The cruise seemed to have been going on forever. How many days now since they had left Vancouver? Brad leant into the breeze with his elbows on the rail, gazing disconsolately at the distant snow-capped mountains that slipped slowly past. And there was the curious way the sea seemed to curve up to the horizon, almost as if the ship sat at the bottom of a great bowl.
A few other passengers, some standing, some in deckchairs, were sharing the view, while the inevitable attendant watched them, oblivious to the wind. Turning, Brad could see the ship’s broad wake extending behind them, diminishing to a white line that curved through the channel between the islands. Islands, sea, mountains–endlessly changing, and always the same.
The wind gusted; Brad turned to go in.
“Had enough?” came a quiet man’s voice from beside him.
Brad turned to see an old man in a deckchair, his head turned enquiringly. “Nearly!” he said with a laugh. “It seems ages since we left Vancouver. How many days is it now?”
The man grunted and turned to gaze again at the horizon. He wore a cap and sunglasses and was wrapped in blankets. Must be very old, Brad thought. In truth, that had been one of the disappointments of the cruise. Cruising was a retirement thing; his mates’ ribbing about ‘the pick of the Alaskan lasses’ had proved sadly wide of the mark. Most passengers were like this chap, in their declining years. There were few young people, fewer children.
Brad tried again. “I can’t remember our last landfall.” This was almost true–somehow the smooth succession of days made it hard to track the passage of time.
The man nodded. “My wife feels the same.”
As if on cue, an angular but sprightly woman tripped out of the swing doors from the ship’s interior and grasped the back of the deck chair.
The old man raised a limp hand. “Elsa, have you met my young friend?”
The woman smiled, her face crinkling into lines, and extended a bony hand. Brad clasped it and introduced himself. Elsa proved responsive and, glad of the contact, Brad vented his frustrations with the cruise, the sameness of everything, the unvaried food.
“Oh, my daughter’s just like you!” Elsa said delightedly. “You must meet her–don’t you agree, Henry?”
The taciturn figure in the deckchair inclined his cap, and Brad also agreed. It was determined that they should meet at lunch. “We are the Ullmans,” Elsa confided; “the waiters will know our table.”
Excusing himself, Brad glanced once more at the snow-capped mountains in the distance. The sameness was uncanny: he could almost swear he had seen a particular double peak before. It was if the mountains were sliding past them on an endless conveyor belt. As Brad stepped into the warmth of the ship’s interior, his last impression was of Henry gazing fixedly at the horizon like the eternal watcher in some Greek legend.
At lunch, to Brad’s surprise, Henry came to life. He had been a professor of philology, spending many field trips learning the dialects of the Inuit people in the far north. Brad listened, fascinated.
“I suppose that’s why you chose this cruise?” he said. Then, feeling rather lame, he added, “Although I guess the Inuit are much farther north than this.”
“Oh, Dad and Mom have been everywhere!” interrupted Terry. She–big-boned and cheerful–was the daughter, and a less-likely offspring of her emaciated parents could hardly be imagined. Terry was almost as tall as Brad, and heavily built as if from generations of farming stock. Her check shirt and jeans struggled to contain her heavy frame; Brad recalled the strength of her handshake. He shifted his seat gingerly away from her.
“Yes, we’re going to the Aegean next,” Elsa chipped in. “The Peloponnese! Warmth and sunshine and Greek ruins!”
Brad was intrigued. “So you are… regulars on these cruises?”
“They’re permanent fixtures!” Terry giggled, her broad shoulders shaking.
Edna explained that you got discounts for repeat trips. Given that everything was included–full meals, accommodation, even entertainment–it worked out very economically. In fact–she glanced to the next table and lowered her voice–some retired couples lived on-cruise.
“We practically do,” Henry said drily.
“Well, dear, we do return to land from time to time,” Elsa reminded him tartly. “Not quite addicts!” She smiled at Brad.
