No Man’s Land: Chapter One

CHAPTER ONE

Okay, so I got into a fight an hour after leaving the boat – but this time, I swear, it wasn’t even my fault. I was just minding my own business in this tiny internet café – actually, with only two computer terminals, it wasn’t so much of an internet café as just a café but for a dump like this I’m guessing that’s pretty good going. Anyway, that’s not important right now. What’s important is that I really wasn’t looking for any trouble. Let me tell you how it happened.

I was sitting up at the drinks counter at the top end of the café watching the bartender shake non-alcoholic cocktails for a small but adoring group of customers. You could tell he fancied himself by the way he kept slyly checking his reflection in the tarnished mirror behind him. I was sitting there at the far side of his counter simply because I couldn’t be bothered to queue for a turn on the internet. According to the hand-painted signs on the wall, each person was restricted to just fifteen minutes and from what I could gather you were lucky if the phone line lasted that long, let alone the electricity. So I sat at the drinks counter instead and stirred my Coca-Cola float with a straw, stabbing at the dollop of gritty ice cream floating lethargically in the top of it, and wondering how long we would have to stay in this hole before we could sail away to somewhere else.

The café was painted in funky colours and had posters of western film-stars stuck haphazardly over its rough walls. Pop songs from five years ago blared out into the street in a bid to broadcast how hip it was trying to be. I thought it was all pretty lame but I still had another hour to kill before going back to the boat and hadn’t yet discovered a better place to be.

Behind me, some sort of argument was just beginning to get loud and I looked round, as you do, to see a big guy hassling a smaller kid, presumably to give up his last precious minutes on the computer terminal before the phone lines went dead again. I really wasn’t that interested but I just happened to turn round at the wrong time and accidentally caught his eye. He shouted something in his own language and when this had no effect on me – in somewhat broken English – he demanded to know what I was looking at. I told him I didn’t know, but it was answering back (which went straight over his head). Then I suggested he just wait his turn like everyone else and leave the scrawny kid alone.

“What you care?” he yelled. “Who are you telling me this?”

“Calm down, all right?” I shook my head. “Your mother give you too many of the pink pills with your breakfast this morning or what?”

I turned back to my drink, vaguely aware of the big guy now lumbering towards me, but I forced myself not to look up. There’s nothing that makes people madder than not reacting. Besides, I had to quickly decide how I was going to play this.

“What you say about my mother?” he hollered, suddenly at my side.

Now I looked lazily in his direction as if I’d only just realised he was there. “Nothing, all right? Get back in your box.”

I turned away from him, grinned at the barman – who was starting to look a little anxious himself – and that just seemed to wind the guy up further. He yelled at the barman in their own language and the barman shrugged nervously back.

“I kill you! I kill you! You shit!” He spat the words at me and instantly I could feel a familiar hot prickle beginning under my armpits.

I don’t particularly like people threatening to kill me. I imagined I could see flecks of his spit sitting on my cheek and once I’d imagined them I could feel them too.

“Hey, what is your problem?” I demanded, allowing myself to get angry now. “Why don’t you do us all a favour and just crawl back under the rock you came out from?”

“You talk my mother,” he hissed shoving a finger into my face. “What you say? You tell me now, you shit!”

Liza always says that part of the problem with me and my temper is not recognising the signs of things getting out of hand, but that’s not true. I know only too well what the first sign is: an itchy hot prickling sensation that starts under my armpits and then spreads up through my hair. But by this time it’s usually too late and I’m in a blind tunnel of rage.

“You better get out of my face,” I warned him quietly, wiping at the imaginary spit.

“You say my mother! I kill you!” the guy yelled back.

The barman grew more agitated and snapped a dirty tea-towel across the counter in a bid to get our attention. He yelled at the guy in his language then at me in mine.

“Go! Go! Now please. No trouble! You go!”

“What did I do?” I shouted. “It’s this jerk here that started it!”

“You go. No come back!”

“I haven’t finished my drink,” I protested, to which he just whipped the tall glass off the counter and poured the contents down the metal sink beside him.

“You go now!”

“You give me my money back now!” I demanded.

He stared at me for a moment, gnawing angrily on his bottom lip, then turned to the cash register and slammed my coins down onto the counter in front of me. “Now you go.”

