Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Trick Poem

It's been a while since my last blog post, but I've been busy with a proof reading course and two jobs and drinking too much and reading some great stuff.

Last week I was given this book by an amazing friend: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PAkQsePo2Bo

It is fascinating and beautiful and a really interesting way of writing. Margaret Atwood is well known for being an admirer of the form, so - to satisfy my own curiosity rather than impress her, honest - I tried my hand at one... hope you like it. If anyone wants to illustrate it for me, get in touch!


I was set on fire / with sparkling bubbles
I was made of air / to end my troubles
I was cleansed with water / to keep me dry
I was packed in earth / so I could fly
I was given wings / made of blood and lust
I was eating hearts / to gain your trust
I was locked inside / on a country breeze
I was near the sun / when my mind would freeze
I was starting again / it was near the end
I was thinking of you / with foe, not friend
I was angry and lost / when my mind returned
I was in perfect peace / my life, it burned

Saturday, 14 April 2012

Escape


When I need an
escape,
I take my box full of
stars and my notebooks
To the rock that juts out
past the cliffs
With the rocky path leading to it
in low tide

And I release the stars so they
Light my sky
And I write in my notebooks until
My pen runs dry

When the tide comes in
I’m trapped again on the rock,
I forget
So distracted by the words and the
starshine
That the blackish waves are rippling
Hush-crash-splash
Against my toes
Surrounded by the sea

And I release my notebooks
onto wetted rocks
And I grab the stars
To put back in their box

When I wade my way
home,
I plan to go back over and over
The same will happen
The ocean eats my words, they
dissolve into its current, and
it keeps my thoughts
in case I need them again

And I will get old
with nostalgic whims
And I will dive deep down
to piece back together the
shreds of thoughts I once had
and pretend I’m still the same person

Friday, 6 April 2012

One More Reason Why...





A couple of weeks ago, my ace friend Caroline Smailes launched her new novel 99 Reasons Why, which has a bit of a difference... remember those Choose Your Own Adventure stories? I loved them. In a sort-of similar vein, Caroline's novel has eleven different endings, from which you pick by either answering a question or (in the iPad version) spinning a wheel. Great concept, right?

I'm proud to be able to show you the eleventh ending here on my blog. If you know Caroline you may have seen this elsewhere, or bought the book already and read them all! But if the title's new to you, read on and enjoy, because it's a bit special. It's about a girl who is employed to spy on a nursery across the street from her house, and is surrounded by all kinds of dodgy characters...

If you fancy reading the rest of the book, you can buy it here:



99: the reason why I was only worth ninety-nine quid


It’s been six days since the little girl in the pink coat went missing and me Uncle Phil’s in me bedroom. We’ve been watching the little girl in the pink coat’s mam on the news. She was appealing to the public for witnesses.

‘Didn’t realise she had a mam,’ I says, looking at me telly.

‘Everyone’s got a mam, pet,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘She sold her story to The Sun,’ I says, looking at me telly.

‘Got a few quid,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘She wanted nowt to do with that bairn before all this,’ me Uncle Phil says, looking at me telly.

‘Do you know where she is?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘Belle?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.

I nod.

‘She’s safe,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘Your mam’s keeping an eye on her.’

‘Can I be her mam?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘No, pet, you’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘Can you make Andy Douglas come back, Uncle Phil?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

Me Uncle Phil shakes his head.

‘I love him,’ I tell me Uncle Phil.

‘Andy Douglas is your brother, pet. You didn’t seriously think Princess Di was your mam, did you?’ me Uncle Phil asks me.

I nod.

‘You’re a cradle snatcher just like your mam,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I nod.

‘Your mam miscarried when she found out I’d been banging Betty Douglas. Betty was expecting you,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I don’t speak.

‘When you was born, your mam went mad and I ended up buying you from Betty Douglas for ninety-nine quid,’ me Uncle Phil says.

‘Ninety-nine quid?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘I paid a hundred but got a quid change for some chips for your mam and dad’s tea,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘You bought me?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

I’m a little bit sick in me mouth.

‘It was the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me. ‘I got Betty Douglas pregnant straight away with Andy.’

‘I’m pregnant,’ I says to me Uncle Phil. ‘I’m pregnant with me brother’s baby,’ I says, and then I throws up on me purple carpet.

‘You’re a filthy whore,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘What am I going to do?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘You’re going to have the baby,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘Have me brother’s baby?’ I asks me Uncle Phil.

‘Then I’m giving it to Betty Douglas to bring up,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘You what?’ I says to me Uncle Phil.

‘It’s the right thing to do,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

‘I can’t—’ I says to me Uncle Phil.

‘It’s either that or I’ll make you disappear,’ me Uncle Phil says to me.

I don’t speak.

I’m thinking, they’re all a bunch of nutters.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Painted Cave


Painted Cave

This is my home, my house, my dwelling-place,
My soul-cold cave, my lightless hollow
It holds my spirit, my darkmint cool
Away where they, and you, can’t follow

But you! You obnoxious he-wolf
You grasp and grip at the shortest foothold
Clamber in by force and splash
The small reflection of what you were told

You rush around on your mission, you paint
You paint, you paint, with reds
And warms and yellows and neons and blues
The black is brightened, my broken head

I stand alone, naked, surrounded
Too-soon exposure horrifies my eyes
My own safe cavern is overwhelmed
It gasps and splutters, it shrivels, it dies.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

For My Mother

I wrote this for my mum. As it's just about still Mothers' (Mother's?) Day, I thought I'd post it.



Sixteen years ago
I was scared and angry at
ghosts with guns
And you held me and told me
You were scared too
I could tell you had
no idea what to say;
Who would?

But in amongst the horror
and the demons
and the realisation that the world
is an awful place - a hard lesson
for a little girl -
I felt loved

Now every year
On Mother’s Day
(which falls around
the same time as the anniversary
of the ghost
with a gun)
I remember that feeling
And I’m glad that
You’re there for me

Like I hope I will be there for
my children
because scared or not,
being loved matters
most of all
So please remember

You are loved by me
Just as I am loved by you

Saturday, 10 March 2012

How To Use What You've Got


Weary, she faces
family, new painted
lines each day
on her crumbling
superstructured face

But their eyes are filled with
spirit, which dissolves
the crackling gloss
against her wishes

And their hearts are filled with
proof and strength, which
set to work
rebuilding the foundations
filling caved in walls
closing broken windows

She is anew
Slowly growing to the
tower she once was, smoothed edges,
proud standing, held up by
spirit and proof and strength

A combination which
until now
had conspired to topple

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Leap Earth

As it's 29th February, here is a story I wrote, about a Leap Earth, for my friend Alex.

Leap Earth



As Lily walked past a closed hatch cover on the deck, she heard a metallic clank. “Ooh, that were a mistake,” she heard. She stopped, puzzled. That was a Yorkshire accent. The crew were Filipino. Besides which, going into an enclosed space and shutting the cover up behind you wasn’t really the done thing.

She stood there a moment longer, wondering if she had perhaps misheard. That had happened to her when she’d first come onboard, the crew would have conversations among themselves and she imagined she heard English. They had just sounded like random words, though, not sentences in dialect. Odd.

