All at Sea

Chapter Three

Peter . . .

See, not daft. Knew I wasn’t completely daft. She was here. Been here, sitting along this quay, at one of these tables. She was here planning her trip to oblivion, her apparent demise – a disa-fucking-pearing trick. Well she didn’t fool old Peter. No, no, she can’t do that. I know too much, seen too much, and that stupid little bottle blond with the hooker’s eyes, and council estate walk, was a dead giveaway. That was too easy. Or was it? Uh, oh, was it? Was that a set up just for me? No. No that wouldn’t work, couldn’t work – well it could, ‘cause it did, but it couldn’t have been planned to work like that. Luck I think. Yes that had to be luck. Like St. Tropez – that was luck. How would I know she went to St. Trop? Instinct. I have powerful instincts. Or are they? Maybe they’re subconscious calculations. Maybe they are reasoned conclusions emanating from the mass of information continually in process. Maybe I know she came to St. Tropez because that is the most likely event given all the knowledge I have, but cannot be constantly aware of because of the enormous processing power I have developed. How about that? How about me being a fucking genius? “Course I fucking am! Always have been. Why else do I see what most others miss? Why am I an outcast? An enigma in my native territory? ‘Cos’ I’m a fucking wonder. And she’s a fucking wonder. A younger wonder. A more agile, and intuitive, wonder than me with the added advantage of the female mental process at her disposal. How about that? A younger, brighter me, with a highly tuned female mind.

The waiter returned with the elegant silver coffee pot that was his companion through most of the working day. Peter nodded and his cup was refilled as he gazed blankly out across the harbour. They’d only been gone ten hours or so. Not that much. Probably only fifty miles away gliding across the Mediterranean Sea thinking she slipped me. She can’t slip me for long. She can’t. She needs me and I need her. We need each other’s minds, each other’s knowledge. I have some stuff she must have, it’s too important just for me to have. Not just me alone. No, someone else has to have it too. And she knows some stuff I don’t. Now I know that for sure. She knows some stuff. She knows the language used in the older Chinese pyramids, only they weren’t Chinese then. They were probably Celtic then. Yes, yes, very probably Celtic then. Need to find her. Greek Islands? Not likely. She’ll change that. South Africa? South America? Amazon? There’s and idea. Amazon! Or the Orinoco! How about that? Up the fucking Orinoco.

***

Mina lay faced down on the rubber webbing, stretched between the forward sections of the boat’s two hulls, watching the phosphorescence flash and glitter as the bows sighed their way through the sleek Mediterranean waters. She felt no fear at being so close to the rushing sea in the dark isolation of a moonless night; her nostrils filled with the odd blend of rubber and nylon, aluminium and plastic, all melded in sea water as she was lifted, then dropped, alternately, above the slicing sighs. A conglomeration, she decided as she concentrated, fighting off what she had come to call her ‘visitors.’ A conglomeration of modern technology passing over old seas, she whispered to herself, as she felt her mother’s last hug beside the patient rattle of the diesel taxi in Brisbane, the loneliness of the transit lounge in Bangkok, the tense, heart searching, descent into Cairo, and the awful manifestation of all her fears in the sight of her father’s face, purple and bloated, screaming out the agony of his death, and his despair at not seeing her one last time. These are her regular visitors. These few, poignant, images, made more powerful by distillation and by the absence of other, lesser images, had become consistent.

Less is definitely more, she decided as she yielded, allowed herself to slip into a familiar reverie and to wonder about this new journey. What horrors lay before her this time? Was this to be another frantic odyssey jam-packed with intense acquaintances and sudden, violent, death? What wealth of revelation and adventure was to be her lot before she could settle again in domestic comfort with her mother?

Bill came to mind. Dear Bill, boarding school, overeducated, over trained, incredibly old world, over British, Bill, who, she once believed, was motivated by the highest of moral standards. She loved him dearly but he proved hopelessly vulnerable in the end. He became sadly weak in the final analysis as his anger, built long and high through a life jammed full of injustice, finally broke through to place his revenge ahead of his loyalties. Such a mercy she did not have to see him die.

