DAYS FROM NOW, when the ship pitches so hard Jesse is woken being tossed from the bed, he’ll remember his first moments on board. He’ll know the placement of furniture in the tiny room by memory, and in the dark, his eyes still adjusting, he’ll find his life vest, his mobile phone, his water bottle, remembering everything he’s ever heard about dehydration being the biggest killer at sea. He’ll fill the silver bottle in the bathroom sink and drink the water down in gulps before filling the bottle again. He won’t know how late it is but he’ll assume it’s after midnight by the way the water sloshes in his empty stomach. On the way out of his cabin, he’ll grab his weatherproof coat and his lanyard and it won’t be until he’s in the hallway that he’ll realise he needs to decide where he’s going. His parents’ room is just next door. But they are no longer the only people on board that he cares about. He needs to decide, if he’s going down, who he should be with.
JESSE HAULS HIS bag onto the bed to begin unpacking. It is not the first time Jesse has found himself in a destination not quite sure how he got there. Sometimes, he will pull into the car park at work expecting a trail of destruction behind him when he checks the rear-view mirror. Other times, he has found himself in a stranger’s apartment, or a hospital bed, or dancing among the chaos of a darkened club. So while he took all the right actions by renewing his passport and taking leave from his depressing, though high-paying, tender-writing job, he’s not exactly sure how he came to be unpacking aboard an expedition cruise for marine scientists, ecotourists and birdwatchers, because Jesse is none of those things. Logically, he knows his mother researched routes from Norway to Iceland and made all the bookings. Logically, he knows they are travelling to celebrate Sue’s sixtieth birthday by seeing puffins in the wild. And while he knows, too, that he is expected to be better, having not been an inpatient for months, he is already thinking up lies to get out of eating three meals a day in front of his parents. He’s weary from a day of nothing: a hotel transfer, queuing. The bed looks inviting. He rubs his hand over the sheets just to feel the expensive cool of the fabric.
A knock on the door makes him look up. His eyes go first to the small sealed window that looks out to the lifeboats and the sea beyond. He slides his now-empty bag under the bed and goes to answer the door. In the hallway, his dad, Gabe, waits with his lanyard slung proudly around his neck. ‘All settled in?’
Jesse glances back into the dim room. His unpacking has tidied away all traces of him. Apart from his coat, there’s no evidence of his existence.
‘Should we see if the bar is open?’ Gabe asks.
Down the hall, the door to Jesse’s parents’ room is closed.
‘She’s having a lie-down,’ his dad says by way of explanation. Gabe seems impossibly tall in the hallway, his thick, dark hair giving him an extra inch of height he doesn’t need. He’s dressed in a duck-down puffer vest, unzipped over his collared shirt. It’s only in the last few years he’s started to feel the cold.
Jesse hesitates and Gabe reaches past him to unhook the lanyard from the hanger on the wall where Jesse had shed it as soon as he was through the door.
‘Everything you need is on this little card,’ Gabe says, almost with wonder. Jesse slips the lanyard around his neck, marked like a possession.
Without Sue, they take the stairs, spiralling down the three levels to the common floor. They find the bar closed, so instead Gabe leads Jesse into the dining room at the stern where a Filipino waiter with a name tag that reads Zorro shows them to their allocated table. They order a bottle of champagne for when Sue arrives and soupy red ales for themselves. Jesse hasn’t quite grasped the exchange rate but he knows it’s more than either of them would ever pay for drinks under ordinary circumstances. When the drinks arrive, they cheers and, after they sip, the silence stretches around them. Talking points lapping at the edges of their quiet.
‘Nice room?’ Gabe asks eventually.
‘Same as yours, I expect.’
Gabe comments on the beer, the waiter named Zorro. They eyeball the little sign over the dining setting in the corner that reads Captain’s Table.
The other passengers begin to fill tables around them. They are super-fit seniors, neat in their North Face fleeces, their sensible haircuts and hiking boots. Jesse tries to distinguish the languages – Norwegian, German, Dutch – but can’t. A young blonde, not much older than Jesse, comes in alone and is seated by the window. A different waiter whisks away the second set of cutlery without a word. Jesse inhales deeply and looks away.
