Well it worked; we rode the breakers, albeit more sluggishly than usual. Out beyond the waves, where the swell diminished and the waves were wide, I relaxed the tension of the sail. The boat slowed down and the man clambered aboard. He seemed quite sheepish about things and didn’t look me in the eye.
I shouted at him, ‘Qu’est ce que tu veux? Es tu fou? Qu’est ce que tu fais?’ (What are you doing? Are you crazy? What do you want?)
‘I don’t spik da lingo. I spik English.’
Thanks to my father, who always insisted we speak English at home and that we studied and read English classics and newspapers, English was as much my mother tongue as were Arabic and French.
‘What do you want? Why have you come onto my boat?’
‘My name is William. I have come all the way from Ivory Coast to get to da Europe, and here at da last step, I am held back by this beet of wata. And so I saw you and your bag, and I knew at once you are going to cross to da Europe.’
‘Sorry, friend, better you return to the beach. I am going on a mission, a quest, from which perhaps I will not return.’ Even as it came into my mind that I was being pompous, I knew I was speaking as much to myself as to him, and for the first time, I realised as I spoke that following my normal impetuosity, I had embarked on a voyage to cross one of the most treacherous stretches of ocean in the world. ‘Jesus, be my light, help me,’ I silently uttered, but it mustn’t have been that silent, as William burst out.
‘Then we are braadas, you and me. We are braadas. I also am a Christian. I will come with you. Together, we will be OK.’
‘Are you a strong swimmer?’ I asked him.
‘Da best. I can swim like a shak, don you worry none abbaht William. I can swim foreber even in da heavy seas.’
I liked him; he was so natural. Pictures flashed before my eyes of William out at sea hanging onto a piece of wood, so I pulled the sail tight and laid her side on to the increasing wind. The cat suddenly went up onto one fin; a trick I had learnt and perfected with constant practise. In fact, I could actually sail on one fin for as long as five minutes. William slid off the wet canvas and into the sea as the boat forged ahead.
‘Why, my braada?’ he wailed. ‘Why you do dat?’
‘Because you seem a nice man and I don’t want you on my conscience. I will come to find you when I return,’ I shouted, and whether he heard me or not I don’t know. I did know, however, that he could easily regain the shore in just a matter of minutes. He was, after all, a swimmer as strong as a shak.