Pale, blonde hair picked up the back-scatter of the starboard navigation light and glowed a soft green. My watch-mate, Arne, tucked tightly into the corner of the wheelhouse, braced himself against the ship’s movement. Not a sailor, Arne was an activist who had come aboard for a specific purpose but doubled up as a watchkeeper.
‘Quiet,’ the captain said. ‘Can’t get a word out of him. I call him ‘The Ship’s Ghost’ because he never says anything. He just appears in the wheelhouse and stands in the corner.’
A student on his summer vacation, Arne had joined us to climb up the legs of an oil rig or to chain himself to something, as environmental protesters are wont to do, and I wondered if he’d been overwhelmed at being put on watch with the vessel’s master. I wondered this because, when Arne moved on to my watch, I couldn’t shut him up. Who knows, it could have been sea-sickness that kept him silent but, whatever it was, I’m glad he loosened up.
I can’t tell you all the things we discussed in the long watches of the night – not because they are secret, but because it was sixteen years ago and I can’t remember it all. And, anyway, at that time of day conversation can wander from swapping stories to inventing excuses about how the captain’s coffee pot got broken (It was aliens, have I told you that one?) and I hesitate to reveal how daft sailors are in the dark.
I do know that Arne had travelled in South America, been ill with dysentery and come home disenchanted. Not disenchanted with the places he’d visited or the people he’d met but with his expectation of learning something profound from different cultures. He’d gone hoping to find himself, he told me. He’d been looking for a sense of place.
I don’t know if the last coffee he’d made before he said that had contained water from Delphi or something, but suddenly I went all mystical on him.
‘Go home,’ I told him. ‘Go back to your mother’s farm in Denmark and hike out into the woods. That’s where you’re from and the landscape, the climate, the actual bedrock is part of what formed you. That’s where you’ll find your sense of place. Only then will you be able to comfortably absorb from other cultures.’ Arne moved out of the green glow of the starboard light and came towards me. By the faint glimmer coming from the gyro compass, I saw he was smiling.
‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I think I will do that.’
Today, sixteen years and many miles from that night in the Atlantic, I stood on the hill above my village. Whilst my dog snuffled around in the clover I turned three hundred and sixty degrees and I thought of Arne as I absorbed the life-force radiating from this green land with its red soil.
I was born in the next door county but we moved away when I was very small. I’ve lived in Oxfordshire, Berkshire, London, Norfolk, Gambia, Nigeria, Middlesex and many other places so I can’t say what landscape, what climate or bedrock helped to form me but here, in this village with my little house and my big, daft dog. I feel a strong sense of place.
I hope Arne found his.