The Crossing

by KB

The rain had begun, falling in bursts: little specks of light nestling between the sodden feet and leaves that feathered out upon the ground then were lost in terrible multitude. Droplets were caught upon full lashes then fell away suddenly to a nose that sunk deeply between grey-blue eyes then rose and curved all mischievous. They inched on towards lips thinly ajar, and were beckoned to settle amongst teeth and gums where they tasted metallic upon his tongue. All the while the dark canvas above was as an indifferent stranger: starless, the moon was single and pale, a wide round button fastening the whole scene together. It was humid and as he walked the night air sparred with him, jabbing sweat upon his chin and his back. His eyes rested upon the floor so that the sky met the ground with finality.

The sun had faded into a muddy sky but the early evening sweltered and as he wound down nameless streets the smell of sticky rice and mango served on disposable plates from stalls that lined the street sides rose up and was strengthened by the heat. On round shallow pans chicken was fried and scorched at its fringe by bent-back men while women poured milk and butter from cartons into large pots, whipping the mixture up into a frenzy and then releasing it to trickle away and settle softly as pancake upon the wide hobs. Glops of Nutella diluted by oil were drawn out upon knives and thinned over the pancakes so that the doughy white still peeked out from beneath. The eyes of the men and women were hard and white like peeled boiled eggs set in dozens beneath brows that the Sun had beaten brown and hard.

Their act was accomplished with ceaseless repetition: hands hung in the air a moment then shook back to the butter and milk and eggs that were broken together again and warmed upon the hob, embracing one another until two became one. The aroma was sweet and as it filled his mouth in the sweat and dust of the street the tuk-tuks jabbered by incessantly. His shirt clung to him and unbuttoned it would not slip from him but would be peeled first from his shoulders and then his back which earlier the sun had worked upon making it very raw and tender. He walked past the food sellers and on beyond taxi drivers that bawled out in short bursts over games of Thai checkers that were set out upon red plastic tables, leaned upon the curbs.

At the street end he turned out and faced the water; the gulls and light salt-air drowned by other sensations. His eyes strained to make out the little boxes of light that hovered in the distance, the barges that teased and stroked one another at the shore-side before drawing back, far as their tethers would allow, to bob divorced and lonely upon the oily ebb. Sunk knee-deep in darkness he moved on down the shoreline and towards bars from which light slipped, coiling in the dark with the intent to oust itself out into a great body but denied by boxes and bags which were stacked one upon another at the edge of the doors and windows. Shadows were thrown upon the ground. The rooms that glowed fiercely were quiet. Customers were scant there and women stood at the edge to wail like Harpies at passers-by, and were overlooked by the water which was all the while solemn and unspeaking. By day Don Sak was a barren and lifeless place but at night people drew to it from all directions seeking to cross out into iniquitous islands.

Beyond the bars sat a dock disinterested by those now gathering around it. At its side was marked a single white-tent: an impermanent tarpaulin stretched tight across two sides that rose highest at its centre and possessed nothing so definite as a door. Walking towards it he found inside a cramped television that was set upon an overturned crate behind a single table. Around it stood a half dozen local men watching a draw between Italy and New Zealand play out. As he approached one of the men turned to him. He had scraggy hair that had once been dyed blonde but was now faded flaxen, setting him apart from the darkly cropped rest. He gave his destination and was met blankly. He recited it. The flaxen man's eyed remained dim but he reached inside a draw and produced from it a small poorly bound book. Flicking at the pages the flaxen man stated in slow and deliberate English that the crossing would cost 550 baht. He nodded towards a register that sat upon the table, already almost full with names; Swedish, Dutch, German, English and conspicuously few Thai. To the Westerner 550 baht was a nominal sum but it was excessive as for 100 or 200 baht he could be shuttled for hours.

But he paid the money and was handed a thin piece of paper upon which was sprawled a series of unintelligible numbers that immediately became moist and flimsy in his hand. He pocketed it then turned and left the tent by the way he had come in. He made it back across towards the street where now around vaguely lighted tables throngs lined. Pushing his way into the mass he ordered a Heineken that was served in a bottle upon which had gathered moisture as if from a child that on a cold day had blown warm air upon the glass then captured and saved it until he especially could come to claim it. The bottle cooled his hand, making it numb. He retreated from the main crowd and dappled by light which spilt from the bar to fall in thin veins upon the pavement he took a chair beside two men and sat with a girl who sipped from a straw at a luminescent opal-blue cocktail that was framed by a tall narrow glass, at the rim of which hung a cheap floozy-figurine. His charm was muted and he could not pierce the group: he perched upon it as the three began to talk and felt restless. From boredom he called to a shabby Thai and ordered a green curry. It was warm and thin when it came and as he slurped it up from a spoon he looked upon the crowded couples and wondered whether they were together out of need or yearning: whether they loved one another or only the aspects of themselves that they had invested into others. A blare of a boat horn sounded near-departure and cast the thoughts from his mind.

He rose and penned in by the crowd lost sight of the three. As the herd of bodies began to move forward, some white some burnt some tanned, they carried him with them and forcefully moved him back towards the dock. The white tent was gone now. Indeterminate Thais hung upon the dock's edge with torches that lit up a boat that was yards away upon the water. Thin timber ramps led up from the concrete onto the boat, which was as a dim spectre in the dark. The crowd pushed forward: he flashed his ticket at nobody in particular and mounted the ramp. Turning his head back upon the dock behind he found from the corner of his eye the flaxen man with a torch in hand, a regular Charon, heralding people upon the boat. As he moved further in he lost sight of the flaxen man who faded then melted away entirely into the heat of the night and the shabbiness of the dock as if neither had ever existed at all. He looked finally back and found a street shorn of the people that had warmed it. The bars, bare and desolate, remained brightly open in anticipation of wanton stragglers: the young women stood guard over their thresholds and the elder flipped their pancakes. But the street's great moment was over as precipitately as it had begun.

