Sailor Story


‘I could have been all sorts of things,’ thought the sailor as he shovelled board games into the green metal container. ‘I never thought I would end up here.’ He paused in his shovelling and looked around him. He wasn’t entirely sure where here was. Close up, the container and the board games seemed real, but when he looked around him, from above to left to right and across, there was a blankness to his surroundings. Like a huge dome of nothing. The sailor shrugged and resumed his work. He was an average sort of sailor, in a Jean Paul Gaultier kind of way. The golden buttons on the front of his white trousers clinked against the metal of the container each time he loaded another shovelful of board games through the opening. He didn’t mind the work, but he couldn’t see a point to it. The strangest thing was that, no matter how many games he pushed through the opening, or how quickly he did it, he never grew tired. Nor did the pile of games grow any smaller. ‘Perhaps I’m in some kind of hell,’ he thought, looking over his shoulder at the games stretching out behind him.


The sailor continued shovelling, until a small, dark girl stood beside him. Her eyes glittered like drops of jet, her hair curled tightly around her head, her mouth pursed as she stood and watched him shovel. ‘These games will never end,’ she told him before turning heel and striding off. The sailor paused. He rested against the handle of the shovel and removed the sailor cap from his head. He wiped his brow. He wasn’t sweating. He shovelled without exertion. There was no need to sweat. He left his shovel and headed in the same direction as the girl. His shoulders rolled as he walked, making his gait peculiar. He walked a short distance that felt like forever, and reached a green metal house. The fence around it was sketched in charcoal on thick white paper. He couldn’t see a front door, so he walked to the back. The small, dark girl was waiting. ‘You should go inside,’ she said to him. ‘There’s a sale on.’ He followed the angle of her head and saw a square hole cut into the side of the green metal house. Her tilted head encouraged him. There was a sale on. It made sense.


The sailor was confused. He looked around the room, with its carpet woven to look like a field of daisies. He looked back over his shoulder at the hole cut into the wall of the green metal building. The hole was square with rounded corners. Through it he could see the small, dark girl cycling away, always in the middle distance. Inside the room were piles and piles of board games. The sailor removed his sailor’s cap and scratched his head. ‘I wasn’t expecting this,’ he said to no-one in particular. He surveyed the room of board games. The boxes were stacked regularly on slatted wooden shelves. The small, dark girl had been right: there was a sale on. Some of the boxes bore labels that bore words. The words read ‘20% off’, ‘half price’, ‘1/3 reduction’, but nowhere could the sailor see a price to apply the reductions to. He heard a sound. Looking across the room, he noticed an unsightly pile of boxes on the carpet. He crossed the floor and saw an opening. Looking through the opening into the room was a sailor. Both of them recoiled. ‘This must be a dream,’ he heard the sailor say.


The sailor peered out through the opening. His opposite was looking over his shoulder at the long line of games stretching out behind him. Turning quickly, he made his way back to the round-cornered hole cut into the wall of the green metal building and squeezed himself out again. He thought he could hear the small, dark girl speaking in the distance and wondered if he could get there before she told his opposite the truth about the line of games. If what she said was ever entirely true. He pondered this for a moment then, with a start of realisation, he jolted into action. Running the short distance back to where he had started also felt like forever. When he reached the green metal container with its growing line of games and his shovel leaning against it, there was nobody to be seen. Inside the container, he could hear sounds. He thought he heard a voice say, ‘I wasn’t expecting this.’ ‘Where am I?’ he wondered. ‘What hell have I stumbled into?’ Two eyes met his through the opening in the side of the green metal container. He recoiled in anticipated shock. ‘This must be a dream,’ he said.


The small, dark girl appeared again. The sailor thought he remembered. ‘I know,’ he said. ‘These games will never end.’ The small, dark girl raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘It’s what you were going to say,’ the sailor said. ‘Was I?’ she replied. ‘I don’t recall.’ Folding her arms, she chewed her bottom lip, her dark brows knitting over glittering eyes, drops of jet looking down, focused on what, the sailor did not know. ‘This doesn’t feel right,’ the sailor thought. His legs were itching for motion, but he remained rooted to the spot. What age passed, he didn’t know, but eventually he took up his shovel again and started to push more games through the opening in the green metal container. ‘Isn’t there something else you should tell me?’ he said over his shoulder to the small, dark girl who was no longer there. In her place was a different girl, sitting at a table alone. The sailor watched her for a while, shovel frozen in mid-air. The girl at the table seemed not to know he was there. The sailor got the feeling she was somewhere surrounded by people and he was looking at her from the wrong direction.


