A Spin Out On The Bay
Joe felt the first limp dribbles of light filter through his faded curtains like a low, torch beam bending through thick fog. The season was on the turn and the dawns were getting later. Another good night’s sleep was a blessing and with diminishing days he was spared the summer chore of filling a twelve-hour yawning gap of daylight. Monday. Late October. He could cling to the driftwood of his routine; keep himself from going under by repeating the same tasks in the same order. He lifted his stiff joints from the lumpy bed. Rose to face the dull day ahead. Time for tea. Joe filled his lime-scaled kettle from the coughing tap in the kitchen then plugged it into the damaged socket on the wall and waited for the rising bubbles to announce their readiness.
His favourite cup, the one with the blue stripe, chipped around the rim, sat waiting on the kitchen counter. Two tea bags, he liked his tea strong, two sugars and a good dash of cold milk. Let it settle and then sip slowly while the tang of the tannins cleared his misty head. Monday. No changes planned to the routine today. No rush, there was time for toast. Joe stood guard by the grill; the bread could turn from gold to charcoal in a blink if you took your eye off it. A good skelp of butter and the last of the bargain jam. He liked the comforting crunch of the crispy crusts. Time to get dressed.
He’d often spent long spells alone but had seldom endured this dull ache of loneliness. Born in 1946, Joseph Ryan desperate to escape the confines of small-town Ireland broke his mother’s heart when he ran off to become an officer in the merchant navy. A jovial rogue in his youth, but cheap Aldi vodka had long since dulled the glint in his eye. In his opinion he had pretty much made a hames of his life, he’d heeded things that weren’t worth the effort and had lacked the confidence to put the effort into things that needed heeding. He could see that now but what use was it to him at his stage, things had gone too far, the frailty of age and the curse of a life badly-lived cut the words off in his throat. The impotence of age was a pure fright, what was the point of it all? The years spent living, the lessons learnt and for what?
Joe drained his tea and then readied himself for his morning stroll around the pier. He liked to keep a connection with the sea, check on the boats, and chat with the fishermen. Sometimes they’d take him out for a jaunt around the bay. He often helped lift the lobster pots, the roll of the keel and the pull of the rope made him feel safe. He had never managed to feel this same sense of security on dry land. Land was too static for Joe. He missed the swell of the ocean beneath his feet. He needed that comforting rise and fall to make sense of his thoughts, it was as if the water lulled him into consciousness. The smell of the salt and sting of the spray filled his pores with plans and his heart with possibilities that he could never realise on terra firma.
Joe made his way down the quiet street towards the pier, his round shoulders and bandy legs rocking from side to side as he walked, as if he was trying to balance himself on a listing ship. It was a classic sailor’s walk. The trip to the pier was the highlight of his day and he tried to make it last, to savour every scent and sensation. The gulls circled the quay wall, their racking cackle settled Joe’s soul. During his years at sea the appearance of the gulls signalled the imminent rise of the port along the horizon. Their greedy squawks reminded Joe of the anticipation of land after weeks spent at sea. As soon as these harbingers of the harbour were sighted dipping and swooping along the bow, his shipmates would competitively brag of their planned exploits around the port. Itching to descend the gangplank to reintegrate into the world. But the pleasure of shore was always short-lived and usually costly. Wages drank or gambled, often with fines for late return to the ship or a bailout from some clink after a barroom brawl. When he would finally roll back down the quayside his body could relax in peaceful resignation. Shore leave was once again bookended by a descent into the Hades of the harbour and a rise back up the gangplank to the salvation of the sea.
Joe missed the rhythm of dry weeks at sea followed by the flood on shore; he liked having his rations planned with pleasures measured in times of scarcity. Land with all its excesses was too much for a man who couldn’t deny himself in the face of plenty. Not for him the smug comforts of self-regulation, Joe needed his indulgences to be controlled by outside forces. He missed the rigidity and regimental rule of a purser doling out his rations in daily doses. This struggle with plenty was a shock to Joe. When his time ashore had a deadline he just spent money till it ran out, now with days stretching out in front of him like a vast ocean without horizon, he felt more lost than if he had been adrift in the doldrums without a compass. Life on land moved independently without the need to constantly tinker with the engine, check gauges or flush pumps with the repetition of four-hour watches. It would not bend to the tides. It would not run aground if you fell asleep at the wheel. All the jeopardy and danger came from inside his head while the force of the elements was kept at bay by concrete and stasis.
