the true stories
It was a once in a lifetime chance. Me and Gordie were selected from hundreds to be allowed to work all day Saturday and Sunday for time and a half. That tallied up to $32 dollars per hour which was a tidy sum in The Seventies. If you factor for inflation, I haven't matched it yet in my life to date. I was broke and Gordie was saving up to visit his sister in Arizona.
We were employed by the Vancouver Shipyards and would have the whole yard to ourselves for the two days. I made two extra-big sandwiches and a giant Thermos of cafe nero. Avila, the guard let us in at the gate and we made our way to the pipe-fitters shack. From there we grabbed two bicycles and pedaled over to the tool shed.
We picked up an assortment of hand tools such as pipe wrenches, hammers, saws, chisels, hard hats, coveralls and head-lamps. We were going to be working in the dark. In fact we were going to be decommissioning an old ocean going barge. The kind you might see from a city beach, heading out to sea being towed by a monster deep sea tug.
This barge was a big one and the boss wanted all the salvageable fittings removed and all the scrap metal set aside before she was cut up or scuttled. Sounded easy enough to us on Friday afternoon. Looked a bit different on Saturday morning at six AM when we stood in front of the wreck in the chill gray morning.
“Well, uf we kin fugger oot hae ta gut unside, that's huf the buttle,” said Gordie.
I rolled a smoke and walked up and down the wharf. I jumped across the small gap of water and walked up and down the filthy rusty deck. Gordie piled the tools and gear from our bikes onto the hulk. Soon we both were aboard and tugging on our coveralls. Now we searched in earnest for what it was we were to remove. Presently Gordie, who had grown up on the River Clyde, found the hatch.
“Here we go, Mick!”
He was twisting a rusty iron wheel like the kind on a submarine hatch. It turned a quarter turn and squealed to a halt.
“Guv me a hand wi thus butch, she's a titcht one.”
We both applied our force to the stubborn wheel and after far too long and some hammer blows, we had it open and thrown wide. The stench was overpowering. It was dark as the Black Hole Of Calcutta and odd dripping sounds percolated up with the noxious fumes.
“Ut wid pit ye aff yer oats, would it no?”
“That would knock a buzzard off a shit-wagon,” I said.
“Aye, 'twood. I reckon thut's hae they talk in Aree-Zoona, no?”
“Ma suster is luvin there and I'm tae go and vusit soon as I earn ma fare.”
We shone a flashlight into the gloom. We shone both flashlights into the gloom. The light penetrated only a few yards before being extinguished. Gordie dropped a coin into the hole. After a moment we heard it plop.
“Richt! Rig yer licht and doon we gae.”
There was a greasy ladder made of steel leading down to the bilge. We descended in the cheerful glow of our head-lights. Once we were within a few feet of the liquid, we could tell that we were already several meters under the water-line. Gordie was only about five feet tall but a brave young man of good stock. He held onto the ladder and jumped off the last dry rung.
He had about four inches of free-board left on his rubber boots and giggled with glee.
“OK, Mick. Up ye gae, take the busket aff one o the bikes and rope it doon wi the tools, eh?”
I gladly went aloft, and prepared our basket of tools, rigged a rope and lowered the hoard slowly down to Gordie.
“Got 'er. Brulliant! Nae, gut doon here wi me ye bustard.”
I descended again into the murk and stepped off the ladder. Gordie had perched the tool basket on a huge valve handle. It was the main sea-cock which if opened would flood and sink the vessel in a matter of moments. We walked the length and breadth of our new work-space. We discovered that we had to be within a few feet of any part that we wished to work on.
The bilge itself was like India ink. It was a special liquid, not oil, not diesel, not sea water but an organic amalgam of all three. It stank and it clung to anything it touched. The kind of stench that crawls up into your nostrils, parks in your throat and commences to burp.
After surveying the barge, we both decided it would be prudent not to smoke in the flammable vapors, so we went top-side for a puff and a few gulps of coffee and fresh air. The sun was up but well hidden behind a thick bank of fog. Gordie looked at his watch and started to laugh.
“What's so funny?”
“We uv ulruddy earned thurty-foor dollars Mick. Ut's brilliant!”
This news cheered me up and soon we were back down the ladder and ready to give her.
Our orders were simple. Remove everything that was removable and break off what wouldn't budge.
We were allowed to go till 5 PM and that is what we did. We worked in bursts of a hour or so and scampered up top to breath and smoke. When lunch came, neither of us could stomach anything but coffee. We were burping the fumes ourselves. From time to time one of us would haul up a basket of fittings to lay on deck. There like an archeologists table at a dig site were displayed an array of valves, fittings, handles and various fixtures of steel, iron and brass.
About one o clock we heard it. An eerie, long, drawn out “Kreeeeeeeet. Klik-Kreeeeet-Tikk-Pop-Kreeeeeeeet!
It first sounded like the ASDIC used by WWII destroyers when searching out submerged U-boats. Like a handful of pebbles thrown against the hull from under water. It resonated in our chamber and we felt it as well as heard it. We both snapped into action. Was the old tub breaking up? We looked to the valves that communicated with the sea outside. They all checked out OK.
