UPDATE: A version of this piece by MJ Hyland, shortlisted for a BBC National Short Story award.
It’s not even eight o’clock and already the sun’s burning bright. Trudy and I stand in the shade of the Orient Line ticket-booth at Circular Quay and watch the passengers leave the Oriana.
Trudy’s always talked about how we’re going to be millionaires, how we’ll take a journey on a luxury cruise-liner from Southampton to Sydney, how the ship will be all lit up like a private city in the middle of the ocean, a thousand people asleep in their beds.
She’s wearing a tight red dress. It isn’t an evening gown, but it’s long and low-cut and it shows the good and the bad of her – the roundness of her hips, the plumpness of her rear, and the growing band of her belly.
I’m wearing the clothes Trudy chose, the best clothes I own, a pale blue linen suit, and a lemon shirt to go with the jacket.
I think we look just the part.
“I’m so hot,” says Trudy.
She takes a handkerchief from her handbag and wipes her neck.
“It’ll be air-conditioned on the ship,” I say.
“Maybe they’ll give us something to drink,” she says. “Maybe they’ll give us some cold lemonade.”
When the last passenger has left the ship, and the deckhand comes with the chain to close the gangway, Trudy asks the man at the ticket-booth if she can speak to the captain.
“We have an appointment for a tour,” she says.
“May I have your name?”
“Mr and Mrs James Brailey.”
The man finds our booking and tells us to wait. He tells us the captain’s busy and won’t be able to meet us.
“A purser will come,” he says, without looking at our faces.
That’s just what we expected. But our plan’s going to need a fair bit of luck. We need to convince the purser that we’re going to book a penthouse cabin on the Oriana’s next voyage and that we’re the right class of people. Once we find out where the penthouses are, we’ll hand over the cash to the purser so we can be left alone for a while. And when we’re alone in an empty penthouse, when the door’s shut behind us and we have it all to ourselves, it’ll be just like we’re rich passengers, and we’ll make love on our luxurious bed.
Last night when we sat up late, Trudy said, “I want it so much.” And I told her I want more money too, and I want a stylish life, a better car than the one my father gave me, and a television set, and a house with a staircase. I’m sick of being skint, and the money we’ve saved to pay the purser could have paid some of our bills, but I want this because I want it with her. But I didn’t tell her that I sometimes think she’d want the money no matter who she was with, even if her husband was another husband. I want it because she wants it, and so we can have it together. But I sometimes think she just wants it.
We don’t have to wait long for a purser to fetch us.
“I’m sorry for the delay,” he says.
He has an English accent and he’s younger than me, with acne, some of it near his mouth.
He shakes my hand.
“It’s been no nuisance at all,” says Trudy. She says this in a posh voice, an accent more like the purser’s.
“We’d better press on,” says the purser.
We walk up the gangway, past the sign that says “NOTICE TO PASSENGERS – THE SHIP STOPS AT SYDNEY HARBOUR FOR FOUR HOURS. ARRANGEMENTS SHOULD BE MADE TO RETURN TO THE SHIP BY NOON.”
Trudy takes hold of my hand.
The purser stops walking and turns round.
“Is there anything special you’d like to see?”
Trudy tells him she wants to see the swimming pool and the grand ballroom.
“Then we’ll start with the swimming pool,” he says.
Trudy smiles and passes my hand back to me so it’s not left to fall or drop, as though my hand is something being safely returned. It’s a thing she does I like very much.
The first passageway on the middle deck is like a street in the city, there are road signs with arrows pointing to “THE DECKS” and “THE POOL” and “THE BOATS”.
“Would you like to go up to the swimming pool via the dining room?” asks the purser.
“Yes,” I say.
He takes us through the dining room, and stops to let us look round. There’s a man playing a trumpet in the corner, practising.
“There’s a brass band that plays when passengers board the ship at the beginning of the voyage,” says the purser.
“It’s so very lovely in here,” says Trudy.
It’s cool in the dining room and the air’s fresh with the smell of flowers. The tables are being set for lunch and a waiter uses a small black brush to clean the upholstered seats.
“Which is the captain’s table?” Trudy asks.
“That depends,” says the purser. “Sometimes he likes to be near the stage and sometimes he likes to be near the portholes so he can see the weather.”
On the way to the upper deck, there are more signs, pointing to “HAIRDRESSER” and “CASINO” and “FASHION BOUTIQUES”. We follow the purser up the grand staircase and out into daylight. There’s a rush of heat and, just a few feet in front of us, the swimming pool, and sparkling blue water beyond.
