Short Stories

June 14, 2010      

On Board the Anita. by Edward Mc Whinney

The world is beautiful. Furthermore, Spring is on the way and from where I sit I can see a ship leaving port and I’ll call it Anita. She flies a flag of the Bahamas and is decked up with multi-coloured containers. Its gunwales are a rusty red and the tower is white and blue. She’s a lovely vessel. It has a crew of metropolitan marine engineers and merchant seamen; all brave and all cowardly too. Every able seaman is on the run from something. There is no metropolis unknown to him but he loves the open sea and the thrum of the Mercedes engines that propels the bow through ocean water. For a moment I am on deck with the fresh, sea breeze. I see a school of whales to starboard, flying fish to port, an albatross on the mast. The world is, indeed, beautiful.

My parents died within a week of each other. I sold the house and moved into a room. I found work in a travel agent’s. Every day I saw arrangements for planes heading out into the clouds; adventurers bound for travels in exotic lands, families choosing exile or, simply, men off to the races at Cheltenham or Kempton; couples heading for Tenerife.

My own decision to leave Ireland was made easier by so many circumstances; family ties gone; a certain cooling in my girlfriend, Laura (and her obsession with her studies in hotel management); an assistant bank manager who would tie you into a five year fixed before you could say; one way to Tangiers.

It was Autumn. I sat in the room feeling giddy. I gazed around with a longing for a maternal touch; mammy, mammy, or maybe a nurse, a topless nurse out of a birthday cake. I had bacon and cabbage from Delight’s Deli before going out to the streets full of people with laughing faces. I didn’t discourage a delusion that it was Paris, London, New York. But it wasn’t. It was Cork.

Coming up to Christmas the kerosene ran out and a cold snap rolled in. I sat in my room wrapped in two overcoats. Books remained on the floor, un-read, like a line of tasks frozen in a solid row. It was best to get on and read those books and fall into a beautiful absence. Friday after work. All day Saturday. All day Sunday. A long list of forgotten artists flickered on and off like the lights on a Christmas tree.

Laura left a scarf behind. It smelled strongly of perfume but did nothing to revitalise the memory of her face which remained an empty shell. I remembered going to the pictures when Captain Marvel was serialised as a short each week. Captain Marvel was in a vast cave and there was a river of burning lava coming after him. It came not only straight for Captain Marvel but for the screen, threatening all of us sweet-suckers, with annihilation. Captain Marvel raced for the mouth of the tunnel where the rock-gate was descending. The screen went blank. To be continued.

We have been six days at sea. Another six days before the Anita is due in port. The drone of the engines is soothing, as is the smell of oil from the next cabin where the telegraphic apparatus is installed, our progress over the depths of the Atlantic recorded by the slow change in wavelength as local news – man armed with hammer and man armed with knife and Lotto player wins half a million and a substantial amount of gold jewellery stolen from a city centre jewelers – gives way to static then calm, slow voices of newsreaders in foreign tongues, reminiscent of childhood turning the dial of long wave radio in the early hours, staccato bursts of world music, crooning jazz, Cuban salsa, then French, Italian, Spanish, maybe Russian, heady mesh of idioms, proportionately thrilling as a meter to fathom the depths below us.

I had a bicycle. I cycled into town. When I met people I tried to keep words to a minimum. At least that was the plan. I loved the narrow streets with the postman whistling up and down small gardens. Noisy Yamahas cut the corners. Anything could happen. An exhaust pipe might fall off sending out sparks as from a rocket engine. Chronic drunkards like Marmeladov staggered along. Women wearing slippers, and curlers in their hair; the fag butt in the corner of the mouth, the smoke curling from the jaw over the crown of the head. I tied the bike to a pole and climbed a wall onto the railway line. This would be on a Sunday morning, free from the office, pausing on a hillside to admire the beauty in the distance, beyond the steeples and spires and red smoky rooftops. I felt the breeze with more than a hint of diesel and creosote in it. The silver rails led away into rich, green hills, banks smothered in a blaze of yellow furze come Spring.

In Laura, for a time, I was sidelined by the mysterious perfection of the female, meeting on Christmas streets, stars bright, ice blue, her hair still wet, in her new shoes. Sometimes, it felt better staying in the room, linoleum and wood, writing about a walk we took on a beach, while she was still interested, watery horizon and kelpy sea air than going out and becoming entangled in the complications. How much longer? The tide at a low ebb. The motive to continue not always so evident. Her hair with the wet look.

I sat on the window sill in her bedroom, her parents downstairs. Her garden drenched in rain. So much in the darkness out there. I must jump out the window and fly. Once more the moon was covered over and a drizzle turned to heavy rain, drummed heavy patterns on the roof of the shed. In a few days, in a few hours. I have a confession to make I said to Laura. I can’t sing a note and I can’t dance. I should entertain normal dreams like owning a fine car with leather upholstery and ivory fittings and a dashboard like the control centre of a nuclear submarine.

