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5th Annual Literary Festival

24th - 26th September 2021

 

Write By The Sea Writing Competition 2020 Results

 

Memoir Category Winner: “No Going Back”  by Caitriona Kelly

Poetry Category Winner: “The Savage Sea”, by Joe Neal

Short Story Category Winner: “North Sea Goose Chase”,  by Colm McDermott

The overall winner was “The Savage Sea” by Joe Neal.

NO GOING BACK

 

I was making the first of fifty beds, when I heard that a man had just been wrestled back up the gangway. One of the other stewardesses had heard it from Bilbo. She’d said that he’d said, there were four of them on him, and that he wasn’t going anywhere, except back to where he came from. We were docked in Rosslare. On a tight turnaround, back to Le Havre. Two weeks on, one week off. Summer work. July 1995. After a week on land it took me days to find my sea legs again. There’s more waves in a bleedin’ bath, the chief stewardess would mutter, as my stomach heaved through the first forty eight hours back on board. Most of the crew lived down aft, below sea level, the drone of the engines, white noise. The officers lived on the upper decks, where there were portholes, and fresh air and views of the sea. We were all given beer bonds and cigarette bonds every week, and drank and smoked ourselves over and back, and over and back.

 

I carefully folded the starched white sheet over the stale blanket. There were days when the chief stewardess would measure the fold on the sheets with a ruler; the same days she’d leave skittles under the bunks to make sure you’d hoovered properly.

“What are these?” she’d once asked, a little mound of them in her outstretched hand.

“Skittles…?” I’d replied.

“I know they’re skittles, think I’m fuckin’-well colour blind? What I want to know is, what were they doing under ones of your bunks?”

I knew better than to try and come up with an answer. I’d seen her make a woman cry, all because of a pubic hair found in one of the en-suites.

All stewardesses to the cinema. All stewardesses to the cinema, over the tanoy, and off we’d gone, in our tight pale blue smocks. Twenty-five stewardesses, talking in whispers, filed into rows of cinema seats. Seated in front of the wine velvet curtains on a plastic deck chair was the chief purser, white shirt taut over his bulging stomach. Beside him, the chief stewardess, a paper cup containing the offending hair in her blue-gloved hand.

“Who was cleaning cabin number 152?”

Silence in the dim light of the cinema.  A middle-aged stewardess raised her hand from one of the back rows, her voice thin. That’s mine, she said. Snorts of laughter, and the purser’s lips crawling away from his gums. My cabin I mean, she mumbled. A smaller ripple this time, and we let our backs sink into the seats.

 

Passengers had already begun to nudge their way through the car deck doors by the time I’d showered, changed out of my smock and taken up my standby position. Tickets in hand, they searched out their cabins, the thick smell of hot rubber following them down the alleyways, and up the stairs. Sometimes you’d forget which country you were docked in; you’d be in Rosslare and asking them how their holiday to France had been. Or the other way around, in Cherbourg wishing them well on their trip to France.   Bilbo squeezed past them in his orange boiler suit and came over to lean up against the life jacket locker beside me.

“Story? Thrun him into the cell they did” he said, as if picking up a conversation we’d just left off.

Who? What cell?”

“The black man they had to carry up the gangway. Four Gards it took. The cell. There’s only the one. Near the bridge. Last time they used it was for some poor bastard who was having a nervous breakdown, kept trying to throw himself overboard, had to be tied up he did. Pissed himself and everything. This one was real quiet going in. A refugee.”

 

As soon as we’d been given the nod to stand down, I headed for the bridge. I’d been there the previous evening doing two hours towards my steering ticket.

Repeat the coordinates out loud. Every time. And don’t forget to say Captain, the first mate whispered in my ear, his breath beery and hot. I’d just turned twenty and kept forgetting to do both. The door from the bridge deck was open, the Captain, seated on a leather-backed stool, smoking and staring out to sea. I knocked anyway, and he turned towards me, his eyes blank.

