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The Boat sails again – our first post-Covid live event

Blue Lamp event
Click on the image for a few more photos of the event

A grey Sunday outside, but inside at Aberdeen’s Blue Lamp an afternoon lit up by words, music, laughter and friendship.

This was Pushing Out the Boat’s first post-Covid lockdown event face-to-face. More importantly, it was our first chance to say a big ‘Thank you’ to retired but long-standing crew members Freda Hasler and Martin Walsh, who did so much over the years to keep this particular boat afloat.

As if their work for the magazine weren’t enough, Martin also agreed to curate the afternoon’s readings, so very much a personal choice, and one that worked perfectly. Most of the prose and poetry was taken from past issues of the magazine and is listed below. In addition, special guest and friend of Pushing Out the Boat Wayne Price read an extract from a tense piece about adolescent fear he’d started during lockdown.

Thanks must go to the afternoon’s other readers, Eleanor Fordyce and Alison Green, and to singer Alastair Eddie, who entertained us pre-event and during the interval with a selection of standards from the great American songbook.

It would be invidious to highlight individual pieces by any particular author or reader in the face of so much good material. For those not present, there was an instructive lesson to the author of this article from sight of Martin’s running order and its single word characterisation of each piece as ‘sharp’, ‘earthy’, ‘poignant’, ‘playful’ and so on.

In keeping with Martin’s well-judged taste, two of his own pieces listed quite rightly as ‘humour’ opened and closed the programme – Long Haul Flight (not in any issue of the magazine), and New York Dialogue, his weel-kent conversation between a Central Park squirrel and a migrating Mexican humming bird, who he miraculously summonsed from the audience in the shape of Lou Parra Lazcano. They both appear in the photo at the head of this post.

It was a great culmination to the afternoon’s entertainment, and was followed by a presentation of gifts to Freda and Martin on behalf of all POTB crew members by current magazine editor Lily Greenall.

Oh, and finally the afternoon raised almost £200 from donations and sales, a useful adjunct to our recent online crowdfunder (of which more anon in a forthcoming blog post). Our thanks to Lewis at the Blue Lamp who generously provided the venue for us, and of course to all our contributors and audience.

Anyone interested in their feelings about the magazine and their input to it over the years can find separate Q&A posts on this blog with Martin and Freda, as well as a heartfelt tribute to them by Lily and POTB trustee Judy Taylor.

———————————–

Work from Pushing Out the Boat read at the Blue Lamp, Sunday 24th April 2022. Copies of all the issues concerned are available from our online shop.

Issue 7

Eleanor Fordyce – Bidin
John Hargreaves –Deep in a Russian wood
Maureen Ross – A Woman writes to her Imaginary lovers
Auld Yin – Peeweets

Issue 9

Heather Reid  – The S Word
Martin Walsh – Momadu and the Sardine Fishers
Martin Walsh – Oot o a botle
Rapunzel Wizard –Urban Shaman

Issue 11

Maureen Ross – The Love Calculations of the Gentleman Spider

Issue 12

Eleanor Fordyce – Wish You Were Here
Alison Green – The Six Wives o Harry Troup
Stephen Pacitti – The Possom Spider

Issue 13

Eleanor Fordyce – The Lost Shoe

Issue 14

Martin Walsh – New York Dialogue

Issue 15

A C Clarke –Poems I Don’t Want to Write
Sheila Templeton – The Iceberg that sunk the Titanic

 

Walrus

Martin Walsh has written this amusing and whimsical story to be published in instalments during our crowdfunding project to raise funds for the publication of the next issue of Pushing Out the Boat and to get our finances back into balance following the damaging effects of the Covid years. If you enjoy it, please consider making a donation.

Chapter One – Encounter

Published 25 Feb 2022

Chapter One – Encounter

It was a bitter February afternoon.  The sea was wild, the wind slicing spume off the waves, whisking it like soap suds onto the sand.  I was on one of my regular daily runs along the long, deserted stretch of beach, north of the river Don. The driving sleet was so fierce that I had to press my hand over my forehead as I ran, keeping my eyes to the ground a few feet ahead.  That’s why I didn’t see him until the very last moment.  He let out a warning growl, ‘Wrrrr‘.

‘Good gracious!’ I said, skidding to a halt and struggling somewhat for words.  I gazed at his doleful expression and those two scary-looking tusks. ‘You’re a bit far from home aren’t you?’

He looked at me through baleful eyes.  His voice, deep-throated, full of hesitance, redolent of the arctic wastes: To be frank, sir, I haven’t a clue where I am.  Where are all the ice-flows?  Where are my companions?  What is this place?

‘This place, my friend, is Scotland,’ I didn’t think he’d be bothered with specifics.

Never heard of it, he said.  And then, with the saddest eyes you have ever seen,  I’m so tired, so very tired.

‘I’m not surprised,’ I said, suddenly overcome with compassion.  I knew fatigue – I was a long distance runner.  But what could I do for this poor creature so far from home?  It didn’t take a genius to see that he needed rest, a chance to recalibrate his body compass,  to eat some nourishing food, and regain his strength away from the prying eyes of my fellow humans. Before I could stop myself, before even considering the logistics, I blurted out,  ‘Why don’t you come back with me?’

But I don’t know you, he said.  Then, after scrutinizing my face for some moments, his expression seemed to soften.  I do like your moustache though; you remind me of my brother – before he tusked.

I wanted to laugh at this; but I didn’t know whether walruses (especially tired ones) had a sense of humour and I didn’t want to offend him.

Do you have somewhere safe I might sleep?

