| A SAILOR DIES AT SEA
The Englishman was growing irritated. With one hand
he waved away the waiter who was hovering beside him with the coffeepot, with the other he
drummed on the tablecloth. He bumped his chair in closer to the table and leaned forward.
"Look," he said, "I came down here to Wales to
put the final touches on this business. I thought we'd more or less agreed on everything
during the visits you made to London. I'm deputizing for the chairman at a board meeting
tomorrow afternoon. I was hoping to get back to town this evening, not spend another night
stuck down here in bloody Wales."
His irritation hadn't affected his appetite. He'd eaten his way
through a substantial dinner of soup, steak, and trifle, washed down with a carafe of
Burgundy. He was gulping brandy with his second cup of coffee.
His companion, a slight, dark Welshman, regarded him with an
expression of mixed amusement and distaste. He leaned back in his own chair and watched as
the Englishman dabbed with his napkin at his meaty face. Then the pasty fingers stopped
drumming on the cloth and began playing with the cutlery. They reminded the Welshman of
fat, white worms.
"Well?" The Englishman's voice was thickened by the
food and drink. "What's it to be? Do you want the loan? Do you want our money, or
Evans, the Welshman, studied him coolly. God help him, he did
need the money. With the shipping business in the way it was, he had to lay his hands on a
fresh infusion of capital or go under. His warehouses down there on the Cardiff docks and
in Swansea and Llanelly were stuffed full with an inventory he couldn't get rid of. He
needed the loan to tide him over until business picked up again. Still, he wasn't yet
mired down so badly that he couldn't afford to hang on for a few more days and try to find
a lender with fairer terms. The trouble was, things were so grim all over. All the same,
it was a pity that when he'd contacted Freytag's, the London bankers, his old friend Jack
Williams had just left them for another firm: so he'd got stuck with this fellow Douglas
Upton had picked up a fork and was scoring deep lines with it on
the cloth, among the scattered crumbs and flakes of bread around his plate.
"Well?" His tone was growing even more exasperated. He
tossed off the last drops of his brandy and dug down with the fork. "You know, I've
got other clients to deal with. And this thing is really very small potatoes as far as
Freytag's is concerned. So do we have to go dragging it out forever?"
Evans, still smiling, sat there stubborn and silent. The
Welshman's attitude was beginning to provoke Upton into losing his temper. The white worms
tightened on the fork. He drew it back and struck it hard on his brandy glass. The big
balloonshaped glass resounded with a high, sharp, clear note that made the diners at the
surrounding tables look around and stare.
Evans tilted his chair quickly forward and reached out a hand. He
put his forefinger on the rim of the glass in order to cut off the bright, ringing note.
He sat back and let out his breath in a slow sigh.
Upton, fork in hand, stared at him with a look of baffled inquiry
upon his face.
Evans said, in his soft Welsh voice, "I'd be grateful if you
didn't do that. You see, here in Wales there's a belief among our old seafaring families
that if somebody accidentally knocks a glass, and you don't stop it ringing, then
somewhere or other a sailor dies at sea."
Upton, still staring, uttered something between a snort and a
"Wherever it comes from," said Evans calmly, "it's
a very old belief. It's very strong."
And suddenly, as he sat there in the warm dining room of
Cardiff's biggest hotel, Evans had a glimpse of the black, tumbling ocean, of his dead
father and grandfather, of his dead uncles. He saw them seated around the family dining
table, bolt upright, drinking port, cracking walnuts with their gnarled brown fingers.
