MovieLand! (A Christmas Story. Part 1)
I was supposed to be the authority but it had to be said they were probably right, the duck did appear to be dying. It wasn’t a spectacular death, not like last summer when Ed had slipped from turbine seven and skewered himself on the radio mast of this very ship, The Best Foot Forward, but it was a death nevertheless.
“It’s an Eider duck,” I said in what I hoped was a calm and distracting manner. “Their feathers have great insulation qualities and were traditionally used in bedding, hence eiderdown.”
“Jesus H Christ,” cursed one of the mothers as she peered down into the foaming waters. “It’s got blood coming from its freakin’ beak.”
Giving me a remonstrative look she slid a gloved hand over her child’s eyes. This was the same child I’d caught earlier throwing our complimentary refreshing mints at one of the feral shore cats in the Pre-Tour Holding Area while waiting for the next trip, or ‘Wind Farm Experience’ as Doug liked us to call it. When I’d questioned the child he’d stuck two fingers up, called me ‘beaky’ and carried on launching his sugared missiles.
“Aren’t you going to do something?” This from the same mother.
I looked into her eyes like we’d been taught during our two and a half week training period. One forty minute module had been entitled Guest Psychology. Doug had said that by looking into someone’s eyes you can usually tell what they want, but whether this woman wanted me to dive in and save the duck or hit it with a spade or something to put it out of its misery.
I was rescued by Captain Skarsgård poking his head out the wheelhouse and shouting that a squall was coming in and we had to head back to shore pronto pronto. He said there was room for the mothers to come and sit up in the wheelhouse with him while I entertained their kids with a wind turbine installation and activation hand puppet display.
Captain Skarsgård had a rugged jaw, deep eyes, and a chest like Charles Atlas. I'd had something of a crush on him once but that was before I realised he was only out for himself.
When I'd done the collection for poor Ed’s widow and son he'd patted his pockets and said he was awful tight this month and then that very same evening I'd spied him down at the Moby Dick Lobster Grill with Mavis from accounts. And she wasn't a cheap date!
Some people don't know the meaning of personal responsibility and that's a fact.
Doug was waiting for me at the Guest Reception and Welcome Centre, arms folded. He was wearing his life jacket which was point six on his health and safety aide-memoire although as he was on dry land I didn’t see the necessity.
That was the thing about Doug.
He was a stickler.
He asked me to step into his office. I thought it might be about the duck.
“If it’s about that duck,” I said.
“How many offshore wind turbines have we got at this facility?”
Doug’s chair uttered a short motivational phrase as he sank down into it. He had got the idea from one of those toys on which you pull a ripcord to make it say something and married it with a whoopee cushion.
“Sixty-eight,” I said.
“And how much electricity can they produce?”
“Seven mega watts.”
I eyed the chair opposite Doug’s but remained standing. If it was about the duck I wanted to deny responsibility and exit quickly.
“As long as it’s reasonably windy.”
Doug nodded. I was yet to be lulled into any false sense of security. This was how most of Doug’s meetings started. He liked to check his tour guides were on the on the ball. Or tour guide I should say. Ed had yet to be replaced.
“We had a call today.”
Doug narrowed his eyes and frowned slightly. Behind him on the wall was a huge framed picture of the whole wind farm facility taken from a helicopter or something else really high up. Maybe a satellite. The effect really was quite something. Spartak liked to joke Doug fancied himself as one of those Bond villains and all he needed to complete the effect was a cat or a tank full of sharks but I told Spartak to keep it down. Things had a way of getting back to Doug.
“From your wife.”
Doug blew a mouthful of air out of his mouth like he couldn't believe it. That made two of us.
“She says there’s been some trouble and she needs you to help out."
He shook his head and said the words slowly.
"She’s told me to tell you she's sending your kid, James, here tomorrow.”
He pushed a piece of paper across the desk towards me.
“I’ve written down the time of the train. You’re supposed to be on duty but I’ve pulled some strings. You can make up the time on Friday.”
I picked up the piece of paper. The words and numbers on it spun before my eyes.
“She’s not actually my wife," I said. "It was a long time ago. We were best friends and school and then... you know?”
As I was making my exit Doug coughed behind me and I knew something else was coming.
“We’ll deduct James’s accommodation charges direct from your wages. Cut out the middle man if you like. Like I always say we’re all one big happy family here. Mi casa es su casa and so on.”
The accommodation area is called Palm Beach. There’s no palm and no beach, just twelve portable Quonset huts lined up on what was once a car park.
It was rumoured the huts had formerly been used to house troops over in Iraq. I didn’t believe this until one day under my mattress I found a porno mag stamped with the insignia of a military base in Basra and a letter from a soldier to his mother.
He told her he missed her and was sorry for all the grief he’d caused when growing up.
Then he said he’d killed a man, shot him in fact, and every time he closed his eyes he could see the bullet entering this man’s head, how the head had literally exploded into all these pieces and how his comrades had whooped like it was a video game but all he could think was that that man was someone's son and now his parents would never see their baby again.
He said he didn't think he could take anymore.
I didn't like to think why the letter had never been sent.
The car park the huts are on used to be used by guests at the neighbouring MovieLand Theme Park but as the park only opens for one month a year now and as they don't have that many guests even then there is still plenty of room for our huts.
Shortly after the park closed down last year a group of six local youths broke into the Night of the Living Dead fun house.
It might never have been discovered except one of them caught himself in the distorting mirrors, thought he had seen a ghost or something and threw himself out of the nearest window and broke his spine and both legs in what was quite a fall.
It was because of this that Doug hired Spartak and stepped up security here.
