I came across this short story which was published in ' With Islands in Mind' in 2006. As a short story it was the basis of my novel ' Running After Maria' published in 2011.
My heart was pounding in my chest as I looked out of my cabin window across the deck of the Otter and the docks beyond. I was excited because I was waiting for Maria to drive to the ship and take me back to her home to tell her parents that we were to get married.
My mind drifted back to that first time I had met Maria. It seemed so long ago now, that night at a party on the Otter. It had not been an auspicious meeting. I had been sitting on the deck in a corridor, slumped with my back against the bulkhead, trying to regain my senses after too much drink. I was feeling as though I was floating a few feet off the deck, free and above the mere mortals attached to the earth who walked by in a blur.
Then somebody had spoken, breaking through the drink induced fog and I was looking into pair of dark brown eyes gazing seriously at me through large glasses. The face was round, with a small nose on which her lenses perched. Even through the fog of the alcohol, I was aware that she had a rather large mouth filled with very white regular teeth that smiled at me from very close. The face was framed in brown hair, neatly cut and not quite reaching her shoulders. She introduced herself as Maria Tourvelinen and told me she had come to the party with my friend Brian’s girlfriend.Somehow, I had pulled myself together enough to dance with her and ask for a date when the ship was next in Helsinki.
The following time the ship had come to Helsinki, we had met, had a meal and been to a concert. After that, we arranged to see each other at every opportunity and started to make love in her flat whenever I was in Helsinki. After a while, I had asked her to marry me but she refused.
It came to a head one day in April, when the snow had melted and the grass was starting to show green in the parks. We were walking through the park near the sea and it was so sudden and unexpectedly that I did not know how to handle myself. Innocently, I had said to her, “ I have this feeling we were meant to stay together and grow even closer. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I think it is
time for us to talk about getting married.”
When I had finished speaking, Maria stopped suddenly. It was as though I had punched her. Roughly, she pulled me over to the rail by the edge of the water. She stood there not looking in my direction but staring out to sea. It was as though she was asking the sea to give her some inspiration, for the words to rise from the waters like a siren and rescue her.
“ Its so hard to explain ,” she had began, her voice trembling. “ If you were a Finn I would most likely say yes to marrying you. I don’t really understand why but there is something which holds me back from saying yes to marrying you.”
“ I am from this land, this is where I belong,” she went on after a pause and I did not reply. “ We Finns have feelings which are rooted deep in the soil of our forests and in the history of our people. For all the hard climate, the isolation from the rest of Europe, the snow and the cold, over the centuries, we have built a way of life. All my friends and my parents live here and I am scared to move away. If I married you, I would have to leave my land and my friends.”
“ Other people have managed,” I had replied harshly.
Now, standing looking out of my cabin window waiting anxiously for Maria to arrive, I distinctly recalled her words. “ Ah, James you are not like all those other people. Don't you ever listen to yourself when you are talking? When we lie together, our passion spent or as we drink coffee in the mornings, you should pay attention to what you are saying. All the other English seamen I have met talk about the here and now and never give any indication that they ever think about the future. To them the whole purpose of living is for their ship to arrive in Helsinki, what they are going to do while they are in port and whom they will meet. I have noticed, even when we are with other people from the ship, you talk about different things than they do, as though the ship is only a place of work and there are other things to do in life. When you describe England in the spring with the soft rains and the budding flowers, the country bars with huge open fire places and pints of beer, your eyes shine with an inner passion. Though you might not realise it openly, I can see that is where your heart is and England is where you will eventually return to settle down once you have had enough of the sea. James, I have lain in bed listening to you talking about the town you come from, about your friends and family and I know that you have roots as deep in that community as I have here. Your bonds to your family are as tight as my own. Our roots go deep into the soil of the places and into the soul of the people from whom we sprang. I am tied to my past and you are to yours.”
“ Maria, that may have been true in the past but events change our outlook on life. If we got married, your family would become my family, your home my home. My attitude to England would change just in the act of marrying you!” I had emphasised each word by almost shaking her.
“ No, It would be like caging an animal which has always been free to roam and cutting it off from it's home. You do not talk about the sea in the same way as the others, as though you are going to spend the rest of your life at sea. Always in the background of what you are saying, I have detected that if the right job came along, you would leave the sea without hesitation. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying you do not like going to sea. All I know is that I am certain that one day you will say to yourself, I have had enough of the sea and then you will find a job ashore and that job will be in England. James at the moment, I don't think I could leave Finland and come to live in England even for you.”
A silence had fallen between us after that. It was not the silence of contentment nor of anger but of bafflement at how this divide could have grown so swiftly. No doubt both of us were thinking about how we could rediscover the excitement of being together which we had had before the question of marriage had arisen.
