Only the air moved in the still, bright lounge. Vibrations hummed from the ferryboat’s engines. The primal sound crept up inside the walls from the decks below. I passed through a steel doorway and lurched towards the bar as we dropped into a trough. I wished I was someplace else.
A burly bar steward, looking more lively then anyone had a right to at this time of the morning, appeared from behind the optics. His white jacket, piped with red around the cuffs and collar told the tale of his long shift.
‘Morning, evening…whatever it is,’ I said.
‘Yes, sir. Something like that. What will it be?’ He sort of smiled.
I guessed he just wanted to be back in his warm bed in Dover.
‘Just a beer please. A small one,’ I added.
He placed a squat green bottle and glass on the bar. ‘That will be five francs, please?’
I handed a weighty coin over. ‘Cheers. Ta,’ I said and collected the bottle and glass, walked over to the table furthest from the bar and sat down. The steward wiped the bar where my drink had sat and disappeared back into the recess behind the optics, probably for a smoke.
I surveyed the lounge: bright brown beige. The garish nature of the bar was compounded through the reflections from the toughened glass that stretched in six feet sections across the far bulkhead. Occasionally a spray of white foam crashed against the outside of the glass, dissolving on impact. This seemed to be the extent of the entertainment on board. I sipped my beer. At that price it would have to last all night.
The steward’s respite turned out to be a short-lived one. Two lively lads entered the lounge, looking for a bit more than what was on offer. They settled for two beers each, without glasses, and moved away to a table close to the bar.
A figure emerged through the doorway: slim, pale, dark and female. I recognised her as one of my fellow coach-travellers. We were making our way back from Amsterdam. Scatty but with elegant edges, she walked through the half-hearted advances of the lads looking for more than a drink, and sat down at the table where I was quietly sipping my extortionate beer.
Suspicion and flattery are two feelings rarely encountered together: I was confused. Her intrusion made me feel uncomfortable but I decided to act as if this happened every day.
‘I like the hair…I recognised it from the coach,’ said my strange guest.
‘Thanks. Yours looks pretty good too.’ I tried not to sound surprised.
We shared a similar taste in hairstyles: a darkly coloured sticky mixture of gothic and punk.
‘I hope you don’t mind me sitting here; I hate sitting alone.’
‘No, no. Not at all.’ I felt bad for my initial irritation.
She offered me her hand, which I gently shook. I like Elaine better, I absently thought.
‘James. Do you want a drink?’
She motioned at my empty beer bottle. As I moved forward to the bar, I encountered curious glances from the two lads, who were drinking faster than I could afford to. After a brief encounter with the steward, I returned to the table with two bottles of beer and an empty glass.
Elaine smiled and silently mouthed her thanks.
‘Cheers.’ We said in semi-unison and settled back.
‘It’s strangely empty,’ Elaine quipped before taking a sip of beer.
‘I suppose everyone else is tucked up for the night,’ I replied.
‘Yeah, I was but I couldn’t seem to settle. I had to get up and go for a walk. See if there was anything happening.’
‘This is it…’ I motioned around the lounge with my glass. ‘The liveliest place in the North Sea.’
We both raised our glasses to another toast, clinked and laughed. My reaction had its roots in nervous tension more than joviality. My drinking partner I suspected, was no stranger to this situation.
We drank a further round. The bar closed its shutters for the reminder of the crossing. Elaine decided that we should go for an exploratory walk around the ferry’s decks.
In the corridors and stairwells, a couple of older insomniacs passed us by now and again, on the same never-ending quest as Elaine and I had embarked upon. We headed up.
As we pushed against and climbed out of heavy wooden doors onto the top passenger deck, the wind whipped at our faces and ran through the precious sculptures atop our heads. The gusts were vicious but warm. After negotiating life-rafts and emergency floats, we found ourselves at the stern looking for signs of life, mechanical or otherwise amongst the bleak absence at the intersection of sky and sea. The Dutch tricolor whipped violently at its mast, harmonizing with the churned, broken wake of the ferryboat.
I leant forward over the rails: Elaine pressed back against them.
‘You said you weren’t on holiday in Amsterdam, what were you doing there?’ The liquid courage had spoken. I faced into the darkness, hiding my evident embarrassment in plain sight. In the murky night I felt I could pry, the bar had been too sterile, too restrictive.
Elaine was silent. It was possible I thought, she hadn’t heard my question. I was not going to insist on an answer. I let it pass. I asked another, less personal question: where she was going to stay when she got back to England?
‘I was on a kind of a working holiday, y’know? A bit of work, bit of pleasure,’ she calmly said.
I turned fully around, intrigued not by the answer itself but the suggestiveness in which it was cloaked. I nodded in reply, in the hope that more would be revealed.
‘I met Roger, the bloke I’m with. The one downstairs asleep in the cabin,’ her eyes motioned below, ‘back home in Birmingham. At a bar one night.’