Doug is not a touchy-feely person. He doesn't care about anyone hurting themselves. It’s the litigation he’s scared of.
Stepping into my hut I found Spartak sitting naked on the sofa watching Jeremy Kyle on the old TV we'd found miraculously washed up on the beach one morning.
On the screen a sallow-faced girl was saying how she’d been having a sexual relationship with her brother for the past seven years. She hadn’t even stopped when she had become pregnant and found out that there might be certain health implications for the baby.
The crowd were booing her, waving their arms in the air like the Romans did in that film Spartacus.
Then the girl’s mother appeared from the wings. She took a seat and explained how the girl’s brother wasn’t her brother after all. She had kidnapped the boy from outside a supermarket when he was just a few months old and so everything was ok.
“It isn’t incest,” she said. “You’re fine. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you before.”
“My son is coming to stay,” I said to Spartak.
English wasn't his first language and I’d learnt it was best to put things as directly as possible.
“No more nights of wild and noisy sex for us and you’re going to have to start wearing some clothes around here.”
Spartak lifted his leg and let out a long slow fart before scratching at his arse.
"Don't you love your Spartak no more?"
Then his eyes widened as the complete translation must have sunk in.
"You have a son?"
Spartak’s story had come out in dribs and drabs over the six months we’d been together. From the age of ten he’d been incorporated into a ruthless Muscovite gang. Having started out drug running he’d quickly progressed to extortion, protection, handling fake goods and finally to the security of the big boss himself.
It was on a trip to St Petersburg that he’d been found in bed with the bellhop of the exclusive hotel they were staying in.
Homosexuality not being particularly well looked upon in the Moscow gangland milieu Spartak decided to make his escape as soon as possible.
Which goes some way to explaining how he’d ended up here watching Jeremy Kyle.
His story was so fantastic, so full of dramatic twists and turns and exotic foreign places, that I’d kept quiet about mine. It seemed boring in comparison. And besides I felt ashamed about James. I'd let him down. I hadn't been much of a father to him.
“You should have told me you had a secret love child,” said Spartak. His eyes lit up. "Are you sure it's yours or do we need to arrange a DNA paternity test?"
"You've been watching too much Jeremy Kyle," I said. “Now will you help me tidy up. And put some clothes on. Please.”
We collected three bags of rubbish, mostly old beer cans and mildewing pizza boxes. I was making up a bed in the spare room, fitting a sheet over the cushions I’d taken from the chairs in the kitchen area, and then throwing a duvet over the whole lot when I heard Spartak shouting from the living-room.
He was bent at the wall, pointing at something with a finger.
“It’s bullet hole,” he said.
Sure enough, there was a hole in the wall. If it was a bullet hole I wasn’t sure. I was no expert.
“And this,” Spartak said, moving his hand down the wall, “looks like blood splatter pattern.”
“It’s lucky none of us believe in ghosts,” he said.
I wasn’t so sure about that.
It was five years since I’d last seen James. I’d not imagined him dead exactly but absence can soon be indistinguishable from nothingness, nothingness from a possibility of supernatural form.
Captain Skarsgård’s squall turned into a full blown storm.
Back in the early days when there was a storm Spartak and I would go out to the sea wall.
Even though the turbines were seven kilometres out you could see them, especially when there were background flashes of lightning. You couldn’t believe they were man-made, these towers, and their solidity and unlikely presence said something deep about humankind’s ability to harness nature.
But you can get bored of anything if you see it enough and these days we only hoped that the storms would be deep and long enough to stop any guests from coming the following day.
We didn't mind the guests per se, because after all weren't they the reason our wages got paid?, but if they didn't come me and Spartak could spend more time together. This seemed especially important now, what with James coming.
So we lay in each other’s arms feeling both loved and protected and each of us made the same silent wish.
The following day we had three guests. They were bunched together, huddling for warmth, in the Pre-Tour Holding Area. All three were dressed in similar thick black coats with hoods pulled up, a woman and two young boys. The rain was trundling down as the wind whipped at their faces.
“I promised them,” said the woman.
She had a strained grin fixed to her face as she held out the tickets already turning to mush in the downpour.
“After everything else I couldn’t let them down, could I?"
She gave a nervous glance towards the chopping waters. The Best Foot Forward was rocking violently up and down on its moorings.
"Is it safe to sail?”
I glanced towards the flag.
It was down.
“The flag is down,” I said. “It’s safe to sail.”
The journey out to the turbines I usually filled with a brief history of wind farming, starting off in 200 BC, Heron of Alexandria’s windwheel, before taking in vertical-axis design, growth and cost trends and finishing with the imminent spectacular collapse of the carbon economy.
Doug insists on no deviations whatever the external circumstances. He calls this the tour guide’s ‘show must go on’, but when two minutes out the woman put her hand to her mouth to stifle a sob and one large tear rolled down each of her cheeks I handed each of the boys a Wind Farm Activity Book With Attached Pencil which isn’t usually given out until the very end of the tour and asked if she was ok.
"Not really," she said. "You know?"
I did know. I was all too well acquainted with pain.
Informing Captain Skarsgård it was an emergency I asked to borrow his flask of rum and sitting the woman down on the bench normally reserved for elderly or infirm guests I poured us both a shot.
“Down the hatch,” I said.
"You actually do have a hatch," she said pointing, "but I think I might drink it myself. My need is greater than a lousy hatch's."
We grinned at each other as the fiery liquid went down.
"It's a long time since I've genuinely smiled," she said.
"Have another," I said.
She laughed this time and this seemed to break the ice that was already beginning to crack.