"The water so black," my grandfather used to say, looking out wistfully beyond the Point with a squint and a puff on his rollie, "you could make a shroud."
I loved my grandfather, with all his stories of the sea from when he was a younger man, but it confused the hell out of me, that particular saying. I always figured it was some sort of mystical sailor wisdom, like "Red sky at morning: sailor take warning", and one day all would be revealed. But now i was a sailor myself, and it still didn't make any sense. The water all around me was black, alright, and deep as regret, but shrouds are white, creamy white, like the lanolin white of all that wool, stitched into bales, pressed into cans, stacked in the ship's hold seven tiers high.
And, believe me, i know shrouds. I've seen enough of those bastards to last me till i get my own.
We're five days out of Melbourne and the dreams have well and truly started. No number of gin 'nightcaps' will keep them away. In the red-skied mornings i wake with a billygoat headache and hands like juggler's clubs from all that alcohol, but still the dreams come, night after night.
I see her, sitting on the bed, our bed, working her breast. That's a common one, that one. Every night, without fail. Working that breast she sits there, squeezing and pressing to no good, the baby doing that voiceless hunger wail that it had.
That she had.
And the other dreams, too.
I look up at a sky the colour of the inside of a gutted schnapper, and i wonder if i'm going to throw up. I decide i'm not. That's good: one less thing to do.
Her name is Jackie, the new girl. She has bright eyes and wavy black hair and no business at all being on a rusted-out boxie crawling along the frayed edge of the Southern Ocean.
She calls me Honey, like it's a joke. She doesn't know.
I wish the dreams were the kind that someone like her could be in. Even just sometimes.
"It's like a castle," she says, those bright eyes of hers sparkling, her cheeks flashing with excitement. "An ocean-going castle, and you and me? We're the king and queen!"
I look at the rusting metal thickening at a seam. Bird lime smeared on the deck like day-old cum on a sheet. The stained port a halo behind her head, greenly opalescent and opaque as an old Coke bottle unearthed by archaeologists. "It's not much of a castle, your majesty."
"You don't have much of an imagination, do you?" she asks, teasing. She doesn't know that i try, every night, to kill my imagination, so that it will leave me alone.
But i recognise this, what she's doing. It's flirting.
I look at her legs, bare from the mid-thigh down, a glimpse of tanlines hinting that she's wearing shorter shorts now, maybe even for my benefit. I look at her breasts, full and fresh and twenty-something inside her windcheater, and i try not to imagine her working them, pressing them, hunting, hunting for milk. I stiffen, because i'm human and male.
Flirting might be good, i decide.
That's bad: one more thing to do.
"Up here," she whispers, but it's a stage whisper. No-one cares where we go, so long as we stay out of their quarters. Most of the crew don't speak English, and they wouldn't care what we had to say to each other even if they did.
Nine days out, and the boredom has set in for her, hard. This isn't what she thought it was going to be. I think she imagined, with that imagination of hers, that it would be endlessly exotic, meeting new people and going to storybook places. She didn't imagine weeks at sea in a pitching, rolling warehouse with no-one to talk to except me.
I think she wants to write a book about this, or something like that. But all this will be the stuff between chapters, this interminable crawling toward Africa. She's doing her best to drag it out of oblivion and into a chapter, looks like, but i don't fancy her chances.
She climbs and climbs up the ladder, insisting on calling it 'stairs', ascending deck after deck until we're running out of decks. I look up, occasionally, at that arse of hers. The arse that i wish was in one of the dreams, any of the dreams, instead of all that other. She arrives at where she's taking me. It's a cabin, deserted. She opens the hatch, which she insists on calling a 'door', and steps through.
She closes the hatch behind me and puts her ear to the bulkhead, which she insists on calling a 'wall'. "Listen," she whispers, beckoning, "up here, away from the engines a bit, you can hear the ship breathing..."
I put my ear to the bulkhead, facing her, a few centimetres from her face. We are joined at the ear by the bulkhead, the ship breathing between us, the sound of its superstructure cutting through the waves. Its breathing becomes our breathing. Her eyes are still bright in the gloom of the cabin, her lips soft, her skin warm, her cunt tight.
On day thirteen we crack open a can. She wants to see the wool that's hidden inside.
She doesn't ask if we'll get into trouble. Leaves the customs tags to me.
