John Higgins is a 23-year-old Irish writer. His work has been featured in The Blue Nib, New Pop Lit, and Honest Ulsterman, among others. He lives in Galway. You can find his work on Twitter: @JohnhigginsW.
Pierre Is Not My Waiter
The boat cut through the night. Below, over the railing, the ocean was inky-black. The boat sliced into the water and left white foam in its wake.
Martin had made this boat trip once before, although under widely different circumstances. Though, he supposed, some things stayed the same. He’d stood out on the empty smoking-deck the entire journey then, too, chain-smoking and watching the horizon. His future, then, too, had been in a state of flux, confusion. Back then, too, as with now, he couldn’t stand sitting reading magazines, smelling stale air, watching other people surreptitiously slide off their shoes and socks and drift off with their bare feet in the air.
That had been before he’d given up literary ambitions, before his desire to travel fast, live rough, do the whole Kerouac thing had given way to contentment with a modest income as a secondary-school teacher in suburban London.
That had been before he’d met Marianna— known as ‘Mary’ to her friends and family, known as ‘Anna’ to him, and only him— and had made the impetuous, possibly Beat-inspired decision to elope to France with her, driving through a grey morning to catch the night ferry from Dover, boarding with bags only under their eyes.
That had been before he’d experienced the nerve-jangling, bowel-loosening fear of standing in a swaying gift shop, browsing cheap thriller paperbacks and trying not to gag at the overpowering stench of chocolate and perfumes, and shaking open a tabloid newspaper to see a grainy, grey photograph of himself underneath the bold, black headline: EUROPEAN MANHUNT FOR KIDNAP TEACHER, MARTIN WOODES.
He hadn’t had the nerve to read the rest of the article. He’d bought a pack of cigarettes, breaking his three-year nicotine chastity, and, keeping his head down and his eyes on his brown loafers, he’d come up here, to the smoking-deck.
The wind whipped his face at every turn. The only place he could light a cigarette was behind the metal fixture in the middle of the lime-green deck. He didn’t mind. He liked the salty smell of the sea. He liked that it was raining and he could be alone. He could still see the outline of England, a rocky formation jutting out of the earth. The far-off whirl of a lighthouse caught his eye.
Anna was downstairs, curled up on the long, leather couches that spanned the entire lounge-area of the ship. No one would pay attention to her. No one would see her pouty, sleeping face and connect it to the image plastered over every newspaper, just above a phone number.
He hoped no one would anyway.
He flicked the cigarette into the sea and lit another, remembering the last time he’d taken this ferry. Or one like it, anyway. Things had been different then. The future had stretched ahead, a kaleidoscopic motorway, with the footsteps of giants his map, the words of encouragement from parents and teachers his fuel, and as his Virgil: the lives of those great pioneers of experience, of living, the Beats.
So he’d made the crossing to the nearest country of culture to his native England, France, hoping to retrack the steps of Fitzgerald, Joyce, and Hemingway, going from Paris cafès to the Riviera, soaking up the experience the world had to offer— the kind that had been prescribed to him when attempting to enter into discussion with the adults that had surrounded him at home— and, all the while, working on the magnum opus that would make his name.
Days spent lazing about in the interchangeable bedroom of whatever maison d’hôtes he’d booked last minute, and nights drinking beer from sculpted glasses, retiring to his chambre to peck away at the second-hand word processor he’d picked up in Calais. No plan— much to the chagrin of his parents, as well as their consternation— and no worries save the immediate ones of survival. They had been great times. A much happier crossing. He rested his bare arms on the freezing-cold metal railing, and spat into the sea.
All that had died in 1994, about the time William S. Burroughs had appeared selling Nike shoes. Then the world had come crashing down around him. It started, of course, with a death. Of course, nothing so romantic as the stillbirth/haemorrhaging of a child and lover in Switzerland, nothing that could be transfigured into the stuff of art.
No. Through a letter that had wound its way through the hands of various postal services, Martin had received word that his father was dying. Terminally ill. Cancer. He’d gone home, shed a few tears, and had decided to spend a while at home, caring for the emotional well-being of his mother, as well as working on a new draft of the same novel— tentatively titled ‘Paradise’s Tether’— only to discover that the demand for reflective accounts of travel by young, white men well-versed in the arts was no longer the in-thing. Crushed by this negation of all he had to offer, he’d taken up college, and then teaching, all the while losing his grip on the literature that had meant so much to him.
