My fingers wanted to type “Motley Crue” there, even after I’d told them not to.
Adrift was my attempt to write about modern-day peril on the high seas. The idea was that a small tourist boat would get lost in the Ionian, or maybe the Med, following a huge storm.
The passengers, a crude cross-section of British society, have to take command of the vessel without any navigation or seamanship skills after the captain – a chancer who cuts corners and maintains his boat on the cheap – suffers a fatal heart attack.
Things get a bit Lord of the Flies as cliques develop, alphas and betas emerge, blood gets spilled, wives are coveted, and food and water runs out. A huge tiger shark begins to stalk the boat, too. Maybe a giant squid, or a fucking sea serpent. Why not?
Sea monsters are about as plausible as a boat remaining lost in the Ionian Sea for any length of time, with rescue planes, GPS navigation, satellite distress signals and god knows what else on hand to help effect a rescue.
The scenario still intrigues me: the notion that our ideas of home, safety and civilisation are as thin as a pane of glass in your patio door. It only takes a moment of crisis to completely change the game, and nudge us towards a more primal state. Hey, for some, the difference is only a pint of lager or two.
I was inspired by my first two “big” foreign holidays which didn’t involve being a drunken dickhead with like-minded dickheads, taken when I was in my mid-20s.
I met some strange people. Probably I seemed like a strange person, to them.
I remember one girl on an overnight cruise ship to Egypt at our dinner table who made a face like a cat’s arsehole just about every time I opened my mouth. It turned out that the three couples assigned to our dinner table were Scottish, English and Irish. My opening line: “Hey, sounds like the start of a joke!”
Everyone laughed politely, except this girl, who made a face which stuck for the rest of the trip. It became horribly obvious that I’d done something to piss her off.
Being a sort-of good, nominally catholic boy at the time, I blamed myself. I thought: it’s my accent. It’s too rough. They don’t understand when I’m being ironic, or simply cracking a joke. My facial default mode isn’t “smile”. They call it “resting bitch face” these days. All of these factors can add up to an unfriendly picture.
The girl came over at the end of the trip and said: “I just want to say sorry to you. I spoke to my husband; I didn’t understand you were joking with the Scots-English-Irish thing.”
So, it wasn’t my fault, after all… she was a moron.
They’re out there, alright.
Separately, we had dinner with two other couples we met, one of whom were extremely well-to-do property developers, while the others were ordinary working folk from Inverness. It was like the Frost Report sketch with the Two Ronnies and John Cleese. I think we were in the middle. Well, possibly. I know my place, anyway. The upper class couple (they passed out business cards at the end of the night) were jaw-droppingly, casually rude about the Inverness woman’s appearance.
I wondered how the clear social stratification on show at the Thai restaurant could be altered by a simple piece of bad luck, or a moment of crisis. Other writers might imagine a wife-swapping party. It goes back to that primal thing again.
I sucked my teeth when I re-read the opening paragraphs, after a gap of more than 10 years. It’s something I was guilty of quite a lot at the time. In describing a woman, I’d start by outlining her body; and by “outlining her body”, I mean things I like about women’s bodies. Their breasts, their legs, their buttocks… possibly their eyes, if I was feeling magnanimous.
I’d probably read too many horror novels by sweaty, bulging-eyed British men in my youth and imbibed some of their prose style. I can’t even put this on the blog, I thought.
But when I read on, I realised my 27-year-old self knew what he was doing. I follow this blunt appraisal by describing the meathead who’s making the original description – a no-necked boor who quickly asserts himself, for all the wrong reasons, when crisis strikes. The type of man who has women categorised, ticked off and possibly even verbally abused without ever taking a look in the mirror himself. Note also his second name: Tamworth.
The description of human bodies as something you might see on a hook in a butcher’s is a very deliberate nod towards what is going to happen later, when matters of the flesh don’t relate so much to idle fancies in the Mediterranean sunshine as something you might actually eat, if you were more than a little peckish.
So, a tip of the hat to my younger self, there. Although for some, head-hopping is a writing no-no.
I received one of my rudest ever pieces of criticism from an agent when I sent the first three chapters off: “This dialogue is not believable at all. If you want to be published, you have to get that right. Can you imagine people saying this stuff in real life?”
Well, obviously, mate. That’s why I wrote it down.
But the final analysis must lie with the reader.
Perhaps I could re-set Adrift in the Tropics, somewhere remote in the Pacific – or any place on this planet where people could plausibly get lost at sea…
Out of all the Undead Books, Adrift is the only one with a premise that I could see making print. Whenever I lose heart, I always tell myself: worse books than this have been published. Much, much worse.
