The first chapter of an unfinished novel... let's see what comes of it!
Chapter 1. The Slipway
It was an unseasonably cold morning as they walked down the slipway to the Gray Seal, the small tender vessel that would take them out to the buoy. Irish weather could be unpredictable at the best of times, but the warning issued the previous evening about an approaching hurricane due the following day had left Tony in two minds about the trip they were about to take. Although the hurricane was a cause for concern, the projected path for it that had been announced by the weather people would take it over the south of England, over Cornwall and in to Bristol and the West Country, maybe reaching as far north as Wales, but more likely to be well south of where they were going. On the other hand, he knew he was in the hands of capable seamen, who had studied the latest information that morning before deciding to go ahead with today's maintenance trip, and Tony also knew he would never get the chance to go on an offshore trip again during the short time he was to be in the Lighthouse Depot.
He had landed this job during his third year in college, after the careers officer at the college had selected four students from his engineering class to be interviewed by the engineering manager of the depot. The four of them had apparently been chosen because they all lived reasonably nearby to the depot. The Commissioners of Irish Lights, the organisation responsible for maintaining all the lighthouses and other aids to navigation around the Irish coast, had been taking on a third year engineering student from the course he was doing in college as a trainee at their engineering depot in Dun Leary harbour for as long as anyone could remember, and it was a given that Tony would want this gig for the summer.
That it paid money was an obvious attraction, since he had not managed to line up any other work for the summer. But to someone like himself, who had been a madly keen fisherman since the age of seven, this was a dream of a job. He had spent many a Saturday or Sunday with his father standing on the east pier with a rod in his hand, dreaming of catching a huge pollack or cod like some of the older lads sometimes did, but rarely getting anything bigger than a mackerel, and that was if he was lucky. Some days, after an hour or so of non- activity his interest would wane and he would be off exploring the rocks on the back side of the pier, or trying to spot rats among the weeds at low tide. Many was the day, when there was little activity from the fish in the harbour, that he would spend more time exploring the rocky slopes of the back side of the pier, imagining it to be the landscape of some alien planet, leaving his father to look after both their rods. On one occasion his rod was actually pulled from its stand by a mackerel, which was then amazingly caught by another fisherman in a boat. The unsuspecting fisherman was intrigued to notice another hook coming out of the fish's mouth, and even more surprised to find a five foot rod on the other end of the line. Young Tony was lucky enough to get his rod back with nothing more than a stern chastising by his father for deserting his post.
In later years, when his father had bought a boat and Tony had finally learned to swim, they would set out from DunLeary harbour many a time to fish off Sandycove, Dalkey and Killiney. As his father set up the boat for launch, he would watch the yachtsmen tending to their equipment. On the few occasions when they set out from Dalkey, he would gaze in earnest as the boat left the harbour, transfixed by the fishermen working on their lobster pots and nets.
On many a day during the summer holidays from school, Tony would cycle down to this harbour, and walk the length of the pier, reading the inscriptions on the monuments, studying the details of the bandstand and the other paraphernalia of the port. On rare occasions he would even take on the challenge of walking to the end of the longer, and for some reason more intimidating, west pier. After many visits over many years, he had grown to know that harbour well. He could sense the history there, from the Victorian obelisk standing precariously on its vandalised orb, and the disused mail train track, out to the wind vane monument, and on to the lighthouses that marked the entrance to the port.
So it was natural that he was more than mildly acquainted with the engineering depot down behind the train station, with its navigation buoys and sometimes even larger beacons in the elevated dry dock, as well as the two lightships moored out near the west pier. He had passed by the gates many times, and had often stared at the hardware inside, both from the slipway beside the depot and from his father’s boat as the sailed out of the harbour.
It was with an inkling of trepidation that he had stepped through the gates of the depot on the day of his interview. The trappings of authority that were presented before him somehow intimidated him, simply because they were an authority with which he was unfamiliar, but the genial smile of the gateman, whom he would later learn was referred to universally as "Charlie", as if he was so well known as to have no need of a surname, and the more relaxed attitude of the engineering manager who interviewed him soon put him at ease.
