As Tom ran along the wet, cobbled road, black road glistening under his feet, he could feel his fear rising. He’s lost the letter the drayman had given him to deliver. The wind had tugged it out of his fingers, and into the canal. If he returned without having delivered it, he knew that a beating would be the least of it. He had started to run in panic, as he watched the paper float out of his reach, and the black ink spread across the surface of the wet paper. Now, it was as if he couldn’t stop running.
It was starting to get dark, and he was in an unfamiliar part of the town. There seemed to be no one around, just dark shadows in the railway arches to his left and empty warehouses on his right. His lungs burned, and he slowed to a walk. Better get out of this area, before it was completely dark. At the end of the street, he could see street lights, and as he approached, he realized he had ended up at the docks. So, now he knew which part of the city he was in. If he turned left, along the quays, he should be able to make his way back to a more familiar part of town. But to return to what? Once more, that sickening sense of dread filled him. He stopped, and looked to the right, along the quay, at the line of silent boats. ~What if he could get onto one of the boats and hide? Maybe if would take him somewhere where life could be different. He turned and started to walk back in the opposite direction, towards the mouth of the ocean.
The sides of the ships rose high above him at his side, but there didn’t appear to be any way of getting onto any of them. Finally, he spotted ahead of him, in the deepening darkness, a boat with a wooden walkway down to the quayside. There didn’t appear to be anyone about. The ship was dark and silent. Peering about, Tom realized that the ship’s crew were probably in the public house who’s lighted windows he could see on the corner of another cobbled street full of warehouses. Quickly, before he could change his mind, he ran up the walkway, and onto the deck of the boat. It seemed to be a cargo boat, although what it was carrying, he couldn’t guess. All the doors to the inside of the boat were fastened and padlocked. He cautiously made his way around the deck, but could see no suitable place to hide himself. Finally, he hoisted himself up onto the roof of the small wheelhouse, near the front of the boat, and lay on his back. It would be quite dark when the crewmen returned. They wouldn’t see him up here, and maybe when the doors had been opened, he could find a place to hide himself.
He lay there for a long time in the dark. Despite his fear, and feeling colder and colder as darkness fell, he eventually fell into a half sleep, and woke only at the sound of loud and drunken men making their way up the gangway. He heard them pull the wooden gangway up after themselves, and open the padlock to the door, and fall into the ship’s interior. Some banging around, and then, eventually, silence again. Now, his fear rose to reclaim him. He couldn’t get back onto the quayside now. He couldn’t stay here – the first man out on deck in the morning would see him instantly. He must open the door to that unknown interior, and find somewhere to hide. Above him, the night sky hung, heavy and black. The moon had not yet risen. Silently, he dropped to the deck and made his way to the door. AS soon as the door was a little ajar, loud snoring reminded him how close these big, drunken men were. It was pitch black inside. Pulling the door closed behind him, he felt his way along the wall to his right. He didn’t know what he was looking for exactly. Just a place to hide. His hand found a handle in the wall, and he cautiously lowered it, and opened the door. No sound came from within. Again feeling his way in the dark, he entered the room, and realized that this was some kind of store room. There were shelves to his right, and on the one level with his waist there seemed to be heavy, folded lengths of some kind of oily fabric. Easing himself onto the shelf, he pushed himself in as far as he could, and pulled the heavy, rank smelling material over himself. Within minutes, he was asleep.
When he woke, he knew before he even opened his eyes that the boat was no longer tied up at the quay. It was rolling gently, and he could hear gulls screeching overhead. He could also hear the shouts of men on deck, banging, a low rumble of engines. A smell of food reached his nostrils, reminding him that he hadn’t eaten since yesterday’s breakfast. Very cautiously, he pulled the cloth away from his face, and peered around him. It was still very dark in the store room, but a little light came in around the door, and a little more through a grille, high in the wall. He was lying under some kind of folded tarpaulin. The shelves on the far side held shadowy boxes, and piles of what looked like coiled rope.
Tom realised, too late, that he had not thought this through. He had no food or water. He couldn’t stay hidden here. But if he showed himself, these men would probably throw him overboard. He had heard stories from the drayman, and in the public houses around the city, about these seamen. Hard drinking men, no wives, no families, travelling from port to port with their cargo. A growing sense of despair crept over Tom, as he realised just how foolish he had been.