A WOMAN ON BOARD
Now, even though we’re compelled to behave better towards her, we still discuss her legs. In fact, we’d say they were the main reason to notice her. They were her most outstanding feature, and if you studied their movement you’d get to know her better than if you stared at her face. So it’s not that strange that Marina came to work on ships; with legs like that she could easily have become chief engineer.
But let’s go back to the day when she first came on board. We, of course, had taken up our positions, and we did not miss a single detail. Her black wide-brimmed hat and her black overalls, in that unbearable heat, made us suspicious right away. The nervous way in which she fanned herself with that hat just made our suspicions stronger. We loved it when newcomers behaved ignorantly, because it gave us the chance to put them in their place without remorse. But still...she was a woman. And not even just a woman, but a woman with long, beautiful legs. Later we would pass this fact along to Pasha, the man who had the best taste of all of us.
The engineer on watch happened to be Stan, and Marina entered his cabin. But because he blushed when he even just imagined a woman, we sent Vesso along as well - to be sure. We haven’t got hot water for the time being, he began, but the engineer on watch will be happy to start the boiler going at once. You’ll certainly want a shower after that trip, won’t you? And then, after the shower - a cup of coffee in my cabin, if you don’t find that suggestion too aggressive...
Thanks, Marina interrupted, I don’t drink coffee. But a shower! oh, yeah, that would be great.
After she had entered the bathroom, we waited for about ten minutes and then Vesso went to turn off the hot water. Marina emerged shortly thereafter, shivering with cold.
Sometimes things like that happen, girlfriend, Vesso informed her as he casually passed through the corridor.
Marina shot him a suspicious glance, but didn’t utter a word. We expected her to be grumpy the next morning, but she was as bright and cheery as if we’d served her breakfast in bed. She wouldn’t have been so smug if she’d realized that we’d just begun, that the cold shower was only a prelude to all the other things that were going to happen to her. She didn’t even suspect how much her diehard attitude was actually helping us.
During her first watch, Marina put her feet up on the table in front of the controls, and looked at the dials. This was her job, the one she was qualified for. Other engineers had done it before, but that didn’t matter. Didn’t they tell you in college that this is the watch, my dear girl? Down! Down to the engine room, where the machinery is. Check the temperatures and pressure levels every other hour, keep a close watch on the bearings, enter the readings at 50 degrees Celsius, deal with anything that could possibly go wrong - pumps, compressors - you must cover every eventuality. We’re like the old craftsmen, we told her - we feel everybody should start at the bottom, go through the dirtiest jobs - and then he can put his feet up on the coffee table. Vesso, who had the watch after hers, became so hard to please that she had to spend at least an hour dealing with his reprimands.
If you’ve had the guts to come here, out on the ocean, you’ll have to pull your weight. We may be party animals ashore, great guys to go to a bar with, but we’re not going to do your job for you here - thus spoke Vesso.
Marina just grinned, and only once - during that gale near the Canary Islands - did she not have enough strength to do her job. Seasickness turned her into a jellyfish for three days, and she came on watch with a bucket in her hand.
Where do you come from, Marina, girlfriend? Vesso asked her on the fourth day, trying to show some sympathy.
From around Sofia, she answered.
Well, being here at sea isn’t like riding in a horse cart on that flat Sofia plain, is it?
Marina tried to smile, but we knew she had never dreamed she’d meet such rude jerks on board a ship. We had, in fact, sunk far below her worst imaginings. Nevertheless, we were relentless. And so - day by day, watch by watch - it went on, until Marina was carrying oil for the hydraulics by herself, in buckets, while all of us just watched her with indifferent expressions.
On the other hand, we had allowed her the freedom to arrogantly climb the steps in her mini-skirts, and to brush our noses with them, if the truth be told.
One day we decided to make her happy. We told her it was dangerous for her to go around in her mini-skirts, that we couldn’t be entirely responsible for our actions, not being firefighters after all...we were so hot, that some night, having nothing else to do...After that Marina seemed to wear slacks even more rarely than before, which hadn’t been often. Three or four days before we reached the Equator, we rigged up a makeshift swimming pool at the stern, where we soaked ourselves after noon in order to endure the inhuman heat. Every night Marina returned to her cabin at twelve o’clock. A minute later she reappeared in a bathing suit and went to the pool. Alone, of course. But very few crew members went to sleep before midnight. One by one we sneaked to the lifeboat deck, turned off all the lights, and watched. Marina would linger in the water for half an hour, then jump lightly out. Stopping a moment to strike a pose, as if for a snapshot, she’d make her stealthy way along the deck. She’d raise her hands, fluff out her hair, and then walk back to her cabin - perhaps to immediately fall asleep. But we didn’t get to sleep so easily! At least, not right away. We remained, to prolong the experience...