In never-ending cold I remained undecided, ice-water shave in the dawn, falling out the door. I bought the newspaper along the street, local stories with a universality I choose to minimise. It couldn’t happen in Tangiers, Barcelona or Chicago.

I am afraid of nothing the merchant seaman writes, on the stormiest day yet. The joists creaked. Anything not screwed down clattered and smashed. It seems I will never become accustomed to these sounds. I am not afraid of creatures from the deep; crazy witches or the legendary Fee Jee mermaid, comprised of a monkey’s torso sewn on to a fish’s tail. The ship rocks and creaks, her bowels quiver, sounds like the death rattles of monsters. The lamp flickers.

The room, three storeys up, took in light from the street by way of two small windows; droplets of sunshine during the day, neon glow worms by night; a desk, a bookshelf with twenty books. I would have to stay in it for a long time, maybe forever. The city was flooded. I studied a photo of a man floating down Great William O’Brien Street in a wheelie bin. A record volume of water fell from the sky. If it went on so, it could get very scary, the radio broadcaster said. No-one needs to see a disaster movie at the present, he continued, we are living in one. People’s front rooms were flooded; mattresses, old hats, socks and underpants, who knows what, hairbrushes and false teeth floating around the house?

Laura was suspicious of married men who did not wear marriage bands. Is that so, I said, well did you know that the speed of the male can be judged by the length of his fingers? If we ever get engaged will you wear a ring? Her father at the table with bread and cheese, the laughing cow, spoke of seagulls attacking people down the docks. He spread the cheese with podgy, little fingers. He spoke of a neighbour whose car alarm had a habit of going off in the early hours.

Later, when she was feeding the cat, I said that I hate cats. I’m allergic to them. My tongue was stilled by a quick glance. It hovered beneath the fragrance of her perfume, the secretion of the civet’s anal gland.

When the storm abated, I once more felt in charge of my immediate destiny, that is, I was in charge of the light switch and the radio tuner and I could sit back and listen to the whistling of the second mate through the porthole. I saw him sleeping on a three-legged stool yesterday with his curly head in his hands. He looked like he was holding a cat. The rest of the crew went about their business, a daily clamour drawn from an eternal pattern. It’s always the same, never the same, like each swell of the sea, always, never. The men drink coffee laced with brandy and rum and from this remove their murmur is the same as it was yesterday, nothing about it to distinguish one day from the next. The chef breathes tobacco smoke through the porthole of the galley, dreaming of a girl with buttons on her dress. He learns French and Spanish and Portuguese from phrasebooks, one expression per day, calculating how many charming sentences he will know by the time we reach Valparaiso.

We drove out to Weaver’s Point in Laura’s Micra. She was quiet, looking for swans and egrets in the estuary along the way, hoping to spot a whale or a school of dolphins when we got to the point. She wore a new hat and a natty, tweed jacket. She was as composed as the manager of a four star hotel. On the way home she became more talkative. What would you like for your birthday, she asked? A birthday cake, I replied. Well, that’s easy, but I mean what present would you like? How about a typewriter that talks, I said? I guessed that she already had something bought, probably a shirt and tie, held together in a plastic box with a score of tiny pins.

When the flood waters abated I went for a walk along the railway line. The city covered in smog seemed to be floating on more than water. The spires of St. Finbar’s, Holy Trinity, Shandon and the North Cathedral stuck up out of it. Something was changing in my head. There was a vague idea of slipping silently and unnoticed away from the conventions, becoming a vagrant, wandering around the globe somehow in anonymity. I observed two types and thought about them in the ignorant language of a twenty year old, those who dreamed of fame and wealth and power and those soft spoken men with leery eyes, beery breaths, and wives with pregnant bellies. I stepped into a bar and fell into shadows as powerful as echoes along hollow walls up to the ceiling where they twist with the smoke and paint, where the paint warps until nothing is heard but noise.

Laura’s mother made skirts and kidney stew. After eating I went to talk with her sixteen year old brother, Noah, who was writing a science fiction novel about the Planet Pett which has a twenty four year day followed by a twenty four year night. I overheard snippets of an argument in the kitchen, Laura and her mother; sighs, angry suppressed voices. I left. As I walked I felt my head spin. I made my way to the Ferry House, clouds of smoke, kegs of alcohol, where sailors gathered and whores and where the confusion in my head was calmed. The Spring was on its way.

The grey smog came in the open window. It, too, will evaporate; nothing is permanent. I slept on the linoleum floor with books for bedclothes. The smog turned blue. It would be wiser to take life by its scruffy neck and change it before it changes itself.

It was late April. On the table, my passport and airline ticket. Laura’s final word in my ears. We had parted in Delight’s Deli. We should never have met, she said. You’re so young. God bless. She was young too but she spoke those words like an old aunt. God Bless. I’ll think of you.

We will reach port tomorrow. We celebrate our last night at sea with bottles of Guinness and beef stroganoff, with South African wine and German schnapps.

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