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'Pride of Rotterdam' by Tom Harvey

Tom Harvey, LISP 2022 Short Story Finalist by 'Pride of Rotterdam'

Pride of Rotterdam

There are times we want to live over again, but with the knowledge gained from living them. A ship that’s long left the harbour, leaving the lapping of the empty berth. Doug would think about this, how dull times gather a sort of glory because they were the best it ever got. But now, he was swearing at the September wind skidding off the high tide, making no difference to his messy hair which hadn’t seen a brush for a month. He forced his hands into the pockets of his jeans’ and marched along, trying to pass hippy saxophone woman before she could call him a ‘fine fellow’ and ask where his mum was, or notice he’d been wearing the same mashed-up clothes all week and should be in school. She gave them a box of Quality Street last Christmas. Maybe there’ll be some cold chips from last night, if his dick-head dad hasn’t scoffed them. Not that he didn’t love his dad, but it wasn’t the same.

Doug flopped into the old sofa in their third-floor flat. He pulled on the Greggs sweatshirt, borrowed from the bakery job he’d had for a couple of days last summer. Sure enough, the chips had gone. There were some mostly empty Chinese take-away cartons, strewn across the coffee table. He trawled through the remains, some egg rice, a few crackers and something that tasted of fish but crunched like grasshopper. Doug pushed the mess into the black bin bag on the floor. He stared out the picture window, with its thin glass, that cast out over the sprawling outer harbour and the oil-black swell of a storm that never quite broke. The harbour cranes had stopped, and the quayside was getting quiet. The chill evening was closing off into night.

17C Marine Parade sounded like a grand address, the big window made it freezing in winter and a greenhouse in summer. The cold was fun back then, now it was grim.

“Who needs a telly?” Dad would say, looking out over the rambling industrial port and all the comings and goings. The greatest ships bringing everything the world had to offer. All the stories, all the people, all disappearing into the night-time ocean.

A headless plastic doll sat on the long windowsill, facing the sea. Doug had found it on the beach, stripped of its clothes, its pink plastic arms stretching out of the grey sand. Now it just sat at the window, searching for its lost head. The head would be missing the body, severed and alone out there, bobbing up and down, hoping. He ground open the side- window and let the chill of the wind fill him up.

A container ship was crawling out the harbour, half empty and barren. He could hear the engines opening, feel the ship taking deeper breaths as she got into her rhythm, bracing herself for the pounding ahead. Bay of Biscay maybe, then the Gibraltar Straights, or down the African coast, plunging her way across the Indian Ocean to take on spices and tea. Or off to the Philippines for a cargo of cheap clothes and plastic shoes. Nothing could stop her. No freezing seas, no mountainous waves. She would know she was invincible.

Hippy Woman was giving-up for the night, her saxophone under her arm. She climbed the stone stairs to the road and looked up at the window. He could ask her, shout down, if she knew where Mum was, but instead he drew back into the darkness. The woman played in an orchestra. Him and Mum went to see the orchestra, proper tickets and everything, but somehow, they never made it. They’d left together, all excited, but they never got there. He couldn’t remember why.

Opaline trudged her way out the harbour, slow ahead, easing herself toward the channel. Doug opened the old lap-top, cleaning the greasy keyboard with his sleeve. The nautical map appeared on the screen. The harbour walls were marked out, the berths and the breakwaters. Out in the channel the ships had their own little shapes, glowing red and blue and green. Doug clicked on Opaline. Underway, using engine, five knots already, she’d be up to eighteen out in the channel. He scrolled Opaline’s manifest. Came in with animal product, out with machinery, mechanical appliances and transportation equipment. He picked up the binoculars. Zeiss seven-fifties, old faithfuls. They’d given Dad a new pair of Hawkes a few years back; he liked them, but they vanished.

As a five-year-old, Doug had nestled between his mum and dad on the same sofa, spellbound by the shapes on the screen. His mum and dad told stories about each ship, emerging from the depths of the North Sea. Arriving exhausted and relieved into port. The ships would begin as a dot on the screen, then, like magic, as running lights through the binoculars, then through the fret, as lumbering hulks, dragging themselves into harbour, just enough in the tired engines to make it to the berth.