It came as a shock to me when I realised that Maria had inadvertently opened my eyes to the way I thought about a career at sea. For the first time in my life I began to realise that the sea was not everything to me but only another job. The sea which had dominated my life since as long as I could remember, could this only be a passing phase in my life? I asked myself as the doubts about the foundation of my living began to make all certainty crumble. Would I be able to leave the life I had built for myself at sea if I found another job which did not involve going away from home? Was my character so rooted in England that it was obvious to Maria, while not to me, that I would finally settle down in England? Was Maria right in claiming that it would be impossible for me sail to Helsinki for the rest of my life, that in the end the excitement would fade and I would seek a more stable life style?
After our disagreement,the Otter had sailed to other ports than Helsinki and for a long time I had not seen Maria. All through this forced separation, in her letters, Maria had maintained her stand of not wanting to get married.
When I had finally arrived back in her flat in Helsinki, she had told me before we had made love, “ Your being away for so long has convinced me that I cannot live without you. As far as I can think, this means we will have to get married. I suspect that nothing has changed between us. Our getting married will mean I have to come and live in England at some time in the future. If going to live in England is the only way I can be with you all the time, I will be willing to leave Finland and come with you.”
All I could say was thank you. She had been aware of how I felt towards her for a long time. For me it had been an age to wait silently, hoping each time we met for her to say those words. At the time there was little I could say.
After she arrived on the Otter, we had lunch and it turned into one of those happy occasions which come unanticipated, one which I can even now recall in every detail as though it was only yesterday.
Captain Harris ordered a special meal, even going so far as to break out some of his much cherished wine which he usually kept locked in his locker. He played the gracious host, dressed in his best uniform, presiding over the meal with genial competence. Indeed, he appeared to be genuinely pleased that Maria and I had decided to get married. I had shyly told him of our plans on the way round the Finnish coast from Helsinki to Kotka. As I came off watch, he had called me into his cabin for a gin before we went to bed. His normally serious expression had almost changed to a beaming smile and he had insisted we had one more than our usual ration of gin.
All my friends were sitting around the table. Most had delayed their usual headlong rush to leave the ship and catch the bus for Helsinki in order to meet their girlfriends for the weekend. We sat in the same saloon where I and Maria had first met, surrounded by memories of the party and my first kiss. Above the echo of my friends laughing and drinking through lunch, were the ghosts of other friends who had been at the party that night.
The toasts that lunchtime were for the ship and for Maria who sat in her seat by Captain Harris sparkling and smiling. When the last of the wine had been consumed, all those present insisted on lining up and kissing Maria in turn. As an after thought they all shook my hand and wished me good luck.
When we finally got back to my cabin to fetch my bag, Maria flung her arms round my neck, kissing my lips through the taste of the wine. The warmth of her body and her trembling excitement made my heart beat faster and my body pushed against hers as though I had no control over my behaviour.
“ Let us make love here in your cabin before we drive home,” she had whispered in my ear. “ I have always wanted to make love on board the Otter and in your bunk. You have always come ashore to my flat whenever you are in Helsinki, so I have never had the chance.”
We made love slowly and silently, conscious of the people walking passed the door of my cabin. It was wonderful. Afterwards we lay in each others arms laughing about how we should have done this that first time she had been aboard the Otter.
Then, after a drinking a coffee, we went arm in arm out into the cold, down the gangway and into her car. Even after so much time, I can still see her smiling face as she waved goodbye to Bill who was leaning on the ship’s rail watching us depart and, if I think deeply, experience my sense of happiness and the rightness of what we were about to do.
The light was growing dim as we left the Otter in the middle of the afternoon and Maria had to turn on the car headlights. As we sped through the frozen landscape towards Maria's home, the woods on each side of the road look dark and forbidding. The trees were individually visible close to the road but fading into a dark mass further away. We hardly talked, content to let the dirty snow at the side of the road slip by as the studded car tyres threw little chips of ice into the air. We were still, I suppose, enveloped in the warm relaxing glow of our love making, in many ways outside of time.
Through half closed eyes I recognised the approach to the village where Maria lived, thinking vaguely that it would not be long before we arrived at her parents’ house.
When the car started down the steep slope just before the edge of the village, there was a bang from the front of the car and I sat up in my seat conscious of a sense of fear creeping into the car. Maria was now fighting the wheel, the gears and the brakes. She was staring straight ahead, a vein throbbing in her temple, her mouth a tight, thin line. The skin was pulled tight across her cheeks in an expression of fear and her back was rigid, away from the back of her seat.