When Sue arrives the relief Jesse feels is a physical thing. Suddenly, he seems able to think again, to breathe. Zorro comes to open the champagne. He flirts with Sue, calls Gabe ‘sir’ with the right amount of irony. He brings a basket of bread without being asked.
‘I’ve been reading the guide book,’ Jesse tries. ‘We’ve got a good chance of seeing puffins at Lerwick, otherwise we’ll have to wait until we get to Iceland.’
‘Shetland?’ Gabe asks, almost sceptically.
‘At this time of year, yeah.’
Gabe says, ‘I thought we could take out a boat when we get to Reykjavik.’
‘That puts a lot of pressure on the end of the trip.’
‘Just…Shetland?’ Gabe says again and Jesse feels it sharply.
‘Boys,’ Sue says, topping up her own drink. ‘Let’s talk about something else.’
Jesse can think of nothing.
AFTER DINNER, JESSE goes above deck to see if there is enough space for him to run suicide drills to burn off the calories from dinner, but when he pushes through the doors, the ship is cruising out through the sound and the girl from dinner, the blonde, is there. With her back to the railing, she flicks the camera on her phone to selfie mode and lines up an angle from her outstretched hand – lips, tits, hips – and clicks to capture the image. Behind her, the sun lowers over the sound and the most exquisite moment of the day goes by unnoticed.
Jesse turns to go, but falters. The girl has not seen the silver hues of sky. The shadowy moon. Clouds drifting across clifftops. He takes it in on her behalf. It’s so calm in the sound he can’t tell if the boat or the mountains are moving.
‘Hey,’ she calls out to him, coming over. ‘You’re Australian?’ She plunges her phone into her jacket pocket, but she doesn’t seem embarrassed about having been caught taking photos of herself. ‘I’m Beth,’ she goes on, her hands remaining in the warmth of her pockets.
Jesse rewrites her name in his mind. ‘Jesse,’ he says.
OVER BREAKFAST, JESSE and his parents make plans for the day ahead. Gabe intends to collect water samples with some scientists, attend a lecture.
Sue puts her hand on Jesse’s arm. ‘Maybe we can spend some time together? We can do whatever you want.’
Jesse’s ideal day would be a long hike followed by three hours in the gym. Anything to avoid talking about his health, or what happened with Kristy.
‘Sure, whatever.’ He sips at the dregs in his cup but the coffee has gone cold. He pivots, looking for Zorro. He is standing at a table by the window. When he shifts, Beth is seated there, alone, looking back at him. She says something to Zorro that makes him turn and hold up the coffee pot. Jesse tries to signal no hurry but isn’t sure how it translates.
‘She’s always on her own,’ Sue comments. ‘You should say hello.’
‘I have said hello,’ Jesse admits. ‘Her name is Beth.’
‘She looks a bit like your Kristy.’
‘She does,’ Gabe agrees.
‘Prettier, though,’ Sue adds.
‘Stop,’ Jesse sighs.
‘Don’t tell me you hadn’t thought the same thing.’
He’d thought exactly that. He’d thought: this is what Kristy could have looked like if she’d survived.
Zorro comes to their table. ‘Cappuccino, sir?’ he jokes, filling up Jesse’s cup with black coffee.
IT TURNS OUT Sue’s ideal day together involves sitting in different parts of the ship, looking out of windows and gossiping about family back home. Jesse endures the sitting, knowing that his mother will nap after lunch and he can hit the gym for two hours while his father is off with the scientists. But when Sue leaves, the gym is crowded with passengers and he can’t risk being seen. He goes to his room, lowers the blinds and creates a calisthenics circuit that seems so futile it almost brings him to tears. He has never been able to make himself vomit, but he kneels on the heated floor in the tiny cabin bathroom and tries until his throat burns and his knuckles are covered in dribble. He runs the shower hot and sobs silently in the corner, the water streaming over his back and shoulders. He thought he was doing better. He was doing better. And he knows exactly why he’s coming apart at the seams. Jesse gets dressed and goes down to the bar instead, craving the hot calm of a neat scotch. One obsession replaced with the other.
