I met Niksa when I rented a room in his house, an old fisherman’s cottage he had renovated for tourists who visit the old town of Dubrovnik. He liked to talk; fuck me, did he like to talk. He cornered me in the kitchen as I made a cappuccino, and we had a conversation of sorts – the kind of one-way interaction where I was given the role of Listener. He spoke at length about himself and his life, never asking anything of me, never giving me pause to respond. I listened in a polite manner, but as time passed I became aware from his tone and words that this interaction was for his benefit, that I was a pair of ears, no more, and that he was tolerating me being in his home as a paying irritant. He did not want to be “running a fucking guest-house in Croatia”, he explained – a fact I had already surmised.
He was a retired merchant seaman, and while his physical home was between these exposed stone walls, his nervous twitch belied his unsteady land-legs. He told of how he earned his sailing stripes in the Seventies, running “concrete” from Colombia to the Caribbean Islands, shipping apples the other direction for great profit. He had crossed the Panama Canal more times than he could remember, then spent the Eighties traversing Suez to complete the matching pair. He told tales of happier times in what are now the more war-torn cities of our World. He described how he would walk down the broad avenues of Mogadishu, arms thrown around the shoulders of “buxom Negresses”. In Beirut, he had been felated by a “towel head’s bitch” won in a poker game, after a night in the clandestine bars of the old town. He bought a “handful of Wogs” for the night in Calcutta, and “Chinks for his entire crew” in Shanghai. He ticked a bucket-list item in Bangkok when he was “banged by a cock”, which I thought was nice of him to share. There were other ports and cities dropped into the tale, so many I cannot recall. He stopped short of suggesting Sea Shanties be written in his stead, but casual racism aside, it was clear he had great affection for the World at large.
But things change, and we are only as arrogant of life as we are right now, in this moment.
As I sucked the froth from my cold coffee, he moved on to explain how he was in New Orleans when Katrina struck. He was evacuated to Houston a shredded man, becoming disabled by anxiety and sleep apnoea. Banned on health grounds from crewing container ships at the age of forty-five, his life ended. He struggled with living on land, but the “shit little sailboats” didn’t come close to satisfying his considerable sea-itch. As a means to kill time (and not himself), he invested the profits from his apple-smuggling to renovate and rent holiday homes in his homeland.
He fell silent and stared at the flagstone floor. I looked into my pale coffee and wished I was somewhere else. Then he smiled, looked all around the room to make sure we were alone, then moved closer. I backed away a little, but he followed. He whispered that for the coming Winter he has found illegal passage, working a frigate running the Indian Ocean. Shh… He tells me this voyage will be his last, and that he has no plans to return to land. I can see in his eyes that this Winter will be his last. He asks me what I think of that – but my mouth fails to fashion a response. He stares at me, face falling, disappointed I am not rubber stamping his plan. He turns and leaves me alone, the silence buzzing in my ears.
I make a fresh coffee.
A man of contradiction, that within an hour came across as insufferable and vulnerable in equal measure. I did not know if I felt nauseated by him, sympathetic, or couldn’t have given a shit. What I do know, is that there is a renovated fisherman’s house in Croatia that will be up for sale in January – a fantastic business opportunity. Anyone want to invest with me?