THE STORY-GATHERER’S CAIQUE VOYAGE
By Alexandros Plasatis
The Egyptian fisherman with the sliced-off arm finished telling his story to Angie and they looked out to the sea for a little while. She washed his beer glass, put the bottle in the returns crate, and they left the Café Papaya. They walked under the warm evening sun, over to the harbour and the caique Cappa. The caique’s engines were on, with its crew lounging about the land beside it, and the fisherman with the sliced-off arm had a word with the fat man with the sparkling earring, Captain Cappas. A little later, the captain whistled for the fishermen to board, Angie followed, and the voyage began.
The few locals who sat on the harbour’s benches watched the caique with the girl on its stern heading slowly for the open sea. She stood by the balustrades, keeping clear of the men who were carrying about wooden cases, rounding up mooring ropes. She turned back, to her town of Kavala, and her eyes searched for the one-armed fisherman: he waved at her and walked back to the café.
From the other side of the harbour, a small motorboat sped towards the caique, and the man who piloted it began performing trick manoeuvres.
‘CUT THE BULLSHIT,’ Captain Cappas said through the megaphone.
When the motorboat got closer, Angie recognised one of her regulars from the café, a young Egyptian who had the usual withdrawn bearing of the fishermen when he drank his coffee, but when he told her stories, there was a spark in his voice, and something of a melody, easy on the ear. His name was Mohammed, but everyone around the harbour called him Up-Your-Arses. He trailed the caique with the motorboat and threw a rope onto the deck, and the fishermen tied it to the sternpost. He passed four or five plastic water barrels up to them, then clambered up onto the deck. Captain Cappas increased speed and they passed beyond the harbour’s mouth and out into the Aegean Sea.
Angie remained by the stern, watching the fishermen and the sun-drenched Aegean. From time to time, the four Egyptians of the crew would leave their jobs and go over to have a word or two with her. She knew them from Café Papaya, the harbour-side café where all the Egyptian immigrants who worked on the caiques liked to spend their mornings, smoking and drinking the coffee Angie made for them, now and then telling her stories in their heavy accents: they were simple stories about the sea and the fish, told slowly, in a few, tired words, and even on the rare occasion they spoke of the Aegean’s black squalls and night-fogs, their eyes remained passive. But in the evenings, those who stayed ashore liked to smoke hashish and go to the café to drink beer and ouzo, and their tales were confusing, dreamlike. Then Angie would see their eyes glisten strangely and she would listen, and listen again as they told her of their fishing village that stands where the Nile becomes the sea, a village with four thousand wooden caiques, marked with symbols and painted with large female eyes with long eyelashes or the eyes of eagles. With beer and hashish inside them, their ramblings rattled of the caiques of Ezbit El Burg, so many that even the great river that used to be a God wasn’t wide enough for them. And as night fell on the harbour of Kavala, their money spent, their beer bottles empty on the table, the drunk ones had nothing but threads of memories to hang on to, so they would call out the name of Allah and their hard faces would soften with sweet hope: then the waitress knew that the time had come for them to murmur their caique-dreams and remember old voyages down the Red Sea, when they first saw the shores of Somalia and Tanzania. The young girl listened to their stories with large, impressionable eyes, she listened and learnt. And it was in one of those waitressing nights that Angie had asked if she could join them on a voyage, to live one of their stories. Months passed, and she thought they had forgotten about it with their drunkenness, but the Egyptians remembered and waited, knowing that Angie wouldn’t enjoy it on the long and hard winter voyages, they waited for the spring. They remembered, because they respected Angie, for she was fair with them, swift with the tray and good-mannered, and she never used swear-words, although she grew up working around the harbour and knew the harbour-life well.
