Each boat has her own voice. Waiting at dockside, the Bruce purrs; the two exhaust pipes are just at water level and emit a gentle steam sparkling with tiny bubbles, like the upside-down rain we make with baking soda and Kool Aid. Coming across the bay, she talks to herself and to the waves, the words always just beyond the edge of comprehensibility.
Old Mr. Hungerford's putt-putt does just that. Putt-putt-putt-putt: a steady beat underway, slowing to a near-stall as she coasts in to tie up. Putt-pause-putt-pause, then when you think she's stopped, putt-putt.
The Lizzie roars. Inside the cabin, talking is impossible. Sometimes we shout; "Where's Georgina?" "What?" "Home!" "Okay!" This last to the pilot, forward beyond the engine block. He pushes on the throttle and the engine bellows. We sit immersed in our own thoughts, tolerating the noise, the stink of hot oil and bilgewater, the steamy damp.
There are no lights aboard the Lizzie, except for the one headlight. Inside, morning and evening, it is pitch dark, except for the occasional beam from a flashlight. The night a rat bites me, I pull the flash from my pocket and turn it on, but it's too late; I don't see the rat, just the two tiny holes in my hand, almost half an inch apart. I don't tell the adults because I know what they will do: give me a series of injections, one a day for twelve days, all of them in my belly. I'd rather get rabies. I am relieved, though, when a month has gone by and I can still drink a glass of water without choking.
When it's not raining, I like to sit outside in the stern. It's always cold, but if I huddle close to the cabin wall, out of the wind, and cram my hands up into my jacket sleeves, I am fine. At least it's quiet. Quieter, anyhow. And the spray smells of salt and seaweed and silver-grey mist.
In the daytimes, going to Tahsis, we cut in close to the land, out of the choppiness at mid-channel. The rocks and trees slip by, half a stone's throw away, silent except for the slap of the waves at their feet. I like to imagine myself scrambling over the shore, picking huckleberries in season -- so big and red they are, hanging there over the banks, unharvested, unseen by anyone but me. Sometimes the sun shines on the cliffs, making the moss look dry and warm, a place to climb to, to sit in a cushiony hollow -- there! that one! -- and examine the tiny moss-flowers and the yellow lichens.
Behind and over it all, the Douglas firs and the cedars make an impenetrable wall. Never has man set foot under those branches; no voices have disturbed their silence. We don't belong there, we are too young; we couldn't bear the heaviness of the slow centuries, of the secret musings and long watchings. And yet I wish: if the boat would only stop, I would go ashore and dare the hidden paths. Maybe.
Most of the year it's too cold and wet to sit outside at night. But in the summer, when the wash glows green with fluorescence, and tiny sparkling stars break away from the prow and rush off into the blackness, when the Big Dipper hangs overhead and the lights of the houses behind us make dancing dotted lines on the crests of the waves, I lean on the side of the boat and sing. No-one inside the Lizzie will hear me over the racket of the engine; I can shout to the stars. Stormy weather songs; "Jesus, Saviour, Pilot Me", "Throw out the Lifeline," "Peace, Be Still". Or my night-time favourite: "Could we with ink the ocean fill,.." The sea and the sky and the mountains are already inky.
In the winter storms, a derelict fishing boat washes ashore, half sunken, and comes to ground between the pier and my bedroom window. I watch her through the early spring, as the waves nudge her one way and another until she is tightly wedged on some unseen gap in the rocks. At low tide the cabin and the front deck are exposed, slanting towards me, beckoning. As soon as the weather is warm enough, I swim out and clamber aboard.
The cabin is tiny and dark, more from ancient grease than from paint. My hands stick to the doorjamb. I pick my way to the wheel, sloshing through knee-deep water across broken floorboards, and stand there, pretending to steer. Straight ahead, a forest of tarry pilings underneath the old cannery bars the way. I imagine backing, turning to miss the pier, and heading out to open water. I would go north, just to see what's there; hills and trees I have never seen, islets with no name, lonely cliffs.
There is a smear of pitch on my right arm; my hands, when I turn them palms up, are black. I back gingerly out of the cabin, careful not to touch anything more. The prow deck is clean enough; for the rest of the summer, I use it as my private sun-bathing place.
In October, my little harbour is empty again. Whether the tide broke the wreck up, or she just floated out to sea, I don't know. I never saw her go.
Occasionally we take a trip down the island on the Messenger III, the Shantyman's Mission boat. Down the outside; a stop in Friendly Cove or Ahousat, and a rolling and nose-diving haul around Estevan Point, where all the adults take to their bunks and I go to join the pilot in his cabin. He makes himself onion sandwiches for lunch; "Settles the stomach," he says. My stomach is fine, but I don't try his sandwiches.
Aboard the Messenger, I mostly stay inside. She is faster than the Lizzie, or even the Bruce; the wind in the stern catches your breath away. But she is bigger, and cleaner, and quieter than any of the other boats I know. Even in the cabin below decks, the bunks are dry. And we can talk, even play games; the engine thrums along in the next room, sounding like someone practicing his bass part for the church choir.
The wall must be well insulated, because when I go through the engine room to the head, the pounding and howling and squealing of the big machine deafens me. Close beside the monster is a narrow walkway, just a metal grid over open bilge and a rail made of lead pipes, too hot to hold onto comfortably. A sizzling water pipe juts out overhead, close enough for me to feel its heat as I pass. Over the rail, massive wheels spin, pistons leap and slam back down, belts whine. A finger in one of those, a stray shoelace; I shy away from the rest of the thought. It is a relief to hide away in the tiny head, to lock down the handle. "Occupied", the label will say on the outside. I stay longer than I need to, putting off the trip back over that trembling bridge.
The Messenger. The Lizzie. My wreck. The Bruce. And I shouldn't forget our school boat, the Donna Dene. Except that she is so forgettable; serviceable and boring. White paint, a boxy cabin, engine, benches, wheel. That's it. A boat to get to school in, to forget your homework in, to sit inside through the rainy months in.
Even the name is a plodder. Donna. No romance. The Messenger, now; the name means something, tells you its mission, to carry the Gospel. The Bruce is named after the Doctor's son, the one that drowned when his boat went down in a storm.
And the Lizzie: an ugly-sounding name, but it speaks of so many things! Elizabeth, like the queen in her blue dress and fat ankles on the front wall of our classroom. Elizabeth II Regina; very elegant. Or the Tin Lizzie, the Model T Ford, probably about as old as our Lizzie, but black instead of streaky white. Or just plain Elizabeth, with a whole list of nicknames to choose from. Betty. Lisa. Beth, like Jo's sister that died in "Little Women". Eliza. Ella. Lisbeth. When I grow up, if I do, if I have a daughter, I will name her Elizabeth. But I won't call her Lizzie, ever.
Stories of childhood
© Susannah Anderson, 2004