Even as the wind-driven sleet bit into my cheeks, my mind was racing.  I lived three stories up in a Torry tenement.  Even if he could manage all those stairs with that great blubbery body of his, I could hardly get him there without my neighbours seeing him.  Co-habiting with a walrus might raise eyebrows.  But then I remembered the brick outhouses in the yard at the back.  Each flat had its own one.  They were Spartan but just about big enough to accommodate a walrus even at full stretch.  ‘Yes, I do,’ I replied.  But how to get him there?  It was on the other side of town and without easy access to the shore.  Luckily, I thought, I have a van.  ‘Have you ever been in a motor?  I asked.

What is motor?

‘Never mind, I’ll explain in good time.  My place is a little distance from the sea, too far to walk, that’s why I need the motor for transport.  Besides I have to prepare your accommodation.’  Walrus looked at me blankly.  ‘Look,’ I pointed, ‘just along here, there’s a place where I can get my motor down to the beach – but I have to go and fetch it.  I reckon I can make it back here in an hour.’

What is hour?

I rolled my eyes, trying to think.  Why does everything have to be so difficultI remembered a Japanese fisherman friend who could estimate the time by measuring the height of the sun above the horizon with his hands.  But the sun and horizon were hidden.  ‘Listen my friend, just wait here, I’ll be back as quickly as I can.  Trust me.’ For some reason I touched my heart at this point.  To my astonishment he repeated the gesture by placing a flipper across his shiny chest.  ‘You can either hide up there among the dunes,’  I gestured towards them, ‘or better still, just paddle a little distance offshore and keep your tusks below the waterline.  If any humans pass, they’ll just think you’re a seal.  Understood?’

He looked at me but said nothing and I couldn’t read his expression.  I’d have to do all this by sign language. Briefly I wished I’d been in the marines where they teach that kind of stuff.  I pointed towards the waves making a swimming motion, then raised and lowered my forearms, palms down in a ‘wait-out-there’ gesture.  Next, like a second-rate charades player, I tried to indicate running home then reversing direction and driving back to collect him.  I could see he was trying to fathom things out as I set off back towards the city.  I turned to wave just before exiting the beach and was relieved to see him making his way into the waves.  But would he be here when I returned?

~~~

I raced home, the north wind at my back, with a renewed sense of purpose, something I had lost during these Covid days.  I loved beach-running, imagining myself a latter day Herb Elliot, the Aussie athlete who had honed his strength and endurance on the steep sand dunes of Portsea, South Australia.  Although way before my time I’d read about him in one of my dad’s books.  I no longer felt the cold as I pounded on through the docks, across the river and home to the gull-echoing granite canyons of Torry.

Opening the tenement door, I tore through to its dismal rear yard and out again into the sleet.  The light was already beginning to fade as I pushed open the unlocked door to my shed.  Mine was the last one in the line – a line of brick-built outhouses so strangely out of kilter in this city of granite.  But it was the best one for Walrus: in the unlikely event of anyone going to their sheds in this weather, no-one would pass his door.

I had a bike in the shed, a few tools and a broom; but what I really needed were the three stout 8 inch wide planks that I kept there.  I hauled them out and tested their strength against the wall.  They were mighty heavy and I could only manage one at a time as I hauled them along the corridor to the front door and across the pavement to my van.  But shit, the car keys were in the flat – six flights up.  Thankfully I was still running on adrenaline.  I was up and down again, then back in my shed, dragging everything outside and brushing the flag-stone floor.  All ship-shape.  Guest accommodation ready!

I man-handled the planks into my van and jumped in.  ‘Walrus – here we come!’ I hollered, smacking the steering wheel with excitement.

~~~

By the time I reached the beach again, darkness had almost fallen.  The headlamps drilled long boreholes through the frenzied air above the sea, the waves dramatically white-maned against the darkling sky.  Walrus was nowhere to be seen.  Maybe he’s scared of the light, I thought, turning off the headlamps and the engine, then battling down to the water’s edge.  The wind and the sea roared in my ears.  I scanned the horizon.  I couldn’t see anything.  I began to pace up and down the beach, cupping my hands around my mouth, and hollering.  ‘Walrus!  Walrus!  Where are you?’   My spirits ebbed as the sky darkened into night.

Then I heard him.  ‘Wrrrr’, that same deep-throated growl he had used when we met.  ‘Oh, thank god,’ I said, ‘I thought I had lost you.’  Leaning against the wind, I watched him haul his great body out of the waves.  His eyes were rheumy. ‘You must be cold,’ I said.

Cold?  He gave me a pitying look.  No sir, this is hot.

‘Of course,’  I said, feeling rather stupid, ‘and no need to call me sir, please call me Mike.’  I gave him a little bow.  ‘Do you have a name I might address you by?’

Walrus.

‘No other names?’

Walrus. He repeated, looking, I thought, a little exasperated.

‘OK Walrus, let’s get you home.’  I gestured towards the van.  Through the spindrift darkness, we walked together – like the walrus and the carpenter – up the gentle slope of the beach.  Once at the van I opened the back doors and pulled out the three planks, laying them side by side to make a broad ramp.  ‘Do you think you can manage that?’ I said, gesturing towards it.   He gave me a weary look and began to inch his mighty frame up the ramp and into the van’s interior.  Stout as they were, the planks creaked and bent alarmingly under his weight.  I could barely watch and wanted to help him but his look of affronted dignity held me back.  As he flopped down exhausted onto the metal floor, the van sank deeply on its suspension and I noticed that his rear flippers were hanging over the back sill.  I pointed at them, ‘You’ll have to pull those inside,’ I shouted above the wind, ‘so that I can close the doors.’  He looked at me blankly but understood once I eased the doors shut.  ‘And it will be hell-of-a-noisy once we get moving,’ I said.  But his eyes were already closed.

Oh my god, I thought, don’t die on me!  But his mighty chest rose and fell in gentle reassuring waves.  His flippers flexed easily as I lent my weight against the doors and felt them click.  I drove home as gently as I could, trying to recite verses from ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ and then turning on a recording of ‘Homeward Bound’ by Simon and Garfunkle, hoping it might sooth Walrus as we drove over the hissing tarmac – though I doubt he heard a word or sound above the roar of the engine.

