Photo © Andrew Simpson

The Boat

by Hugh Fulham-McQuillan


Water, water, everywhere, but not inside me; my organs, these vitals, they rattle like dusty pebbles. I now understand those tuberculous poets of the 19th century. During a slow decline, you reach for the pen; either to record a testimony that will provide you with an opportunity for immortality, or for company.

          If fate had been kinder, I would be dozing on that tired beach, where every day is Sunday, in front of the the lone villa with its blistering white balustrade. Instead, I burn on the deck of this boat, drifting, teetering across the surface of the Mediterranean Sea. I wish I was there. On the beach, or in the nearby café, owned by the matriarch of the villa. Drinking coffee and trading my Hiberno-English for the elegant Spanish of her grand-daughter, Ines. Wind claps the sails, unfurling a cool blanket of shade above me. Oh yeah, I’m still lost in the Mediterranean and trying to write my memoirs in between and around the entries and etchings of an old Spanish diary. There are three things I am sure of:

          1.      I, and my two friends (for reasons of space I will still refer to them as friends), Chris and Jen, am on a boat.

          2.      When we first arrived on this boat, it had an anchor and that anchor was firmly lodged in the sand of the bay. While we are now far from that bay, and, as I am almost obsessively aware, are every minute drifting further away, the anchor is still there.

          3.      Apart from my copy of Lord Jim, none of us, in our combined eighty years, have acquired even a smidgen of nautical know-how. This is an important point as boats cannot sail themselves; a lesson I will fervently deliver to my future children, if I am not first captured by pirates and sold into the white slave trade, on their finding my assets amount to a broken Playstation and college debts.

There isn’t that much to do when you’re lost at sea, so I’ll treat myself and add a fourth item:

          4.      The Spanish police probably regard us as criminals for the understandable reason that we have absconded with a boat that did not belong to us. Whether our absconding was intended or was, so mystically referred to by insurance companies as, an Act of God, is something that will require the wracking of many legal brains.

          The facts: the boat looked deserted. It had been empty for the three days we spent at the beach. We boarded it with the intention of sleeping over until it was time to fly back to Ireland. My miming skills are under par at the best of times, so I doubt they would be up to the task of communicating this to the Spanish police, especially when they all seem so fond of their submachine guns.

          Ah Ines! Her life was so colourful and tragic, but it was that special heightened tragedy that is kind of beautiful. I was in love with her, I'm sure of it. Ines, her mother and her mother's mother lived together in that lonely villa. Her mother was elegant and mad. The husband, Ines' father, died two years ago in a sailing accident off the coast of Morocco. The mother hasn't spoken since, disappearing into the sea each morning, black swimsuit clinging to her bones; snorkel, mask and flippers clutched in her small hands. She's like a restless Goddess, forever looking down on a dominion that can only be reached by a one way journey. Ines didn’t say much about her when I asked.

         You’re probably thinking, this writer’s a criminal, why am I still reading? I should take down his name and phone Interpol. You turn back the pages, looking for my name, but aha! I haven't written it! I don’t blame you though. Before we inadvertently took up the life of crime I had always thought of criminals as the shadowy other, the chaos makers, Brad Pitt in Fight Club. Nabokov believed art is the articulate refusal to acquiesce to chaos, which calls into question the ethics and practice of a certain Arthur Rimbaud, or any number of chaotic artists. (Already I hear the braying from the gods: “And what is art?” they yell.) We're not that bad, just like you really, and there are all sorts of criminals; those who mean to break the law, those who only realised they meant it in the precise moment they broke it and those who don't mean to do it because they are unaware of that particular legal boundary. I place myself in the latter category.

          While I'm on the subject, I should probably delve into the unfortunate series of interlocking events that charted our brief journey from respectable middle class young adults to dangerous criminals. I’m going to have to go macro for a sentence or two. If that bothers you, I really don’t care; I’m a criminal on the loose, in a boat with no anchor. Chris has used up all the sun screen and we have only one litre of water to share between us.

