Drawing by Judith Wolfe

NICK CARDING

K Deck



    Beyond the harbour the sun dripped its blood into the sea. Stamp watched without love. Over the horizon somewhere beneath that sun was the country he would have to learn to call home again, but it was too far away to see. He didn't care; he wasn't ready to see it yet.

    'It's crap, isn't it? Too garish. A bad painting.'

    Stamp turned to see who had spoken. A girl was standing beside him. She was thin and pale, the only colour in her face the sun's temporary gift. Her hair was long, blonde and dirty, hanging in rat's tails.

    'Yes,' he said. 'A conjuror's cheap trick.'

    She nodded, but didn't say anything else.

    Stamp turned away to look at the quayside and the land beyond. The tips of the tower cranes were pink from the sun, but the buildings, the trees behind them and the sky were a monotonous blue in the dusk. He watched the last few cars grind up the ramp into the ferry.

    'Have you got a light?'

    The girl stood in front of him and waved a hand-rolled cigarette. It was badly made. He lit it. She inhaled, nodded her thanks and walked away. She was wearing a creased denim jacket and a short skirt with a hem that had come loose in places. A few frayed strands of material showed black against the back of her thighs. She reminded Stamp of a girl he had known years ago when he was about the same age as this girl, but he couldn't remember her name. There were many things about his life that he couldn't remember now. But they didn't matter.

    Over the tannoy a bell rang and an announcement was made, but out on deck in the open air the words got lost. Then there was a vibration underfoot as the engines began to turn and a column of diesel smoke rose into the air from the funnel. The ferry began to move. The sun finished its journey into the sea and a breeze with a chill in it began to blow the smoke away. Summer was turning to autumn. Stamp remembered a time when he had loved autumn, the sadness of mist and mud after summer days that lasted too long, but now, like a lizard, he needed the sun. He shivered and wished that he had booked a cabin. He could have afforded it, just. He decided to spend the money on a good meal instead. It would help pass the time.

    There were two restaurants on the ferry, a self-service joint on C Deck and a more up-market establishment on B Deck. A queue stretched to the door at the self-service cafeteria, so he made his way towards B Deck. The ferry was crowded with holidaymakers returning home, their voices and clothes too loud. Many of them were drinking and looked set to carry on for the whole eight hours of the crossing.

    The waiter standing by the door to the restaurant stared at Stamp, trying to decide whether he was the type of customer they wanted, and then led him to a table half hidden behind a pillar in a corner. Stamp ordered a bottle of wine and leafed through the menu. A bare minute later he heard voices raised at the door to the restaurant and looked up, but his view was blocked by the pillar and he could see nothing. Then the girl appeared.

    'They weren't going to let me in,' she said. 'But I told them you were my father.'
    'Why? What do you want from me?' Stamp asked.
    She look at him and then sat down. 'Thanks,' she answered. 'I'll make do with a glass of water for now.'
    'I meant...'
    'I know what you meant,' she said, her eyebrows arched. He noticed that she plucked them. 'But I'd like the water anyway, if that's not too much trouble.'

    He smiled and signalled the waiter. When he came she told him what she wanted.

    'And to eat?' the waiter asked.

    She looked at Stamp again, making some kind of judgement.

    'It's OK daughter, I'll pay,' he said.

    They ordered and she swivelled in her chair to look at the waiter as he walked away. 'Surly bastard,' she said loudly, so that he would hear, and then turned back to Stamp. 'Are you always so generous? Most people would have had me thrown out.'
    'I'm curious. How did you know I was in here?'
    'I saw you coming this way and followed you. My boyfriend's met some wankers from Liverpool and he's busy getting drunk with them. I thought you might be better company.'
    'And won't he have something to say about you leaving him like that?' Stamp asked.
    She shrugged. 'Probably, if he notices. But who gives a shit? He chooses his company, I choose mine.'
    'So why me? I'm...'
    '...old enough to be my father?' She laughed. 'Maybe because your hair's long. Maybe because you said something funny about the sun out there on deck instead of ignoring me. Who knows? Who cares? You're here, I'm here, so why not? It passes the time and it gets me a meal. Oh, and you don't have to pay for me, by the way. I've got money. I just choose not to wear it.'
    The waiter arrived with his wine and her water and Stamp raised his glass to her. 'Here's to journeys,' he said.

