In my last days as a student in Dublin Ireland, I took the early morning train to the city of Belfast. Though I was curious about the site of the tumultuous Troubles, and to see how a quarter of a country functions under a separate government, I will admit I made the trip because of a older legend which predates the Irish Republic itself, though only barely.
After a short walk from the train station into the small city, and across several bridges spanning harbor channels, I arrived outside the Harland and Wolff shipyards, where the Titanic and Olympic of historical and cinematic legend were built and launched in 1911. Oddly enough, for a city whose genesis was the building of ships for the English Empire, no one builds ships here today. Harland and Wolff, I learned , is trying to figure out what to do with itself in the modern post-Empire. There is talk of renewable energy development and the vague promise of solar panels, but like a college kid musing on plans in his last desert days, it is a course for an unchartable future from the deck of an aimless present. The large yellow crane is just for show now. The main reason anyone comes to this part of the city, is the modern art designed angular building of the Titanic Museum, which stands out against the sea like a metallic iceberg waiting at the mouth of the harbor.
The museum costs money, and though of course I anted up and read every plaque on every exhibit, I was more interested in the spot behind the museum, which can be viewed either on foot, or from the windows of the museum cafe on the second floor. I decided to travel by foot, and with my eyes a little tired from so much reading of small print wall-mounted text, I wandered out onto where the slipway’s for the great ships 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 an HB pencil borrowed from countless sets of drawing pencils belonging to my grandfather.
The ships had originally entered my drawings and imagination 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, playing with our father, or Lizzie, the dalmatian my parent’s used to own. They are documentaries on the ships and the men who found their wrecks’ hundreds of feet below the surface. Robert Ballard’s voice as a younger man is as clear to me in my memory as my father’s, as he outlined the process by which be ticked the boxes, and found each of the lost liners of history. 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 the name of the Titanic still brings back memories of those muffled interviews stored on fading magnetic tape. I re-watched them recently at my mother’s house, and I was struck that I still knew the sequence of the interviews and the musical interludes by heart, even twelve years on from when me and my father watched them. He would bow out after awhile, but I kept on watching and rewinding, again and again over my youngest years.
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. 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 anyone’s childhood home is the 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 the clear and calm ocean desert of my twenties I could see where it’d gone wrong, and I think to myself of how I will tell the cameras in earnest as the PBS interview rolls the tape. But I am on the ship, and I know what happened to the two of them because my brother and I were there! Full reverse! Go back! Go back! But like yelling murder in sleep paralysis, or calling out to a familiar child in VHS quality, my arms would not move, and my chest was filled with ice water. The time would not return to me from its resting place in the dark and the silt, and an age faded back into the concrete on which I stood.