If the Future Is a Traveller on his Way

An Extract from Thomas Rosenboom’s The New Man

The first steamship to honour Groningen with a visit was the English seagoing tug Selsey Bill; it entered via Delfzijl and steamed all the way along the narrow Damsterdiep canal to the city, where it was greeted by a cheering crowd. After nine days of accolade, the Selsey Bill got up steam and made ready to leave, but it then transpired that the water was nowhere wide enough for it to turn. Just as triumphant its entry had been was its exit ignominious: it was towed stern-first by three Groningen draught horses back to Delfzijl, through the entire Damsterdiep once more — seventeen nautical miles east-northeast — a seagoing tug lugged through the countryside. The shamefulness of it all must have been enormous, not only for the crew but for the people of Groningen, too; soon afterwards it was decided that the Damsterdiep was simply not up to it any more, that a new link had to be established with the sea port of Delfzijl.

It had become a quiet canal, the Damsterdiep; a couple of kilometres further south a second canal now ran, a better canal, the Eems Canal – with such a link Groningen itself had become a sea-port, and everything that still had anything to do with the Damsterdiep gave the impression of having been left behind – the villages, the businesses and, finally, the canal itself.
One of those businesses was the Bepol shipyard, one of those villages the hamlet Wirdum, already halfway to Delfzijl — only Appingedam, with its church, town hall and hotel, still lay in between, a couple of kilometres further up.
Wirdum consisted solely of one single-storey house, that of the shipyard; apart from that there was nothing except an unpretentious strip of buildings lining the road and the water which ran parallel, nothing but an obstacle above that long, empty line of the canal, that infinite space of town to sea, now without meaning, without a word or without even a letter. How powerful and eloquent, though, did the shipyard tower up out of that speechlessness, with that tall house, which, situated diagonally between the road and the water, thus formed an H, with the flowery language of Director Berend Bepol, and with the force with which the sheets were beaten into shape, the holes punched, the rivets riveted, the steel stretched — each clang an exclamation mark.
Those iron hammer blows were the sound that in 1912 hung above every shipyard of the Groningen shipbuilding industry. Construction took place outdoors, with wood nowhere any longer in use, only iron, for the coastal traffic on the Sound and the Belt, from Riga to Morocco — ever larger ships at ever larger shipyards: the ships no longer needed to be led through the narrow inner lock of Delfzijl to the open water; they could now travel directly to the wide outer lock — via the Eems Canal, and also from old Hoogezand, which, because of its good connection had become the new centre of shipbuilding — also seat of the respectable ‘t Hoogezand Shipping Association, which met every month in Hotel Martenshoek; to be able to build larger vessels, tens of shipyards had concentrated there, but even at the Eems Canal itself, still more advantageously situated, right at the end at Delfzijl, right in front of the outer lock, new industry had sprung up. There, for example, the renowned Terneis from Westerbroek had established his shipyard, while some had even come from the Damsterdiep — Berend Bepol had admittedly stayed behind there, along with his wife Agaat and his seventeen-year-old daughter Ilse, but what did that matter — as long as he was a member of ‘t Hoogezand Shipping Association, his shipyard prospered, and he himself had also continued to flourish from the moment he inherited it twelve years earlier?
While he still recalled his father as a shipyard boss who worked alongside the men, always wore clogs, with a tape measure round his neck and a hammer in his hand, he showed himself from the outset to be a managing director: he had new space added to the diagonal extension of the kitchen alongside the canal, which led to the house acquiring a low wing, installed an office there, with a typewriter and a portrait of his father, the founder of the firm, on the wall, and from that time on the firm was no longer run from the timbered floor but from the office, which had its own outer door, just like a kitchen, the kitchen next to it. There he sat with the contracts and the Merchant Shipping Act, while the economic boom took care of the rest — and so it transpired, due to a dearth of problems, that he gained an increasingly philosophical turn of mind, with an irrepressible urge to use figurative language; ever more frequently, too, he climbed the stairs in order, from the window of his high bedroom, to look out eastwards over the shipyard, which then lay like a teeming playground at his feet, wedged between the brick-paved road to Delfzijl on the left and the canal running parallel to it on the right, and screened off on all sides: to the left, the tarred shed and the smithy screened the premises off from the road (the house itself protected it against the west wind); to the right, it was first the wing, then the maintenance slipway and then the slipway for the new vessels that separated the yard from the canal, while a tangled hedge of willow limited the premises on the far side — behind that hedge lay Agaat’s vegetable garden and bleaching field, and behind them, beyond the property and removed from sight by yet more unruly willows, lay the little enclosed meadow that Bepol rented for the horse. On the other side of the canal there were also willows, but these were single willows, pollard willows, squat and lonely as men.
