‘What on earth have I done?’ Violet Hetherington asked herself.
She was standing in one of several queues in the dock at Southampton. The queues, by now spilling out of the cattle shed marked ‘Departures’, to board the Queen Caroline were long and none were moving. ‘It’s best to get to the docks late,’ her friend Annie had advised. ‘If you get there too early you can grow roots hanging about.’ Annie, married to a diplomat and full of advice, was a seasoned traveller. But on this occasion her advice was mistaken.
After a while an announcement came through the loudspeakers: there had been a ‘breakdown in the computer system’. In the face of this setback the atmosphere among the waiting passengers darkened. Some attempted patience, some brave souls even tried to rise to jollity but for the most part the mood became rebellious. The world was going to the dogs and they had paid good money – many were inclined to feel through the nose – for this voyage. It might be their last chance for a bit of luxury. That they could not even be got aboard efficiently did not promise well for the rest of the voyage.
Vi’s own instinct was to turn tail. She felt in her bag for her phone and discovered that it was missing. This was a good deal more annoying than the length of the queues. It confirmed an uneasy sense that the whole idea of this voyage was one of her mistakes. She hated any form of group activity and here she was, thrown to the lions, and entirely of her own doing. And now there was the nuisance of the phone. Either she had left the wretched thing behind or she had lost it at some point on the journey to the port. She couldn’t ring the minicab company to check because the number – along with all her other numbers – was stored in her phone. The very error that her elder son Harry was always counselling her to avoid.
Behind her in the queue, stood an approachable-looking couple. ‘I’m sorry but, stupidly, I seem to have left my mobile behind. I couldn’t borrow yours to make one call, could I?’
Vi rang Harry on the obliging couple’s phone and left a message asking him to ask Kristina, her Polish cleaner, if she would check to see whether the phone had been left behind. If it was not in her flat then she was going to be in trouble, since she had no other means of finding the numbers she needed in New York. A large part of her thought, Good riddance! But this she did not confide to Harry. Harry had come to the view early in life that, if not older than his mother, he was a good deal more worldly wise. Daniel, her younger son, was more sympathetic to her foibles but that was because he shared them. Dan might easily forget to give Kristina the message at all.
The couple whose phone she had borrowed remarked that they had also arrived late expecting to avoid the crowds. ‘It was a breeze last time,’ the woman, a tall blonde with a ponytail and cowboy boots, recalled. ‘We walked straight on. I’m Jen, by the way. He’s Ken.’
She nodded towards her companion, a broad-shouldered man with a lot of reddish chest hair. ‘Ken and Jen Morrison,’ the man said. ‘We’re a double singing act.’
‘Really?’ Vi was impressed. ‘I’m Violet Hetherington. Vi.’
‘He’s just kidding. Don’t be daft.’ Jen whacked her husband with a copy of Elle.
‘We did think of doing a singing act when we first met, because of Van Morrison,’ Ken explained. A gold Star of David was visible beneath his shirt. ‘But her over there sings like a neutered cat.’
‘Charming,’ Jen said equably. ‘Look out, we’re on the move.’
The press of people moved urgently forward, although, as Ken remarked, the boat could hardly leave without them. Reaching the head of their queue at last, Vi parted from the helpful Morrisons and was ushered towards a window where she handed over her travel documents, credit card and submitted to a photograph for the security pass that acted on the cruise in place of money. As she prepared to go aboard, a man stepped forward with another camera.
‘Is this necessary?’ She detested having her photo taken.
‘Smile nicely,’ a young woman in uniform suggested.
‘But is it a requirement?’
‘I do not want another photograph of myself unless it is a requirement for boarding the ship.’
‘Not a problem,’ said the girl. ‘It just makes a nice souvenir of your trip.’ She made the hint of an eyebrow gesture towards the photographer, who was not bad-looking and was booked for the whole of the world cruise. ‘Go right ahead, madam.’
A couple already wearing Queen Caroline sweatshirts had squeezed past and were now blocking the way as they posed, arms round each other’s waists. Vi waited while they pronounced ‘Sex’ for the photographer and everyone had laughed heartily and then, thank goodness, she was walking up what she supposed would once have been a gangplank but was now an arcade adorned with ugly pots of artificial plants.
