Two tales of the sea - The boat story

The ship is the heterotopia par excellence. In civilisations without boats, dreams dry up,
espionage takes the place of adventure, and the police take the place of pirates.
– Michel Foucault


THE FACT THAT the entire country had lost its grip – lost its heartbeat – wasn’t immediately evident on the outside. On the outside a thin mantle of grey cladding held everything in check with the veneer of order and efficiency. The tarred-over suburban streets, the reflective sheen of the shopping malls, the slick sameness of the TV programs, the silky efficiency of the business suits – all had a polish that held the groaning oldness of the land itself hostage.

The clues lay on the outskirts of the main agendas – in places and incidents and news stories that seemed to have nothing to do with what was happening on the surface during those years. Like the dreams of others. The dreams of others.

From time to time these dreams were washed to shore. But they were immediately captured and incarcerated. Or sent back to that place from whence they had come.

Some of these stories were collected and recorded as ‘national incidents’. The dreamers were never named. Their travels and travails were dismissed as of no interest. The conditions of their exile, the spirit of their embarkation, the hopes that had kept them afloat, were never permitted to be spoken of within the shoreline of the old old land, the land which for thousands of years had depended on such stories to continue the slow beat of its ancient heart.

 For in the hearts and minds of all people, this land had always been The Antipodes. For while other regions of the earth had had the option of playing that role, it was in the great flat island in the Southern Hemisphere that the term had come to rest. Here was buried that magnet to which otherness was always drawn.

Even for the custodians of this place, the land itself offered a space for stories that connected the elsewheres of past and future to the present. It was a place where ancestor spirits could mumble and toss in their long sleeps, and could grudgingly engage, from time to time, with the living. But in these times of which I speak all that possibility had ceased. The land had been denied its role as a compass point for dreamings. Only from time to time small stories escaped and drifted along un-noticed in the grey currents of the official news.

This is such a story. I heard it on Radio National when I was painting, one afternoon in my studio in 2002.

In 1999 a Russian man had decided to set sail for the Antipodes. He had heard of the region. Only imagined it. The fact that he lived in a tiny apartment in a land-locked city did not deter his dreams. He held true to them, and began to build his boat inside his apartment. Slowly.  Like part of the furniture of the room, it occupied the waking and sleeping architecture of his days.

In time, the boat grew too big for the room itself. It had grown into a dream that could not be contained within the daily practicalities of his life. And so the man slung it from the balcony of his apartment and continued to build. It was colder there working outside during the long winter months, and there was the derision of the neighbours to be endured. But his slow work continued. He rugged up, wore thick mittens and fur ear-warmers, and tied himself to the hull with strips of blanket as the snow swirled around him driven by great windy gusts from the north. The nails were nailed, the planks were glued and caulked, and steadily shaved and shaped.

The boat was not a large one in terms of the great oceans and currents of the planet. It was modest even in terms of his inner-city apartment balcony. Its total length ran to 3.7 metres. Yet it had ample room to house the man’s dreams.

When the man turned sixty-nine he decided his boat was finished. He had it pulled slowly and carefully down from its makeshift cradle attached like an ice-encrusted cocoon to his tiny balcony. A small crowd of hunched locals gathered in mufflers and thick coats to watch the procedure. When the boat had safely been lowered to touch the Russian soil, he and three stalwart believers from the village managed to slowly pull the vessel through the snow to the shorelines of the Caspian Sea. He quit his job, arranged his affairs, closed the door to his apartment and set off along the road his boat had taken to the sullen shores of the Caspian.

His adventures to the Antipodes took many, many months, through places and perils he had never imagined. There had been pirates. And there had been six-metre swells that surged beneath his tiny craft for weeks on end. There had been giant squid. They welled up from the depths on full-moon nights until the entire surface of the sea seemed alive with thrashing tentacles. They broke the surface, turning towards his boat and burning, burning into his dreams with their one perfect eye glinting in concentration under a steely moon.

On his seventieth birthday the Russian reached the northern shore of Australia. His small craft had shrivelled along the way – burned by the equator, sucked dry by searching tentacles, and pirated by disappointed buccaneers. Its hull had grown as thin as silver foil, and as dry as a desert wind. His entry into the harbour was heralded by shoals of silvery fish and soaring clouds of turning birds, so that it seemed the boat was moving suspended by both water and sky. As locals and sailors turned as one to watch this spectacle, the old man seemed oblivious to the strangeness he brought with him. For the inhabitants of this southern continent had not seen a dreamer for a long, long time. They gathered around him silently, for that was their way, and their silence encouraged him to tell his tale.

The tale took time – how long, no one who had been present was sure – but within seconds, it seemed, the man was taken ashore and checked and found wanting by the authorities. His passport, they told him, was expired, and because of his lack of identity he was to make his way back to the nearest harbour. He must set off for somewhere else where he could obtain a visa, South Africa perhaps.

The man was old, his boat had passed into another state belonging to the vessels of the dreaming, yet he seemed unperturbed. He stayed for a meal, told of his story without regret or bitterness to Radio National, and set sail again. His Antipodes denied him; he still had his story to cling to.

When the Lockmaster of Darwin Harbour was interviewed on Radio National, he said that the old man had made him remember a time when he could believe in other worlds. That he had been an inspiration. As it came down the airwaves, the Lockmaster’s accent was parched and flat. He sounded disbelieving. Self-doubting. Like a man who had seen an apparition. To those who listened, the short news item seemed like a dream. Something from a very, very long time ago. And then the grey news washed over the story again, and buried it beneath the sea of statistics and data that had come to take the place of the sea of dreams.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review