The Great In-Between
Grace turned sharply towards the door as the lock mechanism started whirring. There was a faint click and then Alexander, her son, appeared:
â€œWeâ€™re there now! You have to come out on deck!â€
â€œMummyâ€™s busy,â€ she said, in her native Polish, loading a wad of Euros into the counting machine.
â€œBut mummy, we missed it yesterday! We have to see it today! The Great In-Between!â€ Alexander continued rapidly.
â€œYou shouldnâ€™t be in here; you know that,” she said, falling into step with him and speaking English.
She couldnâ€™t be angry with him; it wasnâ€™t his fault. Security had messed up somehow; his key card gave him access to the counting room. He was ten years old; she couldnâ€™t stop him.
â€œPleeeeaaase?â€ he squeaked.
â€œNo,” said Grace, â€œIâ€™m in the middle of something.â€
When she glanced over at Alexander, she could see his line of vision falling onto an oblong tray made of stiff cardboard to the side of her. It was full of British bank notes.
â€œCan I?â€ he asked, quite suddenly, like he had forgotten all about her refusal to go out on deck with him. This made her smile. She rose and carried the tray over to him.
â€œReady?â€ she asked. Alexander nodded. She gently put the tray across his forearms. â€œHow much is it again?â€ he groaned, his face contorting with effort.
â€œAbout 12 pounds,â€ Grace said.
â€œ12 pounds of pounds!â€ he hooted. They both giggled.
When he handed back the tray and made to leave, he said, â€œWhen I grow up, Iâ€™m going to be as strong as Jim and work on the car deck!â€ Grace watched him run off with a bad taste in her mouth.
The swivel chair creaked beneath her when she sat down again. She wondered if she was to blame for Alexanderâ€™s looking up to Jim. Huge, rugged Jim, who could lift enormous lengths of cable, and who spent his free time drinking and singing, miraculously remembering complex lyrics to Irish folksongs even when he couldnâ€™t stand up unaided. She deftly unfolded a stack of bent bills and was alarmed at her sonâ€™s ambition to work a menial, filthy job. Yes. It was her fault. She had steadily advanced in terms of salary and job responsibilities but sheâ€™d never come off the ships; they were both her and his world entire. They could have had a different life, and he could have wanted his mother to come and watch something other than a spot in the middle of nowhere with him.
There is a point in the English Channel where France is as far away as the British coast. Both shores are blurry and if you didnâ€™t know which direction you came from, you would be hard-pressed to tell which was which. This was what Grace called The Great In-Between. She couldnâ€™t remember when she had first mentioned it to her son but for many years, whenever he had to come with her on the ferries, he had demanded they go and look at it. The concept had since expanded, and The Great In-Between was now anywhere, in any ocean, as long as land was visible from both bow and stern. Because this was the Portsmouth to Bilbao ferry, Grace guessed that they were somewhere in the Bay of Biscay. Well, no chance of her coming with him today; she had to get all this money counted and stored away in the safe before midday. What a dreadful job she had! The only thing that made it bearable was the fact that it was a managerial position. But what did an impressive job title matter when the job itself meant being stuck in a glorified closet like this? She gave a little grunt as she loaded more Euros into the machine, surprised that she could keep her hand so lightly on top of them when she felt as tense as the strings on a guitar.
There was a young man from head office on board to evaluate the shipâ€™s cash handling practices. Grace had taken an instant disliking to him when they had been introduced because he wore a bad suit. She could tell from the fabric that it was an expensive ensemble, but it was too wide in the shoulders and the trousers were at least an inch too short in the leg. She hadnâ€™t warmed to him when he reminded her about the floor limit â€“ no more than two million in Euro were to be in circulation at any one time, the excess should be locked in the â€œvaultâ€ â€“ and would she please adhere to it, because otherwiseâ€¦ He had given a small shake of the head, intimating that the â€œotherwiseâ€ was too terrible for words.
