"Maybe he knows." Chen, elbows on his knees, opens out
the brochure to a spotless 4x4 climbing a bank of mud. "Maybe he knows I am rich already."
Kara, takes the test drive invite, passes it to the floor. "He wasn't going to give you one - you held out your hand so he had to, he was going to give it to him." She points to a black man in a bright green, broadly tartaned, safari suit, hair drawn into five stubby sticky-up plaits. He is looking at jeans in the closed Calvin Klein window while his wife and three children, well stuffed at TGI Fridays, amble off and turn up the Thames inlaid in the mall pavement.
At the 4x4 stand the salesman taps his ballpoint through a list of new addresses, while his assistants begin to pack up. A girl in a blue t-shirt sweeps Chen's invitation into a can on the end of a stick. He watches her walk away to capture a Crunchie wrapper. "Maybe I've won the Lottery."
"You don't play the Lottery."
"Every week my mother buys me a ticket, every week."
"When did you last talk with your mother?"
Chen rubs his cheek with the side of his thumb, he hasn't been shaving every day recently, bristle is still a novelty.
The shoppers walking Bluewater's mall triangle have gone home. Workmen pull tiles from the floor to access electricity and tool noise. Tomorrow's salespeople arrive to erect their own stands. The intense rodent-like cleaners with their brushes and long cans give way to the whir and buff of heavy slow machines. The light is harsher, like sun cloud after a storm.
Erik is sitting between Kara and Chen although as often happens he is elsewhere, remembering his father, an architect, reluctantly rubbing little letterset people on to his finished elevations. Erik is thinking: All day this place has been under the herd, the feet, the noise constant as water, the shops' front: logos, brands, goods. Now, shutters down, nothing can be bought. A kind of peace.
Erik says, "I am a carrier but I don't love the goods I carry, I guess what I think I love - thought I loved - is the movement itself."
Kara and Chen wait, as they always do when Erik speaks like this, his jaw long right down to his chin, but he rarely elucidates or explains where he has been. When he gets up, they follow him and walk some more.
Above the sails hung in Bluewater's Thames Mall, clouds break up the sun into rays and glare. Kara, Erik and Chen came up the real Thames, a ship full of trucks, trucks full of cargo, like an old fish recipe - a freighter stuffed with freighters stuffed with freight. They berthed to lawyers and their ship was impounded against unpaid harbour fees, tax, fuel bills - moored with emails and writs.
Smoking on the foredeck, watching cars and lorries run like rain drops off the spine of the Dartford Bridge, Chen the Engineer and Kara the Navigator, listen to Erik the Quartermaster's list, Maersk, Hapag Lloyd, Eddie Stobart, Gefco, Safeway, Ziegler, Christian Salvesen, Fiolet, BOC, Yaka, Reusman, Eurocold, Balkenende, Giraud, Unipart, Omega Express, Parcel Force, Asda, Norfolk Line, Coolchain, John Lewis at Bluewater.
Only with the ship stopped, did they find themselves a threesome, wandering past a group of strikers and their brazier at the gate, along the shorefront of lorry parks, then among the steel distribution sheds and brick 'road' hotels. Two weeks back they walked through the drizzle, along the dual carriageway, over the green hill and the quarry's lip to the stickleback roof of Bluewater surfacing with rocks in an ocean of cars. They come most days now, to get away from the beached ship, the coastline of hard towns and closed dormitory villages.
Inside Bluewater, there is no weather. They take the ***** out of Erik for always carrying too much stuff, Kara makes him list it.
"Coat, my bag, comb, book, ... camera -"
"Have you got a film?"
"Papers. Tobacco. Pouch. Does that count as one thing 'cause the tobacco's in the -"
"More papers. Mobile. Leatherman." He thinks about, but does not mention the small plastic album of photographs of his daughter, a jiffy bag of German cartoon badges he will one day send her. "Shipping News."
"Three ... four months, I'll read it, I will read it." Erik gives up remembering and looks in the bag. "Pencil. Bottle of water. Plasters. All this ... fluff."
Erik is always too hot in Bluewater.
Kara and Chen play a game Erik can't get his head round. They spot shoppers' faces for features of people they have known - recall the feature, the name, the place and one other thing about the person. It is a serious game, the match has to be exact. They don't cheat.
Outside Aigle, Chen: "Round brown eyes one a little lazy: Theresa, Alcntara, I was nineteen, wouldn't let me touch her, sucked me off on her sister's bed."
By Blooming Marvellous, Kara: "See, his brows don't quite meet but look like they should? Hans, Oslo, college, used to put his thumb on a chart like he was making a print."