“I was here yesterday evening. Steering” I said.

“Steering…”

“I eh…I wanted to talk to you about the man…the man in the cell”

“The cell…the man in the cell. What about him?”

“Well…it’s just that I was wondering if he really has to be in the cell, I mean locked up like that all the way back to France”. “Captain” I added.

His eyes settled on mine.

“You’re the one who does the steering. Now I have you. And what do you propose to do with our prisoner… huh?”

I’d proposed a cabin. Free to come and go. Or have him brought food and water if he preferred. Keep an eye on him. OK, he’d said. Just like that. Your responsibility now.

 

Two hours later, and the ferry had begun to roll. Leaning into each step, I made my way along the empty alleyways towards the man’s cabin. Seasickness, all in the head, Bilbo had told me, tapping his temple. Get your mind to go with her, in the same direction, at the same time, and you’ll find your legs. It was on the main deck, a four berth without a bathroom. I took the starboard side alleyway that led off the main square, my fingers brushing the bulkheads and doors. At the end, another square, smaller. I stood facing the cabin, my feet firmly planted, about to tap out the sharp insistent tone of key on door when the ship pitched, and the door swung open. I caught a glimpse of him then. Tall and lean, he had slightly almond-shaped eyes that peered out from under large swollen looking eyelids. Round wire-frame glasses made his eyes dance. His cheek bones were slender or were once; on one side of his face the bone rounded, jutting out, long ago broken. His skin was drained of blood, a grey brown. The deck rolled and I lunged forward taking too big a step. And he, back.

“I’m Nina, I..”

“Come in. Please” he said.

And there we stood, swaying and rocking in tandem, like two dancers, and me trying not to stare.

“It is you got me out of that cell? And in here. They say to me. Said to me, it was Nina. I thank you. Very much. You are very kind”

“I..”

“You are very kind. Excuse me, but I am a little…under the weather?”

He sat down, perching himself on the bottom bunk, shoulders hunched. He cupped his face; the crown of his head level with my eyes. I looked at his hair and thought of a black lamb I’d seen once in the Pet’s Corner at Dublin Zoo.

“My name is Dominique. Where I am from, I can’t go back. You will help get me off? Please?” he said, through papery fingers.

 

Writing this now, twenty-five years later, I struggle to remember where he was from. I’ve had him from Zaire, escaping Mobutu, then from Angola, wanting with all my heart to place him where he belongs. Belonged. And yet, I cannot make it up, nor do I want to. He is Dominique. He is African. He is thirty years old. An English teacher. Gentle. I know I felt comfortable in his presence. My twenty-year-old self aware of his smell, aware of his fear. I brought him food when he was hungry-dry toast that he chewed and chewed and forced down with black tea, chips he pushed around on a beige coloured plate, scrambled eggs left go cold and baked beans he smiled at in wonder. I told him I wouldn’t lock him in and gave him the key instead. We talked and talked, and he spoke of the children he taught in his village. Their English clipped and correct. His way was with words. He’d written about politics, spoken about power and how it corrupts, voiced the truth, and risked everything.

 

We would like to remind passengers that the ferry operates on Irish time, which is one hour earlier than French time. I swivelled on my chair and looked out over the empty square from behind the information desk, five minutes into a two-hour shift. Passengers lurched past from time to time, clutching sick bags, or each other. From under the stairs, a man emerges and weaves a crooked path towards the desk. He has long blonde hair tied back in a ponytail. Mark, he says his name is. He’d seen a man being taken out of a cell just after we’d set sail and was wondering where he is now. In a cabin, I tell him. Waiting.

“I take it he’s a refugee” he says.

He tells me Dominique had had the right to seek asylum in Ireland. I think of the big red-bricked mental hospital on the way to Fairview and wonder why anyone would come all this way to try to get in there.

