Friday, 3 July 2015

Where the Boats Go

So a little late to the party, but last week's Flash Fiction Challenge was to set your ipod to shuffle and press play.  The name of the song = The name of your story.  My random track was "Where the Boats Go" by M83.

click to listen to M83 Where the Boats Go

For such a short track, it sparked a behemoth.  I failed utterly to stick to the 1000 word limit and even now think this short story needs expanding a little, but here it is in it's current state...

Where the Boats Go

Dr Paul Clifford looked up from his paper, his face reddening from the morning sun. “There’s absolutely nothing in here.  Absolutely bugger all Sheila.”
His wife glanced up from her tea.  “Calm down Paul” she said “there’s obviously no new news about it”
“But they’ve been leading us on for two days!  Building up the story.  They can’t just leave it”
“Paul.  It’s news, not a film script.  There might not be an ending.  They may never know what happened to that boat”

Clifford huffed and picked up his paper, returning to the front page for a third time for news on the Solatia.  Sheila sat opposite, drinking her tea and idly reading random sentences off the back of the broadsheet in which her husband was immersed.

It’s difficult to pin down the exact moment when Clifford’s life became so intertwined with the fate of the Solatia.  He read the original newspaper reports same as I’m sure you did.  A boat disappears and of course the newspapers go wild.  But millions read those stories in the papers and to my knowledge none of them became drawn in like Dr Clifford.  At the time the usual groups claimed responsibility for the Solatia - ISIS, Aleph, the YLF.  There was two full days of sensationalist headlines and madcap theories, the news networks brought in experts on areas where boats had disappeared before - the Bermuda Triangle and Devil’s Sea, and tried to link these places to the area of the Northern Pacific where the boat had vanished.  Dr Clifford watched it all unfold, but again, millions of others did the same.  And now three days after the tragedy, it had suddenly all gone quiet on the Solatia.  The front pages were full of new stories - a war brewing in Africa, a new set of taxes outlined by the government, a celebrity death.  The Solatia had been edged out of the papers.  All of those questions they’d set up over the last two days and now no answers.  A fifty thousand tonne metal ship ferrying two and a half thousand souls disappears in our world of GPS navigation and satellite tracking, and no-one has any answers?

In between his lectures at the University of Redcliff where he worked in the Marine Biology department, Clifford began daily visits to the library .  He would check the day’s newspapers from all over the world, and a good selection of websites too, hoping for more news on the Solatia’s disappearance, but he found nothing.  It was as if the event had never happened.  Old news is no news.

After a couple of weeks his wife thought Clifford’s interest in the boat would wane, but if anything the opposite was true.  He widened his search and began spending longer and longer at the library, trawling through hundreds of conspiracy theory websites looking for alternative ideas on the Solatia’s fate.  He phoned international news agencies daily asking for reports, and spoke to a friend who worked at the local radio station, but if anything new had emerged on the fate of the ship, it was being kept very quiet indeed.  It was as if the lack of news made Clifford even more interested in what had happened to that boat.  His wife became increasingly frustrated with her husband’s aloofness.

“Paul” she said one day.  “Look at you.  You don’t talk to me any more, you spend all of your time in that library and you are jeopardising your job and our marriage.  And for what?  An unfinished news report?  You have got to let go of this thing.  It’s gone too far.”

To be honest, it wasn’t just Sheila and his job that were suffering.  Everything in Clifford’s life now seemed insignificant in comparison to his new research project.  He tracked down the ferry company executive, and then the original disaster helpline, and rang both with a carefully constructed alibi.  He was worried, he told them.  He was trying to track down his elder brother who’d been missing for two months ever since the night the Solatia disappeared, and he was worried he might have been aboard.  The executive wouldn’t answer his calls and the helpline refused to speak on the phone about the boat’s whereabouts, but they did offer to send a representative out to Redcliff, so that they could go through the passenger list with Clifford and discuss the few details they did have.  Clifford agreed, and they said they’d contact him with a time and place.  No longer than half an hour later the phone rang.

“Is that Dr Clifford”
“Hi there.  It’s Laura from the RFR offices.  We’ve arranged a representative to meet with you.  Rather than you coming out here to our offices, we’ll send him over to you.  As luck would have it he’s passing near Redcliff next week  He’ll meet you at Joe’s cafe on Clearbrook Street at 8pm next Wednesday.  Does that suit you?”

A week later, Dr Clifford left the library earlier than usual dressed casually in faded jeans and a hooded jacket, and made his way across to Clearbrook Street.  It was a clear night for once and the streets were a bustle of people all making the most of the brief letup in the rain.

