“I don’t know why they want to lock me away, Will” said Taff to his son, while smoking a damp cigarette on the lower deck of the Pont-Aven. He sat upright on a fixed wooden chair, enveloped in a blue-and-white spread umbrella, to escape the April rain which sizzled on the metal floors of the ferry in the darkness. “I’m not much use, perhaps, but there’s no need for any of this… Wouldn’t you say?” Will’s eyes fell to the pallid boy, Robert, that sat on the floor beside him, propped up against the lichen-covered cabin. Robert retained an exhausted flush in his cheeks, with both hands anchored to the depths of his coat pockets.
“There’s not much I can do, Dad. Especially after what happened at the hotel.”
The Pont-Aven had set sail from Bilbao for Portsmouth earlier that evening. It travelled with a sluggish immensity along the shelf break of the Bay of Biscay, in shallow, jagged waters, as the party it hosted bubbled along in its crushes. The ragged seas had caused several sea-drunk stumbles already, and everyone inside danced with reddened cheeks and raised hands. Only the three sat on the deck beneath the rain-beaten canopy, with their backs to the jollity, each equally alone. The people inside toppled about like marbles on an uneven surface, the bride reeling around, caught like a fish in a lace net, twirling and tumbling into folks in her ivory gown.
“Fuck off. You could tell her you’re not shoving me in a bloody home to rot away for starters. She’s always wanted rid of me.” Taff said in bitter melody, aided by his seventy-years of Swansea twang. His already magnified eyes expanded yet wider through his large circular glasses, with each exclamation.
“I don’t know why you insist on blaming Lisa for all of this. She’s had nothing much to do with any of it, Dad. She only wants what’s best for you.”
“Oh yes, that old sod again. What’s best for you… Playing Sudoku with a bunch of half-cut vegetables? Drooling endlessly in my armchair? Watching countdown religiously? The highlight of my month being a lengthy sit in their brown-grassed garden? If that’s what’s best for me I’d have been doing it since I was his age.” Taff’s voice cracked as he gestured towards Robert.
“I’m not going through this again, Dad. Not here… We just can’t manage you anymore, not on our own.”
“But haven’t you heard? Incontinence and dementia are the numerator, and denominator, of the fraction known as… Bliss, Will. I’m happy as I am. It makes sense. I bet you’d love to piss yourself and forget it ever happened. It’s very liberating.”
A clean-shaven barman emerged from the cabin and handed Taff another whiskey from a black tray. Taff acknowledged his service and began to glug from the glass as a new-born babe would from a bottle of cold milk.
“Now where were we…?” Taff took another mouthful of his drink. “I remember my sea-sickness as a boy,” Taff said, seeming to have left his temper in the moments prior. “Wasn’t half as bad as you mind — and that was back in forty-seven, over the North Sea.” Robert offered little attention to Taff’s words. His hollow eyes of nine years scrutinised the waves and bore out towards the black horizon, catching a sharp glint in the moonlight. He clutched his sorry stomach with each rising wave. “I fell in that year I did — overboard! Not in the North Sea though, the chills would’ve gotten me there, an’ I’d not be sat before you now–“
“You said, Dad. It was just off the coast at Cowes, in spring.”
“Yes… fine spring it was too.” Taff had given up on his sodden smoke, tossing it into the blackness over the rails. “Terrible habit anyway.”
He sunk back into his chair, and as he did so, pearls formed in mist from his spent breath. “What is this thing, anyway?” He said, his cornflower blue irises spread wide.
“Do I have to explain again, Dad?” Will said. Taff remained silent for some minutes. Robert tucked his knees in to his chest, covering his ears with his knees to blot out the horror of the shouts and wails from the drunken flock indoors. Most of them were aged or ghastly, or both, and all of them trundling about the place in a drunken stupor. Groups of older women were perched in corners, devouring morsels of nuts and fish and more alcohol, some even managing to miss their own mouths with great handfuls of tidbits.
“I don’t know why you won’t just ignore her, William. She only wants me gone… Your own Dad, cast out from his family.” Taff continued in the same manner as he had all night.