And now here he was. Standing on a boat, in the rain, his mouth tasting of ash.
The newspapers called him a paedophile. More accurately, ‘paedo’. The strange thing was, however, he didn’t feel like a paedophile. He didn’t. He hadn’t entered teaching with the idea of seducing young girls. He didn’t become overwhelmed with sexual urges when passing playgrounds. He watched regular porn— girl on guy, sometimes girl on girl, the odd time girl on girl on guy— and never had one intrusive thought about children enter his head. Hell, he had a face as hairless as marble, and he didn’t even wear glasses. He just couldn’t understand where the press had the data to correctly refer to him— box him in, he saw it— as a paedophile.
He hadn’t set out to do it, have sex with a fifteen-year-old girl. It had just happened. It hadn’t even been like the porn way of doing it, with Martin threatening her with expulsion and eventually making her succumb to the power of his veiny, throbbing penis. There had been no mention of poor grades, nor any coy ‘how can I make it up to you?’ remarks delivered with red lips. He’d just offered her a lift home. A fucking lift home.
He put his head in his hands and looked again, into the churning white foam trailing behind the ferry. It didn’t seem real. His head was buzzing. Everything, so far, had always been alright. Everything was always OK. Everything after Dad’s death: OK. Everything after college: OK. Everything that had ever set his head buzzing with this feeling of impending doom, of not—OKness, had always turned out alright in the end.
He paced the deck. Even with the roar of the ferry engines, and the swirl of the sea beneath— that almost-hollow, wet sound— he could still hear the slap of his shoes on the wet, metal deck. The ferry lurched, teetering from side to side. The door swung open. A woman came forward, a cigarette between her lips, and gave a glance towards her fellow smoker.
The door slammed shut, the rubber strip running along the edge adding a soft, sucking sound. The smell of roast beef and spiceless chicken curry from the lounge drifted out and mingled with the fresh smell of salt and petrol. The thought of food turned his stomach, though it had been almost a day since he’d last eaten.
God. 48 hours previous, he’d been on his back, in bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating how to break it off with Anna. Then, skipping forward 24 hours, to last night, he’d been in the same position, though filled with caffeine and waiting for his mother to fall asleep so he could slip out with the car keys and pick up Anna.
How things changed.
−Sorry, you couldn’t light this for me? the woman asked. One of her arms was in a blue sling, the arm folded across her chest. With her free hand, she was attempting to both cup the cigarette in her mouth from the wind, as well as operate the lighter with her thumb.
−Uhm, sure, Martin said, stumbling over and reaching out towards her mouth with interlinked fingers.
−You can— you can just light it, please, she said, holding out the purple lighter.
−Oh. Martin forced a laugh. He felt his face flush red. −Oh. Sorry.
−It’s fine. Just, uhm, yeah… She bowed her head, her chin pressed to the chest of her grey jumper, and held one hand in front of the cigarette. Martin held up another hand, letting it hover just over hers, and lit the cigarette for her.
−Thanks so much, she smiled, exhaling smoke. Martin handed the lighter back to her, conscious of the sweaty, warm imprint he’d doubtlessly left it.
−You off on holiday? she asked.
−‘Not quite’? What’s that mean? The fluorescent strips overhead caught the blonde furrows of her hair and glinted. She turned her back and watched the sea. Smoke rose and vanished into the air.
−I’m, uhh, it’s a work thing.
−Oh, yeah? What do you do?
−I’m— He paused, before opening his mouth again. −I’m a writer.
−No shit? Like, for websites? She turned, leaning with her back against the railing.
−Novels, stories, plays, that kind of thing.
−Anything I would’ve read?
−Ehh, I wrote a novel a few years ago, Paradise’s Tether.
−I’ve not heard of it. She flashed an apologetic smile.
−It was— it was a small press that published it. Independent one.
−What’s it about? I might order it online.
Martin was about to tell her not to bother, that it wouldn’t be her thing, but instead, he heard himself saying: −It’s about a guy who, uhh, wants to escape the life laid out for him by his parents, so runs off to France.
−Ah, so you’re off looking for a sequel? Her tongue flitted out between her uneven teeth as she half-laughed.
