Call Me Ishmael
So this is how we met.
August, 1964, a Monday morning, it’s my first day on the beach and I’m crouched
over a rock pool. So far, this stony area beyond the mud-coloured sand is deserted. Since daybreak, the weather’s been showcasing different elements as if trying to figure out what sort of a day it wants to be; folk must be hiding, like crabs, waiting for a decision.
The first I know of him is when he coughs, probably so’s not to startle me. I look up, scrunching my eyes against the light, into the face of a giant.
“Crabs yer after?”
I nod, trying not to register my shock. From the haphazard tendrils of grey hair bunched like ropes behind his ears, right down to his snub-nosed, silver-buckled boots, he’s an old pirate in modern-day garb. All he’s missing is a cutlass.
“Best place is over thattaway.” He uses his smoking roll-up as a pointer. “Saw a biggun there yesterday.”
I say nothing but feel obliged to acknowledge him and stroll over to where he indicates.
He follows me and on the breeze I catch a whiff of nicotine and a musky scent that years later I recognise as patchouli oil.
We stand for a few minutes examining the new pool before he speaks again. “Come and show me if yer get any, I’m just over there.”
I still don’t respond. My ten-year-old self is shy and Auntie’s mantra, Don’t talk to strangers, is fresh in my head. This man is definitely strange...
Time passes, who knows how long? – a boy with his mind submerged in seawater isn’t counting the minutes. The man was right, there’s whole world of crustacean activity here and eventually I’ve six crabs in my bucket. I could have had more, and sooner, but the pleasure is in watching them, observing how they operate in their own tiny universe.
Curiosity is my middle name, Mum says, and it’s this that drives me to go over to him; I want to know if the biggest crab in my bucket is the one he reckoned he saw.
When I stand up I spot him immediately, sitting at the foot of the harbour wall, back against the stones, legs spilled out in front like a collapsed stringed puppet. His face is screened by a redtop newspaper but as I approach, feet scrunching on the pebbles, he lowers it.
“So, what yer got?”
I show him my bucket.
“Yep, looks like you got ‘im, good on yer!”
He says nothing more for a while as his fingers, stained the colour of pine, roll a
cigarette. His actions are reassuring, reminding me of how mum puts her hair up in rollers every Saturday afternoon.
He takes a drag. “So, you here on holiday?”
“With your family?”
He’s cornered me into speech. “Sort of. I’m staying with my Auntie who runs a B&B.
My Dad’s away in the army, Mum’s at home having a baby.”
He chuckles, a sound like sandpaper. “A baby - that’ll be a big change then. I was the
eldest of seven, so I’m a bit of an expert on babies.”
This time I laugh. I can’t imagine anyone less likely to interact with babies unless it
involves ripping their heads off and feeding them to the sharks. He smiles at me lazily, revealing a chunk of gold tooth. He’s definitely a bit alarming – who knows about malevolent? - yet, for all his strangeness, his eyes are cow-like, velvet-soft.
As if demonstrating its approval the sun has finally decided to exert itself and as I stand before him I feel its rays insistently caressing my shoulders and head, melting all misgivings. The pirate closes his eyes against the glare, “More like it, innit?” He shrugs off his leather jerkin and rolls up his shirt-sleeves, revealing a mass of tattoos that wallpaper every inch of flesh from his wrists to where his skin once again vanishes under faded, blue- striped cotton. At a glance I’m mesmerized: words, pictures, shapes, colours – all intertwined like a nest of snakes.
He follows my gaze. “Interested in tattoos?”
“Maybe,” I’m unwilling to reveal I’ve never before seen any. “What are they?” “Story of my life, they are - I’ll tell yer if you want.”
I nod emphatically.
“Okay, but maybe a bite of something first. Chips?”
I shrug, not sure whether he’s asking me or talking to himself.
“You wait here then.”
I watch him as he lopes, ungainly as a crab himself, across the pebbles to the steps.
