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SAILING OFF

Angel G. Angelov

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Day after day the opaque green hillocks swelled the water, rearing their nimble crests and quite unequivocally implying they might grow big. The peeling decks of the Ship were aware of their innocent game, but they kept quiet, as far as possible, and only occasionally an indolent creaking sound made it known the Ship was feeling them... The gangway got covered with mud and the Officer of the Watch time and a again mopped the artificial material of the flooring. People came and went, the Sailors climbed up and down, the water by the Pier heaved oily sighs and the Ships felt uncomfortable, knowing their clumsy trunks weighed heavy on it. Railway trucks were racing by, as if competing with the motionless Ship, but the Ship's trucks never came. Cranes, obscenely astride, were straining their joints in a desperate struggle against the earth's gravity. The Third Mate was concentrating on trying to lift the hatchway lids of the suspicious Holds by the sheer force of his eyes and the Captain was swearing, first silently, then aloud, in all the languges that he knew. The joint nerves of all the sailors were on the alert for a suitable moment to wreck themselves and some of their body cells bad already blown themselves up in token of protest. The imperturbable Time, keeping wisely quiet, was gazing to the infinity of its path, commiserating with the Boys, but making no attempt whatsoever to help them - its pace had been invariable for millenia now. "And why should anyone help us, we could help ourselves", the Chief Engineer was seething while new, laborious hair was straining to grow on his domed head. "All by ourselves! Is that clear?", he van almost shouting as he reached for the Engine. The forces hodden deep inside it bestirred themselves rejoicing in being again of use, stretching their legs, then moving a bit forwards, then backwards, before they lapsed again into the hug of the atrophying stillness and predetermined uncerainty... At the end of the first century the Captain, the Chief Engineer, the Boatswain and Some Other members of the Crew had already started to feel the signs of numbness as well as the invisible onslaughts of apathy. From time to time the Ship tried to remember the motions of pitching and rolling, it gave its chained trunk a clumsy shake but the hawsers reminded it it was not free to go. Their tug was implacable, it arrested all spontaneity, and the People on Board felt sorry for the Ship. Centuries went by, marked by the passage of days, but the Trucks never came. The fuel was gradually running out in the form of illumination which was diffused over the Bay and though the Crew were trying hard to collect and store it in packing cardboard boxes saved for the purpose, the light continued to be wasted. The substance of the Ship's hull was aware of a creeping fatigue, it came and settled, unpredictable and intrusive, comlying solely to its own whims. The Chief Engineer went on rummaging right into the Engine; it let him be, prepared to obey orders, but getting just a few touches and slaps that made the more oaring pistons roll their big eyes and surprise melt in them, while the core of its sensuality stayed untouched, filled with the same hopeful expectation... From nearby, at quite a distance from the Shore, they were carefully watching the Ship's behaviour: how it responded to the harassment from the Shore and if there was any chance of its getting accustomed to life by the Shore. Those comprehensive observations were expensive, so part of the Ship's power was led by means of a special pipe to Particularly Needy Places, where it was distributed and put to use in strict accordance with the law of those unusual places. In The meantime All the Sailors were stamping their feet and when asked if they were discontented with anything, they answered it was just the way they walked. The feigned concern over the long delayed sailing off brought forth feigned queries to which All Sailors feigned to give answers. In time the Captain bought himself (for hard currency) a long forefinger which in critical moments he turned to the swelling crests of the disgruntled greasy water. He would sink them carefully while he was in a placid mood, but then anger would take hold of him and he would start to prod and punch at them and try to get to the bottom of the sea.

"Hey, hey", the greasy water giggled teasingly, but the Captain paid no attention. He continued his imperturbable occupation; nothing could tear him away from it, except, maybe, someone whistling on the Deck or the thought that somebody may have sat in his armchair on the Bridge.

Centuries went by marked by the passage of days and All the Sailors were becoming convinced that the endlessly put off sailing was not accidental. In his cabin the Captain found a flying fish that had somehow flitted in. There was a note stuck in its gills that read: "The Places of Great Need are not pressed for time. They don't look for any changes. Changes can be so tiresome, so tiresome..."

The edge of the note felt wet, it was smeared with the red of fish blood. It also stank, since they had to stint on the energy and the refrigerator was not working. The power saved was used to light the Bey and help the Board devise and set up a new type of illumination. In the meantime the Second Mate had engaged the services of the Radio Operator in making announcements about how contented everybody was, how timely the waiting and how well-planned the sailing off. The Crew felt that the bottom of the Ship was swelling, covered by sticking, limpets, which came uninvited, resented and indestructible. Their juice seeped into the body of the Ship, sapping and transforming it, ageing it prematurely. At one of the Places of Great Need the message of the Second Nate had already been received with due honours, welcomed as if it were a true envoy come to set their minds at rest. Everybody belonging to that Place of Great Need had gathered in an enormous, heavily chandeliered hall. They were all standing respectfully by the walls, having put on due airs, while the message was walking around, bowing cringingly and repeating again and again: "Well, gentlemen. Everything's in perfect order, gentlemen. Those trucks are quite undisciplined. No need to put them on your conscience, gentlemen. You'll need your conscience for a long time yet..."

