Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Olli Jalonen: 14 Knots to Greenwich - 2

Graham had already finished checking the airline schedules and the availability of seats. He had promised that OceanOs would pay the airfare.

My brother left early in the morning and in Dublin changed to a smaller plane which flew across country between layers of cloud. As it began its descent to Galway, a green patchwork of fields and paddocks opened beneath it. The sun shone straight through the windows out of a brilliant tunnel between the sea and the clouds.

He worked out from the map that he could easily get to the village of Leenane well before nightfall, but during the bus-ride, which meandered along side-roads and over crossings at farmhouses he decided to take a shortcut, and set off on foot straight to Killary Harbour, intending to call at some house and try to get a boat-ride across the narrow fjord to the opposite shore.

As he surveyed the rows of lights at the head of the fjord he began to feel certain that he had made the wrong decision, as he had taken the shortcut according to the map and as it was getting dark, but he continued to walk along the road, which was as wide as a path, until it branched off and then he could see the first lights in the direction in which he was going. Near the courtyard lamps the triangular sign of the youth hostel could be made out. Under the roof there were a few bicycles and a large pile of stumps and pieces of root that looked like pulled-out teeth, bogwood that had risen among the peat and was drying.

Cutting them was a man with a large wood-cleaver’s axe and on the ground beside him a short-handled hammer and some metal wedges. A large dog came running from the side of the yard, smelt him and vanished into the shadows. It whined and growled, unseen.


My brother began to explain that he had a couple of friends who lived in an old house on the other side of the fjord. The man said he knew them – the Brit with the saltpans, he said. Petr asked if he could get a boat-ride across. The man merely nodded and finished moving the stumps of wood, whistled to the dog, turned and went. The dog followed him across the patch of light in the courtyard and jumped up the steps to the house.

When the man came back, he handed my brother a metal flashlight and told him how to light up the path in front of him, not too far and not too near, but in the way that was best. Immediately the wind struck behind the bank. There was a strong smell of sea and algae and old, muddy earth.

On the way to the shore the man began to talk about a boat with no lights that had come ashore a couple of nights before on the other side of Killary Harbour but in the morning had been gone. When he looked with the binoculars he had seen that someone was climbing the lower slope of Mweelrea.

My brother replied that he had not been here before and had only arrived during the day all the way from Finland. The man shrugged his shoulders and unpacked from his load a pair of long wading boots, pulled them onto his legs and went out between the buoys towards the moored boat. The light from the flashlight spilled onto the surface, the beam was so bright that the stern of the boat and the raised outboard motor were clearly visible.

The man waded the last few yards more slowly. He searched for a foothold on the stones on the bottom, with an effort got one leg into the boat, and wrenched himself over the gunwale with his hands. Then it did not take him long to lower the outboard motor into the water and loosen the ropes and boathooks until with long rolls the vessel freed itself from the bed.

He steered to a place where deep water extended closer to the land. The boat was so close to it that it was only about four or five yards away. He steered the bow into the sand and threw his wading boots onto the shore. My brother stuffed his shoes under the hem of his backpack and waded in the boots along the sloping sandy bottom, step by step.

As the boat gathered speed, the bow began to slap with every rise of the hull. The darkness was not as dark as it was on the land, the splashing and foaming at the stern looked paler. Further out from the mouth of Killary Harbour one could see the lighthouse ticking in a slow rhythm, and then unexpectedly after a few turns of the boat some yellow lights almost straight ahead. The line of the opposite shore was already there.

The man advised my brother that if they didn’t hear him in the house, he should go carefully, because of the saltpans. He refused to take payment for the crossing, shone the flashlight so that the slope of the shore could be seen, and then jerked the boat free of the sand. The fumes from the outboard motor remained, and the wind gusted from the darkness.

Even without using the flashlight it was easy to climb the gentle slope, one could navigate the stones and hollows by feel, but further up the yard lights outside the house made the going more uncertain because although one was walking towards it, while one was still outside its circle everything was blacker and harder to see.

My brother had not even got as far as the yard when from one side a shouted question was heard. He said his name at once, although he did not recognize the voice, and to be on the safe side mentioned Graham and Isla’s names as well.

