Light and Dark: 21 Short Stories
Sample from first story in the above
Let me ask you this – was there a time when you couldn't believe your eyes? I mean, you literally could not believe what you were seeing? If there was, did your jaw drop or did you just rub your eyes and swear to yourself? I'm telling you now I did all three when I saw a certain guy push his wife overboard.
It happened so quickly, and he was so natural about it – murder being such a quaint, inconsequential thing, of course – that I felt I just had to be mistaken, right? One casual glance round, one quick motion to grasp both ankles, and a swift heave, and she was gone. Then, a turn and stroll along the windswept deck and – get this – an audacious nod and smile to the steward as he passed him, and he was away. The trouble with something like that is it's so outrageous it just can't be true - can it?
I know that it can be true, and although I was drunk, I was feeling just sober enough not to want to get myself killed – so I stayed right where I was, hidden in the shadow of a hanging lifeboat, the large, motorized kind with plenty of room that they always use on cruise ships these days (lessons learned from the Titanic, right?). I didn’t detach myself from the wall holding me up till the man was gone – and I mean well gone. Then, I stumbled to the stern and peered over the rails.
I could see nothing in the water but waves, churned to a white hue by the thrust of the engines. The waves settled and quickly merged into the blackness of the Pacific - it was difficult to see anything beyond them. Even the dim light from a crescent moon didn't help, given that it was partially hidden by long threads of cloud being shunted along in the sky by the south easterly wind. If there really had been a woman she was gone, left swiftly behind in a cold, vast and indifferent sea. It was a 2 desolate way to go and I began to quickly sober up and ask myself what I could do, and what I should do.
Ok, firstly – had I actually seen what I thought I had? I shook my head to clear it and ran my fingers back through the hair I had left, then massaged my temples with both hands. I came to the conclusion that I had seen it indeed. I closed my eyes and tried hard to recollect something that had happened only a few seconds ago, but that already seemed like a distant dream.
The night was warm. Of course, it is cold in Alaska, but in August, with the ship two days out from Ketchikan on the return down to Seattle on the US mainland, the air temperature was a tourist- acceptable 66 °F. The woman had been wearing neither a jacket nor a coat, and I had recognised the same belted, light blue dress with white stripes on that she had been wearing when she boarded with her husband seven days before. Herstriking yellow hair had set her apart, and I recalled thinking at that time how it seemed incongruous with her middle age. They had seemed happy enough, but I guess I was wrong – one of them had been very unhappy for sure.
Two other questions struck me. You may think it odd, but the first one – how the hell is he going to get away with this? – arose before the second, which should have been the most important – can she be saved? I guess it was less than a minute from the moment the woman disappeared until that question entered my head, and it suddenly made me turn and look for that steward, though I knew that the cold shock of the water followed by hypothermia was just as likely to kill her as drowning by the time help could get to her. I saw him on the upper deck smoking an illicit cigarette - the end glowed red and amber and a wisp of white smoke spun upwards and was shredded quickly by the wind. I was about to raise my arm and yell, when I realised I was not alone – there he stood, the devoted husband, silent and still, not five feet away. He was looking at me curiously, although in as unconcerned fashion as you like, and though my blood temperature seemed to drop a few degrees and my stomach muscles tightened, I immediately tried to adopt his casual manner, then, deciding it was best to take refuge in my drunkenness, slouched against the rails.
"Whoa, you seem the worse for wear." He said this in a cultured west coast voice with an amused look in his eyes that I didn’t really like, but which I pretended not to notice.
"Seasickness," I answered, though the sea was only mildly choppy.
"Possibly a martini or two as well," he laughed. "Although my wife does suffer from seasickness."
"Is she sick now?" It was a foolhardy dig. I was befuddled and scared, but, irrational as it may seem, I suddenly felt annoyed at his nonchalance.
He shrugged his shoulders. They looked large in his tight, lightweight navy blazer. He looked kind of generally out of shape, even for a late middle-aged man, but I knew that he had strong arms – you can’t throw someone overboard in a single heave without them, I know that much.
"She’s lying down in our cabin right now."
There, I felt that doubt creep up again. He was as cool as could be – surely, I couldn't be mistaken? But when I closed my eyes, I recalled that tiny cry of surprise – not fear, but surprise – that had come from her trusting mouth and that had dissolved into the night as its owner spun and tumbled downwards. I decided I needed to get to my cabin, not only to straighten my thoughts, but because I was afraid he would realize that I wasn't as drunk as I was pretending to be. For me, that wouldn't prove to be a good thing for him to know. I muttered a good night, and he raised a hand and nodded as I made my way along the deck towards the center of the ship. I opened the door to the stairs leading to the cheaper cabins below-decks and chanced a glance back. I immediately wished that I hadn't; although the deck was not particularly well lit,I could see him leaning casually against the stern rails, with the now uncovered moon floating behind him. His eyes were hidden in the shadows, but I could tell that he was looking directly atme. He wasrubbing his chin slowly, asif pondering over something – I could guess what it was.
Sleep did not come easily, or the morning quickly. Tomorrow, there would be one full day of cruising left.I had a feeling that it would be filled 4 with self-doubt and indecision mixed with an awful lot of anxiety, and accompanied by fear. I lay on my berth throughout the night, looking out of a porthole through which I could see little but dismal clouds passing by. It was probably my imagination that heavy footsteps occasionally stopped outside my door.
The cabin was small, making me feel oppressed – the one my wife and I had shared a few years ago had been larger, almost grandiose, in comparison. It was not the same ship, of course; this one was of middling size, and revisiting our last trip together was a somewhat bitter, almost masochistic reminiscence for me, because she had left me shortly after. But I had certainly not expected to be lying where I was, thinking of another man's wife and the possibility that he had purposefully killed her. I finally slept.
I was once told that no matter how bad things looked during the day, they look a hell of a lot worse at night. The reverse must be true of the morning because when I woke and saw blue sky through that same porthole and heard passengers conversing, seemingly without a care, as they made their way to an early breakfast in one of the diners, my concerns yet again dwindled to a kind of nagging doubt. In all honesty, I had no idea what to do. In any event, although I wasn't sure that modern vessels still had them, I decided that I was not going to hide away below decks like a rat on a ship.
I risked a look in the mirror and saw what I had expected to see after the night I'd had – a slightly jowly face of fifty-two, eyes somewhat bloodied, with dark circles beneath them. I admitted to myself, though, that I was used to seeing my eyes that way – wine drunk to excess tended to have that effect. I reflected that it had been my wife who had often driven me to it. I began to feel a kinship with that guy if his wife was anything like mine.
I showered, then dressed in fresh but un-ironed cream linen slacks and a white shirt, and brushed my hair. I remembered how it had once been, longer and abundant. I was disappointed but resigned to the fact that was no longer the case. Getting older is a bummer for us all, but I 5 wasn't looking too bad. I left the cabin and headed for breakfast, pretending that nothing was amiss. It was only when I thought of the guy looking at me the previous night that I felt the occasional prickle on my neck. …
Continued in Light and Dark:21 Short Stories...