NYC Midnight Short Story challenge 2023 - first round, 3rd place in my group
Nimbo almost failed to recognise the figure he passed at the kitchen door, but something in the person’s gait made him turn.
“Hey Baker, is that you? Where are you skiving off to at this time, don’t tell me you got a night off at last?”
Nimbo had been dropping off the day’s catch at the Turnstone Inn for over twenty years but seeing Baker out of his whites and on the civvy-side of the pass was a first.
“Heh. Could call it that buddy,” Baker chuckled cynically, “All the nights in the world more like.”
As he moved into the glare of the kitchen lights, Nimbo glimpsed a tear welling in Baker’s eye before he swiped it away self-consciously with his fist. Tactfully turning away, Nimbo fumbled about in the poly box checking for stray crabs then shouldered it, shoved his hat into the top pocket of his fleece and slapped shut the big door of the walk-in.
“Seriously?” he asked Baker as he followed him out of the building and dumped the box next to his salt-eaten van, “They let you go after all this time?”
“Well, that’s one way to say it,” Baker growled as Nimbo fumbled for his keys, “New management has new ideas and no space for an old-timer like me. Same old, same old.”
“Hell, that’s brutal, you’re only a few years off retirement are you not?”
“Aye, a few and change, but close enough that I thought I was safe. I’d been in that job so long I was sleepwalking, but I would’ve seen it coming if I’d had my eyes open. It was in the stars; I’ve had a sinking feeling in my gut all month.”
Nimbo was having no luck finding the van keys in his multiple pockets and let out a curse of frustration. He felt the pain of Baker’s sudden departure keenly as they were a similar age and from an era when a job for life meant just that, long before career changes and finding your soul’s path. He didn’t think of them as friends so much as adjacent pieces of furniture in the same room, but he had developed a real fondness for the chef. Each had their own role in the same story; Nimbo caught the fish, Baker cooked it, and in passing they had shared half of their lives in banter on the bin-side of the kitchen door.
Finally tracking down the keys and stashing the box among the fishy clutter, Nimbo sat down on the lip of the van and pulled out a cigarette, offering one to Baker. He took it with a nod and lit both with an old Zippo, pausing to watch the flame dance as the wind caught it.
“What’ve you got planned for the day then?” Nimbo asked, “I’m just off an all-nighter but my sleep is shot these days so we could share a coffee or a brew if you’re in the mood to talk?”
Baker blinked hard. “It’s cruel timing to be honest. My ma died a week past Tuesday, and the urn with her ashes is amongst this lot.” He pointed at the collection of carrier bags by his feet.
“So sorry for your loss, didn’t you care for her these last few years?"
"Aye, that I did. You move out when you’re young and think that’s it, but I just ended up right back where I started.”
“Well listen, why don’t I take you out on the boat, give her a proper sea burial? The forecast is fair and the water’s a kind companion to grief.”
The chef assented with a gratefulness that Nimbo found touching, and the two men lumbered down the vennel to the shore. Emerging into the open expanse of the estuary where the salt flats stretched for miles, they made their way towards the old footbridge embedded in the sand. “We’ve barely caught the tide there,” Nimbo nodded at the water lapping the lowest cast-iron steps, “Number of day-trippers I’ve seen wading back waist-deep because they don’t see the water rising.”
Baker nodded thoughtfully and they paused, leaning on the rail to watch the turbulence as the rising sea pushed back the river water, each force adamant in its right of precedence.
“Folk often talk of resistance, but I always see the support the two waters give each other. Leaning into each other every day, tide after tide, over the years.”
Nimbo raised his greying brows. He’d not had Baker down for a poet or a thinker, but what did he know? He had little real knowledge of the man despite his comforting familiarity.
The sea was as calm as Nimbo had predicted and a feeling of weightless prevailed on the expanse of shifting coloured meniscus that unravelled as far as the bowed horizon. Once the land had disappeared over the curvature they let the ashes fall onto the surface and sink, hissing, into the deep.
“Her name was Solace.” Baker spoke softly as they watched the last patch of ash sink below the surface, “Her family were religious, and gave all the kids names that set them apart. It was done with the best intentions, but she just wanted to fit in and came to hate it.”
“It’s beautiful,” Nimbo answered gently, “and more’s the shame not everyone could see that.”
The two men lapsed into silence as birds came and went, flying fast and low in clusters above the waves or perching temporarily on the masts of the boat, scanning the surrounding sea. It amazed Baker that this whole world existed far from shore which he had never experienced first-hand despite his vocation. Flocks of birds settled on the water as comfortably as sheep in a field and Baker admired their unhurried calm.
“That’s Venus rising over yon’, and Mercury below her,” Nimbo pointed with his clubby hand at a pair of lights above the gently dimming horizon.
“So you know your planets too? I guess no surprise for fisher folk,” Baker mused, “But do you set any score by the interpretation of it? Astrology, horoscopes and the like?”
Nimbo spoke carefully, “I do in a way, yes. There’s more to heaven and earth..”
“Well I never would have taken you for a fortune-teller,” Baker teased, sitting closer now to the bulk of his companion as the sun’s warmth began to wane, “Or is it the science that attracts you? I’ve heard it’s a mighty complex subject when you start delving.”
“It’s just a more complete way of seeing things,” Nimbo smiled, “with everything considered, not just us at the centre of the universe. The planets, the galaxies, everything moving in a pattern that is invisible to us half the time, but it is lyrical, explicable.”