The ship’s foyer resembled one of the not-so-grand hotels that have set their sights too high. There were panels of shining fake walnut, extravagant cascades of chandeliers, polished brass plating and carpets patterned in the style commonly found at airports. Vi followed the signs to the ‘Elevators’ which were lined floor to ceiling with mirrors and crammed with passengers who, bedraggled from early morning starts, luggage disposal and the incurable anxiety induced by travel arrangements, might have preferred to be spared the sight of their multiple reflections.
Squashed against the side of the lift by a party of voluble Germans, Vi felt claustrophobia mount along with the lift, which moved upward, stopping at each floor to release a tide of thankful prisoners. But, at last, at the twelfth floor, she stepped out to freedom.
And, thank goodness, her room had the balcony she had requested. She had been anxiously rehearsing what to say if it had not. Ignoring Annie’s suggestion that she wait for a last-minute deal, she had thrown caution to the winds and paid the highest price she could afford in order to be sure of the sea.
The cabin was fitted out in the same would-be-luxury hotel style. The bathroom taps were in the shape of gilded swans, the beaks acting, disconcertingly, as spouts. The bedroom, was plain enough, with a double bed covered by a heavy gold counterpane, a desk and chair, a brown velour sofa and, on the wall, three pictures: a field of poppies, a still life of some seashells and a solemn-looking couple in what appeared to be Dutch national dress.
Vi examined this to see if it could be removed; but it was screwed to the wall, presumably against the Atlantic swell.
She was unpacking her books when there was a tap at the door and a small man, whose smile revealed excellent teeth, entered and introduced himself as Renato, her steward. He enquired after the state of her health, pledged himself to her service and instructed her about the changing time zones.
‘Each day, madam, the clock is set back one hour.’
This was the first piece of good news. It had not occurred to her that rather than wasting time she might actually be acquiring it. Renato also informed her of an impending safety drill.
‘Guests must assemble for drill in main salon, Deck Three, to practise drill in case of emergency.’
‘You mean like the Titanic?’
Renato laughed heartily. ‘Yes. The Titanic. Very famous. You see the show?’
Vi said she had seen the film.
‘The show is better. I see it on Broadway. Very good dance.’
Renato, it emerged, was a ballroom dance devotee and before their marriage had won medals with his wife.
‘Where is your wife, Renato?’
‘She is in the Philippines. She and the kiddies.’
‘That seems a shame. You must miss her.’
‘Oh no.’ He smiled brilliantly. ‘Much better she is at home with the kiddies.’
When Vi returned from the drill (conducted amid a general, and to her alienating, hilarity) she stepped outside, on to her balcony, to watch the ship get under way. The ship slid out of harbour so gradually that it barely registered that they were on the move. Impossible not to feel a thrill at the sheer enterprise of the thing. A little way off, a fishing trawler was making a white wake. A piece of foam detached itself and became a solitary tern, which flew up into the unblemished sky. An Artic or a Common Tern? It was too far off to distinguish. Well then, it would have to be a Comic Tern.
A summary of the dining regime had been included in the information sent in advance of the voyage. Vi was in the Alexandria Grill, one of the upper echelons of the ship’s hierarchical dining system. The ‘dress code for tonight in the Alexandria’, she read, was ‘casual elegant’, whatever that meant. She put on a sleeveless linen shift and a plain black jacket. Too bad if it was not sufficiently elegant, or casual.
There was the question of what to do with her jewellery, Ted’s jewellery: the diamond, sapphire and emerald hoops he had given her as milestones of their marriage; and all the earrings, the brooches and pearls. Vi, who was easygoing about her possessions, had not liked to leave Ted’s jewels unprotected. Harry would be sure to disapprove. Eventually, she had packed the lot so now there was the problem of where to keep them. There was a safe in the cabin. But she might easily forget them altogether there and leave them behind.