Through the window of Cafe Aqua, Chen: "Hair up, over her ear, cats ears, see them point? Selma, Rotterdam, round white *****, like," he holds up his hands in loose claws. "Her ***** always the same whichever way up she was."
Passing, D'Or Designer Jewellery, Kara: "Mole on his lip, you know I was fixated by the mole on his lip, we talked a couple of hours maybe, he was an agent, cars, moleskin freckles, in a shabeen, Davide, long blue legs. Dakar." They pass him again by Dorothy Perkins. Chen nods to his lip and the man pats his wallet pocket and ducks into a walk that is definitely away.
"Come on Erik."
"Erik come on."
Eventually Erik, by Eisenegger Kinder: "Her nose, she took me home from a railway station, a tap dripped in her flat."
"An orange curtain through to the stove."
"The tap dripped all night."
"Her husband was away watching football."
"You're making that up."
Chen often tells Erik that when he meets a woman he has slept with, it is her hands that fascinate him. "Their fingers always seem much longer, stronger, a surprise how ..." each time searching for the same word "... how ... articulate, as if you never knew then, when you were with them." He sometimes stands near counters to watch the salesgirls wrap.
Kara is not sure whether she is thinking of her mother because Costa Coffee is by the job centre, or whether the woman at the next table, sipping her latte like it is going to jump out and bite her nose, has hollows like her mother's in the wattle up inside her jaw. Hollows that fill and ***** empty when she digests - food or news. Most news is bad news to Kara's mother. The wattle fill and ***** implies, Why? and, You are doing this just to hurt me.
Last time Kara was home her Mother had shown her a photograph she claimed to have "come across". Although Kara hadn't thought of the photo for twenty years, she knew exactly where it had been - in an envelope in her brown cardboard wing collar and white tie box she hid in the back of her wardrobe, her dead Father's box with his cigarette holder and rings in, a little plastic bag of confetti, buttons, metal ink pen nibs, a maroon and blue eraser, a watch, a pile of diaries in a plastic band empty apart from understatements like Married Elise. Mama died. K Chicken Pox. A tin of pink elephants.
Once in her teens, when her Father was still alive, and Kara was coming home from one of her first solo trips to Oslo, the train came to a halt in woods just before her stop and stood still half an hour. Slowly a buzz built as people started talking, then chatted as if they were not on a train but in a bar or breaking up after a public meeting. When the train suddenly jolted off again, Kara knew that everyone had gone silent and looked up because they jolted backwards, not forwards. If they had gone forwards, the buzz would have flowed undisturbed. Whether it was at that moment, or later at sea remembering the incident, she understood that if you travel on a fixed line you know immediately when you are going in the wrong direction. But at sea direction is always conditional, direction itself moves, being an invention between a distant, often imaginary point and a place inside somewhere between the eye, the shoulder and the heart. Whatever the GPS tells her, Kara still makes her own calculations, thumbs point, takes a line, feels the nudges needed to keep dead on the next position.
Thinking again of the square black and white photograph her mother "came across" - the bow of a ship sticking in from the top right corner as if sinking from the sky - she remembers the other lost prints from that first ever film, taken on a plastic camera she got for eating twenty-four chocolate biscuits and sending the wrappers off. Thick white borders, none containing all of a ship, all with parts of ships at angles, blurred from her excitement.
When she began to take the train regularly between Marine College and home, Kara used to stare at the parallel tracks until the rails shot in the opposite direction, kidding herself she was travelling fast backwards, until stationary objects by the line - sleepers, grey boxes - ripped her into forwards, and she would sway against the side of the carriage to try and create drift, steer her course with an imaginary rudder, veering the train smoothly away from the rails.
The morning Kara announced she was going to navigate, to college, to sea, standing in front of her Mother sitting slightly back and sideways under the light in her straight backed sewing chair, the hollows went at it double time, knowing Kara was beyond stopping.
Sitting in Costa Coffee, Kara realises her Mother had not been snooping when she came across the photograph, but had been gathering the bits of her long life together. Kara felt included rather than intruded upon. Looking out at security guards dragging two teenage girls out of the Bluewater fountain, Kara finds herself doing what she has never done before, working out how long it has been since she last went home. A group of Sikh boys wait for their interviews at the high tables outside the job centre, like at a bar without drinks. She wonders how far they have come, or whether they have always lived near this quarry that became blue water.
Chen is convinced the hands he watches wrap are hands he has seen wrapping in another shop. Sales girls as well as shoppers move round the mall triangle.