I pushed myself off the bar stool and stomped out of the café, upturning a couple of chairs on my way for good measure. The light from outside was blindingly bright.

“Now I kill you. You shit. You shit.”

The big guy was behind me in an instant.

“Is that like the only swear word you know?” I asked him. “’Cos I can tell you now I’m getting really bored of hearing it.”

He cursed me out in his own language then spat across at me. This time it was real and landed on the rough dirt between us. My scalp itched painfully.

“You scared now, no? You big shit-head!” he jeered.

His face danced annoyingly in front of me as my vision blurred and the colours seemed to white-out around me. “No, I’m not scared of you,” I said and it was true: I wasn’t. All I could feel in that moment was anger. “Come on then if you think you’re that tough.”

He was a couple of years older than I was but that wasn’t about to stop him from hitting me. I have that kind of face. The face that doesn’t fit. The outsider. The new kid. People always pick on the new kid. I’m used to it. I had a butterfly knife in my back pocket but that was more of a bluff than anything. I wouldn’t ever use it. Even when I was as mad as I was now I always knew, at the back of my mind, that if I pulled out that knife when I was in a whiteout as Liza calls them, then that’d be it: I reckon I really could kill someone. Instead I just swung my fists blindly a couple of times, I don’t remember if they connected or not, it all happened too fast. I didn’t even feel his punches until later when the white rage inside my head had subsided. Then I sank down in the dust at the back of the café where all the rubbish got dumped, suddenly deflated, feeling the sun on my face and the hot wind burning my bruises, asking myself how come I’d messed up again. I could almost hear Ralph now. You can’t take on the whole world.

The alley was narrow and dusty. The baked yellow earth instead of tarmac was compacted and hard as I punched my fist down, angrily picking at the stones and grit embedded in it. The worst of it was the guy had taken my change, just reached into my pocket and taken it. Thankfully he hadn’t noticed the five American dollars I still had alongside my knife but something about the way he had yanked those coins out of my shorts, leering into my face as he took them, sickened me. Maybe that was how the little kid at the computer had felt. Powerless. No one likes to feel powerless.

But as I sat there in the baking sun I realised that this actually wasn’t the worst of it. The worst thing was that this time it really wasn’t my fault. That’s what was gnawing away at my insides: for once this wasn’t my fault. Not that Ralph and Liza were going to believe that.

There was a slight movement at the top of the alley and I turned to see the smaller kid, the kid whose fault this really was, appear. He stood there nervously, looking back at me.

“You all right?” he called eventually.

“What do you think?” I growled back at him.

He faltered. “I don’t know. That’s why I’m asking.”

I thought he was trying to be funny and was in half a mind to get up and punch him but the anger had all but fizzled out of me by this time. Besides, there was something so weedy and pathetic about him that I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. Only bullies and cowards pick on people smaller than themselves; people like Ralph.

“Why didn’t you just hit him?” I demanded as the kid continued to stand there, kicking up dust with the toe of his trainers. “He would have left you alone then. That’s all you needed to do – stand up for yourself.”

“Well, you kinda butted in, anyway,” he ventured timidly after a moment’s thought.

I stared back at him. Yeah, he was definitely cruising for a bruising. I looked back down at the dry earth, feeling its heat under my legs.

“Whatever, fine, blame me,” I muttered. “But that guy was pushing you around and if you ask me you shoulda just belted him one.”

He twisted round, looking awkwardly about him. “I…it’s…well, I don’t really believe in violence like that.”

“You what? Are you for real?” He didn’t believe in violence and I’d just got punched in the mouth for it. I would have laughed except my face hurt too much.

I shook my head and looked away, threw a small mud rock across the road and watched as it hit the wall opposite and chipped off a big, dry chunk of itself.

“Anyway, just…well, thanks, I guess,” the boy muttered.

I turned to look back at him. He kind of shrugged a half-hearted apology then took off at a run. It was the most sensible thing he could have done.

I stood up and leaned back against the rough wall. Warmed as it was by the sun it quickly grew too hot through my t-shirt as I just stood there listening to the sounds of the unfamiliar town closing down for the afternoon’s siesta. Shops were pulling the heavy iron shutters across their fronts, bringing their souvenirs in off the baked earth pavements and the last few customers were just leaving the café. I watched them cross the top of the street before I too, reluctantly, set off towards the harbour.

