The words Ferry Terminal may have been written in Italian, but almost everyone waiting inside was North African, and it wasn’t until he double-checked the boat timetable that Sila realised there were two stops in total, Barcelona and Tangiers.
He walked back, sucking coffee through a straw, wondering if the way the North African guys were acting was similar to the way Iranian guys would if they were on the plastic seats instead.
He’d always wanted to go there
but it would be hard to get the green knife through customs, unless he travelled by train or car, which would inevitably lead to other problems
and probably death by sarin gas or
Maybe if he got a tan and grew a beard, learnt some Arabic, learnt some slang
he could make it past the border
all the way to Tehran
as long as they had their eyes closed
what about Joanna?
The Chinese patient was sitting on one of the green plastic chairs near the ferry entrance gate, surrounded by men. Ten minutes ago, when Sila had left to buy a coffee and a bottle of not Evian, it had been seventy-five per cent empty, now it was standing only.
‘Thanks for saving me a seat,’ he said, flashing the tickets.
‘They didn’t ask.’
‘Wah, first three words of the day. Amazing.’
‘I spoke before.’
‘You mean, where are we going?‘
‘Yes. Are they not words?’
Sila shrugged, annoyed she’d tricked him by going into pedant mode, and said, ‘barely.’ Then segued into the huge glass window framing the prettier part of Genoa harbour, trying to remember her shape lying in the hospital bed, vulnerable, depressed, apologetic, incapable of irony.
It may have been wrong on a technical level – they were words, and there had been others – but the essence was true: she hadn’t said much the last day or two. In fact, she hadn’t said much the whole last week, not since they left Vicenza, except for basic where and what questions and, ‘it wasn’t my fault,’ on intermittent loop. But that was weird too as each time he’d asked her about it – what wasn’t your fault, the Roma Jacket guy? – she’d shut down and said, ‘nothing, let’s talk about something else.’
And then to every other topic, she’d just churn out a basic, ‘I don’t know’ and go blank, even to a simple question like, do you speak any Spanish?
‘You want some of this coffee?’ Sila asked, mentally slotting back into the surroundings and handing her the carton.
She didn’t move either hand, so he assumed it was a no.
Didn’t want that either.
A group of men on a nearby row of plastic chairs cheered or swore, it was hard to know which as it was in screeched Arabic, and, to crown the moment, one of them threw a cigarette at another man’s beard. The beard guy said something brusque back then picked up the gift, wiped it on his PUMA jacket and lit up.
‘Will they be this noisy on the boat?’
‘How do you know?’
‘I’ve been to Egypt.’
‘Are they Egyptian?’
‘No, Algerian. I think. Maybe Moroccan. But the culture’s not that different, far as I know.’
‘Nah, they’re not actually angry, they just speak loud. Same way Korean people do. Or the Irish.’
‘Feels like I’m in their living room.’
‘Their body language, voices. Wah, those men have bare feet.’
‘It’s their culture.’
‘To not wear shoes?’
‘I think so.’
She pointed at another group of men. ‘Those ones don’t have bare feet.’
‘They might have. Later, on the ferry.’
‘Also their culture. Possibly.’
‘There’s a NO SMOKING sign above their heads.’
‘Yeah, I know.’
Joanna sat up and stared at the other people around her. ‘I don’t like it. Doesn’t feel comfortable.’
‘Why? They’re not doing anything bad. They’re not drunk.’
‘Reminds me of the mainland.’
‘Which one? China?’
‘Not Guangzhou, just Shenzhen, Wuhan, Hong Kong sometimes. Parts of Hong Kong. The east rail line from Hung Hum to Lo Wu mostly. Some of the uncles, they take up two seats on the train and shout a lot, push on when the doors open.’
‘Don’t know. I’ve never been there.’
‘I wasn’t asking for your view, I’m telling you a fact.’
‘Okay. I’ll shut up then.’
‘I wasn’t asking for that either.’
‘Err…it was a joke.’
Some of the smoke from the Moroccan guy drifted over, along with a complete lack of effort to stop anymore from following.
‘We need a vacuum cleaner,’ said Joanna, swatting the smoke back towards the guy.
‘You want me to grab a fan off the wall, point it at him?’
‘They wouldn’t let you.’
‘Yeah, I wasn’t actually gonna do it. I was just-…’
‘And it’s too aggressive.’
Sila bit into his straw, stifling the laugh. ‘Fuck, you’re so pedantic sometimes, it’s insane. You say something weird, like the vacuum cleaner line…I go on the same level, the same weirdness, and then you switch back to realism again…answering deadpan like I’m an idiot for saying weird shit when you’re the one who started it.’