“What do we do now then?” continued the muffled voice from below the steel. Lily started opening the hatch. There was definitely someone there. Her heart started beating a little faster – a stowaway? They’d done a thorough search before leaving port, as per company policy, but basic human error could have meant something was missed. A stowaway from what sounded like Hull, though? In Japan?

She lifted the hatch with difficulty. She really needed to work on her physical strength, she reminded herself, before refocusing on the issue at hand. She wondered who she was going to see emerge from the darkness – and the darkness was total. Whoever it was either didn’t have a flashlight or had turned it off.

Lily stepped back and looked to either side of her but there was nobody else on deck. The ABs must have gone to have coffee. Dammit.

Slowly, a figure clambered up the ladder and out of the hatch. He was bald, small and darkish red in colour, with purple patches in various places. He looked, in all honesty, severely burnt, apart from the fact that his skin was totally smooth. He was wearing pale green, a long sleeved top and long tight trousers. He straightened up, saw Lily, and stepped back, eyes widening. “Ooh!”

Now he was in front of her, she looked at his face properly. It was flat. Completely flat. There was a nose shape and nostrils, a normal mouth and eyes and eyebrows, but no contour whatsoever. It was as if his head had been put through a mangle. Lily could feel her forehead wrinkling up in confusion and tried very hard to undo it. She had been brought up to be polite, no matter how much a person’s physical appearance may terrify her. “Um,” she said, her breath quickening, “Who are you?” She tried to remember the protocol for finding a stowaway at sea but her mind had gone blank. She was fairly certain she needed to tell someone. Why hadn’t she brought a radio? She was only meant to be checking that the life jacket boxes were unlocked, so maybe someone would come looking for her if she just kept the weird man here.

“Ward,” the man said cheerfully, holding out his hand. “If I may ask, where am I?”

“You’re on the Tidelines Leprechaun. A container ship. We’ve left Japan. Is that where you got on?”

“Japan? Er, no, love. I just got on here.”

“Here? We’re in the middle of the ocean. You were in the ballast tank, I think. Down there,” Lily said, pointing back down the hatch. She went to close the cover again.

“Oh, don’t do that. Fracas’s still down there.”

“Who’s Fracas?!” Lily was trying to pay attention to what the man said instead of his peculiar appearance. 

She peered down the hatch and sure enough, there was a little blonde head on its way up. She stepped away. Fracas hopped nimbly onto the deck and turned out to be even smaller than Ward, but much the same in most other characteristics. That strange flat face, light green clothing, and an indeterminate age.

The newest addition to their conversation grinned up at Lily. “I am Fracas, dear. I work with Ward. I imagine you probably need a bit of a sit down.”

Lily had no idea what to do. “Um. Right. Fracas. Ward. What the hell are you doing on our ship? Are you trying to get to San Francisco? Where have you come from?” At that, Fracas punched Ward in the arm.

“San Fran bloody Cisco, Ward? What the fuck good is that going to do us?”

Ward looked embarrassed. “It’s me first time,” he said to Lily. “I reckon we’re not meant to be here at all.”

Lily nodded. “Yeah, you’re definitely not. First time doing what? I think I have to take you to see the captain, whoever you are.” She made as if to go towards the accommodation, but the pair stayed still. 

Fracas leaned forward and grabbed Lily’s sleeve.

“Listen, dear. Um. This is a bit of a... thing. It’s all a mistake, you see. We’re certainly not meant to be here annoying you and getting in your way. But it’s happened and now we need to explain it all before you tell more people. It’s important that not many humans know. You can see we don’t look like you? We aren’t from where you’re from, after all.”

“Actually, my dad’s from near Hull,” Lily said to Ward. He looked at her blankly. “Aren’t you from Hull? Your accent is Yorkshire, right?”

Ward shrugged. “I don’t know where Hull is, love, but I think it’s best if Fracas tells you where we’re from. She’s better at talking. Could we go somewhere a bit quieter?” The ocean wind blew strongly in Lily’s ears. She would be far more comfortable in her calm air-conditioned cabin, but she still had no idea what to do. If she presented these two to the captain, what would he say? She was kind of interested to find out, but then again, she’d always loved secrets and these two didn’t seem to present any kind of threat.

“Well,” she said, still thinking, “I could take you to my cabin but if you don’t want anyone else to see you, it’ll be tricky. We’d have to go past the galley and there might be a few of the crew around at the moment.”

Ward held up his finger and turned sideways. He vanished. Or rather, nearly vanished, and looked like a thin black rod or pencil line drawn in the air. He turned back and returned to full visibility. Lily’s forehead wrinkles returned with him. She stared.

“I have no idea what just happened,” she informed him. He grinned and Fracas patted her on her back. 

“We’ll just do that, dear, all the way, if you can lead us to somewhere with a locked door so we can explain. Nobody’ll see us unless they’re looking, and who would look for a straight line? The world’s full of them already. People don’t want more. Curves are the only interesting thing to look at.”

Lily disagreed with her point but couldn’t argue with the plan. She headed inside and straight up to her cabin, two decks up. When she got there, she waited for a minute (she still couldn’t see Ward and Fracas but assumed they’d been right behind her) and then shut and locked her door. That second, they reappeared.

Fracas skipped around the cabin, finding it very spacious thanks to her tiny frame. “Lovely! Lovely!” she chanted, before seeing Lily’s raised eyebrows. She sat on the floor, contrite. Ward joined her with crossed legs and Lily, after a few seconds, did the same. She felt as if she were in a pow-wow back in Brownies.

“So...” she said encouragingly. Her mind flitted back to the life jacket boxes. She’d been on her way to see the last one before this had happened. Must remember to go and check it later.

“Yes,” began Fracas, “so indeed. We intended to jump onto a little fishing boat. I’m not entirely sure where we are. Are we near the Date Line?”

Lily nodded. “The International Date Line, yes.” She thought back to her morning looking at charts on the bridge. “We’ll probably cross it in a couple of hours.”

“Excellent, well at least there’s that. We live there, you see.”

“You live in the middle of the ocean? Sorry, I’m confused.”

Ward butted in. “We live along the Date Line, love. In the extra five degrees.”

“The extra five degrees?” she asked. This was making no sense. If it weren’t for their appearance, Lily would have dismissed their riddles entirely and shoved them up to the captain’s office, but she had never seen people so extraordinary – there had to be an extraordinary explanation.

“Every leap year, the world gains five degrees,” said Fracas soothingly. “That’s where we stay.”

“No it doesn’t! They definitely would have told us that at college,” Lily sputtered. She wasn’t too hot at maths but she knew that the Earth always had 360 degrees, for God’s sake. Was it really February 29th, though? She had lost track of the date.

“Well, this is why we can’t let many people know, you see. The Earth gets an extra five degrees of latitude next to the International Date Line every four years, and we pop up to see what’s what and get supplies, and then go away again until the next leap year. Because it doesn’t go through land, nobody notices. Sailors get a bit confused but they always think it’s just their brains playing tricks on them.”

Lily was not entirely convinced that this whole experience wasn’t exactly that.

“Ironically,” Ward added jovially, thrusting currants into his mouth from a plastic bowl which had appeared somehow, “If the extra earth didn’t keep appearing and disappearing, the world would be a bit quicker on its feet about getting round the Sun and there wouldn’t be any need for a bloody leap year in the first place!”

Well, that’s just nonsense, she thought. “Look, say I believe you. What does that mean? What do you want? And how do you disappear for four years, anyway?”

