Hull Down in a Following Sea
I moved through the throngs of passengers now populating the corridors of the ship. Murmurs of “doctor” came from some of them, as they reacted to my surgical scrubs. I had removed my coat. The temperature maintained inside the vessel hallways was always high, probably to help passengers recover from the penetrating cold just outside. In my cabin, I threw off the scrubs and slipped into my bunk. Hours passed, but I needed no alarm clock to awaken me. The anchor chain did that job quite efficiently. Link by link the chain locker filled. Each was like the single beat of a bass drum in the cabin. I sighed and got up. While I had slept, a set of clothes had been delivered to my room. All of my things had been cleaned and pressed. I was astounded by the speed and quality of work.
‘Botany Bay’ stepped into my room, closing the door behind him. Once again I was caught naked. “Don’t you people ever knock?” I asked, throwing on underwear and my ironed shirt.
“Who’s everyone?” Don shot back. I finished dressing in silence, waiting for him to say whatever it was he had come to say. He examined my pressed trousers.
“Good work. They do good work down there. But they don’t usually work so fast.” He put the trousers into my outstretched hand. “But you impressed them. Filipe thinks you’re some sort of reincarnated Polynesian God.” I stopped and looked at him through the neck hole of my shirt, half on.
“What?” I asked, and then went on, “because of what happened on the island?”
Don shook his head.
“The scars,” he pointed at my now covered torso. The scars impressed the hell out of him. You can fake everything else, but you can’t fake those scars.”
“Oh great,” I said, more to myself than Don, trying to brush it off, “At least I’ll get clean clothes fast.”
Don held his stomach.
“And probably a hell of a lot more,” he followed. “The Germans up there run the ship, or so they think, but it’s really the Filipinos down in the bilge. Nothing happens without their approval and work.” He sat in my single chair as if he was going to stay awhile, so I closed the door. I waited. We sized up each other for half a minute.
“Who are you?” he insisted, his voice serious and quiet. I did not answer or change demeanor. I perched on the end of my unmade bunk. He continued amidst my silence. “Anthropologist? My ass. You make Indiana Jones look like a grade school geek. The scars, thousands of dollars in hundred dollar bills, Master SCUBA diver, medical training of some sort, but it isn’t really that stuff about you which is truly strange.” I just breathed in and out, waiting for him to finish. “No, it’s your movement to action. An action that I wish I could emulate. You saved that woman, damned near at the loss of your own life. You did it on automatic. You came to get me in a flash. Nobody else. Just you alone. And you had the situation taken care of. We were out of there in minutes. No normal human being, certainly no anthropology professor, could have pulled that off.”
He reached into one of his ‘botanist’ type vest pockets and took out a cigarette. “I don’t smoke,” he intoned sheepishly, carefully extracting a Bic, and then touching the flame to its tip. Then he sat, reticent, taking puff after compulsive puff, without regard to the carcinogenic damage he might be doing to me with his second-hand smoke. I voiced no complaint.
“Why do they call you Botany Bay?” I asked him finally, stalling. He smoked on, but I waited him out.
“Botany Bay is the bay that Captain Cook, who’s no kin of mine, sailed into years ago, along the coast of Australia.” I knew that but said nothing.
“I was ashore a few years back, leading a tour when some of the crew got off down the way from us. They butchered some wild game. I refused to board with my passengers until the captain made the crew return and bury the animals they’d killed. The name’s just stuck. And, who are you, once again, or, even better, what the hell are you?” I looked at Don and wondered about him. I had scanned his Agency background briefly before coming aboard. Once again I was surprised at just how little a comprehensive report revealed about the total reality of a person, even though there was always usable data. I was likely to get no more, as cell phone towers along the Bering Sea did not exist or were too distant for coverage and ship to shore radio was neither efficient or confidential.
“I’m the one that God sent to get you out of trouble.” I offered. Don reacted with attitude.
“No, if you’ll recall, the note said that you’d get me into trouble. And Fatima did not take place in 1916. It was 1917. You might have heard of Fatima, and even be a Catholic, but you don’t know much about the mythology of the religion.”
I made eye contact, failing to think of what to say. Finally, I said, “I’m just a guy, Don, like you, who’s been around the Horn a few times.” Don jerked his head, after finishing off his cigarette.
“I didn’t expect much of an answer,” he admitted, “but, will you do me a favor and tell me before the cruise is over?” I twitched a little, not meaning the physical gesture at all. “And thanks for saving my ass. What the hell do we do about the doctor?” I looked at him with no expression. “The real doctor, I mean.” “Well, c’mon, let’s go down there and find the carvings. You ought to at least get your money’s worth. The rest of us are working on this wreck because we need the tax-free money. Not you. Maybe you’ll just let me have the loot. Then we have to get up to the Lido deck and give the first of our daily talks.”
We left the room unlocked. Nobody locked cabin doors unless they had visitors, apparently, so I followed the custom.
“The money? Are you aboard for the money? Well, what about the fact that you work on this tub because you’re giving so much help to a young virgin, or formerly virgin, little girls?” This I said, conversationally, to the big man’s retreating back. He stopped in his tracks. I bumped right into his broad back, before braking myself.
“Leave her out of this. Besides, you’ve not come clean about Marlys. Or Yemaya, as you call her. But I saw the flame in her eye. I don’t really need to know what she said. You’re dead meat.”
