The Old Man and the C

By Roddie McKenzie

Dundee April 1899                                                                (Dens Mill and Dock St)

 

THE OLD MAN AND THE C

 

 

©Roddie McKenzie                           Published in “Roots”,  Nethergate Writers 2008

 

           

Jamie MaCallum looked across the noon twilight of the spinning

flat through the slanting sunbeams made visible by the stoor of jute

dust that hung in the air; it made his clothes stink and scratched the

back of his throat. Near the end of the hall he identified his fifteenyear-

old pal, Paddy McAnn. Jamie sighed and returned to collecting

the jute yarn coiling like demented tentacles around the twirling

bobbins. He removed a full rack of bobbins, reached to the box at

his feet and inserted an empty one. Another ten minutes before the

lunch time bummer would shriek and they would be on their way.

Within a few seconds of the bummer’s howl, the framer

machinery clattered rheumatically to a halt – a moment’s silence

and the women and girls` chatter echoed in the stillness of the mill,

spiralling up to the cast iron hammer beams.

Jamie followed a few steps behind Paddy into the warehouse;

Paddy was already pulling aside a dank bale of jute to retrieve two

canvas kitbags.

“Ye huv the food and drink eh telt ye tae get? Enough for

three days o` hiding oot?” Jamie whispered. Paddy nodded. Passing

the window on the way to the cast iron staircase at the end of the

floor, they paused and gazed down from the heights the Dens Mill

stood on.

Above the warehouses around Victoria Dock they could see

the masts of the clippers, their sails furled against the scaffolding of

the upper spars. Jamie nudged Paddy and they began to descend the

stairs hoping that the dull clunk of their footfalls would not attract

the attention of the overseer, or of the warehousemen. Slipping out

of the loading bay past the big Clydesdales nodding in the shafts of

the carts, they were quickly out of the gate and down the brae. Free.

They felt the warm glow of the April sunshine on their backs as they

turned onto the cobbles of Dock St. Seagulls swooped and squawked

like grating metal overhead. They could see a line of barques and

clippers tied up along the quayside. As they passed the great barn

of the Dundee East railway station, with its semicircular roof and

attendant square sentinel entrance columns, a shrill whistle behind

them caused them to glance over their shoulders and step aside rapidly

as a shunting pug puffed laboriously up behind them; it was a short

train of four wagons and it passed quickly on its way to the Western

harbours, leaving two straight parallel trails of sparkling steel.

 

“We hae tae find where the Polar Star is berthed,” Jamie said,

glancing around the quayside. Paddy`s lack of response caused him

to turn and catch his friend`s reluctant eye. “Ye`re no haein second

thoughts again Paddy? Eh thoat we hud been through a this afore.

Dae ye no want tae mak yer fortune? We`ll mak mair on a single

voyage than five years in thon mill – and some adventures. Or wid ye

rather end up as a kettle biler, makin yer Ma`s denner fur the rest of

yer life when they pit ye oot the door o the mill?”

“Eh dae want tae get oan the boat, but eh hae aa ma family

here, ye…” Paddy stopped short of alluding to Jamie`s orphant

status.

“We’ll only be awa seven months. Onywey, wiz it no just

yesterday ye were moanin aboot how ye were seek o her bossing ye

aboot?”

“Aye … but ye are sixteen.”

“Aye but nuttin. Dinnae be a fairdeegowk! We wid probably

get the boot frae Baxter`s onywey when they find we left the Mill

withoot permission. So nae mair haverin. Let`s find that boat an get

oorsels stowed awa.”

 

Jamie strode forward to the dock entrance, head up, squinting in

the sunlight, kitbag of worldly belongings bumping against his back.

Paddy slunk along a few steps behind, eyes to the ground for reasons

other than shielding them from the golden dazzle in the cloudless

cerulean sky.

After a fruitless hour searching the Victoria and Camperdown docks

and creeping around to avoid the carters from the mill, who were

loading bales from the dockside sheds, they were no closer to finding

the Polar Star. Despondent, back on Dock Street, the westerly

breeze brought a faint ammonia whiff of fish from the Green Market,

as Jamie had an idea.

“We need tae ask a seafarin man. They wid ken where the

Polar Star would be. That`s it! The Seaman’s Hame – jist alang the

street.” He indicated the angular building, topped by a rounded

cupola. “They’re bound tae ken!”

