Wednesday, May 10, 2006


The Depths

The next gust spills across the deck, the spray receding as the ship tilts, leaving foam scuds behind, and I watch them as they gnaw around my shoes. Through the brine and oil comes smoke, and I turn and find Kelly at my side. He always seems to be nearby, passing me in the corridor or appearing soundlessly when I am most alone, as now.
‘We lost a man last year, right where you’re standing.’
Kelly is short and squat and wind-blasted, his hair and beard an indistinguishable iron mass, yellow teeth clamped around his pipe. He leans on the rail beside me. The sea appears blackly alive, restless and constrained under the sky.
‘Name was Warner. Petty officer, four years on this bucket. I left him here one night, and no-one ever saw him again.’
I look at his eyes, for guilt or even unease, but the darkness hides him. I assume he wants me to show interest so I remain silent, trying to distinguish the seam of the horizon. I cannot, and it is suffocating, as though I am encased in the muffle of a wet cocoon.
Kelly nods over the side with his eyes and says, ‘They reckon the Kraken got him.’
The way he pronounces the two syllables suggests genuflexion and I am intrigued, and though I know what the word means I ask: ‘The Kraken.’
He raises his head, eyes half-closed. ‘A mile long, they say, living on the floor of the sea and surfacing when disturbed, not returning to its sleep until it’s taken something. Sometimes it’s a single man, sometimes a whole ship.’
‘So why did it come up this time? For this man Warner?’
He is still for a long time and then says, ‘He was married, had children. His wife said it was them or the sea. He chose the second, left them to themselves.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘He fought it. That was his mistake.’
‘I still don’t know what you mean.’
He turns his gaze on me and there is sadness and perhaps disappointment. ‘No. He probably slipped and fell overboard, anyway.’
I stare at him but he looks away again, and after a time I lean back and raise my face to the sky, where the blackness is almost blue and the stars are sprinkled like a city, blinking sometimes like beacons, or headlights…
I stumble away and as the heat and brightness of the cabin draws me in I feel Kelly and the sea watching me.

The day is there, grey and bleak, when I emerge. Again, the breach between sky and water is blurred, made more so by the skein of drizzle that never quite reaches the deck. I stand by the rail once more, declining the offer of a coat, wanting the chill to penetrate and numb me inside as well. In the light I see that the waves are not so much surging against the sky as pushing down, fighting to keep something buried. I sense a shifting far below, and as I peer into the white murk the ocean looks back at me, a giant speckled egg-pale eye bobbing. Fascination trumps horror and I stare as the eye rolls.
No, not an eye.
The word uncoils in me and grapples for my throat and instinctively I begin to collapse, but it is repeated, more insistently. A woman in a neon raincoat clutches at the hand of a boy, similarly hooded, as he stretches for the rail, face contorted with rage.
‘It’s gone, love,’ she coaxes. ‘We’ll get you another one.’
I cannot look at him and it would draw attention to appear aloof so I glance over the edge again, at the ball as it bumps and churns against the hull before being lost. Something tugs at my sleeve and I see with dread that the boy has broken free and is imploring me to rescue his toy. His mother catches up, flustered smile and shaking head, and seems to see something in my face which causes her to mutter a last apology before hustling the child away.

‘So what is it you do?’ Christiansen, the Chief Petty Officer, raises his eyebrows and probes around his squid, choosing a morsel of weed and mushrooms. I am at the captain’s table but the captain has been called away and I am making politely dull conversation with three other crew members. It is what I need, and I am relieved that the captain is absent, for his affability stirs feelings.
‘I sell books, up and down the country.’
‘You’re fairly quiet for a salesman. Makes a nice change.’ Seaweed, so green it is almost black, creeps from between his teeth. His tongue, pink and glistening, sucks it away. His coarseness, instead of being comforting in its superficiality, is threatening, and I feel the light of the dining room soften so that the other tables have faded and ours is illuminated in a finger of harsh light.
I smile, do not reply, and he fixes a sliver of squid with his fork and says, ‘Business good at the moment, then?’
He meant the holiday. ‘Not bad. I needed a bit of a break.’
‘Must be used to putting this stuff away, in your line of work.’ He pours whisky for himself and his fellow sailors, points the neck of the bottle at me. I am torn between the longing for oblivion and the horror of release of feeling and thought that will need to be endured on the way.
‘No thank you.’ My smile is thin.
He shrugs, unoffended. ‘Suppose you get used to not drinking, all that time you spend behind the wheel.’
The sudden wrenching scream of metal and rubber and the face, huge and white in the starry glass in the eternal instant before it spins away, the cold awful realization of a threshold crossed without the possibility of return…
I feel it rising within me, huge and powerful and apocalyptic, and I squeeze myself closed and focus on the wash of faces crowding over me, and dimly I am aware that it is subsiding, but it was close, perhaps closer than it has ever been.
‘I’m okay,’ I whisper when I can. ‘Just the squid, I think. Went down the wrong way.’ But Kelly, bristling and primal at the next table, is watching, and nods once to me, and I know that he sees as the others do not.

