Never marry a sailor. A sailor already has a bride. She’ll seep into any marriage and leach away the love. I think my first wife sensed this, deep in the ocean of her innocent heart. Oh she was proud of me. Proud that her husband was a romantic merchant mariner, rather than an insurance agent or a milkman. Such heart-wrenching goodbyes. And reunions that wound our arms and legs in reef knots. But the ocean accepts no rivals. If you don’t get back to your ship on time the waters will swell up over the dockside and down the street and into the house and pick you up from the settee and sweep you back to where the gulls shriek and the porpoise rolls. My first wife did more than was reasonable to siren me back from the sea. But she knew it had me firmly in its grasp. By the bollards, if you want me to be polite.

But not my second wife. She had no idea what moved and pulled at me down below all the levels of consciousness, below any level of knowing. Below everything that we normally think of as life. It was not something that I really understood myself. But I sensed it. By the time I had met her the sea was supposed to be no more than a memory. The rough canvas trousers had given way to the light-weight wool. I had deserted the bargirls of Algiers for the models of London and Paris. But the unknown, the far side of the horizon, still called me.

Beer may have given way to wine and cognac but somewhere in the deeper wells of alcohol, I still smelt brine. In bad times I would find my way to the bars near the docks. A figure of fun for the seamen. An easy touch for a drink. Easily poured into a taxi when I no longer amused. But well scrubbed and presented next day for the offices and lounges of the executive world where I was to meet my second wife. And now we had successfully negotiated a wedding. In Paris, of course. This second marriage was to be the marriage that ended all marriages. And that’s what it turned out to be. But not in the way we had thought. We’d each been married before so we knew how to handle this. The past was past. Something to be learned from but not to rise from its grave and haunt us. Her ghosts had been confined to photograph albums. And mine were well and truly laid.

The wedding guests flew in from Australia and England and they wore their sophistication to the reception. We’d all been there before. Now we were equipped to handle the real thing. Dom Perignon and Beluga. Maybe a touch of morphine. I respected the solemnity of the marriage commitment so I was more or less sober, and comparatively poppy free. Appearances needed to be maintained. We entered the hotel where we were to have a short rest before the reception and I graciously let my bride go on ahead whilst I acknowledged the congratulations, handclasps, slaps on the back, see you at the reception Victor, don’t be late, hah, hah, hah. Don’t forget to be there. We mere mortals might forget. But the ocean never forgets. Never let’ you go.

As my friends wandered off down the rue Montorgueil I turned to find an old man at my side and he plucked at my sleeve. I found that I had already drunk enough at breakfast time not only to carry me through the ceremony at the notary’s office but also to blur my sight. I couldn’t get a clear focus on the old man who appeared beside me in the hotel foyer. I thought that he looked vaguely familiar. But he looked more like a kind of person than a particular person. He must be somebody from my past, I thought. And yet not a particular person. Just somebody. Some kind of relic from my past.

I felt benign toward him and I leant forward to hear what he was saying. And I lost my balance and reached out to hold onto him and his thin fingers caught my wrist. And suddenly there were shocks through and through my body. For a moment I thought he must have one of those trick batteries up his sleeve and he’d been hired by my friends as one of those foolish but well-meant wedding surprises. But the shocks were in my nervous system and they hit all the hidden pockets of repressed energy within my body. I blacked out.

‘You are chosen,’ he told me, ‘indeed you are’.

Somehow he seemed to know that I was an ex sailor, that I had swallowed the anchor many years before. Pussers’ rum had given way to cognac and champagne and my suits were tailor-made. Shoes would be next. I had power. But he had more. And there on the floor of the hotel foyer I threshed about like a sea eagle with a broken back. And when they lifted me onto the stretcher and carried me out into the ambulance he climbed into the vehicle with me.

I was carried along corridors at an incredible speed, lights flashing overhead. Strong arms lifted me onto a bed. Needles sank into me like a swarm of bees. Then I recognised the bliss of poppy drips in my vein. At the periphery of my eyesight were tubes of blue and red, twining slowly to soundless music and I thought that I was back in Ron Kingston’s acid experiments. Except for the tube in my arm and the little plastic mask clipped to my mouth and nose.

Ron Kingston had been one of the first doctors outside the United States to experiment early with lysergic acid, and psylocibin. And I had been one of his first guinea pigs. LSD was to be the wonder drug that cured everything from alcoholism to epilepsy. Just what I needed. Well, any rate, just what the doctor ordered. He used to sit beside the couch as the acid started to flow through my veins. He’d talk to me in a quiet voice and I’d answer him, in the silence of my mind. I was writing a book about a shaman. I wanted to experience what the shaman experienced.