â€œFloor-limit!â€ Grace hissed to herself, kicking her leg out underneath the table like someone had just tested her reflexes. The floor-limit was impossible to stick to â€“ the â€œvaultâ€ the man from head office had mentioned was just a large safe; there simply wasnâ€™t room in it for the excess at busy times. But the man from head office had enough money to buy a pricey suit but not enough sense to get one that actually fit him. Grace tapped a bunch of 5 Euro bills on the desk to make the edges neat, squinting as she did so, feeling a headache brewing somewhere at the back of her skull.
When she glanced up the clock on the wall in front of her, she felt a sucking sensation in the pit of her stomach. It was 11 already. She looked at the vast pile of money, sealed in bags, still to be counted. It all seemed grotesque to her. Having grown up in a family of five in a one-bedroom flat where having sufficient funds to pay the rent every month wasnâ€™t a matter of course, Grace was never frivolous with money. Now, when she sliced open a bag of takings from one of the fast food outlets with a box-cutter, she frowned in disgust at the crumpled banknotes.
Whilst sorting the burger joint takings into smaller piles by denomination, her headache broke out into full bloom, like dark flowers in violent blossom down the back of her neck and into her shoulders. If only she could have been out on deck with Alexander, standing silently by his side, taking deep lungs full of warm June-air, seeing land far away in the distance, both this way and that, hazy like dreams that fade quickly in the morning.
He had wanted her to come and view The Original Great In-Between the previous afternoon, but she had been too busy helping out at the foreign exchange deck, which had been swamped by ill-prepared travelers in need of Euro. Now, having just refused him again, she was all too aware that that particular Great In-Between was important.
She had named it early one morning, many years ago, whilst smoking a cigarette on the observation deck. Grace had been yawning and straining to hold on to thoughts and plans, but eventually, sheâ€™d let them go half-formed, like the almost-smoke-rings from between her lips. Up ahead, the cliffs were hidden in the fog. Grace turned her head and saw the jagged edge of France, slightly darker and less dramatic than its English counterpart, but still eerily similar. She turned again, and then kept switching. It made her dizzy. Where was she?
â€œIâ€™m in The Great In-Betweenâ€ she said to herself, quietly. She let the cigarette drop overboard and watched it drown in the dirty green water lapping at the hull. Behind her back, a door opened. She knew it was him before he spoke, but when he did speak, there could be no doubt about it.
â€œGrazyna?â€ Aleksander called. He was the only one who called her by her given name those days. He was the only one in this world of in-betweens that could pronounce it properly.
Aleksander was also Polish and, like her, heâ€™d grown up in a seaport town. When heâ€™d told her about skulking around in the harbour as a child, keeping one eye trained on a future as bright as the sea itself, she nodded eagerly in recognition. She remembered staring out across the water, itching to get away, not caring what was on the other side â€“ Sweden, Denmark, Wonderland? â€“ content that it would simply be different. Different was by definition better, because â€œdifferentâ€ would mean not having to watch your neighbours evicted for being gypsies, and it would mean not having your father coming home from work in Gdansk, letting you gaze up his nostrils which were completely blackened by pollution. Different would mean not having to witness your mother endlessly crossing herself in times of distress or elation or out of habit, as if the Holy Virgin would take any notice of her.
Grace was 15 when sheâ€™d first found employment on a ferry, cleaning the cabins on a ship that trafficked the route between Swinoujscie and Copenhagen. Soon she got a better job in the duty free shop with a different company that operated out of Germany. When she met Aleksander, she had been working for the same companyâ€™s British branch for a few months, tending bar between England and France. She was 19, and theyâ€™d been introduced by a colleague who thought they must have lots to talk about as they were both from Poland.
This wasnâ€™t true, of course. They had little in common â€“ Aleksander was in his 30s and married with two young daughters. Besides, they resented being bunched together because of a shared heritage they were both keen to forget â€“ Grace by changing her name and Aleksander by chipping away at his accent. Funnily enough, it was just this, the strange melody of his speech, that made him first interesting and then entirely beautiful to her. She loved how there was only a sliver of Polish left in his voice, and how it would appear only occasionally, and perhaps only to her, glinting like a hidden piece of glass hit by direct sunlight.