BEFORE BREAKFAST SERVICE on day three, Jesse follows Zorro through the heavy doors to the ship’s intestines. Earlier, Zorro had hinted at the maze of passageways and stairs hidden behind the walls. He told Jesse that, like humans who only think with 10 per cent of their brain, the passengers only got to know 10 per cent of the ship. Jesse was interested in getting to know the other ninety. And Zorro was up for it; a few favours for Jesse in return for a big tip suited him just fine. The first favour was moving the family to a bigger dining table, away from the loud Americans that had been seated, for the duration of the voyage, at the table beside them. The look on Sue’s face when Zorro met her at the entrance to the dining room and took her by the arm to the large table in the corner. How spoilt she must have felt with the exclusive ocean views through the recently cleaned windows. How happy she looked. Jesse burned with pride.
Now, access to the staff passageways, to the clanging tangle of gangways and stairs, is Jesse’s gift to himself. They climb in through the porthole door and the monumental vertical space makes Jesse’s head spin.
When Zorro leaves, Jesse takes the stairs two at a time at a running pace. He goes up three floors, then one more, until his limbs are warm and loose. The air has a metallic tang to it against the sweetness of adrenaline on his tongue. He is not dressed for exercise and his clothes stick and chafe. He can’t remember the last time his skin felt so alive. Down he goes again, to the bottom floor. He cranes his neck, looking up at the wall of steel, the twists of pipe. Jesse sets off, just shy of a sprint, down the corridor that wraps the ship, his footfalls ringing out in echoes.
JESSE IS THE only one in his family to go ashore when the ship arrives in Lerwick. He sees four puffins – the birds larger than he could have ever imagined – nestled against the cliff. He leans out to take a photo but the stench of bird shit from the fulmars below rises on the updraft and he reels back, near gagging. There are hours before he needs to be back on the ship for the afternoon safety demonstration. Jesse contemplates going back to fetch Sue. They didn’t need to wait until Iceland for puffins. Then he imagines Gabe’s sneer if they struggled all the way off the ship, through town and out to the headland, only to have the four birds Jesse had seen vanish by the time they got there. Instead, he wanders back into town and leans against the stone wall of the tourist centre, using the free Wi-Fi to check his email. There is one from his agent, not surprisingly, letting him go. He wonders what Beth might be up to.
THE AFTERNOON SAFETY drill is more a spectacle than a drill. Jesse leans on the railing with his life vest strapped over his clothes and watches in fascination as the lifeboats are lowered to the water.
‘Jesse, look,’ Sue points to the jutting sundeck below where Beth has claimed one of the only available chairs.
‘Don’t point, Mum.’
‘She can’t hear me,’ Sue says. At the same time, perhaps by coincidence, Beth tilts her face to the sun. Sue springs back from the railing, a shock of laughter spilling from her. ‘We should invite her to dinner,’ Sue persists. ‘Come on. I’m stuck here with you two and Zorro. I could use some female company.’ Then, to Jesse’s horror, Sue leans out over the rail and calls out to her. Beth looks up again and Sue beckons her to join them.
‘How long do we have to stay up here?’ Jesse asks.
Gabe shoulders through the crowd with an ice bucket tucked under his arm. He holds three wineglasses by the stems like fishtails between his fingers. ‘What did I miss?’
Jesse looks over the side. There seems to have been some kind of malfunction with the winch for the lifeboats. One hangs from the cables between floors.
‘Doesn’t exactly inspire confidence,’ Gabe says, craning to see over Jesse’s shoulder. Jesse takes the glasses from him. Gabe pours them huge drinks, sharing the bottle between the three glasses.
‘That’s enough. I don’t want to be too silly when I meet Beth.’
‘Where’s your lifejacket?’ Jesse asks his father.
Gabe looks down as though he was expecting to be wearing it.
‘What did you say about inspiring confidence?’ Sue says from behind her huge glass of wine.
‘I hope I didn’t leave it in the bar.’
‘He’s teasing,’ Sue says. ‘Now, I’ve planned an outing for us tomorrow.’
Jesse takes a long drink of the wine. ‘An outing?’
‘I’ve been in touch with that professor and he’s agreed to take us up to the college.’
‘Which professor?’ Jesse asks, but he feels his throat constrict because suddenly, the whole trip makes sense. Why this route, on this ship. What a fool he’d been.
‘The one who teaches your little book.’
Jesse groans. She doesn’t mean to diminish him by saying little. It’s a physical description of the product, he reminds himself. As if they hadn’t had that conversation a hundred times when it first came out and he would overhear Sue on the phone to her friends, asking if they had got a copy yet of Jesse’s little book, and his pride would suffer a blow each time.