She's not a country girl, or a sailor. I can't understand this sudden interest in wool, or in mercantile containerisation, whichever it is. She said something about how ironic it was that something so soft would be inside something so hard, so maybe that's it.
She's actually some sort of marine biologist, on secondment to the shipping line from a university back in Melbourne. She's explained it to me, what she does, something about lost cargo and pollution, but it doesn't stick in my head. I know i should be trying harder to understand, but mostly to me now she is simply the pulsating, naked creature that emerges from her clothes when we find our way to private places, an animalistic being that is pleased with my hardness, my moves, my stamina. If i'm not trying to understand her, she doesn't seem to be trying to understand me, either. She doesn't ask how i know what to do to move her, or where i'm from, or how i got there, inside her.
The can is a standard shipping container, a twenty footer, its lanolin interior smelling like the baby, and then i'm there, despite the broad daylight of the hold, the baby crying for the breast. She turns to face me, those blue eyes of hers an accusation, and her mother turns to face me as well, and they're both crying, as they always are at this point in the dream.
I don't know why she's blaming me.
I don't know why either of them are blaming me.
It wasn't my fault.
She's asking how we get them out. I ask if she's insane. Getting them out, i explain, is the easy part. It's getting them back in again that's the trouble.
She says she'll climb into the can and push a bale out. This will kill her, literally kill her, so i scrounge a hand-grapple and i lumber the topmost bale from its snug position, nearly killing myself with the effort. It crashes softly to the checker-plate decking. She takes the grapple from me and uses it to tear open the stitching.
I don't ask her how she plans to seal it up again, to contain once more all that explosive interior.
She drags the released and expanding wool from the bale, creates a nest, a woollen nest, right there on the hold decking, and takes off her boots, socks, tank top, bra, shorts, undies. She reclines regally in her nest, her legs open to me, knees bent, the hair about her cunt curly with the humidity that forms between the heat of the engines and the cold of the southern sky. Her cunt is asking the question that cunts always ask.
I give it the answer it's expecting.
Cape Town surprises her, with its unlikely stadium, backdrop of table-topped mountains, and frank poverty. She loves the Afrikaans words: Zonnebloem; Schotsche Kloof; Vredehoek. Best of all she loves De Waterkant, which she pronounces, loudly, as "Der Varter...KUNT", giggling every time.
We take a room ashore, despite having our cabins on ship for free, and it costs a half day's pay per night. The pension we have chosen for our romantic getaway is spartan and rundown. A dive, really, insanely overpriced. She royally decrees that money is no object: she wants to fuck me at least once without the floor rolling beneath us. She says this in full hearing of the pension manager, an elderly black-skinned man with the full dignity of a warrior running in his veins, but he doesn't bat an eyelid at her insolence. "Relax," she says as we find our way to the room, "these guys say 'kunt' all the time, so 'fuck' shouldn't be a problem for them..."
We fuck without the floor rolling beneath us; i can't tell the difference. We shower together and then we go out to explore. She wants to find those exotic things she knows are out there, and we end up in a market. I buy her a thin, 'gold' bracelet, slide it formally onto her wrist, and kiss her where it lies against her sun-dusky skin, like i was indeed a king to her queen. She talks with some locals, imagining them to be exactly the sort of exotic material she needs for that book of hers, failing to see that they're just shonky stallholders trying to sell her cheap, Chinese-made 'Zulu artefacts'.
She buys a white sailor hat, like you see in the cartoons and the US Navy. Later, she plays dress-ups for me back at our seedy pension. A baby somewhere nearby is crying, and its wails slam right through the thin wood veneer walls the whole time i'm thrusting inside of her, the sailor hat still on her head, but now at a cocky angle. I empty myself within her, and i start to cry.
And i can't stop crying.
She shushes me, strokes my hair, takes off her sailor hat. "Come on, Darling," she soothes, "Come on, Honey."
I can't tell her what's wrong. I can't tell her about the dreams, or the blood.