A completely bald red-headed man bowls out of Famously Yours, Kara: "Ritchie, Hull, he had a dome here, euro size, like they'd chopped off his unicorn horn, had dollar notes, every pocket stuffed with pounds. Francs, still tender then. Marks. I sneaked some while he peed, closing time he gave us all handfuls."
A shy girl scratching her cheek among a pack waiting round the window of Gap, Chen: "You see her mouth, hung open, Bremerhaven, Katya, couldn't find her sides, inside like a cave." He pushes his tongue into his cheek.
In Habitat Chen takes nine tall thin fragile glasses to the checkout to be wrapped by eight ringless fingers and two ringed thumbs. The shop girl rolls and tucks blue tissue paper, wraps the tissue in thick cream sheets then places each package gently down into the stiff brown paper bag. When she pushes it over the counter, Chen pretends to have lost his wallet and leaves.
Although his face is round, outside Zara, Chen turns into a pointer dog. Despite having both feet on the ground, one leg seems slightly lifted, cocked.
Kara and Erik wait for him to move. He tilts his head. They wait for him to talk. He bites his dry lip. They look along his eye-line and can not see what has fixed him among the people holding up dresses and shirts to themselves, flicking along the rails, jumbling jumpers on the shelves. Chen trots into the shop. They lose sight of him. An hour later they sit on the rocks in the Thames Mall, presuming Chen has found perfect wrapping.
Erik and Kara give up waiting on Chen and walk the Rose Gallery where escaped red balloons tuck up under the skylight domes, strings tapering into the Mall's atmosphere.
Erik scratches his long jaw. "You think they'd get birds coming in ? you know? Have you? I've not seen a single bird."
He takes a roll-up from his jacket pocket and hangs it from his mouth. A couple of men in suits come over, the taller man says, "No smoking in the Centre, sir."
Erik takes the roll-up from his mouth, "This is a no smoking cigarette." And as the suits walk away, "And the other rules?"
The suits stop, look at each other, turn, the tall one says, "Sir?"
"The rules you're looking for people to break."
The smaller, thinner man pushes his glasses back up his nose. "No busking, no hawking, no photography, no fly pitching."
"I can't take photographs, not even of my friend here?"
The tall man explains, "You can get a permit from the Management Centre, it's not really Bluewater, sir, it is the shops, they worry about the use of their image."
Kara stares along the mall at the shop fronts and windows, the carrier bags people lug, she wants to say something personal, political but it is too heavy and unimportant to think of the words for, makes the stare do the work, aggressive, but fading into herself.
Eric points up, asks, "And the birds?"
The small suit doesn't look up, "Birds?"
"I don't see birds. What do you do if they get in? Shoot them?"
"Oh no, sir, we don't have a problem with birds." And following Erik's gaze, they all look up to the balloons. "Those are illegal balloons, sir, strictly speaking people are supposed to fill them half oxygen not just helium so that doesn't happen."
Kara: "Do you shoot the balloons?"
"We don't shoot anything, ma'am."
Their badges say Ranjan Wallace, Clinton Devine. Kara holds out her hand, "I'm Kara, from Oslo, hello."
The tall suit makes to leave, the small one pushes up his glasses again. "We get lots of foreign delegations ma'am. Today we have guests from Osaka seeing how we do things here."
Kara pushes, "And you two, what do you do then?"
With another shove at his glasses, "Us? We're Complex Centre Safety Hosts."
Erik has been surprised by the jobs he had not expected to be in a shopping centre: climbers, gardeners, off road driving instructors, boat men and women, gymnasts. He has not seen a balloon marksperson or thought of anything approaching Complex Centre Safety Hosts.
The small man rotates his shoulders up into his suit, "You can pick up a chart at the job centre." There is moment of stillness, which for Erik and Kara means Go on, and for the tall Complex Centre Safety Host means Enough, let's get out of here. His colleague is on a roll. "We have a Zone Manager and a Team Leader who supports the Zone Manager and us Guest Safety Hosts are under him, or them. There's a control room we are in contact with," tapping his radio. "You see that camera, there are over 300 in here, and he can set the lighting levels, music, traffic signals, one guy all from one desk, and they tell us when there's a situation. Then we have Environmental Safety Hosts, cleaners really, and outside there's Rangers for the lakes and walks and that, Service Yard Hosts, Mechanical & Electrical."
Erik tries to match his unusual jobs with the jobs carved in tableaux above the shop fronts along The Guild Hall, scriveners, plasterers, and across the lintel of Bluewater's Burlington Arcade, a stone garland to World Trade.
