The ocean is white and pink and purple and red and yellow and brown and green. After weeks at sea, the captain clambers up the mast of his yacht and scans the horizon with binoculars, rotating himself degree by degree until he has turned full circle.
‘This is it. I am here.’
There are nothing but plastic bottles, plastic bottles as far as he can see.
The yacht slides on, carving a V-shaped wake through the bottles as it goes. The captain turns to watch the gash – brief glimpses of a dirty blue – slowly filling in behind, erasing all traces of his passing. He hugs the mast and closes his eyes. He feels nothing, not even the wind.
The bottles clunk gently against one another, so softly he can hardly hear them.
Down on deck, he opens the freezer and takes out a miniature bottle of champagne. He pours the champagne into a plastic cup, which he raises towards the sky. He pauses, frowning, and thinks for a while.
‘Yes, this is it,’ he says finally. ‘Yes, I am here.’
He drinks the champagne in tiny sips, gazing at the bottle-covered ocean.
All the colours in the world are there, worn dull by the waves. When the last drop of champagne is gone, he tosses the bottle over the side. Then he tosses the cup over too. Within seconds, he can no longer see them.
The yacht drifts on for an hour. Half a day. The ocean’s surface changes. The plastic bottles become interspersed with other items of debris: footballs, tangled carrier bags, crumbled hunks of polystyrene, flip-flops, bergs of packaging foam. The captain watches it slip by with a sense of awe. He spots flower pots, fragments of fishing crates, once the half-submerged torso of a doll. He wonders if the head is here too, and if so, whether the motion of the waves will ever push them back together.
The yacht drifts on. Its prow cuts a swathe through Tupperware boxes, lids, foil wrapping, crisp packets, objects he can’t identify. Always plastic bottles, in their hundreds and thousands. He squints overboard to read the names, or recognises brands from faded blocks of colour: Coca-Cola, Pepsi, 7-Up, Schweppes, Sunkist, Mountain Dew.
Occasionally something larger bumps against the hull: half a green plastic garden chair, a refrigerator door. They could have come from anywhere, from any land in the world.
Later, the captain goes below and heats a ready-meal in the microwave. He eats chicken chow-mien from a greasy plastic tub, and, after wiping it clean, tosses the tub over the side, along with its plastic fork. The tub drops between an empty ice-cream carton, so faded he cannot make out the name, and a four-litre bottle that once contained mineral water.
How quickly things return to their own. It satisfies him, somehow.
Night falls over the plastic sea. The captain wraps up warm and sits on deck, watching the sunset with a bottle of wine and a packet of cigarettes. The ocean is calm, its gentle undulations spreading slow ripples through the trash, giving it almost the effect of breathing. The falling sun catches on pieces of foil and shards of bright PVC. Gradually all colour leaches from the scene, leaving only spots of white that appear to glow, as if holding the light, as everything else goes dark.
‘This is it. I am here. Tomorrow begins the rest of my life.’
Alone on his yacht, it seems to the captain as if he’s never seen anything so lovely.
The horse latitudes, as they are known, are situated between thirty and thirty-five degrees on both sides of the equator. Wind and rain are uncommon there. The ocean is calm, subdued. The captain has always enjoyed the name as much as the legend from which it sprung: that Spanish ships, becalmed for weeks on the glassy millpond sea, would be forced to throw their horses overboard when water supplies ran low.
Of course, it’s a dubious theory. Historians suggest a more pedestrian etymology. But to the captain, the name is apt. In the days before plastic was conceived of, he imagines an ocean of abandoned horses, bobbing gently up and down, their hooves sticking up towards the sky.
The North Pacific Gyre, through which the northern horse latitude runs, is located in the Pacific Ocean between the equator and fifty degrees north. A gyre is a vortex caused by a system of rotating ocean currents; in the case of the North Pacific, the currents that turn this vast wheel of water are the North Pacific Current, the California Current, the North Equatorial Current and the Kuroshio Current, which between them spin the ocean in a clockwise direction, channelling debris to a central point from which it cannot escape.
The existence of the rubbish patch through which the captain is drifting now – wrapped up in his sleeping-bag, one arm dangling over the bunk, dreaming of nothing that he will recall – was theorised before it was observed. Researchers studying oceanic currents predicted such an effect. It wasn’t until the closing years of the garbage-strewn twentieth century that a sailing ship, cutting through the subtropic high between Hawaii and California, entered an uncharted ocean of plastic that took a full week to traverse.
The area’s true size is unknown. Estimates range from three hundred thousand to almost six million square miles.
