” Billy said to no one in particular as he slid out of his damp jacket.
“Billy boy,” grunted Harry, “check the tunnel at the back of line six before you stop.” Harry waved his hands in the general direction outside. “You know the one they bricked up in the back during the war when the Nazi bastards bombed the fuck out of us?”
“Now?” exclaimed Billy.
“Ay, now, and do a count on the cabs, there’s a missing wagon the boss is looking for. Snarky Gibson thought he saw something up there last week when he moved the lines around. Count and mark them up for me, there’s a good lad.”
Billy pulled his workman’s donkey jacket back over his shoulders and lurched toward the door. Outside the usual grey of the yard and sky engulfed him, broken only by the looming hulks of used freight cars all around. Line six was half a mile away in a sea of steel and mud. He pushed his collar up, head down, and fumbled with the chalk in his pocket as he stepped from muddy footprint to muddy footprint. The stride of the man who’d preceded him through the muck was longer, and the shoe print a good two inches bigger. He soon gave up the extended lope and reverted to his usual scuff and drag. A trickle of rain ran down the back of his collar, and he straightened with a shudder and pulled his woolen cap down against the wind.
He knew track six backed all the way into tunnel two, a remnant of the war Harry had mentioned, used to protect the engines as the bombers passed overhead. He pulled the chalk from his pocket, a big triangular wedge that resembled a block of cheese. He thought of his sandwich and hot tea as he began to mark the cars in the tunnel, 1-2-3 . . .13. He knew something was wrong—superstitious shunters would never put thirteen cars on a haul.
At the far end of the tunnel he worked virtually by touch as the light struggled to seep that far down into the damp dark- ness, but once again he counted thirteen cars, marking each one. He trudged back toward the tea shed, this time playing with his own distinct tracks in the mud that were easier to follow. Sliding back into the office, he tried to keep the crack in the door as narrow as possible, holding the wind at bay.
“Thirteen, Guv,” Billy reported curtly to Harry,
“Thirteen? Are you sure? There is never thirteen to a haul, you know that, lad. You’d better double check again!”
Without thinking of his position in the hierarchy of the little tea shed Billy blurted out, “Now?”
Harry looked at him with such hard eyes that he flushed red in the face. He turned and fled, hearing the snickers of the other lads tumbling out the door behind him. Back out in the yard he made his way reluctantly through the mud to the tunnel and the train car a little faster this time and began counting, 1-2-3 . . . 13.
“Fuck!” Billy cursed aloud as he walked back into the work shed half an hour later. His rough woolen work trousers chaffed at his inner thigh.
“Thirteen, sir, yes I am sure, believe me.” He began to take off his jacket, and pushed the cap back off his head, as he reached for the teapot.
“There can’t be thirteen cars,” Harry insisted. “What’s in it, what’s the registration number? Get back out there, Billy boy, and don’t come back until you know every inch of that bloody car and where it came from... and, yes, now before you even think of asking.”
“Bastard,” Billy muttered under his breath as he pulled his cap forward and slid his jacket back on, again.
His mind wandered as he trudged back to line six, lugging a heavy paraffin lamp over his shoulder this time. The liquid inside slopped to the gait of his stride, taunting him to pee at the sound of it.
“Half a fucking mile,” he said aloud as he passed the long line of trains before him. His rough woolen trousers rode up against his inner thigh and balls. He slid his hand into the deep pockets of his trousers and pulled the fabric of his underpants away from the sore patch which had become sweaty and raw in his exertions.
Last night, that’s the reason for it, he thought with a grin on his face. Last night he’d taken Meg down to a local pub not far from her parent’s tobacconist shop on the old Diggle Road. The Gate Inn had a snug that offered some privacy. The landlord was loose on the age requirements for the rail lads and their lasses—he turned a blind eye if they were near enough to seventeen and ordered something to eat, particularly on a Monday night when business was slow. Billy met Meg outside her parent’s shop, and they walked hand-in-hand down to the pub.
“Did you tell your mother we were going to the pub?” Billy asked Meg.
“No, don’t be silly, it’s a school night. She thinks we’re going into Oldham to the pictures, that way she’ll expect me back a little later and I get to spend more time with you.”
“Sneaky girl. I like it, by the way. Might I say you look lovely—I like your dress.”
Meg smiled, and they stopped on the road outside the pub where she kissed him before putting on her lipstick. Billy led Meg through the dark, smoke-stained, wood-clad room with its drab carpet that had endured too many spilled pints, cigarette butts twisted underfoot, and blood stains from working-class brawls between overworked fathers venting years of frustration at having bent their backs to a pile of coal or a hungry engine furnace.
“A pint of black and tan and a Babysham, mate,” Billy said to the barman. Oh, and two of your pickled eggs—not the ones up there on the shelf, the fresh ones in the kitchen—and a plate of chips, please.” He stuck his lips to the creamy head on the pint placed before him, slurping back the first inch, enough to make it easy to carry without spilling. He made his way back to the snug in the ladies’ lounge by the fireplace which was separated from the men’s saloon by a partition of decorative lead glass showing a hunting scene of men in red jackets on horses surrounded by a pack of dogs.
“Babysham for my baby,” Billy said in his best James Cagney voice. “A pickled egg and a plate of chips as you like it. We must keep the law happy—spare no expense for my girl.” He grinned as he winked.