Erik is just about to ask, So what's a situation? when Chen shouts to them; still some way off, it is as if he is wading through water to his knees. The tall Safety Host tilts an OK, let's get out of this nod to his smaller colleague.
Chen struggles as close to them as he can, shouts, "I've seen her," before the tide of his excitement whips him away again.
Kara shouts, "Seen who?"
The Complex Centre Safety Hosts have gone too.
Kara sits in a leather chair under a tubbed tree. "It's some tart he's ***** somewhere."
Erik lights his roll-up, takes a couple of drags then puts it out in the tub soil. All of a sudden he feels constricted by windows, goods and walks to the crook of the malls. Erik sits on a wooden chair in an empty coffee shop under the dark blue dome between the Thames and Rose Malls, there are lights set in the parquet floor like fallen stars. Kara, is twenty yards away, they are the only people now. Apart from the shop dummies.
Erik says to Kara though not so he thinks she can hear. "The Maryanka right, how many chocolate brazils does she weigh, eh?"
But the bridge Kara makes between his eyes and her tired-and-time-to-go-home eyes, means she has heard, so Erik goes on, almost as loud as a speech now. "How many ounces of Eau Sauvage aftershave does she displace? Shall I work it out? Mmm? The deckchairs a day it costs to keep her tied up there, those ***** little lighthouse barometers it would take to pay off what she owes."
Kara thinks, Last week he would have told me, not asked, he would have worked it all out.
Erik gets up, walks round the coffee bar planking, talking sometimes so Kara can hear, often so she only catches the edges. "After I married we looked at this flat - four bare rooms, kitchen, bathroom, two bedrooms, big windows, full of light, wooden floors. We thought we couldn't live in a place you see in magazines, or like one of the offices or schools or shop units my Dad designed, but we had so much stuff we bought this old place that has shelves, cupboards, nooks, even little half rooms off and under the stairs, and all the walls, you know they had little empty knots and gashes and holes more like ledges in the wood you could put things on, in, things, you know like little bits you would throw away if there wasn't just this place saying, 'Here. Put something on me'."
"Of crap. You know, say a little plastic soy sauce fish with a red nose from a take away Japanese I had to save, it's there now, it pisses me off knowing that stupid little thing's there now next to the mirror in our bathroom."
Kara says quietly but as clear as sitting next to him, "Squirrel."
Erik joins her back at the tubs, flops down into a leather armchair, "A squirrel, yes."
Even as he speaks he sees a folder shoved under a chair leg and has the pack out, unbent, a leaflet out and is reading, 'A unique retail success story. Bluewater, Europe's largest and most innovative retail and leisure -'
Kara says, "Out with it, come on."
"Retail success story. Bluewater, Europe's largest and most innovative retail and leisure destination opened on March 16, 1999 blah built in a disused chalk quarry blah blah surrounded by those 50m high cliffs. Within its first 12 months blah changed the face of retailing in the UK and became the benchmark for quality British blah, winning a multitude of international blah blah blah. Bluewater successfully combined retail and leisure to offer a day out desti-blah blah average guest spends around four hours at Blue-blah 98% of guests say their visit is highly enjoyable, enjoyable or OK."
The night-lorries drip off the bridge. Erik is smoking extra long roll ups, extensions of his jaw; Kara is rubbing her woollen arms; Chen leans back against the deck rail, looking at his hands.
This is what Chen has never spoken about with anyone.
"I was seven, my new school in Lisbon I told them I had a big sister. In our cabin from Mozambique, one of the other families, there was this girl, Olana, eighteen, and when we got off I kind of stayed on board with her in my head - they went, I forget to, I don't know where, but often I try to remember, north, this was the sixties, Oporto, further maybe, Holland. At school my Olana was real - at home she was all in the head ? just us on the ship, we did things on the ship together, being places passengers couldn't go, the bridge, below, all over. I talked with her, out loud sometimes, like I mean out loud in real life. Once I was running into the house with her, us talking, and my parents there standing, asked, Who you talking to? It hurt, you know, like a shame."
Chen watches Erik light another roll-up.
Chen waits 'til Erik has taken full draw, waits for the smoke to come out, when it doesn't he exhales for both of them. "I'd grow out of it then start up again. Then this guy, Andreas comes back home with me from school, and when his aunt comes for him he says, You never had a sister, you soft *****. You know, just like that. Biff bam."
