Thirty miles from sea.
There was salt water in her lungs,
She smelled of lemon suns, basil.
The crust of Tube dirt was under her nails, with the bark of the Angelica Tree.
What if I had read that before I walked down Shaftesbury Avenue that night, swinging with buttery white wine, big toes aching from prettily-narrow shoes? The clean-shaven boy bumping against my cut-price coat.
What if I’d never entered that marooned corner of the city, where High Holborn dies and Covent Garden isn’t quite yet born? But most of all, what if I’d never got my feet wet? What if I’d never got my feet wet?
Neon puddle flashes, splashes cold across my feet. That grubby muck water, the tears of the city they call it, slakes my skin, seeps through the scarlet shoes. Damn. Stained. Cursing, I stumble.
He pulls me up by my elbow. But not before I see them. Ropes: coils, splices, knots. Everything needed to bind and tie. I stand. Straighten. The shop window is lit with apricot, vignetted as the rest of its clutter recedes into the night. Ensigns, semaphore, brass shackles. Wooden blocks, sou’westers, socks. Oiled wool.
Old fascination floods me, starting from my wet feet.
A memory. Me, as a child, grease-and-salt-stuffed air. The verdant slime of the sea-weeded shore. Splash, slap, knock. A flap of sailboat oars cutting and mainsail rising. The name comes to me now, dredged from the mud of memory. “This is a chandlery,” I breathe.
“A what?” he says, fussing with the dirt on his tailored coat. So rich the wool lies flat and smooth.
“A chandlery,” I say. What a magical word it was then. A shop of wonders for sailors and boaters, but a stone’s throw from a briny shore. And yet here it is, dropped into a city of fake and fashion and futile dates. The metal and shine of the buildings sit disappointingly against the little wooden shop of dreams and bitter storms.
Established 400 Years
“Let’s go, uh… What’s your name again?” He hiccups, impatience seeping into his voice, sensuality dissipating. “It’s freezing.”
I don’t answer. His casual tone diminishes me. His groomed masculinity irritates me.
My wet feet have a mind of their own. They walk me over to the shop window. A desire seeps up my cheaply-stockinged legs and limp skirt, clinging like cellophane, through my empty stomach and up to my throat. Thirst.
“I’ve got champagne at my place,” his voice tugs.
“Fuck champagne,” I say, uncouth and repelling.
I’ve lost interest in him and his elegance and a warm night in an expensive flat. My thirst is for something different now. Something… Something remembered. When I dreamed; when I was free.
“Hey.” He slinks his fingers inside my coat and across my skin. His touch full of fleshy promise.
I press my face against the frigid, unforgiving glass of the shop window. I turn my cheek so my ear presses into the transparent smoothness. And hears a sound centuries’ old. The splash of cramped water, reed-bound and clotted with wooden craft, coracles, skiffs.
It tells of a boat that docked here long ago. When Shaftesbury was still a river. Now hidden under tar and brick, stranded as the city grew around it. Penned-in, trussed up.
The man exhales. “Crazy bitch.” And hesitates just a second, because I’m not un-pretty. Then he withdraws his petulant hand, and turns. The scrape of his leather-soled shoes recedes down the street, dancing to the sound of oars scraping in rowlocks. I feel peace and a little fear, now that I am forsaken.
I teeter to the shop door on my absurd, tall heels and grab at the handle. It’s past midnight, but, in that moment of wine-soaked silliness, I have no doubt the shop will open for me. I close my eyes tight, turn the handle, push and enter.
The shop door clangs shut behind me. Click. Lock.
The first thing that hits me is the smell. How different it is. Outside, on the pavement, my nose was encrusted with urban urgency: Chinese takeaway, cheap beer, his aftershave, exhaust.
In here, oh! This is a magical smell. Salt, sail wax and seaweed. The holy trinity laced with salted beef, steer, and the eggy stench of bilge water. It doesn’t smell like a shop at all. It is the scent of my childhood. The scent of something gone.