It seems unbelievable, in an age of aeroplanes and satellite images, that such a vast region of pollution could have remained unseen for so long. But these, after all, are seas seldom travelled. They lie thousands of miles from the nearest landmass, their emptiness unbroken by islands. They lie on no trade routes, shipping lanes or notable fishing grounds. This is an ocean en route to nowhere. A convenient vanishing zone for lost, unwanted things.
Also, all is not visible, not to the naked eye. There’s more to the patch than rafts of Pepsi bottles and atolls of Styrofoam. Mostly it consists of particles that have been ground by the action of the waves to a minute, multicoloured sand, partially suspended below the surface, in the upper neustonic and epipelagic layers of the water column. Plastic cannot biodegrade. Its tightly-bound polymers cannot unravel. It can only reduce and reduce, growing tinier with each passing year, from the miniscule to the molecular level, changing the very composition of the sea.
Celluloid, mankind’s first plastic, was invented in 1855. The first entirely synthetic plastic was bakelite, fifty-two years later. This was followed by epoxy, polystyrene and polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, polytetrafluoroethylene, polypropylene, polycarbonate, polymethyl methacrylate, melamine formaldehyde; nylon, Styrofoam, PVC, Teflon, Plexiglas, Perspex. The products were mated with themselves to develop ever-stronger bonds, polymers that could not be broken; resistant to heat, friction, crystallisation and biodegradation. The twentieth century was the plastic age, when human beings tore free from organic structure. The plastic age was mankind’s first convincing stab at immortality.
The captain mumbles the names of the plastics. He recites them to the waves, watching the colours merge and bloom. Surely the very first particles are here, in the centre of the North Pacific Gyre. Ground to a microscopic dust. They have been here for a hundred years, waiting for man to catch up. Going to the centre of the gyre is like travelling back in time. Back to the dead hub of everything, from which nothing can escape.
The captain left the hospital quickly. He wasn’t a captain then. He was a man with a different existence. His wife had just come back to life.
He crossed the car-park, hopped over a fence and went straight into a phone box. In the phone box he rubbed his forehead, creasing the wrinkles up and down. He banged his head on the plastic window and moaned softly into his fist. Then he took out a mobile phone and tapped in a number.
He didn’t know why he went into the phone box. Perhaps he was simply old-fashioned.
‘It’s me,’ he said. ‘It’s me. I’m here.’
‘How are you? Is everything alright?’
The captain didn’t know what to say. ‘I’m here,’ he said again.
‘I’m outside the hospital.’
‘Do you want me to come? Wait, I’m coming.’
‘No,’ the captain said. He drew breath. ‘No, you can’t come now.’
‘What did you say? I can’t hear you.’
The captain was silent for a time.
‘Are you there? Do you want me to come?’
‘No. You can’t. You can’t come.’
‘What’s going on? Has it happened?’
The captain found himself silent again. He couldn’t form the words.
He went there once or twice a week, though it used to be three or four times. The nurses and cleaners knew him well. They kept a special chair aside, made sure it didn’t get moved.
He sat by the bed and looked at his wife. Sometimes he raised her hand from the sheet and studied it in the sunlight. He tried to imagine it doing all the things it used to do, every day. He couldn’t imagine it. He looked at the tubes and wires and machines, performing their separate functions. He watched the nurses who came and went, taking notes and measuring things and levering his wife’s heavy body to clean her and change the bedclothes.
He thought of how it used to be, before the accident. He examined pictures in his mind to see how much truth was in them. All that were left were composites, contaminated images, memories he couldn’t trust. He had already let most of the pictures go.
He thought of his life as it was now. The unreal suspension in time, the featureless months of waiting. But mostly, he thought of the other woman. Of how the future would be.
‘Has it happened?’ she asked on the phone. ‘Come on, talk to me.’
‘No, it hasn’t happened,’ he said.
‘I thought… When I heard the phone. I just had a feeling.’
‘No. Not that. It wasn’t that.’
He stared through the window of the phone box, towards the hospital doors. At any moment, he expected to see the doctor searching for him, summoning nurses or porters to scour the car-park. But probably, no-one would come. No-one would believe that he would do this.
He knew that he was required to speak, to be strong and firm and make decisions and take responsibility. But he found no inner strength, no resources to draw from.
On his third day in the gyre, the captain sees a boat on the horizon. At first he thinks he is mistaken. But the boat comes closer. It’s a curious kind of boat, with a long, sharp prow like a canoe, and two fine grilles extending like wings from its port and starboard sides.
The boat is crewed by two men and a woman wearing red t-shirts displaying the logo of an oceanographic institute.
The captain watches them with amusement as they squint and stare.
‘What are you doing?’ asks one of the men when they are in talking distance.
‘Nothing. What are you doing?’ says the captain.