Now there was a voice beside me telling me something about an Alexandrine. It was the voice of the old man who had appeared beside me in the hotel foyer. I interrupted him to say that I had never heard of an Alexandrine. One of the few female names that raised no memory to the surface of my mind. But he waved a finger at me and told me not to interrupt. I had thought that my books were establishing me as one of the world’s up and coming storytellers but he immediately disillusioned me. He held the throne. Like the plastic tubes that now grew from my body his voice was silent, yet strangely visible. I saw the picture that his silent words were painting in my mind.

`Your last breath could be caught and bottled and kept as a souvenir,’ he told me. `Your last breath. In a bottle. Your new wife could keep it on the mantelpiece. Sometimes she could take the stopper out just a tiny little bit and sniff in a little of your last breath. Just on anniversaries’, he said, `so it wouldn’t be gone too soon. She could inhale your actual expiration. For you there may be no more inspiration. Will the last one out please close your mouth’.

Then he told me that his name was Nicolas and my mind tried to find connections with the name. There were connections there somewhere but I couldn’t tie the ends together. Too clumsy at the moment, I said. But Nicolas waved my thoughts aside and started to tell me about his lungs. ‘Here they are’, he said, and he held up a bottle with bloody bits and pieces of lung inside, just how he’d coughed them up. `Really belongs to my one and only true love – Alexandrine’, he said. `Or rather this once belonged to her’. She’d wanted to keep his heart in a bottle too, he told me. But his doctor wasn’t keen on the idea. His doctor, who was really Alexandrine’s doctor, had tried to take the bottle of lung bits away from her but she’d said they were hers now. He, Nicolas, had given them to her. They were all she had left of him. And then she’d let them inter his body in the space in the family vault that had been meant for her husband. `A really nice gesture to my memory’, said Nicolas. He was making himself comfortable on the edge of my bed.

`Alexandrine was sentimental like that’, he said. `Not about her real husband. He’d been taken into the bosom of the deep when his ship was wrecked. Well not his ship really`, said the old man, `he was actually a prisoner on the ship. They were deporting him as being dangerous to the security and peace of the island. Alexandrine went along with that. Though she was a bit unhappy that they’d taken her violin teacher as a prisoner too. But life had to go on and she was still young and, if the truth were told, she had never been too happy about her music lessons’.

Then she’d met Nicolas Baudin, sea captain extraordinaire. `That’s me’, he said, `Post Captain Nicolas‘. And I suddenly knew the name and knew who this old man was. Nicholas Baudin. The man I was going to write a book about. The reason I was in Paris. To research the background of this old mariner. Well, apart from getting married again, that is. He was the old mariner who I … who I … who … I couldn’t remember what I was going to think. But the old man, Nicolas, was talking and it was easier to listen to him than to try to think.

‘And she’d fallen in love with me straight away,’ he was saying, You know how it is, all the nice girls love a sailor. Ah Nicolas! she said to me, take me back to Paris with you, please…’

Alexandrine had never known anyone like Nicolas. Of all the exotic and colourful characters that she had met since she and her brother had left Paris to make their home in the southern Indian Ocean on Mauritius, or the Ile de France as it was known then, she had met nobody, but nobody, like her Nicolas. `I felt the same about her’, said the old man. `I went straight to my cabin and brought out the very latest gowns from Paris. For you, I said. Simply. Just like that. I usually had some of the latest fashions locked away in my cabin. Then I sailed away over the horizon and out to the eastern end of the world. God she cried when I left. You know what it’s like. You’ve been a sailor. You know what it’s like. Of course us sailors cry too, don’t we ever. But look at you now. Fancy getting married again. You’ve more important things to do than that. You’ve been married before. Been there. Done that. I’ll never understand you young ones’. Then he went quiet for a moment.

`Though I did go back to Alexandrine. I can see myself now,’ he said, `cradled in her arms, fading fast. Just like you. But none of these plastic tubes in those days. Just a little laudanum to swallow for the pain. I remember how I tried to keep eye contact and tried to speak to her and tried to tell her that I loved her and that everything was going to be all right and that dying was just another thing I could do like commanding ships and making love and I could hear my own voice speaking gently to her but she wasn’t looking into my eyes anymore just somewhere into the distance and I realised that she couldn’t hear me. It’s terrible when you’ve got so much to say and people just can’t hear you’, he said.

