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Harbour Lights, Once More

Ian C Smith

Old now, he becomes part of the boarding protocol all these years later.  Were the ferries of his past so huge?  His son drives.  Just as well.  Vehicle lines snake around the port, staff stationed at intervals directing them onward after vaccination and other phone checks, ever closer to the looming ship, reminding him of teachers pointing the way in cross-country races when his son ran strongly.  He recalls past romances with ferries, turbulent straits crossed, the anticipation, enigma, of expected arrival.

How different this to the de Chirico painting, that desolate chessboard wharf, ship’s mast in the background, and foregrounded, two cloaked figures?  Has plague’s peril emptied the port, silenced pedlars?  Does tension whelm them?  Could those figures be father and son?  Where had they travelled from?  Where have they arrived?  This was Apollinaire’s mystery, de Chirico’s art sunlight and shadows, the long stare out to sea, behind closed doors the hypnotic city, classical Mediterranean, simmering with imaginary life.

This father and son are transporting both the vehicle and another son’s dog, a puppy.  The ignition key has broken but the son manages the tricky task of making it work.  His window jammed also, he uses the window behind him, eyes smiling above his mask, explaining at each of the security stops.

They maze through to their eighth of ten floors quilted with minuscule efficient cabins, numerous lounges and bars close to petite little girls seated alongside middle-aged men gaming, as the night crossing gets underway for hundreds; turbine-thrum, shipping lane buoys’ bright lights processing past ever quicker until they are through The Rip, past the bay’s last fading light, and out into the great dark cloth of Bass Strait.

The old father, thoughts of the cold liquid below, then the seabed, of Eliot’s Hollow Men, admires his son’s handling of tension, recalls the time he and his son’s mother stopped for a hitchhiker in Ireland and their ignition key snapped but he made it work.  Now this repetition of serendipitous happenstance.  And he remembers how, after spending the night on deck to stretch their funds crossing the Gulf of St Lawrence, they awoke clinging together soaked, backpacks too, the stringency of dawn’s buried light, his ecstatic sense of being in this world, their triumph of youthful energy.

Ian C Smith’s work has been published in Antipodes, BBC Radio 4 Sounds,The Dalhousie Review, Griffith Review, San Pedro River Review, Southword, The Stony Thursday Book, & Two Thirds North. His seventh book is wonder sadness madness joy, Ginninderra (Port Adelaide). He writes in the Gippsland Lakes area of Victoria, and on Flinders Island.

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