I’m not in charge of anything right now, we have boarded a boat bound for I don’t know where. There was a fast transfer between car and little speed boat and a dangerous, in my view, dash out of a harbour, made all the more exciting by the sound of gunfire zipping past as a couple of the more rash constabulary decide to take pot shots at us. The last I see of Hong Kong is an angry policeman hitting another on the jaw after removing his pistol.

The boat in contrast is quiet, it looks like an old fishing trawler, and there are even some men working it, but below is deeper than usual, and the vessel seems to hang weirdly in the water. Once below there is an extra deck, and in this lushly appointed place, the plans of governments are carried out. The deck is exactly six feet high. Charles has to stoop.

“What am I doing here?” I say, a couple of days into the journey.

“You’re an agent of Her Majesty now. Let me ask you something, what is your name?” I look at him blankly. I don’t know.

I don’t know my own name. Maybe I had a bang on the head, I can remember everything else about my life, but every time my memory should be telling my name, it kind of slides across it, or mumbles or blurs it out. It’s like, appropriately, a fish. I cannot get a grip on it. I was never much of a fisherman anyhow. I don’t know my own name.

And how come they don’t know it, these agents? What is going on?

“We don’t know it, because, frankly, we’ve never been cleared to hear it. You’re just Jessop to us, that’s the pseudonym operations gave us. We’re not even sure why we’re not allowed to know your name.”

I paused to consider this. Only Charles and Hicks talk to me, everyone else more or less ignores me, just a nod here and there, and acknowledgement that I’m present, not invisible.

I have to wear fishing gear while above, and the crew actually fishing talk sometimes, great mugs of sweet tea handed around in a kind of gruff camaraderie at their role, what they are pretending to be doing, and I am included in that, but right now I am below, in the office, and the office guys ignore me and concentrate of their computers.

“Call me Jessop then,” I say. ”It’s better than ‘hey you’”. Charles and Hicks nod.

Charles is friendly, considering, and has a magnetic chess set which he shares with me. We sit for hours playing. We’re about matched, and as the days pass we both get better, I gather that he doesn’t get much of a game from the rest of the crew. From time to time the watch changes, and the desks and computers are filled with other bottoms. Little drives are removed and carefully hung around necks. For a break some of the office staff go above decks and help out for a few days, they are treated with the same rough camaraderie as I do. Charles and I play.

I sleep a lot. I have tiny cabin all to myself, even with a washbasin and shaving equipment. I avail myself of it about a week into the trip. I have a badger hair brush, and a tub of shaving soap and a safety razor of the latest type, multi-bladed and vibrating. I run the water until it is piping hot and work the brush into the soap after running it under the tap briefly. I soak my beard, it’s quite bushy, and rinse it off a little. I find some shaving oil, and work it in next to my skin, and then work the hot soap in to my face again. I look into the mirror, my face is there, hair and all. It’s a relief, and I turn the blade around to the trimming tool, and work under my nose, and my side burns into that pointed shape that I like. I realise now that I should have cut it short, but it’s too late and I use the trimming tool to make a rough cut, then turn the blade to the shaving surface to finish.

It feels clean, right, as though I am reclaiming something of myself, even if I do not have my own name. This is mine, this power, I can look clean shaven.

I look again in the bag of toiletries I have been given and see a hair trimmer. I use it carefully, making my hair evenly an inch long all over. I’m finished at last and am putting the trimmer and other things away when I glance up at the mirror again.

She is there, waiting, she has just finished trimming her hair too, and it looks like she has recently peeled a masque off her face, it has a little glow. I guess that she has been doing this while I have been shaving, I wonder if she could see me all that time? It occurs to me, finally, that she never seems surprised to see me, I wonder if that is function of the surprised look she habitually carries, her eyebrows seems to be plucked high. I keep on forcing myself to think of them as hers. Shaving has reinforced my identity though, and for the time being I’m assured that this is something from my inner mind.

I ignore her, and go to dinner.

________________

The days stretch into weeks. The crew is quiet, I have never known such a cooperative bunch of men, there are no arguments or fights, no frictions. That seems creepy after a while, and I find myself wanting to needle them, even the upstairs crew.

It’s quickly stamped on. Hicks has a word.

