Blesok no. 48, May-June,2006

Moped at Sea

J.M.A. Biesheuvel

    Isaac had been standing on the afterdeck for hours. He was a nice enough kid, but a little strange. When he worked on board ship he longed for a job onshore and when working in an office he longed for the sea. Isaac could not stand the monotony of shore life and had no money for cruises. But when he was at sea – working as a run-of-the-mill crew member (bespectacled and therefore always a cabin boy, mess assistant or officer's valet, never a seaman – let alone helmsman, his greatest ambition), he was confronted with the crude blustering of the seaman, who played cards for keeps with their knives on the table. Isaac simply did not fit in. At sea he was even more of a misfit than in his jobs in the harbour, the factory, the office or the bottling plant. Yet it was at sea that he hoped to find true adventure.
    When his work was done, Isaac could always be found on the afterdeck. Midnight had passed two hours ago, but Isaac stayed put. It was a moonlit night, all the major constellations of the southern sky could be seen clearly, as could the fierce white backwash from the ship's propeller. Anyone who has stood for hours on the afterdeck of a moving ship knows that in the dead of night, in broad daylight, come rain or fog, in the polar regions or the tropics, in grey, green or dear-blue water, a ship always sails on a white road, a sea-way stretching from the horizon to the props, a road invisible to a castaway crossing it only fifteen minutes after the ship has passed.
    A warm, inviting breeze was blowing. If you looked hard – you could make out the horizon and, a bit near, the light of a crossing ship that would have been heading straight for Isaac, had he been on deck an hour earlier. But, as we shall see, our senses can deceive us. There are philosophers who assert that everything is illusion, and who is to say they are wrong? Isaac's ship was a tramp steamer, and he had never seen other ships at night. He thought about how long it would take until he was back home. He gazed at the witches, the bollards, the hawsers, the railing and the easy chair he had brought up to the afterdeck.
    Then Isaac saw the light in the distance swerve abruptly. It seems to make a tight run on the water and was now coming straight for him. As the light steadily approached, Isaac decided this could hardly be a ship; not only was it bobbing far too much with the motion of the waves, but there was only a single light. A ship running with only a stern-light? Too dangerous.
    When the extraordinary vehicle had come within two hundred fathoms of where Isaac was standing, he recognized it as a moped. Finally something strange and wonderful was happening to Isaac. What he saw before him defied the imagination. At first Isaac was afraid, but when it came right down to it he simply could not believe that a new prophet or Messiah would move across the face of the earth in quite this fashion. Even though the Christians claimed that Jesus had walked upon the water.
    By now the moped was only about fifty feet away. Isaac shouted and waved wildly, but forgot in his excitement to lower the rope-ladder. The man on the moped, whose accent revealed him to be a country-man of Isaac's, called this to his attention. The man steered his motorbike towards the rope ladder with remarkable dexterity and utmost caution; he seized up the sheer wall of the ship's hull like a boxer in the ring, first a few explanatory jabs, weaving slightly from the waist, shuffling the feet and blocking with his arms. Suddenly, in one fluid motion, he sprang – moped and all – onto the ladder.
    “Careful!” he said. “Careful.”
    The man wore badly steamed-up goggles and a cap with great jutting leather flaps to protect his eyes and ears from the salt spray. The moped was a standard machine, with no special attachments. Isaac helped the man lower the moped to the desk.
    “Give me something to eat,” the man said.
    Isaac went to find food. Below deck, he noticed that the seamen, the ship's mates and the engine room crew had all gone to their berths. When he returned he asked the stranger: “What are you doing riding on the water?”
    The man claimed he was out to set a record.
    “But how can you ride on water?” Isaac asked in amazement.
    “It's a matter of practice,” the man explained. “I started by placing a pin on the water's surface. If you're very careful, the pin will float. I gradually increased the weight of the objects, over a long period of time. Naturally, I was working up to my moped; eventually I was able to take my first, shaky spin on the pond in the park. Now I'm riding around the world. I never go ashore, but I often ride up to ships to get something to eat. I prefer doing that in the middle of the night, when everyone's asleep. The first few times I approached ships in broad daylight, but it wais too much for some people to take. First they began shouting that this was the most wonderful thing they'd ever seen in their entire lives; then they began babbling or went completely insane. I'm out to cover forty thousand kilometers by sea, but I don't mind putting in a few extra kilometers as long as I've circled the globe. I want to do something no one has ever been able to do before. That's always been my dream.”
    “Aren't you afraid of drowning?” Isaac asked.
    “Not at all,” the man replied. “It's all in the way you steer, plus careful acceleration and deceleration, of course. For example, never take a big wave too fast or the sides of your tires will get wet. Once that happens you can forget it.”
    “Yes, of course,” said Isaac, gazing in awe at the man who was stuffing himself with food and drinking large quantities of milk and alcohol. When he had finished he asked Isaac for a bottle of iodine, which he said he needed.

