Authors: Jeremy Page
The Collector of Lost Things
ERHAPS I WOULD BE
too late to save them. The last dozen had been spotted on a remote island in the North Atlantic, on a bare ledge of rock, but it was already rumoured the final breeding pair had been killed—their skins sold to private collectors—and the single egg between them needlessly crushed. These were only rumours, I kept telling myself. But as I set out for the Liverpool docks, on that breezy April morning in 1845, I couldn’t help hoping that I might be able to reach them in time, the last of the birds. I pictured myself surrounded by an inlet of seawater, listening to their strange and deep murmurs. An empty ocean in front of us, crisscrossed with the lines of migration that only they could sense, the fluxes in magnetism that has flowed through them for countless years. I would stand there, in awe, and I would be a barrier for them, beyond which there was only one thing: extinction. Yet I felt uneasy as I forced my way along the quayside, passing beneath the masses of wooden masts that towered above me, trying to untangle their rigging and spars and furled sails, trying, impossibly, to extract the shape of the
among them. It felt as though the ship was a tree among a forest of trees, further hidden by a thicket of thorns and climbers, rigging growing over her and the ships moored alongside, purposefully disguised, and this is a feeling that has remained with me, to this day. I couldn’t see the ship and perhaps I never saw it for what it truly was.
I stepped over the hawsers, rounded the bollards, ducked under the ropes and avoided the piles of provisions, barrels, sacking and cable that littered the quay. Porters and lightermen called and whistled,
do that, move it, bring her down, steady now!
they shouted, a whole army of men dismantling what others seemed to be assembling. It was only my boarding papers, folded crisply and held firmly in my hand, that made any of it real. Men ignored me, but they read my papers and sent me on my way, directing me through this tangle. Eventually, crossing the decks of two larger ships, I was shown the gangway that led to the main deck of the
. A three-masted barque, lower than the previous ships, with worn planking that looked as though it had been rubbed down with salt. I had arrived upon it quite suddenly, without even realising it.
‘Yes,’ I had answered, seeing a tall man striding towards me across the deck.
‘You could say that. Good morning.’
‘Quinlan French, first mate,’ he said, not offering his hand. He gave me a poorly disguised look of appraisal. ‘The steward will show you to your cabin. I suppose I should say welcome … to the ship, that is.’
With that, he promptly turned his back and marched across the deck, pointing at some aspect of the cargo that was being loaded, a rope that was trailing or a corner of sacking that needed to be tied. He leapt across the corner of the main hatch with such speed, and such sudden agility, that it seemed he was momentarily trying to play a game with his shadow, escape it perhaps, or fling it down into the hold. I, too, kept moving, feeling wary of a deck so full of work and dangers, towards a companionway I presumed led to the passenger cabins. As I crossed the ship my impression was of its size; the lofty structures of three masts rising high above me, cross-hatching the sky with a complicated pattern of wooden yards, held together with a web—yes, a web, I felt—of ropes and rigging. The bases of the masts were as wide as barrels where they pierced the deck. I thought, peculiarly, of candles pushed into a cake. And more than anything I tried to avoid the same wide-open cargo hatches, into which stores were busily being lowered by winches. Men with sleeves rolled up were collected around these wells, guiding the bundles and barrels down into a hold that loomed unnaturally dark and deep, as if the soul of this barque was cavernous and without measure and, above all, hungry.
Assailed by these images, I was relieved to descend the five steps of a companionway and find myself in a saloon that was calm and subdued and more like the drawing room of a country house than I had expected. A stove, near the door, had already been lit, so I gladly stood next to it, holding my hands over the warming plate, listening to the soft tick of the coals burning inside. It was a very peaceful room, panelled in smooth honey-coloured oak, with cabin doors leading off it on both sides. A long darkly polished table reflected a skylight set above it. Beyond the table, I could see a wider space where settees and armchairs were arranged informally, with a ticking sheep’s head clock on the far wall alongside a row of oil lamps. There was a smell of leather and polish and the scent of the burning coal, along with a hint of tobacco. It might have been in any country house, except that in the very centre of the saloon, the thick column of the mizzenmast speared through the room from ceiling to floor.
A panel slid open on my left and a small man in a buttoned white tunic appeared from what looked like a pantry. He carried a napkin hung over one forearm. Behind him, a dresser was neatly arranged, with cutlery lined up at precise right angles to the counter.
‘Good morning, sir,’ he said, in an accent that was not English. ‘Are you Mr Saxby or Mr Bletchley?’
‘Then your cabin is found right here, sir.’ The steward opened a door cleverly concealed in the wood panelling, directly next to the pantry.
‘Thank you,’ I said, keen to establish a first glimpse of my room. Through the open door I could see a simple bunk with drawers underneath, and the corner of a canvas washstand.
‘And the other cabins?’ I asked.
‘Next to you are the quarters of Mr French. He is first mate.’
‘Yes, we met on deck.’
‘A quick man. And tall?’ He raised a hand, estimating Mr French’s height. ‘Good. Then at the end is the captain’s cabin. It is larger than this, but then, he is captain.’ He smiled softly.
