October 3, 2012 by Whispering Smith
HOME FROM THE SEA
The man was not old but part of his life was
done with. The sea was behind him and from his
last landfall he would have to seek out a
new life. The river pilot did much more than bring
the rusting ship to a safe berth against the
town’s tired pilings, he gave fresh hope to a man
with a crippled leg…
She came in laden, the City of Portsmouth, riding low in the water her big belly filled with deep sea gravel. Her hull was rust-stained from the gunwales to the water line. Safe in the pilot’s sure hands, she crossed the bar and made her slow way up the high-tide flooded river towards her berth beside the old gravel wharf. She left behind her not a ripple to mark her passing only the sweet smell of her exhaust. The smoke from the burning diesel oil drifted across the twisting rip like autumn mist on the wind and dissipated among the aluminium masts of the weekend sail boats. Further up the river the bridge was already open and the grey coaster slid between the giant pylons, turned carefully in her own length, and edged up to the wharf. There, secure against the ancient timbers, she awaited the crane and grab to disgorge her heavy load.
Harris wiped the dampness from his forehead with an oil-stained rag and, setting the wheel amidships, nodded to the skipper and the pilot before limping his way out of the wheel-house.
The pilot, a leather-faced grey-bearded bear of a man, watched Harris leave, fired a silver-stemmed pipe and turned towards the captain an unspoken question apparent in his pale blue eyes.
“He can hardly keep on his feet for the whole of his watch, pin’s gone, pity but I think this is his last trip and he’s asked to pay-off here. I believe he knows someone in the town otherwise God only knows why he would choose this place.”
“There are worse places.”
“Name me two.”
“One thing, it won’t be too hard to pick up a replacement in a port like this,” the pilot said, a note of wistful sadness colouring his deep-voiced tobacco-stained words. “But I’ll miss him, he handles the old girl like she was his very own. What happened to him?”
“A couple of years back he did something to his leg, got it in the way of a grab that was jammed under the side of the hatch and came free with a rush. The knee seemed to mend OK but over the last six months or so he has had a lot of pain from it and last week it packed up on him. He fell over, down there by the winch. It could have been nasty had there been any weather.”
“The company sent him to a specialist and that was it really, he advised him to stay ashore. Fifty years old and at sea all of his adult life. Not a lot left for him is there?”
The old pilot nodded agreement, shook hands with the captain and picking up the chart case made his way to the gangway and the hard concrete of the yard. It was a cool September morning and the brassy sun promised a warmth it did not deliver. What there was left of the sea breeze blew the cold surface air off the green water river and up across the exposed wharf. The pilot shivered and made his way through the quiet riverside streets towards the Harbour Master’s office then, almost as an afterthought, changed direction and headed for the Dinky Doo Diner and a hot breakfast one of the best in port.
Harris was sitting at a corner table nursing a large mug in his strong rope-scarred hands, his leather suitcase and canvas kitbag were at his feet, a lost look in his half-closed eyes. He was an attractive man in a quiet way, dark-haired, the temples streaked with grey, clean shaven, intelligent, obsidian black eyes and a gentle mouth, the generous lower lip of which brushed to and fro against the smooth white rim of the mug.
“Mind if I sit down, mate?” the pilot asked, ready to find another table should his intrusion prove unwelcome.
Harris nodded and the older man slumped onto the chair a groan of relief escaping around the stem of his cold pipe.
“Been a long night, the captain told me you were paying off here. It’s not a bad place for a landfall and there are shore job opportunities for a man who knows the water. If I can help in any way let me know.”
“Thanks, but I doubt that I will be staying long.”
“Oh, I thought maybe you knew someone hereabouts. That was the impression I was given.”
Harris stared across the table his eyes wide a look of sudden desperation extinguishing the diamond bright fleck of light in their coal black depths. “Know someone?”
“Yes, someone local, I gathered.”
“I’ve met you a hundred times, Pilot, but I don’t know you, not even your name.”
A waitress set a mug of coffee and a plate of steaming fried eggs and lean bacon in front of the pilot. He nodded his thanks but made no move towards the food.
“Do you want to tell me about it, son? I know this place, have a sister here, know the people, most of them decent people, and I know men. I’m a lot older than you and at best I may be able to help and at worst, well I’m a good listener.”
Harris set down his mug and turning his head looked out of the cafe window and across the river to where several swans together with their grey plumed cygnets rooted the shallows of the dead still tide.
“The skipper tell you about my leg?”
“He told me you are done with the sea.”
“I’ve been at sea for thirty years.” Harris said, his soft voice perfectly matching the gentle mouth. “Deep sea trawlers, tankers, cargo ships back when the job was alive and the thing to do. I sailed out of this port on my first ship, a Dutchman. A coaster bound for Rotterdam. A kid smoking Lucky Strike and drinking German beer.” He paused and turned back to the pilot, the pale-eyed grey old man sitting there in his blue serge donkey jacket chewing the dead pipe his breakfast forgotten.
“I met someone in this town on that last night ashore and I have been writing to her ever since. Every week for twenty five years and although I’ve been back many times I’ve never called to see her. In those years she’s been a wife, a mother and a widow. We’ve shared every pain, bad thought, good thought and fear there is for one person to know, all through letters, never a spoken word. Your breakfast will be ruined.”
The pilot shrugged and raised his big hands palms outward fingers spread in a gesture of dismissal.
“I wrote to her about quitting the sea and she invited me here to live with her, just like that, to live with her.” Harris rolled his neck and stared at the red and green chequered table cloth. “But I don’t even know her, only her letters, her words.”
The old man filled the long silence that followed by taking an oilskin pouch from his jacket pocket and packing the pipe’s large bowl with moist black tobacco. He tamped it down and set it beside his spoiled breakfast, nothing cools faster than an English breakfast, the fat had dried on the eggs and the cold bacon had taken on a dead grey sheen.
“When you come right down to it, son, words are all we really ever have of knowing someone, anyone. They may be written, spoken, whispered, shouted or even screamed. You hear them or read them and you take them on their merit. You judge them. Christians die for them and with them. The Bible, words, songs, words, poetry, words. The spoken word, the written word. Your friend has taken you at your words, judged you by them.“
Harris stared at the man, “Hundreds of letters, thousands of words. Thousand upon thousand of them.”
“Were your words good, is your word good?”
“Every one of them, Pilot, every one of them.”
“Then you had best go to her, mate, hear the sound of each other’s voice and count your blessings. You have had twenty five years to get to know each other, you’re very lucky.”
Harris stood up, scraping back his chair. He held out his hand and the old man took it. “Thanks, Pilot, I’ll be seeing you around I expect.”
“Count on it and order me a fresh breakfast on your way out, I’ve another ship to bring in this evening, a foreigner, and paperwork enough to drown in.”
The pilot watched Harris limp across the room, order the new breakfast, pay for it and leave with a nod of his head and a broad but nervous smile.
The tide was on the full, flat, the clear green salt water dusting the bows as the pilot guided the French coaster past the old ferryman’s hut and on to the timber wharf above the new road bridge. As she steamed past the row of terraced houses that marched seawards along the high river bank he waved at the dying sun reflecting from the picture window of the last house, his sister’s house. His sister, standing at the picture window with the tall slightly bent shape of Harris standing beside her, waved back and he was comforted. He knew that the table behind them and the floor and the sideboard top and coffee table and the sofa and every other surface in the room would be strewn with letters and envelopes. Twenty five years of words, twenty five years of learning. He had always wondered who had written her all of those letters and what the purpose of them would finally be and with the knowing of that came a great relief. Another wandering ship at anchor.
Copyright Chris Adam Smith September 2012