Driving over the cobbles of Victoria Bridge into Torry, the van was buffeted by a massive gust of wind which, without the ballast of Walrus, might have driven us onto the pavement and up against the parapets.  The sleet had now turned to horizontal snow as I pulled up in front our tenement block.  Although it wasn’t late, not a soul was about and the kirk across the street was almost obliterated from sight by the denseness of the blizzard.  Perfect, I thought, the gods are with us.  With keys in hand, I slipped quickly out of the van to open the back doors.   Unbelievable, Walrus was still asleep and snoring loudly, his whiskered upper lip trembling with each out-breath.   It would have been funny had I not been so anxious.  I patted him urgently on one of his back flippers.  ‘Walrus,’ I said, ‘come on old chap…’  But before I could finish, his eyes snapped open in terror and he let out the most almighty roar, his mouth open wide, his lower lip quivering.

‘It’s OK, Walrus, it’s OK,’  I held up my hands, palms towards him and lowered them very slowly.  ‘Remember me, MIke – I’m your friend – you know, the one who looks like your brother.   We met on the beach and now we’re home.  Somewhere safe.  Somewhere to rest.’  His look of fear gradually subsided, turning first to bewilderment then to utter weariness.  It seemed cruel to ask him to move but I had no choice.  I hauled out the three planks and he slid down them, his passage comically assisted by the skim of snow that had already settled on the ramp.  I tried not to laugh.  ‘OK, follow me, there’s a bit of a step here.’  I said pointing with one hand while working the front door keys to the tenement with the other.

I was surprised how easily he hauled himself along the floor – the sound of a heavy object being dragged across the lino, accompanied by the slap-slap of his front flippers.  Once in the back yard, he stopped to look up at the swirling snow, to sniff the air and to wrinkle his broad snout in satisfaction as if reassured by the elements.

I opened the shed door.  ‘Here we are my friend.  No palace, I’m afraid but you’ll be OK here and I’ll bring you some breakfast in the morning.’  Walrus slid inside. ‘I’ll close the door, just to keep you safe.’  But he was already asleep again, slumped in a corner.  I mopped the tenement corridor en route to my flat.  No sense in raising unnecessary suspicions…

Intrigued? Want to know what happened next? Chapter Two – ‘What do you give a Walrus for Breakfast’ will be published here on 8th March.

Chapter Two – What do you give a Walrus for Breakfast?

Published 8 March 2022

Chapter Two – What do you give a Walrus for Breakfast?

The next morning I awoke at dawn and went straight to my food cupboard, scanning its contents for a walrus breakfast.  The only possibility was an old can of Portuguese sardines in tomato sauce.  I tried to make up a Lewis Carroll-type verse: He wept like anything at the taste of tomato sauce… But it was too early in the morning for creativity and I went back to my usual worrying.  What on earth do walrus’s eat, apart from feckless young oysters?   Anyway, I was desperate to see how my new friend had survived the night, so I opened the tin, slopped its contents onto an enamel plate, grabbed a loaf of bread and scooted down the stairs.  It was bitter outside in the back yard.  Six inches of snow had fallen during the night but I knew that was the least of my worries.

I pushed open the door to the shed and there he was – a dark, shiny mound, like a huge sea-sculpted boulder, still sound asleep.   I didn’t tap him this time, just whispered a quiet ‘Morning Walrus.’ I slid the plate of sardines towards him, leaving it a few inches from his muzzle.  He was so deeply asleep that he didn’t even seem to hear the grating sound of enamel across the concrete.  How on earth will he eat, I wondered, without those ridiculous tusks getting in the way?  I didn’t have long to wait.  With his eyes still closed, I watched his broad, whiskered snout begin to quiver and his nostrils to twitch.  He opened an eye, its expression morphing rapidly from lugubrious to terrified and then, more slowly, back to baleful as he recognized again the face that reminded him of his brother.

‘You must be starving,’ I said.

‘Wrrrr,‘ he replied, but quietly this time, as if in assent.  He lumbered slowly towards the sardines.  Lifting his head delicately above the plate he let out another ‘Wrrrr‘.  This time I could have sworn there was a hint of appreciation in its utterance.  For those acquainted with cats, you will be aware how many shades of meaning they can express in a single ‘meow’, ranging from apparently deep affection:  Oh, I so love you master, to a sharply barked command: feed me, you laggard, have you no sense of urgency?

Perhaps it’s the same with Walruses, I mused.   The next thing I knew, Walrus had buried his head in the sardines, his tusks clicking noisily on the plate.  So that’s how they do it, I reflected, with their muzzle pointing vertically towards the ground (or seabed) and their tusks pointing backwards toward their chests.  It was all so obvious when you watched him.  To say that Walrus wolfed the sardines would be an understatement.  When he’d finished, I noticed a daub of tomato sauce on his nose and burst out laughing.  Ignoring me, he hooked his tusks under the empty plate sending it spinning noisily across the floor as he searched desperately for more sardines.

The look in his eyes as he gazed at me was heart-rending.  Shrugging apologetically, I offered him the loaf.  He looked at it for a while, gave it a dismissive sniff then stabbed it with his tusks.  He must have been desperate though, because he snaffled the whole thing down before turning his eyes on me once more.

‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘look I’m really sorry, Walrus, that’s all I’ve got in the house.  Consider it just a small appetizer.  I’ll need to go out and buy you a proper breakfast, you’ll just have to be patient with me.’  This was so typical of me – never thinking things through!  I’d figured out from his anatomy that he must be a benthic feeder and wouldn’t normally be able to catch fish; but he obviously loved their taste (or was it just the tomato sauce?  My last cat, Mactavish, loved it too).  Thankfully Torry was full of fish houses so, with luck, I could bulk-buy cheap fish to satisfy what I imagined would be his enormous appetite.  Once again I resorted to charade-like gestures:  I’m going to have to lock you in, be back soon, trust me mate.

~~~

Hooking a Covid mask around my ears and over my face at the entrance to the first fish house I came to, I pushed through the dangling strips of thick plastic sheeting, and into its cave-like interior.   Wasting no time on niceties, I blurted out to the man behind the counter, ‘Can you sell me a box of cheap but wholesome fish, I’ve an army to feed.’

He scrutinized me curiously from beneath his white plastic fish-monger’s hat, his body clad in shiny yellow, his white-booted legs planted squarely on the fish-wet concrete.

‘There’s nae cheap fush these days, pal.  Cheapest ah hiv is smaa haddies, nae gutted like.  A box’ll set ye back fufty quid.’

‘Jeez,’ I said, ‘nothing cheaper?’

‘Sorry pal.  Ye could aye try John Charles up ‘a street, he sometimes his mackareels, aat’s aboot as cheap as ye’ll get.’

So that’s what I did.  I bought a big fish-market sized box of mackerel – they were cheaper – and hoisted them with some difficulty into the back of my van.

By the time I’d lugged the box, with its 40 kilograms of fish, through the tenement and across the snow to the outhouses at the back, I was knackered.  I leant, breathing heavily, against the shed door.  Walrus must have heard me because he let out his now customary greeting from behind the door.  It was muted this time, thank god, but I thought it carried a note of desperation.

As I unlocked the door he gave me a look which unequivocally said  ‘I could eat a horse.’ or whatever the walrus equivalent was.  But what if he doesn’t like mackerel?  I was back in  worry mode again.  I knew there was no way he could catch a mackerel even if they did live up there in the arctic.  But I needn’t have worried.  I tossed him a fish to test his response.  It was instantaneous.  His ‘Wrrrr’ was the most enthusiastic yet.  It was a wrrrr without qualification, without even a ‘where’s the tomato sauce then?’

I was overcome with relief and joy; I could have hugged him.  Forgetting where I was, I let out a whoop of triumph and danced a little jig in the snow.  Idiot! I kicked myself, what on earth was I doing?  Glancing upwards through the whirling snow, I scanned the window apertures in the grey cliff of the tenement.  No sign of prying eyes, I noted with relief, but suddenly I was almost knocked over by Walrus shooting out of the shed to bury his head maniacally into the box of mackerel – in full view of anyone who might be watching.

‘Walrus, no!’  I scolded, waving an index finger at him as I tried to drag the box into the shed, but he hooked his tusks over the opposite  side and he was much stronger than me.  I had to wait until a pause in his eating frenzy.  Only once he’d lifted his head out of the box was I able to jerk it away from him and back into the shed.  He followed, galumphing,  and I quickly slammed the door, leaving him to his feast.  As I made my way back toward the tenement I thought I saw a curtain twitching on the second floor.

Chapter Three – Ina Seivwright

Published 8 March 2022

Chapter Three – Ina Seivwright

Back in my flat I warmed my backside against the radiator, luxuriating in its heat as I stared out of the window and watched the snow swirling by, smudging the outline of the docks beyond.  I was supposed to be working – working from home – but I just couldn’t face my laptop, couldn’t stop thinking about Walrus.  What the hell was I going to do with him?  How long could I keep him cooped up?  How long would it take him to recover his strength?  What on earth would I do if he’d been spotted by the curtain twitcher?

There were two flats on each floor in the tenement and, if my guess was right, that curtain belonged to Mrs Seivwright – she who disapproved: disapproved of my efforts at polishing  the communal stairs, tutted at the occasional girl friends I brought back to the flat, didn’t like the English.  My fears were soon confirmed as there came a sharp rat-a-tat at the door.

Standing before me stood the mighty bulk of Ina Seivright, her slippered feet apart on the landing, meaty fists on hips, face red and breathing heavily.   She came straight to the point.

‘An fit wis aat ah jist seen comin oot yer sheddie?’

‘No idea, Mrs Seivwright.’

‘Ye ken pets is nay permitted.’

‘And what d’you think you saw?’

‘Nay sure.  Couldnae see recht thro the snaa.  Bit it wis affa big.’

There was nothing else for it.  I would have to tell her.  ‘What would you say if I told you it was a walrus?’

Her jaw dropped, I could see her trying to process the information, comparing the size of what she had seen with this revelation.  She scrutinized me with a look of utter disbelief.  ‘I’d say ye wis aff yer heid.’  But I thought I caught a flicker of interest in her eye.  Maybe I could even win her over.

‘Would you like to meet him?’

‘Ye’re kiddin?’ she replied.  My God was that the hint of a smile? ‘Ah’ll hae tae get ma beets on first.’

‘I’ll see you down there. then.’

Waiting patiently outside the shed, I watched Ina emerge from the tenement and trudge slowly out through the snow.  As she drew near I put a warning finger to my lips and opened the shed door a couple of inches.  The stench was overpowering.  Slumped In the corner lay Walrus, eyes closed, chest rising and falling gently, his flippers folded over his chest like a portly gentleman after a mighty pub lunch.  Pinching my nose and waving my hand in front of my face, I opened the door a little wider.  I beckoned Ina over to look inside, putting a finger to my lips once again so she wouldn’t awaken and frighten Walrus.

Ina’s face was transfixed, a look of utter enchantment replacing her normal sour expression.  Walrus was a picture of contentment, having consumed half his box of mackerel.  I closed the door and we left him in peace.

As we re-entered the tenement, Ina invited me into her flat for a fly cup.  I told her the whole story, of how I’d stumbled across Walrus and brought him home, having promised him a quiet spot for the night to rest up.  She gazed at me with a look of astonishment.

‘Promised him? Are ye tellin me, the craiter spiks?’

‘Well his eyes and body language speak to me and I seem to hear words.’

She gave me a slightly quizzical look, the kind you might give a daft person but I didn’t really care.  The main thing was she clearly shared my enchantment with Walrus, and I was sure she wouldn’t make trouble now – maybe she might even be able to help.

‘I’m worried,’ I said, ‘I really haven’t much of a clue what I’m doing here.  The only animal I ever cared for was a cat.  I hate confining Walrus but I don’t want anyone seeing or pestering him – he needs to rest.

‘Fit aboot the Marine Laboratory?’

‘You mean that ugly building up the road near the golf course?  What about it?’

‘M’be they’ll hae some cliver chappies in there that can help.’

I turned the idea over in my head.  The place was supposed to be full of boffins wasn’t it?  Maybe there would be someone there who could advise me.  ‘Good thinking, Ina.  I’ll try and find some contact details on my lap top and give them a ring.  Thanks for the tea, I’ll keep you posted.’  And with that I was out the door and galloping up the stairs to my flat.

Chapter Four – Dr Hazlett

Published 15 March 2022

Chapter Four –  Dr Hazlett

‘Marine Laboratory here, how can I help?

‘Walruses,’ I blurted out, ‘you wouldn’t happen to have an expert on them would you?’

There was a long pause. ‘Well that’s a new one…’ The reply was polite, hesitant, the receptionist sounded as if she were turning over options in her head.  ‘Walrus is a mammal isn’t it?  We do have someone who fields questions on whales and dolphins.  I could put you through to him if you like?’

‘That would be great, thanks.’

‘We only have a skeleton staff here at the moment due to Covid restrictions but I could transfer you to his home number.  His name is Dr Hazlett.  Hold the line please.’

He came through almost immediately, his voice old, grumpy, and a trifle suspicious. I wondered what the receptionist had told him.

‘Look.’ I said, ‘I know this is going to sound a trifle bonkers, but I’ve got a very exhausted walrus at home with me in Torry and I’m at my wit’s end worrying about what to do with him.  The receptionist, told me you might be able to help.’

‘Is this some kind of a wind-up?  There are no walruses in Scotland.’

‘That’s what I thought,’ I replied, ‘until I almost fell over one on the beach north of the Don.  I took him home in my van because he looked so poorly.  He’s in my outhouse, I’ve been feeding him on mackerel.’  There was a splutter of disbelief down the line, ‘Please don’t put the phone down Dr Hazlett,’ I added quickly. ‘If you don’t believe me come and see for yourself.  I live at 167 Victoria Rd not far from the Marine Lab.  My name is Mike and I work at the Bank of Scotland in Union Street.’  I hated adding that last bit but thought it might add some gravitas and it seemed to work, or, at least, he didn’t put down the phone.  He went on to pepper me with questions about Walrus and then about myself but I could tell from his tone that, although he remained suspicious, his attitude was beginning to change.  There was now a note of barely restrained excitement in his voice.  ‘I’ll be round in half an hour,’ he said, ‘I’ve got to come from the other side of town.’