Perhaps all of those conspiracy theory websites had gotten to him a bit - for some reason, he was a little suspicious of this meeting.  He was an hour early and rather than going straight into Joe’s, he bought a pint at the Howl and Pussycat opposite and watched the door to the cafe, hidden amongst the crowd of smokers in the Howl’s darkened doorway, nursing his pint, and waiting for the “representative” to arrive.  Joe’s was pretty empty, and not one new arrival went in between 7.30 and 8.30.  Around 9pm, his phone alerted him to an answerphone message.  Odd that - full coverage and no missed calls.  Just a message.  “RFR regrets that our representative has had to cancel the meeting with you this evening at short notice due to unforseen circumstances.  Sorry for any inconvenience.”  Dr Clifford swigged back the last of his pint, deleted the message, and retreated inside the bar to refill his glass.  His wife was away visiting her mother, something she’d taken to doing more and more these days, so there was no rush for him to get back.

It was a few more drinks later that a long white arm reached into his view, pushing a small cardboard beer mat into his view.  The owner of the arm - a strangely ageless girl with long hair bunched up into an untidy ponytail, dark wisps falling across her face and framing her piercing blue eyes - exchanged a glance with Clifford.  He suddenly felt naked.  The meeting of their eyes was open and naked, as close together at the bar as they would have been if they’d shared a bed.  The glance was held for a little longer than was comfortable and for one strange moment, Clifford wondered if she was going to move in and kiss him.  Then she moved her eyes down to the mat.  In blue ink scrawled across it was a name “Captain Robert Shackleworth”.

“What is this?”  Clifford asked, abruptly breaking the spell

“I know what you are looking for.  It is what we are all seeking.”

“What is this?  Is it to do with the Solatia?”

“You seek answers.  A fitting ending to your great story.”

Clifford began to be frustrated by the woman’s ambiguousness

“I need to know.”

The strange lady turned to face him again and once more Clifford was struck by her peculiar agelessness.  It was as if she’d always been there, as if she’d crawled from the sea’s primordial ooze and made straight for her bar stool there at the bar.  She leaned in even closer and whispered in his ear “You must follow what draws you in.”  Her breath was warm on his ear, sending a tingle running through him.  Something more than sensual, the feeling was almost familiar.  “Tell me, what do you want from me?” she whispered.  Clifford was still digesting the words when she kissed his earlobe, her tongue flicking gently around his pinna…

When Clifford returned home the following morning, his found his front door open.  The apartment had been broken into.  Everything was wrecked.  His study had been worst hit - all his research into the Solatia lay around trashed or had been stolen.  He sat down in the middle of the room, a tear rolling down his face.  He was woken still sat on the floor surrounded by debris, by the ringing of the house phone.  Clifford had no idea how long it had been ringing.  He checked his watch - 11am.  He’d missed his morning visit to the library and his first set of lectures at the University.  He made himself get up and lifted the handset.

“Paul?  Is that you?  Why aren’t you at work.  You sound awful.”
“Sheila - I… I… Something’s happened.  It’s to do with the Solatia…”
“Paul.  Listen to me for God’s sake.  This time I won’t be coming back from my mothers.  You’ve pushed me too far.”  She sniffed back the tears.  Real or faked, Clifford couldn’t tell.  “The thing we had is over.  You care more about that damn boat than about anything.”
And then silence.  “Paul?  Can you hear me?  It’s finished Paul.”
Clifford set the handset gently back on it’s cradle and gazed around him at his dismantled office.  Perhaps that was the moment that he gave in to the Solatia’s draw - the tipping point.  Everything escalated from there.

When he’d found a new apartment, one close to the library and with a landlord who allowed him to pay in cash and was happy to withhold his name from the rental agreement, Clifford began looking back in more earnest though naval records and newspapers of the past fifty years.  His hours spent in the library became days at a time.  The attendents became used to asking him to leave when they were closing up.  His absences at the University became a disciplinary matter.  The Dean spoke to him in person about his behaviour.

“Paul.  If you need help.  We can try and suggest someone.  I know about Sheila Paul, I know it can’t be easy, but these absences.  The University can’t be seen to tolerate them Paul.  I’m sorry but if things don’t change we are going to have to part ways.”

Clifford left the meeting and headed straight back to the library.  All he could hear were those whispered words “You must follow what draws you in”.  His research had begun to pay dividends.  Clifford had found something very strange.  The Solatia wasn’t the first.  He’d found records of three aircraft and at least six other boats which had gone missing in the same region.  There were no records of wreckages of any of these vessels being found or of any survivors.  It was around this time that the black outs started.  Clifford would come round slumped over the microfiche viewer at the library, or at his office desk.  They became more and more frequent and his doctor sent him for tests.

It was around then that the second boat disappeared.  The papers went crazy for a day or two again, but only one even mentioned the Solatia, even though the second boat, Ramesus’ Fortune had vanished only a few miles from where the Solatia had last been tracked.

Again Clifford tried everything to get more information.  And again, all his enquiries found no answers.

