His ship’s coming in. It’s a slab of gun-grey steel, sliding through the oil slick waters of Aberdeen harbour, rising a hundred feet above Elsie’s head and turning a steep, blank side to her hopeful face. The salt air prickles her eyes like the tears she’s held back for six months, the tears that threatened to start every time she heard the shipping forecast, every time she smelt diesel, every time she felt the ghost of his stubble-rash tingle on her cheek.
In the old days they used to wave white handkerchiefs to greet the ships, but there are no such innocent flags here today. The sea-widows and hookers wait in a loose, nervous knot on the rainwet cobbles with their hands stuffed in their pockets, lipstick smiles painted onto their mouths.
Elsie hovers by the quayside, ignoring the others. She gazes only at the boat.
The chains, those monstrous links as thick as a man’s arm, tumble in a screech of reluctant rust and iron into the seabed, fixing the ship here. For a week, maybe two. She watches the deckhands throwing ropes around bollards, looping them roughly and tethering the boat to the shore with huge loose knots.
The gangway is down, and they’re spilling out onto shore now, a bright smear of yellow jackets and wind-burned faces, roughed and dirty from the voyage and broiling with home-coming energy.
She sees him almost instantly – he stands out, Pieter. The stubbled hair and the bullet head, the thick neck on his bear shoulders. His eyes are as pale as the dawn light – pale, but not calm. When she first saw him, she felt like she’d been shot with blue bullets – straight in the heart.
“Pieter,” she calls, her voice whipped away by the bitter wind.
“Ah, Elsie,” he booms, and his voice wraps round her like diesel smoke. Then he’s holding her, pulling her into his crinkling jacket and rubbing her face into the smell of him: tobacco, sour booze, and underneath the hot, sweet tang of his skin. She hugs him back fiercely, reaches up to kiss him, but he flinches, and they fall apart awkwardly.
“What is it?” she says, feeling the sudden loss of him again, as though she were trying to catch hold of something slippery – a fish reluctant to be caught.
“New art, babe,” he says, his lips twisting in a sly smile. He puts his hand to his side. “Got a tat to commemorate crossing the line.”
When they get back to her place, he pulls up his T-shirt to show her the tattoo – a blurry image of a bearded man wielding a spear – “That’s a trident, you daftie,” – with a crown on his head and waves curling around him. Pieter tells her about Neptune, the king of the deep, who presides over the equator and who all seamen must submit to. He tells her about the scab merchant he visited in Cape Town, who’s left his flank swollen and bruised from the pec to the hip. Elsie pushes his T-shirt aside, runs her fingers round the jagged blue lines.
“Ouch,” Pieter says, “be gentle, baby.”
And she is, as her fingers trace the flourish of the artist’s signature round to his sternum, over his hard stomach to where the knot of rope encircles his belly button – round the world – her hands draw invisible lines over the few patches of him that are still flesh-coloured and untouched. She smiles.
“The illustrated man, eh? What’s left of you that’s not inked?”
She undoes his fly. His cock leaps free and the sight of it is beautiful, the familiar yet shocking lewdness of his erection pointing straight at her like the needle of a compass.
His hands move over hers, impatient fingers and brutish knuckles. They are scuffed with a thousand scars, the dirt ingrained so deep in his fingerprints it will never wash out.
As he’d requested in his last phone call, she’s wearing no underwear.
He mauls at her, pulls her skirt up and puts his hand between her legs.
“Six months,” he’s saying, voice hoarse. “Christ, I’ve missed you,” and his fingers sink into her perfectly ready sex with lovely pink, slippery ease.
She’d wanted to go slow, to savour the intensity of his longed-for skin, to kiss him softly. But Pieter doesn’t work like that; after twenty-four weeks at sea he’s as fast as a hurricane, stripping her and splaying her and laying her down on the kitchen table like he’s fighting against time.
She wins one silent moment as his dark, scribbled-on body rears back above her and his blue eyes lock on hers.
And then he’s in her, rutting, pounding. His fur scrubs against her and his hips force his cock into her like a power-hammer. As he fucks he makes gasping, keening noises, the struggling noise of water sucking down a plughole, and she answers with little moans, crying out each time he plummets deep and hits her cervix.
She clings to him, arms wrapped round his neck, locked over the anchor tattoo – my first voyage – holding onto him like he’s a life-buoy and she’s drowning. His cock is thick and blunt, and it opens her up, each stroke shocking and wild and joyful. Elsie feels herself born again, there on the freshly washed kitchen floor, as though all the windows were thrown wide open and the light was streaming in.
He cries when he comes, weeping like an angry child, snarling up against her throat and letting her hands settle on his heaving back. Inside her still zinging cunt, she feels the shrink and settle and the forlorn sensation as his cock falls out of her.
The whole weekend, they’re like teenagers jumping on each other, fucking till their bodies are exhausted and tingling and raw, pausing only to eat when their hunger pangs grow too insistent.
They order Chinese food and eat naked, laughing at each other with soy sauce running down their chins. Bottles of gin and wine and beer pile up on the kitchen table, and they take their glasses into the bath.
Slippery with froth and steam, they soap each other, Elsie careful to avoid Pieter’s fresh tattoo. Her face is flushed from the drink and the heat and the feel of Pieter lazily rubbing her clit with his wet fingers.
“Got to make sure you’re clean, baby,” he says, splashing water over her.
She leans back and feels the taps digging into her back, cold metal jarring their hazy, sloppy bathtime sex. Still his fingers play with her, dabbling at her lips and tickling her. She feels herself open like an anemone underwater, ready again. Hungry again. Only when he pulls her to her feet and fucks her standing up against the shining bathroom tiles, and she sees his reflection in the mirror over the sink, does his outlandish appearance suddenly shock her. He’s a stranger, a creature she doesn’t recognise.
The swallow tattoo on his left shoulder, surrounded by trailing flowers, moves as his muscles clench and release.
Her own body is as smooth and pale as china, a blank canvas. In the mirror she sees her hands clinging to Pieter’s hips, her skin blurring as the steam obscures the glass. The image of them fucking slowly disappears, and Elsie brings herself back to the moment, to the cock inside her and the warm bruise in the centre of her body. It’s a location between her heart and stomach and womb, somewhere that only Pieter ever reaches.
It’s that dark and hidden centre of her that he’s fucking right now. He’s working hard, and orgasm is thundering towards them, the sound of their heavy breathing echoing flatly in the small, windowless bathroom. Their bodies are aching with the weight of accumulated pleasure. She can feel his skin pulling against hers. The chafe and slip of deep sex.
But underneath, she can feel something else. It’s the falling sensation, the same twist of the heart she gets when she watches him climb the gangway. Even as he beats against her, she hears the ticking of a resentful little clock.
Her orgasm is as faint as a sigh, a meagre spasm that swells and passes before she’s even noticed it. The brief clench of pleasure is eclipsed by the knowledge that they’ve fucked themselves dry and the weekend is nearly over.
Tomorrow is Monday. Pieter has papers to fix and supplies to buy – already he’s gearing up to leave. That night they sleep very close, wearing nightclothes to soothe their tender skin and stop themselves from sticking to each other. Her nipples and aching cunt, his freshly scarred tattoo and his well-rubbed cock – all need to be swathed in soft cotton and left to recover. They sleep like two birds in a nest, holding hands.
She wakes early. Her eyes sting from lack of sleep and her body is raw and the dawn is an awful blue glare falling over the bed. Pieter is sprawled on his back still, his gold lashes fluttering as he dreams, his limbs twitching.
Elsie’s gaze runs over him, the history written all over his body: ‘Diane’ on his tricep, Chinese lettering on his chest, a faded star on his right hand.
She knows that in a few hours he will rise and take his battered holdall and drift towards the harbour, looking for his next job, the next ship, his escape route.
Elsie gets up. She goes to the kitchen and puts the kettle on to boil. While she waits, she leans on the kitchen counter and stares out the window. Outside the gulls circle, their pointed wings catching thermals that send the birds spinning. They cry to each other as they rise and fall. On the street below a couple walks past, arms linked.
That day, Elsie doesn’t go to work. She cancels her shift and slips out of the house, leaving Pieter asleep in bed.
Her heart skips in her chest as she walks to the harbour, heading into the wind that blows straight off the North Sea.
The buildings down here are grim, the silvery granite blackened with age and the smoke of industry. On the seafront the few pubs are closed, their windows covered with steel grilles. Litter drifts in the gutter, and traffic grinds slowly towards the bridges.
Halfway along the street that looks over the harbour, she finds the small, dark shop doorway. The window is filled with designs pinned to a board, in the centre of which is a large notice written in black marker pen. Entry is forbidden, it reads, to:
- Anyone under eighteen
- Anyone under the influence
- Anyone under the impression that a tattoo is not a permanent, life-changing decision
Elsie pushes open the door. The guy behind the counter is a monster. Piercings are studded through his face, with three in his lower lip. Elsie watches them move as he talks. Once he’s decided that her request is genuine, he relaxes, motioning her gently into the back room.
Seated in the leather chair, tissue rustling under her, Elsie bares her arm.
“You’re sure you want it here?” the tattoo artist asks again. “It’s gonna hurt.”
Elsie nods once, quickly.
The guy shrugs, rubs disinfectant over the delicate skin on the underside of her wrist, and reaches for his gun.
At the first jolt of pain, Elsie almost forgets why she’s there. She bites the inside of her cheek and takes a few quick, hard breaths. She thinks of Pieter and wishes he were there to crack jokes and stroke her hair.
But she has to do this alone. As the needle buzzes against her flesh, the sensation waves through her. It’s white hot and burning. Sweat breaks out on her upper lip, tears well in her eyes, and she’s glad the guy has his head bent over his work and can’t see her face.
Yes, it hurts, but the pain takes over her until Elsie feels she is floating – watching the sensation move in waves that sweep from her wrist all the way up to her heart. She focuses on a drawing above the counter – a curvy woman with ripe tits and ass, wrapped in a tiny bikini with a sailor’s hat perched on her head. The woman bumps her hip towards Elsie, and she winks. Music plays from a battered transistor radio, something electronic, the sound warped and poor quality. Between the waves of sound and the waves of pain, which have grown larger and duller, Elsie sinks.
The house is empty when she gets home. Pieter has made the bed, neatly, and left her a note. Elsie doesn’t read it, doesn’t even unfold it. He’ll be gone to sort out his articles, find a new carrier ship and sign on for another voyage. Her wrist is wrapped in gauze and throbs gently. Elsie puts the kettle on.
She’s sitting at the table and wondering what she’s done to herself when the knock on the door comes. It’s a quick rhythm, knuckles beating a riff on the wood. Elsie rises quickly to answer it.
He has a plastic bag in one hand, a bottle wrapped in tissue in the other. His holdall is slung over his shoulder.
“Strawberries,” he says, with a wide smile. “And champagne. I thought we should celebrate.”
“I’m staying, Elsie.”
She backs into the hall, holding her wrist. Staying? How can he be staying?
Pieter laughs, his gold-throated chuckle. “How? Magnificently. Delightfully.” He reaches out to stroke her cheek, rubs his thumb over her lip. “You’ve grounded me.”
They’ve reached the kitchen, where the kettle is boiling with a high-pitched whistle. Clouds of steam billow up towards the ceiling; Pieter puts his bag on the floor and the bottle on the table, and he reaches for Elsie. She flinches when he crushes her wrist against her body, and he pulls back.
“What have you done?” he asks, frowning. “Are you hurt?”
Elsie unwraps the gauze, unwinding it slowly from her wrist. She shows him the reddened skin, the tender place on her inner arm.
It’s a bird. A white seabird. The tattoo is drawn with the thinnest of black lines, the feathers a shimmering white faint against her skin. The bird’s wings are outstretched, as if it’s flying towards the palm of her hand, and Elsie holds her fingers open as though she’s waiting to catch it.
“What’s this?” Pieter asks, holding her wrist in his big paw so gently that Elsie thinks she might cry.
“It’s to remind me. That you can’t be trapped.”
“Not even if I want to be?” he asks, and his smile is so sweet that Elsie feels her heart aching.
She pulls away and turns off the kettle, waits for the water to simmer down and quieten. Behind her Pieter rips the tissue from the bottle and eases the cork out of the neck. There’s the softest of pops and the sound of him pouring the fizz into the teacup she’d laid out. She fetches another from the cupboard, and he fills that too. The bubbles jump over the rim, buoyant and sparkling.
They drink in silence, Elsie feeling the wine hit her empty stomach like fireworks, making her woozy.
“I haven’t eaten anything,” she says, dizzy.
Pieter dives into the plastic bag and brings out a strawberry. He puts it to her lips, so that her nostrils fill with the smell of sweet, sharp summer. She tastes his fingers as well as the strawberry, the metallic tang of oil and diesel that are soaked into his skin.
“Taste good?” he asks, watching her face.
“You won’t be able to do much ’til it heals,” he says, tipping his head at the tattoo on her wrist. “I’ll have to look after you.”
He brings another strawberry to her mouth, and as she bites and swallows, he strokes her hair from her face and loops it behind her ear. She sits with her cup of champagne in one hand while Pieter’s hands travel over her body, stroking, drawing along the faint violet blue lines of her veins. His fingers trace her meridians, from her pulse point to her shoulder blade, from her shoulder blade to her heart, over the swell of her breast and to the softer skin of her nipple that is growing stiff under her shirt.
His hands are roaming further now, pulling her clothes aside gently, and unbuttoning her jeans, moving south towards the fuzz of her pubic hair.
“You’ll miss the travelling,” she says, voice catching in her throat.
“There’s plenty to explore right here,” he says, touching the tip of her clit just once, just lightly, enough for Elsie to feel the touch paper take light and make her burn between her legs. She widens her legs for him, gives him space to move deeper inside her.
“But you’re not happy on dry land,” she says, as his fingers slip into the groove of her sex. Pieter doesn’t answer her, he moves onto the floor and kneels in front of her, lowers his mouth to her cunt and licks her with one long, slow stroke.
Her wetness opens to his kiss, and she closes her eyes as he dips his tongue inside her, buries his face in the warm salt sea.
Copyright © 2007 by Nikki Magennis. All rights reserved.
Nikki Magennis is a Scottish writer and painter. Her first novel, Circus Excite, was published by Black Lace last year, and she is currently working on about fifty projects, including the Difficult Second Novel.
“Salt” was inspired by memories of Aberdeen harbour from her misspent youth – which sadly did not include any Norwegian sailors – but did include a brief and painful visit to a tattoo parlour.
If you enjoyed the story, why not let the author know? Type your message below and we’ll send the author email. Leave the from box empty to be anonymous, but include your email address if you want a reply.