A seal hauls its bulk onto a concrete buoy and surveys the harbour. A security guard loiters around the yachts, walkie-talkie hissing on his belt. Fishermen hose down decks, polluting the water with blood and chum. Across the watercourse, ships hover in the fading light, vibrating, insubstantial. A siren wails.
Benjamin straightens his spine for what feels like the first time that day. Already, he can taste winter in the penetrating damp lifting off the Atlantic. The cold stiffens his joints until each rivet he stamps into the metal hull drives a hollow pain up his ulna all the way into his shoulder.
At fifty, Benjamin is an old man. Under his helmet, his hair is the colour of oiled steel. He reaches up, kneads the tendons between his neck and shoulder. He watches the men around him down tools and make their way towards the gate. He feels none of their eagerness to leave. His walk to Point Mansions along Somerset Road is seven kilometres, the climb to the roof nine hundred and sixty two stairs. He could catch a taxi, but prefers to delay his homecoming, if home is what the cramped room he rents can be called.
His room contains little evidence of the fifty years Benjamin has spent on this earth; no mementos, photographs, books, calendar-girls or -vistas to escape into, pinned to the crumbling plaster. Even the practicalities, the blankets, spoons and forks, the pots, he left behind in the Hanover Park house he’d shared with Marta. All he brought from his former life is her headscarf, though there is nothing of his wife imprinted into it. Even its fabric softener smell, almost gone, is not hers. Sometimes in the night he stares into the inky dark until the floor begins to pitch and roll beneath him like the sea. Then he seeks out the scarf tied to the bedpost and the cotton reminds his calloused fingers of all he has lost.
The gates of the shipyard swing open. The shipbuilders line up to clock out. Their faces hover darkly atop overalls the same deep blue as the sea. In the dusk they appear as a single many-legged creature. Only the occasional yellow helmet or woollen beanie mars the uniformity until they break ranks. Their overalls compliment the greys and browns of the dockyard brick, the dull gleam of the ships, the greasy pitch of the sea.
Helena waits just outside the shipyard gate, her dress a bright pink smear on the wall. She stands, shoulders hunched, hand on hip. Defiant. Dispirited. The seal coughs out a succession of barks as if displeased by the colour.
Benjamin joins the queue. Someone near the front wolf-whistles and the men crane their necks for a glimpse of the provoking object, but not him. Benjamin no longer cares to look.
Helena sets her mouth in a firm line, as if her lips can act as a fence between her and the men. She places a hand on her abdomen, absently rubbing the bulge as if to placate the life that gurgles and fizzes within. She glances at the bench where her first born sits upright and stiff, neat as a pin in her best clothes. The ribbons in her hair stand out like beacons against the sea. She feels a surge of love that at once stirs her bitterness.
Benjamin reaches out like an automaton and pushes his card into the slot, his fingers tense in anticipation of the mechanical jerk.
See you in the morning, Williams.
He shrugs. He long ago stopped thinking in terms of tomorrow. As he steps through the gates his vision snags on the young woman leaning against the wall like an open wound. He reads the disappointment etched into her face and Benjamin remembers Marta.
The woman is Marta returned, the Marta he’d forgotten, vital and fleshy, before they left the child they could not afford at Sarah Fox and the grief of it ate the very substance of her.
Men file past. Some nod in greeting, but most just give Helena a lidded up-and-down glance. She recognises no one. The dock gates close. She sighs, bracing her hands against the wall in readiness to move when she sees Benjamin staring.
She recognises the look on his face, the emotions that go with it. She feels it herself when she looks at her daughter but it’s the first time anyone has looked at her that way.
Along the promenade streetlights flicker to life. The seal slides off the buoy into the water, barely rippling the surface.