She witnessed the deaths of Lucca, and Corporal Sheffield, her companions on her journey through Mesopotamia, but not Bill’s, sad, demise, and not George’s. It would have been awful to see the end of the ever smiling Chinese monk who said so little and taught her so very much. These men had all left this life as she crashed her way through the early stages of her training and left her with the uncomfortable feeing that their lives were the price of her knowledge. Certainly their deaths contributed to her anonymity. She hoped that was not to be the pattern, but found herself strangely philosophic at the prospect that her existence continued only as long as no living person knew her real identity because, awful as that concept might be, it was a price worth paying.

She felt alien movement on the trampoline and looked up to see Andy walking towards her in the bent knee fashion of an experienced sailor. “Not a good idea to be out here on your own. No one would hear the splash if you went over. Could be some time before we realized you were not on board.”

Taking one final look through the trampoline at the hypnotic action of the water, she spoke absently. “For some experiences you need a little danger,” and rose with what dignity she could manage as she felt the skimpiness of her bikini under his stern gaze.

“Paying your way or not, you are a member of the crew. As such you have a responsibility to others – your crewmates. Taking a chance with your life is a selfish act.”

She stood as he stood, with knees bent and feet spread inelegantly to absorb the boat’s motion, which did nothing for her modesty, but she managed to arrange her posture so as to, at least appear, demure to his admonition. Back in the cabin she pulled on her shorts before returning to record in the log at midnight:

Sea less than one metre, temperature 23?C, wind 240 at 13 knots, 32 miles made good under working jib and full main, batteries 13.7 volts, main electrics 240 volts, fresh water tanks full.

These last three items seemed odd. How were the batteries maintaining a fully charged condition when the engines were not running? How was the 240 volt electrical supply generated? And why were the water tanks full when at least two people had showered and she had washed and rinsed galley surfaces, and ran odd dishes and cutlery, under the tap?

As there was so much water she decided that, she too, would shower before going to bed. In the bathroom, a smooth beige world of moulded fibreglass, there was another surprise. The water was hot, and gushing under pressure, as if there was a boiler on board. For a while she revelled in the steam: relieving tired muscles in compensation of a long day that had started at seven with everyone, except George, around the table for breakfast. After a round of cleaning up she was shown the food stores, and linen closets, and sail lockers, and neatly labelled drawers of screws and eyelets and clips and clamps and cable ties, and washers, and a beautifully organised tool rack. She took it all in, noting George’s indelible stamp on every micromanaged detail, before starting her watch, which was a pleasant, easy, experience that demanded little above putting on her harness and watching their progress over the ocean. The reason for the harness, Andy had explained, was for her to be ready to leave the cockpit quickly should a sheet come loose, or a block break, or some unimagined disaster strike whereupon she would clip on, then venture on deck to save the ship while all below were kept secure by virtue of her noble dedication.

Happily nothing did go wrong so her visits on deck were safe, premeditated, strolls in time with a, now familiar, motion while she kept a hand to the ship, and an eye to the clips and cleats, and to the distant clouds gathering far in the rising heat. When it was done, and the log entries made, she joined the others at lunch where she ate like a sailor before beginning another round of cleaning up. There was time to rest in the afternoon, when she managed a little reading, but soon she was into food again: chopping and cleaning, slicing, peeling and eating until her evening watch.

At the end of the day she was tired, but content, and would have languished in the bathroom steam had a distant voice not reached through to temper her pleasure with warnings about being reckless with the ship’s water. Andy was right; she was a member of a crew and had a responsibility to those around her. She went to bed warm, and comfortable, but with her mind abuzz with questions about the speed of the boat and, the high pressure hot water, the fully charged batteries, the fact that she never heard the sound of the engine? Even as they left St. Tropez harbour, to motor out through the breakwater, before the sails were set, she had not heard the engine.

***

There had been a pause, a suspension of all activities, around the table and in the living area when Mina said, as if in innocence, “It’s wonderful to have all this hot water at sea. You really do have a special boat George.”

In the silence that followed she listened intently, sampled the air, and waited, for the first sign of a reaction but none came so she continued cheerfully, “I’ve never had such luxurious showers, and easy washing up, on a boat George. And a dishwasher – you have a dishwasher, a water greedy, electricity burning, dishwasher. That’s really something. I’ve seen clothes washers on charter boats, for all the linen and crew uniforms, but a dishwasher, and at sea, miles from anywhere. Wonderful.” Not that they were many miles from Gibraltar, she realized, in fact they were only about hundred and twenty miles off the coast by now, but the point was made and it hung there in the thickening atmosphere, as if a heresy.