He was called into the doctors

“Paul.  Sit down.  I need to talk to you.” Paul looked around and sat down on the hard wooden chair opposite the gp.  He felt the wooden struts dig into his back uncomfortably.
“Paul, the test results show a Pineal Tumor.  I’m sorry Paul, it’s in the advanced stages.  Let me outline the options available…”

Clifford only found he could truly dedicate himself to his research after the University had made good on their threats and terminated his contract.  Determined to find out more, and aware that his time may be running out, he now found time away from the library to take classes which might aid his search.  He had a refresher course in deep-sea diving, and began to take lessons in Japanese.  He began researching the Japanese papers from the time of the Solatia’s disappearence, painstakingly translating the original articles himself.  None of the papers threw more light on the missing boats than the Redcliff papers had done.  But in the initial report of the boat’s disappearence one paper did use a word Clifford didn’t recognise from his studies.  A word which didn’t appear in his Japanese dictionary. “Akkorokamui”.

Several hours later and Clifford had read several accounts of the Akkorokamui.  Ainu Legend told of an immense sea creature - close to an octopus in form, but around 120 metres in length - which had been spotted in several locations around Japan, Taiwan and Korea since the 19th Century.  One account told of the Akkorokamui’s supranatural glowing red colour, of its giant staring eyes and a noxious dark fluid it emitted.  The tales of the creature had spread to religion, with inclusion in Shintoism where the octopus like nature of the huge creature meant that it is impossible to escape it’s grasp.

Six months later, Clifford had read every article, book and website on the Akkorokamui which he became convinced had something to do with the disappearence of the Solatia.  Almost three years to the day the boat sank, armed with his research on squid and octopus migration patterns, and convinced that the Akkorokamui had moved from Northern Japan into the deeper waters of the North Pacific near the area the Solatia had vanished he flew from Redcliff out to Tokyo.  His first trip to Japan.  He peered out of the window during the crossing, cross referencing the flight plan and trying to spy below through the cloud cover in hope of seeing red glows beneath the dark ocean.

Clifford caught a connecting flight to Hokkaiko and checked into the Daiichi Hotel on Funka Bay.  He began daily visits to the harbour to haggle with the local boat owners, trying to persuade one to take him out to the spot where the Solatia had vanished.  Eventually, on the promise of a small fortune - the whole of his savings - one trawler man Naiko agreed to take him as far as the edge of the area.  He was down on his luck fishing and I don’t think he could turn down the offer of such a lot of money.

Clifford met Naiko the next morning at the crack of dawn and they set sail.  Jirota, his young boathand Naiko and him.  The bay glistened red with the rising sun, in the East, the snowy peaks of Mount Komagatake were just visible.  They set out across the still water, and after a while Jirota came to join Clifford on deck.  They spent the journey sharing tales of the Akkorokamui, Jirota’s stories passed on from generation to generation.

After a couple of hours, Clifford’s GPS reading told him that they were nearing the edge of the area the Solatia had disappeared.  Naiko was getting uneasy and was muttering quietly to Jirota and after another few minutes, the boat began to veer round to the left as he turned the wheel.  Clifford quickly unpacked his diving gear and without a word to the trawlerman launched himself over the side of the boat.

As he descended into the icy water and kicked out for its depths, Clifford could hear the boats engine fading as Naiko and Jirota headed back to shore.  Clifford pressed on deeper and depper past squid and pacific coast jellyfish,  and then as he drew deeper, he began to pick out Giant Spider Crabs on a sharp ocean shelf to his right.  At one stage in the gathering gloom he thought he glimsped a huge Frilled Shark meandering through the water, almost a memory of an animal, a decendent of the Earth’s past.  The marine ecosystems reminded him of his work at the University, the deep water he passed through acting as a metaphor for his life.  He carried on further still, past a vast Hydromedusa lighting up the surrounding water like a bioluminescent dream catcher.  Despite the growing pressure, Clifford paused only to switch on his headtorch as the water closed into blackness, continuing deeper and deeper in search of the answers he knew must lie somewhere down there, hid behind a pair of huge lidless eyes…

Several days later, a body washed up on the shores of Funka Bay.  When they uncovered the corpse, it was bloated until split open and tarnished blue beneath it’s covering.  Burst blood vessels abounded like a map over it’s skin - the deep water pressure of the Pacific had obviously paid it’s toll.  From dental records the man was identified as one of the unfortunate passengers who’d been on board the boat Solatia which had disappeared so mysteriously just over three years earlier.  As the first body to be recovered from the craft, the Japanese television stations ran specials looking back at the disaster, and the papers ran articles speculating on the fates of the other souls on board.  However, despite an extensive post-mortem on the body, and a thorough search of the ship’s records, no-one was able to explain the deep sea diving suit he was wearing when washed ashore.

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