In the end, she put on all the rings and bundled the other jewellery into a shoe bag in her suitcase, which she stowed in one of the wardrobes. She had continued to wear the large solitaire diamond, so worryingly valuable she had forgotten precisely what it was worth, with which Ted had proposed marriage. But she no longer wore the wedding band by which he had sealed the contract. Ted would not have liked this. But poor Ted was dead. Oh, but why always say ‘poor’ of the dead? Isn’t it the living who are in need of sympathy? Violet Hetherington thought, avoiding the cruelly reflecting lifts and running impatiently down the red-carpeted stairs to the restaurant.
A questionnaire had been included in the pre-voyage material, requesting that passengers select the numbers with whom they wished to dine. Annie had recommended a table for twelve. ‘It makes it easier to get away from bores,’ she advised. ‘There’s safety in numbers.’ Quite why Vi had followed Annie’s advice in this she couldn’t now remember. Maybe it was simply easier: Annie was so full of advice, it was not always possible to be discriminating.
One other guest was there before her when Vi found her table in the Alexandria, an elderly man with a weathered face and a pepper-and-salt beard, rather more salt than pepper. He looked so like a retired sea captain that she couldn’t help feeling smug when it turned out that she had hit the mark.
‘Captain Ryle, ma’am. I used to be master of one of the line’s ships. They can’t keep me away.’
Vi allowed her hand to be gripped, somewhat painfully on account of the massed rings.
‘Violet Hetherington.’ The captain’s large freckled hand was unexpectedly soft. Noticing him glance at her left hand, where the solitary diamond glinted, she added, for his sake rather than from any need to confide, ‘My husband died last year. This is my first holiday alone.’
Captain Ryle’s leathery face crumpled into comprehension. ‘My wife left me five years ago. Still not got over it.’
‘I’m sorry.’ She understood that it was death and not any domestic fracture that had removed his wife’s company.
‘I miss her every hour of the day.’ The captain blew his nose unselfconsciously into his table napkin. ‘Still, mustn’t complain. Kathleen wouldn’t approve. She was always one for life, Kath.’
‘She wouldn’t have wanted me moaning on. Here.’ He thrust at Vi a basket of breads – really, more of a miniature bakery so exotic was the choice. Vi took a roll, changed her mind and then, not liking to put it back, took another.
‘Good grub,’ the captain said, nodding approvingly at her two rolls. ‘Always get good grub on this line.’
A couple of Americans were being shown to the table: a long-limbed black man with heavy-rimmed glasses and a small, older-looking woman who might have been taken for his mother had she not been white. The man, in a grey suit and a cream shirt, gave an impression of easy elegance. The woman’s hair was done up in an untidy loose bun and her evening suit was a shade of pink which did not suit her pinkish complexion. Side by side, they made a somewhat ill-matched couple.
The woman introduced herself as Martha Cleever and her husband as Dr Balthazar Lincoln.
‘Balthazar as in the Three Magi?’ Vi asked, and was rewarded with a smile so winning that she at once fell a little in love with him.
‘I am generally known as Baz. No one manages the other, except my mother.’ Leaning across Vi, he helped himself to a roll and she detected in his aftershave a pleasing scent of limes. ‘My mother belongs to a mad sect which holds that the ‘wise men’ were angels from Babylon. May I trouble you to pass the butter? She likes to claim she saw an angelic presence hovering over my father’s head when I was conceived.’ Baz, buttering his roll, afforded Vi again the smile that suggested the conspiracy of long friendship.
Encouraged by this, Vi asked, ‘Didn’t your father mind?’
‘If that is who he was. It might easily have been some other chancer. But the man I knew as my father was a patient man (he has passed away now) and he was devoted to my mother. She would not be swayed in any conviction. She is a very stubborn woman, my mother. I am stubborn too, so I know.’
‘Baz is one of seven and his mother’s favourite.’ Martha’s tone was mostly indulgent. She explained that she was an attorney in general litigation and her husband had been on a six-month sabbatical at the London Scholl of Economics. They were returning home by boat as he had acquired so many books that it was cheaper for them to accompany the books home by sea. ‘Baz just adores books. He wouldn’t care what in the world we lost provided his library was saved.’
‘Better hope the ship doesn’t go down then!’