“Like we disappeared on our way up here,” Fracas said, as if it were obvious. “Though under the water, of course. Just along the Line.”

“I was stuck on a corner last time,” added Ward, rubbing his nose. “Hurt a bit.”

Despite their story being ridiculous and slightly – make that utterly – unbelievable, Lily was starting to like these two. She could at least chat to them. It was a bit lonely sometimes, being in the middle of the ocean with no other native English speakers.

She sighed. “Right, OK. Every leap year the world gains five degrees, and that’s where you live, and when it’s not a leap year you go and hide back down under the ocean, but now it is a leap year, so you’re here.”

They both nodded enthusiastically. “You’re far better at this than we were told humans’d be,” said Ward, offering Lily his bowl of currants. She declined, and he continued to swallow them at a rate of knots.

“Humans – you mean you aren’t? Who ‘told’ you?”

Fracas placed a single currant on her tongue and swallowed. “We’re Intercalaries. Quite like humans, I suppose, except would you like to try disappearing underwater for four years at a time? And we look a bit different, as you can see. I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned it. Others tell us it’s normally the first thing you lot comment on, our bright skin. Well we get bruised a lot, you see, all this pushing and pulling on our resources. We’ve evolved into having permanently damaged-looking skin.”

Lily felt a sudden urge to write everything down. She felt like she was interviewing the pair, and was certain she wouldn’t remember their answers when she woke up, or got back to the real world, or realised she was a lunatic sitting in a room by herself eating currants.

“So there are others like you who tell you about humans. You’ve never met any before? And what exactly were you going to do if you got on a fishing vessel as planned?”

Ward suddenly stood up. “Look, you haven’t got a spoon, have you? I can’t eat these so quickly with just my hand.”

On the desk sat a set of cutlery Lily had brought with her (just in case) and never used. She pointed and decided to enquire about the dried fruit.

“We eat them, to get rid of them,” Ward said, as if that explained everything. Fracas took over, a sympathetic smile on her flat lips. “In four years, there’s a lot of current that builds up in the ocean in our five degrees. As a flat substance it can’t go anywhere, but it still exists. So when we finally emerge, it has a really short space of time to release all its energy. In order to reduce that to a normal level, so that humans don’t notice all the temperamental swells and whirlpools that would happen, we have to eat most of it in the time we have.”

Lily sighed. If this wasn’t real, it really was the most bizarre thing she’d ever heard of. “You’re saying the currents of the ocean are made of... currants?”

They stared at her. “Course they are,” said Ward slowly, momentarily stumped by the question.

“We don’t only eat currants,” Fracas tried to reassure her. “For a treat, sometimes we’re allowed to pick dates off the line.”

“The... International Date Line. Is made of dates. Is what you mean.” Lily had to speak steadily to calm herself down so that she did not throw herself out of the window in frustration.

At that, Fracas laughed, a tiny tinkling bell noise. “No! Of course not. The line is made of silk. The dates hang from it.”

There was no chance for Lily to think about whether she believed it or not. The outlandish ‘facts’ kept on coming. She went to sit by the porthole for a few minutes and stared out, willing logic to re-enter her life. 

Things kept occurring to her and she couldn’t help but ask. She was no good at allowing mystery to exist when the answers could be there for the taking.

“How did you get onto a ship, though? In one of our tanks? I heard you say you’d made a mistake. Don’t you just swim to the surface of the water?”

Ward nodded. “I banged me head. Forgot about that.” He gazed around, as if he’d already forgotten about it again. “Thing is, right, I’m not that good at swimming. We can do this thing, we can get through solids if we go sideways and aim for corners. We were told to go for a little boat and hide under a bench and it’d all be fine, but truth be told it’s our first time up here and it’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Shapes and stuff. Me big brother goes to get it all usually but they decided to make me go and I dragged Fracas along. Anyway, so I measured it wrong and here we are.”

Fracas looked at the clock on the wall. “We should be getting on. Or at least work out how you can help us. What did you say your name was, dear?”

“Lily. What is it you’re supposed to be getting?” She wasn’t ready yet to rejoin them on the floor. She was exhausted by all this new information. Suddenly she really needed to sleep.

“Oh! You’re tired,” the little red woman said, reading her mind, or possibly just interpreting the three enormous yawns Lily had let out. Fracas stood and took Ward’s hand. “We’ll return in the morning. OK if we go in here?” And they opened her wardrobe door and disappeared.

Lily was taken aback. She had assumed that they were in a hurry, from the clock watching and the talk of disappearing for another four years. Perhaps they had all year and not just the extra day? Whatever the reason for their sudden departure, she was grateful. She yawned her head off for a few more minutes and crept into her bed to try to sleep off the weirdness.

The next morning, Lily awoke with jabbing pains in her face. She looked around to see Ward and Fracas standing to attention by the side of the bed, Ward trying to hide a long piece of metal behind his back. Everything came flooding back to her. “Er...morning.”

“Bright and early!” Fracas sang, pointing at the clock. 06:03. Oh joy.

“Today is a brand new day, lots to get done,” said Ward, still eating currants, this time using his metal stick as a sort of chopstick.

“Or rather, today is the same day as yesterday,” Fracas corrected him. “I mean, it’s a different day, but it’s the same date.”

“Not a date you can eat, sadly,” added Ward, frowning into his neverending fruit bowl. “But still, a gift. A whole extra yesterday to do things we didn’t do... yesterday.”

The way he said ‘yesterday’ reminded Lily of her granddad. Her head buzzed with confusion and she sat up to try to make sense of it. “What are you both on about?”

“The International Date Line, dear!” Fracas continued singing. “We joined on the right side of it, that is, the proper side, so that if we didn’t get finished, we’d just go back to yesterday morning when we crossed it and we could have 29th February all over again! Easy peasy. Now, we do need to do some things today, dear, so if you could refrain from sleeping for a while that’d be lovely."

Lily got out of bed and shooed them back into the cupboard while she dressed. She wasn’t due to go on watch until 8, so she would listen to what they needed and figure out where to go from there. Sugar, she needed sugar to be awake this early. She remembered a bar of chocolate she had put in her fridge a couple of weeks ago and never got round to eating. She ripped it open and sat on the edge of her bed.

Ward stepped out of the cupboard uninvited. “So, I wanted to get some kind of trinket for me little sister, some normal world thing, but then it probably wouldn’t fit at home,” he began conversationally. “Plus we do have an actual job, like, getting stuff that we properly need.”

It felt like the millionth time she’d asked this. “So what do you need?”

“Have you ever heard of a Deviation Dolphin, dear?” said Fracas, stepping lightly out of the cupboard and sitting right next to Lily.

“Yeah, it’s a bunch of posts, you turn the ship around them to find out the deviation of its magnetic compass,” she said. She’d found the entry in a chart guide and was quite proud of herself for remembering.

Fracas frowned. “No, Lily. It’s a hybrid whale and dolphin. Real whale and dolphin, I mean, not those pretend whales you have. Someone told my uncle about wolphins last year – have you ever seen one? - but orcas are technically dolphins too, y’know. Really gets my goat when people can’t be accurate. It just doesn’t make sense. You can’t mate two kinds of dolphin and then pretend it’s got a bit of whale in it.”

The exhaustion Lily had felt last night came drifting back. Would anything about these two make sense? “So a Deviation Dolphin is a whale crossed with a dolphin. What about it?”

