He walked in, like an old man, stooped shoulders, a halting gait and sleet slid from his raincoat and doused the red carpet. The hostess looked terrified for a moment and took his coat quickly to let it drain on the coat rack. He mumbled something. Barely moving his lips. He might have had paralysis except his face looked animated, jovial, and lacking in any obvious disfigurement with the exception of his wrinkles that created crevasses and creases across his face. His eyes had a nearly permanent squint from staring into sea reflected sunshine.
The hostess, dressed in black, seated him at my table. He grunted. I think. It had been five years since I had seen him.
“Thank you for meeting me,” I said.
He looked around. “Never been here. The Russian Tea Room. Fancy.” He picked up the fork like he was an underwater beast eyeing something foreign.
“We can have tea.” I had already ordered it.
“Tea?” He laughed. A deep laugh. “And we get little crumpets?” His accent was scarred. Cockney. It grated on me as it did five years ago. He had been a docker for years. A Union man. And then he learned to steer a boat. To tie proper knots. To loosen sails. He was a quick learner and he started working on yachts. Behind the scenes. His accent would rankle any posh English or foreigners. He kept to the engine room and the captain’s deck.
I had a yacht. Docked at Sag Harbor. Russell, that was his name, was looking for a gig. A boat. His former employer said he was gawking at his wife. So there he was…in New York…looking for a boat. I hired him for his skills. I hired him as captain though he had never been anything more than an assistant captain. We set sail for the Greek Islands.
The weather got rough on the Atlantic but he guided the yacht well. He was so confident. It calmed me. It calmed my guests. They learned to trust this Cockney man with the stare.
Somewhere in the Mediterranean, we got a distress signal. An SOS. An Algerian boat. The flag was raised. As dusk was draping itself across the sea we saw a boat. Rusted, sagging, full of screaming people. It was coming from the East and not the South.
“Pirates,” said Russell.
“What? In the Mediterranean?” I looked with binoculars and saw screaming women, crying children, and women waving shirts for help. The boat was wavering listlessly. The engine must have gone out.
“I think they’re refugees,” I said.
“We’re not stopping,” said Russell. “We can’t take all those people on board. Besides, their radio is working. Other boats will hear the SOS.”
“But we are here now…surely we can give supplies…”
My guests looked bored.
“Can we have some drinks, darling?” My girlfriend, a hired call girl, lounged in a deck chair. Her thighs had a gorgeous sheen.
“The people…” I said.
“Not people,” said Russell. “Refugees.”
So Russell steered the boat away from the dead boat and we continued to the Greek Islands. When we docked, I checked the news. It was there. The story of the refugees. One hundred and twenty-six had drowned. The rest were rescued by a boat from Cyprus. I was quite disturbed but I said nothing.
Our trip was lovely and we returned to New York tanned and happy. Well, not me. I had nightmares of that boat. And now Russell was sitting across from me.
“I think we violated the maritime law when we steered away from the boat.” My voice was strangely small.
Russell waved his hand. “It’s over. Done. You had a good trip. Your guests would have been unhappy with refugees clogging the halls and eating your food. It’s done.”
“People died,” I nearly screamed.
“People always die. Don’t worry. I went radio silent when I heard the SOS. No one will know we were near them.”
“I know.” I pounded the table and glasses clinked. “Do you not care?”
Russell leaned back. “No.”
“And no one cares about the Cockneys. Think about that. Just poor people huddled like rats in London.”
Russell got red. He set the fork down. “What do you intend to do?”
“Turn us in.”
Russell got up and walked out. He left his jacket dripping on the coat rack. I never saw him again. No one on the docks knew what happened to him. In the end, I told no one. I had a sexy new wife at home. A brilliant townhome. A yacht. I had a splendid life. Why disturb that? But I did dream of all those dead souls sinking into the ocean.