Small hands on deck

A young boy’s ad­ven­tures on a sea cross­ing from Colombo to Eng­land

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Summer Reading Special - MICHAEL ON­DAATJE

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.

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