Trying to defuse the tension, Brad said that cruising was a fine way to live. Why, his own company (he was in insurance, he belatedly recalled) should develop a cruise package as a retirement product!
That, Terry said, would be a sure-fire winner. At least on this ship!
Realizing he had stumbled into a family minefield, Brad tried to change the subject. What activities did Elsa like on board?
It turned out that dancing was Elsa’s dream. “You shall accompany us tonight to the Lyceum.” (This was one of the bar-lounges on the ship) “My husband is such an old stick,” she confided, “he won’t dance at all!”
As Brad smiled his nervous acceptance, Terry rolled her eyes. Her father kept his counsel.
Contemplating the evening’s prospect with rather mixed feelings, Brad made his way up to the top deck. The sheltered pool area was a sun-trap, and with a blanket it was possible to sit and watch the film. But it was a cartoon; Brad grew bored. Shifting his deckchair, he watched the grey shapes of islands floating past, and then decided to go back to his room. Walking along the low-ceilinged corridor he found himself wondering again how many days it had been since they set out. He couldn’t recall, and as he lay down for a nap, he wondered briefly why this lapse of memory caused him no surprise. Come to that, he couldn’t remember much about his former life.
Lulled, perhaps, by the gentle hum of the ship, Brad slept longer than he had intended. Rushing to wash and change, he slipped on a dark shirt and trousers, and then hurried back up the long corridor. He got confused about directions and staircases, and made up for it by trotting the last leg of the journey to the Lyceum.
The bar was larger than Brad remembered, and in the darkness illuminated by disco lights, he could not at first find his hosts. He marched up and down, peered at tables, until suddenly a lady in glittering sequins rose and grasped his arm.
“Brad, you’re panting! What a keen young man we have with us tonight, Henry!”
Her husband grunted an acknowledgement. Dressed in a Tuxedo, he was almost dashing. And Terry also had an elegant evening gown. Wishing he were better-dressed, Brad sat down, and complimented the family on their attire.
The band struck up, ‘The Tennessee Waltz’. With a, “Come on, we’re not letting you go to waste!” Elsa seized Brad’s hand and led him out to the dance floor. “Go easy on him, Mom!” Terry called after them.
Brad did not actually know the waltz. But when he stepped back from Elsa and started to go through his shuffling party routine, she stopped him with a, “Follow me.” And he found himself embraced by her angular form.
It was embarrassing to feel his partner’s body against his–and such an old woman too! What would his mates say? Given their disparity in size, Elsa could hardly steer his bulk around the dance floor, and he smiled at her efforts to tug and push him along. But as the song progressed, Brad found himself relaxing, until he and Elsa were moving together in time with the music. The sensation was surprising: Brad found himself liking it.
Elsa had hardly led Brad back to their table, when Terry stood up. “My turn,” she said with a nod to her mother. And Brad found himself led back to the dance floor.
The contrast between mother and daughter could hardly have been greater. Terry steered him around bodily, wedged against her great bosom. But while her mother was elegance herself, Terry clumped along, counting the beats and cursing under her breath when she could not keep up. Brad, resisting at first, finally went with his partner’s strength and had the satisfaction of wheeling her into a turn for a graceful ending. The band gave a final blast and as the dancing stopped everyone cheered. The two parents, standing at their table, greeted the couple on their return with a special round of applause.
As Brad sat down, a waiter came up, receiving their order with an impassive face. The contrast between his demeanor and the tumult on the dance floor struck Brad as odd. Glancing round, he saw Elsa looking at him anxiously. He smiled to reassure her. It was, after all, just a dance; it wasn’t their last night on Earth!
The following morning, Brad had breakfast in the Vista cafeteria with a fellow-passenger he had met earlier. As he strolled out, he spotted the Ullmans, and went over to greet them. Elsa was delighted to meet ‘our dance master’, and Terry, when she returned from the buffet, gave him a smile that spoke of a certain understanding–although what that understanding was, Brad hardly knew. But it was Henry, in one of his energetic bouts, who engaged Brad deep in conversation.
