In Which I Retell a Folk Ballad
This newsletter is supposed to be about my fiction. So maybe it is time I laid a little fiction on you. This is a short story I wrote several years ago. It was first published in the Winter 2005 edition of Canada’s Storyteller magazine. It is based on an old folk ballad, “On Claudy Banks”. A sailor goes to sea, leaving his lass behind. Will she be true? How can he know? What lengths will he go to to find out?
A little background at the end, if you are interested.
On Claudy Banks
by G. M. Baker
The ship’s horn sounds, deadening the air. Life cowers and stops its ears. The sound spreads out across the water and bears down, crushing bone and mud beneath its awful weight. Mountains shudder and their boulders stir in agony. It is the sound of the unstoppable force. It does not plead for passage. It declares itself: I come. The ship nears with terrible stillness, slow, implacable, sheer iron, iron limbed, rusting yet impervious. The frail earth cannot impede it. All must be ground down by its passage: water, rock, vegetation, flesh – it is all alike to the ship.
On the wharf, Liz waits. She wears new stockings. She has come from work; her smock is brown and smells of sugar, grease, and burnt coffee. She has long legs and a short skirt. She shivers. On fair summer nights she waited here, when the light lingered and the air was warm. Through autumn’s dwindling days she watched, unwavering. Now she arrives in darkness, shudders in the damp and bitter wind that blows in from the bay, but waits always as before, until the last man departs, the steel gates close, and the dogs are let loose to prowl.
The man at the gate knows her. At first he flirted with her, followed her with hungry eyes. But somehow she has become like a daughter to him – a distant wayward daughter, long past saving, sunk in reckless independence. But still, a daughter. He calls out to her cheerfully as she enters, and when she passes, weeps for her.
She stands alone before the implacable ship. The water surges as the gap narrows, stirring a stew of old oil and effluent. It will rise up and overwhelm her. The dock will crumble. She will fall amid the rubble and be crushed, like a cockroach underneath a heel; a squirt of red, a smear of bones and flesh. Yet still she waits.
The ship relents. Even in its monstrous heart, the sight of her elicits pity. It cannot save her, but, like the man upon the gate, it cannot bear to sate its appetite on her. Ropes are thrown. Subdued, the ship dribbles forth her crew down the companionways. Liz stamps her numbed feet and watches them descend.
He never gave her a photograph, and sometimes she struggles to recall his face. Men pass in ones and twos through the gloom and glare of the dockyard and for a moment she recognizes him in each of them. Her heart flutters with brief hope, while her hands tremble for fear that he who is half forgotten will return to her half known, that they will stare with lidded eyes, touch with cold uncertain fingers, stammer foolish distant words as if their parting had been brief and their meeting happenchance.
A group of Russian sailors approaches her. One puts his hands on her. She squirms away from him.
“You do it with me,” he says.
“No,” she says, pushing away his cold hands.
“I have American dollars,” he says, persisting. “I give you thirty American dollars to do it with me.”
His comrades laugh at him.
“She doesn’t want your American dollars, Dimitri,” one says.
“What do you want then?” the sailor asks her, grabbing her wrists and pulling her close to him.
“Let me go.” Her voice is a helpless bleat. She has no power of resistance; only hope.
“Leave her, Dimitri,” another man says, an older man. “She’s not here for that. Here they all dress like whores.”
Dimitri is persuaded to move on. She fades to nothingness behind him. The great town waits for him, full of flesh.
Other men call out to her. Some simply stare, or say things to their friends they think she cannot hear, and laugh. But they do not linger. They are too eager to find a warm place, a place of music and bright light, or else their beds. After a while they come no more. You cannot call her feeling disappointment. She is too resigned for that. Her hope is faithful, not expectant. She comes because she must, hopes because she must. It is her faith, her beatitude, her love. The icy wind disturbs her hair and she raises a numbed hand to smooth it. On the gangway one last figure appears. He must be an old man, for he moves slowly. His hand grasps the rail as if he fears he may stumble down the steep gangway. She waits to see his face, for her hope is as well invested in him as in any other man. She dare not go and leave one face unseen. In her dreams it will be him, and he will find her and rebuke her faithlessness. She waits.
