Ed has been rationing his water, using it only for drinking, counting his sips. He does his dishes in sea water and his hands, with their many cuts, are sore from the salt and constant wetting. He hasn’t washed in weeks. Sweat has dried on sweat. Sometimes he catches the smell of himself and reels.
His sole companion for 4,000 miles is still, silent, crippled. Her sails hang in tatters, shredded by the storm. She is lifeless beneath him, but still he talks to her. ‘You were magnificent,’ he tells her. ‘You gave everything. I was the one who let us down.’ There is no answering creak of the hull, no willing swoop, no slapping of the waves. There are no waves. This is the doldrums, nothing but beating heat. Not a whisper of wind.
Ed has flares ready, and there is the VHF radio, should a ship come within its range. Ed spends most of his time scanning the horizon. In between he lies on his bunk in the hot shade of the cabin. Often, then, the ship comes. The faces of merchant seamen crowd the rail and call down to him. They lift him up, and bring water, and ice-cold bottles of beer wet with condensation. They shower him and fold him between cool sheets.
When Ed steps out of the cabin for his routine but pointless checking of the ropes, the rigging, the self-steering gear which he no longer needs, the weather which stays the same, he lifts his head and stares, suddenly tense as a gannet locked into a dive.
He sees something. A darkness of the sky and sea in the west. Vertical streaks. Rain, he’s sure of it, approaching fast.
After weeks of lying around Ed has to run. Think. Buckets from the cockpit locker. Pots and pans. Empty food tubs. Tip the biscuits into the sink and put the tin on deck with all the other receptacles. Bowls, mugs. The big water container with a plastic funnel shoved into it. Even the cockpit floor will collect water because its drainage holes are blocked.
Ed has everything on deck he can think of. He sits and watches the dark sky, wetting his cracked lips with his thick tongue. The wind which precedes the rain arrives, stirring the scraps of sail hanging from the boom, blowing his hair across his face. Ed remembers something. He goes inside and comes out with a bar of soap.
What if somehow it just skips past him? But then he feels a touch on his arm. Hears a ping from a saucepan. A muffled strike in a plastic tub. The drops are fat and few at first. Ed pulls his shorts off and stands naked, soap in hand, listening to the strikes, harder and faster, of rain on aluminium, on plastic, on stainless steel. Water sliding into mugs and breakfast bowls, wetting his skin, plastering his hair, hammering his closed lids and tilted face, running into his mouth.
He rubs soap over his body and hair and watches as the dirt runs off him, trickles grey and foamy down the deck. He should really get his razor and scrape off his beard. But the pots and tubs are playing all around him, different pitches, different rhythms. He picks up the boathook and joins in, tapping the stanchions and hitting the deck. His grin splits his lip. He tastes soap and blood. He lifts a bowl and tips fresh sweet water down his throat in a steady stream.
When the rain stops it is sudden like the turning of a tap. All Ed needs now is a lucky current to take him close to land. Then, if he can avoid a pounding on the reefs, and scrape a landfall, and find work, with a little money, and some begging and scavenging, he can patch up his boat. Better than that, he can make real improvements. These last weeks he’s doodled pages of sail plans, measurements and calculations. His ideal would be a bowsprit, to carry an extra jib, to balance the mizzen he so often had to reef. He can see her already, resurrected, tossing and plunging, driving forward under perfectly balanced sails. Faster, steadier, stronger than ever before. Each of them coaxing the best from the other.
The VHF hisses into the brimming silence. Ed doesn’t understand the sound until he sees the ship a couple of miles off. He hurries inside, turns up the volume and leans in to listen, dripping over the chart table.
‘Yacht on my starboard quarter, this is cargo vessel Ocean Trader. Are you receiving me? Over.’
Ed takes the mouthpiece slowly off the hook. The ship slides into view through the cabin window, a monster, seemingly endless. Ed closes his eyes, puts his face in his hands. He is so tired. But the ship has come. He can hand over now, sleep all he wants, let someone else take charge. It was crazy to think he could make a landfall.
The VHF crackles into the cabin again, impatient and intrusive. He turns the volume down.
‘This is Ocean Trader,’ the voice insists. ‘Do you need assistance? Over.’
Ed knows how it works in these situations. They would hoist him on board but leave her to drift. Within minutes her masts would be thinner than split pins, then lost against the sea and sky. He presses the ‘transmit’ button and speaks into the mouthpiece.
‘Ocean Trader, this is yacht Felicity. No assistance required. Out.’
Rain Music by Margot Taylor was read by Michael Redston at the Liars' League Surf, Turf & Vodka event at Proud Galleries Camden on Tuesday 23 June.