“I know you’re restless now, and because of that, you have to stay above decks for a while. I cannot afford the disruption that you are trying to cause down here. Do you understand?” I nod, I get it, but I am bored and restless. Charles and Hicks have not shared any of their plans with me, or even told me in what capacity I am to “serve”. Everyone seems content to carry on quietly, I cannot understand it.

The upstairs crew undergo a change in attitude towards me, I’m expected to earn my keep. They teach me to handle all the equipment over the next few weeks as we change flags and territory. We take on fish, and soon we have to call at a port to sell out stock. On a normal vessel we would be about half full I’m told, on the “Hesperus” we’re fit to burst. We have to fish more though, or we look like we’re not trying, and the decks fill up. It takes another week to sort out which port we will call at, and our contacts there. The fish will go on the open market, we have to put up with some mocking at regular ports, but we’re out of our way now.

My strength has been building up, and my mind fully occupied as we fight the seas and the fish. It is a fight, sometimes a fully-fledged brawl out there on the sea where there is no coast to be see and the sea swells freely. I learn that the Captain is actually Hicks, and that he is a hardened sea hand with thirty years’ experience at sea. That seems strange to me, I wouldn’t have put him at a day over forty. He certainly doesn’t look that old. But then I think about how he moves, his assurance. He steps through hatches where I stumble even after a month at sea, he knows when it is about to blow, and when it is about to be calm. The upper crew and the lower crew respect him and he never raises his voice even in the most severe of gales. The “Steering Master”, normally this would be Hicks, the crew call him “Master” and the quayside people assume he is the Captain and negotiate with him, is the guiding hand, the crew trust him, but the true Master of the vessel is Hicks. Hicks trusts the Steering Master too, and never interferes with him, but relieves him regularly, and asks his advice about all matters above decks, and occasionally below too, but it is clear that below is not the Steering Master’s domain.

I see her in the mirror regularly, but there is nothing happening that I can see otherwise, and for a while, the worries of the world recede, and I actually begin to enjoy being challenged by the fishing, even after we call into port, and the chess once more when Hicks decides that I will not disturb the strange harmony of the vessel.

Life settles down and I build a relationship with people that I have never had before. It’s not comfortable for someone who does what I do, but it is comforting. I get a sense of what it would be like to have a family.

This is a new experience for me, and as we sail at about ten knots through right water and smooth, I undergo mood swings. One in particular is of note.

I have written a note to the girl in the mirror in an attempt to take make some sense of my world, it says, “What is happening?” But she has, inevitably, the same question for me.

I know that Hicks remains armed at all times, and with my strength and health improved by sea air and work, it is but the work of a second to dip my hand into his holster one day. I remember this day, the sea is cam and the sky is blue, azure blue, and hot. I’m shaking.

Hicks just looks at me as I point the gun at him. The only other person who takes notice is Charles. Hicks is completely calm, and goes to move off, as if I’ve just borrowed a pen without permission, rather than looking at me as if I have just taken his gun.

“I’ll kill you, I swear, ” I say, “I will, and it will hurt.” I’m shaking.

“Ok.” he looks completely calm, I find that rather annoying.

“Turn this boat around!”

“Sure.” He unclips a mic to the bridge and gives the order. The Steering Master complies without complaint. I’m confused, there isn’t a hint of impending action from Hicks or Charles. Charles is reading a book, and hasn’t looked up.

“Gimmie your gun, Agent,” I say turning my head only slightly. He reaches into his jacket with thumb and forefinger and puts the gun on the desk in front of me, moving slowly. He has to reach, it’s awkward. ”Why are you guys doing what I say so readily?” My finger is tightening on the trigger, this level of compliance is unnerving.

“Because of logic.” Hicks is unperturbed.

“Logic?”

“You’re stressed because you have not been informed about everything. You will go through this every now and again unless you can accept your new life. We would have left you behind. You’ve been on board for some time now. You know that we’re in charge. You’re relieved of any responsibilities right now, but you rail against it because you are used to being in charge of your own life. Try to enjoy it.

This is the longest speech I have heard from Hicks, and I cannot deny that he is right. I could kill everyone on board, and it would make my situation no better. In fact, it would make it considerably worse. I put the safety on, reverse the gun and hold it out to Hicks.

“Sorry.” Hicks shakes his head and holds his hand up.