We're three days in Cape Town while they complete customs and unload this port's share of our cargo, and i've gotten so permanently and insistently drunk after i started crying that i can't remember anything of that whole time. We lost the bracelet in a scuffle when i got into a bar fight with some Italians and she had to drag me away before the police arrived. I wake up back on ship, four hours out to sea, underway for Port Elizabeth, to find that i have a black eye that i don't remember getting. For the whole of an afternoon, she tells me, we were lost together, somewhere amongst all those once-cute Afrikaans words, and she was terrified that we were going to be knifed, or worse. She says she was supposed to visit Cape Town University, to speak to someone or other from the Marine Sciences Department, and that was when we got lost, trying to make our way out there, me fall-down drunk and making things impossible. She says it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, come on, Darling, come on, Honey, and we fuck again, but this time her eyes aren't bright and sparkling with wonder, they're wet and sparkling with tears, and the deck is rolling beneath us.
I cup her breast and i begin working it as i fuck her. I prod and i press, and i milk it, come on, Darling, come on, Honey, but no milk will come for the baby, not a drop, but it doesn't matter, it doesn't matter, the baby's dead, dead, dead.
We've rounded the Cape the first time without incident, but then, on our way back to Port Elizabeth to offload the last of the wool, we hit a blow.
That's how things happen at sea: calm one moment, deadly the next. There should be a saying about it, but it's so obvious it doesn't need one.
The ocean-going castle suddenly feels more like a leaf in a stormwater drain.
"What'll we do?" she screams over the roar of the planet, as if this sort of thing has never happened to anyone before, and we're discovering it for the first time together. She turns green, then white, throws up, then turns green again.
I drag a slicker over her, cinch a belt on each of us, and clip us together. I manage to get her to the conning bridge without her being smashed against the bulkheads by the insane heaving and hurling of the gangways. I clip her into the stormbelts bolted to the bulkhead in the bridge and unclip her from me. "You can watch the storm from here," i bellow over the wind and the ocean. "I have to help with the cargo."
The fo'c's'le of the ship far out ahead of us plunges beneath a wave and disappears. It stays under long enough for her to vomit, wipe her mouth, and look out again at the ship doing its best to not become completely insignificant in the course of things. "You can't go out there," she screams. I'm just about to explain that i have to, that it's my actual job, when something that sounds like an explosion but feels more like a collision rocks the ship's frame.
As we watch, cans begin spilling off the stack: blue, green, brown, crashing with sickening blows into each other, the deck, and finally, with resignation, into the black, boiling waters.
They disappear in seconds without trace.
"Number Four cable's snapped," i explain, roaring the words to her as the concussion of yet another can thundering into the gunwale and going overboard vibrates through our feet. "I have to go."
Her eyes are the eyes of the terrified, the overwhelmed. "What can you do? What can you possibly do?"
The baby is in my arms, it's not breathing. I remember its first breath, and now i am to remember its last. The baby's not smashed, like her mother, my wife, is smashed. There's not shattered bone and yellow fat and torn margins of skin with the baby. There's something internal, something invisible happening, within. What can i do? What can i possibly do? I can feel the baby slipping away, disappearing without trace. She's gone, all of a sudden. They're both gone.
I don't know where they've gone.
I don't know where i am.
Five days out from Melbourne, it's Palm Sunday.
Some of the crew are Catholic, from Portugal, and they've brought palm fronds from South Africa on board, hidden from Customs along with the drugs and the pornos. They spread the fronds out on the deck, and the Captain reads the service. The men cross themselves, the service ends, we go back to what we were doing.
I tell Jackie.
I tell her everything.
She's the only one i can ever tell. From my mouth to her ears; that is all.
She cries. Says it's a good day to get this out into the open, at last. That Palm Sunday is about finding peace. For escaping from under the millstone that's been weighing my life down.
She's never asked, never shown the least interest, but she seems relieved that this has come out.
My life, she declares, can start again now.
She means with her. Of course.
I think of the house in Melbourne, the dead air in that tomb. Once the stone upon which i'd anchored my life, now the container i sleep in when i'm not on ship. I think of the things that i can't touch for the misery and loss that they hold, things that haunt the rooms: cups; dresses; books; nappies. I think of taking her there and bringing it all somehow back to life.
I think of the cans of wool at the bottom of the ocean.
I imagine the cans rusting, dissolving. The wool, like hair, floating up to the surface, matted with blood and pain and broken windshield glass.
I look at Jackie.
I don't know where i've been.
I don't know where i'm going.
So come on, Darling. Come on, Honey.