The Whisky Line and the Flood Line
THEY KILLED TIMMY at gone midnight outside a bar called The Red Fleet. We’d been drunk for two days by then, and we’d meant to keep going.We were off the Katie Beam, an 80 ton schooner. This was Tacoma, Washington, the winter arriving harder every hour. Eight months we’d been away—sealing—via Japan to the Bering Sea. In the middle of that eight months had been a solid 90 days of blood and meat to the knees. There were 23 of us on the Katie Beam, most of them Swedes. I didn’t understand their jokes, they didn’t understand mine, and anyway both sides quickly gave up on jokes.
Myself and Timmy were the only British men on board, and we naturally clung to that, despite our backgrounds. I was from the north, orphaned before the age of 5, taken in by families here and there, all of them hopelessly poor. He was a few years younger than myself at 25, and the heir to a family business, a healthy one, in Shropshire. He’d left the family home one afternoon, walked into the nearest town, hopped on a tram, and hadn’t stopped moving since. He didn’t know himself if this was simple young man’s ‘exuberance’, or if it was his life from now on. I couldn’t help, but when he told me that the first time he saw a tattoo on a woman (a whore, a two-headed snake on her left breast), he’d felt more of a man than he believed his father ever had, I thought it might last a long while yet.
He was tall and thin, with brown hair that stuck up and wasn’t much combed. He had sticking-out teeth, and he reminded me of someone on his way to being a professor, though he said he hadn’t ‘lived up to expectations’ in school (said in a tone that suggested he couldn’t, rather than refused to). His accent, able to cut through any kind of babble, covered that up. But he worked as hard as anyone did on the Katie Beam, and he drank whisky and mingled with women as much as anyone off it.
Whisky was our drink, and while we knew it wasn’t how much you drank, but how fast you drank it, we did both. We watched a bar fight in the second place we stepped into, a couple of evenly-matched Irish lads. There was nothing unusual in seeing the Irish battle, of course, but in what felt like the fight’s second hour, one of them had a tooth knocked three feet out of his head and another sailor threw himself down and scrabbled around to claim it as a souvenir. I’d never seen that before. He was like a child when he got back to his feet, holding it up. I laughed, but not comfortably.
Elsewhere, a sailor and a whore (she had her price on the sole of her foot when she slipped her dainty shoe off, and it was a fair price) didn’t bother to find a room or so much as an alley. Suddenly she was across him where he sat; her skirt shuffled up above her fat arse. We all watched, took an interest in the movements. The landlord pretended not to know what was going on. Then, I don’t know why, but we got the idea to throw our drinks over them. Some even had quite a lot left in their glass when the hurling started. I say ‘we’, but I didn’t join in. Timmy did, but in a thoughtful way, as if this was another experience to put ground between his father and himself. The couple didn’t seem to mind very much, and it didn’t ruin anything on his part, as he finished not long after the last drop hit.
There was also the young New Zealander who showed us magic tricks with a knife, making it look like he was passing it through his palm or taking a finger off. I can’t claim my eyes were seeing things the way they should’ve been by then, and talking it over with Timmy later, it turned out he had seen different tricks altogether and been unimpressed by them.
I think that even if we hadn’t been British and united in that, we would’ve enjoyed each other’s company. He was good for this—it didn’t matter how drunk he was, or how angry he was (he was a great one for debating politics), he always had time to listen to me talking about my girl, Annie. She was my sweetheart, back there in Manchester. It was especially good of him to listen because I only ever said the same three or four things. How much I missed her, what we’d do when I saw her again (I don’t mean the mucky stuff, and he never let on he was thinking of that), how we met at a fair one summer, how her eyes were when she looked at me a certain way. I liked hearing myself say these things from time to time, and he always showed interest. He’d been lined up to marry some rich man’s daughter when he walked away from all that, so this was perhaps the one thing in my background that he could envy graciously. I did some of that kind of talk at least once or twice as we drank over those days.
I can’t say what our downfall was, apart from us being there. The Mayor had his men out, buying votes with a drink. We took some of that, with false accents and names, and we weren’t the only ones. This boosted the wild atmosphere by a few percent, and a few percent may be all that’s needed on certain nights.
At the next place, we had missed another fight. Someone was bleeding tiny shepherd’s delight clouds into his glass as he drank, and I wondered if the tooth collector was around. The windows in these pubs, it doesn’t matter what time of day it is, are grey. No-one can’t see in or out. Most of the furniture is the same grey. The gold and brown of the booze is the most colour there is, apart from the occasional splash of blood and whatever the whores are bringing in. A redhead is always very welcome, very welcome.