The engineering manager, an old hand by the name of Brian Maguire, who, from his overwhelming knowledge of the facility, and his clearly accustomed demeanour in all of its parts, had obviously worked his way up the ranks, quickly disposed of the formality of an interview by initiating a tour of the facility. As he explained the work they did there, he pointed out the artefacts from old lighthouses that were on display, and Tony gradually gained the impression that some of these so called "artefacts" were actually "work in progress", for which there had been no progress for quite some time. Distracted momentarily from the guided tour he was receiving by the sudden presence of a full sized lighthouse lens, a mass of glass more than a metre in height standing unassumingly in a hallway, he suddenly realised he had been asked a question;
"Have you ever been to the National Maritime Museum?"
His momentary stunned silence was mistaken for a negative answer. Had he been paying attention, that would have been the answer he would have given. He knew the museum was located nearby, and had once stood at the foot of the triple crucifix sculpture that stood in its grounds, but he had not mustered the will to go inside. A faint memory of a signpost outside the disused church that housed it told him its opening hours were limited to a particular season which did not include the day he had chanced to look upon it, and that had discouraged him from investigating further.
He replied that he had not, but did know where it was. Brian told him to "get yourself down there" as soon as he could, with an urgency that for a moment made Tony think he was being given an immediate order that would become a condition of his employment. Brian's sudden progress to the next artefact on the tour confirmed that he was only recommending a place of great interest. Once they had made a looped tour of the facility they found themselves back in Brian's office, and Tony was told that he would find out in a few days if he had got the job. He thanked Brian and left.
Two days later he got the call and was told to turn up at eight thirty the following morning. He later learned, though only through rumour, that there may have been more than just his academic qualifications involved in getting him the job. Not only did the secretary of the Commissioner himself live just around the corner from him, but one of the engineers with whom he would be working lived on the same estate, a few streets away from Tony, and literally next door to one of Tony's old school friends. Apparently Brian had decided to stick with someone local.
Once he started working there, his workload at the depot was relatively light. There were seven engineers employed in the engineering workshop to which he was assigned, who would travel to the lighthouses around the country to carry out maintenance and repairs on the electrical systems therein. This meant that they worked on a variety of items from simple lamps, motors and relays, all the way up to automatic radar beacons, even fixing the televisions the lighthouse keepers watched when off duty. At that time the commissioners were also in the process of automating all the lighthouses with remote telemetry, a long term project that involved the installation of new control and monitoring systems, and high powered radio transceivers, which would eventually lead to the lighthouse keepers around the country's coastline being replaced by a small number of controllers in this depot and in the commissioner's headquarters in the city centre, who would be able to remotely monitor and control every function of each lighthouse. Tony would help out the engineers as requested, and was allowed the rest of his time to tinker around with and even repair the equipment in the workshop that had been brought in from lighthouses around the coast and found itself awaiting repair. It would prove valuable experience to him in his studies, as much of what he had learned was being put into practice here, along with some subjects that awaited him in his final year. He would go back to college as the only student in his class with any experience of manufacturing printed circuit boards, (a process remarkably similar, he later learned, to photographic developing and the manufacture of integrated circuits), as a result of being asked to make a batch of boards by the engineering manager. The workshop engineers had need of certain purpose specific circuit boards (one they had designed themselves, as Tony could tell from the hand drawn circuit layout), and used a cheap and simple mail order kit to make them. The five page manual included with the kit was sufficiently well prepared that he could make boards successfully after reading it only once. Practice and a little experimentation, however, accompanied by studied examination of the results of his handiwork, lead to better boards, and by the time he had finished the required twenty boards, he had a much better understanding of the process by which they were made then when he had started. He learned that leaving the boards in the etching solution too long meant that long straight sections of circuit would be eroded resulting in circuit paths that were too thin, while insufficient time meant that corners were not cleanly etched. In trying to find a compromise, he discovered that agitating the boards continuously by tapping the container cleared up both problems to his satisfaction, earning praise from Mr. Maguire for his efforts.
One other skill he acquired was the ability to navigate quickly and deftly through the large catalog of the mail order electronics parts supplier, Radionics. He was not required to order parts very often, as the depot had a specific supply room which purchased supplies for the whole depot, but when some small number of parts was needed in a hurry, then the catalogue would come off the shelf. More often than that, he would pass time on slow days by browsing through the catalogue looking for nothing in particular, but consistently amazed at the range of goods made available. On only one occasion, he was required to actually go to the Radionics office in the city centre to collect some parts. This little adventure merited his first, and last, expenses report.
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