This is the second part of my story, written on request for the anthology ‘Tarot Tales’, and based on the drawing of five cards from the Marseilles Tarot pack. The first part (read here) brought me from a city garden invaded by foxes down to the old quayside, and onto a boat setting out on a mysterious ‘Moonlight Cruise’:
I took my place at the prow of the boat, where I found myself sitting next to a stout middle-aged lady in a buttoned-up navy mackintosh. She was a warden, she explained, in an old people’s home, and had to work some very awkward shifts. She’d taken the cruise before, and it covered those difficult in-between hours very nicely, particularly when she was transferring from day to late-night shift, and needed something to keep her going until she started work.
‘There’s one or two other regulars here,’ she said, nodding over at the other side, to a hunched-up man in black, who sat fingering a straggly grey beard. Next to him a young couple sank blissfully into each other’s arms. To my unspoken question she replied, ‘Once you’ve seen it by night, you want to do it again. What you see by day seems rather tame by comparison.’
The boat was filling up now, with some twenty to thirty passengers. The captain decided that this was enough, and turned on the engines; with that quiet chug chug chug noise we left our moorings and set off through the docks. Little flickers of light caught on the rippling, slapping water, and indeed the water was brighter than the surroundings, for we quickly left the populated quayside and turned off through waterways flanked with heavily built warehouses and derelict yards. Where there were windows, they were barred, and where there were boundary walls, they were topped with barbed wire. On the paths which ran by the water, once unloading bays, I could make out grass and weeds, and it looked as though this part of the city had been deserted for a hundred years.
In fact, said our captain, a cynical and amusing commentator, it still had life in the day, and might in time have more. The usual planning disputes were raging between industrialists, conservationists, and city council officials.
‘I’ve not time for age for its own sake,’ said Rita (my companion) darkly, which I thought was strange, given her profession.
‘If you look over to your right,’ said our gallant captain, ‘you will see that Webber’s Bank has won its appeal to rebuild, and that demolition is already in progress.’ All eyes turned to gaze upon a half torn-down building which looked, in this dim light, like something out of a craggy Romantic landscape painting.
But as we turned the corner by the side of it, this image was rudely shattered by the rubbish we encountered. In the water itself, bits and pieces bobbed up and down – plastic sacks, old bottles, screwed-up paper bags. On the edge, where we could now see behind the ruined façade, were dusty piles of bricks and rubble, and perhaps twisted pieces of iron and broken planks, though it was hard to make anything out clearly. The female lover gave a little scream: ‘Aah! Rats! I saw them move!’ But, before anyone in the boat could react, came the sound of a sniggering, husky laugh from the darkness of the shore. We all turned sharply, and as the boat slid gently past, I could make out the stooped figure of a man, raggedly dressed, looking towards us with a mocking grin before bending back to his task. A sack lay near him amidst the rubbish, and with a long pole he turned over the piles around him, picking over the debris and putting choice finds into his sack. The captain waved to him as we passed; he was obviously a familiar character in these parts.
Now we passed into a kind of leafy tunnel. I had lost track of direction, and could only guess vaguely what part of the city we were in, but I reckoned that we were still fairly central, and that somewhere above us busy roads stretched away, and that the people who frequented them probably had little knowledge of what went on in these watery depths below. I think the trees were willows; it was hard to see, but I detected a gentle brushing of the water with their drooping branches. The two path was grassy now, and the captain told us stories of how the barges came into the city from the furthest parts of the country, patient horses plodding, dreaming of a full nose-bag at the end of the day, brown, monkey-faced bargemen with robust wives, washing strung out along the bow, and a couple of kids playing with broken pottery shards picked up as treasures along the way. It was as if the waterways themselves had not forgotten, and here, submerged below street level, there was nothing to interrupt the old dream that resounded day after day.
There was a child on board now; probably about six or seven, leaning against his mother and curled up into sleep, thumb in mouth She smiled when she saw me looking. ‘It’s his birthday,’ she said. ‘He was determined to stay up and see it in at midnight; he loves to try and stay awake. I promised him he could come, even though I knew he wouldn’t manage it. I’ll tell him in the morning that he did the whole trip. It’ll make him happy.’