‘Mum, it’s out of print.’
‘You know he was very taken by it.’
‘This is so embarrassing.’
‘I want to meet him. But when we’re there, parents will be seen and not heard, isn’t that right, Gabe?’
Gabe looks trapped between them. Jesse can tell he likes the idea even less than Jesse. He’d never quite grasped the appeal of literature. ‘Maybe you should just go with your mother.’
‘We’re all going and that’s the end of it.’
The captain comes over the loudspeaker instructing them that the demonstration is complete and complimentary drinks will be served in the bar, just as Beth reaches them through the crowd.
Earlier, he’d lingered at a table at the portside tavern, waiting for her to make her way back to the ship. When he’d called out to her, she seemed relieved, and he had hugged her as though she were someone he had loved and already lost, pressing the full length of his body against hers for longer than was appropriate. She’d invited him up to her room, to have a drink and to talk. They drank straight slugs of rum from a bottle she’d smuggled on board. They had done more than just talk.
‘Hello love,’ Sue says, while Jesse scans the deck for the exits.
‘Hello.’ Beth places her hand on Jesse’s shoulder where the skin is still tender from the marks left by her teeth. ‘Hi again.’
‘Beth, this is my husband, Gabe. Jesse was just telling us about you.’
‘You should join us for dinner. We have plenty of room at our table.’
Beth withdraws her hand from Jesse’s shoulder. ‘I wouldn’t want to be a pain.’
‘You’d be doing me a favour,’ Sue insists.
‘Are you sure?’
‘I’ll sort it out with Zorro,’ Sue says, and it’s decided.
Jesse can’t look at Sue or Beth or Gabe. He finds a point on the horizon and stares.
JESSE WALKS BETH back to her room after dinner. At her door she says, ‘Why didn’t you tell me you’re a writer?’
Other passengers approach them and they squish to one side. After they pass, Beth stays leaning with her back to the wall. She says, ‘People usually say that when they have something to hide.’
‘And what are you hiding? You never told me why you’re travelling alone.’
She shrugs, not looking at him. Her head comes up to his chest. They are standing too close for eye contact.
‘Complicated?’ he suggests.
She says, ‘Do you want to come in for a bit?’
Jesse has already counted the calories from dinner. The ones he couldn’t burn at lunch. A scotch, three glasses of wine. ‘I should get an early night.’
Beth opens the door with her swipe card. ‘Night then,’ she says coolly and leaves Jesse alone in the hall.
In the gym, Jesse hits the rowing machine still wearing his clothes from dinner. He increases speed each time his mind wanders to Beth, and subsequently Kristy. Beth is nothing and everything. Past and possibility. The sweat makes his jeans cling to his knees, to his calves. His belt buckle digs into his abs. He knows it will wear through his skin and leave a mark like a fingernail scratch. He keeps rowing.
IN TÓRSHAVN, GLASIR is a promise. They can see the gleaming school building, high on the hill overlooking the town, as they sail into port. Sue rushes them through breakfast, telling Jesse she was so nervous she could barely sleep. They go above deck so Gabe can snap a picture of them, the wind in their hair, the school a speck of glitter against the pale morning sky. In the photo, Sue beams.
Up close, the building doesn’t align with Sue’s expectations. Jesse has looked up the concept illustrations on his phone. Researched the architect. Read about the spiral glass atrium that acts as an eco-heating system. Sue was into architecture. She lauded Fallingwater, took Sunday drives to inspect new builds out of town, planned her travel to include Notre-Dame, the Guggenheim, Australia’s own Opera House. Jesse should have known this building was on the list. His book, and the professor, are but a means of access. But when they arrive by taxi, the car park is gravel. Empty pallets lean against the stairs. Protective plastic flaps in the sea breeze. It is Sunday, so there are no students and the place seems lifeless, accentuated by how unfinished it is.
They pay the driver in coins and get out into a bitter chill.
‘Great lines,’ Sue says brightly. She takes Beth by the arm and they crunch over the gravel to the huge reflective windows.
The doors push open and the professor comes out. He is young, mid-thirties perhaps, and Disney good-looking, with thick hair, a cleft chin and flattering glasses.
