Big Lil

by Helen Mort


Big Lil

i.m. Lillian Bilocca and the Hull triple trawler disaster, 1968.

 

Lil’s dream

 

I dreamed Hessle Road was a river

thundering by night to the North Sea

 

and all the men I’d tried to warn

were channelled from their pubs and houses

 

fists still clutching glasses, papers,

kitchen knives. I lay down in the waters

 

like a boat, but I was buffeted,

I zig-zagged after them, face-down,

 

my body bloated in the stream. I could still see

and knew the shoals beneath weren’t fish

 

but scraps of hulls and decks,

dead radios. The riverbed was lined

 

with messages, scribbled goodbyes

to everything we’d not yet lost

 

to all we could not carry, would not need

where water planned on taking us.

 

What the papers said

 

We’ll fight for our lads said 17-stone Lil,

proud on the docks like a 17-stone anchor.

Each ship needs a working radio, said the fishwife,

raising herself to her full height

and full 17 stone.

 

Lil is meeting Harold Wilson next week

and at 17 stone, she’s bound to make an impact.

The 17-stone Hull woman has called for a reform

of fishing laws in her distinctive Yorkshire accent,

standing at 17 stone and 5 foot 5.

 

With 17 stone behind her, she’s looking squarely

to the future. I’m proud of her said her husband

10-stone Charlie, gazing out to sea.

 

 

Lil’s answer

 

Don’t speak until you’re spoken to.

The ocean’s given me my cue.

 

You shouldn’t raise your voice outdoors.

My words live in the crowd’s applause.

 

This is a matter for the men. Go home.

I’ll stand until I’m frozen down to bone.

 

Your accent’s making you a laughing stock.

Long as they listen, let them mock.

 

They’ll mute you, Lil. They’ll throw you out to sea.

They’ll have to gag this town to silence me.

 

 

 

 

Lil’s last word

 

Nothing touches Hull except the sea.
As if a tide cut Hessle Road

and Anlaby, making us islands to ourselves.

 

I dived in where the ocean shelved away

and tried to swim. Before I’d raised my arms
I was already too far in

 

and too far out. The city fixed me

with its lighthouse stare. I opened my mouth

and I was ransacked by its glare.

 

I let a single word go like a flare

and watched it douse the night, then fall.

I sank as if I never swam at all.