The dockside is a silhouette of dark looming shapes against a moonlit sky. There are no yelling voices or clip clopping horses; nor is the daily clatter of wagon wheels rumbling along the tracks that run parallel to the wharf. No, on this January evening of 1901, the harbour of Capetown is sound asleep as it bobs gently with each exhaling breath.
Then, from somewhere in the distant darkness of night, a feint trail of barely audible voices stealthily seeps into the slumberous void with a crescendo of laughter and song. By the time it reaches orchestral pitch, it takes shape and form in the shadows of the dim gaslight that softly illuminates the steel hull of the ship.
The lyrical notes of “Goodbye my Bluebell…” serenade the starlit sky, as shadows of grey and black shift from side to side, wavering, correcting, to the tune of running feet. A tweeting of “ssh” and “quiet” commands a brief lull, before the singing recommences unashamedly belting out lyrics for the entire population of Capetown to hear. Crooning “One last fond look into your eyes of blue…”, the rabble weaves along its crooked way.
“Down men,” one of the dark figures orders.
“Righto, Serg,” another voice confirms his instructions and all four carriers stop and gently lower their cargo to the ground.
Leaning against the gangway that leads to the upper deck of the ship, the group’s happy serenading is replaced by a discord of short laboured breaths.
“Serg, do you think they’ll believe us?” The speaker lowers his rasping voice to a whisper as he addresses William. “Do you think they’ll want to take a look in the crate?”
“Just leave it to me men.” William winks at his friends and lifts his hand in a mock salute. “Who’s going to disbelieve an officer and gentleman?”
A loud volley of laughter once more sounds like a cracking whip. All four men in khaki green are the cleanest and happiest they have been for the entire year. Filled with light-hearted energy, fuelled by the drinks of cheer they have consumed, they are happy that they are going home. There will be no more suffering from thirst or hunger and no more images of dead friends to add to those already lined up like tombstones in their heads.
“Okay lads.” William orders. “Lift, on the count of three….one, two, threeee!”
Following a few grunts and groans, the four friends heave the weight of their cargo off the ground and commence their precarious ascent of the gangway, towards the guard who has been watching them from over the ship’s rail.