There’s this image I can’t shake when I wake in the night. I’m on the deck of a cruise ship, looking down at the sea, and there’s a newspaper boat bobbing in the waves. Sometimes, a picture of my dad’s face is on the makeshift sail, sometimes my mum’s. It’s always someone I know, someone I am close to but feel distance with at the time.
Big band music plays in the background and there’s the sound of children splashing in a pool, but I don’t know if that’s an accurate portrayal of what being on a cruise ship is like because I’ve never been on one. It was something I wanted to do as a kid, but my parents were busy running this pub they started up, and I was washing windows with vinegar and dancing around the maypole we erected on the lawn every spring for our customers.
There is dancing on the cruise ship, too, its rhythm different than the beat of the big band. It’s more like marching, maybe like soldiers, an army, their footsteps echoing as one on the wooden deck boards, and it reminds me of the books my son’s been reading about the great wars, and our discussions about what’s to come. What the fate of the world is.
We lived upstairs at the pub during the first few years my parents owned it, I was eight or nine, and my bedroom smelled of cigarette smoke, stale beer, and meat. Our kitchen was in a closet, our stove a single burner. Our mum cooked us supper every night, except for Sundays, when we’d pull on clean sweaters and eat with the regulars in the dining room. Everyone was mostly drunk and they’d tell us stories about sailing regattas, faraway ports, long-ago times.
We had this safe word when we lived there, a word this guy who lived on his boat down at the marina knew, in case he had to come and get us. Sometimes, when a fight broke out, or one of the chefs got drunk and started playing with knives, he’d find us upstairs, and say TENNIS or WHEELBARROW, and we’d follow him down the hallway, and out the front door to his boat which smelled of salt and deck stain and diesel, and we’d drink warm milk while we lay on the dock, looking for fish cutting through the phosphorescence.
I always waited for our parents to come and get us, waited for them to remember where we were, but they’d always get swept up in the noise of it all and forget, and we’d sleep on the boat, in the thick scent of life, rocking back and forth, craning for the sound of footsteps on the dock.
That’s what keeps me frozen half-asleep, staring at the empty wall across the room, and I can’t figure out why I’m there, on this cruise ship, if I’m coming or going on, if I’m meant to stay on board or jump into the boat below and float away.
Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2018, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_