Henry was interested in Brad’s likes and dislikes on the cruise. He ranged over the various entertainments, which on the vast liner were extensive, and Brad responded, usually in the positive. Why not enjoy what was on offer?
Then Henry asked, “How do you see the future?”
Brad was taken aback. “You mean, my career?”
“Mm, no, no,” Henry said nonchalantly. “Just the future of this cruise. Or of cruising generally…”
It still seemed an odd question to Brad. How much future was there to this cruise? he wondered aloud. They must surely be back in Vancouver tomorrow, if not tonight.
Henry tried another angle. “Suppose the cruise were to extend another week or two. Would you be able to keep yourself amused?”
The dancing of the previous night was fresh in Brad’s mind, and he could say honestly that thought he would, although it depended on the company.
“What if it were permanent–like retirement on board? Some people do become permanent cruisers, you know.”
Unsure what his host was getting at, Brad retorted, “I’m not retired yet.”
Henry sat back, murmuring, “Quite so, quite so.”
That seemed to satisfy him, for he returned to his plate and chewed bacon thoughtfully, while Elsa tried to interest Brad in the seventies pop quiz being held that afternoon. But when Brad had allowed himself to be persuaded, not least because of Terry’s enthusiasm, Henry returned again to the subject of cruising. Did Brad understand that it wasn’t just Alaska? Why, he and Elsa had been on cruises all over the world. How did that sound?
Brad saw that Elsa was patting her husband’s arm warningly, but to humor the old man, he said that it didn’t sound a bad life. Perhaps when he was older, he would keep it in mind.
Yet Henry persisted. “What about now? How would you feel if you were just to go on cruising indefinitely?”
“Daddy!” Terry said reproachfully, to which her mother added her, “Now, dear, don’t bother our young friend.”
Brad, magnanimous in front of the ladies, said that he should be able to cope with it. “In fact,” he went on, “I’m not sure we are even going to finish this Alaskan cruise. It seems to be going on forever!”
On the way to the seventies quiz that afternoon, Brad saw a strange thing. Two waiters were talking in the corridor ahead of him, and then they slipped through a side door. As he passed, he glanced casually into the doorway, expecting to see some kind of storeroom. Instead, the room was filled with instrument panels. But stranger still, one of the waiters was standing with his back to the other, holding what appeared to be his hair–a toupee?–in his hands, while his mate applied an instrument to the back of his now-bald head. Brad saw all this in the moment of passing, and the tableau remained etched in his mind’s eye.
He tried to describe it to Terry as the MC tested the microphone and other passengers trickled in for the quiz. What on earth did it mean?
“God knows!” Terry said cheerfully. “Why don’t you ask Dad?”
Just then the MC’s voice boomed out welcoming everyone, and the quiz began.
As the sounds of crooning ballads and punk rock numbers poured out into the auditorium, orchestrated by an MC who played tunes, joked and pirouetted like an automaton, Brad wondered briefly what he was doing there. This was music for his parents’ generation–and indeed Henry and Elsa were animatedly filling in their quiz sheets. But then Brad recognized a tune, called excitedly to Terry, and then they were both engrossed in the competition.
Terry, perhaps because of her parents, turned out to know more of the songs, and Brad concentrated on filling out the score sheet. The quiz ended, he hurriedly completed the sheet, then Terry grabbed his hand, and they rushed out to the MC together, just coming second to another couple. The applause from the audience felt good; Brad bowed, and gave Terry’s broad shoulders a squeeze. They were almost a couple. They could do things together. They really could.
On the promenade deck, afterwards, Brad chatted with Terry while their parents walked ahead. It turned out that the young woman was a tour guide taking visitors around the sights near Calgary. “It’s kind of a busman’s holiday for me here,” she said ruefully.
“Why don’t you propose another kind of holiday?” Brad suggested.
