They chose a dark night to go. It was best that no one knew that they were leaving. One could not always know a true friend from those who proposed to be. The old man knew this well.
The three of them made their way down to the beach. They did not hurry. Partly because they did not want to attract attention to themselves. But also their few possessions concealed under their clothes slowed them down. They slipped quietly through the narrow streets and lane- ways, careful to avoid the many beggars sleeping in the doorways and lying against the walls of the houses. It would not do them any good that one of these would instinctively call out for alms or worse still recognise them.
As they neared the shore the stench of the filthy streets gave way to the smell of the sea air.
They had timed things right. Just the way they had been told to do. The old man could see the shadowy figures loading their nets on to their vessels. He could tell from the sounds of the joviality in their voices that these men were content to ply their trade.
The threesome waited in the shadows of the laneway, out of sight. It would not be long before the fishermen pulled out to sea. Though they could not feel the wind in their concealed positions, they could see the sails begin to fill out with the breeze as the fishermen pushed their vessels out into the water to begin their nights work. Not long now. No sooner had the last of the fishermen launched their boats than the threesome started towards the shore.
Apprehension rose in the old man as they hurried. He couldn’t see anything in the dark. He held the women’s arms as their footing became unsteady on the sand and pebbles. He still could not see a thing. His doubts emerged. What if his son’s friend was not the man he was thought to be? What if he had taken the money for himself and left them stranded? Or worst still what if he had sold out to the authorities in an effort to save his own skin. Not unlike so many of the others.
The old man stumbled. He instinctively pulled the women down onto the pebbles with him. His heart was in his mouth. He agonised. He had hurt them as they had fallen on to the stones. He was a man who could not bear to see a woman distressed. He picked himself up and helped the women to their feet. The young one had cut her hand in the fall. He searched vainly for something to wrap it with. It was then that he saw it. It was the only vessel there and it was just like all the others. Indistinguishable from any of the other boats. Relief poured through his whole body. He almost dragged the women towards it in his haste and excitement. A thick rope had it secured to a large object on the pebbly beach. They moved quickly now. They needed to be near the fishing fleet if they were to give the illusion of being part of the fleet and to remain unobserved. He helped the women into the boat. The rope wasn’t slipped over. It was securely tied to a heavy object. He would have to untie the rope and time was precious. The rope was tied to a heavy bag. He knew these bags. They were used to transport coinage. He untied the rope and lifted the bag and heard the jangle. His emotions were both confused and elated. But there was no time to ponder. His hands shaking, he put the rope and the bag in the boat and pushed the boat away from the shore before jumping in himself. He pulled up the sail. They were to follow the fishing fleet until they were out of sight of land. Then sail north.
The night was as dark as he had hoped it would be. There was a gentle breeze blowing. The fishing boats had their lanterns burning and the sound of voices could be heard all around them. But the old man did not light the lanterns. He told the women to stay low. The least anyone knew of their whereabouts to safer they would be. He skilfully guided the tiny boat away from the lanterns when he was sure that they could not be seen from the shore. As both the voices and the lanterns grew dimmer and fainter, his heart rate slowed down. Soon they were well clear of the others. The women’s fears had subsided. They made themselves more comfortable and eventually fell asleep.
The wind picked up through the night and the little boat made good headway. With his back supported and the pressure of the departure subsided for now the old man began to enjoy the wind in his face, the smell of the sea and the sheer pleasure of constant motion. He knew his nomadic ancestry was still in his blood.
He began to muse. How his life had changed. He looked at his wife asleep, exhausted. Had it really been nearly 4 decades ago? It didn’t seem that long ago. He still saw her affectionately as that 15 year old child rejected by her family. He had accepted her into his family as his wife knowing that she was with child. With two sons of his own and no wife it was a good marriage. And her son was his son. The boy became his apprentice and learned the ways of commerce and accompanied his father on his many trips. The old man beamed with pride as he recalled. The boy was a great talker and could negotiate many a transaction that others would have lost. But he thought too much. He challenged everything that he could not see a reason for. The boy was always in trouble with someone. Yet he touched people’s hearts and many came just to hear what he had to say. He often clashed with his mother whose fiery temper often got the better of her. He smiled to himself as he looked down on her sleeping face. So peaceful. How can this angel have so much venom in her tongue?
The wind shifted and he adjusted the sail slightly. The young woman stirred but did not wake. She was not used to sea travel. This trip will be a long one and things could go badly for her, he lamented.
He had been charged with their departure. Who else could a son trust, if not his father? But still the responsibility lay heavy on him. Although relieved that they were on their way the ensuing trip could be a perilous one and not something to be taken lightly. Their vessel was a small fishing boat and at times at this time of the year the storms could be fearsome. The guise of leaving undetected protected them from human harm but the sea shows no such favours.
He looked at his charges. They were both sleeping peacefully. He looked at the young one. It was hard to distinguish her features on such a moonless night. Her ebony skin blended with the darkness on the bottom of the boat. His son had attracted a lot of criticism for his association with her. It had become obvious that as he had set about educating her in the ways of the world that this was no ordinary woman. The education had given her the confidence to think for herself which in turn made those she came in contact with feel quite uncomfortable. She had the disadvantage of coming from a different place with different customs and ways. Her priorities were different.
The old man smiled as he remembered how shy and quiet she was when her father had introduced her to he and his son. The boy had decided that day what his intentions were. And seasoned in the ways of the world that he was, he had made his decision. Someone of a different race and belief system would not be accepted in his community. But he considered her too valuable a treasure to let her go. As his wife he taught her much and she blossomed. Her open displays of affection tended to upset the sensitivities of his two elder brothers and accusations flew that she was being taught things that the others were not. A troubled look came across the old man’s face. The accusations were true. She was being nurtured to take over when the inevitable happened. She was certainly smart enough and had a charisma that grew each day with her increased confidence.
She half opened her eyes as though she had heard his thoughts. He gave her a reassuring smile and she fell back to sleep. Though she was only in the first few months of her pregnancy she was uncomfortable and although his own wife knew of these things he hoped for her sake that the voyage would not be a long and arduous one.
By dawn the wind had picked up but fatigue was starting to overtake the old man. The others could manage now that it was daylight and conditions were still calm. He would rest. As he lay there he remembered the bag that had been tied to the rope that had secured the boat. It was too heavy for them to have carried through the streets as well as carry their possessions. The contents would help them start again in a distant place. But to take such a chance at being detected. The old man had borne witness to the lies and denials of so many of his son’s closest associates in the crisis. They had all been happy to enjoy the adoration and prestige that had come to them in the good times but they had abandoned him in his hour of need.”But I taught him well”. The old man philosophised. He never expected their loyalty and had other plans in place for when his time came. But such a friend as this! Trusted with the family money he had bribed officials, made deals and been personally involved in each scheme to ensure that everything went according to plan. He at times had placed himself in great physical danger. And throughout it all, though the old man knew it was not over yet, not a word about what he was doing was ever said. He had given his word to secrecy and his loyalty could not be challenged. The old man touched the bag almost affectionately. He had taken a great personal risk in tying the bag to the rope. It would have been long before that he would have taken the bribe and set the whole chain of events into place.
He settled into rest now. He knew his family had to survive and as its patriarch he had to make sure that they did. There was no map to tell him where to go. Nor were there any clear directions. They would begin again where ever the stars guided them.
All was according to plan.