Each place I make landfall, I try to find a telephone, a post office. Nobody here speaks English, nor appears to be much interested in my flail-armed charades, or the desperate sounds that come out of my mouth. I’m somewhere in the Pul’chi archipelago, and I only know that because I’ve traced the outlines of the islands painstakingly in the Aquiver. Their shapes make a map in my head: a map that matches one my father once had me draw, kneeling at the coffee table in our living room of my childhood.
Once, I scratched Pul’chi? into soft rotting wood of a boardwalk at some fishy dock and tried to get people to look at it. Most gave me a wide berth. A couple of folk glanced over from a distance, as if from the edge of a cliff. One of them flicked a wooden coin my way and walked on. From the writing on the coin and the inscriptions I had seen on other boats, I guessed that even my script is foreign here. I’ve sailed beyond my alphabet.
By the time I’ve spent a couple of days in any one place, I’m lonelier than ever. It’s a relief to climb back aboard the Aquiver, to tuck myself into her cool, hollow interior as if returning to the womb. At night, I lie in a wooden cot made of cedar planks and I can hear the low percussive scratch of my own hands and my father’s sanding down those planks, endlessly. His hands, beaten and broad, mine quick and precise. We used to rage at each other about who had misplaced the mallet, or who had knocked over the pot of coffee. I used to doubt the dimensions that he had in his head: for each length of wood or rope, or the curvature of the hull. Now our belligerent voices have died in the woody air. I let the sea cradle me to sleep as if I were a fractious baby.
Sometimes the faces of the islanders look familiar, as if I’m caught up in some kind of twisted play, where extras are running backstage to change outfit and appear again, days later, this time as a knock-kneed man crouching on the edge of a jetty, or a distracted market stall owner impatiently exchanging fruit for my coconuts. Occasionally I peer at a face a few moments longer, convinced that I have seen it before in another coastal town, on another island, but they never break, never give me a clue that this is all an illusion.
Once, I managed to send a letter. The island was called Hyrsha, or so I guessed, at least, since that was the first thing the dock-tenders shouted to an incoming boat. I walked the streets, weaving between hurried, smelly boatmen and fishermen and traders, dodging their crates and barrels of catch and obstacles of strewn rope and timber. Brown carts and tables littered the narrow street, cobbles the colour of a moody sky before rain. Grey, slick fish lay helpless, humiliated, all over each other, and their sick, salty smell filled the air. The cries and shouts and whistles of the people were made of it.
I waved my letter at any pair of eyes I could intercept, as I always did. People looked through me, as if I were a stray curl of twine caught by the wind, rolling along underfoot, nobody’s business. Someone grabbed me by the arm. A woman, her greasy hair the colour of silt, watery eyes like shallow rockpools in her weathered face. Perhaps she thought that I was out of my mind, and who’s to say that I’m not. She pulled me inside a building.
There were no windows; the walls were of wooden planks and gaping in places so that the clamour of outside permeated the room. There were benches around each of the walls, and they were filled by a cacophony of people, chatting away, laughing raucously as if in a bar, shaking the flimsy building. The strange, staccato sounds of their language flew at me like so many birds. The woman pulled me into the centre and the room went silent. Then one man whistled loudly, a sign I had come to take as their greeting, and stood up from the far corner. My new friend pushed me towards him, saying something to the rest of the room. They all watched quietly, respectfully. The standing man took my letter, gave a low whistle. He looked at me expectantly.
“England.” I said, as clearly as I could. “Please.”
He raised his arms to the sky, my letter in one hand like a tiny brownish flag, and the whole room burst into song. I tried to keep my eyes on the letter but all at once it was obscured from me by everyone on their feet, stamping, wailing, whistling. For a moment, I let myself get caught up in their euphoria. I deserved some joy, some luck. I deserved for this to be a post office, for my letter to cross whatever land and whatever sea there was between here and my parents’ letter box. Looking back, I realise that that building was probably some kind of church. I often hear that strange, ecstatic music again as I lie paralysed in my cot, too bewildered to cry, too stricken to move at all.
I stayed in Hyrsha as long as I could bear, sleeping aboard the Acquiver. I took the time to do some repairs, plunge into the warm water to scrape her underbelly clean, inspect her meters of rope for frays and weaknesses, of which there were plenty. I had neglected her, I knew. Having a proper look at her was like catching your mother at a strange angle and realising that she has aged without you noticing. This boat, who had grown up beside me like a sister, was weather-beaten, splintered in places, weary, homesick.
One other boatman noticed my project and arrived on the jetty by my mooring one afternoon, bearing a battered tin, the kind that sometimes held oil or brine. I was repairing ropes, sat in a great sprawl of them like a mouse in a snake’s embrace. My fingers were already blistered and burning, but I liked this work. I sprang to my feet. The man let out a gentle whistle to let me know he was friendly. He kept a respectful distance, didn’t step foot onto the Aquiver. I went over, treading across my ropes, to step onto the stern bench.
The substance in the tin was a kind of gel. It looked slick and fleshy like seaweed, iridescent as a fish. I imagine those were the two primary ingredients. I met the man’s eye and he mimed taking a handful of it and rubbing it into the side of the boat. He pointed at the let flank of the Acquiver. I didn’t have to look over there to know that she was still eye-wateringly fouled that side. Most of my attention had been focused there this morning, battling barnacles until my arms had seized up.
“Thank you.” I said, smiling, taking the tin. I reached for my stash: coconuts were the most I had to offer in return. Palm trees, it appeared, didn’t grow on the inhabited islands of the Pul’chi – perhaps they had been cut down for building material, or else cleared for other types of trees that offered more shade. Whenever I sailed close to one of the other tiny, wild islands that were splattered like raindrops across the archipelago between the settled lands, I stopped there and collected as many coconuts as I could. These were my main trade. Usually, the market sellers would exchange almost anything for enough coconuts. This man, though, clapped his hands together and backed away, a sign I took for no.
“Thank you!” I called after him. I never saw that boatman again.
I don’t know why I stayed so long in Hyrsha. Waiting for a reply to my letter – impossible. I had no return address besides the Aquiver and the name of an island that I had never seen written down. Yet I felt anchored there. The thought of that letter leaving, drawing a straight line across my father’s map towards my home, was irresistible. If only I could grab onto its tail, ride its current, land at my front door. Ring the bell. The war must be over by now.
Some small mercies. The Pul’chi were honest lands. Nobody had tried to come aboard my boat, nobody had stolen from me or cheated me. These remote places are usually this way: the ideology of crime has not yet been washed up on their shores from the developed world the way its plastic bottles and garish toothbrushes arrive like artefacts from another age, like ancient spearheads of a distant conflict. I am in good health. The Aquiver is still watertight. I am patient.
Tides turn. My father used to say. They always turn eventually. Work while the tide is against you, be ready when it changes. This is what I have been doing. Preparing, keeping a hand in the water to feel for opportunity, to feel for the smallest current in my favour. I have waited. The tide must turn soon.