H & W Yard Numbers 400 and 401

If you go to Belfast Ireland, a short walk will bring you to the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic and Olympic were built and launched in 1911.  They don’t build ships there anymore. The large yellow crane is just for show now. But at the mouth of the harbor is the modern angular building of the Titanic Museum, which stands out against the sea like a metallic iceberg.

The museum costs money, but behind it for no cost, you can wander out onto where the slipway’s once were- now large concrete floors in the earth. The museum has traced the dimensions of the two ships onto the surface, and when I followed it along with my feet, it felt small to me.

I used to trace the outline of the great liners in my notebooks, or on restaurant placemats in crayon when I was little. Running along the smoke funnels to the bridge, down the superstructure from the bow and beneath the waves to the stern to where that first mark on the paper began. Accents of smoke billowing back, waves crashing against the hull in ways that didn’t conform to perfect perspective, and in the distance the faint outlines of nondescript islands to give a sense of scale. I must have drawn hundreds of these when I was a kid. My biggest concern was the quality of my shading, all of which achieved with a number two pencil.   

The ships had originally entered my drawings from now worn out PBS tapes. I think they’re still somewhere in my mother’s house with piles of unwatched home videos from when my brother and I were kids. They are documentaries on the ships and the men who found their wrecks’ hundreds of feet below the surface. Though the tapes are well outdated by now, I remember sitting cross legged in the living room listening to the narrator drone on like the rumble of an engine somewhere below deck. Even name the Titanic still brings back memories of those muffled interviews stored on fading magnetic tape. I re-watched them recently and realized I still knew the sequence of the interviews and the musical interludes perfectly, even twelve years on. I remember my father used to sometimes watch with me.

On the slipway in Belfast I pictured the outlines drawn into the concrete suddenly rise into the grey sky. From beneath my feet seemed to spring riveters and scaffolding and the skeleton of the great ship not yet built, long before she would sink. I had escaped again to 1911. But now I was there, before the doomed vessel at dry dock, growing in the air of that pre-war optimism. Unmistakable and unsinkable. I felt like I was intruding on someone else’s childhood dream, not my own. It was a past I was so far removed from it almost seemed like fiction, and yet we now shared the same physical ground, the ship and I. A group of school kids wandered past, and it was a chilly spring day in Northern Ireland. I hoped none of them saw my eyes start to water, when I realized the ground was as much a grave as the childhood home of anyone is a grave of their younger self, piled high with VHS tapes and half filled sketchbooks. There are crayon drawings on placemats like blueprints of outdated designs. My mother didn’t have the heart to throw them away I think. The ice warnings were posted and were written. Sent across by wireless. Twin signals. They’d raised us and bathed us and kept us warm. In my twenties I could see where it’d gone wrong, but like yelling murder in sleep paralysis, my arms would not move, and my chest was filled with ice water. The time would not again return to me.