The car was gathering speed down the hill and I looked away from Maria and out of the windscreen. A sharp bend was coming towards us too fast. Everything seemed suspended. I stopped breathing, my mind went blank and all my muscles were stiff and unmoving. It was apparent to me even through my fear that the car was not going to get round the bend at the speed it was travelling.
I must have called out something to Maria but she did not answer. A piercing scream seemed to come from outside the car, a scream which told Maria to hold tight. The frozen snow was flashing passed the car, throwing up clouds of spray exactly like a ship in heavy weather. The car was bouncing horribly on it's shock absorbers as it left the road and headed for the trees. There was a loud bang as an object hit the side of the car and pain was shooting through my body as the sound of grating metal filled the air.
Another loud bang, more pain as my body bounced off some metal and I felt I was flying through the air. My leg smashed against something rough and hard and my side was being dragged over what felt like broken glass. Another thump and I came to rest.
Events became completely disoriented then. It was cold and I can remember trying to find out what had happened to Maria. I tried to get to my feet but everywhere there was pain and my legs would not hold me upright. My eyes would not focus and all around it was dark. Somehow I was outside the car, even my fuddled brain could work that out. I was lying in the frozen snow slowly getting colder and colder. The cold did not matter too much because the colder I became, the less the pain throbbed through my body.
Then I was surrounded by people and flashing lights. I tried to ask about Maria but all they did was push me back onto a blanket. They were fiddling with my legs and I confess I screamed with the pain. Then I was inside a vehicle travelling at speed through a village with the people in the green coats still leaning over me wiping my face and holding my hand. The vehicle stopped, the doors were flung open and I was being pushed at great speed along a corridor on a trolley. Doors clanged shut in our wake and more people were leaning over me looking at my legs. I heard a voice as though from a long way off moaning Maria's name and then there was nothing.
It was like floating in a tank of liquid, relaxed and secure. There was no sound and the sense of being detached from anything else was very strong. The light was soft but dappled, dark and bright as though I was laying in water under a tree. There was no time and my body did not exist. It was wonderful.
Then the noise started, a relaxing sort of sound as though I was lying, dozing, on a beach with my eyes closed listening to the waves breaking on the shore. A noise in the background, soothing absorbing, helping me sink back below the surface of consciousness, floating, relaxed and secure. It was only in the mind, not in the body.
Then I was rising above the surface and the soothing sensation of floating was thrust aside by the pain. The colour in my mind was now red. I was surrounded by red but I tried to get back to my floating. It was still all in the mind but I was surrounded by pain.
As I broke the surface of the liquid, the pain started to separate. Soon I could identify different parts of my body by the type of pain. Then I was fully conscious and I wished I had stayed in the liquid. My head had been taken over by a trainee drummer who was practising the same phrase over and over again. My leg hurt with stabbing bursts of pain as though somebody was pushing a knife into the muscle and twisting it savagely. As my heart beat rapidly, I could feel my side and arm throbbing as though somebody was hammering to get out.
I opened my eyes slowly but had difficulty focussing at first. Raising my hand, I rubbed my eyes and was surprised to feel bandages. The general whiteness of my surroundings started to come into focus. Trying to sit up proved difficult, if not impossible. The red curtain descended again as soon as I tried to move. Pain filled my whole world so much I wanted to cry out. Steeling myself against the onset of the pain, I raised my head sufficient to look around and found my leg encased in plaster, raised above the bed on some kind of harness.
Just as I was sinking back onto the bed, sweat beading my brow, a girl in a white uniform and with a cheerful face crossed the room into the direct line of my vision. She went to the door and shouted something I did not understand. Soon, another girl appeared and between them they managed to raise me into some semblance of a comfortable sitting position. I asked her in a very hoarse voice, what had happened to Maria but she only shrugged and made signs that she did not understand what I was saying. It was obvious she did not speak English or so I reasoned. I told myself, I would have to wait until somebody who spoke some English came to see me before I would find out about Maria.
Later a doctor came to examine me but he would only answer question about my condition. With a touch of a smile playing at the corner of his mouth, he told me to lie back and try to relax. I was helpless to do anything else, though I dreamed about walking out of the room. Instead, I lay back and let the nurses deal with my needs. After an injection, the pain stayed in the background and I was able to relax.
A long time passed, or so it seemed to me, when the door to my room opened and Mrs. Tourvelinen was standing there looking at me. My heart missed a beat when I saw her. She was visibly drawn into herself but rigid as though trying to hold herself in control. She looked so much like my Maria, I wanted to cry out. She came a few steps into the room and then hesitated for what, to me lying captive in that bed, seemed like hours. Then she pulled back her shoulders with a mighty effort and walked across the floor to stand by the bed.