We got into a card game there, or Timmy did. I was happy to watch and drink. Gambling had never taken hold for me, and it didn’t seem to be the main point for Timmy either. Win or lose (and he managed both fairly evenly), he liked to stand up when he was bored and declare that someone was cheating, the bloody bastard scoundrel. Now, normally, men don’t like to hear that—but with his accent, most didn’t get so riled up about it. Instead of killing him, they settled for punching him a couple of times before I stepped in and dragged him out of the way, as happened here. I think he was winning, though in the kerfuffle some of his money was left behind, and he wasn’t concerned to go back for it. He never minded being punched, Timmy. He took a final one to the cheek which started to swell up and might’ve closed an eye, given enough time. He was laughing outside, ready for high jinks on the way to the next place.
The police along the waterfront go by in twos, not quite arm in arm, and they carried knives that were a foot long. I’d seen them hack off a hand without changing their expressions. How would I tell Annie something like that?
It was blowy, and it was icy underfoot, and he might’ve slipped, he might’ve pushed himself into them—he was no-one to send up a rallying cry for the police. Whatever it was, he made sure he brought his elbow up into one of their bellies, and he held onto the other one hard enough and long enough to start dragging him down also. Timmy maybe tried to make a comedy of it, but his timing was bad with the booze and the knock on the head, and the police were never in a comical mood. I have to be honest and say I was already stepping back, I could already see where this was headed. Other people stopped to watch.
They roughed him up. He got angry and threw a punch—a harmless one, but still. A knife came out. All I could think of was how cold it would be in this weather, I didn’t even see it go in. Timmy was on his knees, bending over, holding his stomach before his brain caught up with what was happening. The blood was black as it ran out of his coat into the frosty ground. Someone pulled me away from it, but I hadn’t been heading in any closer.
It’s true that the whores know the best places to eat, and the best times, so I went with one in the morning. It was foggy, bone white cold. I was still drunk in a steady way, though any whisky warmth was leaving my veins by then, and I knew I couldn’t replace it for very long with eggs, sausage, bacon or coffee. I couldn’t get half of my plate cleared, and I didn’t like the idea that even a sip would sober me up by that sip’s amount. There were only two or three other people in the place, and they were like us, almost.
She was called Bess, or at least that’s what she said. I knew her reasonably well from my other stays in Tacoma. Her appetite was healthy, and she emptied my plate after asking with her eyes. Then we sat and smoked in a nice old silence before going back to her room. She’d been working all night and wanted sleep, and that was fine by me, fine.
Her room was bare apart from a picture she’d picked up in an old shop somewhere, showing a lane through the wood on a snowy night. She detected I wanted company and tried to stay awake on the bed while I sat on the chair and tried to feel sleepy because I knew she wanted rest. When we talked about what was going on around the waterfront, her words kept trailing off and I kept making mine quieter. She dropped off and came round once or twice, then her breathing slowed and sunk deeper. I thought listening to this might make it catch on for me, but it didn’t. After half an hour I decided to leave. The quiet was starting to … I don’t know. I wasn’t quiet inside. I left a few coins on her table and slipped out.
I wanted a drink, but I made myself walk around as the sun tried to come up. I pictured Annie a lot and didn’t even see my surroundings some of the time. Annie out in the sun at different times of day, having to shade her eyes, then tightening her cardigan with folded arms as the day cooled, and how her freckles looked at different times of the day, in all the different lights. I could’ve sat down and written to her. I wouldn’t have been able to say much, and besides I wasn’t quite sober and didn’t want to start on anything I would drift away from. She deserved better.
Soon I started drinking again, and later that day, in the afternoon, someone cracked the pub door open. A big, fat, red-faced sailor stood there, holding up a rat as if that was worth getting excited over. It was a big one, no doubt about that, but then I looked again with a squint, and something twisted its way through me. The little sod had two tails.
A few of us went to look more closely at it, and someone even gave the tails a tug, in case the sailor had stuck one on and somehow made them writhe and coil about. Its black eyes didn’t look any different from a normal rat’s eyes if anyone apart from me was thinking of that. I heard that the sailor took it to a few different bars, showing people and terrorising some of the more squeamish whores before someone took it off him and stamped on it till it was dead.
My whisky warmth was back by the time it got dark, and that was good news. It had started snowing.
The Mayor’s men were out again that night. I avoided them. Naturally, the police were out, too, and I didn’t feel quite so much like avoiding them, but I did. I was never what you’d call a fighting drunk. One punch-up I got myself into, they knocked me out for 17 hours. I had some fight in me that night, but nowhere near enough, and that was for the best.
