His First Voyage

The boy hadn’t even been allowed to stay on deck when wind plumped the sails and the ship eased out of Bombay harbour. He’d been sent below to the galley where he’d stay for the next few months, while the ship slipped down past the great African continent, to the very tip, where two oceans fought with one another, and then up, all the way to this England – a strange-sounding name when he practiced saying it. These Englanders were relatively new to Indian shores, but they, like Lascars, like the boy, were built for the sea.

Four, five, six months later he would emerge; but until then, Currycook told him, this was His Place. Currycook was tall, stood at a slight angle, favouring his good leg. He was fat, so fat, his greasy shirt tight across a big belly, his skin pale brown and pasty from too much time spent out of the sun. He’d given the boy a friendly pat on the back, a wink, and told him, vaguely, ‘Just learn where everything is.’

When the boy first looked around the galley it had seemed chaos: a higgledy-piggledy collection of pots, utensils and ingredients, items crammed into small cupboards. Now, just two weeks into the voyage, he could see the order. It was a box of a room, dominated by the large sheet-iron stove with two big burners and two big ovens. One of the boy’s jobs was to keep the stove working – cleaning it, lighting it, stoking it, feeding it; making sure the layer of sand beneath it was replenished now and then. When Currycook needed, the boy would take the bellows down from the wall and work the charcoal till it burned almost white, and sparks flew round the galley like dragonflies, till his face felt stretched and crinkled from the heat. He knew now what was where: beans and pulses here; flour here; rice there; here the biscuits, there the meal. All was packed into boxes and sacks that were crammed up against creaking timbers of the galley wall. Each and every thing the boy memorised, so that he could find it in the fug of steam and smoke that often leaked from the stove’s thin flue.

Presiding over everything was Currycook. He stood between the table and the stove, turning from one to the other and back again. Pots and pans were to his left, large ones stacked on the floor, smaller ones hanging from struts that jutted from the stove-side (their clanging was a constant reminder to the boy that he was at sea, since his legs and stomach never seemed to acknowledge the fact). To Currycook’s right – by the left of the stove – was a cubby, with knives and cleavers in the top drawer; spoons, ladles and all other cooking utensils in drawer below that. And underneath that, in the big bottom drawer, were sacks of spices and seasonings. Currycook didn’t even have to look to know what he was adding – just thrust his hands in and brought out fistfuls or pinches of whatever to stir into the food.

Stores on board were not varied. What vegetables they had were for the most part pickled and briny, which taste when the boy first encountered it was unique and quite pleasant: it was tangy, tart, sat nicely in the mouth. But on your plate, day after day? It began to pall, became onerous like the weight of heat in the doldrums.

And the meat. There were pens below for the animals who provided fresh meat: pigs, goats and chickens, but that was mainly for the officers or those whose religions meant they had to be careful about what they ate. It was the boy’s job to clean out the pens and lay fresh straw. He hardly ever got fresh meat himself; for him and the other low-lifes it was pickled beef, pickled pork, pickled fish. If not that, then salt beef, salt pork, salt fish…

A month it might have been, and they’d grown to work together, Currycook and the boy: choreographed movement around the room while pots clanged, while the several meals that Currycook was frying or simmering hissed and plopped on the stove. Currycook would give soft instructions: ‘A bit more cinnamon there…More pepper here – no, not too much!…Chop me more lemons…Take that off – we don’t want it to boil…’ The ship’s cat, Mrs Sippy, curled round their legs, waiting for the odd bit of chicken or pig gizzard. Sometimes she followed the boy up on deck – because that had just been Currycook’s joke, about not seeing the sun for the entire voyage – where she was fussed over or kicked out of the way by whichever sailor, she didn’t seem to mind. Usually the boy came up top when mucking out: he had to take the buckets of pissy, shitty straw up to deposit overboard. Oh, the poor fish that had that raining down on them. Not that the fish minded, because sometimes, when the ship was still and he poured slops over the side, they would rush and gather like it was a feast; and even if he dropped some more in, they would scatter just for a little time, then gather again.

Other times it was just for leisure. The boy and the cat would sit in fresh air on warm evenings. He would share small, chewy balls of bhang with the other sailors, and they would drift off into the oblivion of unexplored, imagined lands.

