Just after dawn, J. stood on the deck of the ferry as it moved slowly along the coast towards the port. Leaning on the railings, she looked down towards the dark waters below and then across to the shore, to the oil refineries and gasometers, the bursts of flame against the dull sky and the cranes swinging above wide expanses of cracked concrete. Somewhere, to the north and the south, were the resort towns with their arcades and fish restaurants, rented beach chairs and old ballrooms where the wooden floors and velvet-cushioned chairs had long been worn raw, but here, either side of the port, the coastline was devoted to industries whose days were surely numbered.
‘It’s quite the welcome home, isn’t it,’ a man said, from behind her. She could smell his cigarette smoke. Gulls hovered. A solitary cormorant flew alongside the ferry for a moment, wings beating down just above the surface, until it was out of sight. The man tried again. Something about a seal. But J. refused to engage. A second or so later, a cigarette end spun high over her shoulder, spitting sparks, to be extinguished in the wake of the ship. She heard him walk away.
The night before, she had sat in the ferry bar with a beer and a book. The crossing was smooth, and she had enjoyed the gentle roll of the ferry beneath and around her as she read. The bar was quiet. Families playing cards. A pair of couples, sharing a bottle of wine. Even the group of lads sat at the next table seemed subdued. J. spoke to one of them at the bar when she was getting a second drink. They were on their way home from a stag party. Glassy eyed. Dry skin. Three-day beards. No energy for anything except to finally get home.
‘So where are you from?’ he had asked her, although she could tell he was going through the motions. His mates would be able to see him from where they were sitting. They would expect him to try. But it was clear his heart wasn’t in it and so she replied, although it wasn’t an easy question to answer. The name she gave him was the place that she lived, the city she had moved to a decade before. The city she had left that morning, to drive to the ferry.
‘And you like it? Living there?’
She told him she did. She agreed that it was a hard language to learn, but that she had got there in the end. She enjoyed her job. She liked her apartment. She thought she had a better quality of life than if she had stayed in the place that she still called home, if only out of habit than any real conviction.
‘I dunno,’ he said, rubbing his stubbled cheek with his fingers. ‘I’ve got friends like that. Different places but, you know, similar. I always reckon that it sounds great for now… but what do you want to do in the long run? Can you really imagine growing old in a country that isn’t yours?’
He walked back to his mates, carrying a beer for each of them. They barely looked up when he rejoined them at the table. None of them turned in her direction. She went back to her seat and her book.
From the deck, she watched as industry gave way to suburbia as the port approached. Streets of low-slung houses and big, boxy supermarkets. New developments on the waterfront. A medium-rise tower block. A glass hotel. She followed the other passengers down into the bowels of the boat when the call came over the tannoy. Into her car to follow the waved instructions. A queue to disembark. A queue to show passports. A queue at the roundabout.
She drove out through the town along early morning streets. Sunshine was breaking through now, low above the horizon from where the ferry had come in the darkness of the night. She followed the coast road north, as it moved between tall fences topped with barbed wire and then churned fields, recently harvested. At a pull-in on the edge of a small seaside town she stopped at a food truck selling hot tea and coffee, sipping her scalding drink beside her car as she looked out across the dunes towards a narrow strip of beach and the sea beyond.
The truck had two flags flying from it, one at the front, one at the back. Both the same.
As she continued her drive she noticed more. One in the front garden of a neat detached house, the flagpole a brilliant white above a deep green lawn. Another, hanging from the window of a flat above a row of shops. She thought about the flags as she drove on, thought about the man in the bar the night before. Thought about home. And then she was there.
She parked by the harbour and walked down along the sea wall. Looking out towards the horizon, she could see her ferry, already making its way back from where it came. Apart from a fisherman at the very end of the wall, she was alone. She pulled out her phone and searched out the name.
‘I’m here,’ she said. He told her he was on his way. That he was sorry, but he had overslept. It didn’t matter. He was hands free, he continued. They could carry on talking. Get the awkward bit out of the way before we see each other, he joked, but they both silently thought he had a point. She asked him if he had seen any flags this morning.
‘There was one just outside the village,’ he said. He couldn’t remember when the farmer had started flying it, but it was so big that it had got people talking. ‘The woman at the bakers reckons he stole it from an Olympic medal ceremony.’
J. asked him if he could remember there being so many when they were kids.
‘Not really. Maybe when the football was on.’
‘But there’s no football at the moment, right?’
He didn’t answer. He was nearly there. She knew it was his car the moment it turned into sight. He’d stopped talking. He was concentrated. Looking for her. It had been a long time. A lot had changed. The line was still open when he pulled into the car park, her phone still pressed to her cheek. As he cut the engine she hung up, dropping her phone into her pocket. Hands free. As he opened the door to climb out, she started to walk back down the sea wall, chasing the long shadow that was sure to reach him before she did.
Words: Paul Scraton
Picture: Katrin Schönig