Their shoulders grazed as they watched the reflected light of Venus rising in the gloaming under the ghost of a moon floating high in the remnants of blue sky. Baker had always felt stressed this close to another human, aware of his ingrained stink of fish. No matter how much he scrubbed and doused himself with aftershave it still rose around him like a toxic cloud. With Nimbo however, the problem went away and he could relax more fully than he thought possible. Having spent a lifetime cloistered with either his real family or his adopted one at the restaurant, it felt almost strange to consider any other way of life. If he had once regretted being perennially single, he had long gotten over it, and nowadays his mind dwelled less in future possibilities than in the familiar territory of times gone by.
“I was born under Cancer,” he pondered out loud, “which proved prophetic if a little macabre, as I spend half my life chopping up the little fellas.”
Their shared laugh rebounded across the water and they both listened to the stillness that followed it. Nimbo turned to face him, hand on Baker’s knee for leverage.
“Do you know what I read the other day?” he asked, letting the hand rest where it landed, “A thing in the paper saying that our destinies align along with the planets. So it’s Mercury and Venus getting close up there that drag us into each other’s orbit.”
“I’m sure it’s true in some situations,” Baker said, “but not everyone finds it all works out so neatly.”
“Did you never marry?” Nimbo asked.
“Hell no, I didn’t even come close. But now I can’t help wondering how it might have been if I’d tried a little harder to make connections with people.” Baker sighed, “You were married once though, right?”
“Aye, and a right cock-up that turned out to be. They tell you that a fisherman never makes a happy husband or wife, and there’s plenty of truth in that. Gloria was a barmaid at the Ship and it was just the easy choice, but we weren’t compatible. Lasted maybe a year before the rot set in.” He paused, stroking the old paintwork on the wheel, “Retrograde planets, that’s what they blame all the negative events on.” Baker looked sceptical but he continued. “When a planet is in retrograde, it seems to us as if it’s going backwards across the sky, but that’s just down to our point of view. So here's what I don’t understand: how can it produce adverse effects when the entire phenomenon is an illusion?”
“Was that meant to explain your marriage or are you just talking in riddles now?” Baker asked, shaking his head.
“Nah, nothing like that. It’s just as I say, maybe there’s something in all of that or maybe it’s just about your perception. It’s easy enough to be clever after the fact.” He laughed at Baker’s expression, “I guess all I really mean is that we make our own choices, and the rest is bullshit.”
The boat rounded the big sand-spit and the lights of the town danced ahead of them again, their watery reflections bending and stretching into ribbons on the surface. Baker saw a seal’s lupine nostrils flare above the water just off the bow and he met the creature’s soft eyes momentarily before it arced and dived out of sight. The footbridge was almost totally submerged now, only the barnacled handrail showing above the gentle swell with a few hefty juvenile gulls perched on the metal, calling into the dusk.
“See, we drown our bridges here instead of burning them,” Nimbo commented, “but it makes sense either way. Nothing gained in hankering after what has gone.” He glanced over to see if Baker was following his train of thought, but his face was unreadable in the dim light.
By now the opposing waters were indistinguishable, just a brackish fudge of turbulent, mingling life. Baker considered his companion’s words, but his mind was as muddled as the waters. So much had changed in a day, and he felt a kind of vertigo that made him tighten his hold on the hull of the boat.
Nimbo steered through the harbour entrance with consummate ease, accompanied by an assortment of sea ducks and auks that trailed in their wake hoping for an easy dinner. Gazing up at the night sky, he found himself looking for signs. Entertaining the idea of change was not something that fitted comfortably in his rather rigid way of thinking. His slowly dawning feelings for Baker were a complication, and he had been in denial of them for as long as he had been aware of the comforting presence of the big man in his life. He realised that a transgression of their unspoken rules of engagement risked losing everything, but maybe the line in the sand was already behind them?
Baker looked unsteady disembarking and it was pure instinct that made Nimbo offer his hand. That he took it was not a surprise, the man had just lost his job and buried his mother, but when the contact was maintained as the two men continued around the harbour, he dared to hope. In a simple world where the patterns of the weather and tides were his only concern, what business was it of anyone else whose shoulder he leaned on for support, whose body he reached for in comfort or even, lay down with?
A lucent glow continued to illuminate the horizon as they cleared the sea wall and headed up one of the steep alleys away from the water, sidestepping ropes and creels. At an unspoken point, they both dropped onto a corner bench where the sea was still visible as a silver slice in the dark. Sitting close, their bodies leant into each other like the waters of the estuary.
“My name is Callum. Baker is my surname and I’ve been stuck with it forever, but that’s what happens when your name and profession collide.”
“Ha, makes sense I guess,” Nimbo smiled at the confidence.
“Except I didn’t. Bake, that is. Always the grill, I never had time for the fancy pastry stuff.”
“Well, I’m Nimbo for Nimbus, which you probably guessed. Father didn’t always love the weather and the sea, but he felt it in his bones.” He raised an eyebrow, “I have to say I’m a little disappointed though. What’s the point of a cook if he can’t make a cake?”
“Well maybe that’s another new trick I shall have to learn,” Baker grinned, “I’ve a feeling there’s going to be some adjustment to this new life of mine.” He felt more than saw Nimbo’s reciprocal smile in the darkness.
The luminosity had all but gone from the sky by the time the two men stood up, complaining and laughing at each other’s aching joints and pointing out the stars that now outshone the fairy lights on the burger van, as they made their way towards Nimbo’s cottage at the Townhead.