Archive for short fiction
Four bells sounded. The dead of the night, the moon obscured by clouds, the bearing light lost. The only sound the distant crashing of waves. “Do you make that headland off the port bow” yelled the First Mate, on duty now for over half an hour since the captain had retired to his bed and probably his bottle of Jamieson’s.
“ I make it to be the lee side of Goats Island” replied Burke though he wasn’t altogether sure.
“but the surf is off to the starboard and it is getting louder. I thinks we should be calling the captain”. The first mate, Thompson, sailing out of Corktown but really an Irish boy trying to make good in the new Australia, had a vision of the skipper, half in his cups being told they were lost. He did not fancy that trip down the stairs. He thought of Nate the cabin boy. The captain had a certain fondness for him and would not be abrasive should he be woken from a drunken slumber.
The ship shuddered as it slid up/down a wave/ swell and all of a sudden Thompson and Burke entertained similar doubts. They were not where they thought they were, off the coast of South Sealand, heading through Observation strait for Newcastle. The ironic thought went through Thompson’s mind. Bringing coals to Newcastle, for indeed they had a cargo of coal, mined from the plains of Pirie
“Nate, get the hell below and tell the captain to come to the bridge IMMEDIATELY “’.
Nate rushed for the companionway but not before the clouds temporarily let the moon through to light up the unmistakeable headland of Hippo Head and all on deck knew they were on the wrong side of the Strait and in notoriously foul ground.
The captain materialised on deck and he immediately saw what his deck crew had observed,
“hard a port, full steam ahead, hard port, hard port” he screamed as the unmistakable sound of keel hitting sand bought the vessel to a dramatic and shuddering stop.
“full steam ahead” he ordered, but it was too late. The vessel was grounded and the whining of the screws only emphasised they were going nowhere.
“shit, shit , shit” the captain manically chanted, seeing his future unravelling before his whisky reddened eyes.
Ten months previous things had looked different. As the new first mate, Thomson had signed on to the coal merchant after being told the captain was the best skipper on the coast. The first weeks were an affirmation of that but slowly, inextricably, things began to unravel. A wharf collision, a collision with another steamer on Sydney harbour (although officially not the Captains fault he had been absent from the bridge and Thompson had to lie at the official enquire), a late passage, a minor navigation error which Thompson put down to Jamieson’s, then the tempers tantrums. Too often he and Burke were on the receiving end of long tirades about the company, his wife (never met) the crappy navigation aids, the state of the vessel. These all added up to both of them tiptoeing around the skipper, especially when he had been drinking.
“the court calls Captain Thaddeus Simpcock.”
A desolate Simpcock shuffled into the dock, his captain’s hat under his right arm, his uniform somewhat threadbare, his demeanour belligerent.
“ Captain Simpcock. You have been charged and found guilty of dereliction of duty that on the night of November 2, year of 1913, you failed to take proper care when navigating dangerous waters. Furthermore you were found to be in no condition to be in command of a vessel and its crew by way of gross intoxication. This court finds that you are guilty of these offences and summarily orders you to submit your masters ticket and prohibits you from applying for any reinstatement of said ticket. Furthermore this court notes a series of incidents relating to you command recommends that you seriously consider seeking professional counsel for your obvious alcohol addiction. Have you anything to say Captain?”
The Captain mumbled something which was unheard by most of those in court but Thompson and Burke recognised the usual tone of injustices, double dealings, and other self serving gibberish that they were well used to.
Many years ago I watched and enjoyed a film called “breaking away” a coming of age film that garnered much praise. It essentially told the story of a group of high school grads who have now to make the decision of what to do with their lives. The central character is a talented push bike racer and loves everything Italian, a theme which is developed in multiple ways throughout the film. The highlight for him is the Italian racing team are coming to town and he has an opportunity to train with them. His adoration of Italianissa comes to a rapid end when he discovers they are a bunch of cheats and don’t like being bettered by an American, resorting to deliberately crippling his bike. Thus probably incubated my love of Italian cars, engines appliances, films, clothes, and eventually the people and the country. My father also saw service in North Africa and Italy and the few 5imes he talked of his experiences he made it sound an exotic place
Such are my feelings as we prepare to leave Bari which I have renamed Barriera. Barriera used to be the place where people left Italy to travel to Greece, and other parts. It has since partially reinvented itself through the historic centre as a tourist stop but has to go a long way to succeed in that. To attract tourists you have to appear to like them while fleecing them, but here you are treated like a piece of dog shit. Yesterday while trying unsuccessfully to find the beach we took lunch at a Ristorante. For some inexplicable reason they couldn’t fill my order, Alisons meal was not the meal she ordered, the couple sitting next to us were still waiting for their food a half hour after ordering and, two tables over, a meal not ordered was plonked in front of a customer who complained only to be ignored. She are it anyway figuring, I guess , that it was better than going hungry.
