I was sitting at a bar with Tom, my ex-husband. He was being pleasant, that’s why I should’ve known it was a dream.
“I think Toni should go back to art school,” he was saying, as an alarm shattered the illusion. I fumbled for my phone under the pillow as the clouds of sleep reluctantly rolled away.
Any messages? Just one, a destination alert. ‘9 miles to The Silent Woman.’ What the hell?! My mind began to clear. The Silent Woman was the name of an old liner, moored out at Saltfleetham, converted into a museum and restaurant. Ironically, Tom and I had once gone there. I remembered the evening. Warm, a gentle sea breeze blowing through the open windows. Enchanting, tinkling piano from the resident pianist, and Tom on his best behaviour, all smiles and charm. And all the time he was seeing Nicholl, the bastard!
Anyway, that was three years ago. Why on Earth should I get a destination alert for that now?
I wasn’t working today, so I’d set the alarm for 9.30. Best get up. Suddenly, I heard the sound of a door closing downstairs. I froze. There was no one in the house, just me.
I reached into a bedside cabinet and took out a kitchen knife. I quickly pulled on my underwear, some jeans and a sweater, then, with shaking hands, I crept down the stairs, startled at the loudness of my breath, and the thumping of my heart. On the second last step it creaked and I heard a noise from the kitchen. Adrenaline pumping, I threw the door open, brandishing the knife. There, on a worksurface, was Cudgel, my neighbour’s ginger cat. Caught in the act, pulling open a cupboard door in search of food, he turned and meowed, then sat and started to lick a paw, as if to protest innocence. I noticed the window was ajar. It can’t have been closed properly, and the cat must have opened it further. Suddenly, Cudgel looked up, his ears flattened and he hissed at something behind me. I whirled round. Tom!
His handsome face wore an evil grin and he grasped the wrist of my hand holding the knife.
“Ow, you’re hurting me!”
“Waving a knife at me isn’t a very nice welcome!”
He turned my wrist around, squeezing harder, so that the knife was now pointing at my stomach. He was strong, something I’d always admired in him, but now he seemed to possess superhuman strength.
‘Stop it, Tom!’
I felt the knife tip puncturing my skin as it pressed through my sweater. Then something began to beep, the kitchen faded and I found myself in bed, dripping with sweat. 9.40. I must have pressed the ‘snooze’ button.
Later, I gunned my little Toyota into sixth gear and put my foot down on the last five miles of road out to Saltfleetham, a straight stretch, where the endless brown marshes reach out interminably on either side. On the horizon I could just see the dark blue ribbon of the North Sea, next stop the fjords and islands of western Norway, 400 miles away. I’d fancied taking a run out to The Silent Woman, assuming it was still there. I hadn’t bothered to check. Let that be part of the mystery!
As I drove down the coast road my jaw dropped. It was still there but it looked rusty, derelict even. I pulled off into an area of low dunes and took my shoes off. I walked across the beach, listening to the waves breaking, feeling the sand between my toes and smelling a scent of wet seaweed in the air.
There lay The Silent Woman, dark blue at the bottom of the hull, but now its white sides were streaked with vertical swathes of rust. The once gleaming-white bridge covered with large brown patches and its windows broken.
There was a gangplank. I ignored a chain and warning sign and trod the boards gingerly until I entered a strange world. Endless empty corridors, echoing to the sound of the waves, and strewn with rubbish. I passed dilapidated cabins, a ballroom where sunlight reflecting from the sea swirled over the high ceiling, and bars where the stools were covered in mould and the shelves bereft of bottles.
Then I heard something that froze my blood, the sound of a piano. A single note played repeatedly, at irregular intervals. I headed down a corridor towards it to find the restaurant we’d visited. And at the piano, lost in thought, Tom!
He looked up. “Hello, Jeanie, it’s good to see you. We need to talk. It’s been so long.”
I felt indignant. “Well who’s fault’s that, Tom? You and Nicholl … well it’s not easy for me.”
“Well, Nicholl and me, we just … clicked. It was fate I guess.”
“That’s what you said about us when we first met.”
He began to play the note again, faster and harder.
“Stop it, Tom!”
The note turned into a beep, and I awoke once more. Goddammit, what was happening to me? The phone said 9.50. Right, out of bed now. No more snooze alarm!
I stood under the shower, feeling the hot water washing my sweaty body clean. I threw a dressing gown on and headed to the kitchen to make coffee. I saw a flashing light on the answerphone and pressed the ‘play’ button.
“Hello, Jeanie, it’s me, Tom. Look, I need to speak with you. I want to help with the children’s school fees and expenses, no strings attached. I’d like to meet. I can bring my lawyer if you want a chaperone. Do you remember, we once went out to a restaurant on an old liner moored at Saltfleetham? The Silent Woman, I think it was called. How about there? Let me know. Please.”
I rushed to my phone. 10.15. I searched my messages. Nothing. No destination alerts! Smiling with relief, I dialled Tom’s number.
Featured in the book, To Cut a Short Story Short, vol. II: 88 Little Stories
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