I wanted to tell the old sea captain that I was having difficulty in hearing him, even when he was bending right over the bed and whispering into my ear. Well, I couldn’t hear him clearly. His voice was there all the time. Sometimes it was speaking words that I could understand. Sometimes it was an undulating murmur, like the sea at night when you’re lying in bed in a dockside hotel. Background music to your thoughts. My thoughts were mostly visual. Great ocean swells following me, up close. I had to keep looking over my shoulder because I knew the ocean was rising up on the starboard quarter and could come crushingly down, over and through the rails and through the tiny toilet space and through the little mess where I sat and wrote my notes and brewed endless cups of tea, and at night mugs of dark, milkless cocoa made from solid lumps of unsweetened chocolate.

Nights in the northern Atlantic latitudes. The bow would dive into the wall of whitening water and some kind of reverse waterfall would crash upwards and fall in white hail over the foredeck and smash into the glass of the wheelhouse. The ship’s thick body would shudder and I never knew if that was with fear or delight. I’d be in the lookout, more than halfway up the foremast, wrapped in half a dozen old blankets, balaclava helmet, scarf, several jerseys, oiled wool socks inside my sea boots, wool gloves clasped around the pint sized enamel mug of hot cocoa.

I could never see the point in having a lookout in weather like that. They had the radar in the wheelhouse. I couldn’t see a thing. But tradition had a deckhand on lookout in the crows nest. So there I was. Snug. Except for the sting of the cold in my eyes. I imagined icicles forming on my lashes.

But then again in the Indian Ocean the metal fittings on the mast were so hot you couldn’t touch them. The water streaming down your nearly naked body was your own sweat. The bottle of water hot.

`Are you listening to me?’ the old man by my bed was asking. He was shaking my arm so that the tubes writhed beneath their bottles.

No I’m not, I said. I’m not here. You’ll just have to talk to yourself.

And I saw all the ports where I had ever stepped ashore. All joined together in one great big port. The cranes that raised their heads to watch your arrival up to the wharf. The derelict pieces of shapeless iron that always littered the narrow places between the warehouses. The bollards that were smoother than a monk’s head. The empty wooden palettes. The coil of red-brown wire that had once been a hawser. And the dockworkers looking up at you as you looked down, with your foot on the lower rail. And no human contact flowed between you and the dockworkers. You didn’t have a language in common. You didn’t inhabit the same world. They lived on the land. You lived on the ocean. They came aboard to unload. You went ashore to get loaded.

When the ocean wasn’t stalking me and it was night then it would be a human figure that I couldn’t see but that I knew was just around the corner of the warehouse and that the dockyard gates were still a quarter of a mile away through the alleyways between the warehouses, criss-crossed with rail lines and always puddles of what once had been water. And I knew someone watched me because, when I stood absolutely still, there was the sound of where footsteps had stopped. The sound of withheld breath. The kind of sound that the old sailor made beside my hospital bed.

The old sailor had started so many memories flowing back to me. I remembered sailing into Sydney Harbour one dark night a lifetime ago. Somewhere over the dark hills was a glow on the underside of the clouds that I knew was the soft reflection of a city’s lights. But where we sidled to a halt it was dark. There was the rattling of the anchor chain and the smashing of the water’s surface as the anchor hit. And then it was quiet again as the ship tried out its length against the underwater chain and decided how it would stretch itself in the water of the outer harbour.

The voices on deck were separate and subdued. A month at sea and now surrounded by dark hills and a city further in there somewhere. Tonight was a decompression chamber. Getting ready for tomorrow. Part of us didn’t want to know. It was all right out there. We could talk about what we were going to do ashore. Girls. Drinks. Food. Probably not in that order. Who had been to this place before? Did we believe his stories? It didn’t matter. We were talking about shore leave. Recalling adventures in previous ports. True stories or false? It didn’t matter. Shore was where you went to have adventures that never seemed real afterwards. Sometimes they didn’t even seem completely real at the time.

Once the anchor was down and things fastened up on deck, the rest of the crew went below. No shouting. No overt signs of excitement. Maybe a slightly uneasy feeling. It was four weeks since leaving Africa. Then some trouble in the engine room just before we sighted the Sydney coast. Another world I didn’t understand. The engine room. A hot and smelly place for the Indian engineer and his team of performing Somalis. Who I liked. But I joined the other deckhands in abusing them if we met on the steps down to our separate sleeping areas. They were quiet too, that night. I was left on deck as anchor watch. I supposed it was to see that we didn’t drag the anchor and start to drift towards the city too early. Before the city was ready for us. Before the girls had stripped down or dressed up. Before the thick t-bone steaks were ready. Before the bolts slid back in the doors of the bars that lined the streets with welcome sailor signs freshly hung outside and music playing inside and girls leaning from windows and lions roaring.

