Pride of Rotterdam
by Tom Harvey
The September wind skidded off the high tide into his face. Doug marched along the sand. He gave Hippy Saxophone Woman a quick wave, forcing his hands into his pockets, hoping to pass her before she called him a ‘fine fellow’ and asked how his mum was doing, or noticed he was wearing the same mashed-up clothes he’d worn all week and that he should be in school. She gave them a tin of Quality Street chocolates last Christmas; he kept the empty tin for storing precious things he found on the beach. So far, it just contained a little, orange, plastic horse.
The hippy woman played saxophone in a band. Him and Mum went to see the band, they had proper tickets and everything. They set out together, excited, into the night. But they never made it. Journeys with his mum started in one direction but often ended up in another, ‘part of the adventure,’ she’d say.
Doug was hungry. Maybe there’d be some chips from last night if his dick-head dad hasn’t scoffed them. Not that he didn’t love his dad, but it wasn’t the same.
Doug flopped into the old sofa in their chilly third-floor flat. The chips were gone. There were some mostly empty Chinese take-away cartons, strewn across the coffee table. Some egg rice, a few crackers and something that tasted of fish but crunched like grasshopper. Doug pushed the mess into the black bin bag on the floor. The picture window, with its thin glass, cast out over the seafront and towards the distant harbour. The harbour cranes had stopped, the quayside was calm, and the chill evening was closing off into night.
37C Marine Parade sounded like a grand address, but the big window made it freezing in winter and a greenhouse in summer. When he was a kid, the cold had been fun, wearing two jerseys and woolly hats indoors, his breath steaming, pretending he was smoking one of Mum’s special cigarettes from her special tin.
His dad would gaze out proudly over the distant, rambling industrial port and all the comings and goings, ‘Who needs a telly?’ he’d say. The greatest ships bringing everything the world had to offer. All the stories, all the people, all disappearing into the night-time ocean. His mum would often spend days and nights on the sofa, unable to move, transfixed by the view.
A headless plastic doll sat on the long windowsill, facing the sea. Doug found it on the beach, its plastic arms stretching out of the grey sand, stripped of its clothes by the drag of the waves. It didn’t fit into his beach-tin, so it spent its days sat at the window, searching the sea for its lost head.
A container ship crawled out the harbour, half empty and barren. He could hear the engines opening, feel the ship taking deeper breaths as she got into her rhythm, bracing herself for the pounding ahead. Bay of Biscay maybe, then the Gibraltar Straights, or down the African coast, plunging her way across the Indian Ocean to take on spices and tea. Or off to the Philippines for a cargo of cheap clothes and plastic shoes. Nothing could stop her. No freezing seas, no mountainous waves. She would know she was invincible.
Hippy Saxophone Woman was giving-up for the night. Her saxophone under her arm, she climbed the stone stairs from the beach to the road and looked up at the window. Her twisty hair whipped around in the wind. Doug stepped back into the dark of the room. A few bars of his favourite song drifted up from the street. She’d first played the song for him when he was little and out on the beach alone searching for treasure. It was a song about a man buying some land and settling down but being a rolling stone and having to keep moving.
He could shout down, ask her if she knew where Mum was, but he didn’t.
She’d once let him play her saxophone. He thought he would make it sing, thought maybe he’d play in a band too. He’d taken a determined breath, filling his lungs with sea air, and blown hard. But the instrument sucked in all he had, then shrugged it back out again, in silence. Whatever the magic was, he didn’t have it.
Opaline trudged her way out the harbour, slow ahead, easing herself toward the channel. Doug opened the old lap-top with its greasy keyboard. The luminous nautical map appeared on the screen. The harbour walls were marked, the berths and the breakwaters. Out in the channel the ships had their own little shapes, glowing red and blue and green. Doug clicked on Opaline. Underway, using engine, five knots already, she’d be up to eighteen out in the channel. He scrolled Opaline’s manifest. Came in with animal product, out with machinery, mechanical appliances and transportation equipment. He picked up the binoculars. Zeiss seven-fifties, old faithfuls. They’d given Dad a new pair of Hawkes a few years back; he liked them, but they got lost. Mum and Dad argued about them, it was probably mum who lost them. She often lost things.
As a five-year-old, Doug had nestled between his mum and dad on the same sofa, spellbound by the green shapes on the screen. His mum and dad told stories about each ship emerging from the depths of the North Sea, arriving exhausted and relieved into port. The ships would begin as a dot on the screen, then, like magic, as running lights through the binoculars, then through the fret, as lumbering hulks, dragging themselves into harbour, just enough in the tired engines to get to a berth.
Back then, he remembered the binoculars as heavy and cold. When his parents went to The Mariners, they would leave him with the binoculars, so he could watch the ships. Mostly he watched for Mum and Dad coming home from the pub, arm in arm. He’d watch them with the binoculars the wrong way round so they seemed far away, in another time, wending their way back along the seafront together, laughing and kissing. He’d pretend to be asleep on the sofa. Dad would lift him and carry him to bed. Dad was one of the dockside cranes and Doug was a container filled up with rock band T-shirts from Malaysia. Dad would set him softly into bed and he’d lie with all the other containers, full of spices and toys and washing machines, ready to be hitched up to lorries and hauled off to London.