There is this moment here. It won’t ever happen again. It’s the point at which I’m presented with a possibility filled with hope. I don’t know everything yet. The full truth, or banality, hasn’t been discovered. Everything can be as perfect as I desire. So, I keep my eyes shut, and I step forward.
Creak, loud. But there – a faint clink. I step again, slower. Creak, louder. Faint clink. And a foaming, watery, lapping sound.
Fear erodes me, cracks the deliciousness. “Who’s there?” I ask, timid.
Lapping, louder. Clink again.
My eyes spring open, splayed, alert. Darkness!
The floor tips.
I lurch, overbalance, arms flail, I throw myself backwards, trip over a ridge and topple with a thump onto the unforgiving wood. A shot of pain like cheap tequila fires across my skull. Everything holds still. Like a rubber-band held taught.
Light blooms, spreads, printing-paper bright. I see hawser rope, knotted wood. Thickened varnish kisses my cheek.
My body, still glued to the floor, sways. Concussion? Not the first time. Boats as a child were dangerous places. A tear loosens from the corner of my eye. “Blasted. Silly. Stupid!” I’ve probably set off one of those silent alarms. The police’ll be here before I’ve crawled, half-conscious to my knees.
I reach my arm up past my head to feel the door. But the door. Where’s the door?
Perhaps the boy’s not long gone, weaving down the street, full of drowsy-making drinks. Perhaps he’ll hear me call or –
Clink, louder now. Clink, clink, clink. A saline breeze threads its fingers into my hair. I know that clink. Clink, clink, clink: the metal stays against a boat’s mast in a soft onshore breeze.
I know this rocking.
I know this varnish.
I know this light.
Sailing light, boat at sea, wooden decking. My heaven and hell mixed together.
I scramble to my feet, knock my head on the ship’s wheel. It spins, I dodge out of the way and almost fall back over the transom and into the water. Shock forces vomit from my mouth. I scramble back from the edge of the boat, knock my knee. Bruised, I slump down into the rough seat of the cockpit, scratched through years of frantic use.
Only now am I brave enough to look.
The shop is gone, replaced by a grey rippling sea, dotted by islets of marram grass and rocky gneiss, lidded by a cold blue sky.
“Please don’t bring me back here,” I whisper.
I was born on a boat. I learned to sail before I could walk. I learned to read the wind and nudge the boat with sails trimmed to perfection to find its finest speed. I learned to love the art, and fear it. Only fools do not fear the sea.
We travelled through fog, mist, sun, rain, the terror of no visibility, the bullying of over-bulging sails. The vicious storm kings that tipped us on our side so that we could look into the sickening, boiling ocean and dream that we were not about to die.
But we dreamed; we were free.
Then he was gone, and I was alone.
And people, as strange to me as fishes are to land, took me away and bound me with rigid things like rules and shoes. And then they stuffed my dreams into the pigswill bin of their stark, saltless home for severed children.
I hate being asked about my beginning.
“Take me back to the city,” I say to no one.
“Not yet,” a bodiless voice answers.
A hysterical titter escapes my mouth and I tuck nails into fists. My chest, my throat stiffen. It’s him, I think, and an irrational fear floods me. I’m not unconscious or dreaming. I’ve died, and he’s come to ferry me across the water to the land of the dead.
“Daddy?” My voice quivers.
But this tone is too playful, too young and old at the same time. And too handsome? I change my mind. “Go away,” I rasp.
“Not until your feet are dry.” He laughs. “Now sail!” he commands, hunger dripping from the words.
I don’t like to be commanded. Especially by a dream, or a ghost or a head injury.
But the wind is rising, kicking up its pitch, flapping the unset sails; the wheel swings to the right. Foam splashes over the leeward side, and we tip. I have no choice. Sail, or be thrown to the fishes.
