It is a beautiful morning. The sun is shining, birds are bursting their lungs and everything in the garden is growing like mad. It is a day for activity, exploration, and aesthetic pleasure from the landscape. In short, it is a day for doing something. Bartlett drives the car containing his little black spaniel down to his favourite spot by the sea, some twenty miles from his modest terraced house. He’s been there before. It is a tiny hamlet perched high on clifftops, looking out over the vast expanse of the German Ocean. It feels like any day now the houses will simply slide down the cliffs a hundred feet into the sea.
There’s a car park for a dozen cars and a vertiginous path leading to the bay. This is reached by way of an uneven and pitch-dark tunnel hewn through the cliffs. To a claustrophobic like Bartlett, walking through it is an unnerving experience, although there is the comfort of a pin-prick of light at the far end. In such places he tends to recall the time he was stuck in a lift on a red-hot summer’s day, with twenty other people who thought they were about to meet their maker until Bartlett prised open the lift doors by sheer brute force and the crowd fell out into the foyer.
Bartlett and the dog pass through the tunnel into the sunlight and find themselves in an exquisite little bay, bounded by ancient rocks. A man once told him the rocks are four hundred million years old, from what he calls the Silurian period, but Bartlett is sceptical. How can anyone know?
On one side of the bay, there is a man-made harbour of stone and at it an old sailor is busily engaged in doing something to his boat. Apart from him, and a woman lounging in the garden of one of two houses nestling snugly against the cliffs, there is no-one else around.
The old man’s hair is snow-white under his jaunty sailor’s cap. He looks like Captain Birdseye. He is bending low in the fo’c’sle of his boat. He holds a screwdriver and a spanner in one hand and a hammer in the other. By the state of his craft, it appears that these are the only tools he is likely to need, for it looks as if it might be powered by a Morris Cowley engine, circa 1926, and everyone knows how basic these engines are and how simple they are to work on.
Beyond the harbour wall, there is not a single craft on the vast expanse of ocean, which, as far as the eye can see, is dead calm. The sun shines on the shimmering water, refracting the light into a million pixels of colour. Bartlett and the dog climb the dozen or so steps cut into the harbour wall and walk past a score of lobster-pots piled high on the rudimentary pathway, which is narrow. There is a drop of fifteen feet to the water. Suddenly, breaking the silence, the old sailor hails him.
‘Can you do me a favour?’
‘If I can.’
‘Are my keys in the van?’
An ancient pick-up truck stands at the foot of the road leading back to the hamlet. It has once been black, but is now mainly rust-coloured. The keys are in the door.
‘The keys are in the door,’ says Bartlett.
‘Can you throw them down, please?’ asks the old sailor.
Bartlett looks at the distance between the old sailor and him, and remembers that he could never hit a set of cricket stumps from a distance any of greater than three feet, let alone drop keys into the prow of a boat fifteen feet below with a lot of deep sea around it. The old sailor doesn’t look as though he owns a spare set.
‘I think not,’ says Bartlett.
‘What’s to be done, then?’ asks the old sailor.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll hide them under the driver’s seat of the pick-up. They can stay there until you’re ready to come back up. No-one will find them there.’
Bartlett cannot imagine for one second anyone wanting to steal that old rust-bucket, but he opens the door of the pick-up, moves aside three empty tins of Tam O'Shanter pipe tobacco and an old fish-and-chip wrapper, and duly hides the keys.
‘That’s it done.’
‘Fine. Thank you. Saves me coming up just yet.’
‘You a fisherman?’ asks Bartlett, without curiosity. The dog sits obediently by his side, displaying only a few signs of boredom. Overhead a few Arctic Terns screech messages to each other before plummeting into the sea like tiny black and white skyrockets returning to earth.
‘Used to be. Retired now,’ says the old sailor.
‘You used to fish round here?’
‘Out there.’ The old sailor gestures vaguely in the direction of the sea.
‘A hard life,’ reflects Bartlett.
‘Yep. Worse in winter. Fine, on days like this. Still, the seas were teeming with fish in them days. Not so now.’
‘Spaniards. Hoovered up the fish in their huge factory ships until there was hardly any left. They were tough times, they were. Pleased I’m finished with that game.’
‘You live round here?’
The old sailor pointed at the clifftop. Up there. Seaview Cottage. You’ll see it on your way back up. Can’t miss it. Couple of ribs off of a whale at the front gate.’
‘A whale?’ Bartlett’s tone of voice demonstrates his surprise.
‘Washed up. Twenty years ago. A Minke. Got lost. Ended up in shallow water in the harbour. Compass all wrong. Folk came from miles around to see it. They’d never seen one before. Not a massive creature, not like them humpbacks. Lovely, they is. Delicate, really. More like a shark than a whale. Cigar-shaped. Leap like dolphins, clean out of the water. Sad to see it lying on its side, tiny sightless eye staring up at me. Clever creatures, whales. Talk to each other. Often wondered how they grew so huge living on tiny plankton.’
‘Something in their metabolism, no doubt,’ says Bartlett, who knows nothing about the metabolism of whales. You don’t get the chance to see many whales when you’re working in an office.
The old sailor shrugs his shoulders.
‘How long have you had her?’ asks Bartlett.
‘Well, let me see now. Callaghan was prime minister. It was the Winter of Discontent. I was discontented then, I can tell you. No fish, you see. Ted Ford went bankrupt. I got the boat for a song. She’s an old girl.’
‘Ancient,’ says Bartlett. ‘What’s she called?’
‘Mary-Anne, after the wife. That’s her name, see.’
There is something poignant in the way the old sailor says this. Bartlett notices. He wonders if the wife is ill, or worse.
The dog tugs at his trouser-cuffs. She is becoming restless, and hungry.
‘Nice to talk to you,’ says Bartlett. ‘Must go now. Dog’s fretting.’
The old sailor waves his spanner in lieu of a verbal response.
Bartlett and the dog climb the steep path to the hamlet. Whatever the old sailor does with his hammer, screwdriver and spanner must work, for ten minutes later, as the pair finally reach the hamlet, Bartlett sees the old sailor’s boat chugging out of the harbour and into the wide blue ocean. It looks like a fly in a swimming-pool.
‘Sooner him than me,’ Bartlett says to the dog. He wonders what might become of the old sailor if his ancient engine stops wheezing and he is cast adrift, becalmed, left to the mercy of unpredictable tides.
Bartlett sees that the old sailor has the same thoughts himself, for the latter promptly turns the boat round and heads back to the safety of the harbour. He has sailed a matter of three hundred yards. Bartlett laughs.
Bartlett has scarcely seen any views so remarkable. He observes Seaview Cottage with its whalebones at the gate. There is beetroot maturing in the front garden. The windows need a lick of paint. The old sailor’s wife is hanging out washing. Her aged skin is cracked as dried seaweed. She doesn’t look ill, or worse, just old.
Bartlett learns from a plaque at the end of the single street that the hamlet was once a tidy little herring port. The sheltered harbour must have been a magnet for smugglers. At its peak, the place housed over fifty people; not all of them were smugglers. He also discovers that eleven fishermen died on the night of the great storm of 1889. They all met their end in full view of their families standing watching from the shore.
Bartlett drives home past the bloodied remains of a red deer that an inconsiderate lorry has slaughtered in the early hours of the morning. A motorway sign reads ‘High risk of deer on the road.’ Bartlett guesses the lorry-driver hasn’t read it.
(c) Ronald Hardwick