My ship is sailing today. I've been on that ship for the past three years. I've been to four different continents and over thirty different countries. Scotland is my home and always will be, it's where my family is. I used to think that my family was just me and Marie. Our parents died awhile back, both our mum and dad buried on a green hill close to the old family church. I don't pray as much as I used to, and even then it was never as much as I should.
With just me and Marie, we were small to begin with. But then she was married and I was abroad for most of the year, our family ties were strained to say the least. The ship was to port for a long weekend in Scotland. Home. I ringed Marie when I found out that I would be able to come home for a few days.
"You'll be home for a bit? Well, that is some good news." She'd said.
Marie took me in to stay, but later, as I was unpacking a few changes of clothes, she approached me with a proposition. I'll never forget the way she came into my room and sat down across from me on the bed.
"I have a proposition for you," she said. "It'll only be for a day, and you stand to make some money out of this."
Marie was talking business. I took out a cigarette and offered her one, but she held up her hand and said no thanks. She must get enough smoke when she's at work. I put mine back in the pack and sat up straighter in the chair.
"What kind of proposition is this, Marie?" I asked her.
Marie leaned forward and gave me her great green eyes. We both have green eyes, it's one of the few things that tip us off as family. "I have this friend, Lizzie. She has a son who wants to meet his father."
I shrugged, "Well then, why doesn't he?"
"He left them years ago, but Lizzie's made up this story that his father is a sailor and that's why he's never around. She writes letters to him, pretending to be Frankie's dad."
I was surprised at this, it seemed like a lot of trouble to go through just to spare the boy's feelings. "Why does she do it Marie? Why not just tell him?"
Marie fidgeted a bit on the bed, and glanced at my open suitcase. She reached in and pulled out the small framed picture of Marie and I, when we were kids, with our mum and dad. She looked back at me. "She cares so much for him. Frankie's deaf, she doesn't want him to think that his dad left because of that."
I nodded, understanding. "Why are you telling me all this, Marie? Where do I fit in?"
"Frankie's been keeping track of the boat that Lizzie told him his father was on. I think you can guess-"
"His ship has come in?"
"Yes. It'll only be for a day, and Lizzie will pay you if you do it-"
"Spend some time with Frankie, some quality father-son time." Marie said.
"But I'm not the boy's father!"
"We know that, but Frankie doesn't. He just wants to meet his dad, but the man left them. He left them. Please, Lizzie's been getting desperate. Just the other day I found her crying out on the docks, she was wandering the pubs trying to find a man to be Frankie's dad for the weekend."
This was strange, probably the oddest thing she's ever asked me to do. Pretend to be some boy's father, keep up the lie that his mother let get out of hand? I felt ill at ease, almost nervous. This wasn't right, it was just feeding the lie…but damn me, I needed money.
The ship provided us with food and a place to stay for most of the year, but we bought our own clothes and entertainments. I was running low on money, and payday wasn't until the end of the month. I barely had any pocket change to spend, so I really had no choice.
The next day, Marie spoke with the woman, Lizzie, and set up a meeting. She was a pretty, timid woman. Her dark eyes seemed wide, paranoid. Hunted. She showed me the letters that had gone back and forth between them over the past few months.
"He's a lovely wee writer," she had said. She was proud of her son, but not of this lie she had let get out of hand. I couldn't help but think of the money. It wasn't much, but it was fair for what she was asking of me, so I agreed.
I came over to her flat to wait for Frankie to come home, sitting in the kitchen with Lizzie's mum, Nell. Just from meeting her I knew that she was against this. I couldn't blame her, I was against it in my own way.
Marie hadn't told them who I was, because Lizzie had asked specifically that I be a complete stranger, someone she wasn't liable to run into again with Frankie. No past, present or future. I could understand that, so I didn't offer my name when Nell asked for it. Stranger I was, and Stranger I may always remain.
Frankie came in and I was reminded of myself when I was a kid his age. My hair was darker, and maybe I'd been a bit taller, but there was a subtle resemblance. Good, that'd make this thing even more believable for him. He looked at me with wide eyes, and then looked at Lizzie.
Frankie was afraid of me. Not truly afraid, just nervous. I realized then that he'd been waiting for his father all his life and the enormity of what I was doing crashed down on me the moment Frankie rushed over and gave me a hug.
