:: Article

The Turn

By Jen Calleja.

 

The first.

The first bad thing happened before the morning was even over.  I fell off my chair leaning too far to my right to pick up a ledger from the floor of the portacabin at the harbour. I’ll tell you I was in shock, landed on the bone of my backside – suddenly there, not there, looking up from the floor half holding the paperwork and everyone laughing at me.

I was lured onto the ships in spite of seeing injuries, corpses, zombified men and hearing about the breakdowns, the broken homes, the mind games, the hallucinations. It had happened all of a sudden and when I needed it the most. We all did. The wood mill had closed and moved, and we needed a job within the month otherwise we’d all fall through. Mitchell had said the port, the harbour, but I didn’t want to move cranes all day. Like I had a choice.

We walked down there together every day for five days hoping someone in the yard would be sick, properly sick for a couple of days so we could learn the ropes, or sacked. On the Friday, the Miranda July was bounding in towards the harbour like a sheepdog in January snow and it was like witnessing an office coming to us, like a huge holy vision with the sun streaming behind it. We watched it come in and the crew get down, a couple of them bawling their eyes out, kicking at anything around them.

The uncle of one of the younger guys had passed away on the trip. His heart had blown and they were at least eight hours from land. They carried him down on a couple of planks wrapped in a few old sheets. No time to grieve, they had to set off immediately to go pick up some closer pots a few hours east before the whole trip was a waste. They hadn’t been able to continue with him on board, he was weighing down the ship. I asked if we could help, two young amateurs could be a match for an old sailor. Like they had a choice. We were gone all day and when I got home to my parents’ caravan that night about midnight I was a real person.

Once I started I kept going back for my hot crab bath. It brought something out of me, answers to questions I didn’t even know I was asking came out of nowhere. A house with three bedrooms, a weekend trip away somewhere.

The clarity of our objective is exquisite. It makes getting up in the morning worthwhile, you could go home feeling satisfied and knowing why that is or go home dissatisfied and know why that is.

Communicating with Darlene was easy at first because she used to be out there too, it’s how we hooked up. Sounds like a really dangerous one, boy that sounds like a tough one. But then I realised that it wasn’t professional. It would make the next four months leading up to the next thirty hour shift unbearable, like Creggy, who had a breakdown. His wife too eventually. He would run over all the possible scenarios. Drinking, pilling, his heart doing a dance. At home I liked scrubbing the table and peeling potatoes, sitting in my chair by the heater and reading the last two days’ newspapers. In silence.

It really was like going to a different country, but where the place was a space landscape, where time had stopped. I imagined that everyone else stayed asleep – I would leave and arrive home while they slept – and that a day hadn’t been missed. My wife and children had been at home waiting. Not going on without me. I use that day to pretend that you’re dead my wife joked, leaning on her hand on the armrest of the sofa. I imagine, well, I assume that you won’t be coming back. I take the phone off the hook, there’s no way to hear them calling to tell me, I already know, I won’t be caught out. I wondered if the children did that too, whether I died every time, whether they had stayed awake mourning me a dozen times. Did it stay in their little bodies, did it harden their muscles? And my wife, she sometimes looked at me differently, didn’t she, like I was an imposter. Perhaps she had already mourned me the first time, all those years back. Maybe the worrying has affected all of the babies. She’d been carrying all the times I’d been out. Like the last time. Her stomach was large and hard-looking like a prize pumpkin.

I got onto the ships because of my uncles, cousins and brothers, of course. They always tried to convince me that I was precious but I knew that I wanted it since I was eleven. I ended up going to college, almost gave in to that tempting softness, but came back one summer, cut the bottom ten inches of my hair off and told them I wanted in. They wrote GREEN on the back and front of my jacket and down my waterproof trousers. I bit the head off a cod and spat it out on the deck. Way-o!

I learned in college that crabs are part of our cultural consciousness, they’re part of the contemporary imagination. People’s ingestion of them is a private and social triumph. The consumption of them in huge quantities came after the B-movies, when the spaceships had landed in the cinema, the spider horrors, the alien fiends, the Little Mermaid’s flirtations with Sebastian. Batteries Not Included. The consumption of fear, the eating of the unknown, that very special kind of egg you can crack open like when birds break open , so much better than an oyster. Medusa’s one million victims, Fisherman’s wands, Jesus crowns. It’s mythical.

I didn’t want to do it to prove anything, I just needed to do it.

The first trip with him, with Rudy, it was like the love came out of nowhere. In the first hour they all seemed the same to me. Stretched, pinched faces, all chain smoking, all in their matching gear, flexing their damaged hands. But by the end I was staring at the back of his head. Every time he touched me, an accident? It made my head fizz. Literally life-threatening, that shift. He moved in with me a month later.

Another one!

Yes, yes I say through a mouthful of teeth.

Number five?

