“For nowadays, the whale-fishery furnishes an asylum for many romantic, melancholy and absent minded young men, disgusted with the lurking cares of earth and seeking sentiment in tar and blubber.”
“My parents sent me away on boat when I was a child, that’s how it got started,” a man called Duncan told me as we stood outside the St James Pub. It was a cold November evening and we were smoking our cigarettes together.
I shook my head in disbelief and blew out measured smoke rings.
“Parents do that here, you know” he said.
“Really?” I asked.
Duncan, with his jaggedy blue black hair and gaunt face, could have passed for 19, instead of the pushing mid-thirties he actually was. His blue eyes challenged me for a second, seeing what comment would pass, then when there was none, he shook his head.
“You Americans,” he chuckled. “You’ll believe anything.”
He pulled back his shirtsleeve back again and showed me the Polynesian woman who eeked out her existence in red and black inks on his left inner arm. He pointed to his pointing finger, then looked up.
“I’ve had her for ten years, but she’s had me for a life-time.”
He’d even become a scientist along the way, learning how to measure jellyfish genitalia and take samples from icebergs from a crew of research scientists he spent a couple of years with – enough to get into university in Portsmouth. Then he ditched it half way through when he got the chance to lead a ship out to some remote civilisation.
He was climbing buddies with John, who was now married to Becky. Their eyes always lit up when they recalled a crazy Duncan story from their uni days or mentioned his travels. I’d heard so much about him, that when I met him, it was as though the golden light of their memories and the dust of his legendary travels flaked his skin.
He was thin, dusty, tired and yet excited and hungry to hear even about the most mundane of details about Becky and John’s settled, suburban life.
“I can’t believe you people,” he kept saying, as they rattled off lists of things they had bought in Ikea the weekend before, before launching into some story about a man who sold them a dodgy second-hand car.
Duncan’s extraordinary life made my meagre existence as a Council employee by day, painter by weekend, seem mild by comparison. Even my yearly holidays to Europe were pedestrian and safe. What was so wild about living in a seaside town?
Duncan was in the sea near Kuala Lumpa fighting sharks with his bare hands, when suddenly the lights of St James Tavern snapped off. The reggae record that had been playing came to a weird slow druggy halt.
“What the hell?” someone said.
“What’s going on?” shouted a builder guy sitting at the table next to ours.
We were sitting there blinking in the darkness. Everyone was turning this way and that. It felt like we were in a movie theatre, but without the movie.
“Guess they forgot to pay the electricity bill,” croaked one of the old professional alcoholics perched at the bar. Everyone laughed, and Duncan winked at me. It was as though he knew the rhyme and reason to this sudden blackout.
“Everyone stay calm,” came from a booming voice above the nervous laughter and conversation. The voice came from a man with white hair, five foot eleven, and soft demure features who came into the middle of the pub.
It was Frank, the owner, who lived in the flat above the pub. He’d obviously been called down.
“The lovely Sara thinks we blew the fuse with a hairdryer, but we’ll hopefully have the lights restored shortly.”
“Nice one,” someone called out. A few tables of people started clapping.
My friends and I resumed talking in the darkness. It was cozy, and suddenly the candle in the small frosted glass bulb on our table served a purpose. It was as though we were sitting round a campfire, or perhaps even out atto sea.
Then the ever logical and sensible John pointed out the windows.
“There’s no street lights,” he observed.
We all looked out the windows – there were no lights anywhere on the street: none in the block of flats, not nor in the Italian restaurant across the street, nor in the Bulldog either – all up and down St James Street.
Other people began to notice too. Frank came to the front of the pub.
“Can I have everyone’s attention please? I just heard on the radio that the entire city has lost power.”
The pub burst into a pandemonium of questions.
One of the girls on duty got everyone to shut up and Frank carried on.
“How did I hear it on the radio? I’ve got batteries in it of course. I don’t know more than that – I’m sorry. Can I ask everyone here to please remain calm? This is a bloody strange thing to be happening so we don’t exactly have a backup plan, but staff will be going round lighting candles. You’re all welcome to stay until, hell, I don’t know. Til it’s light enough outside to go home, I guess.”
“But can I be clear that if you leave, that you don’t come back because I don’t want to deal with half the city coming in.”
A woman shouted out. “Frank, why don’t you lock the door? Like a lock-in.”
Frank looked at his bar staff. A girl in a black bob and a guy dressed in a cowboy shirt both shrugged.
He nodded assent and everyone cheered again.
More tea lights were placed on the tables, which gave the pub a strange under water ambiance. I turned to John, Becky and Duncan.
Becky leaned forwards, half covering her mouth to tell us something, smiling. “Do you think they’ll give us free drinks?” she asked. “I think the cash registers need to be plugged in.”
“Good point,” John said.
Duncan stood up. “Shall we?” he asked all of us, pointing to our half full pint glasses.
“Why not?” I said.
I started to dig for money, but Duncan said not to bother. He shrugged.
“We’ll see what they say.”
He wandered up to the bar.
We watched as a few people picked up bags and purses and hurried out. I guess the rest of us were happy enough to ride out the strange turn of events.
Frank brought out a small radio that ran on batteries and set it on the bar. People started to hush and listened and we heard screaming and police cars. The world outside sounded crazy. Were we at war? What was going on?
I looked to Becky and John for suggestions, but they were both listening too intently. John, in his green sweater, leaned his chin on his hand and stared at the bar. Becky reached down and tugged her grey sweater.
“It’s gonna get cold in here,” she whispered.
I nodded and looked again outside. It was a cold clear night.
Duncan returned with a tray of pints. “The cold won’t get us, my friends – that’s what the booze is for,” he said with a wicked smile.
Becky and John laughed; it was like old days.
