Story Draft – Somebody’s Birthday

This is the second draft of my story written for the FutureLearn Fiction Course (Warning – contains offensive language):

Somebodys Birthday

The ship docked in Sydney eight hours ago and disgorged all its guests and their bags before midday. Some left gratuities. Philo has now changed and cleaned all of his twenty four staterooms. His section of deck nine includes two superior, ten seaview and twelve inside cabins, and all are ready for the new guests arriving tomorrow for their fourteen Western Pacific cruise nights. Philo locks away his cleaning cart, changes into jeans and a tee-shirt, and descends to the gangway on deck three.

The second thing people notice about Philo is his warmth – he seems to understand moods and needs almost immediately, responding with sympathy and whatever help he can offer. The first thing they notice is how big and ugly he is. Philo is over six feet tall, but it is the wide shoulders and oversized head that make him stand out. The dark skin of his face seems to have difficulty containing the lumps of his cheekbones and his battered forehead, and it seems unlikely that lips could ever close over those splayed and mismatched teeth, but they do. The fact is that Philo’s smiling mouth drives you away, but his dark, understanding eyes, draw you back. You just have to overcome the immediate flash of fear as this monster of a man grins at you, and then you will feel his empathy.

The security guys at the foot of the gangway scan his pass, confirming his return time, and the Australians wave him past the immigration desk. One of officials makes a small gesture of jokey submission, swaying back with hands slightly raised as he passes.

Philo’s physical strength is manifest – he is a big guy with huge shoulders and hands that can hold basketballs, but there is no swagger or threat in his movements. He doesn’t seem to crowd you, even in the smaller cabins on the ship, because he occupies space almost apologetically, ready to withdraw at the first sign of alarm or discomfort. You wouldn’t want to make him angry, though, so that one eyebrow lifts and he starts to look at you with his head slightly tilted. His anger is truly fearsome, but is only ever kindled by insult or scorn. Philo knows he is unprepossessing in appearance, but he is also sensitive, kind and inoffensive; he will not accept being laughed at or ridiculed.

Philo couldn’t help but look out as he was servicing the balconied staterooms – this must be the most spectacular berth in the world. From deck nine he could see the huge Harbour Bridge arcing out to his right, and on the other side of the ship spring the white and cream shells of the Opera House. These famous landmarks are linked by the ferry terminal at Circular Quay, and that’s where Philo is headed now, to buy a postcard and stamp for his Mum in Corinth, and maybe to take a trip round the harbour,

Beneath the long point of the ship’s bow, the Opera House flashes sun sparks from the zig-zags of its roof, and Philo decides to sit on one of the stone benches and admire the view. The afternoon sun warms the left side of his face and he feels content. His eyes have been closed for a short while when he hears muttering.

‘Nah, don’t say it. Offside mate, Keep quiet, Kev.’

Beside Philo is a twitching shambles of a man, sandy hair thinning on a scab-spattered head bowed over a phone. The guy keeps glancing sideways at Philo, up at the ferries and then down at his phone, muttering and sniffling. Philo thinks he is drunk.

‘Big ugly sod though, ha! Zip it up Kev. Don’t get offside.’ He looks at Philo again and laughs, tossing his head back, ‘Gawd. Big black bastard.’

Philo turns to face Kev, head slightly cocked and one dark eyebrow calmly raised, fingers flexing, and waits for a fidget to bring their eyes together. Kev fiddles with his phone, twitches his head away, up, down again, and finally his eye catches Philo’s.

‘Were you referring to me?’ Philo asks in his slow, growly voice, holding Kev’s eyes locked tight despite that restless body.

Kev’s head shakes but his mouth says, ‘Yeah. Fucking madman, I am. Offside, eh?’

Philo stands, looking like one of the vast stone towers of the Harbour Bridge looming over a shack on The Rocks, and reaches out a huge hand towards the lippy drunk. Kev jerks back and his phone chooses that moment to leap out of his hand and land with a clatter on the stone slabs, bursting into three separate pieces. The battery skids past Kev’s foot, under the end of the bench where there is a narrow gap.

‘Aw shit. Me fucking phone. I got to call her. Me daughter. It’s ‘er fuckin’ birthday. She’ll kill me.’ Kev falls clumsily to his knees, gathering the front and back of his phone and scrabbling hopelessly at the gap under the stone bench end.

Philo feels all his anger drain away. This pitiful drunk needs help, there, sobbing quietly on the flagstones.

Bending down, Philo gently pulls Kev back and grips the bench with both hands. The thing must weigh half a ton, but Philo bends his knees, straightens his back and lifts the bench end a foot into the air. He is straining, certainly, but he holds it up calmly while Kev grabs the battery and sinks back, clutching it tightly.

Once Philo has reassembled the phone, sat beside Kev on the resettled bench, he turns it on, checks it and holds Kev’s erratic arm steady as he puts it in his hand. Kev glances up at him and his head shakes as he starts poking at buttons. He mutters something that could be thanks.

‘Just wish her a happy birthday, man,’ Philo says, resting his big hand lightly on Kev’s shoulder as he stands and heads off for Circular Quay.



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