The Portuguese appears in the office. He is young and is now the cook aboard. However, he came aboard as first mate. “I have just had a son. I don’t know him. I am a prisoner here and I don’t know when we will leave. I became a sailor because I was following a dream. I was working in a supermarket but I always wanted to follow in my father’s footsteps”, he says. Once again, everyone falls silent because everyone knows he should be the first to leave this prison. “Do you know if mother and baby are well?” “Yes. I saw a photo in the headquarters of the Stella Maris.” “In a photo, a photo”, repeats the angry sailor. The Portuguese calms him down with gestures. He knows that anger is pointless.
I need air. I need to escape from this office and to rid my head of the images of the sofa, the calendar and the clock that stopped at 13.00. The angry sailor gets up and says that he will show me the ship. The captain focuses his attention on the television. He spends the day in front of this mute screen as although he does not understand what they are saying, he usually picks something up from the images. It is a unique interpretation of an Italy whose television is a catalogue of beautiful, radiant, smiling, surgically enhanced young women. They call them velinas. A certain Noemí, who is eighteen years old, is always on television. She shouted “papi, papi” to Berlusconi on her eighteenth birthday. Sound is unnecessary to know that although she could be Berlusconi’s granddaughter, Noemí is not a member of his family.
The deck is covered in coiled ropes, broken wood and rusty pieces of iron. The giraffe and teddy bear that I saw on my arrival are still hanging from some ropes. An old lucky charm is hung from another. It has miserably failed in its purpose. The angry sailor leans on an old rail. He points at the ship and then at the other ships that can be seen on the other piers. In front of ours is a large spotless cruise ship, the Celebrity Equinox. Ours is more akin to a warehouse than a vessel.
He does not speak perfect English. He expresses himself using the Pidgin English that sailors and port traders used as the lingua franca until the middle of the eighteenth century. There are three thousand phrases relating to deals, trade, safety and the sea. Nothing else. He explains that he is not German or Italian. He is Ukrainian and it is because of his nationality that he is buried alive in this coffin. I ask him why he does not leave. His look provides the answer. Leaving is a remote possibility. In fact it is impossible and something he mentally discounted a long time ago. It no longer even crosses his mind, certainly not voluntarily.
Leave? He is not European. He cannot disembark and walk through Italy. He would be stopped at the first border control and what would he say? “The ship owner abandoned me!” Who would believe a story about lost sailors? He calms down, indicates the hold where the fertilizer had been and starts the tour of the ship.
On deck they have constructed a small gymnasium using wood and ropes. He laughs. It was the big electrician’s idea. However, in reality, it was a pointless exercise for him as he does not actually use it. Some weights are hanging from ropes. You have to raise and lower a piece of wood as part of your workout in order to receive some benefit. The electrician is well out of earshot. He is on the pier checking the sixteen lines that attach the ship to the bollards. When the ship shakes they are the only security measure. Just behind the ship is a tug boat. I note down its name, Eugenio III. I then realise that it is the same one that I saw when I arrived in Civitavecchia by cargo ship. The sea is a sacred circle. Its size, openness and mood all depend on who is drawing the circle. It seems as if I am drawing more spirals than circles.
“The cruise ships…” begins the angry sailor. He does not finish as we are interrupted by some shouts. An old man and a young girl have just arrived. They are from the Stella Maris and come bearing provisions. I watch the captain go down to the pier to greet them.
As we head down to the pier I see that there are dried fish hanging from one of the ropes. “The old man”, says the angry sailor. That is how I know it was the white-haired old man dressed in mourning black who caught them.
“Pasta, pasta and more pasta”, says the captain. He laughs as the pasta is not meat but at the same time he is grateful for the spaghetti that they have brought. The captain takes the two people to his office and I have no alternative other than to follow them. I am once again shut in the office. The man from the Stella Maris starts preaching. They should not have to spend money on cigarettes because it is a vice and not a basic necessity. The captain looks at him and smiles. The man is Italian and he is also a retired ship captain. He has been working with the Stella Maris since 1997. While at sea he had never heard about lost ships or abandoned crews. It was when he started his life on shore that he learnt what was happening. I will learn nothing about the girl. She is young volunteer in a Catholic organization.
When I disengage from the conversation I realise that the ship is full of unusual pictures. They are ones that do not exactly help to keep madness at bay. One depicts a camel with a stretched neck ridden by a Bedouin who is asking a woman for water. She is sitting on the floor with a jar on her head. The two captains speak to each other in a politically correct manner. The Bulgarian knows that he has to be friendly whatever the other says. The Italian is a leader as he has been a captain. He cannot stand seeing the misery that surrounds him. I continue looking at the picture while listening to them in the background. In my mind I am heading towards Jordan.
I never knew if the Bedouins were coming or going when I was there. Neither did I ever manage to decipher what they were thinking. I did not get to know them very well as they would not allow me to. Although they were like sailors in this respect I know that the Bedouins were never seafarers. So what is a picture of a Bedouin doing on a merchant ship? I do not know. He inspired whoever hung it on this wall to put to sea. I am convinced that if the Bedouin had been of flesh and blood he would have fought to have prevented himself being trapped in a painting and surrounded by water.
As well as the picture there is a fly trap full of dead insects. I had not noticed it until now. They are attracted by the smell and they become stuck to the viscous surface. A careless fly flies dangerous close to the device and is trapped. At first it flaps a wing and moves its legs. It then becomes still, permanently I imagine. The sofa, the picture, the shaped clouds of smoke, another cruise ship arriving in port, another tremor, and the dead or dying flies…
I begin to feel seasick again. I excuse myself and head up to the deck. I support myself against a wall on which there is a greasy telephone and a clock that has stopped at 13.00 just like the one in the captain’s office. The telephone is not connected to anything. There is no-one at the other end of the line but there it is. It presence unnerves me. I want to pick up the receiver but I do not do so as I am scared that someone will answer.
I return to the cabin and the two captains are still talking. I now notice that next to the calendar permanently stuck in August there is another one on which someone has bothered to mark off the days. Today is the 15 November and, although we have not yet reached midday, someone has already crossed it off.
The people from the Stella Maris are leaving and I ask them for a lift. The ship is about four kilometres from the town which is a long way on foot. Tomorrow I will bring meat and we will have a barbecue. However, I have told them that first I want to talk to each one of them in turn.
Sunday. Fighting against the windmills.