~~~

I met him outside the tenement kicking the snow off his boots.  He was a rugged looking guy, an outdoor type, much older than me, in his 50s I guessed, with the whiskers of a beard escaping around the fringes of his face mask.  The visible parts of his face were weather-beaten and he had on a worn Barbour jacket and a chunky woollen hat.  Clutched in one hand was a bulging sack.

‘You must be Mike, the banker,’ he said with a mischievous twinkle, ‘I thought these might come in useful.’ He shook the sack.

‘And you’ll be Dr Hazlett,’ I replied, trying not to wince at the banker reference.  ‘Come on through.  Very good of you to come at such short notice.  So what’s in the sack?’

‘Mussels.  Live mussels.’

‘Oh wow, that’s just brilliant.’  I could have hugged him.

‘I’m no expert on walruses but my guess is that these will be as close to his natural diet as you can find.  Can’t believe he’s been eating mackerel,’ he said, shaking his head.

‘Me neither,’ I replied. ‘I guess he was desperate, but I should warn you, they make him fart something awful.  Hope you’ve got a strong stomach.’

‘Ever tried dissecting a long-dead, stranded whale,’ he grinned.  ‘But what intrigues me is how on earth you managed to get him here?’

‘Long story,’ I replied as we emerged into the back yard and crunched across the snow. I put a finger to my lips as we approached Walrus’s quarters.  Carefully opening the door, I peaked inside.  He was slumped in a corner with his back against the walls, his two flippers folded over his stomach, eyes closed, a look of sleepy contentment on his face.   Creaking open the door a little wider – so that the Doc could take a look too – a shaft of wintry sunlight flicked across Walrus’s face bringing him sharply awake.

‘Wrrrr.’ he bellowed, lurching belligerently toward the Doc with terrifying menace.  Perhaps he saw this older bearded newcomer as a rival alpha male.

Stepping quickly between them, arms extended, I shouted, ‘Whoa, Walrus, this is my friend, he’s come to help you.’  The look Walrus gave me suggested betrayal: But you promised me peace and quiet. This morphed to incomprehension: Help me? How he gonna help me?

I turned to the Doc who looked a bit shaken but also intrigued.  ‘Why don’t you toss him a few mussels,’ I suggested, ‘gently, just in front of him.’

Walrus had risen to his full height, and continued to glare belligerently at the Doc.  At first he ignored the mussels that the Doc threw his way, not daring to take his eyes off his rival.  But then his nostrils began to twitch as he caught their whiff.  Lowering his head he sniffed at the nearest mussel.  ‘Wrrrr,’ his tone this time was less aggressive, excited anticipation struggling with lingering suspicion.’  He looked at me, as if for reassurance.

‘It’s OK,’ I said. ‘Dr Hazlett is my friend, he wants to be yours too and these mussels are a gift from him to you.’

