Goodman came out on deck and into the glaring light of another day.
The sky was a blue so deep that it deserved a better setting than it had, over a dead flat blue sea and the dead brown Somali coast to the right. The coast was terrible, an ochre brown-yellow that hurt the eyes. The previous evening, Goodman had spent an hour examining what he could see of it. Apart from a few dusty palm trees in the shade of a distant dune, there was not a trace of green.
Automatically, he turned and looked up at the tall black funnel. It, and the superstructure around it, was pockmarked with the heavy machine gun bullets with which the pirate speedboats had peppered the ship in the original attack, six days ago. The captain had, of course, stopped the ship at once, but not before a rocket-propelled grenade had struck just below the bridge, broken up without exploding and left a huge black smear on the white metal.
One of the pirates lolled against the rail, M16 rifle held casually across his waist. He was a new one, of the group that had come aboard yesterday. Goodman went to stand beside him. The pirate looked back at him but did not react. He had the dark golden-brown skin of the Horn of Africa, topped off by an untidy Afro. He was tallish and wiry, with a large round head on a very thin neck, and had teeth with gaps that thrust out between his lips. He wore a khaki uniform shirt and a pair of dingy grey knee-length shorts. He looked both stupid and harmless. Goodman was quite sure he was neither.
“Salam aleikum, brother,” he said to the pirate. The man looked back at him with his dull yellow gaze and then, reluctantly, nodded.
“What is your name, brother?” Goodman was not sure why he was asking this man anything. It was an opportunity to practise his Arabic, and that was all, he told himself. Surely this uneducated criminal was not worth talking to otherwise, he told himself, and even as he said it knew that he was lying.
The truth was something else. The truth was what kept him at the rail of the ship for hours now, peering at the awful dun coast, wondering what lay beyond those dunes, dreaming of lines of camels and robed men with jewelled scimitars bearing bales of precious stuff from distant lands. The truth was that he pined for Africa, and, even more, pined for an Africa that had gone forever; an Africa that might never have been. It was the reason he had gone to sea in the first place, and found a job on a shipping line that served the Red Sea and East Africa, the land of the lion and the wild desert sands.
“I’m a romantic,” he had told himself many times, and grinned bitterly. But he had remembered the awful desolation of small-town life and a desk-bound job, and then he had been content with being as romantic.
“Hassan,” said the pirate, and he was a part of that Africa too, a throwback to the caravans and the slave raids and the empires of the old kings of the deserts. He looked at Goodman with some surprise. “You speak Arabic.”
“Not well. I learned from a book.” Goodman waved a hand at the coast. “Are you from near here somewhere?”
“No, my clan’s village is some days’ journey away.” Hassan spoke politely enough, but his eyes never lost that watchful look, and even though he carried his M16 casually, his finger never left the trigger.
“I see.” A pirate speedboat was knifing through the shallow water between the coast and the ship, and Goodman watched it for a while. The speedboat handled beautifully, and the spray thrown up by it caught the sun and made a transient rainbow. The armed, khaki-clad figures in it did not turn around. “You came aboard last night, did you not?”
A nod, no more. The pirate’s eyes looked yellow and jaundiced, but they were sharp and alert.
“Do you know how much longer we will be here?”
A shrug. Goodman was growing conscious that the pirate was tensing up. Despite his thinness, he was strong. Goodman could see the muscles flexing behind the material of his shirt.
“Shukran. You stay well, brother,” he said, and walked away with his unasked questions: “Why did you take to this line of work? How much longer do you think you can do this? How are things in your village? What about your family? Do they wait for you to come home?” He wished he could go back and ask these, and more.
There was another pirate sitting across the top of the staircase leading down to the main deck. He made no move to get out of the way, just motioned irritably and vaguely with the barrel of his gun. Goodman did not understand whether he was expected to climb over the man’s legs or go back. He chose to go back. The last thing he needed now was to get shot. The captain had specifically warned everyone not to make any move that might even remotely be misconstrued.
He paused at the spot where he had crouched, six days ago, while pirate bullets had snapped by over his head. He had been convinced then that he was about to be shot. But the pirates had not killed anyone. Nobody had even been injured. But they were prisoners now, more so even than the convicts in some maximum security jail somewhere. Those convicts had more space.
The Ukrainian radio officer, Taranenko, was standing outside the radio room, his heavily tattooed upper body exposed to the sun despite the fact that it was turning him red. He was thick-necked and bullet-headed, with immense biceps that seemed as though they would burst out of his skin. Goodman and he were cautiously friendly. It was the only real relationship Goodman had formed on the voyage.
“Good morning, Oleg Osipovich,” said Goodman.
Taranenko grimaced. “What’s good about it?” he said. “I’d like to know how much longer we’ll be stuck here.”
“Nothing from the company?” The last radio message from the shipping company had come two days ago, the fourth of their captivity.
“Nothing.” Taranenko shrugged. “You know some of the ships these people seize, they spend months hereabouts before being released.”
“Months.” Goodman was stricken by the thought. “I don’t want to stay here for months.”
“You think I do?” Taranenko pointed down at the floor. “And what about the cargo, eh?”
“The cargo?” Goodman was surprised. “What about the cargo?”
“Nothing. But these pirates might just ask separate ransoms for the cargo and the ship. It’s grain, after all, and you know what that means hereabouts.”
