Vanishing shore

by Nicholas Hall

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The Atlantic sky was hazy, a white expanse that spoke intelligibly only to the experienced, watching from the shore. The sky told them that the weather would hold, for now: sailors were blessed. Underneath this pale aegis, the worn stone of the town’s harbour front was covered with luggage and feet, as people rushed to be aboard the ship that would take them into the West.

Joseph didn’t feel blessed, as he stood beneath the faded façade of his hotel. The cold coins in his trouser pocket, the stern fold of his coat over his arm, the stiff nods of the porters; nothing suggested that he should feel happy with this chilly, bright morning. He looked down at the bags by his feet, and noted with irritation that the right toe of his right shoe was tarnished with a dab of grease, as though someone had dripped hot wax on the leather. As he stared, he found the sound of the crowd dimming a little.

A handkerchief…  he patted a pocket, and then another. He frowned, and the noise of the crowd returned, causing something to burst angrily in his chest; too remote to be powerful, like seeing from afar a firework exploding into the night sky. He couldn’t change a thing. He tore his eyes away from his shoe and looked about without seeing. ‘Carter!’ he called, and with annoyance, he found his voice wobbling. ‘Carter! Where have you got to… Carter?’ he called again, trying to give some solidity to his voice, but the words sounded small. Still, they worked, in their mundane, relentless way.

‘You called, sir?’ a thick voice asked, and Carter was before him, red-faced. Joseph glanced at him and thought, as he often did, how sad Carter looked: the way one could tell that the hair beneath his hat was receding, or how his brown eyes held too many tears. Joseph found himself, unbidden and painfully, momentarily despising Carter.  It passed, another silent firework, and he managed a smile.

‘Carter, good to see you,’ he said.

‘Sir, been seeing to the car, sir’ said Carter, and he returned the smile bemusedly – they had been only minutes apart.

‘Do you know where my handkerchiefs are? I seem to have misplaced them, and my shoe has a horrible spot on it.’

Carter lowered his eyes.

‘Apologies Mr. Jones, I must have missed that. Allow me,’ he said, and he made to stoop, but Joseph placed his hand on his shoulder, and the valet paused.

‘Don’t worry Carter, just provide and I shall perform,’ said Joseph. He put on his coat, and Carter moved away, to fetch the handkerchief.

He found his mind wandering fruitlessly, and his stomach rolling, as he followed Carter. The man had opened a smaller case, from which he pulled a dark blue kerchief, handing it over with a slight nod. Joseph smiled, attempting to dissolve the formality, but, as usual, he thought he made Carter conscious of his position. Jones took the cloth and wiped his face, and then dabbed at his shoe. He turned his back on the valet, leaving him to work on arranging the bags for what was to come.

*

Joseph looked to where the harbour opened out to the sea, a short distance to his left. The pale sky made for a sea of metallic white-black, with flashes of magnolia and oily blues lurking in the gaps of the waves. It stretched on to the horizon, unbroken except by the ship, the Île de France, sitting a mile or so offshore. The bright day caused the sea beyond to fade into the sky, so the boat appeared to be at the very edge of the horizon. He stared at it, and he thought how apt that was. He was to step on it, and then, at some indistinct point, this world would vanish. A soft wind cooled his warm face.

His right hand ached: his fingers, wrapped up in the handkerchief, were caught like a lobster in a pot. He pulled at the fabric, only to tighten its grip. A sharp sigh later, and the handkerchief was back in his pocket. He furtively massaged the fingers, annoyed at himself. He readjusted, standing taller, feet together, chin raised slightly, chest forward. Only, someone from the hotel pushed past him, and immediately he deflated.

He walked to the harbour. The noises of the day hit his mind anew, their hard consonants rippling in a rolling pool of vowels; the sounds of sighs and furtive calls that filled his thoughts. He stood by the water, breathing fast. Nestled in the embrace of the harbour, there were dozens of boats, bobbing on the gentle harbour waters. Away to his left, beneath the harbour wall, were the liner’s launches. One by one, passengers – his fellows – slowly walked down the hard steps to these launches; dresses and suits inches from, he imagined, oily seaweed and barnacles. He counted three boats. Each was attended by a smart crew and officer, collectively charming the passengers into the launches as though wooing deer into a pen. Laughter crossed the water.

