The first chapter of ‘The Black Sky’
My name is Edward James Frantzen and I am nothing but a swindler and a cheat. I have lived a long life of running from bad debts and crooked deals, skipping from continent to continent in a never ending race to nowhere. I have broken hearts and broken bank accounts. I have enjoyed the shallowness of the high life and more often than not endured the slingshots of self-made misfortune. I have paraded through life disguised with an endless stream of assumed names and stolen coats of the finest and not-so finest cloth. I have, in short, survived on a surfeit of lies. But now, as it seems all that is over as surely as the river runs to the sea, it is finally time to come clean. Is it for me to judge if my life has been good or bad? Surely you must think, as I do, that cheats never prosper and that as judgement approaches I will get my comeuppance. But before that moment I will tell you my tale, and perhaps it will redeem me. Indulge me if you will; imagine us to be acquaintances you and I. Perhaps we may sit in high-backed chairs by a roaring fire. An after dinner scene where, fuelled by brandy and warm company you listen politely, as you may have done before, to a tale recounted from my life. A story I have never told a soul. Listen very carefully for similar true occurrences may happen to you. I begin, like any story, with questions. For questions is all we have.
When did I first notice the black sky? And how did I come to be in possession of her shoe?
She was wearing a gypsy top, that’s how. It’s what drew my attention. An off the shoulder gypsy top, well, off one shoulder anyway. I wondered about it at the time, as I have dreamed about it since. I wondered if her attire was a bit daring or even cold for the deck of a ship in mid-atlantic. To be honest I don’t think that I have a particularly elegant way of describing it; did I really think her clothing was ‘daring’? That can’t be right. I must have thought she was cold, because the fact was I was cold. I had a thick sweater and tweed jacket, clothing I would be thankful for in days to come. No hat unfortunately, the wind was too strong for that. She must have been cold and I must have glanced at the way her nipples puckered through the rumpled material of that gypsy top. Forgive me, I know it sounds gauche to say it, sexist by today’s standards and certainly crass and ungentlemanly by the mores of the nineteen-fifties, but God I loved her nipples. It is to do her a disservice to talk of her as if she was merely desirable. She was so much more. But if I am to tell this story, give it the perfect nuances of truth that it demands, then I have to be honest about such moments. I have to be honest about that moment; the first moment I saw her. And it is honest to say that heterosexual men, be they are aware of it or not, are often so fascinated by something as simple as breasts that their eyes stray to them automatically. I am no different in that respect. Surely there is nothing so shocking about that? Besides, age allows me a certain freedom to recall such details. Freedom to speak without embarrassment, I hope you don’t mind. Embarrassments, I feel, are for the young.
They say we make our very first impression of a person in seven seconds. Within seven seconds of clapping our peepers on their physicality. Seven seconds isn’t exactly much time. Imagine that you first walk into a room and you happen to be looking at the floor, head down and then before you know it everyone there has judged you as weak or shy, or simply socially inadequate. It might be that you had your head down simply to check if your shoelace is adequately knotted and in the time it takes to realise your footwear is secure you have been branded by all new eyes that have surveyed you. How unfair and unthinking people can be. But then again, honesty precludes that we should all admit such shallowness. No matter how often the righteous may implore us to judge a person by what is on the inside or to judge them purely by their actions we all summarily fail in that mission. We cannot help ourselves and we judge a person in that first impression. We resolve their clothes to be ‘just so’ or ill-judged or ill-fitting and their expression or their bearing to be morally correct or ethically questionable. We measure them against some inner compass of what we judge to be right or wrong, desirable or ugly, keen or slovenly. Or any number of further measures conscious or unconscious. Ultimately we are measuring them against ourselves, in order that we may feel better about ourselves. At the very least we judge whether we feel they might ‘fit’.
And so what of Marielle? What was my first impression of her in that first seven seconds? Of how she held herself against the Atlantic wind, wearing that gypsy top and striding along the decking? Did she ‘fit’? I suppose I knew I found her attractive, there must have been an unconscious sexual tug there. Was that a mutual thing when her eyes met mine? No staring at the floor for her. But then again I mustn’t over-romanticise this few passing seconds. Yes her eyes met mine, but hers was a look of determination and I was a mere obstruction to her passage. The look between us was quick, fleeting and soon over, for her attention was drawn to something behind me. To sum up, my first impression of Marielle was actually quite mundane; she was an attractive woman (for she was most certainly a woman and not one to be described as a mere ‘girl’), but her preoccupation and straight set mouth meant she was unapproachable. And that was it really.