“Look for a country of refuge?” he says then, seeing that he’d lost me. Turns out he’s a human rights lawyer and then starts to rattle off what a refugee is according to some Convention or other, and there’s lots of talk of fear in it, well-founded fear and owing to such fear and I think of Dominique’s thin fingers covering his face.

And then he offers to smuggle him off in his car. No probs. Says he’d totally be into it.

“What are the chances?” he says and wanders off.

 

The next morning, passengers glided along the outer decks, the sea, a mirror. Mark had arrived at Dominique’s cabin at ten as planned, only to tell us he’d had a change of heart. Was so sorry to be letting him down like this at the last minute. He hovered briefly, before taking his leave. Dominique just stood there, staring out the porthole at the hazy line of France, the shoulder blades on his back rolling inwards.

“I swim” he said, turning to me, the whites of his eyes tinged pink.

“It’s much further than it looks, miles away, there’s no way you’ll make it, anyway you don’t stand a chance with those engines…they’d suck you in and under as soon as you  hit the water”

“I try”

“I’m telling you, you won’t make it, the engines they’ll…”

“You hide me. No going back” he said, no longer correcting his English. “They kill me”

 

So, I hid him, with only minutes to find a hiding place. I thought about my cabin and the space under the bunk, the lifeboats and their canvas covers, the cinema. In the end I bundled him into the nearest life jacket locker, us both piling and pulling mounds of lifejackets until he was buried alive. I’ll be back, I promise, I whispered. Can you breathe? I asked.  I can, he’d said, his voice muffled. You’re sure…?

 Don’t worry about me. I thank you. Go now.

 

I went back to making my bunks.

 

All crew to the main square immediately. All crew to the main square. I put the towel on the bed, folded down the corner, placed the cheap smelling soap in the triangular flap and headed for the main square. Along the narrow alleyways, past the mounds of used linen, and through dense pockets of stale air. Up the steep stairs onto the car deck, up again onto the main deck, across towards reception. Crew had begun to gather, streaming up from down aft, coming awake as they swayed and leaned into one another, their feet unsteady, now the decks still. From the galley, cooks chequered with acne. Stewardesses with sweaty red faces and hair scraped back off their heads in top knots, comparing how many beds done and left to do. Stewards in civvies and able-bodied seamen like Bilbo, flip flopped down from the heli pad; their bronzying cut short.  Pursers and officers, descended from their quarters, hazy-eyed and rumpled.

“We have a stowaway on board” the chief purser called out above the babble “French immigration are waiting for him as we speak and we have been told that we cannot turn around until they have him in their hands. Go find him”. Divided hastily into search parties, we scatter, me running now up stairs and more stairs and out onto the upper deck, seagulls wheeling and the smack of  hot air in my face and hair, slowing to a walk, passing through the open doors and down stairs two at a time now, lower deck, and turning my shoulder in its socket as I use the handrails to steer myself around corners I can’t yet see. My legs are walking now, walking on empty. I see him then and he’s being reefed by the scruffs of his shoulders, two big meaty hands dragging him out from the sea of orange life jackets, and a steward is chanting I found him I found him. They melt back one by one, crew who had gathered like flies, the buzz gone out of them, now he’s been caught. Dominique sees me, his eyes awash with colour, and then he flicks them away.

 

He’s brought back down the stairs and out through the main square, a spectacle being watched by more crew than ever now. His head is down. I move towards him, an involuntary reaching out of my hands in a helpless gesture. He looks up, sees me, a split-second glance and I know his last message is a silent plea to save myself, my job. That I have done all I can. And then he looks away, his face blank. He is led away by two French immigration officers, the last view of him, his sloping shoulders.