The girl at the table looked sad. ‘Are you sad?’ asked the sailor. The girl at the table didn’t reply. The sailor felt helpless on the inside. He stood in his bright white trousers with the gold buttons, and his blue and white striped tunic stretched tightly across his muscular frame, and inside he felt weak. He tried to turn back to his shovel and the opening in the green metal container, but the sadness of the girl wouldn’t let him. He knew that all the games in the world at any number of discount prices wouldn’t make the girl at the table happy again. ‘What are you doing?’ said a voice behind him. The sailor glanced over his shoulder. It was his opposite, inside the green metal container. ‘There’s a girl at a table, and she’s sad,’ he told him, ‘what are you doing?’ His opposite was silent for a moment, then, ‘I suppose I’m just waiting,’ he replied. The sailor turned away from the girl at the table and leaned towards the opening in the green metal container. His opposite was leaning from the inside. ‘Waiting for what?’ he asked him. ‘You, I think,’ came the reply, softly.


‘Me?’ asked the sailor. ‘What am I supposed to do?’ ‘That’s the thing,’ said his opposite, ‘I’m not sure. But until you do it, I can’t do what I need to do next.’ ‘What do you need to do next?’ His opposite glanced down. ‘I think I’m supposed to meet someone.’ ‘A small, dark girl?’ asked the sailor. ‘Yes, that’s who,’ was the reply. The sailor thought for a moment. ‘Do you get the feeling that we’re the same person?’ he asked. His opposite looked up again and frowned. ‘We can’t be the same person. I’m here and you’re there, which is here but on the other side of this green metal wall. How can we be the same person?’ ‘I just thought,’ said the sailor hesitantly. ‘Yes?’ said his opposite. ‘Well, I just thought that maybe we had become separated and were travelling on parallel lines.’ ‘Wait there,’ said his opposite. ‘I’ll meet you by the line of games.’ The sailor agreed. If he knew about the line of games, then he must have been here before. He waited for a long time. His opposite didn’t come. ‘Maybe I ought to go to see where he is,’ he thought.


‘Where has my life gone? My drunken-ness of being? Where is the joy, the enthusiasm, the passion?’ cried the man, making the sailor jump almost out of his skin. He turned to find behind him a man, standing in a manner that could only be described as four-square. His hair was standing in clumps and tufts on his head, as though his hands had recently tugged at it in desperation. ‘I’m sorry?’ asked the sailor. The man stood four-square with his mouth open in a grimace like a letter box and did not answer. The sailor was growing tired of this hell or nightmare or whatever it was that he found himself in. He could have been anything he wanted, he reminded himself. ‘Where did you come from?’ he asked the man. ‘You shouldn’t sneak up on people like that.’ The four-square man continued to grimace, the only movement about him the occasional blink of his eyes. ‘Why are you standing like that?’ the sailor asked. He wanted to be impatient with the man, but he couldn’t get the feeling to line itself up. ‘It is the hour to be drunken,’ declaimed the man. Only, his mouth did not move.


Suddenly the sailor became aware of a crowd. He and the four-square man were standing in the middle of an amphitheatre. A spotlight struck them from nowhere. When the sailor looked up he could only see blackness. There was no roof, no gantry where lights could be suspended. The four-square man stood blinking in the light from the invisible spotlight. ‘WHO ARE YOU?’ the sailor shouted. The muscles in his arms and chest swelled as he clenched his fists and pulled himself up to his full height. The crowd looked down on him. ‘Justify yourself,’ they seemed to say. ‘Who are YOU?’ said the four-square man through his letterbox mouth. ‘I am nobody,’ replied the sailor. ‘I am just a sailor, and I could have been so much more than this.’ ‘Where is your drunken-ness of being?’ asked the four-square man. The sailor could not answer at first. He wished he were back at the green metal container. He longed for his opposite. He felt sure that this was not the thing he was supposed to do. ‘Where is your drunken-ness of being?’ the four-square man asked again. ‘Justify yourself,’ said the wordless crowd. The sailor couldn’t find their faces.


