‘Vi? Vi! There’s another one been lost! That’s the third in three weeks.’
Mrs Bennett from next door bustled into the kitchen, brandishing a copy of the Mail which she spread out over Vi’s kitchen table. ‘THIRD HULL TRAWLER LOST’, the headline exclaimed. ‘19 ON BOARD. “No hope”, say the owners.’ The Ross Cleveland had gone down in Icelandic waters, all lives presumed lost. The Romano had gone down two weeks before, followed by the Kingston Peridot a week later.
‘Now, are you going to get behind Lil and sign her petition?’
‘Bloody Lil. She should leave well alone. It’s men’s work. No place for a woman to be meddling. Is it true she tried to stop the St Keverne from sailing?’
‘Vi. When are you going to wake up? That’s nearly sixty men gone in three weeks. Lil says they need better safety measures on board. They need a radio operator.’
‘And what would she know about it?’
‘I know that too many lives have been lost over the years. My Charlie, your Bill. Mrs Wilson’s lad from number 30 was on the Kingston Peridot. Summat needs doing. Summat more than your mumbo-jumbo. Men don’t die because someone put their washing out on the wrong day; our men are dying because they’ve not got the right equipment.’
‘Like I say, Lillian Bilocca shouldn’t be meddling. The quayside’s no place for a woman. It’s unlucky. She’s putting lives at risk just by being there.’
‘We’ve stayed away from the quayside for years and our husbands still died. Old wives tales, Vi’, Mrs Bennett scoffed.
‘I am an old wife.’
‘An old wife with a dead husband.’
‘And what about you, Deborah? What do you make of all this?’ Vi said, turning her attentions to Mrs Bennett’s 23 year old daughter who was hovering by the back door.
‘I’ve signed the petition, Vi. And if there’s anything else to be done, count me in. I want my Reggie kept safe out there.’ There was a pause before she added, ‘And I reckon your Linda would have said the same.’
Eight year old Jacqueline, who had been listening to the conversation from the bottom of the stairs, held her breath at the mention of her older sister, Linda. There was a long pause before Vi said:
‘Well. I can’t sit around here all day gossiping.’ Vi’s chair made a scraping sound as she pushed it back along the vinyl, signaling the end of the discussion.
The Hessle Road fishing community was one built on centuries of superstition. A woman should never wave her man off from the quayside in case she waved him out to sea. Washing should never be done the day a ship sailed. A fisherman should never sleep on his front or his ship would capsize. No money should be taken to sea or the trip wouldn’t be fruitful – the superstition Jacqueline liked the best. Before every trip, Deborah’s sweetheart, Reggie, would empty his pockets of loose change and toss it over the garden wall to Jacqueline.
Jacqueline wondered which rule had been broken to allow the sea to take her father six years earlier. Her big sister, Linda, had always been ‘destined for a sticky end.’ Vi said so.
‘Born on Friday 13th at five minutes to midnight. Almost the 14th. I tried to keep my knees together for as long as I could, but… She was a determined little madam.’
Sixteen years later, Linda had died beneath the wheels of the 346 bus on Hessle Road.
‘One of the neighbours said, ‘there’s been an accident. It’s your Linda’, and I ran as fast as I could, but I was too late. She’d gone to buy nectarines for our tea. I could see them all, rolling about in the road.’
Jacqueline often wondered if it was the juice from the nectarines that had made Linda’s demise particularly sticky. Afterwards, people called it ‘a tragic accident’, but Vi believed it was fate.
‘Born on Friday 13th, died under the wheels of the 346. Three, plus four, plus six makes thirteen. That’s no accident in my book.’
Bill and Linda were forever united in a picture frame on the mantelpiece now. A black and white image, but you could tell their broad smiles were squinting into a bright sky. A line of washing flapping in the background.
Even for a community steeped in superstition, the world was changing. People were discussing ‘safety measures’ and petitions, and Lillian Bilocca was the talk of the neighbourhood. But Vi’s armory of superstitions ran deeper than those of most fisher families. Don’t put new shoes on the table, don’t step on pavement cracks, if you spill salt, throw some over your left shoulder. Teachers had learned not to expect Jacqueline at school if the thirteenth of the month fell on a Friday. Vi hadn’t signed the petition; she’d nailed another horse shoe to the door jamb, which stirred up the gossips and the playground bullies.
‘Your mam’s a witch.’
‘She’s old and she’s weird’.
‘My mam says your mam isn’t your mam.’
‘Children can be cruel. Don’t you be taking any notice of them’, Mrs Bennett from next door had said when she found Jacqueline crying on the front step. Later, Jacqueline overheard Mrs Bennett and her mother talking in hushed voices:
‘Truth will out, Vi. That’s all I’m saying.’
Jacqueline and Deborah sat looking out across the Humber. Its currents would be taking Vi’s ashes out to sea by now. Finally reunited with Bill’s remains. Jacqueline stared at the yellowing, dog-eared document she held. Her birth certificate. The one that declared her parentage – not as Violet and Bill, but as Linda and Unknown.
‘She wanted to keep you, you know,’ said Deborah.
‘So why didn’t she?’
‘She was sixteen. An unmarried mother. It wasn’t the done thing in them days. Your mum – Vi – she said she would bring you up as her own, rather than see you adopted. Then Bill was lost at sea, along with my dad. And then, Linda…’
Deborah’s voice trailed off. It was still painful, recounting the death of her best friend.
‘I found her death certificate.’
‘You know what it says, don’t you?
Deborah sighed. She had known this conversation was coming, but she’d always hoped it would have been Vi, or Bill, or even her own mother who had to have it. Cause of death: she took her own life. Eye-witnesses recalled seeing Linda sitting on a bench on Hessle Road. She seemed twitchy. As the bus was picking up speed, between Hawthorne Avenue and St George’s Road, she’d stepped out into its path.
‘Jack Harker. That was your father’s name. I’m the only one she ever told.’ Deborah smiled at Jacqueline. ‘She named you after him. Like so many others, he perished at sea. I remember her coming round, banging on our door, sobbing her eyes out. She’d found out from Mr Briggs on the corner that some lads had been washed overboard from one of the trawlers. Then, she’d seen the Mail, and there was a photo of Jack.
‘And then she remembered. The day the trawler had sailed, she’d hung nappies on the line. You know the old saying: ‘Never wash on sailing day or you’ll wash your man away.’ She truly believed it was all her fault – the reason Jack was killed. She never forgave herself. Even though I kept telling her it wasn’t her fault.’
‘Bloody superstitious nonsense.’
‘Vi meant well, you know. She could accept Bill’s death. He was a fisherman. It’s what he’d signed up for. But Linda… She couldn’t explain it. Her superstitions helped her in some way, I suppose.’
Jacqueline and Deborah sat for a while longer, looking out at the brown expanse of the River. Where the ships used to sail from. Where Bill and Jack had departed, never to return. The docks were filled in now. An out of town shopping centre and a UCI cinema in its place. Eventually, Deborah said:
‘Cup of tea?’
Jacqueline nodded and, linking Deborah’s arm, started towards home, ensuring she stood on every crack along the way.