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.'
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 ? '
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
' 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
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.'
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