          You’ve probably heard of the great depression in 1930, which was about as great as Gatsby turned out to be. Then there was another one in the 1980’s. Our parents remember that one. And of course there was the very recent one of 2008, when the ludicrously named American banks, Fanny Mae and Freddie Mac somehow collapsed. This created a domino effect involving these things called sub-prime mortgages and blah, blah, blah—four days ago we arrived from a day trip to Valencia to find a sticker on the door of our rented apartment: Recuperación de la posesión.

          My Spanish wasn't up to the interpretation. Unless it’s commonly found on a restaurant menu, I will not understand a word. I tried the key and succeeded only in scratching the surrounds. Our elderly neighbour peered out of her doorway, as she did when we first arrived, when we take out the rubbish, when we—you get the message. She unleashed a river of Spanish in our direction, all her words forking and merging around the word, “recuperación”. Eventually it dawned on us that our apartment had been repossessed. I rang the number left for us by the owner, but it rang out. It was then the neighbour opened her door wider and gestured to our possessions.

          After many gracias and pressing together of our palms, we realised she wanted us to remove our things from her apartment. When we were finished, she gave us some oranges and shuffled off down the stairs and out, no doubt, to one of the many benches, where her friends would be gathering for their nightly discussion. With the scent of her freshly washed clothes mingling with the sticky sweetness of our fruit, we stared at the floor. I rang the mobile of the owner of the apartment again only to get the answering machine. After taking a ponderous bite of his orange and spitting out the skin, Chris suggested we go to the beach. For lack of a better idea, we agreed and carried our bags down the stairs and rolled them out into the night.

          The air had cooled and a pleasant breeze came to us from the sea as we walked. None of us spoke. I could only think of sleep and kept closing my eyes as if to catch it by surprise. When we arrived, the sand was surprisingly cold and the café was closed. We sat and watched the sea, listening to the soft rush of the waves and the clinking of the boat moored alone in the bay. The moon was low and bright behind its masts. There was something magical about the view, stirring our thoughts, mixing and confusing the narratives of our respective books with our situation. Chris' reading material rarely extends past the financial section of the paper and Newsweek, yet with only Spanish stations available on the apartment television, he had quickly become engrossed in my copy of Lord Jim. Knowing Jen, she was probably helping him sound out the words. I was rereading Hemingway's short stories. I like to think of myself as a gentle tornado of education.

          It was then that Jen said something that I imagine has often kept the sweet oblivion of sleep from her grasp: “Why don't we just hijack that ship for the night?”

          I didn’t answer for two reasons. I was annoyed she could make me laugh despite what had happened in Valencia, and secondly it was a stupid, illogical idea. I don't swim.

          “It's definitely swimmable,” Chris said.

          Wait a minute... those two sentences effectively absolve me of any crime. They wanted to break in; I, emphatically, did not. Police if you are reading this, take note.

          Sadly, there was no way of stopping the resulting chain of events, trust me; I expended quite a lot of verbal effort in my attempts. We used an old wind-surf board, which Chris had found on the sand beside the low wall of the promenade, to float our wheelie bags and my stone like body across the bay to the boat.

          If I were a marine craft, I would be a leaking submarine. When I was a child, my dad took me to swimming lessons. A sadistic instructor with a whistle fetish threw me into the pool despite my not being able to find my nose plug. My arms slashed through the water like blunt knives as I sank to the tiled bottom amid a swarm of kicking legs. I swallowed half the pool and had to have my stomach pumped. That was my last swimming lesson.

          As Jen and Chris pulled myself and the board through the deceptively calm waters, I clung to the sides with almost all my energy, the rest I used to berate my two navigators.

          I opened my eyes when I heard a bump and immediately smelled the seaweed-covered sides of the boat. They reared up to the stars from where I clung to the board. We circled it, looking for a way to climb up. I don’t know how long it took. In the dark, when the sea and the sky push against each other, time and space expand and shrink like the lungs of a living thing. After an age, Chris found a ladder at the back and we clambered on board.

          It wasn't until morning that we had a chance to take in our new lodgings. The outside top bit (or the decks, as marine experts have been known to call them), blistered and peeled paint into the sea with even the slightest gust of wind. The inside was perfect. Chris said it looked like something out of Lord Jim, before leading Jen into the room at the front. He popped back in and asked if I wouldn’t mind sleeping in the main cabin while they took the bedroom. It wasn’t like I could say no. He scurried back in with their bags.