With Paddy in pursuit, Jamie half-ran across the cobbles

slowing as he came up to the door of the coal-smoke-blackened

sandstone building. A man in his fifties sat in a battered chair by the

doorway, puffing contentedly on his clay pipe. He observed Jamie

through an aromatic fog. Jamie took in his faded waist coat, battered

mariner`s hat and shirt sleeves rolled up to reveal faded blue tattoos

on his muscular arms.

“Aye, ye’re in a fair stramash, young maister. Wid ye be

looking for somebody?”

“Aye!” Jamie replied. “We were looking fur a sailor mannie,

someone wha would ken whaur the Polar Star wid be found.”

“Yer faither’s oan the whalers then?”

“Nut,” Paddy interjected, “we’re going to sea oorsels.”

The man blew out a long stream of blue smoke and gestured

to them with the stem of his pipe.

“Ah-ha, so ye will be mariners then?”

“Nut, we’re mill… OW!”

Jamie elbowed Paddy in the ribs, turned towards him and glared.

“We would be much obliged if you tell us where tae find the Polar

Star, Sir.”

The man laughed and tapped out his pipe against the leg of

the chair.

“Och, yer keen tae be aff tae sea richt enough; eh ken ye

whaling men are affy impatient, but if ye will stand an auld fellow

seaman a drink eh’ll tell ye whit dock yer ship lies in.”

“Aye, we wid be happy tae dae that, Sir.”

“Ma pals call me Toshie. Ye’ll hae a drouth on yersells if ye’ve

been dashing aboot the docks on such a braa day. C’moan, ‘Nancy’s’

is jist twa doors up.”

He rose unsteadily and walked awkwardly up the street with

Jamie and Paddy following. Ahead to their left, the great Gothic arch

obscured the sailing boats moored in the Earl Grey Dock and the

western sky was pierced by the spectacular baronial spike of the West

Railway Station building.

They reached a sun-bleached wooden door in the cliff of a nearby

tenement. Toshie pulled it open and they were inside a dank room

smelling of stale beer and piss. Inside a dozen gaunt faces turned, eyes

blinking in the sudden shock of sunlight. They gazed for a moment,

nodded briefly and returned to their murmured conversations. The

barman, a rotund bear of a man, turned and welcomed the newcomers.

“Hello Toshie, nice tae see ye. How’s yer leg for woodworm

the day? Hae ye siller, man?”

“Och ye ken me fine, Angus. I’m aye guid fur a wee refreshment,

but these fine sea-gangin men are standing me a wee drink.”

“Aye … aye, eh see. Whit will ye gentlemen be having then?”

“Weel then, maybe eh’ll have a wee hauf and a half pint.”

“And fur the ither gentlemen?”

Paddy looked askance while Jamie seized the moment.

“Twa pints o yer best barman please,” (having heard this said

in his begging days in the taverns of Lochee).

Angus seemed to take an eternity before finally clasping a

meaty hand onto the beer pump. Jamie was struck by the smell of

stale tobacco but was entranced by the way the big man was able to

fill the pint glasses, one–handed, while discussing the shipping and

reaming out his gaping hawse-pipes of nostrils with a finger of his

free hand, absent-mindedly flicking his findings onto the sawdust

covered floor.

“Tak a seat, gentlemen.” Angus indicated the tired rattan bar

stools.

As the drinks were banged clumsily onto the greasy, stained

pinewood bar, slopping their murky foaming contents over the lip of

the glasses, Paddy had a revelation.

“Toshie? Toshie McIntosh? Ye are Toshie McIntosh – the

man that survived three weeks in an open boat when ye were lost at

sea. Eh’m richt am a no? Ma Da telt me about you – he read it in

‘The Advertiser’. Ye had tae eat yer hat and the jack aff the main sprit

tae keep alive till thon Danish fishermen rescued ye.”

Toshie sighed and sank uneasily onto a bar stool. When they

were all seated, he went on, “Aye lad, yer richt. That’s me, poor auld

Toshie – lost baith legs tae the Arctic cauld. Eh could tell ye a tale

aboot the frozen seas richt enough.”

