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from A Squandered Life / St John's Harbour '70
As I stepped up to that window, I knew I was in trouble....
Jonathan, true to his word, set about looking for a flat, eventually found one, and came to find me at Don and Nellie's to see if I wanted to have a look. It was on a contour hugging road near the top of the extended slab of hill overlooking the town and harbour, at a corner with a precipitously steep side road which headed straight down towards what the contoured road overlooked. The front of the three story house was on that steep side, but access to the flat at the top was via the contoured road at the side.
Jonathan led me in through a door set into a large expanse of wall, windowless but for two up at the very top. We stepped into a tiny entrance area from which very steep stairs climbed up to the left. At the top was one of the windows we'd seen from the road. To the right was a short hall leading into a T junction with another short hall, bizarrely sunken two or three steps down again. Slap bang in the middle of this hall was an enormous oil burning furnace, complete with stove pipes heading through some tortuous right angle turns up through the ceiling and, presumably, to the roof outside. Tucked in on the other side of the furnace was a high bench which doubled as lift-lid storage space.
This second hall also proved to be the connecting feature of the flat, with the kitchen off to the right and two bedrooms and a bathroom off to the left. The first bedroom had the second of the two windows which looked out of the side of the house. The second bedroom was larger and had a large shin-level window looking out the front.
As I stepped up to that window, I knew I was in trouble. From that window, off to the right, I could see the magnificent narrows leading into the harbour. I could see Signal Hill on one side of the gorge and the Atlantic light house on the other. I could see out beyond the narrows and over the heaving Atlantic itself.
As Jonathan was telling me about the good points of the flat all I could do was gaze out that window. I could see a ship heading off out into the open ocean. There were others on the quaysides, carefully placed about the periphery of the protected water. Jonathan paused. I looked at him. He raised his eyebrows. “Would it be okay if I had this room?” I said. He smiled and said, “Sure, I won't be here much anyway. I spend most of my time over at Jill's.”
We went and found the landlord, a shopkeeper further down the contoured road, and paid our deposit. A few days later we moved in. We didn't have any furniture so I slept on the floor for the first few weeks, but most of my waking life during that time was spent on the floor by that window, gazing out over that beautiful beautiful scenario.
Apart from the coming and going of ships, all looking sedate and majestic as they passed through those narrows, I might occasionally see glistening white icebergs drifting south in the ocean beyond. Even the odd whale spout would appear fleetingly, like an afterthought, in the same way you might see a shooting star.
The narrows were formed by two huge sky-high shoulders of granite which sloped steeply down to the water's edge. The crashing Atlantic could never get you once you entered those miraculous narrows.
For millennia those broad shoulders and that calm water have stood like a testament to a creator's love for seagoing people. Generations upon generations of exhausted marine adventurers must have felt that love as palpable waves of relief when, feeling that first hit of calm, they then looked to their left as they entered the haven and saw acres of still water lapping gently at safe and accommodating shores. That it should be placed here, at the easternmost edge of the North American continent, makes it seem like a creator's poetic apology for having put those adventurers through what the Atlantic can be capable of.
I'd always been drawn to the harbour, but now that I was there, overlooking it every day, its pull became irresistible. Every day that I left that flat, I was torn between heading up over the hill to the university or down towards the alluring quaysides and the magical changing structures as the varying ships alternated between staying and moving on.
There were no shore side barriers to this harbour. You could go right down to where the massive ropes and cables hung down the now still sides of the heaving ships; rough crusted rust flecked sides that you could reach out and touch and pat. Like enormous patient pachyderms they stood recuperating, replenishing, in preparation for what they knew was the inevitable departure back out through the regretful narrows.
Sometimes you might be invited aboard by world-weary crew men, trapped by ship watch duties as their companions scoured the facilities ashore. If you were lucky, you might be called up by an officer who would show you into the officers' mess with it's associated liquor cabinets and galley service. If you were even luckier, you might get called up by an impoverished Portugeuse crew man on a significantly smaller fishing trawler and get taken to the fo’c’sle to share wine and sardines and olives and crusty bread with bleary crew men appearing from hammocks in darkened recesses as they sensed some diversion coming into their lives.
The harbour was a living pageant. A world of swirling gulls and rigging and flags and voices and odours and mechanical sounds. Ships and their crews came and went like the changing cast of an enormous musical. But the absolute peak of the season was the arrival of the Portugeuse “white fleet”.
St John's is reckoned to be about 400 years old, but the Portugeuse had been coming to the Grand Banks and the natural harbour for much longer than that. At its peak, the fleet included magnificent multi-masted windjammers as well as standard trawlers and the odd factory ship. All painted white at the beginning of the season, when they entered the harbour for the first shore break they would appear like a virginal Christian procession, coming through the narrows in single file and then stacking up six or seven deep against their allotted moorings on the dock. They would rest thus, rocking gently in the glittering sunlight like the most extravagant yacht club the world had ever seen. As the season progressed, they would appear in smaller numbers with much of the pristine whiteness replaced by rust and scrapes and bruising.
In due course the truly massive factory fishing ships of the Russians and others began to replace the smaller ships. Too big even to deign to come ashore, they plundered the Grand Banks on an end-of-the-world industrial scale, scraping the bottom and destroying habitat until there was no place for the cod to reproduce.
As the Grand Banks began to die, so too did the white fleet, followed shortly thereafter by the entire Newfoundland fishing industry.
© 2012 Deacon Martin