These four Egyptians who worked on caique Cappa were all called Mohammed and the waitress had come up with her own private names for each of them: the Mohammed with the Moustache, the White Mohammed, the Strange Shirt; and Up-Your-Arses was the fourth Mohammed. Then were her fellow locals who, with the exception of Captain Cappas, hadn’t uttered a word to her so far: a very old, skinny and energetic man who seemed to be in his eighties and whom the Egyptian fishermen called the Mummy, and a middle-aged one who had lots of teeth missing. These two had been in the tiny galley all along, chatting and drinking iced coffee. The fourth Greek was a lad, the mechanic, who didn’t speak to anyone. He only sat by his winch, smoking and fiddling with the machinery, sometimes gazing around, but keeping his eyes away from everyone.
In the middle of the deck, out of the way, a chubby old man with an ashen beard was sitting on a very low wooden stool. Angie had never seen this one before and she couldn’t tell from his appearance whether he was Egyptian or Greek. The thumb of his right hand was missing, and he was holding a dagger and a small piece of net, trying to bind the snapped arm back to his spectacles.
But there was another Egyptian in the crew that she hadn’t seen since the caique had departed, a giant of a man with wild hair that harbour-people called by a name neither Egyptian nor Greek, Zaramarouq.
And so, the wooden caique with the ten men and the one girl changed course, and propelled its way passed the dark green Island of Thassos, heading towards the setting sun, searching for fish.
They were far from the town now, her eyes had adjusted to all that blue around her. The Egyptians signalled for her to join them, and they sat on the decking near the bow. They lit cigarettes and smoked, and talked about the everyday stuff. The Mummy and his friend left the galley and headed with new frappes towards the trapdoor. As they were passing by the Mohammeds, Up-Your-Arses said, ‘Hi, Tutankhamun.’
‘Why didn’t you stay home to die together with your wife?’
‘I’m making money to go to Egypt to fuck your mum.’
‘I’ll fuck her bones.’
‘Fuck off, tosser,’ said Tutankhamun, and dashed to Up-Your-Arses and pinched him in the belly and on the ribs, something that the middle-aged Greek found so funny that he showed his gums. The two Greeks went down to the bunk beds. The young mechanic oiled the winch, running a cloth slowly along its metal tubes, and his eyes met momentarily with Angie’s, but Angie couldn’t tell whether this brief meeting of glances expressed friendliness or hostility.
‘Tell me,’ she asked the Egyptians, nodding towards the old man with the ashen beard, ‘who’s this man? He’s such a sweet grandpa.’
‘Him new here. He can’t speak Greek,’ said the Moustache. ‘He’s from Palestine. He don’t know how to mend the nets. He’s not a fisherman, he’s – how you say it – the man is a sailor.’ He said that the old Palestinian was one of the six sailors from a Russian ship flying a Lebanese flag and that his ship was impounded a week ago in the nearby port of Karavali.
‘And how did he end up here?’
‘I’ll tell you later,’ the Moustache said, and joined the rest of the Egyptians who had gone back to mending the nets.
Angie found a comfortable spot in between some cases, and watched the old Palestinian man for a long while. He was doing nothing, just sitting on a very low wooden stool. Then she walked over and he stood up and offered his little stool to her. She declined, and the two of them sat on the decking, opposite each other.
The old sailor raised his big hands: ‘Karavali,’ he said – the name of the port where he had gone ashore.
‘I don’t understand. Calamari?’ She made an eating gesture.
She stared at his hand with the missing thumb: ‘Calamari…’
The old Palestinian stood up, and leaning on the gunwale, he looked at fading the light of the ending day and said a few words in his language. Then his gaze invited her to look far, and he smiled in a sort of confidence with the sea, as if somewhere out there in the blue, his Palestinian eyes were seeing something that Angie couldn’t. She felt a little sad, for she couldn’t see the beauty he could see.
Up-Your-Arses went over and opened a new pack of cigarettes.
Captain Cappas’ voice was heard, loud and distorted by the megaphone:
‘FINISH OFF WITH THE BLOODY NETS AFTER YOUR SMOKE.’
