Thomas Owen Jones (1875-1941), also known as Gwynfor, was a playwright, actor, producer and broadcaster, and the author of a volume of short stories which reflect the nautical heritage of his native town, Pwllheli, and neighbouring Caernarfon. In this story, as in the criticism of Frank O’Connor, the same figure evolves from outsider, eccentric and trickster, to hero struggling against a storm. The story is set in Caernarfon, where Gwynfor himself was well known as a raconteur, and reflects the difficult sailing conditions in the Irish Sea and the Menai Straits.
Driftwood: a short story by Thomas Owen Jones
Translated by Rob Mimpriss
Captain Davies of the Unity was sitting on a bench in the shade of the castle, and since I had a whole afternoon of leisure, I approached him. I knew that if I struck the right note, I could spend a cheerful afternoon as he told his stories about the sea, and about the strange characters who had lived in the town.
‘Do you have a story to tell me today, Captain?’
‘Yes, a great many, my lad, and this is one that came to my mind just before you came in view. You see that mast there?’ he said, pointing. ‘It came here as driftwood after a terrible storm about ten years ago, and now I look at it, I remember an old fellow who landed in this town when I was a young lad. Wil Driftwood, his name was — everyone in this town had a nickname in the old days. Are you listening?’ he asked abruptly, as his habit was in conversation.
‘Yes, yes,’ I said. ‘Carry on.’
‘Well, then. Wil Driftwood was what everyone called him, and he was a very odd creature, old Wil. No one knew what his full name was, or what town or county he’d come from, which was how he came by the name “Driftwood,” because like a piece of driftwood he had simply drifted in.
‘I remember the morning he landed as though it were yesterday. How long has it been? Let me see, it was half a century last June, the same year — the very same month — that the family at the Royal Oak launched their ship, the Jane and Margaret.
‘Oh, yes. As I was saying… He arrived in town on a three-masted schooner, built like a yacht. The schooner didn’t dock at the quay, but anchored in the middle of the estuary. After the exciseman had been, I heard she flew under a foreign flag, with people of every nation — Irishman, Scots, Englishmen, and other foreigners — on her decks. I heard a rumour she carried guns, and I cannot understand to this day why it is she wasn’t turned away. The Captain must have fooled the excise man, or bribed him. It was easy enough to buy the authorities in those days.
‘Are you listening? Anyway, some of the crew came ashore to buy coal and provisions, or to feel dry land beneath their feet, and among the landing party was a Welshman. Of course everybody was on his case, but for all that they pumped him, nothing came out: he was as dumb as a statue. The schooner was named in some foreign jargon, and although there were captains among us who had traded all over the world, none of them could tell us what language it was. Three days later she set sail. After she cleared the estuary, who was seen strolling at leisure along the quay but the Welshman, and when he was asked how he had missed his ship, he said he hadn’t missed her; he’d let her go. There’s no doubt to this day she was a smuggler, with an ugly history behind her. But the Welshman stayed in town for the rest of his life, and while he was here I kept his secrets as close as a locked sea chest. But isn’t it strange, how the sight of something can prick a man’s memory?’
‘So you reckon the ship was a smuggler?’ I asked.
‘Reckon? There’s no doubt about it, lad, and many’s the time old Driftwood proved he knew a thing or two about smuggling — sometimes, after a dram of grog or rum or brandy, he’d let out the odd story or two. Of course there was plenty of it going on at the time, until those accursed steamers put a stop to it.’
‘What happened to Wil after that, Captain?’
‘He settled down here, of course. He sailed pretty frequently with the ships of the port here, and from the first, the captains were happy to hire him: he was a first-rate seaman. Something funny happened once. I was First Mate on the Countess of Arfon under Captain Evans, and Wil was sailing with us before the mast. That was a lovely ship… One Saturday afternoon we arrived outside the Bar. After the tide rose we tacked through the gap and up the straits. Back in those days, it was no small thing in this town to see a tall ship arriving home, because the crew, from cook to captain, would have grown up here or from one of the villages nearby. There would be hundreds of people waiting for us on the quay, and we feeling ourselves as boys. This very minute I can see her, sailing in as evening falls, and the sun setting behind her sails. Oh, but that is a sight, my lad! And then, I hear the cry, ‘Let go!’ and the ship drops anchor, and the hundreds of people on the quay let out a great ‘Hurrah!’ And after a pause, we let down the boat from her side.
