Saying Goodbye

They smile now - when I approach.

“Hello sailor!” One shouts, his English barely recognisable. I give my customary, mock salute.

The man who sells “fresh orange juice” looks up and starts clambering over the boats towards me. I missed him when I returned yesterday. His stall was shut; plastic sheeting covered his shiny, metallic juicer. I’ve passed his trading table, twice a day, for the last eight weeks and have yet to spot an orange. But he assures me he serves the freshest juice in Syria.

With a massive stride, he crosses the last stretch of dirty water, strewn with litter and plastic bottles, and lands on the quay at Tartus. We greet each other under the burning sun. My skin feels dry and taut and my whole body aches.

I’ve been part of a team building a traditional, wooden boat on Arwad island, just off the coast. We travel to and fro, every day, with whoever will take us – fishermen, ferrymen, the youth with the boat
crammed with bin-liners of bread. The old man who sits on a plastic chair at Arwad’s refuse tip occasionally shuffles over to watch. He’s making a replica vessel, matching our progress with wood and sticks. The model’s almost complete.

“You go?” The juice seller asks.

I nod.

“Good,” he says enthusiastically. “Good.”

He throws me a grin, so broad it seems to challenge the dimensions of his jaw. He gets out a flimsy, printed card and a bitten, plastic biro. He presses the card into the palm of his hand, scribbles something, and hands it to me.

“My number,” he says.

I can’t read Arabic at all.

In my notebook there are a few, basic phrases, scribbled phonetically. I dig it out to say goodbye. This time it’s not farewell, it’s the “goodbye and I know I won’t be seeing you again” - the permanent goodbye - I’m after.

Behind us, the sea is as rough as the day I arrived. A small ferry rides the waves frantically, crashing up and down where the currents smash into each other at the harbour entrance. Its passengers, caught off guard, are soaked in seconds. The women, traditionally dressed but with high-heeled shoes and painted toes, squeal and dab their faces. The driver leaves the wheel, climbs round and removes the fenders, hauling worn out tyres onto the bow, piling them over people’s feet. We watch
and laugh.

“Boat finished?” My friend asks.

“Near enough!”

I point to my watch and shrug my shoulders, as if to say, we’re so behind schedule I almost can’t be bothered to sail her now. But he knows I will.

“Have some juice,” he suggests, hurrying to his stall.

He presents me with his fluorescent, syrupy liquid, served in not the cleanest of plastic cups. I accept it politely.

“Fresh orange,” he insists.

“Fresh orange,” I repeat, as if somehow this authenticates his claim.

I raise the cup and toast him. We share a final, knowing, smile.

K Bowerman

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