The Ship

Stefán Máni

THE SHIP

Introduction

The rusty brown hull rests on underwater crags, sloping five degrees to port and thirty astern. Its prow pierces the ice at a sharp angle and the stern juts out over a murky fissure, causing the six-storey wheelhouse to lean over the abyss like a haunted house, the empty windows of the bridge staring at nothing. During the day, bluish light filters through the ice into the depths, where curious seals swim around the wreck, which quickens occasionally in the ocean currents, producing a long, drawn-out screech, heavy thumps and a thick oil slick, green, pink and purple in the weak light that floats up under the ice like liquid aurora borealis.

That which sleeps forever is not dead.

I

Monday, 10 September 2001

It’s four minutes to eight in the narrow kitchen of the Old Town house where a young family of three is eating cabbage and meatballs with melted butter and new potatoes.

Outside the window is the cold and dark of autumn; inside the kitchen it is warm and bright.

‘I’d have liked to have something a little better for your dinner, Sæli love,’ says his partner as she cuts up a meatball for their three-year-old son.

‘This is just what I wanted, Lára, my sweet,’ says Sæli, smiling as he helps himself to more food. ‘I’ll be getting nothing but cream soups, roast meat and gravy for the next month.’

‘Poor you!’ says Lára with a grin.

‘Come on, you know what I mean,’ Sæli says, gently pinching her waist.

Sæli is first seaman on a freighter and Lára works as a hairdresser in 101 Reykjavík, the heart of the city.

‘Did I show you that flat on Framnes Road?’ asks Lára, wiping most of the tomato sauce off her son’s face. ‘There were pictures of it in today’s paper.’

‘Yes. No… I didn’t see it,’ mutters Sæli with a sigh. ‘I thought we weren’t going to look at flats just yet?’

‘There’s no harm in keeping our eyes open,’ says Lára, irritated.

‘Yes, I know… I just…’ Sæli puts his right hand over her left. ‘It’s just that there are enough payments as things stand, and…’

‘We can’t stay here forever,’ says Lára with a maternal smile for her son, who is guzzling water from a sticky glass. ‘Not now that – you know?’

‘I know,’ Sæli says under his breath. He carries on eating, though his appetite is gone.

‘We’ll look into it when you get back, okay?’ says Lára, affectionate now.

‘Yes, we will.’ Sæli looks tenderly into the eyes of the woman he loves, then the distracting sound of his mobile phone, ringing out in the hall, suddenly makes him tense.

‘Do you have to answer it?’ says Lára.

‘I’ll be quick,’ says Sæli, bolting from the table. He fishes the phone out of the inside pocket of his jacket and looks at the lit-up screen.

Name withheld

‘Hello?’

‘This is Satan.’

Sæli has no idea of the real name of this man, who introduced himself that way when he phoned the first time, a few days ago.

‘Yes, hello,’ says Sæli, then continues in a lower voice: ‘I’ll phone you back in a while… Don’t phone again. I’ll phone, all right?’

‘Listen to me,’ says the cold, calm voice on the phone.

‘No, you listen to—’

‘I’m in the neighbourhood,’ says Satan firmly. ‘Would you rather invite me in?’

‘No, I…’ Sæli glances into the kitchen, where Lára is pretending to not watch or listen. ‘What do you want?’

Sæli slips to the front door and peers out the window beside it. He sees a maroon BMW 750 parked halfway up on the footpath across the street. The car is purring in neutral and at the wheel sits a young man the size of a full-grown bear.

‘You owe money,’ says the caller.

‘I know, I know,’ responds Sæli, scratching his head as he speaks. ‘And I intend to…’

‘Nobody forced you to play poker with those guys,’ says the voice, still flat, calm and as cold as before.

‘No, I—’

‘You’re about to sail, aren’t you?’ says Satan without waiting for an answer. ‘My client has connections in Colombia. His people will take a package addressed to you to the harbour down there. They know the name of your ship and when it’s expected to arrive. You are to bring that package home. Do you understand what I’m saying?’

‘Smuggling?’ whispers Sæli, so dry mouthed he’s hoarse.

‘First instalment on your debt,’ says Satan calmly.

‘First instalment?’ whispers Sæli fiercely, going red to the roots of his hair. ‘I could land in jail. Who… How… What’s in this…?’

‘You sail, you collect the package. That’s it,’ says Satan icily. ‘I’ll make sure nothing happens to your wife and son while you’re away. Understand?’

‘If you… Don’t you dare—’

‘You bring the package,’ Satan interjects with the conviction of one who’s in control. ‘I look after the family. That’s it.’

‘What… Hello?’ says Sæli, but there’s no one on the line, just silence and the echo of his own heartbeat. He again looks out the window, in time to see the BMW roll down off the footpath and disappear around the corner, its exhaust streaming behind it like a tail.

‘I wonder what it costs to have a man killed?’ Sæli asks himself softly as he returns his mobile phone to his jacket pocket.

Sæli has already been in touch with a friend of his cousin’s who has some knowledge of the underworld; Sæli told him about this problem when Satan first called, in the hope that

the friend could give him some good advice or even sort out the mess for him. That guy was pretty tough himself, but when he heard the name ‘Satan’ he just wished Sæli good luck and hung up.

What should he do, Sæli wonders now. What can he do?

Sæli tries to swallow but feels as if he has a potato stuck in his throat. Then he tries to rid himself of all worries and ugly thoughts before turning back to the kitchen and his family.

‘Who…?’ asks Lára, giving her partner the look of a woman who suspects there’s another woman in the picture. After all, he often disappears for hours on end when he’s on shore leave. What’s she supposed to think?

‘It was just Rúnar,’ says Sæli, clearing his throat as he resumes his place at the table. Then he forces a smile and pats his son’s head, before he fleetingly looks at his partner, who is trying to rid herself of her suspicions.

‘Is everything all right?’ asks Lára cautiously.

‘Yes, it’s just…’ Sæli sighs. The bosun, Rúnar, had phoned him earlier and asked him to meet him and three other crew members before they joined the ship. ‘He was just reminding me of that meeting I told you about.’

‘Oh… I see.’ Lára smiles crookedly.

An hour or so later Sæli is sitting by his son’s bed, reading him a fairytale by lamplight.

‘You know Daddy has to leave later on?’ says Sæli when the story is finished.

‘On the ship?’ the boy says with a sigh.

‘Yes.’

‘Can I come too?’ asks the boy eagerly but without much conviction.

‘No, lad,’ says his father, smiling despite all his worries and the pain of parting. ‘You have to look after Mummy for me.’

‘I know,’ the boy mutters, pulling his doona up to his chin.

‘Daddy will be thinking about you,’ says Sæli, kissing the boy on the forehead and turning off the light. ‘Your daddy loves you.’

‘Egill loves his daddy,’ says the boy in the dark. As Sæli squeezes the little hand his stomach knots up and salty tears run down his cheeks.

Once the boy is asleep, Sæli joins Lára on the couch. She pulls a blanket over the two of them and snuggles up to him.

Candles glow in the living room; incense smokes on top of the darkened television set and the soundtrack of Fire Walk with Me sounds softly from the CD player.

Sæli stares at the flames and absentmindedly fiddles with Lára’s hair, which flows down her back like silk.

‘You remember I’ve got to meet Rúnar and the others,’ says Sæli softly and he feels how Lára stiffens under the blanket.

‘Why?’

‘I don’t know,’ says Sæli with a sigh. ‘Something to do with work.’

‘Can’t it wait?’ she asks, irritated.

‘Apparently not,’ mutters Sæli with another sigh.

‘Don’t you let them get you into any trouble,’ Lára says, sitting up to look him in the eye.

‘No, of course not.’ Sæli is anxious now and somewhat uncomfortable. ‘There just seems to be something they need to talk about.’

‘Will you be back?’

‘No,’ answers Sæli, his stomach clenching. ‘We’ll take a cab out to the ship after.’

‘I’m going to miss you,’ says Lára with an empty look. ‘I mean, like, more than usual… you know.’

‘I understand.’ Sæli says, placing his left palm on her stomach, which has a tiny life swimming in its warm sea. ‘You might have a bulge by the time I get back?’

‘Maybe.’ Lára smiles faintly.‘When should we tell Egill?’

‘When I get back,’ says Sæli firmly. ‘Then we’ll tell him together.’

‘All right,’ Lára murmurs, dreamy-eyed. She leans forward and kisses her man, who pulls her down on top of him and rolls her carefully onto the floor. ‘Am I the one and only?’ she whispers between kisses.

‘Absolutely the one and only.’

Outside the wind is coming up from the west, the curtains twitch, the candle flames flicker and fat raindrops burst ag ...

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