‘Passage’ 1. noun 1; the action or process of moving through, under, over, or past something on the way from one place to another >the action or process of moving forward… >a journey by sea or by air…
Oxford English Dictionary
A lovely ‘RV’ we saw in Jacksonville, FL
I wake up with a nudge in the darkness. I am on a strange boat. We are fifteen feet in the air. We are ‘on the hard’, ‘on the hill’. We are in the boat yard. Sodium light glows through the rectangular porthole. The heater fan is blowing, still. North Florida should not be this cold. Even in February.
Then I am on the stainless steel bus looking across the aisle at the dark skin of the lady who is talking.
‘Not ove’ he’, ove’ the’. Not ove’ he’, ove’ the’…’ She is making the point emphatically. Her overweight shell-suited friend nods.
The asiatic-looking man who changed my twenty-dollar bill earlier is looking-on. The younger, but toothless ‘hip-hop hoodie’, who also helped us get the exact change for the fare, left the bus, punching the driver’s fist with a ‘Later’ even before the bus had pulled-off. He had just got on to for the entertainment, like the downs-syndrome guys who sat on a seat chewing his McDouble for ten minutes. With no intention of travel, he was escorted, off the bus, with a hug from the driver, when it was time to pull away from the stand.
‘Not ove’ the’, she says again. Strip lights catch her straightened fringe, which protrudes over her forehead from the front of her headscarf. Like mature women all over the world, she has her trolley for shopping, and is dressed up for town. Her big african-american lips pronounce the impenetrable words with emphasis, and I imagine the environment where every word is understood. What does it sound like in her own living room? She will probably buy her weekly food from her regular ‘stores’, maybe get her hair done, or perhaps see a doctor or dentist. These people will understand her accent. It will be a nice day for her. Dawn is not here yet, and she does not fit in, somehow, with the sombre night-owl atmosphere on the municiple bus into Jacksonville from Orange Park, all sleek and shiny and shadowy.
Our bags are stacked in the aisle, heavy with two huge bronze sailing winches I cut from an abandoned boat in the ‘Back Lot’ of the boatyard yesterday afternoon. We will carry them all the way to Cuba. It is ironic to me that, in this fluorescent cold-lit ‘night-world’, there may be a Cuban who knows the village where we are heading, the backstreet lady who sells honey in rum bottles, garnered from her farm in the mountains, the cobbler in the empty storefront, or the busy tyre-fixing workshop. It is a thousand miles away, but Cubans get around in Florida, despite how difficult it is to come across the Straits from home by raft, or even windsurf-board.
The old lady gets up, and lumbers along to the driver. ‘Lemme off here, honey’, as he pulls to a stop. Maybe today she’ll buy some flowers for a wayward daughter, and give them lovingly with a ‘shucks, chile, Happy Valentines’. It is the fourteenth of February.
I had seen Baron in a blur through the darkness this morning, driving around the filthy boatyard, looking for us. I had overslept, and seconds before this, I was pulling my trousers on, staggering around, trying not to wake Michelle, or break anything on that unfamiliar boat. On deck, I had nearly toppled as I made my way to the ladder down. ‘Focus Focus Focus’. I carefully climbed down. Molly the dog had been pleased to see me, even at five thirty in the morning, as I dragged out our heavy bags from the back of Michelle’s massive covered pickup. ‘Damn these winches – I ached from the labours of the previous day – I had spent most the day before parting two massive bronze winches from a mast, like dumbells, to carry with us, however we were to do it, getting back to our boat.
Moonrise over Green Cove Springs, on a previous evening…
‘Yeah, Man, I was wondering where you were, so I got in the car and started driving around!’ Baron. What a guy. I have often said to Dorry I want to be like Baron when I grow up. The point being that at eighty-two, he has never grown up. I am so relieved that is here, and ready to go.
‘No problem!’, he had said, ‘I’ll take you to the Courthouse in the morning. Is that where the bus leaves from?’. Baron had seen me bringing the winches back from the ‘boat graveyard’ in the area they call ‘California’ of the marina property. ‘Lemme give you a ride, man…’ he had grinned, as he helped me stuff them into my bag…
We had introduced Baron to the Chinatown Bus service, connecting the ubiquitous chinese restaurants in every town throughout the United States, and connecting all the big cities with a ‘Chinatown’ district.
‘Shit man, I had no idea, and I been travelling around this country for the last eighty years.’
