Afloat, a short story written by Gavin Haycock at



written by: Gavin Haycock



Dean was not feeling quite right with himself. He had felt like this on and off. He simply wasn’t feeling level in that even-keel-running-through-rough-water sort of way, had the sense he might struggle to work it out, even if he could see a way ahead, burning brightly there in front of him. He didn’t really know who he was. No one did. Dean was living other lives at the same time. He made himself a coffee to kill some time, pulled his rifle down from the shelf by the door, went outside knowing it was already loaded and fired a shot. The bullet went through a nearby metal bullseye.
The red hole-rippled target, looking like a badly-eaten apple, was nailed pretty much head high to an old wooden post some 30 feet away and marked out boathouse moorings for approaching Dutch barges, sailing dinghies, city commuter ferries or other water-farers. The target was about six feet above water. Six feet, Dean worked out years back, when you got the timing right between tides. A few hours either way and he would have needed to raise or lower his aim a few inches, maybe more, depending on the tides, the season or the moon. He looked out at the light on the water, playing with images swirling in his mind – an old man with a beard smiling at him, the eyes of a woman just behind the face of a man, tiny bright stars dancing through distant dark places.
“Dean! Put the damn gun away. I’m trying to get through this in here, you water rat.”
Marion floated next door with her plants, paintings, pens and premonitions. She grew things, spent time with her watercolours, wrote things down to keep them real. She read cards.
Dean walked back inside, leaving open the cabin door of his houseboat. He reloaded a new cartridge shell, put the gun back on its rack and went to get his coffee. He took his enamel mug to the table near a window, sat down, took a sip and looked out towards the sun.
The coffee was hot, wisps lifting beyond blue-rim enamel edges.
He could sit there for a while and see the sun do its thing over the water. He figured it also meant he wasn’t so outside of time like he felt earlier. He was now on the inside running. That was a good thing. Dean tried to be open minded about good things. He had work to do tonight, was in no rush to finish his coffee and thought about the shifting turns of light, illuminating the surface of the watery garden beyond him, shimmering amid the soon-to-turn current.
“Clearing my head Mary,” Dean said to the open door between the two houseboats.
“Don’t give me that,” she shot back. “No water’s in your head. Lead in your head, that’s what you got.”
Dean turned the cup within his hands, looking up and into the space framed by the cabin door.
“Is it a good one Mary?” He liked needling her with her name. “Whatcha reading?”
“I’m trying to read what I’ve written. You know I’m working this. That’s no easy thing, with you shooting like you do.”
“No big deal,” said Dean. “Anyway, you know how this goes already. You know. Heat’s killing me. A little shot with a coffee helps to take the edge off when things run like this.”
She didn’t answer.
From where they were sitting, there wasn’t much space between them. He could sometimes hit her with his words. She could knock him out cold with a well-thrown pot.
Dean could picture her in her cabin surrounded by her warm terracotta urns of tiny pines, junipers, wisteria, rosemary and sempervivums. He couldn’t get the word right the first time she pointed them out to him, asking her if they were some sort of cactus or weed. Dean didn’t always get things green. He liked to think of things as being black or white, unless he felt the ‘go-pass-go’ eye of providence was playing him a hand. Just call them liveforevers, she told him.
Above deck, under the California sun, Marion grew her pole beans, supported by six-foot bamboo stakes. Around these were her persicaria orientalis with their flower heads of cerise pink.
“They’re also called ‘kiss-me-over-the-garden-gate’. Much easier to remember,” she told Dean when he was looking over her houseboat the first time. It was a former barge that had plied nearby waterways many years back. She breathed life into the dying hull, created brightly scented and airy rooms where once there was darkness, the lingering smell of diesel.
“Don’t you just love their colour and little heart-shaped leaves?” she said.
Heart-shaped wasn’t a word Dean heard much or thought about. It had all gone a little pear-shaped in his eyes. After the walk out, there was a little cash, which he picked up doing odd carpentry jobs for wharf homers and river dwellers, but not much after rent and food had been paid. He saved what he could each month for petrol to run the motorbike he kept on his roof deck. He liked to get away every now and then, head along the coast and ride inland towards the arid desert and low-lying valleys where there was no water for as far as the eye could see. When the sun was at the right angle even a mirage created from the heat haze didn’t create an illusion of an oasis. It was all liquid metal, glistening reeds of chromium, magnesium and silver in the distance which never moved, no matter how fast Dean sped towards them.
Dean worked in a yacht-maker’s yard when he was younger, knew things about fibre-glass and little double outriggers, finding his way through new designs he mapped out in his mind, working things out in pencil on big sheets of paper before others figured out how to make lighter hulls glide through the water at higher speeds with more stability and less drag. He was comfortable carving white lines in the sea, dodging fishing boats in summer gales when waves were flat crested by thirty-knot winds from dead astern. He worked once with a skipper known as Jim who had crossed the country east to west on a hand-built, wishbone-frame chopper before landing a boat bum bohemian day job at the Wolf Boat Company. Jim loved wheels and water.