‘We need to take a break, boss,’ Up-Your-Arses shouted back.
‘YOU NEED A COCK UP YOUR ARSE, THAT’S WHAT YOU NEED. ARSEHOLE. I SAID, “AFTER YOUR SMOKE.”’
They smoked, and the old sailor took Angie and they sat close to the Egyptians, watching how they worked their needles around the nets.
‘Look, Angie,’ said the White Mohammed. He cut a cord from the net and took his time plucking out hair from the Palestinian’s eyebrows.
‘Show me,’ said Angie.
The White took Angie’s hands into his and they worked together on the fishermen’s sideburns and eyebrows. The old Palestinian taught her nautical knots and the Strange Shirt how to sew up new nets. They stayed focused on loops and meshes, and when the dark began to settle around them, they were still leaning over the nets, feeling in their fingers the needle and the cord.
Above them the new sky raised its magic flag of yellow stars and a thin, silver moon, marking its territory with darkness and shadows. And the caique glided on in the night, wood against black waves.
Back on the stern, two Egyptians climbed up the iron structure that held a small lightboat. They pulled back the canvas and Zaramarouq the giant woke up. Captain Cappas switched off the engines and all the lights, the caique free to flow with the sea current now.
The two Egyptians lowered the lightboat into the choppy sea. Zaramarouq fitted the kerosene pressure light on the stern of his little boat, and lit the lamp. Soft white light broke the darkness. Soon, little fish appeared below the illuminated zone, milling around the light, opening and closing their little mouths. He steadied the oars in the iron hooks and slipped them softly into the water. More and more fish swam up from the depths, crazy for artificial light. Zaramarouq stood up and began with careful strokes, long and steady, and with each stroke of the oars the sea gave a sound of pleasure, and the fish followed, trapped in the light. A little while later he had rowed into the darkness.
The crew had three or four hours to kill until Zaramarouq finished luring the shoal of fish. The Strange Shirt went to the galley to prepare the dinner. The rest started their own private fishing.
Angie wandered about the deck. The Palestinian grandpa gave her a sweet smile, and she offered him cigarettes. The young Greek mechanic looked away.
She went to the tiny galley. The Strange Shirt was cooking in his yellow shirt, which had lots of tiny crocodiles on.
‘Hey,’ she said, ‘that’s a nice shirt.’
‘It’s lovely. Can I give you a hand with the cooking?’
‘No, no. You’re a – what’s the word – a friend, a visitor here. This is my job. I’ll do the cooking. Please, you just relax.’
‘Can I watch how you cook the rice? They say Egyptian style rice is really tasty.’
‘Not here. Here not good. Too small here. Come to my place one time. I’ll show you.’ He winked at her and she laughed.
She went to the bow. There, balancing on the gunwale, stood the Moustache and Captain Cappas, holding their fishing lines, staring down at the water in silence. Half of the captain’s bum crack was out on view. The Moustache began pulling up his line with long and swift moves, until a calamari sprang up from the sea. He unhooked it and jumped back on the deck. He held it in his one hand and caressed it with the other, then offered it up to Angie: ‘See how beautiful that feels.’
‘Is it necessary?’
‘Be a girl of the sea.’
She took it in her hands, reluctantly. It must have been alive, but it was motionless and covered in slime. She looked at it, caressed it the way the Moustache did, searching her feelings, trying to find beauty in that helpless creature. Once again, she only felt a little sad; there was nothing there for her to find.
The Moustache caught another calamari and a little while later he pulled up an octopus. He turned to Captain Cappas: ‘You’re fat and useless.’
The captain didn’t respond.
Angie joined Up-Your-Arses and the White. They had caught small fish, sea-breams mostly, and a few bogues. Up-Your-Arses gave the line to Angie and she took it in her hands. ‘Ah, no, no. Not like that,’ he said, and she felt the net-scars on his palms as he took her hands into his: ‘Let me show you…’
The waitress lay down on the deck with her hands behind her head and closed her eyes on the night, while from behind the galley came the strong smell of fried liver.
