`The sea! Fine I know the sea'

TO begin with Gourlay was for me a mere name on a list. He belonged to the vast body of the lonely who, during a long stay in hospital, have neither family nor friends to visit them. My name was on another list -- one of volunteer visitors. We were allotted to each other. One bleak afternoon in autumn, with russet leaves fluttering down and a thick yellow fog blotting out the landscape, I traveled from the country into town, to the hospital where Andrew Gourlay was a patient. When I thought of this visit, I imagined an elderly, kindly man, eager for company. The hospital, a bleak building with crumbling woodwork and a smell of decay about it, gives me my first tremor of apprehension. What if the unknown Gourlay is not in the least like this imagined patient?

As I walk down the long room I grow more nervous. Family groups are gathered round each bed; at the far end of the ward, sitting bolt upright, is a man with grizzled hair, staring into space. ``You may find Mr. Gourlay a little withdrawn,'' the sister warns me. How do I introduce myself? I hear you've no family left to come to you? ``Here's a visitor for you,'' a nurse says to him. ``He's not been very well lately,'' she adds.

``I'm no' deid yet,'' Gourlay retorts grimly. He glances up at me, standing there with a bottle of orange squash and magazines. What's brought you here? he seems to ask. Charity? Indeed, what has brought me? Is it an impertinence to seek contact with the less fortunate in life? What is one's motive? Salving an uneasy conscience?

An uncomfortable silence follows this inauspicious introduction. What can I tell him? He lies there, in gray hospital pajamas, his gray hair brushed back, his dark eye fixed on me with a glower. Where is my old gentleman happy to have a visitor at his bedside? Here, rather, is a sparring partner who topples, like a pawn in chess, every remark I advance. If only we could communicate, exchange some sort of greeting out of our common humanity across the void between us.

My small talk dries up. He closes his eyes. Has he fallen asleep, refusing all contact? Without waking him I shall creep away and tell the sister I have failed, that I am not cut out for hospital visiting. He starts up. ``Goodbye, Mr. Gourlay, I hope you'll soon be better,'' I say. ``Better!'' he exclaims caustically. ``Breaking up like an old ship. More like a hulk in the scrapyard.'' An old ship. ``Have you ever been to sea?'' I ask him on a sudden impulse.

Outside the window lies the gray street and beyond the docks where once great ships were built, sailed down the river, and out to sea. ``The sea! Fine I know the sea!'' He lingers on that last word. I have touched on a secret resort, turned a key that has opened a door. It would be too much to say that his face lights up, but it brightens. ``I went to sea as a lad,'' he said. ``Conditions in the city were bad in the '30s -- I had to escape. I had to get to sea.'' Then he shuts up, tight as a clam. I am not going to hear any more this time.

``Will I come back next week?'' I ask. ``That's up to you. If you do come,'' he adds, ``don't bring any of that stuff,'' pointing at the magazines and orange squash. ``I don't like to be beholden.''

``When you were a boy, did you dream of going to sea?'' I drop, tentatively, on my next visit. ``Dream! I did nothing but!'' he exclaims. ``I'd like to hear about it -- if you can be bothered telling me,'' I add, humbly. He glares at the visitors clustering around other beds, then sighs. He wants to talk and has no listener but me. Can he trust me? The need to recall is stronger than his reluctance and little by little, out it comes.

From omissions, hesitations, droplets of information, I form a picture of Gourlay as a lad, setting off from the Clydeside docks to sail the seven seas, escaping from the Depression, from parents as unbending and dourly stoical as himself.

Each week I set off on another journey with Gourlay, down the river and out to sea, the ward becoming the deck of a ship. He remembers ports of call, relives times of tempest and shipwreck when death was a hair's breadth away. There were times when he nearly froze in icy seas at Murmansk, others when he half suffocated in the stifling heat of the Red Sea. He has rounded Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope, survived mutiny, seen albatrosses following the ship.

``There were the dawn watches,'' he says, ``only myself and the sea and another presence too,'' he gives me a funny look at this, afraid of revealing too much of himself, ``the Creator of all those marvels.''

Sometimes there is such a sudden silence that I think he has drowsed over, but no, the sombre glower has reappeared. He resents being so diminished, a name, no more, on the list of the lonely. He sits there like the character in Kipling's poem: ``Me that 'ave been what I've been, me that 'ave seen what I've seen!'' but I don't dare quote it lest it appear as intellectual affectation.

On one visit I find his bed empty and my heart misses a beat. What has happened to Gourlay? ``He's a lot better,'' a nurse tells me. ``You'll find him in the day room.'' He is almost unrecognizable in a threadbare suit and stiff collar. Sitting along the wall on hard chairs are other old men, slumped in sleep. Gourlay gazes over their heads; from the window he can catch a glimpse of the river.

``There's the Clyde!'' he exclaims.

``Who hath desired the sea, her excellent loneliness rather than the forecourts of kings and her outermost pits than the streets where men gather,'' I say.

``Who wrote that?'' he demands. ``Kipling.'' ``It's no' bad,'' he admits grudgingly.

I have been coming to the hospital through autumn mists, winter sleet and snow, and now, in the lengthening days of spring. We have considered each other, moving gradually toward something like mutual respect. He has seen that, in spite of rebuffs, I have kept coming and I have listened. In him I have sensed the loner, never popular among his shipmates as he is not much liked in the ward, always girning against the world, a perpetual chip on his shoulder, yet strangely sensitive to the mystery at the heart of things.

One afternoon in April, with the sunshine sparkling even on the bleak walls of the hospital, a nurse calls to me, ``Mr. Gourlay is being discharged. Your visits must have helped him.'' I nod but do not believe her. I merely asked a question that launched him into recall of a time in his life worth living.

``I must have guessed you were leaving,'' I tell him. ``I brought something for you.'' He takes it from me, mistrustfully. ``Kipling -- Selected Poems,'' he reads out. ``Yon man who knows the sea.''

I watch as he turns over the pages. Will he carry on the tale of his adventures in some Seaman's Hostel or a single-end room in a tenement? Or will he resent anything smacking of interference in his self-imposed solitude? Are we merely ships that pass in the night?

We shake hands. ``I hope we'll meet again,'' I say. He can't bring himself to come out with anything gracious. He stands there, holding the Kipling warily but as if it might someday become a treasured possession.

``Maybe aye, maybe no','' he replies.

I walk out of the familiar room. At the door I pause, glance back. Will he make any sign? With the nearest I have ever seen him reaching a smile, ``Maybe no' just a ship in the night,'' he calls.

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