Most of the company were lost in their own thoughts, or, in the case of the lovers, in each other. The bearded man that I had noticed at the start of the voyage seemed restless though, muttering to himself and looking anxiously at a tattered paperback book that he held. Perhaps it was just a collection of pages, because I couldn’t see any cover, only torn pages which he thumbed feverishly, as if he were trying to find and then memorize his favourite poems. But there was no hint of enjoyment in his face, only a driven, haunted look.
‘You say he comes here often?’ I asked Rita, as discreetly as I could.
She nodded. ‘Yes, a few times.’
‘For pleasure, do you think?’
She shrugged, in a dismissive kind of way. ‘Perhaps.’
‘I wonder if he has a home to go to? But then I suppose if he was a down-and-out, he wouldn’t have the money to come.’
She clearly did not want to follow this up, and I stayed silent, ashamed of passing comments on my fellow passengers of which she plainly disapproved. ‘Do you enjoy your work?’ I asked her, in a feeble attempt to remedy the situation.
She smiled at me unexpectedly, a warm, beaming smile. ‘Oh yes. Oh very much. Old people are so rewarding. Very special. They are the perfection of a whole life-time. Unless you can understand that, you don’t know them at all.
By now, we were floating down a broad stretch of water at ground level.
‘This is the main waterway out of the city,’ the captain announced. ‘The motorway of dockland. We shall be going a little further. And here we’re taking a swing to the left, to avoid the weir. All marked out and perfectly safe, even at night.’
I could hear the rushing of the river weir. I suppose we must have emerged from the completely artificial canal and dock network into a natural but structured watercourse. I wire rope and a string of fluorescent flags showed up on the right, and the boat veered away from them. But just as we turned, there was a movement from the other side of the boat. The hunched man’s mutterings had grown fiercer. He stood up, and in the space of what cannot have been more than a few seconds, hurled his book, then his overcoat, and then himself into the water. I gasped, and stood up to cry out, then found myself yanked firmly back to my seat, with a warm hand pressed heavily over my mouth. I struggled, but Rita held me firm.
‘Be quiet!’ she hissed.
I looked around, and up at the captain, but he and Rita were already exchanging glances. He raised an eyebrow to her, and she nodded with assurance. Satisfied, he straightened the boat into her new course, and delivered a few more comments into the microphone about features of the landscape. I couldn’t believe it. And none of the other passengers seemed to have noticed. The lovers, who had sat next to the man, were by now at the whispering, tickling and giggling stage of their embraces. Everyone else looked vacant, as if the slow flow of the water had glazed over their minds and eyes.
I turned sharply to Rita. ‘Why don’t we stop? Why don’t we rescue him?’ Not that I could see him any more – he was gone with barely a splash, swallowed up by the racing waters that swept down in torrents to the river below.
She pulled out a package from her brown plastic shopping bag and calmly unwrapped a selection of sandwiches. ‘Eat one, my dear. The egg ones are the nicest – the ham wasn’t up to much today.’ Almost hypnotised by her assurance, I took one.
When she saw that I had bitten into it, she said, ‘It was his time, dear. The way he wanted to go.’
‘What do you mean?’
She sighed. ‘For a writer,’ (had I told her that?) ‘you don’t look very far, do you? When one of my gentlemen, or ladies, is ready to go, and I am as sure as I can be that the time has come, then I will be there to see them off.’
‘You mean – suicide?’
‘Not exactly. Oh, no, I wouldn’t hold with that. That’s a war against yourself, isn’t it? No, those who know that their life is drawing to a close. And that’s the greatest perfection, you know. And quite natural, too. You look at animals – they know when it’s time. Well then. Some of my clients don’t want to catch lingering illnesses and have doctors prodding them and all their relatives weeping over them. How would you like to die like that, in a home or a hospital? Not much, I expect. Not a pleasant last memory to take with you, is it? So I make sure they can get out and about, and find it as they want it. By water this time. He loved the sea, that one…Used to be a writer, once, like you…Took him several trips before he felt familiar with this place and knew just where he wanted to go.’
I made as if to get up and look over the side of the boat, but she pulled me back. ‘don’t be foolish, dear. That’s one thing you must never try to do, try and follow them – they’ll go clean and quiet if you let them.’
