I stood at the railing, gazing out to the haze of the distant level horizon. The sea was calm, low deep blue waves undulating slowly, barely hinting at their potential ferocity. Ahead and far below me was the bow of the cruiser, where people, ant-like, sat by an unusually empty pool. I sighed and thought of Janie. Bitch! We’d had problems, sure, who doesn’t? But her leaving had come as a shock.
It was Valentine’s Day, of all days, and I’d ordered some Adrenaline roses, her favourites. Unexpectedly, a silver BMW had pulled up, and I’d recognised Andy, her gym trainer, his dyed-blond hair swept over in an attempt to look youthful. Obviously it had worked. Janie appeared. “Look Steve, I don’t want a scene. I’m leaving. Me and Andy … I’ll be in touch about my things.” She’d looked embarrassed and hurried out, clutching her sports holdall, before I’d had time to reply. I watched her get into the car and kiss him. They drove off without looking back. Just then the flower delivery van had turned up. I’d taken the roses and thrashed them to pieces in the back garden with tears streaming down my face.
–“Full fathom five thy father lies, of his bones are coral made.”
Surprised, I looked around to see a young woman with medium length blonde hair and sunglasses. She wore a jade green dress with a modest neck line.
I couldn’t help myself. “Those are pearl that were his eyes, Nothing of him doth fade.’
“But doth suffer a sea-change,” we both said, in unison.
She laughed. “I don’t think there’s many on this ship who know Shakespeare!” Her voice was husky. “Why aren’t you on the island?”
“Oh, I fancied some time to myself.” I’d accompanied my mother on this cruise, naively not anticipating the non-stop queuing for lifts, queuing to embark and disembark, crowded pools full of rowdy children, and endless bars, cafes and restaurants thronged with people.
“I know what you mean. My name’s Jamie by the way.”
“Hi, mine’s Steve.” Jamie, Janie. Hmm.
She shook my hand, her palm was dry and warm and her long slim fingers wrapped around mine and squeezed. Her nails were short with a clear varnish and she wore a curious gold ring in the form of a coiled snake with two tiny purple stones for eyes.
We stood in companionable silence, gazing in awe at the endless sea. A warm breeze blew her blonde hair back showing high cheekbones and full lips, lightly made up. She was tall and slight and her skin was tanned. I felt self-conscious of my own pale flesh and paunch, trying to hold my stomach in below my white T-shirt.
“Are you with anyone?” she asked.
I told her about my mother – aged, irascible, partially deaf and between cataract operations. Mother had said she was looking for a sugar daddy. I’d asked Jamie if she knew of any blind 90-year olds on board.
She laughed as if I’d told the world’s funniest joke. “I’ll keep an eye out! Sorry Steve, I have to go. Look do you know ‘Arabella’s Sushi?”
I said I’d heard of it. It was a bar that moved between decks every day. A novel idea that appealed to me.
“Would you like to meet tonight? It’s on deck six today. Say 8 p.m.?” she said.
“Yes, that’d be lovely,” I replied, trying not to sound too desperate.
That evening I’d showered and spruced myself up. In a pastel orange shirt, cream linen slacks and, holding my stomach in I thought I didn’t look too bad.
I arrived early, feeling rather apprehensive, to find the bar wasn’t crowded, even though the throngs had returned from viewing Roman ruins – only a few tables were taken. I got talking to an attractive Filipino waitress. She was friendly, seemed happy to chat and told me they worked seven days a week whilst on cruise. For no reason I found myself asking if anyone had ever gone overboard. Her face changed. Yes. On the last cruise. A young woman, that’s all she knew. But it was bad luck to talk about it. I apologised and her friendly demeanour returned. Suddenly I realised it was twenty past eight. No sign of Jamie!
I’d waited until nine and then, despondent, had given up, returning to our suite to find mother with another ‘old bag’, although somewhat more presentable. She introduced me to her as Iris Brummage. Apparently she was a retired professor of mathematics. Mother, being a fawning snob, had latched onto her.
I went out onto our balcony and sat looking out to sea, disheartened. What the hell had happened to Jamie?
The days passed. Mother went off the boat most days with her new friend and I felt as if I was the only person on his own. Everywhere were couples or families with young children. I scanned the crowds for Jamie, even asked in every cafe and bar I went to, but no-one knew her. In one cafe however, a waitress had looked at me strangely. “On a cruise, people aren’t always who they say they are.”
One day, looking down from our fifth-deck balcony, I thought I saw Jamie’s blonde hair and jade green dress far below on the lower deck. I’d raced through corridors and down endless staircases, eventually coming out where I thought I’d seen her. I looked in vain, finally asking some sunbathers, who said they didn’t remember her. They regarded me curiously, seeing me sweaty and anxious.
In my time on the cruise I found the other holidaymakers generally friendly and easy to converse with. However I soon grew tired of the endless chat of what deck was I on, what was my cabin like and what shows had I seen? None! Then would come interminable stories of previous cruises. They were well-meaning but I wanted someone on my own wavelength. I longed to hear Jamie’s husky voice laughing and to see her sunny smile again.
It was towards the end of the cruise when I found myself wandering along a part of our deck I hadn’t visited before. Not hard, considering the size of the place. Floating city was about right, and I never did learn to find my way around. Hearing music, I passed into a large open space with a bar at either end and chairs dotted around, where a pianist, drummer and guitarist were playing jazz. To my surprise mother and Mrs. Brummage were there. Mrs. B waved and smiled. She wasn’t so bad I supposed. I ordered a lager at the bar nearest the band. The barman was another Filipino, middle-aged and sympathetic. I asked my usual question. Had he come across a young lady called Jamie, early thirties, tall, slim, blonde?
“No, sorry sir, so many people!” He gestured, opening his arms, laughing. Then, “only Jamie I know is pianist here.”
I looked at the man on the piano, young and slim, currently drawing out mellifluous melodies with apparent ease.
“D’you know him well?” I asked.
“Not really. He and Alan, the drummer, well… they, are, er… together, if you know what I mean.” He smiled wryly.
Mother and Mrs. Brummage came over. Mother spoke. “We’re going to Hairspray. D’you want to come?”
I looked at the pianist again. His tanned face, handsome yet effeminate, looked around and through me, as if I were invisible. I felt a jolt of recognition. Then he looked down again, watching his slender fingers fly. I walked past the piano, feigning nonchalance, observing him askance, then froze, seeing a familiar snake-like gold ring. How fitting! I felt sick.
I returned to mother, “Yeah, let’s go. I can’t stand jazz…”
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short: 111 Little Stories
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