“I don’t want to go inside.” Robert murmured. The waves rumbled beneath them as he spoke.
“I know. We don’t need to, Robert. We can stay here.”
“Tell ya what, boy-o, a drop of this whiskey here’d do you no end of good. Stomach settler, whiskey, they say. This stuff’s Scottish, best stuff I ever boug–” Taff swished the smoky liquid under Robert’s nose.
“–no, Dad. That’s the last thing he’d want.”
“That woman of yours wouldn’t fret so, like you. Mind, she’d probably be swiggin’ from the very bottle itself to–“
“She’s no good to any of us, her.”
Just then the blue-and-white umbrella caught in a gale — its metal innards fractured in the sweep, and turned out on themselves. Disfigured, the thing jolted from his arthritic grip, and glided away into the starless distance.
“Two-six heave!” Taff said, clutching at the salt-bitten air for the long gone handle.
“Go inside, Dad. The waves will soak you through being sat there.”
“Blasted thing… You know, I never liked her from the start, that woman…” Taff continued, wrapping his words around another gulp of whiskey, the top of his back and neck now damp from the spray. Will remained silent. Robert, buoyed slightly by the humour of Taff’s lost umbrella, strained to etch a smile across his face. Even with spirits brightened, he still had the greenish look of an apple that would never run ripe. The pallor rose up from his neck and took hold of his whole face. His heart raced, chasing his weary blood to the ends of its vessels, right to his blue fingertips. Scratching his young skin, Will had to draw his eyes away from the boy momentarily, as the turbulence of the waves began to worsen.
“There you are. What’s up with you?” A rounded, wrinkled lady with oily face and puckered mouth emerged from inside the cabin. Her eyes and cheeks were caked thick in bright make-up and her red dress revealed two scaly looking legs, which fell roughly from her hips to the sodden floor. Her affection, much like her painted face, was laid on with all the intricacy of a garden spade.
“He’s alright, Jenny, don’t worry. Just a little sea-sickness.” Will said.
The coughing motor choked as the ferry tacked into the ever climbing overfalls, combing the foamy whitecaps. Plaiting the surges, the Pont-Aven moved into waters which had sprung into a violent life, and with all the immediacy of Prospero’s tempest. Great swells of salted water cracked against the boat, causing the dangling lifeboats to rattle against the side of the white ship. More and more water flooded in over the rotten handrail, and a few of the tables rattled along the floor inside. From peak to trough the waves were almost twenty metres tall. People clung to the bar and curtains, and to each other. The water rose and fell with hostility, almost intent. Both Will and Robert slid away from the cabin, along the damp floor, towards the handrail at the edge of the deck. Will clung to it with Robert clasped beneath his other arm, as his eyes scoured the chaos indoors for his ash-blonde wife Lisa. Jenny’s clutch bag wormed its way out from beside her heavy hips, as she tried to haul Robert up from his berth. Hands still plummeted in his pockets; he was stiff, somehow asleep.
“Robert? Why isn’t he moving?” Her words drifted away in the windstorm. In mistaken horror she shook him but he remained still. She reeled away alarmed, tottered about on her high-heeled shoes, wailing for help and screeching for anything. Her shrill tones were drowned out in the clatter and thrum of the large room, sinking amongst the shared panic. Glasses shattered freely against the waxen flooring inside the cabin, and when Will lugged his eyes away from the activity inside, his Father had gone. Several minutes later the breakers calmed to swells, and the wash settled into the wake. And then some way off, far away, in the distance, a tugboat whistled. Leaving the boy asleep in the same spot, Will picked himself up and began to wander the ship in an attempt to find his Father.
“Have you seen him?” He shook Lisa’s shoulders inside. Her dark spring-green eyes rolled around in her head, showing their whites, unfeeling.
“What? Who? Seen who? Have you tried the punch? Let’s get a drink.”
“My Dad. He disappeared from the deck just now…”
“I’m sure the old thing’ll be just fine. He loves the sea. Don’t worry. Let’s get a drink.”
“I don’t want a drink.”