Jim had set himself up living in a rusting ammunition barge decaying on the riverbank after World War II and taken Dean under his wing, showing him how to build better. Dean was a keen student. Doubt wasn’t something he had to contend with on the drawing board or out in the swell when landfall was beyond the horizon and the air, black as spray, unseen, as sand-tipped bullets pelleted his face with each trough, lurch and cascade of rolling wave.
“We’re not riding white horses on the back of this Dean,” Jim shouted as they barrelled through the night and he fought to keep the sails tight to sweat each ounce of energy he could from the roar blowing through them.
“We’re running with bulls, demon dolphins and channel gulls out here among our kraken.”
Jim disappeared one late summer sailing from a bay near the Golden Gate to Hawaii. He had left shortly after dawn when a drifting mist hung low in the harbour and sea currents were churning, silent, dark green and predatory. He never made it to where everyone thought he intended to go and wasn’t heard of again. Frank and Wilson at the yard figured Jim maybe wanted to disappear, do his own thing, even if that meant maybe going down with his boat.
“Why would he do that?” said Dean working on the hull of a new schooner. “He left his bike and everything.”
“That’s Jim,” said Frank. “He’s probably out of his mind somewhere on a beach. Wouldn’t surprise me if he walks in here one day and asks for a beer, first thing, as if everything was as it always was.”
Frank paused. “He’ll likely just say, nothing happened out there and if it did, I’d rather not talk about it.”
“Or maybe he’s just bones, making a home for bottom feeders on the ocean floor,” said Wilson.
“Shut your mouth Willie,” said Frank.
“Yeah, shut your mouth Wilson,” said Dean. “Jim’s out there. I’ll keep his bike in good shape for him. None of us know when we go or come back from a distant place.”
A few months after that Friday afternoon conversation, the winds in the boat building industry began to blow in a different direction. There were layoffs. They let go of Wilson before Frank. When Dean’s pay checks began to bounce, he took a carpentry job at a small boat building restoration specialist called TJ’s Sea House, a place you walked along a short dirt track off the street to get to.
“Can you do wheelhouse design?” Dean was asked by an old man who introduced himself as TJ during the interview. A lot of things were said that afternoon without talking. “We’re pretty well known for custom wheelhouse design.”
“I’m no wheelhouse guy,” said Dean looking around the unfinished hulls. “For this place, galley cupboards, cabinets and seatings are what I can help you with. Got my own tools too.”
“Tell you what,” said TJ. “You come back tomorrow at six. We start and finish early. Let’s see what you can do in a day. Take it from there.”
Dean looked around, smelt the wood and felt the warm rays of the sun coming in from above through the big open doors of the yard. His tools looked comfortable where they were. He wasn’t too keen on lugging them back to where he was sleeping that night.
“Ok,” he said. “You mind if I leave my tools here till tomorrow?”
“You can leave them here every night you work with us,” said TJ. “We’re not going nowhere.”
Dean would often think about that conversation all those years back while standing above deck watching commuters head off each morning on the ferry boats as they headed out the channel and past the prison by the headland. Sometimes, he would train his rifle on one of them. Other times, he would lean against a rail on the bow, looking out to the small faces floating in the distance, looking right through them to the other side, into the passing homes and trees drifting by.
That’s what he was doing this morning when Marion asked Dean if everything was ok. She had risen early, before the sun had risen beyond the hills behind them. She had sketched the dawn, written her notes from the previous day into her journal, read a little from her bedside books and taken time watering her pots. Time seemed to run slowly for Marion.
“Dean?” she asked from her deck. “Would you like me to read for you?”
The 8.05 headed out towards the bay, beyond the prison, towards the concrete and steel cathedral city in the distance. The white-water trail began to turn blue. Soon there was no sign anything had passed by. Sea birds sat perched on branches, watching.
“Dean. Come to me. Let me read your hand.”
Marion turned off the water, let the hose curl on the upper deck and headed towards her cabin.
Dean looked across. “I’d like that Mary,” he said. “Been a while. I’ve been wondering.”
Dean turned, walked past his cabin door and jumped the space onto Marion’s houseboat. He followed her into her living room. Ripples played across her ceiling from reflections of sunlight on water. The sound of hammers and saws from refurb jobs as new homes sprung up along the waterline were starting to pick up as morning took hold of the day. The bay’s inlets were being aggressively gentrified.
“Would you like some tea?” Marion said, as she collected her cards and moved towards a small table on the starboard side of her houseboat. Dean could not see this area from his deck due to how her hull, walls and plants were positioned.
“No,” he said. “Just read.”
Marion had her cards in her hands. Her skin frail with age. The blue of her veins rippled through her skin. No sign of blood flowing through them, just big lines running beneath thin flesh.
