Martin Edmond

The Secret Sharer

There was an alarm going off all night long. Eighty electronic pulses followed by about twenty beats of silence. I’m estimating, obviously. The noise was faint, far away, but once I had locked onto it, I couldn’t help but listen. At first I tended to fall into a doze during the periods of silence then wake when the beeps resumed; but after a while, I switched and would re-surface when the silence began again. It was odd not knowing where the sound was coming from; the surf club? Odd, too, that the battery never ran down: connected to the mains perhaps? As a means of occupying my mind with something other than the alarm’s pauses and resumptions, I thought I’d see if I could recall the names of Joseph Conrad’s ships. I knew there were eighteen of them: could I find them all? The Mont-Blanc, the Saint-Antoine, the Tremolino, the Mavis, the Skimmer of the Sea, the Duke of Sutherland, the Europa, the Loch Etive, the Palestine, the Riversdale, the Narcissus, the Highland Forest, the Vidar, the Otago, the Roi des Belges, the Torrens, the Adowa. I added them up on my fingers. Seventeen. There was one missing. A chronological list, so where was the gap? I thought about it and remembered, last week, reading some letters the young officer wrote from a berth in Calcutta to a Polish friend in Cardiff. What was that ship called? It returned to Dundee with a load of jute. (A sentence came to mind: ‘It was jute that made Dundee.’) Ah yes, I had it now: the Tilkhurst. After the Narcissus and before the Highland Forest. So there were the eighteen. Five were steamers (Mavis, Europa, Vidar, Roi des Belges, Adowa) and the rest sailing ships. I rehearsed the sea routes that they followed and, where known, the cargoes that they carried. Jute, coal, teak, sugar, wool, wheat, linseed, horns and bones. General cargo, which could mean anything, even pianos. The Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean, the Pacific. The South China Sea. The Mediterranean. The Black Sea, the Sea of Azov. The Western Ocean the only one he never sailed. Never a passage to North America, unless you count the crossing he made, on an ocean liner, late in life, to be fêted in New York in 1923. I must have drifted off on speculations such as these and then Joseph Conrad came to me in a dream. Not for the first time. On the other occasion he was a bearded old sea captain lying back in a big bed in some inland town, perhaps South American, smoking a cigar. Disinclined to speak, except in riddles. Now he was a younger man, alert and charming and talkative. But I cannot remember our conversation, only that it continued for quite some time. Or was it like the writing I do sometimes in dreams, which does not really exist but is a dream of writing? Anyway, I remember the last exchange. He was sitting opposite me, hunched over a small table. My bookshelves were behind me and from them I took a volume with a yellow cover and gave it to him. ‘Here is a book to read,’ I said. The yellow was a pale jasmine, the colour of a Light 15 Citroën I was lucky enough once to own. At the top, the letters of a title: The Secret Sharer. Joseph Conrad’s face was a wonder to behold: amusement, consternation, incredulity, dismay. ‘But I wrote this,’ he said. ‘You have given me one of my own books!’ Indeed I had. He was not annoyed. Surprised, rather. I woke up. The Secret Sharer! Was I, or rather was my mind, trying to saying something to the figment it had entertained? That he and I were secret sharers? The tale came out in 1909, I think, during an interlude in the writing of Under Western Eyes. (Just as, nearly a decade before, Heart of Darkness came out during an interlude in the writing of Lord Jim.) It is based upon a true story. The bucko mate of the Cutty Sark struck and killed an insubordinate seaman, a black man with whom he had argued, and fought, before. His captain, rather than taking him in to face the courts in Jakarta or in Singapore (they were near the entrance to the Sunda Strait) let him go over the side at Anjer and swim to another ship. That captain four days later, in the Java Sea, went over the side himself, a suicide, unable to reconcile himself with what he had done. The mate escaped but was picked up, years later, in London, was tried and sentenced and did time. In Conrad’s story a mate who has likewise killed a man arrives at the side of a young captain’s first command near the mouth of the Maenam Chao Phraya, the river that flows south from the port of Bangkok; the captain allows him aboard. The man’s name is Leggatt. The captain, who is not named (‘I’) conceals him in his cabin, conceals him from the captain of Leggatt’s own ship, the Sephora, when he comes looking for him, conceals him from his crew during a voyage down the Gulf of Siam; until, off the rocky island of Koh-Ring, he takes his (also unnamed) ship so close to shore it is at risk of wrecking, so that his secret sharer may slip over the side and swim to safety. We never learn his fate; but the young captain is somehow, mysteriously, through his illegal act and his compassion for a fugitive, confirmed in his vocation. It’s a doppelgänger tale and perhaps that is why I chose it in my dream: to have the temerity write about another writer, especially one as esteemed, and untouchable, as Joseph Conrad, is that to claim him as a double? Is that why? When I woke up and lay there rehearsing the dream in my mind, the alarm was still beeping in the distance of the night; but I could already see, faintly, at the window, the first grey light of the coming dawn seeping, like arcane knowledge, or even inspiration, through the ochre curtains.

