And All Who Sail in Her
Tom's lying on the bed. He's sixty-nine years old but feels one hundred and ten. He can't get comfortable. Tom's on very dry land but he can feel the swell of the sea. His single bed is in the living room now. The room is public, open to everyone, visitors come in and he's either awake or asleep, it's how it is. He stopped using the stairs months ago. Stopped using the toilet, (luckily they had a downstairs one) weeks ago, and now it's the commode. Right by the bed, it looks like a chair when his wife throws a rug over it. Tom can still walk a few steps. About five, maybe six steps from the bed to the armchair, the commode.
Tom's ship lurches. HMS Indefatigable delivered food, and other supplies to the fighting ships during the War. It was all long over with, when Tom signed up for his National Service, but the sailors still needed feeding. 'Soldiers march on their stomachs,' he read somewhere. He'd always meant to find out if sailors sailed on their stomachs but Tom never gave the lads underneath a thought. Did they submerge on their stomachs? Tom's smiling now. He's still playing around with sounds, silly little games with letters and words. Silly old bugger. Silly old fool.
He heaves himself slowly off the bed and takes slow, careful steps toward the armchair, holding on, all the while. No more falls. No more hospital stays for Tom. The chair is high, just right for him, they had a man round to raise it up, put a platform (about a foot high) underneath it. There's a rug over the chair so the platform can't be seen. "Why don't you get a decent chair, Dad?" his son said. "Get one with proper support, one of those with a seat that goes up and down?" More money than sense, him. No this chair is fine. Just the right height. Tom is seated now. "I like to lay on the bed for a bit and then sit for a bit," he says to people that come in. But he doesn't say that when he lies down, he goes out to sea.
Tom needs to spit. There are no visitors right now but even if there were he would get the bucket and gob into it. He has to do this, because if he doesn't, with a mouthful of saliva, he can't talk. It's a tough thing to swallow, Tom decides, having a throat that doesn't work. He's smiling again now, at his own little pun, but it's a painful smile. The truth hurts, like his throat used to hurt, but now his throat has stopped hurting, because it's stopped working. It's impossible to swallow. Spitting isn't that easy either. The spittle is sticky, hard to push out of his mouth, but he does it. Tom's wife empties the bucket now and again, splashes some Dettol into it. She puts a small towel over the bucket.
Tom has a rare condition. When people come he tells them to write it down. He spells it out for them: A M Y L O I D O S I S -- a blood disorder. In Tom's body it is concentrated in his neck, which is why his throat doesn't work, and why he can't sit for long, his head lolls forward. He also has a large polyp growing out of his anus. It's been as big a fist before but it goes up and down. At the moment it's not so big and it doesn't stink so much as it did. His wife thought it smelled a bit like gangrene and she was a nurse. The doctors take pictures of it, extract samples from it: blood, shit, puss, whatever is in it or on it they take it away and analyse it. Tom doesn't mind. His arse has been blown up, shown on the big screen to an audience of doctors, specialists. Tom isn't embarrassed about it -- it's a rarity. He tells people to look up amyloidosis on the internet.
Tom can't feel his fingers. They've given him some exercises to do but they are so boring. He remembers having such strong fingers, remembers carrying a typewriter when he left the ship. It was heavy, a black, shiny machine with gold lettering on the front. He's trying to remember when he last had it. Tom liked typing. He worked on his speeds, every night. Until he got the motorbike. Everything else seemed so painfully slow when he got the bike. He came off it once, hit a greasy patch; the bike went one way while he flew the other. Tom remembers the cold hard feel of the gravel heap he landed in. And he remembers Sarah, in her uniform, carefully picking the gravel out of his eye.
He took her to the cinema. They watched The Cruel Sea. Sarah cried but Tom had seen it too many times. He told her about the novel he planned to write. She was interested in the plot, a naval story. It was to be set in WWII, but was about a supply ship that got caught in the crossfire.
He was in the police then. Or was it training college? Tom's not sure now but they were definitely courting the day the trains crashed. She was on duty too -- at the hospital. She'd found it hard to cope when they had brought the bodies in but luckily there were plenty of wounded too, with cuts to clean, tears to wipe.
