The Old Man and the Sea by Chris Green
Rain or shine, you will find the old man in the same spot on the beach, his back to the sea wall, gaze firmly fixed ahead, watching the ebb and flow of the tide. As you pass, you might remark to your companion that he is waiting for his ship to come in. But, this seems unlikely. Even if the forlorn figure in the dark grey duffle coat and the oily waders was once a sailor, his seafaring days are clearly long gone. Although this stretch of shingle is a long way from the main beaches of the town, if you mention the old man on the beach to anyone locally, they will know exactly who you are referring to. Yet, no-one seems to know or care who he is or why he is there.
Living by the sea, I suppose one becomes used to seeing oddballs and ne’er do wells about the place. Coastal towns get more than their share of crusties and vagrants. Since Cindy and I moved down a few months ago we have certainly come across a few. But, this one seems different. Somehow, he is not your stereotypical rough sleeper or street drinker. As he sits there quietly, he seems to be in a faraway place, removed from the concerns of the everyday, his air of detachment almost Buddha-like.
‘I have the feeling that this old fellow might have a story or two to tell,’ I say to Cindy on one of our strolls along the shore with our foxhound, Freddie.
‘So you keep saying,’ Cindy says. ‘Well, Ray! There’s only one way to find out.’
Before I know it, she has put Freddie on his lead and is down on the beach offering the man a cup of tea from our flask. With his unkempt grey beard and pock-marked skin, it is difficult to put an age on him, but close up he looks very old indeed. Years of living in the margins have obviously taken their toll.
‘Do you know, you are the first people to talk to me in over a year,’ the man says in a brittle voice. As he speaks, I detect a faint trace of an accent, Geordie perhaps, but not so much that I can be certain. He definitely doesn’t sound local though.
‘Surely not!’ Cindy says. ‘People seem so friendly around here.’
‘I did wonder if perhaps I had become invisible,’ he continues. ‘So excuse me if I’m not used to having conversations. In fact, it’s been so long that when you sat down, I wasn’t sure that I’d still be able to speak.’
‘Well, you are speaking and we are here to see if there’s anything that we might be able to do to help,’ Cindy says, the social worker in her coming out.
‘It wasn’t always this way,’ he says. ‘To look at me now you might not believe it but I’ve seen a bit of the world.’
I give Cindy a didn’t I tell you he would have a story glance. I am about to say. ‘See, he does have a story to tell.’ But sadly at this point, the old man clams up. Despite our efforts to get him to elaborate, we get no more details. He tells us instead that he has seen half a dozen seals and a dolphin that day. He then goes on to explain how important the wind direction is in predicting tides.
Despite his preoccupation with maritime matters, Cindy and I agree that there’s an interesting story hidden somewhere. It’s just a question of drawing it out of him. On Saturday, in spite of my mocking, Cindy prepares a packed lunch for him. He is bewildered that she has gone to all this trouble and says he hasn’t eaten anything like this for months. He says some days he doesn’t eat at all.
After he has devoured every last morsel and expressed his thanks, he tells us he used to enjoy his food and dined well. In fact, years ago he was something of a gourmet. He tells us about a nine-course banquet he once had at the Ritz in Paris, Vichyssoise, foie gras, salmon en croûte, poulet de Provençal, salade Landaise, plateau à fromage, poire à la Beaujolaise, red wine, white wine, cognac. The feast was never ending, he says, becoming quite animated. And there Parisian courtesans on hand to fulfil his every need.
This is more like it. A story at last.
He begins to run off a list of European cities, Stockholm, Hamburg, Madrid, Rome …….
Where is this leading?
He hesitates. Surely he is not going to leave us with half a story. But, he does. We attempt to find out about his European odyssey, but he tells us instead how the moon affects the height of the tides.
Cindy and I aren’t able to come down this way every day because we have other commitments, work, family and the like but on the occasions that we do, we now always stop by for a chat with the old man. Cindy always insists on bringing him something to eat for which he is always grateful. Not just leftovers or cold cuts either, she has taken to buying especially for him at Waitrose on the weekly shop. As he begins to relax with us, his regional accent is more noticeable. Now and again he expresses agreement with something with wey aye and occasionally he slips in expressions like marra and hinny. While he is certainly not open about his past, I notice every now and then he makes a vague reference to the music business with the odd mention of a musician or a rock concert. But, this is as far as it goes. Each time, details are withheld.
It is not easy to determine what anyone would have looked like when they were younger but from what the old man has said or not said, difficult not to speculate. It is clearly easier to digitally age a face than it is to un-age it. Nevertheless, Cindy takes a photo of the old man on her phone and runs it through a specialist app designed to do just that. The result looks like one of those police photofit pictures that resemble no-one in the slightest.
I decide to try a different approach. I tell him about a childhood holiday I had on the North East coast in the hope that he might confide that he had once had a slot machine empire in Newcastle before the Toon Mafia moved in or that he was the disgraced Mayor of Gateshead or some other tale of woe that would explain his downfall. But, all he wants to talk about are the curious tide patterns you get on the Tyne and Wear coast. Not many people know it, he says, but it’s a canny spot for surfing.
Cindy and I are visiting our friends, Errol and Cheryl, when we hear the track on a compilation shuffle. The song has a strong melody and haunting chorus.
‘Who is this?’ I ask.
‘Sweet limpin’ Jesus!’ Errol says. ‘You’re not heard Drowning. It’s a classic.’
‘Not until now, no. Who is it?’
‘You really don’t know. Go on! Have a guess!’
I give up.’
‘It’s by Twenty Seven. It was on The Sea, the last album they made before Joey Monroe went missing.’
‘Ah I see,’ I say. ‘I only know their later stuff. They became quite commercial, didn’t they? They had an orchestra on that tune about the Spanish Civil War.’
‘You’re thinking about the other lot, Ray,’ Errol says. ‘But I take your point. Twenty Seven did become more commercial after Joey …… went. Their best songs in my view are definitely the ones with Joey. After all, he was the main man. He wrote the songs and was the lead singer.’
‘I think I was aware of that,’ I say.
I recall Joey Monroe, the flamboyant former frontman with Twenty Seven disappeared in 1995 at the age of twenty seven. He was reported to have drowned in the North Sea. Suicide, it was suggested. Inevitably, his death was widely connected to the so called Twenty Seven club, that elite band of rockers that had died at the age of twenty seven. While, he was big in Europe, the band had not conquered the US. He was by no means as famous as Jimi Hendrix or Jim Morrison, or even Kurt Cobain, who had shot himself, just the year before. As a result, Joey would always be considered a junior member of that select club.
Over the years, there were a number of alleged sightings of Joey, but none of these ever came to anything and in 2004, he was officially declared dead, even though his body had never been discovered.
‘Joey might still be alive of course,’ Errol laughs. ‘You know, like Elvis.’
‘You think so?’ I say.
‘You never know. He might be hiding away in some remote backwater and living a quiet life,’
‘But surely, wherever he was, someone would have found him by now.’
‘But he would look so much older now, wouldn’t he? He wouldn’t be wearing his stage clothes and make up.’ Errol says. ‘No-one would be able to recognise him. He might have matted grey hair and a salt and pepper beard, for instance, and wear a scungy old overcoat. Like that fella …….. ‘
© Chris Green 2017: All rights reserved