    While they ate he asked her why she was travelling and she told him that she and her boyfriend had spent the summer first in Paris and then in Amsterdam, staying in cheap hotels and walking round the two cities, mostly at night. She had liked Paris at first, but then the number of tourists had irritated her. She had hated Amsterdam. Her boyfriend had wanted to do nothing more than sit in pubs drinking endless beer, and in cafes smoking marijuana. 'I don't do drugs, they bore me,' she said. 'Do you?'
    'No,' Stamp answered. 'I did once, a long time ago, but they bored me too. They did nothing for me that I wanted done. So now I just smoke and drink instead.'
    'Good plan,' she said, and poured some of the wine from his bottle into her glass. She pushed away her half empty plate, took out a packet of tobacco, rolled herself a cigarette and lit it from the candle that was burning on the table. 'Now it's your turn,' she told him. 'Where have you come from, where are you going, and why?'

    So he told her about the years he had spent in the south of Europe, and then the north, and of the many different things he had done to try to earn a living.

    'A rolling stone,' she said when he stopped. 'And did you gather any moss along the way? Wives or anything?'
    'Nothing that lasted,' he answered. 'I had one once, a wife, but I left her behind somewhere. Careless I suppose, but it was a long time ago now. What about you? Is your boyfriend a permanent fixture?'
    She laughed. 'Permanent? What's permanent? There's been nothing permanent in my life so far, so why should he be?' She looked at her watch. 'He'll be getting well and truly pissed by now,' she said. 'I suppose I'd better go and find him before he does anything more stupid than usual.' She pushed back her chair and held out a hand to him.
    'You haven't told me your name,' he said.
    'That's OK, you haven't told me yours.'
    'Stamp.'
    'Just Stamp?'
    'It's what people call me.'
    'OK then, just Stamp. It was nice eating with you. Think of me out there with the shitheads when you're tucked up in your nice warm cabin tonight.'
    He took her outstretched hand and shook it. 'I haven't got a nice warm cabin,' he said. 'But I would if I had.'
    She looked at him with arched eyebrows again. 'You mean you've spent all that time earning all that money round Europe and now you can't even afford a cabin?'
    'I'm afraid so, yes.'
    'Jesus. What are you going to do when you get back home? It's not so easy for someone your age to get a job there, you know. If I were you I'd get this boat turned round and go right back wherever you came from, otherwise you'll starve.'
    'Maybe, maybe not,' he answered. 'I've never starved so far.'
    She shrugged and disengaged her hand from his. 'It's your life,' she said. 'Maybe we'll see you on K Deck then, if I can prise the champion boozer away from the bar.'
    'K Deck?'
    'There are free bunks down there, if you can stand the crowd. Didn't you know?'

    He watched her as she walked away and realised that she still hadn't told him her name. Then he realised that, after all, she had left him to pay for her meal. He smiled, shook his head and drained the last of the wine from the bottle into his glass. Perhaps he would order another one. He tried to remember the name of the girl she reminded him of, but it wouldn't come.

    Down here way below the waterline there's no yesterday, no future. But iron walls do not a prison make. I'm free.

    'I'm free.'
    'Shut up you dozy sod, I'm trying to sleep.'
    Farts. Groans. The prisoners are restless tonight.
    'Full fathom five my father lies. Down among the dead men.'
    'Oh for Christ's sake.'
    'Piss off, Christ's not here.'

    I'm one with the machine. Its iron skin is mine, scaled and flaking, with rust underneath. Rust where flesh and blood should be. Steam screams in my veins and my arteries are fuel lines. Inside my chest my pistons thump the pulse that measures life. And along the gangways in my brain the prisoners shuffle, looking for a bed to claim. Grey men, hollow men, rumbling and tumbling in a spinning world, growling through the machine's grey bowels. Shit falling to the bottom of the boat. Well that's tough, boys, we're all in the same boat here, ha ha, and I've got my bed, all my own. A green plastic mattress to slide and glide on, whoops. No bedclothes at all, or pillow for my head. But any port in a storm. Any port in a storm, my grey, daydreaming boys. It could be worse. It could be some soggy cardboard box under a stinking city bridge somewhere. Now that's what's written in my stars, if only I could see them. No chance from here. But here at least there's the rush of the blood through the machine to keep me warm. And everything for the moment's in the present tense, no past perfects or future conditionals. A small but significant mercy. I could stay here, live here, love here for ever if I had my girl here. If only my only girl were here. Where the hell is the bitch?
    'Pam? Where's Pam? Come here, you bitch.'

    Maybe after all they don't allow the women down here in this man's underwater gaol, but that's unreasonable. She ought to be down here with me.