“Is he kicking up a fuss again? You can’t let him ruin the reception, it isn’t fair on Kim.” Lisa stroked the two-day stubble on Will’s cheek.
“He’s not ruining anything. I just want to know where he is. I’ll leave you to it.”
“There’s no need to be so short.”
But Will had already made for the double doors at the back of the room before he could catch the last of her sentence. He paced along the bare corridors of the Pont-Aven. As he went, his black leather shoes squeaked with salted water, trapped in the grooves of his soles. Occasionally he passed various black and white photographs of Spanish sailors in wooden frames, which hung with the impression that they were half worth looking at.
Will skipped up the stairs to upper deck and poked his head around every open door, explored the Grand Pavois Bar, and the Fastnet Piano Bar, and even pottered around the swimming pool and kennels on the uppermost deck – but Taff was not there. After forty-five minutes without success, he returned to the empty balcony where they had been, stood still, and plucked his last Marlboro from his damp cardboard packet. He let his weight fall upon the handrail, allowing his eyes to wander away out to the edges of the hushed seas. A buoy with an emerald green light attached bobbed in the mid-distance, close enough that it felt as though he could almost reach out and grab it with his spare hand. At the end of a minute, he tossed away the burning stick, as his Father had earlier, and remained leant against the wet railing. Then a whistle started up. Not a harsh, piercing one, like that of the tugboat which sang out its harsh song an hour or so before — but a forgiving, melancholy tune, from lips, blue in its custom. Bemused, Will looked about him. He saw nothing — nobody but the crowd indoors, which now slow-danced in mismatched couplings. Then the whistling stopped, and, as though from the sea, a tumbler flew through the midnight air and shattered on the deck beside his foot. He craned his head over the ledge, and, to his astonishment, found his Father sitting in a fluorescent orange lifeboat, suspended four feet below the rail.
“Dad…What the fuck are you doing down there? How did you manage that?” Taff rocked with the lullaby waves, hacked up a tickling cough and giggled at his son’s alarm.
“Not a-lot boy-o! What the fuck are you doing up there?”
“Come back up here, Dad. I get your point.”
“What point? If I was making a point I wouldn’t climb into a bloody lifeboat. You get a better feel for it here, see… Come on, get in.”
With no thirst for words, Will looped a leg over the handrail, and dropped into a seat opposite his Dad. Taff prodded the butt-end of another cigarette into Will’s mouth and held an outstretched, prolonged flame in front of his face. Through the half-light Will noticed that his Father’s face had rearranged itself to produce a smile that he had only seen previously in timeworn photographs. Once Will had lit his cigarette, his Father clasped his black zippo shut, condemning them to a stark darkness once more, save for the watching moonlight. The music inside finally ceased, and as it did so; a flock of storm petrels dived in, parallel to the Pont-Aven. They chipped and twittered and lapped the vessel once or twice, before floating off back into the gloom. The pair watched and chugged their smokes in silence for a while.
“What happened to the boy?” Taff exhaled a chestful of smooth smoke. Before Will could respond, a strong shouldered figure appeared above them, hugely, at the railings. He wore a dark blue double-breasted jacket, with a blue-and-white cap cocked slightly, boasting a proud golden anchor and rope stitched into its front panel.
“Get out from there, now. You’re putting yourselves and the rest of the passengers in great danger by being in there.” He spoke in a tone which could reduce grown men to scorned schoolboys. But the Father and Son looked on at the Captain without a word, and continued to smoke their cigarettes, as they were to stay and talk for a while, yet. For now they offered their only attentions to the knife-breaks in the sea-water, from the bottle-nose dolphins that skittered along the black glass bay. A milky moonlight laid a path across the tides in shimmering saltwater pearls; from the Pont-Aven, stretching far out West, to the outermost limits of the world, the sea reflected this delicate, hopeful light. But above all, it offered a darkish brilliance to the pair, pendent above the ripples. The turbid-grey atmosphere was such that they could savour and forget the gathering moments, which slipped past them as they unfolded, away into the Atlantic trade-winds.