Earlier, after they found Chen running sprint starts each way but nowhere, under the dome with a clock and planets outside Marks and Spencers, the three of them argued about how to spot someone in the Bluewater triangle. Chen thought the best plan was to walk in the opposite direction to most people, though he kept changing his mind about which way that meant. Erik was convinced they should spend a set amount of time at different strategic points, looking all round. Kara insisted they stay put, let the faces come on to Chen to spot her, because if She was going to pass She would pass, if not She was gone.
"Andreas killed her. Bastard, he didn't tell them at school I had no sister, but I knew he could anytime he wanted to. Wasn't 'til I was eleven, twelve, the world in my head starts again, up in the Castelo, me, girls I liked, the only people left in Lisbon, on the planet maybe, so we could do what we want, take what we wanted, boats, yachts, cars, use them, and the girls would, you know, change with whoever was in real life."
Earlier, they had eventually agreed it was best to be on the upper mall looking along and down. This fell apart when Chen decided to walk into the greater flow, prompting Erik to set off for his first strategic spot on the lower mall outside the restaurants and bars of the Water Circus.
"Except there was Emela, like no one I knew, not from real life, maybe eighteen, taller, not Olana, mixed blood, I made her, Emela, I don't know, from TV, pop, Portuguese girls, school, she was the same as Olana to me, kind of a sister but now I ***** her, so not a blood sister. Stories that went one night into the next night, months they lasted, you know, doing all these things being the only people in the world meant you could do, we wouldn't take risks, I mean we wouldn't do things that would ***** us up, things we couldn't do like fly planes, just boats and cars and eating slow and girls and sex, and occasionally Emela and I did, which wasn't just wanting to *****, just ***** was the girls that came and went, with Emela was big, important, because mostly I talked with her. She was like, everything was round her."
Back at Bluewater, Kara had stayed put on the Upper Mall as the people flow split round the prow of railings opposite those she leant on, and below in the Lower Mall flowed each side of the stand selling football shirts with any name you wanted on. The biggest problem was only Chen knew what Emela looked like. Now.
Although Erik listens to everything Chen says, he is thinking of grey faces, the truckers, road crews, salesmen and families eating affordable steaks, chicken and French fries they saw after walking the dual carriageway back from Bluewater. Chen had gone in front of Kara and Erik, peering into the dark car windows accelerating down the hill. On the coastal strip, he made them hang in the bars and lobbies of the Holiday Inn and the Campanile until Kara persuaded Chen that his Zara Emela wouldn't be found in this first circle of transport *****. So they walked to a village and a pub where the people had the same transparent hopeful look of the letterset people Erik's father rubbed on to his architectural drawings.
When they got back to the ship, Erik took the plastic bag from the stowaway under his bed. At his desk shelf he unwrapped his notebooks, each with a place attached. The marbled cover and pink pages from Genoa; the faux leather wrapped round red lined paper of translucent blue, Mombassa; the bark bound heavy weft pad Vancouver; the Tintin school exercise book Marseilles. All started few finished. In the pink pages he dipped the list of what his daughter did. No dates, but a chronology.
Beginning to lay her tongue on things, like straps, taste?
Looking at her fingers.
Two voice tones, la la.
Erik hears now, in the empty width of the river, that although all the entries are in his square lettered hand, there is a change of voice in the list, between the things that his daughter did he saw for himself, and his wife's voice through waves of RT static:
She's smiling at her toys.
She's reaching for things.
She puts her hand to her face, misses.
Sitting up in her chair.
Scrabbling herself, maybe it's her hair growing, maybe an ear infection.
... and his own, not written contemporaneously but in a wake trailing back to a dock he was departing or a runway when he was catching up with a ship, the haphazard chronology of memory:
Discovers her neck works.
Swimming, OK with hand under her chest. Laughs at me after row with J.
Not kissing licking.
Looks at pictures. Wants pictures.
Screams at books.
And Julia's voice again.
She's rolling unrolling her fingers.
Cries when I leave the room.
Can't get over her knee to crawl.
Holding her cup.
First word. "No."
She cups the TV remote to her ear and says, "Hola!"
Erik sees his daughter sitting in the middle of the floor with his mobile saying, "Hola!" and him cupping the TV remote to his ear saying, "Yes? Are you there? How are you? Yes? Yes? Hello darling." And his daughter looking up at him as if he had started a game she didn't understand.
Still the lorries come across the bridge. Kara's woollen arms are damp now, though it won't rain. Chen chops his hands but looks straight at the deck.
"When you start ***** for real you lose all that stories in the head stuff, it's just thinking ***** and about to *****."
From Chen's glance almost up but not quite to her, Kara realises she features in the 'about to *****. She cuts in, "Short stories."