“We’ve got to get them their food,” explained Ward. “They never wanted humans to know about them, the dolphins didn’t I mean, so they asked us to look after them. They can’t breed any more, obviously, being crossed species, so when the dolphin gives birth – the dolphins are usually the mums, what with them being sluts and all, and the whale dads, well they just take whatever they’re offered – when the dolphin gives birth, we whip the babies away down with us and just make sure they have a nice time of it until they die. But that means we have to feed them and keep four years’ worth of food at a time. So we’re here to get it.” He beamed, proud of being able to offer some useful information.

Lily was stuck on his first point. “You talk to dolphins?”
Ward nodded. “They talk to us, is more like it. All you can do is agree with ‘em. They say they talk to you too but you just bloody ignore them all, which is a bit rude given how much money they make you. That’s what they reckon, anyway.”

The three of them had absentmindedly started eating currants again. Lily had never noticed the bowl appear, it was always just there on the floor. “So what do these Deviation Dolphins eat?”

Fracas crossed her hands over her knees. “Well,” she started slowly. “Being hybrids they have some odd habits. They drink coffee, for one thing, but only Kona coffee. Sometimes Blue Mountain but they’re ever so fussy. Back when we first started seeing them, an old ancestor of ours gave them instant coffee. They vomited up their insides and the ancestor had to sit in their guts for the next four years. So the legend goes, anyway.

“They’re also big fans of beluga caviar. Don’t judge; they can’t help themselves. They’re not even supposed to exist so a slight cannibalism is tolerable, we think. They’re very beautiful creatures. And really, it does make the job of the food collectors very easy. Coffee is one side of the date line, caviar on the other. A quick hop and a jump and we’re pretty much done. Or should be, if we weren’t currently on our way to San Fran Bloody Cisco.” With this she glared at Ward, but couldn’t prevent herself from bursting into further sunny giggles.

Lily thought for a few minutes. “Well we’re supposed to go to Jamaica after San Francisco, so we could get Blue Mountain. Of course, that’s a couple of weeks away. Other than that I have no idea how to help you.” She shrugged, sad that she couldn’t instantly provide an answer.

“Don’t you worry, love,” said Ward, patting her on the knee. “Not your fault. It were my mistake. We can sort out the food. I think,” and here he looked to Fracas for confirmation, “that one of us should pop off and get it, as that’s the easy bit after all. Then meet back here and go home. Oh, we need to remember to get the Deviation Dolphins on the way back too. Can’t let humans see ‘em. They’re too beautiful for your eyes to handle,” he explained to Lily. Obviously, there is no greater temptation to a human than the forbidden, so Lily was not too impressed by this.

Fracas stood up and clapped her hands, as if to rally her troops. Needless to say, her troops consisted of Ward, who was eating currants and rubbing his nose, and Lily, who had gone off into a daydream about seeing the most beautiful creatures on earth (in earth, technically?), so the clapping did nothing other than make her feel more organised.

“OK. I shall stay here and try to find a chart to figure out how we get home. Ward, since you find it so easy,” she said, sticking her tongue out, “you can go and get the coffee and caviar. Remember to do it the proper way round so you don’t end up in March! You need to come back here on the 29th otherwise we’ll be stuck here for four years. I’m barely even handling a day and I haven’t had a date in hours. So hurry. Go now.”

Ward immediately stood up and headed for the corner of the cabin. There he turned sideways until he was a thin black rod, then completely vanished, leaving Fracas and Lily alone.

Lily turned to the tiny Intercalary. “So how beautiful exactly are these dolphins? Can you tell me about them? Are you sure I can’t see one even for a minute?”

Fracas laughed. “I don’t know what would happen. All I know is that humans aren’t supposed to see them, it’d be dangerous. To be honest I am not the most qualified person to answer, I’ve never met a human before you. But Deviation Dolphins are the shiniest, smoothest, prettiest things I’ve ever seen. I could gaze at them for hours. Not while they’re eating, they’re a bit revolting then. Ever seen a dolphin or a whale try to drink coffee? They’re not made for it. Don’t know why they like it so much, seems unnatural. Mind you I suppose the whole thing is unnatural, isn’t it?” She looked at Lily’s digital camera, resting on the table. 
“What’s that, dear?”

Lily picked it up and switched it on. “It’s a camera. These are pictures I’ve taken on my trip so far. Look, there are a few different ports there, from Africa up to Japan, and only a couple on this bit since Japan because it’s just been ocean, mainly.” She showed Fracas the arrow button and handed her the camera, which looked enormous and clunky in her fragile hands.

“I’m going for breakfast. Have a look through the pictures if you like and I’ll be back in fifteen minutes. Do you want me to bring you anything?” Fracas shook her head, indicating the mountain of currants in front of her, and Lily escaped the cabin to try to gain some perspective down in the mess.

She sat with a bowl of cereal at 07:15. What a weird day. She had just about got her head around what the Intercalaries had been saying – not that it made sense, but she could at least remember it all – and then coming away from them into an all-human area, it seemed like a dream. Could she have made it up? She looked around her. Everything looked entirely normal. Other people’s faces were normal. She tried to imagine Fracas and Ward sitting next to her and it didn’t fit. Well, of course it didn’t fit; they weren’t from this world, or at least not the main part of it. But it was too fantastical to believe when it wasn’t right in front of her. Was the best thing to stay away for a while and see if it felt more real, or to go straight back to her cabin, see Fracas and understand it all again?

She finished her breakfast and decided that the only thing she could do was get on with her life as if nothing unusual was happening, so she went back to her cabin to prepare for a normal day of work. Fracas was still sitting with the camera. She looked up when Lily entered. “Lily, what’s noil?” she asked.

Lily took the camera to see what she was talking about. Fracas had found a picture from Mauritius, a group of oversized cylindrical tanks with “INDIANOIL” printed on them in huge letters. She explained Fracas’s mistake.

“Huh. Shame. I quite like the word noil. If I have a child I may name it Noil.”

Lily was curious about something. “Fracas, if you don’t mind me asking, how old are you? Only it’s quite hard to tell, you don’t have any of the human signs of aging...”

Fracas thought for a moment. “I’m not sure. A hundred and twenty? In your years, that is. You have to remember that during the years we aren’t here, we don’t age. It’s like a vacuum down there; nothing moves, nothing changes. During the few months before and after February 29th, though, our shapes change a little, in preparation for going up or down, so we age then, a little bit. Maybe in terms of how much my body has aged, around twenty.  I can’t say we keep count like you lot seem to, though.”

Lily nodded, trying to work it all out. “So you were here, in our time, a hundred and twenty years ago? I mean, not here, but alive? That’s mad. Was the date line the same back then?”

“Well,” Fracas frowned. “I think so. I mean, it’s a human thing, isn’t it? We just call it by your name. I don’t even understand why you call it a leap year. Makes it sound like you’re missing something out, jumping over it. But you’ve added a day. Should be more of a shuffle year. Takes longer, adds steps. You know? But the line’s always been there, theoretically. Soon as they figured out a proper calendar, I suppose. I can’t remember when they started growing dates on it. A couple of times my dad was confused when he came up because you’d moved countries about, or moved the line about, either way something was where it wasn’t before. But only little stuff, it’s never harmed us.”

