O-o-o-o-o-o-h-f-f-f-f-f-u-u-u . . . The expletive is cut off as the slalom ride comes to a spongy stop. But this time the bow has buried itself deep and the seas engulf the wheelhouse where the other four crew members are clinging with steel-like grips to anything fixed and firm. There is an audible gasp as they instinctively take a lung full of air. No one says a word till she slowly rises and we are buoyant again. They ease their breath out as we climb skywards on the next wave.
“Be jaisus that was a monster. I thought we were done and buried that time.”
It was the bucko. The others were pleased they hadn’t said it, being staunch sailors and all, but their faces show they had being thinking along the same lines. Huddled in the fragile security of the wheelhouse in a fug of cigarette smoke, they start to chatter nervously. All, that is, but the skipper. He wasn’t saying a word. He stands nimbly balanced, legs braced apart with both hands gripping the wheel’s spokes; a study of relaxed concentration. Peering ahead through the circular clear-view Screen, his relaxed appearance is reassuring. He is clearly in tune with every rivet, nut and bolt on this mobile, bucking beast.
Someone says “Jesus I wonder if John . . . ” and they all crane around to look out the rear window. It is fogged with condensation. The mate swivels round, one hand still gripping the chart table, and quickly wipes the window with the sleeve of the other so they can see the after-deck. Through the driven spray they can see me, still out there, hunched over, one hand griping a cable and the other on my knee. There is a collective sigh of relief. There’s no way they could search for me if I’d gone over. Their relief turns to laughter and they joke about my appearance in my wet-weather gear – a saturated, bedraggled, bright-yellow rag doll.
Skilfully adjusting our course a little to port here, a little to starboard there, the skipper keeps the vessel pointed into the massive seas. Should the bow fall off to either side we could broach, with the very real possibility of rolling and turning turtle. God knows what would happen then. She’d probably go down. Even if she self-righted herself we would all be bruised and battered. Reassuringly, the twin diesels down below – now set at ‘slow-ahead’ – throb rhythmically away. The pitch changes subtly as the bow digs into another mountainous wave. We begin to rise again, climbing with a slow, bucking motion until we crest the peak where wind-whipped seas rip and cascade the water off her topsides. It is a grey-blue, bleak and angry sea, with spume and spray being ripped off the crests of the waves by the wind. The propellers, momentarily clearing the water, create an eerie shuddering you feel first through your feet. If it goes on too long, you can feel it up in your skull. Slowly she falls away down into the relative calm of the next trough. On and on, wave after wave. We had set sail at the tail-end of a cyclone.
And me? John boy? I remain out there in the weather on the after-deck, bedraggled and dejected, my bright yellow wet gear contrasting starkly with the surrounding greyness. The latter colour suits my mood. I feel wretched, heaving and retching. In fact, I feel as if I am vomiting my very heart and soul up as I crouch there, holding on to a winch cable with the grip of the condemned. This heavily laden sixty foot workhorse, a former trawler, is our floating home for the next month. I am not yet house-broken. I stagger as the seas pour in over the sides again, tugging at my legs before sluicing out through the scuppers. The heavy deck gear shakes and rattles as we roll. I dare not move inside, every slightest smell – diesel fuel, old fish and cigarette smoke – nauseates me. If only I could bring myself to get off and walk.
But I knew it would be like this. Every time I go to sea I suffer for two or three days until I find my equilibrium. Right now, casting glazed eyes at those grey seas chasing out their fury astern, I think I have about as much chance of finding that equilibrium as I have of finding last night’s dinner.
Ah, but what is this? I find myself thinking positive thoughts. I experience a twinge of excitement, of anticipation. After all, this scheme, the result of twelve months intense planning, promises adventure and booty enough for several lifetimes. But no, the misery returns and again my wracked body heaves, leaving no thoughts of hope for any rose-tinted future. I raise my fist and futilely hurl curses at the elements. In the dim recesses of my gloomy mind however, from past experience, I recognise these little thoughts of the future as positive glimmers. I know they signal my recovery. Taking great gulps of fresh air I pull myself upright and stand erect. I am thinking of a mug of hot chocolate laced with rum. I look into the wheelhouse through the recently-smeared window at the rest of the crew: the skipper, rock steady, the others in animated conversation. I smile to myself, knowing that it won’t be long now and I will be able to rejoin them.
And so the adventure really begins.
