Archive for May, 2012

31st May
written by amber

None of us could sleep and Raf had saved one bottle of rum so we lay around on deck, sharing it while we watched Raf steer. No one seemed to want to spend time below.

I felt tired at last. Not tired enough to sleep – it would be many nights before I’d risk having another nightmare wake me into something worse. Not tired enough to be easy. I don’t know if I’ll ever be easy again. But a good feeling of tiredness, something I needed to feel, a slight relaxation of muscles too long tensed in anticipation of needing to stay steady while the world turned upside-down.

The rum helped too. We talked, first about how we could make some money when we got back to land. I noticed no one said anything about hiring onto another boat. Sam got onto the subject of the boss, wondering who would have to tell his wife. That kept us busy for a while, talking about her, thinking about her, so pretty and so young, speculating on whether she’d be the kind of widow who loves her husband more after he dies, wondering if she’d believe our story about him being swept overboard or if she’d make trouble. I was trying to guess, and I know the others were too, who’d be the first to break, to confess the truth in some bar or at the police station or in some woman’s arms. Joe was the weak link but he was in the locker when Raf did what was necessary.

We were talking nonsense, just to hear our own voices, trying to shut out the sound none of us wanted to hear. The wind rises every night. It was something we looked forward to, a bit of coolness for our time of relaxation before going to our bunks. But two nights ago it rose and rose and rose and rose until the black waves were slapping down at us like giant hands, over and over, the morning hour when it arrived on the boss’ waterproof watch finding no brightening in the dark howling hell that possessed us.

Taking water was the least of our worries as the boat groaned and flexed and seemed about to snap. But pumping water was something to do, something to keep us busy and distracted from the worst thing of all – the way the boss and Raf were arguing over how to steer the boat, the way the boss won the argument by going to his cabin and coming back with his gun.

Raf sat near us after that, not helping pump, just drinking. By the way his jaw clenched and his neck muscles corded up, I could see the rum wasn’t making a dent in his anger and fear. I was afraid too. I’ve been in storms before, on bigger and smaller boats. None as poorly maintained as this boat. None steered by a crazy man.

You survive a storm and you’ve got a good story, the sort of story that heartens men to see it’s possible to live and tell the tale. But we all know there’s another kind of story which often doesn’t have an ending, just loved ones waiting at the shore until finally they give up and hold a funeral with empty coffins.

I was scared we were already doomed to the second kind of story. My hands, whenever I took them off the pump, shook uncontrollably. So I kept them on the pump.

It finally got so bad that Raf had had enough. He took a fish knife and went up to the wheel. We didn’t know for several hours what he did, we just felt a difference in the way the boat was being steered – straight into the waves it felt like, being pounded harder than before and wallowing alarmingly before breaking through and surfing way too fast down the other side. It’s how riding out a storm is supposed to feel, if your boat can take it. And none of us were sure our boat could.

But it did, and now we were limping home. We hoped.

The thing is, we didn’t know where we were. The boat didn’t have much navigational equipment to start with and that was never kept in working order. Plus the cabin was never kept the way Raf said it should. The boss always left stuff lying around, heavy stuff like binoculars and boat hooks. They’d gone flying when the storm shook us, busted up the few things which had been operational.

The boss trusted Raf to navigate by the seat of his pants. Truth be told, Raf was good. He was the reason most of us signed onto that boat, besides the fact that most other captains wouldn’t hire us for one cause or another. But the goddam storm had blown us so far that Raf had only a dim idea of how to get us home.

This is part two of the story which won me the Sheldon Currie Fiction prize in 2010. The final part will be on here tomorrow. Enjoy!


30th May
written by amber

In the Storm

The boss died in the storm, in the dark and noise and violent motion, but we gave his body to the sea in bright sun and deathly quiet and an ocean so still it might have been in some painting hanging on a parlor wall. And us in the middle of it in a boat so beat-up no one would ever paint its picture. The harsh light made those old grey boards look white, made our faces black.
We had all that fish on board. The engine was dead but the cooling unit still worked. We stood on deck, caught in concentric rings of echo from the sound the boss made when he hit the water, until the silence stretched beyond the horizon, then Raf said, “Gotta take parts from the cooler for the engine.”

Just the day before I would’ve argued with him, said not to lose our catch, try something else. Taken the boss’ side, like I always did. I hated the boss, but being as close as I am, or was, to having my own boat, I couldn’t help but see both sides. It pulled me, one way, then the other.

Now I was ready to let a month’s wages follow the boss over the side. Just to keep from having to ride out another storm with no engine.

