Howling over the bright ocean in one of the eggbeaters, touching down briefly at MEDEA II to pick up a few Swedish techs before heading for the port. The Texan is sat opposite me, harnessed as we all are with an X of black webbing across his chest. He’s just received his first pay check, more money probably than anyone in his family has ever received in a single payment, more than he’s earned his entire life in one little envelope, and somehow he knows it’s my birthday, and he shouts across the cabin, over the wail of the rotors, that we really have no choice now but to celebrate. I pretend not to be able to hear him, tapping my headset. The coastline of the UMEC expands ahead of the eggbeater’s nosecone, gains definition, and the Texan tries a different tack. As he sits forward in his harness he keeps jostling one of the Swedes.
‘The divers came up this morning with the weirdest looking fish I’ve ever seen,’ he screams. ‘Said they found it sucking on the metal. These weird suckers where its mouth should be. Said it had got about three inches down through the steel. Eating the metal. Not the shit growing on it, the actual fucking metal itself. Said there were thousands of them down there. I got a photo of it.’
He pulls out his phone from his pocket, again jostling the Swede, and shows me a picture of himself stood on the deck, grinning in-between two divers, faceless in their bulbous, astronaut-like suits. Draped across their arms, a further metre of it trailing on the deck, is what looks like a gigantic condom filled with brain matter; soft-focus tracts. A mess of teeth and suckers at one end.
‘You know about this stuff right?’ he screams. ‘Somebody said you were in the Navy or something.’ The Swedish techs are trying hard not to show an interest in the tiny picture on the Texan’s phone. ‘Ever seen anything like that before in your life?’
I tell him there’s a lot of stuff down there nobody knows anything about.
‘I know,’ he screams back. ‘There was something on T.V.’
He shows the picture to one of the Swedish techs, who after a second glance begins smiling, and screams in broken English that it looks very much like a girl in Helsinki with whom he had a brief and nameless sexual encounter, and everybody laughs, even those who couldn’t have heard him, including the pilot, just laughing along for the sake of it. The edge that had contoured the pressurised air—fourteen work-beaten, pay-packeted, love-starved men of various clearance levels, all packed together and levitating three-thousand feet over the ocean—that edge dissipates on a single wave of laughter, and the Texan takes on a halo that is really only the sun coming through the porthole behind his head.
We land smoothly, and the Texan follows me all the way from the eggbeater out to the edge the deep-water port, away from the rest of our crew, away from the gates and the waiting taxis.
‘What do you want to see this shit for,’ he says, meaning the ocean, dragging his feet and swinging his shoulders like a child in a supermarket. ‘All we see is this shit,’ he says, ‘and you’re here staring at it like some cave-bound Okie never seen it before in his life. We have to cut loose. Don’t tell me you don’t know how to cut loose, and just lose your shit, and just fucking have a good time.’ With a sigh, as if he were finally releasing some long held truth, he says: ‘I just want to see some tits.’
‘Good luck with that,’ I say. ’This is the Unidentified.’
‘Just one tit.’
Out of his overalls I notice for the first time how young he really is, that although he is muscular, squared off, he has the face of a boy. I ask how old he is; twenty-one. We’re in the long, crazy shadow of a vacant, scaffolded customs building, and without appearing to think about it he jumps and grabs hold of a crossbar, throws his body up and through his arms, letting go only when it seems his arms will pop out of their sockets. His hands are now streaked with grease and I watch him go to wipe them on his clothes like he would his overalls, but his shorts and short-sleeved shirt are tonal whites, and so instead he rubs his hands together, just spreading the grease around and grinning at me, and before I know it we’re in a taxi, speeding away from the port in the direction of the town. I’m also wearing shorts and the hot leather sticks noisily to our thighs. There are assorted baubles and jewellery stuck to the roof and it clatters musically as we speed over the potholes. The Texan smiles at all of this and drums on the arm rest in excitement. I sit back and watch the buildings and towers streak past, and between them glimpse ripples of desert like a hand-painted backdrop, and soon I am grinning too.
