Generally I don’t believe in ghosts but in ‘38 my brother and I stowed away on a British battle cruiser to escape the Nazis. We were good workers so the Brits kept us on as crew but because we had no papers it was never safe to leave the ocean. I changed ships four times during that war but never set foot on land. Solly was killed in a submarine attack in ‘41 but I lived almost seven years at sea so the first night I slept on land was difficult. I kept waking up thinking something terrible had happened because I couldn’t feel the vibration of the engine or the ocean’s swell.
I’d taken a bed for one night in a boarding house and my room was on the floor above a flat held by an old man who died soon after dark. The air was warm so our windows were all open and I heard his wife, then the doctor, and then all the others came around to mourn him.
One young woman sounded especially upset. I’ll never forget her cries. Reminded me of my sisters. And my mother. Murdered in the camps. I think it was the first time I’d let myself think about my family in all those years I’d been at away.
That was when I looked out a little window on the riverside and saw a ship was in flames. At the time I didn’t think anything strange was happening except that the sails were so dark they looked to have been woven out of charcoal.
A light westerly blew the smoke away from me so I saw the flames and could occasionally hear crackling from the burning wood but never smelled a thing. For several hours I watched this ship burn until the fog grew thick and I could no longer see her through the haze.
When I looked out in the morning only small boats were cruising over the spot where hulk must have gone down. While paying for my lodging I passed a comment to the landlord about the two deaths in the night but he knew only of the old man and nothing about a brig still in half-sail burning up nearly at his doorstep. Stranger still, no one on the whole street had seen the demise of what must have been worm eaten hull. Some even said it was impossible because no such big sailing ship had put in there since Queen Victoria’s time. Another fellow was sure she would not have been sunk on that spot because the channel is too shallow. So I put all thought of that brig out of my mind as I had learned to do the war.
This year my granddaughter dragged me to your Tate Museum where I saw a painting of that very same brig burning just as I had seen it almost forty years before. Even the smoke was blowing off in the same direction. The guide said that this picture was painted in 1842 and the ship didn’t really burn up but was only made to look that way by the painter who had been a friend of a man who died aboard a similar kind of ship and had been put to rest in the sea.
This made me wonder how I could see something that wasn’t there and this painter could see something that wasn’t there and what we saw would be the very same ship, the same black sails, the same shadow on the sea, same fiery hull. Identical as if in 1841 that painter had been standing in my shoes in 1945.