“It’s your gun now.” I look askance at him. ”You have to be in charge of your life it’s true. I’m not giving you the gun, you took it, it’s your responsibility. We have have to risk our lives on trusting you, all of us. You’ve been able to do this anytime since you came aboard, now that you have, you’re responsible for your firearm.”

“That’s it? No punishment? No sanction? No decking me now because you have to prove you’re Captain?”

“Would you respect me anymore, or would you think I still had something to prove?”

I nod. Charles sets the pieces in the chess set in place for a new game and holds his hand out in a clear invitation. I take the clip out of the gun and empty the chamber. I sit and look at the board, Charles has set it up so I’m white.

I turn the board and set it so that it I’m black. It’s the first time I’ve played black in all our games and this fact is only obvious to me now.

“Hicks,” I say in a subdued tone. ”Can I have a holster please?” He nods. ”And Hicks,” He pauses from turning away, “Thanks.” A curt, short nod again.

_______

Charles and I play for some time, it’s a slow game. I take time to luxuriate in the pieces, the feel of the wood, the muffled click as they land and magnetically secure themselves on the board. The board itself is large and luxorious considering the space premium on the Hesperus, I had dismissed it at first as the single allowance of one of those in charge, but I’m beginning to think that there is something more to it.

Charles concentrates on the game intently, and one of the hands brings us coffee about mid-way through, also a first. I see at last that most the hands carry a gun with them, but none of them reacted, I could have killed everyone on the deck.

Hicks reaction bothers me, there is something not right with it, not in the strange way that the girl appears in the mirror, but in another way. He wasn’t afraid. There is usually some fear in a face however calm, and in Hicks’ face, there was none.

“He’s a psychologist, before you ask.” Says Charles suddenly. It’s his first training.” He moves a piece. ”That’s how he knows.”

“Knows what?” I’m old fashioned look.

“Don’t take us for fools, Jessop. In many ways we’re all dead here, none of us have families, we can’t be blackmailed, and we’ve more or less given up personal lives to be here. We believe in her Majesty’s Government, what it stands for, and in what we’re doing.” He watches me as I slowly reply to his move.

“You’re not telling me that you believe in all that King and Country bullshit do you?”

“No, not as such. I said we’re not fools, we all know there are flaws, big ones, in any government. We’re here for personal reasons, every one of us, but we’re doing essentially, what we’re told.”

“Then all that stuff Hicks said about being my own man was bull too?”

“No, we’re our own men alright, we just serve because we think it’s right. Because we think it is worthwhile, in the long run.”

“What do you mean in the long run?”

“I mean that our lives don’t mean much if we cannot prevent the wars, the Nukes and the Hijackings.”

“I don’t see much evidence of that from the news.”

“You know how it is Jessop; you of all people know that we have to be lucky all the time, and we’re not. That’s why we’re trying to recruit you.”

“Trying?” I’m not sure what he means now. I pick up a piece and wave it around in indecision, finally plonking it down poorly.

“Yes, trying. You’re worthless to us if you’re not on board.” I look around, pointedly. ”Not on board with us, philosophically. You won’t give your all. Unless you agree with us you’re unlikely,” He picks up a piece and places it carefully on the board, “to give it your best shot.” There is a pause as he considers the board, I’m just looking him when he speaks again.

“Check.”

It is two days after the Hicks incident. I am wandering around the ship at a loose end.

I’m strong, hale, hearty. Charles and Hicks have seen to that. I’ve never been as fit.

I keep my distance from people again, aware that Hicks is watching me now. I have let people in emotionally because I have spent some time here, but I have sense that things are about to happen. An unrest is about the place, a certain tension.

We have come into more northern climes, passing first Malaysia, Singapore, the Indian Ocean; many days without sight of land. We pass Madagascar, and call in at the southern tip of Africa for supplies, and I get the impression, information. I stay on the boat.

Working our way up the west coast, we have changed flags many times, we’re not challenged in any way, except once when we are warned off an oil spill from a ship that has run aground. This seems the longest leg of our journey, we’re in no hurry it seems and the cause is me; I have to be on side in whatever is coming, and Hicks thinks that this is the way to get me to do it.

The girl is a constant companion in the mirror now, except when I’m shaving; she is there daily, primping herself in some way when I look up, passing her hand over her face as if feeling for something when I pass my hand over mine feeling the morning stubble. She disappears on the next glance as I lather the soap, it’s a sign of how long we have been at sea that I am running to the bottom of the pot.