“So we’d be stuck here for even longer while they make their negotiations.”
The Ukrainian nodded. “So we’d be stuck even longer while they make their negotiations.”
“Do you know how much they asked?”
“I heard twenty million dollars. The company will never pay that of course.”
“No...what about your family?”
Taranenko shrugged. “What can they do? Phone the company? I’m sure they’re doing all they can. But to the company the money’s probably more important than the ship.”
“So we stay here while they decide what to offer?”
“Right again. What about your family?”
“I don’t have any.” Not since he had cut himself off from them all, anyway, but he did not tell the radio officer that.
“Then you’re lucky,” said Taranenko.
Goodman left him standing there after a little more talk, and went up to the bridge. Normally he would have been forbidden entry there without permission, but these were not normal times. The crew were confined to a small part of the ship, and perforce every bit of that small part was utilised by everyone.
The captain was sitting in his chair, thoughtfully writing in a diary. He snapped it close when he saw Goodman and stared up at him. He was approaching retirement age, and it was rumoured that this was to have been his last voyage before superannuation. He had not bothered to shave for days, and his cheeks were thick with white stubble.
“Yes? What do you want?”
“Nothing, sir. I just came up here.”
Mumbling to himself, the captain opened his diary. Goodman walked past him, careful to keep to the after bulkhead, and stood at the open end of the bridge looking out at the brown coast. His fingers touched a couple of bullet holes in the wood. From this height, he could see much further, but there was no notable improvement in the prospect. The same dun low hills hid the same scraggly palms in their shadow. There were a few low huts in the middle distance. The pirate speedboat had vanished. There was another speedboat, tied up to the side of the ship, but from here he could see men both in it and standing on the deck.
For a moment he wondered if it would be possible to dive off the side at night and swim to the coast. He had been told, though, that these waters were full of sharks, and in any case his swimming was of the swimming-pool variety. And just supposing he made the coast, what was he supposed to do then? Hitch a ride on the nearest camel caravan to the notional capital, torn by civil war and contested by warlords, or go on north-west along the Nile to the great city of Cairo? He grinned to himself at the idea.
When he came down from the bridge he had to move aside to let a couple of pirates pass. One was his old friend Hassan, who didn’t even glance his way. The other man, who carried a satellite phone and a revolver at his hip, Goodman recognised. He had come aboard with the first wave of attackers, and had remained on ship ever since. He was shorter but much broader and darker than Hassan, looking more like a West African than like someone from the Horn. He had a short beard and wore a baseball cap and black wraparound sunglasses. Every time Goodman had seen him, he had been wearing the sunglasses, even at night. It made him look blind. The pirates went up to the bridge. Goodman was tempted to follow and try and hear what he could, but Hassan had taken up position at the top and was looking around in a not-very-friendly way, so Goodman went back to his cabin.
On the way he passed some of the crew sitting on the deck playing cards casually. They were Indians from the Southern states, dark, moustachioed, with incomprehensible polysyllabic speech whose accents leaked through to their careful stilted English. They ignored him. The Second Officer, balding and red-faced, was reading a novel with a woman in a bikini on the cover. He did not look up when Goodman passed, yearning suddenly to see a real woman, whether in a bikini or a dress or in nothing at all.
That night, the horse came. Goodman was lying in his bunk, sweating, and he heard the horse clearly. He got up and came on deck in singlet, shorts and slippers. The sky was cloudless, the moon nearly full and bright almost as the day. There was nobody to be seen anywhere. But he could still hear the horse, and then he could see it.
It came over the waves, galloping over the water as over the desert of its forebears, an Arabian horse, sleek, middle-statured, elegant as a gazelle, the same lion-brown as the trackless desert. It came over the waves and it came to him.
“You’re not real,” said Goodman, and touched it with his hand. It was a stallion, and he could touch it, he could feel the great muscles bunching under its skin. “You’re not real,” he told it. “You can’t be.” The Arabian just tossed its elegant narrow head.
It was brown all over, and beautiful, and it had a white crescent on its chest that he could see, for all the world like a horseshoe with the open end upwards. He traced the crescent with his finger, and the Arabian stood perfectly still and let him do it.
“Horseshoe?” Goodman murmured. “Is that your name?” He noticed the rich leather saddle and bridle chased with silver. “Strange,” he murmured to himself. “I never saw them before.”
“Will you take me away, Horseshoe?” he murmured to the horse. “Will you take me to the lands where the caravans pass, and the sheikhs pitch their tents, and the desert trembles to the lion’s roar?” The Arabian tossed its head.
“Let’s see,” said Goodman, and climbed on the horse’s back. Without surprise, he saw that he was dressed for riding, in boots and long Bedouin clothes. He had a jewelled curved dagger at his belt, and when he reached up he found he had a kaffiyeh on his head, its end wrapped round his face.
And so it was that Goodman galloped on the horse’s back across the ocean and beyond the dunes to where the desert sands shift and hide their secrets, where the camel caravans laden with precious bales move along ancient routes under the watchful avaricious eyes of cruel sheikhs, and the black-maned desert lions stalk their prey, where the old kings rule their desert cities and veiled slave girls sway to seductive music.
Once, just once, from very far away, he looked back and saw the ship, like a seed on the water, but it was something from another life and his memories of it were already growing dim. He did not turn to look at it again.
Copyright B Purkayastha 2012