Using two cross-country trips on Amtrak as her narrative vehicles, British writer Jenny Diski connects the humming rails, taking her into the heart of America with the track-like scars leading back to her own past. As in the highly acclaimed Skating to Antarctica, Diski has created a seamless and seemingly effortless amalgam of reflections and revelation in a unique combination of travelogue and memoir.
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About the Author
Jenny Diski's previous nonfiction work includes Skating to Antarctica. Her most recent novel is Only Human. She lives in Cambridge, England.
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Stranger on a Train
Daydreaming and Smoking Around America with Interruptions
By Jenny Diski
PicadorCopyright © 2002 Jenny Diski
All rights reserved.
One thing follows another. I had just spent three weeks crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a cargo ship carrying 25 tonnes of potash from Hamburg to offload in Tampa, Florida, and then doubling back round the tip of Florida to take on kaolin miles up a wriggly inlet at Port Royal, near Savannah, Georgia. I watched or felt every yard of the 6000 or so miles we travelled at a stately average of fifteen miles an hour. My capacity for staring had developed beyond even my expectations. Conrad writes of 'the magic monotony of existence between sky and water. Nothing is more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea.' I sat on a small deck, like a veranda, at the back of the ship, the MV Christiane, and watched the ocean like a vigilante as we passed over it, loath to miss a single wave or trick of the light retexturing the water, so that I had to drag my eyes down to the book on my lap, or force myself to go back to my cabin to work or sleep. Even at night, the rabble of stars demanded to be watched, and how could I ignore the effect of the fiercely shining moon, lighting up a brilliant pathway in the encircling blackness of the surrounding sea? Night-time on deck was special, like being awake in the early hours in a darkened hospital ward and seeing the night nurses sitting at dimly lit desks, or gliding silently about to check on sleeping patients. While I walked on deck, and the majority of the Croatian crew got their rest, one of the officers kept watch on the bridge, and an engineer attended to the gauges in the thudding depths of the ship's engine room. That someone is awake and keeping watch in a pool of light when night is at its blackest is very comforting.
After a very short time, when you are travelling so far at such a snail's pace, and with no urgent need (or in my case, any need at all) to get to where you are going, you become an aficionado of detail. I took on the task of witnessing the sea, as if someone, somewhere had to be constantly alert to its shifts and nuances, and here and now the job was mine. I kept an eye on the window when I brushed my teeth for fear of missing something. It was not a fear of missing dolphins leaping, or whales breaching, or a tornado five miles off withdrawing back into its cloud: though I did chance to see those events as I kept watch. It was a fear of missing all the nothing that was happening. The more ocean I watched, the more watching I needed to do, to make sure, perhaps, that it went on and on and that the horizon never got any closer. But simple witnessing is not easy, and I began to notice, with increasing irritation, my need to describe and define what I observed, when all I really wanted was for the sea simply to be the sea. I found myself constantly thinking of it in terms of something else, as if I were reading it for meaning, which was not what I thought I wanted to do at all. The sea was like shimmering mud, I heard myself think, glossy as lacquer, slate-grey, syrupy, heavy silk billowing in the breeze ... it was like this, and then that. It's true that it did change all the time, but the most remarkable thing about it was that it was always and only like itself, though I couldn't manage to keep that thought firmly in my mind, which, being a human mind, was also like itself and probably couldn't help it.
I devoted myself to keeping track of the smallest changes in the sea, or the weather, or the progress of the incessant painting of the ship by the crew in the futile effort to impede the attack on its metal and wood by the salt, wind and water. Twice a day or more I examined the charts for the current longitude and latitude to check our progress and our exact whereabouts in the middle of the entirely featureless ocean. I wasn't bored, I was enthralled by the journeying, by the minutiae of the passage of miles and time. I watched our wake elongate behind us, like a snail's trace, disturbing the sea's own pattern into a visual account of where we had been in an environment that offered no other clue that we were making any progress at all. But always, in the distance behind the ship, the sea would close over the anomalous agitation, and return to its normal undifferentiated condition as far as the horizon. The frothy turbulence of the wake proved our movement, but the record of it was continually lost, rubbed out by the vast body of water that healed all the scars scored by whatever made its way through it.
