Mysteries of the Seahorse

Andy had shrugged when she mentioned the wind anomaly to him. He said that Seahorse slipped along at around ten knots almost regardless of conditions. “Something to do with the length at the water line,” he said, more as a suggestion than a statement of fact, and left it there, finding the need to clean the cockpit windows a more pressing call.

Ramsey said he knew practically nothing about boats and seemed to care even less. He told her he was running from some unpleasant people and was happy to get a berth where he could hide. He couldn’t believe his luck when he learned he was to be paid for living for nothing on Seahorse. He certainly wasn’t interested in stirring up any trouble. Which sounded alright, remarkably similar to her own case, but it seemed a bit glib. How come he was being paid when there were not, as Gloria would have it, “Many of them jobs because of people working for free?”

She wondered, too, about his apparent laziness because he had a body as limber as an athlete. It didn’t get that way by lolling around the way he did on Seahorse. He feigned no interest in anything nautical, hiding most of the time in his seemingly endless supply of novels which he treated badly, leaving them open and face down, or folding pages to mark his place. She could almost see the glue hardening in the spines.

His arms looked hard: his forearms lean and rigid, and clearly muscular with short, bronzed, hair and the tendons in his legs were well defined. The solid appearance of his chest and stomach muscles all encased in taught, tanned, flesh put the stamp on it for her. He was not lazy, and he was not stupid either. Eyes give that sort of thing away and his eyes were busy: not the dancing, wondering busy, more the quietly taking it all in busy. At least that was how she saw them when they weren’t slumbering deep in the folds of a paperback.

She decided in the end that he came aboard on Gloria’s tail. He used her to gain the insight he needed to be taken on as paid crew, and was keeping his head low, and his opinions to himself. Now why would he do that?

During her evening watches she could have asked for no more than to sit on the trampoline between the forward hulls – her harness attached for everyone’s safety – and listen to the rhythmic slicing of the water as she allowed herself to be lulled into a rolling meditation. It would have been a perfect time to concentrate: to force her mind to make those millions of synaptic links needed to access the memory bank deep below her hippocampus. ‘Understanding how your mind works is not so very difficult,’ her mother’s words drifted in from those soporific evenings beside the old Seine under the influence a young sauvignon blanc. ‘Making new links is almost automatic with the arrival of new information. The hard part is breaking the old links, sinking those old concepts, but give yourself time. There is no need for speed. In truth there is no time.’

Fiona had been right, it was the letting go that was difficult, but there was no excuse for her idleness. Here on the open ocean, with everyone sleeping below, she should at least work on it, and she would, but she could not stop picking away at the situation in which she found herself. She was on a smart looking boat, with a magic driving force, under the command of an ex-airline pilot who, had ‘Been in the Army for a while,’ accompanied by his leathery, not to say faithful, sidekick, who might have been his company sergeant, or his flight engineer, with the equally faithful, once-burned-never-to-iron-again, Carina, in close attendance? It was not an entirely unexpected set-up. Even the enigmatic Ramsey, who’s role might be that of the young strong man to dive on stuck anchors, and climb the mast in heavy seas, seemed not that unusual: possibly it was even typical aboard cruising yachts, but it bothered her.

Given that Carina would not stand a watch, an extra crewmember would be a logical addition to George’s world. To be presented with an experienced hand, willing to pay her way, must have seemed attractive to him. If it wasn’t: if it wasn’t the yachting experience, and the energy of a fit young woman, that appealed to George the captain, then it was the shoes and the big buttons on the front loader that appealed to George the man. Either way she had achieved her objective. So what did it matter? In truth it did not: it did not matter a jot, but it still bothered her.

She broke old Hastings’ Law one night by letting the main sheet, the rope that holds the mainsail at the correct angle to the wind, loose. Nothing happened. Nothing happened except the boom moved in line, directly over her head at the wheel, instead of being a off to the side a little as it had been all the way from Tangiers. They had left Tangiers at night with George setting things up during her watch, and leaving strict instructions as to which way to point the boat, and not to touch the sheets and halyards, or any of the ropes really. That’s what he said. “Better not to touch any of the ropes really,” and in saying that he had done it again; he had demeaned her with that last fleeting comment. Such a bastard.

