Thursday, 20 December 2018

The Return

Something a little bit different for today's post. I volunteer on the SS Great Britain, Brunel's famous ship, permanently moored now in Bristol. It's always full of atmosphere - a little spooky in places - but one weekend earlier in December, it was even more so. And this is the story that resulted.

A Christmas Ghost Story

Snow fell from a strangely blue sky, and laughing children scooped it up from the dockside to make snowballs. An elderly man strolled past; he tipped his top hat and smiled. It was a charming smile, but I couldn’t help but notice that his teeth were stained brown, and that there was a nasty cut on his cheek. Two women were chatting, huddled inside drab looking shawls, their dresses muddy round the hem. Their faces were pale, and there were red circles under their eyes: they didn’t look too healthy. A wind whipped along the harbourside, and I zipped up my black jacket and looked up at the ship; the brightly coloured bunting fluttered against the sky, and the gold coat of arms carved on her stern gleamed in the sun.
            I’d been volunteering at the SS Great Britain for eight months now, and I never tired of seeing the beautiful ship. But today was special: it was just before Christmas, and the Victorian Festival had brought hundreds of extra visitors in. They mingled with the Ragged Victorians, a re-enactment group who specialised not in battles, but in recreating a sense of what life was like in the 19th century for the less well-off members of Victorian society – hence the dirt and the pallor. There were choirs, and Christmas card workshops, and Christmas pudding tasting sessions, and actors dressed as Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Charles Dickens. (A Christmas Carol came out in 1843, the same year the ship was launched – so why not?) And of course there was the snow machine, sending out flurries of damp but delicious snowflakes.
            My first shift was to be in the dry dock underneath the ship. It was here that the ship was built: now it was hermetically sealed from the outside so that the atmosphere could be controlled, to prevent the iron hull from rusting any more than it already had in its long years abandoned in Sparrow Cove in the Falklands. What a fate for the ship that had changed the world – the first iron ship, the first propeller-driven ship – Brunel’s glorious dream. But then, what a romantic rescue: the ship saved from its watery grave and brought back 8000 miles across the Atlantic to its birthplace in Bristol, and restored to the beauty of its youth.            
Before going down, I decided to have a stroll round the outside of the ship, just to take in the atmosphere and the buzz. As I approached the narrow walkway that goes in front of the bow, I noticed one of the Ragged Victorians standing gazing up at the ship. I was struck by his expression: he looked startled – even stupefied. Most of the re-enactors cultivated an air almost of boredom, as if this was just everyday life for them: nothing special at all. But not this man.
            He was tall and burly, with a square face framed by long sideburns and greying, slightly curly hair, which looked damp, as if he’d been caught in the rain. Perhaps he’d been standing directly in the trajectory of the snow machine? Yes, that must have been it – his clothes were dripping too. I felt a little concerned for him – he seemed to have taken his rĂ´le play a little too far for his own good. I was about to suggest he should go somewhere and dry off, when he spoke. His voice had a slight burr that said he was from somewhere much further north than Bristol.
            “How well she looks! As beautiful as ever… but where is this? We are surely not in Liverpool?” He looked at the line of brightly painted houses on the other side of the river, winding up the hill towards Clifton, and frowned. “Wait – it’s Bristol, isn’t it? Where she was built and launched.”
            He was clearly taking his part very seriously indeed.
            Playing along with him, I said, “Yes, that’s right, we’re in Bristol.”
            He turned to look at me for the first time. He stared at my clothes – I was in black trousers, and the red shirt and black jacket worn by all the volunteers and many of the staff. He looked even more startled – bewildered even, and I began to wonder if he was quite well. He passed a hand over his forehead and murmured something that I didn’t catch.
            “I’m sorry?” I said.
            “Forgive me – really, I…” He seemed lost for words. He looked back at the ship, and then suddenly he reached out and laid his hand on the hull. Now, you’re really not supposed to do this: she may not look it, but the ship’s actually very fragile. I knew I should say something, but his face was so intent: it seemed like something too private, too important, to interrupt. It was almost as if he was listening to the ship, and she was listening to him. For a moment, the sky seemed to dim, and the wind blew stronger, and I heard the piercing, lonely cry of some unidentified seabird. I looked up, expecting to see it circling round the mast, but there was nothing there. I looked back at the man. He had taken his hand away, and he seemed calmer now.
            “I wonder,” he said, “if I might be permitted to step on board? It’s been a long time – so long. I should dearly love to walk her decks again.”
            “Yes, of course,” I found myself saying. “I’ll show you the way – we have to go through the Dockyard Museum…”
            But surely he must know that?