One night, when we had been lying face down on the deck, after we thought Marina had gone back to her cabin, but continuing to lie there, pondering - we suddenly heard her voice:
Her voice didn’t come from below, but from somewhere behind us. We turned around, froze. Marina had passed through the inner corridors and surprised us. In the dark we could see her wet body, in her bathing suit, clearly enough for our imaginations to be tantalized. Instead of pretending to be dumbfounded at being caught in the act, we should have shouted curses at her, called her names, as if to tell her, Look, we’ve just been watching, no harm meant, we’ve just... having nothing else to do... don’t assume that we...
We couldn’t manage to say that, we only listened to the quiet footsteps as those magnificent legs turned and went down the corridor. We followed her with our eyes... we sighed.
Wait a minute. The voice of Pasha reached her, and she came back onto the lifeboat deck.
We realized that Pasha couldn’t allow Marina even this small victory. He would try to wash away our disgrace. He approached her and bent down as if he were going to examine those legs with a magnifying glass.
”Switch on the floodlights!” he cried. “I can’t see well.”
The deck was suddenly flooded with light. Marina was blinded, and she blinked as if she were being interrogated by cops.
”They are really lovely,” said Pasha. “Skin?” - he reached out to feel the quality of the skin, but she slapped his hand away. - “Probably - smooth and soft. We can’t find fault with the place where the legs end, either. Nicely rounded, from whatever angle you look at it.”
Pasha went around to her backside, and stopped. - “Now we move on to something which seems so slim and fragile at first sight - but we’ve all seen how, by means of this slender, fragile back two buckets of oil have been raised and carried. The landscape above it, well, perhaps that is rather plain and unalluring, but that’s a precious peculiarity with tall, elegant ladies...We are near the finish line, gentlemen! But what do we see here? Wilderness! A desert island! And how could a desert island attract us, gentlemen? You circle it once or twice, look it over from left to right, then the other way around, and you are already bored. No point pretending we’ve ever felt thrilled by enigmatic faces. We’ve no time to guess what a glance, or an expression, or - good heaven! - a smile might be meant to express or to imply. No, we prefer a bit more undressed faces - the sort of faces where you can anticipate the last piece of clothing falling off. And if it was a piece of clothing, why, we already would have torn it apart, to see what might be hidden behind it. But do we really have anything to tear apart, gentlemen? This is really an unusual case! And here it stands before us: a barren face, a desert face - we have nothing to guess about, and everything is clear and dull.”
”It’s not barren, it’s ugly,” Marina murmured.
Then, suddenly, Fat Boy George left the group, approached Pasha, swung him around and threw him against the coiled mooring lines.
”I hadn’t finished yet,” said Pasha, getting to his feet.
George didn’t bother to explain.
”Now, get back to your cabin,” he said, shoving Marina a bit too roughly. “Go back, because these pigs here are enough to make you want to jump overboard.”
Marina lifted her head, glanced at George, then at all of us.
“That’s an idea,” she said, and left.
At first we were startled. But then we calmed down. We realized that tonight one of us, at least, would not go to bed. At first he’ll walk down the corridor. In front of Marina’s cabin, he’ll decide he could sit down for a minute - lean against the wall - just for a minute. Then he’ll close his eyes - just for a minute - and after that he’ll lie down, and before he could think there was no harm in it, he’ll be snoring. He wouldn’t even be aware when Marina quietly opened her door. A man in front of her cabin! That will be when her self-control reaches its limit, in the middle of the night, and she’ll be ready to scream - a scream, which would awaken the whole ship. The scream reaches her upper throat, but never escapes. It is contained in her for an eternity, until it dies. Suddenly she is utterly exhausted, Marina leans on the door, it’s over, this night is over as all the other nights...So what? A man in front of your door - he is enormous, but harmless, no reason to scream.
It’s not at all difficult to guess the sort of feelings that had swept over Marina as she looked at George sleeping in front of her door. Because the Fat Boy could hardly elicit gentle feelings, either asleep or awake. Marina looks at him for awhile, then it occurs to her to lightly kick him.
”Hallo!” she says softly, but George doesn’t even stir.
”Hallo!” - louder now.
”Huh?” Fat Boy George sits up and when he realizes where he’s been sleeping, he murmurs, “What am I doing here?”
”You think I know the answer to that?”
”Perhaps I could remember after a cup of coffee...”
”I’ve got no coffee.”
”I’ll go and fetch some.”
”Oh, come in...”
”Normally,” - says George after he drops heavily onto the sofa - “fat boys are wise men too.”
”So what?” asks Marina, casually crossing her legs.
