by Peter Vaughan
From atop the lonely watchtower at the stern of the ship, Captain Atnas surveyed the festivities on deck. His huge, red hood was pulled down close, and the tarnished white fur of its lining was indistinguishable from the wiry locks that grew from his aged head. The captain was a giant, but padded by the crimson cloth of his greatcoat, it’s brass buttons gleaming, and boosted one superfluous inch by the thick heels of his buckled boots, he made even his surroundings seem diminutive. The whole length of his cruiser appeared to come within the reach of his black mittens, as though, in leaning against the rail, he loomed over a low table on which a model of the ship had been built.
Above and all around Atnas, there was nothing but the darkness of the open seas; not a pin of moonlight pierced the fog, and the lights of the nearest nub of land were a thousand miles away. Below him, a thatched canopy of fairy lights and dried palm leaves roofed the walkways and clusters of chairs, and gave the chill air a tropical hint. Wasteful lamps swung over the waves from hollied hooks and tinselled rigging; their oil-flames sometimes spilled through the glass slides, and fell the long way to the water, where the icy ocean quickly extinguished them. Stars, surfaced by silver sequins, were tacked along the walls, and gold props, crackers, crowns, cards, candelabrums, baubles, and glittering snowflakes were variously strewn about the festive tables, themselves dressed with red satin and felt. Towards the prow of the ship, festooned with bows, patterned ribbons and delicate adornments, a towering Christmas tree rose high into the open air from a foundation of steel frames hidden behind a wrapping-paper façade. An angel shone at the lofty zenith.
Of Atnas’s passengers, a few dozen early birds or eager beavers had left the auditorium in the depths of the ship, and were excitedly perusing the spangled grotto that, by their giddiness and chatter, had surprised them like a magic trick. The remaining hundreds were still in their cinema seats, below, by now welling up, or manfully stifling their tears; It’s a Wonderful Life would finish any moment, and many elven servants had already assembled in the galley corridors and behind the decorations, buttoned up in burgundy waistcoats and forest bowties. Ready to mingle, grinning, on a servile loop of refreshment and reassurance, they balanced salvers of hot, mince pies, gathered in precarious piles; they held samovars of mulled wine, and ice-buckets for bottles of champagne, to be mixed with orange juice, to be free and flowing, to enliven and invigorate.
Like some general on a hilltop, a clear mile away from the opposing battalions that he can see in the fields but can no longer hear, Captain Atnas was alone with his senses, and had time to ruminate and perceive. And as it always is that when we notice silence, we actually observe its absence, he thought it peculiar that the waves were not thundering, as usual. But what had caused him to listen for that constant sound, which is incapable of ceasing, was the faintest ring of laughter that made it to his vantage, from the throat of a jubilant woman, somewhere amid the fairy lights. The general on his commanding point may similarly comprehend a bee’s humming wings as it passes in search of a flower, and suddenly decide to have his artillery adjust their aim, to account for a lessening of the wind, though he could not say when it had changed. So Atnas descended from his perch, to steer.
The bridge was typically quiet. On the desk near the wheel, the inlaid compass rolled over a few degrees, and then rolled back, as though breathing. Beside that, a sleepy house lay half buried in frost, within a plastic snow globe. A few buttons on the console were glowing, and on the sonar screen the vicissitudes of the seafloor were shown as green spikes. The ship had crossed a fault-line days ago, and now sailed over a rising, tectonic shelf, which pacified the swells.
A photograph of the late Mrs Atnas, not cumbersomely framed, but held between a glass front and a cork backing, looked up at the widower from its place as a paperweight. He acknowledged her gaze, and took out his matches, tobacco and pipe from the draw beneath her. As he smoked, he moved his sight across a map that, to most, would seem only to represent a featureless square of the watery world, but that was, to his experienced and now bespectacled eyes, as meaningful in detail as a palm to a fortune-teller. Having cindered the contents of his clay pipe, he eased the wheel a few notches clockwise, consulted the compass for twenty seconds, and clicked it back into place.
It’s a Wonderful Life had finished, and the cinema crowds were coming up the stairs, a tide of Santa hats, backless dresses, fox-fur scarves, white tuxedos and silk kerchiefs. They flooded onto the deck, coupled, with arms linked, coyly conversing or carelessly laughing. Music began to play. Atnas could watch it all from the windows of the bridge, but for sound he relied on the microphones of the foot-lit stage near the great tree, and the speakers that were installed all over the ship. Through the cheerful din, a jazzy number began that was as old and tired as the man who sang it.
‘I’m dreaming…’ he began, accompanied by the swinging pulse of a cymbal, and the tonal footsteps of a double bass, ‘of a white Christmas.’ Here a pianist twinkled in, with playful chords on the twee region of the keyboard. ‘Just like the ones I used to know.’
But Atnas dialled down the amplifier on which his speaker sat, reducing the croon to a mosquito’s buzz; he had heard it all before. The three instrumental musicians were young and gifted, but the vocalist was a veteran, the most seasoned of party performers. Onstage he could still charm, could tap-dance between verses, and wear his trilby, though its band was a mournful crape, with Sinatral inclination. Offstage he was a bilious drunk, a bitter flop who sometimes wound up weeping over the side of the ship, holding his hat so that it wouldn’t blow away, and so exposing, to not only the night, his friary baldness, his freckled scalp.
Atnas had seen it all before. Nothing was new to him, and nothing enticed him to partake of the merry celebrations. There had been a time when he could be convinced to go down and face the mistletoes, the blue flames of ignited brandy, the sitting on laps and the pulling of crackers, the balls of stuffing on cocktail sticks, the chocolate reindeer all wrapped in foil, the lame jumpers, the deep stockings and the awful jokes, but it had been many years ago. Mrs Atnas had been a wonderful persuader.
She was an undercurrent beneath his mind, and he floated upon his thoughts of her in the same way that his ship used updrafts from a fault-line to move easier across the sea. With a faint feeling of naivety, he tried to think about the Holy Spirit, but he did it indistinctly. It was one of those trivial things, the weather, which can become sublimated by circumstance, which brought him back to the moment. Whether he knew it first by the exhilarated gasps of the revellers below, or if a vague army of shadows had crossed his idle sight, he didn’t know, but he understood it to be snowing, outside.
‘Peter Vaughan was born and raised in South London and began writing as a teenager. He is the winner of several short-fiction competitions and has quickly earned a strong reputation for contemplative and original writing that deals with subjects from the extraordinary to the existential’. You can read Peter’s short story Safia Sails here.
Illustrations Olivia Dueser