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Chapter 51
But that first time I had a good look at the lifeboat I didnot see the detail I wanted. The surface of the stern and sidebenches was continuous and unbroken, as were the sides ofthe buoyancy tanks. The floor lay flat against the hull; therecould be no cache beneath it. It was certain: there was nolocker or box or any other sort of container anywhere. Onlysmooth, uninterrupted orange surfaces.
My estimation of captains and ship chandlers wavered. Myhopes for survival flickered. My thirst remained.
And what if the supplies were at the bow, beneath thetarpaulin? I turned and crawled back. I felt like a dried-outlizard. I pushed down on the tarpaulin. It was tautly stretched.
If I unrolled it, I would give myself access to what suppliesmight be stored below. But that meant creating an openingonto Richard Parker's den.
There was no question. Thirst pushed me on. I eased theoar from under the tarpaulin. I placed the lifebuoy around mywaist. I laid the oar across the bow. I leaned over the gunneland with my thumbs pushed from under one of the hooks therope that held down the tarpaulin. I had a difficult time of it.
But after the first hook, it was easier with the second and thethird. I did the same on the other side of the stem. Thetarpaulin became slack beneath my elbows. I was lying flat onit, my legs pointed towards the stern.
I unrolled it a little. Immediately I was rewarded. The bowwas like the stern; it had an end bench. And upon it, just afew inches from the stem, a hasp glittered like a diamond.
There was the outline of a lid. My heart began to pound. Iunrolled the tarpaulin further. I peeked under. The lid wasshaped like a rounded-out triangle, three feet wide and two feetdeep. At that moment I perceived an orange mass. I jerkedmy head back. But the orange wasn't moving and didn't lookright. I looked again. It wasn't a tiger. It was a life jacket.
There were a number of life jackets at the back of RichardParker's den.
A shiver went through my body. Between the life jackets,partially, as if through some leaves, I had my first,unambiguous, clear-headed glimpse of Richard Parker. It washis haunches I could see, and part of his back. Tawny andstriped and simply enormous. He was facing the stern, lying flaton his stomach. He was still except for the breathing motion ofhis sides. I blinked in disbelief at how close he was. He wasright there, two feet beneath me. Stretching, I could havepinched his bottom. And between us there was nothing but athin tarpaulin, easily got round.
"God preserve me!" No supplication was ever morepassionate yet more gently carried by the breath. I layabsolutely motionless.
I had to have water. I brought my hand down and quietlyundid the hasp. I pulled on the lid. It opened onto a locker.
I have just mentioned the notion of details that becomelifesavers. Here was one: the lid was hinged an inch or sofrom the edge of the bow bench – which meant that as thelid opened, it became a barrier that closed off the twelve inchesof open space between tarpaulin and bench through whichRichard Parker could get to me after pushing aside the lifejackets. I opened the lid till it fell against the crosswise oar andthe edge of the tarpaulin. I moved onto the stem, facing theboat, one foot on the edge of the open locker, the otheragainst the lid. If Richard Parker decided to attack me frombelow, he would have to push on the lid. Such a push wouldboth warn me and help me fall backwards into the water withthe lifebuoy. If he came the other way, climbing atop thetarpaulin from astern, I was in the best position to see himearly and, again, take to the water. I looked about the lifeboat.
I couldn't see any sharks.
I looked down between my legs. I thought I would faint forjoy. The open locker glistened with shiny new things. Oh, thedelight of the manufactured good, the man-made device, thecreated thing! That moment of material revelation brought anintensity of pleasure – a heady mix of hope, surprise, disbelief,thrill, gratitude, all crushed into one – unequalled in my life byany Christmas, birthday, wedding, Diwali or other gift-givingoccasion. I was positively giddy with happiness.
My eyes immediately fell upon what I was looking for.
Whether in a bottle, a tin can or a carton, water isunmistakably packaged. On this lifeboat, the wine of life wasserved in pale golden cans that fit nicely in the hand. DrinkingWater said the vintage label in black letters. HP Foods Ltd.
were the vintners. 500 ml were the contents. There werestacks of these cans, too many to count at a glance.
With a shaking hand I reached down and picked one up. Itwas cool to the touch and heavy. I shook it. The bubble of airinside made a dull glub glub glub sound. I was about to bedelivered from my hellish thirst. My pulse raced at the thought.
I only had to open the can.
I paused. How would I do that?
I had a can – surely I had a can opener? I looked in thelocker. There was a great quantity of things. I rummagedabout. I was losing patience. Aching expectation had run itsfruitful course. I had to drink now – or I would die. I couldnot find the desired instrument. But there was no time foruseless distress. Action was needed. Could I prise it open withmy fingernails? I tried. I couldn't. My teeth? It wasn't worthtrying. I looked over the gunnel. The tarpaulin hooks. Short,blunt, solid. I kneeled on the bench and leaned over. Holdingthe can with both my hands, I sharply brought it up against ahook. A good dint. I............
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