“A blue marker pen will do the trick, but you will have to renew it every day,” said the lady with the blond curls.
She would have been a stunner in her youth, but even now — those eyes, wow!
“Our dot is tattooed on, and it contains all our information, apparently. I’ve never seen anyone scan it — it’s enough that you have one. Once we leave port, they lose interest,” she said.
For my part, I’m still trying to come to terms with being on this ship — I should be dead, and instead, I’m drawing a blue dot on the top knuckle of my left thumb — life is strange.
“Did you sneak on when we were docked at Melbourne,” she said.
“Sort of,” I answered.
“It’s fun here. Much better than being stuck in a retirement home,” she said.
“I’ll bet,” I said, and I meant it. The thought of ending up in one of those places was a contributing factor in my decision to kill myself.
“We can eat whatever we like, and there’s dancing for those who still can, and there’s alcohol, but that costs extra. Even with the occasional drink it’s cheaper here, and there are sea birds and cute young seamen,” she said.
I like this lady, but I have no idea why she is helping me.
“You’ve bumped your head,” she said.
“That’s an understatement,” I said, as the blood trickled down behind my ear. I can feel it soaking into my collar — a strange sticky sensation. The dull throb in my head is getting louder.
“I’ve got something in my cabin that can fix that,” she said.
“I’m not going to end up looking like a pirate, am I?” I said.
She smiled and took me by the hand as we walked along the corridor. Cabin 234, small, recently painted, efficiently fitted out, and most importantly, a porthole.
“How did you afford a room with a porthole,” I asked.
“It’s a cabin, not a room. They like us to use the correct nautical terms,” she said.
“Fair enough, when in Rome,” I said.
“We aren’t in Rome, young man. That bump on your head has mixed you up,” she said. “I was told I could have a porthole for the same price if I took a tiny cabin. I don’t need a lot of space, but I do like a view.”
I looked through her porthole which had been painted many times — I doubted its ability to open. Her cabin is on the upper decks, and this ship is huge. Her view extended to the horizon. I left a nose-print on the glass, and I wiped it off with my sleeve. This lovely lady bandaged my head and did her best to brush the soot from my jacket. I’m dressed in my best. If I’m leaving this world, I want to be presentable when I get where I’m going.
My curly haired saviour reached into the top drawer of her dressing table and drew out a blue pen and a couple of coloured lollies wrapped in clear cellophane. She pressed the lollies into my hand and drew a blue dot on the knuckle of my left thumb. She did it tenderly — I sensed that I reminded her of someone.
“You can have the pen, it will keep you going for a while — until you find another one. She said find as though she knew this for certain. She opened her cabin door and ushered me out.
“You’ll be fine now. We’ll be through the Heads and out of the bay in a few hours. Keep your head down until then, and you’ll be okay. You’ll need somewhere to sleep, and you’ll meet two ladies who will sort that out for you,” she said, and there was that certainty again.
I didn’t answer her, but I did give her a big smile and a gentle touch on the shoulder. As I walked away I could feel blood soaking into my bandage, and I’d forgotten to ask about food, but I had the feeling that my blue dot would get me into the dining room — ‘drinks are extra.’
This ship was supposed to be the method of me leaving this world, and now I find that it is to be my world, at least for the moment. I’m wondering why I don’t jump overboard?
I’m a weak swimmer, I’d drift away — it would be over quickly.
My curiosity has been peaked for the first time in a long time — I want to see where this is leading. After all, my salvation was miraculous, so what other miracles does the universe have in store?
“So what happened to you, young man, “ said the lady with the red handbag.
“Was it a woman?” asked her friend in the floral dress and the string of pearls.
“Nice pearls,” I said, “and a ship hit me. No woman involved. I jumped off a bridge in a futile attempt to kill myself. I was aiming to disappear into a funnel, but the damn ship was going faster than it was supposed to and I bounced off the funnel and landed in a huge basket of laundry,” I said, and as soon as the words were out of my mouth I knew they sounded crazy, but neither of the ladies looked stunned. Maybe they heard stories like this every day.
“Why jump into a funnel?” said the red handbag.
“That way, there would not be a body for anyone to find. Nice and neat — no mess. And, if you must know, it was to be my final creative act on this earth. To the best of my knowledge, and I did the research, no one has ever committed suicide by jumping into the funnel of a moving ship. I had the mathematics all worked out. I calculated the height from the bridge to the top of the funnel. The ship would be fully laden with passengers and supplies, and even though she would be sitting low in the water, her funnels would only just fit under the bridge at half tide. The ship would not be allowed to exceed four knots for risk of swamping smaller boats and damaging shore facilities with her wake. I had it all worked out except for the fact that you hit a small sailing vessel,” I said.
“Two older ladies out for a sail. They told us over the public address. No need for alarm. The two ladies were picked up by the police launch. It did hold us up a bit though,” said the string of pearls.
“That explains the turn of speed. The captain would have been worried about the rising tide. The speeding fine and resultant claims would have been heaps smaller than the repair bill if he had torn off the funnels on my bridge,” I said, with a sense of satisfaction. I’ve always liked to understand why stuff happens, and now I know why I’m still here. The damn ship was going too fast. All those calculations and they go out the window because two old ladies don’t give way to a bloody big boat. I hope they throw the book at them. Better still, I hope I meet them — but then again, that is unlikely. Wherever this ship is going, I’m going with it, and I doubt I will see these shores again.
“You’ll need a place to sleep,” said the red handbag.
“That would be nice. I could use a lie down about now,” I said.
“Not a good idea for you to be alone for the next couple of days with that head wound. You undoubtedly have a concussion. You need to rest, or there could be dire consequences,” said string of pearls.
