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Fiction by Mildred Pond

The Stowaway - page 5

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my uneaten dinner, several rolls of bread, hunks of cheese and a half bottle of good red Bordeaux, was under the table, snuggled beside my feet. I’d find my stowaway, and then I would listen to his story. “I used to work at a shoe shop in Bucharest,” Ilona said, her hand press-ing on my arm. Luckily, Gamal, her swarthy heavyset husband, joined us, calling to Jules to bring him a beer.“That’s where we met,” Gamal said, but he was obviously distracted. Later, I scribbled in my notebook: “He moves like a panther, and his mind’s overloaded, frantic.” Janet put her face close to my ear. “Which would you prefer – talking about shoes in Bucharest or dancing with me?” On the promenade deck a few couples were already dancing to piped music, Edith Piaf singing her sad songs. “Thank you,” I said, as we danced. Her perfume was captivating, the breeze gentle and warm, the opaque sea on which we floated deceptively calm. Janet confided into my ear: “Ilona told me at dinner that she’d be stateless without Gamal. He’s Sudanese, carries an Egyptian passport. Ilona is Romanian, but her passport’s identity is apparently as his wife. She thinks that he’ll leave her if some of his business deals fall through, and they might. Aren’t you grateful to have a safe, Rock of Gibraltar identity?” “Are you?” “I’m afraid I take it for granted. Not everyone’s so lucky.” She tilted her head toward the assortment of Middle Easterners, Europeans and Asians strolling around. I thought of the desperate, paperless man in a lifeboat upstairs. The music stopped. Immediately a French army officer stepped up and asked Janet to dance. I’d seen him on deck before we sailed, striking in his French Foreign Legionnaire uniform, talking to one of his men who were quartered below us near the ship’s crew. I’d jotted down in my notebook, “The officer’s back’s as taut as a stretched sail. Has a pair of invisible eyes below his shoulder blades.” When I got a look at his features, I’d added: “Dozes off with his boots on, but his eyes never sleep at all.” Up close the eyes were a striking ice blue and at once they took posses-sion of Janet, who waved goodbye to me over his shoulder. When I returned to the bar our surly bartender, Jules, had just grabbed my knapsack, along with our empty glasses.