First time he left this island he was 15. Sailed as a deck boy on a coastal freighter heading for Christchurch on New Zealand’s southeast coast. Spent 12 years working his way up to Able Seaman, and went once around the world. Mostly though he worked the small freighters to the Pacific Islands, has a book in his lounge of those good ships. The picture inside the back cover is of his last one, before he swallowed the anchor and came home for good. In the front of the book is a handwritten list of the ships he sailed on, and on the wall behind his chair a brass bell hangs. It is from that last ship too. They would ring it for each shackle of the anchor chain as it was coming up or going down, so the men on the bridge knew how deep the anchor lay. It hangs silent now, unwrung, unsung.
He is a shade over 60, still brick solid in arms and chest, maybe 5 foot 6 tall and bad-hips bow-legged. He walks heavy on a crutch from a hip replacement gone wrong 6 months ago. Will tell you honest he wishes he’d never let the doctor talk him in to it. The arthritic pain was one thing, but being a cripple, that’s another life altogether.
I’m staying here while I plan the wharf job, like to stay with the locals when I can. Means I meet people outside of the one-pub-on-the-island scene, where only the lost and lonely drink this late at night. Truth is not everyone wants me here, just another flash cunt from the mainland here to spend government money. Have had it said to me as plain as that. Last time the government sent a man like me the islanders got a wharf they didn’t want, right where they didn’t want it, so no surprise the welcome isn’t warm.
We’ve sat up late these last few nights, him telling stories from his time on the ships and from after that. He came back to the island, got married, worked the crayfish boats when the money was good, built a home, always made sure his kids got fed. Brought them up to pay their own way and do a good days work.
When he tells his stories, especially the sea-dog ones, sometimes the stories get rough, spoken in the language of old sailors, plenty of cunt-fuck thrown in. That’s when I see his work-worn wife knit a little faster in her chair, sat right next to his, and she turns away to stoke the wood-fire whether it needs it or not, but never says a word about it, lets him go. She laughs too, laughs easy when the stories get good, old times on ships long gone, corrects him when he mixes up dates or names, does it gentle, same way he is with her. When he tells stories from later on, that have her in them, he calls her his mate, only uses her name when the stories get to speaking of hard days. Their first son, breach birth, with only the nuns to help, and them an hours walk away.
Their house is always warm, and tonight their two fat cats lay fireside, no care for the storm outside. That storm whistling the chimney, blowing 40 knots from the south west, antarctic blow, rain and hail and rain again, the weather I’m waiting out. Waiting out to send the first of my gear from the mainland, to start the job. On every wall around me there are pictures of ships, and children of every age, kids and grandkids, while listening with me is one of his brother's grandsons, 16 and tall, lean-limbed, staying here to help out while that hip heals, if that hip heals.
He listens too. A quiet kid, brought up to say little and listen when old men speak, listens to sea stories, hears respect for men who worked hard, while the ones who didn’t get spoken of more harshly. The lazy ones, the drunken ones, the men who left women to bring up kids on their own. He is learning in every word the boots he has to fill to stand well among his family.
it’s a joy for me, to hear a man talk of a life well lived, to see him looking back on it and not regret a day. The islanders have a word for it; Mana. The authority of right thinking, right acting. I soak it up as simple as the boy does, at 45 years not too old to be reminded of what a man is, or at least what a man can be.
By ten o’clock I’m lulled to sleep-eyes by the fire and the storm outside and the cats at my feet, retire to my bed. It's a small room, simple and clean, just a bed, a bathroom and my bags and books, the sum of this kind of life. On the bed beside me is my journal. In it notes to myself, of my life on the move, reminders, impressions, days I want to remember and others I might want to forget, my legacy, if it is one. I look over at it, that small book. In there is a life with no mention of family, no wife, no grandkids coming. Just new towns and new jobs, year after year after year.
I hear laughter float down the hallway, maybe him on to another story, or maybe just the three of them making new memories on a stormy night, time passing, filling pages. I push my journal off the bed, let it lay awkward on the floor where it lands. It is nothing but words, in it nothing much at all. I kill the bedside light, lie quiet and listen to the house, lie still and safe under heavy blankets. I feel somehow warm, and somehow cold.