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Authors: Penelope Fitzgerald

Offshore

BOOK: Offshore
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Offshore
PENELOPE FITZGERALD

Dedication

For Grace
and all who sailed in her

Epigraph

‘che mena il vento, e che batte la pioggia,

e che s’incontran con sì aspre lingue.’

1

‘A
RE
we to gather that
Dreadnought
is asking us all to do something dishonest?’ Richard asked.

Dreadnought
nodded, glad to have been understood so easily.

‘Just as a means of making a sale. It seems the only way round my problem. If all present wouldn’t mind agreeing not to mention my main leak, or rather not to raise the question of my main leak, unless direct enquiries are made.’

‘Do you in point of fact want us to say that
Dreadnought
doesn’t leak?’ asked Richard patiently.

‘That would be putting it too strongly.’

All the meetings of the boat-owners, by a movement as natural as the tides themselves, took place on Richard’s converted
Ton
class minesweeper.
Lord Jim
, a felt reproof to amateurs, in speckless, always-renewed grey paint, over-shadowed the other craft and was nearly twice their tonnage, just as Richard, in his decent dark blue blazer, dominated the meeting itself. And yet he by no means wanted this responsibility. Living on Battersea Reach, overlooked by some very good houses, and under the surveillance of the Port of London Authority, entailed, surely, a certain standard of conduct. Richard would be one of the last men on earth or water to want to impose it. Yet someone must. Duty is what no-one else will do at the moment. Fortunately he did not have to define duty. War service in the RNVR, and his whole temperament before and since, had done that for him.

Richard did not even want to preside. He would have been happier with a committee, but the owners, of whom several rented rather than owned their boats, were not of the substance from which committees are formed. Between
Lord Jim
, moored almost in the shadow of Battersea Bridge, and the old wooden Thames barges, two hundred yards upriver and close to the rubbish disposal wharfs and the brewery, there was a great gulf fixed. The barge-dwellers, creatures neither of firm land nor water, would have liked to be more respectable than they were. They aspired towards the Chelsea shore, where, in the early 1960s, many thousands lived with sensible occupations and adequate amounts of money. But a certain failure, distressing to themselves, to be like other people, caused them to sink back, with so much else that drifted or was washed up, into the mud moorings of the great tideway.

Biologically they could be said, as most tideline creatures are, to be ‘successful’. They were not easily dislodged. But to sell your craft, to leave the Reach, was felt to be a desperate step, like those of the amphibians when, in earlier stages of the world’s history, they took ground. Many of these species perished in the attempt.

Richard, looking round his solid, brassbound table, got the impression that everyone was on their best behaviour. There was no way of avoiding this, and since, after all, Willis had requested some kind of discussion of his own case, he scrupulously collected opinions.


Rochester? Grace? Bluebird? Maurice? Hours of Ease? Dunkirk? Relentless
?’

Richard was quite correct, as technically speaking they were all in harbour, in addressing them by the names of their craft. Maurice, an amiable young man, had realised as soon as he came to the Reach that Richard was always going to do this and that he himself would accordingly be known as
Dondeschiepolschuygen IV
, which was inscribed in gilt lettering on his bows. He therefore renamed his boat
Maurice
.

No-one liked to speak first, and Willis, a marine artist some sixty-five years old, the owner of
Dreadnought
, sat with his hands before him on the table and his head slightly sunken, so that only the top, with its spiky crown of black and grey hair, could be seen. The silence was eased by a long wail from a ship’s hooter from downstream. It was a signal peculiar to Thames river – I am about to get under way. The tide was making, although the boats still rested on the mud.

Hearing a slight, but significant noise from the galley, Richard courteously excused himself. Perhaps they’d have a little more to contribute on this very awkward point when he came back.

‘How are you getting on, Lollie?’