Elaine caught the surprise on my face as she revealed she was already with someone whilst I had been trying to chat her up. A cheeky smile burned brief and bright. I didn’t really care after the initial surprise. I filed that under naivety. Up here it was just the two of us: a special moment, a singular time in the present.
She continued unhindered. ‘It was about five months ago, he was, is good-looking. A lot older than me. Anyway, he bought me drinks all night and asked, straight out like, if I wanted to go with him to Holland. To his place on the outskirts of Amsterdam, just for a couple of weeks. He said he would pay for everything. So I thought it sounded like a fair offer and left the next day with him. I knew what he wanted and I was willing to give it to him. In my situation you use what you’ve got.’
I was embarrassed. I didn’t know whether it was aimed at the situation she had described in such a deadpan way or for Elaine herself? She certainly didn’t seem to be ashamed, and why should she be? It was her life to lead as she saw fit. I admired her strength and practicality.
‘Didn’t you have any ties back in Birmingham?’ I asked and hoped it didn’t sound judgmental.
‘I was on a lousy government scheme, there was no future in that. That’s the real slave-labour. My mum and dad were probably glad to see the back of me. One less to feed. Good catholic family, you see,’ she winked at me and smiled. ‘I sent them a postcard every two weeks,’ she glibly added.
I took a closer look at this enigmatic young woman in front of me. Away from the harsh lighting there was kindness in her face, in spite of those steely blue eyes and angular cheekbones. There was the fleeting glance of a vulnerability too. Or did I just will that into being?
Elaine moved towards me, put her arm around my waist and her head on my shoulder. We looked out over the bleak expanse, whilst our minds raced over things we would not say, things that might have been, and questions never to be answered.
‘You don’t mind do you?’ she said softly.
‘No. Not at all.’ I put my arm over her shoulder and squeezed her close to my body. She felt kind and good and warm. Sometimes it is good to feel physically close to another person, even if it is for the briefest of moments.
‘Are you on your way back to Birmingham?’ I quietly asked. The touch of her thin body was incredibly stimulating. I could understand Roger’s desire.
‘Yeah. Roger’s got some more business there: machine parts or something. It will be good to get back and see my friends.’ She moved her face tight in against my neck.
‘Do you think you’ll stay there? Or you going to return to Amsterdam with him?’
‘I’ll probably stay. I think he’s bored with me. I’m bored but I’m not paying. Sex with the same person for five months gets a bit monotonous, especially with men like Roger who always want you on top doing all the work, while they just lie there.’
I was taken by surprise with Elaine’s natural, latent feminism. I tried not to show it: my body most likely betrayed me.
‘Anyway, I don’t think I’ll get the chance to go back, he’ll probably dump me and find someone new for the next shift.’
‘Oh.’ I felt a mixture of sadness and annoyance. ‘Doesn’t that piss you off, just being used like that?’
‘We both used each other. It wasn’t all a one-way deal. It was an opportunity, a chance to go somewhere different without it costing me anything. A sound deal from my point of view. I’ve had a good time, but I knew it would end. People like Roger don’t need attachments, they can pay for everything they want and trade it in when they get tired of it. That’s life.’
Elaine displayed no maliciousness or distaste, but at the same time the lack of any feeling was distinct in her voice, and perhaps it betrayed her a little. I didn’t believe she fully meant what she said. It was more a case of wanting to believe in the stark reality of life because dreaming is painful when the chance of realization is so far-fetched.
We hugged each other tighter and kissed lightly for a brief moment.
‘What will you do if you have to stay?’ I was captivated by this ethereal woman whom I had met under such unlikely circumstances.
‘My room will still be there. My friends will always be around. Even my old job,’ she sounded reassured but downbeat. ‘I don’t know, maybe I’ll meet someone else like Roger. Maybe I’ll go for a summer job in Aber or Bangor. Maybe I’ll get married and spend the rest of my life in a council house, just ‘round the corner from my parents. Anything could happen. Hopefully something.’
Elaine turned away from the sea and looked up at the faint glow of vessel’s bridge. She twisted around and gave me a peck on the cheek. I smiled.
‘C’mon,’ she said in a loud, lively voice. ‘I’m getting cold. It’s time I got back to Roger, not that he’ll be worried.’
‘It is a bit, isn’t it?’ I replied passively, not really knowing what to say.
Elaine took my hand and we hurried back into the deck enclosure. We walked slowly to the stairwell. After a brief awkward silence, Elaine gave me a very intimate hug. I replied with a tight squeeze.
As she descended to her shared cabin, Elaine turned back in mid-flight.
‘Thanks for the beer.’ She carried on down.
‘Thanks…thanks. Take care,’ I called back, as she disappeared amongst the dark recesses of the ferryboat.
Originally from Liverpool, Sean now lives in the southwest. His fiction has been published in The Ham, The Honest Ulsterman (HU),Thursday Online and Holdfast Magazine. He is currently engaged in a creative practice doctorate writing genetic-fiction, at the University of Winchester. He works as a lecturer in film & tv production at Bucks New University.