The Empty Cask
by Steve Millar
Sailing to the Southern Seas
Chapter One: The Butcher’s Boy
I noticed him as he turned onto East Street towards the Walworth Road. He was clothed rather well for a lad from King and Queen Street; not one of the smarter parts of Walworth by any means. Superior to Sultan Street over the railway lines, with its beggars and footpads, but a very far cry from Camberwell Green, where I lived. I recognised him as the butcher’s boy, he looked about twelve.
“Dulwich is so dull,” Răff (that’s how they pronounced Ralph) grinned at his joke, one of his best, he thought.
“Who claps in Clapham?” No-one, Ralph thought, no-one, least not round here.
Ralph whistled as he made his way up the hill to the butcher’s where he was the butcher’s boy. Good work, regular, twelve-hour days in summer, Sundays off. Mr Holloway, the butcher, told him to nip along to Spurgeon’s new Tabernacle place on Sundays but he was happier with the little chapel at the end of his street, where Mrs Pearse worshipped.
Mrs Pearse ran a boarding house on King and Queen Street. It was cheap but clean, she told people, and Ralph lived there. It was mainly Mrs Pearse who had raised him after his Mum died when he was about five or six. He could just remember her. Mrs Pearse had taken him under her wing, as she put it, and brought him up. She used to tell him stories about his mother, a dear saint, Mrs Pearse would call her, who made her living as a seamstress. Mrs Pearse was long a widow; her own children were a lot older than Ralph. Her daughter lived nearby, on Larcom Street, in a neat terraced villa. Ralph used to go there for tea as a treat sometimes when he was little. Her younger son was a porter at Clapham Junction and the older one, Albert, was a lighterman down on the River Thames.
Ralph had built himself a bit of a reputation on his rough street as a plucky lad who would stand up to bullies to protect the younger ones or stop to them mocking the beggars. He was too old for the Schools Act but that didn’t worry him. He was streetwise and willing to work hard. School would just have stopped him from doing his job, which he did well, though he said it himself. He did a bit of mud-larking Sunday evenings in the summer, finding the odd little treasure to bring in the odd extra pennies. He was friendly and happy to chat, particularly to old Joe “First Mate” Emmett, a sailor always ready with a smoke and a yarn or two with anyone who would listen. His adventures held Ralph spellbound with his “things I’ve seen”, “let me tell you, lad”, “adventures I have had”; from his time as a cabin boy at Trafalgar to sailing the world as a Mate; tales of romance, opportunity and excitement feeding his imagination.
Ralph got to see plenty of smart houses, ones with domestics; a stark contrast to Mrs Pearse’s. Wealthy people like Doctors, Merchants, and Lawyers. Butcher Holloway had a reputation for providing good meat so had good customers. He ran a flashy two-wheeled cart with his name on the side. Whilst Mr Holloway was speaking with the housekeeper at the front door, Ralph’s job was to carry meat down the steps on his shoulder board to the kitchen-maid’s scullery door. They were often girls not much older than he was, neatly turned out, white cap, worn apron, too poor to give a tip but he often got a smile. He particularly liked Mr Martin’s, the wine merchant, who kept a good house and who had a really sweet scullery maid, Ellen. Ellen would crack the odd joke, be rude about his tired clothes and give him a bit of chaffing – “you’re a bright lad, you should go far”.
After the day’s deliveries, Ralph’s work was to tidy up the shop, gathering up the scraps for sausages for the poorer customers, sweeping the blood out onto the street, washing down all the cool ceramic counters, the frames and iron hooks. All this, and carrying the heavy meat board, had given Ralph some good muscles and strong shoulders for his age. He worked twelve hours Monday to Saturday, occasionally finishing sooner if the delivery round and the cleaning was done quickly when, very occasionally, his good master let him finish a few minutes early. Sometimes he let Ralph take a few bits of meat back to Mrs Pearse, for which she was very grateful.
Ralph thought about what Ellen had said. Was he bright? Should he go far? If so, how far? He chatted with Albert about the shipping on the Thames and the possibility of work as a sailor. He remembered what old First Mate Joe had said about the excitement of voyages and new sights around the world. He could not see himself as a butcher’s boy for ever. He was getting too old. Mr Holloway didn’t have any children left alive to take over the trade.
He was sitting on the hythe by the river one Sunday, thinking about what he had heard from Albert and from First Mate. He watched the ships. The Palmerston, a paddler, taking trippers round the port; the lightermen taking goods and people from ship to shore and back again; the old coasters tied up; the new steamship Tagus getting up steam and loading her last cargoes to catch the tide. She was lifting barrels off the hythe. The dockers and crewmen were busy. They didn’t notice yet another boy hanging around. Ralph looked at the barrels, they didn’t seem to be full.
He clambered into an empty cask which was lifted aboard.
End of Chapter One
(c) Steve Millar 2020