There is never perfect solitude, I've learned.
'Always you sit reading or looking at the sea, but you are not unhappy, not lonely,' said the third engineer, as if he were asking me a question.
None of the crew could understand why the few passengers they carried would volunteer for such an existence. They were all quite clear that they were seamen by necessity. There were no jobs in post-war Croatia. Captain Bruno Kustera was a great-bellied man, entirely at the mercy of gravity. Everything about him tended downward: his belly, his chin, his jowls and the corners of his eyes and mouth. He made ruefulness his own. 'Pirate stories made me a sea captain,' he told me. 'But now it's routine. Just back and forth across the Atlantic. But what to do, there is no well-paid work at home. Always I go back and forth looking for work somewhere else. I would like to work in shipping, but on land. No one loves the sea. Do you know anyone in shipping circles in London?'
I didn't. He shrugged.
'You know, the Cold War was a wonderful thing. If you didn't like one, you could believe in the other. Now, it's all the same.'
He had been tending a pair of pigeons who came aboard for a well-earned rest, hundreds of miles out in the Atlantic. He made sure there was food and water for them on the bridge, and they lived quite contentedly up there for a couple of days, until a ship passing in the other direction, heading back to Europe, called time on their vacation and they left.
'Why don't you get a cat?' I asked, when he shook his head sadly at the loss of the pigeons. 'What about a ship's cat?'
His big eyes drooped. 'No, it is difficult. An animal has to be owned by one man. And also at sea you always find someone crazy. That one would torture the cat.'
Towards the end of the trip we waited in a flat desert of sun-blasted water for the local pilot to come and tow us up a creek through the torrid desolation of an alligator-infested swamp to the improbably named Port Royal in South Carolina. Captain Bruno joined me at the rail. There was nothing in sight but the utterly still greenish water, no wind, and the only sound, with the ship's engines off, was a humming of the saturating heat. I had been marvelling silently that I had at last found myself truly up shit creek without a paddle.
'This looks like the end of the universe,' I murmured.
He smiled with mock appreciation at the emptiness on every side of us, and launched into a sardonic hymn to his existence.
'Our bosses, they are experts at finding wonderful places for us to go. I expect you never dared to dream in your life that you would come to Port Royal. Nor did I. Port Royal' – he put his fingers to his lips as if extolling an exquisite rare vintage – 'these Americans. You will see what is there. Nothing. Nothing but the Last Chance Saloon. No, it is true. You will see it at the end of what they like to call the harbour. We are in a dream, or a nightmare. This is Gabriel Garcia Marquez's Moranda. The lost land. You see, they have a very special kind of kaolin in Port Royal. We will take two holds back to Europe of Port Royal kaolin, and the six holds of the ordinary kind we loaded in Tampa. It is best not to get them mixed up. We are specialists in not getting our kaolin mixed up.'
'You must be very proud,' I laughed.
'Oh, very proud,' growled Captain Bruno, repeating it diminuendo as he turned and made his weighty sweat-soaked way back to the relative comfort of his cabin.
* * *
I had no trouble at all living with the melancholic irony of these men as I kept watch on the passing minutes and miles. They were, in spite of their dissatisfactions and landlubber dreams, real seamen, understanding and even appreciating the necessity for the tedium that meant they were making it safely to the next port. Freighters can be very old and are lost at sea, I was assured by a well-wisher before I left, at a rate of several a month. Apart from the officers, the crew dined together on a large wooden table on the lower deck at the back of the ship, joking, or being quiet, accepting the particular ways of each other, drinking moderately, because they knew their lives depended on working and living well together, and being alert. They cleaned and oiled the machinery, sanded and painted parts of the ship, replaced worn cables, and checked the emergency supplies on the lifeboats with attentive concentration. They worked because the work they were doing was essential. They spruced the ship, washed and ironed their clothes, scrubbed down the decks, kept everything stored and stashed, because orderliness was the only way to survive months at sea in a confined space with thirty or so other people. It was an education in institutional living. They fully understood the purpose of all this. The sea is dangerous; a ship full of potential for lethal accident. They took care of the ship and of each other. If there was a cat torturer among them, it was not obvious who it might be. Which, of course, doesn't mean there wasn't one.
