This short story by Bruce Costello won first place in the William Taylor Memorial Short Story Competition for 2018
On the Third Day
The ship is big and white, like my lies.
The receptionist in the Coral Restaurant speaks almost perfect English.
“Do you wish to eat by yourself, Sir, or wish to dine with others?”
She has soft almond eyes and a charming oriental smile. Her black hair is parted in the middle and drawn back tightly. Pink frangipani is tucked behind her left ear.
I wish to dine with others. That’s why I came on a cruise. To start a new life and move on from the old. To talk to real people, learn how they live, and what they dream about, knowledge I will treasure as experience and memories. Two thousand strangers are my travelling companions.
When you dine with people you’ve never met, there’s a ritual.
Good morning, good afternoon or good evening. Where are you from? What do you do? I’m retired. A retired what?
These days I don’t reveal what I was, but say something vague, like I worked in administration or retail.
If the atmosphere is jovial, I say I was a Jedi Knight, a spiral staircase straightener, a Dolly Parton impersonator, or something equally ludicrous.
I get all hyper when I’m stressed. It’s a sort of cover up that works for me. I like having fun and enjoy goonish humour, frowned on in the profession that until recently was my life.
Over dinner I ham it up and get everybody laughing. The woman across the table eggs me on, deadpan. Her eyes twinkle with mirth, but sometimes I catch her staring at me with an intensity rarely seen over sweet and sour chicken, and I feel uneasy.
She has long silver hair, an ample bosom and a kind face. There’s a serenity about her, as if all is well in her world. A retired nursing missionary, she’s just settled back to New Zealand after service in South America, and is due to have a double mastectomy the day after the cruise ends.
She smiles as she speaks. Silence falls around the table. She’s been blessed in her life and isn’t afraid of death.
I feel an impulse to reach across the table and take her hand, but one does not do such things, so I look away. In my work, I knew many ill and dying people, but was insulated from my emotions by the detachment that went with the territory. Now I’m not.
Next morning is the third day. The ship arrives at our first destination right on schedule, just before dawn. Passengers line the railings, clutching cell phone cameras.
Streaks of mauve infiltrate the darkness. Delicate shades of blue and pink begin to flicker. Then, shafts of vivid yellow and gold radiate on the horizon. The sun emerges from the sea. The pastel colours vanish.
L’ȋle du Paradis appears, a low shadow against a sky now turning crimson.
After breakfast, gaily-painted tenders carry passengers ashore. The island is pencil-shaped and uninhabited, with lush jungle extending to white shores dotted with coconut trees. It takes only fifty minutes to walk around, but you can stroll from one side of the island to the other in ten minutes along a rough jungle path.
I come across the missionary. She is gazing at a spider that has owl-like eyes, lurking on a sprawling web between a cacao tree and a weird plant with leaves resembling pterodactyl wings.
“Hi,” she says. “Ronald, isn’t it? The spiral staircase straightener.”
“And you’re Dawn. I enjoyed meeting you at dinner.”
“Likewise. I know what your real profession was, incidentally, but don’t worry. I won’t give the game away.” She smiles in her serene way. “You were a priest.”
“How do you know that!”
“I just do.”
“Sometimes I just…know things.”
“Really? Anything else you know about me?”
“You’ve been through testing times.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Why are you not sure?”
“How can I be sure when I’m not sure what I’m unsure about?”
We converse like this for a while, the spider looking on, probably wondering if we’re quite right in the head.
“Let’s walk around the island.” Dawn takes my hand, and leads me down the jungle path, as a nurse might lead a child or a patient in care.
“Bye bye, Mr or Mrs Spider,” I call back over my shoulder.
That evening, the receptionist’s eyes light up when Dawn and I request a table for two. After dinner and a couple of wines, we stand on the boat deck, gazing at the sea without seeing. We talk about the meaning of life and death, of God, of Dawn’s illness and my spiritual crisis that compelled me to leave the church. Sometimes our hands touch, as if by chance.
A voice booms overhead.
‘This is the captain. A yacht with two people aboard is in trouble to the south. We will shortly proceed to render assistance with all possible dispatch. Please return to your cabins now, holding firmly to handrails. The ship is expected to roll as we change direction.’
The ship shudders and lurches forward, sending Dawn into my arms, her breasts pressing into me. Somehow I’m picking up permission to hold her as long as I like, but as I ponder this message, she releases herself slowly and looks up with a gracious smile.
“See you tomorrow then.”
She slips away, and I am alone.
The sun sets, leaving in its wake a pink glow, which is quickly engulfed by night.
The thought occurs to me, not for the first time, that during the whole of my adult life I’ve steered away from human intimacy. And the things I’ve clung to instead have lost their meaning.
I still believe in God and life after death, but I remember Dawn’s words that life before death is a matter of more urgent concern. Something surges inside me, as the ship settles on its new course and powers into the darkness.