by Michael Bloor
(first published in Platform for Prose, March 2022)
Five days out from Kharg Island oil terminal, the Pride of the Solent held a steady South-East course through an Indian Ocean prostrate under the night sky. In the captain’s cabin, a grizzled old man pushed himself away from a desk crowded with papers and oddments of computer equipment. He stretched his aching back, grunted, and glanced at his watch: one more thing to do before he could turn in.
There were still unanswered emails from Head Office, instructions to prepare for the ship’s agent in Singapore. But this was not an administrative matter, rather it was a small duty to be discharged to solidarity. The old man was smiling as he shuffled up the stairs to the bridge: he was reminiscing. Aside from soldiers in trenches, there are none in the wide world who owe more to solidarity than seafarers. The old man was thinking about uproarious good times ashore in Rio de Janeiro, the awe of a typhoon in the South China Sea, the collective, shared, under-stated understanding of the pains of separation, the daft practical jokes in the mess, the superhuman efforts to repair a near-catastrophic engine breakdown in the Sulu Straits. No-one grasps our dependence on each other better than those who put to sea.
The old man entered the bridge, smiled and nodded at his second officer making chart corrections, and then walked outside – onto the starboard bridge wing. The warm, slightly moist, night air was like a caress. The moon had not yet risen, but the light shining out through the bridge windows was sufficient for him to make out the figure of the look-out, correctly positioned at the far end of the bridge wing – able to see the stern, as well as the bows, of the tanker. The old man waved a hand and came to stand beside the look-out. He kept his back to the bridge windows, so that his eyes became accustomed to the gentle dark.
He looked upward to the stars. So many stars, beyond all computation and imagining. Directly above them, the great arch of the Milky Way. He began to pick out the familiar constellations. Back when the old man was a cadet, use of a sextant was still part of the training and the stars then were the mariner’s guide and friend. He smiled and nodded to his old celestial friends, an habitual gesture.
For a long minute, he was silent. When he did speak, it was almost a whisper: ‘In my time, I have seen many sights – the Northern Lights behind the Lofoten Islands, glaciers calving their icebergs on the Greenland shore, my daughter taking her first steps – but there are few sights on the planet to compare with a starry night on the Indian Ocean. We are blessed to be standing here.’
The look-out cast his eyes upward. But he was born and raised in the haze of metropolitan Manila: the stars were no part of his upbringing. ‘Truly, captain, are we are blessed, do you think?’
The old man turned to look at the rating: ‘We’re blessed and we’re cursed. There’s no greater terror you’ll ever experience than a fire at sea, believe me, I’ve lived through it. There’s no greater strain than being the look-out on a vessel nosing its way up a foggy, busy, river estuary on an ebb tide – you’ve lived through it. The long hours, the break-downs, the foul weather… Remember them all, Danilo, my friend. But set against them, not just the food we put in the mouths of our families, but also the peace of nights like this, out on the ocean.’
The look-out still gazed upwards. The old man took a last, long look at the Choir of Heaven and squeezed the young man’s shoulder. ‘Me too, Danilo. I too was away at sea when my father died.’ He nodded and smiled, re-entered the bridge, and headed back to his cabin.