When I was small I slept in a hammock. My big brothers invented this game – me in the hammock, like a bug in a cocoon, wrapped tight while they each took an end, swung me, spun me, dropped me so fast and dizzy, I didn’t know if I was down or up. Imagine that, only in a beat-up old boat that doesn’t wrap around you tight and safe. And imagine you start to think maybe your brothers want to kill you.

People assume sailors love the sea but we don’t – we only work there. Most of us don’t even know how to swim. But we keep going out on boats, not letting ourselves see how old and decrepit they are, how big and wild the sea can be.
It was Joe lost his nerve. None of us liked him much and if we’d been betting, we all would’ve bet he’d be the one to end up huddled in a locker, crying and muttering to himself, his eyes big and white every time one of us opened the door. So it was no surprise. What did surprise me was the way I – we all – felt so gentle toward him.

Six men on a boat and when you hire on with a boss like Gar, you know he’ll be in his cabin drinking rum half the time and yelling at you to work harder the rest of the time. He was the owner of the boat, but never knowledgeable enough in the ways of the sea for us to call him Captain.

Five men to work, and a good catch weighing just so much, each man has to pull something like three times his own weight. One man like Joe, one lazy man, one man who can never find a job to do except when it’s time to pull in the net, then he’s busy elsewhere and he doesn’t seem to hear you when you call, one man who tries to convince you he’s so bad you’d rather not have him cook or clean or fix net, you can really hate that man.

And because you hate him, when you sit around in the late evening, the sea invisible but present in its motion and smell and sound, when you’re on deck drinking rum and he comes up, suddenly the rum doesn’t taste as good, you don’t feel as drunk, there’s a guard on your easy conversation and easy affection. So if he sits down and accepts the mug of rum someone offers and grows easy in his conversation and seems to feel part of the affection that was there before he came, and tells stories of his childhood, so maybe you can see why he’s lazy, you can’t forgive him.

You don’t want to hear those stories, especially the way he tells them, as if he’s escaped that desperate life, an orphan raised by his aunt, her slave really, and no matter how hard he worked it never bought love or even an extra morsel at the crowded table or the friendship of the idle cousins he envied. He always ended the story with the words, “So at least I know how to work.”

How to avoid work is more like it but I guess we’ve forgiven him. We’re grateful to him for being the only one brave enough to show the terror we all felt. So we let him stay in the locker while we put the fish over the side, and Mak cooked beans and brought some to his hidey-hole. We worked half the night to fix the engine. When it was done, we warned Joe before we started her up and got underway.

This is the story which won Antigonish Review’s Sheldon Currie Fiction Prize in 2010. I’ll be publishing the entire story over 3 days.


25th May
written by amber

My Day in School

The job just gets worse and worse. Most days I can hardly bear to drag myself out of bed and off to school. And what’s the first thing I encounter? The inane chatter of the other teachers in the staff room – so repugnant. Most of them are no better than the hippy-dippy students, fuzzy-headed, in favour of abolishing dress codes and exams and respect.

I’ve heard them referring to me as an ‘old fogey,’ even though I’m not that much older than they are, in years anyhow. Maturity is another matter. The war taught me the value of respect and discipline. The same war that bought them the freedom that they have, but none of them realize it. Instead it’s ‘ban the bomb’ and forgive the rapists and murderers because they’d had a hard childhood, boo hoo.

I expect such muddy reasoning from my students, all of them too young to know what life is really about, but my fellow teachers are supposed to be adults.

No, I don’t blame my students for the hell my job has become. It’s in their nature to be restless goof-offs, to be more interested in their hormones than in learning. They just need a steady hand at the helm.

But how am I supposed to be a steady hand when the administration keeps expecting me to do so many more things than teaching? Today I’m supposed to be handing out sign-up sheets for students wanting to volunteer to help with the Prom – for god’s sake. And what’s more, I have to end the class 15 minutes early so everyone has time to get to the auditorium for a stupid pep rally.

The year’s coming to an end and it’s important to review all the equations that might be on the final exam – that’s the important thing now. They’re behind – all the snow days this winter, and the day they had off to attend the funeral of a teacher who’d retired three years ago whom most of them didn’t know, and the rash of fire alarms which had sent them all out into the parking lot five times before they caught the idiot who was doing it. And now, with crunch time coming, they all have spring fever and baseball fever and prom fever and I cannot get them to settle down and learn.