A blunt, but not unfamiliar, idea crossed his mind: what if he was to simply not get on any of these boats? What if he was to turn to his right, and just walk away, slipping through the streets like water through a sluice. He could walk to the station within a few minutes, and be on a train for London, or Manchester, or further still, with an appallingly appealing ease; an opportunity so present, so available, that he found himself walking away from the sea a few steps. But something stopped him – his fingers had found the handkerchief again, and the soft touch of the hidden blue had a different effect on him. The knowledge of why he was going on this ship, of why he was standing in that very spot in that very harbour at that very time – it blew the thought of the station away, the spectral smoke of the train dispersing around before the cold lines of the ship.

He had to go aboard. It was for the sum total of all expectations, not least his own; born of comfortable abstractions dreamed up over months, and pushed into reality with a sickening swiftness. He withdrew his hands from his pockets, but continued to walk down the harbour wall, still moving away from the sea. He coughed. The smell of the sea had found him again, and as he had done since he was a child, he found himself both delighting in the sense of decay, of a world at peace with itself, and in the base, powerful revolt that it constituted against sense and safety. He coughed again, telling himself to savour it. A shout came from nearby, and he started.

‘Oi, mister!’ Joseph realised the shout was directed at him. He looked around, and saw a trolley of baggage was rapidly approaching.

He mumbled an apology, stepping aside.  ‘Ta,’ came the short reply, and as the trolley turned onto the waterside, a stout man in uniform appeared from behind it, puffing and straining. Joseph stared at him, and he found himself beginning to laugh. The man, now pushing the trolley towards the launches, heard him, and shot a foul look over his shoulder. Joseph immediately felt defeated once more. He looked away, only to see the liner waiting patiently at anchor.

He bowed his head, and walked towards the launches. What would Emily say, if she saw him like this? She would be following in just a few months, once he had become established. He lifted the handkerchief to his face. If he tried hard enough, he thought he could smell her scent on the fabric, and he walked on with purpose. He soon saw that Carter was not at the hotel; he was now on the harbour wall, talking animatedly with a sailor in uniform who seemed to be managing a winch. Joseph moved closer.

A bird called, and then another, and, turning back to the harbour, he saw cormorants on a buoy. He liked cormorants: there was something stolid about their simple acceptance of the sea. They were less noticeable than the gulls, and therefore more pleasing, and… he didn’t know any other birds. He laughed at himself, but still he walked: he found he could not stop. But in thinking he couldn’t, or more importantly, shouldn’t, he did, and impulses and fears washed over him anew. And then, at the simple cry of a gull, he began to walk again, and that crushing wave of emotion disappeared, replaced by firm reason and terrible shame… and then again! It came, swelling, towering, suffocating… He did not want to walk, and so he did not. But he had to, so he did. It all came down to the same eventuality, and that was the liner waiting out at sea.

Carter strode over, clearly annoyed. Joseph decided to wait. When he was a few steps away, Carter slowed his pace, agitated.

‘Trouble, Carter?’ asked Joseph, his voice bearing a nervy lightness, as his stomach rolled again.

‘Not too much, sir. Just a-’ Carter checked himself, looking at the floor apologetically, ‘just a little difficulty with keeping all your things together. I think it’s arranged now, sir,’ he finished, looking Joseph briefly in the eye before glancing back at the winch.

‘Very good, Carter’ said Joseph, face blank.

‘Excuse me sir, but do you get sea-sick?’ asked Carter, a corner of his mouth rising in a way that would suggest wry amusement on most faces, but on Carter looked more like resignation at an approaching storm.

‘No, thankfully – God, this journey would be…’ exclaimed Joseph.

‘Only, I thought you looked a bit,’ Carter hesitated, ‘a bit pale, sir’.

‘I feel fine Joseph, don’t you worry. All luggage aboard then?’