Down at the waterfront the sea was a clear brilliant blue, sparkling in the sunlight, with thirty or more yachts and boats bobbing merrily up and down on its surface. Our boat, The World’s End, was bigger than the clutch of local fishing and sailing boats tied up at the docks and was moored further out, alongside a couple of other ‘liveaboards’ as Ralph refers to them, boats on which people live permanently at sea, like us. Our yacht is white with a broad yellow stripe running round it, a charter dive boat, which is how Ralph now makes his money. He takes out diving parties of people that actually pay good hard cash to go swimming with sharks and all that kind of crazy stuff. I don’t get it myself but Ralph and Liza took me in to live with them on The World’s End two years ago after my parents died so I have no choice in the matter. I must have seen ten different ports in the last eighteen months, but this one certainly looked pretty. I thought you stopped noticing it after a while.

From the harbour road I could just make out Liza on the top deck. I watched her. She was little more than a stick figure from this distance and I was mesmerised by how far away she appeared from where I now stood. The distance seemed all the more exaggerated after a week on the boat with no escape from each other, living in such forced proximity. Liza is small and mousy, especially when you compare her to Ralph, who is built like a truck and seems to fill up every space he occupies. She’s from Scotland and kind of laid back about things so the two of us get on pretty much okay. Ralph, on the other hand, is American: volatile, big and muscle-headed, his skin leathery and stained by the sun, his temper short – or at least short with me. Him and me can never quite see eye to eye on the world.

I got a sick feeling in my stomach knowing that I would have to explain my cuts and bruises to him again. Ralph is older than Liza and didn’t want kids, at least not somebody else’s. They had a kid once but it died and all I know for sure is that they’ll love a dead baby more than me for the rest of their lives. You can’t blame them for that. I am just the product of one of those dumb pacts that parents sometimes make in case anything goes wrong. Nobody ever believes it’ll happen. Until it does.

I stood by the water’s edge where you can hail a boat man, like a taxi, to take you out to the yachts, but there weren’t any around: it was siesta time and I didn’t have any more local currency with me anyway, just my five American dollars emergency money, so I continued standing there, hoping Liza might catch sight of me and come and fetch me in the dinghy. I willed her to look across but she was busy doing something else and I guessed I was as small to her as she was to me.

Eventually Ralph appeared on the deck, scanned the harbour road and, spotting me, motioned with his thick, hairy arms to see if I wanted to come aboard. I signalled back that I did then bent down and scooped up a handful of water to wash any dirt or dry blood from my face. I didn’t know how bad I looked but there was no point in making it worse with him than it needed to be. He always sees the worst side of everything anyway. The salt water burned like crazy.

Minutes later the dinghy buffeted up against the small, concrete wharf and I jumped down without looking at him, feeling my heart suddenly booming uncontrollably inside my chest.

“You get into some trouble out there?”

“It was nothing.” I put my hand up to my face.

Ralph steered the dinghy over to the yacht and just from the way he was going too fast I knew he was mad at me. I clambered up the steps onto the boat leaving him to secure the launch.

“Don’t you go anywhere. We need to talk,” he hollered up at me.

Liza came down from the top deck, made curious by Ralph’s barking voice. She came up to me and held my face in her hands like I was a little kid. She smelled faintly of soap.

“Oh, Tom. What happened this time?”

“Nothing happened, honest. It was nothing.”

“How can you say it was nothing?” Ralph was suddenly there behind her, hands on his hips, a baseball cap stuck on his head and an angry grimace pulling at his lined face. “You were in another fight.”

“I was trying to stop a fight, that’s all.”

“That’s all?” Ralph echoed. “That’s all? Every time it’s the same old story. I let you out of my sight for five minutes and you come back with a black eye and a split lip. Can’t you get on with no one out there anymore?”

“I told you. This time it wasn’t even my fault.”

“Oh yeah, like I can really believe that coming from you,” he snorted.

“Ralph.” As always Liza was there between us, trying to keep the peace. “Just listen to what Tom’s got to say.”

