“Longing is the absent chatting with the absent.” – Mahmoud Darwish, In the Presence of Absence
The family entertainment zone is predictably empty at this hour. Other than the staff behind the bar, I am the only person in the room. As I look around, the crew member from the bus walks across the orange carpet and throws his bag atop a square ottoman. He stretches out, puts his feet up, and tilts his cap over his face. On a flat screen next to him a silent Looney Tunes caper unfolds, car crashes and violence and laughing animals. There’s a picture of Dover Castle on the other side from where I stand. I stare at it, trying to recall the start of my own journey. It is not long before I’m drawn to the bar. All I want now is water in a glass brimming with ice. So parched, it isn’t easy to order or to wait while the staff smile and joke. I am little sport, but smile back. As of yet it feels as if we are only ones on the deck. After some time, the passengers – it’s hard to imagine there are that many more – find us. They drift in.
I’ve retreated to a alcove in the elliptical wall of the lounge. Stripped cushions form a continuous henge around it with just two breaks. Inside, under the blue ring of mercury-argon lighting, the area feels sunken, dim, uterine. A creche that serves alcohol. I’ve taken possession of one of the swaybacked couch-niches, which I can’t decide is a fantastic invention or just odd. More of a bed than a booth. It rises up at each end, and sinks smoothly in the middle like a skateboarding ramp, or a swimming pool. You could fill it with four or five people and writhe around quite comfortably. Suitable for sleep or orgiastic sex but awkward to sit in. Perhaps children would like it.
While it might be the hour or my fatigue, it seems to me that the Spirit of Britain contains Ballardian spaces which wouldn’t be out of place in an ageing Reno casino. A nod to mixing clean family fun and futuristic vices, whose designers thought the boom times were never going to end before the economy caved in. Each entertainment deck striving towards junkspace but halted partway through the transformation by the requirements of ocean travel. Or having achieved it, water, wind, and mineralisation have ground it down into something that is distinct again: obsoletespace, decayspace, rustspace. Cruise ships are different from ferries, for obvious reasons. But there is still a sense that the Spirit of Britain with its decks and cafes and arcades and duty-free shopping, is trying make itself into a floating High-Rise. Writ on a scale suitable for day trippers.
The drunk and the woman from the bus, appear again. I lean back, spread out, make my book and bag take up as much available space. My preparations are unnecessary; they find a table on the other side of the room. The man is still drinking and has gotten rowdier. It sounds good-natured, however. He does not appear to be a mean drunk. The boy from Chișinău soon finds them. All I can hear is the man still talking about Dublin and trying to give advice. He and the woman tell the boy to go up to where the lorry drivers have their own area. Ask around. See if anyone is going to London or Liverpool. As more people invade the bar I lose track of their discussion.
Gradually, the enclosed bar area begins to fill. By far the largest contingent are men. As they order drinks, I am not sure they are together. They have a look which unites them: certain clothing, earrings, facial hair. I puzzle over it. Are they bikers or the crew for a metal band on a European tour? There are not enough leather trousers or the right footwear I judge, for the former. Perhaps not the latter, either. But I could be wrong. Over time, more arrive, sit together, form small groups. Their affiliations are vague but they are united by something. Language at the very least. Their nationalities represent a cross section of (mostly) northern Europe. I identify a core group of Germans, Scandinavians, around which flit a trio of small, dark, hooded-snood wearing Catalans who are tiny compared to the other men, elves among jotun. There are some English, and even an American.
Men, men, very few women. A lady with a headscarf, a baby, and a young bearded husband in tow, looks in and then moves to the other side of the zone. An American mother and her adult daughter surrounded by shopping bags, a heavyset businessman and his blond girlfriend or wife, I cant tell which, are here before them. They establish themselves in the other couch-niches for a time. Before long, they leave, ceding the space to the men who share videos on their phones and laughter and easy friendship of the sort I both ethereally long after and repeatedly reject. I watch with interest as each sub-group shows its dominant member, or most gregarious one. There’s a handsome young man with sweptback, inky hair, Rockabilly meets Eurotrash sartorial style, around which the centre of two groups gather for a while. And they drink. A tall man with a beer belly and thin legs incased skinny black jeans orders rounds of Irish cider over ice as quickly as they’re drunk.