Did I want to approach her? Honesty demands I say no I did not. It was a glancing encounter of the kind that one has with countless strangers everyday. It was one second of seven where she acknowledged my existence with her eyes and a simple six seconds more where I took her in. But then she was gone, past me along the deck in a hurry and I could have continued on my lonely dusk filled stroll and thought no more of it. After all, she was just another passenger among a thousand other souls braving the open sea. And at this point I should say that my rational motives upon this trip were not in the least bit romantic. As you will imagine I was travelling to New York as an escape and had no desire for company apart from at the gaming tables, even if the faded Mauritania still had her reputation as a ship of romance.
So what was it that made me turn and observe the extraordinary events of the next few minutes? What stopped me in my tracks in those seven seconds that would come to change my life forever?
It was her shoe. A flat simple shoe that had slipped unnoticed from her foot in her desperate hurry to get past. I hadn’t seen it fall from her foot but immediately as she passed me my foot kicked it along the deck. An accident or fate? Well, I will leave that for you to decide.
Of course I picked up that shoe, the warmth of her foot lingering on the simple brown leather. I turned and held it aloft but before I could call to her I saw her commit murder. There is no other way to describe it and, in fairness, this is how she herself described it in later conversation. It was what it was. I would be the first to admit that I have seen some shoddy occurrences and unspeakable crimes in my time up until that point, but I had never witnessed something so shockingly despicable as the taking of someone’s life. It was something I had studiously avoided during the war. As soon as conscription loomed I studiously removed myself from English shores. You might think this cowardly and I suppose this is correct, but I urge you not to judge me too soon. I urge you to hear my tale out before you judge my humble failings.
I posed as a well read English encyclopaedia salesman, skipping from town to town in the backwaters of midwest of America, playing illicit poker in backroom’s to pay my way. The bumbling British accent always worked a treat with any arrogant local card sharp who thought they knew the deck better than me. A tweed sleeve can hide a multitude of sins. Eventually the questions about my lack of military service became tiresome, especially when America entered the war and I headed south to Mexico to wait out the hostilities. But even here, in some of the most lawless backwaters I have ever encountered, I never witnessed a murder.
‘Murder’. I say it now as if it were such a simple thing and in truth it is. Looking back it was obvious in that moment that murder was her intent, that would have been clear in any court of law. An open and shut case you might say. She had the pilfered knife in her hand, held aloft awkwardly as if she were mimicking me holding her shoe. It shook as if it were too heavy in her slight hand. The uniformed man had his back to her, his arms leant comfortably against the rail, eyes scanning the horizon.
“Hey!” I called stepping forward,
She looked at me, fierce eyes condemning my interruption.
The man turned, and laughed when he saw her. He dashed his forearm quickly against hers and the knife skipped over the deck.
“Stupid bitch,” I think he said, but she was already sinking to ground. At first I took her to be fainting, her body seemed to melt downwards towards his feet. Down on her knees in supplication. I really thought he was going to hit her, but she had been too quick, too cunning for that. She grabbed both of his trouser legs in her hands and yanked him up and back. I have thought about the strength that must have taken; to lift a man, and no small man at that, clean off the ground by his legs. The man’s back thumped against the rail and I could see the quickening moment of dread born from imbalance in his eyes. He looked down at the steely waves far below and for a moment seemed to hang there, back bent painfully over the rail, before she heaved and grunted like a fisherman throwing sodden nets over the side and he was gone.
I ran to the rail in time to see the foam of his impact and moments later his head broke the surface already shockingly far back along the side of the speeding ship from whence he fell. I ran, shouting ‘man overboard’ as best I could against the wind, but when I reached the stern, along with several seaman who had come running he was gone beneath the swell of the churning wake. Did we see his hand grasping the empty air one last time? I cannot be sure.
They threw life buoys and the order was given to reverse engines but I could tell from those more sea-stained than me that it was too late. By the time a liner such as this could come to a halt we would have drifted a good five miles from the spot he fell.
I didn’t see them take Marielle away, the first officer told me they had arrested her when he was asking the crowd of gawpers for witnesses. He offered me whisky from a flask as I stood shaking at the rail watching the wake begin to fade into the waves beyond the stern. He put a blanket around my shoulders and suggested I return to my cabin. I could make a statement the following day.
I looked at her shoe, still in my hand and drank from the flask and as I tilted my head upwards to take the swig I saw it.
The sky was black. And I don’t mean a dark sky, the kind one normally sees, perhaps dotted with drifting stars and daubed with cloud. This sky was an endless pool of black oil surrounding us in all directions. The only light left were the few swaying bulbs of the ship, illuminating an oval of sea for a few yards around us.
The rest of the world was black.
© 2015 Simon Poore