A Ferry Through the Islands — Part I

Posted on February 24, 2010


* Lean into the morning slowly.  Out the window, still shadows of night.  These eyes still full of night and sleep.  Let the dream drift down and gone.  A long, new day to come, perhaps.  Lean into it slowly.*

He rose at 5 a.m., having slept little.  Before a journey, even a trivial one, he rarely slept well.  And because there’s not much else to do when you are wide awake and it’s the middle of the night, everything was prepared:  orange juice and boiled eggs for his breakfast, his lunch in the fridge ready to be put in his briefcase; his briefcase already primed with everything else that he would need; and a cab ready to call for him.  He wasn’t usually anywise efficient, but he couldn’t play his guitar after midnight, and, oh well.  Even a shower was redundant, since he’d used a shower to soothe him into bed sometime after 1 a.m., less than four hours before.

He dressed deliberately, shaved, peeled his egg, drank his juice.  At 5:30, the cab he had reserved sounded its horn for him in the street.  Climbing into the cab, its smell, the abrupt presence of the cab driver asking him to confirm their destination, broke in on him suddenly, almost jarringly.

“The bus depot,” he said, even his own voice sounding intrusive for a moment.  He crept into the back seat, behind the driver.

“So, going out of town?” asked the cabbie, “Not very far.”

Only cabbies consistently talked without looking at you.  Sometimes characters in plays, but only cabbies in real life.  This cabbie was a Sherlock Holmes who had noticed that his passenger was going to the bus depot and carrying no luggage.

“Victoria,” said the passenger without much emotion.  He didn’t need talk.  Extreme hours of the day made some people gregarious.  For him, that did not apply to early mornings.  He hunched into the corner of the back seat, and stared out the side window, offering no more elaboration or conversational openings.  The cab driver took the hint, and kept silent.

The morning was already more light than shadow, reaching even into narrow places between the mostly unwoken houses.  The distance felt shorter than it would have on streets with more traffic.  Pulling up at the passenger drop-off in front of the depot’s multiple glass doors, the driver said, “Here we go.”

Unhitching the cab door to get out even as he reached his other arm to pay the driver, the passenger got a glimpse of the cabby’s ethnic face (southern European?) for what might have been the first and last time.  He said, “I’ll need a receipt for that, and …”  A quick calculation of the tip.  “Add the tip into the receipt.”  Which the cabbie did without hesitation.

The early morning waiting room was sparsely peopled, dismal, a slot machine in the corner flashing, declaiming basso-voice something or other, over and over.  No one was near it.  The coffee shop wasn’t open, so after he’d gotten his tickets, he went over to one of the paint-blistered benches.  (What kind of blue was that?  Did they invent colours like that just to paint benches in worn-down waiting rooms?)  Sitting there, leaning on his briefcase, he couldn’t forget his bed.  He saw his reflection in the darkened glass of an unopened shop.

The reflection, not really being mirror, had the effect of darkening his complexion, contrast against his light shirt.  But the sports jacket, slacks and tie somehow were appropriate on him, which once in a while struck him unexpectedly, as it did now.

*Is that you, Dandy?*

No one called him Dandy anymore.  Dandy Andy, skid road refugee who went to school.  Hiding in plain sight in university classrooms.  Yet Dandy Andy ain’t my name.

*Don’t call me Andy.*

People now called him Delaney—which was his real name—or Del, if their mouths couldn’t find their way to the final syllables.  His skid road witty friend had dubbed him Dandy Andy because he thought that sounded like Delaney somehow.  And it was six months of complaint and challenge before he could get the Andy dropped.  But the Dandy stayed.  Stayed, that is, until buried behind discreet foliage on the edge of the university grounds.  Where Dandy became Delaney.

*Is that you, Dandy?*

That same, uncertain stranger who first returned to school—was that years ago?—in the glass.  Dandy Andy.  Skid road Indian somehow flourishing in university classrooms where mere irrelevant intelligence rewrote the social contract.

THE COURT:              The court wishes to know where you arrived at the bizarre notion of “irrelevant intelligence.”

THE DEFENDANT:    Intelligence is irrelevant, M’lud, when your role is to push a broom.