On the periphery, there is the young man from the terminal, still cruising around. He does laps of the room, sometimes glancing at the men and then he is out of sight for longer periods. I don’t know what has happened. If he has found any lorry drivers, or the drunk and the woman again, whom I can’t see or hear anymore either over the rising din of conversation. A few other lone men cast furtive glances into the lounge. There’s one with long moustaches, untrustworthy eyes, but with the profile of Vlad the Impaler when he turns his head. Take away the dirty trainers and modern jacket and he could be a prince of Wallachia. I wonder if they feel the pull and strangeness of this space full of carousing men.
A failure to form and maintain male relationships has been a defining trait throughout my life. I almost say adulthood. But I don’t doubt it goes back farther. I’m sure I could point to various incidents, moments, passages. Conflicts and disappointments between myself and other young men which eventually cease being isolated events and become character. I could pick it part and come up with some half-baked theory. You might, reading this. But the truth is, even as I watch these men, their camaraderie, I have no stomach for it. No desire to be one of them. Barely among. I am an anti-Spartan in this assembly of Lacedaemonians as I am in so many others.
With a book in my hand, I turn from the living to the dead. Speculate for a moment, whether or not I’d enjoy dead male authors better than extant or past friends. Men who might disappoint in all the same ways if I met them in real life. Good for a round drinks but who would want that sort of connection with people as troublesome as writers? Some more interesting than others, like poor Powys, caught up his ‘mythology’ to the end, worshiping goddesses in his Welsh redoubt, tapping his head on the mailbox to insure the safe delivery of his letters, kissing his stone daughter. Obsessive, compulsive, but outwardly at least, happily complicit in his eccentricity and harnessing it as an engine chained to his prodigious late output.
Or Camus, who suffers much misunderstanding. Being pegged still as a existentialist, a pessimist, when he seems to me a remarkable cheerful fellow considering the long night in Europe that he and his generation had to endure. A night that’s never far off, always gathering it feels, building camps and fences and finding clever ways to grind human beings to pieces. All the species, really, we can get our hands on. Never content to solely ‘gnaw on the soul of Europe’ but the world.
‘Just because you have pessimistic thoughts, you don’t have to act pessimistic. One has to pass the time somehow. Look at Don Juan.’ Those are not words of a pessimist. Or even an absurdist, I feel. But those of a man with a hard-won sense of humour who understood that some occupation was needed, whether one lived in a happy or unhappy city. The struggle to find meaning or at least to accept that one could find joy in a universe that has room for causality but not meaning itself. All of us dead at conception not merely dying, all of us Gerda Torps with our thighs astride a girt tombstone, as they are our lovers. Causality! Causality! I want to shout. But I haven’t the energy. It doesn’t save us either. Just a key that opens another empty room.
Watching the men on the other side of the lounge interact, break apart, reform, crack new-old jokes, drink watery pints, I tell myself that the heat death of the universe will make us all solitary particles. Ships becalmed in an emptiness too vast for interaction. Forever. All of us being a sophism, for there is little chance that our species or anything with memory of it, will see that eternity arrive. Something at least, to be cheerful about. The consolation of physics if not philosophy. Which still doesn’t save us from needing to keep busy along our segment of space-time. In which it strikes me we are preserved like insects trapped in amber but not solitary, rather in our swarms and in our multitudes pressed mandible to mandible. We will, if our understanding is correct and not overthrown, exist there forever.
But I’ve decided at least for me, that it needn’t include groups of men.
It’s a bit late as it were. My choices have been, statistically speaking, more than half-made. Though I can’t decide if coming to an understanding too late, is worse than never coming to it at all. Nor am I sure that my ‘mythology’ of the moment as I sit here sucking the last chips of ice at the bottom of my glass, will survive tomorrow. But for today at least, I believe that love cannot save us from absurdity. No matter that we are the absurd’s only lover, we are cuckolded by the universe. I should order a drink while I can. But I fear it would just put me to sleep. Like politics. Or existentialism. I look over my papers, wonder if I have the energy to get back to my own story. It’s that time of night when it feels pointless.
Which isn’t as counterproductive as it might sound considering the subject of my novel. In which along with the absurd I’m trying to build a lifeboat in which meaning can escape. In my thoughts, in my reading, in my writing, perhaps in everything. But if the boat is not yet on the drawing board, sailing, and already sunk, what need is there for a rescue? If there is any meaning, it is there, in all three states. If it cannot be saved it also cannot be lost. The only victory of life is we lived. We live. We can’t go on. We’ll go on.