But before he took a look outside, Bepol, out of sheer amicableness, would always first glance at his face, full and characterised by good fortune and satisfaction, in the mirror above the narrow shelf — having been satisfied for years on end now, his satisfaction had finally set; once a passing mood it had become a facet of his character, a permanent feature, a principle: he believed in satisfaction, just as he believed in the future — only after that did he walk over to the window, over to the eternal racket from outside, that cloud of hammer blows that always hung over the shipyard, that hailstorm of bullets that, with the sound of a machine gun, discharged on the premises from sunrise to sunset, that constant though irregular barrage of sledge-hammers, ball-peen hammers, set-hammers and riveting-hammers on iron, sometimes softer and then suddenly wildly swelling once again, as if someone had caught sight of the enemy — there was such an intense, penetrating noise everywhere that it did not even increase when Bepol drew aside the curtain and opened the window.
He could see everything from this high vantage point without himself being seen, the huge swing shears and punch with which, obliquely beneath him, the plates were cut, the rivet holes pressed, or down to the right his office, next to the kitchen on the corner of the wing, often with its door still open; he could also look way above the wing out southwards into the distance, across all the farmlands, as far as the mist-clad avenue of poplars on the horizon (it was there the Eems Canal ran), although it sometimes happened on clear mornings that he at first could see nothing at all: then the sun shone too glaringly into his eyes, then the light glinted on the iron that lay scattered about everywhere, heaps of angle steel, rolls of strip-iron, the fiery-rust of the rolling-mill and the sheets on the slipway to prevent subsidence, and even the ground, which was strewn each evening with the cinders from the smithy and the portable forges to strengthen it — even the grey ground then assumed a metallic gleam, so that the whole shipyard was of iron, iron that did not diminish, as wood had formerly done, but intensified: in winter it seemed to be colder at the shipyard than elsewhere, in summer hotter, in rain wetter.
Dazzled, Bepol would stand there at the window-ledge for a few moments, listening motionlessly to that constantly clanging cacophony, among which, however, one clang would ring out distinctively from time to time. As soon as he could re-open his eyes, he mechanically looked in that direction to check what he had already checked so many times, and yes: it was always Niesten, whether he was knocking out the moulds in mid-shipyard or was guiding the rieting team over on the slipway; it was always Niesten’s hammer that was coming down just then with that particular accent; it was always his young foreman Niesten who struck harder than the others, which was why he always seemed to be closer as well…
Involuntarily, Bepol always recoiled slightly when his gaze lit on Niesten, just as involuntarily he then continued to watch him as he worked, hard and handsome as he looked, completely different from the others: he did not wear a beret or knitted headgear but a cap with a peak; not a boiler suit but in the winter a black climbing jacket and in the summer a loose shirt with broad braces that met between his shoulder blades, so that his trousers were hoisted up behind at one particular point, at the middle. And he always wore a cleaning-cloth round his neck as if it was a silk cravat. His leadership was just as tacitly assumed and exercised, with nothing more than his clear gaze and the authority of his hard body and hard work — he could do everything, controlled everything, knew every ship from bow to stern, even years later when it came in for maintenance, and was boss of the sheet metal workers; normal bosses indicated by putting a wet finger on the spot where the others were to strike; Niesten did so by spitting on it — a powerful though invisible thin jet — the spot suddenly glistened, that was all. Bepol never dared look for long if he came past, afraid that Niesten would suddenly turn round and see him, with those strange, light eyes of his that gleamed under the shadow of his peaked cap…
Satisfied from looking at Niesten, Bepol allowed his gaze to wander freely over the entire premises; he then saw beneath him the cranked-up punch spin round like a wheel of fortune, then behind it, sometimes veiled by the wisps of smoke from the portable forges, he saw the riveting team busy at work on the ship under construction, while close by eight men were throwing themselves against the spokes of the capstan to winch a visiting ship up the repair slipway. Once satisfied by all that work, he removed his gaze and now let it roam more freely in front of him, first taking in the gulls above Appingedam and then, now in utter contemplation, gazing into limitless space, on past Delfzijl, which he could not see from here except for the sweeping rays of the lighthouse along the welkin at night, — over Delfzijl and the estuary behind it, further still, as far as the sky above Germany; in actual fact, he was looking straight into the future that had already begun; he looked at it as he had probably formerly looked at a play in the theatre, full of abandonment and interest but without any need at all to take a part in it himself, and once while thus standing there gazing into the white distance he realised: two more businesses, Ilse’s marriage and his own succession — and then acceptance, for he had to stay on to the end, the future always came.
‘If the future is a traveller on his way, then I will lay my table for him…’ he humbly whispered, after which he had to hold on to the window ledge, groaning with philosophy.

From The New Man (De nieuwe man, 2003)
By Thomas Rosenboom
Translated by John Irons

First published in The Low Countries, 2004