No, six actually. We weren’t going to go over four, but there you go. And I stroked Maja’s hair to encourage her to sit back down in the push chair. Petra was asleep next to her, vulnerable in Maxi’s old t-shirt, draped loosely around her. Maxi was moored with one tense arm to the handle of the push chair. Paul was humming in a carrier on my back, like a bee buzzing around my head. Sylvie and Peter were at mother’s. And number six had its back to the world behind the curtain of my body.

It was a nice moment just then, bumping into someone. Nice but hard work. I never know what to say or do anymore. They would look at the babies and then me, the baby-me, my baby-self, my babied-self and we’d talk about their one big life. Our one big life. My lists of interests are long, ancient, out-dated. I remember sitting in a bar with friends with my hair straightened.

At first, I was relieved by his commitment. The hand on my knee in the bar soon became a seatbelt. Soon I was on lockdown, a hand on my shoulder when we were walking, an arm around my waist when we were talking with anyone else. He was always giving my conscience a everywhere.

The first time was hard, I was tired from day one. When Maxi came, Rudy would never get up in the night. In the day he said it was best I stay in bed. It was like the bed was sucking all the life out of me. Unaware of time or space, whether I’d eaten or drunk, I didn’t have to lift a finger or lift my head off the pillow. Everything was brought to me. Intimacy included. I would lie in exhausted silence and the stone throwing of baby cries.

Four months later I was with child again. The whole nine months in bed, it’s probably why Maja’s so feisty, she was desperate to move. I ended up giving birth in the same ward as with Maxi. I looked in the same mirror in the disabled toilet while walking off my contractions and saw how much weight I’d put on. I was pale and bloated and my hair was overgrown. I felt a new compulsion and gave birth to Maja energetically, talking more than I had in months. I woke up from a year of sleep and seeing Maja and Maxi together made me feel like the head of a team, the host of a party, a captain. Rudy didn’t want to hold Maja.

Once Maja said daddy’s hand is snappy like an alligator. Paul will only look at me when we come in to say goodnight. In fact, I don’t think Rudy much likes the kids.

When he goes away I feel lighter. I get out of bed. I eat at the table. I drive into town. I pick up the kids and swing them around.

He got back a few hours early once and I was in the garden hanging laundry. I was only about four months gone with Paul. What are you doing out here, get in the house, get back in bed. He checks on me every fifteen minutes.

He wipes my mouth from across the dinner table and then helps me out of my chair. I managed it on the second try, the numbness makes me so heavy.

I am buoyant but anchored.

***

The second.

When Darlene and I took that first trip together, when I first looked at her actually, the first feeling was a despising kind of anger. She was like an alarm signalling danger, for all of us. You know you can’t have a woman on board. I started watching her. Then started really watching. I pulled her up when she fell instead of whooping. I gave her the last of the raw liver and the potatoes in the twentieth hour. I took a shorter nap. I wanted her and I said she could keep sailing but I changed my mind.

She takes care of the kids and picks them up after school if I’m not around or I’m sleeping and she thinks that she’s better than me.

I taste the crab. I lick them to get that kick of seasoning at the back of the throat and in the nasal cavity and the sweet kick of remembering the taste of its meat on my tongue. The taste of the crab is the taste of the sea, a taste of the crab is the taste of family, death and a warning from the sea. A lick of shell makes you taste the sea waving, swinging a bell.

Our job is unnatural, stealing sea monsters, pretending we are invincible, maybe that we’re already dead and unrekillable, to fish for crab. Crabs as big as a dog, the twins of camel spiders, God’s hands we called them sometimes. Crabs we would catch in cages the size of old fisherman cottages that have now shattered off the clifftops. We were prospectors for that ‘orange gold’, panners with our gigantic dishes in a raging river, skimming the surface of the ocean.

You could imagine the roar at the bottom of the sea, millions of these creatures pouring out of an underwater volcano, a procession of them chanting bubbles. Their scream in the boiled ocean was what made the storms. When they didn’t want to die, they bubbled and boiled and the force would rise up, speed up, erupt into the sky and set off the clouds. Water communicated with water, the molecules in our bodies would start to vibrate, release more water, we would add to the storm with our own fear.

The last trip, Mitchell almost went over and I haven’t been able to get rid of that feeling like a permanent, invisible bruise, a hole in my stomach. Once, when I looked out of the cabin window, I saw visions of the crab consuming the crew. Things happen. Trip over the anchor. A rope would get caught around someone’s leg or neck or arm, someone would slip over, bang their head on the low door frames, get socked by a cage, cut their face on a flying crab, frost bite, fatigue. It was only a matter of time, but thinking of Mitchell stung in a place that only hurt for my children, and Darlene.

I started inviting him over a lot, while he took a break from it all. Darlene and him had worked on the ships together too, before we met. It’s good to make him know he’s not forgotten and I see her looking at him. I took him and Darlene out for dinner, her mother looked after the kids and they both went to the bathroom, first her and then him, and they walked back through the restaurant together. I asked her why her face was red and she said that carrying this baby was making her feel warmer than usual.