    Look at them all, the grey men, sad men, all down here alone. In the cell the prisoners come and go, talking of Michelangelo. Or someone. But no women that I can see. But look again, and yes, there are. There's one, I swear, in the green bunk on the corner over there, her back to me. Pam's back. Pam's hair tumbled to the floor. She'll get it dirty, get it trodden on, silly, dilly girl. Pick up your hair, Pam, and bring it over here.

    'Pam, over here. Over here, Pam.'

    God, I'm tired. Sleep, wake, sleep, wake, and the scenery never changes. The cell, the beds, the shuffling men. The present eternal. Aeons between the pistons' thumps. Time's winged chariot with the wings torn off.

    'Come here, Pam, damn you. I need you.'
    'For God's sake shut up, will you, or you'll feel my fist.'

    Look, she's coming, sleep in her eyes. Rubbing them to clear them. God, she's beautiful, in a raggy kind of way. She always was. I remember once we did it on a train, shut the door to the compartment, pulled down the blinds and did it lying on the seat, listening out for the ticket inspector all the while, but we came before he did. To give me hope, she said, because it was one of those days when I didn't have any. There were a lot of those days then, but she changed that for a little while. Not long enough, though, silly bitch. And now she's kneeling beside me on the green mattress, on the very edge of it, feet still on the floor, hair drooping to my eyes. Come here and let me feel your life, your pumping, living body pulsing in this iron desert. Come to me now.

    'Move over, fool, and stop shouting. You're keeping people awake.'

    Ugly words, these, falling from that perfect mouth like rain in the early morning. An unwarranted scolding. She should have come sooner, when she was told. But her voice is cream and musk, as it always was. And a waterfall of hair to drown in.

    'Your beauty strikes me dumb.'
    'Well, there'll be people pleased by that at least. What a shithead. Why are all men the same? You drink like there's no tomorrow, then get maudlin. You should know better by now. Move over if you want me here, Now just lie quiet and go to sleep.'

    I'll do that now, now that you're here where you belong. And your hair a forest to hide in from the relentless sun, and the length of you beside me a log to cling to in the torrent of the endless sea.

    Your body pressed on mine in that rumbling, rambling train, slowly, oh how slowly you raised your small black skirt and knelt above me on the green upholstered seat.

    To give me hope, you said.

    Out at sea beyond the stern of the ferry the ball of the sun struggled out of the water. Stamp watched for a moment, remembering the places hidden beneath it, countries and people he had chosen to leave behind. Then he turned and walked along the open deck towards the bow. Ahead, the two low lines of the estuary converged and were lost in the distance in a mist. What he could see of the land looked low and dull, without shape or substance.

    There was a wind blowing and the morning was cold, with a dew on handrails and the green painted ironwork of the deck. Stamp wrapped his jacket more closely round him, breathing deeply. He needed the thin, chilled air to clean his lungs and its oxygen to purge the last of the night's wine from his blood. Sitting in the restaurant after the girl's departure, his memory kicked into life by her questions, he had been drawn back and forward through all the years he had spent away from his own land, and it had taken another bottle of wine to slow his mind down.

    He wondered if he would see the girl again this morning out on the deck. He thought not; she would be occupied with her boyfriend. If he remembered rightly, he had seen them during the night in a bunk down on K Deck, the boy drunk and noisy, the girl trying to quieten him. But he wasn't sure. His own mind fogged, he had passed the night uneasily at the borders of sleep, stumbling between a muddled present and a reinvented past.

    He shook his head. Better to let it all go, to look to the bow, not the stern.

    As the sun rose and the ferry made its way up the estuary, the land became clearer. Stamp saw the lines of factories, oil terminals and cranes, signposts to harbours anywhere in the world. It was fifteen years since he had left this country and ten since he had last visited it. He supposed that he had changed in that time and that the country had too, but he could not imagine in what ways.

    The girl, he recalled, had prophesied difficulties for him. Turn round and go back, she had said, but he had tried that before and always found that what he had sought was no longer there. There was only today, and whatever hope he could summon for tomorrow. Right now, hope for a room to rent and a job of some kind. And meanwhile small money in his pocket and an old, battered car to get him to a city where he could sell it to survive while he looked for work. It wasn't much to rely on, but it would do.

    For a moment he shivered, but he had no wish to move yet. Only when the ferry finally edged towards its birth half an hour later did he turn to go inside.

    Down on the car deck the air smelled sour and the thump of the ferry's engines shook the floor. People were milling about carrying cartons of duty-free drink and shouting to each other as they tried to locate their cars. Stamp found his own car and stood alongside it watching the press of people. He searched among them to see whether he could see the girl anywhere, but there was no sign of her. So he opened his car door, got in and waited quietly for the moment when he would be able to drive off the ferry.