‘… … … …’
‘You should calm down.’
‘Fuck, not that-…I am. I am very calm.’
‘Think about the sea.’
‘Very, very ca-…ah, the sea, sure. The stillness of it.’
‘The soothing waves. Yeah, space. Good idea. Thanks, master.’
‘Anywhere without noisy men.’
Nearby, the largest of the ferry staff shouted something in Italian then opened the gate. When only a few people moved, he repeated it in gruff English and half the passengers grabbed their luggage handles and rose to their feet. The smoker nearby dropped his cigarette on the floor, using his heel to stub it out.
‘This is going to be annoying.’ Joanna stood up and stretched her arms. ‘Maybe I’ll sleep through it.’
‘For eighteen hours?’
‘Or check the ship first, see which parts are safe. If there’s anywhere with people wearing shoes and reading, I’ll sit there. If not, just stay in the cabin.’
Sila opened his mouth to call her racist, then modified to think of the sea, then stalled completely. Was she really saying anything that bad? Those specific guys were loud and annoying, others weren’t. Didn’t have to mean anything. And she did relate it to Hong Kong uncles.
But what if it was just the first of many complaints?
Others might do something else to irritate her, women as well as men, then the pool of acceptable people would grow shallower and shallower until the only ones left were the people who hated their own culture or idolised hers.
Was that the way it worked?
He remembered the Polish guy he’d met at Uni, the one who hated all Russians and Communists except for the Russian who also hated Communists. That guy was okay, apparently. What did they call it? Exceptionalism?
He stared at a vague shape, which rapidly reformed as her face, staring back at him, hand tapping on the handle of her luggage.
‘Doesn’t matter. Noisy ones are still queuing.’
He looked over at the gate, hearing the people before seeing them.
‘Hopefully they all go to the same part of the ship.’
‘Or push each other overboard.’
Sila picked up his bag and checked the floor, spotting the still-burning butt of the guy’s cigarette. ‘They’re not that bad,’ he muttered, stepping his shoe into it.
The ferry was like a little pocket estate
possibly due to the length of the voyage
with three cafes
a makeshift casino and
even a nightclub.
The last one was out of the question, but the cafes weren’t all loud and overbearing, and if they stuck together initially, going through the Barcelona itinerary perhaps, then slowly branched out to other couples on the tables nearby then she might eventually have something close to an okay time.
Sila waited until they were in their very cramped, two bed cabin before deciding to put thoughts into targets. Obviously, she wouldn’t listen, she never did, and it was a little patronising as he wasn’t much better, often thinking the same irrational way towards Americans, but it was worth a shot.
‘You know,’ he started, taking a spot on the bed opposite to the one she’d chosen to lie diagonally on, ‘I think the worst thing you could do in this situation is stay in your cabin.’
‘Didn’t say I would, I said I might.’
‘If you don’t know a group of people, and you don’t like that group of people, the best thing is to immerse yourself in that group and get to know them…with an open mind.’
‘That doesn’t make sense.’
‘What, the open mind part? Yeah, it’s tough, but…honestly, if you’ve never met a North African before, and you don’t feel comfortable, the best solution is to meet a lot of them, talk to them, interact. That’s what Samuel Delany said.’
‘I don’t know who that is.’
‘Sam Delany…American sci-fi guy, wrote Babel-17, Dahlgren. Very perceptive, if you ignore the NAMBLA debacle.’
‘Was he ever stuck on a boat full of rude, noisy men?’
‘Smoking directly into your face?’
‘Anyway, not everyone here’s a guy. The café we saw had two women, and a young girl running around their table. Probably the daughter.’
Joanna shifted her position on the bed, tucking the second pillow into her stomach.
‘And they’ll be more later, when it’s dinner time.’
‘Yes. Leaving the safety of their cabins to be stared at, targeted…’
‘…harassed by hairy perverts.’
‘This is gonna be a long trip. Maybe we should just stay in the cabin.’
Joanna mumbled something in Cantonese then picked a spot on the ceiling and stared at it. Sila watched her do it then drifted off into other thoughts. Ostensibly cabinets in Barcelona, then a tangent into the Spanish Civil War and what he’d read about the Stalinist faction falling in with the fascists, before a final loop back round to psychology and how to nurture back to life a depressed and wounded Chinese miserabilist. There were no clear answers, so he took out his phone and typed what does Jung say about…
Hearing his muttered voiceover, Joanna sat up on the edge of the bed and fixed eyes on the cabin door. ‘What time is it?’