Oblivion’s pull dominates, as always, and I hook myself to the stool and swallow the liquid fire and watch the jerking of the bodies in the strobe-spasms. Some are vital, fuelled by hunger and lust and the need to connect; others move in slack parodies of human motion, as though the huge shifting mass of the ocean beneath us is making them sullen and desperate.
‘Same again.’
The small splash and trickle of the liquid into the glass is reassuring against the throb of the bass and the thin accompanying electronic sneer. I lift and swallow. Three more will be necessary; I have become an expert.
‘Not into it, then.’
Small and fair and dark-eyed, and I realize I have seen her before, caught a look of amusement across the dining room or on the deck or wherever. She leans her elbow on the bar counter and props her chin on the back of her hand. It is the last thing I want.
‘All this.’ She waves a hand at the dance floor while looking at my face. Her makeup has been applied with exquisite care.
‘Not really.’ I raise my eyebrows at her glass and she pushes it forwards and I order for us both. I do not want this.
She has to lean her face in and raise her voice above the noise and I catch most of it: Julie or Judy, living in Hampshire, working in the clothing trade. I offer a few details, my gaze intermittent, hers steady. She tosses the pebble of her recent separation into my lap. I drink quickly, and feel the pull of recklessness.
‘It might never happen, you know.’
‘What?’ I stare at the gloss of her lips, wildly uncertain whether I have heard correctly. Her smile is closed and sad.
‘If you want to talk, you know, about anything, you can.’
The longing in me is a tightening truss that twists me in on myself and her eyes flicker at the pain she sees in my mouth and she places her hand on my knee. I hate the sea, hate Kelly and his sadism, and I reach for her.
Her eyes reach for me, then, and through their trembling film her sympathy dissolves into need and the engulfing horror of hope, and the surging of the pulse in my head becomes the rush of wind through shattered glass and I fall away towards the doors. Behind, through the shriek of brakes, the sobs chase me, and below, the rumble of unslaked hunger rises like a laugh.

The towel folded over the rail in the bathroom has a yellow-on-blue motif which at first I take to be a portrayal of a starfish; closer inspection reveals nine tentacles, an enormous disc of an eye, a beaked maw. I prop myself against the headboard of the bed and watch television. A gateway to another dimension extrudes a serpent, then its mate, then another and another, identical fleshy headless parts of the same whole, lined with suckers. I switch off and lie still, and clothes hanging on the closet door merge, jacket and trousers becoming each other, arms and legs moving sinuously. I close my eyes and the pulse behind the lids spreads into the mesh of capillaries, invading my darkness.
I am standing on a raft, uneven logs lashed together crudely. All around is chaos, the sea screaming in pain and delight, rain stabbing mercilessly at the surface. Through the blackness I see the ship ahead of me, abandoning me. I reach out for it, as far as I can without toppling over the edge, and a figure standing at the rail, indistinguishable with the eyes, calls out to me: Kelly, his voice impossibly clear.
Let it come.
Face it.
The raft tilts backwards and I brace my legs, but it does not right itself. With dread I take my eyes off the receding ship and turn. Across the far end of the raft lies an enormous appendage, thick at its base and dwindling to a fleshy point, twitching, glistening. I squat, as if I can make myself heavier by concentrating my mass, and as I do so another tentacle smacks across the raft, joining its twin from the opposite side. The wooden frame groans upwards, tipping to a point where I feel myself sliding, and I grasp the rough splintery edge with one hand, flailing with the other in a primitive warding-off gesture. The raft stands almost vertical now, and I drag myself to the summit and stare down at the sea, alive with writhing sensuous movement which, horribly, comes from the same stem. The ship is a toy on the horizon now, but even so I catch myself judging distances, the time it would take to spring off the disappearing platform and strike out for the dwindling haven of solidity and familiarity.
And then I know it is too late as the first flicker of oily tongue finds my foot, tastes and then clamps, and another seizes me higher up around the bulk of the thigh. My shrieks are pathetic and the shame eats at me as the gnawing hunger below me suckles and with a cry of desolation I surrender myself to the thing beneath the waves.

