With his bulging eyes and greasy, straw-coloured hair, Ronald Hughes was in covert conversation with a small, asymmetrical man who wore large spectacles and had a browbeaten air.
“I’m telling you, mate," he was saying, "the scheme can’t fail.”
The two men sat in a dark corner of Montero’s tavern. The name of the small man was Oliver Bates, and he had never been to the pub before.
“It’s like taking candy from a baby,” continued Hughes conspiratorially. “The surest way to five or six thousand pounds you’re gonna find. If you’re in, we can split it fifty-fifty.”
Bates was, in general, an impulsive man rather too easily led. And on this occasion, he had also drunk too much cheap whisky. He didn't notice that the plan sounded too good to be true, which such some things usually are.
“Well, Mr Hughes” he said with a clumsy wink and a lopsided grin, “You can count me in. What will I need to do?”
Hughes outlined the scheme, with its attractive potential returns. He explained that he’d take care of the ship’s engines, if Bates would place the bets and generally take an unobtrusive role in the lounge.
As Hughes spoke, an image begin to form in Bates’ mind of his withered, pessimistic mother. He imagined what she would say when he told her about the pile of cash. He saw her, in her musty Bayswater bedroom, sitting up and smiling her crooked and rusty smile at the unexpected good news. He imagined himself arriving in a shiny, new Austin 7, which he would show her through the grimy window, parked in the street below.
He imagined also how he would finally have his a chance with Celia Ross. He would take her to the pictures, he decided. He hoped she'd wear the nice green dress he'd seen her in once before. Maybe, he dreamed, she would invite him back to her house afterwards.
A little while later Bates left the pub on a cloud, his mind full of grandiose imaginings.
But the next day, as he reached the gangplank of RMS Veronica, he felt a pang of real, gut-wrenching doubt. The thudding in his head, a reminder of the night before, didn't help. And, despite his naïve view of the world, he was no longer so sure of Hughes’ scheme. He reflected impatiently on the whole arrangement. As it stood, he had agreed to make no contact with Hughes until after arriving in London. He would, he realised bitterly, have to go through with it.
As a distraction to the gnawing in his stomach, he stayed on deck for a while, smoking a succession of bad cigarettes and watching the jostling crowds on the pier. Later, only when the ship had drifted into midstream and her powerful screws threshed the water, did he finally go below deck.
He remained alone in his cabin until dinner. After the meal, and two strong whiskies, he slipped quietly into the smoking-room and watched the auction of the estimate of the day’s run. He did the same on the next two evenings, his thin, pale face a picture of suppressed anxiety.
The weather, for those first three days, was marvellous and the ship was on track for a record crossing. It was evident, too, that passengers were getting more confident in their guesses of a fast run. So, it was a surprise when just before dinner on the fourth evening the ship began to roll. Rumours started of foul weather ahead.
As usual, Bates made his solitary way to the smoking-room after a few drinks. Groups were forming around the tables dotting the room and there was a low murmur of private conversation. Sweating in his ill-fitting dinner jacket, Bates took his seat at the back. After what he’d seen the last couple of nights, he felt sure the pool would reach five thousand pounds.
A hush fell as the auctioneer took the podium.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, “The Captain’s estimate of our run until midday tomorrow is 460 miles. We will begin our bidding there. Do I see fifty pounds?”
“Yes sir, thank you."
"Yes, sixty to the lady with the red shawl."
"Yes, to the gentleman on the aisle."
"Thank you, sir…”
The bidding proceeded, and before long had shifted to the high field. This was not as popular as it may have been before the possible change in the weather. Bates’ forehead was beaded with sweat, and his heart pounded. When the auctioneer finally announced the start of Low Field, Bates flushed. With the rumours of a storm, speculators smelled blood. He would have to fight for his ticket.
The auctioneer droned on.
"To the man at the back."
"One hundred and twenty?"
"Yes, to you sir."
"One hundred and forty?"
"Do I hear two hundred?"
"Gone! Sold, to the man at the back, for one hundred and eighty pounds.”
Bates felt his head spinning. He had won the bid. The terrible sum exceeded his meagre savings by a terrifying margin.
But what had he done? His head ached and his hand shook as he signed a cheque for the auctioneer’s assistant. Then, exhausted, he fled to his cabin. At length, he fell into an uneasy sleep.
It seemed to him only a moment later when he awoke. He heard immediately, to his horror, the steady drone of the spinning turbines, still propelling the ship fast and efficiently across the Atlantic.
In a panic, he leapt from bed, and mumbled feverishly as he pulled on his shoes. “What the hell is he doing? Those engines should be off by now!”
Still wearing his rumpled evening suit, Bates began to navigate his way into the bowels of the ship. At length, and after becoming hopelessly lost, he was finally intercepted by the Bosun.
“Where, may I ask, are you going sir?”
“I gotta see Ronald Hughes," pleaded Bates, "the Fourth Engineer’s assistant!”
“Well now, sir,” replied the officer, “why you have see Mr. Hughes at 6 am, I don't know. But whatever the reason, I’m afraid you can’t. There was a crew change in New York before we sailed, and Mr Hughes is not on board.”
For several moments, Bates stared at the man. Then, gradually, a look of tired resignation replaced the taut and apprehensive expression which had been almost permanently evident in his face since the ship had departed. He looked, now, almost relieved.
“I wonder,” he said, finally, “what my mother will say.”