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Thursday, January 20, 2011

Chance


The maroon thumps the sky and we pause to see if there will be a second.  There is.  I put down my knife and fork, wipe my lips and stumble up into the observatory to watch the launch.  Two minutes and forty seconds after the detonation the doors spread open and the lifeboat is eased out onto the top of the slipway. Two figures in fluorescent overalls busy themselves at the stern raising the aerials and clipping the stays but I can’t see their faces.  Some of the crew must already be aboard. Another pair arrives with jackets on and scramble aboard.  The step ladder is taken away and after a few more seconds the boat moves slowly down the slip and buries its bow in the oncoming sea.  With no more spectacle than a number 72 bus pulling out of the depot the lifeboat makes its way out of the bay and plunges into the big rolling seas off the Point.  For another minute or so I can see it through the glasses lifting and dropping over the white caps; then the weather closes in and four minutes and thirty seconds after the second maroon there is nothing to see.

My routine is to wait in the observatory till the boat returns but I hear laughter coming up from below so I shuffle back down and try to pick up the atmosphere.  But they know me and within twenty minutes they have excused themselves and are gone.  There was a time when we would have gone on into the night drinking a little more malt whisky than was good for us.  But they don’t like to come so much now and I don’t like them coming. I worry them, I think. And I worry for them.  They were my friends once, after all.

Back in the observatory I turn to the local radio station in case there is any news.  I could listen in on the marine band emergency channel but David forbids it.  He says it’s unlucky.  I know that’s not true.  He’s not given to that way of thinking.  It’s more likely something to do with not wanting to be self-conscious when working.  Either way, I have to respect his wishes.

I put on the ring to warm some cocoa.  In the High Street below my window it’s an unremarkable sort of evening.  Young men are gathered near the door of the Red Lion.  Car doors slam and girls shriek as the chill wind blows their skirts out before them.  The young men laugh at the girls’ discomfort and they all mill into the pub together leaving the coloured lights from the arcade opposite flashing soundlessly onto the wet pavement.  It’s strange that even in this town almost oblivious to the sea hissing beyond the promenade, people still pause for a minute when they hear one maroon to see if there will be a second.  Two maroons mean the lifeboat will be launched and there is still some moment in that.  Here, young men still walk with a swagger when they wear an R.N.L.I. pager at their belt.  Most local drivers know which cars and vans to let past when they swing out suddenly into Station Road with their headlights blazing on the way to the Lifeboat House.  And if they’re out for a constitutional after dinner most people will stand and watch on the prom for a couple of minutes until the excitement is over.  Not that there is any excitement.  It’s always very calm, very ordinary.

And there’s no danger, not now; not these days of modern high-tech equipment and satellite navigation.  A yacht has lost engine power and needs a tow, perhaps.  Or a crew member with appendicitis needs taking of a Polish freighter passing up channel.  The injuries are small and commonplace:  a grazed forehead when a boom swings unexpectedly across the deck, rope burns, a grazed hand.  But there is one element that puts the lifeboat and her crew beyond being merely a floating breakdown truck or a marine ambulance.  It is the sea.  The sea causes trouble; and having caused it, it entices out the men in the Lifeboat to play games with it.  If your luck holds, you’re O.K. If not, watch out.

I finish my cocoa and turn to the log.  It falls open on September the ninth 1989 because that page is so thumbed.  Only a simple entry:  “Launch 21.09 to aid motor cruiser Albion off Kimmeridge ledges.”  And, as an afterword:  “R.B. Fellowes tangled in line he was trying to get to Albion and pulled into water. Drowned.”  It was a million to one chance.  There was nothing that wasn’t done properly.  He was in full survival gear with life jacket and bump cap but the line held him under and by the time they got a boat hook to him and cut him free it was too late.  People were very kind to me.  They understood, they said; and me having lost Miriam only a year before.  There was a memorial service in St. Mary’s but I never spoke about it.  They thought I was numb with grief but that wasn’t true.  I’d been expecting it.  You see, I knew my luck had run out.  And once that happens all you can do is sit quietly and wait for the blows to fall.

There is a line in the Bible about planting and watering and God giving the increase.  Well, I did plant well.  When we came here, Miriam and I, we had a good business and this was a good place to let it grow.  Plenty of holidaymakers in the summer and, for the rest of the year, a quiet place from which to send out orders.  By the time Bob was born we had already moved house once.  A nice bungalow out on the Valley Road and then, with the arrival of David, we moved here. Bought it too. Paid cash outright.  A growing business, our own house, a family and a beautiful wife.  I even joined the Yacht Club.  Just for the bar, really.  Somebody took me out in a dinghy one Saturday but I didn’t like it.  But apart from that I had everything a man could want.  And the whole thing was built on Chance.

Chance, you see, was the name of the business.  It was the board game I invented whilst I was kicking my heels and waiting for demob.  It was a simple idea:  you moved counters round a board following a number of alternative paths.  The first one to the end won.  The trick, though, was the risk factor.  After every move you shook the dice to calculate the risk on what you had done.  The greater the risk, the greater the reward and you could go galloping round the board, taking pieces, destroying other players,  making money.   But the greater the risk, the closer to disaster you had to steer and if the dice said the wrong thing you were wiped out.  I’ve seen grown men, hard bitten fighters who’d resisted Rommel step by step through the North African desert reduced to tears by Chance.   But in the gloomy days of post-war Britain people loved it.  When everything else is rationed there are only two things to occupy your mind and most people found Chance more exciting than the other.  What’s more it was cheap and easy to make, a cardboard playing surface, a few trinkets for counters and a pair of dice.

