On the far side of the river Colne, to the east of the floodgates at Wivenhoe, there is a quay where barges moor as they are filled with sand recovered from the surrounding land. Once the rusting hulls have sunk to their Plimsoll lines, the barges take leave on the departing tide, carrying their cargo out to the coast then south as far as the Thames or northwards to the Medway. Since the Colne has been left to silt up over the years, the barges are only free to navigate the channel at high tide, whenever that should be. For this reason, the work of the crew often takes them down the Colne in the dead of night, borne along by the surge while the world around them sleeps, oblivious to the phases of the water by which the industry measures its days.
One restless night I found myself wandering down the trail by the river on the occasion of a spring tide. As the cold bit into my neck, I felt my mind calmed by the water and the silver reeds, lit as they were by the full moon. The light wind coming in from the coast met with the trees a little further up the trail, giving voice to the leaves about to fall with autumn and of which I felt sure that I was sole witness. It was then that I first heard the puttering engine of a barge as it sailed up the river. I took a seat on a bench and watched it progress slowly round the crook of the Colne through the course marked out by the flickering lights of buoys. Though the ship seemed as present to me as anything in the world, it struck me that I could not approach it.
My mind turned to a photo I had seen the previous summer in the Nottage Maritime Institute in Wivenhoe. In the first few years of the 20th Century, one of the now defunct shipwrights of the town had built a small submarine named the Volta. The monochrome image I saw showed her suspended from a crane, hovering over dark water pressed into ripples by a breeze.
The vessel was to be manned by a crew of three—a commander, driver, and torpedo man—and was designed for the single purpose of scuppering ships moored in harbours or other deceptively safe waters. As I read later on in one of the few sources of information regarding the Volta that survive, by the time of the craft’s launch in June 1905 the British Government had attempted to intervene in the sale and block the ship’s departure. It was under pressure of this embargo that the submarine disappeared. In all likelihood, the craft slipped away one night at high tide, smuggled out to its buyer. Some presume she was destined for the Japanese navy, embroiled at that time in war with Russia, though the truth of the matter remains obscure to this day. How far did she carry her crew under cover of night below the surface of the water? Who were the men who sat inside her, sweating at the heat of the engine, so loud as to drown out the groaning sea that pressed on them from all sides? What thoughts passed through their minds as they were slowly asphyxiated by the engine’s exhaust as it filled the little space inside?
These questions idled as I sat mutely on the bench, pinned by the cold and the strange distance of the barge, and watched a crewman walk along the deck. He was silhouetted by the light of a lamp behind him. I watched him walk from aft to fore, but none of his movements made enough of a sound to carry across the water. He cannot see me, I thought, fortressed in my coat, missing the scarlet scarf with which I should have wrapped my neck. At that I stood up and turned to leave, catching sight of a plaque screwed into the back of the bench. Though the image of the plaque stayed with me for some time, I cannot recall the name engraved in dedication, since under that light the writing was illegible.
We were told that in the spring
a doe had left her fawn
to graze on the early stalks
as she wandered further away.
She raised her head in time
to watch a boar approach her child,
lift it on its tusks
and throw it in the air.
I think of her eyes
on the boar as it cleaned its jaw
on the low shoots beside
Behind that field some time before
I sat in the main house
where your father had once slept
as the wall went up in flames;
where his mother fell to her knees
at a blow on the back from a spade;
where the French had left a piece
of aristocracy on the run;
where you would later work outside,
stretching out the mainsail
to dry in the sun.
I found myself displaced
with your brother and his sports,
or wandering to the parlour
where the present, held back decades,
I don’t remember you well.
I don’t know where you were.
I was there.
I kept your brother company.
You were with your grandmother,
growing into her past,
or in the jeep with your father,
on the forest roads
where Siberia had rolled through him
as a boy.
Or lost in the fog with your Farfar
trawling the sea for crab,
adrift, for once,
with no sense for the shore.
Somewhere, while I sat.
We were differently drawn in
by your father’s winter tales,
of the dead man in the car
who’d vanished in the mirror;
or the spirit in the woods
who’d pointed to his game;
or the woman of the lynx,
as we passed her empty bench.
Separately we took inside
each proof of something
both sides of the snow.
It spread to me, slowing
everything to a standstill
from the churchyard that had buried
your lost generations.
I have a photo of your brother.
I stopped him in the kitchen.
His pupils are pulled wide.
He is there
like you and your father.
That is what I thought,
having never asked.
I also have a photo
of a hut you hadn’t seen,
skewed by winds that always
blew the same way,
bent as a sheltering tree line
that stills the air.
This boy does not quite look comfortable sitting still. He seems a little amused at being pushed outside of the house, made up like this in public for the sake of a passport photo or something like it. It does not seem as if he chose the tie himself. And he can’t have been long from the barber’s, his hair still holding the crest of the wave combed into it. I imagine his mother fussing over him one last time before stepping back, out of frame, and allowing the photographer to do his work.
Though amused he hardly seems buoyant; his shoulders are slumped, his body cramped as though stuffed into the frame. Having submitted to the process, his lips seem passive as if there were nothing held back on his tongue or no occasion to speak.
But his right eye seems to be drifting free of the room, his mind elsewhere. And the right corner of his lip is turned down and tense with a touch of aggression. Perhaps he is not amused after all. But his left eye seems palpably shocked, as if it alone had caught sight of something that the other side of his face, lost in thought, had missed.
I wonder how the other photos in the spool turned out. I suppose that among the others this one failed to make the cut. That is why it was discarded or lost in a drawer and set on its way to the market where I picked it up. Perhaps in the very next moment, shaken into shape by the first flash, he recovered his composure, lifted his gaze and stared straight ahead, fixing the camera with the formal, blank look that was all he had been asked for.