She said something in Cantonese and picked up her phone, frowning. ‘Too slow.’
‘Feels like running on sand. I’m gonna go outside and look at the sea.’
‘And the horrible boat full of noisy men?’
She got off the bed and slid into her pink jacket, asking if he was coming or not.
‘Do you want me to?’
‘Okay, then I’ll stay here for a bit, see if the other person comes.’
‘You should’ve booked a private cabin.’
‘It is private, it’s just one bed was booked already, and all the others were taken.’
‘Book another day then.’
‘Yeah, maybe, but it’s done now.’
There was a noise from the cabin door, someone turning a key in the lock. Like Sila a few minutes before, they turned it the wrong way then pushed their weight against the door, making it vibrate. A fairly loud fuck in English outside, then a second attempt, the key turning the other way, the figure pushing a bit too hard and the door slinging itself against the wall of the cabin.
For some reason, possibly wound-related, Joanna was still standing close by, managing to reel back just enough to avoid getting clipped, but losing her balance in the process and falling onto the bed.
‘Fuck,’ said the guy in a South London accent, taking a step in and realising what he’d done. ‘You okay?’
Joanna stared back at him, her neck tilting awkwardly into the collar of her jacket.
‘Tak.’ He offered his hand, no smile, then pulled it back quickly when it wasn’t taken. ‘You have a name?’
Convincing herself it wasn’t an alien she was looking at, but a Darren Bent lookalike in a blue and black Ellesse jacket, Joanna finally blinked, and moved her neck into a more comfortable position. ‘It is hard for foreigners to pronounce.’
‘The Chinese one?’
‘I guess I’ll skip it then.’
Joanna pulled herself up and edged over to the wall side of the bed, eyes glancing to the cabin door, which was still open.
‘Don’t take it personal, she won’t tell me either,’ said Sila, standing up and putting out his own hand. ‘You can call her Joanna. I’m Sila.’
The man, Tak, pulled the same face that Pole at Uni used to pull whenever Sila put on Stalker. ‘Sila…’
‘Tudod, mit mondtam. Dolgozol Vele?‘
‘Mate, I’m not sure what you’re saying. Is that Polish?’
‘Where’s your name from?’
‘Sila? Slovenia. It’s Slovene.’
‘You know it?’
‘Vaguely.’ Tak took his hand and gripped it tight. For the sake of his bones, Sila matched him. ‘You two a couple or…’
‘Friends. Or travel partners. That’s what she calls it.’ Sila looked at Joanna, hoping for some input but she was already pushing off the far end of the bed and heading for the corridor. ‘You’re going up on deck?’
The last one was answered by the door closing, which wasn’t a snub really as it was obviously just her going up there. Smirking to himself about her noisy men tirade from earlier, Sila sat down on the bed she’d vacated, giving Tak enough space to put his bag down and take off his jacket.
‘You’re from London?’
‘You’re British, you come from London. Right?’
Tak stopped, his jacket half off, the robot head from Chopping Mall peeking out from the t-shirt beneath. ‘How’d you know that?’
‘Your accent. It’s pretty strong.’
There was a grunt in response, followed by a folding of his jacket and a very disciplined placement on the foot of the bed. Sitting down closer to the pillow, Tak looked at the cabin door then at Sila, overtly scanning from his head to his King Matjaž hoodie and down to his shoes.
‘Which part of London you from?’ asked Sila, pulling at his hood. ‘South Brixton?’
Tak looked at Sila as if he were speaking Slovene.
‘Ah, Bermondsey. Close to Millwall territory.’
‘The football team. Millwall. They have their stadium near Bermondsey. I used to live near there. Bermondsey, not the stadium.’
‘Where about in Bermondsey are you?’
‘No place famous.’
‘Near the Surrey Quays side or…’
‘The other side. Okay.’ Sila looked around the cabin for inspiration, but the walls were faded ecru with sporadic brown stripes. ‘Pretty nice ferry. Facilities-wise. Are you going to Barcelona or Tangiers?’
‘Why would I be going to Tangiers?’
‘Err…it’s the final stop.’
‘Okay. So Barcelona then.’
Grunting again, Tak reached down and took something out of his bag. Sila didn’t see what it was until the guy sat down on the bed and started reading it.
‘So…what are you doing in Barcelona?’
‘Barcelona…what are you doing there? Holiday or work or…’
‘You have a job there?’
‘So you work in Genoa too, or was this a holiday?’
‘I don’t work in Genoa.’ Tak wasn’t looking at Sila, he was flicking through his book, clearly searching for a specific page.