Andy raised his head to look at her, not to make contact, just to be an observer: to watch her while keeping George in his peripheral vision. Ramsey had no reservations; his head was up high, and his eyes were busy, looking for reactions all round. Carina lowered her eyes: keeping them firmly on the drainer, and the sink, as the water in question cascaded in over the breakfast dishes.

Nothing happened. George kept fiddling with the navigation display, as if he had not heard her, and it was clear was no one was going to say anything without George’s lead, so the silence remained until Carina clattered dishes and scrapped food into the garbage. Andy continued to watch – his eyes more on George than Mina now – and Ramsey turned his face clown like: eyes up, mouth down, as if witnessing an unwarranted reprimand. Mina decided to end it by extending her smile, and folding her hands on the table, as if in completion. “Perhaps I’ll do some washing,” she offered.

“Washing every three days,” Carina said, staving off Mina’s dismissal. “I do washing every three days, unless it’s something special. Ironing you do yourself. I don’t do ironing no more,” and that too, hung there: not as big as the heresy, more as an addendum to it, but it certainly begged another question.

Everyone waited, but not for long. “Poor Carina,” George came to the rescue without looking up. He just added information to the scene without diverting his attention from the screen in front of him. “She scalded herself on a wonderful old steam iron that had been with me since my first boat. It was very old, and leaked hot water, but it did a wonderful job until the main gasket blew. Now we all do our own ironing.”

Mina cast about, from George to Carina, to Andy . . . ”Couldn’t you buy a new iron? A modern one – one that doesn’t scald people.” It was accusative; she hadn’t meant it to be but before she could rescue herself George was back again. “Oh we did, right away, but Carina was already hurt,” he said. That should have been enough; it should have been all that was needed, but somehow it was not. He had managed to be kind, considerate, even compensatory and sensitive, while at the same time being an arsehole. He made it clear that he was completely indifferent to anyone’s feeling but his own? How does he do that?

In the log she wrote:

Sea calm, temperature 28?C, wind 240 at 13 knots, 32 miles made good under working jib and full main, batteries 13.7 volts, main electrics 240 volts, water tanks full.

She wondered how that could be. How could the sea be calm when the wind was a steady 13 knots? How could they be making the same distance every watch when she could see, and feel, the wind change from breezy, to soft blow, to calm with the same sail setting? And the sail setting did not change because that was strictly Captain’s territory. In that respect George was God; God was George, and sail trimming was a sacred act entrusted only to holy persons. To think otherwise was to commit another heresy. In any case there was no need because apparently the wind angle never changed. Even if it did, and she knew it did, it did not change according to the instruments which measured real and apparent wind. Real wind she had learned to measure by the state of the sea from pictures she had seen of the Beaufort Scale pinned to the navigation table in Simon Brown’s boat in Hong Kong. Simon and Roger had been big buddies back then, before the treachery was unveiled, but that was over: no need to think about that.

According to the instruments the real wind was 240 degrees at 13 knots, which it was not because if it was there would be waves of half a metre or more decorated with white caps and the Seahorse would be slamming into them. They were travelling westward, into the wind, and covering 32 nautical miles every 3 hours. That was over 12 statute miles an hour. If the wind was coming from 240 degrees, south-west, and they were travelling west, the wind she would be feeling on her face, the apparent wind, would be around 20 miles, and hour and it was not. She was feeling, and seeing, about 10 knots; experience aboard Simon’s boat had taught her that much.

She asked George about the wind instruments under the guise of being confused and in search of wise counsel. He didn’t buy into it, and quickly declared that the whole wind vane installation was suspect. “It seemed not to make sense from the time it was first fitted,” he said. “Damn thing is way up on the top of the mast and seems to be totally confused. Not to worry though, when I want to know what the wind is doing I tie a piece of wool on the shrouds – that’s the steel rigging wires keeping the mast in place.” Damn him. He did it again. She was okay with his explanation until he added that last bit about the shrouds, and managed to imply she did not know a shroud from a stay, or a forestay from a backstay from a running backstay to a top shroud to a spreader, and they both knew that not to be true. So why did he do that?

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