‘Yes sir, all en route. Just you, now sir,’ Carter said.

‘Capital’, said Joseph, looking at a launch set off. One left.

‘Sir,’ Carter started again.

‘Yes, Carter?’

‘Miss Emily will be–’

‘Yes, thank you Carter. Please see to the car,’ said Joseph, looking only at his hands before him. The valet didn’t move, and Joseph didn’t see the pained look of affection cross Carter’s face. Instead, he saw cobble stones, slick and clean.

‘The car, Carter,’ Joseph repeated, his voice a little stronger.

‘Yes, sir’, said Carter, and Joseph felt him brush past, and heard him walk away.

Shouts of farewell now flew over the water to a launch as it left the harbour, and hands waved farewell. Joseph walked on, and came to a cordon, guarded by men in uniform.

‘Ticket, sir?’, asked one.

Joseph stared at him, at a small black moustache and light blue eyes. ‘Ticket?’ he said, stupidly.

‘Sir?’ came the man’s voice.

‘Yes, one moment. Sorry,’ replied Joseph, and he reached inside his coat pocket, where the ticket was kept, close to his heart. He handed it over. It was examined, approved, and he moved on without a word. The gulls called, but he walked on, barely aware of himself.

He stepped out onto the harbour wall, past another winch, where he saw luggage – his? He didn’t want to check: it’d push the minutes on, it would demand bringing others into his presence, their eyes would enforce his move onwards, when he only wished, once again, to withdraw. The ticket had been bad enough, but impossible to refuse. Adding more faces, more words, would be intolerable. But then what? To where? To the station? No! To the hotel? Why? To vacillate, muttering mendacious soliloquies? No!

He made for the steps. People looked round at him, eyes warning him to follow the order of the line. He joined them, and they shuffled forwards as though chained together. Everything quickened. He was now on the top of the steps, and the sea slapped and sighed against the white sides of the boat. He saw faces looking up, smiling. He wondered where Carter had gone. The car – but surely he would say farewell?

The second step, the third. The dark green stone was wet, and he put his hand on the shoulder of the man in front to steady himself. The man turned, and Joseph saw a smile, and heard words. But he couldn’t tell what these things really were: they were shadows of Emily’s teeth and words. Down another step, and then the pace increased again, ruthlessly: with a wobble, a grip of a calloused hand and a courtesy lost to the air, he was sat in the launch, low on the water, low under the sky. He put his hands to his eyes and shook his head. The handkerchief was now wrapped painfully around his fingers again. He held it to his face, taking a deep breath.

With a shout, the launch was announced as full. A man with a clipboard loomed over Joseph, and grinned down at him. Joseph raised his face to the sky, and the launch grunted off into the harbour, rocking gently. He turned, and saw Carter standing on the harbour side. He waved, and Carter, for the first time Joseph had ever seen, waved back, red-faced and beaming.

*

He tried to ignore the liner as the launch made its way out of the harbour. Instead he watched the water roll past, the fizz of the wash melding into the slick, unbroken water that swelled further out, countless bubbles swirling in the wake. A few gulls circled over-head, their cries incessant: but he no longer had any choice. It was done.

As they drew closer, all attention was drawn to the ship. Countless portholes lined the side, and from far above the huge red and black towers loomed over the scene. From a high open deck, faces watched them approach – words, stretched and scattered by the sea air, cascaded down upon them, sounding alien to Joseph. Every face in the launch, except those of the crew, looked up at the ship. Joseph stared at it, aghast and amazed. He pulled out the ticket once more. His cabin number was there, discretely resting beneath his name. 312.

The crew called to each other in soft, carrying voices, and Joseph saw, without understanding how he had not seen them before, the other launches ahead, by a short gangway that had been floated out from a door in the side of the ship. A stream of people serenely passed from launch to liner. It was as though the guests were simply ascending the stairs in the hall of a house: the sea may as well have not been there at all. Joseph thought it was strangely shameful, the ease of this operation being an affront to the sea. He thought of the cormorants, and bowed his head. Minutes passed.