The man explains they have built this vessel as part of an investigation into pelagic plastic pollution in the North Pacific. He says this craft will pioneer a clean-up operation of vast proportions, to be shared between responsible nations, in which hundreds of thousands of tonnes of waste will be skimmed from the ocean’s surface.
The captain doesn’t say anything. He takes a Dairy Milk bar from his pocket and breaks off a square.
The woman continues from where the man left off. She tells the captain of their studies into the effect of plastic pollution on the surrounding ecosystem and marine wildlife. She opens a freezer-box on the deck and produces a stiff, sodden albatross, its throat tangled with nylon fibre, polystyrene wedged in its gullet. In parts of the North Pacific, she says, plastic micro-pellets outnumber zooplankton by a factor of seven. Plastic has crept into the food chain, is being ingested by everything from jellyfish to large mammals. No-one yet has the slightest idea what impact this might have.
The captain watches patiently as the woman displays her other exhibits: a triggerfish with three bottle caps in its belly, a guillemot full of foam.
When the researchers have finished speaking, he eats his last square of Dairy Milk. He lets the wrapper drift away in the breeze, where it comes to rest against a polyethylene milk jug.
The researchers stare at him from their boat.
‘Asshole,’ says the woman.
‘You expect to clean an ocean with a boat like that?’ says the captain, without any malice at all.
‘Come on, let’s go,’ says the woman. She slams the lid of her albatross box.
‘And even if you skim off a tonne, a thousand tonnes, what will you do with it? Burn it? Bury it in the ground? I don’t understand.’
The woman ignores him. She puts on a baseball cap that matches the logo on her red t-shirt.
‘How long have you been out here?’ calls one of the men as their craft pulls away. ‘Where are you headed?'
The captain doesn’t answer him, but he shields his eyes to watch the boat go, growing gradually more indistinguishable, and finally raises his hand in a motionless salute.
That evening he smokes three cigarettes and drinks half a bottle of wine. He lies on his back on the deck and watches the daylight disappear. He makes noises, of varying pitches and depths. The stars are brilliant here.
He’d been going in as normal that day when one of the doctors who knew him well caught his arm by the lifts, took him to one side.
‘I want you to prepare yourself for a shock. Some unexpected news.’
The captain felt his heart lift off, and then come crashing down. He was aware of a feeling like pins and needles in the palms of his hands.
‘Your wife is awake. She opened her eyes about half an hour ago. She tried to sit up. We were going to call you, but we knew you were coming in. She can’t speak yet, and she doesn’t know where she is. She’s confused.’
The captain tried to smile, acutely aware that the doctor was waiting for his reaction, but his mouth was staring like an empty eye.
‘We need to do some primary tests. We can’t say anything conclusive. We can’t discount the possibility that she won’t regain full capacity. She may be brain-damaged. I want you to know that. Whatever happens, it will take time and care.’
‘Time and care. Right, yes.’
‘Well, shall we?’
‘Shall we what?’
‘Shall we go in and see her?’
The captain followed obediently, down the familiar halls. He wasn’t thinking anything. He didn’t trust himself to think. The doctor took him to the bed and quietly stepped aside.
His wife was looking right at him. He was almost surprised that her eyes were still the colour they used to be. He stared at her. Her face moved. It was like watching wax melt. To his horror and disbelief, she smiled, looking into his eyes.
He laid his hand on her hand, but he didn’t pick it up. The sheet was crumpled under her arm. He found himself smoothing it.
‘I’m going to leave you alone for a minute,’ the doctor said gently.
‘No, not yet. Stay here for one moment.’
The doctor gave him a curious look.
‘I need the toilet. I’m… in shock. I’ll be back, please stay here.’
He left the room and went to the toilet and splashed his face with water. One of the cubicles was occupied. A pair of green and yellow shoes was visible under the door.
The captain felt sick. He wanted to throw up, but he didn’t want the cubicle-dweller to hear.
He washed his hands with soap from the dispenser. The soap was full of micro-pellets, glittering green in the slime. These micro-pellets would go down the drain, pass unfiltered through processing plants, and eventually they would be washed out to sea. Rejoining with their kind.
When he turned his face back to the mirror, his expression was aghast. The pink that showed in the corners of his eyes was an image of simple terror.
When he exited the toilet he turned right instead of left, took the stairs instead of the lift, and smashed his way through the doors, letting them swing back behind him. He didn’t stop until he was in the phone box. He thought it would give him breathing space, but he could hardly breathe.
The engine is silent. The sail is furled. The yacht rests, curlicued with foam. The captain spends his days on deck, reading old National Geographic magazines, observing small changes in the sky, making inventories and counting his rations. One day the rain begins falling lightly, and lasts for an hour or so. It seems to the captain that rain on the ocean is a waste of water.
