Universal Sign of Goodbye

By Louise Beech

I realised during this evening’s farewell dinner that if I’d never picked up that newspaper on a rainy afternoon, I would not have been at this table. I would not have been served lobster bisque by a Brazilian waiter called Everthon who makes the women silly, or have tried Latvian Goulash for the first time, or listened to heated debate about the Picasso that sold for $180,000 at the ship’s Art Auction.

Who else would have been on this cruise? Where might I have been instead?

There are six of us at my table. Swedish Al, as I call him, resembles my father—he’s shy, avoids eye contact, is accepting. His wife — whose name sounds like Beastie — is over-bearing. When I don’t understand her accent, I nod or tip my head. It occurs to me that we all smile at words we can’t interpret simply because we’re embarrassed to enquire their full meaning.

Opposite them sits Belgian Alvin who doesn’t talk; he’s deaf. I know his nationality because French Sofie—who’s next to me—knows sign language and also speaks English. The second evening—after three cocktails at the captain’s party—she explained that signing isn’t universal, though some gestures are similar enough to warrant international understanding.

That night we wandered the casino together—an attendant gave us each a gold disc, but I pocketed mine while Sofie gambled and lost. The clank of swallowed coins and spinning slot machines was dizzying. Hardened cruisers in matching T-shirts, bandannas and trouser-trim gambled. What must lack in life that one obsessively coordinates at sea?

Our sixth table guest is wealthy Margaret from Newcastle, who’s hunting for a younger man. She scans the room with eyes that have seen plenty and know where to find him. Except for Swedish Al and Beastie, we’re all lone travellers. That’s what we’re called in our travel documents. Like outlaws we’re herded together—quarantined. Signs suggest we should avoid hand shaking in case of spreading viruses; romance, if it occurred, might be a very hands-free affair.

Evening dinner has, over the week, settled into familiar routine. The women sunbathe in the tropical rays of Everthon’s attentions, conveniently overlooking that he’s paid to be nice. Margaret sings when Everthon pours wine, and laughter circumnavigates the table like a Mexican wave, if he mispronounces a word.

Is there anything more difficult than laughter when smiling hurts?

The specials are always announced and wine tasted and general well-being enquired after. In a flurry of hand-signs, Alvin chatters about the tour of Stockholm’s bridges or Tallinn’s markets, while Sofie translates and Beastie then tells Swedish Al, whose face always remains impassive.

We’re all deaf really, aren’t we? My husband John doesn’t hear me, even when I shout. I don’t listen to his stories anymore. Our hands speak though; he fiddles with the same stray hair curl and I swing one foot back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. Our signing is universal—the international language of indifference.

I’ve been sleepless in my cabin. This windowless room is black as an empty womb. When we docked in St. Petersburg at 4:16am, I decided insomniacs shouldn’t cruise. It was a heavy realisation anchoring two dreams. Machinery grumbled in the ship’s bowels, waking me from a child who whispered, “you’re unusual because one of your ears is lower than the other.” I’m visited often by the children I never had.

A jolly song from the waiters heralded our last supper tonight. The sea—our seventh guest—pounded the ship’s hull. Everthon spilt red wine; Margaret touched his leg and shared the story of a woman who sleepwalked off her balcony and was lost at sea forever. Sofie signed it for Alvin, Beastie translated for Swedish Al, and Al watched me. Tonight he wore dice cuff links. I felt I floated above the table, beyond translations, and watched us all in our dance.

I’d helped Al take a photograph earlier in the Church on Spilled Blood. Studying mosaic domes, he’d clicked without conceiving an image. I’d opened the camera’s shutter and captured colours; his face lit like a child with a first drawing. Beastie said he was ‘un-useful’ in ‘many regards.’

Everything began when my husband, John, and I argued over rugs in Ikea. He stormed off; I came home, looked through his newspaper, and read an article about surrogacy. In the nearby column, was a competition. It said, “Though not international maritime law, the phrase ‘women and children first’ was popularised by its usage on the Titanic, when 75% of women were saved, 52% of children and only 20% of men. Write your opinion of this tradition.” I found myself writing an answer despite not particularly wanting the prize of a Baltic Cruise.

I wonder now, was that the afternoon Karen told John?

My mother once said that after delivering me, depression crept into the space I’d occupied and stayed for a year. Describing this misery, she said she’d wished to disappear. I learned the facts of death before the facts of life, that ‘children should be seen and not heard, and if possible, not even seen.’

Tonight at dinner, Beastie clapped to Sofie’s French song and Alvin studied her orange-glossed mouth. Margaret whooped during the second chorus. Swedish Al put his napkin in my lap; he sipped brandy like the cloth had landed there itself. I opened it. Sofie replaced song-words with bop-bops, and Margaret cried, “Let’s just guess! Let’s improvise!” SOS was written on the napkin’s corner in blue pen. I folded it over, then opened it and looked again. Beastie encouraged me to sing the now-improvised song. I put the napkin in my pocket. Swedish Al fell asleep. Margaret held aloft her wine glass, said, “I could stay here forever!”

