The thin dawn light barely penetrated within the fish dock. A low grey sky hung over lower, greyer buildings. There was little snow in the air, but a biting wind sliced across the dock basin, through the open fronted fish market, between the repair shops, riggers’ lofts and chandleries, net stores, ice factory, and fishermen’s co-opwhich was open and bustling in the half light of early morning. The quayside was stone cobbles, steel rails, iron bollards, hawsers of wire, hemp, grubby orange or green poly…
That, thankfully, will be Poly-propylene not polly parrot, mused Phoebles recalling the orange and green, and blue and yellow, macaw mariachi band that had so led him astray the previous evening.
…and above all else, bludgeoning every other sensation into submission, the all pervading stench from the fish meal plant.
A small steam driven crane shed rust scales, clanked and hissed as its arm swung the last of the provisions aboard the hundred and fifty foot of sturdy, workmanlike vessel tied up before them. The Lord Ancaster was an Arctic Coleyfishtrawler and Coldwar Spyship of a type known to trawlermen as a sidewinder, the most seaworthy craft ever built. She had a low grey hull with high bow and whaleback foc’sle. The superstructure aft was painted in excremental yellows and fawns and grained in imitation of pine planking. Her stove-pipe funnel was canary yellow with a black band and a red and black burgee painted on the side.
Consuella and Snowdrop had come to see them off. Steam was already up and the tide on the turn. Good-byes were said and a few hugs exchanged, Bert Wold handed over a letter for his family, to be posted in the event… Boris and Phoebles, Ginsbergbear, Strawberry, Ferdinand and Bert were no sooner aboard than the gang-plank was pulled in and lines cast off. Everyone waved.
“Lovely she goes.” intoned the helmsman under his breath.
They left port in the traditional manner, midway between the lock sides and at speed, to prevent any of the crew jumping ship at the last minute. Then they turned down the thick brown river towards the open sea.
The skipper was Harold Entwhistle, roundish and shortish. The Entwhistles had been trawler skippers for as long as there had been coley in the North Sea. His shirtsleeves rolled up, he wore a knitted waistcoat, moleskin trousers, faded plaid carpet slippers and a cloth cap.
“We will take you to the edge of the pack-ice and then you are on your own. If we hear nothing from you we’ll come back in the spring to look for your bones.”
The crew stood about eyeing the landlubbers. To a man they wore sou’westers, thigh-boots and rubber frocks.
“Bit Malcolm McClaren.” quipped Ginsbergbear, in a whisper, “Though it would be a rare form of fetishist who found this bunch alluring.” The cabin-boy, barely visible under his oilskins, was clipped round the ear and told to show the party to the saloon and furnish them with tea.
The saloon was below deck, directly below the liver boilers, its proportions governed by that of the ships stern, which it occupied. For the most part the space was taken up with a dining table of a similar plan, there was fixed seating around the table and against panelled walls, and above and behind the seating were cupboards which formed the bunks for our party. Each cubby hole had a mattress, a little bookshelf and lamp, and induced a surprisingly womblike sense of security in its occupant. At mealtimes the table was criss-crossed by deep fiddles and twisted tea-towels were used to jam the pots and pans in place. Whilst still in the river such precautions seemed excessive, but they were soon to learn that once he is at sea there is little that a trawlerman does without reason. The tea, when it arrived, was in whitish, barely chipped mugs; it was strong, thick with condensed milk, sweet and carpeted with a topping of tea-leaves.
As she left the river the Ancaster met the North Sea swell. She settled her stern down into the troughs like an old pipe smoker relaxing his behind into a favourite, well-cushioned armchair. She rolled with an easy motion. She trailed seagulls. Here on the midnight-grey waters beneath a gunmetal sky, she was at home.