It was time for the work day to start, so after making sure Fracas wouldn’t get bored (“I can manage four years squashed up in a dark ocean, so your cabin for a day will do me nicely”) Lily set off to the bridge.

When she returned from her afternoon deck duties, Ward had turned up once more. He clutched a bag of packets and jars. It surprised Lily how domesticated it seemed; he had just gone to buy some coffee and caviar, like any normal person with a startlingly limited diet, but she had expected some kind of otherworldly storage facility or method of transportation. She enquired as to how they were to move the goods down with them, when they went.

“Ooh that’s a point, we need to go soon,” said Fracas, looking up at the clock. It was late afternoon. “But in answer to your question, if it’s within the confines of our clothing, it becomes part of us for the manoeuvring process. It’s this adaptable stuff, you see...” she stretched out the fabric from her arm. “Basically it’s this that allows us to become kind of flat. That’s why our faces are like straight lines but our bodies are more like yours – our faces are the only bits without the fabric covering them. Again, just evolution. We’ve had a long time. Maybe we’ll wear masks in the future and our heads will reshape.”

With that, the two of them stood up. Lily frowned. She hadn’t had nearly enough time to find out about these weird people – it didn’t seem right that they were already leaving. There was one thing she couldn’t help but ask. “Look, if I somehow manage to sort out the rescue boat, can I drive you to where you pick up the dolphins? I really really really want to see one,” she pleaded.

Fracas looked grave for the first time. “Lily, if we were to let you do that it would be incredibly irresponsible, and like I said, dangerous for you. I don’t even know what would happen to you but the strict rules are there for a purpose; it must be something pretty bad.”

“That boat sounds good, though,” offered Ward.

“OK,” Lily jumped in quickly. “How about I drive you to the spot, just so you’re in the right place, and I’ll promise to shut my eyes tight if there’s a chance I might see one? I want to do you a favour, you’ve come so far the wrong way it seems a shame not to use the boat we’ve got. I’ll probably get in trouble but it’s exciting, it’d be worth it. I’ve been wanting to get my hands on that boat since I joined the ship! It looks really fun!”

Fracas laughed at her sudden excitement after a whole day of doubt and confusion. “Well, now, you’ve offered us a favour, and it would be impolite to refuse our host. You’ve been so lovely. But do you promise not to tell anyone, even if you get in trouble and they demand an explanation?”

Lily nodded solemnly. “I do promise.” Her brain was whirring. There was not a chance she would avert her eyes if she had a chance to see the most beautiful creature on earth, especially if it was only on earth for one day every four years. These weird little people must know that. But if they didn’t, they didn’t need to.

The three (two of them in the most invisible way possible) made their way up to the deck where the rescue boat sat, or rather, hung. Lily spent a while working her way around the ropes and the davit, ensuring she’d be able to manage it all by herself, then told Ward and Fracas to get in and put everything in place. Carefully she used the remote control to swing the boat out above the water, then inched them down, very very slowly, and thanking her lucky stars that someone had closed the blinds in the mess on the deck below, until they were in the ocean. Lily had only ever been in the boat during a drill while they were alongside, and she was surprised by how much drag there was. She quickly unlocked the ropes holding them to the boat, started the engine, and made her way back towards the International Date Line to drop off her new friends.

She couldn’t help but look back to see if anyone was at the stern watching her fly away, but couldn’t see anyone. “You’ve been such a help, dear,” Fracas said as she and Ward reappeared. “I didn’t really think humans would be so nice. Apparently you’re ruining the earth, which doesn’t seem very nice. You’d never ruin the earth, would you?”

“No, I’d never ruin the earth,” Lily agreed, deciding not to mention all the CO2 her massive ship emitted with each voyage. The three of them were silent after that, watching the ocean go past, until eventually Ward stood up. The wind knocked him down again, but it had woken them all from their quiet thoughts.

“It’s here! I can smell ‘em,” he announced. Lily assumed he meant the Deviation Dolphins, although she couldn’t smell anything other than the salt water. She stopped the engine and waited for further instruction.

Fracas put the bag under her pale green jumper and turned to Lily. “Now, dear, the baby dolphins will leap up and try not to be caught. It will only be a couple of minutes so I have to ask you just to look away, back towards your ship, until five minutes has passed. These are the instructions we were given and it isn’t my choice but something might happen so please do it. I don’t want you to be hurt after you’ve helped us so much.”

She nodded and they said their goodbyes. Lily was determined to write about this when she got back to her cabin. If she wasn’t immediately made to walk the plank for stealing the rescue boat, that is.

Then they jumped, turned sideways, and disappeared below the tiny waves. Lily held her breath. She was not going to look away. She wondered what would happen to her. Would she die? Don’t be so daft, she told herself. If the reason humans couldn’t look at Deviation Dolphins was their beauty, it could only amount to something like Stendhal's Syndrome. She might faint, she supposed.

There was a dark ripple, then two. Soon the little segment of ocean in front of her was full of black marks under the surface.  Eventually one of them broke free and leapt over the waves.

It was beautiful, like they’d said. It was shiny and compact and a dark gunmetal colour. It had enormous eyes and a little smile and it looked right at Lily as it went back under the water. She gasped; an instinctive reaction. Then more came. Her line of vision was suddenly filled with the most beautiful creatures on the planet and she couldn’t look away. They were truly tiny; half a metre long at the most. They must have just been born. Their flesh looked as if it had a marbled texture and Lily longed to touch it.

As she continued to stare, she stretched out her hand towards them, then grabbed it back as she saw how it looked. It was turning a dark red. She pulled it closer to her face and saw a purple blotch begin to form next to her knuckles. Suddenly she knew exactly what the bad thing that might happen to her was, and she gave herself up to it. Her clothes faded into pale green, and with one last glance at the Deviation Dolphins, she turned herself sideways and slipped over the edge of the boat into the water, down to where the Intercalaries lived.

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Bus Haiku

I spent most of yesterday on a bus, the glorious M***bus, from Glasgow to London. To stop me from going insane I wrote some haiku to document my journey. Such an inordinate amount, in fact, that I thought I should at least blog them so my mediocre tired brainpower wasn't put to waste. So here they are. All untitled, but in sequence.

My usual seat
Top deck, third back, left, window
A cake at my seat

The seat is sticking
Forced back, now won't move at all
Sorry, girl behind

The SOUTH, it proclaims
Hills and lochs and villages
Stretch out behind me

What kind of road sign
will be in this mountain range -
"Further"? "Low cloud"? "Sheep"?

A701
Where the fuck does that go then
Never heard of it

Kirkpatrick Fleming
says the sign; how marvellous
to be named so well.

"Welcome to England"
suddenly, tea ev'rywhere!
Cricket! Fish and chips!

Mist rolls down on us
I can just make out "M6"
Lucky I don't drive

Someone has a torch
near the front. Many colours
Megabus disco

Preston Services!
We can almost taste the snacks
But no. We drive past.

The sign stands proudly
but points to nothing; a small
invisible town

Darkened signs glimmer
Could that be... - does it say...? - yes!
At last, city-bound

Thursday, 16 February 2012

The Fo'c's'le

This probably isn't going to be of much interest to those who were reading my blog for the merchant navy stuff. But what I used to do on here was write: poetry, stories etc. I've written quite a few stories recently, but to get slowly back into the swing of things, a ship-related poem. The lovely writer/director/producer Peter Vickers has done a great recording of it for me, if you want to listen instead of/as well as read. Enjoy!