I grab smooth wheel, rough rope, heave and try to redirect the vessel. The wind fights me; the boat jostles me. But memory’s a funny thing. Something imprinted by fear or urgency has an eternal freshness to it. The voice may command me, but I can command the boat. After all these years, all these forevers, I haven’t lost the art.
In minutes I’m exalting, standing straight, chin up. I have the boat gushing through the water at the speed I’ve chosen, skimming the edge of a shingle beach. Herring gulls swoop, their haughty cry punching my eardrums. Confident now, I ease my body to the lee. I reach over, very stretched, so my armpit rubs against the gunwale, and drench my fingers in the lucid water. I have not touched salted water since I was a child. Nor river water. When I cross the bridges of London, I close my eyes tight shut.
Because water is remembering.
But this water is to my skin like fresh air to my lungs. I see a name painted in Easter blue on the patched wood hull of the boat.
A memory, half caught, slips away, grates with such strangeness.
Ships are rarely male.
I sail until my cheeks are salty chapped, until the wind dies and the light turns muted. I know this is ending. Whatever it is. A dream. A hallucination? A gift from some threadbare sea god looking for a friend? Even so, a chink of cheer, fresh-faced and hopeful, flushes in my chest.
“Thank you,” the bodiless voice says, almost reverent. The first time he’s spoken since he commanded me.
“‘About time,” I say. “I thought you’d died of boredom.”
“Not died. Living,” he says, a hint of wonder in his voice, someone starved now sated.
Like me. For the first time in eternity. “Who are you?” I ask. But he doesn’t answer. There’s a rhythmic sigh in the air, like someone sleeping. It doesn’t matter. I think I know. Davy the Shop, Davy the Boat. It’s all Davy. “Why am I here?” I ask. But he doesn’t awaken to answer that either. Maybe he doesn’t even know.
The promise of night freshens the twilight air, flinging down brown angular shadows across sea and land. Like a weathered hand throwing mahogany dice with twenty sides of fate. I shiver. Once, twice. A star-strung, onyx sky descends, coating us in black paint. Everything is pitch. I close my eyes with abyssal exhaustion.
A motorbike buzz-growls.
A rubbish truck hisses and clanks, its dustmen calling to each other like kittiwakes.
A grey glow pushes through my eyelids. They open to reveal a higgledy-piggledy shop, dust-coated with neglect. Forlorn wooden counter, tin boxes, charts. Ledgers, chinagraph pencils.
Chilly morning light reaches through the glass shop door. Shaftesbury Avenue stirs, sluggish on the other side of its distorted panes.
I’m cold. I’m alone.
Yet, as the sky brightens to dishcloth white, I feel a small newness. Like one of those rich ladies might, after she’s had her face scrubbed and acid washed.
As I leave, the doorbell tinkles like a shared secret behind me. A Closed sign flaps against the glass. Faded, dogeared parchment. Shop Assistant Wanted, written below in careful cursive hand.
I take the Tube home. Bare wet footed, through stares of pity and disgust. I’m a dirty, bruised, briny smelling girl. I do not care. Davy consumes my thoughts: the ache in my shoulders, my arms, and the blue vein that pulses at the base of my wrist.
Davy coats me with curiosity, fear, desire.
Night returns in an eye blink, the day a frittered dream. Davy beckons me, and my wet feet. Back, to the shop, the boat, the sea.
I enter his musty house. My head, this time, is clear. How lonely and abandoned this place feels. A ship’s locker locked, forgotten. But I’m too full of heady expectation to dwell.
I close my eyes, ready. I can almost smell the ship’s rough resin, I can almost hear his unexpected voice, almost feel a foreign weather.
Ah… here it is. I sway to a northern breeze choked with thyme and chania. Poppies, anemones—
“Do you like it?” he asks. A quiet question. Like a shy suitor offering me gifts.
I know I will. Before I even look.