He pointed to the doors on the opposite side of the saloon. ‘Across there is the wash and the toilet. Then, that is chart room, first guest cabin, second guest cabin, and the cabin of Mr Talbot. He is second mate, but he is not very much in his cabin. He likes it on the deck. He is a big sea dog.’
I was amused by the description. ‘And probably very useful,’ I ventured.
‘Yes. A useful man. Especially with ice.’
I stepped into my cabin and put my bag onto the bunk.
‘I have this list on the desk where it is written down the general arrangement for the meals and the drinks,’ he said, placing a finger on the list. ‘It is there.’
‘Are you Spanish?’ I asked.
‘Portuguese, sir. From São Miguel in the Azores. My name is Simao. That is a bell. You pull if you are in need of me. I shall bring you tea in some minutes.’
He gave me a small smile and looked quickly about the cabin, making sure all was in order, before going back to the pantry.
I closed the door behind him and sat on the end of the bunk. I tried not to feel anxious, but sitting there I felt overwhelmed, by the arduous cross-country journey I’d made from Norfolk and the night I’d spent at the lodging house near the dock. I had slept fitfully, haunted by troubling dreams and fleeting memories I could not place. Then an early breakfast in a sombre cold room, listening to the ticking of an overmantel clock, its pendulum swinging behind a small cut-out shape in the wood. The brisk walk along the wharf with the porters in tow, under the noisy and confusing masts and rigging aligned along the quayside, jumping the hawsers that were either tied to the bollards or threaded through iron rings each as wide as a man’s neck, then the view of the open hatches of the cargo hold, a glimpse into a dungeon, and the first mate abruptly turning away from me—all this already seemed to have happened to another man, a braver man, a man without secrets.
The berth was small and practical, probably eight by six feet, clad entirely in shiplapped wood that had been lime washed. There was an almost imperceptible curve to the outer wall, along which the bunk was built. I lay down and wondered if I could already feel the motion of being afloat. The ship was still tied fast, but there was a strangeness about lying down, an unfamiliarity, a soft and unlikely gravity, that made me think I was already at sea. Peculiar sounds arose from deep below the cabin—the muffled hauling of barrels in a large dark space, the reverberation of wooden thwarts being struck and tapped. Above me, and to my side, footsteps paced on a deck that might be only inches away. I heard orders being given and answered, and calls from the tops of the masts that were as harsh and discordant as crows in the trees.
So this would be my home, a floating box that would carry me to the Arctic. I closed my eyes and tried whispering its name.
It sounded remote and tremendous. A word filled with sharp edges. I imagined ice growing across the sea, inching towards the ship, how the walls of my cabin would become cold to touch. It made me snap my eyes open in alarm. Momentarily, as I looked at the bare wooded ceiling, I felt a sense of drowning.
I whispered to myself,
please, not here.
Simao brought me the tea, putting it on my desk and turning the handle of the cup in my direction. ‘We will be casting off, sir,’ he told me, thoughtfully. I wondered if it was his English that made him sound cautious, or whether there was something of concern. ‘I close the door now, behind me?’
When I reached for the cup, my fingers went perfectly through the handle. I smiled at the precise nature of the steward, for whom I already felt a great liking. There was a biscuit of some kind next to the tea. It tasted buttery and had a crust of grated coconut. I had just eaten it when I heard a series of unusual noises outside my door—whispers and urgent scrapes of the furniture across the boards, which made me spring off the bunk and peer through the keyhole.
Across the saloon, I saw a beguiling sight: a person wrapped in a dark blue cloak being supported by two others. One of them I recognised as being Simao, trying to open the cabin door directly opposite mine while still supporting the figure in the cloak. The other person, who was giving the commands in hushed utterances, I could not see properly. Only his trousers, which were fashionably cut from a material which had a brightly checked design in yellows and teal. He was wearing riding boots, too, even though he was on a ship, made of gleaming brown leather. As for the person being supported, I thought that I wouldn’t be able to see any part of them, for they were so thoroughly wrapped in the cloak, and the hood had been placed to cover the head. But at the entrance to the opposite cabin—as Simao shut the door behind them—I saw a merest glimpse of a pale cheek, an angle of the jaw and a corner of a tightly set mouth that caused me to feel instantly confused. I felt certain that I had seen this before, the cloaked person, the way they were being supported, the quiet manner in which they were being ushered into the room. This was real, but it had once been a dream, or I had seen it on another occasion.
Almost immediately I heard other footsteps scuttling down the companionway followed by a rap upon my door. My answer must have sounded startled, for it appeared that Mr French, the first mate, knew I had been spying when I opened the latch. I could see it in the man’s expression. He gave me a curious glance, before purposefully checking his fob watch and informing me the ship was about to leave.
‘Good,’ I said, a little embarrassed. ‘May I observe from on deck?’
‘Naturally.’ But rather than allowing me, he pushed me back with a single finger against my chest, and took a step into my cabin. ‘A rabbit hutch, I’m afraid. Are you settled here, in your rabbit hutch?’