About two hundred miles south of Bermuda, in the Sargasso Sea, in sweltering June (it was in the mid-30s Celsius by seven in the morning), I was woken at 5 a.m. by a terrible noise. The screaming of metal breaking up had something hellish about it, as if Neptune and all his sea imps were tearing the ship apart. There were sounds of shouting, men calling to each other, and trainers thumping along the corridor past my cabin. I wondered alarmed but sleepily if they were not shouting 'Abandon ship' in Croatian, but I'd had a heatwave headache the night before and taken a sleeping pill. I decided I'd rather go down with the ship than abandon it at such an hour. It turned out that the air-conditioning fan had catastrophically loosened, got out of line and one shaft had smashed irreparably. They did not, the chief engineer explained at breakfast, have a replacement fan on board. It was too hot for the loss of the air-conditioning system to be merely inconvenient. The day before I had been down to the engine room. It was like descending into my own headache, deep in the centre of the ship. The heat and airlessness were stunning, and the ubiquitous drumbeat deepened into a deafening roar down by the line of giant pistons pumping power to the massive screw that drove the propeller. It was not, however, entirely oppressive. The engine room was a fantastically clean, pale green cathedral as well as a fiery furnace; a vast space that soared up from the bowels of the ship to the open hatches, four decks above, through which the sky could be seen. In the middle of the day the engine room was reaching a temperature of 48 degrees Celsius. They would just have to make a new shaft for the fan.
'Can you?' I asked.
'We'll have to,' he said.
The chief engineer and half a dozen crew members worked all day around a brazier on the lower deck, straightening the remains of the broken shaft and forging a new piece of metal to fit it. By the early evening they were setting it in place. The screaming began again almost as soon as they turned the air-conditioning plant on. They returned to the deck and the makeshift forge. I slept fitfully in the suffocating heat. The next morning I woke to a cool air-conditioned cabin. At breakfast I learned that they had worked all night, and the chief engineer, glowing with pride, waved sleepily as he went off to bed for the first time since five the previous morning. The crew radiated heroic achievement, wafting their hands triumphantly around the cool air in the corridors as I passed them. I applauded appreciatively. They bowed. It was, of course, a welcome challenge in the general tedium of caring for an ageing ship at sea. The energy of having solved a problem that had looked impossible gave the whole company an air of gaiety for several days. For a while they seemed quite contented with their seafaring lot. Even the lugubrious Captain Bruno ('They are a good crew. They work hard. No, I do not tell them. I write to them when the trip is finished.') expressed his appreciation at the job they had done by declaring a fishing fest the following evening after we had entered the Gulf of Mexico.
I woke from a late afternoon nap into an uncanny silence, and it was a moment before I realised the ship was still. The incessant throb of the engines had stopped ('Ah, the music of the engine room,' crooned Captain Bruno). It was like a death. Heart failure. When I looked down from the small deck by my cabin, I saw below me most of the men, twenty-five or so crew and officers, side by side along the rails at the back of the main deck, dangling lines into the sea, shouting and joking to each other. Marco, the bullet-headed second engineer, wearing a great yellow sun across his mammoth stomach and baggy shorts that ended in the middle of his calves, a brute in boy's clothing, waved at me.
'Come and fish.'
