By Sue Harper
Sarah had signed up to go on a 10-day cruise. She had great misgivings about it: she might be stuck in a floating gin palace with intolerable bores, she might have a cabin with no porthole, there might be a storm at sea and the grand piano might career into the big drum, she might fall overboard, she might fall in love with the stoker (it wouldn’t be the first time), she might lose – what? – her suitcase and have to wear a grubby sheet for the entire week. Sarah was always happiest when her options were open and she could be flexible. It was obviously courting disaster to close them down for such a length of time. Well, well.
She stood waiting on the quayside, ready to embark. A sea-mist rolled in heavily, muffling all the certainties and the hard edges. She heard the ship before she saw it: a booming, inchoate sound, full of promise and dread. Then through the miasma she saw it: higher than the Eiffel Tower, with serried rows of lighted windows winking and blinking. It loomed. Something that huge could not turn on a sixpence: it was not playful. Not at all.
Sarah struggled up the gangplank, and doors opened in sequence to show her the way to her suite. There seemed to be no personnel: no waiters with silver trays, no housekeepers with keys jangling from their belts, no maids with feather dusters. When she looked round her suite, she was astonished. The person who had chosen the furnishings knew her very well. How had they surveyed the exact landscape of her taste? Through a keyhole? How had they intuited her desires? For here it all was: the wall painted in the right shade of red, the figurines marching along the shelf, the black satin sheets, the plaster dog, the right brand of gin, the citrus perfume, the photograph of her lover in a silver frame. That threw her rather, as the picture wore an expression she had never seen on him in real life: it was rather louche, and he was wearing a vest and a sailor’s cap. He’d never do that.
As she had paid a lot of money for the cruise, she decided to enjoy it as much as she could, and sallied forth on deck. There were a lot of folk looking lost. They looked vaguely familiar, and some of them were dressed in period clothes: Victorian crinolines, Saxon kirtles, Egyptian reed skirts, indigenous Mexican clothing, Indian Nabob, 1920s flapper dresses. As they perambulated about on deck, they seemed to be looking for someone, and when they saw Sarah, they clustered round her, stroking her hair, asking her about her journey, wanting to know her intentions: ‘what will you do with us?’
Of course! In a flash it came to her: these were the folk who had peopled her imagination for so long. Some were fictional, some were real: Jane Eyre, Cleopatra, Frida Kahlo, Brahms, Mrs Dalloway, Boudicca, Ignatius J. Reilly, William Dalrymple. And some were personal: her parents, her drunken auntie, a Buddhist nun, an ungracious lover, a beloved friend, a man to whom she had never told her heart. There they all stood. It was now or never. This was indeed going to be the cruise of a lifetime.
And so for a whole 10 days, Sarah lived cheek-by-jowl with the people who had made her who she was. She played chess with Debussy, she learned to play the harp from Ignatius, she learned from Frida that the thicker you piled the paint on, the more you could hide. She asked her parents at last what they had really, really wanted. The most unexpected was going to bed with Heathcliff. All she could think of to say afterwards was ‘do you always do it like that?’ And his flattering reply was, ‘No. Only with you.’
The liner was coming into port. As it came close to the quay, its inhabitants became etiolated and transparent. By the time the liner was tied to the stanchions and safely berthed, the inhabitants had disappeared altogether. Sarah walked down the gangplank alone. Once on dry land, she knew for sure that they were as real as she was: more so in fact, since they had made her and not vice versa. She looked back at the great ship, she waved her handkerchief, she kissed her hand at them: her heart’s darlings, her progenitors. She might see them again. But probably not. It was only once in your life that you got to play backgammon with Byron.