 

I see Dominique now as he crouched on his bunk, his journey far from over, and yet land in sight. I see him as he smiled in thanks and wonder, as he pushed his glasses up onto his nose before speaking. I see Dominique in the 40,000+ men, women and children who have died since 1993, trying to reach Fortress Europe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE SAVAGE SEA

Lines written after a visit to Gloucester, Mass, with Eliot’s Four Quartets for company

 

Gaudy Mustang cars from scattered States
parked along the curving promenade
preen like leaves of Vermont in the Fall,
while their well-healed owners from Des Moines
and Memphis and Cheyenne gorge on clam
or Cape Ann lobster caught off crannied groyne.

 

But wind is beating up the swell again,
pasting waves against the wall as buoyed-up
bell begins its warning toll and tell-tails
tinkle on the knitting masts of schooners
moored in Massachusetts’ Gloucester Bay;
Wyoming cowboys don sou’westers now.

 

In our minds we try to capture-paint
the scene but colours inter-mingle,
sweeping-brushed by savage, salvage rain
as sullen ceiling closes down on sea
so recently hypethral to the sky;
names we read, carved along the balustrade,

 

are those of fishermen re-drowned now,
still there but hosed and splashed, salt washed
with absolute disdain – while to the north
and east of groaning cape the Dry Salvages
of granite rock assuage another,
poorer poet’s avid lust for fear;

 

We carve to heel and catch the wind
while green-flash light parts curtain mist
and schooner judders past the rock’s grim
grin; the warning buoy lets out its whistle
sigh – annunciation of our own
significance, of others whom we mourn.

 

Fare we forward then – as a leaf borne
free; a gull calls out and settles dainty
on the stretching sail, clinging leeward
to the lash of rain; we flotsam gainly
for the cleft of shore as an angelus
of bells announces entrance to the bay.

 NORTH SEA GOOSE CHASE

Before he died, the old man wanted one last swim in the North Sea, and since he was too sick to travel, his sons, Philip and Henry, agreed to bring it to him. It was the last Sunday in August. At eight o clock the boys loaded ten jerry cans into the Bentley’s deep trunk and made for Brancaster Straithe.

“Why do you reckon he loves the North Sea so much?” Philip asked, as they waited for the gates to open.

“He doesn’t,” Henry said, reclining his seat. “He’s full of shit.”

 

It was seventy miles to Brancaster Staithe. They’d never been. Philip drove with both hands pinned to the wheel, staying below the speed limits. Normally he was a confident driver but the Bentley put him on edge: the gleam of silver paint on the flanks, the shoebox smell of fresh leather. It was too new, he thought. Too valuable.

As they headed down the A148 the Garmin lost signal; the screen went blank. Philip tried to remember if it was the Sculthorpe or Syderstone exit they needed, but the names jumbled in his head.

“Shag,” he said. “Henry. See if there’s a map in the glovebox.”

Henry was doodling on the passenger window.

“Why?” he said.

Philip’s leather driving gloves creaked on the wheel. He was two years older than Henry, though sometimes it felt like more. Once, when he was fifteen, Henry had crammed a handful of roman candles through their neighbour’s postbox. For five minutes, fireworks bloomed in the lower windows of the house, periwinkle blue and pig pink, the coloured light cascading in sheets onto the front lawn. Philip took the blame, and for the next month, for a crime he did not commit, was made get up every morning at dawn to muck out stables. He still thought of that, sometimes.

“Because he specifically asked us for Brancaster Staithe.”

Henry blew fog on the glass, sketched a sun in it, along with two smaller ones, then daubed the whole lot clean with his fist.

 

A few miles later the Garmin found a signal. They took the exit for Little Snoring and continued driving. At Great Snoring they turned for Barsham, crossing the Stiffkey River, where a cloud of dotted chestnut moths hovered over the bridge. Henry leaned over and beeped the horn, scattering them.

After that it was back roads to the B1355: acres of shorn wheatfields; hay ricks. They came to Burnham Market. The town was bustling, the Sunday Market in full tilt. Some of the stalls were open and, inside, slabs of grey meat bled from hooks.

“Looks like the old man’s leg,” Henry said, pointing at one.

