You Know It Wrong
Photograph by Andy Lukacs-Ormond, Story by Chris Ellis
The container ship Navios Lazulla docked in Manila just before midnight. Theo’s lawyer had failed to get him a ‘Flight Embargo Exemption’ and he’d been at sea for twenty-three days, longing for dry land. But by the time he reached the quayside he was swamped by hot humid air and soaked with sweat.
There was no mobile signal so he peered at a paper map, trying to find his accommodation. He blundered along moonlit streets, round in circles and up dead ends. Eventually he found his room and stabbed at the key pad to enter the code. It didn’t respond so he tried again, not convinced the buttons were registering his touch. The mechanism finally clicked and the door succumbed when he pushed it. He slammed it shut behind him and groped for a light switch. A solitary unshaded bulb dangling from the ceiling did little to brighten the gloom. Vague shapes gradually emerged from the shadows. There was a narrow single bed, a rattan-seated chair and a rail with a collection of bent wire coat hangers which he guessed was his wardrobe. A small table near the bed boasted an enamel water jug and a cracked glass tumbler. ‘Welcome to Climate Change Commission accommodation’, he said out loud, ‘your comfort is our lowest priority.’ It was the first time he’d spoken in weeks and his voice cracked. He threw his bag onto the floor and himself onto the bed. The mattress was hard and musty but he fell asleep within seconds.
His rest was ravaged by the same dream he’d had every night since he’d been given the ‘Residency and Restitution’ sentence. His daughter and wife taunted him about polluting his body with cigarettes and the planet with industrial-scale effluent. Their tear-stained faces discharged anger and contempt. He was gagged, prevented from explaining that he could give up smoking but no-one could run a business without causing pollution. It was monstrously unfair to be in the dock for just doing his job. He was a scapegoat in a show trial. The nightmares always ended with Juliette walking away from him, repeating over her shoulder, again and again, ‘You knew it was wrong, Dad, you knew.’ It was the image he woke up to: her disappointment etching away at him. It was going to be years before he saw her again in real life.
He rubbed his face, mixing his sunrise tears with sweat and grime from the sheets. God, it was hot. And he needed a cigarette. It was three weeks since he’d thrown his last unfinished pack of Marlboros onto the table on the train to Southampton. How hard could it be to give up the bloody things? He coughed every morning but still craved the calming effect of lighting up.
He forced himself up off the bed and poured a glass of water from the jug. He grimaced - it was tepid and bitter. He guessed the power supply here was too erratic for a fridge. He had a stiff back and his ankle was sore where his tag had pressed onto bone. It was ironic it was made of plastic - luminous yellow with the Eco-Crime logo in lime green. He pulled the wretched thing up his leg and rubbed his dented flesh. Maybe he should wear socks to stop it chaffing? Or grease his skin with Vaseline, if he could find that here. Or maybe a callous would form.
He found the shared bathroom and peeled off the clothes that clung to his damp flesh. He hadn’t slept anywhere without an en suite for years. Both the shower cubicles were empty and clean enough but windowless and dimly lit - until the power spluttered and died. "Fuck!”, he said, but continued standing under the cool cascade in the dark until his sweating body cooled enough to raise goosebumps.
He pulled on a clean T-shirt, shorts and fresh trainers. His last meal on the ship was hours ago, he was starving. He went out into a thoroughfare thronged with pedestrians and cyclists. The streets had been wrapped in darkness when he arrived last night, but were now in the spotlight of morning sunshine. It was only an hour since dawn but the heat was already brutal. Sweat trickled down his back. Dodging the crowds, he picked his way over the flotsam dumped by Typhoon Yasmin. So this is a ‘High Climate Risk Index Area,’ he thought, ‘Bloody hell.’ Heaps of dried silt caked the paths, with the embedded detritus of destroyed homes. Shoes, clothes, toothbrushes, cigarette packets, mostly things that weren’t worth salvaging. The buildings had muddy tide marks about a meter above street level. Some houses and shops were intact but many had roofs missing or had been patched up with tarpaulins. There had been scarcely any effort to clear away the stinking sludge, rotting fish bones and shards of splintered wood. Typhoon Zoraida was due in a few days. It would continue the work of Typhoon Yasmin.
Theo tuned into the voices around him. He could hear English and recognised others as Filipino and Tagalog but couldn’t understand them. Suddenly, he was pushed from behind. A man, holding a small bare-foot girl by the hand, started shouting at him in Filipino, throwing his free arm around, his eyes burning, gesticulating at the child, the crowd and the buildings. Theo backed away, but couldn’t dodge as the man spat in his face and landed his tattered boot painfully on Theo’s tag, crunching it into his clean Nikes. The man walked away with his head held high, his hand tight around his child’s shoulder.
Theo wiped his cheek and looked at the spittle dripping down his fingers.
‘Bloody idiot,’ he shouted. But tears pricked his eyes.
The little girl turned and shouted, in a broken version of Juliette’s words, ‘You know it wrong, you know!’ Theo watched the pair walk away, together, down the street, over the debris, back to the remnants of their mangled lives.
Chris Ellis retired after various careers in science and data analysis. As an antidote to working with facts, she enjoys writing fiction and leads a Creative Writing group with the u3a. She also writes and edits articles about the environment for a local magazine.