Really? he was still looking sceptical until a faint memory seemed to dawn.  Mussels.  I know these from home.  Almost as good as oysters.  He worked his tusks methodically from side to side across the floor scooping the mussels into neat blue-black, barnacle-encrusted piles.   Then he opened his big whiskered jaws and began to crunch them noisily down.  I turned to look at the Doctor.  He was grinning from ear to ear.

‘I can’t believe I’m seeing this,’ he said, ‘Odobenis rosmarus, here in little old Aberdeen.  It’s like some strange dream… some parallel reality.’ He shook his head as if to shake himself back into the real world.  Walrus was now looking at him impatiently.  Doc laughed, ‘Even I can read that look,’ he said, tossing Walrus more of the mussels which bounced lightly, like skimmed stones, across the floor.

As the Doc continued throwing handfuls of shellfish at Walrus I scanned the shed.  The box of mackerel was now three-quarters empty, a good sign I thought, but there were little piles of excrement everywhere and the smell was overpowering.  ‘Hey, Doc,’ I said, ‘what do you think?  How much longer should we keep him here?  He’s already had about thirty kilos of mackerel and a good whack of your mussels.  They must have done him some good, surely?’

‘I don’t think you should keep him here a minute longer.  It’s a pity, I would have liked to have taken some measurements but he looks way too dangerous for that.  I’ve no idea how we get him back to sea or how on earth you managed to get him here in the first place, but that’s where he should be.’

‘Yes,’ I replied, ‘you’re right and he’s definitely in much better shape now.  Let’s lock him up again with half the rest of the mussels and make a plan.  He seems OK so long as he’s got food and privacy.   Anyway I’m bloody freezing, let’s go up to my flat and grab a coffee.  You can leave the rest of the mussels out here against the door.’  This was a mistake.

Chapter Five – The Open Sea

Published 22 March 2022

Chapter Five –  The Open Sea

Mugs of coffee in hand, I gestured Doc to sit on the single kitchen stool while I stood, bum to radiator, next to the window.   He turned his piercingly blue eyes on me and, after insisting I called him Wil, said, ‘What I still don’t understand is how you got him here or how you…’  But at this precise moment, from somewhere outside came a furious ‘Wrrrr’ followed by the sound of violently exploding wood.  Rapidly craning my neck to look into the yard below, I was just in time to see Walrus hauling himself off the door which now lay off its hinges beneath him, shattered in the snow.   Doc leapt off his stool and joined me at the window as we watched Walrus hook his tusks under the edge of the door and flip it effortlessly over to reveal the half-full sack of mussels beneath it.

‘Oh, shit,’ I yelled, dashing towards the door, ‘we’ll never get him back into the shed or my van in this state.’

I was down the stairs and into the back yard within seconds, Doc not far behind.  Walrus was busy ripping open the bag with his tusks.  Even I didn’t dare approach too closely.  ‘It’s OK mate,’ I said in the calmest voice I could muster, ‘nobody’s going to touch them, they’re all for you.’

Walrus gave me one of his impenetrable looks then went back to his feast.  Doc tapped me on the shoulder, gesturing towards the tenement.  At almost every window a face was watching the cabaret below.  My head was pounding.  Nothing really mattered now except to get Walrus back to sea.  I was at my wit’s end. ‘What the hell do we do now, Wil?’

He looked at me through those sharp eyes of his.  ‘Well, Mike, you managed to get him here, single-handed, and you sure as hell didn’t carry him here in your arms.  Whatever magic you worked then, you need to find it again now.’

‘Thanks a lot.’ I replied sarcastically, turning to study Walrus again.  He’d finished the mussels by now and was licking his lips triumphantly.  He looked magnificent: proud, fierce and indomitable.   I stared at him in mixed admiration and despair.  He turned his eyes on me.  ‘Wrrrr.‘  It was a command this time, no doubt about it.  Home.  The word echoed round my head like a joyous peeling of bells, home, home, home.  I turned to look at Doc, ‘You hear that, Wil?’

‘Hear what?’

‘Never mind,’ I replied, ‘I think he’ll come quietly now.’  I beckoned to Walrus, ‘Come on old chap, let’s get you home.’  Doc stood to the side, his face a picture of scientific incomprehension and awe as Walrus galumphed past him.  At the back door of the tenement, hands on hips stood Ina, grinning broadly.

‘That wis an affa guid show ye pit on there mi loon.  Ye should be on a telly.  Onything, ah can dee tae help?’

‘Just keep the passage clear if you would, Ina, he gets spooked by crowds.’ I could already see some of my neighbours milling in the corridor.  Ina was into traffic-cop mode instantly, waving her hands commandingly.  ‘Awah back, oot the wae, heavy goods comin thro.’  My neighbours retreated reluctantly up the stairs and we were soon out on the snowy front pavement.  As Walrus flopped onto the paving stones, an old lady on the other side of the street gasped in horror, eyes wide open, hand over her mouth.

‘Give us a hand would you, Wil?  I’ve got a ramp in the back of the van.  Walrus knows the drill.’  We hauled the three planks out together and watched Walrus clamber aboard – so different from his laboured efforts the day before.  ‘You’ll give us a hand on the beach, won’t you Wil?’

‘Try and stop me.’ He grinned.

‘I’ll need to turn,’ I said, ‘visibility’s not too good in the van, could you keep an eye out for traffic?’

‘What do you mean turn, the nearest beach is just up the road, beyond the Lab, just beyond the Battery.  You weren’t thinking of going back to the Don were you?’

I slapped my forehead, ‘Durrr, why didn’t I think of that?  Yep, there’s a nice little beach just inside the last breakwater, isn’t there?’

Minutes later, I pulled into the side of the road just above the broad winding path down to the beach.  The wind was still blowing out of the North, shivering the gorse bushes at the top of the brae.  The landscape was locked under snow, gulls surfed the wind or hung in mid air above the estuary and one of the Shetland ferries, with its dramatic Viking logo, was nosing out into the swell.