Barren and arid a hillside soaks with buxom colour of ephemeral flowers. Broken temple colour of cream, and sand, sand, everywhere. Light ochre streaked with ruddy iron. Davy’s hull glides across the limpid sea that licks the parched land.
“Beautiful,” I breathe.
I seize the ropes, and he seizes the shoreline. We slice through the water on his knife-edge keel. It is like walking with an old friend. We forge a path side by side, words and actions known but unsaid. The wind is antique, hot and dusted, and it slips under our tutelage.
The furnace of the day rises, then softens. My body is warm as amber honey. My languid fingers drift across the varnished wheel. And snag. Something alien touches my skin. I pull and tug, a bird with a worm. And look.
“Will we sail together again?” he asks.
But my mind is filled with a different question. My thumb draws like a curious kiss down the ripped silk ribbon. Trapped between the seams of rigid teak, worn smudge brown and feather-frayed. Only a slot of colour remains, where the fabric has crumpled in on itself. In that indelible fold, no thicker than a human nail, is a sliver of laurel green, shining and glossy as the day it was made.
A girl’s ribbon; a girl who liked green. A redhead, perhaps? They run well with green. But where is she now? A memory flashes, curiosity tinted with unease. The sign hanging on the shop door. Shop Assistant Wanted. “Who sailed you last?” I ask.
The boat stutters as if the water has grabbed it. Sails shake; boom clicks.
Now I have the tang of something unpleasantly true, a metal bit between my teeth to chew. I hate the taste of it. “Was she pretty, like me? Did she like it too?”
The mainsail sags, spilling wind. Anger? Sorrow?
“She abandoned me, like all the others,” he says.
The boat slows, my body stills. Late afternoon chills my cheeks and nose. “Why?” I ask. Tell me they weren’t interesting. Tell me they didn’t understand the sea. Tell me some comforting thing!
“She wanted freedom,” he says, his words bitter as mallow. “But doesn’t freedom always have a price?”
I press the ribbon’s grain hard into my finger pad. “What did you do?” I murmur, the words fearing to leave my mouth.
“Me?” The topsail flaps to his rough laugh and his words tumble as angry waves. “My crime was committed far longer ago than that. I abandoned my captain. Who cursed me to infinite solitude, so that I could not die. Men bound me and built on me. And here I stay until I call my captain back. A captain who will stay with me forever.”
“But we’re sailing, each night,” I say.
“Only for as long as you stay with me,” he whispers. “You do want to stay with me, don’t you?”
I do. I must. But, “What happened to the girl?”
“It wasn’t me. It was the curse!” he cries.
The sail flaps, poorly set. I tease the mainsheet out and in, shift the boat a fraction. I try again, and again, but I can no longer find that perfect point where the breeze bulges the luff.
My face stiffens. As my father’s used to, when time and tide were against us. When we knew the boat was no longer our friend. A raucous gust slaps the boat and barges past my face. Another pushes sails to swelling strain, and Davy heaves onto his side in yawning disregard. I fall, battered, knocked against the seaward edge, the horrid ocean but a breath away. I release the sails, spilling the wind and slamming us back flat. Crack, whip, slash, the ropes bite and spit. I snatch them back and haul them in. I will not lose our course! I will not be defied!
My chest thumps and clenches, my palms burn rough and red. Fighting the wind. Fighting him. Contemptuous nature, the most dangerous kind. And still he does not yield.
My fury blisters like a spider bite. “What happened to the girl?” I shout to clanging shackles, snapping sail, whipping ropes and the creaking wheel. “Tell me!” I say.
He rises on his edge once more. A perfect symmetry of death. At any moment, we will flip like a helpless insect, and I will plunge and die.
Rope runner jams. No release! Lockspike! I slip the old knife from my pocket, sharpened for urban nights, and raise it to hack the mainsail rope. Just one sever; a circumcision of power.
“No!” he cries.
“Tell me the truth!” I say.
We hold there. Murder in each others’ hands, moments of nothing and emptiness on our desperate precipice.