He smiled at Meg as she sat on the hardwood bench of the snug—the straight high back of the seat was too far back for her to lean against, being only four-feet-six inches tall in her high heels. She sat perched like a small, lipsticked bird in a floral dress from Marks and Spencer’s on the high street in Leeds. He slid in next to her feeling proud that he was a working man, almost a journeyman, out for an evening with his woman—just as it needs to be, Billy thought.
“You look seventeen to me,” Billy whispered into Meg’s ear as she slapped him on the shoulder and gave a darting glance toward the barman who just winked and turned away to clean some glasses.
“When do you think it will happen, pet, you becoming a journeyman?” Meg asked as she sipped at the edge of her glass, trying to avoid messing up her thick red lipstick.
“I don’t know, love, another six months to a year at most is the plan if I make it as shift captain this summer. You know the gaffer, Harry? He’s a bastard when it comes to doing your time and knowing the details. Wants me to learn just like him and my Dad did, and it was five years to qualify back then.”
“I want you so badly, Billy. I want to be your wife, but not until you’re out of your time and on a full wage,” she whispered under her breath.
“You’re almost sixteen and you’ll finish grammar school soon, what about university? You could do that. Imagine, dead posh and refined,” he said to her, fearful of losing her to the world beyond Diggle, but knowing she had a spirit and capabilities he could not deny.
“You said I looked seventeen,” she said as she pouted. “Are you sure you love me?” Meg fluttered dark, mascara-caked lashes and squeezed Billy’s leg under the table, digging her red nails into the thigh beneath his woolen trousers.
“Another drink,” Billy coughed and stood abruptly, spilling the last of their drinks on the small table. He made his way to the bar using their empty glasses to hide his arousal. Two pints and as many Babyshams later, the two of them sat rosy-cheeked in front of the fire, like lovebirds wrapped in their courting dance. Emboldened by the drink, Billy spoke softly to Meg.
“My darling, I want to ask you to marry me, to be my wife, you know that. But there are so many bits to fit together to make it perfect, just like you want. I promise as soon as I get promoted, and we’re approved for a flat on the new council estate, then we’ll get married.”
He would have to ask his Mam what she thought about that in the morning before going to work. He was sure she would want Meg to move in with them but thought better not to bring it up with Meg at the moment. Meg had an urgency about her he hadn’t seen before this evening; she was always demanding, but tonight she wanted resolution. They finished up their drinks at last call, and he invited Meg to step out into the chilly night rain. He liked it when she slid her arm under his as they walked home, stopping to buy a bag of scrapings from the fish fryer who sprinkled plenty of salt and vinegar on the greasy remnants. They took a slow, unsteady walk back to Meg’s house.
Just inside the entry at the back of the shop, between the streetlight and the storeroom door, they kissed, bumping teeth in their rush to come together. She was flushed after one too many Babyshams, less cautious than usual after all the talk of marriage. He shoved his knee between her thighs, and she let them part as she pushed back against him, Billy, feeling em- boldened himself by the beer, found it thrilling and the blood danced behind his closed eyes as he felt his hardness pushing against the buttons of his woolen trousers and the softness of Meg’s thigh.
He felt her gather the folds of her dress and hitched up her skirt at the same time. She took his wrist as she slid his hand down over her skirt and guided it up over the lace-edged garter strap toward her lace panties.
“I bought these for you, with my babysitting money,” she whispered. He opened his eyes in the dark. He could make out her open mouth, lipstick smeared around it in the dim light behind them on the street.
“Now,” she said urgently. “I want you to do it.”
“What?” He said, “I don’t know how,” Billy admitted sheepishly. “I thought we would be married.” Her hand moved to his backside and pulled him against her.
“I’ll be sixteen next week,” she insisted. “And it’s time, if you love me. We’ll be married. I’m sure of that. I know you’ll keep your promise, now! Put it inside me.” He hesitated, and he tried awkwardly to French kiss her, pushing his tongue into her mouth.
“Your cock, silly, not your tongue,” she whispered urgently.
Fumbling, he pulled his cock through a gap of open but- tons in his trouser fly. Unsure, he slid a hand under one of her thighs and lifted her effortlessly against the wall. He felt her pull her panties to one side as she guided him inside her with the help of some spit on the tips of her fingers.
Urgent and rough, they clawed at each other to stay up- right against the wall. Meg bit into the lapel of his jacket as he cupped the back of her head, stopping it from banging against the stone wall. He worried that any noise might wake her parents upstairs. Billy could feel her nails digging into the small of his back as his cock chaffed somewhere between the rough wool of his trousers and her twisted panties, but nothing had ever felt like this. The smell of lavender in her hair, the warm wet that wrapped around him, the colors bouncing behind his eyes—he pushed away the questions that rubbed against his conscience as he gladly conceded to Meg’s wishes, she knew what she wanted—
Suddenly he came.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” He tried to hold his breath while his legs shook, threatening to buckle. Meg gasped for breath between the crush of his chest and the wall, and their breaths steamed into the air around them.
He still stood with both hands above his head on the wall, legs slightly apart with his head down as Meg slid out from under his rigid body.
“I need to go in now. My Mum will be waiting up and some- thing warm and wet just trickled down my thigh and ran into the top of my new stockings.” She pushed away, straightened her dress, wiped her face with a small lace handkerchief and smoothed her hair.
“That was rare,” he mumbled. “Now we need to get married.” The words tumbled from his lips.
“I know,” said Meg as she kissed his cheek and disappeared through the back door of the shop.