*

‘Now, now, ladies & gentlemen, no rush!’ cried a sailor. Joseph found, to his shock, that their launch had already been secured to the gangway. With smiles all around, the crew helped the passengers up to their feet, and funnelled them onto the contraption. Joseph found, without any conscious effort, that he was already on the silver metal leading to the doors, and before he knew it, before he could think of some last, desperate gambit, he was at the entrance to the liner, a door of metallic brutality, of rivets and curved metal wrought by strange hands.

‘Welcome aboard the Île de France, sir’ said a calm voice, close to his ear. A hand gripped his, greeting, and also pulling, him onto the wooden-floored corridor of the liner’s low waist. He was inside, and yet he did not stop. He was carried along in a stream of people, past doors and paintings, under bright, white orbs of light. He tried to turn aside into an alcove or a doorway, to wait for the stream to pass, but he could not. The crowd surged on up the corridor, noisy and eager, and only at a junction did the stream dissipate.

A hand brushed his shoulder, and he found himself being ushered along – someone was smiling at him, and talking quickly. The voice changed to French, and then back to English, but Joseph only said  ‘312’. Their pace and direction changed, but to Joseph, all was blurred light, the handkerchief and his hammering heart the only things that truly existed. On, on, on, he moved, one, two, three, so many floors and corridors, each brighter and wider than the last. Then, with a rush of cold, salt air, he was on a promenade deck, looking out over the sea, and before him were many people, staring out at the haze. Nobody took any notice of him, and he was glad for it. He looked around, and saw a friendly young man standing next to him – his guide. The man nodded his head. ‘Sea-sick, sir?’

Joseph blinked and nodded, before turning away. ‘Through that door there sir, then a droit.’ The man left him, and Joseph floated over to the door indicated, pulling it open. He saw more people: they had cups and glasses, were wearing dresses and smoking cigarettes held in lazy hands. A few looks were cast at him, watching as he went door to door, looking for a number; but nobody called a greeting in the spirit of travel. He pushed through another door, where chairs lined the walls, and the floor was a chequer board of black and white stone. He looked around, and saw more corridors, with more doors. He made for one. 302. He followed the doors along, but they descended, so he turned and half-ran in the opposite direction. 304… 5 on the other side, then 6, and so on until… 312.

As he was about to push the door, it opened. Another neat young man, in a white waistcoat and tails, stood before him.

‘Mr Jones, sir?’ he inquired in a dry voice, a touch of impatience in the question.

‘Yes,’ said Joseph, frustrated at his presence. He fumbled for a coin in his pocket.

‘Your luggage is present, and the room ready. My name is Morlons. Please, if I can be of any assistance, just call. I regret not meeting you sooner.’ Morlons nodded, and stepped aside.

Joseph walked in, to find a large bed in a room of mahogany. It was a heavy, close place. His luggage, or what looked like his luggage –  his eyes were blurry – was arranged neatly by the bed side, awaiting ministration. ‘Do you wish me to arrange your things, sir?’ asked Morlons, closing the door.

‘What?’ asked Joseph, distractedly.

‘Your possessions, sir?’

‘Oh, yes – I mean, no thank you, Morlons. Later, maybe.’

‘Excellent, sir. I shall return at your call. Just press this button if you need me,’ Morlons said, indicating a small porcelain blob on the wall by the door.

Joseph nodded, and Morlons left.

He sat on the bed, and coins fell out of his pocket.

‘Morlons!’ he called. The door opened.

‘Sir?’

‘Could you please find me when we are about to lose sight of land?’

‘Of the land sir? Of course!’

‘Thank you,’ Joseph called, and held out a coin.

Morlons looked at it, bowed, and stepped out.

*

Joseph spent some time in the cabin, not moving. He wondered if he had insulted Morlons, but couldn’t see how. He took some deep breaths and decided that, now he was aboard, he should act the part. He took his coat off, taking the handkerchief from within, and hung it in a capacious wardrobe that stood near a dresser that was identical to Emily’s. He ran his fingers along its edge, half-smiling to himself. The room was warm, the light pleasant. He turned, looking for a particular bag.