For the first few years I was on the road every single minute of every day, selling, selling, selling.  Shopkeepers couldn’t get enough of them.  I got a small printing firm to make the sets and, later, employed a couple of blokes to do the selling for me.  All I had to do was to run the shop front and take the profits.  Then, when I married Miriam, we decided the seaside would be as good a place as any to have the office and, besides, it was a better place to bring up kids.  By then there were a number of variations on the game, too.  International Chance, Junior Chance.  But this place inspired the most successful so far - Sea Chance.

The ironical thing was that I could never play the game myself.  I couldn’t face losing and with the risks involved that was pretty much a certainty as far as I could see.  I knew you could only count on the roll of the dice for so long.  I saw it every time the game was played; the further round the board you got, the longer your luck held, the more you had to lose.  I came to recognise the look of horror that haunted players' eyes when a long run crashed and they lost the lot.  But it was only a game and people love to be frightened.  I suppose you could say that my game was a primitive version of a modern white knuckle ride.

The radio is churning our idiotic, harmless, night-time music.  No dramatic news flashes or anything like that, so I suppose there’s nothing much to worry about.   The waiting I find difficult.  Waiting and waiting.  Two years ago there was a massive appeal and they raised enough money for a new lifeboat.  Huge sums of money were raised which is pretty mind-boggling because it’s only a small town.  But people do believe in the Life boat.  Even if they get no nearer the sea than the chip shop on the promenade they know they are lucky to have a lifeboat.  And having one is like a lucky charm for the whole town.  I mean, it’s not something any of us are ever going to make use of but we’re proud to have it.  They used Bob’s photograph on some of the posters for the appeal.  It didn’t make any difference to me; if it brought in a few more pounds, good luck to them.  But then somebody had second thoughts.  A bit tacky I think they reckoned so he disappeared from the appeal just as he’d disappeared into the ocean.  Within a year I’d lost wife and son and then the recession bit and the company, Sea-Chance and all, disappeared with them..

I still have a house and I’ve still got David. He’s happy enough.  He gets jobs around the place, delivering newspapers, cleaning windows, a bit of farm work.  He has a room along Institute Road and he has friends, I think, but most of his life revolves round the Lifeboat.  Training, drills, courses, that sort of thing.  Sometimes he comes round for dinner but he hasn’t been here for a month or two.  I don’t like him coming here.  I’m afraid for him.  He laughs at me.
“It’s no use cutting yourself off, Dad.”  He says.  But there is.  I don’t want any of my bad luck rubbing off on him.

The thing about luck is not the absence of it.  I saw poor people in Egypt and Libya struggling against appalling poverty and difficulties and still keeping going.  “Insh’allah.”  They would say.  “Allah is good.  As Allah wills it.”
No, it’s when luck suddenly turns against you that it becomes dangerous.  It’s like a big dog that lollops amiably at your heels until, one day, it goes mad and tries to tear your throat out.

I’ve often meant to trace it back; to find the turning point.  What was the precise moment when luck ceased working for me and started working against me?  Probably there wasn’t one single moment, more a culmination of small things building up until the scales tipped away from me.  For some years we must have been living on a credit of luck and then, when it was all gone, life ripped apart like an airliner with metal fatigue.

But if there is one tiny thing that did tip the balance then it must have been the day when I stopped actually believing.  I had been scrambling on the rocks up near the Point, picking up pebbles and skipping them out over the waves.  Two, three, four skips each.  I knew how far each one was going to go before I flung it.  And I could make them go further and further.  As far as I chose.  I shouted out my forecasts:  “The next one three skips.”  It skipped three times.  “The next one four skips.”  It skipped.  “The next one five skips.  If it skips five times I will be happy ever after.”  and I bent and picked up the stone.   It was smooth and flat and just the perfect shape.  No trouble with five skips, it could do six or seven if I wanted.  It also had a hole right through the middle.  Round here they’re called lucky stones.  In the old days you hung them from a ribbon round your horse’s neck to stop it being hag-ridden at night.  And the one thing you must not do with a lucky stone is throw it away.  That’s throwing your luck away, they say.  Now, what was I to do?  Make it skip five times and live happily ever after or keep it for luck?  It was only a brief moment of indecision before I slanted it our over the water but the hesitation must have been long enough to affect my aim.  Two, three, four skips and it sank beneath the waves.  It was like being a character in one of those old cartoons who doesn’t realise he’s hanging in mid air until he looks down and realises he’s run right out over the cliff.  Suddenly, something made me feel vulnerable, human.  And feeling it, I was.

Misfortune is not like an illness.  You can’t catch it.  But the reason I keep old friends away from me is because I don’t want them to look down into the abyss the way I did..  One of them might ask me what happened to my good fortune, and I might just tell him and that will set him wondering and then....  Perhaps there is one parallel with disease;  the fact that it’s incurable.  Once you’ve got it, it just keeps piling into you again and again.  Until you can only wish that you had nothing else to be taken away from you.

I make some cocoa and scan the horizon again with the binoculars. The night is never dead black when you look at it in detail.  Even with a fog and a lowering cloud there is broken light in scratches and splashes but they don’t take any particular form and nothing resolves itself into a story.  Whatever game is afoot out there I can have no part of it.  I just wait to see the winner and loser.  To wait and wait is almost beyond bearing.  This is the last throw of my game.  I have nothing left to play for.  I twist the dial of the radio along the wavelengths waiting for some word.  My back and legs are stiff and I pace unevenly back and forth.  At last I turn back to the radio and push the button marked Marine Band.  Now the waiting will be over and I will know the outcome out there in the channel.

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