“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.

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