Currycook taught the boy how to use a knife, why to keep it sharp. ‘See?’ he said, showing the boy a stub where a pinkie used to be. ‘This is what happens when you use a blunt knife in a high sea.’ He taught, too, the basics of flavour. The boy learned that strong meats needed mild spicing, mild flavours needed strong seasoning, sometimes neither needed anything and it was best to leave well alone.

The spices themselves were not too varied either: cinnamon, pepper, turmeric, cumin seeds and coriander seeds. It was the lad’s job to roast then grind the curls of bark, the little pellets into powder. They were roasted in a dry pan, and he would spend long times grinding them up, one stone on another. With the constant movement of the ship, this powder was often airborne and would get into his throat and nose, coating them and making them burn; making him sneeze and hawk, and when he sneezed or hawked his phlegm and snot were dark with spices. Turmeric had to be grated, then soaked then squeezed, and he went through mounds of the root, till his hands and forearms were yellow, till it felt as though yellow was absorbed through his skin and coloured his flesh and bones. That all done, Currycook showed him the quantities he needed to bring the flavour out of, or add flavour to, the preserved meat stews. When Currycook first told him to get rice, the boy had started to sift through, to remove stones and weevils. Currycook pshawed that:

‘Don’t bother. It’s a waste of time. The men can work their way round them. Besides,’ he added with a smirk, ‘a man’s tongue should learn to be nimble, eh.’

The lad’s response was a perplexed smile. Currycook laughed and said, ‘You’re how old?’

‘Twelve.’

‘Well, that is young; though I’ve known some who wet their pricks when younger. Don’t worry – there’ll be plenty of opportunity once we get to London. Lots of women there who’ll be happy to taste some spring chicken. Men, too. We’ll get you sorted out. And it is best to wait till we get there. Don’t try to fuck any of the animals we’ve got on board. I mean, it won’t toughen the meat, as some’ll tell you; it’s just you never know who’s been there before you, and what they might have.’

The boy raised a smile, but it was a blank one. Currycook just laughed and tapped him on his woolly head.

Pulses and chickpeas had to be soaked in fresh water. One time, early on, he made the mistake of boiling some chickpeas in salt-seawater, and they cooked up hard as stones.

Currycook would make huge pots of stew, thickened with lentils and rice. He showed the boy how to use pickling juices and brine to season food; that the spices, used in different quantities from one day to the next, could impart different flavours and aftertastes; what sort of mixtures would be best for beef, pork, vegetables and chicken. Like with the chickpeas, the boy sometimes learned through mistakes – mistakes from which others suffered: the flavour of tainted meat could sometimes be masked by a spicy sauce, but that didn’t make the taint disappear, so on one occasion there were several men at once, groaning, their bums parked out over the rail as their guts squirmed and they voided themselves of liquid shit.

‘Wasn’t your fault,’ said Currycook. ‘It happens.’

Currycook had to cater to everyone, not just the Lascars, and there were so many who liked a bit of spice to their meals, and who needed their food to be prepared from certain meats from certain animals killed in a certain way. Some of the dark-skinned Jews ate with them. Ari, Joseph and Barek were constant sailors who after this ship would find another, then another, then another; hopscotchers from port to port, they would just keep going round the world. They didn’t feel they had a home on land.

It was after they’d rounded the Cape, when he and Ari were having a chew one evening, that Ari told him, ‘You too will be like us. You’ll go round and round, and sometimes touch on land; maybe for a couple of days, or a few weeks, or months because you’ve been at sea so long, and you think, “I just want some dry land under my feet.” And you’ll tell yourself, “This is good. I was never happy at sea anyway.” But you won’t be happy on land either. You’ll want to take off again. So, you’ll find another boat and go out again. You’re a half-worlder, like us. Oh, I used to think I’d find a home, a place to stay, but where? Who wants us? My grandmother’s grandmother’s grandmother was from Spain, but they killed her man and took her money so they could send that Italian to the Indies. She walked all the way to the Hind to find a home. For what? So I can now make a trip back, and find some friends, some fellow Jews in York, or in Iran, or Morocco, or even try Palestine. Or Spain again.’ He chuckled.