Pushing her emotions aside she forced herself to go back over recent events and try to gain some perspective. Peter had found her, so she ran off under a new identity, and joined a boat going to the Greek Islands only it was not . . . and it was not the boat it appeared to be, and . . . and perhaps the captain was not what he appeared to be. Certainly the only paid member of the crew was not what, who, he purported to be. Come to that, she was not what, who, she purported to be. Talk about a ship of fools, or were they? George was the only one to ask about her background, but his questions were only cursory: he did not follow up on her answers to the few questions he asked, and made no attempt to verify her motives. None of the others had asked about her life before joining the crew, which left her with the feeling they already knew. Could they have been expecting her?

She needed more information about the boat, and the people aboard, but she was not going to start peeking under covers because if she did, and she was caught, then a sense of distrust would descend: leaving her friendless and alone. A better policy would be to keep everything open and encourage the others to consider her a little naïve, or at least to be in no way devious. She would watch and wait, and maybe ask the odd, over simplified, question. She could do that. If she could keep her mischievous streak under control, she could do that.

By way of a test, while standing beside Andy as she overlapped into his night watch, she said, “I suppose those giant cloche things popped up on the deck during the day are solar panels.” He did not reply, concentrating instead on the enthralling business of checking his wristwatch against the time on the electric display beside the wheel. It was 01:15 Greenwich Mean Time, 00:15 Local, or Cape Verde Time.

Chapter Four

“I was wondering where we got all the electricity for all the lights, and the computer, and the CD player.” He concentrated on the synchronising of seconds, offering nothing by way of a reply, or even acknowledging that he heard her question. Once he was satisfied that one time machine spoke the same language as the other, he turned his attention to the set of the mainsail reaching far up into the night where the ‘suspect’ wind vane did its mysterious work. She didn’t press it. She just capped it by saying, “That must be it then,” as if to herself, and drifted below to lounge in the shower where she could almost feel the salt washing from her pores. She let her mind drift. She would come back to the solar panels, she decided, and prise the lid higher from this can of worms. It had to be done gently though, so as not to alienate her shipmates, but it was little more than a test of the skills her mother had been trying to instil when Peter came barrelling into their lives.

In Tangiers George moored the Seahorse alongside a grimy quay busy with dhows, and barges, plying between shore and the ships waiting just beyond the shelter of the breakwater. With the waters stirred by the Atlantic, and rugged commercial traffic nonchalantly lurching, dangerously, close by, it was not a good place for Seahorse. Mina was confused as to why George would moor in such a busy place and was relieved when he abandoned the plan, moving further into the harbour where they could see small craft, moored four, or five, deep just across from the International Terminal, which really was a busy place. An industrial estate of cranes, trucks, and massive mooring lines, caught somehow in a chaotic orchestration of slamming steel, and stinking diesel, it was an anathema to Mina. She had difficulty reconciling this modern harbour scene, reeking in its own pollution, with that of its colourful past. Vandals, Barbarians, Romans, and Greeks, had all shared in it’s recent, violent, history, but before that, long before that, there was an extremely sophisticated civilization here forming a bridge between the European, and African, Continents, with a harbour that became the gateway to all the Americas. The city itself actually spanned the waterway, and was the meeting point of the major cultures, before it fell to the incomprehensible raging of the alpha male.

Since that time, since the fall of the Matriarchs, it had become home to those who lived, and died, by sword and gun, only now it was worse. It had degenerated further. Now it was a centre for filth: little more than a diesel choked maritime shunting yard. She wanted out of there. She wanted out of there before the exhaust fumes actually impregnated her skin to turn it as black, and as oily, as the exhaust clouds from the hundreds of engines to-ing and fro-ing, in lighters, and bum boats, and all the darkly churning generators, and water pumps, in the bowels of the great floating blobs of red, and black, steel standing mastodonic, and triumphant, at the loading terminals. She needed to leave that place of darkness, that chapel of pollution, before it coated her lungs, and the grime filled her eyes, ears, and nose, and before it permanently reduced her life to that of a coal miner. She was almost out of control as she asked what was further on, further down the exposed Atlantic coast of Africa.