* * *
The Editor, sitting at his polished rosewood desk opposite me, straightens his back and heaves a deep sigh. His eyes are glued to my manuscript. He settles down again and enters into my epic adventure. Patiently, I begin to study his movements. I can hear his breathing. He is not just scanning now. I can see he is absorbed and involved as he senses the trawler’s dank and pungent odours of old fuel oil and old fish, feels the briny spray, the tang of salt on the lips. Like me, he is humbled by the sea’s fury and power, overwhelmed by the stunning sunsets and the spectacular sunrises. He savours the contentment felt when sipping that first hot mug of tea on deck at dawn while the tantalizing smell of frying bacon wafts up from the galley. He shares in the camaraderie in the wheelhouse and chuckles at the humour of my crew mates. He is awed by their audacity, envious of their enterprise and courage. And then . . . and then he swallows hard. I see his clasped hands tighten and his jaw drop.
Eventually, he looks up at me with a quizzical expression. Removing his glasses he regards me intently, shaking his head.
“I know you writers put a lot of yourselves into your work,” he ventures “But if you really were involved in this lot I think you’d be wise to look for a nom de plume. Or more apt perhaps, a nom de guerre.”
Sighing, he lays his glasses carefully beside the manuscript, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles before leaning back in the comfortable chair. With his elbows on the leather padded arms rests, he drops his chin onto his fists and looks searchingly into my eyes. “My God! It’s powerful stuff. I think the market for this is vast. Even your tender stomach will touch a sympathetic nerve with all the day sailors or armchair adventurers. And the way you suddenly plunge the reader into those depths of … of … what is it – terror? You lull us with the mundane routine of life at sea and then … wumph!” Here he dramatically slams one fist down on the desk. “Suddenly, it’s fast-paced adrenaline-pumping danger, fear and gripping adventure.” He pauses, savouring the word. “Yes. Gripping! Very good. You have used excellent technique.”
He had startled me. As if we were discussing someone else’s work, I’d found myself nodding enthusiastically, caught up in his praise. I sat back as the implication of what he had said sank in. Perhaps I shouldn’t publish under my own name. But, my God! Publish? Wow, I’m in. My first book! Coming back to earth, I considered how I could have painted some of the detail with a more circumspect brush. Neither I nor the crew wanted our antagonists to trace us, nor did we need them to know the details of the manner in which they had been duped. This story was, however, too good not to be told and my attention to detail had created the impact that the editor had alluded to. I had changed all the names as a precaution and, I conjectured, would the general reader even care if it were true or not?
He broke into my reverie. “I do note you’ve not put a title to it. Anything in mind?” I shake my head. I had been too busy putting it all down to think of titles. Still somewhat troubled by his earlier suggestions, I assure him that I will come up with something.
“North by North West perhaps.” I offer flippantly.
“Sorry.” he smiles. “That’s been well used.”
“Skulduggery at Sea?”
He laughs and gives it the thumbs down.
“The Purposeful Peregrinations of a Pernicious Pirate?”
This causes him to slap his thigh and rock back in laughter.
“Whatever it is,” he says entering into the game “we must ensure it’s not ‘Publish and Perish’. But don’t worry, we’ll devise something. Now tell me, was that true about the big Italian mate and yourself in the alleyway before you boarded that tanker lying off Caracas?”
“Well there’s not a lot of room on trawlers.” I protest lamely, “And besides, she was rolling heavily in rough seas at the time.”
He gives an embarrassed cough. “Yes, I suppose even you tough villains have your tender moments.”
I gazed out his window at the sprawling city far below, reflecting on this and recent events. I knew there was more I could have put into this story, there always would be. But while I had languished in the Burns Unit at La Senora Del Mar Hospital in Cartagena, I’d spent all my waking hours writing, rewriting, and ruthlessly trimming the fat off my voluminous notes in order to give it pace. I seemed to have succeeded. The Editor had given me this opportunity only at the urging of his wife, whose best friend is a journalist – my niece. I had pursued today’s appointment shamelessly. So, publish as is? Hell yes.
While I was musing upon this, he had busied himself pouring a couple of scotch and sodas. He joined me at the window and passed me my drink. After chinking our glasses together we took a sip of the liquor, both seeking inspiration in the view. Slowly, the spirit began to work its magic and we tossed back and forth increasingly outrageous captions. Most were better suited to the Sunday News front page headlines than a book title, but we were having fun. It was the third scotch that caused me to reflect more seriously and utter the prophetic words “To put it lightly, this tale may be perceived as a challenge by one or two of those involved. But I reckon I can cope with the flack. I pretty much have the measure of all the men concerned. The women … well, that’s another matter. But in deference to one particular and memorable seductress among them, I’d like to call it “The Quest for the Auburn Inheritance”.
Little did I know at that time that the story had not ended, or that the lady I’d obliquely referred to in the title was to pursue me – and not for love.
Copyright © J Cedric Watkins 2009