Alone, I mimic him by leaning against the wall, legs outstretched, to await his return. I’m used to waiting, used to being solitary, my thoughts my only companion. I breathe in deeply, relishing the seaweed tang, counting the seconds. In the bucket next to me I can see the crabs, still scuttling about purposelessly, unaware or incapable of caring about their fate. “Don’t worry,” I tell them, “You’ll be going home soon”, but they don’t react. I lean back again and hum a snatch of a new song I’d heard on auntie’s radio that’s stuck in my brain: Tell Me Why... Eventually, I resort to another counting game - seagulls this time.
When I get to forty-seven he re-appears, grinning, clutching a paper parcel. He hunkers down next to me and unwraps it. “Got us a bit of fish as well. Help yerself.”
Close now, the feast spread between us like treasure, we devour white satin flesh and chips as golden and crisp as woodchips. Across it all a shower of salt and vinegar have left their mark. We say nothing, but the faint strains of the Wurlitzer wafting down from the Promenade Gardens combines with the shooshing of waves on pebbles and the cawing of envious seagulls to create a soundtrack more evocative than that of the most melodious orchestral ensemble.
Finally he finishes eating, leaving me the last few chips, and softly belches a full-stop. “So what’s yer name?” he asks.
“Peter – Pete.”
“Tattoo Jonny – or you can call me Ishmael.” He bellows a laugh, as if he’s told me
an amazing joke but then, evidently sensing my incomprehension, simply says, “Never mind, that’s a whole different tale. For now it’s just good to meet yer.”
He wipes his fingers on his trousers and extends them towards me, multiple rings glinting like goldfish. His smile is as open as the oldest friend and at that point I clasp his hand and surrender.
“Time to tell yer the story of my life then,” he says, “Starting with this one here: Mother – the first I had done when I was just thirteen, and yer know what? – still the best...”
Fifty years later I’m back, hunkered down by the sea-wall, remembering. Watching today’s
children playing I try to magic up a clear vision of my boyish self but, of course, I can’t - that boy is long gone, having shed his carapace like a snakeskin. But his spirit is strong within me still, so I have no trouble recollecting the things he told me that shaped who I am today.
I recall how, throughout that week, he enthralled me with fantastic tales of his days on the ships interwoven with whimsical accounts of each of his inkings. Every port and vessel was described so vividly that I felt I was right there, part of a cast of characters more piquant than that new stuff called curry that one day he bought us for lunch. His voice, cracked as a scratched record, was hypnotic and warm, his imagination boundless. I never tired of listening.
Now, crouched on the beach, I keep going over what he taught me, not least the notion that other legitimate worlds existed outside my own: a tiny life in a terraced house in a colourless, London suburb where my pink-and-white parents, so it seemed to me, cared most of all about what the neighbours might think. I guess I learned then about tolerance and perspectives, and courage.
And, with the benefit of hindsight, I came to understand that things don’t have to be what at first they might seem. These days, just mention ‘old man and young boy’ and alarm bells start shrieking - but what I mainly learned from him, extremely luckily you might think, is that appearance isn’t all. Our relationship was gentle, kindly, lacking any nefarious intent; I loved him and, I believe, in some fashion he was fond of me. For those few days he was simply the granddad I’d never had.
Shortly after that holiday my Auntie sold up and moved to Spain so I never did return here. It’s only now I’ve come back to close the circle. The internet and emails are a great invention and through them, I was able to discover that he had indeed ended his days here, buried alongside the sailors’ chapel on the hill overlooking the sea. The graveyard is a tiny, roughly-tended space with few comparatively recent additions so it took me no time, this morning, to find him:
John Askew “Tattoo Jonny”
Call Me Ishmael
I couldn’t help but smile. The epitaph was obviously chosen by someone who had encountered the essence of him and hopefully, like me, had seen the world differently as a result. Perhaps this was what I came here for: confirmation that his life had been of value to someone other than me.
Back then, as now, I felt his friendship was one of the most precious things I had ever experienced and naïve though I was, I knew enough to be circumspect in order not to have it sullied or challenged. So I didn’t tell my Auntie about my new pal, fearing she might stop me from seeing him, and I never mentioned a word about him to my parents.
At the end of the week when, reluctantly, I returned home to them and my bawling baby sister, my heart heavy with loss, I simply said, Yes thank you, I had a very nice time.