A SHANTY FOR SAWDUST AND COTTON
It’s the smell of timber which draws Jake to the yard, that and the drumming in the soles of his feet when he passes the turning for the dry dock. They’re building in the yard, working with hammers; the earth shakes in the same spot every time. He feels the breeze beating on sailcloth, the fast flicking of flags and, when the men are cutting wood, the froth and fizz of the saw.
After a week or so, Jake gets up the courage to enter the shipyard. He finds the big doors ajar, silence packed inside. It’s lunchtime. The men are taking a break. Jake can smell pickles and cheese.
‘Hello,’ he offers, a question for anyone who might be around. He tests the gap in the doors, turning his body sideways to slip through. Slim as a cake slice, Jake, that’s what his mother always says.
Dusty air crowds round him. Cautiously he feels his way to the heart of the yard where the timber scent is strongest. Here, bowed and arched, is the carcass of a new ship. He follows it with his fingers, smoothing the flats of both hands over the ribcage of wood, laying his lips to the climbing curve of the stern. The timber is unpainted, raw and warm beneath his cheek.
Ships have been built in this yard for decades, Jake’s teachers have explained, many sailing to the West Indies for sugar and spices, cotton and rum. The ships brought slaves too, ill treated, kept in the dark below deck. Jake moves to a spot midway between prow and stern where he crouches, pulling in his head to look like the pictures his teachers painted of the slaves crammed one on top of another in the hold.
Jake swallows the boiled sweet he’s been sucking as he straightens himself out.
He climbs the ladder of the ship’s ribs until he reaches the highest point of the prow, where he balances with both hands clasped behind him around the square joist at his back. He opens his eyes wide and sticks out his chin, straining his shoulders forward as far as he can without falling, imagining the roll and thunder of the sea around him.
Wally sees the boy enter the yard. It’s midday. He’s eating a sandwich and he figures if Jake wants to poke about it’s no skin off his nose. The boy’s been hanging around for weeks, but this is the first time he’s come inside. Wally doesn’t want to scare him away. He looks like a nice kid, always sucking sweets, more alert than most his age, even the ones who can see and hear.
‘That’s Jake Campbell. Blind and deaf, but he gets along OK. Sharp as a tack.’
Wally approves of the way Jake behaves around the yard, respectful, taking care near the dry dock. He’s got a sailor’s feel for the sea, Wally sees that straightaway, from the roll in the boy’s walk and the way he comes upright when he gets too near the edge. He has a sailor’s eyes too, burnt-blue by the sun.
Wally licks pickle from his chin, balancing the sandwich on the back of his hand. His fingers, twisted with arthritis, make a shelf ridged with knuckles where the crumbs collect.
The kid’s climbing the ship. You’d never know he was blind, to watch him.
Wally’s worked the yards all his life. He’s a plain man. Wood’s what he knows, not much more than that. He can tell oak from pine in a knock. Because of the arthritis he’ll be finished soon but he can’t complain, it’s been a fair run. The only thing he wishes is that he’d been to sea in one of the ships he built. Too late for that now, with his hands the way they are, but Wally’s not one for regret.
What’s the kid up to? Dangerous-looking sport, but Wally keeps his own counsel. He doesn’t want to startle Jake, for one thing.
‘Look at him,’ he thinks, seeing the smooth jut of the boy’s chin, the slim span of his shoulders, strong fingers fastened behind his back. It’s like he’s growing out of the wood, a living part of the ship. Wally can smell the cotton-candy clean of him. He could teach Jake to handle a boat, just a small one. With those strong fingers and Wally’s eyes—
They could set to sea, the blind deaf boy and the old man whose hands are curling into claws, sail the sun together to the edge of the world.
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