‘I could have picked you up!’
Sue rushes to him. ‘Don’t be silly, you’ve done so much. Thank you for having us.’ She turns him back to the door. They go in without introductions, followed by Beth, then Gabe. Jesse stands in the car park feeling wholly used. He knows he’s overreacting. But sulking is an indulgence and he allows himself to wallow until the huge doors start to swing shut and he sprints to catch them, fearing the embarrassment of being locked outside.
Instinct, and Sue’s voice, lead him to the atrium. The shock of warmth is cloying, almost unbearable. He shrugs out of his coat but doesn’t know where to put it. Its bulk under his arm makes it hard to shake the professor’s hand when Sue finally introduces him.
‘Nice to meet you,’ he says, like he’s the only kid at a neighbourhood barbeque.
The professor nods and turns his attention to Beth. ‘And you must be the muse? You look exactly as I imagined.’
Jesse can feel Beth’s eyes on him as she shakes the professor’s hand.
‘A muse?’ she says. ‘That’s flattering.’
‘This is our new friend, Beth,’ Sue corrects hurriedly. ‘We met her on the ship.’
The conversation is easy for everyone except Jesse. Sue rabbits on about the state of education and Beth listens intently while the building is described. It’s not an ordinary college. More like a TAFE, Jesse thinks. There are industrial kitchens and miniature hair salons and a mechanics shop, a huge indoor sports arena.
‘And this is my room,’ the professor says, about a tiny space upstairs with a whiteboard and four rows of desks that seems so inferior in comparison to the stainless steel science labs and the oversized canvasses of the art room.
Jesse thinks maybe here they will talk about his book. About the themes. His career. Maybe here Jesse will be inspired to write something new, because there hasn’t been a word since the tragic failure of his debut.
But all the professor says to him directly is, ‘You know, I didn’t recognise you from your picture.’
Gabe makes a sound in his throat. In their family, Jesse’s weight is the only thing discussed less than his short-lived literary career. Because the book was produced at a time when he has a handsome face was the only compliment he received about his physicality.
‘He was much younger then,’ Sue says, pushing another elephant quietly out the door.
‘Yes,’ the professor says and Jesse catches something in his voice, in the look he passes over him. Jealousy, perhaps?
‘Do you write?’ Jesse asks, and the professor’s cheeks burn red.
‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘Those who can’t…’
This small victory is what he stores from the day. This moment will be the one he remembers when Sue brings up their visit again and again, casually writing Jesse and his book out of the memory, focusing on the vision of the building, how close it was to completion. As Jesse endures the retellings, he will quietly recall that for a moment, he was someone’s hero.
‘Well, I don’t have anything else to show you,’ the professor says, having recovered.
Sue perks up. ‘Can you show me the viewing deck again?’
‘I’m going to get some air,’ Jesse says, but already the group has moved on.
Outside, the blast of cold, fresh air comes as an instant relief. A reminder that he still exists, that he’s alive.
The doors open and Beth follows him out. It’s her. It’s not her.
‘That guy is obsessed with you,’ she says, tucking her scarf into the front of her jacket. ‘Why haven’t I heard of your book?’
Jesse looks away from her, back towards the port. ‘I don’t really want to talk about it.’
She stands beside him, jostling to generate heat. ‘Who did he think I was?’
Jesse exhales. It’s impossible to escape her. ‘I met a girl when I was sick and based a character on her.’
‘She looks like me?’
‘Aren’t you meant to, like, protect your sources?’
‘I changed her name. But it was easy to work out. She was sick, too. She got bullied online. Her family got involved. It got messy.’ He doesn’t say the rest.
Beth says, ‘You know your mum is going to be ages. Want to find somewhere to get a drink?’
Jesse nods. ‘More than anything.’
BACK AT THE ship, Gabe presses the button to call the lift for them. Jesse points to the stairs. ‘We’ll all fit,’ Gabe says in a tone that ends Jesse’s protest. He follows them in and tries not to obsess over the exercise he’ll be missing. Thirteen calories a minute taking the stairs. Twelve more than standing beside Beth and his parents.
When the lift pings at Beth’s floor, she hugs Sue and thanks her for the day out. Jesse can hardly look at her. He had told her more than he had wanted to. How he had met Kristy in rehab. How they had planned a life together that she didn’t stick around to live for. The shame of his failure burns in him.