The Fo"c"s"le (mp3)

The Fo'c's'le



Bathed in a yellow gleam
The rust shines like paint and the paint grips like rust
On the deck are patches of darker red, squares, a textured roundness within, underneath
Like so many unopened condom packets littering the ground
(A sailor has a lonely life)

Bright geometric shapes, blue rectangles, yellow rectangles,
The opening sequence to an 80s TV show, on the sofa, orange squash in hand
Safest place in the world
The same images now with heavy ropes, steel cable snapback zones
A bight’ll have your head; a loop, your limb
“Most dangerous job in the world, Jim!”
Left with nothing, a stump, a memory,
A body at home, a mind all at sea
(A sailor has a lonely life)

Wednesday, 8 February 2012

Honesty


Those few of you who have been reading my blog every day (weirdos) will have noticed a sudden lapse in the last week. Well, time for a bit of honesty. I've only told a few people about this so far and the reactions have been varied and in some cases, surprising - I'm not having those conversations again. So please don't be offended if you ask me a question about it and I don't answer, I'm just not going to get dragged into an argument about it.

I have decided to end my cadetship, as of now. The people who know me really well know that there are two sides to my personality - the studious nerdy half who enjoys working things out and concentrating on maths and being smart, and the hippy wanderer half who likes writing poems and drinking cups of tea and dying her hair and staring into space. I would be perfectly happy to diminish the latter half if I found a job I truly loved which required it. I really would. But, it turns out, I don't truly love this. In fact, I find it kind of... boring. The premise is exciting, and I enjoy the theory. I like the rules and the maths and the history and all the different places. But they aren't the job; they are what you need to know to do the job. The job itself is sort of half playing a big videogame with ten different monitors (I don't really get the appeal, although I know millions of people would jump at the chance) and half admin, with a smattering of walking around the deck with a radio (also hate radios. I don't really even like phones). To be honest - and that is what I intend - I think there are probably jobs that suit me better. So I'm going home to find one.

We were warned at college before we came to sea that there would be bits we didn't like, and we shouldn't dismiss it straight away because we wouldn't always be doing those bits. The bits they thought we might not like were the manual things, working with the bosun and ABs, long hot work with sweat dripping down your back, that kind of thing. Er... I quite liked that. I have always found practical work enjoyable and rewarding. Turns out I am quite good at splicing, too. It's the actual officer work (and I know I haven't done much of it, but I've watched what each of them does, while steering, at anchor, in port and everything in between) that I find a bit dull, and we *will* always be doing those bits. Maybe dull isn't the word; maybe just not a good fit. The way the cadetship works is that the studying lasts three years, and then my particular company has a two year return of service if they have a job for you. That's five years. I'll be 31 at the end of that, and I don't think I'm willing to spend five years in a job that I'm not even excited about a few weeks in. Seems daft, doesn't it?

So, that's me. I'll be heading home from Cape Town whenever we get there - sometime in the next week - and will try to work out what to do next! Maybe a proofreading course. I hear proofreaders drink a lot of tea.

Friday, 3 February 2012

A Tanker At Anchor

We aren't a tanker, nor can I see any from here. I just like the wordplay.

So we're at anchor! Just outside Durban and there's been a strike of port authorities - it's pretty hard to get any information, so whether we're waiting for non-union pilots or whether they've sorted it out and are slowly trying to catch up, I have no idea, but what it all boils down to is the fact that we need to wait. And wait.

It isn't the worst place to wait, let's be honest. There's bright sunshine and little breezes and big blue sea. Watching the anchor go down was pretty amazing - it was night time so we were lit only by a yellowish lamp and flashlights on the fo'c's'le. First you slowly drop the anchor until it's a metre above sea level, then you let it freefall until the length of the anchor chain is right. There's a monitor next to the handle that lets you see how much you've dropped it, which is cool. So the bosun would drop a little bit, report to the captain on the bridge what the reading was, and then change it as the captain thought necessary. When it's in freefall, the noise it makes is like something from hell - clanking and groaning and massive rattling and it's so fast!! And the dust and rust it brings up is like your own little tornado on deck. I had to look away every time it started to make sure I didn't get anything in my eyes, despite being the other side of the fo'c's'le!

Until further notice, due to some info we got before arriving, we're on double deck watch. We walk around the ship, slowly, in a boiler suit, in hot weather, for four hours at a time, because we're mental. I mean because there's a risk of hijacking in this area - we're basically just looking out for any suspicious looking little vessels which approach us and making sure nobody gets on board! It isn't the most exciting job I've done, I'll be honest, and it's a bit intimidating thinking that I'm responsible for making sure this massive ship with millions of pounds' worth of stuff in containers doesn't get hijacked... not solely responsible, obviously, but still!

All the wandering around has made me tired and thirsty so I'm off to have a nap and a drink. Hopefully more exciting things tomorrow...

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

A Sextant, To An Extent

Woke up with a sore wrist today after throwing around too many t**** l***s yesterday. Just the day for playing with a sextant, then! This is a device used to take bearings of stars (usually the sun), and is what you see all the sailors using in movies about pirates in centuries gone by.

I had thought that its name derived from the fact that its angle can be up to 1/6th of a circle (I know you can get octants and quadrants) - but ours are actually 120 degrees, or a third, so who knows. Maybe "tritant" is too close to "trident" to be of comfort to seafarers? It comprises, among other bits and pieces, a telescope, a mirror, a "horizon glass" and the actual index arm which points to the scale of degrees. The basic premise is that you look at whichever star you want, then use the bit on the end of the index arm to move its reflection down to meet the horizon, and then see how many degrees you've moved it (this is *very* basic). There are all kinds of errors you need to take into account, and there's an almanac to consult to find out other things, and working out what you want to know is all very fiddly. But with practice - I couldn't get any other than theoretical today, as it was too cloudy to see the sun - I'm sure it'll be easy. I might head up to the bridge this evening to see if I can use it with night stars!

The rest of the day was spent greasing fire hydrants - a monthly job that is boring and hot. But necessary, I suppose. Certainly wouldn't want to get into a situation where there was a fire and the only thing preventing its extinction is the fact that the hydrant wheel is too stiff to turn...

We are due, again only theoretically, to arrive in Durban tomorrow evening. But there's word of a strike and it's very hard to get any kind of concrete information. One of the ABs was telling me that he was once at anchor outside a South African port for six days. Which would be good for studying, I suppose, but frustrating in a multitude of other ways. Still, a classmate of mine has been in dry dock on her ship for a while and is now heading out to stay at anchor for a month, so I'm grateful to have had the experience I've had so far!

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Twist Lock

So, twist locks, eh? They're fun. Oh wait. NO THEY'RE NOT.

The ship had a load of inventory to get done today, so Ian and I were taken off our respective watches and both worked the whole day with the bosun and the ABs. Our first task - to count all of the twist locks we had in stores. For those who don't know, a twist lock is a contraption that secures containers onto the deck (or onto the spreaders, which manoeuvre them in port, or onto whatever else you like) by way of a couple of different pieces of metal, one of which twists when in place. There are a few different types - the ones we have on board are semi automatic (which twist by themselves but still need a cord to be pulled to be fully locked) and hanging locks, which... oh, this explanation is boring me already. You can guess how hanging locks work.