Oh yes I definitely heard a lion roar. And that woke me up. There on anchor watch. I knew there were no lions in Australia. But it was definitely a lion that had roared. And roared again. In the dark hills near the boat. Nobody had told me about Taronga Park Zoo.

`There were no lions in Australia when I was there’, said Captain Nicolas. He was back on my bed. Now I was back in the reality of the hospital where they’d taken me after I collapsed, in the foyer of the hotel. Where I was going to my wedding reception. What? What had been happening to me? Who was this old sea captain? Was he really sitting on my bed. I tried to put out my hand to touch him but my arm was so full of tubes I couldn’t move it.

He had a strange, earthy smell about him. `And it took us more than eight weeks to get from Africa to the coast of Australia’, he said. He wasn’t looking at me now. He was looking past me, at the wall. `We sighted the western tip on May 17th 1801’, he said. But you were under sail, I told him, I was talking about, well thinking about, 1948 and we were burning coal and we should have done the trip in half the time it took us but we had problems.

`You had problems’, he said. `You don’t know the meaning of the word’.

So I told him about the hurricane in the southern Indian Ocean and how our lifeboats had been stove in and water had got into the midships hold and how I’d clung on for dear life when we took big seas on deck. I had to make my way from the crew’s quarters aft, along past the canvas-covered hatch of the rear hold, around the lampy’s cabin, the midships hold and then up the metal stairs to the wheelhouse. I clung onto whatever I could find to cling to. In the black night I held the taught cables of the derricks as I crabbed my way across the top of the holds, their canvas covers slippery with saltwater. I felt the derricks jerking to get up from their horizontal position. I’d helped stow them and I prayed I’d lashed them tight enough to stay put. I was inching along toward the lampy’s cabin when out of the dark came the even darker shape of a huge battering wave that travelled straight across midships and threatened to take the lampy’s cabin with it. The ship had shuddered to a halt. My fingers welded into the derrick cable. My body lifted like a lump of cotton waste strung out above the hatch. Only my fingers existed and they were being hacked slowly away by the blunt knife of the derrick‘s cable. And then the ship threw itself up like a mad horse in a last effort to escape its tormentor and my legs hit the top of the hatch and my fingers twisted in the cables and I could hear my voice screaming in the middle of the wind’s howl and the water slithered down beside the ship and I made a stumbling hands and knees run for the handrail around the outside of the lampy’s cabin and I didn’t know if my fingers were with me or if I’d left them hanging on the derrick cable. And when I got up in the wheelhouse Sala the Latvian was standing at the wheel and the light from the compass underlit his heavy jaw. You’re late, he said. And then he said She’s holding three to starboard and four to port. You cannot bring it down to less than that. If you try to hold her any tighter you’ll lose her.

It was on this coal burner, the tramp steamer, that I’d finally been taken on as a young deckhand. Chipping away the rust. Brushing on the red lead. Taking my turn at the wheel. When I signed on they asked me can you box the compass? Can you manage a steam winch? And they didn’t wait to hear my answers. Anyone who’d sign on the rustbucket was accepted.

And the old man by my bed asked me what tonnage we were and I told him four thousand and he snorted and said that was just like being on solid land. And when I said that was a small ship he shouted at me:

`The Géographe was just three hundred and fifty tons. Three hundred and fifty tons. And she’d run off like a frightened cat if you gave her half a chance. Problems? Shortage of food? Try victualling your ship for four months at a time. With no handy little ports to drop into en route if something goes wrong. Try three years on a three hundred and fifty-ton corvette then you can talk to me about problems’, he said.

I told him about my first ship, the one before the tramp. It was one of the last four-funnelled Cunard liners. I’d spent too much time below decks. Swabbing down bulkheads. Mopping along passageways. Washing the paintwork in the lower depths of the monster. I’d turn on a tap and the water would run out diagonally. I’d look down the narrow passageway and see figures moving slowly towards me and seeming to swing like slow pendulums through the upright to either bulkhead. I’d vomit into my bucket of water and softsoap and the smell would make the inside of my head slop about and I’d throw up into the bucket again and have to find my way back to the heads to empty it and make a fresh mix of soogee before I could start back cleaning the paintwork.

It was a huge ship and it was mid winter when we started crossing the north Atlantic with its bows shooting up among the stars and then dropping like a lift with its cables cut. A hundred feet up. A hundred feet down. My stomach trying to ride with it but the yellow bile spilling out over my feet, my head almost unable to stand the pressure in the little cabin right up forad under the anchor windlass and the air stale and reeking of vomit because the portholes were screwed tight and deadlights in place and the bulkheads running with condensation that was the ship’s very own sweat of fear.