There was a call over the radio-phone:
‘Is caique “Cappa” listening? Harbour Authorities calling. Is caique “Cappa” listening? ’
Captain Cappas didn’t bother to respond.
‘Is “Cappa” listening?’
‘I’m listening, you bastard!’ the captain shouted, and began pulling up his line.
‘Shut the fuck up!’
‘Don’t be lazy, captain.’
‘YES!’ screamed the captain.
The captain dragged the octopus out and began beating it – an old fishermen’s practice to soften the flesh. He threw it onto a heap of nets and punched it on the head, first with both hands, then quicker, with his good right one. The octopus’ head had been half-buried into the brown nets, but its tentacles were out, curling about, jerking with each blow.
‘Are you having a wank, captain?’
The captain dragged the octopus out – one of its eyes had popped out, and he laughed at it.
‘Enough,’ said the Moustache.
‘You shut the fuck up.’
‘Don’t be like that, boss.’
‘If you ever call me little whale again, I’ll fuck you.’ He grabbed the octopus by its tentacles and smashed its head against a wooden pillar and its other eye popped out. He laughed: hahaha.
‘Please respond, captain.’
His t-shirt had rolled up above his belly button and he stood to catch up his breath, with the octopus hanging down from his grip, its tentacles encircling his forearm. He was about to beat it against the pillar again.
‘Leave the octopus alone, fatty’ said the Moustache.
A shadow came over the captain’s face and his earing sparkled in the darkness. He raised the octopus and swung it against the side of the Moustache’s head and knocked him down. He went to lash down another octopus blow upon him, but it slipped from his grip and flew high, its tentacles moving like mad in the air, until it fell back into the sea.
He dived onto the Moustache and grabbed him by the throat: ‘I’ll kill you, bastard…’ The two Egyptians pulled him back: ‘Easy, captain, easy.’
‘Captain Cappas we need your response right away!’
The captain picked up the radio-phone and told them to fuck off.
The Strange Shirt came out of the kitchen: ‘Food ready. Follow me.’
They hung a lamp on a pillar and sat on the decking, around a low and round wooden table. But, again, the Greeks didn’t join them. The captain went up to his wheelhouse, while the young mechanic, Tutankhamun and his friend with the gums stayed down on the bunk beds.
The Strange Shirt brought out so many aluminium bowls, that they had to bunch them together to fit on the table. There were bowls with fried chicken liver with oregano, bowls of rice, fried eggs, tomato and cucumber salad, and a big one with sliced bread. Finally, the Strange Shirt brought a bowl with fried Frankfurter sausages and placed it by Angie: ‘That’s only for you,’ he said.
They were eating and chatting and laughing, and the sea was calm and the night cool. The light from the hanging lamp reflected on the aluminium bowls and made them shine, so that the table gave out a silver glow. Angie stopped eating, and said, ‘Look. The table has a soul.’ The fishermen smiled. She looked at their faces, illuminated by the silver glow as they reached over to help themselves from the bowls, half-hidden in shadows as they sat back to chew. In the silver darkness their skin appeared metallic, the lines on their brows and around their eyes formed deep cracks, and she felt that something was waiting to be seen, to be discovered in those cracks, something like a secret.
Her eyes searched the crust of their skin, trying to see through those cracks and catch the glimmer of another world, until, once again, she felt that sadness of the locked away beauty. The Egyptians nudged her: ‘Eat, girl. Eat,’ they all said. ‘We’re so glad you’re here with us.’
Towards the end of the meal, the Strange Shirt pointed to the bowl with the sausages: ‘Was that pork or the other meat – turkey?’
‘I guess it’s pork.’
The Strange Shirt turned his head away. ‘The captain bought all these packets of sausages and told us they were turkey,’ he said. ‘Because we’re Muslim and not allowed to eat pork. He can say anything he likes, we can’t read Greek.’
