I love meeting new people, engaging and hearing their story. I relish the personal telling as much as the content and I can drink in the emotion of the interaction as much as the events within a life. There are joys, sorrows, fears, histories, social dimensions. Don’t think of me as a voyeur who pries in order to savour personal or intimate details; think of me as a fellow traveller on this planet who gets to share a brief sliver of your personal time enthusing about common experiences, or being an ear to the untold. All our lives are journeys, and each of us has a story, but, if our stories are untold, have they actually happened? Can a story even exist without a listener or reader? It’s a little like the tree which crashes to the ground in the forest…. if the fall hasn’t been heard by a sentient being, then it has fallen silently. Is there a nexus between that tree and your untold story?
But some stories are only learned through increments of information. What happened at the Blue Peter was totally unexpected.
Whilst exploring the villages of Cornwall in the U.K., I hunkered down for a few days in a tiny stone cottage in the ancient coastal town of Polperro and proceeded to fall in love with the charm of the tiny harbour. Dating from the 1300s, the small fishing village was originally an isolated settlement reachable only by boats. Today, it is a popular destination which has been preserved in time and seemingly has avoided the scourge of modern development of many other coastal towns. Its history includes smuggling, Cornish pirates, the Cornish language, fisherfolk and… the Blue Peter Inn on the edge of the tiny harbour. What more intrigue could an adventurer ask for? Ancient lichen covered roof tiles splattered with gull poop, white-washed stone, rust, salt encrusted exterior, sited amongst scattered fishing traps and ropes, nuzzling the harbour’s edge – the Blue Peter has studiously avoided being presented in a twee fashion. It’s the real deal, dripping with the stains of Cornish history.
Being winter, only a handful of people were in the pub as I entered just on dusk. There were many more gulls on the roof ridgeline than patrons inside, and they were prominently silhouetted against the dusk because Cornish gulls are muscular, steroidal giants compared to their puny Australian relatives. A welcoming, open log fire crackled in the stone hearth, flames dancing and licking across sawn oak. I glanced around in the dimness as my eyes adjusted and noted that there were only about six tables inside. Most were occupied and several had dogs tethered quietly underneath, a custom which only Englishmen can understand or explain. The barman, a sociable type, guided me knowingly, with a broad west-country accent, in the purchase of a suitable local Cornish ale. With eyes adjusting to the dimness, I noticed a very unkempt old man seated on his own. A docile, elderly whippet lay in a slumbering ball at his feet, tethered to a leg of the table. I quickly guessed the gent was probably an elderly fisherman; just the type of local story I was eager to hear. Armed with my pint of Betty Stoggs ale, I asked the fisherman if he minded my company. He nodded politely, hand gesturing towards the chair opposite, and told me his name was Peter. To break down the walls of unfamiliarity I introduced myself and jocularly asked whether he was related to Blue Peter, the name of the pub. He shook his head and grinned a little through serious creases, in recognition of my attempted humour.
This face had obviously been well used; probably past its best-by date. A profusion of silver facial hair competed with the wealth of luxuriant hair on his skull, and his slow mannerisms and movement hinted at a slight stroke in the past. We raised a glass to my Australian citizenship at one point and his eyes lit up, and his bramble of profuse eyebrows arched at the mention of Sydney and Melbourne. Said he’d visited there in his younger days in the navy. Yes, he had a boat, a small fifteen foot clinker built with a half cabin and an asthmatic diesel, and yes, he considered himself a fisherman. On most days he motored outside the mouth of the harbour and laid his fish traps. No, he hadn’t lived in Polperro all his life, and yes he lived in a small fisherman’s cottage beside the harbour about 400 yards from the Blue Peter. It dawned on me later just how clever he was in avoiding the taxing questions. Peter kept his cards close to his chest throughout our delightful discussion. Through the gravitas of his answers to my questions, and his Socratic method of turning questions back towards me, a depth of character emerged that belied a humble fisherman. I felt that I was the subject of interrogation, but I was encouraged to keep him talking. Peter’s accent had slight inflections of west-country – perhaps hints of Devon or Cornwall – but underpinning his vocabulary was a strong foundation of the queen’s English. Peter was obviously an educated man, very clever with his words.
Although gleaning information from Peter was a little like extracting teeth, I offered to buy him a modest pub meal and another pint. His dog, the elderly whippet named Molly, had hardly stirred in the past half hour. I wandered across to the bar and ordered two pub specials - faggotts, mash and onion gravy, and requested a pint of Peter’s favourite ale.
“Arrr, yerrrr, the auld admiral over there, ‘e likes the Tribute Ale. Brewed in St Austel you know. Not farrr from heeerr.”