Finally, the sailor found his voice. ‘I HAVE NO DRUNKEN-NESS OF BEING!’ he shouted at the crowd. ‘I cannot justify myself to you. And what are you going to do about it?’ ‘He is rebelling,’ said the crowd. ‘He is expressing himself. Surely he is drunk on his own being?’ ‘Where is my drunken-ness of being?’ asked the four-square man. ‘WHO ARE YOU?’ shouted the sailor, grasping the four-square man by the lapels of his jacket. ‘Why are you shouting?’ said a voice behind him. The sailor looked down at his hands as they grasped at thin air, miming the action he thought he had been doing. ‘Are you drunk, are you mad, are you losing the plot?’ The small, dark girl circled him on her bicycle. ‘You again,’ the sailor groaned. ‘What hell is this?’ The small, dark girl stopped her cycling. She surveyed the sailor with her eyes that glittered like drops of jet. ‘This isn’t hell,’ she said calmly. ‘This is your sorrow and your joy.’ The sailor released the air that was still clenched between his fists. He felt tired. For the first time in a span that could not be calculated, he felt his weariness.


‘Pull yourself together, why don’t you?’ the small, dark girl suggested. The sailor looked around him. The amphitheatre was gone. So was the four-square man. His shovel was leaning against the wall of the green metal container. Someone had kept on top of the shovelling, though. The line of games stretching away from the green metal container appeared to have disappeared. ‘What you need is some joie de vivre,’ said the small, dark girl. ‘Where are the games that will never end?’ the sailor asked. ‘Some joie de vivre and some aquavit,’ the girl continued. The sailor looked at her. ‘What do you know of aquavit?’ he asked. ‘I’m older than I look,’ the girl replied. The sailor shook his head. ‘Pour me some aquavit, then,’ he said. The girl laughed. ‘It isn’t as simple as that,’ she told him. ‘I just said that you needed some, not that I had it.’ Suddenly, the sailor understood the sadness he had witnessed once in a girl sitting at a table in a place that closely resembled his current location. ‘This is my sorrow,’ he said. The small, dark girl slowly pedalled towards him. ‘It could also be your joy,’ she said.


The sailor groaned. If this was his joy, what would his sorrow resemble? ‘Look over there,’ said the small, dark girl. The sailor followed the line of her arm to the end of her pointing finger. She showed him a beach. Two people were crossing it side by side. They passed over sand dunes as though they were not there and walked through the water at the edge of the shore as though it had no depth. The sailor could see them clearly. They were magnified as though viewed through a lens. They crossed the sea and they emerged from the water onto another beach. The sailor saw that they had a wooden mallet and a large wooden bowl. He watched as they pounded the contents of the bowl with the mallet until it formed a large white mass. The sailor felt himself choke. He felt a pressure on his face, as though the large white mass was smothering him. ‘Tell them to stop,’ he begged the small, dark girl. ‘Please. Tell them. I can’t breathe.’ But the small, dark girl was gone again. In the place where she had stood, motionless on her bicycle, was a light blue bottle.


The sailor bent down to look at the bottle. He expected to see a label, but the bottle was bare. He picked it up and put it back down again. He pushed his sailor’s cap back on his head and scratched his forehead beneath his kiss curl. He was surrounded by silence for the first time in a long while. It was oppressive, as though all vibration had been sucked out of the air. He realised that he was wearing his sailor’s jacket, dark blue with the square collar that hung down across the broad span of his back, tied with a ribbon at the front. ‘Am I dead?’ he asked himself. He looked down at his feet. He stood with one foot in the sand, the other in the snow. ‘Am I now really dead?’ he asked himself again. He picked up the bottle again, opened it and drank. It had a strange taste, metallic and clinical, with hard edges as though he were drinking a shard of something solid and bright. He felt cold, and he saw that the sand had all turned to snow. He stood with both feet in the frozen powder, waiting for something new.


