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An Unusual Ferry Passenger

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An Unusual Ferry Passenger | story.one

Peter was a ferryboat bridgeman, employed by The Tyne Improvement Commission. Early in the morning before the first ferry service he would brave the freezing winds that pierced his hands and face like a hundred needles. He was responsible for the safe loading and unloading of the ferry at the landing dock. The Northumberland and The Collingwood were steam-powered paddle boats which carried not only people but the horses and carts of rag and bone men and wagons loaded with casks of ale. Through the stiff, clanking turnstile the passengers would jostle, their boots thundered down the wooden jetty to the landing stage. Some were shipyard workers who tried to jump on before the boarding ramp was fully lowered. The heavy chains clanked and clattered as it dropped into place. Out of the mens’ pockets came Woodbine cigarettes and roll-your-own baccy tins. Shouts of, “Alreet mate?’ and “What’s yer fettle the day?” passed between friends. The cabin would quickly fill with cigarette and pipe smoke and the sounds of hacking coughs and hissing engine noise. Outside, thick black smoke belched from the huge funnel, its acrid smell lingering in the air far longer than it remained visible. The murky river was an eerie place in the absence of daylight. The black water swirled and steamed, waiting to claim anyone unfortunate to enter it, for hypothermia would surely precede the act of drowning. There was also the potential of death from poisoning; pollution from the factories where seeping coal tar and oils leaked into the waters.

Vessel noise and warning blasts from horns echoed through the air and the monotone fog horn mournfully repeated itself on days of poor visibility. Blurred lights from boats that journeyed from the river’s mouth gradually came into clearer view before fading on their upward passage to Newcastle.

The purple and amber glow of sunrise was always enough to raise the spirits of the shift workers with the suggestion of a bright day ahead. Peter watched the seagulls swoop around the trawler boats’ catch, scavenging for breakfast. Some days the sunbeams dazzled and reflected off the river, the rays practically blinding and causing the eyes to strain in an effort to identify shapes. One such day he couldn't believe what he saw, rubbing his eyes in astonishment. But there was no mistaking the shape of an elephant lumbering across the bridgeway of the ferry landing. Travelling circus shows were popular at that time and the animals had to be transported from South Shields to North Shields as the shows moved pitch. He couldn't wait to tell his children about it and was disappointed that they missed such an unusual happening, for none of them had ever seen a real, live elephant. Later that day he wondered if he had imagined it, so bizarre was it to be confronted by this two-ton passenger. That evening, he gleefully related his story and awaited the astonished response from his youngest daughter Jenny, that she and the elephant shared the same name!

© Angela Craddock 2021-07-28

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