(A column written while spending ten days with my friend Jacques Rousseau and his father on a please boat in the Chesapeake.)
- I nudge Jacques and he nudges me and we stare at the hand grenades. I’ve never seen one in real life before but there are three on a dusty glass shelf beside the AA batteries and the novelty corkscrews in Walton’s Hardware in Cape Charles, Virginia, next door to the Brown Dog Ice-Cream Parlour. There’s a handwritten price tag: $20. Above the counter is a poster: “Trump for President, 2016”. The storekeeper is big and black with biceps like thighs. He senses our disapproval, and follows us out onto the sidewalk and you can tell he just wants to knock our heads together and make America great again.
- A man learns about himself when he goes to sea. I’m on a boat with my friend Jacques and his father in the Chesapeake Bay, bouncing between the islands of Virginia and the Maryland peninsula. Jacques and his pop are kind and patient shipmates and give me only the bare minimum of responsibilities, and truthfully not even those, but still in the days I’ve been aboard there isn’t a damn thing I haven’t broken, tied wrong, mislatched, left open or dropped overboard. They try to explain things – how rope works; how to open a tap; how to close it again – and I nod as though I follow but I’m a chimpanzee in a sailor suit: just because I can pick up a teacup, doesn’t mean I won’t pour it over myself and then pee on the GPS. Boat-wise, I’m an iceberg in human form. I’m scurvy.
- Tangier Island is the saddest place in the world. 500 people live there, crab fishermen and their Baptist wives and glum children, in peeling wooden houses with tombstones in their sandy front yards where their grandparents and great-grandparents are buried. Every year their menfolk drown in Chesapeake storms and they lose hectares of land to erosion. You can’t get a drink on the island; the grocery store even keeps tonic water on a secret shelf below the counter. They refused to let a Kevin Costner movie shoot on the island, because Kevin Costner is such a notorious scapegrace and hellraiser. Each year there are fewer crabs. “Why do you stay here?” I asked Milton Parks. “Why do you stay where you live?” said Milton Parks.
- Milton Parks is 83 years old and has been tying up boats on the Tangier jetty for 60 of them. He is what guidebooks call a “character”, or what you and I might call a grumpy old bastard. Mr Parks watches you dock and shouts at you in a weird southern accent when you do something wrong, like a drill sergeant determined to make a man of you. Later he found me reading on the dock in a deck chair. “Stick to books, son,” he growled. Mr Parks makes me want to hide in my room and cry but I asked him what life-lessons he’s learnt, all these years. He twisted his lips. “Always remember your wife’s birthday,” he said.
- In the marina at Oxford, Maryland a burly man with a ginger beard sits on the deck of his yacht “Freedom”, accosting passers by. He lures them in with “How ya doin’?” and when they pause he tells them about the dimensions of his yacht and how she handles and what pirogies are and the best way to eat them. Americans are warm, friendly people and it takes a lot to drive them away from chitchat, but eventually his victims back away and say they must get going. “I’ll see ya later then,” he says.
“Well, maybe not.”
“Oh, don’t worry, I’ll see ya!” he says cheerfully. “It’s a small world!”
- We anchored in the middle of Anti-Poison Creek and swam and watched the sun set on the shore houses with their wooden jetties and big unbarred bay windows that light up yellow at night. It must be something to be prosperous and American, to sleep soundly in the centre of the world. How easy life is. Nothing can touch you. Early next morning outside one of the houses there was an ambulance with flashing red lights, the bad kind, the one without its siren on.
- Odysseus spent ten years on the wine-dark seas, sailing home from Troy to his wife Penelope. When I first read The Odyssey I thought ten years unimaginably long. Now I realise that ten years is nothing, but even a day can be forever when you’re apart from someone you love. It’s my wife’s birthday this week, and she’s there where you are but I am here, standing on deck and facing south-east, and it’s not a small world at all, it’s very big and the sea is very wide and the skies go on forever.
The Times, 14 June 2014