"Yeh." Chen looks up at the ship's empty bridge then back to the road bridge streaming trucks. "I saw Emela, not like I remember her, but like Emela would be now. Is."
To fill the space after Chen telling them what he has never told anyone before, and about ***** and the thinking about ***** that includes her, and about this Emela imagined but now somewhere out there ashore, Kara tries to persuade Erik to list the lorries.
"Go on Erik!"
Chen reaches over and takes the pouch and papers.
Erik stretches his jaw onto the end of his finger, thumb. "They're on the orbital, some'll break off south soon for the channel ports, the others'll be pulled round west. And some'll be stocking Bluewater." Erik watches Chen roll and fumble the threads of tobacco. "There'll be people waiting for them, to unload, stack, unpack, shelve, bash up empty boxes - Service Yard Hosts."
Chen exhales his first draw of smoke for ten years. "The last time I saw Emela in my head I was eighteen, nineteen maybe."
Kara shifts her ***** off the ship's metal chill. "They built that place in a hole in the ground, a quarry, built on sand, three million cubic tonnes of it driven through a tunnel from the quarry next door, compacted bam bam, built the place on sand ? really on water because under all that, you know, there's a huge aquifer. They're going to build houses, shops, schools, pubs, all round, it's going to be a city."
Eric says, "Blocks and grids."
Chen looks over the side straight down into the Thames. "She could live anywhere."
Later, trying to sleep, Erik regrets giving his pouch to Chen. He has papers and tobacco enough stashed away to make him sick at the thought of all that smoking, but his pouch is his justification, the dun aroma of tobacco and leather reminds him of his Father's pipe. Every time he licks a Rizla, Erik sees his father at the plan table in the back of their house, tongue tight between his lips, spitting at the taste of the stem tip, like an imaginary limpet tobacco shred he will eventually pick from off his tongue and absently smear on his trouser leg.
Erik regrets that his new friend has toppled back into a habit he himself has long given up despite the twenty or thirty he rolls a day. He gave up when his daughter was born and started again the night he got home from her birth leaving Ulla and Julia to wrestle into their new life at the hospital.
That night, unbeknownst to Erik until the next morning, their daughter was taken into intensive care, the nurses gave Julia a Polaroid of Ulla in the incubator to keep with her on the labour ward, which Erik knows Julia keeps apart from the other photos of their healthy growing girl, tucked into her drawer of old photographs and love affairs. The last time Erik was home his brother-in-law had a digital camera with which he took little GIF clips. He shot one of Ulla, sitting in her high chair covering her eyes with her hands, then flinging her arms wide open. If there had been sound, the adults would have been heard saying Where's Ulla gone? and There she is! When the stuttering image was played back on the camera's LCD screen, it seemed to Erik like a tiny replica of the very first silent experiments in film.
The last entry in the pink note book of things his daughter did was the day the Maryanka B was impounded. She is singing. Everything Ulla has done since, Erik remembers in his wife's voice through the RT static.
"- She almost swallowed that stupid plastic takeaway fish thing."
"- Let go ? I mean she just stood there, only thirty seconds but all on her legs wobbling."
"- She keeps falling over piles, do you think all our mess will make her not able to concentrate on anything?"
Erik dozes, the first thing he collects from his head each time he blinks awake is the jolting animation of his daughter covering her eyes then flinging open her arms. He tries to sleep by imagining himself sitting in a bare white room, pine floors, one wall a sheer window looking out onto spruce. He tries to hold it there, then limits himself to a Bang and Olefson slab hi-fi, a couple of stainless steel Arne Jacobson jugs, maybe a single picture of an abstract tree on the back wall. Then he strips the room again, just him, the floor, the white walls, the window, wonders if maybe the view should be sea not spruce, then he is counting the sea with ships, then thinking of getting up for a cigarette, but the one thing he gave Chen that he doesn't have another of, is his Zippo lighter, so a cigarette would mean getting up and going along to the galley for flame. He sees his daughter hiding behind her hands, her toys in a heap under the thin white shelf he has created for the Bang and Olefson, her fingermarks on the wafer TV screen hung on a bracket on the bare white wall which, before he can turn his head to the fingermarked spruce window, develops a gallery of photographs and tacked splodges of his daughter's paintings. To break this roiling he gets up for a *****.
Eventually he sleeps by imagining Ulla coming into bed with him, her warmth and weight and abandon, head resting in his arm, eyes cloaked by loose lids, her fine hair in his breathing, the taste of her slight bad breath lovely and human.