Back then, he remembered the binoculars as heavy and cold. When his parents went to The Mariners, they would leave him with the binoculars, so he could watch the ships. Mostly he watched for Mum and Dad coming home from the pub, arm in arm. He’d watch them with the binoculars the wrong way round so they seemed far away, wending their way back along the seafront. When they got back, he’d pretend to be asleep on the sofa. His dad would lift him and carry him to bed. Dad was one of the dockside cranes and Doug was a container filled up with T-shirts from Malaysia, with pictures of rock bands on. Dad would set him softly into bed and he’d lie with all the other containers, full of spices and toys and washing machines, ready to be hitched up to the lorries and hauled off to London.

Sometimes, if they got back early from the pub, they’d play the ‘round the world game’.

“Out of Dover, or down from Hull,” Dad would say. “Bilbao, Lisbon, Casablanca. Down the Western Sahara. Dakar maybe. Then across the South Atlantic.”

“You'd like Dakar,” Mum had said. “We’ll go one day.”

Dad had told him stories of whole ships vanishing round the Cape, being taken by pirates or the storms.

“Head for Salvador or Rio,” said Dad. “All foodstuff and livestock by then. Some leather maybe, skins, like the old days.”

Doug loved the old days, when his dad had been a young engineer finding places around the globe that most people had never heard of, never mind been to. Doug knew the stories, he knew the routes, the sea states, the temperatures, the wave heights; he knew when to go up on deck to see the whales and the sunrise and when to stay down below, strapping into your bunk and waiting for calm. His dad had told him about seeing the curve of the world and having to stare at your own hand to get your eyes back in focus; about wondering if the land you left still exists. In a world that was round, you would always come back to where you started, but his dad wanted to escape where he started, like that was the point, to escape whatever you left behind. Or who.

The day Doug turned twelve, Dad gave him his own laptop. Doug could take control of the manifests, own the little dots, plot the courses, study the laden weights and guess the cargoes. They lived in a world of comings and goings, the evening views across the Indian Mutiny Memorial, past the Customs House and the Fishing Pier, waiting for the friendly ships to appear out of the gloom. A couple of years later, Mum took the laptop to be fixed and he never saw it again. His dad said, “You’re a man now.” He was fourteen, he didn’t feel like a man. Didn’t feel ready for the choppy seas, and the life of take-away food and ship spotting. He didn’t know how being a man had anything to do with his missing laptop.

He picked up the postcard from the table. The picture was of Folkstone Pier in 1934. He thought about where his mother might be and why she was there and why she only left a postcard with the word ‘Sorry’ scrawled on the back. A strange thing to appear on the table. A weird little atom-bomb waiting to explode. And it did. Slowly. Intensely, into his world. Cracking it at the edges, imploding, then blowing out in all directions. The centre had vanished, the atom had split, there was nothing left in the middle. She was gone. And he didn’t know why, and he didn’t know where. And he couldn’t work out why Folkstone Pier in 1934.

“She'll send postcards, all the places, pictures, how she's doing, how she's getting on,” he’d said.

“She won’t phone, she won’t write. She’s gone,” his dad said firmly.

Doug had always thought his parents were the perfect match. They found each other, across oceans and deserts. There were a million other people in the Port of Alexandria that night. A hundred ships coming up the Suez Canal from the Arabian sea and a hundred more slogging across the Mediterranean, carrying thousands of crew and passengers and stowaways. It just so happened that his mum met his dad in the midnight time that spanned two days, in the port that spanned two continents, and this meeting and their love gave birth to Doug. They’d tell him this story and he’d feel like a young king, standing in the sunlight. Now he felt lonelier than it was possible to feel and live. Actually, his mum was all about the places, the cities, the people, the food and the history, she was always full of the thrill of arriving. His dad was all about the empty spaces in-between. The journey, the sea. The waving goodbye and the leaving behind.