Tom was first on the scene. It was crazy. He was just a young copper -- had been walking the beat nearby, close enough to hear the screaming brakes, the crunching carriages. He'd started to jog and then when the crashing noises ceased, the screams, the cries had kicked in, so he'd run as hard as he could. Climbed the fence, scrambled down the embankment and just stood there, trying to think what to do.
Some people were walking away from the train. Dazed. Some of the carriages were so buckled he'd never get in. Tom crunched along the side of the train, stepping over the glass, twisted train parts, a hat, an umbrella, a bloodied shoe. Tom noticed an undamaged door; it opened. There was glass everywhere, cases, coats, up-turned seats and blood. People had got themselves out of this one. Only one passenger remained. Tom could see her further up the carriage. A young woman, in her twenties, smartly dressed, she didn't look injured. Her head was lolling forward, like she was asleep.
There wasn't a mark on her. A little glass on her lap, a thick coating of dust on her hair -- he brushed the glass away but didn't like to touch her hair. She was sitting very still. There was no blood and no sign of any injury -- her eyes were closed. There was no pulse.
Tom looked around, found her handbag, her briefcase and put them by her feet. He didn't hear his Sergeant enter the train, come up behind him. "Tom!" he heard. "Wake up boy. There's work to be done. People are trapped further along."
Tom stood up, made to leave the carriage, but before he stepped out he took one glance back at the lady. She looked like she was still on her way to work.
Tom needs to lie down again. The chair is solid and it's been good to sit up for a while but Tom's backside is sore. And his head is too heavy for his neck. He is lolling again. The feeding tube stays attached wherever he is, an alarm goes off if he lies on the tube and Sarah sorts it out. Tom thinks that when he lies down this time the bed will move even more than usual. It's a rough day.
There's a strong smell coming from the kitchen. Fish. Tom knows that Sarah has to cook her lunch, she needs to eat but the smell of food drives him crazy. He dreams about eating a roast. Cutting steak, forking pasta, even semolina would be good now. But his belly is full. There is a tube that goes straight to it. The liquid in the bag feeds him. Tom isn't sure whether Sarah's poaching the fish, or grilling it. Perhaps he should ask her for a mouthful? He could move it around his mouth then spit it out, she wouldn't mind. At least he would have tasted it. No. He might get a bone slide down, get stuck in his throat. Not fair.
Tom's waiting for the floaty feeling to come. Perhaps he can rest his eyes for a bit. It's warmer in bed. Sarah covers him up with the blankets, he feels her check his food supply. It's fine, the pulp is still re-fueling him. He hopes Sarah will open the window and let the fish smell out of the house, before he wakes. Sarah doesn't know about the pull of the sea. She doesn't feel the motion that he does.
Tom's nostrils still work. He breathes in deeply and smells the ocean. He starts to float and concentrates on breathing in, through his nose. The fish he can smell are alive now. Tom hears a gull, feels the throb of a powerful engine below him, and he's moving again with the swell.
Indefatigable: unremitting, never stopping.
For a moment Tom wonders if he ever left the ship at all.
Unremitting: never getting tired.
Tom is breathing fresh, salt-clean air and the rising and falling of the water below him has changed to a gentle swell. The movement is less disturbing now. Tom is being carried by the ship. He will keep moving, he doesn't know where, but it doesn't matter. He never wrote that novel. Never mind.
Sarah is leaning over Tom. He feels her gently stroke his face, tuck him in. He opens his eyes and sees her dragging a heavy weight. She puts his old typewriter by the foot of his bed. Wherever did she find it?
Indefatigable. A ship that was never supposed to stop moving. A book that would never be written.
Silly old bugger, he says to himself, again. Silly old fool. But Tom is smiling as he drifts away.
About the author:
Jennifer Hill lives in Kent, England. Her stories and articles have been published (or await publication) in Buzzwords, Cadenza, Peninsular, and The Lady, as well as online at Southern Ocean Review. Her stories have won and been placed in competitions at Writelink.co.uk, Orange Labyrinth, and Buzzwords.