The man reaches the wharf and turns to walk towards her. He is not as old as she had thought him. There is strength in the way he tosses his duffle bag over his shoulder. But he walks with a limp. Her heart goes out to him as if he were a crippled child left behind by his playmates as they ran to the playground. Her eyes cannot leave him as he limps from one pool of yellow light to another. His face is deeply bearded. He has a watch cap pulled low over his brow. He wears glasses; the heavy old fashioned kind with black plastic rims.
He limps past her. She knows he is the last. She does not want to walk beside him to the gate. She could easily overtake him and reach the gate before him, but it seems cruel to do so, to leave him limping solitary in the frigid gloom. She will wait until he has gone, then follow and go home alone.
He stops and turns back to her.
“You look cold,” he says.
“I’m okay,” she says, turning away. She knows better than to meet his eye.
“Waiting for someone?”
“I’ll be fine.”
“I’m the last off. There’s no one else aboard, except the old man.” His voice is strange. It is low and seems to be forced from the bottom of his throat.
“I’m okay,” she says, hoping he will move on.
He turns and limps toward her.
“You’re not waiting for the Skipper?”
“There’s no one else.”
“The gate will be closing soon.”
He is beside her now. She still feels pity for him, but if he touches her, if he even lets his sleeve brush against her arm, she will run.
“He’s a lucky man.”
“The man you are waiting for.”
There is something in his eyes that touches her. A word is not too much to give.
“His name is Jack,” she says.
“Jack Irwin,” she says. She hates to speak his name, for every time it passes her lips some part of her small treasure of hope flies out of her mouth and is lost in the frosty air.
“Oh.” He pauses, as if some sadness weighs upon him. “You must be Liz,” he says.
She stares at him. Hopes and cautions flurry round her. For a moment she is uncertain if she should admit to her name. She stammers, “You know him?” Her hand darts out and lights on his arm. He looks at her, as if her touch somehow offends him. She withdraws her hand. Her heart is trembling in her breast, from coldness and from hope. “You know him?” she repeats.
“Come on,” he says, “I’ll buy you a drink.”
“Is he okay? Is he coming back?”
“You’re freezing,” he says. He is dressed in a heavy sea-coat, but he does not offer it to her.
“Was he on the ship?”
“Come on. We’ll talk inside.”
He turns and begins to limp on toward the gate. She teeters after him on numbed legs. She stammers questions at him, but he is silent. Soon she drops into silence also. Dread settles over her heart. She sees he does not wish to give his news, does not want to be alone to comfort her.
The man at the gate sees them leave together. He gives her a friendly wave, but, when they have passed, he is pierced with fear for her. Some part of him thinks that he should follow them, to keep her safe. But he is expected elsewhere – and how could he explain? Her life, he tells himself. Nothing he can do about it.
They stumble into a bar, he lame, she numb. The place is empty. The man behind the bar gives them a sullen look. The sailor slides into a booth. The bulb is burned out in the lamp that hangs above the table, but Liz has not the heart to ask him to get up again and move to a different table. She slides in opposite to him, her stockings catching on the broken vinyl. He shouts an order for beer. The bartender twists the caps off two bottles, puts them on the bar, and turns back to his TV. Liz rises and crosses the room to fetch the bottles to the table. The bartender does not look up at her. There is a half empty bowl of peanuts on the bar. She looks at the sailor, slumped in darkness. She wonders when he last ate, and picks up the peanuts to bring to him.
He receives her without thanks, scoops the peanuts into his mouth, and sucks on the beer bottle.
“Were you tight?” he growls.
She does not know what he means. Her cheeks flush.
“You and Jack? Steady?”
“Anyone else?” He is belligerent, as if he suspects that she has betrayed his friend.
“You waited for him?”
“Kept your legs crossed?”
She blushes again. The blood burns her chilled skin. Her beer sits untouched. Warmth has hardly begun to creep into her body.
He sits forward and glares at her, offended by her silence. “Kept your legs crossed?” he asks again.
“Yes,” she says. She slides one knee over the other and tries to tug her skirt down to cover her thigh.
He sits back and pulls on his beer bottle. When he speaks again there is a kind of sweetness in his voice.
“Have you been together long?” he asks gently.
