Salty Dog

saltydog

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

The Old Man and the Sea

theoldmanandthesea

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!’

‘Mirage?’

‘No’

‘Blot?’

‘No.’

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