−Kind of, Martin shrugged. She tipped ash off her cigarette. It blew away in the wind. She took another drag and crossed the deck. She stubbed the cigarette out in the little ashtray-topped bin beside the door.
−Well it was nice meeting you, she said, free hand on the door-handle. −Have a nice time.
Have a nice time. The words careened around his head. He snorted. The last thing he felt like right now was another cigarette. He took another out and lit it.
If he did end up writing a novel or something about this— heavily fictionalised, of course— that would be the title. Have a Nice Time. He doubted anyone would buy it. No one would have picked up Lolita if Nabokov had been plastered all over the papers for a nymphet predilection.
But then, the difference between Martin Woodes and Humbert Humbert was the size of the Sahara. Martin wasn’t calculating, for a start; he’d just run with the bad hand he’d been dealt. He was more of an active observer than a willing participant, having felt distant, detached, every time they’d kissed in his car, or taken to her parent’s bed— her single being far too small for them to copulate in any comfort. Plus the flowery, hot-pink bedsheets were a real turnoff for him.
And he’d been planning to break it off, after all. The last time they’d had sex— before the backseat quickie on the drive to Dover— he’d sat at the edge of Mr. and Mrs. Cooper’s bed, holding his head in his hands. He’d been silent, motionless, as he’d heard her voice calling to him from miles away, felt her hands tread lightly over his back and shoulders. The gravity of the situation had come to him, then. That had been when he’d planned to break it off.
But he’d been scared. Scared of what she’d do. Concerned for her safety, first of all: what if, in some kind of Julietean display of hormonal infatuation, she’d decided to take her own life? He couldn’t have that, Anna cutting herself away from the multicoloured highway that lay before her.
And what if she retaliated differently? What if she’d told anyone? Then he’d be fucked. The thought of his mother’s face upon hearing about it had flashed into his mind, as he’d lay in bed just 2 nights ago. Fuck. That would have been an awkward conversation to have.
But then he’d made up his mind to break it off. For both their sakes. He’d picked her up, as usual, in the alley between the school and Summit House flat, and as she’d climbed into the car with the customary swish of her skirt, he’d decided he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t be the one to end all this, end the trust she’d put in him, to always do right.
Though, those thoughts had made the ensuing blowjob go on a little longer than normal.
Anna’s eyes were still bleary as she stepped out onto the deck.
−You stink of fags, she said, after leaning in to peck him on the lips.
−You’ve been up here for so long. I thought you’d jumped off. She laughed, but there was genuine concern in her eyes. He squeezed her hand and forced a thin smile.
−Sorry. I’ve just been— I’ve been thinking.
−Just— just everything. It’s some situation, huh?
−I— I’m fine. Missing mum and dad a little. I wish I’d told them I was leaving.
−They’ll be fine. You can text them when we land.
−I’ll be able to use French phones, won’t I?
−I don’t see why not.
−I’ll have to learn French too, won’t I?
−Probably. We’ll need enough to get by, anyway.
−I fucking hate French. Can I have one? She nodded to the crumpled pack of cigarettes. He spilled one out into his hands.
−Last one. Besides, you’re too young to smoke.
−Jesus Christ, she tutted.
−Did you sleep much?
She shook her head. Her brunette hair had gathered rain, and shone with a glossy sheen. −Nah. I kept waking up.
Silence, for a moment, save the swooshing break of the waves, the hum of the engines beneath.
−We’re on the TV down there, she said.
−Yeah. They’ve this picture of you that makes you look like such a creep.
−But mine isn’t much better. It’s from years ago. It’s so blurry. I look like Bigfoot.
−Was there anything else said?
−Telling people to keep an eye out. Said we were travelling south. Had the kind of car and everything.
−They’re fast. They’re probably watching the ports.
Martin turned to the black view of nothing. In his mind’s eye, he could see the flashing lights of gendarmerie or the Sûreté bathing the container-strewn port. He had no more time to make excuses, or prepare stories. He’d just have to wing it. The ultimate immersion, the ultimate experience.
Anna stood beside him. Her face was pale. The blue moons beneath her eyes and the bloodshot sclera shook Martin a little. He put his arm around her and drew her in.
−It’ll be OK, won’t it? she asked.
The buzzing in his head increased to such intensity that he almost couldn’t choke out a reply.
−Yeah, it’ll be OK. Everything’ll turn out alright. In the end.