Anyway, here it is: chapter one. Anchors away! (Aweigh? Ole!)
- ALL ABOARD
Chas Tamworth could tell that she was British before he even heard her voice. That two-tone sunburn across her shoulders was a dead giveaway, something that marked out the UK holidaymaker from other white sun-seekers, almost an actual anthropological trope. Her exposed skin from the neck down was lobster red as she climbed on board, but the parts of her that peeked out from beneath the bikini top were fishbelly white.
She would’ve been a nice girl if it weren’t for the sunburn, Chas thought. Generously built. Plump. Big up top. Dimples in her cheeks and her stomach as she stepped onto the gangplank towards the boat. Unabashed about her squashy belly, which Chas liked a lot, without knowing why.
Chas turned to his wife Denise and whispered, without taking his eyes off the girl: “She’s well done, eh?”
Denise peered over the rim of her sunglasses. “To a crisp,” she said, without moving her lips.
Denise was draped over the best deckchair, her wire-frame body and tinted hair fully exposed to the early morning sun, a G n’ T in her hands and a novel face down on her lap. She watched the sunburned girl and another man clamber on board the boat, noting the folds in the girl’s exposed stomach as she bent over slightly to drop onto the deck. She seemed ill-at-ease with the gentle swaying of the boat. The man had a cute face but he was a bit stocky. He had on an eyesore of a T-shirt, a psychedelic jumble of horizontal stripes of varying breadth and shade. Denise grimaced. “His T-shirt doesn’t look well,” she said to Chas.
“It’s like a broken TV set,” Chas muttered. Chas – shaven-headed, brawny and hairy-chested – was sat on the second best deckchair, clad only in his bathing shorts and expensive little sandals. He was putting on his sun cream, forcing the last of the Factor Five out of a tube. The tube gasped as he released it. He smeared the cream over himself, squinting as he slipped off his Elvis sunglasses to rub around his eyes.
To the couple stepping onto the boat, Chas’ eyes were surprisingly small once the glasses were off. Sam Bannen, the man with the sunburned woman, thought the big fellow looked a bit piggish as he squinted into the morning sunlight and wrinkled his bulbous nose. Like a football hooligan. Definitely English. He must have a Union Jack beach towel lying around somewhere, Sam thought.
Sam’s wife Lia, the sunburned girl, took his hand as they moved uncertainly onto the deck off the gangplank. The boat was moored at the little harbour and the water was calm, but Lia didn’t quite like the way the world suddenly became unsteady both under her feet and in her line of vision. She had a horror of seasickness, drowning and fish. But she had not considered any of these things as being a possibility when Sam had urged her to go on the one-day cruise around the islands.
She glanced over the side into the sapphire waters, noting the barnacles and other creatures dotted down the length of the pier’s legs and the side of the hull. A tiny school of orange fish huddled around the structure, seemingly taking shelter in the shadow. Even by the side of the docks, it looked deep enough to drown in.
“There’s no chance of a storm or anything, is there?” she asked her husband.
“Actually, there is,” Sam grinned. “But it’s forecast for tomorrow.”
“Bloody hell. I thought there wasn’t going to be any rain at this resort?” Lia tugged her sarong, lifting it a little higher on her midriff. The material chafed her reddened skin and she suppressed an urge to scratch it. There were two other people on the deck already, and they were both looking at her. There was one bald guy with a bull neck; he looked like a rugby player or something, a big lump of a bloke. She had to squint to look at him; the sun glared off his smooth, sweat-beaded head, his scalp seemingly aflame. Beside him there was a skinny girl in a red one-piece bikini sipping a G n’ T.
Lia fancied a G n’ T. “Look, you must be able to get drinks,” she said to Sam. “Already.” She nodded at the couple on the deckchairs. They both nodded back. “I fancy one of those.”
“Looks like a G n’ T,” Sam said. “Bit early for a G n’ T, isn’t it? Even for you.”
They stopped the conversation as they approached the other couple, sitting down on two of the less privileged deckchairs set in the shade. “Morning,” Sam said. “Looks lovely out, eh?”
Chas had put his Elvis sunglasses back on. He smiled at Lia and Sam. “Blooming,” he said. “Another scorcher. By the way, I’m Chas. Pleased to meet you.” They shook hands.
Denise smiled, taking Sam’s proffered hand. She had a firm, dry grip, but she only took hold of his index and middle fingers, a child’s handshake.
“And I’m Denise,” Denise said, after a pause.
“The Firebird,” Amy Smart said, pulling her long blonde hair back into a ponytail. “Stupid name for a ship, don’t you think?”