The day Doug knew this for certain, was his birthday. They borrowed a little rowing boat. Mum had booked a table at the Italian restaurant because Doug liked the spaghetti and the man with the violin, and everything was perfect. They rowed around the headland. His dad took long, strong, pulls on the oars. Doug could feel the little boat surge with each stroke, as though the sea could never hold them back. They rowed past the jetty by the little harbour with the Italian restaurant, out past the harbour wall and into the rougher water. As they passed the jetty Mum took Doug’s hand, and he knew there would be no spaghetti that night, but that it would be okay. His dad’s face was set, and behind him Doug could see the horizon and the dark line of waves coming in. Doug turned and looked back to shore; it was a long way off. After a while, his dad stopped rowing, as though the journey was over. The little boat rose up on the evening swell then dropped down again. The three of them were silent. The boat was small, and the sea was big, and Doug was hungry. Dad gave a couple of big pulls on one of the oars and the little boat spun around. The sea was on their side now, pushing them back toward land. His dad rowed slowly; he needed the sea’s help to get them back. The restaurant was shut by the time they got there. They had fish and chips instead and sat on the harbour wall. His dad looked out to sea even though it was dark, and Mum dipped her chips in Doug’s ketchup. He pretended not to let her, but he liked it really.

Doug looked at the laptop. Black Star was a dozen miles offshore. Out of Malta. She'd been in China. Articles of stone, marble, plaster and cement. Bricks mostly. Millions of Chinese bricks.

“She was never one for home,” his dad had said. “She’d arrive and be packing her bags again.”

Doug turned the postcard over between his fingers, like a magician, trying to turn it into something that meant more. Trying to change the word ‘Sorry’ into ‘Love you, see you soon, back in a few days’. He saw his mum striding out along the pavement, with her little weekend suitcase and favourite scarf, waving up at the window, then bursting through the door with a model of the Eiffel Tower and some French chocolate, all smiles and kisses. But when he looked back at the postcard it still just said, ‘Sorry.’

“One word, one kiss,” he’d said to Dad.

“You want a poem?” His dad said.

Mum would sing him sea shanties to get him to sleep, tell him stories of the silk trails and deserts, the jade and the amber. Tell him where all the spices came from, by river, then by rail, down to Gujarat, big hessian sacks hoisted into the holds of ships like Indian Queen, Al Muruba and Jacaranda. He’d watch her smelling the cinnamon, cardamon, and nutmeg, all pulling her heart towards Lahore or Chandigarh.

He could feel her close. Maybe on the top deck, by the rail, the water churning, the capstans cranking up the big old ropes, all dripping. She’d be thinking of Doug, wishing she’d written more on the postcard, about how much she loved him and that one day she’d come back. Even though she only wrote one word, him and Mum knew what she meant.

Doug stared at a single flashing dot on his screen. It looked the same as the other dots, but it wasn’t. Pride of Rotterdam, her favourite ship. He strained through the binoculars into the night. He leant out the window, the cold and the sea and the noise of the gulls and the distant engines all came washing over him. Just maybe, she’s on it. He put down the binoculars but pretended he was still looking through them, pretended he could see her, there at the rail. She's at the stern. The wind's cold, she can't hear it above the engines. Wearing her birthday scarf, tucked in, neat. Prop's going full tilt. She’s watching the white water disappear into black. She looks up and she can see the lights in a line along the coast. She sees a gap in the line, a house with the lights off. She knows that's me. She knows I’m watching. Watching out from the dark house. Doug waved out through the window to the distant ship. He watched the ship open up her engines, dig into the bigger waves, and square her shoulders, ready to take on all the sea could throw at her. She's waving. I know she's waving. He waved and waved out from the darkness of the house, reaching out towards the disappearing ship. The headless doll reached out too.

The play version of Pride of Rotterdam story was performed in London in 2018. After LISP 2022 Awards Announcement, this short story appeared in 'Volume 1 Brooklyn' in 2023.



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