My grandad was born with a caul – a strange, papery bonnet, the remains of the amniotic sac. In those days there was a widely held superstition among sailors that if you were born “in caul” you could never drown. I never met him but I suppose that if you were, as he was, a sailor at war, it was comforting to believe that you weren’t going to drown. Having survived the Battle of Jutland, he got married. He was late arriving for his ship, the HMS Hampshire, which sailed without him, and he was thrown into the Bridewell. All but 12 of the Hampshire’s 600 hands were lost, including Lord Kitchener. Maybe Grandad thought his caul – his luck – had saved him.
He got safely through two world wars. In the end he died in peacetime. His ship – the Cydonia – was blown into an unexploded mine off the Pembrokshire coast. He was the stoker. His epic, sweaty, hellish job was to keep the fires going. He wasn’t supposed to be on duty at the time. He was covering for someone else. He didn’t drown when the engines blew. He was boiled alive.
I lived with my grandmother – his wife – when I was small, in a little flat on Stanley Road near the docks in Liverpool. Apart from the odd excursion to the city centre (two stops away), I don’t remember her ever straying beyond the little network of streets that was her parish. Yet there was a glass cupboard in the corner of the parlour that was stuffed with the fine, untouchable things that Grandad had brought back from his voyages in the South China Sea or across the Atlantic. A pale tea service so delicate it seemed to tremble like a sea creature behind the glass, a chunk of coral, a shell with Psalm 107 burned into it and a varnished porcupine fish.
That’s about all I know about my grandad.
My father barely knew him either – he was at sea for most of Dad’s childhood and then he was dead. So Dad didn’t talk about him much. My grandma didn’t talk about anyone much. So I hardly ever gave my grandad a second thought. One day I was at a film festival doing press for a film I’d written. In the interval between interviews, it looked rude to pick up a book, so I noodled around on my phone and found a short story by Anton Chekhov that I had not read before called “Gusev”. Technologically, sociologically, geographically and emotionally I was a solar system distant from my grandma’s flat. But one paragraph in, for the first time in my life, I saw in my imagination Grandad. Everything about the story lead me to think of him.
Gusev is an orderly heading home to Russia in the sickbay of a tramp steamer. Talkative and feverish, he annoys one of the other passengers – Pavel Ivanitch – by worrying that the ship will be broken on the back of a big fish, or that the wind will “break its chains”. As he slips in and out of consciousness, he has visions of life at home. Heartbreakingly, these visions feature a pond – a domestic, manageable version of the sea. Eventually, he dies and his body is sewn up in sailcloth and tipped overboard. It splashes into the sea and the foam makes it look as though he is wrapped in lace. He disappears beneath the waves. Then Chekhov produces his amazing ending, following Gusev’s corpse as it sinks to the sea floor, past startled pilot fish and a curious shark.
My grandad’s corpse, like Gusev’s, would have rolled around on the bottom of the ocean. There’s also the fact Gusev is returning from a war and that he is dreaming of home, that he didn’t belong out there on the sea. On top of all the parallels, though, Gusev seems like a real person and this seems like a real incident. This happens so often when you’re reading Chekhov – that feeling you’re reading about something that really happened. How does he do this?
Chekhov was out and about in the world with his eyes open. In 1890 he spent three months trekking across Siberia to get to the penal colony at Sakhalin. On the way, he wrote extraordinary, vivid letters to his sister. He came back on a steamer and there were two passengers on board who were extremely ill. The character of Gusev has the kind of oddity you feel comes from observation. He dislikes Chinese people intensely and gets into trouble for beating up four of them. When Pavel Ivanitch asks him why, he says, “Oh nothing. They came into the yard so I hit them.” When he is dead, trussed up in the sailcloth, Chekhov describes him with a vivid but undignified phrase. He looks like a carrot or a radish, broad at the top and narrow at the bottom. And, of course, he dies – what could be more “real” than that? Chekhov was a doctor. It’s a serious matter when a doctor lets a person die, even if that person is fictional.
The landscape, too, is drawn from observation. In another of the Siberian letters he describes crossing Lake Baikal and looking down into its crystal-clear waters. The first time I read it, I felt a shock of delight: this must have been the inspiration for Gusev’s watery descent.
The extraordinary thing about any Chekhov story is that when you begin to read one, you have no idea where it’s going to end up. You can easily imagine the story that Maupassant, for instance, would have made of my grandad’s life. The Macbethy irony of his believing that just because you couldn’t drown you wouldn’t die at sea and then – ha ha, cruel fate – he’s boiled instead. He should have known! But for me the most arresting thing about his life was how utterly unpredictable its consequences were. If he hadn’t jumped ship that night, been prepared to be locked up for an extra night with his wife, I wouldn’t be here writing. I wouldn’t exist. Nor would my children, my siblings, my cousins. Dozens of people are only alive because of his tipsy whim.
“Gusev” is unpredictable in the way that life is. It starts with a kind of comedy routine between the ignorant Gusev and the superior Ivanitch but ends up with that soaring, sacramental prose poem. Writers who try to imitate Chekhov sometimes mistake this unpredictability for randomness, a trudging “realism”, or worse, “honesty”. But Chekhov isn’t a journalist or a memoirist. He began as a hack, writing skits and sketches. “Oh with what trash I began,” he wrote later. He can write anywhere – for instance, on a tramp steamer; about anything – for instance, a garrulous sick passenger. These are the things that being a hack teaches you. He also has a hack’s repertoire of tricks and techniques. Chekhov’s unpredictability doesn’t come from rejecting artifice and contrivance. It comes from being an absolute master of artifice and contrivance.
If you go back through the story you will see that the unexpected ending is perfectly set up. In Gusev’s nonsense about wind and chains and giant fish, in his remembered pond, the sea is always threatening to overwhelm the story. This is also true tonally. Gusev and Ivanitch are convincing individual characters but as they bicker, they move further and further apart until each comes to stand for a different view of life. Ivanitch dismisses Gusev’s chances of ever grasping the point of life. “Foolish, pitiful man,” he says, “you don’t understand anything.” Yet Gusev reaches out for understanding:
A vague urge disturbs him. He drinks water, but that isn’t it. He stretches towards the port-hole and breathes in the hot, dank air, but that isn’t it either. He tries to think of home and frost – and it still isn’t right.
Chekhov’s great tenderness is that his story seems to be reaching out for a shape and an ending, just as Gusev tries to reach out through his fever for a meaning. They’re in this together.
Then there’s the ending. In one sense it shows us Gusev as nothing but a piece of meat, dumped over the side, sinking to the bottom. But we’re also overwhelmed by the sense of the grandeur and beauty of the food chain, of what a magnificent thing meat is. It’s impossible to read that section without being pulled up short by how ridiculous we are – like a carrot or a radish – but also how beautiful – wrapped in lace. It describes life reduced to its components but it also recalls, inevitably, Psalm 107 – the psalm that was inscribed on my grandad’s shell.
“They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters; these see the works of the Lord, and his wonders in the deep.”
Frank Cottrell Boyce is a children’s author and screenwriter. He was the writer for the 2012 London Olympics opening ceremony This is an edited extract from “Morphologies: Short Story Writers on Short Story Writers”, published by Comma Press on 30 January (£9.99)