Struan McPherson put his glasses on and squinted into the sunlight at the boat. There, on the side, was the black lettering etched out against the brilliant white hull. Beside the name was an abstract figure of a fiery phoenix, a sort of red arrow with a beak and orange flames undulating out from the back. From a certain angle it might have been a jellyfish.
“Not appropriate, you’re right. I suppose it’s got some kind of special meaning to the captain. Maybe he doesn’t realise that he’s mixing his metaphors slightly by applying an aeronautical name to a nautical vessel.” Struan’s Highland Scots accent ruffled the vowels, shuddered the consonants; these sounds continued to delight Amy, even after so many years.
“Do you think we should tell the skipper?” she grinned. “Ask him to change it? How about The Fiery Fish?” They were walking along the jetty, bypassing the other yachts and speedboats tied up in the little island harbour. It was still early but there was a lot of activity on board the vessels, ropes and lines rattling, sails sighing on the yacht, chatter as supplies were loaded aboard for that day’s tourist intake. Buoys dipped in and out of the water as the boats rocked gently. The dark-haired, tawny-skinned men untethering lines or loading boxes openly glared at Amy as she walked past them. A few smiled.
Struan didn’t mind this, or didn’t notice. “Perhaps we should wait until we get back to port. It could be a long swim home if he takes offence and decides to make us walk the plank.”
“Doesn’t look like there’s many on board,” Amy said. She could see a few heads bobbing about on the deck just past the gangplank. “I thought we were late. Do you think it’s normal to have just the six passengers?”
“Six is just fine,” Struan said. “It’s not that big a boat. I’m happy enough with the extra space, anyway. You remember all those French people we were squeezed up against the last time we took a boat trip? That was tres mauvais.”
“Get away!” Amy said. “They were fun. It would’ve been a boring trip without them. At least they were having a laugh.”
“Fun? They were rude. They only seemed fun to you because you couldn’t understand what they were saying.”
“They started singing Frere Jacques. That was fun. And I know what that meant. Well… I know how the tune goes, anyway.”
“Bof yourself.” They linked hands. He gave her a kiss as they went up to the gangplank.
“Ladies first,” she smiled, and motioned Struan to go forward.
“That’s the most ginger man I’ve ever seen,” Chas said. He hadn’t meant to say it so loud; Sam barked a short laugh, while Lia’s eyes bulged in astonishment. “Sorry, no offence if any of you are secretly ginger, but…”
“Hey, some of my best friends are ginger,” Sam tittered.
Struan was ginger. His hair was of a darker tint, more like stained wood or ancient terracotta pots unearthed after being buried for centuries. His goatee beard, though, was a few shades brighter, as carrot-red as his hair had been when he was a youngster. He was tall and rangy, and had the look and the three-quarter length shorts of a surfer or an animal rights protester. Then Chas saw who was following up the gangplank and his laughter died away. Tall and blonde, with tiny little shorts and a –
She looked right at him. “Hello!” she called out. “Top of the morning! Whew!” Amy strode past Struan and sat down in the empty deckchair in between Chas and Sam. “What a day!”
“It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?” Lia said, from the shade. She twirled her black hair girlishly around her fingers. “Couldn’t have picked a nicer day for a cruise.”
“Whereabouts is our captain?” Struan said, his Scots burr causing everyone’s head to snap up. “Is there anyone else on board?”
Sweaty sock off the starboard bow, Chas thought. He’s got a real live ‘See You Jimmy’ hat on, too. God almighty.
“Don’t know where he’s gone,” Sam said, standing up to shake hands with the newcomers. “He said he had to go pick up some supplies, or somesuch.
One hand settled on his paunch, Captain Jack Mills leaned back in his chair and drained off the last of the coffee. He sighed and placed the little cup back in its saucer on the table. From this moment forth, each and every single morning, things begin to get better. He smacked his lips.
Looking up from the cup, he could see the sombre eyes of Gregoris peering down at him from behind the café bar.
“Why do you always look so upset, Gregoris?” Captain Mills said. “You should be pleased to see me.”
“You are a regular source of business,” Gregoris said, in a gritty smoker’s voice, “every morning and every night too, Jack.”
“That I am,” Jack said. “I’m in this fine establishment just about every day, isn’t that true?”
“That’s true, Jack.”
“I’m the first face you see in the morning, and the last arse you kick out at night, wouldn’t you say that was so? I’m almost part of the furniture.”
“Yes, that is so.” Gregoris scratched his white beard. The hairs on his chin, like those on his head, were stiff and spiky like a cat’s whiskers. “What do you want, Jack?”