Suddenly as though all the courage she had stored up had vanished, she collapsed onto the bed and pulled my face into her breasts. She sat like that, rocking back and forth, stroking my hair like a mother with a son she wants to protect from the evils of the world. I could feel the tightness inside, the cording of her muscles as she fought to control her emotions. She lost the private battle with herself. Tears cascaded down her face and sobs shook her frame.
I knew then what she had come to that hospital room to tell me. It was as though her grief had been transmitted without words. There was no need for her to try to compose herself but she fought for control so that she could tell me what had happened. Stiffening myself against the onset of my grief and anger, I strove to make my face appear as unemotional as possible.
When she was able to start, she was very blunt and brutal. I suppose at the time there was no other way in which she could have braced herself to speak.
“ Maria died in the crash and the funeral was yesterday.” Her face was still wet with tears, the anguish of her expression showing how she was trying to comfort me but finding the right words was proving difficult. “ I hope you will be able to forgive me for not telling you as soon as you regained consciousness but the doctor told me that you must not be stressed too much so soon after coming round. In addition, I wanted to tell you myself what had happened. I could not leave that
painful duty to somebody unknown to you.”
“ The car hit a tree on Maria's side and she was crushed against the door,” she went on, even though it was obvious she wanted to hide the memory from herself but was compelled to tell me what had happened. “ Somehow you were thrown clear of the car because the emergency service people found you lying some distance away jammed between two small trees. The doctors and nurses fought to save her life. They managed to get her back to the hospital but she died the day after she arrived without regaining consciousness. At the same time they were trying to put your leg back together and bring you out of your coma. My husband and I have taken turns to sit by your bed. It has been over a week since you were brought here and when they told me you had regained your senses, I thought it was time to come and tell you what had happened.”
While she was talking, I kept my face impassive but my throat was so tight, I could not say anything. All I could do was sit and stare wide eyed at the wall. My mind tried to grasp what Mrs. Tourvelinen was telling me. I knew her words were important. I tried to reason out what her words foretold about my future but I could not hold onto the words long enough to understand. My stomach felt as though it had been placed in a freezer and been turned into a lump of ice. Cold fluid filled my veins. Numbness was rapidly spreading towards my brain. Echoing through my mind was just one refrain and this was not really a part of me. What am I to say to a mother who has just lost her daughter while I lived through the same crash? What comfort can I bring to this vulnerable woman when I feel so empty and bereft of any reason for living?
After she had finished telling me as much about the crash and what had happened afterwards as she could, we sat in that white painted hospital room in silence. We were lost in our own thoughts but the presence of the other brought a feeling of sharing and a great deal of comfort. She held my hand and after a while, quietly left, whispering goodbye as she went out of the door. I did not move but lay still staring at the wall. The silence stretched into my small world. All alone I sensed the white walls crowding in on me, making me feel I was in some sort of snowy hell.
I cried then, deep sobs wrung from the depths of my very soul. The shaking tore at my body until there was no emotion left and I could lay back. I now had to confront the images from the past that rose up out of my mind to join me as though they were real. The nurses frequently bustled into the room and performed their secret rites before leaving to find their next victim. Through this time, I hardly noticed their passage or the passing of the hours or the days. For a while it was as though I was suspended from the bed, looking down at events as they happened, completely divorced from the person lying there. At other times, I was submerged below the oceans of my emotions trying to swim through an opaque darkness that had no end.
What fools we humans are, I kept telling myself in the few moments when I was conscious and rational. We build in detail our future plans in the certain knowledge that what we plan will come to pass. All the time there is lurking in wait the sudden event that shatters all the certainty from life in a fleeting moment. We are then all left naked before the world. All we humans beaver away like ants to construct relationships, to lay the foundations on which we base our lives. But, I kept asking myself as the time floated by as I lay in that hospital bed, what for? Why do we plan and what is the point of making foundations for our future life? Who in the whole universe can answer me that question honestly? At times when the plans we lay are crumbling before our eyes and there is nothing we can do to save them, the whole exercise of living appears such a huge joke. Something or somebody must get a whole lot of pleasure out of watching the manoeuvring and posturing of these earthly beings as all their plans and hopes turn to dust in their hands. How often does the bad appear to triumph over the good? That is true, I hear myself almost shout. Why do the bad win most of the rewards in life? Why do the bad seem to enjoy life much more than the good? Or have I got the meaning of life all wrong? Am I really looking at the bad and the good? It is a mystery to most of us as to why some people always win and yet others always lose. It does not look as though there is any connection to good or evil. It is a mystery of which most of us are not privileged to glimpse the answer.