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Open Features: A Time Revisited

A book of short stories reminds John Brian Leaver of a calm crossing of the Irish Sea.

I pad through the gates of Belfast Dock in some trepidation, the recent memory of a midnight crossing that brought me here one week ago ominously refreshed. Understandably, the decks are out of bounds as heavy weather is forecast and we passengers are battened down in the saloon with a potential storm building to a head. Soon a heaving sea is hissing with great force through a warped porthole with every teetering starboard roll.

With no crew in sight, beer bottles, broken glasses and anything not screwed down roll port to starboard and back again, the debris confused when the pitch suddenly changes to fore and aft, the bottles tracking across oozing, bile-stained carpets. A gnawing feeling of abandonment is starting to impinge and the sobbing of children is still fresh in my mind.

My disquiet is justified for, behold, the old tub that brought me here awaits my return. I am unsettled by her beguiling cut of time-honoured assuredness, knowing full well that she rolls like a drunken sailor, even in a modest swell. There were no such things as stabilisers when this bucket was built.

To add to my discomfort is The length and depth of the queue running alongside the dock. Feet shuff towards the gangway as if to board the Ark, and for me she might as well be. Too soon the steamer's decks are, dare I say, awash with people. The old gal already looks decidedly top-heavy, every nook and cranny appearing occupied, yet the punters are still trooping on.

Glancing around I spot a steamer loading brown bullocks astern of the Heysham boat. Where is she bound? It can't be far. No passengers, just bullocks. On enquiry I hear she is bound for Greenock and Glasgow.

Sprinting up to the shipping line's dockside office I'm told she is due to sail any minute. I am on the cusp of redemption as I bound for her gangway waving my boarding ticket. The tethering lines are dropped and the vessel inches away from the quay. Catching my breath, I rest on her rail.

As we glide past the Heysham boat, now dressed overall in Lowry-like figures, I muse on the likelihood of her making it to the other side of the Irish pond. Should she have the misfortune to meet even the merest wash off a rowing boat whilst clearing the harbour I'm sure she will yaw and founder.

With my new-found station in life comes the luxury of self-indulgently allowing my febrile imagination to run free. For want of space, in the crow's nest are Pat and Mick, their meagre possessions held together with hairy string, last seen arcing pendulously to meet their maker.

But apart from the bullocks down below it looks as if I have this boat to myself. I like this boat, the smell of bovines-past etched into its very fabric reminding me of whitewashed shippons, three-legged stools and milking times. The day's last light gives way to a full harvest moon. The ship's prop settles to a steady rhythm, a measured pulse that holds me in sway. The bullocks and I cut seamlessly through a slumberous, lava-black sea, the moon's silver path lighting our way; all much too good for sleep.

How different this from a week ago. How fickle the sea is. It seduces, yet takes away life on a whim. My thoughts stray to the loss of the Princess Victoria ferry one torturous night four years ago, now some unspoken fathoms below me having taken with her well over one hundred souls.

Ailsa Craig, Paddy's Milestone in argentine, hoved into view, yet still no sleep. I try reading my book, Guy de Maupassant's short stories, but I am still wide-awake when first-light and Greenock see the parting of steaming bullocks and I.

I nearly wave goodbye as we pull away from the quay, moving up the Clyde to Glasgow's dockland to disembark. Within the hour I'm on an express train bound for London, my punched ticket reading Preston Single. We chuffer through the Borders as I rummage for my book, which I have hardly touched, to discover I have left it on the boat.

*

Christmas Day morning, 2008. Our daughter's home, surrounded by family. In turn we open our presents. When my turn comes I see a package postmarked Lot et Garonne. This will be from my brother. The wrapping falls away to reveal a book. Guy de Maupassant's short stories.

As I look at the cover I find myself in August, 1957, with a tropical moon lighting the way for an old cattle boat cutting easy through a glass-like sea.

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