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Fiction #338
(published July 12, 2007)
Boatful of Vets
by Terry Sanville
We'd been on tour for three weeks and our body odor and bad dispositions proved it. On our last night in Dublin, the crowd at The Bleeding Horse had come to guzzle ale but not to listen, so we'd cranked up the volume until my violin vibrated from the feedback. But the pub's patrons had just talked even louder. By the time the closing bell rang and we caught a taxi to the docks, I was more than somewhat pissy, and my ovaries were killing me.

"Not exactly an appreciative crowd," Garrett sighed as he pushed his amplifier up the gangway onto the huge ferry, guitar case slung over a shoulder. It was three AM, bitter cold, with giant combers rolling in off the Irish Sea.

"We'll have better luck in London, if I'm alive when we get there," I mumbled, eying the winter swells and checking my backpack for Dramamine. I had tossed my cookies on the trip over and wasn't looking forward to doing it on the return.

The ferry's cavernous top salon was mercifully dark and empty. Garrett found us a quiet corner where we could stretch out on the floor. I lay flat on my back and tried to ignore the tilting deck beneath me, my mind awash with the memories of public rooms full of loud men with bad teeth, downing their ten pints before final call.

"Aye lass, those are pretty pearlies you got there," one of them had bellowed into my face, all the while staring down my cleavage.

After that, I couldn't risk even a smile without getting comments. It was as if all of Ireland, or maybe Europe, had failed to discover toothpaste.

The ship lurched one too many times and I dashed for the lavatory, afterwards emerging chalk-faced and shaking. The Dramamine had been useless. Garrett mumbled something as I lay back down and stared up at the dark ceiling with its pipes and electrical conduit extending everywhere. But in a minute, an overhead fluorescent light flickered on and a chorus of boisterous voices assaulted us. I rolled over on my stomach, put a hand to my mouth and stared toward the entrance ramp.

A crowd of guys — some of them not half bad — was filing into our quiet sanctuary. Garrett swore loudly and sat up.

"Hey, keep it down, we're trying to sleep here," he yelled. The men froze in place, surprised to find anybody else on this early morning ghost ship.

"Sorry, we didn't know you were there," one of them, a heavyset dude with a full beard, called out. Garrett cussed some more and rubbed his eyes.

There must have been a hundred of them, all dressed in yellow zippered coveralls. More than a few were wearing handcuffs.

"Jesus, we're on a frigging prison boat," I muttered.

Some of the blokes had slumped down into the hard-backed seats and unzipped their jumpsuits. Underneath they wore black T-shirts with large white-stenciled letters announcing: "Irish Vets Rule."

My mind was in high gear, which was good because the boat started to sway even more and any diversion was appreciated.

"What da ya make of them?" I whispered and Garrett stared blearily forward.

"I don't know. Could be IRA terrorists on their way to an English jail. But the Irish Vet thing has got me stumped.

Never heard of any Irish veterans groups."

"Yeah, me neither — and they seem way too happy to be heading off to prison."

Garrett and I had been playing music across the continent, with more than a few appearances at U.S. military installations. With the turmoil in the Mideast and terrorism everywhere, many of the guys that hit on me seemed to be veterans of something — Just Cause, Desert Shield, Desert Storm, Restore Hope, Continued Hope, Enduring Freedom, Iraqi Freedom, Iron Hammer, or some other exercise of America's divine right of intervention. But I'd never met an Irish veteran.

One of the yellow men went over to the bulkhead and played with the light switches until our part of the salon went dark. I stretched out as before, but there was too much chatter to sleep — and if this yellow crew were really convicts, it would be yet another sleepless night for me. Luckily I was getting used to the deprivation highs.

The yellow men's conversations floated our way and I'd catch fragments that were both suspicious and, well, disturbing.