She ate like the food, our company, the atmosphere were all meaningless. She acted as if we weren’t there at all. I know he’s been to the house while I’ve been out risking my life. She sits and frowns and says nothing. It has to go. Later, in bed, she sits up with her hand spread like a creature over its two or three week old existence. I know it’s not his. She’s mine. It’s mine. It’s tainted.

***

We lie in bed and he has to get up in a few hours and he says that we don’t have any money and that having another baby right now isn’t good after all.

***

I am equipped with the screen of three in the morning, the unbreakable promise of sunrise, the blurring cobbles, the artificiality of the sky’s blue meeting the brown bread houses. From the portacabin, I go down the hill towards the port, my body tensed and steady, bobbing up and down. Everything is not its true colour, bleeding out and dulled by a blind black. I’m wearing the concrete boots of sleep. I pop a mint in my mouth as I tread out my roll up. I’m thinking about how the wire pots might catch in the cut at the centre of my middle finger and little finger I’d got from the lip of a handrail when I see Mitchell smoking, rocking his brown holdall and cradling his swaddled sandwich.

The Miranda July is only held together by water, at the perfect tension. Clear, prismatic stitches quivering at every bold twist, meeting at every seam. That, and crab dust. I see it cloud up like party glitter in my second sight whenever one would be flung with all its arms waving and land and I would see it mix with our expelled breath – a tar, mucus mist with a hint of blood – emulsifying to a tacky glaze that coats the ship. Jerry, Sven, Chief and Frankie would be coming later, in about an hour. We climb up the wet ladder with its blistering paint and give the place a once over for drips, leaks, strange noises, drafts, puddles, cold spots. I run a broom one-handedly over the pipe room – chalking up marks on the floor with the fag ends and ring pulls. Mitchell is shaking the padlocks joining the cages together. I hear the chain of jangles resonating off the block of cages and I sing only thirty more hours with that prick, only thirty more, only thirty more. Even the handle of the broom is wet, I wipe my hand across my chest and squeakily down my plastic trousers.

Out from the land and the world heading north-east we become a ghost ship, we’re on standby, suspended from reality. We’re all dead men. We all kind of ignored the fact that Chief would be dead within the next six to twelve months – he’d come out of retirement and that meant certain annihilation. He’d even had a minor stroke coming back into port for the weigh in the last time. When he quit nine months previously he’d lost his bottle, started seeing everyone’s skulls under their stubble and eye bags and bloated bobbled noses and I haven’t told anyone yet but I see it too.

Up in the cabin I get a message sent a few hours ago from Darlene. She’s had it done.

I looked out and a wave like a wall glided over the deck, knocking over Sven. He was up again, a little heavier with water no doubt. Over the speakers I shouted Woah where did that come from, get up, up, way-o and one beat later the black grins, the wan eyes, clawed hands and duck-bill hoods were all snatched in the fist of a blooming sneeze of seawater as tall as the ship itself. Their tiny bodies were sucked into the sea and I shouted, not over the loudspeaker way-o.

All gone. Way-o.

I had to join them, but I couldn’t let the ship continue; it could hit land or another ship or a harbour. I thought of the crab too, I didn’t want them to die and rot for nothing, they would never become cuisine. When the boat sinks the crab could get out, but if it didn’t they would be trapped. I was their captain too. I kept heading north, faster now, further than ever, pancake ice like empty jellyfish stuck beneath the surface, a million moons floating on their backs. Soon we’d reach the serious stuff, the chunks of ice like fat blades. I had to move fast. The wheel to the most extreme left and cable tied in place. Within about a minute and a half the crab and I would hit a bank of ice, possibly, hopefully, at an angle. I left the cabin in my t-shirt and tied a piece of rope outside on the rail and held on to it like I was abseiling down the side of a mountain in an avalanche, I couldn’t slide overboard.

I took off my clothes, my legs felt constricted with cold.

I shuffled thickly towards the crab door.

I shot down, clattering, my fingertips running through crabs legs clicking and cracking like tree roots, down a rabbit hole waterlogged and invaded, grabbing helplessly to these living balloons of meat, slipping through their fingers.

The crash didn’t come. We haven’t hit the ice.

We were wombed together, the crab and I. They would nibble and tear me from myself, I would live on them and all who ate them. Eat me up.

Falling off of my chair wasn’t the real first bad thing. Reporting Frankie for taking his tools home to HQ before everyone got in that morning just so I would get a bonus was. He would have been fired when we got back. I see that now. The second bad thing that happened today was that she listened to me. I see that now.

The third.

Not a bad thing at all that my body is singing and the crab show me no interest. I see that now.

 

 

ABOUT THE WRITER

Jen Calleja is a writer, literary translator from German and musician. @niewview

ABOUT THE ARTWORK

Kawahara Keiga (1786–c.1860) was a late Edo period Japanese painter of objects, social scenes and portraits based at the Dutch Factory of Dejima, and at Edo, Kyoto and Nagasaki. This digital edit is from a detail of his inked study of a crab, produced in 1823 and part of the Siebold Collection.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, January 17th, 2017.