Salty Dog by Chris Green
I often come here to sit and watch the boats. I do not know much about boats or seafaring but I find the ebb and flow of the tides and the toing and froing of the vessels to be a kind of meditation. I understand a little about the tides and how they are affected by the moon and the wind direction and I carry around a mental timetable of when to expect them. But boats are more of a mystery. There are big boats and little boats, long boats and short boats, boats with sails and boats without sails but this being a harbour suggests that they must all go out to sea. What regulations are there about how they come and go, I wonder and where do they get their fuel? How do you learn how to sail them and what do you do when they go wrong? Is there a Boat 101 where you can find out these things? Or, is nautical knowledge something that is passed on in masonic secrecy through the generations?
The stranger who sits himself on the next bench has the look of the ancient mariner about him. Admittedly he has no albatross around his neck but he does have the requisite Naval full set, weather-beaten features and lugubrious countenance. He too has come to watch the boats but I suspect from a different perspective. He will know the ropes. He will know how to send a shot across the bows. He will be able to fathom it out. He will have stories about keel hauling and splicing the mainbrace. Here is an old sea-dog for sure. I can’t help but be reminded of Coleridge’s perennial narrative verse.
Coleridge doesn’t appear to have been in the navy and he wouldn’t have had the internet at the time of his writing. Yet there is a wealth of nautical detail in the poem. I wonder how he did his research for The Ancient Mariner. There are many seafaring expressions you would not expect a layman to know. Perhaps as a young man, he sat on this very seat or one like it while a salty dog with craggy features like the one sitting beside me now regaled him with apocryphal tales of the seven seas. The main difference perhaps might be that the stories Coleridge heard would be of pirates plundering sailing ships while the tales I might expect from my man may not feature barquentines and square riggers very much.
It looks as though I am about to find out. The old sea-dog has moved in closer. Surprisingly though, he wants to talk about cats. Although I am a little disappointed that he is not going to tell me about his adventures on the high seas, I do know a lot about cats. Marissa and I have six of them. I understand perfectly where he is coming from when he tells me that he likes to talk to his cat. I find myself talking to ours too, especially Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer. But, it would freak me out if they were to speak to me as his cat apparently does. He tells me his cat is called Polly. Polly would be way down the list of popular cat names. I begin to wonder if perhaps Polly is a parrot and he is confusing cats and parrots. I try to explain the difference.
‘Parrots are usually brightly coloured and they sit on a perch and eat nuts,’ I say. ‘Cats are furry and like to sit in front of the fire.’
He seems grateful that I have pointed this out and this steers the conversation neatly on to trains. He tells me he likes travelling by train and I agree that it is a good way to get about. I tell him if I’m going on a long journey, I often take the train rather than drive. Motorways are hell during the summer months. He begins to tell me about a train he took recently to New York. I don’t like to interrupt his flow but I can’t help thinking a transatlantic train is a little unusual. More likely it was a plane he went on or perhaps an ocean liner. Looking him up and down again, I would say that a cruise across the Atlantic is probably favourite. After all, he does have the look of the ancient mariner about him. Might I, at last, I find out something about life on the ocean waves?
‘How long did the journey take?’ I ask in the hope that he will want to share his experiences from ten days or so at sea.
‘Around seven hours,’ he says.
‘Ah!’ I say. ‘That is quite quick. For a train, I mean.’
I never drink during the day. Not since …… well, not for a long time now. Rum is not my favourite tipple anyway so I forgo the proffered pick-me-up, a half-bottle of Lambs Navy. The conversation moves on to West Ham United’s problems in defence. We agree the blame rests mostly with the new manager. I mention that Millwall F.C. are doing better lately. I point out that Millwall is in the heart of what was once London’s docklands in the hope it might jolt his maritime memory. The prompt sails past him.
While the boats in the harbour come and go, we talk instead about saxophones, doppelgängers and past lives. The bottle is now empty. The mystery man bids me farewell and lurches off in the direction of The Smugglers Arms. Is that a sea shanty he is singing?
I return to my meditation. I still have a lot to learn about boats and seafaring.
© Chris Green 2018: All rights reserved