‘Are you listening? Of course the captain was the first on shore, but who do you think came with him? It was Will Driftwood. People were astonished at the sight of him — during just one voyage he had grown fat. He was as sleek as a Christmas calf. He had left port as a skinny as a piece of yarn, with not an ounce of flesh on him, and now he walked slowly and clumsily, as though he could barely put one foot in front of the other. There was nothing of the old Wil about him now, except his face, which was as skinny as ever. He shook hands with everyone and smiled pleasantly, but he said little. Within a week he had lost most of his fat, and before the end of a fortnight, he was as thin as he’d ever been, and no one ever heard him complain.’
‘So what had happened to him, Captain? Was it some tropical fever, then?’
‘I could hardly believe it myself, but I’ll tell you. The Captain had bought some rolls of satin in Roscoff, France, and not for the life of him could he think how to get them ashore without paying duty. We were in the offing when he called me and Wil to his cabin to discuss the matter. ‘I know what we’ll do, Captain,’ said Wil, and he began to strip himself bare. ‘Now, Captain, bandage me up,’ he said, and so we wrapped him up in the satin, layer after layer until he was fat as a pig. And within a few weeks, the satin had been turned into the grandest gowns you ever saw by the Captain’s daughters and their friends. Oh, yes, Wil knew every trick in the book, and I never saw anyone who could match him for pluck. He’d give anything a go. You might not believe it, but it’s as true as the Pater Noster — Wil sailed the old Vivid, a ketch of forty tonnes, single-handed from Liverpool to Runcorn and back, with only his cat for company. And there weren’t any mishaps until the last time, which is a funny story itself.’
‘What happened, Captain?’
‘You’re not getting tired, are you?’
‘No, no, carry on. I want to hear everything about Wil.’
‘Well, the whole game nearly came to an end that time. He was on his way to Runcorn with a cargo of slate, and after passing Point of Ayr, and sailing before the wind through the mouth of the Dee, there was a terrible crash in the hold, and in the wink of an eye the Vivid was sinking like lead. The slate must have pierced the hull, which was old enough. Wil scampered like a squirrel to the top of the mast. As luck would have it, he was in the shallows by one of the banks, and someone saw her sinking. Soon the Point of Ayr lifeboat was hailing him as it drew alongside. “Where are the rest of your crew, Captain?” called the coxswain. “All drownded, sir,” replied Wil at once.
‘He was taken ashore, and for a whole week the old boy was fussed over and shown kindness and sympathy as the only survivor of his poor crew. For several years after that he sailed for one or other of the captains in Chester until he bought his own ship and lost his life. Are you still listening?’
‘How did that happen, Captain?’
‘Oh, he left the same way he had come, and no one knew where he went, except that he was somewhere out on the cold sea. He’d found the money to buy a small ketch that was on the blocks at Dafydd William’s yard being scraped and caulked. She was named the Prosperity, but Wil changed her name to Crest of the Wave. There’s no luck in changing a ship’s name, you know, even though when he spoke of her he called her the Billows. It was early March, when Wil was due to start on a voyage — I remember it well, my lad. Are you listening? He spent the morning before he was due to sail in a state of doubt because a crosswind was blowing. He paced back and forth from the smithy to the end of the quay, scowling at the sea and grumbling. “The wind isn’t going to change, is it?” he said. “But I’ll set sail in the teeth of a gale if I must.”
He set out from the quay on the afternoon tide. His friends had tried to stop him from going; in weather like that there was no chance he’d get as far as the Bar. “If I make it across the Bar, I can weather it,” he said. And so he set out for open water, sailing single-handed. It was hard sailing, even on the straits, tacking back and forth without much progress, except as the tide carried him out. He didn’t have it in him to give up. Well now, he reached open sea, and tacked suddenly past the Point, and that was the last time anyone saw him, or the Billows.’
‘Well, well. And do you think he made it across the Bar, Captain?’
‘Who knows? A bit of driftwood turned up on the other side, bearing the name Crest… But the rest was illegible, so who can say which ship it was? Are you listening…?’