”I know everything about you.”
”Even more than you yourself know.”
”I’m listening,” says Marina, crossing her fine legs again.
”But please, stop swinging them at me.”
”Don’t you like them? I’ve been told that they’re beautiful.”
”That’s right, they are - but do you really think I’ve sprawled in front of your door on account of them?”
”What for, then?”
”In order to tell you that you’ve been as dumb as all the others.”
”I don’t believe you.”
”Do as you wish, but put some clothes on and listen to me.”
The Fat Boy commences: First of all, she must give up trying to beat the engineers at their own game, making them approve of her by bloodying their noses. OK, next: she’ll never be able to make any one of them lose his head, even if he were twice as fat as Fat Boy George, and even if her legs were twice as long. There’ll never be a situation where two men quarrel over her. No one is going to kill her out of jealousy, or jump ship in a foreign port and run off with her. That fantasy is absurd. Men never pay their bills, and if they do pay something, it’s not to a girl like her. But let’s drop that. Let’s say that after two, five or ten voyages she finally achieves her goal to be as good as the best of them: what exactly would that mean? It would mean that she’d be accepted as a colleague, rather than as a woman. The men will curse in her presence, they’ll ask her if she can piss overboard, they’ll invite her to their stag parties, they’ll introduce her to their girlfriends, who’ll look at her with fear, but that will be her only joy. Eventually she’ll buy a car and will drive around partying with them, going to different bars; they’ll tap her on the shoulder: come on, Marina, baby - when they want her to speed up - that’s it, baby - when they’re pleased with her. She might secretly look for somebody, but the years will pass and she’ll get used to fine drinks, fine cigarettes, fine music, and will eventually declare that she likes that kind of life. And when sometimes she has nights like this one, when she wishes she could jump overboard, alcohol, cigarettes and music will relieve her of such thoughts.
Of course what Fat Boy George has to tell her won’t stop her: she’ll make other mistakes sooner or later. The bigger the better - afterward she’ll be furious, he knows, and then they can have a coffee or two and talk about it. Fat Boy George likes to have heart-to-heart talks with pissed-off women...
George gets to his feet, having made his speech, but he is startled by the speed at which Marina stops him. My turn, she says, please be so kind as to have a seat...
Why, she asks, did most of the other students with legs like hers always have such an easy time with their exams, while she had to study like a maniac? Sometimes she sent out messages, but still no professor’s assistant would put his hand on her knee, or higher, to encourage her, or to scold her: my dear student, my dear...Even in the attics where the students lived, where there was always a party going on, nobody bothered to ask her to dance. Of those days all she remembers is the rainy night when she ran away from a compulsory summer camp. When the man invited her to his luxurious apartment, she was just one victim in a series. She was well aware of that, but after the bath, the cognac and the cigarette she let him open up her gown. Everything around her was so exquisite...even the rain outside seemed to be meant for that night...even though the next day the man himself would be indifferent, wouldn’t even notice her. And that’s it...Why is she telling him these things? Because she’s fed up with assholes who look at you, but don’t see you. Because - he must know that - she’s not just legs and a face. Some day, somebody will understand that. Some day she’ll make them shut up, all those pigs. He can be sure of it: she’ll never give up.
In Lisbon a trawler from our fleet was laid up for repairs, and Ven, her third engineer, came to ask for some spare parts. Nobody felt like going down to the storage rooms and rummaging around.
”Come,” said Marina, “I’ll see if I can find them for you.”
She invited him into her cabin, and we never saw him go down to the storage rooms. We could only imagine how Ven had gasped at the doorstep: it doesn’t take much to make a man gasp when he’s been on an eight-month fishing voyage. We imagined how our little Marina pretends to notice nothing, while Ven’s eyes seem to feast on her legs. Then come the coffee and the cognac in small tumblers on a tray with a white napkin. The cabin smells good, of cleanliness; Marina, of that discreet perfume we had recommended to her. What else? Music from the cassette player. After his eight months at sea, Ven, stinking of fish and oil, thinks he’s dreaming. So many months of sea, machinery, the same boring people, in a cramped cabin which is none too clean. We wondered if he were aware that a fishing trawler isn’t like any other ship: namely, it is completely focused on one thing, and one thing only - catching fish. There is nothing about it to take your attention off the business at hand. The idea, say, of a carpet on the floor: as you come back from the fish processing unit in your waders, it would probably strike you as pretty funny. If you put a painting up on the wall, everybody would think you were nuts. Porno photos are what those guys understand. After the first month you are sick and tired of everything; your only joy is to tease the other guys. And now, suddenly, someone touches that most delicate string in your soul, which is always vulnerable. Has she listened to Sarasate’s gypsy tunes, and no, not in the concert hall, but in a tavern, where the violin player, a gypsy, isn’t reading the music from notes but allows himself to expand on the music, going up and up, higher and higher, improvising with a blank expression but always watching for your reaction. Yeah, you’ve listened to that music, but alone. Music is a real thing. That’s your music, yours forever, every time you listen to it. Marina has become totally carried away by the rules of the game she’s invented.