At five in the morning, I’d decided I wanted to go home. “Maria, it’ not safe,” Becky said. “Stay, stay here with us. Then we can walk you home.”
I shook my head. “Bed, cats, warmth. Those three things.”
“Light weight,” Duncan said.
“It’s what I want,” I said with a shrug.
I didn’t realize how drunk I actually was until I stumbled down the steps that led to the street. I felt a hand quickly grab my elbow, steadying me and I turned to see who was behind me. I quickly discovered that the hand belonged to Duncan.
“You can’t walk home alone,” he said.
“If I didn’t know you better, I’d say that sounded sexist.”
“Go ahead, Maria” he said, letting go of my elbow. He jumped from the curb to the street and pointed.
“But I’d say the same to any friend, male or female. You’re too drunk to be safe.”
“Are you walking this way anyway?”
“No, I live around the corner. I’m just walking your way for fun.”
“Then I guess I can’t say no.”
I didn’t end up making it home.
Outside Grubs, we came across a group of drunk teenagers with hearing aids who were challenging each to a fight with broken wine bottles and fists. One started shouting at us in a weird slur. We both ran for it, until we darted down a side street, which emptied out to the seafront.
The sun was far on the horizon, a dark grey sky.
“It’ll be a lot worse in town,” Duncan said, catching his breath.
“I know, you’re right,” I said, panting. I leaned against the building. It was cold and it was at least a half hour walk to my house in Hove. I don’t know what I was thinking.
We walked along the seafront and when I let Duncan take my hand, I felt warmer than I should have.
Duncan led me up a dark narrow staircase up five flights of stairs.
From the window on the top floor, I could see the sea. It was a long thin pale blue crust that skimmed over the tops of the buildings below. The view was such that I could have sat there happily all night; I wondered if I’d ever be back so I could paint it.
We did coke and poppers and lay in his narrow twin bed all night long, telling stories and staring at the dark shadows in his tiny room turn into hot eggshell sun spots. Morning wasn’t in a rush to get here. His mattress was filthy.
From the window I could smell the sea and I soon fell asleep on hisarm.
Veins, bulging out like electrical wiring, thin wrists fashioned from wrenches.
He didn’t complain when his arm fell asleep from the weight of my head, not when the pins and needles set in. He stayed wide-awake, writing his waking dreams in Polish with the hand that was free. He set his notebook on my back and used it as his table. He said I could sleep through anything.
Duncan, from the small ship that was his bed, steered us into the story of the unspeakable custom of his village. Only he could see it through the dark waters; down below, it waited.
“They did send me away,” he said. “Only not to an island. To this other place.”
“What was it like?” I asked.
“It was beautiful. It was like, like nothing I’d ever experienced.
Green fields and meadows for miles. We sat under trees for our classes and in the morning helped milk the cows.I didn’t, at the time, fully understand that my leaving was forever. My parents made a lot of sacrifices for me to be there. It could have been worse.”
I didn’t understand what he meant by sacrifices. Did he mean the scrimping and saving, or did he mean other sacrifices?
“What did you do there?”
“Read, wrote, made love. Worked, some. We had to help out to live there. The thing that was so different, I guess, was that we learned, first and foremost, to memorize everything. We started practicing by memorizing poems and books. One summer, my girlfriend, Felicity, memorised the complete works of Shakespeare.”
“Do you know what happened to her?”
Duncan shifted and I felt the mattress move.
“Yeah. We were allowed to leave whenever we wanted. Felicity left one night and never came back.
I got a letter from her saying she couldn’t stand to be apart from her little sister. Her father was an alcoholic and she said she couldn’t leave her sister alone.”
I imagined Duncan as a teenager in the middle of this idyllic school and this tragic separation. Being a teenager was hard enough.
“That’s a really tough choice. I guess I could see why should would leave. Did you see her after that?”
“Yeah, she came up to see me on the weekends. This was after she and her sister and her mother fled to Portsmouth. A few months later, her father fell asleep with while smoking a cigarette.
“The cigarette caught his clothes on fire. He and the house went up in flames. Felicity visited me a few more times after that, but I think a lot of her attention was spent trying to make enough money. Then I went out to sea.”
“Yeah. I’d read all of these books about Christopher Columbus and the gateway he was looking for that he never found. I wanted to go and look for it myself. Mainly I spent years working on cruise ships, washing dishes and waiting on tables. It’s a long story.”
I was too tired by then to hear the rest of his story and had already started to nod off.
When I woke up, it was still mostly dark in Duncan’s bedroom. His bed was a small island surrounded by layers of clothes.
Making my way to the sink to rinse my mouth was like walking through snow in the deepest, darkest December. A black thick-soled shoe turned up amongst a pile of paper. After swallowing two mouthful of water, I looked at the sleeping Duncan, examined his whole room as though I were trying to memorize it.
Then I left.
The bright daylight was typical for summer, not winter. All the light bulbs that had conserved their energy the night before were now ablaze overhead.
In the daylight, I saw the damage that had been done in the night all along St James’ Street: cars tipped over, sofas pulled out onto the street, shop fronts smashed in. It was like surveying the aftermath of a hurricane.
People walked around town either like victims or tourists in a theme park. It was a strange mixture of reactions. The victims looked lost and confused and wore blankets or other people’s clothes. The tourists looked showered and wore sunglasses and fleeces.
The owner of my local newsagent was talking to the police when I passed.
I walked down my drive to find that no one was in my house – a disappointing discovery. The cats sat in the backyard staring holes into space. I ignored them as I switched on the kettle and ran a bath.
After soaking the filth from Duncan’s bed off my skin and reading the first chapter of a novel someone left by the toilet, I wrapped myself in a thick towel, climbed into bed and fell asleep.
When I woke, I felt a thick uncertainty in my gut. I’d dreamt about the ceremonial fires Duncan told me about.