It was hard to imagine that anywhere else existed.

After dinner, I walked past my allotted lifeboat station on deck four. We’d assembled there the first night, wearing life jackets, a practice drill in case of emergency. They wouldn’t let us return to our cabins to dress for dinner until every person surrendered to being saved, if only in pretence. The sea had teased the ship, waiting to see who wanted out and who could be rescued. When I removed the orange padding afterwards, my lipstick smudged a blood-like streak across my cheek.

Blood is my curse.

Apparently there’s no medical reason for my infertility, the implication being that there’s something wrong with my mind, my heart—that I’m not trying hard enough. We’ve tried; nine years of effort. I thought I was pregnant once, but never told John, wanting to own the moment before sharing it. The test’s faint line said I was a real woman. For eight days I was a mother; my breasts hurt, my tummy swelled. Then nothing. The doctor said false positives often happen. “Keep trying,” he said. Keep trying.

I wonder, is the sea cold. Was the woman Margaret described really sleepwalking? Was she awake when she climbed bare-foot over the railing? Did she quietly surrender to the sea or cry out?

Did she keep trying?

Tonight after dinner I sat on my bed, watching adverts on the ship company’s info channel, waiting. Travelling up the Baltic Sea, gaining hours between Sweden, Estonia and Russia, we’d moved forward in time; now we headed back, shedding minutes with uneaten food, stained napkins and discarded postcards. I wondered, if I travelled far enough in the right direction, would it cancel my history?

I found my best friend Karen’s positive pregnancy test in our bin. Karen and I always wanted hordes of kids. We’d planned them during Biology; she wanted two and I wanted a boy I’d call Conor, who’d have reddish hair and not talk until he was three. I saw him every night in the ocean when I couldn’t sleep. I saw all the children I’d never had in the ship’s wake. Only my ovaries slumbered like Sleeping Beauty—except no kiss ever stirs them.

Later tonight, I find myself near the egg-shaped pool. The Viking club’s disco beat faded. At sea the stars are bright – with no city lights competing, they win. Hours earlier, couples posed against their backdrop for formal portraits, images that will tomorrow be displayed in deck five’s gallery. Our table got rounded up for one on Wednesday, and the next morning six copies sat in the rack—but I didn’t buy one. The shadow of Margaret’s earring branded my cheek with a lopsided cross.

I remembered a photo of me in a red hat at a market in Prague, one of our only foreign trips as a married couple.   John was pulling the wool over my eyes in it. How apt. So I’d taken it from my purse as I’d boarded this cruise and threw it in the bin, atop sweet wrappers and currency exchange receipts, and not looked back.

Tonight, I came upon Swedish Al at the ship’s end, silhouetted against stars, my surprise at his presence overtaken by a strange knowing. I was now the visitor. He stood on a bench close to the railing and glared at the sea. Over the gentle gush of water his cuff links clanked against metal as he ascended the fence.

I never said goodbye to John. I kissed his forehead while he slept, with his hands between his knees. My case had been packed for days and hidden under the coats in the lounge cupboard. He’d had no idea I was leaving to sail to Russia, alone.

I wasn’t sure whether to disturb Swedish Al or return to my cabin—then he saw me. Laughter echoed from far away and a door slammed. He looked back down at the surf, his grey-flecked hair bobbing in the turbulence. I could have said “come down Swedish Al” or “I’ve stood there too,” but what would have been the point? He couldn’t speak English. So I asked why, a simple word I thought he might have understood.

He stepped down. I didn’t breathe, expecting him to have tricked me, to have lulled me into safety before jumping. But, no, he sat on the bench.

There I told Swedish Al about my winning cruise competition entry; I have the words memorised. He listened, and I know he couldn’t understand, but he seemed to recognise something, like an oft-sung song. I think he understood my melody, some pitch in my tone that broke the language barrier, and he put his hand on mine. That’s all he did. It was warm and reminded me of that kind of safety you don’t feel beyond the age of eleven.

SOS, the universal cry for help, is pointless. What use is there in saving a soul? Does the body not need saving first? The heart? But Swedish Al had written SOS—and here I was. At his rescue. I hoped John would be happy with Karen. That they would enjoy their child. That I would know what to do after this.

Shredded orange-peel sparks on the horizon announced morning. Thick forests and endless coastline became buildings, the city of Stockholm, a narrow waterway, the port, our end. Attendants cleaned the railings and mopped the jogging path. Wordlessly meeting the sun with Swedish Al was the closest I’ve come to creating a child, conceiving a life, a future. No longer cold, I took off his jacket and found in my pocket the SOS napkin. I gave it to him; he held it a while. Then he threw it in the air, where it fanned like dove’s wings and soared briefly before plummeting into the sea.

Then we went back inside, him to his life, me to mine, our wave the universal sign of goodbye.

THE END

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