Down the Marina
At the city’s edge, half way into the marina, Ana-Maria sits on top of her boat, wearing a man’s jumper, pants and nothing else.
—Small splinters are boring into the flesh of her thighs as she shifts her legs from one side to the other. It’s getting dark again.
—In the boat beneath her, the duvet lies crumpled on the floor, her banjo upside down by the fireplace. If there’s a sound, still, it’s the skipping of her record player, at the record’s end, a finishing desperate to finish itself.
—She has her eyes on the water, which is shallow and murky in this part of the marina. When she looks up again, they are still there: huddled in a small group in the near distance, by the fence, talking. It’s impossible to make out their words from here, only to notice how fast they are coming out.
—Ana-Maria shivers. She has recognised Zabrina, Femi and Stuart, she thinks.
—She holds her breath for a long, almost painful moment and, in a hazy winter white, exhales a little more of what has just happened to her.
The first time she saw him, two weeks ago, he was in the laundry room, placing his socks into the drum, one by one, as if they were precious objects. He stopped as he got to a creased t-shirt, then accelerated until the basket was empty. She noticed his muscles and how young he is. She didn’t notice the scars, or the tattoo that begins where they end.
—Her shy Morning by the showers, his Night in the bar – the casual marina-life encounters between then and now didn’t prepare her for his sudden appearance, outside the loos:
—“Would you like to come to my boat later on?”
That was yesterday afternoon. Now, Ana-Maria is trying, but can’t make it out: Where are they pointing? At Flora’s boat? She hasn’t been around in ages (selling her art in Greece now, apparently). Next to her, Gabriel and Sara are raising a baby on a barge and two teachers’ salaries (fierce arguments have been reported recently, no judgement passed). Or does she mean the row of boats behind that? Black market Jack (failing with another attempt at a mature relationship), Il Padrino (not seen in the marina bar for three nights in a row now: was he sick?), the couple that only moved here a couple of weeks ago, Georgia and Kate (well-off, it’s said, at least for marina standards, and happy).
—What do they say of her? A little too corporate to really fit in. A little too full-time. Away a lot and barely here when she’s not. And then, out of the dark corner: too European, too strange a mix.
—With sudden vehemence, a finger shoots Ana-Maria’s way and the shudder that runs through her causes goose pimples all over her freezing skin.
The door was open when she arrived, the smell of weed coming from his, or anyone’s boat. The sound of a kettle boiling.
—She stepped on with much more force than was necessary. As if the minor movement this caused to his boat might replace her:
—She took a step towards the door, placed her hands on top of the frame, and leant in, as if to look out for sharp objects, class A drugs, female clothes.
—A small boat, the kind Ana-Maria has always thought of as mildly claustrophobic: opposite the fire there was a blanket on the floor, a few cushions. In the kitchen a fold-up chair, folded up. A single cup, unwashed, by the sink. Everything looked of someone who had only just arrived, or was about to leave.
—His voice arrived before she could see his body, emerging from the back of his boat. He was wearing exactly the same clothes as before, black jeans and a burgundy jumper, and she immediately regretted changing hers.
—“I brought you this.” She touched the bottle, a cheap Merlot, sticking out of her tote bag. He barely nodded. To the left and right of the door, there were bookshelves, but without her glasses she couldn’t make out any titles.
—As if something was preventing him from settling in his own home, he stayed standing. She ran her fingers across the row of DVDs that stretched along one side of the boat.
—“Are they all in black and white?”
—“Life is in colour, but black and white is more realistic.”
—“There are weeks when I’m spending more time with Philip Winter than anyone else in this world.”
—“Who is Philip Winter?”
—He pointed at the man looking back at her from the cover she was holding.
—“Mit sich selber reden, das ist mehr zuhören als reden.”
—She looked up, surprised. His pronunciation was almost perfect. Reaching for the language that replaced her Romanian at 5, before, 17 years later, it gave way to this one, she says:
—“Ist das so?”
When she looks up again, the group is gone. She rushes her eyes up and down the fence, but there is no sight of them.
—Before Ana-Maria can decide whether it is relief that rises in her chest, or a new kind of unrest, another image from last night returns, his eyes, traversing his boat as if they were reluctant to rest anywhere. As if the whole environment was contaminated by something, tarnished. Or a reminder.
—In the silence that stretched between them, she heard a plane, crossing the marina in a low descent. The clack-clack of a train, out there in the marshes. And, when both were gone: the heaviness of his breathing.
—She was there for less than five minutes when he said: “You’ve seen where I live. Why don’t you show me your boat?”
They walked, slowly, and silently, from his boat to hers, and Ana-Maria sensed a curious comfort she knew she shouldn’t be feeling.
—Then, suddenly, without a warning, he grabbed her, as if possessed, his arm coming through beneath hers, and pressed his body against hers. ~
—She flinched, but he put his head against her shoulder. Why, despite herself, did she allow him to?
Stuart reappears first. Ana-Maria sees a rollie, unlit, between the fingers of one hand, his mobile clenched by the other. He is almost shouting into it.
—The group surrounds him with a new nervousness. Ana-Maria starts scratching her leg where the knee becomes the calf.
On her boat, she placed the needle at the beginning of Soothing and turned, with sudden enthusiasm:
—“Do you want a glass of wine?”
