Short story: Found Aboard, by Glenys Warlow

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Jim edged backwards his footsteps silent. His pulse raced, bile headed towards his mouth.

“No, no, not again,” an inner voice pleaded. He took measured breaths trying hard not to gulp; he needed to quell the sickness that threatened to envelope him. He realised he was still moving along the boardwalk when he nudged the step. He hadn’t taken his eyes off his boat. He sat down. He stared at the boat trying to discern any changes in her. The second love of his life looked as she always did, everything neatly stowed; covers, ropes, fenders in position. No outward sign of a break-in.

Suddenly he felt foolish. It had been eight months since he was last here; winter would have left its mark. How could he possibly remember the exact position of everything?

The scene hit him again. Jim buried his head in his hands. It had been in the shadowy part of the saloon where his beloved wife’s body had lain. Jim remembered being vaguely aware Liz had got up that night, he presumed to go to the bathroom, had turned over and drifted back to sleep. It was dawn when he made his macabre discovery. The silence alerted him, caused him to get up. Then he found her.

How much pain had she endured? “Aneurism,” the doctor recorded. It saddened Jim she had died alone. He was still beset with guilt.

With his heartbeat returned to normal and the nausea subsided Jim chided himself for being so ridiculous. He was just overwrought being here alone. He must have imagined the dead body on the floor but in the dim light it had seemed real enough.

Silver sparkled over the brilliant blue water. The sun, high in the sky, was warm on Jim’s back. Now calm he picked up his holdall and made his way back to the boat. This time when he reached her instead of moving quietly, almost stealthily, as before, he jumped aboard whistling.

As he opened the saloon door he discerned a movement. He rebuked himself the ‘dead body’ had gone.

And yet something was amiss he was sure. Warily he flung open the doors to the cabin and bathroom.

“Who’s there?” he shouted. He detected a rustle. Indignation overtook fear. “Come out now before I call the police!” he demanded. It sounded ludicrous even to him.

From the side of the bunk came a noise, two hands were held aloft before a face appeared. “Please?” Anxiety was discernible even with the unfamiliar accent. Jim could scarcely believe it. A young man moved slowly, he had a haunted look. Rather than fear Jim took pity on this slightly built stowaway. They moved through the galley to the saloon. Jim nodded for him to sit down at the table, he sat opposite.

“Well?” Jim demanded in a quiet but assertive way. “What exactly ARE you doing on my boat?”

Paulo started in a faltering way explaining how he came to be there. It was a compelling story but Jim was resolute and took Paulo to the police station.

The duty officer was bored, little happened in this quiet backwater. He listened with incredulity as Jim related the outline of the story before he spoke to Paulo.

Paulo, a Spaniard, had been recruited in Guernsey where he had gone looking for work. He was met aboard a boat which slipped quietly away at dusk to sail to Dorset. Just off the coast they hovered before returning to St Peter’s Port.

On the second trip when the boat slowed off the coast, Paulo realised to his horror that they were dropping off packages. There were rows amongst the others. Paulo soon grasped he would be in danger if he didn’t agree to go the next time.

He prepared carefully. He was ready when they called. As before packages were dropped off. This time as the boat turned Paulo deliberately fell backwards into the water. He was sure he wasn’t seen but in case he was he wanted it to look like an accident. He knew it would be a while before they discovered he was missing; he didn’t think for one moment they were the type to care and turn around to search for him.

A strong swimmer Paulo swam towards the beach, undercover of the cliffs he watched as another boat made its way to the drop area. The boat was unlit but the night was clear enough for Paulo to make out what was happening. Over the next couple of days he made his way further along the coast. He was exhausted when he came to the quay. Jim’s boat had seemed a good place to hide being at the end of the boardwalk. He hadn’t used any of Jim’s things, just slept on the floor of the saloon. Some nights he ventured into the little town to buy food.

The officer was pleased he had a task to work on. What sort of smuggling operation was it?

He suspected drugs. Time would tell. He was unsure about Paulo but Jim made it clear he would be responsible for him.

Jim decided it wouldn’t be safe for Paulo to stay in the area. Besides he had arrived with the intention of moving his boat; too many memories here. He had a berth booked in Sussex. He put a proposition to Paulo. In a holiday area Paulo would fit in, fewer questions would be asked and there was more likelihood of seasonal work.

On the early tide they cast off the mooring, headed out to sea and along the coast. It was a long day. After securing the boat at their destination Jim took Paulo to the pub. As he set the drinks on the table he reflected. “A couple of days ago I thought I had dead body on my boat but it turned out to be a foreign body.” Jim’s joke made him chuckle for the first time in a long while. He raised his glass. “Welcome to the UK, Paulo.”