    He was among the first down the ramp and onto the quayside. Sets of parallel lines painted on the tarmac led him to the passport control kiosks and the customs sheds beyond. He drove at an easy speed, but other passengers were in a bigger hurry and overtook him, and by the time he arrived at the passport control there was a queue of cars ahead of him. Beyond the control point a customs official peered through the window of his car and motioned him to turn into the customs shed. Stamp was not surprised. Over the years this had happened to him many times at many different borders. A man alone in a car was suspicious, particularly a man with long hair. He pulled into the customs shed, turned off his engine, wound down the window and waited for someone to come to quiz him. A minute or so later a customs official walked up to him. Without saying anything Stamp handed over his passport. The man studied it page by page.

    'You've been to a lot of places,' he said.

    Stamp nodded.

    'Can I see your ticket and your car papers?' the man asked, and Stamp handed them over.
    'This is a single ticket. How long are you staying?'
    'I'm coming back,' Stamp said.
    'Permanently?' the man asked. 'I see this passport was issued by the consulate in Amsterdam. How long have you been living abroad?'
    'Fifteen years or so.'
    'And now you're intending to live in this country again, are you?'
    'Yes.' The barely concealed belligerence in the official's voice was beginning to irritate Stamp.
    'And where are you intending to live, sir?'
    'I don't know yet. Wherever I can find work.'
    'I see.'

    The customs official stared at him through the car window and Stamp saw the scepticism on his face and remembered the girl's disbelief the night before. He wondered if he'd made a mistake coming back.

    'And this is your car?'
    'Yes.'
    The official leaned over and peered in through the car window as though assessing whether it was the sort of car he would want to own. 'How long have you owned it?' he asked.
    'A couple of years.'
    'And now you're importing it, are you sir?'

    Stamp hadn't thought of it that way, but said that yes, he supposed he was.

    'And you haven't got an address in this country?'
    'No. Not yet, no.'
    'In that case, sir,' said the man, 'I think we may have a small problem here.' He smiled at Stamp; a small problem was evidently a welcome event in his day. 'You see, there may be some duty to pay on this vehicle, since you're intending to import it permanently. And if you can't give me an address, that gives us a problem.'
    'Duty?' said Stamp. 'On a ten year old car that's not worth anything much?'
    'That remains to be seen, sir,' said the man. 'Now if you'd care to step out of the vehicle and open the boot, I'll get somebody to give it a quick look over.' He waved Stamp's passport. 'And I'll take this for a few moments if you don't mind. There'll be a few forms to fill in, if you'll just wait for a minute or two. We'll not keep you longer than necessary.' And the man walked off, carrying Stamp's passport, car papers and ferry ticket towards an office at one end of the customs shed.

    Welcome back, Stamp thought as he got out of his car and unlocked the boot. He looked over towards the office where the customs official was now on the telephone to someone, and then out of the customs shed towards the line of cars that was still moving slowly past the man who had directed him into the shed. Occasionally the man consulted a clipboard as though checking of one of the cars' registration numbers against a list, but no more cars were sent into the shed.

    Almost the last car to go past was a small yellow Renault. Sitting in the front passenger seat smoking a cigarette was the girl. Beside her in the driving seat was her boyfriend, a fair, long haired young man with a prominent nose. As Stamp looked at them, the girl turned and saw him. She smiled and waved. He waved back. And then she was gone.

    In the yellow Renault the girl's boyfriend asked her, 'Who was that?'
    'The guy who bought me dinner last night,' she answered, 'while you were busy getting pissed.' She passed him her cigarette and he took a long drag from it.
    'What? That old fart? The same guy who was making all the noise down on K Deck?'
    'He was nice,' she answered.
    'He was a dickhead,' her boyfriend said. 'Making all that row, yelling out some girl's name while people were trying to sleep.' He gave her back the cigarette and added, 'You've got a funny taste in men, you have.'
    'Yes,' she said, and looked at him.
    'You went over to him down there, didn't you?' the boy asked.
    'I'm surprised you noticed. Yes, I did, to calm him down.'
    'And just how did you manage that?' the boy asked. 'You didn't screw him, did you?' It was an idle observation. He spoke without rancour.
    'No,' she said. 'He was as drunk as you were.'
    'Stupid old fart,' the boy said.

    The girl put her hand on her boyfriend's thigh and squeezed gently. 'But I might have done otherwise,' she said, and turned away to look out of the car window.

    'Just to give the poor old bugger a little hope,' she added.

    And then she laughed and squeezed her boyfriend's thigh again.


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