The inflated breast, the red and filling cheeks. Hands balled, white to the knuckle, nails cleaving palms. Face like a cork in the spout of a freshly shaken bottle. Gas building. Bubbles rising up. An overspill of saliva in the west crotch of the mouth.
Gary turns his head to the left, 90 degrees due left, to where the fucking parrot should be but it isn’t. There is never any parrot, and this is, Gary supposes, one of the worst hurdles. So visual, the absence. A priority. Yes.
Gary swashbuckles his way to the old desktop computer gifted to him by his daughter. May 2012 it was when they brought him here, after his last ship sank in a deluge of unopened bills and underpaid mortgages. What a storm. The computer whirrs from off to on. Gary raises a crooked finger into the air. It’ll be a fine day, clear skies. He nods, satisfied. Hoists his body up onto the deck of the wooden chair. It creaks like something is going to give. Let the seas be calm this here morning, please. Gary shakes the mouse until the cursor bursts into view. Squints, un-squints, moves his screwed-up face in. Types in his username: Gary. And his password: Brownbeard123.
He taps on the keys, two slow index fingers and a ring finger waiting on return. Types the domain of his email in the search bar. Waits. Gary rolls his shoulders back and cracks his neck. Strong panels. There’s life in this old vessel yet. A little polish, a bit of a once-over, that’s all it needs. The parrot. He writes to his care worker about the parrot, or lack thereof, and how he feels this addition would expedite his full recovery. He hopes to be sailing again with the year.
There is no time to lose. Gary moors the chair and limps his way back to firmer ground. War wounds. An accident by the Bay of Biscay. An unregulated vessel. 1979. Gary’s chin was chiselled, trunk like timber, eyebrows thick as a forest teeming with angry bears. He fought them off, the intruders, moonlight leaping off blades of silver, but not before one rival sliced through his side. A cold, cold night. Bleeding on the planks. Red pulled into the cracks and down below deck to stain the ceilings of the cabins. Face on the starlight-dotted, sea-drenched wood. Spray. The clacking of night gulls. Endless moon-burnt skies.
The kettle whistles. Blooms of smoke and fog expand into the musty living areas. A lifetime away, Gary thinks as he jitters most of the boiling water into the area within the circumference of the edges of the mug of what will soon become tea. A world away. Spoonship crashes into pyramidal teabag iceberg. A vortex as it gets removed. And then the rain. Whiteness pouring down and drowning out everything, on and on. Over the rims of our flat Earth and onto all the disbelieved-in and unknown territories that are still out there. Exploration. Gary drops the carton and dives in; resurfaces. Gasps a bubble of air and slides his few flattened hairs back from his forehead. Which way now? The door. He’s under and he swims and swims, hands together in prayer before they push the liquid world away and Gary’s torpedo head shoots through the space.
He’s on the floor, damp and restless. Cracked cup in the kitchen. Trembles. Through the blinds, rays of light slowly scan the room. A vibration, the ground rumbles. Gary clutches his stomach, roiled by the sudden shudder, curls up in defence. A text message on his phone in his pocket. Of course. Simple. He squeezes a hand in and strains the phone out. Pulls the tiny screen up toward his face. One eye closed, the other wide like a telescope. He reads. “Next week Thursday? I want to do earlier but this world has me caught up I swear.” Katie. The daughter. How many days and nights at sea until then? One captain alone on the open ocean. Just a pocketful of faded photographs and softer biscuits. He howls into the sweat-damp sleeve of his weathered house cape. Pain. He won’t see land for days.
Rockall. ’84. A stark winter. Low on bodies and holed up on ship for what seemed like months, waiting for supplies. Sending the men out to snatch at gannets. Tough flesh. Like us, they often die before their time. Blindness. It affects the eyes. Taking the jackets off the dead and lightening the load. Overboard. Giving something back. Saying grace held us together. That and the singing, the way it rhymed. Filthy grog and chests full of memories. Those that were left knew they’d survive. The way your heart bumps when there’s a glitch on the horizon. Come, boat, come! Bring us men. Tears and salt and sea legs finally. We quivered towards the nearest body and held it there. Strong, fine humans. There is nothing like not dying to make you feel alive. Gazing after the receding rock like a kindly lover. It never would have worked. They would never have approved the match. Window ledges lined with the stones we have known.
A key in the lock. Ian from the agency drops his bags. Seconds later, strong hands under Gary. Forearms under armpits. Steam from a new cup rising into Gary’s sunken face. Ian having a good old look. This is the chair I can never get out of, Gary says. Ian replies like the only word he knows of his mother tongue is shush. Gary nods and moves the edges of his mouth closer to the sides of his face. The steam gives Ian a bit of a dream face. Yes. The water rising.
Ian, did I tell you about the time there was a whale beneath our vessel? A great North Atlantic right whale, long as the ship. Toyed with us, throwing us up and down on a sea poured out like molten metal. I have never belonged to anyone. Never needed anyone. Only a map and the movement of waves. The pull and the drag. But now you’re under my boat, Ian. Shunting me to and fro. I’ve lived the sagas and the Turner paintings, Ian. I could finish you with a flick of my wrist if you came at me, if you threatened my ship. Get me out of this chair! I want to stand by the bow. By the bow, please. I want the waves crashing all around me. Clinging to the ropes. Determined fists. Spitting salt from my mouth onto the piss-soaked ground. I don’t need you, Ian, and I won’t remember you. It doesn’t matter how many times I fall down because my knees have done this a thousand times before on a thousand shores.
Gary throws the half-full cup at Ian’s face but Ian blocks it well. Silently he retrieves the two larger pieces from the wall near the television, has a quick glance around for shards. Ian turns the television on, flicks through the channels and finds a quiz show. He knows these are good for Gary’s attention, a little mental exercise. He turns the volume down low and dims the living room lights. Places the remote control on the arm of the chair. Tells Gary he can change the channel if he likes. Ian looks at his watch; 18:45. The kitchen is a bit of a mess, milk everywhere but hopefully the bed is dry. It shouldn’t take too long. He whistles while he works.
© Lydia Unsworth
[This piece was selected by Damyanti Biswas]