Zygmunt Frankel

THE SHARK REEF


TO PART IS TO DIE A LITTLE

I boarded Sinbad with a grim face.

"Maria," I said in Max's hearing, "there's a problem with a seat on tonight's plane to Frankfurt. It's booked solid, with a long stand-by line which includes a couple of emergencies. I have explained the situation and they promised to do their best; I'll keep phoning during the day in case a seat might become vacant after all; but if not, there's another plane to Frankfurt at ten tomorrow morning, and I made sure about a seat on that."
"Oh, God," Maria said. "Another delay in mother's operation. She won't go in without me."
"Look, Maria," Max said gallantly, "if there's no seat on tonight's plane you can have mine, and I'll go tomorrow morning."
"Oh, Max, you're an angel," she said, and kissed him. He hugged her, looking very proud and noble, and not in the least suspicious.
"Then I'll put you on the stand-by list," I told him, "and if there's no seat on tonight's plane, you're welcome to spend the night on board. We'll have dinner in town and then a couple of drinks here; and, tomorrow morning, a good breakfast and perhaps a last dip with mask and snorkel off the boat although you'll see more old tires and beer bottles than fish, before I drive you to the airport. I'll only need half an hour in the morning to change the filters in the compressors and check out a funny noise in one of them, nothing serious I hope; otherwise we have all the time to ourselves."
"That would be wonderful; thank you very much, Cobi."

Relieved, Maria went to the galley to see whether a woman's touch was needed to the farewell dinner Ron and Ilan were concocting there to help her. In the meantime, the guests were packing their things, mainly their diving gear into the big waterproof bags. I excused myself for a few minutes and drove to the small storage shed where I kept all sorts of odds and ends: spare parts for the engines and the compressors, fittings and ropes, tools, a couple of extra deep-sea fishing rods; things which I only needed rarely, on a long notice, and which would have taken up valuable space on board. Now, from one of the shelves, I took down a small closed-circuit oxygen apparatus. The plastic bag it was stored in was dusty on the outside, but, inside, the set was clean, in good condition and ready for use, with the small steel oxygen cylinder filled to top pressure with the lifegiving gas, and with a fresh cartridge of soda lime, to absorb carbon dioxide, still hermetically sealed in its original packing. The rubberized fabric of the breathing bag was soft and flexible. I had bought this set cheaply because closed-circuit oxygen apparatus is one of the strictest taboos in sports diving. It is much smaller and lighter than the standard compressed-air equipment, and the small oxygen tank lasts longer, but there is one deadly catch which offsets all the advantages: it cannot be used deeper than between five to seven metres. Below that, under the increasing water pressure, breathing pure oxygen causes sudden convulsions and loss of consciousness. Its advantage is that with the standard compressed-air equipment the diver sends streams of bubbles to the surface, which betray his presence below. With the closed-circuit oxygen gear, he is breathing from the small waterproof bag and back into it, with the carbon dioxide being absorbed on the way by the soda lime in the canister, while extra oxygen leaks slowly into the bag from the cylinder, replacing the amount used up by the body; there are no bubbles on the surface. The closed-circuit gear is used mainly by experienced navy frogmen who can be trusted not to exceed the safe depth, especially when the danger of discovery through the tell-tale bubbles on the surface is greater than the medical risk.

Such was the equipment which I have now checked and put into the boot of my car, where there already was a light wetsuit, a pair of fins, mask, snorkel, an accurate and reliable shallow-water depth gauge and a wrist compass, both with luminous dials, and a small electric hair-dryer working from the car cigarette-lighter socket, which I once bought for a girl who proved unworthy of the gift before I had the opportunity to present it to her. I left it all in the locked boot of my car when I returned to the boat.

* * *

Over the simple but tasty early supper our guests were lighthearted and merry although, as Claude admitted, he was already beginning to feel nostalgia for the coral reefs of the Red Sea while still by its shores. At the beginning, while drinking to our trip and our future meetings, we could not avoid rising our glasses to Werner's memory and standing a moment with our heads bowed; but the mood passed quickly and perhaps even enhanced the lightheartedness that followed. It was a little like returning safely from a war; the fact that someone you knew got killed confirmed the seriousness and danger of the war and made your memories and survival more precious. (Max, I noticed, had three glasses of wine with his meal and two liqueurs with his coffee.) While everyone was still in the dining room, I went outside and leaned over the railing above Max's porthole. While in port, Sinbad had several old car tires suspended from both sides as shock absorbers. I now moved the one nearest the port hole of Max's cabin so that the rope passed close to the porthole, with the lower rim of the tire almost touching the water, and returned to the dining room.