Their blue eyes were washed to aquamarine by a lifetime of sun and wind. They smelled of
salt and boot polish, of rum and whiskey and dark blue serge. Shrewd, simple, dangerous
old men, they seemed to the little boy sitting there playing with his model ships on the
carpet at their feet like ancient, white-haired skippers on the bridge. And if one of
them, joking and roaring with laughter, happened to knock over a glass, causing it to
ring, he would immediately lick the broad tip of a scarred forefinger and lay it on the
He looked at Upton. What could a man like that know about ships
and seaports and the men who spent their lives in them? Men like Upton knew nothing except
how to stuff themselves, how to haggle, finagle with contracts, fondle bank notes. What
were the gales and the deeps and the vast black oceans to them? He stared at Upton's
pallid hands and sweaty features. He felt a profound revulsion. Freytag's. It was
insulting, to him and to those white-headed men, to the whole wide traffic of the seas, to
find himself in such a fix, stuck here opposite a man like that.
Upton was slumped back, shaking his head and regarding Evans with
amazement and disbelief. Evidently he felt outraged that a serious conversation about
money had been sidetracked by a typical bit of bloody Welsh nonsense. What sort of people
were Freytag's dealing with, for Christ's sake?
His face grew even redder. He put down his fork, heaved himself
to his feet, and threw down his napkin. He shoved back his chair so that it almost
He said, "Is it really worth going on like this, Evans? I'm
going to the gents'. Maybe when I come back you'll have a sensible answer?"
He couldn't tell how long he'd been in the water. Body and
brain were growing numb. There was no longer any feeling in his hands and lower arms. When
he drifted back into something like consciousness he thought vaguely he must still be
clinging to the same object he'd bumped into shortly after the ship went down. Could be a
crate, a suitcase, some kind of trunk? Couldn't say if it was leather, or metal, or wood.
How long till dawn? He seemed to remember he'd been off watch and
asleep below when the vessel hitor was hit. There'd been shrieks and yells and
shouted orders. Still, he knew they'd rescue him. Somehow he had to endure the icy water
and the blackness and the ceaseless rolling of the waves. No light. Was he blind? Hold on.
Hold on. There was still that curious, far-off ringing inside his skull, like a small,
clear note struck on a bell. A blow on the head, maybe, as he went overboard?
His struggle to keep himself afloat was growing feebler. Images
bubbled into his mind. He saw the windswept farm with the black cattle and the straggling
hedges. He saw the port with the narrow streets running up into the hills. He saw a woman
with reddish hair standing on the wharf and holding her scarf tightly around her head and
gazing out to sea.
He began to feel stronger. He was conscious that the ringing in
his head had stopped. He felt an immense relief. If there wasn't a further setback, a
further blow, he would survive. The rescuers were on their way. He knew it.
The Englishman came back from the men's room. He flopped down
on his chair. He took up his soiled napkin and mopped at his face. His expression was
surly and challenging.
"Well, then?" he demanded. "How about it, Evans?
What's it to be?"
The Welshman was hesitating. During the Englishman's absence he
had been agonizing over the situation, revolving and revising his options. He needed the
money. Needed it badly. But Upton? Did it make sense to do business with a man he had
taken such a dislike to? Wouldn't Upton make sure he'd come to regret it, sooner or
latermaybe sooner rather than later? Why not try to wait until Jack Williams had
found his bearings in his new job in the City? Yesbut how long might that take? Was
it actually possible for him to hold on till Jack could bail him out, instead of
delivering himself over bound hand and foot to Douglas Upton?
He was doing his best, while the Englishman was settling his big
bulk back in his chair, to keep his anxieties from appearing on his face. He wasn't
succeeding. The Englishman might be unpleasant, but he was astute. The uncertainty and
distaste on the Welshman's features was plain for him to see.
He gave a grunt, then belched, sending a breath of sour wine in
the Welshman's direction.
"So it's like that, is it?" he said.
He picked up his empty balloon glass and pushed his chair away
from the table, leaning back so that the glass would be out of Evan's reach.
The fat, white worms reached for the fork that had been thrown
down earlier. Then, with a grin and a flip of the thick wrist, he deliberately struck the
glass a violent blow, breaking it and sending a high, sharp note reverberating through the
© Jon Manchip White, 1992, 1997.