“Like dying?” I said, hopefully.
“If you still wanted to die, you would have gone over the side by now. I’m guessing that you are having second thoughts, and if that is so, you should listen to my friend. She was a combat nurse in her day. She’s seen all sorts of nasty stuff,” said the red handbag.
“You’d better stay in our cabin for a few days. That way, we can keep an eye on you and change your dressing,” said the string of pearls.
“A gentleman sleeping in the same cabin as two unattached ladies?” I said.
“I think we can resist you, at least until you regain your strength. After that, who knows,” said the string of pearls. Both ladies laughed heartily, and I managed a smile.
Their cabin was spacious, and I curled up on a bottom bunk and slept and dreamed of old ladies in beautiful dresses.
I remember string of pearls waking me and feeding me soup and changing my bandage. I had no idea why these ladies should take pity on me, and I didn’t much care. Maybe they wanted me for my body — no one had done that in a long time. Perhaps I’d be up to the task — only time would tell. Now there was sleep and soup and trips to the bathroom — and dreams, strange dreams.
“We’ve found you a cabin of your own, and it is not far from ours so you can come and visit whenever you like,” said the red handbag. “It’s cabin 212. The gentleman who owns it got off in Melbourne and never reboarded. This sort of thing happens from time to time, but the person left behind always radios the ship to let them know. Mr Winkle has not radioed. I know because the radio officer likes me,” said the red handbag.
“It’s true, he does,” said string of pearls.
“The stewards will continue to service the room, and they will not know the difference. All old people look alike to them,” said the red handbag.
“When can I see it?” I said.
“Maybe tomorrow. You are getting stronger each day. In any case, all of the smaller cabins look much the same.”
“Does it have a porthole?” I asked.
“Yes, it does. Why do you ask? Not planning to squeeze out, are you?”
“No. I just like to have a view,” I said.
“It’s not very big, but it does have a porthole and all of Mr Winkle’s clothes and things are still in the cabin. He was about your build so you should be able to wear some of his clothes.”
It occurred to me that this bloke was probably dead or shacked up with a woman or lying in a hospital and a John Doe. Sooner or later someone was going to work it all out, but in the meantime, I had a bolthole — a safe haven and a couple of slightly strange allies — things could be a lot worse.
Blond curls was correct — no one asked to see my blue dot when I walked into the dining room. I was a little bit disappointed. I’d taken great care to make the dot perfectly round.
The aroma of delicious food assailed my nostrils, and my imagination went into overdrive.
“Scallop potatoes, beans, fried tomatoes and two sausages, well-cooked please.”
The steward nodded, and I wondered if he noticed that I was not as old as everyone else, but his mind was elsewhere.
I’d let my whiskers grow a bit to give me that scruffy old bloke appearance, and it seemed to be helping.
“You’ll need a tray,” said the gentleman behind me. “Here, take mine.”
He handed me his tray and disappeared for a moment and came back with another one — still damp from being cleaned and put back on the stack.
“Just there,” he said, pointing at the hidden stack of trays. “They tuck them in there to keep them out of the way and to trick new arrivals.”
I took my tray to the nearest table, which conveniently had a view out onto the deck. My tray advisor followed me. We sat facing each other, and he was added to the list of people who did not notice my relative youth.
“So what made you join the voyage of the damned?”
“That’s a bit harsh mate,” I said.
“Gallows humour,” he said as he stared self consciously at his food.
“I like these old folks, er, us old folks. I never thought of myself as old (which was true), but I don’t mind people seeing me that way (also true). Everyone I’ve met since I came aboard has been very kind.”
My new friend grunted.
“You don’t seem to be too happy to be here?” I said.
I looked at my plate, piled high and calculated how long it would take to eat.
“I’ve got fourteen point three minutes. Fire away.”
I was true to my word, and I was kind of listening, but mostly I was savouring a meal that was in many ways, a bonus.
“So, here I am, using up all my money on this endless voyage just so my ungrateful children get nothing when I cark it.”
“It’s your money, mate. Spend it how you like, but from where I’m sitting,” I looked out onto the deck in time to see two well-dressed ladies chasing and giggling after an equally well-dressed man who was running just fast enough to keep them close behind, “you don’t sound like you are enjoying the experience. You do realise that there are approximately six point four women for each man on this ship?”
My companion looked surprised.
“Yep. I counted them. Not much else to do this last week.”
“You’re right,” he said, rising from his seat. “Why am I sitting here with you. These women need me.”
“Are you going to finish that?”
He didn’t answer, so I pulled his half-finished chicken cacciatora in my direction.
I drained my glass of red wine, pushed my plate away just in time for a steward to collect the wreckage of my sumptuous meal.
I walked out on the deck and sat in the sun, digesting my meal.
Sleep found me.
I dreamed of standing on the bridge before floating through the air.
The smell of the clean linen in the huge basket was fresh in my nostrils when I woke. Some kind soul had placed a blanket over me while I slept. The air was cold, and the scent of the sea helped me believe that this wasn’t a dream.
I rolled onto my back and stared up at the rapidly darkening sky. The moon and the brightest star were visible, and as I lay there, other stars slowly emerged.
It reminded me of being a kid, lying on the back lawn in mid-summer, watching the sky and dreaming of adventure.
My life turned out to be significantly less adventurous than I had hoped. Miserable at times. Moments of happiness.
I know that at the time, I was serious about ending my miserable life, but as I lay in the deck chair with the roll of the ship to comfort me, I was struggling to remember why I felt that all was lost.
There must be more than a thousand people on this ship. So many stories. So many potential adventures.
For now, I have a cabin, all I can eat, plenty of company and a blue dot on my thumb.