A young man in swimming trunks is bouncing on the end of the diving board. When he sees the purser, he stops. There are two women watching him, both with their backs to us, both laughing, both wearing skimpy bikinis. The one closest to us isn’t wearing her top and her bare back has been burnt by the sun.
“Go on,” says the topless one to the young man. “I want to see you jump up and down.”
The young man shakes his head and goes on looking at us.
“Not now,” he says.
Without looking over her shoulder, the girl senses she’s being watched, reaches down for the towel at her feet and tries to cover her breasts by wrapping it under her arms, tight across her chest.
The purser coughs.
“Not all the passengers get off the ship,” he says.
The purser turns away, and we follow him, back the way we came.
The ballroom’s being prepared for a party. There’s a piano on the stage and the curtains match the upholstery on the chairs. There are three men on stepladders arranging streamers and balloons.
“Is it a special occasion?” asks Trudy, her voice gentle, and her accent like the man who reads the news.
“It’s the sixteenth birthday party for one of our guests.”
“It looks lovely,” says Trudy. “And the food smells divine.”
I can’t smell any food, but I nod. She looks so beautiful and she’s been sounding the part, but now she’s overdoing it a bit. I wish she’d calm down.
“All the food served on the Oriana is of the highest quality,” says the purser, “and the first-class menu was designed by the head chef at the Ritz.”
“How wonderful,” says Trudy.
The purser looks over my shoulder, probably at the clock.
“Is there anything else you’d like to see?”
Trudy explains that next week we’ll be paying our deposit on a penthouse suite, and that we’ll board the ship in England, after we’ve taken a train through Europe with stops in Paris and Rome. The purser nods all through what she says.
“We’ll be celebrating our first wedding anniversary on board,” I say. “And we want to cross the seas in style.”
Trudy takes hold of my hand.
“Before we make the final arrangements,” she says, “we’d like to look inside one of the penthouses.”
She’s said just what we’ve planned she should say, but the purser doesn’t respond straightaway.
“I’m afraid that’s not possible,” he says, “unless you’ve already booked your passage.”
“We thought it would be wise to see a cabin first,” I say. “We’d like to be sure.”
“We’re comparing,” says Trudy. “We’re also considering one of the new Cunard liners.”
The purser looks at Trudy and closes his mouth, as though to stop himself from raising objections. He doesn’t believe we can afford to travel first class. I’m embarrassed by it, but even more embarrassed that I didn’t realise he’s probably thought it from the moment he set eyes on us.
I let go of Trudy’s hand.
“We have four penthouses,” he says. “But I’m afraid I can’t show you through.”
“Would it be awfully inconvenient if we had a quick peek?” says Trudy.
Trudy looks down at the carpet, then back up.
“Maybe we could see a first-class cabin on the same deck as the penthouses?”
The purser opens then closes his mouth.
“I think there’s an empty cabin on A Deck,” he says. “But we’ll need to be quick.”
He takes a bunch of keys from his pocket and walks on.
The passageway on A Deck is the nicest one yet. It’s wider than the others, the walls are wood-panelled, and there are flowers in vases on sideboards, and bowls of fruit and chocolates, and mirrors all along the way. And the carpet’s not just soft and thick, there are Oriental rugs too.
Two of the first-class cabin doors have been left open by the maids who are inside cleaning and changing the sheets on the beds.
“Is that one of the penthouses?” asks Trudy.
“No,” says the purser, “this is a standard first-class cabin. The penthouses are quite a bit larger and they afford very many more luxuries.”
He stops outside first-class cabin number 18 and knocks.
“Just a precaution,” he says.
He goes in and we follow.
There’s a four-poster bed, a dressing table, two red leather wing chairs, a desk and a small leather couch.
“In first-class cabins and the penthouses,” says the purser, “there’s a button just above the headboard and you can ring it any time for the steward.”
Trudy stands close to the bed and looks for the button.
“I’ve found it!” she says.
I’d like to take Trudy aside now, and hold her tight, and tell her the plan’s not working, that we should get off the ship. But I can’t do that to her. Maybe it doesn’t do any harm for her not to know he’s laughing at us. I just wish she’d let the purser see the other side of her.
“There’s 24-hour room service for first-class passengers,” says the purser.
“That sounds just the ticket,” I say.
Trudy’s still looking at the room service button and we stand behind her.
