The world is so full of a number of things,
I’m sure we should all be as happy as kings.
- Robert Louis Stevenson

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Chapter Eight: Empty Spaces (Part I)

I've run away from a little old woman,
A little old man,
And I can run away from you, I can!
- The Gingerbread Boy (St. Nicholas Magazine, May 1875)

A fine drizzle hung like mist around the street lamps along the narrow road between the sea and the steep, washed-out slope of the land, when the boy strolled out of the darkness and walked up to the red-and-white barrier marking the entrance to the marshalling area for the Scrabster-Stromness ferry. He wore threadbare Jeans, a sheepskin-lined denim jacket, and scuffed and muddy oxblood boots. One of the shoe laces was black, the other was a bright neon orange. He had taken care to pick the hay from his clothes and from the dirty blond hair, and to wash the dust from his face, but there hadn’t been much he could do about the bruised cheek and the black eye, almost swollen shut, nor about his angry, closed-off expression.

For a while he loitered at the edge of the darkness and waited for check-in to begin. He tried to light a cigarette, but his lighter, a Zippo with the Tarot Death Card motive, was out of fuel.

When check-in began, he carefully observed the procedure from a distance. Just as the signs proclaimed, everybody, whether travelling with a car or on foot had to show a photo ID. The boy felt a slight annoyance at the terrorists, whose attacks 7 years earlier to the day had changed the world and made his form of travel so much harder.

The signs also proclaimed that no tickets were issued to unaccompanied minors under 16 years of age. Not that it makes much of a difference, he thought, I don’t own any legitimate ID anyway. And he doubted any kind of sob story could get him through here. After watching everything for a while he decided that he would easily get past the controls onto the marshalling area, with the terminal building, the long access road to the pier, and the passenger transit building. The problem would be the check points in the passenger transit building and the walkway up to the ferry.

He almost enjoyed the problem. It distracted him from other thoughts and memories. He briefly considered trying to swim to the ferry. The romantic commando style pleased him, but he quickly dismissed the idea as far beyond his abilities – the ferry would be much too tall from the surface of the water. He then considered trying to find someone a year or two older than himself with features similar enough to pass the picture check, and steal his ID. But there wasn’t anyone like that visible at the harbour. Also, he thought, such a person might easily notice the theft before the ferry arrived in Stromness and get the authorities to search for him. He didn’t fancy police officers searching the boat, cornering, and arresting him. And he had no intentions of going back South, to Thurso or beyond, to look for a suitable mark.

In the end, he thought his best chance would be to hide in one of the cars. He slunk undiscovered onto the large car park where the cars waited in neat queues for loading. Most passengers had gotten out, in spite of the chilly, damp weather. The sky had begun to grey in the East, and they were stretching their limbs, eating sandwiches and drinking hot beverages from thermoses, or using the toilets in the terminal building. The boy walked through the rows of cars as if belonging to one of them, and carefully considered his options.

He decided on a dark blue van. The driver, a burly man with a grim, ogerish face and a snake tattoo around his thick upper arm, locked the van with a remote and left for the terminal building. The boy peered through the windows. There were no other passengers inside, and several cardboard boxes had been stacked in the space behind the back seats. Careful to appear casual and unselfconscious, he took up position behind the rear doors, where he would be unobserved by the driver upon his return.

When the van beeped once and flashed its lights, and the doors unlocked with an audible clunk, he quickly opened the door, slipped in, closed it and crawled underneath the back seats. There, he figured, he would be invisible from the windows and from the front seats.

His stomach cramped with fear and excitement, as always when he had committed himself to a plan, and was now helplessly waiting whether it worked out or whether he would be caught. The van’s engine growled itself awake. The driver turned on the radio. Amy Winehouse’s hoarse, plaintive voice filled the space between them.

“So we are history, your shadow covers me, the sky above a blaze that only lovers see.”

Then the van jerked into motion, rolled slowly forward, rumbled over the ribbed metal ramp, and into the belly of the ship. When the driver killed the engine again, the boy had already braced his feet against the struts holding the seat, ready to push himself forward. As soon as he heard the door being opened, he shot out of his hiding place and to the rear door. Hoping the overall thundering, throbbing noises of the ship and the other cars would cover his exit, he opened the door, slipped out, ducked around the corner of the next car, straightened, and walked away casually.

On deck the peach and salmon glow on the Eastern horizon had faded back into the Prussian blue of a gloomy day. Two girls had taken advantage of the lull in the rain, and were standing by the guardrail, looking out at the emptiness of the open North Sea. They were chatting in fluent Gaelic, telling each other giggling gossip, when the bruised boy approached them.

They interrupted their conversation and eyed him curiously, but friendly. He struggled to ask his question.

“Can you tell me what this means in English?” He cleared his throat and blushed, trying to pronounce what he had been told, in halting whispers in the dark of the night five days before: “Hah Geul Ah-kum orsht.”

He had to repeat it twice. The girls giggled again.

“Wis she a bonnie lass?” one girl asked.

Helpless the boy shrugged, their reaction already confirming what he had been most afraid of. When she told him, he thanked her, blushing even worse.

After two hours the ferry docked in Stromness. He just walked off together with the other foot passengers. Nobody challenged him, and he disappeared in the narrow, steep alleys.