The whisky was fuelling me, though I couldn’t say what effect it was having now. I didn’t feel drunk, exactly, though everything was happening at a slight distance, and that was something to give thanks for. Bess was with me at some point, having found me rather than the other way around, and we had a dance though I could see it went on too long, and she started to think she could be earning money somewhere else. So I let her go. You have to do without that warmth sometimes.
There was an ancient sailor somewhere else, the back of his neck creased and stippled with white bristles like a biscuit left out in the frost, and a voice as good as gone from yelling into the headwinds. He was telling a story of a strange woman coming to a lighthouse, but I couldn’t keep it straight in my mind, and so I left that place without even having a drink.
It was fine between the bars, the black night with the piled up clouds, and the snow in the cones of light along the dockside. I liked the twinkling melt on my wool coat and the whores with red in their cheeks. I even liked the cold between the shoulderblades. Whatever else was happening, it gave you a fresh feeling.
I saw some Chinese out there, and they always made me laugh, though they also started to look sinister if you looked for too long. In all my years of travelling the world, they were the race that was most alien to me. They were hard to think about, sometimes.
My head was aching, which didn’t help thinking. It ached like something wanting to be out, it was awful. I hadn’t eaten since that morning, but I didn’t go looking for anything at that hour. I drank more in the next bar, had two to make up for the old sailor chasing me away like that. I wondered how long I could keep going. Some men said they’d gone for weeks without stopping, and that seemed like something worth aiming for.
Further along, a businessman wandered in, bringing trouble from the start. He was fat and drunk—fresh drunk, only a few hours in and already close to the end of it. His head was bald and round, he had a fat neck you could take a handful of from any angle, and his smile was wide and flapping and disgusting to see. He was German, I knew, before I even heard him speak. He had an eye for the whores; that was why he was drinking here. Some men away from their homes have an eye for the sailors, but not his piggy little ones.
Everyone could see it coming. Maybe he could also. Some of them like it, after all. He was keen on insulting the whores, not so keen on giving them money, and it took some time for them to be able to shoo him away once and for all. Slaps and kicks didn’t do it, but the flash of a knife did. Words were then passed with some sailors. Dutch, they were. They laughed at him at first, had good sport with him. That stopped when he knocked their table over. He swept it aside as if they were nothing, which was the insult that got to them.
They were on him in seconds. His whole body was shaking with anger, his head boiling up crimson, and he managed to connect with a couple of punches before he disappeared under them. I still heard him, though. A man’s voice when it shrieks is a sound that shifts something inside you. When I saw him again, he had his fountain pen driven through his cheek. They pushed him through the door.
I was outside myself soon after. I thought I might linger there—the taste of whisky on my tongue would do for a while. I breathed the brittle air in through my nose, tried to picture myself old and heavy and tired. I couldn’t quite make the image complete. Not that it bothered me much then.
When I turned to walk on to the next place, Timmy was standing there. No more than 20 feet away. He looked to make sure I’d seen him, then turned away a little, waiting with no pressure.
I hesitated, then went back inside the place I’d just left. One drink, I told myself, was all I would need and all I would allow myself. I felt pale to myself, handing over my coins, but the barman didn’t react. If he hadn’t reacted to the businessman with the pen in his cheek, he wasn’t going to react to me looking peaky.
I drank my whisky. It was up to anyone watching to say if I took it quickly or slowly, as it felt the same to me. When it was gone, I shoved my hands deep in my pockets and shouldered open the door.
The snow had turned thicker, and the cold hurt my throat and eyes in a way it hadn’t before. I looked that way to see if he was still there, and he was. I knew he would be. I muttered something to myself—to this day I don’t know what it was I said. I walked down towards him slowly, you might say casually, though inside steam was hissing and whistling.
He nodded to himself when he saw me coming, and I kept my eyes on him. I was scared, make no mistake about it, but I didn’t grow more scared the closer I came, so that was something. The mind and the body are more prepared for these moments than we realise, even if these moments never come for some people.
Timmy had always looked straight at you, sometimes straight through you, but now that wasn’t so strong. It was as though things were on his mind and he didn’t have the time for good manners. Etiquette, he would’ve called it.
I stood by him, staring out across the water to make it look as though I was lost in contemplation, in case anyone was taking any notice of me. I didn’t know if he could be seen by others.
‘I thought you were gone, Tim,’ I said at last. ‘Gone to your reward. I saw it happen, remember.’
