I'm in an orange jumpsuit on a deck suspended twenty meters above water, except this water is like no water I have ever seen; this is not Aegean ultramarine, this stuff is a menacing grey, shifty, jittery, surfacy. This stuff smells of dead bird and old rags, this is the stuff that comes out of the pipe when the plumber unscrews, bent down under the sink. And it's everywhere because this place has no corners, it has no angles, it has no place to hide. It's a space-water dictatorship too vast to be earthly and too full of stuff you cannot see to be comfortable for a guy like me.
I’m on the bridge now, in Arie’s field of vision – that’s Captain Arie. You won’t believe me if I tell you he looks like Popeye, but he does. Tattoos, big forearms, a disappearing lip. Maybe his wife is spindly. I’d believe it, I believe almost anything out here. I believe Roman too when he tells me of all his women. Roman is Latvian. I drink in his stories looking down at the water, my head over the railing, my hands tucked in gloves (no mittens onboard). We are shoulder to shoulder, me and Roman. There're only five things you can do out here: sleep, eat, smoke, look at water and talk. We’re doing three, the last three. Like I said, Roman tells me of his women in Riga. My ten year old cousin Popic speaks more advanced English than him, except for a few words like vulva and pubic hair which Roman uses as fluently as hardhat and stainless steel. Word has it Roman’s the best welder onboard. Word has it Latvians are the best welders period. But don’t quote me on that; there are so many words floating around here. Put fifty guys in a confined space and that’s what you get. Dutch, Russian, Hindi, French, English, Latvian. Ta mère, j’la baise – wat een paarde lul – her vulva was quite good, and so on and so forth.
I smoke Rome’s ciggies like an amateur; the smoke is so strong it’s like salt in my eyes, but I insist. It’s one of the five things and four is just too little. After Rome has run through his women, there are no more words for a while and my cigarette’s dead, so we drop two and do only one of the five: we look at the water, and we wait.
Way down, past the light, past the falling debris and sinking fish, past the point beyond which there is no point going unless you are Jacques Cousteau or Ed Harris in The Abyss… way down there, a thinking creature with night-vision eyes is looking at a cigarette butt drifting down slowly, a crooked thing discarded by a thinking creature above, that would be me...
...but I am interrupted in my thought by Captain Arie over the intercom – All to muster point. Abandon ship exercise. All to muster point.
On my way to muster I think of the thinking creature, Arie’s disappearing lip, Roman’s loves in Riga, and me on this strange surfacy space that smells of dead bird and rags.
At Abandon-Ship there is no more thinking involved: fifty heavyweights – that would be us – padded-out in fluorescent floaters crowd into an orange capsule in the middle of the night. Under real, life-threatening circumstances this capsule would drop at the pull of a lever and plunge – with fifty hairy men strapped to seats inside – plunge ten, twenty, thirty meters down into the grey waters, past the light, past the falling fish, past the thinking creature. Would it believe its night-vision eyes? An orange capsule dropping down out of nowhere, fifty men with heavy jaws looking out through portholes: Captain Arie, a Latvian foul-mouth, the Indian brothers, the French bargemaster, the Dutch paardenlullen crew, and me, like Ed Harris in The Abyss, looking out into endless water…
But it was merely an exercise. We did not plunge this time. Not really.