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“Guy Cotten” in Yellow

The St Ives fisherman’s co-operative at the end of the wharf near Smeaton’s Pier sits quiet compared to the ice cream shops and fish and chips shops. In the windows are things attuned to the casual visitor. A few days after I went I read about the shop, which had been there since the 1920’s. Back then they used to sell oilskins and heavy waxed boots. The air held a perpetual musk of linseed oil and paraffin. Today they sell sweatshirts and a few raincoats. Fisherman’s tackle is in the corner by the door. The ceiling is low. I have to duck a little under the rafters.
At first through the threshold I am alone. Its only after I start wandering around that a thin man in his mit to late 60’s emerges from some secret place in the shop. I could have sworn it wasn’t big enough to hide anyone, and yet as if from the woodwork he was there in the corner, watching me intently. I think he believed I might try to steal something.
I’d come in originally looking for a yellow nautical rain slicker, the kind that the oyster farmers I see setting up coolers on Water Street back home wear under large overalls in high visibility orange. Sometimes I wish I had their job. Even in the summer heat under the rubber gear I pass by them and hear their weathered voices laughing with a vitality that my day job seems to suppress in me.
I grew up on the water. My grandfather taught me to sail and signed me up for sailing camp, but I quit around the time I turned sixteen. However, now that I’m older and he passed away, breathing the salt air in deep comes with dreams of those few times when I was younger and sky was grey, and I remember the sea really being something wild. I picture myself running with the waves in a two man racing dingy, the spray dripping off my yellow lifejacket that seems to strain with me against the wind and the pull of the sheet. If I close my eyes on a bus or a train I can sometimes feel the rhythmic thrashing of the waves on the hull when it missed the valley beneath the crest and shuttered along the beam.
The co-op is quiet compared to the busy street. It’s early summer in Cornwall and the weather has been clear since I arrived in England. I haven’t yet found myself in need of a raincoat. I’m flipping through the yellow coats on the rack with nautical striped lined hoods and attractive zippers when the guy says in a quiet abruptness, “Those-re all ladies jackets”.
“Yah hard to tell right away sometimes”. I notice I’m slurring my words a little, trying to sound like there’s a dryness in my throat from the salt air. He doesn’t say anything, or he doesn’t hear me. I pull from the rack on the far left side away from the window a plain looking baggy yellow jacket- the spitting image of what the fisherman at home wear. It’s a highlighter yellow, but I call it “hi-vis” when I pull it from the rack and bring it to the man’s attention.
“This looks like a real one” I say, pausing a little, hoping hill fill the void in my knowledge which really only goes so far as “this looks like a real one”.
“yeh, it’s a proper rain jacket. Has the fused seams rather than stitched”. He handles the rubberized fabric and instantly finds an example, but falls quiet again.
“How’s fishing around here?” I start, “I’m from a coastal town like here. I’ve got a friend who’s an oyster farmer who told me there’s no money in it anymore. All the fish are gone.” I’m trying hard to sound like I know what I’m talking about. It’s only half true. I do know someone in oyster farming, but we’ve never really talked about her work, and don’t know how related if at all that is to the fishing industry. I just know you can’t just buy a proper fisherman’s rain slicker without knowing something about the sea. I check and recheck my record. I could mention that I used to sail, but that was in sailing camp, and these guys didn’t start in any sort of summer camp. The man in the co-op certainty didn’t I think. Did he fish? Does he just work here? There are deep crests of wrinkles on his forehead and his hair is cut short and out of the way. His face is laconic, which only serves to alert me to how much mine gives away. I’m curling my toes in my boots and sweating in my t-shirt. He had me pegged from the moment I walked in. I just know it.
“There’re still some little boats around that still go out with nets,” He says. “ And the big trawlers make the money. It’s the medium fishermen” He doesn’t finish his sentence. I assume he means, “It’s the in between sized fishing ventures that failed”. I ask him if he did any fishing himself and he says. “A little, yes”.
I buy the jacket. It’s a baggy medium. “Probably to fit a sweater under” I say in front of him to myself, but I know it’s made for someone of a different build. He thanks me for my fifty and I walk out into the cloudless sun of St. Ives with the yellow rubber folded under my arm. In the harbor it is low tide, and a small fleet of boats lays beached waiting for the water to come back in. Their lines run entrenched in the sand, crisscrossing small channels of salt water, which run from pools at the base of the crowded break wall. Beyond the many beach goers lying amongst the boats, the coastal waters reflect back an empty and unbroken blue.

Embrasure

My room is on the first floor, off of the great hall. Its not really ours any more though- its on the market. It was after Avalon was sold, a little after my grandfather died. When the Green Knight came to call, and Tristan and Isolde were best friends until she of the white hands, and the eventual divorce.

I remember, when I was young, my grandfather took my family to Scotland, to the ruined keeps amidst rolling farmland. I remember my father bought me and my brother wooden swords from the castle gift shop. There are photographs, of us climbing across the half tumbled walls after one another, and the plywood blade smacked hard into young wrists.

I found one of the swords once a few years back, covered with rot and mildew from the damp of our basement. The rope cross guard had come untwined and frayed, and the hilt is now too small for my hand. I remember springing out of rented cars with it, to ready in the old way, using my belt loop as a sheath. To read from the Exeter Book by candle light: the Ruin, like the alimony, not giant’s work or any faithful design. Only faith in my brother, who was with me then, as he is now.

He and I have seen modern ruins, castle condos- made of linoleum, wood paneling, and appliances from the 70s. The kind my father grew up with, is what he told us- the first time we visited his new place on Harbor Hill. The lord my father died in his sleep, my mother might have preferred to say, if his body had not up and left, mind without a trace. My grandfather’s last word was his wife’s name. My mother told me that some time after the house he’d built was sold.

I remember my father in portraiture, when his face was young, and he wore glasses and was unshaven from time to time. In his great hall the pictures are gone. I wander- out of my room, to where the Christmas tree once was. They’d collected ornaments for it like precious jewels for the vault.

But I am standing in the great hall of an older ruin far away, where the wind calls quiet through the weeds of a now ruined rampart, like the weeds I once removed from my mothers garden as part of my chores. It brings his voice, wandering across moss stone. Ry-de he he called me when I was a child. He still does, starting the first time he saw me since he moved.

The keep is the next town over, with gates wide open, he told me. I can go whenever I want, and maybe help him decorate, or move furniture. But the land is blocked, wild and untamed hills of Waves, and my mother has tossed out the sword in the stone with the weeds and the wedding photographs.

But I am far from the rubble, in the settled rock of Goodrich. Study abroad, and run. In the ruins of the place, no harm can come to me. The conditions of a Visa say so. Until  I must ride out after a year and one day, and face the green of Harbor Hill with a wooden sword pulled from the basement like stone.