          I looked around what was to be my new, wood panelled bedroom for the next three days. As I did, a fragment of a dream I had during the night resurfaced and I turned to the area behind the stairs. In my dream the door had swung open and shut, banging every few seconds with the tide. The door had a brass plaque on the wood with the date 1930, and a name which I couldn't make out, inscribed on it. I tried the handle, but it swung down without unlatching; it was locked. That’s strange I thought, and as I tried to make sense of my dream, my eyes were drawn to the books.

          Shedloads of old books displayed their thick spines in carved nooks beneath the slim windows, and behind the seating area. Naturally I was drawn to them and found deliciously out-dated maps along with vaguely nautical diagrams inside their covers. Others seemed to have been diaries or notebooks. These had thickly packed writing, slanted to the left, and more diagrams traced in pencil. Judging by the colour of the pages, I told myself they had been written by the original owner of the boat. I’m a romantic like that (I should mention these words are packed into one of these volumes which the owner abandoned mid-sentence).

          A shelf across the top of the door to the front bedroom held various shapes and sizes of bottles; the last time I saw such a variety of potions and liquids was in Sweny’s Pharmacy in Dublin, where Mr Bloom once bought a bar of lemon scented soap. Jen emerged as I was examining a bluish liquid in a dusty bottle. She snatched it from my hands, and excitedly began to hypothesise as to its contents (she was finishing the final drafts of her thesis on medical history, the last two chapters of which made up her reading material for the holiday). She had evidently forgotten I was ignoring her, so I grabbed an armpit of books and headed out to the deck.

          The books were all in Spanish, but their etchings were magnificent, full of aquatic creatures, the familiar as well as ones that could only exist in the nightmares of sailors who had spent months at sea. I had placed myself on the bay side of the deck, in order not to be seen by anyone on the beach. Though the season was almost over, there was still a scattering of umbrellas, molluscs on the white belly of a whale, along the kilometre long stretch of sand.

          As I looked up from a particularly monstrous picture of a Cthulhu-like creature, I saw the black snorkel of the mother from the villa floating near us. It paused and I froze. Telescopes reaching up from thousands of leagues, flooding my thoughts. It then jerkily continued on past the boat, out of the bay, and I watched until the waves and the early sun became too strong to focus on such a small thing so far away.

          Jen called me down to lunch in the evening. They had set out the table with fried sardines and tomatoes with garlic. No doubt a recipe taken from a Sunday newspaper article on the food Spanish natives eat. I demolished the meal along with the bread rolls we had bought en-route to the apartment last night. They wanted me and Chris to go to shore to buy supplies that night. I said I wasn’t feeling too well, my asthma was acting up and I had run out of my inhaler. I could have gone, but they were so smug sitting there with the future so neatly planned and packed away for us all. I said we had plenty for the next day, quickly put my plate in the sink and went back upstairs before they could disagree.

          By then, the sun was just disappearing behind the villa. Ines would have been closing the café, walking over to her grandmother, who would be sitting in the shade of the rich foliage of the patio, to collect the keys and report on the takings for the day. Her grandmother would shake her head and go inside the dark interior to watch her telenovelas and cook the dinner in hundreds of steaming pots.

          I thought I heard the steady splash of someone swimming. I kneeled down and peered over the edge but I couldn’t see anyone in the near darkness. It was probably the boat. When I went inside, Jen and Chris had already retired to their bedroom. I fell asleep listening to the steady brush of wave against the sides.

          I was woken by shouting from outside. I jumped up, knocking my head on the shelf above me, tumbled out of the tangled sheets, grabbed a bottle in my hand and crawled up the stairs. Chris was shouting about being at sea.

           “What’s going on?” I asked.

           He was at the front of the boat. Grabbing the hand rail with one hand, he turned and glared at me. “We’re lost Rob! Look around! I hope you’re happy now!” He flung an expansive arm over the rail. If he hadn’t seemed so unbalanced, I would have said something about the Titanic and Leonardo Di Caprio leaning over the front of the boat. You’ll have to trust me, it would have been very funny and not at all cliché. His face was murderous.

          “We’re stuck on this stupid boat, miles… wait, what are you doing with that bottle?”

