Sailors’ tattoos

The sun was high over the yardarm. Cats paws stirred the waters around the creaking timbers of the Unicorn. The ensign at her masthead barely rippled in the breeze. Up in the riggings, sailors gazed longingly at a lonely isle where the palms spilled green shadows upon the unbroken strand. Lying low in the water, the white forms of coral merged and twisted while the shadows of the fish shimmered along their ravines. The reef was so high that the Unicorn could never cross it. No footprint would ever sink into that cool, damp sand.

Mending sails on the deck, and enjoying the sun, the young sailor looked up to see the feet of old Suffolk Leigh above him, curved like a parrot’s talons along the taut ropes. Amongst the wrinkles and the scars, a pair of blue lines lay hidden like the stripes of tigers as they move through the forest at dusk.

Peering down, Suffolk Leigh smiled at his young shipmate. With a gesture that he barely knew he did himself, Suffolk scratched his white beard, and smacked his lips three times. His mind made up, he came scrambling down the rigging with both the grace and the weight of an aged orang-utan. In a moment, the old salt came to Alpot and sat down at his side.

“What’s that I saw on your feet, Suffolk?” Asked Alpot. The only American on board, he had grown up next to the docks in New York Harbour, in a lodging house near the toe of Manhattan Island.

“What’s wrong with them?”

“Nothing. It’s just I saw two crosses, one on either foot. What’s the meaning of it?”

“Tattoos boy. These here crosses, they keep the sharks from nibbling at my feet should I ever take a tumble in the brine.”

“You’d not believe all that sort of stuff now, would you?”

“Why not? I’ve been aboard ships two score years, and no hammerhead’s bitten at my breeches yet,” the old man said. Taking out a little clay pipe, the colour of mustard powder, he started sucking at it drily. Alpot had never known his shipmate to be without it, but neither had he ever seen it lit.

“There’s other ways of keep yourself safe when you’re bumping about on the top of Davy Jones’ locker. Many a man I’ve seen with a pig tattoo on one ankle, and a cock on t’other. Why do you think that is so, now?”

“Search me.”

“Well, listen now. That pair of beasts, flesh and fowl, keep a man afloat. You ever see a ship go under? Course you haven’t. You ever see it list so in a gale that the whelps and the nippers get thrown overboard? No, shipmate. When a ship goes under, the crates with the animals float, see? Made of wood and all. The wash’ll be slopping the frame and the wind’ll be whistling away, but the pig will grunt and the cock will cluck, until it’s time for them to be saved.”

“Have you ever seen that?”

Suffolk Leigh shifted a little to move his head out of the sun. A sail gave him some relief, though the white canvas cut back and forth while a sailor struggled to tie it into position.

“I’ve seen many things, lad,” said Suffolk, pulling down the top of his shirt. His fist with its cracked skin tugged it down as far as his shoulder blade, where two black crescents spun.

“Swifts?” Asked Alpot.

“Swallows. Two.” Suffolk raised a pair of fingers to emphasise his point. He took his pipe out of his mouth, and stuck a fingernail-bitten finger into its vacant bowl. “Two swallows show a journey of ten thousand sea miles.”

“You did that?”
“And more! Look!” The old man exposed his navel, a black hole poking out from wrinkled skin, like the eye of an elephant. To the right, there was a turtle on its hind legs, poised with its beak poked up in the air.

“A turtle.”

“It’s not all rocks in there after all,” said Suffolk Leigh, tapping his pipe against his ship mate’s head. “Of course, a man who’s done ten thousand miles has crossed the equator like as not. That there turtle is earned  by crossing the line when you enter King Neptune’s Court. We have that pleasure awaiting us on this very voyage, once we leave the Carib behind. Then you’ll have earned the title of ‘Shellback’, same as me.”

The old man punctuated this comment with a wicked grin and a guttural sort of a laugh that sounded not unlike the ship’s cat when it was spewing up hairballs on the deck. Once he had finished, Suffolk Leigh spat over the gunwhale. A white crop of bubbles was left floating on the surface.

”I’ve near done  them all,” said the old man, wiping his mouth. “Look here: left arm, an anchor for sailing the Atlantic. The other has a full-rigged Clipper. ‘Twas on such a fine vessel that I curved my way round Cape Horn.”