‘Look at them.’ Ari gestured at his fellows, at the motley crew members, some in turbans, some in caps, bearded and clean-shaven, wearing dhotis or trews or kilts, chattering away in one another’s languages. ‘Look at us. We’re people of the Book, you Lascars and us. We’d do well together. The Book – that’s our only real home. Tell me, have you read your Book?’

‘No,’ said the boy. ‘I-I can’t read.’

‘Well, that’s not your home then.’

Jews and Lascars in one small mess, stuck way down in the ship so that they were treated not just to the smell of the animals, but could always get the faint whiff of bilge as they ate. Still, at least what they ate was clean.

It was supposed to be clean. Currycook told them it was clean, and he always made a show that it was. Some were not fussy, and Jews and Lascars though they were, were given to the secularism of the sea. They would happily have eaten in the other mess, the European one, if the food had been to their taste. But it wasn’t; they liked their spices, even if they didn’t need their stew to conform to dietary regulations. Currycook knew. He took care of his people: at mealtimes there were two pots. One, for the more strict or more orthodox, was beans and pulses with fresh meat, killed and bled on board; or with preserved fish that had been soaked then mashed with water into a jelly-like paste which was folded into the rest of the food. For the others he concocted a chowder thick with shreds of beef or pork.

But – sometimes bits of the unclean meal accidentally made their way into the clean pot. Nobody knew except Currycook. And though he was aware that certain pots and pans and plates and utensils should be kept separate, it just wasn’t practical in such a confined space. One time the boy saw, so now the boy knew too; and the boy was worried. He expressed concern.

‘You’re right, Boy. It was remiss of me. We should keep them separate. We should clean them separate too. The thing is, we don’t have enough room right in here, so tell you what: you have to keep them in with you, where you bunk. You should probably clean them separately as well. Use sand.’

The pots and pans clanked around by the boy’s hammock, they bumped against his head, and the ladles and spoons poked him through the hammock’s netting. When he cleaned them, the sand worked its way into the whorls of his fingerprints, roughed them up. Maybe Currycook was right – there wasn’t really enough room. And faith shouldn’t be based on such things as whether some food was prepared next to some other food, or whether the pans and spoons were kept separate, should it? It should be based on devotion and prayer, right?

Currycook mused on this. ‘You may well be right there, Boy. You know – maybe – how would it be if – we just went back to how things were before?’

Currycook appreciated reasoned argument.
 

There was one time when the ship was becalmed, when they were travelling north and had hit the doldrums. They slithered to a halt, and it was like the whole ship – officers, crew, the ropes and timbers and nails – relaxed. It was almost as if the ship spread itself in the water, stretched out like a basking whale and absorbed the sun.

‘You take yourself up there,’ said Currycook. ‘I’ll get on here.’

Who knew life on a ship could be like this? All the men shared drink and chat. The boy went over to the taffrail and leaned on it. The boy listened as the ship slip-slopped softly in the breezeless air, and just let the view ease into his eyes. If there was a world he was ever meant to be comfortable in, this could well be it. He knew the sea could be merciless, but this wasn’t the same sea. This ocean was a pussycat. He could see, now, that there was water. All there was was water. There was nothing else; there had been nothing else, there would be nothing else. Nothing could compete with the vastness around him. If anything as incalculable as heaven were shown to him, it would look like this: it would be a reflection of nothing.

A presence by his side; a large presence, accompanied by the musky odour of turmeric and the sharp smart of pepper. ‘I bet right now you think there’s nothing else in the world but us, eh, Boy.’

He turned, and started to smile and nod, but stopped halfway. This wasn’t the man he knew – was it? Voice the same, smell the same; same size, and this fellow, too, favoured the same leg. But, instead of a fat face, shiny with grease and sweat, this face glowed.

Then Currycook spoke again – ‘I felt the same way too, the first time I saw this sort of thing; the first time I got a proper look. Humbled, is it?’

The boy completed his smile, completed the nod, and turned his gaze outwards.

‘Aye. You know, the Hinds have a story, about the sea, about the churning of an ocean of milk, and the poison being taken out and held in one of their gods’ throats – blue, like that now. And the Jews and Christians and Muslims do as well. Their books tell them that darkness was on the face of the deep and that God moved on the face of the waters. Maybe there’s something in that, cos when I look on water like this, I think I know what the infinite is like. I think I know there was a tumultuous sea, and God reached down and with one touch of his finger he calmed it. Have you felt the sea in you? Have you felt the ocean in your heart boil and blister, and wished for there to be something, some balm, some drug, some spice, some person, to touch it and make it glassy smooth?