    An hour had passed by the time the man swung his moped back overboard again and hung it on the rope ladder. He said goodbye to Isaac, who asked to come along as a passenger for the rest of the trip.
    “I could even show you the way; I've worked on lots of ships.”
    But the man burst out laughing.
    “First of all, you'd have to practice for years,” he said. “But if I really wanted to I could take you with me. I can steer well enough and I could pump up my tires far enough, but I don't feel like it. Why should I? I've been riding at sea for months; why should I suddenly take you along for the last week? What sense would that make? After all, I'm out to set a solo record. How could I explain to the people at the finish that you came along for the final stretch? I'd have to give it everything I've got just to keep the moped rolling with someone on the back. Besides, I've never practiced with a passenger. You're liable to make all kinds of unexpected moves. You have to skip lightly, dance as it were across the water.”
    The man went on: “Do you know anything about tightrope walking?”
    Isaac, who was not quite sure what the man was driving at, admitted he did not.
    “Well,” the man said, “you've got to balance on the moped and keep your tires as close as possible to the top of the wave.”
    With this, he bid Isaac farewell and climbed down the ladder with his moped. Isaac wanted to adjust the rope-ladder, but the man began shouting again (this time very loudly): “Careful! Careful!”
    When he had reached the bottom of the ladder, the man started the moped at full throttle and kept the wheels spinning just above the water's surface. Several times he gingerly touched the tires to the water and then, without warning, hopped onto the revved-up moped and sped off across the sea.
    It was beginning to get light. Isaac was despondent. Within fifteen minutes the moped had disappeared over the horizon. He decided to turn in for an hour.
    In the morning he told the radio operator what had happened during the night. The radio operator shrugged and, when Isaac insisted it was all true, he laughed. Within an hour the entire crew had heard that Isaac had seen a man riding across the water that night. They all laughed.
    At the end of the day Isaac was very sleepy. But, before turning in, he walked to the afterdeck for a moment. The sun had gone down. It promised to be another lovely night, but a bit cloudier. Isaac automatically began scanning the horizon. The man on the moped was, of course, nowhere in sight.
    Isaac felt close to tears. He did not fit in onshore, he did not fit in with the crew, he did not even fit in with the man on the moped. He gazed at the dangerous turbulence of the backwash and at the birds flying along behind the ship. It occurred to him that he was a lonely man, and slowly he realized that he always would be.
    He lit a cigarette and began humming a hymn. He could barely hear his own voice. The wind had picked up, causing the ship's propeller to occasionally come free of the water, spinning wildly before pounding back into the sea. Isaac looked at one of the sea birds and wished he too could hover and perch at will. He wished he could fly behind ships or far off over the horizon. Without realizing it, he began imitating the movement of an albatross' wings in flight. The bo'sun happened to see him and snickered, for he could see that Isaac stood with both feet firmly on deck.

Translated by Sam Garrett

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