Old Charlie

by Sam Lelliott
© 2013
Your comments are appreciated.

In the three years up to 1956 Old Charlie seemed part of the furniture at Shoreham Port. Often seen by locals and visitors alike, he would spend his days rain or shine wandering in and around the port with his old pushbike chatting from time to time with young and old.

Few people had long term time for old Charlie but one person in particular always took the time to be his friend and mentor. Bert Ellis didn't have very much, he had done his national service in the army and had missed the recall of some reservists for the Suez crisis. What he did have, he often shared with old Charlie, sometimes his sandwiches or a cup of tea, some toffees or rarely chocolate. Charlie, with his long distinctive flowing beard and Bert were often seen together rain or shine. Bert, a pipe smoker, worked at the Port, a labourer, painting or cleaning and whatever else needed his attention. He had a small space in one of the port buildings where in very wet or cold days old Charlie would shelter in the warm. Port officials turned a blind eye to this rule bending, Bert having served them well since leaving school at 15.

Now it has to be explained that old Charlie was simply a man of the road. He never touched alcohol. He had over the years travelled the length and breadth of England. Nobody knew how old he was and perhaps even Charlie didn't know. He had a wisdom few people possessed, not academic wisdom but the wisdom of life. Just one example was a day when Bert confessed he had a problem with his sleeping. Charlie gave him the name of an herb and sure enough it worked, no more sleepless nights. How he knew all such stuff nobody ever found out, but most guessed it was that he was a near genius. He was never ill, swam in the sea every day except on the really cold days.

Money was never a problem to him, he never stole from anyone yet somehow he got by. His clothes were mostly given to him from well wishers and charity shops. His hair, like his beard, was never cut in his time in the Shoreham Port area. His cycle was rusty and he was never seen riding it. He did appear to have one bit of wealth though and he wore it round his neck. It was a very large link chain with a large medallion attached to it. It looked like gold but could have been another metal. To Bert however there was something special about old Charlie, he could never put his finger on it he just seemed to know.

Part 2

......And so it was a complete mystery to everyone when on the 25th of November 1956 old Charlie was missing. Searches were carried out by port workers, the public and police. His disappearance hit the Evening Argos headlines for 4 nights, yet no information or trace of Charlie was found. Bert was decidedly upset by the old man's disappearance. Searches were carried out in all outbuildings, nooks and crannies throughout the whole Port complex. Still nothing was found of Charlie. After three weeks the search was called off and there appeared stories of Charlie being seen in towns and cities all over the country yet none proved to be true. There was talk of dragging the harbour at one stage, but cost stalled that idea and it was never mentioned again. All that happened was that each ten years an article appeared in the Argos in the form of a small one paragraph memorial.

Time marched on, days moved into weeks, weeks into months and months into years. Bert continued to work on the Port and finally made foreman, a job he held until his retirement. Through the years he often thought of Old Charlie. Now and again the old boys name came up in conversation, but mostly he was forgotten.

Bert and his wife had a son in 1958 and Bert named him Charlie after the old man and a Daughter two years later. His wife named her Charlene as yet another tribute to Bert's old friend. Each presented Bert and his wife with grandchildren and subsequently they produced grandchildren. By the time Bert retired in the year 1998 he had been blessed with five of them, four boys and three girls, the latest one was a boy named Simon, born in August of that year. He turned out to be Bert's favourite, not by too much because Bert and his wife loved then all dearly. If he asked himself he would likely reason it to be that Simon was the only one that would carry on the Ellis name being now the only boy from the male line. Bert watched him grow and take his first steps while he was babysitting him. The years progressed and as Simon reached six years old, Bert started to tell him stories about Old Charlie. By the time he was eight, he knew all there was to know about old Charlie and his great granddad.

