Sunday, 16 January 2011

My Life and the Sea: chapter 1

Yesterday I started another story, this time a short novella. I don’t really intend to finish it, but I’ll try to post a few more chapters over the next week or so.

Chapter 1. My Debut

I was born on the sea, in the teeth of a storm. That’s where all the trouble started, at least that’s what my mother used to say. She was a fierce stern-faced woman who read a lot of books and grew the hair in her armpits and never owned a bra in all her life. One night she was riding the ferry back to the island – she’d been at another meeting on the mainland, plotting to bring down the System – when a storm blew in, one of those wild ones that swell the sea and send the boat pitching so hard that the side railing looms beneath you like the edge of a cliff, and you know at any moment you could slip directly from your seat into the abyss. When I call it a ferry, you mustn’t think of one of these newer types, a luxury vessel with padded seats and a roof and glass windows – no fancy catamaran for my mother. Instead you must picture a charming, cheerful old rustbucket named Paluma, painted orange once upon a time but now the colour of old nails, cruising at eight knots while the six or seven passengers perch on plastic chairs bolted to the deck, with nothing between them and the wrath of God but a single low handrail and a strip of canvas overhead for shade. That was the noble vessel that pitched so wildly on the waves that night, while the captain wrestled with the wheel and the passengers clung to their seats for dear life, looking out with horror at the great black rolling hills each time the lightning lit the sea as bright as day.

Then halfway to the island, my mother went down on the floor and gave a startled cry that you could hear even above the howling tempest, and that was when I made my grand debut, slipping out onto the wet wooden planks, the warm amniotic fluids mingling with the cold white spray of the sea that swept the deck. Thank God for umbilical cords or I would have shot overboard in an instant, but as the ferry pitched me towards the starboard railing my mother caught me midair, clutching my slippery little self under one arm the way Americans hold the football as they’re running flat-out down the field. Then she put me on the breast and wrapped her knees around the chair legs, securing us both to the deck. That is how we made our safe passage home to the island, my white-faced mother sliding wetly side to side across the deck, the other passengers crossing themselves and vomiting and looking on in disbelief, the captain’s one good eye wild with panic, and me grinning from ear to ear, happy as a lark, slurping my mother’s milk and farting blissfully and looking up at her with my black adoring eyes, watching in joy and wonder as each new crash of lightning lit her face up like a beacon on a dark sea.

I was never baptised in a Christian church, and some have blamed my later troubles, my crimes and triumphs, on that omission. But what need had I for a second baptism? I, who was christened the hour of my birth not by any priest or by the rites of younger gods, but by gods or devils more ancient than earth and sky. And not by some paltry liturgic sprinkling, bland and saltless, but by the full-faced salty spray of the boundless deep. It was the baptism of the sea that washed my mother’s blood from off my face before I’d ever drawn a breath.

So it was that, when the ferry docked at the grey and barnacled Magnetic Island jetty, my mother wiped the seaweed from my brow, cursed me under her breath, and named me Dylan Jackson Jones.

Why she invoked the name of Jackson, after my father, that mongrel dog (as she often said) who’d knocked her up then run off back to Lismore, well, that’s another story. But I received the holy name of Dylan because of an American folksinger whose records my mother knew by heart (the Voice of the People, she used to call him), and because someone once told her that the word meant sea, and she reckoned a name like that was just the thing for a little bastard born as I was, in the maternity ward of the Magnetic Island Ferry during a storm at night at sea.

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