‘I remember that,’ he said. His voice didn’t sound much like Timmy’s, but then, mine didn’t sound much like me. ‘I’m gone, and I’m not. Sorry, I can’t say it more elegantly than that.’
‘We should walk on,’ I said. People had fallen out of a bar. None of them were looking at us, they were all hurrying to get out of the snow, but I didn’t want them to see I was talking to myself.
He agreed with a nod, and we turned a corner into an alley. Timmy walked more slowly than he had, and I realised slowness was also the main difference in his voice. Where he was, time took its time. That was good, restful to know.
‘I’m sorry for what happened to you,’ I said when we stopped. ‘I’m sorry I didn’t …’
‘I understood, and still do,’ he said. He nodded distractedly, in a way that shut me up. It was nothing he wanted to think about, it seemed.
‘What are you back here for?’ I asked. ‘This is nowhere to be.’
‘I have to puzzle that out still,’ he said. He darted a quick look at me to see if I understood. I nodded as though I did.
‘It’s an instinct,’ he said, ‘an instinct of … places and some people.’ He waved generally around him. ‘I never thought it would be me.’
I nodded again. ‘You must know some of the answers now,’ I said, horribly chirpily to my own ears. ‘All the Sunday School stuff.’ I presumed Sunday School was something in his life. ‘Was it true? Were they right?’
‘Nothing is true in the way it’s expressed here,’ he said, almost helplessly and after a long pause. ‘It wouldn’t be possible, and you can’t blame them. I’m sorry, I can’t … ’
‘All right,’ I said. ‘That’s all right, Tim, don’t worry.’
He shook his head shortly, and looked off, frowning.
There were things it would do me no good to know, but also things I had to know. ‘Are you here for, for me, Tim?’ I asked in a while. ‘Is that why I can see you? You were waiting for me, after all. Is there something you’ve come to tell me?’ My voice shook there. ‘Has something happened to someone? Is Annie all right?’ Annie was the only someone there was, of course.
‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘I don’t know if I’m here for you. I think it’s this place.’
It was hard to stand still, not pace around. ‘Can you go anywhere?’ I asked.
‘I don’t know. Yet.’
‘You could go to Annie?’ I said. ‘Could you? Could you try?’ I told him the address after my mind went blank for a few seconds. ‘Can you get to her? Tell her something?’
‘I don’t know,’ he said. He sounded like he had something else on his mind like he was trying to recall something.
‘But you can try? You can try?’
‘I don’t know that.’
‘Can you tell her that … I’m here, and … I’m here and I …’
He looked at me intently now.
‘I don’t know what people say,’ I said. ‘Tell her …’ The words weren’t there. I thought I knew what was needed, the impressions, but the words were in a hole, couldn’t be reached. I swore into the alley. ‘What do people say?’ I asked him.
‘I’ve forgotten,’ he said. ‘Already.’
I faced the wall, butted my forehead against it gently. I’d never thought so hard in my life. ‘Tell her, here I am. I’m stuck here. I wish I could reach out, and she’d be there, but I know …’ I said. ‘I’m here. Just tell her that.’ I felt like crying, and also more scared than I ever had before.
Timmy didn’t say anything and didn’t look at me.
It took a few minutes, but I pulled myself together and told him to forget I’d said anything. We started walking again, out of the alley, along the waterfront. I’d walked with him enough times to know what his presence felt like by my side, and this was almost it but not quite. I didn’t try to talk anymore, and after a few minutes, I didn’t have to look to know I was walking by myself. I stopped for a drink at the next bar, now almost back to sober again, then went to find Bess.
Barrie Darke lives in Newcastle upon Tyne, in the north-east of England. He has had several plays performed, and has worked with the BBC, but prose was always the main thing. He teaches Creative Writing in a basement. He has also worked in a prison, where he learnt more than the students.
He has been published in the UK by Byker Books, New Writing North, Sentinel Literary Quarterly, The Delinquent, Theurgy, Horrified Press, Writer’s Muse and The Metric; in Australia by Otoliths; and in the US by Menda City Review, Nossa Morte, Demon Minds, Infinite Windows, Underground Voices, Big Pulp, Pseudopod, Inwood Indiana, Bastards and Whores, Onomatopoeia, Orion Headless, Xenith, All Due Respect, Fiction365, Scissors and Spackle, Fear and Trembling, Drunk Monkeys, The April Reader, Big Stupid Review, Dark Moon, Writing Tomorrow, Otis Nebula, Futures Trading, The Opiate, Badlands (pending), Wilderness House (pending), and Literary Nest (pending).