In the afternoon I went down with them again. They were now fast growing familiar with the coral reef, and the dive passed without problems and with everyone obviously enjoying it. By the time you saw your third or fourth stonefish much of the scare was gone and you studied it coolly, comparing its size with the ones you have seen before, and trying. to spot another one. You began to recognize the type of hole a moray eel was likely to hide in, or a patch of sandy bottom where the protruding eyes and hardly noticeable outline could give a resting stingray away. We still have not seen any sharks but it wouldn't be long now. We were diving the shallo Jackson and Gordon Reefs, in the middle of the Gulf, not far from Sharm-el- Sheikh, having covered most of the distance the previous night. The rocky outlines of Tiran and Snapir, the two islands guarding the entrance to the Gulf, were clearly visible, purplish-blue in the afternoon sun. Although well offshore, the sea was very smooth, and when we surfaced near the Sinbad and lifted our masks, the breeze brought us delicious smells from the galley even before we climbed on deck.
"If you agree to a light meal without any alcohol now," I said, "a rest or even a short sleep afterwards, and the dinner later than usual, we could do a night dive after the sun goes down." They were all for it, and Pierre even did a little dance for joy. Most of them have never dived at night before, and it called for an additional briefing on the use of torche signs.
There is always some extra mystery and adventure to a night dive. In the desert, as soon as the sun goes down, the night falls almost at once, there being no mist or clouds to reflect and retain the sun's last rays from below the horizon. The sight of a flying fish taking off and dimpling the surface with its tail, so cute during the day, makes you wonder all of a sudden what it may be running away from. Claude, the more intellectual and artistic of the two Frenchmen, must have also felt something of the sort (I had told them that the parrot fish would be asleep on their sides in the nooks and crannies of the reef, but on the other hand the moray eels, whose evil heads only showed during the day, as well as octopii and lobsters, would be out hunting among the rocks) and quoted, with a heavy French accent:
"This is the very witching hour of night,
When churchyards yawn, and hell itself breathes out
Contagion to this world."
We splashed in one by one, with the waterproof torches making luminous green cones in the water. When we reached the bottom, the moon made a silver, slightly dimpled ceiling of the water surface above us. The moray eels were a ghostly pale grey as they slithered among the rocks. An octopus flowing across the bottom seemed less shy than during the day, or perhaps it was blinded and confused by our torches. The large parrot fish, their bright colours stolen by the night, were sleeping on their sides under overhangs of coral, and it took a close approach and even a prod of a snorkel to make them shift deeper into the crevice. A squid swam across our path undulating its almost transparent side fins, caught in the beams of several torches like a night-bomber in a cone of searchlights. We saw several large lobsters, looking even more like prehistoric monsters or something from outer space than they did by day. I made a "no-no" sign to Pierre who hesitated with his gloved hand poised over a particularly large one, and he gave a good underwater display of frustration and sorrow, drooling over the lobster, wiping a tear, and even removing his mouthpiece briefly to lick his lips.
After dinner, coffee was served on the sundeck, together with various bottles to compensate for the day's abstinence. The moon was high, and, from time to time, a flying fish would take off. On the lower deck, Maria was teaching Max to fish for squid with the green phosphorescent lure and he seemed to be having beginner's luck, a school of squid having been attracted to the ship's lights. Helga settled next to me with a long drink in her hand.
"How I envy you, Cobi" she said; " all this and your own boat as well. Please don't tell me it can ever get boring."
"No, it never does," I reassured her. "It's often hard work, responsibility, heat, and so on, but boring, never. There is something else though, of late, among the people down here; some unease, a sort of premature nostalgia, because the coast is going back to the Egyptians in a year or two, and, although we hope we shall be able to go on diving here as before, no one can really be sure. Like, you know, some of the beautiful things in life which you find even more beautiful because they might end one day."
She gave me a long unsmiling look and nodded slowly. Werner and the two Frenchmen were discussing alcohol, with Werner humorously defending German beer against French wines. They finally agreed that one could drink anything so long as it wasn't water, and that the most important thing about drinking were the drinking songs; and Pierre and Claude led off with a decent rendering of "Chevaliers de la Table Ronde."
"Let's do it properly," Werner said, getting up. "I'll be right back with my mouth-organ."
"And I with mine," I said.
"Wonderful! We have an orchestra!"
With sips of beer and wine, we went through most of the good old songs, mostly in chorus, sometimes as a duet or solo: French and German drinking songs, Tipperary, Bless Them All, Roll Out The Barrel, There is A Tavern In The Town, Madelon. Helga and Werner did the duet from The Gypsy Baron, and Claude, an aria from The Desert Song. Whoever didn't know the words just hummed along. Towards the end, when they grew hoarse with singing and needed a rest, I led off with Lili Marlene on my harmonica. Werner was on the point of singing it, but hesitated - the song had had its start with the German army and was only later adapted by the British one- and joined me on his harmonica instead. Lily Marlene was going as if setting out across the desert all the way north-west, for the dead of the Afrika Korps and the Sixth Army buried there, who used to sing it in lulls between the battles, some in German and some in English, under the same bright stars. The night was so still that when we finished, the last few notes came back faintly, echoed by the hills on the shore, as if some ghost harmonica was still playing there. Werner was quiet and thoughtful; he may have sung it himself up during the war.
"Good God," he said at last, glancing at his heavy diving watch with the engraved initials. "Are we getting up at seven as usual?"
"We can sleep an extra hour or two if we like," I said. "This is a vacation."
"Anyone for deep-fried squid before we turn in?" Maria asked. "Max and I have caught a whole bucket, and it won't take long."
Werner, the two Frenchmen, and Olaf declined, saying they were sleepy and would rather hit the bed. Helga said to Werner "I'll be down later, then," and he nodded, quite indifferently as far as I could judge.
We had the squid on the sundeck, out of a large bowl, and they were delicious; followed by more good strong coffee and cake they made a perfect midnight meal. Then Maria took the empty things back to the kitchen and Max volunteered to help her with the washing up. Helga and I were left alone. The passengers and the rest of the crew seemed to have fallen asleep by now.
"Has Maria a cabin of her own?" Helga asked.
"Almost. It's a sort of plywood partition between her bunk and those of the boys, and you can hear everything through it. They were in the Zodiac in the stern last night."
"You are not jealous?"
"N..no," I said, thinking that women have an awfully sharp eye for those things. "And Werner about your staying here after he went to bed?"
"N..no, I don't think so; I mean not unless I disappear for the rest of the night. You see, we have been friends for a long time - I am his secretary too, by the way - and it has not been all that uninterrupted."
A short uncomfortable silence fell. Under other circumstances I would have taken the initiative here and now; but they were my guests and I felt that a little additional green light from Helga was needed to make sure I did not commit a faux pas.
"Is that your cabin over there?" she asked quietly, and now I took her by the hand and led her across the empty wheelhouse and into the cabin, dimly lit by the moon shining in through a porthole. Helga closed the door behind her, took off her bikini, put her arms around my neck, and pressed herself against me, trembling a little and breathing fast. She was wet between the legs as soon as we came down on the bed, and the first time we made love roughly and impatiently, both of us reaching the climax almost at once, and then went on, and time began to pass and we did not notice the moon set behind the hills. Later, when we lay in each other's arms and Helga said she would have to go now, I found it awfully difficult to part from her. Alone again, I thought of a few recent occasions when I had deliberately tried to fall in love and failed, and I wondered whether, unexpectedly, this was not happening to me now.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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