"Had my arm in her up to me elbow when. . . damn thing bit me on the. . . putting it down was tough. . . those blighters don't know their tits from a . . . had them popping out like jelly beans. . . so I just shot it full of ketamine and left it. . . "

After interminable fidgeting, I gave up on the idea of sleep and slumped into one of the seats. We were at mid-channel by then and the deck was tilting at a precipitous angle; what was left of my supper was rising up to meet it. One of the yellow men saw me and came over. He was tall, a redhead, but handsome without that raw ugly skin, and his teeth were more or less straight. When he got closer, I could smell the liquor on him and my stomach gave up the fight and lost it into the waste can I had unceremoniously wedged between my knees.

When I finally looked up, with the remnants of a bad fish dinner dripping from my mouth, the guy was still standing there, unflustered, extending a wad of paper towels toward me.

"Sorry Miss, didn't men ta disturb ya. Don't often have that effect on pretty girls."

His brogue was thick, but he spoke slowly. I tried to smile. But the smell from the waste can hit me and I again dipped my head for more seasick torture. When I finally leaned back, breathing heavily through my mouth and trying to ignore anything with an odor, the bloke was still there. He handed me a cup of clear water while eyeing our instrument cases and expensive sound equipment.

"You're not from the islands, I wager," he said as I took a gulp, swirled it around my mouth then spat it into the can.

"No, not even close. I like big continents that don't move."

"It be hard to visit Ireland without going on the boats — flying's too expensive and mostly for the tourists."

Dangling from one of his pockets was a pair of shiny silver handcuffs and I momentarily stiffened. Mr. Yellow Suit saw my reaction and grinned.

"Ah, these. Notin' but toys . . . we have a little trick planned for the blighters in London."

Garrett curled back into a fetal position on the floor and I continued to breathe through my mouth and ignore the liquor smell. This guy seemed nice, and it would be a great diversion to chat it up with the locals until passing out at our hotel in Holyhead.

"You guys into some strange bondage thing?" I tried to smile but was unsure of how my face was reacting. The guy's face split wide and he laughed.

"Naw, notin' like that . . . it's all part of a joke."

"So what are you guys veterans of, anyway?" I motioned to his T-shirt.

His blank stare was quickly replaced by an open-mouth grin and he trotted back to where the rest of his crew were sitting, passing around a bottle filled with something amber. He returned with a contingent of his buddies, all laughing at their private joke.

"So what's so funny?" I scowled, tired of being played for the dumb Yank.

"I think you greatly misunderstand us, Miss," the heavyset guy with a beard grinned. "We're not veterans of anything. We're from the Dublin School, on our way to teach the Brits something about veterinary medicine — over a friendly game of football."

"So why the jumpsuits and handcuffs?"

"Well, when Irish are sent to Britain, it's often as IRA prisoners. We thought we'd show up this way and give 'em a bit of a scare."

"Yeah, Garrett thought you might be IRA

— but we couldn't remember the last time the Irish were veterans of any war."

"You're wrong there, Miss," the red-haired guy said, his smile having vanished. "We've been fighting the Brits for generations. We just do our fighting at home, unlike you Yanks who like to muck up somebody else's country."

"Hey there, Geoff, go easy on her."

"Yeah, Geoff, you're complaining to the wrong person," I said and stood up to visit the ladies.' "I just play the fiddle, I don't make foreign policy."

"Well, maybe if ya sing us a tune, we can forget all about this misunderstanding," Geoff said and the rest of his crowd applauded.

"He's the singer," I pointed to Garrett curled up on the floor. "I just fiddle around — and no, don't ask me to play Danny Boy."

"Fair enough, but at least come over and join our group — one of our boys must have something for your seasickness," the heavy dude said, and I nodded. "And any kind of violin music will be just fine with us."

By dawn I knew more about birthing sheep, treating impacted stallions, and neutering cats than I ever wanted to know. In return, the vets got a taste of fine country fiddle music and learned that all Yanks aren't warmongers, as we must seem to some — just normal people trying to avoid the rough seas between landfalls.

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