“That simple, pallid, spectacled head became for him at that moment a little island of warm human awareness in the midst of the vast non-human night.”– John Cowper Powys, Wolf Solent
Begin and end in darkness.
When one flees from discomfort one often experiences pain of another sort. My journey to Calais begins just before dawn. I am tired from the unaccustomed hour and from having slept poorly. My shoulder throbs as I struggle on my coat. Outside, the cab idles at the top of the driveway blowing smoke against the hedges. It has arrived early and I leave behind out of a sense of obligation my cup of coffee. I could stand there at the kitchen window and have plenty of time to finish it before I’m supposed to go. However, I tell myself there will be coffee in France, though as it ends up, I won’t drink any there either.
Opening the door to the car, I recognise the driver, he I, and we both nod as I slide in onto the seat. Once settled inside the warm dashboard-lit darkness he asks me how I am. ‘Well,’ I say. But I hesitate. Falter. Who really wants an answer to that question at this cold hour unless it is fitted to our own needs? The desire for polite conversation springs from a polluted source. We’re looking for ways to massage our own fears and anxieties. Each breath taken by our rival is a chance to seize the narrative, twist it out of their hands, and make a shrewd return on the social capital we’re expending. Also, it’s a way of keeping from making a real connection. Lines of a poem shared by Echo and Narcissus. That, and the weather.
I try to recall by looking at the back of his head, if he’s the one whose child has been sick, whose car needs a brand new engine and whose sister has died recently, prompting the whole family to fly to Pakistan for the funeral. This expensive series of misfortunes coming fast one atop the other like a vehicle backfiring. Or the one from northern Iraq who misses his extended family left behind in Kurdistan, and with whom I’ve talked at length about the hardship of living outside the country one is born to, how difficult it is for people to understand the push me-pull you heartsickness of it, who haven’t had that happen to them. However, I’m tired and it is dark in the car as it is outside it, houses and hedges silhouettes in the headlights but I see that this driver is a third man, whose troubles I’ve not yet heard. I mean to say more. Well is just a preamble but before I can find the words, I’m interrupted. He’s jumped the queue, so to speak.
‘Going to France?’ he asks, and I nod. ‘All on your own?’
‘Just for the day,’ is my reply before I slump back in silence. I’m failing to keep to the script so I decide I’m better off just resting.
‘Doing some shopping?’
‘What? No. Not really. I might pick something up to bring back for the kids.’ I choose not to explain any further.
He nods. ‘Children’s clothes are so expensive. They always need something new,’ he commiserates with himself since I’m being uncooperative. Now the memory fits the person, slots his identity into place as the car moves down the narrow lane, accelerating, passing hedgerows and empty fields, a scattering of headlights far ahead and behind us like ghost foxes crossing the road as it’s still night outside. He has a large family, I remember at last. All young girls. He and his wife shop in outlet malls on the cracked ugly edges of London because he can get better quality at keener prices, so he says, than the sort he’s able to find in his local area. Which isn’t surprising as there is nothing here. I can’t recall why he doesn’t prefer to shop online, but he’s explained it to me before. It is all we’ve ever talked about over the span of half a dozen rides and I still can’t remember the details.
We both fall into silence, an easy compassionate one as we’re known to each other and have reached that familiar point in our discourse where there is no need to go on any further. We’ve given and taken. Exchange has been made. In a few moments with the road empty of traffic we glide past the turn-off to Dover Castle, barely visible against a sky that is black except for the faint lights reflecting up from the port. Lorries bulk by us so close you can only read parts of their logos, a great scarlet O confronts me like the eye of a dead whale, but the trip at this hour takes practically no time at all. Past the rows of never to be gentrified homes which lie under the shadow of the cliff, signs and barriers flicker past half-seen, and then I’m let out into the cold air. There is no smell of the sea only the stink of diesel. The driver smiles and I wish him a good day as I hand over the fare. Then he’s gone and I go in through the glowing doors. It is quiet inside the ferry terminal, and it is obvious I’ve arrived—following the carrier’s guidelines for foot passenger check-in to the letter—too soon.