He doesn’t have much need to eat, and he sleeps surprisingly little.
He has seen no other boats. He doesn’t expect to see them.
The captain has enough supplies, carefully stacked in the hold, to survive for over a year in the gyre, perhaps even two if he is sparing. Assuming he eats just one meal a day, assuming he drinks exactly one half-litre bottle of water. The alcohol, chocolate and cigarettes will run out after six months or so, but he hopes that by that point, he won’t have the need.
He has also brought deep-sea fishing lines, hooks and nets and sinkers. The ocean contains fish of all shapes and sizes, even here, amongst so much waste. The fish will be saturated with plastic, infinitesimal nurdles. He will ingest vinyl chloride and di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate, carcinogenic and mutagenic, substances banned by responsible nations. In this way, he will enter the food chain. He will arrive at its apex. The plastic sea will pass into him, changing his very composition.
But for now he leaves the lines alone. It occurs to him that he packed no bait. He will have to bait his hooks with pieces of chicken chow-mien.
It is hard to tell, without instruments, whether the yacht is drifting on the waves or whether the ocean’s surface is changing, subtly shifting its patterns. The depths are far too great to drop anchor, but, without wind, he assumes he will simply remain where he is, slowly revolving around the same point. There are no other factors to act upon him now. He came here to go nowhere.
He has the image in his mind of the plastic ceaselessly spreading around him, expanding like a summer bloom of algae. Every scrap, every wrapper, every polystyrene coffee cup that finds a route from the land to the sea, from Japan to Mexico, is making its way towards him now, inevitably honing in. He sits at the centre of an orbit, dragging in lost things.
‘What’s going on? Please let me come,’ said the voice on the phone. He didn’t know, when he dialled the number, that this was the last conversation they’d have. He didn’t yet know what it had meant to leave the hospital. Every action is a decision. Already an ill-defined thought had stirred, something vast, imprecise and unformed, but it hadn’t yet crystallised into an image of a yacht on the open sea.
‘I can’t do this.’
‘You can’t do what?’
‘She’s woken up.’
‘I don’t understand.’
‘She’s woken up,’ he said again, and this time he said it sharply.
‘I’m still going to come. Wait there.’
‘No, please. You can’t come now. They said… perhaps brain-damage. Time and care.’
‘I don’t believe it.’
‘Time and care. Years, perhaps.’
The captain’s hands were twisting, his fingers clenching in feeble rage. He felt like his body was strangling him, and he didn’t know how to writhe away.
‘You can’t let her do this to you now,’ said the voice on the phone.
‘But I have to. Don’t you understand?’
‘You can’t, not after all this time.’
‘But who will take care of her? They expect me…’
‘What about me? What about everything?’
The captain made a noise like air escaping from a balloon.
He hadn’t meant to make plans with her, not while his wife was still alive. The plans had somehow made themselves. An idle word would become an idea, an idea would become an intention, and the intentions would breed with themselves to form complex, tightly-interwoven futures. Soon the futures became more real than the present or the past. The futures were what kept him going. Moving cities, continents. They multiplied around him.
And then he was shouting into the phone, mumbling, tripping over words, making no sense to himself or anyone else. He made sounds that didn’t even sound like sounds. He was trying to explain something.
When he stopped, there was silence on the line. His phone bleeped once, disconnected.
He knew she’d be hurrying to her car, driving fast through traffic.
‘I can’t do this,’ he said again. They felt like the most painful words he’d spoken, but he wasn’t even sure what they referred to.
Sometimes, if the captain squints, if he has drunk a bottle of wine, if he has spent the night on deck, making noises at the stars, he sees things in the pattern of the seas. Amorphous pictures that break apart and blend, dotted masses of colour. Sometimes it looks like grazing flamingos, seen from an aeroplane through clouds. Sometimes it looks like thousands of faces, all the races of the world, crowds at a great political rally at which he is centre stage. Sometimes it looks like old film footage, slowly zooming into the grain. Sometimes it looks like a pointillist painting. Meadows of spring flowers.
He has been three months in the North Pacific Gyre. The time doesn’t seem so long.
He has come to recognise familiar landmarks in the structure of the sea. An island of polyurethane foam. Tangled reefs of purple twine. Archipelagos of bottle caps.
He thinks about the horses long ago, pitched overboard like polystyrene cups. Bobbing gently up and down, their hooves sticking up towards the sky.
Caught in the balance of two things, he didn’t see then, back there on the phone, that two realities necessitate a third: the empty space between them. And that space is viable, open. It waits to be colonised.
He has a ream of paper on deck, and he spends long hours making diagrams, charting the uncharted spaces of the ocean. Inventing names for things unnamed. Making maps of a strange new world.