But I wasn’t going to argue with the old man. I mean he didn’t really exist. Did he? And if he did then who was he? Captain Nicolas Baudin? He died over a hundred years ago. I knew that because I’d been researching his life and looking up the facts and figures in the Natural History Museum right here in Paris. It was hardly likely that Captain Baudin would come and sit on my bed and treat me like a child who needed a goodnight’s story. I mean, was it? And yet I could swear that a little old man was sitting there listening to me.

I’d sailed the seven seas – well three or four of them. That was all behind me. Another life. Somebody else’s life. Somebody who’d used my name. Somebody who still lived down there deep inside me though. If I could go back into the past like that then perhaps Baudin could come forward into my present? It made my head swim to try to make sense of it.

The vision of the old sailor worried me. And wasn’t this supposed to be my wedding day? Well, my second wedding day. `And your doors were open wide’, he said. As though I had been speaking to him. `Storm and wind and tempest, mist, snow, ice as high as the mast, I’ve seen it all’, he said. `Don’t tell me about your hurricanes. Don’t tell me about stars dogging the moon, about omens and strange signs’.

But I did tell him. I told him, I’ve seen all the omens and strange sights you could wish for old man. Or not wish for. I can remember being in the middle of the Indian Ocean, when I was on watch at night, I’d stand right up in the bows of the little tramp, everything calm and still as though it was waiting for the world to begin. Feeling the iron bulwarks cooled by the white moonlight and listening to the almost imperceptible sound of the ocean’s parting before us.

And I’d hear the cathedral organ swell. And the full choir would come, in sotto voce. And the music would sing through the metal spars and the hollow iron body of the ship would become a vast sound box that gave a deeper resonance to the music than you could hear in any cathedral or concert hall anywhere in the known world.

And I’d be aware of the invisible line that circled the ship and that was the horizon. Over, through, that invisible line any ship’s light, any light from a landfall still beyond the horizon, any dark shape, anything at all, must come. When you first stand watch at night you scan the invisible circle intently and repeatedly. But you soon acquire the ability to scan automatically every twenty minutes or so. You know that anything breaking that circle will bring your eyes round to it immediately.

I’d turn my back to the bow, rest my shoulders into the hard iron of the ship itself, and look up at the mast. Looking back and up from the bows you couldn’t see past the bulk of the ship’s superstructure. But you could look up at an acute angle and see the foremast. There at the crosstrees was the masthead light. A bright white light that was visible in an arc of one hundred and eighty degrees; a bright statement of identity that could be seen ten miles away, if there was anyone to see it.

But when I stood, steadying my own body against the ship’s iron body, and when I looked up to the crosstrees, then I could see a great figure up there, crucified on the mast. Its outline was clear and there was some sense of weight, of solidity. It was far more corporeal than mirage. It never wavered, like some of the other, different, misty shapes that would appear around the ship. It had its own solidity. Not a touchable solid, not that you’d ever want to touch it. But it had its own reality. And it was huge. I could never see the feet clearly, they seemed to blend in with the mast somewhere above the deck. Same with the hands, they slipped away along the crosstrees. But the trunk and shoulders, and the head, were clear.

I don’t recall any actual features to the face, up there on the masthead. It certainly wasn’t looking at me. If it was looking anywhere it was looking ahead, way ahead. And neither the head nor trunk ever moved. I have a feeling that sometimes there was a soft movement in whatever kind of clothing was on the figure. I’ve seen it up there so many times. You don’t talk to your mates about it. They see it and they know you see it. But you never mention it.

More about this novel


Victor Barker

Joined October 2007

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More about Baudin’s Last Breath

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This is the story of two men’s search for meaning, a voyage of discovery taking them half way round the world and defying the normal bounds of time and space.

Nicolas Baudin is the eighteenth-century French captain sent by Napoléon on a scientific and political voyage to the uncharted shores of Australia.

Victor Barker is the twentieth-century ordinary seaman who followed in Baudin’s wake. He was seeking the truth behind the voyage so he could write a novel based on the life of the French captain.

But Captain Nicolas Baudin takes over command of the author and his story, determined that the historical record be put straight.

When the author was in Paris, researching material for this story, he was suddenly taken ill and found himself in the Hôtel Dieu hospital. From there on his search for the truth about the Frenchman took a strange twist that led him into a world of secret societies, stolen documents, a stolen skull, and the discovery of the beautiful woman who changed the captain’s life.

Nicolas Baudin was real. Victor Barker is real. Most of the characters and incidents in this novel are real. But it is a work of fiction.

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