Anyway, so throwing hundreds and hundreds of heavy bits of metal around wooden bins for a few hours wasn't really my ideal way to start the day. We were under the fo'c'sle, which is the front top part of the deck, and so could really feel all the pitching and rolling in this mental ocean. Add heat and tiredness to that (had a really bad dream last night) and you've got the start of what I suspected to be seasickness. I felt faint and dizzy, and from the looks of him Ian felt the same, but the ABs assured us that all we needed to do was rest more. We worked too fast, they said. If we did all the work before morning coffee we'd have nothing to do this afternoon! So we slowed down a bit, brought some kind of power fan contraption down to where we were working, and spent the rest of the morning in pleasant (well, cooler) conditions. This afternoon we counted all the fallen and spare locks around the deck and the containers, and then practised our knot tying, which apparently we had both completely forgotten. We were shown how to cut rope using a hammer, which was cool.

Days like this are completely expected and actually provide a welcome relief from mathematical navigation. You realise how hard the crew work and the physical activity cheers you up, although at the same time wears you out so you end up sitting in silence for a while afterwards examining your blisters and bruises. I think I might try to watch a movie from the ship's library later to unwind. Back on watch in the morning, and we hit Durban the next day!

Monday, 30 January 2012

Rolling In The Deep

Ahh, day off... well, sort of. I have the afternoon off deck work, which means a day without boilersuits, sweating, iron ladders, helmet marks on the forehead... but instead I have a load of calculations and diagrams to do for my navigational workbook.  P and I decided to make 8-10 each watch teaching/studying time (and then 10-12 for learning actual bridge work), and today was celestial navigation - we haven't even touched on that in college yet so it's fascinating. I think I've understood the basics and have some good ideas and projects to enter into the workbook

The captain invited me to observe a meeting of the ship's Safety Committee which was also interesting, finding out how problems were resolved and what the day to day issues are. The main thing I got from it was that they were hardly ever all in agreement but always managed to find a good compromise! We've been told we have to be extra vigilant around the area that we're going into, so there's going to be an extra AB on watch for additional lookout duties.

Something I immediately noticed upon leaving Port Louis was that instead of pitching (in layman's terms the ship's bow dipping up and down), the swell of the ocean is making us roll (ie from side to side). I thought this was the bit where I'd get seasick but for some reason I find the motion really comforting. The incline of a ship is measured by the clinometer, which today said 5 degrees to port and then 3 to starboard - this worried me until I realised that the meter wasn't exactly in the centre! If it actually had been inclining more on one side, this would be due to an angle of list - which basically means that the cargo on the ship is stored unevenly and isn't exactly safe.

Anyway, now that two rows of containers have been removed from in front of my cabin, I can actually see the ocean so I'm going back down to enjoy my view while I study. Clocks go back again tonight so we're going from +4 to +3, and then the following night we go to +2 in preparation for Durban. Extra sleep two nights in a row!

Sunday, 29 January 2012

Tug

We've just left Mauritius. We were so quick that I was greeted this morning at the start of my cargo watch by a sign by the gangway saying that nobody was allowed shore leave! Operations finished at lunchtime ish, we had a stowaway search, the pilot came on board and from then it was the reverse procedure for getting into port. Instead of Ian and I swapping roles so that I was down on the deck with the winches and ropes and he was on the bridge, I was told to put on my uniform and go up to the bridge - so I guess we'll swap around for getting both in and out of port next time.

I've never seen a tug boat in action in the daylight before! When we came in it was dark so all I could make out from the bridge were the lights. Watching them in all their detail was really fascinating - definitely a job to consider if I wanted to stay in one place! They approach the ship and attach themselves using heavy lines (I have yet to see this from the deck point of view but the third officer explained how it all worked so now I want to get down there to see for myself!) then, as the name suggests, tug the ship gently out of its berth and towards the right course. On the starboard side, where we'd been tied alongside, two more tugs came and  nudged us out using the fenders on their bows. They looked, to use a completely unprofessional analogy, like tiny mice from a Disney movie - am I thinking of Cinderella or something? - pushing and pulling a big lumbering person around. Maybe Gulliver is a more appropriate comparison. As before, I thought the tugs looked tiny, then saw someone aboard one come to rescue a fender that was hanging off and realised it was actually the size of my house.

Something else I've done today is more cargo watch, including checking all the lashings for the containers that were loaded. This involves climbing up to and walking along lashing bridges, which are tiny little walkways between each row of containers. The bridges themselves are stable enough but sometimes the stevedores (guys employed by the port to do the container manoeuvring) leave metal lashing bars along them so it feels like playing hopscotch in midair! I walked all the way along the second level towards port, which faced out to sea, and it seemed like I was walking the plank. Then up in the bridge later I realised how comparitively low down that second level is - our containers are 8'6" tall and wide (20', 40' or 45' long) and above deck they're stacked pretty high, with max sixteen across. There are thirty something rows of them from fore to aft. Yes, I am indeed on an enormous ship.

Sundays are supposed to be a day off watch for us cadets so we can study, but obviously that can't be applicable in port (real officers do cargo watch for 6 hours on and 6 off, instead of bridge watch which is 4 on and 8 off. Exhausting especially in this heat!). Instead we have tomorrow off deck work, so we still do our four hours watch but Ian gets the morning for a lie in - I mean, to study - and I have the afternoon free.

Dinner soon so I'm going to get changed and relax after a knackering day in port. Hope you've all had a lovely weekend!

Saturday, 28 January 2012

Meet Me In Port Louis

Today's been the weirdest-feeling one so far - seeing land! Not only seeing it, but aiming for it... we were due to get to the island of Mauritius at around 6.30am. We were slightly later than that, but no matter - there was a ship still in our berth, and it's only a little port so they needed to come out before we could get in. So we drifted, waiting. For hours. And hours. And hours.

Finally, at 8pm, I got a call to go up to the bridge - the captain had asked if I wanted to go and watch us coming into the port at night time, as all of our watches have been during the day so far. It's a completely different experience seeing only navigational lights, and it really needs to be done in order to understand what on earth they're trying to examine us on in college! Despite a bit of confusion about what exactly I was to be doing, which involved me running up and down five flights of stairs three or four times to change in and out and in and out of my boilersuit and proper uniform (all good exercise. I don't like to use the lift as it feels lazy), eventually there we were. The pilot was on board - this is a person, usually an ex-captain, who has indepth knowledge of the port and surrounding waters and so offers the captain advice on how to steer the ship into its berth - and I was dispatched to get him a Coke, which I did with grace and aplomb much like that stretcher the other day. It was odd seeing all of the equipment in the dark. They have particular settings to make them easier on the eye, for example the text on the radar turns red, but it still takes a bit of getting used to. For the short distance up until we touch the fenders in our berth, the steering is switched to a panel on the bridge wing so that the pilot and captain can step outside and look right down the side of the vessel to ensure proper manoeuvring. It's fascinating to watch the number of constant adjustments that need to be made - and the sheer scale of the whole operation. It all looks quite big, until you see the little post or bollard on the ground move and you realise that actually, that thing you thought was two feet tall is a fully grown man. Then it all starts to look a bit overwhelming...