Shaving is a ritual that helps me to hang on to reality, I’m not sure that here is real, but I have lived everyday as if it is, and I shave because there is a reassuring routine, I know just a day has passed because of the length of my stubble. It seems as if it is something that I could not be fooled by, as if it is the one thing that in another reality, inside my head, doesn’t happen. When I shave, I am marking the passage of time, the movement of one day to the next in a way that cannot be denied. The scrape of the blade along my skin is a feeling of security, the attention to detail that is missing in a dream. Dreams, unreality passes over the bare detail of life, visits to the head, shaving, showering.

It is shaving that is a moment of concentration, an absolution from everything else that the day has to offer. It is a meditation on life and what has been and what is to come. The girl is there and then she is gone while I shave, and this too is an assertion of myself and my reality. It is a rite of passage.

__________

I’m fourteen years old, and my father is teaching me to shave. He is an anxious man, already I am taller than him, and he must look up at my faint whiskers; but I have talked to him already about shaving, and he has come to the conclusion that it is time.

We are in the bathroom, it’s cold, winter and the breezes blow in the little house.

My father is a grey little man, the epitome of a caricature of the accountant that he is; with one single exception, he has a shock of bright, thick, red hair. He talks conservatively, walks and never runs, cycles to work locally, and takes lunch to work made by my mother, simply because it saves money.

I have elected to shave with a shaver, my father a lifelong wet shaver frowned at first when I said this to him, but said nothing and investigated the possibilities. He insists that wet shaving is an essential skill that I must at some point acquire, but for now, as I begin a lifetime of hair removal, I must make my own choices.

He produces a razor, it is an expensive complicated machine, and I read the instruction manual first, as he would wish, and then listen patiently to his advice. He guides my hand as we turn on the machine and trim the long hairs, he’s very gentle, as if I might break somehow. I know that he is caring and concerned that I might cut myself, and so I let myself be guided through. He turns the shaving surface around and talks about how it will pull at first, and how I must get used to the sensation, it might be uncomfortable at first.

I grip the razor and move the buzzing machine over my face, there are a few tugs, but the machine is well designed, and I feel little discomfort. He seems happy that I have made a good job of it, and pats me awkwardly on the arm. I have already gotten out of the habit of touching people, and this is the first real physical contact we have had for over a year.

____________

We’re near Spain now, and there is that sensation that something is about to happen again on board; I can’t put my finger on it, but the work seems a little more frenetic, the computers board busier, and the people a little more distant, focussed. Even Charles has less time for our games, and we frequently leave them in the middle. I help about above decks more again as the catches grow bigger despite the small nets, and we have to call into port to sell the fish. To Hicks’ irritation we are even fined for being over quota at one point, and for a week or two we don’t even put the nets out. This is bad for morale, and the lads spend all their time playing cards and watching films.

Hicks broods about this for a while, it’s the first sign of real moodiness I have seen in the crew, and I’m concerned about it, but eventually he gives the order the cast the nets again and the trawler resumes its’ visible work.

I learn something during this time that I had not realised.

One of the functions of the boat is, apparently, to remain undetected and at sea for as long as possible while doing, well, whatever it does. The nets sprawl out over a considerable area, spread by something called “otter boards” which spread the net out, and we are “pelagic” or mid-water trawling. Our nets are specially manufactured for what turns out to be about twice the speed of even the fastest trawlers, which is why most of the time, we don’t catch many fish, and why what we do catch remain alive in the net for a long time. Since the purpose of our vessel is to remain at sea for a long time, this arrangement is generally convenient. But it does something else too.

It keeps submarines away.

Our nets are a hazard, and they stay away because we are heavily disguised by the sound of so many fish, and a hazard to navigation as well. We are well disguised.

I’m beginning to have a strange admiration for this team and their preparedness and the design of this vessel.

I realise that this too is part of Hicks plan, to get me on board. To get me of my own free will to join whatever it is he has planned.

And since my memory has not returned, I realise that this is my life now, that Hong Kong is six months and more behind be, but also a lifetime behind me.

I don’t like being someone else’s man, but maybe I am not being that. Maybe I am merely being guided gently, looked after because gentle guidance is the only way to get someone to follow you, truly, to commit, to be there for you, because you are there for them.

Maybe it’s like learning to shave with your father, and not being in pain.

That tension that I have been detecting comes to a head.

