The swells, one after another, lapped at the dinghy as daylight ebbed. A clear blue sky cracked into hues of lilac, amber and gold that had only a day before filled her heart with joy. When she had felt so alive and free.
Now, scorched and salt crusted, Sanji whimpered. The thought of drifting well into the night without food or water or light or any human company was unthinkable. The red plastic whistle dangled useless from her life jacket. No one is around to hear the shrill note that had pierced the silence just hours before.
I got to hang on. I am a survivor. I can overcome.
As if the sea dissented, a not so gentle swell raised her dinghy higher than usual. Sanji drew in breath. She fumbled as she lunged forward towards the sliding backpack with her bandaged left wrist.
She looked around—what had caused that? It was not from within the sea. The breeze that earlier toyed with her hair was now smacking it and turning her dinghy around. The formless floating rope tied to the back now curled snake-like just beneath the surface of the sea.
Looking behind her, dark clouds loomed.
Five forty-five. The game was nearly over at Serrekunda East Mini Stadium but none of the teams had gone past equalising. The Scottish girls proved to be a tough bunch notwithstanding the baking field in early September; the sixteen and seventeen year-olds from the Glasgow Girls Football Club were tall and had the natural advantage of lengthy strides over their African opponents.
The Red Scorpions from Gambia seemed to be fatigued with the constant running although they were used to the hot climate. It was 32 degrees Celsius with no cloud in the sky. But the Gambians showed mastery in dribbling the ball, noted Albert, the sports reporter from All Africa News. Only ten minutes were left in the Scotland-Gambia football friendly. The Gambian forwards seemed to have forgotten their lethargy earlier and were charged up with newfound energy. They attempted a strike, but the ball bounced off the post.
Then they struck again. Binta Isaka lopped the ball over to her fellow Scorpion striker who then rammed the ball just past the Scottish goalie’s head.
“Goal!” Cheering Gambians leapt to their feet, waving the national flag. Sanji jumped up and down at her own goalpost, calling out her mates to go full steam.
Not giving in to defeat easily, the Scottish lasses moved quickly, passing the ball from one to another, tricking their opponents with clever footwork. About 30 metres away from the goalie, striker Lea McArthur attempted to double her score. She kicked the ball, aiming low. Sanji dived, landing hard on her wrist, but caught the ball in time.
Whooooaaaa! The crowd was ecstatic. The goal keeper got up, rubbed her left wrist, then did her Saturday Night Fever jig, her trademark dance that everyone knew and loved as The Lion Dance. The mop of her hair bounced along with her. The crowd laughed. Albert too laughed. What a funny girl.
Three more minutes. The Scottish team had increased momentum and was bent on upsetting the Scorpion’s potential victory. They were on the attack.
Seeing the Scottish strikers advance towards her, Sanji’s heart knocked hard in her ribcage. She couldn’t let her country down by letting another goal through plus she might lose her scholarship if she did. But most of all, she wanted to carry the trophy in Gambia’s name….
She had boarded the rickety speedboat and not a cruiser as promised. It already had 35 people on it when it could only hold 20 safely. A non-motorised dinghy was tied to the back of it.
“No choice. Take it or leave it. Quick!”
She squeezed through the excited group of passengers for a seat, stumbling over their belongings. Twelve hours later, long after the initial euphoria of being out at sea had died, a storm blew.
The waves grew. The rain hammered. The wind howled.
The speedboat slowed, started to tilt and as passengers scrambled, keeled right over. Out they fell with orange life jackets on. Some panicked and grabbed others, dragging them into the rough sea and climbing over the weak ones. Others, who had at first clung on to the overturned speedboat, gave in to the cold or exhaustion.
She saw a child struggle along with her mother in the sea while the father screamed frantically, none of them knowing how to stay afloat with the life jacket on, and all of them disappearing beneath the waves, one by one by one.
On the dinghy, she held her hand out to save a youth but was nearly pulled down herself. So she released her grip, shuffled back and huddled in the corner as his cries for help slowly ebbed.
Sanji was the only one left now from the whole boat load of passengers and all she had with her was a backpack that stored her thermos flask, sweat pants, a set of underwear, an empty wallet except for a chit and a map of Europe, all meshed in a black plastic bag.
Even though she had nothing else, floating all alone in the Mediterranean Sea with not a single sight of humans, Sanji had never felt so alive. With that thought, she laughed that funny laugh of hers and sang out loud with a cracked voice the Manchester football anthem she knew so well…
What happened next? Read the rest of this short story when She Never Looks Quite Back by Mallika Naguran is out.