“I’ll have two pints of the Tribute thanks. Why do you call him the admiral?”
“Not really surrre. Locals call old Peter the admiral, corrrs he’s always on the ocean. Ever day he’s ote therrr. Loves his boat. E doan say much but e’s an ‘armless ole soul.”
Peter and I finished our meals and downed our second pints. Another fisherman dropped off a bag of shellfish to Peter who smiled imperceptibly and nodded.
“So, Barry, you mentioned you don’t like your job back in Australia. Why would that be the case?” Peter asked.
I paused and thought hard to avoid too glib an glib answer. “Hmmm. My boss, I guess. Can be quite unapproachable at times. Too undemocratic in his decisions. He’s very aloof. Sometimes, in moments of relaxation therapy, I visualize standing with my boss in a glacial-fed mountain stream beneath soaring snow-capped peaks. The breeze whistles softly through forest pines, birds of prey soar silently overhead. I reach out to my boss and grab him roughly by the hair and plunge his head several times into the depths of that chilly stream. Then I release him. I always feel better after that.”
Peter raises a quizzical eyebrow, then we both break into laughter.
Then he replies laconically, “It’s very lonely at the top Barry. Bosses bear all the responsibility for their actions. They have to live with the regrets. Often for the rest of their lives. Reflect for a while on walking a mile in their shoes.”
At this point Peter struggled to his feet and roused Molly from her sub-table slumbers. Because she was quite decrepit and partially blind, Peter was going to carry her the 400 yards to their cottage in the darkness, lest she fall over the edge of the harbour walls. I offered to walk with him, so he asked me to carry the bag of shellfish.
Several moths fluttered around the outside light of his simple stone cottage as he fumbled with the keys attempting to gain entry. I held Molly and the shellfish until he was able to open the door and flip on the electric light in the hallway.
“Be ever so good as to put the shellfish into the refrigerator, young man,” said Peter. I need to quickly take Molly outside for her night wee, then settle her into the laundry basket for the night.”
I did as I was bid. There was a photographic portrait on the wall in the hallway which I paused before. It wasn’t immediately recognizable to me at first, but a slightly younger Peter had his arm around a woman who was holding a slightly younger whippet than Molly. It was difficult to connect the rugged face and stooped body of the Peter I had just shared dinner with, and the younger version, shaven and uniformed, that peered outwards in the studio photograph. He obviously had been in the navy as he’d mentioned. Beside the photograph, framed in a thin tarnished silver frame, hung a document. It was a little yellowed, but it clearly stated that Admiral Peter Woodside had been knighted by Elizabeth Regina. It took my breath away. I’d never seen one of these… never suspected for a moment that Peter, my ancient mariner, was actually Admiral Sir Peter.
Peter shuffled back into the hallway where I stood transfixed in front of the document. He looked a little embarrassed.
“I’m, I’m sorry,” I stammered, “I had no inkling. You’re such a dark horse, Peter. What did you receive this for?”
“Err… I had a few years in the navy, working for the queen’s shilling, doing as my government bid.”
He dismissed the topic with a wave of his feeble arm and showed me to the door.
“Be careful on your way back. It’s dark around the harbour edge, don’t fall in. And thank you for the meal… and helping me home. Goodnight young man.”
When I reached my digs, I scrambled for my laptop and begin an internet search on Admiral Sir Peter Woodside. The hairs on my neck stood up as I learned that salty, crusty, gentle old Peter had been a commander of the fleet in the Falklands War. He’d been one of the small group to give the order to sink the Argentinian ship ‘General Belgrano’ with the loss of over 300 young Argentinian troops. There was conjecture over whether it was actually disengaging from the hostility and was attempting to return to base at the time. He’d also commanded HMS Illustrious and HMS Hermes, the largest British aircraft carrier. After the war, he had risen to Deputy Supreme Allied Commander Atlantic.
In disbelief I sit back in my rented cottage attempting to recall the evening, the conversations. The words of advice he’d freely given me in response to my flippancy about bosses haunts me:
“It’s very lonely at the top Barry. Bosses bear all the responsibility for their actions. They have to live with the regrets. Often for the rest of their lives. Reflect for a while on walking a mile in their shoes.”
I’m tingling at the moment. I tingle at the implicit personal meanings he’d embedded in his words. Was he living with ghosts and regrets? Was Peter seeking partial redemption? Am I overthinking his comments? Do I have any right to know those answers?
As I stated at the outset, everyone has a story. My abiding fear is that I don’t have enough time left to hear them all.