Well. Frankie had never met his dad, but to have run out on them when Frankie was just a baby, the boy was probably better off not knowing him. For years Lizzie had wrote to Frankie in the disguise of his absent father, offering fatherly advice at every turn. Now, here he was in the flesh, Frankie's father. He wanted to show me everything he could do.
Skip rocks, play football, devour ice cream.
If he had been my son, I would've been proud.
Lizzie told me the real reason that Frankie had lost his hearing. "A gift from his daddy," She had said. I felt angry when she told me, I wanted to go out and beat the life out of a man who had driven his family to run.
Ultimately, I felt helpless. The thought came to me that if I had known them at the time, I could've stopped him. I could've protected Lizzie and Frankie from that coward. Lizzie reminded me of all the friends I had known throughout my life that let a man walk all over them until they reached their breaking point.
Frankie was Lizzie's breaking point. If only she'd left her husband sooner.
I carried the sleeping Frankie into his room and he woke up, trying to give me a plaster seahorse that he'd made at school. I didn't want to take his toy, but he insisted and who was I to refuse him?
Maybe the seahorse would scare the sharks away from my ship.
We waved goodbye one last time once I was downstairs and walking on the street. We waved goodbye and I could feel Frankie's eyes watch me walk all the way down the street. Even when I was out of sight from his flat, ten blocks away and in the extra room at Marie's, I could still feel the boy's eyes on me.
"Well, how was it?"
I looked up from the plaster seahorse Frankie had given to me and smiled at Marie. She stood in the doorway and was looking at me with a warm smile, almost like she was proud. "Oh, you know, it was nice. Frankie's a good boy. I told him so."
"What else did you tell him?" she asked.
"I told him…I never lied to him, Marie. He only thought I was his father, I just never corrected his assumption. It was nice playing dad for a day."
Marie raised her eyebrows at me. "If I remember, it was really two days, as you asked Lizzie for more time."
That surprised me, I didn't think Lizzie would be going on to Marie about my every move. "She told you that I asked for another day? What else did she tell you?"
Marie shrugged, "Nothing much, just that you give one hell of a goodbye kiss." She smiled once I felt blood pounding in my ears. I knew I was blushing scarlet.
I didn't reply to her teasing. I went to bed.
My ship is set to sail this afternoon. I've repacked my suitcase and made sure that I'm ready for our next departure. I'm not sure where they plan on sending us, it could be as close as Ireland or as far away as Singapore. It doesn't matter where the ship goes, because I'm not so sure anymore whether or not I want to be on it.
I'm sick of traveling, sick of being around other sailors for 51 weeks out of the year. I've had enough homesickness to last me for the rest of my life. It's interesting to go to exotic places, to see new things, I do love that part of the job; but I've had enough.
There's more to life. There's Frankie and Lizzie.
I put my suitcase down beside the front door of Marie's flat and then went off down the street, heading towards Lizzie and Frankie. Marie had already left to go to work, and her restaurant was on the way to where I was going, so I thought to stop in for a minute.
Marie glanced up at me from wiping down the bar. "Hey Stranger, what brings you here?"
I smiled at that nickname. "What, a bloke can't visit his sister on his last day in town?"
Marie's hand stopped wiping down the bar counter. "So you are leaving, then?"
"Well, unless Lizzie gives me a reason to stay."
Marie smiled and jutted her chin towards Lizzie's flat. "Off you go then."
I nodded and went up the stairs to Lizzie's flat. Butterflies were in my stomach, my heart was pounding, my palms felt sweaty.
I knocked on the door, needlessly worrying too late that Frankie might answer. Thankfully, it was Lizzie. "Oh! What are you doing here? Marie said you were leaving today."
She looked pretty in a light blue sweater and a pair of jeans. Her hair was caught up in a clip and her eyes were lovely. Her lips pursed for a minute, I remembered how she tasted. "I thought so too, but I'm not so sure anymore."
"I just…I don't know. Can we discuss this?" I asked.
Lizzie nodded and stepped aside to let me in. I moved forward but she put a hand out to stop me. "Wait just a minute,"
"I know that you're Marie's brother," she said. "But what is your name?"
Marie told her? I hadn't thought that Marie would tell her that, but Lizzie must have asked, otherwise Marie wouldn't have shared the secret.
Lizzie smiled and stood aside to let me in.