The security grill is down. A cleaner confirms what the sign on the wall says clearly, that I’ve almost an hour to wait before the desk opens. I think, ruefully, about my cooling cup of coffee, the warmth of my bed and the deep silence of the house at this hour. The warm soft sleepiness of my wife who generally rises before me but who is amenable to me rolling over half-asleep to embrace her. Rare things to savour given up for this cold berth. Salvation, as it ever is, comes in the form of a book. I open the pages of the paperback copy of Wolf Solent I’ve brought. Powys’ fumblings within the yellowing text are as they always are, overabundant yet engaging, full of a lust for the flesh be it the willowy androgynous Christie Malakite or more earthbound Gerda Torp with her pale thighs ‘Mounted astride of a girt tombstone’ but whose anti-modernist protagonist, like the author, veers between the weird philosophical disquiet of true eccentricity and that universal yearning. I watch the eponymous Wolf stalk the pages swinging his stick and stabbing it into the soil of Wessex.
Forty-five minutes later, a few fellow passengers have assembled. The P&O window opens, dispenses our tickets and plastic boarding passes. I put away my book. We’re a small and not very diverse lot. A group of three British men in long wool coats with buttons on their lapels and strong to my transplanted ear, accents from either Northern Ireland or just north, go outside to smoke. The rest of us, all men, all middle aged or older, except for a young woman in her early twenties who I never once spy looking up from her phone, though this is not a bad strategy, considering, appear to be on our own. On our own in a group, a curious phrase like a whole half or freshly dried pasta. There is a special loneliness to waiting in groups, all the more sharply felt when you are joined to them only by the waiting itself. The snatches of conversations that start up, eddies made up of words, which quickly die down.
One of the other men is talking a little too loudly on his phone. I have him down for a divorcé even before he confirms it.
‘So I’m looking at my statement and I ask her, what’s this business with seventeen quid coming out of the joint account—my account, you know, before the divorce. What’s this seventeen quid a month for?’ There is a pause but I suspect it’s just for effect, it’s not long enough for anything to be said by his confidant on the phone. ‘Extended warranty! On that the big American fridge-freezer of hers. I know, I know -’ Now he must be responding to something. There’s a longer break and he’s rubbing his eyes. ‘Told her to keep it. Just fucking keep it. Not that I could afford it but what can I?’ He laughs but it’s not a happy sound. ‘Four of them plastic bins at the bottom, all cracked. Yeah. We looked it up online, hundreds of pounds just for that. Covers accidental damage and all, so the guy, he just replaces it. Yeah, yeah. I suppose it’s worth it.’ There is a little more, perhaps a muffled goodbye I don’t catch. Next thing I notice he’s hung up his mobile and put it back in his pocket. Looks down at his hands, and I’m the one who turns away, embarrassed.
Why do men get divorced? I almost want to ask him, shake him by the shoulders, but I know the standard reasons: infidelity, incompatibility, age, and frustration. At a guess I would say he knows most of these risk factors. Never mind those who say monogamy isn’t natural. Sure, that’s absolutely true but neither is living in houses. We make decisions about these things. Choices. They’re not in this sense, in any sense, right or wrong. We make them and there are consequences. Often even when we know the consequences, we still make them. It is natural then to make choices that go against our nature, whatever that is, as a person, as a species, but so is the fallout from it all. Nothing involved in it is unnatural. But I could be wrong and perhaps this man is just like me, tired. Not wounded inside like the gut-shot animal he appears to be. Maybe he has a loving mistress and it is she he’s been talking to on the phone. Looking at his face I don’t think so. If there was a mistress, she’s long gone.
‘The bus will take you,’ we’re told, ‘Gather in front of the terminal.’
So we do and it does. We can see our breath among the cigarette plumes frozen halfway in space as we file on. Sitting on the bus I watch a seagull swallow an empty crisp packet that it has bloodily won from a rival. The vehicle shakes to life and moves off farting blue exhaust. Circumnavigating past lorries we come to a stop and step to the front of the bus in order to present our passports one at a time to a woman sitting in what is little more than a ticket-taker’s booth. Around us the infrastructure of the port of Dover and the increasing rumble of traffic enfolds us. The day breaks grey and dampish overhead. There is another stop, and this time we exit the vehicle. A small room, tired looking staff, and the shortest conveyer belt in the world through which our few bags belts and coats trundle to be scanned for possible explosive devices, await us. It takes less than five minutes for all of us to be processed. Once past security, a breezy memory of how it was in airports two decades ago, our group face the walk up the interior stairs which fill the space like the bones inside a giant, or a wait in front of the lift. No one is minding us now. A lone crewman stands loftily above, ready to take our boarding pass at the end of the walk. Soon we’ll be inside the ferry.