Ten minutes into the class, I have to stop teaching so that everyone can listen to an announcement over the PA about a field trip to the museum, and five minutes later there’s another announcement, about the pep rally, and five minutes after that yet another announcement, not even for the students, but reminding all staff members that teachers planning summer school sessions have just three more days to turn in their lesson plans, something which easily could have been handled by a notice in the staff room or by memos to the individual teachers.

This is ridiculous. I can’t help it. I’m seeing red.

Even as I’m jumping up onto the counter beneath the PA speaker, I know I’m over-reacting, I know I’ll be a laughing-stock to my students, but I can’t control myself.

I rip the speaker off the wall and throw it into the trash can.

Amazingly, my students are quiet and attentive and extremely well-behaved for the rest of the period.

Somehow, though, I suspect they’ll be talking about this for many years to come.

If this story seems familiar, it’s because StoryADay encouraged us to take a story we’d already written and change the point of view. I changed this from third person to first person, which gave it a different slant and a new last line (which is true – for this is based on a real teacher).

24th May
written by amber

Dear John,

It’s over. I won’t be seeing you anymore.

You must realize that this is mostly your fault. You have never treated me well. You’ve always taken me for granted – that I would be there when you needed me, but the rest of the time you didn’t involve me in your life. It has always been a one-dimensional relationship.

In fact, relationship is a far-too generous way of describing it. Right now, the only word I can think of is abuse.

Don’t deny it – you’ve hurt me again and again. You might try to explain it away. You got too excited. You think that’s the way I like it. You were stressed and you took it out on me. But I think the emotional pain was worse. You made me feel worthless, ugly, shallow, shameful. Dirty.

I know this surprises you, this change in me, that I won’t be there the next time you come by. You never expected me to change, because change is foreign to you. You’re stuck at age 14, or maybe even 4. You assume you will always get what you want because you want it. You see nothing wrong with that. And if your wife or girlfriend won’t give you what you want, then it’s up to me. Or someone like me.

But I had a little accident and now I’m pregnant. Believe it or not, I had a good mother who set a good example to me of what a good mother should be. She believed in herself and she believed in me. For too many years, I have betrayed that belief, but I won’t do that any longer.

I am ashamed of what I did, but what I did is not who I am. I wasn’t true to who I am, but I never could erase it, the shining heart of me. It will shine again.

And so, John, all of you, I won’t be on the corner any longer, waiting for you.

I’m better than that.

StoryADay asked for an epistolary story today, based on a letter. So I decided to do a Dear John letter, with a twist.

22nd May
written by amber

The Hidden Room

You always knew it was there, from the moment you decided to buy the house.

You said to your wife, “I love this house – it has charm, it has mystery.”

Yet it took a year for your inner sense of dimension to reveal the discrepancy to you, that between the guest bedroom wall and the upper landing of the staircase existed a block of unexplained, inaccessible space.

“Have you noticed that there’s too much space between this wall and the staircase landing?” you asked your wife.

“Not really.”

“Well, there is.”

“These old houses have thick walls, that’s all.”

“I think there’s a hidden room.”

“Don’t you dare,” was all she said, and she walked away.

The guest bedroom, the last room to be redone, had just been completed with vintage wallpaper above the original wainscotting. The staircase landing was finished the month after you moved in, with antique crown mouldings and neutral ivory paint to showcase the family heritage paintings that this new house, of all the houses you and your wife have owned, displays properly.

You will not be allowed to make holes in those walls. But you could wield your measuring tape while your wife wasn’t around to ascertain the size and shape of the room – rectangular, a narrow five feet wide and 20 feet long. From the garden, you see that it has a tall thin window, stained glass with an image of a heron.

You begin to dream about the room.

Four months later, when your wife goes away for the weekend, you can’t contain your curiosity any longer. In such a short space of time, you won’t be able to breach the walls and repair them, but you have a new plan – to make a small hole beneath the Aubusson carpet in your bedroom. Just to take a look.

You don’t know what you will find. A secret laboratory filled with mysterious glass bottles and strange electrical devices? Or a child’s playroom with charming wind-up toys and steam trains and long-forgotten board games, boarded up after the child’s untimely death? Or a nursery lovingly prepared yet never used? Or the illicit burial chamber of a wife unfaithful or mad?

The hole is small, yet large enough to dangle a small powerful flashlight on a string. As it slowly rotates, you see – what do you see?

I jumped the gun on this one. Yesterday, StoryADay encouraged us to write in First Person, so I figured today was Second Person – always a fun challenge. So I started and later discovered we were to write in Third Person Limited. Oh well. It’s only a suggestion, and if they do recommend Second Person, then I can do the Third Person.