The Captain cleared his throat and leaned forward. You couldn’t tell how heavy he was when he was standing; six feet three in his socks and almost as broad again, he carried it well. But when the Englishman sat down, it was then you noticed the belly, stoked with liquor and rich food for all the years he’d been on the island. “I’ve got a proposal for you. It just so happens, there’s a vacancy on board my ship.”
Gregoris laughed. “You have many vacancies on your ship Jack. This much, we all know.” He picked up a broom and started sweeping the stone floor. He half-turned his back on the Captain while he worked on a corner.
It wasn’t that Gregoris didn’t like Jack. They had always been civil to one another each morning Jack came in, even after those nights when Jack had stayed till long after the English women had left and the music was switched off, and Gregoris and his brothers had to lift the seafarer’s head off the table and propel him out of the door and into a taxi. Their conversations had become part of the ritual of opening the café for the owner. And yet it was more than just familiarity borne out of habit. Gregoris couldn’t deny that he had a certain fondness for the man; he could burst with the most irrational optimism, that special quality common to all truly hopeless men. But Gregoris would make any excuse to make himself busy if the mornings with Jack dragged on a little and the other customers, regulars or otherwise, took too long to arrive. There was just something tragic about the man, Gregoris decided, something desperate.
“Well, business is picking up,” Jack said. “It so happens I’ve got a charter party today. A tour of the islands. Six good English people, Gregoris. Appearing at the dock, at nine o’clock. And I’m short of a mate.”
Gregoris stopped sweeping. “I see. I thought you had taken on some help?”
Jack made an impatient gesture. “That fool? He jumped ship to work for somebody else. He wasn’t quality, Gregoris. Quality’s hard to find. And you need quality out on the sea. I need a quality man. To do an easy job.”
Gregoris thrust his porcupine chin out, a gesture which always tickled Jack. He looked like an exasperated tortoise. “I told you after the last time, I’m not happy about Yannis going to sea with you. Not the way you carry on at nights. I’m sorry.”
“Ah, Gregoris,” Jack said, leaning back in the chair. “You think I drink on the job? Come on, what do you take me for?”
Gregoris said nothing.
“Look. I just need someone to pour the drinks and untie a few lines for me. It’s nothing difficult. And it’s not like we’re going to get rough seas.”
“This is not what the weather reports tell us.”
“Not till tomorrow, Gregoris. Plus it won’t be as severe as people are saying. I bet it won’t even blow the fluff off your prick.” Gregoris winced at this expression. “Besides. We’ll be back here by ten o’clock. With British airs and graces and the girls slapping our faces.”
“I don’t know.”
“I’ll pay him double whatever he’s getting in here.”
“Double!” Gregoris spluttered. “Who is your charter, Mr Prime Minister and The Queen?”
“Well, I did say it was good English people,” Captain Jack said, rubbing his thumb and fingers together and leering. “Ones who don’t argue. Ones who always think it’s a fair price. Yes? Come on. Yannis is a big boy now. And it’s cash in his pocket towards his trip to America. Let’s see if he fancies another trip on the ocean waves with his Uncle Jack. See if we can’t toughen him up a bit out there! What do you say?”
Gregoris sighed. “I might be able to spare him. But it all depends on him. I’ll call him and find out.”
“That’s more like it! For that, I’ll have another coffee. I’ll drink to our health.”
“To your health,” Gregoris said, feeling underneath the bar for his mobile phone.
Yannis killed the engine on his moped and put it on the kickstand. He could see Jack through the window of his father’s café, leaning back on his chair, his open mouth booming silent laughter. He wondered if Jack had been drinking already; wondered if the big man would be sneaking sips from the bottles he kept in the wheelhouse beside the First Aid kit during the voyage. Yannis had done the sums and he would be mad not to take the trip out on the boat with the old man. Today was his day off and he would have been happier in bed, but the offer was too good to miss. One thing he could say for Captain Jack; the old man was quick enough with his money. Too quick for his own good, maybe, but it was cash towards next year. This was all-important.
He took off his helmet and ran a hand through his thick, curly black hair. Hateful hair; every night he would try his best to flatten and straighten, to tickle and tease it into submission with gel, mousse, even his sister’s spray which made him smell like a pansy. But by midnight, like in the fairytale, it would have unravelled back to its wild, untamed foliage. Some women loved to run their hands through the hair as he served them at the taverna; some were even sober enough to look disgusted when their hands came away covered in the translucent soup he had covered his head with.
