If you have read ‘The Hispaniola (1887-1970)’ then this is the sequel. Short story first published here.
The Voyage Home (2016)
‘Five men only of those who had sailed returned with her. “Drink and the devil had done for the rest”, with a vengeance;’
Jim Hawkins from ‘Treasure Island’ by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I took a long sip of my pint and reflected on the past forty-odd years before I lowered my glass again. Sat around me were four old men where four young ones had sat previously. They looked familiar but not in the way I remembered them. Gravity, time, wear and tear, illness – life had taken its toll by the time I’d finished that sip.
We were sat in the bay window of the Borough pub in the city centre. The afternoon summer sunshine filtered through onto leather Chesterfield armchairs and settees grouped around a low table where half-empty pints rested on scattered beermats. A small stack of old photographs, bent into a curl by the rubber band that held them together, was the only other object on the table.
Speed was holding court, giving his views on Brexit following the vote to leave the European Union from the week before. The others let him speak but stayed poised ready to offer their opinion once he let them in. I stayed silent and studied each one.
Hol, successful in the leisure industry, Bart renowned in creative media, Speed prospering from construction projects in the Middle East and Bear from accumulating a small fortune in the world of Finance. These were the people that I knew best in all the world but saw the least; the people that I had grown up with, gone to Grammar school with, played rugby with and spent all my free time with when I was growing up; the friends who had shared my experiences, influenced my opinions and shaped my early life. My mind flicked back to the night that the Hispaniola had burnt down. That was the night that Hol had left. He’d been the last of the four to go. I hadn’t seen any of them since then until today. I had been the only one to stay and I still hadn’t worked out how I felt about that – them leaving me behind. Now we were all back together, for one day and that day was nearly over.
“Why are we talking about Brexit?” I asked myself. The vote had been taken, the decision made and we all had to live with it whether we liked it or not. When Hol had left we had been on the brink of joining the EU. Ted Heath had been taking us into Europe and the future had looked bright. We had spent nearly fifty years making it work and now we were bringing it to an end. I felt a curious parallel being established. When we were joining Europe these four had gone off to seek their fortunes and left me here. Now that we were leaving Europe they had come back here to catch up, if only for one day. What had happened in that time?
The United Kingdom had been faced with the same circumstances as the Hispaniola – staying trapped in a cage of its own making or consumed by a careless political fire. It had been my decision to stay and I had tried to convince myself that I had made the best decision. The country had made up its own mind to leave and now it was tearing itself apart about whether it was right or wrong. As I studied the others, I tried to rationalise what I had been feeling … as I had tried to do countless times before.
It wasn’t about the money – I’d done all right on that front. It wasn’t about the success as I’d had a moderate amount of that too. I didn’t envy them the material things. I didn’t envy them at all. It wasn’t envy, it wasn’t anger nor even disappointment. It wasn’t loneliness although there had been times along the way when I’d felt alone. The best that I could come up with was that it was a kind of grieving. But knowing that didn’t make it go away.
I could never tell them about the evenings when I’d diverted my journeys home, say from dropping off my daughters in the city centre for a night out or at the station when they were returning to university or back to their jobs in London. I’d park up in the village near the bus shelter where we used to meet or near the pub where we used to drink, just for a few minutes on my own, and look at the lights across the shore on the other side of the bay and I’d picture the five of us as we used to be. It had felt like going back to place flowers on a grave. Something was missing from my life without them. I needed their company, their conversation, their humour, their friendship. I just needed to know that they were still part of my life. But when they’d left there’d been a hole that I had never been able to fill. I had covered it over with a wife and children and the sport that I loved and the work that I enjoyed and I’d had a good and happy life in the years since. However I now realised that the hole would re-open as soon as we walked out of this pub and it would be with me for the remainder of my life. I knew it was silly and stupid but I still felt it. Was I still grieving?
Hol was talking directly to me. “You haven’t said anything. What do you think? Two of us voted for remain and two for leave.” That was pretty much how the country had voted. “You have the casting vote.”
“Ah … you know me. I was never one for leaving anything.” It was suitably vague. I could hold it back easily enough. I’d had almost a lifetime of practice. It was too late now to talk about what was really on my mind.
“Especially not a pub before closing time” said Bear. We laughed.
This was what I missed most – the gentle ribbing, the common cause, the simple feeling of companionship with people that I felt so in tune with. Even today, the first time I’d seen any of them in so long, it had been so easy to slide back into the relationship. Like putting on an old pair of slippers – so comfortable, so fitting, so familiar. We hadn’t changed much, just grown older.
The Brexit conversation was over. It was almost time to go.
“We’re going to have to do this again,” one of them said.
Then Bear surprised us. “This is a great place to be … you know, around here I mean. It’s no wonder that you never left.” He was looking at me. “We’ve been checking out local properties with a view to moving back. We’re retired now and the kids have moved away. There’s no need for us to stay where we’re at. Suzy wants to come back to be near her mother. It’ll be good to reconnect with the old crowd from the rugby club as well.”
“Funny you should say that” said Speed. “I’ve just bought a parcel of land on the edge of the city and I’m proposing to build a house. I’ve no kids to worry about anyway and I’m selling up my business in Dubai although it’s proving to be a bit of a drawn out process. That place is so over-developed now compared to when I first went out there and I’m no longer enjoying it.”
“We should make this an annual event at least. I’m happily settled down south,” said Hol, “but coming up for a regular reunion with a bit more contact in between by e-mail or Skype or something electronic would be good. It’s so much easier to stay in touch these days than when we first scattered to the winds.”
“You’re right,” Bart added. “It’s the same for me but, being nearer, I can get up here a bit more often.”
And that was it. Suddenly we’d gone from nothing to almost everything that I wanted. One way or another, bit by bit, on their own terms, they were coming home. It was still a compromise but I could settle for that. I felt a tension relaxing inside me. I’d been wrong. It hadn’t been grief. The grief had passed a long time ago, as it should have. It had been the hope that always follows grief that had been glowing like a faint ember in the furthest recess of my mind. A dormant, suppressed ember kept alive only by fleeting memories but now fanned into an optimistic flicker. If only Europe was as easy to fix.
We walked out of the pub into the sunlit Square, arranged a group photo, shook hands and hugged each other. I waved each of them off. My wife was picking me up from a nearby car park. On the way home I sat quietly in the passenger seat. I slipped off the rubber band and leafed through the curling collection of photos from fifty years ago when we had been young and united – snaps from pubs, parties, holidays, the Cross-Bay walk, the nearby resort where the Hispaniola had been tethered. I thought about the day after she’d caught fire. I could still remember what had been in my mind … the end of that old film. Facing the journey home, clapped in irons, aboard the Hispaniola to stand trial in England, Long John Silver asks Jim Hawkins to look after his parrot.
“Jim lad, … this old bird … she can’t abide a prison. There ain’t much in nature as can.”
They could have left Silver on the island. ‘Better dead than caged’ I’d thought then. Had I been in a cage or marooned on an island? If I’d felt that way before then I no longer felt it now. In truth the others had been with me; they had always been with me. They were part of me; in my memories. The hope had always been there even though I hadn’t recognized it as such. It had been my choice to stay. Now they were drifting back to join me as best they could. At last I knew that choosing to stay had been the right choice for me.