Angie said that perhaps it was turkey, but the Strange Shirt motioned her to stop. ‘It doesn’t matter now,’ the fisherman said and lit a cigarette.
They all leaned against heaps of nets and piles of wooden cases, and inhaled the tobacco in silence around the silver table, until, one by one, they threw the butts away and went down to the lower deck, to the bunk beds, to sleep.
But Angie didn’t dare go down with the men and stayed on the deck on her own. They didn’t insist, they understood. She looked at the shadows of the deck, at the round table, now propped in a corner. A meltemi wind raised, it whistled, and she felt as if the wind that blew cold in her face was trying to tell her something – and she didn’t look for shelter. She stood by the balustrades, near that wooden pillar, as motionless as the pillar itself, trying to catch the meaning of the whistling wind, shivering, living the voyage story. She raised her eyes and looked at the vastness of the sea and realised she was out there, far from her town. She remembered the locals on the harbour who had seen her leaving with the fishermen, and she felt proud, then ashamed, then proud again. She looked up towards the stars, began counting them to try and forget the cold, got bored, her gaze fell back on the sea. Her eyes caught a tiny white light, far away, it was moving slowly across the darkness of the sea, and she stood, stubborn, with strands of her long black hair dancing like sea-snakes in the wind, her gaze nailed on the white light, her eyes the eyes of the caique, big, dark, honest eyes: Be careful, Zaramarouq.
And the silence of the deck was broken by a slow creaking sound. She turned back and saw the caique opening up its heart, and from beneath the trapdoor’s musty darkness, two Egyptians climbed up the steps.
‘We came to keep you company.’
They were the White Mohammed and Up-Your-Arses, bringing blankets, cans of drinks, bags of sunflower seeds, a pocket radio. They spread out a blanket and Angie sat on it. They placed another blanket over her shoulders and sat by her side.
They all stayed silent, only breathing, the sea in their dark eyes.
The White Mohammed poured salty seeds onto their palms. Up-Your-Arses tuned the radio into a station that played old Greek love songs with dedicated messages.
‘Why do you laugh, Angie?’
‘Why do they call you Up-Your-Arses?’
‘Or, Up-Yours, for short. One day I did some bullshit and the police arrested me and put me in the prison. I liked it there, we could watch telly sometimes, and they brought us nice food and iced coffee. But after a week or so they decided to let me go, and gave me a paper to sign. I can’t read Greek, so I wrote in Arabic, fi teezakoom, which means up your arses. As I was leaving, I told them, “Go and find out what my signature means.” I wanted them to put me in jail again. They found out about it and got angry. But, by then, I had changed my mind about having vacations in the prison. I went into hiding. They began looking for me at the harbour, describing me, asking about the Egyptian who wrote in Arabic up your arses.” That’s how the name stuck with me. I’m Up-Your-Arses.’
There was a tall heap of nets behind them, and they rested on it. Up-Yours sang along with the love song on the radio with his Egyptian accent, half-mocking the singer’s emotive voice and half-feeling it, making the others laugh.
The White motioned to him to switch the radio off. He leaned in: ‘Listen…’ he whispered as if he was going to tell sea-secrets. ‘Do you feel the silence? When I go on a voyage, I don’t think of my family back in Egypt or my girlfriend back in town, I feel like I’m going home. When I’m here, I say to myself that the silence of the sea belongs to me.’
‘When I’m here,’ said Up-Yours, ‘I’m not Egyptian, I’m not Muslim, I am myself and nothing more. To hell with everything!’ He looked up at the sky and shouted at the stars: ‘Dedicate a song to us! To Angie and the two Mohammeds, who are free in the middle of the sea!’
They covered their bodies with a heavy blanket, Angie in between the two fishermen, and, like that, they fell asleep.