Kara went to her cabin shortly after Erik left his pouch and ambled off, spitting into the slow water. Chen stayed on deck and has almost smoked his way through Erik's tobacco. It is raining over the Dartford Crossing but not on the ship, the few lorries create wakes of spray, a distant hiss broken by the ching of Erik's Zippo.
Chen is sick in his gut from smoking, cold, hunger. He thinks of going to the galley for some warm milk, but knows he will be even colder if he unwinds from the chill of the hatch on his balls and backside. The deck is a damp tin ashtray. His cabin seems another country.
He chews his memory for the moment an Emela, a woman who is now somewhere out there, planted herself to grow in his fantasy. A tourist maybe, straying into their barrio, his uncle's shop, a girl now in England, Zara.
Chen can't remember a single facial detail about the friend she was shopping with, except that she was a woman, laughing as Emela tried on a winter hat, brought her hair under her chin to test the line of the brim. He looses his breath again. Her eyes the blue that's a state rather than a colour. Blue that isn't her skin.
When she held the jumper up to her neck with her shoulders back and her stomach pushed forward, Chen thought, children, two.
He reaches for the feeling of being in his young Lisbon bed, almost into sleep, coming from an adventure to settle, lie with, talk with, touch Emela, realises he had never given her eyes a colour.
Holding trousers to her waist, wrapping them to her hips, her stance locked, planted and weighted confident, he thought, running, tennis.
Pulling the lapels of a jacket, opening it off herself, money, she tells people what she has decided.
Trying shoes asking for the other boot, stretched down to knead her calf.
She held lace in her fingers. Held night up to her chin, the friend laughed, a hand to her mouth, and Emela was still, held the lace away on a straight arm, fingered the filigree, thought and put the camisole back on the rack.
Emela took an armful of clothes to the changing room, Chen ran to find Erik, Kara. An armful was plenty of time, but not enough. When he got back she had gone.
Chen drags deep and crumples the embers in his fingers. This ***** reaches the river.
Sleep comes to Kara as easily as taking off her clothes and lying down. Although she has become fond of Erik and Chen as companions rather than crew, she is relieved away from them and back to the space of being the only woman onboard.
She wakes as she always does at three and attends the ship, the line of movement, and remembers they are moored up on the south bank of the Thames. Her mother is sitting at the foot of her bed, holding the Oslo photograph of the ship sinking from sky, inviting Kara to come back and make her a home to die in. By going away to sea, Kara has not achieved the independence of her sisters: married, mothers, working in local firms, terra firmas, important and recognised, complained about and pissed of with but always more substantial than Kara's absence. Fluidity has not meant freedom but onus, responsibility; she is the one to whom they all look for her mother's closure.
Kara gets up, on the shelf above her desk is a box of tea she stole from the Bluewater anchor store, Marks and Spencers. A private act about which she has told neither Erik or Chen.
Wandering the Bluewater complex she understood the supremacy of the car, large, well-lit spaces boasted about in the brochures, hotel style lobbies and concierges for those flowing in from covered, monitored zones. One day she had found herself in the bus station and perched on a bench, watching two shaved-headed four-year-old boys bouncing away from their parents sitting in the shelter with bags and new born twins, one clamped to the mother's breast the other to the father's bottle.
Walking back to find Chen and Erik, round Marks and Spencer and in by the boating lake, through the rain and real weather, round the outside, she had been angry that despite the bus station lobby with a departure times screen and a bored information clerk picking his nose, those arriving by public transport were second class citizens. So she had gone into Marks and slipped the box of tea bags inside her coat, nursed it out of the store, lifted it occasionally inside the lining as they hung around the rest of the day and brought it back to the ship.
On the way to the galley, she goes out on deck and tips the teabags into the Thames, having taken them she will not drink their tea, makes some from her own supply, achieves a sense of moral equivalence.
The ship is quiet, the water runs by it, through the porthole there are few lorries over on the bridge now, and fewer cars. Kara determines to ask for leave to go home and arrange things for her mother, then leave again. Maryanka B's sister ship, imaginatively named Maryanka A does the Mediterranean end to end; Kara knows her navigator retires soon, it is a circuit she fancies. No February rain.
As his first act after dressing, Erik turns the contents of his bag out onto his desk and puts on his coat. He picks up and is about to put the comb into his inside breast pocket, but decides to shave his head, chucks the comb back onto the table next to the book he will never finish and the Shipping News he will never get round to reading. He runs his thumbnail along the crack in the flash of his cheap instamatic camera then places it on top of the book. He slips the mobile into one side pocket and the Leatherman into the other.
