I woke in the dark. The cabin stank of stale cigarettes and beer. I pulled on all of my clothes, but couldn’t find my shoes. I walked barefoot up the steps, leaving Cubby’s hulk snoring in the dark. The moon was huge and the light falling on the deck was bright grey and harsh.
The boat heaved. I rubbed my eyelids, shivered, and pinched a large painful grain of sleep-sand out of the corner of one eye. It felt satisfying to roll it round in my fingers. We were floating in swollen inky water, overhung with the moon.
I coughed, and once I’d started I couldn’t stop. I feared I might be sick, and felt for the edge. When I straightened up, my head swam a little.
Cubby came up a few minutes later.
‘I can’t see land,’ I said.
‘Morning,’ he said, yawning. He lit a cigarette.
‘But it’s there, right?’
He smiled. The tip of the cigarette fizzed and glowed.
‘Aren’t you cold?’ I said, beginning to fear that being at sea might have altered the order and patterns on which I depended. He was wearing a thin singlet. The fly of his boxer shorts was gaping rudely. He shook his head.
‘Cubby,’ I said, taking an involuntary step backwards, away from the edge. ‘I can’t swim.’
‘You can swim. I’ve seen you.’ He drew noisily on the cigarette, and blew out a funnel of thick white smoke. ‘You’ve got a good stroke.’ He smiled, and I thought he had something in his mouth, a piece of gum perhaps, but it was just his teeth. ‘So what are you talking about?’
‘I’m not a strong swimmer.’
He grunted noncommittally. ‘Hung-over?’
‘I’m okay,’ I lied. I cleared my throat. ‘Last night,’ I said. He blinked. ‘It was… What time did we finally get to sleep?’
He tossed the question off his shoulder. ‘Who knows? I’ll tell you what your problem is.’
‘Sleep. You’re tired. That’s all. Of course you can swim.’
I closed my eyes but it felt as if the deck might fall away at any moment.
‘Don’t look so worried. Go back to bed for a few hours.’
‘No. I’m not tired. We drank a bit, though. Didn’t we?’
‘No more than usual,’ he said, raising his shoulder again in disregard.
‘Look,’ I started, but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to say, so stopped.
‘Anyway, you won’t need to swim. Probably not.’ He laughed. ‘And if you do, just grab onto me. I’ll swim for both of us.’ He seemed to change his mind about a direction he was taking. He looked down at his feet, and flexed his toes. I glanced at his open fly. He looked up, and caught me out.
I looked down at my own bare feet. ‘I thought there’d always be land in sight,’ I said to the deck. ‘You told me that. Didn’t you? I wouldn’t have agreed to this if you hadn’t said that. I’m sure of it.’
‘Take it easy.’ He smiled. His teeth were very white and even, and they glistened, as if they had a plastic veneer. He moved forward. I took another step back. ‘What’s wrong with you?’ he said.
I smelled oil, salt, burning tobacco, wet wood, all mingling, and over it, the sourness of Cubby’s body. I had the beginnings of a nasty hangover, as the liquor wore off more. I could taste the tar-tang of his cigarettes. I put a hand to my mouth and I could smell it all over my fingers too.
He shrugged, and moved back. ‘Anyway, it’s only for a few days. You won’t even get wet.’
I suddenly hated him, and his boat, and the breathy noise he made when he smoked, and his underwear, and that smell of his, which seemed to be concentrated in some parts of his body, and absent in others. It came back to me then. I remembered being surprised and revolted a little bit, but not letting it stop me.
He peered at my face, then turned away, and looked out to the sky. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘You’ll be okay, as long as the weather doesn’t turn bad.’ I watched him finish his cigarette. I felt the presence of choices, but was hampered by nausea and the cloudiness in my head.
He spat noisily into the water, then went back down without saying anything else. It was still and quiet, and I stayed for a while on the deck, wanting to go nowhere, but knowing that I’d have to move eventually.
© Barry Lee Thompson and ‘Stories, by Barry Lee Thompson’, 2013.