‘I remember when I was your age, and I was assistant to a fat old Currycook, and I came up on a calm day when the sails were limp, and I looked out. All I could see was water. I thought to myself that the world could have ended for all I knew. That there might have been desolation and ruin all over, and the only survivors were we on the ship. It scared me. It chilled me like nothing had before. The thought of my family dead, and us going who knows where to what sort of place – well, it left an ugly feeling inside me that I couldn’t shake, like a jagged rent from a dull knife; it kept me awake at night with that cold fear, that shrinking terror I’ve only felt since at the thought of the woman I love with another man between her thighs.

‘Ah, do you even know what I mean? I’m sorry, lad. I witter on when I can because no-one wants to listen to me. I don’t even know where I am anymore. I’ve stopped counting the leagues and the fathoms. My idea of hell is to wander over the globe and never rest. And my idea of heaven.’

Currycook went silent, but the words still swirled about inside the boy’s head. He felt all mixed up, like mud mixed up in water. He knew it would all settle, that the earth and the water would separate – sometime, maybe way in the future, if there was a future, if this here and now was going to move on.

‘There, I’m doing it again.’ Currycook knocked his knuckles a couple of times on the rail, then once more, gently, on the lad’s head. ‘You stay topside as long as you want. I’m going below. I can’t bear to look at this anymore.’ Currycook limped off.

Alone by the rail, he leaned over and peered into the water. It wasn’t at all like the water in the distance that reflected glory and space; it was dark and viscous where it lapped against the hull. He felt cheated that the brilliant blue of farther away was reduced to this slick mass they sat in. The frilled ends of seaweed that had attached to the hull wafted forlornly in the water, hardly anxious to escape their moorings.
 

They’d moved north, into colder waters. The boy felt the ship begin to tilt and sway more than usual. Currycook said, ‘I’m shutting this down,’ and blew out the lanterns and doused the fire in the stove. ‘Here,’ he said, throwing some clothes at the boy. ‘Put these skins on.’ Clothes, slick with oil, but supple and comfortable when he put them on. They went up on deck. Everyone was busy, furling sails, battening things down, making sure nothing could move.

The sky was thick but still, somehow, luminous – a faded greyish bile green, and there was no end to the colour in any direction. ‘Sit here,’ Currycook instructed, ‘and hold tight.’

Waves were building, the air was heavy, and every so often, from near and far, there were monstrous cracks and rumbles from malicious sky gods. The wind grew, and rain snapped down at them, and the storm came. Currycook’s arm snaked round the boy’s. ‘Hang on!’ he yelled; and the ship bucked and they rode it. And when it was done – when their utter insignificance had brought them through to the other side – they both whooped their triumph.

Currycook embraced his young assistant. ‘That’s the sea. That’s the gods and the boil and blister. You know, I’ve been at this for forty years, and I’ve never felt it like that. You’ll get to know some seas in your time, but I doubt anything like that ever again. Come on – back down with you. There’s nothing more up here. We’ll be in London in a couple of weeks.’
 

London wasn’t embedded in a hooked harbour like Bombay. They had to sail up a river to get to it, moving slowly, steering alongside and around other ships. He was allowed back up top as they navigated the estuary. While the crew did their work, made the ship ready to dock, he stared at the green banks swelling up and towards farms and hamlets in the distance. There would be small British boys living there, twelve years old he liked to think, probably herding geese and cattle and sheep. They’d have as much idea of going to sea, travelling thousands of miles, as they would a giant jellyfish. What would their worries be? Harvests and mulch, weeds and wolves. Did they have wolves here? They must. They have wolves everywhere, just like they have rats and cats. He was envious that their worries were protection and welfare of the animals – so much loftier than his, which had, most recently, been the chickpeas he’d spilled on the floor when they were stowing stuff away. They’d jittered and bounced everywhere, into all sorts of tiny spaces, down through cracks where they might hit soupy standing water and get all moist and plump, and perhaps even germinate to provide perennial meals for the bilge-rats. Currycook was already in a mood that day because his leg was stiff and painful, and had yelled at him and told him to collect all the escaped chickpeas, ‘Each and every one. And don’t think I won’t know how many are missing because I’ve counted them, Boy. Like I said: each and every one.’