They passed through Burnham Deepdale. Beside the road the ground was flat yet they couldn’t see the land’s edge. A kilometer on they pulled into the carpark at Brancaster Staithe and unloaded the cans. They’d washed them with soap the previous evening, and then again that morning, but the smell of petrol still lingered in their plastic gobs. At the edge of the carpark a dune rose from the gravel. Two metres high, it sported a thin stubble of marram. Henry, whose enthusiasm had grown now they were out of the car, was the first up.

“You’d better get up here Phil and take a look at this.”

Philip climbed the dune and stood alongside his brother. The beach was a mile wide, at least. In the distance, panels of water reflected the sky; he could just about make out the pencil-line of the surf.

“Is that the shore?” he asked, confused.

“Who knows,” Henry replied. “But he can shag off if he thinks I’m going all the way out there to check for him.”

Wind dashed through the marram then. Philip looked at his feet where a clutch of salt-edged beachgrasses stood straight, their old blades splitting the sea breeze to a whistle. Among them, younger grasses bowed their heads in the sand.

 

Philip edged the Bentley to the base of the dune.

“You sure about this Henry?”

Henry stood outside the car; his hand planted on the roof.

“Of course,” he said. “Think of all the time we’ll save.”

Philip toed the throttle. Slowly, the Bentley mounted the dune. Half-way up the tyres bored into the sand, slithering back.

“She’s slipping!” Henry shouted.

Philip revved the engine. The Bentley inched upwards, scrabbling against the landslip. Nearing the summit, he glimpsed the water puddled on the foreshore, like melted glass, and a few seconds later he pulled out onto the white, hard flat on the opposite side, the salt crust crackling under the tyres.

“Fucking hell,” Henry shouted excitedly, running after him.  When he got to the bottom he pulled open the driver’s door. “You’ve got to let me drive!”

Philip sighed. He got out, switched sides. Henry jumped behind the wheel.

“Just take it easy,” Philip said, buckling his belt. “We don’t want to end up in the water.”

But Henry wasn’t listening. The hand-sewn leather of the wheel; the glide of the clutch; the easy handling of the gears; it was too much. He gunned the engine, dropped the handbrake, and they shot down the beach.

“All right Henry,” said Philip. “Easy.”

The Bentley sashayed left and right, scribbling broad loops in the flat. Sand sprayed up and slapped back on itself in sodden sheets. Henry swerved, hard, coming back across the face of the water.

“YOU THERE. IN THE CAR. STOP.”

A man on horseback was galloping after them, shouting on loudspeaker.

“Jesus Henry,” Philip said. “It’s the coastguard. Pull over.”

“Are you crazy?” Henry laughed. “I’m not stopping this car for a flipping horse.”

He switched into fifth and they raced along the waterline. The coastguard gradually receded from view and had almost disappeared when the Bentley struck something solid in the sand. They few into the air. Then came the clean sound of wheels spinning, a landless whistle. Seconds later they crashed.

“What in Christ’s name was that?” Philip asked, when he had recovered his composure.

Henry, who was holding his nose, and wincing, said nothing.

They heard the dry clop of hooves outside the car.

“Morning gentlemen.” The coastguard rode up alongside them. His voice was smug, and he spoke with a lazy drawl. All Philip could see of him was his boots. “Bit of a rush I see?”

“We’re terribly sorry officer,” Philip said. “My brother, Henry, he’s learning to drive. We came out here because it was quiet and, well, you know how it is…”

He turned to Henry, urging him to say something, but Henry looked away.

The coastguard dismounted his piebald. He was older than Philip expected. His hair, like that of his horse, was clipped; salt-grey and black in places. Underneath, his scalp shone a gummy pink and dandruff plaqued at the temples. Leaning through the window he eyed the pair.

“You’re in a right jam,” he said. His breath was warm. It smelled of liquorice.