Sila formed a fist with his hand, annoyed that he was doing all the leg work. Who was this guy? Didn’t he realise they were stuck with each other for the next 17 hours? Fuck, there was no way he was gonna sleep in the same room as a guy who only gave one word answers and didn’t smile. He already had that facade with Joanna…
‘What work are you doing in Barcelona?’ he tried again.
Sila tried to think of other jobs, but the only one that came up was drug dealer. Vetoing that, he pulled his bag up onto the bed and rummaged through, pretending to look for something. Then spotting the Italian Monogatari book and thinking, should I?
The voice was abrupt and vaguely officious, causing Sila to look across to the door, and then back at his new cabin mate.
‘Your travel partner,’ continued Tak, seemingly asking the book in his hands. ‘She’s Chinese?’
‘I don’t know. Bermondsey.’
Tak looked up, sharp, said Bermondsey wasn’t in China then repeated the original question.
‘Why do you wanna know?’
‘You’re going there?’
‘Okay. Well, far as I know she’s from Hong Kong. Which is maybe…in Guangdong. I think.’
Tak went back to his book and scanned the page. Sila looked at his bag on the bed and thought again about pulling out Italian Monogatari, but he didn’t really want to read in silence next to this guy. Better just to go upstairs and spar with Joanna. At least she was funny now and then.
Standing up to full height, Sila put his jacket on over King Matjaž and walked towards the door.
He stopped, his heart picking up a few more beats, he didn’t know why. It was just a guy…a pretty rude guy, but nothing to be scared of. ‘What?’
‘I’m not done yet.’
‘Your travel partner.’
Sila turned, half reaching for his jacket pocket. ‘Okay, mate, I don’t mind directness, but this is getting a bit weird. You’re sounding like ship security.’
‘Your tone, the way you’re speaking. Maybe you could be a little less sharp…and not say stop like it’s a command.’
Tak stared at him then tilted his head and stared at him even more, as if each word Sila had just said were being interrogated philosophically. Finally, he grunted, adding a bit of breath this time, possibly an olive branch.
‘I have some more questions,’ he said, stopping Sila mid-turn back to the door.
Tak looked at his book. ‘Your travel partner, does she sleep continuously at night?’
‘How many hours specifically does she sleep?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘Give me an estimate.’
‘Why? What’s this for?’
Tak flipped a page, mouthing out several lines of text before converting them into actual sound. ‘Does she ever go into a trance and speak in a language you don’t understand?’
‘Within a trance state?’
‘Not a trance exactly, something else.’ Sila didn’t know how to describe the state of being related to grey vasic, but then why the fuck should he? Who was this guy, Matthew Hopkins? ‘No, she doesn’t go into anything. Listen, mate, I’m gonna go now. Maybe you can ask her yourself when she comes back, see how she reacts.’
‘That won’t work.’
‘Then she can ask you some questions too. Like, what do you do in Barcelona?’
‘She won’t ask me that.’
‘Ah, she will, trust me. Whatever you think she won’t ask, that’s exactly what she’ll ask. It’s her M.O.’
‘One more question.’
‘Mate, I’m going.’
‘Stop.’ He scanned the page, muttering to himself.
‘Can you stop saying stop?’
‘Ah, this one. When she washes her hands, does she make any noise? Does she say anything?’
‘That’s in your book?’
‘Does she make a noise like…’ He stopped and scrunched up his face, as if someone had just hit him with an electric charge.
Tak grabbed a handful of his own hair and then pounded his fist on the top of his head. After twenty seconds or so, he graduated to his Ellesse jacket, scrunching it up into an artistic mess, then stopped abruptly and said in an oddly incongruous tone, ‘forget it, I’m fine.’
‘You got a migraine or…’
‘I’m going up deck, get some air.’ He put the book back in his bag then tucked the whole thing under the blanket. ‘Don’t touch my stuff while I’m gone.’
‘Sure,’ replied Sila, chipping off about a hundredth of the reflex mordacity.
‘I’ll know if you have.’
Tak put his newly creased jacket back on and walked past Sila to the door. ‘Don’t tell the Chinese girl any of this.’
‘Tell her what?’
‘You will though, won’t you?’ He gripped the handle, pushing and then pulling it, seemingly confused when it actually opened. ‘Doesn’t matter, I can plan for that. Okay. Tell her what you want. It’s fine.’
The light blue patch of his jacket merged with its cousin wallpaper outside and then he was gone, leaving the door ajar and Sila on the bed, alone.