Somehow, that rather respectable looking business commuter in the glass was him all the same.  Where was the skid road refugee, then?  Tied back like his pony tail.  Still there, not really changed maybe, but harder to see, yes.  Something else added in.  Shirt and tie not entirely a disguise.

In the dark glass, his eyes were hardly more than glints.  He still felt tired.

Mr. Delaney, now travelling for the government.  How strange was that?  Mr. Civil Servant.

Why doesn’t the civil servant look out the window in the morning?

–So he’ll have something to do in the afternoon.

It was a jest.  He had infiltrated respectability, oh, the degraded, scorned but still clean-nailed government-worker respectability.  So alien to who he was supposed to be, and where he was supposed to be.

THE COURT:              [To the newly-called Native Indian lawyer appearing for the first time in his courtroom.]

So what charges are we facing today?

The brown brethren know there are places you are not supposed to go.  And if by error you wander in, the stares will tell you your mistake.

Or sometimes a friendly doorman.  “I think you’ve made a mistake, sir.  You wouldn’t feel comfortable here.”  Friendly—uh huh—unless the wanderer wanted to stay.

But he almost never wanted to stay.
















Nobody had to put up a sign if everybody already knew what was what.

*What are you doing here, Dandy?  Can’t you see the sign?*

Mister Delaney, temporary civil servant.  I’m allowed here.  You can see that I wear a tie.

*A brilliant disguise.*


Presently the bus was ready to leave.  He found a seat on his left, about halfway down the aisle, and managed to convey an air of such invincible unsociability that he kept the seat to himself.  He leaned his cheek against the window soon after the bus began to move, and attempted to get whatever remaining rest his upright position would allow him.

They crossed the bridge out of the city, the still sparse Vancouver streets left behind.  Delaney stared out—as they passed it—at the grey morning river, the flat land of the delta, overpasses, underpasses, exits, yield signs, trees, horses, cows, little boxes without hillsides, electric tunnel lights, fences, farms, and finally the gravel-bedded, paved, artificial spit of land that led to the ferry terminal.

When the vibrations ceased, Delaney straightened a little, lifted his cheek from the window.  How long would they park there? he wondered.  Maybe his book?  No, he didn’t feel like reading.

He looked out the window again for something to distract him, and he saw the mudflats.  They hemmed both sides of the spit of land where the terminal was built, two wet, grey-brown fields of mud which had been exposed by the receding tide.  There were bits of debris imbedded in them here and there, leafless branches, automobile parts, all the same grey-brown colour.  He realized that he had never been here before when the tide was so low.  The ugliness and dreariness of what he saw dismayed him.

But it wasn’t really the ugliness, he realized, if he dug down for the truth.  It was still his tiredness.  And the frustration of continued waiting, without possibility of motion or escape, for the bus to board the ferry.

*You need an incantation and a rattle to drive the soul-weary from your eyes this morning, Dandy Andy.*

When the bus finally entered the ferry and would let him go, he quickly ascended up the narrow stairs out of the car decks, which had some dismal aspects of their own.  But his efficiency brought him to the passenger decks before there were any other passengers there, and that emptiness—making invisibility impossible—also made him uncomfortable.

Okay, but there were still the outer decks.  He buttoned up his sweater and jacket, stepped over the doorsill and walked to the railing.  Rising from below was the hollow rumble of cars climbing the ramp and filling the ferry’s maw.  Down from above came the inevitable keening of gulls.

The view was not much of an improvement over what he had seen from the parked bus.  Mud-stockinged wooden pilings.  Muddy beach, with the mud-grey ocean rubbing restlessly against it.  And why was he still tired, standing there in that cold morning wind, in that uncertain haze of morning, staring at the water?  Perhaps if there was a little sun, a little warmth.

Delaney stooped, unlatched his briefcase, took out an orange and began peeling it, stuffing the peelings into his jacket pocket.  Then he picked up his briefcase and started walking along the ferry’s perimeter, following the rail.  Eventually the cars were loaded, the boarding platforms raised.  He felt the shuddering of the deck beneath him, the churning of the engines, and he walked back to the stern to watch the ship parting from the dock.