I was shaking. ‘I’ve witnessed a death, then. Something I haven’t seen before. I might have seen more – I might have learnt more.’
Rita shook her head kindly. ‘That’s not the way to know more, half going with them. That’s the way to do yourself a mischief and maybe them, too. There’s plenty more to learn and to see if you’ll be patient.’
I was thoroughly jolted now. Was this a sleeping world, or a waking one? Was it night or day? What did she and the captain know that I didn’t…? We were approaching a barrier. Heavy, steel doors loomed up before us in the water, dark water slapping against them as the boat dropped speed and came to a pause at the place where they blocked our way, tightly closed. On a short quayside to our left, a little cottage snuggled into the high guarding walls around, and one light still burned in an upstairs window.
The captain whistled, then called, ‘Diz! Diz! Open up! – Short for Disraeli’ he told the now stirring passengers, provoking a few titters of disbelief.
We could hear the sound of footsteps in the cottage, then a few grumbling noises as the front door was unbolted and opened. A dark, squat little man moved out towards us. Though his movements were slow, I sensed tremendous physical power in his presence, something of the wrestler’s strength in his body.
‘Come on, Diz. You’re supposed to have had these open for us.’
‘You’ll have to pay.’
‘You must be joking! We’re regulars.’
‘Everyone has to pay. Double rates at night.’
‘They’re always like this, Rita told me. ‘He’ll have to pay, he always does in the end.’
‘Extra levy, I’m afraid,’ said the captain. ‘Fifty pence each.’
There was some complaining, but he was firm. No, it wasn’t on a per boat basis, but was per head. And yes, the child too, even if he was under sixteen and asleep. He was sorry, but there it was. As I turned towards the moonlight to see the contents of my purse better, the coins that I was taking hold of slipped from my fingers and fell into the water. By this time, the great steel doors were opening, making surprisingly little noise, and the boat was sliding gently through into a dark stretch of water beyond. The captain’s mate came towards me with his leather bag to collect my fare.
‘I’m sorry, I’ve just lost my money overboard. I haven’t any more.’
He shrugged, and grinned unpleasantly. His teeth were yellow and pointed, and he reminded me, for the first time since I had stepped into the boat, of the foxes at home.
‘Well, you’ll have to get out, won’t you?’
I looked at him in disbelief. ‘That’s ridiculous!’
‘Oh no, far from it. Them as doesn’t pay gets off. We don’t wait, and we don’t accept any debts. Out.’ He jerked a thumb towards the bank and nodded at the captain, who steered in closer to the shore.
I glanced around, but no one seemed interested in my plight, any more than they were in the man who had jumped overboard. Rita had disappeared too. I would have shouted, I think, but before I had a chance to do so I found that I was being heaved ashore by the captain and his evil-mouthed assistant. It could have been funny, or at any rate, ridiculous, but it wasn’t.
And then the boat was gone, and I was standing on a narrow path, with nothing but darkness ahead and steel doors, firmly closed again, behind me. Then I really did shout. I bawled, and hollered. Surely the gate-keeper would hear me and come out. But he didn’t. I began to grow hysterical, I am ashamed to admit, and was beating my fists against the metal, making a noise fit to wake the dead, when I felt a quiet tap on my shoulder. I spun round. It was Rita.
‘Well, dear, you’re one of the lucky ones, aren’t you?’ She seemed amused.
‘What do you mean?’
‘I’m sure you didn’t really want to go any further, did you? Wouldn’t you rather be getting home now?’
And indeed, I suddenly realised that I was dead tired and would like nothing better than to be back in bed. ‘I always get out around here myself. It’s not much fun further on.’ Her tone somehow gave me the impression that this was a great understatement.
‘How do we get out?’
She gestured. ‘Put your hand over there, to the right. You’ll find a little metal ring that hangs loose. It’s set into a lion’s head, actually – very pretty, if you could see it by daylight. Reminds me a little of Venice. Lions everywhere there. Just feel for it, and turn it very gently.’
I could feel the lion’s head all right, and the metal teeth and jaws that I had to reach into to grasp the ring. I did as she said; the ring turned, and a small inner door set into the great doors swung open. We stepped through it, back onto the little terrace in front of the cottage. There were no lights at the windows now.
‘What do we do now? It must be miles back. And I’m not sure I could find the way.’