Bert asked, and got permission to take Simon on a visit to the Port. Although Simon, like thousands of people, had used the locks to cross the harbour to the sea shore, he had never seen the real workings of the port and was very excited about the tour. They had to get a special hard hat to fit him on his special visit. He was met at the offices by Mr Williams who insisted he be called Jack, which set Simon's nerves at ease. Jack first took them to the lock operation that let the boats and ships into and out from the harbour basin. They stayed there while a regular visitor "The Sand Weaver" came in with its load of sand for the ballast trade through the big lock and three fishing boats came back from their fishing grounds. From high up in the operations tower Simon waved to the fishermen as the water rose up in the lock to the level of the internal basin. One, who remembered Bert from his working days found them a nice big bass from his catch and gave it to them. From there the tour took them through to the engineering shed where the welder was cutting a large piece of metal plate to do a repair elsewhere on the port. Then they went on to the pump house that was used to get the masses of water needed in and out of the main lock. Simon was dwarfed by the big engines and he wasn't too unhappy to get outside again.

During the day they toured all of the massive harbour from end to end even being able to visit all the large and small companies operating their businesses on both south and north sides. They even got a ride on the tug 'Adurni' used to level the bumps in the sand caused by the movement of the sea.

There was just one strange part of the trip and that was when they visited the space that was Bert's domain when he worked at the port. Simon felt a strange feeling as if something was close to him that he couldn't see. The feeling left him as soon as they moved on and he thought no more of it.

At the end of the tour Bert and Simon thanked Jack Williams for his time and such an interesting tour as, even though Bert had worked there for all those years he never saw all of the port and what its full operations were. They thought that would be the end of the tour but unknown to them a lot of the workers, who knew Bert in his work days, had got together and set up a small party for them in one of the offices. It was after 7pm when they were finally able to leave and go home, Simon proudly wearing the specially made 'Shoreham Port' jacket that the staff had presented to him.

Simon would never ever forget that day and years later he would tell his son about that very special day out with great, great granddad Bert.

Part 3

It was two years after that and Bert was suffering badly with his right hip barely able to walk. Simon helped all he could and it saddened him to see Gramps like he was. He would have to wait over a year for an operation for a new hip to replace his worn out one. Yet if they had the money he could get it done in a week. Bert had his pension and was not poor, but certainly didn't have the sort of money to pay for a private operation. The family were also frustrated as they could not help and Bert probably would not have let them anyway being the proud individual he was. Bert was no longer able to drive his car so getting out and about was curtailed. This upset him as well because he used to like to take Simon fishing with his friend Jason. That was why on that cold misty November morning Simon and Jason walked down to their favourite spot to fish opposite the power station. They couldn't see much as they set up their tackle hoping to catch some eels for Bert who loved them. They set up lines with multiple hooks and threw them out into the harbour basin. It was really freezing that morning and just about getting light. The boys, to get warm started to jog about and, as boys do, they started to wrestle each other. They never saw the danger and before they knew it Simon had slipped and fallen into the murky water. Jason panicked as neither of them could swim. Simon disappeared under the water. Jason could not see him, he tried not to panic and keep a cool head. All he could do was to rush to the nearest house and get help. Jason ran as fast as he could, up the steps and across the main road. There was a light on in one house and he rang the bell. A lady answered and the weeping Jason blurted out that his friend Simon had fallen in the water and he couldn't swim. The lady called and her husband came to the door. His wife explained and the man rushed with Jason to where Simon had fallen in.

Simon felt the cold surround him as he sank down deeper into the water. He held his breath as long as he could but in the end he let it out and as nature will, he breathed in. He felt himself sinking deeper and then something was lifting him up to the surface. He hit the surface and coughed out the water and took a deep, deep breath sucking in the much needed air. Something pushed him onto the bank and out of the water. He thought he was hallucinating as he saw standing over him. All he saw was an old man's face with a long grey beard. "You're safe Simon. Tell Bert that he always looks after his friends." With that said he put something over Simon's head and was gone.

Jason arrived back with help, only to find Simon wet but safe. They hugged each other and cried and cried. The man went back to his house and phoned for an ambulance.

Three hours later Simon and Jason were back home and Bert was consoling them when Simon told him what had happened. It was Old Charlie Gramps, and taking off the necklace gave it to Bert. "This is for your hip gramps." Tears were shed all round for 'Old Charlie' that day and every year Bert, Simon and Jason would walk down and pay their tribute to a friend.

The end

Please let me know your thoughts on the story. I love comments, they keep me going.

Home Page