For want of a nail…This is where Captain Cook came to grief. It seems that he refused to give any more nails to the native people. They took umbrage and killed him. There was a swordsman by his side, Molesworth Phillips, from Swords in County Dublin, a Royal Marine. Even Molesworth couldn’t save the great navigator. This small piece of Hawaii is British territory in perpetuity, in honour of the captain. Her Majesty could surely spare the man a flagpole and a flag. Maybe, of course, the captain was trying to bring alien species into the island. They are very strict: ‘Are you carrying any snails or reptiles, Sir?’ Americans can use ‘Sir’ like a searchlight. ‘Step away from the car, Sir’ You know that you are nailed when you hear ‘Sir’. My brother in law was nabbed trying to bring Clonakilty black pudding to Florida. ‘Step away from the sausages, Sir.’ He’s not strictly my brother in law. There are no smugglers on my side of the family.
Nails are precious things. I asked my neighbour, Milo if he had a couple of nails to spare. ‘Come into my nailery,’ he said expansively ‘and I’ll see what I can do.’ He had a drawer filled with dust and rusty nails. There were oval wire and round ones of many different sizes, straight and bent. He had a little boat with a put-put outboard motor. It was held together by rusty nails. ‘Should you not use copper?’ I asked out of my ignorance. He looked at me pityingly, a landlubber, steeped in ignorance. ‘Nothing holds like a rusty nail.’ The nails made attractive, blue/grey patches on the wood. We went out to Saint Patrick’s Island , one summer evening. There was a big swell running. Put-put-put went the motor. Clang-clang-clang went my heartbeat. We lost sight of the horizon in every trough. We teetered on the crest of every wave. I looked longingly towards the distant land, the white flicker of surf and home, measuring the distance. I was the better swimmer. Milo whistled, at ease in his natural element.
On another occasion we came around The Baily in a Fastnet 34. Fastnet! Get it? Hurricane? Major yachting disaster? Simon le Bon’s keel snapping off? The bolts sheered off under the force of the waves. Should have used rusty nails. We were in a lumpy sea, with an easterly wind. I drew Milo’s attention to these coincidences, as the yacht dropped from a dizzying height, into a swirling abyss. ‘Huh,’ he muttered, intrigued and went below to put on the kettle. We were heading for a mark, with several other towering yachts converging on our course. I drew his attention to the situation. ‘Luffing rights,’ he remarked. Of course. Why didn’t I think of luffing rights? ‘Luffing rights,’ he called to the rival skippers. They turned away. It’s a phrase I keep in reserve for real emergencies.
Strangely for the Hawaiians, who had no concept of metallurgy, (hence the craving for nails) they host the Ironman World Championships every year.We went there to cheer on our son, Alan. He is a non-stop athlete. He did spectacularly well and continues to do so. No sign of rust there. We did the tourist things, like reef snorkeling at Captain Cook’s monument. When you put your head under the water, you could hear parrot fish, crunching at the coral. Apparently this is their sole source of food. Crrrunnnch-crrrunnnch all day and all night, nibbling the island away. Fortunately the island is constantly re-built by the volcano. The Hawaiians were having a day off, when they named this island. It is the biggest of all the Hawaiian Islands. They called it Big Island. Our daughter once lived on Avenue Road in Acton. Adam called flies flies because they…. Must try harder.
The parrot fish are down there somewhere, crunching away. The reef falls away into vertiginous depths. They talk of rapture of the deep, but that is brought on by gas. There is a rapture brought on by the strange colours, the sense of weightlessness, the myriads of fish, the story of the people and their relationship with the ocean. History. I decided to swim over and pay my respects to Captain Cook and the Swords man. I clambered out onto the reef. A voice, magnified by a loud-hailer called out: ‘Sir. You are forbidden to stand on the reef.’ It was the skipper of our ‘rib’ an intimidating young American woman. I slithered back into the water like a hunted cousteau and merged with the other flotsam. I imagined that I could hear the parrot fish tut-tutting, the hypocrites.
I should have shouted ‘luffing rights.’ I could have pointed to the activities of the parrot fish. It was pointed out to me afterwards that, as a citizen of the European Union and pursuant to the Treaty of Rome, The Schengen Agreement, the Maastricht Treaty, the Single European Act, ratified by all the member nations, guaranteeing freedom of movement et cetera and cetera, I am entitled, as an Irish and E.U. citizen, to enter Britain or any other E.U. country, without let or hindrance. I could have, but I wasn’t carrying any copies of the relevant treaties at the time. I was wearing Speedos, flippers and a face mask. If I had been carrying weighty copies of the treaties in my Speedos, I would have incurred even more suspicion from our imperious skipper.
In the Polynesian myths, the world stands on a pillar which stands on the back of a great turtle. It’s an analogy for islands that perch on top of pillars of volcanic rock. The coral grows only in the daylight near the top. The turtle moves from time to time. It’s a precarious world. I watched much of the race while perched on top of a plastic wheelie bin, with three or four other spectators. It was an excellent vantage point, until the lid began to soften in the heat and sag under our weight. I expected to be plunged ignominiously into the depths of the bin. I decided to get down. My right leg was dead from cramp. I fell to earth and hobbled around, trying to get back some circulation. It’s not funny but it makes you laugh all the same. Pins and needles. Like rapture of the deep only drier. Alan was doing fine. It was all bloody fine for him. He had trained for it; pumping iron, iron enriched food supplements or whatever.
Captain Cook was dispatched with a wooden club or spear, probably ironwood. Milo’s boat was shattered on the beach in a sudden storm. The nails gave up the ghost. My neighbour lost one of his good shoes in attempting to rescue it. It is probably still bobbing around the Hebrides or’ the still-vexed Bermoothes,’ the shoe, not the boat. John Kingston’s legendary hardware shop had the world’s greatest nailery. You could buy one or a bucket full. The shop exploded one night, in a most astonishing conflagration of paint, timber, gas cylinders, bitumen, roofing felt, oil, insecticides, fertilisers, wall-paper, glue, (even one called No-More-Nails), tools, nuts, bolts and anything you could think of. John had it all. It laid a heavy swag of smoke across the strand and all the way across the sea to the horizon and Saint Patrick’s Island, where Milo sailed his little boat. He was a great mariner who would never refuse a person a nail or a favour.
Even without Saint Patrick, there are no snakes in Hawaii. No Sir. I drive to Swords nowadays to buy nails.
When I nibble shortbread biscuits, I hear the parrot fish.