The sailor dropped the bottle from his hand. He looked across the white expanse of snow and saw a sign. Its once pristine surface was now cracked and pitted where metal had encountered too much oxygen. He saw flaws that could fracture at the slightest blow. The sign was wider than it was high by a measure the sailor could not calculate. He could not see the thing to which it was affixed. The background surface was white, obscured by snow. He had the sense of a container in the way the light fell across the dazzling background. He wondered at the words embossed upon the sign. NOT TO DROP MORE THAN 5 CWT. Another sailor flashed before his eyes, cowering beneath the shadow of a large wooden mallet. A heavy load, a weight, a pressure. A pounding and a whiteness. All things are made to bear a certain amount of pressure. All things have the strength to push so far, and no further. The temptation, he seemed to understand, was to build up steam and drop a pressure greater than can be borne. This, he seemed to feel, was to be avoided. A two-fold harm and a twin destruction.


At the sailor’s feet, the shattered glass from the dropped bottle had formed itself into a rose. The thorns along the stem glittered against the pure white of the snow. The flower was as pink as the nose of a white cat. As he stooped to pick the rose up, another hand grasped the stem. In its haste to win the flower, the hand grasped too hard, the glass thorns pierced the skin, forcing droplets of blood to stain the snow. Bent at the waist, the sailor looked up to find a mirror image. “You again?” he asked. “You too?” his double replied. Twin sailors gazed at each other, bent forwards at the waist. The sailor (our sailor) straightened his spine. “I thought I was dead,” he said, “but if your hand can bleed, that surely means we are alive.” He thought he felt the cold of the snow through his shoes, but wasn’t convinced. His double also straightened, still holding the rose by the stem, the glass thorns still piercing his skin. “I’ve seen you before,” he said. He did not release the rose as he turned towards the sign hanging in the blinding white, creating a bloody trail.


‘There is a well of grief that is never ending,’ the sailor said, morosely. ‘I try to seal the top of it but it keeps cracking open, and I keep falling in.’ ‘You’ve had too much aquavit,’ said his opposite. He was still staring at the sign. ‘Aquavit will always make you morose.’ ‘I’ve had hardly any,’ the sailor replied, remembering the cold brightness of the liquid, how solid it felt, how clinical. ‘You’re not yourself, just remember that.’ His opposite flicked the words towards him, over his shoulder. The sailor thought. He looked down at the snow beneath his feet. It chilled him from the soles upwards. He looked up. ‘Who am I, then?’ he asked. His opposite was walking towards the sign. NOT TO DROP MORE THAN 5 CWT it silently shouted. The shape, the dimensions, the sense of it resembled a letter box, grimacing across the distance between him and it. ‘Who are you?’ he asked in the barest whisper. His opposite finally dropped the rose. The snow bloomed pink, as pink as the nose of a white cat. ‘I am nobody,’ his opposite replied. ‘I am just a sailor.’ He watched the snow melt to nothing.


After the snow had melted, colour returned to the landscape. ‘Was the snow absorbing all the colours?’ he asked. ‘Oh, probably,’ came a familiar voice. The small, dark girl rode her bicycle once in a circle around him. ‘The snow or the sign or you.’ ‘Me?’ said the sailor. ‘How could I absorb the colours?’ ‘You’re a very colourless man,’ the small, dark girl said, pivoting on the back wheel of her bicycle, like a perverse jewellery box ballerina. ‘Thanks,’ said the sailor. The small, dark girl stopped her rubber pirouette. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘He discovers his sarcasm at last. He is truly coming on.’ The sailor looked past her, trying to see the sign. ‘Don’t look for that thing,’ said the small, dark girl. ‘You’ll never see that thing again.’ The sailor looked behind him, trying to see where his opposite had gone. ‘Or him,’ the small, dark girl said. ‘You’ll never see him again, either.’ The sailor felt the surface of his well cap crack. He felt the grief bubble up. ‘At least you won’t drown,’ said the girl. ‘At least the grief won’t kill you.’ Something splintered in his chest. ‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ he said.