          I looked down at the bottle held by its neck in my hand, “Nothing, it’s just a bottle.”

          “Put it down.”


          “Jen!” He knocked on the opening on the roof of their bedroom beneath him. “Jen, are you alright?”

          There was a muffled noise from below. We waited. Jen poked her head up from the stairwell beside me. “What does Chris want?”

          “I don’t know...” As I spoke, I saw the horizon, I turned and continued to see the contrasting blues of the sea and the sky and nothing else. The coast was gone. I craned my neck, searching for a glimpse of land, feeling my breath shorten; failing to find the villa, nor the beach, nor anything that wasn’t water. Fear and anger shot through me, “What did you do?” I roared as I scrambled over the roof of the main cabin, towards Chris.

          “Stop!” Jen caught my leg and I fell, smashing the bottle against the boat. Horrible smelling liquid poured across the top deck and down to the lower deck where it dribbled into the sea.

          “Everybody just stop. Stop it! Robert, be careful with that glass or you'll cut yourself. Chris, come over here so we can discuss what’s happened like adults.” The boat tilted from side to side.

          It’s been a while since all this happened, probably two, maybe five hours—it’s hard to tell when your phone is dead. The thing about writing a diary is the lack of immediacy. You’re writing in the past tense about past events; two walls of previousness guard against any sense of excitement. Then you have to deal with the writer, who adds another two walls. Whether they want to or not, they filter the information, and will invariably put what they’ve filtered into context because they have to understand it before they write it. You end up with the event being written about becoming enclosed behind four walls. The past is thrown into prison for no reason other than being the past, and the reader reads something which has very little to do with reality, and would be better used as a map for neuroscientists extending their celestial cartography to the writer’s brain.

          With that said, this next bit is very exciting. I even throw a book in the sea!

          After our gladiatorial near fight to the death on the top deck of the boat, I wasn’t speaking to Chris. He wasn’t speaking to me or Jen, and Jen wasn’t speaking to me (I think it was because of Valencia rather than the near fight, but I can’t be sure). I was speaking to Jen (I had finally gotten over Valencia) and she may, or may not, have been speaking to Chris.

          I had been sitting in my usual spot in the front looking at the drawings in one of the books, when I heard a sudden rush of movement behind me. This was quickly followed by a scrambling of feet. I glanced over my shoulder to see Chris squatting like a crab as the pole at the bottom of the huge sail ponderously swept back and forth inches from his head.

          “Stop giggling like a schoolgirl and stop this thing before it takes my head off,” he said.

          I gingerly stepped back to the end of the boat on the lower deck, ducking as the sail swept overhead.

          “Catch the rope at the end of it,” he called. I managed to catch the loose rope, “I’ve got it, what do I do now.”

          “Tie it to something you idiot!”

I tied it to an iron ring on the side and turned around to find Chris intently studying my copy of Lord Jim. “So you like Conrad now? You should try The Secret Agent, it’s about terrorists.” He wasn’t paying any attention to me. “It’s very relevant to the question of modern day terrorists,” I added. He looked up at me; I knew that would catch his interest.

          “I’m not enjoying your book, I figured I could use it to sail our boat, look.” He had underlined a paragraph.

I caught sight of him clambering over the rail, and of his box being passed up. All the brigantine’s canvas was loose, her mainsail was set, and the windlass was just beginning to clink as I stepped upon her deck.

          After a heated discussion, we weren’t sure if box was a nautical term, slang, or an actual box. Canvas is easy, everyone knows that, and I guessed that the mainsail is the main sail. How to set it was another equation to which we had only one variable. What a windlass is I may never know, but at least I can rest in my bed at night knowing the name of that soothing clinking sound. We noted the terms and he flipped open another page.

We sunk here and walked to the boat, which waited with her nose on the beach. The schooner, her mainsail set and jib sheet to windward, curveted on the purple sea; there was a rosy tinge on her sails. “Will you be going home again soon?” asked Jim, as I swung my leg over the gunwale.

          I knew we’d need backup for this so I called Jen and together we studied the passage. I have no idea what a jib sheet is, but I really want to see it curveted on a purple sea. Jen believed the gunwale is neither a gun nor a whale, I agree on it not being a whale but am more ambiguous as to its gun-like qualities.