Carter had done his job perfectly. The trunk lay under three bags that the valet had packed with Emily’s supervision, and on top was a document case and a few small boxes, tied together with thin rope. It struck Joseph that this collection wasn’t very much at all. It didn’t seem possible that he and Emily would be able to manage with just this, and whatever she would bring when she came. That was so far off…  What mattered, he thought, was what they were leaving, and what they would find. He lifted and then opened the oldest, darkest bag. He pulled out a thick woollen jacket. He put it on, the handkerchief once more in his pocket.

*

The crowds on the promenade deck had thinned a great deal, and the sun was at its winter zenith. He found he was surprisingly hungry. He thought he would walk along for a short while, and then join the lunch party which, he felt sure, would be under-way shortly.

The ship was moving: he had not realised in his cabin, but there was the fact. The Île de France had made its last stop, and was off into the West, the great engines thrumming and thundering somewhere far below. If he strained his senses, he thought he could hear and feel them, but then, he decided, he could just as easily be wrong. The sea, unbroken and calm to the horizon, reflected an already darkening sky. A breeze blew down the walkway, and he pulled his collar up. He looked up at the sun, and it looked back, blearily.  He decided to cross the ship to look at the coastline. He reasoned there was still a good hundred miles of land to go, at least, before the ship left it behind. He set off down the deck, hands behind his back, and he thought this, at least, was something he could safely do. He could breathe the air, look at the view, and then go for some lunch.

The coast sat in the middle-distance: grey cliffs, wiry woods and broad fields, villages and small harbours, creeks and beaches. Joseph put his hands on the rails, and stared at it all. There it was, and there it would be, for hours, surely. The ship wasn’t that fast. He could stand here and watch it go by, and it would go on and on, and that was where Emily was. It would be there all his life, wouldn’t it?

His eyes began to water and he decided to go inside. After wiping his face, he found a sailor and asked for directions to lunch. The sailor, gracious as his fellows, led him to a grand double-door with a window of red and green glass. ‘Voila,’ said the man. ‘Enjoy your meal, sir,’ he bowed, and left before Joseph could say a word in reply.

He heard a great buzz of talking. He reached for the handle, and pushed it down, before trying to push the door – the wrong way. The door shook, the glass rattling. Aghast, he pulled instead, and the door swung open to reveal a room filled with people at various tables of six, seven, eight, talking animatedly, with lunch being placed before them by waiters. It was clear he had arrived just in time, as nobody looked in his direction.

Looking about, he spotted a quieter table with a few seats free at the far end. Before he could make for it, however, a steward came forwards and took his jacket. Then, with another blurring of time and lights, he found himself sat at a place, wine before him. Flustered, he glanced up the table. He shivered as he saw that the rest of the table were staring at him. He stood quickly, and bowed.

‘My apologies, ladies and gentlemen,’ he said, in a small voice, as with Carter. ‘I had some trouble with my baggage,’ he continued, and looked between them quickly: men and women looked back, expressionless. Then a woman to his right smiled and said: ‘welcome, please join us.’

The others nodded or looked back at their drinks, and Joseph sat. The lady to his right turned to him, blonde, blue-eyed, lively.  ‘Grace Adamson,’ she said, holding out a hand.

‘Joseph Jones,’ he said, taking her hand and shaking it gently.

‘Pleasure,’ she said, and she opened her body to draw in the man sitting across from her. ‘This is Mr Jones, Stephen. Joseph Jones. My husband, Stephen Adamson,’ she continued, her hand flicking lazily, delightfully, in the direction of Stephen Adamson, who was blonde like his wife, and had a wry grin on his face.

‘Welcome,’ he said, ‘I think it’s gammon for lunch: just what you need, I know – a plate of thick gristle to help you at sea.’ He grimaced for the briefest moment, and then smiled broadly again.

‘Excuse my husband,’ said Grace, beaming. ‘He’s hankering for some home cooking, is all. He also has a touch of trouble at sea, and plays for sympathy.’