Worry on the lad’s face had softened him, and Currycook had giggled, cuffed him gently, and said, ‘Ah well, it happens. I’m sure I’ve spilled a shipload of chickpeas in my time. More than you could possibly count. Not that you can count, because if you could, you’d have been working with Seacunny and not here with me. Ah, go on – get topside.’

There were a couple of British boys waving to him from the banks while their sheep nibbled on wet grass and riverweeds. He felt superior, an age old, seasoned. Something inside him smiled and he turned his back on them.

The feeling grew, expanded inside him as they docked. Was London ready for him? He’d travelled from the other side of the world. The other side of the world! How many lads of his age could say they’d been as far? He bounced proudly down the gangplank to present himself to the English. Some of them might never have seen anyone like him: he would be a curiosity. They’d be fascinated.

Well, of course they’d seen people like him. They’d seen people like him for years. And he wasn’t the only boy on the dock; there were loads of them, some younger, some older, zipping by, off to do something or other, or to do nothing at all. London’s docks were more cosmopolitan than Bombay’s had been: there were more races, more colours, more languages than he’d ever come across when back there in Bombay. He was just an insignificant little mite. He was ignored, almost a ghost. In fact, if it hadn’t been for the docks themselves, for the fact that he was placing feet on wood, and that he was bumping into other people and things, he would have wondered whether he really was substantial, a person, or was just a spirit from a phantom ship, who was wandering among all this bustle, this noise and smell, drifting through it while it existed in another plane.

But there was a bump, and there was a stamp, and there was another bump. He was there, corporeal, a small skinny island in a stream of men unloading pepper, jute and cotton. When he was almost barged into the water by an angry stevedore who yelled at him, ‘Get out the way, you fucking imp!’ it made him smile and feel grateful. Still, the stevedore barged him, and he very nearly found himself bundled into the river, teetering on the very edge of the quayside. It was only the strong hand of Currycook, who picked him up by the collar and plonked him back on solid, warped wood that saved him from immersion.

‘Whoa – nearly went in the drink there! So you’ve come how many thousand miles, nary a drop of water on you, only to get dunked as soon as you arrived? Can’t be having that, can we.’ He quickly looked the boy up and down, to make sure he was fully, solidly on his feet, decided he was, and said, ‘Come on, young one, let’s get you a bed.’

Currycook knew where he was going. The boy could tell that Currycook was as familiar with things here as he would have been in Valparaiso or Shanghai or in Zanzibar (not places he knew about, of course, but names he’d heard). He could tell this by the way Currycook walked, bad leg and all, slowly but with as much confidence and purpose in this huge city as he did in his tiny galley. They went through narrow passages and alleys between buildings of crumbling brick and split timbers. Large signs hung out from the buildings, iron hoops round iron bars, that ground one against the other, and the very noise – the grating – made it seem as though the buildings were going to come down. The boy wished they would hurry through, but Currycook never broke pace – intense and inexorable, he moved as though pulled by some mysterious magnetic force, or was following the line of an invisible thread. It was alright for Currycook: he was huge, and anyone who bumped into him just bounced off again. But for the boy – he was banged this way and that as he followed, squirming through the mass of people.

He was so concentrated on following Currycook, he hardly had time to look around. When he did, though, it was weirdly familiar. Higgledy-piggledy buildings, built to no plan or reason, but with bits stuck on and jutting out – ill-shaped brick and stone, wood and lathe – mangled together and leaning in crazily over narrow passageways – with no intention of holding any longer than maybe just tomorrow.

The noises, too, could have been from anywhere. So many voices screeching in so many languages – they tried to make themselves heard above each other, and above the clatter and scrape of metal-rimmed carriage wheels and iron-shod hooves.

Then there were the smells, all around, reminding him where he had come from: animal waste, human waste, stagnant water, decay – all familiar, as if he’d never travelled thousands of miles; all the same when it came to their impact on the senses.

Currycook marched on; the boy stumbled after him. The crowd never thinned, the noise never diminished. The boy didn’t know whether to look down to make sure of his footing on slippery, slimy cobbles, or look up to make sure Currycook was still in view. He was forced to do both. And, while he had his eyes down, he bumped into a great mass. He looked up. It was Currycook, stopped.