“You’ve been everywhere,” said Alpot with a hint of desperation in his voice. “I had barely been as far as Georgia before I set out on this tour.”

“Don’t be too jealous lad, you’ve plenty of time to catch up. Anyone would swap his voyages to have his youth back, ask any old salt aboard. Or go talk to any limping vet on the seafront who saw his legs blasted off in any one of those endless wars. Mind, though, I ain’t been everywhere. No, not yet. There’s one tat yet that’s missing. The square knot.”

“How do you earn that?”

“It’s just a little matter of sailing all the oceans of the world. I never got to the Arctic, and do you know, I don’t think I never will. Strewth I’ve seen the Southern Ocean well enough, where whales blow up a shining steam of ice, and penguins slide on the snow. But these days, my old bones couldn’t suffer that kind of chill.”

Making a clicking noise, Suffolk Leigh began rolling his sleeve back down, when Alpot saw a little shape just below the cloth. It was a tiny triangle.

“Hold on there,” he said. “What’s that? Another tattoo? A mermaid’s tail?” He added, showing his teeth, as white as scrimshaw.

To Alpot’s surprise, the older man flinched. Nevertheless, he pushed up his sleeve a moment to show one more mark. There was a point, and then a dagger which lead through a crimson heart. More faded than the others, this tattoo was also the most poorly worked.

“A sweetheart?” Asked Alpot.

“No, no, this one tells a sadder story than that. It’s to remember me old shipmate Stevie who signed up with me and died on our second voyage. Burial at sea, sewn up in his bedsheet. He was barely older than you, and he should be bent and withered like me. King Neptune had other ideas for him.”

Long though he wanted to ask for more, Alpot held his curiosity back. Finally, Suffolk sighed.

“Steven Tolley was his name. One day, he stubbed his ankle when we were on an island not too dissimilar to that one over yonder. Our first time in the tropics, and we didn’t know what evil hides behind the shining face of the sun. Thinking it were like back home, we gave it a wash and bandaged it up, and thought no more about it. T’were a tiny cut, no bigger than a peck from a pigeon. Stevie never showed it to anyone else.

‘First it was red and never would heal. Then it went yellow, a horrible kind of pus that filled that little hole like some never-emptying cut. In the end, it went black. The infection had spread too far. My old mate got a jab to the foot and it killed him stone dead, like a bullet to the heart. That’s what my last tattoo means, and no, I have no more.”

“I hope it never happens to anyone else,” said young Alpot. “It’s not a tattoo I’d want.”

“I don’t want to bear any more,” said Suffolk Leigh. “The memory of poor Stevie Tolley is more than enough for me.”

Alpot crossed his arms on his knees and rested his head on his hands.

“Do you know, I don’t think I’ll get inked at all.” He looked around to see if anyone was listening, and then continued in a quieter voice, “it’s the needle I don’t like.”

“Good decision, lad, less’n you get tossed overboard. You won’t be the first man on this boat to dodge the dirty sticker. I’ve seen tattooists beavering away in some gristly dens with fishbones and rat droppings on the floor. Stay away, stay away.” He paused. “It’s a good decision for your future an’ all.”

“Why is it a good decision?”

“Saints above, lad, don’t you know? The only others on this boat with no tattoos are the captain and the mates, though each one of them has navigated both of the capes. No, no ink on them, because officers don’t have tattoos. Stay wise, young ‘un and you’ll get to keep your head not just above water, but above the deck and all.”

The old man tapped his empty pipe against his teeth and chuckled slowly. Alpot wasn’t listening. He was staring up at the forecastle at the first mate. The officer’s arms were as clean as those of a statue as he stared out over the ocean.

“Don’t follow anyone else’s path in this life, lad,” said Suffolk at last. “Set no one’s course but your own.”

Just then, Alpot caught the first mate’s eye and heard his name shouted over from the forecastle. He got up and ran across the deck, leaving the old man alone to enjoy the shade while he sailed a while longer alone on the wide seas of memory.

Thanks to an old salt in preparing this yarn of shipboard life.

(c) Alastair Savage, 2013