“A year. But he’s been at sea six months.”
“I don’t know. He changed a lot.”
“Hear from him much?”
“He sends postcards. Says he’ll be home soon.”
“You write back?”
“He always forgot to give me an address.”
“Did you ask the company?”
“They said they didn’t know. They said he must have gone to work for another line. Do you know him? Have you seen him?”
“We were on the Star of the Sea, out of Lisbon. He used to talk about you. Said how pretty you are. Said you were waiting for him. Some of the guys used to laugh at him, said if you were so pretty, you wouldn’t be waiting around for the likes of him.”
“I waited,” she says. She corrects herself, “I am waiting.”
“Love him, do you?”
She looks down at the table. “Yes,” she says, her voice low.
“He was a good kid,” the sailor says.
She hears “was”. Her body begins to shake.
“Companies don’t care,” he says bitterly.
“Wh-- Wha-” She cannot even finish the word. If she speaks, she will scream. If the question passes her lips, she will break down, she will sob out her heart, while he sits nursing his beer, and the man behind the bar watches his television.
“Gale,” he says, “Off the coast of Spain. Containers broke loose from the deck.”
“Nothing…” she gasps out words in short puffs, clenching her chest between each word, to keep herself together, “… news … no … wreck … watched … nothing.”
“A wreck doesn’t make the news unless it dumps oil. Dead birds are news. Not dead men.”
“… dead … no …”
“It wasn’t a wreck anyway. Just deck cargo lost. He was checking the chains.”
“… dead …?” she gasps.
He reaches out and lays his hand over hers.
“He was right,” he says, “you are pretty.”
She breaks. The collapse is sudden and complete. She wails out her sorrow. Her head falls into her hands. Her sobs come in quick wheezing breaths that convulse her limbs. The man behind the bar reaches for the remote and bumps the volume up a notch or two.
Another man walks into the bar. He looks at no one but heads straight to the back and goes into the men’s room. The sailor rises, picks up his duffle bag, and follows him, leaving Liz alone with her grief.
In the men’s room, the sailor and the stranger exchange no words. The sailor digs into his duffle bag and pulls out six packages, all neatly wrapped in plastic. The stranger inspects the seals and finds them intact. He opens one, tastes, and nods. Money changes hands and the stranger departs. The sailor turns to the mirror and looks at himself. He takes off his glasses and his watch cap and stuffs them in a pocket. Then he takes a shaving kit from his duffle, coaxes hot water from the mismatched taps, lathers, and begins to shave. The shave leaves him with a curiously mottled face, for the beard has kept the sun from his jaw. It is a fresh face, young, full of purpose. He leans against the wall – there is nowhere here he wants to sit. He crosses his right leg over his left knee, undoes the laces of his boot. He pulls off the boot and extracts a small block of wood from inside the heel. His heel has been chafed almost raw, and he removes his sock and caresses the sore spot. Then he puts his sock and his boot on again and stands straight. He regards himself in the mirror. The watch cap has left his hair a mess. He runs water into his hands and slicks it back. Then he takes out a comb and arranges a neat parting. He is pleased with the image in the mirror.
He returns to the bar. Liz is still there, weeping. The TV is blaring. “Turn it down,” he says, slapping two twenties on the bar. The bartender looks up at him, sees the money, takes it, flicks the TV off, and disappears into the back.
The sailor strides across to the table where she sits. There is no sign of a limp now. He puts a hand on her shoulder.
“Liz,” he says. He speaks in his natural voice.
She jumps as if she had been stung. She turns and looks him in the face. For a moment she gapes at him without comprehension, sobs still shaking her frame. Then she shrieks and leaps up from the table to throw her arms around him.
She cries his name, “Jack!”
“It’s me, babe,” he says, raising her off her feet as he embraces her.
He puts her down. She looks at him, unbelieving. At first she does not understand. “He told me you …” She sees that he wears the same coat, the same shirt. There is a fleck of shaving cream below his right ear. She steps back. “You…” she says, “you…”
He grins at her. “It was me baby. Thought maybe you’d forgotten me.”
“I waited for you,” she says, she is cold again and her hands tremble.
“You could have been waiting for anyone,” he tells her. “I’ve seen girls on the docks didn’t care who they went home with.”