He continued to fight against a creeping resignation. It’s not that he was afraid of death and there was no kidding himself because at his age, he was already in the departure lounge. He just wanted to postpone it. He wanted one last chance to make good his wasted life or to see if he was capable of living like a normal person. Routine meant structure, a scaffold to hold up his days. Monday was set aside for recycling with a trip to the bottle bank at the top of the pier. On Tuesdays he did his laundry. Wednesdays he’d sometimes get the bus into town, he’d often have an appointment with the GP or the chiropodist or he’d just walk around until he could respectably have a pint down at the docks with some of the old crew. There were very few of them left now, salty old sea dogs don’t age well on land. Thursday was pension day, when he would stock up on provisions, according to the list that Colette from Age Action helped him make. Experienced in the art of eating on a restricted budget, she made him meal plans with shopping lists. It was hard not to eat it all in one blowout or just to substitute food for a stock of vodka. Friday was library day; Joe was an avid reader, it was a necessary skill to fill the long, quiet hours at sea. He had a taste for thrillers and was currently re-reading a whole slew of Le Carré’s. The weekends were hardest. He fought the loneliness in a grim stand off that lasted from Saturday morning to Sunday tea with Colette. Winter weekends were the worst. He felt the loneliness filling up, like a worm eating him from the inside out.
Rolling along the quay wall, he dragged his light wheelie shopping trolley behind him as the empties clinked their goodbyes on their final journey to the bottle bank. Frank took an almost puritanical pride in the fact that today’s cache contained more empty food jars than booze bottles. It had been a good week. He’d kept the drinking in check despite another lonely weekend. This was progress. He stopped alongside the large, ugly recycling containers, their primary colours taking on the moralistic air of symbols of respectable, responsible living. As if by reducing, reusing and recycling he could somehow find redemption.
Joe sorted his stock and deposited a clear, empty jam jar, into the large white plastic bank. He wasn’t sure he’d get that jam again, one of those bargain versions, lots of little pips that got stuck in his teeth. Still he was glad he’d tried it because at least, now he knew. He followed this with an empty beetroot jar, two bargain-brand pasta sauces and a small jar of expensive mayonnaise: his one food extravagance. He’d tried the own-brand versions but they just didn’t have that creamy texture that he loved. With every jar he made a mental note of possible improvements to his shopping list, which momentarily made him feel good about himself. This fleeting moment was dashed by the appearance of an empty bottle of cheap vodka. He quickly slipped it down the white chute as if trying to conceal a sin. He moved on to the tins and cans, fighting back his guilt as he deposited a crushed six-pack of Dutch Gold. But he regained his self-worth with two empty tins of tomatoes followed by three small tins of tuna in brine. It was the same every Monday, a refuse analysis that served as the ledger of his week. It was important not to get too depressed by a bad recycling stash, he told himself regularly. It was just as dangerous to lose the run of yourself with a good one though. Joe was working hard at pacing himself, but this late in life it was a tough task. He wasn’t sure he was cut out for land life.
He brushed the dust off his hands and wedged the trolley in behind the bottle bank. Head up, he turned to walk the pier unencumbered by the trappings of age and poverty. This was his domain, he knew every stone, every rope and float. He kept a check of what boats were moored what ones were out. The pleasure craft held little fascination for him. He was more interested in the working boats, the trawlers and the small summer ferries that took tourists out to the islands. He spotted Josie cleaning the deck of his lobster boat.
‘Howya, Josie, not a bad old day all the same apart from the grey doom of it, at least there’s no wind. Are you going out later?’ He shouted hand cupped around his mouth to amplify his greeting.
‘Howya Joe, ‘tis thank God, sure we’re blessed so far with the month no big winds yet,’ Josie called back. ‘If there’s no big wind tonight I’m thinking of lifting the last of the pots tomorrow if you want to join me, I’ll be leaving with the tide around noon.’
‘Sound job, Josie, I’d love a spin alright – need some brine in my bloodstream,’ he joked. ‘I’ll see you then and I’ll bring the flask of tea this time it’s my shout!’
The excitement was rising in Joe’s stomach. He hadn’t expected to land an offer so late in the season. A trip like that would set him up for the dark weeks ahead. He moved closer to the boat to pass a few extra pleasantries with Josie before continuing on his patrol of the pier.
His stroll finished in Maureen’s Café on the Harbour Road. His usual lunch, vegetable soup and a ham sandwich, was punctuated with nods and waves to the other equally regimented regulars. He kept an eye on the weather rolling in; for a seaman, the fear of wind is hard to shake, another worry to add to his day. With the paper and a second cup of tea he could stretch the lunch till nearly three o’clock then back to the pier for a final check and pick up the wheelie trolley. He’d take the long way home, stop off in Centra for some firelighters and maybe have a chat about football with Micko. He’d knock another hour out of that at least and then he could read for a while before dinner. Monday, always a grilled pork chop, Batchelor’s beans (not that Aldi shite) and two spuds. He liked Monday’s dinner; the sauce on the beans could soften even the toughest chop and if the spuds weren’t floury it would help soak up the wax. The week had started well, a fair recycling stash, no big winds and now a spin out on the bay to take the sting out of Tuesday. Joe turned off the telly just after the nine-o-clock news. The damp air was beginning to claw at his legs. He’d go to bed now rather than waste another two briquettes. He settled in under the duvet.
The wind and rain lashing against the single glaze of his old windows woke him at around four. Out in the bay pots full of lobsters rose slowly on the swell. The wind-whipped waves crashed onto battened hatches of moored boats. Joe turned in his safe, stable bed while a single, salty tear slowly slid down the rugged cove of his cheek.