A difficult mistress

Alex was a maverick, one of those men thrown up on the shores of naval towns: wild, heartless and damned good fun to have around. I met him through friends who suggested that he may have space for my kitbag and me. So I moved in like all new friends do: meaning for a few days but hoping for permanence or other good luck to amble along.
We drank in dark bars where to have a friend beside you meant good health. Drinking fast, furiously, unconsciously for today and tomorrows that may never come, drinking whatever came to hand in defiance of reason and money that would have been better spent on food and bills.
And of course reckoning came along.
We signed up as trawlerhands, not even a percentage of the catch, only a flat wage. We grumbled of course like all old hand sailors do, but keeping the twinkle in our eye even if not our hearts. The score was even older, until we proved worth, no amount of tall stories of gales, waves as big as… none of these would matter until we had been bloodied in sight and experience of the crew would we be shipmates and worthy of shares of the catch. In darker corners old salts would whisper that not even Jesus would’ve gained more than flat rate until he’d pulled his weight in a force ten. Hearing these Alex’d nudge me and whisper:
“I’ll show ’em”
Worse, he meant it.
We set out most mornings, the sea flat and glassy in the harbour and gaining swell as we ventured further. The skipper, straight out of Hemingway: cap on the back of his head, cigarette held between teeth and white straw hair growing everywhere between. He’d growl at us to do something, scrub, clean, coil anything but to stop lounging around while his money was going into our pockets. We learned pretty quickly to hide out behind the wheelhouse, sipping sweet sticky coffee to ward of hunger pangs and hangovers. The rest of the crew we knew as ‘chancers’ other desperate bods who’d weaved their way through rough seas more by accident than design. Here because they were higher up the totem pole than us and because their percentage cut depended upon our hard graft they gave or expected no quarter. On shore they might stand us a round, tell a tall tale with ourselves included but out on the Oggin… That was a different story, there we were worse than flotsam, for flotsam might get in the way but could also prove valuable. We were unknowns and unknowns out amongst the great unknown creates fear. In that unknown you need to know what is and even more, what isn’t dependable.
Of course it happened. What story of the liquid green is a story unless something does happen, but this didn’t happen during storm and fury we had peace and flat millpond seas. We’d sailed out for two weeks, the catch and money earned slowly building up as we as crew grew to know each other and settle into rhythm. In between setting the nets we’d settle in corners, swab decks, clear space for when we’d haul in our cargo and tell tall stories. Alex was for all of these, though his cleaning could take a while, there was always a story to tell from him. The other hands knew him as trying to fit, appreciated some desire to be part of their crew but knew too that joining would not be quick for their comradeship is based upon more than passing acquaintance. Many crews on boats have ties stretching back to grandfathers or beyond, Alex and I were not of this, we could be crew for ten or more years and still be known as the new boys. For all of his knowing these things nothing could still hold Alex back, his stories grew taller impressing more each time his own part in some wild time and for each heroic tale there would be the knowing grins passed amongst listeners. They would tease, asking for detail of some flight of fancy, then mock puzzle over these entrails attempting to piece these wild jigsaw parts together. He knew they were mocking him but rather than tone down or shut up, the tales grew further into fantasy. I felt at a loss, I did not want to embarrass him by denying truth but too could not confirm for being seen as foolish foil. I grew quieter, coiling rope in slack times, avoiding the encounters between my friend and those he wished to be friends. The teasing now had now become fiercer and truth to tell I had no stomach for such baiting into conflict.
There’s always the one joke insult too many, a sharp teasing knife slipped in between bare ribs, the one imagined slight too far and fists start flying. Some comment thrown and that was how it was. And Alex started flailing away. Fists, boots and head pounding away at his victim. Blood started to flow yet he continued, the other now at his feet and bouncing of bulkhead and deck between blows. Still he hammered away, enraged curses punctuating kicks. We stood, mesmerised at his ferocity. Then I pulled his arm, he prepared to throw a punch at me, I ducked, calling: Alex, Alex, Its me, Its me Alex. His arm slowly fell, he blinked his eyes, shaking his head to clear or remember something, I don’t know.
He reached down, pulled his victim up. Murmuring under his breath words that seemed like, there now, there now, over and over, as if this mantra would smooth the bruises starting to show, ease the cuts away to some fairy realm. Alex picked him up like a father with his baby, cradling him, then gently putting down upon a locker. Blindly his hands reached and found first aid chest, bandages, liniment, plaster and spirit to clean the wounds.
We observed this in silence excepting of Alex’s monotone mantra of there now, there now. I wondered of what to do, how best to behave in such situation, but came up empty handed.
Slowly I became aware of the boat heeling round, perhaps wind on a different part of my face, the sun in my eye or the gulls calling again.
The captain, old hand at boats and men was returning to shore.
The dirty smudge that is land began its slow climb to horizon, the gulls left us for richer pickings as Alex now quiet sat staring out to Sea. Our wounded Sailor tried to catch each of our eyes though we resisted any call to action. He lay battered, bruised and we knew him safe best in our silence and distance.
Finally we hove to, tying ropes to rigid moorings of iron and stone as our boat nudged up to jetty. Alex stirred, shifted his few belongings, then wheeling to face us all, quietly spoke:
“well, I guess it’s no a Fisherman’s life for me then Fellas, you take my share of catch and give it to him…” he motioned at the prone figure on the locker “but mind he buys you a beer from me”
and with that he was gone, rushing along the jetty toward what he thought was some better life. Only the old man was wiser than that, he’d called brothers together over the ‘ship to shore’ gathering older fishermen and dockside heavies to give Alex back what he’d dished out. They moved in slowly, circling and offering cuffs to his head, back shoulders, no heavy hands, but stinging slaps and backhanded buffs. Almost gentle in delivery but cumulatively staggering him. He fell and they picked him up, fell again and this time they left off. Standing back to better view him, ancient heads bobbing, hands resting now at sides, then one greybeard spoke up as others nodded in assent:
“You ain’t finished with fishing son, fishing is finished with you”
Then as one broad backs turned away from the heap laying on the ground.
My eyes still staring, aching with these unwanted timeless tragedies, I felt a hand grip my shoulder, spin me around.
“what’ll it be then son? Him? or us?” not loud, but soft, quiet, gentle, almost as ‘is that one spoon or two in your cup?’ No anger, no pain, only the question that few get asked as plain.

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