Our conversation paused as Dutch entered the cabin. He was immediately accosted.
“We need the keys to the clinic,” Don demanded, his hand held out.
“Why?” Dutch asked, making no move.
“Because our Goddamned brain dead doctor stole those carvings and I got blamed. We want ‘em back!” Don’s pent up rage exploded. “I’ve never been accused of stealing anything in my life. I want those carvings. Gimme the Goddamned keys!” Dutch peered over at me, then reached into his pocket and took out a set of keys.
“The one with the red cross on it,” he murmured, and then tossed me the set.
The clinic was locked, but the doctor’s case sat right atop the small examination table. Don grabbed it, and pulled it open. “There!” he exclaimed. “Just like you said.” Carefully he removed the exquisitely carved figures, each of some Bering Sea animal. “He didn’t even bother to hide them,” he now gripped, lining them up on the table. To me, they looked like they were worth every bit of the four hundred, and change, I’d been forced to pay for them.
“He’s probably got dementia, not kleptomania,” I said.
“What are we going to do with them?” Don mused, touching first one, and then another, with the same loving caress I had seen the doctor use.
“Keep ’em, Don,” I stated, taking in the obvious care and affection he had for them. “Send them to your wife, your kids.” Don unveiled a huge smile.
“You’re giving them to me?” he gushed, scooping all of the figures into his great arms before he had finished the word ‘me.’ I followed Don to his cabin. I had a hard time keeping up, he moved so quickly.
“What’s the rush?” I asked when we reached the cabin. Don tucked all the carvings into his top bureau drawer. A young blond sat, with her back to the exterior bulkhead, under a porthole. With backlit hair she looked like an image of innocence. She did not speak or act surprised in any way. Don noticed me looking back at her.
“She’s Basque,” he informed me. They don’t talk much.” Then he rushed from the room, having grabbed a battered blue sport coat from a bulkhead hook. I glanced back at the girl as I closed the cabin door, reviewing the mystery of the remarkable Basque people, who had their own distinctive culture and language but didn’t talk much. She lent another mystery to a ship full of enigmas.
“Where the hell is the fire?” I screamed at Don’s back.
“The first mate, Borman,” he shot back over his shoulder, “is giving his talk right about now. Damn. He gets mad if the lecturers are not there to listen to him. You know, to stand behind him and support his sorry ass. He always mouths the same German nonsense, but that makes no difference. He’s a mean son-of-bitch to cross.”
We ran. I wanted to ask Don if our stand-in captain’s first name was Martin, which would fit aboard our ‘expedition ship from hell,’ but didn’t get the chance. We flew into the back of the Lido deck open area where I had spent my first night. I could see Marlys swabbing down the bar, while Captain Borman finished talking, to mild clapping by the assembled passengers. Marlys didn’t look at me. By default, I looked over at Borman. He bored right into me, with eyes of gray steel, and an expression that was, well, Teutonic.
“Great,” I bristled, “more potential problems aboard the “World Discoverer”.
Don walked up and took the microphone from Borman’s hand. The captain settled into the crowd between two middle-aged, and frumpy, female passengers. He smiled to each of them, in turn, when he sat. The smile of a cold predator among warm prey, I reflected to myself. Don spoke about the Tufted Puffins, which inhabited the cliff-face nests all about Little Diomede Island. He knew more about Tufted Puffins than I knew about the planet earth, or so it seemed. His audience was humbled and awed, as was I, and bored to death. They gave out more mild applause when he was done.
Don held the microphone out to me. I fondled it, and looked out at my audience. It was my turn. I began talking about two of my favorite subjects: the duplicity inherent in all cultural survival and the self-protective cultural reaction of tribal peoples. How, for example, they invented non-existent dances and meaningless music in order to entertain guileless tourists who paid them good money for such put-ons. I elaborated on how the announcer’s speech on the island had been a typical lead-in to such a performance of deceit. The announcer had stated, before anything else, that his one big shortcoming in life had been that he always told the truth. And that telling the truth so often had caused him so very much pain. And here he was, once again, telling the truth about the native culture of the small island people of Little Diomede.
The crowd had grown deadly silent as I finished speaking those words. But I did not truly notice the reaction until much later. I capped my short cultural lecture off with a bold conclusion. “Whenever a man or woman tells you that he or she has never lied, and that he or she is, right this minute, telling you the truth, you will be forewarned.” Not even mild applause followed my speech.
Instead, our temporary captain shot to his feet. His face was the color of a broken-open watermelon. He stood fully erect at the position of attention, then executed a military turn in front of his former prey, and literally stomped down the center aisle and was gone. Not until he was out of sight did the clapping, laughing and whistling begin. It was deafening. The crowd stood up.
“You are such a brave man,” a woman praised me from the front row. I thought of Uriah Heep as I scorned humility, happily handing the microphone, my instrument of truth, to Benito. Her glare was at least as fierce as the Captain’s. I retreated back into the small cluster of other lecturers as she began to talk. Don was next to me.
“Nice work, Arch Patton,” he said in a low whisper. “Our captain started his speech with how hard it had been for him to rise up through the ranks because of his truthfulness. How much that had cost him. You’ve made a friend for life. A dear friend.”