The Secret Sharer

HM-The-Queen-at-the-official-opening-of-Cutty-Sark-to-the-public-25-June-1957-©-Cutty-Sark-Trust

There was an alarm going off all night long. Eighty electronic pulses followed by about twenty beats of silence. I’m estimating, obviously. The noise was faint, far away, but once I had locked onto it, I couldn’t help but listen. At first I noticed that I tended to fall into a doze during the periods of silence then wake when the beeps resumed; but after a while, it was the other way round; and I’d re-surface when the silence began again. It was odd not knowing where the alarm was coming from; odd, too, that its battery never ran down. As a means of occupying my mind with something other than listening for its pauses and resumptions, I decided to see if I could remember the names of Joseph Conrad’s ships. I knew there were eighteen of them: could I count them all? The Mont-Blanc, the Saint-Antoine, the Tremolino, the Mavis, the Skimmer of the Sea, the Duke of Sutherland, the Europa, the Loch Etive, the Palestine, the Riversdale, the Narcissus, the Highland Forest, the Vidar, the Otago, the Roi des Belges, the Torrens, the Adowa. I counted them up on my fingers. Seventeen. There was one missing. A chronological list, so where was the gap? I thought and thought and then I remembered reading some letters the young officer wrote from a berth in Calcutta to a Polish friend in Cardiff. What was that ship called? It returned to Dundee with a load of jute. (Another sentence came to mind: ‘It was jute that made Dundee.’) Ah yes, I had it now: the Tilkhurst. After the Narcissus and before the Highland Forest. So there were the eighteen. I rehearsed the sea routes that they followed and, where known, the cargoes that they carried. Jute, coal, teak, sugar, wool, wheat, linseed, horns and bones. General cargo, which could mean anything. The Atlantic, the Indian Ocean, the Southern Ocean, the Pacific. The South China Sea. The Mediterranean. The Black Sea, the Sea of Azov. The Western Ocean the only one he never sailed. Never a passage to North America, unless you count the crossing he made, as a passenger, very late in life, to be feted in New York in 1923. I must have drifted off on speculations such as these and then Joseph Conrad came to me in a dream. Not for the first time. On the other occasion he was a grizzled old sea captain lying back in a big bed in some inland town, perhaps South American, smoking a cigar. Disinclined to speak, unless in riddles. Now he was a younger man, alert and charming and talkative. But I cannot remember our conversation, only that it continued for quite some time. Or was it like the writing I do sometimes in dreams, which does not really exist but is a dream of writing? Anyway, I remember the last exchange. He was sitting opposite me, at a small table. My bookshelves were behind me and from them I plucked a volume with a yellow cover and gave it to him. ‘Here is a book to read,’ I said. The yellow was a pale jasmine, a pale lemon colour, the colour of a Light 15 Citroën I was lucky enough once to own. At the top, the letters of a title: The Secret Sharer. Joseph Conrad’s face was a wonder to behold: amusement, consternation, incredulity, dismay. ‘But I wrote this,’ he said. ‘You have given me a copy of one of my own books!’ Indeed I had. He was not annoyed. Surprised, rather. I woke up. The Secret Sharer! Was I, or rather was my mind, trying to saying something to the figment it had entertained? That he and I were secret sharers? The tale came out in 1909, I think, during an interlude in the writing of Under Western Eyes. (Just as, nearly a decade before, Heart of Darkness came out during an interlude in the writing of Lord Jim.) It is based upon a true story. The bucko mate on the Cutty Sark struck and killed an insubordinate seaman, a black man with whom he had argued, and fought, before. His captain, rather than taking him into port to face the courts in Singapore, probably, (they were near the entrance to the Java Sea) let him go over the side and swim to another ship. That captain himself went over the side four days later, a suicide, unable to reconcile himself with what he had done. The mate escaped but was picked up, years later, in London, tried and punished. In Conrad’s story a mate who has killed a man arrives at the side of a young captain’s first command near the mouth of the river that leads south from the port of Bangkok; and the captain allows him aboard. The man’s name is Leggatt. The captain, who is never named (‘I’), conceals him in his cabin, conceals him from the captain of Leggatt’s own ship, the Sephora, when he comes looking for him, conceals him from his crew during a voyage down the Gulf of Siam; until, off the rocky island of Koh-Ring, he takes his (also unnamed) ship so close to shore it is at risk of wrecking, that his secret sharer may slip over the side and swim to safety. We never learn his fate; but the young captain is somehow, mysteriously, through his illegal act and his compassion for a fugitive, confirmed in his vocation. It’s clearly a doppelgänger tale and perhaps that is why I chose it in my dream: because to have the temerity write about another author, especially one as esteemed and, as it were, untouchable as Joseph Conrad, is to claim him as a double? Is that why? When I woke up after the dream and lay there rehearsing it in my mind, the alarm was still beeping in the distance of the night but I could already see, faintly, at the window, the first grey light of the coming dawn seeping, like arcane knowledge, or even  inspiration, through the ochre curtains.

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images: the Queen opening the restored Cutty Sark to the public, Greenwich, 1957; Unknown man and his doppelgänger.

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