Small hands on deck
A young boy’s adventures on a sea crossing from Colombo to England
SLEEP is a prison for a boy who has friends to meet. We were impatient with the night, up before sunrise surrounded the ship. We could not wait to continue exploring this universe.
Lying in my bunk I would hear Ramadhin’s gentle knock on the door, in code. A pointless code, really, who else could it have been at that hour? Two taps, a long pause, another tap. If I did not climb down and open the door I would hear his theatrical cough. And if I still did not respond, I would hear him whisper Mynah, which had become my nickname.
We would meet Cassius by the stairs and soon would be strolling barefoot on the First Class deck. First Class was an unguarded palace at six in the morning, and we arrived there even before a fuse of light appeared on the horizon, even before the essential night-lights on the deck blinked and went out automatically at daybreak.
We removed our shirts and dived like needles into the goldpainted First Class pool with barely a splash. Silence was essential as we swam in the newly formed half-light.
If we could last undetected for an hour, we had a chance to plunder the laid-out breakfast on the Sun Deck, heap food on to plates, and abscond with the silver bowl of condensed milk, its spoon standing up in the centre of its thickness.
Then we’d climb into the tentlike atmosphere of one of the raised lifeboats and consume our ill- gotten meal. One morning Cassius brought out a Gold Leaf cigarette he had found in a lounge, and taught us how to smoke properly. Ramadhin politely refused, having his asthmatic condition that was already evident to us and the other diners at the Cat’s Table [Table 76, located far from the Captain’s Table, which was at the opposite end of the dining room].
We left the crockery and the knives and spoons that came with our stolen meals in the lifeboat, and slipped back down to Tourist Class. Asteward would eventually discover traces of our numerous breakfasts during a later security drill when the lifeboats were manned and swung over the water, so that for a while the captain searched for a stowaway on board.
It was not even 8am when we crossed the border from First Class back to Tourist Class. We pretended to stagger with the roll of the ship. I had by now come to love the slow waltz of our vessel from side to side.
I could go anywhere, do anything. And Ramadhin, Cassius and I had already established one rule. Each day we had to do at least one thing that was forbidden. The day had barely begun, and we still had hours ahead of us to perform this task. I SAT on my bunk looking at the door and the metal wall. It was hot in the cabin by late afternoon. I could be alone only if I came here at this time. Most of my day was busy with Ramadhin and Cassius, sometimes Mazappa or others from the Cat’s Table. At night I was often surrounded by the whispering of my card-players. I needed to think backwards for a while. Thinking backwards I could remember the comfort of being curious and alone. After a while I would lie back and look at the ceiling a foot or two above me. I felt safe, even if I was in the middle of the sea.
Sometimes, just before darkness, I found myself on C Deck when no one else was there. I’d walk to the railing, which was the height of my chest, and watch the sea rush alongside the ship. At times it appeared to rise almost to my level, as if wishing to pluck me away. I would not move, in spite of this havoc of fear and aloneness in me. It was the same emotion I had when lost in the narrow streets of the Pettah market [in Colombo], or adapting to new, undiscovered rules at school.
When I could not see the ocean, the fear was not there, but now the sea rose in the half-dark, surrounding the ship, and coiled itself around me. No matter how scared I was, I remained there, adjacent to the passing darkness, half wanting to pull myself back, half desiring to leap towards it.
Once, before I left Ceylon, I saw an ocean liner being burned at the far end of Colombo harbour. All afternoon I watched the blue acetylene cut into the flanks of the vessel. I realised the ship I was now on could also be cut into pieces.
One day, seeing Mr Nevil [the retired ship dismantler], who understood these things, I tugged at his sleeve and asked him if we were safe. He told me the Oronsay was healthy, it was only in mid-career. It had worked as a troop ship during World War II, and somewhere along one wall of the hold there was a large mural in pink and white of naked women astride gun mounts and tanks that had been painted by a soldier. It was still there, a secret, for the officers on the ship never went into the hold. ‘‘But are we all right?’’ He sat me down and, on the back of one of the blueprints he always carried, drew me what he said was a Greek warship, a trireme. ‘‘This was the greatest ship of the seas. And even it no longer exists. It fought the enemies of Athens and brought back unknown fruits and crops, new sciences, architecture, even democracy. All that because of this ship. It had no decoration. The trireme was what it was — a weapon. On it were just rowers and archers. But not even a fragment of one exists now. People still search for them in the silt of river coasts, but they have never found one. They were made out of ash and hard elm, with oak for the keel, and green pine they bent into the shape of the frame. The planks were sewn together with linen cords. There was no metal on the skeleton. So the ship could be burned on a beach, or if it sank, it dissolved in the sea. Our ship is safer.’’
For some reason Mr Nevil’s depiction of an old warship gave me comfort. I no longer imagined myself on the decorated Oronsay, but on something more selfsufficient, more stripped down.
I was an archer or a rower, on a trireme. We would enter the Arabian Sea and then the Mediterranean that way, with Mr Nevil as our naval commander.
That night I woke suddenly with the feeling that we were passing islands, and that they were nearby in the darkness. There was a different sound to the waves beside the ship, a sense of an echo, as if they were responding to land.
I turned on the yellow light by my bed and looked at the map of the world I had traced from a book. I had forgotten to put names on it. All I knew was that we were going west and north, away from Colombo. This is an edited extract from The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (Jonathan Cape, $29.95). Copyright Michael Ondaatje 2011.