“She stayed three days,” he says. “Three days is enough. Only death can part us then.” His voice weakens to a whisper. Dying wind. “But the world of pretty things pulled, the world of warm and dry. Her heart broke. She fled one night. And now I have nothing to remember her by.”
Disgust like weevil biscuit clags my mouth and mind. “You had no self-control. You invited her to her death.”
“I begged her!”
“You let her stay too long. Knowing the truth of it.”
He weeps. And the sky turns the colour of bruised peach and mould-dusted orange. The day ends.
I open my eyes and stumble to the door. The pathetic, comforting, weak morning light. Groggy and coffee-less, I stare at my palms. Cracked and seeping from hauling rope and sheet. Davy has peeled off that urban veneer I painted on year after year. Decade after decade. Varnish of the soul.
He has undressed me. He has made me remember what it was like in the beginning. A loss so expansive it is an ocean trench. Crushing, dark, asphyxiating.
Oh, paint that varnish back on! Before it’s too late! Paint it thick with antifouling boat coat. The type the barnacles refuse to stick to; the type that sticks to your skin like skin.
I hate Davy in this moment.
My injuries belittle me, mock me. Abuse me, degrade me. And in this moment, I am sure he knows it. The sense of violation grows. In the form of rope and vicious breeze, he has taken a knife to my hands and heart and peeled the flesh himself.
Yet I can not stop thinking about Davy. The feel of him under me, the wind above me.
This brutal voyage! It is a more graphic act than any human has done to me in this city. A curse for Davy is on my lips. I sob instead, run, leave. Memories are grotesque things.
The doorbell tinkles with disdain behind me. The Closed sign flaps against the glass, the parchment rotten, acid, yellowed. Shop Assistant Needed!, scrawled below in a desperate, afflictive hand.
I trudge up the stairs. Step. Step. Twenty-eight floors. Grey choking stairwell, top floor, lift never works. The squalor seeps under the doors.
Now home, I sit.
Silver mirror, speckled with age.
I sit and look at myself, thinking of a story I once heard. A boat with a spirit that needed to be spurned.
My idea grows like a gusty ripple wind. I cackle, coarse and heady as an overripe ale.
My toes curl, un-dryable. Their sour moisture seeps into the bottle brown rug. My hands begin to crust.
I choose to wear red, red like Madder Lake, the colour of ferment and female command. I choose old shoes that grip and stride. I grasp a greasy eye stick, utter-blue, and draw wild markings round my eye. Like Tethys, bloody goddess of the deep, I will take that ship. I will make it mine. I will sail it forever and never die!
I gobble my sandwich. Dry sliced bread pushing wet in throat. Just enough for a night at sea.
Tick, tock, night turns. Tick-tock, time to go.
“What’s that blue mark on your arm?” the shopgirl asks.
“It’s a vein,” I say.
“It’s not a vein,” she says.
I don’t even look. I’m a pale girl. Blue veins. What’s there to say? She needs glasses.
“You been using?” she says. Her eyes turn matte; she lifts her body away from the plastic counter set between us.
The subconscious reflex wipes clean the air between smiley seller and unclean buyer. Our microscopic friendship, fabricated from the please and thank yous of a hundred, hundred purchases of end-of-day fruit and wilting veg, has ended. I lean back, too. Accepting the change. The little hurt.
She passes me the matches without touching my fingers.
I pocket them. “It’s a vein,” I say. But the very utmost corner of my eye tells me this is not true. Tattoo blue, the vein at my wrist is now yanked straight, pointing north up my arm from that place that’s pale as emmer flour. Like an anchor, missing its root.
I pull my shirtsleeve down, so the mark’s oddness is removed from our sight.
It’s only when I am too far away that I realise I’ve left my pitiful bag of food behind. I will not go back.
