The lonely mariner and the children of the close

CERTAIN promises are not to be given lightly, and however unwillingly I leave green country fields for city streets, I must travel to town to keep my word. There I enter one of the most desolate of quarters, where stunted trees, planted in some inner-city project, topple over, grime encrusted, broken branched. Lean cats slink past, chased by half-starved dogs. I go up a tenement close where a crowd of children eye me with fierce hostility - what is a stranger doing here? They are flinging stones at bottles, with a crunching and splintering that sends shivers down my spine. I pass them, outwardly calm, inwardly quaking. All the way up the stairs, smelling of dank decay, I am followed by that shattering sound.

I reach the top stair and a door with ``A. Gourlay'' written neatly on a card above the bell. Slow footsteps approach at my ring, the door opens a chink, and Andrew Gourlay's dour face confronts me. ``I said I'd visit you once you were discharged from hospital,'' I say.

``I hadn't forgotten it,'' he says. ``You may as well come in and see my new home.'' He leads me in, half grudgingly. Am I an intruder? Perhaps Gourlay, whom I remember as proud and reserved, would prefer that no one should penetrate his grim solitude.

His one room is bleak. In a lifetime spent at sea he has gathered few possessions. ``Shipshape!'' he gives a caustic grin, adding, ``But where's the ship and where's the sea? Tell me that!'' The view from the window is down over a maze of streets, roofs, and chimney stacks, a limited horizon. The main item of furniture is a table; on it are spars of wood, tools, and the half-finished model of a sailing ship. ``That's what I'm up to now,'' Gourlay says, following my eyes. ``Well, it's a reminder of the sea and other days. Life's a fecht, but I'm not going to give in at the last lap of the voyage.''

When I leave, he comes down to the street with me. The huddle of children is still there, still breaking glass in a desperation born of idleness. ``I could teach you to do something better with a bottle than breaking it,'' Gourlay says sternly.

They stare, snigger; the smallest and shabbiest calls out, ``What's that?'' ``If you're interested I'll tell you. You know where I live. You'll not be bothering to come back here?'' he says, turning to me. It is half question, half appeal. ``Oh I must see how your fecht goes,'' I reply, trying to hide my distress at the bleakness of the old sailor's life dwined aa tae nocht, as in Robert Garioch's poem.

The next time I come there is an indefinable change about Gourlay. I have not been there long before I know what it is.

A tapping comes at the door and a small boy, the same one, appears. He is sniffle-nosed, stunted as the trees in the street below. ``Here's Sandy,'' says Gourlay. ``He wants to learn to put a ship inside a bottle, but it's not as easy as he thought.'' They are both soon absorbed with spars and masts and rigging, aware of nothing else.

On my next visit three other children turn up besides Sandy, drawn by curiosity, staying on, spellbound. They accept Gourlay's blunt manner, his bursts of impatience, his merciless verdict, ``That'll no' dae!'' ``Will that dae?'' they keep asking. ``Maybe aye, maybe no. We'll see.'' He is stern, but he doesn't preach. He takes them for what they are, semi-savages, with boundless, untapped energy, undisciplined hands and minds, surrounded on all sides by squalor and violence. He is unlike anyone they have ever known, someone who speaks with authority, an anchor in an uncertain world.

As they work, Gourlay speaks of the sea and ships. He goes on, with his own special imagery, to talk of life, of the stars we steer by, the tempests to be endured, the Pilot we take on board. His own face is a continent of the lines traced by storms survived. They want to know about monsoons and tidal waves. Had he ever been in a mutiny or fought with pirates? What is a dhow like, a junk, a catamaran? They stare at his models of the Cutty Sark, the Ardnamurchan, the Comet, one of the first of the steamships. ``Could we make the likes?'' Sandy asks. ``Would it be too difficult?'' ``If it's not difficult, it's no' worth doing,'' says Gourlay.

Other inhabitants of the tenement begin to climb up aloft to talk with the retired seaman. He awakens in them memories of other places, better times. Bess, born in the Outer Hebrides, remembers the salt spray, the smell of sea wrack, the cry of kittiwakes and herring gulls. ``Why did I never go back!'' Benjy used to work at the docks, dreaming of sailing with the great ships, down the Clyde and far away.

Archie, known as ``the Prof,'' recalls how he once studied at the university. ``The books I read about the universe! Why did I give up the moon and the sun and the stars!'' How, with such brave beginnings, have they become numbered among the lost and the rejected? Perhaps their children will escape.

Soon I can hardly remember a time when I have not been involved with the community of the close. The world of Gourlay's room has become more real to me than country woods and moors. Each time I climb the dark stairway I wonder what surprises wait for me up there. Will Sandy or Tom or Ellie exclaim, ``I've done it! I've put a ship in a bottle!'' or Bess talk of flood tides in Stornoway, ``the Prof'' sigh for all those books, for the stars. Might they even consider a return to lost treasures?

``Look out of yon window and what do you see?'' Gourlay sometimes asks the children with one of his glowers. ``Nocht but roofs and chimneys you might say, but the river's not far off, then there's the sea. After that the whole wide world's before you. Never forget it!''

``You've worked wonders,'' I often say to him before I leave. ``Havers!'' he growls, continuing to put finishing touches to a model of the Savannah. He refuses to admit that he is pleased, but I know he is.

As I go down the damp, crumbling staircase, a whole lifetime seems to lie between my first arrival and now. During those weeks I have been witnessing the transformation of a lonely and austere old man into a sorcerer, with delinquent slum children as his apprentices. Who but Andrew Gourlay, former master mariner, could have opened out, to those who had none, such far horizons?

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