The only bar open this early in the day is the one in the cement-floored basement of the Hotel Al-Habib. Old men are gathered on the staircase, for no real reason it seems other than it’s cooler here than in the street. They pay no attention to us, gesticulating like a Punch and Judy show, and the Texan ducks and weaves around their flailing arms like a contestant on a game show, and says, ‘Look at these guys, these guys are the real deal.’
The basement itself is empty, and we sit down at a plastic table on the edge of the dance floor. It is still light outside and burning hot, but down here it could be any time. The Texan orders a bottle of champagne, which arrives in an ice bucket but turns out to be some kind of carbonated fortified wine with herbs floating in the bottle. But we drink it, and order another bottle, then another. A few hours pass like this and the club fills with teenage Arabs in dish-dashas and Chanel sunglasses, dancing with their arms above their heads. From time to time they dance over to our table and lean in to slap our backs and grin and nod their heads, some kind of emphatic agreement or acknowledgement our shared circumstances, as in our being alive in the same room. The Texan grins and nods back at them, and they dance away high-fiving each other.
As we drain a fourth bottle of fortified wine and a fifth arrives, I start talking, and I do not stop. Rattling on about lakes of blood and nightmares in pill form; vanishing Josephines and immortal vegetation. None of it sounds believable, not even to me—everything mixed up, conflated, dreams and memories muddled like the presumably non-alcoholic cocktails lined up on the bar for the boys in sunglasses. No beginning, no end. But it doesn’t matter: the Texan can’t hear me. He nods along and says things like Bitches, man, they’re all bitches, and stares off at the dance floor, wobbling his head like the Arabs are doing, like a plastic dog on the back shelf of a car.
An hour later the Texan will start a fight that will spill up the staircase and out onto the street, involving a bunch of local shopkeepers, a Pepsi-branded parasol and an audience of a stray dogs. He will be arrested in a lampless back alley by the Port Authority, and soon after he will disappear from the face of the earth.
But right now he is up from his chair and dancing like a girl in a hip hop video to the jangling music; a bastardised remix of the latest Tonelle Washburn single. The teenage Arabs are gathered round him in a circle, clapping their hands, rotating them in the air like they’re screwing in lightbulbs and collapsing in fits of backslapping laughter as the Texan bends over and gyrates his backside. This is where it lives, he is shouting over to me, pointing at his hips. A hundred sun-glassed eyes on him. This is where it lives.
Somehow I’m back down at the deserted quayside, swaying, the concrete under my feet moving like a raft, trying to sober myself by breathing in the salt air. I’m listening to the flat sound of my breathing over the drone of high-voltage fluoride lamps as the world starts coming back into focus; I realise I’m stood under the A-frame of a 40ft bulk loader, which means I’m down at the container berths, maybe two or three kilometres in the wrong direction from from the heliport. There are no ships, no people, no birds even, only me and a million insects dancing under the security lights. It crosses my mind that this sector of the port is probably a restricted area, guarded with dogs and semi-automatics. I have no idea how I got here. All I can remember is the Texan being manhandled into the back of a police car outside the Hotel Al Habib, his shirt torn, gravel embedded in his cuts, still grinning at me through the rear window as the car speeds off in the dust.
I steady myself on the container at the base of a seven-high stack as tall as an office block, and through my hand I can feel something of the dark empty space inside. If I shut my eyes and hold my breath I could be on St. Joseph; maybe the end of the high season, the pressure building, the birthing of storms far out in the Atlantic. I can’t close my eyes for long — the pressure on my lids and at my temples is too great — so I blink the world back into focus and stagger towards the water’s edge. From here I can see the constellation of MEDEA III far out at sea. Out to the west are the blazing flare stacks of the old conventional rigs,TamOil mostly, one belonging Herald, and further out on the sleepless shipping lanes the dimmer lights of tankers and container ships flicker red, yellow and green.