“I know,” Philip said. “Listen. Can you help us? Our old man is sick and there’s no one at home.”

The coastguard considered this for a moment. He looked through the windscreen at the steaming bonnet.

“There’s a man in Burnham Market owns a Massey,” he said. “Maybe you could give him a ring.”

He pulled a green notebook from his jacket pocket and recited a string of digits. Philip thanked him and rang the number. A man by the name Saleem answered. Yes, he could help them, he said, but it’d be at least another hour until he could get there.

“Two-year old Limousine,” he said. “Broke through a blooming byre wall this morning.”

Philip got out then to stretch his legs. A few metres behind the car he saw a wardrobe half-buried in the sand. Six foot tall, dark mahogany, its edges had been chewed by salt.

“Shipwreck,” the coastguard said, appearing at his side. He opened the door and a putrid stench lifted out. He stood back. “Cargo ship ran aground a few weeks back. Off Scratby. Been wardrobes and bookcases washing up here since.”

Philip stepped forward and looked inside. He covered his mouth and nose against the smell. Sea-water lay trapped in its belly, and scraps of rotten fish floated in the trapped water.

 

Three hours later Saleem arrived with the Massey. He was Indian but had the face of a carrot cruncher: a nose gnarled by rosacea; beetling eyebrows, and hair that sprouted from the sides of his head. He towed the Bentley out of the sand, along the beach, to the boat launch, then trundled off in his tractor. Overhead, herring gulls shrieked and circled.

“They’re protecting their eggs,” the coastgaurd shouted over the din. Pointing to his feet then. “Their nests are right underneath this boat launch. Shower of bastards if you get wrong side of them.”

 

There was the question of how to get back. Philip asked the coastguard if he knew any buses going to Sleaford.

“Don’t think so. But there’s a train station in Kings Lynn. Reckon you could make Sleaford that way. There’s a bus goes from here to Kings every hour.”

Philip thanked him. The coastguard mounted his piebald and cantered off. When he was gone, Philip went to the trunk to fetch the jerry cans. Sand and salt etched both flanks of the car. The bonnet was utterly caved in. He looked inside and saw Henry, who had not spoken since the crash, turning the key over and over in the dead engine. He rapped on the driver’s window with his knuckles.

“Come on,” Philip said. “It’s a mile to the bus stop. We can make the next one but only if we go now.”

Nothing.

“Henry. It’s only a car.”

Henry turned sharply to his brother, his face twisted with panic.

“What about the North Sea? You heard him.”

The gulls resumed their shriek, louder now. One plummetted into the sand near where Philip was standing.

“You said it yourself Henry. He’s full of shit. He doesn’t care about any of that. This is all just one long goose chase.”

Henry shifted in his seat, uneasy, his jaw clenching. He was about to say something when a huge bird smashed into the windscreen. It lay twitching on its back on the launch for a full minute, then stiffened and went still.

 

“Do you reckon he knows?” Henry whispered.

They were in the kitchen. Philip hefted a jerry can from the sink. Water splashed out.

“How could he?” he said.

Henry funneled another container into the can.

“You know him,” Henry said. “Bastard can probably smell the difference.”

It had been a long day. After taking the bus to Kings Lynn, the train to Ely, to Grantham, and then to Sleaford, Philip and Henry had hired a taxi to their house. They’d only been able to carry two jerry cans apiece, which meant they’d had to fill the tub in increments. They ran the tap into the cans, and, when they were full, added half a container of salt to each.

“Time for a top-up?” Henry asked, brightly. He picked up two full cans and lugged them down the hall. Philip heard the sploshing of salt-water; the tub filling. When he returned, Henry leaned against the doorway, pouring sweat.

“I’ll say one thing for him. There isn’t many his age could handle a swim the North Sea.”

Philip nodded. “Always a hard man our father.”

He waited for Henry to reply. No reply came. And when he looked up his brother was very far away.

 

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