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The monolithic cruise liner, Spirit of Kirkpatrick, occupied nine-hundred feet of Palma’s dockland, its gargantuan bulk floating majestically in Majorcan waters. Its multiple decks rose towards the azure sky and portholes lined its red-painted hull like a thousand staring eyes.
It was Jack’s first time aboard a cruise liner, but he wasn’t looking forward to it. Most people would have been excited to spend a week on a four-star passenger ship, hugging the Mediterranean’s golden coastline, but not him. For Jack, relaxation—and the very idea of enjoyment—was an ability of which he’d lost the use of long ago. The only reason he was there was because he had to be—the decision made for him.
An over-tanned holiday rep approached, her aging skin leathery and loose. “Good afternoon,” she said with a Spanish accent. “I hope you all are ready for your holiday. Are you very excited?”
The group of holidaymakers cheered.
Jack rolled his eyes, anxious to get things over with—to get away from the enthusiastic families with leaky-nosed children, and the fondling lovers glancing at him while wondering what a middle-aged man was doing there alone. He was wondering the same thing. Once aboard, his plan was to find the quietest part of the ship and spend his entire week there reading novels and drinking whisky. The other thing he intended to do was sleep—or at least try to. Rest wasn’t something that came easily anymore.
“If you’d all just like to come this way.”
The leather-skinned holiday rep ushered everyone into a cramped vestibule containing a flight of narrow steps. The steps led up to an enclosed gangway that ran alongside the ship. Jack saw a row of tables with more olive-skinned holiday reps sitting behind them.
The passengers formed an orderly line and waited for instructions. A cheap-suited gentleman came to greet them, a sycophantic smile slapped across his smug, moisturised face. “Hello, everybody,” he said. “Welcome to the Spirit of Kirkpatrick. My name is James and I’m a member of the customer service team. If you could all get your boarding passes ready, you will find a passenger number at the top. Can all passengers with a number beginning 02 or 03 follow Karen over to the far desk? Everyone else, please follow me to the near desk.”
Jack pulled out his boarding pass and checked the number: 0206606-B. The passengers split into two groups and he joined the queue leading to Karen. Bright blue rectangles the size of credit cards filled the woman’s desk.
“Can I see your boarding pass, please?” one of the reps at the table asked Jack. His sky-blue nametag read: Brad.
Jack handed over his paperwork and waited while it was examined. Satisfied, Brad plucked up a plastic card from the table and offered it to Jack. “Welcome aboard, Mr Wardsley. Someone will take you to your room once you are on board.”
“Thank you.” Jack moved away to join the longer queue that had now formed further along. A wide hatch on the side of the ship had opened and people were beginning to board. Ahead of Jack stood three young men talking loudly and noticeably drunk. One of them sported a ridiculous haircut of shaven lines and childish squiggles, making his skull resemble a hedge maze. He was the loudest of the three, and every other sentence contained profanity. Jack took a deep breath and tried to keep his calm. Thankfully, it wasn’t long before the queue shortened and the three young men disappeared, barging their way to the front. With any luck, the ship would be big enough that they wouldn’t cross paths with Jack again.
They had better hope so.
Now a little girl and her parents stood in front of Jack. The mum and dad were muttering to one another as if engaged in a spat, but their little angel was oblivious to the tension. The girl was playing with a life-sized baby doll and pretending to feed it with a miniature milk bottle. Her golden pigtails and rosy-red cheeks made her the picture of innocence.
As the queue shuffled along, Jack saw through the hatch into the ship’s interior. Well-trodden, red carpeting led down a narrow corridor before entering a wider area beyond. Midway along the corridor a Filipino woman checked people’s boarding cards as they passed. Just outside the ship’s entryway, a bearded man stood holding a plastic container. The tub was full of rubbing alcohol, and the man squeezed a small dose onto each passenger’s hands as they boarded. The paranoia of swine and bird-flu, SARS, and Ebola, as well as a whole host of other overblown health scares, seemed to increase every year. Jack wondered what good a tiny dose of alcohol would do if a super-virus succeeded in getting aboard. A naïve precaution if you asked him.
The little girl and her parents took their turns with the alcohol, rubbing their hands thoroughly like surgeons scrubbing up.
“Can my dolly have some, too?” the little girl asked the bearded man with the dispenser. “I don’t want her to get a cold.”
The man was unmoved by the girl’s cuteness, but he obliged, squirting an extra blob onto the dolly’s plastic palms. Jack smiled at the innocence of it as he passed by the family and into the ship. He skipped right by the man with the dispenser and instead showed his pass to the Filipino woman standing in the corridor. She nodded her head and waved him through.
The open area at the end of the corridor housed an extravagant foyer with a staircase on the right and an ornate balcony overhead. On the left was a jewellery store and gift shop. Jack was hungry, so his focus fell on a pair of smoked glass doors with the words, OCEAN VIEW RESTAURANT, written above them in green calligraphic script. From the sound of it, and by the shadows behind the glass, the restaurant was heaving.