Walrus was already up on his front flippers, facing out of the back of the van, sniffing the air as Doc and I opened the back doors.  ‘Oh, shit,’ I said, ‘There’s a kissing gate across the path, how the hell are we going to get him though there?’  Doc scratched his beard, ‘Think he might just fit under the barrier if we’re lucky.  Looks like there’s about two foot of clearance.’

‘Wrrrr,’ said Walrus, flippers already over the threshold, eyes peering impatiently down at the snowy verge below the back of the van, as if contemplating leaping.

‘Whoa, hold your horses, matey,’ I shouted.  ‘Wait for the ramp.’  Doc was already hauling out the second plank, while I pulled out the third and slid it into place.  Walrus was down the ramp like a rocket, almost knocking over the Doc in passing.  He needed no instructions, pushing open the kissing gate then sliding like a fat limbo dancer under the metal horizontal to its side.  Once on the path beyond, there was no stopping him.   He slid over the broad, wooden steps with a kind of heavy, fluid grace.  Flopping onto the beach he made straight for the water.

Half-submerged, he turned to look at us.  He placed a single flipper over his chest.  ‘Wrrrr’, he said, bowing his head slightly, before disappearing under the waves.  We saw his mighty head reappear from time to time, watched by a family of surprised harbour seals.  He turned one last time.

‘Go North, old friend.’  I shouted, but he needed no bidding from me.  ‘Send us a post card when you get home.’  Doc was shaking his head in disbelief.

Back in my car, he fixed me in a long poker-faced stare before breaking into a mischievous grin. ‘You’re going to need a carpenter to fix that shed door of yours and you’ve a lot of explaining to do!’


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Pushing Out the Boat at the WayWORD Festival 2021

Pushing Out the Boat Event with Leopard Arts at the WayWORD Festival

The Aberdeen literary scene is back in full swing this autumn, with the return of the WayWORD Festival hosted by the University of Aberdeen. This year Pushing Out the Boat were again delighted to join Leopard Arts for a virtual literary reading at the WayWORD Festival. After participating in a similar event last year, we were happy to see another enthusiastic online turn out.

The event took place in the evening on Thursday the 23rd of September and opened with readings from Leopard Arts contributors. The event was introduced by Leopard Arts’ editor, Will Creed, and joint chaired by Pushing Out the Boat editor, Lily Greenall. Leopard Arts’ showcase featured a range of excellent work from within the Aberdeen student body and beyond.

Next up, the Pushing Out the Boat readings were kicked off by Gabrielle Barnby, who read from her beautiful, reflective prose piece, “From Poland”, which was featured in Issue 16. Our second reader was Mark Cassidy, who read three poems, including his piece “AGAINST THE GRAIN” which featured in Issue 16. He was followed by Nicola Furrie Murphy, whose poem “Passing Place” offered a poignant meditation on death. Nicola also read another piece about the joys of wild swimming.

Our final two readers were Max Scratchmann and EE Chandler. Max Scratchmann performed his poem “The Gaelic Teacher and the Dinner Lady”, while EE Chandler read several pieces of work, including her poem “Washing My Mother’s Hair” from Issue 16.

These readings were followed up by a lively Q&A which drew some fascinating insights on creative writing from both the Leopard Arts and Pushing Out the Boat readers. It was great to see so much enthusiasm and engagement with arts in the North-East and it was a pleasure, once again, to be part of this vibrant festival.

Launch of Issue 16

PUSHING OUT THE BOAT ISSUE 16 LAUNCH

In the time of pandemic, the exception becomes the norm and the norm becomes the exception.

This thought must have crossed the minds of at least some of the near-one hundred souls who logged onto the online launch of Pushing Out the Boat magazine Issue 16 on the afternoon of Sunday the 16th of May.

Pushing Out the Boat’s recent norm, as old hands will know, has been to launch our new edition in the wonderful Phoenix Hall of Aberdeen’s Newton Dee community. Alas, Covid ruled that option out this year, so online it had to be or not at all.

Out had to go the pre-launch drinks and nibbles, the meeting of old friends and the making of new, the display of some of the art work from the magazine, and the buzz that can only come from face-to-face live performance. Out also, the chance to recoup some of the costs of producing the magazine through a ticketed event with added sales opportunity, a.k.a. our table laden with present and past issues of Pushing Out the Boat for sale (but don’t forget our online shop to order those extra copies for family and friends).

Lily Greenall – Sheila Templeton – Michael Stephenson – Alison Bell – Mairi Murphy

In came an online slide show of all the art work in the magazine (which can now be viewed on the Issue 16 page of our website, along with a selection of sample extracts of poetry and prose), in came poets and authors far from Aberdeen able to read at one of our launches for the first time, and in came guests from across the UK, Italy, Lithuania, Nigeria, and Switzerland (and those are just the places we know about). In also came a live chat function, so we could not only highlight biographies and contact details for our fifteen readers as they introduced themselves, but also capture the immediate responses of those attending. Here’s a selection of what people said.

  • Stunning artwork
  • So enjoying all the voices today
  • A real Sunday afternoon treat
  • What a whole load of talent!

And, plucked at random, responses to some of the individual contributions.

  • ‘Beyond the wind, by the asphodel-starred lochans, a redshank is crying …’ a gently hopeful ending (Alison Bell’s prose piece ‘Finding Ithaka’)
  • ‘He nails your soul to the floor …’ Thank you. Lovely poem (Mairi Murphy’s poem ‘Roan Inish, Gweebarra’)
  • ‘A certain heartbreak smell’. Wonderful to see the inspiring object (Gabrielle Barnby showed the audience the crucifix that was the subject of her prose piece ‘From Poland’)
  • I could hear the sea in your voice. So good to hear the Doric (Alistair Lawrie’s poem ‘Switherin’)
  • Just fabulous (Ellen Renton’s poem ‘In my best dreams’)
  • Wonderfully precise and captivating. Thank you (Susan Elsley’s short story ‘Golden Air’)
  • Names and identity are so important – thank you for writing this. Wonderful poem (Adebusola Bada’s ‘Identity’ – Adebusola is one of our young contributors, aged 17).