“No,” she cries. “It was for you. I waited for you.”
“I know, babe,” he says. “I had to be sure.”
Her heart is thumping. There are tears in her eyes. Her feet move uncertainly. Her arms hang down, her hands shaking from side to side. Her mind is half made up to run. He steps forward and pulls her to him. His mouth closes on hers. She remembers him.
It is springtime. Small flowers stand on the leggy stalks that grow in the cracked concrete. The sky is flushed, yet still the city sleeps. The dockyard noises stand out with peculiar and individual clarity, for the town has not yet resumed its daily drone.
“You’ll wait for me,” he says.
She nods, tears in her eyes. She wears a new spring dress, and she is cold in the morning air. “You’ll write…”
“You know I will, babe.”
Men move around them, but they are alone.
He squeezes her, then hauls his half-empty duffle bag over his shoulder and joins the line of men climbing the gangplank. Lines are cast off. The ship’s horn blares out its agony to the sleeping world. Liz stops her ears. In the town, people stir in their beds, curse the commerce that sustains them, and turn again to sleep. The ship shudders. The seagulls sound their harsh and mournful protests as they choke on the cloud of heavy oil smoke that pours from her stacks. Liz waves to the ship, waves to its sheer iron sides, for no face shows at the rail.
The man on the gate sees her coming, the newly-risen sun pulling out the highlights in her hair and glistening on her wet cheeks.
“Hey, Liz,” he calls to her. He cannot remember how he came to know her name.
She looks up and smiles at him, grateful to be recognized.
“Seeing him off?” he asks.
She is shivering, and he wants to ask her into his hut where he has a small electric heater running. He wants nothing from her in return. But how could he explain?
“I switched to days in December,” he tells her, eager to explain his presence, to prove the innocence of his motives. “It’s less money, but I get to see my kids.”
“That’s great,” she tells him.
Don’t come back, he wants to say to her. But how could he explain? She passes through the gate and hurries across the road to a lonely bus stop. He watches her while she waits. A dozen times he forms the resolve to cross the street and plead with her. The bus comes, and his chance is gone. Some evening, he knows, she will return again, and every evening after that. But he will not see her. He will be at home, waiting for his daughter to return, spying through the curtains to see if the boy is clean. But Liz will be here, shivering on the docks. She is constant. It is her peculiar virtue. She will wait for Jack.
I don’t know if there is much appetite for author’s commentary on a short story, but I’m in a try-anything mood, so here goes.
On Claudy Banks, is one of the many broken token songs, though one in which the actual broken token has been dropped somewhere in the folk process. Such songs deal with separated lovers and the means by which they will recognize each other after long parting. Traditionally this is by means of some token which is broken in two with each of the lovers keeping one piece. When they are reunited, the broken parts are put back together symbolizing… well, you get the symbolism. It isn’t very deep.
On Claudy Banks leaves out the exchange of tokens and makes the sailor a bit of a cad. I have made him worse. The song has been recorded by several artists, but I rather like the version performed by Waterson:Carthy.
I have done a few song-into-story pieces, including making a novel out of the ballad Lady Isabel and the Elf Knight. One of the things I realized immediately is that characters in songs are essentially archetypes acting out archetypal dramas. A story needs to put flesh on the bones, to make them feel like particular people. Making a story from On Claudy Banks forced me to ask, what kind of young woman lets herself be treated like this?
The story is a departure for me because it is told in the narrative present (often described as writing in present tense, though that is misleading). Writing in the narrative present (telling the story as it happens rather than after the fact) has become very popular but I have never liked it. To me it has a sense of fatalism, of inevitability hanging over it, which does not suit many of the stories which use it. It does suit this one, though, I find. I’m not sure it was even a conscious decision on my part. It just came out like that.
Did I answer my question about what sort of young woman lets herself be treated like this? No. My avatar in this story is the man on the gate. The one who watches helplessly because he both cares and understands, and yet is helpless to act and does not understand at all.
But it is not the function of stories to answer questions like this. Their function is merely to put flesh to the question, to make it poignant and personal, so that perhaps we may give it more attention. It is good that we should see it and feel it, even if we are helpless and do not understand. There but for the grace of God…
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