Dean settled himself on a small chair, put both his hands, palm down on the table and waited.
“I’m no believer. You know that right?”
Marion arranged her cards and asked Dean to pick four, which she placed face down on the table. She turned the first one.
Marion took in Dean’s gaze, the way he played the fingers of one hand over the knuckles of the other. She turned the remaining cards over: Strength, The Tower and The Hanged Man.
“Starts good, ends badly,” said Dean looking up. He waited as Marion touched each card briefly in turn with two fingers, then straightened her back and looked Dean in the eye.
“It’s not quite like that. Let’s not try and see what we want to see.”
Marion often used that line. She worked at the prison, the fortified rock of retribution marking an end point between landfall and open water. For three days a week, she would drive to the prison, parking her sedan on the dirt before the outer perimeter gates. They knew her number plate, her look, her timings and often made only the most cursory of glances at the security clearance badge hanging from her thin-ribbon necklace.
“Hey Marion, you gonna read for me?” one would sometimes ask.
She would smile and keep walking.
Dean knew their shift patterns too. He knew when the laundry and goods deliveries came. He knew which roads and alternative access routes were taken when ferrying inmates between courthouse and jailhouse, from one institution to another in and beyond state lines. There were isolation cages in the vans, with wall-mounted straps, chains and locks, kick panels, tamper-proof screws, ‘cargo’ nets and a gun-rack near the driver and guard seat. The window panels are all flush-mounted on the inside to help keep things clean real fast no matter what. The vans were designed to a rigid set of specifications for the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitations. Dean had seen the plans. He knew about the education programme in the prison, the location, tools and timetables, especially the schedules run to support furniture manufacturing and metal work.
As Dean waited for her to speak, Marion tilted her head slightly from one side to the other as if considering a thought, an idea about to take shape.
“Stay faithful to your strengths Dean. There may be a decision, coming at you from some place you don’t expect it, or want to expect it. You’re thinking about a different place, a new start, a change. You …”
“Change is bad right? That hanged man there …. he’s always there, comes up as the last card, right there.”
“Decisions Dean, decisions.”
Mary went to pick the card up but thought better of it.
“He’s not hung from the neck and look, there is a wry smile on his face. This is not about a struggle. He is biding his time, briefly suspended there with different perspectives on what he sees. He’s taking things in, knows he’ll have to somehow turn things round, including himself at some point, just not right now.”
Marion picked up her cup of tea.
“The vines are green too,” she added. “He’s suspended on something alive and growing. For now he … you … are hanging on to something, you’re a little weighted as if under water, absorbing things, taking it in and knowing that soon you have to do something, but for now you’re ok, there’s no suggestion you have to do anything different tomorrow that you didn’t do yesterday.”
Dean looked out towards the channel and then back at the cards.
“You know with French cards the Hanged Man reads as lost.”
“I know,” said Marion. “It’s a translation thing. “Don’t get hung up on it.”
She put her hand to her mouth to stop herself from getting a little carried away with a momentary laugh.
“Look Dean, sometimes you have to let yourself go a little to move on a little, sacrifice a few things, you know what I mean? There’s no need to struggle, you don’t need to force a hand.”
The heat in the room spread as the glow from the sun moved light and warmth further around them.
Marion began to collect her cards.
“There was a poet, he died just last year. I like his work,” she said. “He will sell more now that he has gone. Shortly before he died, he wrote that the only true thoughts are those that do not grasp their own meaning.”
“He spoke in riddles?” said Dean.
“No, I don’t think so,” said Marion. “He liked his life to play out with unspoken and unspeakable truths. He took his time to trust that what he wrote with his pen spoke of things he did not really know himself.”
Marion put her hand on Dean’s shoulder as she walked with him to the door, the light from outside becoming brighter.
“He wasn’t someone who liked to be in control. He was quite happy to submerge himself, to be comfortable with what came to the surface that he didn’t fully understand at the time.”
Later, as the sun began to head below distant hills, Dean leaned against the rails on the bow of his houseboat.
He thought of Jim’s demons and kraken, a mythical sea beast believed to have the power to sink large ships. He read somewhere once that the word derived from ancient times, being born of a verb to twist, to turn, morphing over years in distant places to wash out over the tongue as ‘crook’ in English.
Dean wrapped his fingers around the bow rails, drawing them tighter as he watched the commuters walk down the plank from the evening shuttle ferry towards the car park, bicycle stands and bus stops.
The thought of grabbing his rifle entered his mind. He looked down at his fingers and gently released his grip.
Light was fading from the day. Dean looked towards the prison a few miles away. The lights mounted around its walls would soon be switched on. He lit a cigarette and waited. When they came on, he could make a move. He was feeling steady amid the churn of thoughts running through his head. He didn’t need to hang around any longer. He had the timing right, been turning it over for a while.
A kestrel broke clear from its perch on a branch across the channel.
Dean watched it lift and glide across the air, before floating away into the dusk of the evening.

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