Gabrielle Barnby – Alistair Lawrie – Zoë Green – Ellen Renton – Eleanor Fordyce – Morag Smith

You can find recordings of all our featured authors reading their work here.

Not so long ago, any online arts event was very much the exception, associated with a sense of having been short-changed of the ‘real’ thing. Now the world of performance has been turned upside down. As one of our readers, Alison Bell, said in introducing her contribution, ‘Everything I wrote last year came out of the pandemic one way or another’ and we sensed a similar impact on many of our readers. Our online launch may have been part of the new norm but in the hands and with the voices of our contributors it also became exceptional, and we thank them, and our audience, for that. Thanks also, of course, to our editor, Lily Greenall, who introduced our readers and for the warm words about Pushing Out the Boat spoken by the author of Issue 16’s Foreword, Scots and English poet Sheila Templeton.

Footnote. Like most people, we also yearn for a return to the best of the old norm and hope to put on a live event of readings in Aberdeen as soon as we can, featuring local contributors to Issue 16. News of that will be publicised in the usual way – on the website, on social media and to our newsletter subscribers (you can join our mailing list here).

Susan Elsley – Ingrid Leonard – Adebusola Bada – Stella Hervey Birrell – Tom Bennett – Ian Crockatt

Q & A with Freda Hasler

‘It was a huge learning curve …’

What’s it like being in almost at the birth of a magazine of new writing and the visual arts and seeing it through many years of increasing success? Our recently-retired coordinator Freda Hasler answers our questions designed precisely to explore that subject. You can find a tribute to Freda and her partner Martin in an earlier blog post.

  Freda at the launch of Issue 14

Until your retirement recently, you had been involved with POTB for many years. What made you get involved in the first place? 

There’s a very long answer! But the short one is to help my partner Martin, who became seriously ill shortly after becoming POTB’s first voluntary editor (the wonderful NHS cured him!).  Even before that, when the magazine was still being run by Aberdeenshire Council, I helped with copy-editing Issue 4.

POTB is a magazine run entirely by volunteers, challenging to achieve at the best of times. What do you think has been the secret of its longevity?

Its unique quality – and wonderful teamwork of course.  Utilising the web helped, not just keeping costs down, but aiding communications and raising profile: who would believe the increased number and wide variety of submissions achieved by 2020.   But let’s not forget the array of invaluable skills so generously volunteered over the years – and we didn’t break too many arms press-ganging their owners on board!

Latterly, you were the coordinator for the magazine but you must have done many other things over the years to ‘keep the show on the road’, mostly in behind-the-scenes roles. What have been the highlights of your involvement?

Well, I learned a lot about publishing, though it was a huge learning curve.  As part of the core team, one steps into roles as and when required.  I had a period as Acting Secretary, with the unexpected bonus of forming long-term friendships with several (often first-time published) writers and artists – plus meeting many appreciative contributors at our brilliant launches. I enjoyed the networking (except when folk started to run away from ‘that POTB woman’ whenever I approached!).   But my favourite task was working on the magazine layout and design: I’m proud of the look of POTB… I gather there may even be some imitations out there.

And the most challenging aspects?

We often seemed to lurch from crisis to crisis, with team members disappearing (some to far-away shores at short notice); we even had a funding heist!  Supporting volunteers is never easy.  I guess I won’t miss the increasingly 24/7 nature of the job, and the full calendar: fitting in holidays could be difficult, and necessitated lots of advance POTB prep. The latter did pay off when we got stranded in Japan (due to a volcanic eruption in Iceland!) and would have missed deadlines for the upcoming Launch of POTB 9. Luckily those pre-prepared documents were accessible online, and we were able to send everything – from our hotel bedroom. Phew!

Of all the work that has appeared in the magazine over the years, poetry, prose and art, do any pieces stand out as something you especially remember or feel affection for, and why?

Of course, everything by my partner Martin Walsh is a highlight – even his Doric poem [Martin is from Kent – Ed.].  He has such a following, and it’s a disappointment when his work doesn’t make the cut. (But that does prove the anonymity of the selection process). Having copy-edited many pieces over some fifteen years, several I know almost by heart, and they are very special.  Amongst countless superb contributions, I’d have to include anything by Stephen Pacitti, with ‘The Possum Spider’ in my top ten. [You can find this story in Issue 12 of POTB online, starting at p.12– Ed.]

What practical tips would you give to the team now running the magazine?

We tried hard to share out the workload, and put good procedures in place; so the only advice I’d give is to avoid becoming dependant on too few individuals. Otherwise, the team are so talented that I’m pretty sure they don’t need any more tips!

What do you feel, from your experience, will be the most challenging issues for a magazine like POTB in the future?

These never really change. Most small publishers encounter similar challenges year on year (even without COVID), but POTB has the additional problem of finding those vital skilled volunteers; luckily we were assisted by incredible outside support.  Also, selling a print magazine is an everlasting problem, so perhaps building a subscription base, even for the online editions, might help.

And finally, what now? You’re not a person to rest on their laurels, even after so many years of helping to make a success of POTB. What further challenges await you?

My ‘retirement’ coincided with the start of COVID, so our planned travels have been curtailed – hopefully to be resumed very soon.  Mainly for the pleasure of learning new skills, I attend art courses, some latterly in fascinating places overseas – though right now Zoom doesn’t quite hit the mark.  But other demands continue, including those of my Board duties with an Arts organisation, plus lay involvement with various university research projects. These keep the brain cells active. And there’s our beloved garden …