The JANEY ROBYN
The cove hasn’t changed. From the shore to the cave at Loughshinny Harbour, the trawlers still moor, the wild seals follow like faithful hounds. The ships are tied and silent, rising and falling against the tide. The catch delivered, the lobster pots, nets and multi-coloured plastic trays sit stacked neatly like Lego blocks. As Shay and I walk, we watch a couple dangle fish remains at the lowest step along the harbour wall. A sleek black snout rises from the shallows, snatching the offering. They are both laughing, they are young, mid-twenties. Their voices are Eastern European, the girl soft and lilting, the man more guttural. She stays two steps further up, taking photographs on her mobile phone, the flash glinting weakly. He poses, cigarette clenched between his teeth, arm straight out. The seal is happy to spin and twirl. Its immense bulk sliding up out of the water without a ripple. Another one joins the dance, the couple laugh, sidling up the steps, selecting another handful of entrails. The wind pulls at the girl’s long blonde hair as she squeals with excited laughter.
The day is hot, we have our coats draped over our arms. Apart from the couple and the seals, the beach is quiet. It’s not far now, past the lines of strata exposed to the elements where gulls nest. Tiers of millennia bend up into an arch over the cave where rubbish lies scattered. It must be ten years since I stood here; the humidity of London to the sea air and wind is slightly jarring. The three of us would walk every Sunday along here after lunch, Janey, Shay and me. Shay would stride ahead, cigarette smoke billowing behind him. We turn past the cave to a narrow stretch of sand to where The Janey Robyn lies. The jpg attachment on the email had been kinder to her than the cold light of day.
‘There Paul’ beams Shay, it’s like seeing a ghost. ‘What do you think?’
The keel was sound, but that was it. The ribs were exposed and the hull had several panels missing. Janey Robyn was sitting on a trailer, the wheels jammed with breezeblocks, her tiller lying beside her like a fin. Her paintwork is peeling and to be honest she looks more dredged up than salvaged.
‘How did you find her?’ I ask lighting up another cigarette from his.
‘I went back to the lake last summer. Look up some family, say my goodbyes, there she was.’
‘You’ll bury us all Shay, there’s so much wrong with you now it’s what’s holding you together!’
He laughs, though it sounds more like a cough. I’m worried. He’s sixty seven, but used to look younger. A wild shock of white hair no barber could tame catches the breeze. His lines are deeper, and for a man who has spent his life outdoors, his skin is pale. He’s beginning to stoop forward as if straining to hear something.
Shay’s back garden overlooks the Harbour, with a large shed where Janey was built. We pull the breezeblocks away, pushing the trailer up the concrete incline off the sand and into the shed. The trailer glides into the shadows, the boat smelling of decay. Closing the double-doors behind us I watch the couple arm-in-arm leave the harbour. They stop and kiss each other, breaking away to laugh at their antics. The seals bob around for a few minutes before heading out to deep water.
Shay tugs the light switch and a bank of fluorescents flicker and hum into life. I glance at my watch, although my flight isn’t until tomorrow evening, I sense the pull of home. His eyes glint with the fire of old. Along the shelves is his library, neatly arranged. Volumes bound in leather, old almanacs and plans book-ended by a multi-band radio. There’s a football fixture being broadcast, the crowds cheering from the terraces of some English Stadium. Overhead, long beams of wood seasoning are laid lengthways along the joists. A lathe sits in a corner covered. The shed smells of machine oil, tobacco and wood shavings. A slim laptop computer glows quietly in sleep mode on a bench that runs the length of the shed. Seedlings peek through nursery trays ready for transplanting. Tools worn through use hang in expectation – his garden and his boats are devised and created here.
The house he eats and sleeps in is merely a bed for the night. He’s never owned a mobile phone believing no-one should ‘be that contactable’. Still he had managed to find my email address, prompting me to fly out this weekend to see him.
He slides down into an old armchair, puts his long legs out, lights another Dunhill. He views Janey through spired fingers the way an artist views a model. Every panel, beam and rib is a conversation in his head. His shirt hangs on him, but in the light filtering through the window he looks rejuvinated. He exhales smoke slowly through his nostrils as he makes his calculations.
I go to the camp stove beside the laptop almost by instinct, take my lighter out and get the coffee started. In a metal frame beside the coffee pot is a picture of Shay and Janey, grinning, wrapped in heavy coats and looking half frozen to death. They look like film stars, her brown hair blowing into her green eyes, her wide mouth grinning impishly. Standing at the Harbour wall near where the couple were feeding the seals. I could almost imagine them feeding the same animals; how long does a seal live for?
Janey Robin worked in a bookstore in the town. She was older than me. Watching her cycle to work down our street every morning she had a quality about her. I was infatuated. Picking up my courage and blushing to my roots, I asked her to recommend a book about boats. She looked up with those green eyes sitting below intelligent brows and replied ,
‘The best person to ask is my husband over there, he builds them for a hobby’.
Following her gaze to the far side of the store stood a tall lupine man with a shock of black hair in his mid-forties. That’s how I met Shay Murray. He was the first of his generation not to put to sea and fish from the village, instead studying to become a marine engineer. Through our love of boats, I became his week-end apprentice. Our first project was a three-metre rowboat. Following in his footsteps I applied myself, graduating three years later in marine engineering. When Janey died two years after I met them, Shay died too. Her passing was short, painful. A lump mistaken for a cyst had taken hold and before we knew it, she was gone. The quiet man who played guitar mimicking Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan until the tears rolled down our cheeks passed with her. He withdrew into himself and I moved on, completing my apprenticeship in Holland. Then two years later out of the blue, he invited me to stay, his voice almost a whisper cracking down the landline. We stayed up talking all night over a bottle of whiskey and leading me out to the shed he showed me the Janey Robyn.
She was beautiful. A sleek, freshly varnished Sloop, she sat low on the trailer. He had built her from scratch, each grieving moment channelled through saw, brush and plane. It was three in the morning and breaking a full beer bottle on her prow, we launched her under a heavy full moon. We heaved her down the lunar sand into the waves. The spray spilled in soaking us, chilling us to the bone and sobering us up. Shay hitched the sail and Janey took flight across the cove. The wind blew Shays hair wild as he tried to light up a damp cigarette. We laughed, both joined in nervous energy, then crying because of the salt, the wind or the grief. Shay tacked her back from the maw of the open sea coming to rest on the beach. We sat watching the sun come up, our clothes starting to dry, the tide starting to recede, leaving Janey listing in the shallows.
‘Did you see her?’ Shay whispered.
‘Janey, she was on the beach waving to us, beckoning us back, I could see her standing at the waters edge.’- I looked at him in the reddening light. He was staring out to sea. I said nothing. I flew home that day, back to London, to my well established life and Shay disappeared again. Once he sent a Christmas Card with a picture of the Janey Robin on a lake near his parents house. That was until two days ago.
I stir the coffee offering to go up to the house for milk, but Shay shakes his head, taking it black.
I pull up a stool from beneath the bench and follow his stare to Janey’s damp remains. Shay rises, lights another cigarette, coughs hard and reaching up to the joists, selects a long single beam of wood. Setting it onto the bench, he caresses it, looks up at me and says;
‘Time to go home to her Paul, home to Janey, will you help me?’ I take a light from him, and looking into his hopeful eyes I reply,
‘Yes I will Shay, where do we start?’
THE END © copyright 2012