What the hell are you doing stumbling about here in the middle of the night and going the wrong way, came Graham’s reply. The light of the flashlight started to bounce closer, until a stony path became visible at one side. Petr reached the edge of the area lit by the brilliant white yard lights, Graham began to hug him as if they were long-lost relatives, slapping him on the shoulder over and over again as men do when many years and plenty of stuff lie behind them. Graham shouted to Isla, it’s Peter, and he’s just swum all the way. Isla came hurrying out of the house and threw herself into a long hug, kept silent at first, and then began to explain that she had heard the sound of footsteps and voices, the window had been open, Graham was still working in his shed.

My brother told them how he had got there and that it hadn’t been possible to call them on his mobile as the signal had dropped immediately after Galway and had not come back on, it must be a wrong connection or a fault.

Isla went on ahead to put the kettle on and make some sandwiches for supper. Graham and Petr remained on the porch to watch the bright garden lights go out one after the other, the last being a white halogen projector lamp trained on the middle of the courtyard. Graham explained that he was adding lights gradually, though nothing had ever happened. Each one had its own motion sensor and they were connected to one another, so that the invisible infrared optical combs covered the whole large area of the courtyard. If anything taller or bigger than a small animal ventured into the yard, the lamps came on one at a time and with brilliant light swept into view all the shadowed places.

Sometimes at night when it’s calm you can hear voices, Isla still gets a bit scared sometimes. Graham explained why he had had created this system. Petr asked if English had an expression like Jumalan selän taakse (behind God’s back). He said that the last mail to arrive from them had been a Christmas card, still sent from Cambridge, but after that the letters and emails dried up completely and came back marked return to sender, or bounced.


Some day I’ll explain, Graham said, patting him on the shoulder with a bird-like pecking motion. The projector lamps in the yard were switched off now, and only two yellowish globe lamps burned on the wall, their light sufficient to illumine the steps and part of the whitewashed stone wall.

The exterior of the house was old, but inside it had a modified look, with brown and reddish wood panels in the walls and thick wall-to-wall carpets, except in the kitchen, and in front of the fireplace there was blackened, square-patterned stone.

Graham knocked the fading peat briquettes into a smooth ash. Into the living room they gave off a sweet-and-sour fragrance like that of some strange spice. At the same time he began to explain why he had asked Petr to come so quickly. There were more than two months until the start of the expedition context, the departure was right at the beginning of 2007. According to new research by the Edmond Halley Memorial Society, Halley had been born in the autumn of 1657 rather than the year before as the history books stated, and so the society was celebrating its 350th anniversary now. The contest was one of the celebratory occasions of the anniversary year.

The contest had already had a qualifying phase with televised stages in which the number of contesting teams had been reduced from a hundred to twelve. Graham and Isla had survived every stage.

For the first stage contestants had had to know about Halley’s interest in planetary crossings and eclipses, they had had to travel right to the tip of Land’s End to witness the total eclipse of the sun that was visible there in August 1999.

[There is no coincidence. There are meanings, there is purpose and there are layers, layers upon layers...]

translated from Finnish by David McDuff

Olli Jalonen - 14 Knots to Greenwich

5 comments:

  1. "Jumalan selän taakse" is rather a nice expression. The only thing remotely like it I've heard in English is the Yorkshire expression "back ut Mooin" (behind the Moon), which sticks in my mind from childhood.

    The passage has an atmosphere of a strange mixture of quest and familiarity.

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  2. "Jumalan selän taakse" is a sort of equivalent of Eng. "the back of beyond", but the Yorshire expression is probably a better "translation".

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  3. My English grandfather (the other one was Dutch, and died before I was born) spoke Broad Yorkshire, and I just absorbed this expression. I didn't think about it for years, maybe decades, but then a context triggers it off. I translator will have a whole ragbag of words and expressions, somewhere latent in the memory.

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  4. In the second last paragraph "... Halley’s interest in sea-crossings and eclipses ..." "ylikulkuihin" refers to transits (of the planets Mercury and Venus over the sun).

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  5. Many thanks - corrected. If you see any more things like that, please don't hesitate to comment and correct!

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