At midnight they have become so close that Ven doesn’t hesitate to state: “This is the cabin I’d like to live in.”
”Really?” asks Marina - which means she’s forgotten all protective and preemptive measures.
Ven stayed in Marina’s cabin until dawn, and the next day they announced they were going to be married.
We didn’t start running amok, but honestly, some of us suddenly became sad. We wound and reeled and lingered and loitered and stalked and prowled, and when Marina came astern we were there for the assault. Not that we wanted to interfere; in fact we were not losing anything.
”Of course! You’re losing nothing more than a fire-fighting equipment locker.”
”No way, girlfriend! If someone comes and tries to steal it...we’ll say, now just you wait a minute! And we’ll take our locker back, and if he’s not ready to give it up, well then, he can just taste the water and see if it’s cold.”
We don’t want to interfere with her, but how could Ven not realize he’s just suffering from testosterone poisoning after eight long months at sea, and that he’s not aware what he’s doing? When he clears his head a little, he’ll sing another tune.
”Look, guys,” says Marina, “I’m not your fire-fighting equipment locker, I’m a woman, and if you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a human being as well, so if you don’t mind, I’ll do as I please. So go back to your cabins and open up your girlie magazines. And you’re invited to my wedding celebration tomorrow.”
In spite of everything, the party that followed was great. The crews of both ships had been invited. To our surprise Marina appointed Vesso as her best man. He made the first toast, then - toasts, music, the first dance of the newlyweds - we didn’t miss anything. We even gave them a present. Ven, a tall, slender guy with a face like a high school boy, was smiling generously, but when he stared at us, he didn’t see us. Marina was also all smiles, but more composed and discreet.
At midnight Vesso approached the newlyweds and announced, I want to kiss the hem of her gown.
Ven gave him one of his sleepy smiles and nodded. Vesso took the hem of Marina’s gown and raised it high, to touch it with his lips. And there again was the magnificent view for which we had spent so many sleepless nights on the lifeboat deck. We saw once last time what we had lost.
But we didn’t believe we had lost everything, for we had no intention of letting her be triumphant for too long.
The following morning, we immediately asked Ven if she’d been good in bed?
His sleepy smile vanished.
”Because we have an argument here. Half of the crew says she’s very good - the other half disagrees.”
They spent their second night in Ven’s dirty cabin, and several days later Marina came back alone. We’d been waiting for her; we’d taken up our stations, the same ones we’d taken the first day when she arrived. This time she didn’t give us the chance to admire her for very long. She went directly to the captain, spent an hour or so in his cabin, then went back to her cabin. Before we could realize what was happening, she was at the gangway with her two suitcases. Again with that wide-brimmed hat and the black overalls. We were quick enough to gather at the gangway and block her way.
“Where are you going, girlfriend? That honeymoon seemed too short. If you’re leaving, why don’t we have a last drink...won’t you even tell us goodbye? Don’t we deserve it?”
Marina put her suitcases down and straightened up. God, she was beautiful in those black overalls. And most important - she didn’t look as if she’d been forsaken, as we’d expected.
”Okay, is everybody here?” she asked.
We looked around. Only those on watch were missing. Marina raised her arms.
”I’m leaving, guys. I haven’t found what I was looking for, so I’m leaving. What have I been looking for? Well, I could’ve told you at the very beginning, but nobody asked me. Since I hadn’t found men ashore, I came to look for them here. People said there were a lot of men on board these ships. How many men do you think are on board this ship? You’re ready with your answer, aren’t you? - so many men, and one woman. But you’re wrong, guys! There’s only one man among you with whom I could have a cup of coffee someday. And there’s no one else. Tell me: are your dirty tricks so manly? Is he a real man, this one, who believed I’ve slept with the whole crew? Are those who told him so - real men? You’re lucky nobody ashore knows what kind of losers you’ve been, and how good you are at boasting. Now maybe it’s clear to you why I’m leaving. But where am I going? That’s unclear to me too. Maybe on another ship, to another place, beyond the ocean if necessary. I could even circumnavigate the globe - but there must be real men somewhere, damn you! And now, at the end, I’ll tell you: I want to cry. For you, but more - for me. And most: for the fact that real men are nowhere to be seen. Nowhere.
© Atanas Stoychev