Fatigue glittered across his brow. The two-fold harm, its twin destruction, left him four-square and rigid. “Your mouth, your mouth!” sang the small, dark girl, jubilant and cocksure. “My mouth?” the sailor said wordlessly. “Your mouth, your mouth, so square and flat. Your mouth, so square, just fancy that!” sang the small, dark girl, cycling tauntingly round him. Four-square and rigid and building a rage as hot as a furnace, the sailor felt his legs pushing down into the earth. Through his square mouth, shaped like a letterbox, he bellowed, “My mouth, my mouth, so square and flat!” Anguish echoed all around. Tears sprang in his eyes. He was not a thing, he knew that much. And yet, his rigid legs pushing down into the earth, his four-square body belied this knowledge. The temptation of a heavy load, a weight, a pressure. 5CWT or more, he seemed to understand, a pressure greater than could be borne. He chose his words. “My mouth, my mouth! My mouth, my mouth!” The small, dark girl cycled back from the middle distance. “You chose your words?” she seemed to ask. His square mouth grimaced. His eyes flashed fear. Here was his sorrow, at last.


The small, dark girl looked up at the frozen sailor. As she regarded his four-square form he seemed to solidify and the colour drained from him. ‘I said he was colourless,’ she said to no-one in particular. ‘I always knew it would end this way.’ Far in the distance, the girl at the table yawned and stretched. She shook her head as though awakening from a dream before rising from the table. Far in the distance, she began to walk. The small, dark girl leaned over the handlebars of her bicycle to watch. Her quizzical right eyebrow arched above the glittering blackness of her eye. The girl who had left the table took forever to reach the middle distance. ‘Shall I give you a backy?’ called the small, dark girl. ‘It’s one of my finest skills.’ ‘No thanks,’ said the girl who had left the table, her voice sounding closer in the ear of the small, dark girl than she would have thought possible, had she been inclined to think about the possible in any way whatsoever. Then, there she was, the sunlight catching on the gold in her brown hair. ‘Nice statue,’ she said. ‘Did you make it yourself?’


The girl at the table shook her head, awakening from a dream of sorts. Opposite her, the man in the blue suit and the green shirt looked up from his crossword. The girl, who was a woman, looked at him through grey eyes, reflecting the short lightwaves that his brown eyes absorbed. ‘I saw a building,’ she said, ‘the same shade as your shirt. Green enamelled metal. Two sailors were filling it with board games.’ Opposite her, the man whose shirt was the shade of green enamel looked back to his crossword. He wrote across a line of squares. The woman, who used to be a girl, felt a judgement in those squares and the spidery black letters placed inside their walls. ‘Where has my life gone?’ the woman murmured. ‘Where is my drunkenness of being?’ The man placed more spiders inside square walls. The woman looked sad. ‘Am I looking at you from the wrong direction?’ she asked. Opposite her, the man whose suit was blue like cornflowers, pressed on, pressing down, marking the page. The woman sighed and cast a sidelong glance through the café window. ‘Let’s go back to the beginning,’ she said. ‘Start this thing again.’


The way the woman would put it is this: there is a death for everything, with an inevitability of grief waiting beneath. Composure’s surface cracks eventually. After deferral, pain’s ugliness comes as a relief. To square your mouth and let anguish echo is bliss. Every sailor in a matelot jumper knows that.

She left him there, in his cornflower blue suit of ignorance. She turned away from his unseeing, unseeking, dead and lonely person, bound up in empty words and the harm of unknowing.

She stepped out into the wider world. She walked. Bravery didn’t come into it. Deferral had become untenable. She had come to an understanding with herself. The malice of silence wasn’t what she wanted. Nor the brutality of indifference.

She thought of a statue, of a green metal building. She thought about the horizon, and the sun caught the gold in her brown hair.

A small, dark girl watched her quizzically​ from a distance. The small, dark girl thought about possibilities. She thought about offering the woman the benefit of one of her finest skills, but the woman had purpose in her stride. The small, dark girl saw this with the glittering blackness of her eye.