Someone spontaneously clapped their hands and that served as a signal for general applause. The chandeliers swayed their crystal pendants to the rhythm of the lusty clapping and a general sense of welfare descended upon the hall, with the distinct implication that it was universal. All of the Place of Great need were awarded special badges, an act, which according to the local customs, was a recognition of merits, an honour bestowed for the organisation and accomplishment of the widely known sailing off, carried out amidst difficulties created by undisciplined trucks and lack of goods for them.

While the decoration was going on, the Dispatchers, thousands of railway stations away, were playing cards. Their composure, on display for everybody to see, was flirting with their nonchalance, and the passion for gambling had pushed away their former sense of duty, which, having resignedly stepped aside, was watching for what was going to happen. There was nothing happening, but during one of the successive deals, all the Dispatchers strained to hear something, their hearts sinking.

Quietly, for it was coming from a long way away, there sounded the voice of the Captain:

"Damn you... Lousy bastards... They've made invalids out of us..."

And though it was not clear who exactly the Captain had in mind, who his curses were addressed to, everybody thought they were directed at them. A general tension bristled up menacingly, it advanced upon the Ship in orderly formation and stealthily enveloped its chained body. Though statinoary, with dulled senses and extremely tired with the never ending waiting, the Ship felt the perfidy of the undertaking, it also realised what the cause for the violence was. The Captain heard:

"They hate it when their calm is disturbed..."

It was difficult for the Ship to pronounce the words, its metal tones were creaking with indignation, although its voice had acquired human resignation. Those concerned heard the words and that was enough to render their line-up even more impenetrable, their eyes-even more hypocritical and amidst their humility, there settled a beastly cruelty mixed with a sense of infallability.

In that almost hopeless situation the Captain summoned all the Officer. They sat down at the fixed table in the classroom and the coffee tasted stale - it had been bought somewhere in the south, centuries before, during the last voyage.

"Well, Guys," he did not feel like talking.

"Well, Master, the Second Mate left his sentence unfinished.

They all looked him in the face; there was something there that betrayed him.

"Let him be," the Captain waved his hand dismissively. "I understand him..."

"But, after all, we can't leave matters the way they are," the First Mate had bristled up. "I think we should put him off. After shaving him off all over, not just his beard and moustache I mean..."

"Being good or bad has got nothing to do with being shaved or not," the Captain sounded weary.

The inquiring silence was only broken by the lapping of the intrusive little waves, strutting about and trying to imitate the billows outside the Bay.

That's settled then, about the Second Mate... How about the missing trucks and whoever is behind it all?" the Chief Engineer sounded quite sincere.

"That's what we're here for," the Captain uttered reluctantly.

"The trouble is they're trying to make fools...''

It was not clear who ventured that insight, but the Second Mate got really frightened now. At the same time he became also boarded the Ship, pulled up the gangway - the only link with the Shore - and turned upon whoever was in sight. He wanted to shout aware that a Number of People, dressed in special clothes, to remind them of the Message, but in the general commotion nobody listened to anybody - each person was thinking of his own survival only. The People in the special clothes had no time to identify or set aside anybody. They carried on indiscriminately, thus avoiding any chance of overseeing somebody. The Second Mate started plucking his beard slowly, though he knew full well this would neither help, nor do any harm to him and was, therefore, quite useless. "My Message turned out to be just as useless," the thought flashed through the periphery of his mind and filled him with fright. Not so much because the Message had been sent, but because now, having received enlightenment, he was not in a position to change anything whatsoever. Trying to help him, All the Officers with the Captain in the lead, said in a chorus:

"What's been done cannot be undone... You may be sorry about it or rejoice in it, but there is nothing else you can do!"

Then an unknown, lonely voice added, "Often, because life has left it in the past, you cannot do anything to, at least, partly requite what you have done..." The Second Mate cringed, the voice had virtually cut him in two, taking no pity on him and, by its utter finality, putting things in the right perspective. Meanwhile the People in the special clothes were doing they job, stopping from time to time to wipe their hands on the greasy cloths; the oil stains mixed with the reddish marks, which the uninitiated ascribed to the abundance of fish blood on the Deck.