“I’d like one of these at home,” she says. “It’d make life a lot easier for our maid and I wouldn’t have to holler all the time.”
The purser looks at the back of Trudy’s dress and pulls his chin in. He’s only a purser and he thinks he’s my superior.
“What other facilities do you offer first-class passengers?” I ask, as I run my hand across one of the bed’s corner posts.
The purser moves towards the door, making it clear he wants us to follow.
“Well, there’s dinner on the captain’s table every night, of course, and a cocktail lounge, and there’s a hospital, with three beds in a private ward for first-class guests.”
He looks at his watch.
“Is there an ensuite bathroom in all the rooms?” asks Trudy.
“Yes, of course. All the rooms on A Deck have ensuite bathrooms.”
“It would be so very nice to see a penthouse,” she says. “We were really hoping that we could see one today.”
“I’d like to oblige,” he says, “but I’m not at liberty to do that.”
“I understand,” I say. “Your hands are tied without the permission of your superiors.”
The purser looks at me.
“We have brochures with plenty of photographs in them. I’ll get you one on the way out. And once you’ve paid your deposit, then you’ll get a guided tour.”
Trudy walks to the door and stands close to the purser. She opens her handbag and takes out the cash.
The purser steps away.
“That won’t be necessary,” he says. He’s looking at me.
Trudy holds out the cash. It’s the best part of a week’s salary.
But he doesn’t take it.
I step forward and look him in the eyes.
“Look,” I say, “there must be an empty penthouse. And we’re giving you a good lot of money here.”
I get the cash from Trudy and hand it to him.
“Take it,” I say. “We’ll only be ten minutes.”
And now he takes it, and takes it quickly, shoves it straight into the top pocket of his jacket and, without saying anything else, gets the keys out of his pocket.
“I’ll be back in half an hour,” he says. “If you do any damage, you’ll pay.”
We watch him go to the end of the corridor, pause a moment, then turn right.
“We did it!” says Trudy. “He took it!”
I wish she’d keep her voice down.
I go into the penthouse ahead of Trudy and, from the very moment I enter, it’s as though I’m its first visitor.
Trudy steps in and we stand side by side and look at the splendour. There’s a foyer, like the entrance to a grand house, with a side-table and vase of white flowers and there are three more rooms, two on our left and one on our right.
“This is all ours now,” says Trudy. “Isn’t it wonderful?”
I hold her and tell her I agree.
“Which way first?” she says.
We go in. Everything – the quilt on the bed, the white pillows, the red velvet drapes, the carpet, the rugs – so clean it’s as though none of it has been used before, everything new and in perfect order.
Trudy goes to the bathroom.
“Oh, it’s true,” she says. “There are heated towel rails.”
She comes back out holding a pink bar of soap that’s shaped like a flower.
“We should start,” I say. “How will we do it?”
“Let me think,” she says.
She lies on the bed, chooses the side next to the built-in wardrobe.
I want to take her now, but she probably doesn’t want to rush.
“Remember that idea we once had?” she says. “Remember the idea that we would pretend to be a famous couple having an affair?”
“Yes, I think so.”
She’s waiting for me to get undressed, I think, and get on the bed with her, but I’m not sure.
“Do you remember?”
I don’t answer. I don’t remember.
I look round to the door.
“Stop worrying,” she says. “Don’t be nervous.”
“What do you want to do?” I ask.
“Let’s be that couple having an affair and you’ve just snuck away from the captain’s table and you’ve found me here in my room. My husband’s still in the restaurant a few tables away from your wife, but we’ve got to be quick.”
I don’t see why it’s not just me and Trudy this time. I tell her this, and she looks hurt.
“Isn’t it better this way?” she says.
I go outside to the corridor, wait a moment, then come back in. Trudy’s drawn the blinds and turned out the lights. It’s like the night and she looks so beautiful.
But we rush and it’s not as good as it was meant to be. And it’s not just because we rush, there’s something else wrong. She doesn’t talk us through it, and she keeps her eyes closed. When we’re finished, she tells me how good it felt, and she sounds like an actress. I think it went wrong because it’s been made real, and I know we won’t admit it.
I stand, and she stands, and, as I take a towel from the bathroom to wipe the bed and she straightens the pillows, we don’t speak, and we don’t look at each other. On the way to the door, she looks back into the room and so do I. And the things in the penthouse – the beautiful furniture, the matching cushions, and carpet, and curtains – now these things look like junk.