Later, at he gelatoria, I carefully explained, in Italian, what I wanted. Two cones, one with peach, one with melon, without the biscuit. And the small version. What I got was two cones half and half peach and melon, with a biscuit , at piccolo price but of giant proportions.
Then we sit down on a quiet bench at the centre of three intersections governed by traffic lights. For the next hour or so horns are sounded for each light change. Drivers are so impatient that if you don’t take off a microsecound ater the light changes you are treated like the road version of a leper. And I have yet to work out the rules for pedestrian crossings. You take you life into your hands stepping out onto one. No one will stop and I have nearly been struck down several times. Oh well. Gives me an opportunity to practice my Italian expletives and hand gestures.
And just why are three heavily armed military personnel and a aggressive humvee type vehicle doing in the middle of s peaceful park? Oh yes a group of arab chanting youth have just walked by. There IS a war on you know. ( I later see that they are part of a project on public safety) Yes Barriera is like the italian bicycle team. Loud, busy, rude, exploitive, part of the 21 century yet firmly embedded in it. I question my own attitudes to tourism. Just what do the endless buses, boats and trains offer the tourist?
The distant thunder rumbles and the military retreat to their vehicles with gelatos. The piazza quickly empties.
At the end of “ Breaking Away” the protagonist meets a French exchange student, who mentions the Tour de France and our hero starts thinking those thoughts of bikes and yellow jerseys. Ahh!! The innocence of pre Lance Armstrong 1970s.
They cruise slowly down via JFK in their black Alfa Romeo Guiletta with a bold red stripe along both sides. Black Ray Bans, arms slouched outside lowered windows, caps pulled down to cover their eyes. The carbineri. Apparently a national joke. I say ciao and the nearest one smiles and answers me with the appropriate reply. I had asked one of them at a railway station where to validate my ticket and found him to be polite and helpful and skilled with English despite being accompanied by two machine gun wielding military types.
I have been for my first swim in The Adriatic sea ( I wont count dipping my toes in a canal in Venice. Water temperature at 24C and despite all the dire warning signs did not have to pay anything. I thi k the season has ended and the summer scam of extorting € off swimmers and sunbathers is over. A few souls were in the water but mostly people packing up deckchairs and tearn g down aquatic structures. Intend to repeat this as much as I can. Brings to mind memories of Salvo Montalbano going for a swim early morning. I want to do the Ionian and Mediterranean seas before my trip is over.
I have noticed the Italians fascination with dogs. They walk them morning and night and seem enchanted by them. Various opinionated writers have said they treat them cruelly, leave them outside, abandon them on a whimsy, whereas others say they are part of the family. I tend to favour the latter. They ride on their owners bikes or scooters and even handbags.
In smaller places such as Pescara it is much harder to be understood , even in Italian. I have found the two local butchers by far the worst. They don’t understand 500gms and quantities of sausages and we have to resort to finger counting even when I have said “otto” and after counting off eight fingers they utter “ahhh otto”. We also had difficulty in a chemist shop trying to purchase some paracetemol. I didn’t have the Italian word for it but saw a package with Paracetemolo on it and pointed. I think the lady behind the counter had no professional qualifications as another chemist shop person knew exactly what we wanted. Twice the price.
I have taken to reading Italian papers when I can. Note that the cruise ship wrecking a marina and sinking a number of boats and doing €250,000 worth of damage didn’t seem to make it into the NZ news obsessed with Auckland house prices and Labours fall in the polls. However, Italy didn’t seem to notice that Hilary Clinton has pneumonia but a strange case of a 67 old man being let off a charge of masturbating in public has led to Italy saying masturbating in public is OK as long as its not in view of a minor. Go figure.