Jack’s group was the final intake for the day. Everybody else had arrived earlier that morning or on a previous day. It made him feel like a newcomer to a party well underway. A crew member noticed him standing and hurried over, smiling as he approached. The Filipino man’s gawky limbs and bemused expression made Jack think he was unused to greeting passengers, but was trying to make himself useful. His uniform was a light-blue waist jacket with a white shirt beneath, black bow tie, and trousers. Dark hair slicked back, and the beginnings of creases on his forehead put him at a little north of thirty.
“Hello, sir. Let me show you to your room. Do you have your boarding pass?”
Jack handed it over.
“Ah, okay. Cabin B-18, is very nice—a double.”
Jack took the man’s word for it. He hadn’t booked the cabin himself and had expected the bare minimum. If his superiors authorised the extra expense of a bigger room, then he was grateful, but they needn’t have bothered.
“Right now we are on A Deck. We take the elevators down to B deck. This way, please, sir.”
Jack followed the man, rounding a corner beyond the staircase and entering a slim hallway. On the right was a pair of brass-framed elevators where the crewman prodded at a silver button on the wall.
While they were waiting, Jack asked what the man’s name was.
He tapped his name badge that Jack had missed. “Joma. My full name is Jose Mariano Panalan, but you can call me Joma for short.”
Jack found himself without a follow-up comment. An awkward silence crystallised, but Joma stopped it from manifesting fully.
“Can I ask what your name is, sir?”
“Like the playing card, yes?”
The elevator pinged, and the doors opened. Joma took Jack by the arm and ushered him inside. “Is your first time on cruise, yes?”
“It’s my first holiday in ten years.”
Joma whistled in awe. “You must be excited then, no?”
Jack was about to answer that no, he was not excited, but reminded himself that the man was just making small talk, not offering therapy. “Yes,” he lied, “very excited.”
Joma stared at Jack, drilling into him as if he had a secret tattooed somewhere on his skin. “You not bring your wife?”
“I’m not married.”
Joma didn’t probe, which was good. They remained in silence as the elevator descended to B Deck. It was a relief when the doors opened again.
“This way,” Joma said.
Sconces lined both walls of the corridor and bathed the ceiling more than they did the deep red carpet, creating a strange, yet calming atmosphere. Joma padded along between the various cabins until he came to one and stopped outside of it. “18-B. This your room, sir.”
“Thank you,” Jack said, reaching into his pocket to find his wallet.
Joma waved his hand. “You no need to, sir. All gratuities included in your fare.”
Jack liked the sound of not having to tip. He’d been unsure of the etiquette aboard a cruise liner. It was a relief to learn what was expected, so much so that he gave the man a tip anyway. He’d been preparing to do so throughout the entire week, so if this would be the only time he had to hand over money, he’d still be way ahead of budget. Jack gave Joma a five-euro note.
“Very kind of you, sir. You need anything at all, you come see Joma. He work the bar in the Voyager’s Lounge. It very nice and quiet. You have headache, you come to Voyager’s Lounge and Joma make it go away.”
It sounded nice. Jack thought there was a reasonable chance he might end up there one evening, which made it all the better he’d gotten off to an amicable start with the bartender.
“Thank you, Joma. I’m sure I’ll see you there.”
“You settle in good now. Have lovely week, okay?”
“I will.” Jack turned away and inserted the plastic card into a slit in the door handle, pleased when it disengaged the lock, first try. He usually struggled with the blasted things.
His cabin was spacious, with a private bathroom and living room separated from the bedroom by a curtain. Jack had seen smaller bedsits in his time and was pleasantly surprised by the luxury. Also impressive was that his luggage had arrived ahead of him. His bag sat on the floor in front of the wardrobe.
He had to admit he was almost happy. It was nice and private, and there was even a large LCD television in the room, already switched on and displaying information about the ship. The text on screen informed him that the Spirit of Kirkpatrick weighed 40,000 Tonnes and was powered by two Sulzer LB66 diesel engines. Its top speed was 22mph, which seemed slow compared to other methods of travel. Many more facts and figures also popped up on screen, but they weren’t interesting enough to prevent Jack from turning off the set with the small black remote he found on the bedside table.
The bed itself was what interested him. It was a double, and it looked comfortable. He intended to spend at least the next twelve hours there. Even before he had boarded a plane at 8AM, flying two-and-a-half-hours from Birmingham Airport, before taking a forty-minute coach ride from Palma airport, he had been weary. Two years now since he’d last slept through the night, and he was hoping with every scrap of soul that if he could gain anything from his enforced holiday, it would be a tiny measure of sleep. He didn’t hold up much hope though. Even now, as tired as he was, he knew the nightmares would not let him sleep. All he wanted was to get through the week as painlessly as possible. No thrills, no excitement, no anything. Then he would go back to the miserable life he was used to. The life he was already missing, for it was his.
Despite everything he had just thought, Jack fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow.