Donald Leopard leaned against the handrail of the ferry and watched the churning wake spread choppily over the glaucous waves. The clouds above were the colour of seagull shit, and rain was starting to fall. As the South Wales coastline receded, Leopard felt as if he were steadily straining some magnetic force to its elastic limit, and that soon its hold over him would be gone. Soon. Very soon. If only he did not feel so wretchedly sick, perhaps he would even have been elated at his freedom.
He felt spots of rain on his skin now, accompanied by a strange, melting warmth, as if his very skin were dissolving. One spot brushed close to his right ear, and he was sure he heard a tiny sizzle. Could he be imagining it? To be so permeated with that weird, invisible force, that was at once inimical to life and now such a bone-achingly familiar part of his own life, had done strange things to his imagination. Surely he was imagining this now - this acidic, melting feeling. He rubbed his eyes and shook his head. When he opened his eyes again he saw the section of railing where his hand had just been. Faintly, but unmistakably, it was glowing, a kind of fungoid grey-green.
He recoiled and staggered.
A youngish couple with their two small children were trying to get past him on the deck. He muttered his apologies and skulked unsteadily away.
He needed air, but he also needed to sit down. He would go inside for a while, just sit and keep his head down. Before he knew it that magnetic pull he felt would be gone, and then there would be County Wexford before him. He need not think any further than that at the moment - the rolling grey waves and County Wexford. He coughed into his hand and staggered into the main seating area of the ferry, placing himself on a low PVC seat away from the other passengers.
He hung his head between his hands, as if the sea he were now crossing were the sea of his own sickness, and he simply had to sit and keep himself still and steady for the duration.
The voice surprised him with its sense of nearness. He had drifted into a web of greyish clouds of distance inside himself.
He looked up. There was a well-dressed and tanned man standing above him, with streaks of grey in immaculately groomed hair.
"Is this yours? I think you dropped it."
Leopard recognised his notebook at once.
"Yes. That's mine."
The man held it out, but Leopard looked alarmed and did not take it.
"Well, er, do you want it?" asked the man.
"Yes. Perhaps you could put it on the seat in front of me. I'm feeling very ill and... I have a condition, you see. It makes it hard for me to move my arms."
"I'm sorry. Sure. I'll just put it there for you."
The man deposited the book as instructed on the seat in front, looking, now and then, in a puzzled fashion, as Leopard.
Leopard was too tired and ached too much now to try and calculate what was least likely to give him away if someone was suspicious, and the weary, almost bitter words, came to his lips without much thought. "Do I know you?" he asked.
"I don't think so," said the man. "Not many people this side of the Pond do. I mean, I used to be well-known back in the day. Er... Jeff Altman..."
And here he extended his hand.
Leopard gazed at it, as if it were some unidentifiable insect.
"Oh, yeah, sorry, I forgot. Can't move your arms. Well, I guess I'll be seeing you. Where you going, by the way?"
"County Wexford," said Leopard.
"Yeah, I guess we're all going there."
"Is there anything I can do for you? Maybe you'd like a glass of water?"
"No. I just have to rest here. Thank you."
"Okay. I hope you feel better soon. If you want a little of the best medicine - laughter, I mean - you could try catching me at my show in town when we arrive. I've got some spare tickets. Here, I'll slip a couple in your notebook. Bring a friend. Bring an enemy. Bring someone who knows how to laugh in the right places."
"Okay. You take care now."
The man who had called himself Jeff Altman passed on, and Leopard sank once more into the dark grey clouds of his inner distance with relief.
(To be continued...?)