Excerpt from One Man Drowning by Steph Minns
Setting sail, we hugged the coast for a while before heading out to sea again. A dense fog descended as night drew in and I had been ordered to take the helm for a short watch around two in the morning, some crew being down with sickness. Although I had stuffed old rags up my sleeves, put two shirts on and bound my hands with more rags I shivered badly in the icy air, squinting through the fog in an effort to make out the watchman on the bow. I could only just see the misty glimmer of his oil lamp and not the man himself, so thick was this fog which stifled all sound so that I stood frozen at the wheel in an eerie icy-still limbo world. To be honest I felt a little nervous, responsible for steering a ship out on the open ocean with little visibility ahead or to either side, tense and waiting for the shrill whistle from the lookout, then some frantic shout such as ‘rocks! Hard port, helmsman!’ when I would need to fight my tiredness and jump to react.
The captain was obviously nervous too about sailing with such poor visibility as he appeared on deck in the early hours, startling me as he emerged behind me from the fog.
“I could not sleep,” he remarked quietly, face tense, “this is not good. I’m tempted to take the sails in and sit it out a while, at least until light.”
I nodded, aware that he stood so close to me that I could almost feel his breath on my cheek as he spoke and all that turmoil of my attraction to him reared its head again, feelings I had managed to push aside and submerge until now. Maybe he sensed it and some unspoken messages passed between us as he stood for a moment next to me in silence before walking away. I almost felt a pain at the loss of his presence, alone again now in the fog - please stay and talk to me, come back and let’s talk as we used to.
Then he was back, emerging again from the fog to place a blanket around my shoulders with gentle kindness, murmuring, “here, you’re shivering, Jesse.”
I thought this an unusually personal gesture from a captain towards a crewman, especially accounting his recent coolness towards me, so I thanked him politely. And then he did a thing that completely astounded me by slipping his arms around my waist under the blanket and pressing close against me. My heart leapt to hammer my ribs. What to do? Pull away? Respond in some way? Say something?
He stood and held me in silence for a moment, then murmured into my hair,
“Come down to my cabin when your shift is over.”
It seemed more of a question than a command, as though he were unsure himself of what he did and half-expected me to turn down his offer. Then he vanished into the fog again, leaving me standing there, confused. Another hour passed before the relief man appeared to take over at the wheel and I crept down to his cabin at the back of the ship, taking care no-one saw me. I didn’t know what to expect and wasn’t even sure if I should be doing this or what would come of it. After the brotherly interest he’d shown in me he’d snubbed me following my revelation, and now this. What should I make of it?
I knocked hesitantly and heard his voice bid me enter. The room glowed warm from the fire that crackled in the grate, one of a captain’s perks, and he was up at his writing desk in shirtsleeves, hair untied and falling into his eyes. He looked up as I walked in and flashed me the most beautiful smile, fixing me with his eyes. I’d noticed his gold tooth before and it flashed in the firelight as his lips parted.
Putting his writing aside he stood up and crossed to the battered dresser to fetch two glasses.
“Here. You look like you could do with this.”
Our fingers brushed together as he handed me the goblet of brandy.
“Godsakes, Jesse, your hands are like ice.”
“The temperature is far below freezing now, Sir. The rigging is solid with ice.”
He motioned me to pull up a chair to the small fire-grate in the corner. I was glad to collapse into it with the drink that warmed me through now, thawing the blood in my veins.
Absorbed by the image of him in the firelight I was over-awed now with my attraction to him and fidgeted nervously, aware of the graceful way he moved like a cat as he walked the room, the curve of his tight, well-formed muscles under the fine linen of the loose shirt, his nipples pushing against the cloth, the swing of the dark hair as he moved his head to talk to me. An athletic, sleek, sensual man.
I watched, wrapped at the sight of the soft flesh of his flat stomach where his shirt had fallen open at the belt. He must have read those fired up thoughts and my desire for him by some uncanny craft because then he bent over me and kissed my mouth, soft and sweetly, pulling back to watch my face in silence, waiting for my reaction. I think I stammered some nonsense about the brandy being good but he stopped me by kissing my mouth again, harder now and slipping his tongue inside to stroke my own, wet, hot, pressing me to arousal.
I was a little intimidated by the situation. This was no roll on the carpet with Jamie, a lad as green as I, but the concentrated attention of an older, experienced and confident man. He seemed to sense my unease and backed off a little, squatting next to the chair and curling his hand around the one of mine not gripping the brandy glass. The long, strong fingers had neatly trimmed nails, I noted, looking at the hand that held mine.
“Jesse, I’m so sorry that I pushed you away but I thought it would be for the best for both of us. But I’m in torment now and miss your company badly. I can see you’re unsure of me. Please, say what’s on your mind.”
“I thought I’d offended you in some way,” I managed to mumble, heart pounding.
“No. You could not offend me and I’m sore you thought so.”
“When you stopped asking me into your cabin…”
He silenced me by stroking my cheek with the rope-toughened hands of a seaman, hands that also had such a feather touch.
“I stopped asking you because of something I was afraid of, something in my past. Not out of any lack of care for you.”
“I assure you, Sir, I won’t be a ‘barrel boy’ for you at your convenience!”
I was suddenly defensive, having learned many new things now and I knew full well what a barrel boy was on board ship.
He laughed softly.
“Jesse, I don’t want a barrel boy. Have you forgotten the way we talked about all the stuff of the world, eh? Weren’t we close, very close friends, aye, like same souls then?”
His voice was soft, eyes engaging mine directly.
“Yes. I looked to you as a mentor, an elder brother. I haven’t forgotten our closeness, nor the talks. I’ve missed those talks.”
“Can we not be that close again? Will you put aside your doubts, trust me and sleep in here with me tonight?”
Those pale blue eyes searched my face and the question had been spoken as though he already knew the answer anyway, just by reading my face.
Taking the glass away, he pulled me across onto the cushioned bunk, pushed me down on it and unbuttoned my shirt, laughing softly when he found I was wearing another one beneath it.
“What will I find under this one then? Armour to keep me out?”