Erik gets a plastic mailbag he has kept under his bunk in case it came in useful. From the locker above his desk he takes the wadges of rolling tobacco, Rizlas and back issues of Shipping News, chucks them in the sack, from the drawers pencils, pens, rubbers, elastic bands, two old tooth-brushes, three empty aftershave bottles, an Absolut cocktail stirrer, a tiny wooden duck, an Eiffel Tower keyring, a plastic cowboy, a red Porsche, a stack of letters, cards, bills, statements. He sweeps the comb, book, camera, magazine off the desk into the sack.
From his wardrobe he takes all but seven boxers, seven pairs of socks, three shirts, his other pair of chinos ? the rest, a jumble of odd socks, holed or faded shirts, shorts, trousers no longer black, he crams into the sack. There is just room enough to stuff the marbled Genoa notebook, the fake Mombassa leather, the Vancouver bark and weft, the Marseilles Tintin exercise book, others from Karachi, New York, St. Petersburg, the bottle of water, the jiffy bag of German cartoon badges, the strips of plasters.
The plastic photograph album just slides into his deep inside pocket to rest snug in his coat's hem. For a moment he is caught by the thought that if he is to complete this process, he will have to go to his office, tucked between the galley and the freezer store, and face the stuffed amnesia of file drawers.
Physically, the bag is not as heavy as he thought it would be, though on the gangplank a blue and red striped polo shirt rolls out and into the Thames, collecting oil and flotsam as it thinks about sinking, gives up. Erik has been aware of the pickets and their brazier at the gate, but not the cause they are striking for. As he crosses the empty lorry park he thinks that in most of the countries he has been, strikers wouldn't be burning broken up pallets in an old dustbin, but symbols of their dispute, sheep or offices.
He plays the non-English-speaking game, grunts and signals to get a fine mate, no problem, go ahead and turfs the notebooks and papers into the brazier's flames. The comb bends as it melts, the instamatic pops. When the sack is just hard objects and tobacco he hands it to one of the strikers and walks back across the puddled concrete towards the Maryanka B, his back already straighter without all his stuff, his neck more erect, his eyes holding a higher line, he looks about rather than either up or down, looks forward to the uphill stretch of the walk later towards Bluewater, the muscles in the backs of his legs lengthen, Erik is confident they will find Chen's Zara woman. Twenty yards from the ship he hears vehicles behind him and turns to see three saloon cars packed with men and two empty minibuses turn into the dock gates.
Chen looks up from his shaving mirror and sees the vehicles coming towards the ship. He is about to use his never ending blade - the third from a cut price pack of five bought in a German supermarket six years ago, that he has used constantly since, a blade that hasn't got blunt or chipped, clogged or askew. Even the white lubricant strip is fresh, not sticky or lumpen. This one double blade has given him maybe two thousand shaves, clean and smooth every time. He has imagined that the technology must be there to make this everlasting blade, one for each shaver's lifetime, but the companies have suppressed the knowledge in order to perpetuate sales. Somehow this secret prototype ended up in his packet.
When he sees the men get out of the cars, the bomber jackets clump together waiting instructions, those with attache cases make for the gangway, he quickly wipes the lather off his face, decides to make himself scarce, shave later in Bluewater.
As their minibus pulls out of the dockyard, Erik looks back at the Maryanka B and says to Kara, "Look how ugly she is, you could wrap her up in Christmas paper and she would still be a tin box. Her bow is the only bit of ship about her."
Kara thinks how her ship being forfeited into the hands of creditors will be seen by her family, not as a fact of business but a grounding of her life, her navigation, a confirmation that her career had been a mistake. She thinks of her sisters in their offices, and the time six months back, off the Spanish coast, when a wave knocked them right almost forty-five degrees and they had rolled and tucked the Maryanka back into her course. None of the cargo had shifted.
The company is flying them out of England to Italy from where the Westerners will disperse to other vessels; the fate of the Pakistani crew is not so certain, hence the men in bomber jackets sitting by the doors. Erik says, "Luton airport is north, we will go through the tunnel not over the bridge."
Neither of them see Chen ducking behind the metal barriers in the central reservation as they speed past.
They slow for the Bluewater junction. Erik regrets that a bridge obstructs his last view of the stickleback roofs, of the mall space they hung about in. Kara points to the stubby antenna on one of the road signs at the complex exit, "They can switch those round, divert the flow of the traffic, from that control room those Host guys talked about." She thinks of the houses, schools, local shops they plan to build, then of clear dappled water and a ship's prow.
Erik clutches for the bag he hasn't got and is suddenly happy. "You wouldn't want that would you."
Kara says, "No, not if you were trying to go somewhere else."