The ramp had led him out onto a wide, open deck that was pierced at its centre by stairs which led down to the boat's core. By the motion of a stocky man's hand he was ordered below and told to remove his shoes. These were added to the heap that had gathered around the steps; a jumble of sweaty fabric was all that the crowd left in its wake. A hundred bare soles trod upon the bare wooden floor and burrowed deeper into the boat that was carried like a phantom above the watery depths. There was no rhythm of delicate pitter-patter but the awful groan as from wildebeest shifting their great bulk from one place to another. The floor had become moist and unpleasant to stand upon: the fervor that alcohol had induced left their bodies heavy with the heat of the night and as they crammed deeper the cargo became warm and irritable. The roof of the lower deck was slung low so that it was made impossible to stand upright. There were few lights and it was dim as their arched backs fell out upon the single sleeping mats which were scattered upon the hard floor. Hands flailed as they rummaged through bags then fell upon the floor like the paws of moles buried deep beneath timber ground, caught somewhere between light and darkness.

Each mat was arranged immediate to the next and was numbered corresponding to a ticket. Down the spine of the deck ran a corridor of space, thin and narrow. The fumbling of coming abroad was done with and bodies were set down side-by-side. In Khao Lak he had been assured of a bar u stocked with Chang, Singha or cheap Sang Som: of televisions surrounded by sofas. He had not expected something grand: not the great floating European hotels of home which, wrought of steel, plunged deep beneath the sea then rose up to form deck upon deck before settling finally out into an open platform that was long and steady even upon the rocky sea. But the vulgarity of the boat surprised him. The floor was unvarnished and splintering; the thin leathery mats were packed tightly together squealed as bodies were lowered upon them. The boat was dank and he felt wholly a world away.

From a porthole above his head he knew the wind would blow in. Kneeling up, he looked out upon the inky darkness that stretched lifeless ahead of him. By specks of light an eerie chiaroscuro had descended upon the deck making it shallow. In corners separated from the main body slim groups drunk rum or vodka from dark flasks. Shrunk deep into the deck was a toilet. There was a wooden basin, and beside it a single tap and deep bucket which, filled, was to be poured into the basin and flushed into the depth below. The few sprawled around it laughed in accented whispers; the deck lay otherwise a hush. Thin blankets or coats were drawn and most tried to force sleep. He was unable to shift his body much to either side: vainly he wriggled, and then lay still. Staring up at the shallow ceiling of the floating sardine-can he fell asleep.

The journey was long. When he first awoke he found that a cool freshness had descended upon the deck. Everything aboard was quiet: outside the waves lapped upon the boat-side one after another and only the hum of the engine was heard as it propelled the boat forward, its every fibre shaking as it churned the water and skimmed the foam which was gathered up into little white heaps then dispersed upon the gloom. In the dead of night an illusion of space had fallen upon the deck, no longer shallow. He found a hundred eyes dead and hidden beneath listless lids when hours ago they had been fiery upon the street. He stretched and yawned and finding himself utterly alone was oddly soothed. He turned upon his side and heard softly the sighs of the woman next to him as her chest rose, then fell, then rose again. The black watery mountains heaved and rolled, consuming him. He fell to sleep.

He awoke finally to the chill of early morning. The darkness had passed and the inactivity of night was vanishing into daybreak, which promised life anew. He wrapped his coat tight around him and pulled it up over his mouth. The deck smelt fresh like a forest: he looked around and imagined each person waking like he in the loneliness of night and wondered whether it had pained or gladdened them. Cloud had muffled the morning sun but light escaped to snake through portholes and fall in golden lines upon the ground. From under a mist- soaked sky the rays were as a golden army come to liberate him from sleep.

He sat up and looked to the portholes that sat as a dozen looking glasses upon the bare wall before him. The light outside was cast in dove-white specks upon the sea that still rolled beneath a wind-washed sky. He sat there and watched. In the distance a speck dimly took form; the boat was being drawn towards a puzzle that gathered together piece by piece until it surrounded them and revealed itself a great green hilly bulk. At the fringe of the portholes dew glittered as like dust upon the air. In the night the boat had ran with the loneliness of a long distance runner upon the watery back of the sea that now bore this floating bounty. He had emerged upon an old land that seemed to stretch on endlessly as it drew closer. It did not remind him of home as he knew it but of how home may once have been. These hills were not moulded by hand: neither brick houses nor trim gardens were set upon the shore. The land ran straight and abrupt. It was absent of symmetry and of the motorways that fed towns. The emerald hills were touched by cloud and rose out steeply in the morning and were ascended by thick forests whose tips plumed out upon the sky like the feathers of a peacock proud and languid.

He felt the heat rise in eyes that opened around him but the stillness remained and he imagined that this lustre had thundered into life for him alone. The boat slowed as it reached land and humbled the engine just sobbed softly and sighed.

He turned and looking through the porthole at his back observed no palette of life or colour: neither land nor water was bathed in white. The water trod behind was blue, straight and expressionless. The ferocity had bled away into the night and it was unaffected by the beauty of land. It did not acknowledge him as he looked out upon it. In the night he had clung like an oyster to its shell and had been noticed no more than the fish or stones that the sea also bore. The water had scooped him up and soon it would spill him out. His pride vanished and as he felt his heart beat he recognised more truthfully everything he thought to have known before.

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