Tuesday, 22 January 2019

On the Deck (1992)

In the mid 1980s, long before any of my stories had been published, I went through a phase of trying to write tales that had a particular tone, perhaps that of Noel Coward or Ronald Firbank, certainly that of the very early stories of Katherine Mansfield. They were light-hearted, droll and concerned with upper class or upper middle class life, but although I wanted satire to be present, at this stage they also had a certain affection. They were a form of escapism, of course, for at that time my situation was penurious and unsuccessful. By the time my work began to be published I had moved on from this phase, but occasionally it resurfaced.

After dinner, they went out on deck.
"Money is the root of all revel," said Laura, as she sipped the last of the champagne and tossed her glass casually over the side. "Don't you think so?"
"Absolutely." Jerry felt sick. He grasped the rails and bent his head forward. The Beef Chasseur in his stomach began to churn.
"And how delicious the moon is!" Laura added, leaning back and pouting, her fingers idly worrying the beads that looped around her swan's neck. "Big and round."
"Enormous." Jerry clutched his sides and gasped. His cravat had come askew, his cufflinks glittered in the 'delicious' light. He was enjoying himself but little.
"And the swell of the sea, the splash of the fish..."
"Extraordinary."
Laura sighed and lit a cigarette. There were, in fact, no fish to speak of, nor swell of the sea. But there was a moon, so massive and heavy that the proverbial lunar man must surely have filled his cheeks with apples...
Jerry turned his sallow face towards Laura and said, in a voice not unlike a croak:
"I will be happy when we reach land."
"Oh, really!" Laura was exasperated. She inhaled her cigarette in languid disappointment, the curl of the blue smoke rising up to kiss her kiss-curl. "Sometimes I think that you don't really enjoy travelling."
"It's not that," Jerry protested. "It's just that I can't shake off the feeling that something is not quite right. I mean, where are all the other passengers? And why does the Captain keep changing our destination?"
"He's a wonderful man," Laura replied. "All this was his idea. I never thought I would travel. Especially not in such style. We owe him a lot."
Jerry expressed doubt.
"He winked at me tonight," Laura said, realising it for the first time, according it exaggerated significance as a result, and trying to repress a hot flush and a giggle. "He might even touch my knee tomorrow."
"Bah!" Although Jerry was jealous, he did not feel left out. He too had an amorous secret. The Captain had also winked at him...
"I think we're heading for Ceylon," Laura said, "where the girls are lithe and mysterious and their hair smells of sandalwood."
"It's Sri Lanka now," Jerry corrected. "Besides, you're thinking of Burma. They wear little bells around their ankles and they capture little birds in cages just to release them again. Rather odd, don't you think? Just a trifle odd?"
"Not at all. I think it's very beautiful. If only I could find a man strong enough to capture me and then let me go again, I would be happy. To be enticed and then rejected out of love..."
"You're such a decadent!" cried Jerry.
Laura smiled a wry smile and adopted a decadent pose. She had read enough French novels to know that true decadence is affected, and that it is the pose that counts. "Alas!" she said, for no good reason.
Music drifted on the still air, a suitably romantic waltz that washed over them, and over the rails, into the night.
"The band!" Laura squeaked. "How perfect! We must dance immediately! Take me in your arms and spin me around, your sensuous mouth fixed on mine!"
"I'd rather not." Jerry turned green at the prospect. "My stomach is not up to it at present. And you've got to maintain a sense of proportion."
"On the contrary! You've got to dream!" And Laura snatched him by the hand and dragged him close, clasping him savagely and whirling him in a tight spiral. Although he struggled mightily to loosen himself from her clutches, he only managed to free one arm, and this flapped like a flag as she spun him faster and faster.
"How exquisite!" she cried, as they crashed against the rails and rebounded. "How gorgeous! My darling, my swallow, my monstrous orchid!"
Eventually, of course, it was all too much. Jerry threw up.
"I'm sorry," he panted, dejectedly. "It was all too much."
"You wretch, you sombre wretch!" Laura was in tears. She pounded her fists against his chest and wailed. "I'm never coming on another trip with you again! I'm going to seek comfort in the arms of the Captain!"
Jerry had collapsed in a pool of nausea. "I refuse to play any more!" he groaned.
Laura ignored him and left the deck. The Captain was waiting for her in an easy chair. He had seen everything. "Oh Captain!" she hissed. "It's not fair! You've got to dream, haven't you?"
"Indeed." Smiling gently, I tugged at my magnificent beard and stood up. I was feeling in a benevolent mood. I had already cleared away the remnants of the meal and washed the dishes.
"Sometimes it's the only way to cope with life." She fell into my arms and nestled there like a child. "When life seems drab what else is there?"
"What else?" I echoed. "Yes, you have to dream."
"Oh, Captain! You're a sweet darling. My husband doesn't understand me..."
We were interrupted by an angry knock at the door.
"What was it this time?" I asked her.
She gazed up at me with puppy eyes and blushed. "A champagne glass," she said.
I shook my head disapprovingly, but she could see that my fondness for her had not dissipated. I patted her on the head and winked again. "China tomorrow," I said. "And then Japan."
Before answering the door, I doffed my cap, moved over to the gramophone and lifted the needle off the record. I hoped that the unexpected caller would accept a bribe. I inspected my wallet. Maintaining the dream was proving expensive. I cast doubtful eyes out onto the deck and listened for the swell of the sea, the splash of the fish.
Twenty floors below, the London traffic flowed onwards.


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