“I’m tired of listening. It’s always the same,” he grumbled. “You got to learn to get along with people Tom, otherwise life is going to get very difficult for you. You can’t take on the whole world. What do I have to say to get you to see sense?” Ralph looked from me to Liza then back to me again. “I’ve been real patient with you Tom, I swear. I know you’ve had it rough these last few years but hell, just give us a break here.”

“Hey, I didn’t ask to come live with you,” I yelled.

That is always my last line of defence, when I can’t think of anything else to say.

“Well, gee, thank you for pointing that out to us – time and time again,” Ralph snapped back.

“Ralph, come on,” Liza pleaded.

He sighed heavily as if he were suddenly resigned to the way things had to be. “What’s the point? Just get below. I don’t want to see you again till supper. Go on. Get out of my sight.”

And with that he turned away from me.

I stumbled down the narrow curve of stairs to the lower deck where there are four small cabins for guests when the boat is taken out overnight. Ralph and Liza have the big cabin up by the bridge but I sleep down here, tucked away as much as possible from their late night parties when the boat is fully booked, or safely removed from their suffocating cosy nights in.

I shut the door, leaning against it for a moment. My cabin is pretty much the same as the others down here except I have a single bed rather than a double or a bunk. The walls are all white; the bed is on one side with a built-in cupboard underneath it and there’s another built-in cupboard/wardrobe on the other side. Under my bed, in the top drawer of the cupboard, there’s a shoe box. Sometimes when I’m mad with Ralph or just feeling down, I get it out and flick through the bits and pieces in there: a couple of pictures of my parents – trapped in a moment of time from three years ago; a blurry photo of my sister, Adrienne, that I took myself with my first proper camera; some souvenirs that probably just look like junk to everyone else, bits and pieces of my past. I really don’t know why I look at it so much because it only makes me depressed.

֎

“You better learn to like it,” Ralph told me over supper that evening. “Liza and I have been talking and we’re going to be here a while.”

“Here? Really?” It hadn’t looked all that spectacular to me so far.

We’d done an awful lot of travelling over the last couple of years, scoping out the best dive-areas for Ralph to grow his up-and-coming charter business.

“Yeah,” he replied levelly. “You’ll be able to start school again.”

He knows I’m no fan of school and my education has been so disrupted over the last two years that I’ve fallen behind other kids my age. I’ve been to English schools and Army schools, American schools and Missionary schools, but they are all the same when you don’t understand the lessons and are the new face in class.

Ralph always wants me to go to American schools, being American himself, but I’m actually English. My father was English at least; my mother was half-Nepalese. He started a conversation with Liza about a life at sea being a pretty good education too and how lots of boys my age wouldn’t know how to dive or steer a boat or set an anchor or half the stuff I did. I guess that was him trying to make the peace. He stretched back in his chair.

“Well, if Tom doesn’t make good in school he can always take to the sea with me. I could certainly use an extra pair of hands – someone who knows the ropes.”

I kept looking at my plate, aware that they were both waiting for something from me: a word or a smile, but I just couldn’t do it. Ralph sighed and I knew he was angry with me again for not doing that something – whatever it was – and I kicked myself for making things worse. I always make things worse. Ralph excused himself and went outside.

Anna, the girl who lives with us on the boat, helped clear away the dishes. She is employed by Ralph as a cook but she is more like one of the family than an employee. She’s been here longer than I have. Anna’s from Mexico originally but she says she can never go back there and that The World’s End is her home now. Ralph and Liza seem to specialise in taking in strays. Maybe they should just get themselves a puppy. It would probably be a lot less hassle. And they don’t live so long either.

“You know the only thing Ralph wants is for you two to get along,” Liza told me somewhat coldly as Anna disappeared back to the galley with an armful of dirty dishes.

“You sure about that?”

Liza brushed crumbs from the surface of the table with her hand, pausing as Anna came back. Instantly sensing something was up, Anna obediently vanished again and Liza sighed.

“Oh come on Tom, we all used to get by together. Why can’t you two just hold a truce? I don’t understand what’s changed.”

I shrugged. Sometimes it’s just easier to push people away than to risk getting attached to them. Getting attached to people is definitely a bad thing. You could say I was attached to my parents and look what happened to them.

 

 

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.