Two newcomers had joined the table. The man who had spoken introduced himself and his wife as Les and Valerie Garson. Until last year, they had run a garage with a Toyota franchise in Hampshire. They had been promising themselves this trip as a retirement present for he didn’t know how long.
‘It’s ever so exciting, isn’t it?’ Valerie asked. She looked, Vi thought, a little depressed.
Her husband had several complaints. ‘No room to swing a cat in our cabin, never mind the wife! Daylight robbery when you think what we’re paying for this. Have you seen the price of the booze?’
‘Baz doesn’t drink,’ Martha said, ‘so I tend not to much either.’ She turned to Vi. ‘How about you?’
‘I drink like a fish,’ Vi said and was rewarded by another dazzling grin from Baz. ‘Did you never drink?’ she asked.
‘My mother’s religion forbade it but, you know, when I got to college and it seemed that at long last I could defy her I found I didn’t like the taste after all.’
‘Did you tell your mother?’
‘He did and she said “The Lord works in mysterious ways”,’ Martha said.
Captain Ryle was confiding to no one in particular that until he met his wife his mother had been his rock and stay, when another couple, Greg and Heather, who had left their four-year-old, Patrick, asleep in the cabin, joined the table.
‘There’s a baby alarm,’ Greg explained. He was still under the delusion that everyone was as captivated by his child as he was. ‘It goes through to a central minding station and if there’s any crying they come and let you know. At least we hope they do.’ He laughed nervously.
‘He’s usually very good.’ In the absence of any interest from the other diners, Heather took up the baton of parental concern. ‘Only we were worried that the movement of the ship might wake him, you know, in a different environment…’
Vi said that she felt that the rocking of the ship might induce rather than hamper sleep. Patrick’s mother looked grateful. The other diners ignored this exchange, supposing, perhaps correctly, that if a stand was not taken from the start the topic of childrearing could take over.
The table was set for eleven but only eight guests appeared.
‘D’you think they cancelled?’ Valerie Garson asked, over her seared yellow fin tuna.
‘They won’t have got a refund,’ Les assured the rest of table. ‘I looked into it when it looked as if Val’s mother might fall off the branch.’
Captain Ryle was tucking into a lamb chop. Years of being at sea had given him an understandable aversion to fish. ‘They’ll be at one of the other restaurants.’
‘Can you eat just anywhere, then?’ Valerie Garson pursued. Les had been advising their friends in Liss that that the Alexandria was the most superior of the several dining possibilities.
The captain explained that if she fancied a change, then there were several other first-rate venues. He also explained, to anyone who cared to listen, what ‘first-rate’ meant while Vi, who knew this already, affected interest.
‘Still, it’s nice to dress up once in a while,’ Valerie Garfield said, looking doubtful.
‘She’s packed for Bloody Britain. Different fancy dress for every night. Nearly broke the bank!’ Les announced. He had ordered a bottle of one of the cheaper champagnes.
Martha said, ‘Oh dear, I’ve only brought one long dress. Do you think it matters?’
‘Of course not,’ said Vi, impatient with all this fuss. ‘If I have to dress up each night I shall certainly not bother to dine here.’
After dinner, Les became expansive and invited everyone who cared for a postprandial nip to join him at the bar. The captain asked Vi if he could show her round the ship.
‘There’s a champion little show on at the theatre tonight. Kiss Me Kate. It’s a company from Exeter. Kath had a cousin, a second cousin, to be precise, in Exeter.’
Vi excused herself with a fictitious headache and went out on deck. A lopsided luminous moon had risen and was laying out across the black water long ribbons of fragile fraying silver. Waves slapped arhythmically against the steel flanks of the ship as she powered purposefully on into the heart of the Atlantic. The air, infused with the moon’s chill silver, wrapped itself freshly and sweetly around her face.
She stood, absorbing the subtle shades and distinctive smells of the sea. What a peculiar thing she had done. And for what would very likely turn out to be a wild-goose chase. Crossing over to the kingdom of night, time seemed suddenly to gather with new possibility. Out of the darkness a strange sense of well-being descended on her, a feeling that things might turn out all right after all.