“What the hell was that?”
“I'll be uskin ye the same, Mick.”
We sloshed through the miasma toward each other and closer to the ladder. We peered up into the hatch. It was a lousy dark day up there and the circle of sky only added to our apprehension. We decided to get with it and shake it off. I began sledge hammering a stubborn flange.
“Careful o sparks doon here Mick, no?”
“Best as I can ,Gordie.”
This time it was louder.
This utterance was faint and seemed to be coming from another direction. I looked at Gordie. He stood like a man backed against a cliff watching a herd of buffaloes coming his way.
“What in the precious hell could that possibly be?,” I inquired.
After a meaningful pause and with regret in his voice, Gordie said, “Mick, I fugger ut's a Kelpie.”
“A Kelpie? What's that?”
“A water spurit. Micht be twa by the soond o ut.”
“Are they friendly?”
“A Kelpie kin gae twa roads. Save yer life or snatch oop yer soul.”
“Any roads, as long as we're no sinkin' yet, we butter gae ahead wi oor werk.”
Continue, we did. Each time we went aloft, it was nastier outside and we scanned the Inlet for any sign of the tell-tale horse shape of the Kelpie, to no avail. Through the balance of the day the sounds got farther away and eventually we decided that we had been spared. By four thirty we climbed out and set off for the gate.
I went home and tried to soak off the stench in a hot tub of water. It didn't work and I had to sleep on the living room floor so as not to ruin the bed or couch. My wife was sympathetic but had a delicate stomach which precluded her coming within three feet of me.
Next morning, I used an old Viking recipe I learned from my step-father. I took my Thermos and poured in some black coffee. Then I dropped a dime into it. I next poured Old Bushmill's into this until I could see the dime. Hopefully this would quell the nausea and make me able to chew on a few sandwiches at lunch. Just before I left my apartment, I looked up Kelpie in my dictionary. There it was, a water spirit in Scottish folklore. Folklore had to based on something I reckoned.
Gordie was at the gate when I got there and Avila let us in. We went straight to the hull where we had left out tools last day.
“I dreamed o the Kelpie last nicht, Mick. I fugger she'll be buck.”
We set to like nobody's business partly from the huge amount of work yet to be done by nightfall and partly in an attempt to forget the Kelpie. Every time we thought we were just about to get on the short-side, we discovered more pipes and valves that seemed to have grown overnight. Probably the magic wrought by the water witch. By lunch we were both fairly intoxicated by a combination of our special coffees and the fumes.
We decided to go below and have one last epic go at it. Everything down to the bilge that wasn't under the water would be unscrewed, busted, sawed, chiseled and laying on top by dark. Kelpie or no.
To cheer us up, Gordie began singing Glaswegian ribald songs, “When I was a lass o fufteen, I hud a loovly qum. I'd stund before me murror and pit me fingur un. Noo I'm twunty-one und me qum has lost ut's charm. I kin stull pit me fingur un, und haff me bleddy arm!”
I countered in Spanish, “Solomon siendo tan sabio, te pregutas a su mujer, Donde que deran los huevos cuando vamos a cojer? La mujer, que era una guera, contesta con disimulo, Los huevos que dan afuera, dandole golpes al culo!”
“I but ye learned that un Aree-Zoona, no? Ma suster luvs there un the dussurt.”
Before I could answer we received a blast from the Kelpies. There were two for sure and they were having a wizard's dialogue. The sound was so loud we could see ripples running through the inky bilge around our boots. The entire hull vibrated. This time we froze. After long anxious moments we heard a new more threatening sound. A hellish blast like a steam valve bursting. This sound came from above through the hatch and was very close. Only our ears and noses retained any colour. That was the whiskey. We stood fast, blanched and stalwartly awaiting what ever shape the fiends took on. As we gripped our big wrenches and made the sign of the cross the sound grew intolerably loud and quickly, blessedly, faded as rapidly as it had come.
“I think they're gone for good now.”
“Mick, let's funush oop thus tub and gut hame und dry, eh?”
We summoned the last of our energies and had the hull stripped by three o clock. We agreed it would be best to keep our visitation by The Kelpies to ourselves, so we didn't spook the other men. I was allowed to tell my wife, however and Gordie was allowed to tell his sister in Arizona. We shook hands at the gate and went our ways.
As I lay in a tub of hot water, baking soda, salt, lemon juice and some cedar sprigs to counter the bilge smell and the Kelpie magic, I heard my young wife calling me from the living room.
“Michael, you'll never guess what's on the news. Two killer whales swam in under the Lions Gate Bridge on Saturday morning and got lost. They went all the way up to Indian Arm before turning around and finding their way back out Burrard Inlet to the sea. They just got clear today at about one o clock.”
Copyright © 2019 by Michael A. Hawes. All Rights Reserved.
Michael Hawes was born in Texas, raised in Louisiana and lives in British Columbia.