Sea Dog

The first time I remember him, he was washed up like flotsam on the evening tide, stranded on our storm-ravaged doorstep, his barnacle- muscled arms wrapped around the shoulders of two landlubber friends, his jellyfish sea-legs going everywhere but where he intended: sea-blue summer eyes, blond hair swimming with the waves of distant oceans, skin the colour of an Amsterdam cafe; a salty, sun-drowned smile and the softest breeze of a "Hello, everyone, I'm back...".

He set anchor in an old, worn armchair by the bay window, next to the pale summer cacti and our labrador dog. He spent the evening gently telling rolling sea-tales of sunrise and sunsets, Indonesian hurricanes, Atlantic storms and Pacific calms; of ships' galleys, of repainting and repairing and derusting and debarnacling; of sleeping away all-the-other- sailors' rum rations in a lifeboat strung over the side of one sea-going vessel or another, or another; of cholera in India and trawlers in the North Sea; of shipping out and shipping in; of fiery nights and warm hearts in Arkhangelsk, north-north-north of the Arctic Circle and of an antarctic welcome deep in the midst of sunny England; of briny captains and oily fisherman and of the ancient sardine-cans chugging from port to rusty port; of cramped quarters in the belly of a paint-peeling, hard- working merchant steamer and of the expanse of the star-filled ocean- deep sky; of harbours huge with gantries and cranes and shoals of men in blue overalls, smoking Gauloises and drinking French wine, and of tiny back-ditch black-tar wharves in the canal-crossed fens; of Wisbech and Southampton and Bombay and Brisbane and a million places in between... and as he spoke, the room gently rocked like the sea slowly washing against the beach of a lost-and-found treasure island.

He drank slow, warm beer from cans stacked up like oil-drums on a ship's deck and let the noise and laughter and insults and annoyance of the overflowing room drift past him. He was the eye of a hurricane, a sea-sinking summer sunset; a rock-pool left behind by the tide, rippling with sea-anemones and sleeping fish waiting for the high water to come back and take him home.

He told me that he, too, had a daughter, a beautiful mermaid of a girl, somewhere in the dock-towns of the south of England. He carried her picture as close to him as his old tin of tobacco and packets of cigarette papers. And he talked about the grandfather who had raised him from a baby, and with whom he always stayed when the tradewinds brought him to shore. His blue eyes washed with a lonely, lovely smile. And he talked about his dreams of a Master's License, his own command - "just a little tug or steamer, nothing grand..." and of his sailor heart lost to Amsterdam...

Late at night, he cast off with his two friends and sailed away towards the land-locked dawn.

The last time I saw him, he was sitting ship-shape in the kitchen of my new home, soft and gentle as a new-born seal, tired as an old schooner but still as strong as a lifeboat... "You know, I may never see you a gain!" he said, sadly, wistfully, like a grey cloud on the horizon of a pale summer sky. Out of the blue... but a few months later, unplanned, unpredicted, we had gone from England and settled in Holland... and though I always expected to meet him on any and every footpath in Amsterdam, sitting in every bar or cafe or drifting down the red streets, I never did..

Perhaps one day; one day when the weather is fine and the storm has passed and the barometer is high again, when the tide is full and the wind is fresh and the moon shines a silver path across the sea... one day, we'll be washed up again on the same stretch of rocky shore, and pass the sleepy hours between the tides together, spinning nets of time and counting pearly seashells... one day, perhaps.