—She watched him trying to make space for himself on her worn-out couch, picking up her silky white top (deemed too revealing) and putting it with the black jumper (too dark), moving aside the newish jeans she dismissed in favour of the worn-out pair she ended up wearing. He shook his head.
—She knelt in front of him, shifting to the side in one seamless move, taking hold of her ankle to stay upright, her muscles yoga-tight:
—“So, why did you invite me?”
—He leant into a long silence.
—“For the same reason that you came?”
Zabrina is rushing the group on, and there is no doubt now: they are coming Ana-Maria’s way.
—Was it before or after she handed him his cup of camomile that she touched his leg? That he stroked through her hair. That she closed her eyes.
—Her naked feet are drumming against the outside of the boat, like an accelerating rhythm to the words she can still hear, coming from inside, his voice lowered, like his eyes:
—“Sometimes it’s so bad I talk to the homeless people. The man by the edge of the park at night. Ahmad. Jenny, outside of Tesco’s. Just to have someone.”
She was so close, in that moment, to respond to this admission in kind. So close to have the courage.
—Instead: she moved her hand further up his leg. She could feel the tension she had noticed building. The pressure of something stuck.
—“Do you want to have sex?”
—He kept his eyes straight at hers.
—His lips were unmoving.
—It was impossible for her to hide the disappointment at his non-reaction. Her sudden embarrassment. They stayed like this for a long time.
—Then, in one seamless move, he ran his hand down her side, grabbed her, and pulled her body towards his.
—It took forever for him to get hard, her hand moving quicker, at first, and then slower, much slower, and she wasn’t sure whether it was regret or frustration she felt, but she persisted, determined to see through what she had started, and then, gently kissing her naked skin, he was almost there, and fumbled for his wallet and used his teeth to open the packet, as if he, too, was strangely determined now and, once she had guided him inside, he came within a few seconds.
She wrapped his head and pressed his face against her chest, as if to stop him from speaking.
She’s drumming harder now. Faster. Her unsteady beat comes back to her like an echo in a chamber, sealed off from what’s out there, where the country jitters on.
He was lying next to her on the floor, by the unlit fireplace, with his head on his arms and his eyes on her, mirroring the position. The duvet she had taken from her bed covered their nakedness, up to a point. She shuffled:
—“I think you need to talk about it.”
—“Talk about what?”
—He knew he wasn’t getting away with this; she could see. Another painful silence ran through the boat, before he started speaking:
—“It happened two days ago. A Sunday. It’s always a Sunday. I drank a bottle of red instead of dinner. And then another half.”
—She kept her eyes on his face.
—“I was too embarrassed to go to the marina bar, so I danced with myself, in some Dalston basement. Drinking enough not to be ashamed about it. I heard his voice about half way down the park, walking home. He sounded friendly. Can I walk with you for a bit?”
—He pressed his arms against his body as if to contain what had spread everywhere.
—“By the time we were at the marina gates it was like he was leading me. Inside my boat, he saw my laptop on the mattress, books strewn about. May I, he asked. I can still hear him. He moved everything away before I answered. I never answered.”
—He turned to face the ceiling, and she knew no better than to stroke his arm with the back of her hand.
—“In the morning, I was lying there, uncovered in the cold. He didn’t even close the door when he left. And I tried to convince myself that he used a condom, and I knew that he hadn’t.”
—When he was finished crying, he asked if he could have a shower and she said she wasn’t sure there’d be enough water, but that he should try.
Even now — how many hours later? — she can still hear the voice inside her head, rehearsing what she would say to him, once he was back from the bathroom and close to her again, feeling strangely emboldened, all of a sudden, as if she’d been touched, somewhere, by seeing his body admit his pain for him, and the ease that followed: not because he had spoken, but because someone had listened.
—The words she had never shared with anyone: I feel so lonely too. It sits where I don’t even notice it anymore… This deep.
But when he returned from the shower, he just stayed there standing, naked in the middle of her boat, unmoving.
—Then, already, she could see him slip away, out of her boat, and through the gates of the marina. Up the empty park’s pathway, perhaps, and stopping half-way, somewhere between his gaze, still attached to the vast, dark expanse of the marshes, and his body, already moving on.
—For now, she extended her hand and said:
—“Ana-Maria, hello. Can you hear me?”
—A boot against her boat. Ana-Maria feels the movement in her stomach. She pulls the jumper over her legs.
—Somewhere: the sound of a siren.
—The barking of a dog.
—Slowly, Ana-Maria looks up.
—Femi is twisting her hair: “Have you seen Kwame?”
—“He’s not on his boat… or in the bar…”
—“It’s…” Zabrina hesitates.
—Stuart uncrosses his arms: “We’ve been quite concerned about him lately. We wanted to make sure he’s alright?”
—Ana-Maria lowers her eyes. Like blurry brushstrokes in a washed-out painting, the water reflects the dim colours of other boats, other lives; the craggy shapes of trees swaying slowly in the wind.
—She pushes herself up, accepts the group’s hands to steady her, and, in the comfort she feels in this, is unsure, suddenly, whether or not she can nod.
Daniel Kramb is a fiction writer and poet. His play Look at Us, written in collaboration with JJ Bola, just had its first rehearsed reading. Daniel is the author of three novels, Central (2015), From Here (2012) and Dark Times (2010); and a booklet of poetry, Timid Takes (2013). He lives in London. www.danielkramb.com
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