Laura was cutting something up into small pieces, with a cookery book open in front of her. She gave him a weary, large-eyed, shires-bred glance, a glance whose horizons should have been bounded by acres of plough and grazing. Loyalty to him, Richard knew, meant that she had never complained so far to anyone but himself about this business of living, instead of in a nice house, in a boat in the middle of London. She went home once a month to combat any such suggestion, and told her family that there were very amusing people living on the Thames. Between the two of them there was no pretence. Yet Richard, who always put each section of his life, when it was finished with, quietly behind him, and liked to be able to give a rational explanation for everything, could not account for this, his attachment to
Lord Jim
. He could very well afford a house, and indeed
Jim
had been an expensive conversion. And if the river spoke to his dreaming, rather than to his daytime self, he supposed that he had no business to attend to it.

‘We’re nearly through,’ he said.

Laura shook back her dampish longish hair. In theory, her looks depended on the services of many employees, my hairdresser, my last hairdresser, my doctor, my other doctor who I went to when I found the first one wasn’t doing me any good, but with or without their attentions, Laura would always be beautiful.

‘This galley’s really not so bad, is it, with the new extractor?’ Richard went on, ‘A certain amount of steam still, of course …’

‘I hate you. Can’t you get rid of these people?’

In the saloon Maurice, who had come rather late, was saying something intended to be in favour of Willis. He was incurably sympathetic. His occupation, which was that of picking up men in a neighbouring public house, with which he had a working arrangement, during the evening hours, and bringing them back to the boat, was not particularly profitable. Maurice was not born to make a profit, but then, was not born to resent this, or anything else. Those who felt affection for him had no easy way of telling him so, since he seemed to regard friend and enemy alike. For example, an unpleasant acquaintance of his used part of Maurice’s hold as a repository for stolen goods. Richard and Laura were among the few boat owners who did not know this. And yet Maurice appeared to be almost proud, because Harry was not a customer, but somebody who had demanded a favour and given nothing in return.

‘I shall have to warn Harry not to talk about the leak either,’ he said.

‘What does he know about it?’ asked Willis.

‘He used to be in the Merchant Navy. If people are coming to look at
Dreadnought
, he might be asked his opinion.’

‘I’ve never seen him speak to anyone. He doesn’t come often, does he?’

At that moment
Lord Jim
was disturbed, from stem to stern, by an unmistakeable lurch. Nothing fell, because on
Lord Jim
everything was properly secured, but she heaved, seemed to shake herself gently, and rose. The tide had lifted her.

At the same time an uneasy shudder passed through all those sitting round the table. For the next six hours – or a little less, because at Battersea the flood lasts five and a half hours, and the ebb six and a half – they would be living not on land, but on water. And each one of them felt the patches, strains and gaps in their craft as if they were weak places in their own bodies. They dreaded, and were yet painfully anxious, to get back and see whether the last caulking had given way. A Thames barge has no keel and is afloat in the first few inches of shoal water. The only exception was Woodrow, from
Rochester
, the retired director of a small company, who was fanatical in the maintenance of his craft. The flood tide, though it had no real terrors for Woodie, caused him to fret impatiently, because
Rochester
, in his opinion, had beautiful lines below water, and these would not now be visible again for twelve hours.

On every barge on the Reach a very faint ominous tap, no louder than the door of a cupboard shutting, would be followed by louder ones from every strake, timber and weatherboard, a fusillade of thunderous creaking, and even groans that seemed human. The crazy old vessels, riding high in the water without cargo, awaited their owner’s return.

Richard, like a good commander, sensed the uneasiness of the meeting, even through the solid teak partition. He would never, if he had taken to the high seas in past centuries, have been caught napping by a mutiny.

‘I’d better see them on their way.’

‘You can ask one or two of them to stay behind for a drink, if you like,’ Laura said, ‘if there’s anyone possible.’

She often unconsciously imitated her father’s voice, and, like him, was beginning to drink a little too much occasionally, out of boredom. Richard felt overwhelmed with affection for her. ‘I got
Country Life
to-day,’ she said.