The deck itself, usually immaculate, always cleaned and washed down daily, was bloody carnage. Everywhere there were buckets and tubs full of small silvery fish, the ones on top writhing and flapping in the drowning air. The deck was alive with a plague of gasping fish that had used their last energies flopping themselves out of their containers to achieve no more than a solitary death, or been unhooked and flung down by the fishermen so that not a minute of fishing was wasted. The young cabin boy slithered around picking up the slippery arching creatures and throwing them into the buckets, before running off to find new containers for the great haul. Hundreds and hundreds of fish lay around, dead and dying, waiting for their turn to be gutted by the smiling, patient cook and his assistant. The cook sat on an upturned bucket and wielded his knife like a sushi chef, with just a thrust or two removing what had to be removed, throwing the bloody intricate waste down on the deck where his assistant eventually scooped the mounting pile of entrails into a bucket. Every now and then one of the men called out to him, and he stopped preparing the fish for long enough to cut more strips of the squid he had defrosted for bait. His task was impossible, there was no keeping up, but he smiled and worked on. The men were catching three or four fish on each line every few seconds, and the fish in these parts appeared to be suicidal.
'You see,' Marco said, seeing the look of horror on my face as I picked my way through the corpses. 'They love to be caught. It is their destiny.'
Marco handed me his line – generously, because this was an informal competition between the men who trumpeted out their current score to each other. The out-and-out champs were Marco and the second mate, who fished unsmiling like a man possessed, pulling in his catch and casting again immediately in case any fish whose destiny it was to be caught by him was lost. Marco showed me how to throw the line out away from the side of the ship, and in a moment there was a tug and I yelped my ambivalence while Marco instructed me on the correct technique for pulling in the line. Three fish dangled and danced on the hooks. I was paralysed. I'd never fished before, and when Marco told me to manoeuvre the fish off the hooks I wailed my misery at being the cause of such misery. I was hopelessly squeamish about grasping the desperate, dying fish and having to wrench them off the hooks. Marco was disappointed. So was I. We both had higher hopes of me. Did I like fishing, Marco asked. Yes, I did, but I didn't care for actually catching fish. Nevertheless the men all congratulated me at having pulled three fish out on my first try. I accepted being patronised as what I deserved and gave up my fishing lesson to sit on an upturned bucket amid the dying fish and watch the men relaxing and goading each other, just enough, not too much.
Only Marco appeared contented with his sea life. At home he had a wife, a cat and a son who is in the Croatian water polo first team. He seemed proud of all of them, especially the cat. And of the crew. Not a brute after all, almost a sentimentalist was Marco. 'You see how well the men get on? They have fun now, but when there is problem, everyone serious. Everyone pay attention. I like this life. Peaceful.' It seemed to be Marco's job, with his Sun King outfit and his grunting comments, to make people laugh. 'I never eat chicken,' he bellowed at Franju the steward, dismissing the plate he was being offered at dinner (all the men disliked chicken; it was often all there was to eat during the war. It was the food of desperation). 'They are too stupid. I don't eat stupid things. Don't eat egg, also. What more stupid than an egg? In a few hours it becomes a small chicken, then a few more hours, big chicken. That's all.' He shrugged dismissively. He ate fish though. Soon the barbecue was hot and the first fish were laid on it. Out of the sea and into the frying pan. About as delicious, these fish ('What kind of fish are they?' 'They are fish.'), as anything I'd ever eaten. However squeamish I was about catching and killing them, I had no trouble eating these nameless creatures. Marco explained the difference between America and Croatia as he continued to pull fish out of the water and I watched.
Excerpted from Stranger on a Train by Jenny Diski. Copyright © 2002 Jenny Diski. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Circles and Straight Lines,
Only the Lonely,
When You're Strange,
Too Much to Ask,
By the Time I Got to Phoenix,
Expending Nerve Force,
Just Like Misery,
What State I'm In,
Also by Jenny Diski,
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Wonderful book - emotive and poignant, Diski has a way of making even the most minor characters come to life. This book shows that every person has a story, and also that there is more to a person than what one see's on the outside.Beautiful and engaging and a real gem of a book.
Jenny Diski clearly had a great trip and this book proves how even a 'non-traveler' can fall beneath the spell of long-distance trains.