No matter – it was my job to welcome visitors, and so off we went towards the Dockyard Museum. I began to talk a little about the ship’s history, but I could see that he wasn’t listening. He paused by the audio-visual display at the entrance to the museum: there’s a screen in front of you showing the ocean, and a voice booms out instructing you to take the wheel and steer the ship. He gasped, stepped back and muttered something. No-one else seemed to notice his strange behaviour: in fact they didn’t seem to notice him. Feeling a little uneasy now, I noticed that people moved to each side of him, like waves parting round a rock, but they didn’t seem to notice him. I looked at him more closely. He had a kind face, I thought, but a sad one.
“Well,” I said brightly. “This way to the ship!”
I led him up the two flights of stairs and across the bridge which links the museum to the ship’s deck. If you’re brave enough, you can climb the rigging – under the supervision of experienced climbers, of course, and with safety harnesses and helmets. Two children were up there, and we could hear their excited calls, to each other and to their parents below. My companion looked up, and a broad smile lit up his face.
“Ah yes,” he murmured. “There’s no feeling like it, up there between the sea and the sky. But they must be careful…”
“Oh, they’ll be fine,” I assured him. “Really, there’s no danger. Though you wouldn’t catch me doing it,” I added.
He looked at me doubtfully. “Well, no, of course not. It’s no job for – er – a lady.” He frowned slightly as he glanced at my trousered legs, and for a moment I felt a little awkward, as though I was wearing something outlandish.
We walked along the deck towards the stairs that led below. He trailed his fingers along the railings, and gazed round as if inspecting the state of the ship. He seemed to be satisfied with what he saw, because he nodded and smiled slightly.
“You love the ship,” I said suddenly. “And you know her.”
“Aye, to be sure,” he said softly. “I know and love every inch of her.”
Who was he? Had he perhaps had something to do with the rescue mission that had brought her back from the Falklands? We quite often had visitors who remembered seeing her triumphal return – her last voyage, when she was towed up the river underneath Brunel’s other beautiful creation, the Clifton Suspension Bridge. She’d been a rusty hulk then, but the banks of the river had been lined with Bristolians who wanted to welcome her home.
Now he was leading the way, not I. We went down the stairs to the promenade deck. As he pushed open the doors, he paused, and gazed the length of the room before him. He frowned when he saw the trunks piled up in the middle: “They should be made secure. A good storm, and they’ll be rolling all over the place.” He strode forward, jumping when he saw the figure of Brunel sitting on a bench, smiling genially as he gazed out at his creation.
“Good heavens!” he gasped.
“He’s not real,” I said hastily.
“No – no, of course not. I see that,” he said, recovering himself. “But a remarkable likeness, nonetheless.”
Then he turned, and gazed at the windows set into the bow of the ship. He stood very still then, and I noticed that all the noise of the visitors and the ship’s soundscape – which made the whole experience so authentic – had died away. I had the sudden sense that the ship was rolling gently – I’ve had this before, but usually lower down, in the hold, where it’s dark and frankly rather spooky. I could hear the sound of the sea, restless, hungry. It was quite dramatic – I remember thinking that they must have changed the soundscape, and how clever ‘they’ were. The sky must have clouded over, because it had grown much darker. I looked at his large, pale face, and saw an expression of infinite sadness there.
Who was he?
He turned to me. His eyes were like pools of seawater. I was suddenly afraid that if I gazed into them too deeply, I might drown. But I couldn’t look away.
“This was my ship for so many years,” he said. “She was my life. But I knew I couldn’t do it for much longer. I was ill. I didn’t tell anyone – I could never bear to be the object of pity. And I couldn’t bear the prospect of a slow decline on land – that could never be my way. And so, that night…” He turned to gaze at the windows again.
And then, of course, I knew. I had seen his portrait in the Dockyard Museum, many times heard the story of his mysterious disappearance one night in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with an unscrewed window the only clue. I had been saddened by the thought of his wife and daughters, who, all unawares, had come to meet him when the ship docked at Liverpool on Christmas Day some weeks later. This was none other than John Gray, the ship’s best-loved and longest-serving captain.
“But your wife,” I blurted out. “Your daughters. How could you…?”
He shook his head sadly, and I was silenced. Who, after all, can fully understand what goes on in the mind of a man so desperate that finally, he decides he can simply not go on?
Then he smiled. It was such a beautiful smile, and it was easy then to see how he had inspired such affection in his crew and passengers. He raised his arms as if to embrace the ship, and declared: “But how glad I am to see her once more! And she is cared for, and she looks so very well. My dear – you have been very kind. But now, if you permit, I will walk my ship alone. There is much to see…”
He bowed, and his ocean eyes twinkled, like ripples in the sun. Then he waked away, back toward the doors. The shadows seemed to gather round him, and soon I could no longer see him distinctly.
The sun had come out again. I felt suddenly rather weak, and I sat down beside Mr Brunel.
“Well,” I said. “Whoever would have thought it?”
And I swear he tipped his head slightly, and gave me a little smile.

Captain John Gray

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