He had noticed that already. Anything new was noticeable on shipshape
Lord Jim
. The magazine was lying open at the property advertisements, among which was a photograph of a lawn, and a cedar tree on it with a shadow, and a squarish house in the background to show the purpose of the lawn. A similar photograph, with variations as to size and county, appeared month after month, giving the impression that those who read
Country Life
were above change, or that none was recognised there.

‘I didn’t mean that one, Richard, I meant a few pages farther on. There’s some smaller places there.’

‘I might ask Nenna James to stay behind,’ Richard said. ‘From
Grace
, I mean.’

‘Why, do you think she’s pretty?’

‘I’ve never thought about it.’

‘Hasn’t her husband left her?’

‘I’m not too sure what the situation is.’

‘The postman used to say that there weren’t many letters for
Grace
.’

Laura said ‘used’ because letters were no longer brought by the postman; after he had fallen twice from
Maurice
’s ill-secured gangplank, the whole morning’s mail soaked away in the great river’s load of rubbish, the GPO, with every reason on its side, had notified the Reach that they could no longer undertake deliveries. They acknowledged that Mr Blake, from
Lord Jim
, had rescued their employee on both occasions and they wished to record their thanks for this. The letters, since this, had had to be collected from the boatyard office, and Laura felt that this made it not much better than living abroad.

‘I think Nenna’s all right,’ Richard continued. ‘She seems quite all right to me, really. I don’t know that I’d want to be left alone with her for any length of time.’

‘Why not?’

‘Well, I’m not quite sure that she mightn’t burst into tears, or perhaps suddenly take all her clothes off.’ This had actually once happened to Richard at Nestor and Sage, the investment counsellors where he worked. They were thinking of redesigning the whole office on the more modern open plan.

The whole meeting looked up in relief as he came back to the saloon. Firmly planted on the rocking boat, he suggested, even by his stance in the doorway, that things, however difficult, would turn out reasonably well. It was not that he was too sure of himself, simply that he was a good judge of the possible.

Willis was thanking young Maurice for his support.

‘Well, you spoke up … a friend in need …’

‘You’re welcome.’

Willis half got up from the table. ‘All the same, I don’t believe that fellow was ever in the Merchant Navy.’

Business suspended, thought Richard. Firmly, but always politely, he escorted the ramshackle assembly up the companion ladder. It was a relief, as always, to be out on deck. The first autumn mists made it difficult to see the whole length of the Reach. Seagulls, afloat like the boats, idled round
Lord Jim
, their white feathers soiled at the waterline.

‘You’ll probably have plenty of time to do something about your trouble anyway,’ he said to Willis, ‘it’s quite a long business, arranging the sale of these boats. Your leak’s somewhere aft, isn’t it?… you’ve got all four pumps working, I take it … one in each well?’

This picture of
Dreadnought
was so wide of the mark that Willis found it better to say nothing, simply making a gesture which had something in common with a petty officer’s salute. Then he followed the others, who had to cross to land and tramp along the Embankment. The middle Reach was occupied by small craft, mostly laying up for the winter, some of them already double lashed down under weather-cloths. These were for fairweather people only. The barge-owners had to go as far as the brewery wharf, across
Maurice
’s foredeck and over a series of gangplanks which connected them with their own boats. Woody had to cross
Maurice, Grace
and
Dreadnought
to rejoin
Rochester
. Only
Maurice
was made fast to the wharf.

One of the last pleasure steamers of the season was passing, with cabin lights ablaze, on its way to Kew. ‘Battersea Reach, ladies and gentlemen. On your right, the artistic colony. Folk live on those boats like they do on the Seine, it’s the artist’s life they’re leading there. Yes, there’s people living on those boats.’

Richard had detained Nenna James. ‘I wish you’d have a drink with us, Laura hoped you would.’

Nenna’s character was faulty, but she had the instinct to see what made other people unhappy, and this instinct had only failed her once, in the case of her own husband. She knew, at this particular moment, that Richard was distressed by the unsatisfactory nature of the meeting. Nothing had been evaluated, or even satisfactorily discussed.

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