Before Angie had fully woken up, the picture on the deck had changed completely. The engines were running and strong yellow light hit her eyes. Down on the horizon, the brightness of the dawn was claiming the sky back, and the meltemi had grown stronger, spraying seawater into her face.
‘Go down to the bunk beds, Angie,’ the Moustache said.
‘I want to stay here.’
‘Then stay out of the way.’
Everyone was on the deck. They had changed into waterproof uniforms, rubber boots and thick gloves, and had positioned three large white containers in the middle of the deck. Dozens of piles of wooden cases stood close by. The winch moved and groaned, the young Greek sitting on his high chair, throwing Angie daring glances.
‘THERE’S PLENTY OF FISH DOWN THERE,’ the captain said.
The fishermen carried the long net towards the bow and supported its edge on the hauling drum that hung above the sea. Everything was ready for the first catch, the first kaláda. But the sea grew stormier and swelled, as if it didn’t want to have its fish taken away, and its waves raised and curled, and lashed down on the caique.
‘NOW LET IT ROLL,’ ordered the captain.
The mechanic pulled a lever and the net plunged into the sea, and the caique lurched forwards, while the crew spread out along the starboard side.
‘Now!’ shouted the mechanic.
The caique changed course, circling. A big wave crashed against the hull and the caique jerked as spectacular splashes of water hurled towards the sky. Foam was running along the deck, making it slippery, and Angie felt her stomach stiffening and she doubled-up. Through the noise and the clatter and the dazzling of the yellow lights, a voice reached her ears: ‘Angie, find the horizon and look at it. Just look at it and you’ll feel better.’
The crew bent over the balustrades and began dragging the net, their upper bodies hanging above waves that hissed like sea-serpents’ tongues, Mohammeds, Tutankhamun, the man with the gums, the old Palestinian sailor, the net, the sea, their arms for the fish: they dragged and dragged.
A large bundle full of sloshing fish was hanging in the air from the winch. A few fish slipped though the net, and a little one flopped its way towards Angie. She stretched out her arm and caught it, and she felt it dying in her palm. Gently, the fishermen pushed the bundle into the middle of the deck, untied the knots, and let the fish pour into the containers.
‘THERE’S MORE DOWN THERE,’ the captain said.
They shook the nets, rolled them up, and carried them to the bow and onto the hauling drum. The caique moved forward and circled again.
It was towards the end of the third and final kaláda that Zaramarouq was clearly visible from the deck. He was standing up, big on his lightboat, rowing amongst the waves, beast-like, roaring with seasoul laughter, shouting from out there: ‘Do you like the sea, Angie? Do you like our lives, Angie?’
Angie strained to answer, but her throat was dry and her lips cracked. She went to drink water, felt disgust, spat it out. Shaky and nauseated, she glanced at the fishermen who stood above the containers, sorting out the fish: sardines with sardines, anchovies with anchovies, minnows with minnows, all into the wooden cases and on top of each case a shovelful of iodised ice. With Zaramarouq on board and the fridge full of fish, the caique was heading off, towards the wholesale market, and the waves of the raging sea were crashing in vain.
Angie never felt the need to tell her one story to anyone, and kept on listening with pleasure to the tales of the Egyptian fishermen at the café. But, some late nights, towards the end of her shifts at Café Papaya, when her customers had been served and she felt a little tired, Angie the waitress liked to sit behind her bar and turn her gaze towards the harbour. Then the Egyptian fishermen would finally put their beer glasses down and hush, and watch the girl with the long black hair, smiling with her eyes shut.
About the Author:
Alexandros Plasatis is a Greek ethnographer and writes fiction in English, his second language. Some of his stories have been published in UK anthologies and magazines; Overheard: Stories to Read Aloud, Unthology, Crystal Voices, blÆkk, and (forthcoming) Total Cant. He is a volunteer at Cities of Sanctuary, where he helps to find and develop new creative writing talent within the refugee and asylum seeker community in Leicester, UK.