‘Oh, nothing to worry about. Just take that path up there – ‘ she pointed to a narrow track that I hadn’t noticed before, leading up steeply behind the cottage. ‘It’s a bit of a scramble, but you’ll come onto the road, and there’ll be a bus coming along shortly.’
‘I’ve no money.’
‘There are free late-night buses.’ She chuckled. ‘Part of the council’s attempts to make life safer at night. They never think who they might attract onto the buses this way. But you’ll be all right.’
‘Are you coming too?’ I asked.
‘No, I’ve my own way back. I’m due to start work soon, not too far from here. Well it’s been pleasant meeting you.’
‘Perhaps we’ll meet again sometime.’
She smiled, ‘I wouldn’t count on it. Night encounters, you know, quickly forgotten. I expect you’ll sleep well enough tonight, though. Pleasant dreams!’
I took the path she indicated, and scrambled up to the top. Although bushes scratched at my clothes, and the earth was dusty and slippery, I made it without mishap. On the level high above the water, which was now well out of sight, I came out suddenly into urban life again. The track emerged between two houses, and in front of me was a main road, still lit, with a few late-night dog-walkers about and a bus stop close to hand. The shop windows, garishly illuminated and full of electrical goods, cheap clothes and furnishings, looked unreal. Was this the everyday city I was so familiar with?
I did not have to wait long, although it was no ordinary bus that turned up. ‘Party Special’, its indicator proclaimed. Not, it appeared, a party as in an outing, but as in party – good time and knees up. The driver stopped for me. He was merry, but sober, which was more than could be said for some of his passengers.
‘Welcome aboard, madam! Seats for singles on your left, couples on the right, dancing in the middle, bar at the rear. No charge, you’re welcome.’
The inside was decorated with balloons, and twirled silver festoons, and all around a couple of dozen partymakers were obviously having a wonderful time. Music blared out, and the standard of dress was more like a trendy disco than a city transport bus. A young man, a little drunk, but good-humoured, tried to pull me into a dance. I resisted, feeling boringly sober and out of place in my trousers and warm sweater. Then – oh, what the hell – I thought, and let him lead me into some kind of exuberant dance. I let the rhythm of the music sweep through me. It had been a crazy enough night – let it become a little crazier. At the end of the number, he put his arm round me and grinned.
‘City centre,’ called the driver. ‘Your stop, madam. It’s been a pleasure having you aboard. Mind how you go.’
Five more minutes, and I was home. The city looked quiet, unperturbed, nothing different from usual. What had I expected? There was no noise from the garden either. Rita was right; bed was very welcome.
Just before I drifted off, just before the images started to flow, I seemed to see her face bending over me, and heard her voice saying:
‘Drops, dear. Little drops. That’s what a really satisfying dream is like, isn’t it – the kind that tells you everything without needing to go through it all.’
Yes, I thought, that’s what I would hope for now. If she bade me sleep well, I certainly did.
Writing a Tarot Story
Here is how the cards appeared to me, for the weaving of this tale. And would a different order for these cards might perhaps tell a different story?
You might like to try your own version of this; pick a set of five cards (five is the number of creativity) sight unseen, from a Tarot pack of your choice. My own view is that a traditional set like this, honed and smoothed over the centuries, has more potetntial and fewer distracting details than most modern, individually-designed sets. You could also try with just three cards, for a ‘flash fiction’ story.
My writings on Tarot have focused on the research and interpretation that I’ve carried out for five decades now, investigating its history, and practising Tarot divination. It has also run alongside the task I inherited of writing and presenting The Tree of Life Oracle. My task with Tarot may be done – or it may not! Recently, I found myself drawn to the inspired art work of Pamela Colman Smith, who designed the Rider Waite Tarot pack. You can read more about this in my blog ‘A Pixie in Bude’. Perhaps there are yet more fascinating pathways that will open up in the mysterious world of Tarot.
One thought on “The Ship of Night – Part Two”
Thanks for this amusing, vivid, and appropriately mystifying, story. Not all Tarot interpreters see THE MOON as waning, but the nocturnal boat trip is a vivid trip up the Styx, not quite to death’s door. The dark, lingering will continue to suggest meanings. I like the wierd and witty characters.
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