Monday, February 16, 2009


The docks are lit up with arcs of hard white light. Two great LPG containers stand side by side, laddered and banded with steel hoops, vents of steam drifting upwards from their sides like stubby little rockets on a launch pad. A ship stands at the quayside, chaotic squares and jabs of light along its bulk. The dock looks busy, but there’s no one about and nothing moving apart from a radar arm turning, a flag flapping, steam rising.
The flat we want is in a block overlooking the docks.
‘Great view,’ says Frank, blowing his nose whilst I ring the buzzer.
‘Yeah,’ I say. I know he’ll think I’m being sarcastic, too, but I wouldn’t mind living opposite the docks. I’d sit at the window for hours, watching the timber being unloaded, or a sailor smoking against a rail. At least I think I would.
A young woman skips down the concrete steps into the hallway and opens the door.
‘Hi,’ she says. Her demeanour hangs from her like her dress: bright, but fading after repeated use. ‘He’s upstairs.’
We follow her up two flights and into a flat that smells of dog and toast and sickness. There are two huge metal dishes on the sticky floor of the galley kitchen, both of them the size of mixing bowls.
‘However big are your dogs?’
‘They’re well behaved. They haven’t made a sound.’
‘They don’t bark. The worst they do is mumble.’

She leads us into a sitting room dominated by a deep leather sofa and a widescreen TV. There is a Guitar Hero controller propped against it, and a pile of other games stacked neatly alongside. On the wall there are posters tacked up, arty blue prints of American Indians in profile, dreaming of wolves, forests, galloping horses and low moons.
There is a groan from another room.
‘He’s on the toilet. He’s been there for hours.’ She shows us through. As we turn the corner she gives a vapid little spread of her fingers and says: ‘Ta-dah!’

Her partner is sitting on the toilet, bent forward at the waist and supporting the weight of his skinny torso with his hands flat on the floor. His legs and arms are so long and thin, the angles so oddly inhuman, it could almost be a giant insect cramped up over there. A pile of vomit lies between his hands that someone – presumably his girlfriend – has draped over with a square of plain white kitchen towel. He looks up briefly, gives us a pale smile, then tucks his head down again.
‘I hope I don’t get it,’ she says, then walks back into the sitting room to let us check him over.

When we rejoin her in the sitting room she’s standing smoking a spitty little roll-up by the window.
‘I’ve only been going with him a year,’ she says, picking a piece of tobacco off her tongue. ‘Well? Is he going to live?’
I tell her that he has a bout of diarrhoea and vomiting – unpleasant, but nothing that needs hospitalisation. As the vomiting has been going on for a while, we’ll ring for an out of hours GP to come and assess him, maybe even give an anti-emetic. Other than that, the best thing is to let it take its course, keep drinking fluids, start back on little amounts of plain food when he’s ready.
She listens, and re-lights her cigarette.
‘Is that it?’
‘Yep. That’s it.’
There is another groan from the toilet.
‘And how much longer do I have to put up with this?’
‘It’s hard to tell. It could be a few more hours. But like I say – we’ll get a doctor out to help with his sickness and give you some more reassurance.’
‘It’s not reassurance I want, it’s a bigger flat.’

Back outside in the truck, Frank sits leaning forward with his arms folded on the steering wheel whilst I finish the paperwork. Suddenly there is the sound of a great whumping crash from the docks.
‘Oops,’ he says. ‘There’s our next job.’
But nothing comes on the radio, and no-one comes running. The lights blaze on as before, and the white vapour drifts up from the tanks, and the arm of the radar on the ship at anchor spins slowly, round and round and round.


loveinvienna said...

Charming girl :| although there is probably more to her indifference to her partner than meets the eye.

I like docks as well. They always remind me of summer holidays in France when we used to take the car ferry from Portsmouth or Plymouth.

Liv xxx

Spence Kennedy said...

I thought so, too. I bet his D&V was just another thing to go wrong for them - but still, she struck me as remarkably unsympathetic!

There is something really compelling about ports. I have this ambition to pay steerage on some rusty tramp steamer (whatever a tramp steamer is), and take three weeks to reach some godforsaken place, writing, eating bacon sandwiches and drinking whisky. ;)

Kaz said...

Let me know when Spence and I'll see what I can fix you up with LOL!!

paul said...

"Her demeanour hangs from her like her dress: bright, but fading after repeated use."

love this line.

loveinvienna said...

It was the bacon sandwiches which sold the idea! Good luck with that, just hope there is a return trip in steerage from said godforsaken place! (What with it being godforsaken, one never can be sure about return journeys...they tend to only be one way) ;)

Spence Kennedy said...

Hey - thanks Kaz! I'll be in touch... x

Thanks for that, Paul. I did try to describe what she was wearing in a bit more detail, but I cut it in the end as I thought it just sounded like the fashion section of a sunday supplement.

Hey Liv! It's a nice fantasy - but I bet I'd end up seasick, homesick and find I'm allergic to pig iron (whatever that is).

uphilldowndale said...

I'm terrified of the gap between ships when they are 'along side' the jetty, pontoon, dockside (I've never stop around long enough to find out the real term.) I'm convinced I'll fall to a hideous death in the oily water.
My mum loves to watch ships come and go, she has a life long regret that her mum wouldn't let her go in the WREN's, the best she has managed in her life time is a very stormy day trip from Dover. Fleetwood used to be her favourite place to watch the boats, but now she's not mobile and we have so little fishing industry, I can't think where I might take her to watch them

Spence Kennedy said...

That is a pretty terrifying prospect. I remember standing on a little quayside in Greece where the ferry had docked. There only seemed to be an inch between the bottom of the ship and the seabed, and a closing and expanding inch between the side of the ship and the dock; the water was clear, with shoals of tiny fish swimming there. The shocking difference in scale between the ribby little fish bodies and the iron hulk of the ship was brilliant and awful at the same time.

I wonder if there's a dock cam anywhere, so your Mum could watch it on her pc? ;) x

Kaz said...

After all this chat about the gap between ship and quayside, yesterday on my day shift they pulled a body out of our dock. It appears that a fisherman went back to his trawler in the early hours, probably the worse for a few drinks, fell asleep on the deck and rolled off into the dock and drowned. They found is body about 10am the next morning. Unfortunately this is not an uncommon occurrence!

Spence Kennedy said...

Poor guy. I know it's often said that sailors and fishermen drink a lot. I suppose they work in such a dangerous environment, it's just one more risk to add to the mix.