At first I feel I am clinging to a rope from the ship’s hull until, a few heartbeats later, I realize I am gripping the wadded-up sheet in my fists and the cold and damp is my own sweat. I am unsure whether I screamed, and listen for hurried footsteps, but the gentle lap and creak of the ship in harmony with the sea is undisturbed.
When I can breathe again I sit up in the black and peer through the porthole’s curtains. The closeness of the water is disturbing, and I recoil as a wave uncurls itself and slaps the glass. At this distance I can see my reflection, as though lost in the ocean and begging for entry, but it is indistinct, and could belong to anybody, someone younger, a child…
I know now what I must do, and with this knowledge comes urgency, a panicky desire for release. I scramble into my clothes and make my way through the darkness of the corridor and up the stairs to the deck. The night is surprisingly still, with a cold beauty. He is there, of course, and I do not look directly at him but go to my spot at the rail, afraid to the point where I cannot feel it any longer, and breathe in the salt and sealife, and close my eyes in calm.
The boy comes running out of the shadows, a blur of red and white, his tiny face growing vast and splitting into an O of horror as the howl of the brakes mocks him, laughs at me, through the shattering sideways spin of the car after it is too late for either of us, two lives meeting and ending as suddenly. The scene has played itself a thousand times before, and I have watched it with disinterest, as I related it in the court, staring at the coldness in the four men and the eight women sitting in judgment over me, at the moues and averted gazes of revulsion, and worse, the sallow red-rimmed mother’s face behind me burning into my back. I have thought that by watching it over and over I will break its hold on me, but now I realise I have never really watched it at all, not in any real sense.
I start at the beginning, then, with the soft whirr of the tyres on the silent road, and I hold the image until I can hear it, can smell the sodden birch leaves and diesel and savour the tang of the pollen on my tongue and palate and the tickle of exhilaration of rapid motion and a future of unbridled delight. My breathing and my heart quicken, and I stay aware of this, as though it is happening in the relived scene. The hill is ahead of me and I climb it, gearing down, whistling to the tune on the radio as I reach the crest and edge the accelerator down, the road diving into the trees and vivid in the dusk and welcoming before me. The freedom of the road, the sexual promise of speed and vitality and naked nymphs baring themselves to me from the engulfing forest and later in sweaty cheap traffic-circle hotels, and oh God, life is wonderful…
The first flash of the boy appears from the trees to the right…
And I open my eyes and stare down at the brooding sea and summon the Kraken from the depths.

Worth the wait. That was great Mr. Eater. I loved it.

" ...the sea screaming in pain and delight..."


Welcome back!
the rumble of unslaked hunger rises like a laugh

Now, that is very fine indeed.
Stephen King move over, here comes Footsie. Visceral writing of the highest calibre. Well done, footsie!
So you're back then? Haven't read it yet. Better be good.
It isn't; it's swollen and purple. The prose, that is. I wrote it six years ago and have pared down my style since then. Still like the idea, though.
So the boy was hurled overboard as part of a sexual fantasy the narrator is gripped with?
Good stuff. Not for the lad, of course.
Correct me if I've interpreted it poorly.
You are effective at capturing a bit of a Lovecraft feel to the enterprise! Nice!
Not quite, SafeT, though I appreciate your comments. It's all about guilt and the impossibility of avoiding it forever. There's a car accident in there somewhere.

It reads as far more obscure than I'd intended.
STI: Think Dagon meets The Machinist and you'll be nearly there ... possibly.

Foot Eater: Remember that one of the meanings of obscure is too damn subtle for some people.
The boat ride was allegorical?
Oh, Christ. I'm too simple for this shit.
I got it.
Well, it was a gentle afternoon so I read it, and I liked it very much. Nicely written with a finely balanced yet oppressive sense of guilt and remorse lead by the pitiful search for redemption. Very good indeed.
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