I approach from the south. The city’s tall and full and fleshy. Blaring orange; traffic light bright. Davy Jones looks ill and under-painted. Yet he beckons like a worn leather chair, like the smell of the bed you know. My feet obey, now forever clammy, sticky salty wet.
There is something I greatly hope for here. But hope is a terrible thing. Once you want something, you are a victim of fate: who will grant your wish or not? There is no alternative niceness once want has got in. Will he let me in? Will he let me sail one last time?
The door opens, I step inside. Sluggish silence, night-shop sleep.
I am not innocent. I am not the last girl he lured in here. I was born with splinters that gouged my feet, storms that ripped my cheeks like thorns, hunger in my empty belly like a sucked egg. Devoid. I am more burnished than she could ever be.
I light the brittle-tipped match, set flame to wick. The storm lamp twists in the oncoming rain. One stride, two, three, I’m at its heart. I throw open the door of the hold. The light casts, like bright cannon shot across his hidden flesh.
Charts, maps, the dust of time stood still.
Dry as tinder.
The logbook. His name, this vessel, must be scrawled in there still.
Dry as tinder.
“I thought you wouldn’t come back,” he says. A pause in the wind.
I raise a second match, spark on wick.
“What are you doing?” His voice wavers.
And touch the eager flame to the book’s cover. It guzzles the parched linen and board, reaches the powdering pages underneath—
Davy screams. Scorched agony! The boat yaws, portholes shatter. The flames scuttle, racing to finish their meal. If they burn his name, I am free.
“Thirst! Water! Let me drink!” Salted waves plunge through cracks, windows, door, overcome the ship.
I fall, head cracked on the floor. Match out, lamp out, gurgling water gluts my lungs. I roll over, push to standing. Cough, soaked, shivering. The flames are gone. The matches lost. “Let me be free!” I shout. “Let me be free…” I whisper, and cover my face with my shaking hands. “Please…”
Silence, like an ocean dead.
“Why?” he asks, voice cracked with pain and smoke.
“I want to go back, back to how it was!” I cry. “When it was just him and me and the boat. When I was loved and free.”
“I will love you,” he says.
“You hardly know me,” I say. A harsh laugh, guilt at my murderous actions scratching my throat.
“I’ve known you since you were a child,” he says. “I was there when your flat little feet first stepped into the bottom of a leaky boat damp on salty-varnished creaking wood. I was there when you pulled the oars too hard and close and bashed yourself in the stomach. I was there when you capsized the little dinghy with the single tan sail and the centreboard stuck with barnacles and weed. I held your hand as you sank to the bottom of the muddy saline murk, sinking your blue-cold toes into the stodgy silt. I was there when he dived in, pushed you up, released you, and then drew his last breath. And pulled the blood of the river into his ageing lungs like so much fresh air. I was there when you lost him. I was there when love died.”
An ugly chill fills my heart. The boat did not sail for me that day. It was mute.
“Do you not remember?” he asks. “I was there when they took you away. I was there when you cursed me for not letting you stay.”
Now my adult hand remembers how the heavy sails failed to rise for my tiny fists, how the rudder failed to turn for my skinny arms. How my boat abandoned me all those years and forever ago.
I peel open the logbook, soggy half-drunken pages. Oh, terrible truth!
First, his name, our ship, embossed in flaking gold. Then my father’s. Then mine.
“Why did you leave me?” I ask.
“Because I feared I would fail you,” he says. “You were a child. I was a ship.”
“If you burn me, you burn us both. We are bound.”
I place my arm on the countertop and examine the blue, taut vein. It peeks through my skin, like tracing paper over ink, the shape now set. An anchor. I am anchored to Davy; I am the skipper of his wooden body. I am free to roam the seas. And I will sail him every night until…
There is a coin in my pocket. And there is the scent of chips that filters through the door. Just chips for just a coin. I liked those things once. An ache. A desire to leave the shop, for a bellyful of human things.
Oh, what would have happened if I’d never got my feet wet?