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ODDFISH

James Hanley

 

Cape Race is a bleak part of the earth, though Canada itself, if you travel inland far enough, can be even more bleak. However, it was just bleak enough around Cape Race about this particular time, the ship standing far off, locked in the fogs. This ship is full of men, but they cannot be seen, but you may hear their feet and their voices, and you can conjure up any number of quite ghostly figures. I did not see any of them, except what looked like three conspiratorial shadows in her wheelhouse. Later I did not see them at all, the fog thickening, and to all appearances they weren't there at all. After a while one spoke, and this damned fog had done something to his voice.

My own hand is on a cord, gripping hard. I am listening to a fog clock, and at given periods I pull down hard on it and her siren rolls across and through the white clouds. Warning enough. But it is a wail, nothing triumphant here; just the hard fact of being helpless, powerless; this ship is rooted in a patch of sea and cannot move an inch. Sometimes one has the feeling that the ship is no longer water-borne, but has been lifted up into these dense masses of mist, there suspended, and all its parts held together by the same pressure of the fog. Always one's ears are strained, listening. This is a grey coast, but because unseen, is even more grey. The bridge is hooded, her dodger so high that I cannot see above it. In fog one's visual sense is heightened to the finest degree of awareness. One's imagination may run riot.

There is another muffled voice breaking onto the cold, damp air. To keep warm I moved to and fro, and eventually found myself nearer to that wheelhouse than I had ever been, the cord being long enough. There are three officers huddled together in there, and one trembling helmsman, so much authority looming over one's shoulder. I cannot see any of their faces, but now they are talking, and I can hear them. Out of all this I build a picture.

' You heard about Mr. L. ?'
' No, I didn't; what about Mr. L ? '
' He did not return home.'
' Who is Mr. L. ? '
' Captain L. Surely you have heard of Captain L. ? '
' Even if I didn't, what about him ? '
' Say he did away with one of his crew.'
' Indeed.'

Now they have come out of the wheelhouse, perhaps it is something the quartermaster must not hear. Perhaps I am not really there, they cannot see me, until suddenly one of their heavy feet is treading hard on mine, but I did not move, and did not feel it except as a slight pressure. In any case I am listening far too intently to notice such a thing.

' How ?'
' Smothered him, they say. Mercy killing, like cancer, you know.'
' Boy with cancer ? '
' Not exactly, but with something he didn't like.'
' What then ? '
' Logged as drowned. However, sailors sometimes talk.'
' They often do.'
' Quite seriously, though, this kid ran amok in the wrong places.'
' Was L. drunk ?'
' They say he dropped off in Karachi, not been seen since.'
' I should think not. What harm had the kid done ?'
' Harmed himself, I expect.'
' Probably that's what L. thought.'
' Yes, but what do you think ?'
' I think he was probably drunk. Or a possible brainstorm.'
' Would you say it was murder ? '
' How would I know ? I wasn't behind his shoulder.'
' Anyhow, he had nothing at all to gain by returning home in her.'
' Should think not. Probably very wise to have dropped off when he did.'
' Must have been drunk.'
' Well, he's finished now.'
' You mean it's true ? '
' Quite.'

I am not unshockable. I almost froze where I stood. Even as they spoke I had seen everything, heard the thud as the boy went overboard, into the blue Mediterranean, perhaps, at night, nobody about, a sky full of stars. I felt suddenly isolated, alone. It was like a dream.

' Are you asleep there ? Pull that bloody cord, will you ? '
' Aye aye, sir.'

So I pull and the night is filled with another wail, the reverberations circle like wings over our heads.

' Killed him,' I think, ' killed him'; and then, ' if I am spoken to now, if I am asked a question, I will be quite unable to answer it. I cannot; my tongue is lead in my mouth.'

I can see Captain L. running down the gangway in the hot sunlight, vanishing through a shed, away, out of this world. Killed and called him drowned. I wonder where L. can be ? And the other ?

Now, above the dodger, far out in the fog I can hear the boy, calling; I can see him. I hear him in my mind.

I listen to the steady tick of the clock; the sounds have become as footsteps.

' Blow, damn you.'

I blow.

But I am no longer thinking of the fog, my ears are deaf to any long wailing sound. It is a wail, flinging itself outwards and away, circling again and again, into the grey silences, proclaiming all the misery of these helpless men.

The voices drone on. I no longer hear them. I am out of the fog, I am in another country, another scene. This scene is vivid, burning, alive. When at midnight I am relieved I carry this scene with me to my cabin. I lie on my back and I think about it. I can still see the boy, hear the thud. It digs itself deep into my mind ; it anchors there for many nights, months, then years; it couldn't be forgotten.

And, years later, I wrote this scene from memory, as fresh as when it first came to me out of that mysterious fog. I still visioned that captain hurrying down the gangway, down to the quay and up that shed, out of the world forever. He was not heard of again and it did not matter.

As I say I wrote about this, it took me ten days. Now I realize it should have taken much longer than that. So shapeless and crude and overburdened with feelings. And in any case it struck some Northerners as something less than normal and some critics as rather odd. I have, however, never been able to believe that a searchlight on a scab was anything less than normal, and anything one might call odd. The Mandarins had the best defence, they just giggled.


 

Oddfish appeared in a collection of James Hanley's essays entitled Don Quixote Drowned first published in 1953 by Macdonald