They both grinned at Joseph, who said, after a pause, ‘well, I don’t get sea-sickness, but I’m sorry to hear that you do, Mr Adamson. I heard once that certain salts were good for it, but– ’ but he was cut off by Stephen, who laughed.

‘Don’t you worry Mr Jones – I’ll be all fine after I’ve had some more of this,’ he winked, and drank a sip of the wine. ‘It’s delightful, I say – try it!’

Joseph took a sip: Saint-Joseph. He smiled despite himself.

‘Agreeable?’ asked Grace, eyebrows raised, and, as Joseph looked at her, at the overt willingness of this pair to include him, he found he could not help but grin.

‘Very,’ he said, and they both raised their glasses to him.

‘Oh, what’s this for?’ cried a voice from the far end of the table.

The trio peered around, glasses all raised, foolish. The rest of the table held three more women, and two men. A man at head of the table, old, whiskery, white of face and hair, cried ‘Newcomer!’ His voice was dry, but loud. ‘Are you toasting something?’

Joseph blinked nervously, and Grace and Stephen looked quizzically at him, which he noticed with amusement more than annoyance.

‘To distant friends,’ he said after a moment’s pause, and the rest of the table raised their glasses, and Joseph felt momentarily, shamefully, ridiculously, proud of himself.

The gammon passed, as did a sorbet. The Saint-Joseph had been replaced by a brother red. Madam Yagorushka, sitting to the old man’s right (a Dr. Bermondsey, according to Grace), was resplendent in a rich, blood-red dress. She rolled her r’s with indecent relish, and was holding forth on the iniquities of some recent scandal. Joseph listened, nodding, unknowing, feeling foolish, and sat back to sip more wine. He could see that Mr Roberts, the last man at the table, wasn’t really interested in the conversation: he looked a little ill, in fact. Bermondsey roared, as he did very frequently, with laughter.

As he ate and drank more, Joseph found it increasingly hard to listen to the rest of the conversation. The Adamsons were generous with their attention, yet in the lulls, when Grace’s face was turned away, or when Stephen toasted some future promise in their destination, he was dragged back into melancholy. Something nagged at him, and the wine played with the nerves in his head. He had something to do, he was sure of it. He played with his dessert fork, tapping the prongs on his knuckles, frowning, whilst the rest of the table listened to the now raucous conversation of Bermondsey and Yagorushka. The room at large was still busy, but theirs was certainly the loudest table. Joseph looked about, missing the glares directed at his party from other diners. Then he saw Morlons.

Joseph stood, so quickly he nearly knocked over his wine. He stayed the glass, and Roberts looked at it with a grimace.

‘Excuse me,’ Joseph mumbled, pushing back his chair. Roberts tore his gaze from the wine to Joseph’s face, eyes astonished, face green… and then he stood too. Not saying a word, he took the opportunity to flee the room entirely. They all watched him go, leaving Joseph the gap he needed: without a word, he strode over to Morlons, who smiled at him.

‘Mr Morlons,’ Joseph began, a horrible feeling clawing his throat, ‘you were to warn me when we were leaving sight of land. I trust that moment has not yet arrived?’

Morlons’ face fell, and he put his hands together. ‘Oh, Monsieur, oh, I am sorry – I think you may still catch a sight’, he pulled a watch from a front pocket. ‘Indeed, Monsieur, I believe we are just at the moment now.’ Morlon’s eyes were ball-bearings: the eyes of Moloch.

Joseph left him without a word, and ignored the call of Grace Adamson as he crossed the room, rushing towards the door.

Out he went, onto the starboard promenade. The sun was lower: it was already nearly mid-afternoon, the winter day falling into the darkening sea. He gazed out at the horizon, but there was nothing there – not even a light. The Île de France had sailed into the bosom of the Atlantic, and he had not said farewell to his land, and so to Emily.

‘Joseph?’ Stephen called, as he stepped on deck. ‘Are you alright? Wanna smoke?’

But Joseph turned and walked past him, heart trembling, thinking of nothing but of locking himself in his cabin, of binding himself to the gloom, of becoming trapped like his fingers that, once more, were caught in the blue handkerchief.

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