“Only Casablanca,” Carina protested, and drew phlegm from her throat as she said it, but the mere mention of Casablanca brought a smile to George’s lips, and a new urgency to his managing of the boat. He hustled them to stow the fresh supplies, then quickly cast away from the crowded jetty to motor along the breakwater and out to the open sea. Soon they were headed south again, down wind, and down the coast, in the clean, Atlantic, air with not a sound, or a sniff, or the tiniest vibration, from the engine.

Passing Rabat they met the huge Atlantic rollers that had been building as far out as three miles from the shore. George took the helm as his eyes darted from ship, to sea, to sky: his hands busy keeping Seahorse safe from the breaking waves. In the moments that followed she could see, in the concentration on his face, and in the rapture in his eyes, a happy man: an experienced man with the wind in his back, and his boat in his hands. Henderson the navigator was in his element sliding down the rollers, to the turbulent troughs, then angling his way back up the other side as the wind whipped the spume from the crests. And all the while she noted, the sails stayed at the same angle.

All thoughts of those nineteen forties images of the beautifully photogenic Ingrid Bergman, and the snarling Humphrey Bogart, evaporated on first sight of the vast man-made harbour that is contemporary Casablanca. Claude Rains, and a whole battalion of his Gendarmes, could not have hoped to police what is now a pulsing terminus that must be the central portal to all of Morocco’s ingestion and, more noticeably, all its excretion. To Mina it was nothing more than a giant, maritime, industrial zone and it was filthy. She wanted to leave there even more urgently than she had wanted to leave Tangiers. Her heart and lungs cried out to be freed from the slime in her hair, on her tongue, in her nostrils . . . and from the abhorrence of the images before her. Her sense of taste, and smell, heightened by the gradual release of her latent memories caught the acrid pungency of the foul harbour and, for a moment, left her reeling. Heightened senses were all very well, she decided, but she had to learn to tone them down when powerful phenomenon were about or she would become victim to her own sensitivities.

She blinked, sniffled, shook a little shudder down her spine while she regained control, but was left with the images of both those harbours: both those disgusting displays of the world’s paranoia with poverty. Blinkered greed best described it: blinkered greed hell bent on destruction. ‘When will they ever learn,’ she heard herself saying. ‘When can we make them stop destroying our planet mother?’

For a while s he sat on the trampoline concentrating on the furthest horizon; on the skyline high above the village she could see in the Atlas Mountains towering in the distance. Closing her mind to her immediate surroundings, and shutting out the tastes, and smells, of the filth floating in the harbour, she began to travel back: to take her mind to a cleaner, kinder, place in the Karakoram Mountains high in the Hindu Kush. Awaking that first morning in warmth of the huge, black, stone that had protected her from the sub-zero night high on the mountain side she watched the sun striking the pristine snow deep over of the hills before bending onto the bronze lining of the walls around her. Soon she had to move as the sunlight, concentrated by the polished yellow reflectors, began to raise the temperature of all in its path. By mid-morning the stone was catching more than ninety percent of the energy focussed there and would soon be too hot to touch. By midday she would be able to cook on it and, by late afternoon, it would be an oven. In that simple structure the Ancient’s had all the energy they needed to cook their food, and sterilize their water. They could concentrate the sunlight still further to burn the dead, and even further, to melt their metals; they could even cut the stone to build their homes. All this came fresh every day, without fail, courtesy of a star that never let them down. She held that image, shutting out the filth of Casablanca long enough to insulate herself from its debilitations. A flimsy shield, it could not be held for long, but it was better than nothing.

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