After the People in the special clothes had finished their work, the Officers and the Captain went into their offices, shut the doors tightly and unwound some clean, freshly sterilised bandage rolls. Then they put on their uniforms, pulled their sleeves down, so that nothing underneath was to be seen, though each one knew what the other person was hiding. Dressed up like that, they took up their positions; there followed a noticeable excitement on the Forecastle and the Engine gave out its first sounds, groaning until the rust peeled off, but gaining strength afterwards. The Ship had made up its mind! It felt sorry for the Boys, sorry for itself and the whole absurd situation it had got trapped into, while cursing the wayward Trucks and their Abettors. "The Trucks are, after all, mere machines," the Ship heard the words float in the half-empty Holds and they set it thinking, asking itself questions that had best remained unasked. Very slowly, as in creation, the questions took shape, then mingled with the Crew, holding out hands and shaking each other; the Engine sent its thrill right into their flesh, joining men and thoughts into an indivisible whole. The Second Mate clean shaven all over, came out onto the Forecastle for everybody to see; they were satisfied that he had reformed and entrusted him with the lowering of the Windlass. The links of the chain had stuck together, the oblong parts covered in old grease simply slid over one another like a belt and the Second Mate had to face yet another difficulty. No one rushed to give a helping hand, they just kept watching him closely from the Bridge; no one wished him bad luck either. At that moment the Captain decided to make things clear:

"Even if it were not for the anchor, we wouldn't bear him ill will." The Captain's megaphone carried the verdict of the Crew far into the Bay and out of it.

The Watchmen from the Places of Great Need were biting their lips, drawingup new instructions for the People in the special clothes and were in all sincerity asking themselves how to keep the status quo and also remain in the consciousness of the generations to come as Fighters for justice and a new order, for equity and purity of heart. How to do it was the problem. They were cursing the never coming Trucks and not holding them to account (holding somebody responsible required energy, effort and mental strain, it called for self-denial and suffering -items in permanent deficit in the Places of Great Need), they hated them deeply and truly, a fact that they brought forth as a sure proof of their righteousness. Water splashed over their protective thoughts, the Universal Mass Media carried its image far and wide; it reached the Ship, too, but its silver-white effect was rather annoying, it smacked of propaganda and that had already been, indeed, it had...

And now the Captain made a decision. The Trucks remained somewhere at the stations, nobody seemed to see them coming any more, nobody longed for them, or dreamt of them. They simply gave them up and felt relieved, in spite of the Holds, which felt the weight of their emptiness. After the decision was made, the People on the Ship gained a few additional degrees of freedom and heaved a deep sigh; their thoughtshovered about, enveloping them, transparent and ostentatious - demonstrating their newly acquired position in space - in spite of the fact that a sudden wind hit the mast and the severe Watchmen refused to put up with it all. Tor the first time in centuries they sacrificed part of the precious energy allotted them for personal needs and used it for the designing and the manufacture of means for the production of defence means. The Ship got conscious of a furtive menace about its keel, a tremour clasped the Stern, the Propeller turned twice to test its skill at it; the Captain dressed in his maginificent uniform had for some time now been standing on the Bridge. The Forecastle was ready, strong jets of water were trying to wash clean the anchor that had stayed drowned for centuries and the efforts of the Capsan were discernible even from a distance. The Second Mate was still freshly shaved, no hairs had grown on any part of his body. From time to time he wiped his forehead and felt with surprise and embarrassment a stubbly ruggedness under his palm. All the Crew were in their places, the Engine was longing for the unberthing manoeuvre and the Radio Operator was feverishly irradiating the surrounding air-space. The aerial was drawing an invisible circle with its rays, picking up lurking snags out of the dark and the Captain was already reaching for the handle of the Engine Room Telegraph, when the Helmsman reported:

"Zero degrees, Master!"

"Ten degrees," answered the Captain, intent on the Engine Room Telegraph, putting it to "slow ahead".

"Ten degrees...," echoed the Helmsman.

Trails of torn water lined the stem, the Ship was enjoying its movement but it also felt a disturbing stiffness round the Stern, a fact which it attributed to the long immobility. Just then everybody noticed that the Second Mate had changed: there was thick, black stubble growing on his forehead, it certainly had not been there before. The Crew obviously associated the change with the Message the Second Mate had sent, so nobody felt any sympathy for him. The Ship slowly proceeded out to sea, but when the Captain gave his next command, the Helmsman discovered to his horror that he could not steer the course, no matter how hard he turned the helm. A quick command descended in the area of the Propeller and then it became clear that the rudder was jammed and could only be put to two positions: zero and one-eight-zero degrees. To everybody's consternation it became obvious that they were condemned to proceed in one direction only - straight ahead or straight astern.

"But we shall never be able to get anywhere, ever!" The Ship dared to call out as it dawned on it where the money allotted for investment through the Places of Great Need had gone. The Second Mate felt cheated, for the measures taken as regards the Ship affected him as well, and he had already been sufficiently affected.

The green swellings in the water had now acquired fluffy, white crests which were trying to wash the centuries-old stagnation off the decks; the Crew were silently enjoying themselves as they contemplated the set course of the Ship as well as the only other possibility of its being turned to one-eight-zero degrees...

 

 

© Angel G. Angelov
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 02.11.2004, № 11 (60)