Counting Stars

The air is heavy with the scent of privet. There’s a tree flowering down the laneway where the Spanish couple live. If they are Spanish. Maybe they’re Gypsies. Or Arabs. Or all three. Yellow and green and the smell faintly nauseous: it always makes me think of Professor Morton, in Rain City, in the 1970s, who led a campaign for its eradication from the streets of that town; with what success I do not know. People who suffer from hay fever will understand. Just outside #4 there is a fragment of sheet music lying on the footpath, it’s been there for a couple of days. I pick it up and read the lyrics: Take that money / Watch it burn / Sink in the water / The lessons are learnt / Everything that kills me / Makes me feel alive. It is ‘Counting Stars’ by OneRepublic and how it got there I will never know. Lying under the spreading branches of the tallowwood in which there is an abandoned magpie nest. I watched three crows, yawping loudly, plunder it yesterday. One of them thrust its head into that tangle of twigs a couple of times, devouring something: but what? The fledglings left a while ago. At least I hope they did. I was away, I didn’t actually see them go. Do crows eat eggshells? Or was there one that didn’t make it? If so it must surely have mummified by now. They flew off into the east with that air of swagger and glee that crows do so well. The sun gleaming on their blue-black plumage. Last year it was currawongs, not in that tree but in the one outside my place, raising two chicks, one of which fell out of the nest and had to be rescued by the woman who lives beneath me. Paula put it back into the tree several times before it managed to clamber high enough up into the branches to be safe from marauding cats. Or dogs. Or crows. Currawongs have that same swagger. The other morning, just after waking, I saw one fly past my bedroom window with a mouse in its beak. Couldn’t tell if the mouse was dead or alive but I guess that’s a redundant question. They sometimes larder small lizards in the splintery cracks in the telephone pole opposite and then come back later for a snack. There’s that strange contrast between their larrikin ways and their assiduous parenting. Magpies, too, are conscientious. The male feeding the female, the female feeding the young. Their beautiful singing at dawn: every day for about six weeks, I woke to their carolling. Then the insistent scratchy importunities of the chicks. I was away for about a fortnight and so missed their leaving of the nest. Unless some catastrophe occurred. Perhaps the crows were revisiting the scene of the crime? Now the koels are here, I saw one pursued by two other birds, red wattle birds I think, this morning. But, so far as I can tell, the channel billed cuckoos haven’t come yet. Which Sophie used to call the Orgasm Bird, after their own crescendo-ed yawping cry. Eastern koels are cuckoos too, they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests. The one I saw being chased was a female, they are speckled, not black like the male. Caught in the act perhaps. Their choice of host, around here anyway, is the red wattle bird; which I only see sometimes, not often. I do like the sense of bird life going on around me all the time. As if I live in the tree tops too. In the air. But there is that strange ambivalence about birds: we want to ascribe human character to them, and we do—and then there will be a moment when you are up close and personal, with a currawong, say, and you realise the eye that looks at you is an alien eye, a reptilian eye, an avian eye: prospective, curious but quite without empathy. Or is that wrong? Perhaps there is some kind of fellow feeling, some recognition of the being of the other. I read a bit about magpies while those two were raising their young, how they are supremely territorial and seem to know, by sight or by some other means (mind?) all of the humans who live round about them. How they tolerate some of us and can’t abide others. They don’t seem to mind me; but what am I to them? How does a bird see a human? I like the idea that we are to them a blur of golden light, an aura, an emanation. And the wrong ones among us an absence, a black hole, a threat. That’s fanciful but still. I could go and cut that privet tree down I suppose. If I had an axe, which I don’t. Not even for the frozen sea within. If I had a piano I could pick out the notes on the sheet music. If I had a hammer. At the top of the fragment it says ‘Everyone Piano’, which must be the publishing company. There’s a website address too. What will happen to the magpie nest? In the last storm I watched the branches dip and sway and thought it might fall to the ground but it didn’t. Hot day today. In the afternoon, as the heat thickens, the stairwell fills up with blowflies. There’s a skink living in my study, I saw it basking on the wifi modem the other day. When the cockroaches come in to eat the crumbs that fall from my table, I shoo them out with a stick. Abundant life! It’s hard to believe our days are numbered. Counting stars. I remember that Arthur C Clarke story I read when I was young, it was about a project to count the nine billion names of god; and, when they were done—this was in Tibet—when they were done, the American computer guys who’d helped the monks with the counting saw above them, in the infinite vault, the stars beginning to go out.

Martin Edmond's new book The Expatriates will be published by Bridget Williams Books in October. Brief lives of four expatriate NZers.
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