Jamie interjected petulantly, “Ye were gonnae tell us where

tae find the Polar Star.”

“Aa in guid time laddie, but mebbe eh kin tell ye a wee bit

aboot ma whaling then ye kin tell me aboot yours.” Jamie gulped and

fidgeted on his stool.

Toshie continued. “Aye it wis the Spring bank holiday of

May 1884. Och, did we no have a braa send off – aw the lads were

there doon oan the Earl Grey dock waving; wimmen and lassies

tossing oranges and red herrins, for luck, tae their men leaning oan

the taffrail as the Chieftain got under way. At that time eh hid been

eighteen year in the whaling – sterted as a laddie at fourteen – and by

that time I wiz a linesman. We were hoping fur a guid season`s hunting,

as ’83 hadna been much o`a year, but the price o` baleen had jumped

again and we were all in guid cheer – some mair than ithers. Maist

o’ the lads were fu – ye’ll ken whit eh mean?” He nudged Jamie and

laughed. Then his brow furrowed and he sighed heavily. “But little

did we ken that we wid lose fower ships – aye – the Star, Resolute,

Triune and Jan Mayen – aye, and some o’ my mates from the

Chieftain – afore the season wiz through.” He downed his whisky in

one.

“We made the Arctic Ocean without ony mishaps and then

on March 26th, we were east of Greenland and Captain Gellatly –

being a new commander and keen as a knife – wiz in the craw’s nest.

Suddenly we heard him bellowin, “A fall! A fall! … thirty degrees off

the port bow.”

“Weel – ye’ll ken yersel – we were racing ontae the deck,

pulling on whatever clothing we had handy and scrambling intae

the whale boats. Lads were barely aboard but they were lowering the

boats doon as the ship gave way. Gellatly nearly fell aa the wey doon

the mast and got intae his boat and we were awa pullin like maniacs,

for tae port we could see twa spouts like fountains rising oot o

the troughs of the waves. Efter a chase of aboot twenty minutes,

Gellatly’s harpooner let aff the gun and speared the hindermaist

whale, a bottlenose he wiz.” He paused for another pull of his half

empty beer.

“He didnae run fur lang before Gellatly’s boat was alangside

as he tired and they pit the lances intae him and he wiz done. They

secured him and rowed back tae the Chieftain and made the whale

fast tae the starboard. Meanwhile we pulled hard for hours efter the

ither one trying tae keep aff his eye, so he widna tak fright. Eventually

after anither half day, Taylor in oor boat harpooned him and the

chase wiz really on. Meanwhile Gellatly had picked up some provisions

and his boat cam back tae assist us – the fast boat. By the time he got

there the whale was deid. Man! We were tired frae the rowin and the

cauld, but jubilant, ken … and that’s when it went wrang.”

Toshie fell silent and inched his sud-stained empty glass to

the bar. Paddy looked at Jamie and Jamie put his hand into his pocket.

Suitably refreshed, Toshie continued, “It wiz like a heavy curtain had

been let doon frae the skies – ye couldna see beyond the ither boats

and of the Chieftain? Nothing! Twa boats stayed wi the whale and the ithers looked

fur theChieftain but couldna find her. The fourth boat capsized and a lad

wiz drooned. Efter righting the boat, eh was transferred to her. That

wiz when ma luck failed me, for when the boats separated on the

30th, Gellatly and Taylor made Iceland after fifty hours and the third

boat wiz picked up by a Danish vessel. But oor boat … weel. We were

pulling fur Iceland too, but efter three days without food or drink

Wully McGregor began tae drink seawater. Bad idea that wiz, as ye`ll

ken yersells. Then Wully threw the compass overboard and Iceland

became problematical. The next day Wully bit Alex the harpooner

oan the leg, yellin’ aboot roast beef, before he drapped doon stone

deid.” Paddy stared in horror and Jamie twisted on his stool.

“The cauld, the thirst and the hunger took its toll and within

twa days, Jamie Cairns and Wully Christie deid on us and me and

Alex, exhausted as we were, pit them ower the side. Ma legs were

swollen tae twice their size wi the frostbite and Alex wiz exhausted.

We drifted – eh dinnae ken fur how lang – and when eh woke up,

poor Alex wiz deid. Man! Eh felt the loneliest man in the world and

eh wished fur death masel.”