Terry looked down, and Brad was surprised to see that she was biting her lip. “What is it?” he asked with genuine concern. He patted her shoulder tenderly. “What’s the matter?”
Terry flashed an angry glance at him. “Don’t you understand? Don’t you see how hard it is, keeping everything going, keeping all that” she gestured to the islands on the horizon “out there? Keeping everyone sane?”
Brad stepped back in shock. “What…? What do you mean?”
Terry, her hands on her ample hips, looked at him in disdain. Then, as Brad opened and closed his mouth, she seemed to relent. “You really don’t understand,” she said, more softly. “We’re here for generations–God knows if we, our descendants, will ever get there–and we have to make the best of it we can.”
Then, as if he were a child, she drew him gently to the rail. The breeze gusted, blowing her hair over her eyes. She drew the hair back, then with the same hand pointed to the horizon. “Look!”
Brad looked. He saw the islands, interspersed with channels in the grey sea, ever-changing and always the same. He looked down to the sea, eighty feet below the rail, and saw how it curved up towards the horizon, and how the grey sky, mirroring the sea, in its turn curved up overhead, sea and sky forming a gigantic cylinder through which the great vessel ploughed on and on seemingly without progressing. And that cylinder itself journeyed through what vast spaces?
His eye fell on a crew member nearby, who stood watching them, neither curious nor attentive, just there. He recalled the two waiters, the way the voyage itself seemed never to have had a beginning, the dimness of the memories of his former life. And he understood.
They had finally arrived in Vancouver–or at least the semblance of the mountains and broad harbor of that city was visible from the windows. Brad had packed; his luggage was in the holding area, and he was waiting for disembarkation in the Vista lounge with the Ullmans among the crowd of other passengers. The mood was subdued. This was, seemingly, the end of the holiday, the parting from friends made during the cruise.
A solitary child had wandered over from a neighboring table. Brad said, “Hi.” The child looked at him with soulful eyes, then wandered back.
“Too few children, always too few,” Henry muttered to himself.
“Well,” Elsa said, “I do hope we haven’t bored you, Brad.” She was looking at him earnestly, almost quivering.
Brad mumbled, not at all. He had enjoyed the cruise, he really had.
“Of course he has, Mom,” Terry broke in. “Who wouldn’t enjoy dancing with you?”
Brad roused himself, and said what a pleasure it had been to get to know them. He had learnt a lot–he nodded at Henry–not just about dancing. He glanced at Terry, but she was engrossed in her handbag. Brad hoped they could keep in touch.
Henry cleared his throat. “You know, we’re going on another cruise.”
“Yes!” Elsa broke in excitedly. “Around the Aegean. Think of it–warm seas and sunshine after this northern gloom!”
Brad asked how they would get there. How was the plane?
“There is no plane,” Henry said quietly.
“No, that’s the beauty of it,” Elsa said excitedly. “The cruise ship just keeps on cruising!”
Brad thought of the distance from Vancouver to the Aegean, the impossible distance. For a moment, his reality wavered. But he just said, “That’s very nice.”
“What Mom means,” Terry said quietly, “is, would you like to come with us?”
Brad looked at them. He saw Elsa’s entreating gaze, Henry agitatedly fingering his luggage labels, Terry, her handbag forgotten, looking at him directly.
Brad glanced around the lounge–the passengers quietly talking or just staring at the wall, with nowhere to go. The attendants watching, always watching, for the slip that would let them take you out of the whole thing. For a moment panic rose in him–he wanted to rebel, to shout his defiance, to bring the whole house of cards tumbling down. But Terry was still gazing at him with quiet confidence. Was that a smile playing on her lips?
“Why not?” he said. And as with a little cry Elsa embraced him, he saw Terry truly smile.
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to literary and he is currently reliving a boyhood passion for science fiction. He has published numerous SF short stories and is building up to longer pieces as he learns more about the universe. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.