Sometimes, if Mum and Dad got back early from the pub, they’d all play the ‘round the world game’.
‘Out of Dover, or down from Hull,’ Dad would say. ‘Bilbao, Lisbon, Casablanca. Down the Western Sahara. Dakar maybe.’
‘You’d love Dakar,’ Mum said. ‘We’ll go one day.’
‘When?’ asked Doug, excited.
‘Head for Salvador or Rio,’ said Dad. ‘All foodstuff and livestock by then. Some leather maybe, skins, like the old days.’
Doug loved the old days, when his dad had been a young engineer. Doug knew the routes, the sea states and the wave heights; when to go up on deck to see the whales and the sunrise and when to stay down below, strapping into your bunk and waiting for the storms to pass. His dad told him about seeing the curve of the world and having to stare at your own hand to get your eyes back in focus again.
The day Doug turned twelve, Dad gave him his own laptop. Doug took control of the manifests, owning the little dots, plotting courses, studying laden weights and cargoes. A world of comings and goings. Evening views across the Indian Mutiny Memorial, past the Customs House and the Fishing Pier, waiting for the friendly ships to arrive out the gloom. A year later, Mum took the laptop to be fixed and like the binoculars, it got lost. His dad said, ‘You’re a man now.’ He didn’t feel like a man and didn’t know what being a man had to do with his lost laptop. When his mum would come home late at night, he liked to think she’d been out looking for his laptop, and the shouting was because she never found it.
He picked up the postcard from the table. The picture was of an Indian palace in 1934. He thought about where his mother might be and why she was there and why she only left a postcard with the word ‘Sorry’ scrawled quickly on the back and a single kiss. She was gone. And he didn’t know why, and he didn’t know where, and he couldn’t work out why an Indian palace in 1934.
‘She’ll send letters, all the places, pictures, how she’s doing, how she’s getting on,’ he’d said to his dad.
‘She was never one for home,’ his dad said firmly. ‘She’d arrive and be packing her bags again.’
His dad didn’t seem concerned about mum disappearing. Perhaps Dad was pleased the shouting would stop, and they could buy stuff for the flat that wouldn’t vanish.
The tide was on its way out and Doug was heading to the beach. Hippy Saxophone Woman was coming out of her basement flat. She asked how his mum was, said she hadn’t seen her for a while. He told her she was visiting a palace in India and would be back soon, even though his dad said she wasn’t coming back.
‘The sea’s a lonely place, but the land can be worse,’ she said. ‘You want a hot chocolate?’
They went back down the steps into her basement flat. It was crammed with a thousand things, chairs and pots and driftwood, flowers and feathers, cushions and pictures, and it was warm. She made him a creamy hot chocolate with sprinkles, opened a new packet of custard cream biscuits and put a jazz record on a record player. They listened to the music together and he drank his hot chocolate.
Later, when they left, she said he could always pop down for a chat. He said he would, but didn’t know if that was true. She gave him a wave and headed off down the road. He realised he didn’t know her name.
Doug thought about the sea being a lonely place, he didn’t think about his parents as lonely, he’d always thought they were perfect together. They found each other, across oceans and deserts. There were a million other people in the Port of Alexandria that night. A hundred ships coming up the Suez Canal and a hundred more slogging across the Mediterranean, with thousands of crew and passengers and stowaways. His mum met his dad in the midnight time that spanned two days, in the port that spanned two continents, and this meeting and their love gave birth to Doug. Mum would tell him this story and he’d feel like a young king, standing in the sunlight. Now he felt lonelier than it was possible to feel and live.
Actually, his mum was all about the places, the cities, the people, the food and the history, she was always full of the thrill of arriving. His dad was all about the empty spaces in-between. The journey, the sea. The waving goodbye and the leaving behind.
The day Doug knew this for certain, was his eighth birthday. They borrowed a little rowing boat as a treat. Mum had booked a table at the Italian restaurant because Doug liked the spaghetti and the man with the violin, and everything was perfect. His dad helped his mum into the little boat. His dad took long, strong, pulls on the oars. His mum had her happy, hazy eyes, the ones she had on those nights when everything was perfect. A waiter stood near the jetty, ready to catch the rope and secure the boat, he threw his cigarette into the water as they approached, but his dad kept hauling on the oars and they rowed past the jetty and out past the harbour wall. His mum was laughing, but his dad wasn’t. The waves were bigger in the open channel. Mum took Doug’s hand, and he knew there would be no spaghetti that night. His dad pulled on the oars, as though he wanted to rip the boat in two, and behind him Doug could see the horizon and the dark line of waves coming in. Doug wondered if his dad was rowing to France, and if they were going to Paris for his birthday. Then his dad stopped rowing. The little boat rose up on the evening swell then dropped down again. The boat was small, and the sea was big, and Doug was hungry. They sat in the little boat in the darkness with the sea and the silence. When he looked back, he could just make out the tiny row of lights in the houses up above the harbour, and he thought about the headless doll reaching out to them from its place at the window. When he turned back to the boat, his dad took his mother’s special cigarette tin out of his coat pocket and hurled it, spinning into the night. His mother wasn’t laughing anymore. At the time is seemed a mean thing to do.