I've just done my first cargo watch shift (making sure the right containers are being discharged and loaded) and now have to hurry up and finish my blog so I can get some kip before my next watch in 8 hours! Not sure if I'll get any time ashore - it depends how quickly all of the cargo ops get done, but after South Africa we're heading back up past here anyway so I'm sure I'll see it at some point.

Now. Knackered. Must sleep. Goodnight!

Friday, 27 January 2012

Action Stations

An exciting end to my first week onboard. First of all, an Enclosed Space Rescue drill. Then chilli garlic prawns for lunch! Everyone's a winner.

The drill was interesting - we were informed ahead of time as to what was going to happen, and after the alarm sounded everyone had their part to play. The scenario was that the electrician was missing, so two people from each "team" (everyone on board is in one of two emergency teams, each having their own muster point in case of an alarm) put on breathing apparatus to locate and then rescue the missing person. I think it all went fairly smoothly - my job was to go and get the stretcher, which I believe I did with grace and aplomb...I'm not actually sure what aplomb means, but I'm sure I had it.

After that was over, we watched a video about stowaways which I think was meant to reassure us of the action to take but really just scared me a little bit. Then back up to the bridge for the rest of my rudely interrupted watch!

P insisted that I come up with my own plan for learning, and today we went through it all and put a few things into place. Being at college for only three months before this I've realised how little we actually know (and at the time it felt like we were learning so much!) so sitting down and planning it all out was really handy. I've split it up into six sections: chartwork, celestial/terrestrial navigation, Rules Of The Road, cargo operations, bridge equipment/steering (this is what I have proved utterly useless at so far) and weather/meteorology. Focusing on two of those per day, I should do everything twice a week within the 8-12 watch, and we get one day off per week to consolidate... sounds pretty heavy but I think also manageable. Hope so anyway!

I've been reading Murakami's 1Q84 when I can grab a spare minute, which I'm absolutely loving, but I must say its fantastical worlds and airy fairy weird characters are not exactly allowing me to ground myself in serious work. Maybe I should have brought A Brief History Of Time instead.

Tomorrow: the weekend! It doesn't bring with it a lie in, but it does bring a new port, and cargo watch...

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Sleep

Just a quick one today - I was all set to type out huge spiels last night (Thursday morning, for you Brits) but then the ship's Internet died, and by the time it came back on I was asleep. Which was around 6.30pm our time. Not quite sure why I'm still so tired constantly, I slept for about eleven hours last night! I keep promising the third officer I'll come and do some work and look at stars on his night watch as well and then before I know it it's morning and I've done zero with my evening. It was nice at first to catch up on all the sleep I'm sure I've been missing out on as a student and over Christmas, but it's starting to get a little frustrating. Tonight immediately after dinner I'm going to make myself coffee and hope that works. Which was my plan yesterday but I made the mistake of sitting down in my cabin instead of heading to the coffee machine straight away!

We get into Port Louis (Mauritius) around this time tomorrow. I'm excited as this is the first port I'll have entered - makes me think I should allow myself to sleep early one more night so I can get up in plenty of time to see all the action!

Today P and I attempted to put stencils on to our liferings. For some reason, this UK-flagged ship only carries "Singapore" stencils! So we had to create one with the right curve for the lifering, which was fine, all looked very nice. Then it came to keeping it steady as we painted. I think it's a three man job really, two to do the work and one to stand over us reminding us not to get distracted by stories of previous cadets and crew who have mysteriously vanished overboard! Tales like this are rife throughout college and ships. There's one that everyone knows about the US navy ship and the lighthouse...but whether you take them as true or just a nice way to pass the time, there is pretty much nothing as enjoyable as sitting on the deck, painting and chatting to your colleagues with the wind of the Indian Ocean in your face, with the brightest, deepest blue water you've ever seen all around you, knowing that dinner is on its way... aahhhhh...

It's early morning here now and I'm off for breakfast. We've just had confirmation we're returning to college in May instead of September, which is a bit of a blow, but it does mean the next sea phase will presumably be lengthened - and it also means I need to enjoy being on a ship while I can. Ta ra!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Finding My Feet

My sleeping pattern is slowly drifting into the "normal" range. I know what some of the equipment does, and where to find information about what I don't know. I can remember all of the officers' names, and where everything is kept. I think I'm doing OK.

Today was the most fun day so far, not in terms of jobs but because of the fact that I'm starting to feel more comfortable with it all. I understand the routines and I'm enjoying learning the things that the officers have to teach me. It feels almost like a kind of relief - the start of the trip was so nervewracking. Can I learn all of this stuff? Will they be annoyed if I forget something? Where on earth is my cabin again? But now I'm fine with it all, and I'm fine with not knowing stuff. I've started to memorise COLREGs (collision regulations - the "rules of the road") and today, helped the 3rd officer with coming up with a passage plan for the next part of our voyage, from Port Louis to Durban. Now *that* was fun, doing the actual navigation stuff that is supposed to be the main part of the job! As all good cadets will know, passage planning has four parts - appraisal, planning, execution and monitoring. It was great seeing it being put to use - there are two routes you can go down as a cadet, HND or Foundation Degree. I'm doing the HND which is a lot more general information about the shipping industry etc (better for those who don't have experience of it). What we don't get until our next phase, though, are lessons in proper chartwork, so I'm seeing a lot of this for the first time. It's so much fun and now I know exactly what I need to learn when I get back to college.

Life elsewhere on board is great too. The food is yum (such a relief considering some horror stories we get told by older cadets - as well as Nautilus, the seafarers' union, regaling us with a tale of one cadet who lost so much weight that he had to be sent home because he couldn't face eating any of the food he was given...). I'm in no danger of losing any weight! Although I'm drinking less coffee than I would at home, which is definitely a good thing.

Off to dress for dinner now - we wear uniform every dinnertime apart from Sundays. Just as well I sewed up my falling-apart epaulets before I left!

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

South

Late last night, we crossed the equator. I've never been in the southern hemisphere before (although to be honest, in the middle of the ocean...nothing's changed. I haven't checked the sinks for water swirling the other way yet). No line-crossing ceremonies - thank God, because it was around midnight and I would not have been a happy bunny to have been awoken from the middle of my ten hour sleep!

I think today might have been the breaking point in my weird sleep pattern. Slept for too long, woke up too early, but now have made a plan for doing something after dinner so I have the impetus to stay awake longer instead of just sitting in my cabin and reading til I nod off! I'll still be reading, but Collision Regulations, up on the bridge, with a flashlight, so I'll be forced to concentrate.

I've had a really busy and fun day but I'm sitting here struggling to think of things to write - probably still getting too much information into my brain during the day and now unable to sift/filter... I do have a couple of practical points for anyone about to go to sea or thinking of doing so:

- Bring a suitcase you can carry up steps. I struggled up the gangway with my two!
- Girls, if you're joining in hot climes, bring plenty of bras. The non-bridge work you do means they will be soaked with sweat. Which sounds disgusting, but hey ho. And trust me, you'll be too knackered to be washing them every night!
- Make one of the first things you do ascertain where you can drink water. I was dehydrated as soon as I got on board and found out later that they hadn't changed the filters in most of the water fountains! Cholera here I come.
-  Bring notebooks to write/draw things in. Loads of notebooks.

I think that's your lot for today. On Friday we have an emergency drill which should be fun, then at the weekend we're in our next port, in Mauritius!