Statue of Liberty, New York, from seat number 6c of a Chinatown Bus. Note the sign: ‘We are not responsible…’
Baron used to smuggle cigars from Cuba in his tiny sailing boat, then use the money to head for Europe to hang out amongst the artists and poets of the Parisian Rive Gauche. Word is that he had broken many a french girl’s heart, and undoubtedly is still doing so with dynamic and humble abandon, age clearly being no impediment to him. Baron’s tales are legendary. The story of how he ended up in france explains some of his life – a job interview got by his probation officer in the US, for a position in Cheltenham, in the UK, on condition that he leave the USA for a new liffe. It had gone so well that he got drunk on his way back to London on the train, and ended-up, inexplicably, in Paris, for THREE YEARS.
‘I met the love of my life, man. What you gonna do?’
Baron, with Phil Rees of Anju in the background
Baron’s own wayward daughters keep him busy and anxious in his old age, and he is the first to admit that this is probably down to the fact that he disappeared on them, and stranded them and their mother in England during this time. He is paying his dues with paternal steadiness and ingenuity, making money as an unofficial taxi for cruising sailors to get to and from airports and seaports from the boatyard. His daughters are in their late fifties. The family is close, loving and insane. Just how he likes it.
Baron has a cheap car and a solid boat. And lots of friends in both high and low places. And he shares with us a love of fine strong cheese and british motorbikes. Amongst other things. Right now, I am looking at the headlights of his car, making a positive identification. He winds down the window. It IS him.
‘We’re just over there, opposite the work area’. (There is a communal workbench with grinding wheel Bench Vice.)
‘You can see our bags behind the truck. I’ll be there in a second, just going to the head.’
The Work Bench the year before, with our engine raw-water strainer ready to refit.
This morning is falling into place nicely. I run into what residents laughingly refer to as the toilet block. Termite ridden, with one toilet serving upwards of two hundred people at times, including old and infirm retired sailors. I have had times of extreme stress in here, dodging work for two minutes, mulling-over frustration after fustration over five long years of boat projects. In this building I have waited in excruciating pain for old men to finish on the toilet, I have called hopeful numbers written on adverts on the communal corkboard, I have researched engineering solutions and marine suppliers, hiding in the air-conditioning from the intense Florida heat in High Summer. I have ransacked the free-table, where people leave unwanted clothes and sailing kit, both furtively and savagely. I have dug splinters from way up the back of my fingernail, cutting up the nail with a stanley blade, trying not to faint on unsteady legs, with no option but to avoid infection and hospital fees at all costs, And I have taken shelter from the world in free books from the bookshelf, sitting in the easy chair as my laundry has whirled round and round in the back room, and cockroaches have scuttled and mayflies have flown round the ceiling fan in the evening-time.
Bottom Dave’s Truck in the Boatyard
And now the hand dryer is making that unbearable high-speed shriek, and I wonder if this will be for the very last time that I try to avoid the stains on the wall with my freshly-cleaned hands. I have seen this toilet block in all sorts of states. I have cut down my own fingernails to remove splinters, my face blacker’n Bottom Dave’s. But for all its quirky fascination, the marina can be too much for me these days. Too many ordeals, too much stress, so last summer, for the last time, we launched and sailed our shiny, lovingly finished boat out of the launch slip and south to the Caribbean.
And that is where we are heading, having made some calls here and seen some wonderful old friends. I run back to the truck, and Dorry and Baron are loading the car. We head out of the yard, and up to the highway, past Megan and Steffan’s tiny trailer/caravan, and past John and Laura’s massive RV/Motorhome. Two opposite properties from one world in which the goal and the soul are the same the same; forced by the need for living life fully to find a way which makes more sense than a controlled, ‘hooked-in’ existence. Megan and Steffan have been improving their boat in the yard whilst adventuring into the interior of the continent, and the Rocky Mountains. John and Laura too have reports of exploring the Pacific Northwest, Alaska and the Yukon. John and Laura travel by R.V. Megan and Steffan by old-fashioned train-hopping. They know all about the dangers and delights of box-cars and sidings. John knows the same amount about Russian Oligarch business partners and Swiss numbered accounts. Both couples are looking for a better way.
Now I am on the Greyhound Bus, and I look out of the window at the sun flashing off of the windscreens of cars passing across the freeway, and the deep blue sky behind the sandy highrise buildings along Interstate 95. I am starting to feel the heat of the day through my woolly sweater, and realise that we are heading into the warm country at last. The shocking and vulgar hideola of Orlando’s ‘beltway, the latino chic of Miami, then Key West, then Havanna. We are on the way back to our boat. All we have to do is find a boat heading across the straits to Cuba, upon which we can ‘work our passage’. It may be hard; it may be easy. We don’t know yet, but we’ll find out…