Ships And Pilots Gone

Dec 3, 2015

On a recent morning while walking across the modern footbridge towards the equally modern building where I work on the edge of the Mersey, I noticed two men ahead of me. They walked side by side with a certain easy, confident pace. Not with the head-down-don’t-want-to-be-here dragging feet of the typical office worker. At first I saw no other similarities between the two except that they wore jeans and jackets. Then as I drew closer I realized the jackets were the same and they carried large shoulder bags, also exactly the same. One of them had particularly bowed legs. The other was smoking an electronic cigarette. They appeared to be late forties in age and as I drew closer, noting that they were not angling towards an office entrance, I fathomed the direction they were taking. They were heading to the jetty and I realized they were ships’ pilots.  

A surge of envy passed through me. There but for my own life’s choices could I have gone. They walked with that sense of peace and contentment of a professional who is loving what he does. A sense of quiet purpose, built from their depths of knowledge and experience. There in front of me they were fulfilling an ideal of some seafarers that you could be a captain, with all the pleasure of manipulating ships, yet could go home daily, like office workers. Whereas I was treading towards the mundane, spirit-sapping glass and concrete structure, they were moving towards the orange-coloured pilot boat, itself bouncing and bumping at its mooring, as though eager to be untethered. Their job for the day was not the asinine writing of reports that would be lost in a disjointed corporate melee. It was instead to go out and bring in a ship or two. I was moved into a wistful depression.

That evening I left the building late, after a twelve-hour marathon of mundane busy-fool work. My eyes were glazed and blurred from staring at the computer screen. I turned towards the river as the sun set low, lighting the sliding water in shimmering orange. I went over to lean on the rails and look at the Mersey with young-man memories freshly stirred by the morning’s encounter. I thought of the singular day when I came here on a train from Chester. I was joining my first ship as a cadet deck officer.  I remembered the bustling river; ships anchored, ships moving, other ships moored alongside and all along these very banks.  

One generation of locals knows that what is left of the port of Liverpool has slipped further downstream towards the sea and that those pilots would be guiding ships to touch only the mouth, without filling the gut of the city. To most merseysiders the activity is out of sight, gone to another place. And even there at the river entrance the activity is a shadow of what it was. Now only the robotic shift and slide of metal containers, in and out of serried slots. And clockwork machines whirring them around on the sterile concrete. Perfect that the last remaining witnesses are Anthony Gormley’s statues in the Crosby tides. Their bodies face the sunset with final hope, but their eyes are already glazed.

So now in this evening’s reverie the emptiness of the river was punctuated by a lone Mersey ferry whose prime purpose itself had been lost. Now it is left plying more for tourists and less for the daily bustle of Birkenhead and Liverpool people. This was the only vessel moving- a small ferry picking its forlorn slant against the tide. The plain water was briefly made beautiful by the reflection of the hazy blue sky below a bright but dipping sun. Otherwise empty, like a Sunday. One pilot boat remained, unoccupied and nudging gently against the jetty. It felt as though the last two pilots on the sea had gone to ground.

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