Pescara is a small town/city that is the result of two fishing villages joining together. It’s a curious mix of the old and new. The main piazza is very Americanized and restaurants (for the first time in my Italian travels) offer Eggs Benedict, waffles, qnd muesli rather than the ubiquitous pastry. We have an upstairs apartment in a long cul de sac and are really enjoying the street life. Short walk to the beach and to the local shops and about 15 minutes to the railway station as we start our journey further south and to the other coast. Our next stop host will not be there when we arrive but his non English speaking father is to pick us up at the station. Should be interesting.
A Day in the Life
“woke up got out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head
Made my way downstairs”
Felt like a Beatles kind of morning. All our devices are on different time zones either because they are useless at knowing where they are (Kindle) or we are too lazy to update them (Samsung Tablet) My own personal body clock has always been extremely accurate although with advanced age it tends to be a little premature. I had set to for 5.30 but when I awoke I glanced at the Samsung and it said 3.05. Oh well back to sleep for a couple of hours as we had to catch a velopocello at 6.05 to catch the train to Mestre then the Flixbus to Pescara (our next destination, a 6 hour bus drive away in Abruzzi, Italy. I jerked awake an hour later and glanced at the clock 4.10. Alison slung her arm out nearly breaking my nose and yelled at me to go back to bloody sleep weareearlyfortgeferryanywayyouareabundlofnerves. But there was something not quite right. It was light outside and Italian dawn and dusk are roughly akin to whats happening in NZ at the moment. Then I consulted my huawei which is on trusted Italian time . 6.10. Shit the ferry left 5 minutes age. We have perfected packing and in 5 minutes we were downstairs, hair combed and ready for a day in the life.
Venus is particularly beautiful early morning and nighttime when you cant spot the decay, the tourists havent descended or have eloped. The soft light and splashes of the rising sun show you what a beautiful city it must have been. I am not sad to leave but wonder what will happen to her with a falling base, rising sea levels, a failed engineering project to stop the water rising and over tourism.
Managed to avoid the train inspector as we had failed to validate our tickets (subject to a €100 fine and then bloody Alison draws his attention by asking if this is the Mestre stop. I could have left her in an Italian prison)
I have been increasingly mistaken for an Italian with people asking for directions, German men wanting something and shop keepers speaking on rapid fire Italian which I cant follow whereas they slways talk English to Alison. This beautiful young Italian lady pulls up on a Harley and softly nudges my leg whilst parking. To my horror she apologies in fluent English and we then proceed to discuss the merits of American vs English iron. Go figure.
The bus ride to Pescara is long but uneventful apart from the driver who spends most of his time on his cell, gesticulating as Italians do and straying onto the next lane. Italian autobahns are great but the lanes are very narrow and the roads are dominated by trucks. Also all the trucks have little speed signs on the back 50, 80 , 100 kph and I wondered what they mean. The interweb has a host of explanations but basically the Italian government has made ot law a d it means nothing . The Flexibus company are great and my best discovery. For a reasonable price they transport you at literally the push of a finger. All bookings are online, a electronic ticket is emailed to you and you just show your smartphone, scan the barcode and you are off. They send a reminder the morning of your departure and any route info you m8ght need and then a follow up questionnaire afterwards. IT IS ILLEGAL TO USE CELLPHONES WHILE DRIVING AND INFRINGEMENTS ARE LIABLE FOR A SMALL FINE. What was even more disconcerting was the blatant disregards for red lights, roundabout rules, unless of course you are a lovely senorita where the brakes are suddenly applied , accompanied by inappropriate hand gestures and a huge smile. Ahhh ! Italy.
Pescara is seaside city famous for its beaches. It is common for an Italian family from Rome or nearby to decamp for the summer with pappa continuing to work and visit for the weekend. There is a delightful description of this culture in Tim Parks – An Italian Education (look it up on Google as he does a much better job of explaining it all than I could do justice to.) Imagine my horror when I wandered down to the beach, about 5 minutes from our apartment, to find miles and miles of beach umbrellas , 10 – 20 deep , which you rent out for up to €20-100 A day depending on the season. There are free beaches where fay pasty English and German tourists fry themselves in towels but the guides warn that the sand is dirty, beggars and thieves abound, and you are really not getting into the spirit of things. Its supposed to rain today so I might just sot in my briefs on the balcony and listen to the soccer blaring out from tv sets along the street. Cooked a pretty fair meal last night. Chicken pamiggia, a insalata miso, and proved that Italian potatoes can be nice. Washed down with some Multipeaciano.
I also found an old style barber up the street who uses a cutthroat razor so I am looking for an Italian haircut and shave on Monday. Expect a substantial new look.