*The only other shiver and rush, when a jet leaps, rises, and the world dips down and away.  And here, that rumble and shudder of engines.  And beneath and around the stern, a waterscape of roiling waters, foam and swells.  Perversely tempting you over the rail.  The chaotic waters petition you, like a grapple in your gut.  A dervish death.  Come in. The propeller is an artist.  What coils of blood would your body make if you leapt into that twisting sea?  Danced the propeller waltz?  What dizzy whorls of pinkish foam?*

The ferry arced into the strait.  The terminal and mudbanks receded.  For a while, he watched the patterns of water in the ship’s wake, and then he went inside.

The dining room still had some windowseats available, since it was the first sailing of the day and there were relatively few passengers.  Delaney carried his tray over to a booth and sat down.  He’d had no intention of buying breakfast, but when he’d gone for coffee, he’d passed the hot food counter, and the smell of sausages made a strong argument that they were the solution to his mood.

Or maybe not.

*That pig died in vain.  Discard the meat; market the smell.*

When he finished his plate, the ferry was still in the middle of the strait.  There was little virtue in having a window seat unless there was something to look at, and there would be nothing to look at until they reached the islands, so he decided to bunker down and stay.

He would need another coffee.

The cashier said, “Seventy-five cents, please.”

There was a sign over the coffee taps that said refills were fifty cents.

He said, “This is my second cup.”

The cashier appeared reluctant.  Looking at him as if wondering whether he had been by her before, and had in fact bought a first cup.

Was he a twenty-five cent felon?  Surely a shirt and tie was evidence of grander frauds.

THE COURT:              If the defence has any evidence that they didn’t do it, they should present it before sentencing.

The cashier decided to accept his fifty cents.

He carried his coffee over to his table.  The cashier after he left began talking with another woman, a dining room employee who was lounging nearby, leaning on a partition.  A tall broad long-haired brown man appeared, carrying a tray.  He was wearing an extremely soiled lumberjack shirt, and crusted baggy pants coloured in random splotches of brown and grey.

As he approached the till, the faces of the two standing there visibly changed, and their conversation stopped abruptly.  Keeping their eyes unwaveringly on the Aboriginal man—although not actually always on his face—the two stood motionless and stiff-faced until he had paid and walked past.  Whereupon their faces devolved into disgust and they started talking rapidly in low voices to each other.  One squeezed her face and pinched her nose with her fingers.

Delaney had an image of a crumple-faced freckled girl, with pinched nose and pointed finger.  A schoolyard.  The finger pointed at him.  “Dirty stinky Indian!”

Dirty stinky.  Dirty stinky.

He saw now that the Aboriginal man in the lumberjack shirt was actually coming his way.  And then Delaney realized with a sudden souring of his gut that he knew who it was.  Johnny.  It was his old friend Johnny from the old days, from the street, from before school.  And he stank like he’d been dipped in a garbage bin of fish guts and left to ripen in the sun.  Delaney, feeling desperately embarrassed, could have crawled under the lino like a cockroach, but Johnny was practically looking straight at him.

Yet he walked right by.

Delaney’s relief let him momentarily forget the highly concentrated funk of Johnny’s passage.

Johnny found a seat somewhere across the room.  There was a khaki-coloured pack and a garbage bag full of something already sitting there, so apparently he had already chosen the seat earlier.  Two or three minutes later Delaney saw a man, somebody semi-official with a blue shirt with a nametag, go over to Johnny and talk.  The man left, and Johnny began to hurry at his eggs.  Very soon he got up, grabbed his packsack and garbage bag, and departed outside.

Delaney didn’t know what to feel.  Usually he wouldn’t like what he just saw.  Usually he would have to fight off the need to get involved.  Loudly.  But this morning, it was not merely the decline of odour—an odour which permeated much of the room still—which brought relief to his lungs and breath.

*And Dandy went to school.  (Dirty stinky Indian.)  Dandy not so dandy, because who inside his skid road life has money for clothes.  Black thread and patches and patches.  And amusing to find that the rich kids in school are followers of hippie chic, and wear patches for décor.  Dandy is invisible.  Dandy is odourless.*

The haze that had hidden the sun was wearing away, the water of the strait looking brighter, although to Delaney’s eyes it still seemed curiously opaque.  He watched a gull wind-hovering just outside his window, still for a moment, then lifting out of sight.

By the time the ferry approached the islands, he had virtually forgotten Johnny.

[End of part one.]

© 2010 by Theo G. Collins.