We’re well out of sight of land and have been for some days, I happen to be on deck. There’s a large grey ship out there, on the horizon and I can tell that we are approaching it. I say nothing but help as the nets are pulled in, the above crew are particularly cheery and light as we approach, but I see nothing to be happy about. It’s a military vessel and it looks like we chasing it for a good while, but then it begins to turn. Some signals from below are obviously being exchanged, and I see our little radar stop moving round and round, instead it takes up a tracking position that varies minutely as the other massive grey ship starts to loom. It looks like any conventional aircraft carrier, but then part of the bow opens as we approach, and to my surprise there is a dock within.

The deck crew lounge about watching the docking procedure, all except the Steering Master and the Pilot who are very active in the control room. Engines I didn’t know we had start up, and I realise that this is a fully equipped tug as well, our position held to within a foot as we approach the dock within the ship.

The sense of size of the vessel is communicated to me thoroughly for the first time as it encloses us, the bow doors closing before we are fully engaged. Some of the below crew come up to see the final moments of the docking. I see the crew all stand away from the sides as the final seconds approach, and I do the same. I’m almost knocked off my feet as a large clanking sound confirms that we are engaged in some sort of cradle, and a gangplank winds out from the dockside. I hear the sound of vigorous pumping from below and see that the seawater is being pumped out.

Hicks comes from below. ”With me,” he says curtly, as he strides past towards the jetty. It’s unnervingly high and narrow, if you’re subject of that sort of thing, but as we cross it he slows down, the Captain of the massive vessel is approaching with a rating who is laden with clipboards and a case. She is wearing heels, that seems wrong from what I know of military personnel. Hicks is all business, however. I find out something else I didn’t know about him.

“Admiral Hicks. Permission to come aboard.”

“Captain Tomlinson. Pleased to meet you sir. Permission granted. If you’d care to sign the boarding forms and service agreements…?” He gestures to the rating, who is looking at me with interest. She sees me glance down again.

“I have flat feet, and I can run 100 Metres in 12.3 seconds in these, does that answer your question?” I nod, dumbly. The Captain seems to notice me for the first time.

“Is this him?” Hicks nods, “Yes, he hasn’t been told yet.”

“Well, we’ve got everything ready.” Hicks looks at me.

“Just wait.” I wait.

We’re taken up through levels of the ship by the Captain, his rating, introduced to us as a Lieutenant Sweet, I don’t move a muscle in my face, and Hicks evidently knows her, and we are joined by two large sailors in dress uniform and, notably guns. Pistols to be exact, two, each. They also look like they have no sense of humour. At all.

As we shift places in the inevitable single file, I am next to Lieutenant Sweet once more, she looks at me appraisingly.

“Not a twitch. You pass.” I try not to be too cool about it.

“I might be faking it.” She raises an eyebrow, black like her hair.

“If you’re faking it, you still pass, because you’re willing to try.” She steps up the ladder, which is entirely unsuited for her in heels and the skirt of her dress uniform. I wait with my eyes lowered. She looks back down. ”And you still pass, because nearly every man looks once, with the notable exception of Hewey and Dewey there, but they are disciplined.”

“Thank you Ma’am.” They say.

“Do come along, Sweet.” I hear the Captain say. ”We’re pushed for time.”

“Yessir.” She says rapidly, and is all business again.

“Though I’m glad you approve.” He murmurs as she takes is side once more. Hicks is next to me again.

“Stop chatting up the crew.” I raise my hand in supplication, but he has moved on.

We’re bought to cabins, small, naturally, but privileged.

“Prepare yourself, ” says the Captain.

“He still hasn’t been briefed,” says Hicks. The Captain says nothing, just nods. I’m left in the Cabin. There is a basin and a mirror. look in it wondering what I’ll see. I see her.

It’s a shock, such a shock, I’m not ready. I have seen her so many times and she has always reflected my movements, reflected me, as she were me, she has invaded my sense of identity, my sense of self and I have lived with it, as though she is something in my head reflecting some inner me that is not available otherwise. I have gone months without questioning it, just accepted that this is who I am, I see things in the mirror that are not there. I have done irrational things because I have not been sure, I have never been sure.

Now, now though I see something that is independent, I think it’s independent. I think.

She is holding a sign that I am not.

It says “Prepare yourself.”

Leave a Reply