Fifteen minutes later, the door opened again and Joanna peered in. Satisfied the bathroom and the other bed were empty, she entered fully, closed the door gently behind her, took off her pink jacket and said, ‘nothing out there except sea and weird purple mist.’
‘Purple mist?’ repeated Sila, slipping his phone back in his trackies pocket and getting up from the bed.
‘All over the sky. Very eerie.’
‘Much better here.’
She took off her t-shirt, not caring if Sila saw anything or not, and changed into one of her others, the one with Kung Food Fighting printed on it, next to pictures of warrior vegetables. Then she dropped like a corpse onto the bed and put the blanket over her face. She didn’t ask where Tak had gone, so Sila didn’t bother telling her. Instead, he sat down at the foot of the bed and asked if she’d found anywhere peaceful to sit?
The no was muffled, but he caught enough of it.
‘Not one single place?’
‘Come on, it’s a pretty big boat. There must be some place where there are no men.’
She stripped the blanket off her face. ‘There was one, for two minutes. The space below the front deck. Then some Spanish men appeared.’
‘Not North Africans?’
‘Key point, men. Loud and annoying. One of them kept trying to look down the front of my jacket.’
‘How do you know?’
‘He pretended to read the ship guidelines four times.’
‘I don’t get it.’
‘They were hanging on the wall behind me. Protected by glass.’
‘Still don’t get it.’
‘… … … … … … … …’
‘I said, you’re not a woman, it’s beyond you.’
Sila pulled at the fringe of his t-shirt, a substitute for biting his whole fucking tongue off. ‘Right, okay…so you’re saying the guy stood up and pretended to read the ship guidelines, but really he was trying to look down your jacket? Is that it?’
‘Four separate times.’
‘And it’s impossible that he actually might have been interested in the ship’s guidelines?’
‘That’s quite presumptuous.’
‘Pretty insulting too. And it’s not fact, it’s theory. A valid one, maybe, probably – depends how close the guidelines were – but you can’t go nuts over something that’s just a theory. That’s like saying…’ Sila searched the walls for inspiration and hit the brown stripes, which were even uglier now he could see them close up. ‘I don’t know. Can’t think of a good analogy, but it’s definitely not fact.’
‘… … … … … … … … … …’
‘This is draining. I’m going to sleep.’
‘Wait, don’t switch off…’
‘I wasn’t saying you were wrong, I was just saying-…you can’t say you’re 100% right.’
‘Come on, seriously? It’s only half five, you can’t go to bed this early.’
‘It’s not even dark yet.’
‘Turn off the light, please.’
‘If you sleep now, what am I gonna do?’
‘Go and hang out with the Spanish men. You can look at the ship guidelines together.’
‘We’re supposed to be travel partners.’
Joanna turned over and faced the cabin wall, her nose practically touching one of the brown stripes.
‘Besides, if I leave you here, that guy might come back and start his interrogation again.’
‘The African guy?’
‘Ah, that got your attention. Yeah, our new cabinmate. He’s British, actually. From the non-Chinese province of Bermondsey.’
‘He was interrogating you?’
‘To a degree, yeah. But all the questions were about you. I told him to ask you himself.’
‘Weird ones. Lots of them. Still feel like sleeping?’ Sila put a hand on her shoulder and gently shook it. ‘Come on, up you get. We can go above deck, look at the purple mist, have a few drinks. It’ll be fun. And it means you won’t be here in his spotlight, saying how many dreams you have…or what primary school you went to.’
‘Questions are meaningless if I’m asleep.’
‘He might wake you up.’
‘Then I’ll stab him.’
Sila took his hand off her shoulder, checking the blanket for the lump that would show where her hand [and the knife] was. ‘You’re joking, right?’
She pulled the blanket back over her face. ‘If I’m still asleep in fifteen hours, wake me up.’
‘We can have breakfast before we disembark.’
‘No one can sleep fifteen hours straight, it’s impossible.’
The blanket creased a little, but there was no sound from underneath
‘Hang on, breakfast. What about dinner?’
just faint breathing
‘Hey, what about dinner?’
and the sound of the engine room far away
‘You can’t sleep for fifteen hours. It’s bad for your health.’
apart from that, a dormant lump
slipped into the void.
‘You can’t be asleep already.’
a private niche within.
her and hers alone.
‘Fine, sleep then. I’m going for a walk.’ He stood up and put his Matjaž hoodie on. ‘See how you get on with the Witchfinder General.’
Once again she didn’t answer so he went to the door, hesitated, looked at the sleeping lump on the bed, briefly imagined himself next to it then pulled on the handle and went out.