          Overall, we agreed that the book while impressing upon the reader a great seafaring tale of a young man who learns he cannot outrun his past, nor himself, was not so useful in imparting the fundamentals of sailing. At the time, I took this failure quite personally, and I recall reefing the book overboard. Moments later I tried to catch it in my water bucket but it quickly mounted a wave and surfed away. I’d like to think a young boy will find it washed up on a beach, maybe on the coast of Sicily, and fall in love with the English book from the sea. Thinking about it, I probably should have written a request for help inside the front cover.

          To sum up the day, we lost a book, learned a number of new nautical words, and are on slightly better terms with each other, which is good because we now have half a litre of water between us.

          For someone who’s drifting on a boat with two of the most annoying people in the world, you probably think I’ve been prattling on about Ines and her mother for far too long, when I could be describing the views, the heat, the psychology of cabin fever. But everyone does that, don’t they? It’s the first thing you think of when you picture a group of friends drifting on a boat. Only Herzog could make it original by inducing cabin fever during the making of Fitzcarraldo. Except they were outside the boat and he had to drag it over a mountain to attain the desired effect. There's a simple and a not so simple reason for my fixation. First the simple: I was in love. If being in love is like being drunk, being in love on holiday with mysterious Spanish girl is like mainlining heroin on holiday. The not so simple reason comes next.

          When we were still on land, I spent a lot of time in Ines' café. I had drunk so much coffee, my stomach would twist in knots if I even thought of the stuff but I always went back and never contradicted her when she smirked and asked, “The usual?” She spoke about a lot of things, her future, university, marine conservation, the bay and the history of the village. In fact she spoke about everything around us except for the thing that lay right in front of us, in the middle of the bay: this boat.

          All I know about her father is he died in a sailing accident off the coast of Morocco. Those were her exact words. A sentence as polished as the type that slips from the lips of tour guides. Cleansed of emotion, a whole life condensed into eleven words. As Columbo would say, it was too perfect. Then there was her mother who spent every day at sea, exhausting herself before she returned in the evening. What’s the story with that? Either she had the endurance of a god, the guilt of a Macbeth, or her swim was less an endurance event and more of a commute. But to where? And finally, we have the locked room at the back of the boat.

          Here’s something I haven’t told anyone. Honestly, I’m not even sure if it happened or I dreamed it. That first night, after we had tumbled down the steps into the cabin and collapsed into an ungainly heap on the couch, I remember someone moving about. At the time I had assumed it was Chris or Jen on an early morning trip to the bathroom. What was unusual was I could have sworn the person came from the room at the back of the boat. I remembered the door slamming shut (I now know I hadn't just dreamed it) and hearing a muffled swear. As far as I know the door has been locked ever since.

           I was about to tell Jen and Chris about my realisation when I heard Jen’s screaming from outside, Chris burst out of the front bedroom and we both raced up the stairs. “Look land! Beautiful land, oh my God, we’re not going to die!” 

           It was then I saw the cliffs, sparsely covered in green vegetation, reaching up to the sun, and the rocks waiting for us below.


          After three weeks in Africa, we finally solved the mystery of the boat losing its anchor, and by doing so, asserted our innocence in the eyes of the African authorities. We also got in touch with some Irish people through the Irish embassy, and even found an Irish bar. Which I hated. I flew home as soon as I could. Chris stayed on to volunteer with an Irish aid organisation building villages (I later heard he was arrested). I don’t know what happened to Jen. On a positive note, I've taken to keeping a diary. Look out for part two: the travails of an unemployed wastrel. And part three: the gradual decline and death of a man who never found a job but wrote some pretty good diaries about the process.


Hugh Fulham-McQuillan is studying for a doctorate in psychology in Trinity College Dublin, having completed his Undergraduate and Master's degree in same. His work has been published, or is forthcoming, in The Stinging Fly, Burning Bush 2, and Word Riot. He recently placed third in the Abroad Writer's Conference flash fiction competition and is currently working on a short story collection. Read his Burning Bush 2 story here.

Andrew Simpson is a photographer from the UK with a particular interest in subjects of aviation and transportation. View more of his work at Flicker.