‘Don’t be late to dinner,’ Gabe says to Jesse when they arrive to their rooms. He waits for them to go in, then looks up and down the corridor and, seeing he is alone, immediately busts out fifty star jumps, fast enough to make him lose breath.
BEFORE DINNER, HE changes quickly in his room, as silently as he can, then takes Zorro’s passageways to the gym. He swipes his access card and pushes the door to enter.
Gabe waits in the shadows by the functional training machines. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’ he asks.
Jesse slips the towel from his shoulder, wrings it between his hands. ‘Nothing.’ He curses himself for getting changed, for taking so damn long to lace up his sneakers.
‘You promised,’ Gabe says and his disappointment makes it sound like a question. ‘Jesse… You embarrassed your mother today.’
Don’t they think Jesse was embarrassed? Don’t they think it’s killing him to sit across from Beth at each mealtime? To have Sue parade her around, healthy and living, when Kristy never survived. Jesse says, ‘I never asked her to do that.’
‘Can’t you see she’s trying?’
‘Trying to do what?’
Gabe steps towards him and Jesse flinches. The lights come on and he realises that’s all he was doing. Putting on the lights. In the mirrored wall opposite, Jesse is a warped version of himself.
‘She just wants you to know she’s proud of you.’ Gabe stands beside Jesse, turning so they are both facing the mirror. Now he can see what they see. The sheen of his skin. How thin he is getting again. ‘We’re worried about you.’
‘I’m better,’ Jesse says. ‘I’m doing better.’
‘No,’ Gabe says. ‘You’re not.’
AFTER JESSE SHOWERS and dresses for dinner, he waits outside his parents’ room. He can hear the unmistakable murmur of his parents’ voices emanating from under their door. He goes to knock just as the door swings open.
Gabe’s hair is slicked back, wet from the shower. ‘You’re ready?’ a question and an acknowledgement that is almost an apology.
‘I’ll meet you down there?’ Jesse steps back so Gabe can leave, then slips in through the closing door.
Sue is propped up in bed, her reading glasses on the end of her nose, a puzzle book open on her lap. The room is a mirror of his own, but his parents have sprawled their belongings across every surface. Towels and clothes draped over chairs. On the little table with the kettle, he sees Gabe has snuck up some whole fruits from the buffet. Jesse rounds the bed and climbs in on the other side, sitting close enough to his mum that it almost feels like touching.
She closes the book over her pencil. ‘You know it’s not your fault. There was nothing you could do.’
Jesse doesn’t think that’s true but when Sue finds Jesse’s hand, he lets her hold it, lacing his fingers between hers.
THAT NIGHT, THE ship rolls and Jesse is pitched from his bed. He gets up, confused, and his first instinct is to check the lifeboat is still outside his window. He hasn’t been left behind. He pulls on jeans. Slips his lanyard around his neck.
At his parents’ room, Gabe comes to the door in his pyjamas.
‘Didn’t you hear the announcement?’ Jesse asks.
‘They said stay in your room.’
‘Did you find your lifejacket?’
‘It was never lost. Go back to sleep,’ Gabe says, already closing the door.
Jesse stands in the corridor, the emergency lighting illuminating the exits. The announcement repeats in German and French, demanding passengers stay in their rooms. Every instinct in Jesse’s body is against that idea.
Outside Beth’s room, he knocks, calls out to her. She comes to the door, a copy of his book in her hand. ‘Sue had one,’ she confesses. She steps back to let him inside. The TV is on, a reality program playing with the volume right down. The ship rocks and this time Jesse’s knees bend to absorb the shock.
Beth manoeuvres him to the chair in the corner. Jesse looks around the room, unsure of how he got there.
‘Are you okay?’ she asks.
‘I thought we were sinking.’
She laughs. ‘It’ll take more than this.’
There is an open packet of chips on the bedside table. She eats a handful as she rounds the bed to fetch the smuggled bottle of rum and pour them drinks.
‘Did you come to rescue me?’ she asks, dusting salt off her lips.
He accepts the drink and looks at her. Really looks. She is not so much like his Kristy. She doesn’t need to be rescued, but maybe he does.
‘Beth,’ he begins, rewriting her name in his mind.