They were standing under another gently swinging sign, hanging out from a crumbling wall. Currycook pointed at it and said, ‘Here we are. The Unicorn.’

The Unicorn. It looked more like a bull in profile.

Currycook walked through the doors as if he was returning home. The lad, tentative, feeling not at all like a seasoned traveller, but just like a little kid again, followed.

It was a large room that seemed to reach into the distance; as he and Currycook walked along, the boy thought they’d never get to the end of it. Thick pillars, round, wooden, like masts, held the place up, and made it more solid from the inside than it looked from without. They passed by a long bar on one side; on the other, on the wall, was a large mural of the fort at Bombay. Sawdust covered the floor, muffling the sound of their footsteps as they skirted tables, all dotted about the place. Round each table men sat, leaning back in their seats, relaxed. Everything was humid and noisy. Voices hung in the air, caught in the moisture like smoke particles. They were Lascars all, and looked at the newly-entered. None of them knew the young adventurer, and paid him no never-mind; some of them did know Currycook, though, and greeted him with the lack of emotion – a constrained smile, a crinkle round the eyes – that showed familiarity. Currycook knew where he was going – headed straight for his table, all the way at the back of the long room, and the boy stuck along with him, a remora attached to his shark.

Round the table sat a group of men, all at ease, most in their cups. They greeted Currycook with sarcastic cheers and set down two mugs – one for Currycook, one for the boy – and sloshed some drink into them, and then just kept on talking while Currycook joined in, taking up the conversation as if there hadn’t been miles and months between one word and the next.

The boy sat in awe of them, sipping fiery liquid, as they chatted and laughed with each other, speaking of places he’d never know, swapping tall tales of women, cargoes and sea-monsters. Currycook fitted right in, and his tales were as tall as any of the others. They concerned sharks and strange islands, and lurid goings-on with mermaids and goats. The talk floated around the boy; the men poured out their stories. They didn’t seem to notice the boy much, but when they did, they didn’t mind him – simply splashed some of the wicked liquor into his mug and encouraged him to drink it, but didn’t seem to notice or care that his sips were infrequent. Every now and then one of them would toss him the odd wink or friendly frown or smile. But it was as if they were doing it to an empty chair: it was as if he wasn’t quite there.

Time seemed to slip; it seemed to operate on another sphere where minutes were longer. The lad felt his eyelids stretch and the world turn blurry. There were people round the table, but they were melting one into another. He closed his eyes and that took him straight back into that storm where the lightning had stretched down jagged claws that tore at the sea. Great noises were going off in his head, and instead of being scared he found it really, really funny and kept giggling. He didn’t know what was happening, but found himself being dragged upstairs.

‘You are bollocksed, my young friend. We need to get you to bed.’

If he had been able to speak, if his tongue could at all work, he would have said, ‘And you are bollocksed too!’ But his tongue wouldn’t work. Nothing worked except his bladder, and he felt his piss, warm and comfortable, flowing round his groin and down his leg.

‘We’ll share the bed,’ said Currycook, who then went on to hop about, trying to take his boots off. The boy never knew whether he did or didn’t; he was too busy feeling the floorboards buckle and roll beneath him.

‘Where’s the bed?’ mumbled Currycook. The two of them stumbled about the room. He found the bed, and toppled into it. The bending and rolling didn’t stop.

‘Get used to it,’ said Currycook, and flopped down too.

They both lay there. The blankets were rough with a haunting mildew that settled round his head and entered his lungs.

‘I’m what?’ he said.

Currycook concurred. ‘I’ll just get my fife out,’ he said. He pulled a fife out of his pack – entirely imaginary – and made some vague tooting noises and fell asleep. The boy heard a sweet melancholy tune, that made the world turn more slowly and lulled him to sleep. He dreamed he was back on the ship, back at sea: back home.

Saleel Nurbhai has published short stories, poems, academic articles and reviews. His work was included in 20/30 Vision and The Redbeck Anthology of British South Asian Poetry. He is co-author of George Eliot, Judaism and the Novels. In the past he has worked in a second-hand bookshop and as a carpet cleaner in Lancaster, UK. Saleel still lives and works in Lancaster.

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