She had hoped for a romantic evening, sitting on the deck of the ferry Portsmouth-Santander, looking at the sunset. On her own, but a romantic setting nevertheless.
Instead, she was looking at the heavy rain from one of the enclosed sitting room. And, like on trains and planes, she could not even look at the sea ahead. All windows she had access to faced the sides of the ferry.
She sat at one of the tables, still looking at the sea. Might as well at least enjoy the view that was different from every day life. Water everywhere. Water in the sea, water in the clouds above, water in the rain. Rain coming from the clouds, to the sea, to the deck, to the glass of the windows.
A man approached with a box of cigarettes. He offered her one and by the brand she knew he was Spanish. She looked at her. She wouldn’t mind the smoke, but she did mind having to offer conversation in exchange.
I could do with a cigarette right now. But only if you let me smoke it in silence. We can talk when we finish. Deal?
The man didn’t say anything, he just remain motionless until she took one cigarette from the box. He lent her his lighter too.
They smoked in silence.
She inhaled. In. Out. It made her think of her own breadth. She thought of her lungs. Then her stomach. She had not needed any biscuit so far. The thought and the smoke made her sad. They used to give biscuits to people with upset stomachs.
She kept looking outside, to the waters. So still.
Forcing her own breath into a slow rhythm allowed for her trail of thought to go nicely slower too.
She wanted to make her thoughts known and wished it would be as easy to express them as it was to exhale the smoke out of her lungs. Thoughts and smoke, they both had to come out through her mouth if she was not to let them both explode inside her.
She spoke as she squeezed her cigarette against the ashtray. So unique, yet so many times repeated.
“Do you travel this route often, Portsmouth-Santander?”
“Me neither. First time. But I have heard about it so much, it feels like I have done it every summer.”
His raised eyebrows meant a question and an invitation to continue.
“My grandmother. First, from Santander to London. Nineteen thirty seven. Running away for her life. Thought it would be three months, it was thirty years. The return journey didn’t happen ’til the sixties. With a grown up daughter who switched her mother tongue. Never spoke Spanish properly again.”
Her trail of thoughts continued after her speech. So many people had travelled this route after that. So many lives marked by a stretch of sea.
She continued to look at the sea. At least her grandmother had made it. She – well, the ship she was on – managed to reach Portsmouth without being hindered. Her cousin was not so lucky. An army ship from the winning side of the war intercepted the passenger ship and that was the end of the adventure. Not a nice story.
The man lit another cigarette.
!Where was your family from, then? Santander?”
“Salamanca. The whole family had moved from a village near the border with Portugal, to Asturias. Worked in the mines until the war. No one ever went back to the village. Just one of the son. Sent back there to die. Had caught bronchitis, or TB, can’t remember which. They used to send them back to their villages in those times, get better air, they said. But they only went back to die. Then the war. Where are you from?”
“Oviedo. But my family comes from Segovia.”
She looked out to the sea again. The rain had not stopped.
“Been to England on holiday?”
“No. I have been working during the summer, and learning English. Now if I don’t find a job, I will go back to London.”
She looked at him.
“If it is any consolation … you are not the first immigrant.”
“Yes, I know.”
“And you won’t be the last.”
“Yes, I know that, too.”
“But, be careful.”
“People who have lived in more than one place, are never happy afterwards. In whatever my grandmother was, she missed the other.”