The dinner over, we all piled into our minibus and into my car and drove first to the bus station where Olaf, after many handshakes and shoulder-slapping boarded a night bus to Tel Aviv from where he would continue north to the Lebanese border to rejoin his unit. Then we drove to the airport where Bob, Ilan, and Ron said their goodbyes and were off in the minibus to their various roosts for the night. Of the tourists, Pierre and Claude left first, once again with many handshakes and hugs. The Frankfurt plane was leaving an hour later, and the local one to Jerusalem which Helga was taking, half an hour after that. It was finally confirmed that there was no chance of an extra seat on tonight's plane so Max made the final arrangements to transfer his ticket to Maria after making sure of his own for the morning plane. Maria checked in her rucksack - her only luggage except for her shoulderbag- with all the lengthy security check with all the standard questions: "Did you pack it yourself? Has anyone, even a good friend, given you a present or anything to take along? Has your luggage been out of your sight at any time between packing and now?" and so on. Then Helga and I discreetly left Maria and Max alone near the bar of the small airport cafeteria to say their goodbyes. As we moved away, a young man who had just finished his coffee at one of the tables went up to the bar to order another cup and when we got back he was still at the bar sipping it, a few paces from Max and Maria. His face looked vaguely familiar, and I thought I might have seen him with Yankele once or twice. Helga and I sat in the corner holding hands and letting our coffee get cold, and my heart was heavy.

"Helga," I said, "I am taking this new bunch of tourists for a week's cruise this Monday, but after that there's a week's interval, and, should you still be in Israel, I would love to rejoin you in the north wherever you might be, or, better still, have you come down here again, for a few days' private cruise, just the two of us; anything, so long as we can be together again."
"I'd love to, Cobi. I'll let you know where I am and what I am doing, care of, would you say, that Caravan Hotel near the port, or the port office? Then the letter will be waiting for you there when you come back, or, better still, I myself will."
"Helga, that would be wonderful. The port office would be best, then I could get your letter as soon as we dock."
"All right then, Cobi"

We kissed. I was on the point of asking Helga not to go away at all, perhaps offering her some sort of partnership in the boat, and not mentioning marriage only because it might sound too hasty at the end of a short holiday affair; but just then the loudspeaker called the passengers for Frankfurt to the gate and we rejoined Max and Maria to say goodbye to her. Max had already done so at length; now Helga hugged and kissed her; then Max and Helga drifted a little aside, on Helga's initiative I think, and Maria and I were alone.

"Well, Cobi" she said, smiling sadly.
"Well, Maria. I hope that your mother will be allright and that you will be back with us soon. Please write, or, better still, telegraph as soon as you know what's happening and what your plans are, and please remember that I am keeping your place open for you whenever you can or choose to come back."

"I would like to be back as soon as possible, Cobi. I..." she glanced towards Helga and Max and lowered her voice. "I was very happy on Sinbad and... er... much happier with you than with anyone else. Please believe me and please don't remember anything bad about me, will you?" There were a couple of tears gathering in the corners of her eyes.

"There is nothing bad to remember about you, Maria. Please come back as soon as you can."
"I'll do my best. We shall ... oh, never mind."
I knew what she was on the point of saying: the standard international farewell of the beach tribe: "We shall meet again, some day, somewhere"; but she didn't.

We watched Maria's plane roll out onto the runway and stop briefly, testing its engines at full roar. We waved without being able to see any faces in the windows, and she might also have waved without seeing behind the badly lit fence. Then the plane began to roll, faster and faster, towards the dark desert beyond the runway, and rose into the air, its shape already lost and only the lights visible. The higher and farther away it went, the fainter its lights grew until they could only be told from the stars by their blinking and movement. There was no moon in the sky; it was exactly two weeks since the start of our cruise, when it shone at full power. I had my arm around Helga and felt her marvellous body under the thin dress and remembered the French saying "Partir, c'est mourir un peu", without being quite sure which of the two girls had brought this to my mind.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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