Chantelle-Grace had not looked disgusted, though. And she had run her hands through his hair a lot. Chantelle-Grace, who he would be meeting outside the Metro Bar tonight. Alone, she had said; meaning without the squawking friends who had got in Yannis’ way the past couple of nights they had gone out together. There would be plenty of time for him to go home again after the voyage was over for the night, to get cleaned up and put on his good clothes. Chantelle. He mouthed the word to himself without realising it, this tall, handsome young man of nineteen, as he went across the square to the café to meet Captain Jack.
“Thank Christ for that, there he is,” said Chas. The others on the boat looked to the gangplank. There was a tall, heavily-built man lumbering towards them, dressed in khaki shorts and a white short-sleeved shirt with buttons missing. He wore a battered-looking cap, with strands of greying hair sticking out from beneath. There was something of an old military colonel in him, Chas thought, or maybe an ex-copper. Something in the posture, his movements precise for such a big man. Definitely a uniform guy; he decided he would chin the skipper about it later on when things got quiet.
The captain had huge hands, and the boat swayed noticeably as he pulled himself aboard. He looks like he could’ve been a bit of a boy in his youth, Sam thought to himself. Looks handy. He noticed Lia grimacing as the vessel swayed a little; her hands strayed to the seat of her deckchair and she gripped it, hard. Perhaps reading his thoughts, Lia smiled at him. “I know. If we sink, that won’t help.”
“It’s the same on a crashing plane, too. Not very effective. Unless there’s a lifeboat under there.”
“Oh, shut up.”
“Gritting your teeth can work wonders though.”
“Good morning shipmates!” Captain Jack boomed, presenting himself on deck with a quick salute. “Sorry to have to abandon ship briefly, I was forced into press-ganging this young fellow on board for today’s trip.” He indicated Yannis, who nodded and smiled with his eyes downcast as he followed the captain along the gangplank. Denise looked up, her eyes peering over the rim of her sunglasses. Tasty, she thought. And only a little fellow.
“Now I’ve already met some of you,” – here the Captain nodded to Chas and Denise – “but presently I hope to make everyone’s acquaintance before we set sail for the islands. As you can see, it’s a lovely morning, and conditions are perfect for our voyage today.
“I’m Captain Jack, and I’m in charge of the good ship Firebird. My first mate Lieutenant Yannis is here to assist me, and he’ll be happy to serve you all refreshments at the bar just inside the main cabin. Please feel free to call us ‘sir’ and salute, but this is not an essential on board for today.
“Now before we prepare to cast off, a few safety notices. If, at any point during the trip you should feel seasick, no problem – give me a holler and I’ll be happy to stop the boat, and you can get out for a little walk until you feel better.
“In the event of the boat sinking, you will find lifejackets in the marked cabinets fore and aft. Unfortunately, the emergency helicopter is in for repairs, so lifejackets will need to do if you should go into the briny.
“We set sail at…” he peered at his watch, “ooooh, whenever I feel like it, so in the meantime sit back, make yourselves comfortable, and prepare for a trip into the deep.” There was a smattering of embarrassed applause, started by Sam and Lia. The Captain doffed his cap smartly, then unlocked the wheelhouse at the bow before disappearing inside.
Struan’s gaze followed the captain as he passed through the door, then arched an eyebrow as he spotted a loudhailer system bolted to the wall. “I bet you this guy’s a frustrated comedian,” he said, indicating the speaker. “He’ll be talking to us on that thing all day.”
“What thing?” Denise said. Suddenly, there was a sharp whine as the loudspeaker shrieked into life.
“Apologies ladies and gentlemen, just checking to see if you’re all awake!” Jack’s voice boomed forth. The group burst out laughing.
Yannis began untying the boat from the jetty, fumbling some of the ropes, worrying that he hadn’t got them all. He could see the whole dock collapse in the wake of the Firebird, trailing along behind the boat out to sea. Another part of him was rejoicing at the vision that was the tall English girl with the ponytail, forgetting for the moment all about his Chantelle. It would be a pleasure to serve, he thought.
The holidaymakers chattered away among themselves, pitching in the odd comment to each other about the weather, the apartments they were staying at, all the restaurants and bars they hadn’t enjoyed. The final checks were completed, and then the engines roared into life. Foam surged up from the propellers at the stern; soon the boat began to pilot away from the jetty. At first the motion was so slow, Lia began to wonder if they were moving at all; then she realised that the dock was angling away from the boat. She had a slight moment of disorientation, then a sense of the universe being out of sync, the horizon pulling away from the foreground; then the engines roared again and the boat leapt through the dock and out to sea. Even Denise cheered as the wind caressed their heads and tossed their hair.
Lia stared at the water hissing against the side of the boat, white foam creeping over the deep blue in stark, probing fingers. “This isn’t bad, this!” she cried.