I am saved from any further attempt at philosophy, by the arrival of something new. A screaming comes across the room, to paraphrase Pynchon. We’ll hear it again soon. Everyone in the lounge freezes, then looks up. There is a noisy altercation between the woman from the terminal and another man. She has returned to where the drunk from Dublin is sitting, has been sitting perhaps all along. She has a lorry driver in tow. There is also a third man, angrily drunk. I recognise him as one of the outsider males, one of the few who has kept up with the drinking of the core group. His affiliation if any, is unknown. He orders from the bar but takes his drink away to different corner of the room. Now, he is being verbally abusive. Aggressive. Loud. Shouting at the woman, the lory driver, the bar staff, and it feels, at all of us here in the lounge. His face is very red.
He’s accusing the woman of ‘being on the game.’ The bar staff and soon other crew members try to intervene. The woman is screaming again, an awful sound. She is held back by the drunk from Dublin who isn’t steady on his feet. There is more the threat of physicality than any actual violence. The angry man is cut off from the woman by the crew. An officer in a ship’s uniform is threatening to have the man detained or arrested if keeps up the disturbance. He instructs the bar to not to sell him any more alcohol which sets off the red-faced drinker in a fresh tirade. The lory driver has disappeared. The woman and her accuser are separated, perhaps the woman is led away, or the man. However, I can’t see which. A number of the men in the lounge area have stood up, glasses in their hands as if watching a football match and block my view. We’re in the middle of the Channel, closer I think to Dover than Calais. We can’t turn back. We won’t turn back, thankfully. There is nothing for us but to sail on.
We are reunited once we arrive in Dover. The same characters, the woman, the drunk, the boy, the sleeping crew member, the woman with the clipboard, and myself. All of us looking tired but calm as we assemble in the departure area. The rain has crossed the Channel with us, or it is simply the British weather that greets us. The wind is cold and water-laden as we exit the building and climb aboard the shuttle bus. A large contingent of the crew from the Spirit of Britain hastily joins us, filling up the otherwise empty vehicle. They look happy, happier than we are, to be going home.
The rest of us are still trying to think of ways for the young man from Chișinău with 30 euros in his pocket, get to Liverpool on this cold wet night. Everyone looks a little worried about it as we alight. London feels a long way off. It’s a foul night and the boy improperly dressed for the weather or for walking in it. The woman and the man from Dublin are explaining that the boy needs to find the area where the lorry drivers take their break. It appears he has been unsuccessful finding a ride on the ferry. He still talks happily about Dublin, though.
‘No luck, eh?’ asks the drunk. And the boy shakes his head, but I catch him glancing with a strange expression at the woman who stares back. She frets over him. Earlier accusations of her being on the game haven’t keep her from putting the young wanderer under her solicitous protection. Out of all of us, she seems the most worried about him. Back in Calais I recall her accusing the drunk of being a ‘soft touch’ after their first encounter with the boy. But I see her slip him a ten pound note as we leave the building. The boy from Chișinău who likes French girls but who isn’t good at chatting them up, refuses, but she keeps insisting until he gives way.
‘Try the lorry park up the road,’ she tells him as parting advice, ‘Wait until they’ve stopped for a tea or coffee before you ask. They’re in a better mood then. Find out where they’ll take you before you get in.’ Her voice is kind but sad. There is weary familiarity lodged in there as well. Maybe she is a pro. At the least, someone who knows their way around a lorry park. He smiles and thanks her. She looks conflicted, but goes off to a waiting cab with the drunk from Dublin. My own minicab is waiting for me as well. We leave the boy in the relative warmth of the empty terminal. He’s made it this far, perhaps he’ll make it farther.
Then night and the wind intervene, take us off to our unseen separate endings.
It’s the same driver as the one who dropped me off. So our greeting is brief.
‘Good trip?’ he ask me.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘More or less what I expected.’
He smiles in the mirror and we both complete the journey in silence. There is no need for more at this hour.
All the windows are dark as I walk down the driveway. No stars overhead and there is just the streetlight, the only light at this end of this road. The kitchen is dark as I let myself in. My coffee cup still there beside the window. I can see the pale shape of the porcelain cup, outlined by the glow from the electric clock on the stove. I shut the door carefully but not so carefully as not to make a sound. Waiting, I realise I’m holding my breath as I listen. I let it out, still standing there in the middle of the kitchen. I allow my satchel to slump to the floor. My sore shoulder, then the good one, is slipped out of my coat, which I fold on the back of a chair. No one comes to greet me. No one wakes in the house. I step into the reception. Then the bedroom. I don’t turn on any lights as I take off my boots, my clothing.
I stand there, naked, in the unlit room.
Begin and end in darkness.
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