“But ye won through – ye survived.” Jamie was on the edge

of his stool. He noticed Toshie`s glass sparkled once more, while

Toshie seemed to be scratching his moustache absent-mindedly.

“Aye, eh won through, but at a price. It wiz anither twa

weeks afore the Danes picked me up and they had tae amputate ma

legs. Er, lads, eh appear tae be financially embarrassed. It seems eh left

ma pooch in ma ither troosers. Eh’ll gang tae the hoose and then we

kin finish meh tale.”

Jamie was anxious to get out to find their boat. He signalled

to Angus, who dutifully re-filled Toshie`s glasses. The boys had barely

touched theirs.

“Fur days we drifted. Eh couldnae bear tae put Alex ower the

side – so lonesome eh wiz and so hungry … so hungry…”

“Eh, but ye ate yer hat and the jack aff the bowsprit – tae

survive. Ma Da telt me.”

“Mebbe aye, mebbe no … but there’s no a lot o feeding in a

hat. Besides eh needed it tae keep frae losing ma lugs tae the cauld, an

there was anither source o victuals. Eh realised efter a hungry week….”

Jamie’s eyes bulged, his tongue was sticking to his palate and

he could only stutter a short message.

“Ye couldnae … he wiz yer shipmate. It … it wisnae

Christian … ye didnae. YE DIDNAE!”

Toshie spoke softly and motioned to Jamie to sit down.

“Whit wiz eh tae dae laddie? Ma strength wiz gone, eh couldnae

pit him ower the side. Besides, Alex wiz a man that traded in deid

bodies – o whales mark ye – he would huv understood though. A

body’s nae use tae ye when ye’re deid… Och, but being whaling lads

ye’ll ken sometimes ye huv tae dae what`s necessary in a tight spot.

It’s no uncommon in the whaling trade. Onywey, enough of ma

havers… Ye’ll find the Polar Star in Earl Grey Dock, second dock

after the Arch. Noo, huv ye time tae tell me ane o yer whaling tales

afore ye mak for yer ship?” But the white-faced boys were already in

hushed conference and seemingly, in agreement.

“Nut, sorry Mr Toshie, sir. We hae some pressing business.”

“Ach too bad, eh’ll mebbe hear yer tales when ye get back.

Angus here wiz just telling me Stephen’s wiz looking fur apprentices

– eh wundered whether ony o yer shore-bound pals might be interested

in that? Guid money eh hear – and a trade fur life.”

Paddy was drifting to the door. Jamie slung his bag to his

shoulder.

“Stephen’s shipyaird alang the shore, ye say? Lads o oor age?

I can pass it on … and thanks, sir.” And the lads bundled themselves

out the door.

As they hurried up Dock Street, Jamie was insistent.

“Eh dinna believe him – he’s makin’ it up. Nut – he’s MAKIN’ IT UP,

Paddy!”

Paddy stopped.

“Jamie … meh bag … eh’ve left meh bag … Jamie, eh

dinnae hae meh bag.”

“Weel, ye had better gang back and get it.” He shook his

stunned pal. “Paddy! Paddy!”

Paddy stared, jaw slack, silent, then, mouth oscillating like

a goldfish’s, he turned and ran back down to the pub door. He

furtively slipped inside and found his bag at the brass foot rail.

Toshie and Angus were convulsed with laughter. They hadn’t

noticed him scooping up his kitbag. Angus`s blubbery frame shook.

“Och, Toshie, yer a richt twister … the way ye played those laddies

… eh hud tae bite ma hand at times.”

“Weel an auld legless sailor has tae be clever tae stay legless – if

ye ken ma meaning. Besides the whales are gone, the trade is finished.

There’s been enough young stowaways in an icy grave.”

“An that bit aboot eating poor Alex…”

Toshie’s eyes narrowed, as cold and hard as harpoon tips.

“Eh, Angus, but jist mebbe if eh had a man o yer generous constitution

in the boat wi me, eh could have made Iceland wi ma legs intact.”

Paddy backed silently to the door, but there was a loud crack

as he stood on a discarded T-bone. Toshie and Angus swivelled their

heads in unison. Transfixed in their searchlight gaze, Paddy fled out

the door before another word could be said.

 

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