Tuesday, November 03, 2009
Pilchards On Ghost
The suffocating claustrophobia of the kitchen was getting to me. Whenever I could snatch an hour or two away in the idle period between lunch and evening service, I'd head up to Porbeagle Isle. I don't know what I was looking for. Perhaps I was just hoping my life would change somehow.
I'd walk along the darkening sands, the wintry wind whipping my ears, and mounds of seaweed piled up at high tide. There were neon ropes, plastic bottles, feathers, spades, and a pair of swimming trunks. Some of the seaweed was shaped like clubs. If you looked closer there were dead crabs, mussels and limpets among the debris.
I followed the sands to the mouth of the estuary, where Atlantic salmon and sea trout swam to spawn. There were narrow caves with plastic lighters wedged into crevices. And there were steps that led up to the mansions overlooking Porbeagle Isle. They had metal gates and no-nonsense signs. One said: “Private – don’t be caught by tide. Guard dogs beyond!” I’d rather take my chances with the dogs, I thought.
I walked up to the ruined hever hut on top of the island. It was just a shell with graffiti scratched into the brickwork. I thought about the fisherman who had sat there watching the sea all those years ago, raising the alarm when the waves turned silver. Then the boats would go out and surround the pilchards. Millions of fish were salted and packed into barrels. Then the fish stopped coming, the tourist information sign said.
Half-way down was the Silver Sea Inn, a crooked building with stable-like doors. The sign said it dated from 1396 and was “haunted by the ghost of an Elizabethan smuggler called Tom Trevisick, who was shot dead by customs men”.
I ordered a pint. I was the only one in there. The landlord was practising a Christmas carol, and tried it out on me. He’d changed the words - it was all about a man dressing up in women’s clothing. I sat by the fire, wishing he’d go away.
He stopped singing suddenly and pointed.
“Stare at the bricks to the right of the fire. Can you see it? Can you see Old Tom’s face?”
I stared, and the landlord danced around behind me. Slowly I made out two dark patches for eyes and then a mouth. Then he pointed again.
“Look at the brickwork on the left! You’re supposed to be able to see the face of the customs man chasing him!”
The grey stone formed into incomprehensible shapes, but this time no face. I tried again and shook my head.
“No, I’ve never seen it either,” he laughed. “I think you’ve got to be pissed to see that!"
He came back with two more pints.
"But Old Tom, he’s here alright," he went on. "Sometimes I find myself talking to him when I’m on my own. I always know when he’s there. He plays all sorts of tricks on me – I think he was quite a prankster in his day.
“When I first took over the pub, I was cleaning up and saw something out of the corner of my eye. I looked round and there was a lime in mid-air. It hadn’t just fallen off the counter and on to the floor...it was about a foot above the counter. If the lime had just rolled off the bar, it would have gone down wouldn’t it! It wouldn’t have gone up!”
“Come on...” I said. He was beginning to unnerve me, and I still had to walk back on my own through the dark.
“I tell you I saw it with my own eyes! I said ‘Tom, what are you doing to me?’”
“What did he say?”
The landlord looked thoughtful for a second and slightly offended.
“Well he might have said something, in his own way. And then he started paying me more visits. I’m not afraid of him though, it’s nice having someone around. But Old Tom’s a real nuisance sometimes. I hear him downstairs in the toilets, and I say ‘Tom, what the hell are you doing down there?’
“You know sometimes I go down there when I open up and the walls are all covered with wads of wet toilet paper! That’s why I never bother to clean the bogs at the end of the night – you don’t know what it’s going to be like in the morning.”
I ordered another pint and drank deeply. I was desperate for the toilet.
“But it’s useful when there’s a stock take. If there’s anything missing, I say ‘well, old Tom had that one!’”
I finished the pint and planned to get out of there immediately, when the latch on the inside of the door started jiggling frantically. I looked up, and then back at the landlord.
His eyes widened like a cartoon mouse. The jiggling got more severe and a weight was pushing against the door. I could hear murmuring voices. It might have been olde English.
“Never fails to amaze me,” said the landlord, leaping up from his chair. He lifted the latch then hid behind the door. There was another push, the latch rattled, and this time the door flew open, and a startled, well-dressed couple fell into the pub.
“Arrrrrrr!” yelled the landlord, emerging from behind the door with his fingers held up like claws.
They darted back and then recovered their composure. The landlord was a complete lunatic, and I never went there again.