As foot passengers, we’re first on and first off, provided there’s no problem with the ramp in Calais. Which has happened in the past. My momentary allegiance to the group evaporates. Free agency returns along with circulation and a shiver of excitement. I move ahead leaving the others, our trio of cigarette smokers waiting for the descending lift, the divorcé and his grief crumpled face, even the young lady still busy texting, far behind as I lengthen my stride. Handing over my pass, I head straight to the seventh deck with a thought to beat the rush. Though at eight o’ clock on a Tuesday in February, the weather looming closer around us than the white cliffs, there’s not much chance of a stampede.
The arcade is empty but voluble, ghostly entertainment burbling out of it, beckoning to nobody. There are no takers yet. All is quiet however, in front of the bureau de change. I sit opposite the cashier’s window and open and close my book a few times but after the long wait in the terminal I’m not ready to settle down. A woman argues with her husband over how many euros they need. After them a white-haired couple wearing matching rain jackets and uncreasable travel trousers exchange American dollars and walk away happily fleeced. The sight reminds me that I’ve left the scattering of euros that are always turning up in purses and pockets, in the children’s piggy banks and atop dressers like so much metal chaff, at home. Do I need anything? I don’t think so. I should have dumped them in my bag all the same.
There is a car booked in Calais even if I’ve not decided to take it. I may yet go to the Gare de Calais-Ville. To that end, I exchange two pounds for a few euros plus change at the bureau just in case I require the shuttle bus, along with a lame story about how I left all my euros at home. The man smiles despite the obvious subterfuge meant to hide my embarrassment over the paltriness of the sum. He says something correspondingly inane about the weather in return. Satisfaction is reached and I go back to my seat. More and more I find the idea of the car distasteful. The prospect of a vehicle and myself as the driver feels alien. It wasn’t always so. There’s a time when I make my way at unsafe speeds along freeways and mountain roads, accelerating past sun browned pines and Joshua trees without a thought, turning the key in the ignition just to go a few blocks. But the only car with my name on the pink slip now lies rotting, with rats’ nests built in the wiring under a ragged car cover in California.
Restlessness and the pull of old ghosts take me up to the observation deck.
Outside the air is brisk, smoke from cigarettes and the calls of gulls sliced by the wind. Peeling red and green paint is coming up, and everything is wet, including the least inviting picnic table I’ve seen in my life. I do not sit at it. A battered ring buoy blazoned with the name PRIDE OF BURGUNDY hangs from the rail on the other side. I take some photos of the shore, the waves, the gulls, the buoy, the white cliffs of the headland breaking open to the east of the docks. The waters at the base of the chalk churn with whiteness. Beyond it I can just make out the bay where I swim for as much of the year as I can stand the cold. The North Sea is no Pacific. My arm aches at the thought. At least when I see the surgeon, I won’t need to exaggerate my symptoms as I feared I might. The pain is still there, a snake with its fangs buried in my right shoulder. I’ve done something foolish the night before, gripping the metal headboard too hard in the throes of passion and woken it afresh. This will happen to me again a few weeks from now. And again. It is hard to remember my limitations while caught up in the act of sex. I shiver and go inside.
In general, I am a lover of boats. Of all sizes. Typically I’m the only one in my party who is, sleeping through rough crossings in our berth while others groan or clutch the narrow sides of the fold-down beds. I’ve stroked the brows of those sick on a small boat in the Libyan Sea, plunging up and down on wind driven waves under a rosy fingered sky that Homer loved to describe. Had sex in a Zodiac with a shaven headed biology intern, lying over dark waters of unfathomable depths with the lights of Moss Landing twinkling in the distance, a moment of panic freezing us in the act of coitus then laughter when something bumps our boat but we can’t see it. I’ve never been seasick in my life, only felt the thrill and for me the pleasant sensation of a rolling sea yawning and springing beneath me. I don’t doubt there are conditions that would turn the tables. Make me glad for the land and want to give up the ocean. But there is nothing to test my fortitude on this voyage. It passes without event or much notice on my part. A calm slow threading of the Channel, waves woken only by the wakes of other ferries and container ships. A sea voyage as grey if not quite as crowded as any commute in London.
Calais is now in our sights.
E.M. Edwards is a writer living on the South East coast of England. His work has appeared in Goreyesque and in the anthology Aphrodite Terra. He has a collection of flash fiction called The White Owl available on Amazon and is currently finishing his debut novel.
Image: E.M. Edwards