When he addressed her there on deck, she had turned away. She was tired that morning, and it was because of him. Their affair was the worst kept secret on board, mainly because they both had hot tempers and would lock themselves into broom closets or back rooms to shout vicious Polish curses at one another or make love noisily.
Grace had felt funny last night when they got dressed in the disused toilet they found to let their passions run free. She watched his back disappear inside his shirt and shuddered at not knowing when she would get to touch it again.
â€œWe canâ€™t go on like this,” she said quietly, regretting it instantly. They were meant to go back to work now, glowing, and once more capable of ignoring the difficulty of their situation for a while.
â€œI know,â€ Aleksander replied, just as quietly.
It surprised her.
â€œWell, itâ€™s your decision. Itâ€™s up to you,â€ she said, trying to sound business-like.
â€œNo, itâ€™s not,â€ he replied, â€œYou have your whole life ahead of you. Me, Iâ€™m â€“ Iâ€™m done for.â€
â€œYou always tell me you have more to lose,â€ she pointed out, confused by his tone.
â€œYou have more to lose â€“ your youth, your opportunitiesâ€¦ Itâ€™s up to you, zabko, you decide.â€
She smiled the way she always did when he called her â€œzabko.â€ She liked being his little frog, but the smile hurt this time somehow; it stung the corners of her mouth.
She had not made her decision as he approached her on deck. She thought about it, however, when he enveloped her in his arms and her face rested on his small but strong chest. She was suddenly aware of how she could see nothing when he held her. No ferry, no sea, no shores. It made her head spin, and she decided then and there. She didnâ€™t even have to say it out loud â€“ he took a deep, ragged breath and let her go.
Grace never saw him again. She tried to call him once when sheâ€™d found out she was pregnant but the number had been disconnected; she sat there with a dial tone blaring through her muddled head, like a wordless scream. All that was left of him was her son, their son, named after his father, trading the Slavic-sounding â€œkâ€ in the spelling for a more international â€œx.”
She sat with her hand stuck in a money bag and recalled Aleksanderâ€™s mention of her youth and her opportunities, and how they would be wasted if she settled with him. But what kind of a life was what sheâ€™d chosen instead - forever going back and forth, yet never really arriving anywhere?
â€œFloor-limit!â€ she hissed, picking up the money bag and tossing it across the room. It hit the far wall with a pitiful thwack and spilled its contents on the floor.
Evening was approaching. She could see it coming across the sky; a giant hand smearing the clouds out. The air in the port was thick with fumes but she still breathed it in greedily. And the ground â€“ level, lovely dry land beneath her feet! Alexander sat at the edge of the walkway, straddling her suitcase and hugging himself. She smiled at him. He did not smile back.
Heâ€™d been present when the man from head office had come running towards them as they stepped inside, having watched The Great In-Between fade away, until only Spain was visible. Grace held Alexanderâ€™s hand during the whole onslaught:
â€œMiss Krawczyk! You canâ€™t leave the counting room unattended! And you know as well as I do that unapproved persons are not allowed!â€
He reminded her of a car engine, trying to rev up but failing. Grace had found it hard not to laugh until he said â€œfloor-limit,” then she became aware of her blood coursing hot through her veins. She squeezed Alexanderâ€™s hand in her own and spoke: â€œI quit.â€
It came out as an off-hand remark but it stunned her superior into silence. She was quite shocked herself but found that it gave her momentum and she breezed past him down the corridor, dragging Alexander with her.
Grace turned to face her son now, leaning her back against the iron bars of the railing in the harbour. She should perhaps have explained it better. But how could she? Mummyâ€™d had enough? Mummyâ€¦ flipped? Mummy just couldnâ€™t take it anymore?
â€œWhat IS this place?â€ Alexander asked, addressing himself as much as his mother, eying his surroundings apprehensively. He looked at the gulls cackling overhead and the men hauling crates on to a freighter in the dock, and then his gaze fell on her. It was demanding. Grace took a while to reply, looking at her feet on the tarmac.
â€œItâ€™s A Good Place to Startâ€ she said finally.