Finally, his dad gave a couple of big pulls on one of the oars and the little boat span round. The sea was on their side now, pushing them toward land. His dad needed the sea’s help to get them back. The restaurant was shut by the time they got there. They had fish and chips instead and sat on the big rocks of the harbour wall. His dad looked out to sea even though it was dark, and Mum dipped her chips in Doug’s ketchup. He pretended not to let her, but he liked it really.
Doug looked at the laptop. Black Star was a dozen miles offshore. Out of Malta. She’d been in China. Articles of stone, marble, plaster and cement. Bricks mostly. Millions of Chinese bricks. Doug turned the postcard over between his fingers, like a magician, trying to change the word ‘Sorry’ into ‘Love you, see you soon, back in a few days’. He wanted his mum to appear, below in the street, striding along the pavement, with her little weekend suitcase and favourite scarf, waving up at the window, then bursting through the door with a model of the Eiffel Tower and some French chocolate, all smiles and kisses and happy eyes. When he looked back at the postcard it still just said, ‘Sorry.’ And the palace was stoic and silent. And his mother was still gone.
‘One word, one kiss,’ he’d said to his dad.
‘You want a poem?’ His dad said.
Mum would sing him sea shanties to get him to sleep, tell him stories of the silk trails and deserts, the jade and the amber. Tell him where all the spices came from, by river, then by rail, down to Gujarat, big hessian sacks hoisted into the holds of ships like Indian Queen, Al Muruba and Jacaranda. He’d watch her smelling the cinnamon, cardamon, and nutmeg, all pulling her towards Lahore or Chandigarh. Maybe that’s where she’d gone. Maybe he should go there and find her.
That night, when hippy saxophone lady came up from the beach with her saxophone, Doug was sitting on the steps to the flats. He was turning the postcard over and over in his hands.
She smiled at him. ‘Hey fine fella,’ she said.
‘I might go to India.’
‘What’s there that isn’t here?’
He handed her the postcard and told her about the mysterious Indian palace. She looked at the picture and read the back.
‘Surprised she could find her way to The Mariners never mind the Taj Mahal,’ she said. He’d always thought his mother could find her way anywhere, round the world and back again, but maybe none of that was true.
‘It doesn’t mean she doesn’t love you,’ she said.
‘What does it mean?’
‘It just means she can’t stay.’
Doug thought about having to leave even though the thing you wanted most was to be able to stay.
‘A last try.’ She held out the saxophone to him.
He took the shiny brass instrument; it was warm and heavy.
‘Don’t try too hard. Blow and let go,’ she said.
He filled his lungs again. Filled them with the ozone and diesel, filled them with the salt of the waves and the calling seagulls, and gave a last huge blow into the saxaphone. With the breath leaving his lungs, something else left too. This time, finally, he and the saxophone made the deep sound of a fog-horn echoing along the street, calling out to the harbour cranes and waking the ships asleep in their berths. People walking home, wrapped up against the chilly night, startled by the mournful call, stopped to look, smiling at the sight of the boy and the saxophone lady. He laughed with the effort, and she laughed to.
When he got back to the flat, Doug put the postcard in his beach-tin with the orange horse.
It was a Friday night so Dad was out on the drink. Doug stared at a single flashing dot on the laptop screen. It looked the same as the other dots that night, but it wasn’t. It was Pride of Rotterdam, his mum’s favourite ship, already out in the channel. He strained through the binoculars into the empty darkness. He leant out the window, the cold and the sea and the noise of the gulls came washing over him. He put down the binoculars but pretended he was still looking through them, pretended he could see Pride of Rotterdam, see his mother, there at the rail, at the stern, wearing her birthday scarf, tucked in, neat, with the prop going full tilt, watching the white water disappear into black. She would look up, and when she did, she would see the lights from the houses in a line along the coast. There would be a gap in the line, a house with the lights off. She’ll know that’s me, thought Doug, she knows I’m watching. Watching out from the dark house. Doug waved out through the window. She would be opening her engines, digging into the bigger waves, squaring her shoulders, ready to take on all the sea could throw at her. She’s waving. I know she’s waving. He waved out from the darkness of the house, reaching out towards the vast sea, waving goodbye, the wind in his face and the song of the saxophone in his chest. And the headless doll reached out too.
Tom Harvey lives in London. He’s a playwright, writer and screenwriter. Pride of Rotterdam was selected as a finalist in the London Independent Story Prize and Tom has had work published by Litro Magazine, Mercurious and The Wells Street Journal.