As a holiday, this completely sucked. At the beginning of day three, Nick was ready to bail out. Given any means of returning home, he would snap it up quicker than, well, quicker than the quickest thing you can imagine. His only chance was to steal a lifeboat and row back east. Perhaps he might fashion a pair of oars from some of those glossy brochures people kept handing out.
Rarely known for his sunny disposition, what little remained when embarking had upped and went. Only the wine rendered it palatable. Even that was so bland and overpriced that a body had to drink even more to take one’s mind off it. Nothing else worked to deaden the feeling of being in the wrongest of places, and with more than twice the time again to go.
The unluckiest winner in the history of online competitions gazed across the dark, empty sea, seething with ingratitude for his good fortune. He desperately hoped the following days would evaporate more quickly than the others.
That, he told himself, will teach you to enter competitions when bored.
He never cared for water. Nasty, wet stuff. Alright for fish, and people who enjoy bobbing around like ducks in the park on boats. How he longed for a glimpse of land, or even a hint of it before sundown.
Each day began with breakfast, regardless of the equality of one’s constitution to prevent its subsequent escape. Today wasn’t as bad as the last two. Meanwhile, the ship still swayed. Nick also swayed. It was difficult to work out where one finished and the other began.
“Text this number now to find out if you’re a winner!” Why not? First prize, ten days on a creaky boat. Second prize, presumably, incarceration for twenty days. He tried to find someone to come with him but found his choices limited at present, even by his own standards. Binky would have loved it but decided he couldn’t take the time off work. That alone left him questioning the desirability of maintaining any other than business-like relations with the man for the rest of their agreement. Thus, on a damp and dismal morning, apparently designed to reflect his mood, he boarded the SS January alone to experience this “priceless adventure to free your mind, body and spirit”.
The other passengers, or guests as the paperwork described them, seemed vastly outnumbered by ghouls and parasites desperate to part them from their money. He hadn’t spoken to any of his fellow inmates but recognised them as the ones looking as miserable as he felt during mealtimes and presentations.
Oh my goodness, the presentations!
Day one, before land was even out of sight, Byron J Westlander, life coach to the stars, rose to do his thing. Does that man enjoy the sound of his own voice? Is the sea around the ship slightly off-colour soon after every meal? That would be a yes to both, then.
“Call me By”, he demanded. As in my book, Nick guessed. Probably because time was money and careless syllables cost lives. “I’m here to edit your script forever”.
The first hour passed eventually. Nick yawned through the litany of exaggerated achievements, self-aggrandising anecdotes and plugs for the ghost-written books piled high upon the table nearby. The man was clearly an optimist. Another dozen hardbacks and starboard athwartships might go underwater.
“Give me three hours of your life and I’ll mould you into what you need to become!” he bellowed as the collective torpor hanging over the audience congealed like skin atop a good gravy.
While his assistant handed out copies of the free special edition hardback book, which Byron J Westlander will gladly sign and personalise after the show, the great man himself urged guests to sign up for not one, but two complimentary hour-long sessions to listen to him droning on all over again about the new journey to the new you, living on top of personal mountains with the most boring man alive as your guide. Nick made a mental note to avoid him for the rest of the journey.
The length of the queue to take advantage of his generous offer surprised Nick. Perhaps the other saps felt sorry for him. Or considered two hours with a narcissistic jerk an improvement on the slow emptiness ahead.
Day two started equally badly. Nick awoke to the sound of hollering outside the cabin. A cautious glimpse through the peep-hole in the door showed it was coming from a gang of fitness junkies, sporting unisex electric pink jumpsuits, which at least made it easy to see them coming. They darted through the ship like four-year-olds released after an hour of enforced silence, rounding up all the old fatties for a morning of vigorous exercise and probable heart attacks.
One offered Nick a leaflet as he clung to the old, familiar handrail out on deck, contemplating life, the universe and his digestive system. They babbled something about a new energetic you, desperate to burst free. It definitely felt like something was trying to burst free, but had more of the goblin about it than a body to invite admiration on a sunny beach. The vision in pink noted Nick’s expression, pitched somewhere in the hinterland between pain and murderous intent, and scuttled away. After lunch, the guests who availed themselves of the joy of exercise went to sleep in their cabins for the rest of the afternoon and Nick took advantage of their absence to cast a jaundiced eye over the other attractions.
Behind a dummy sporting a wedding dress, besides which the Blackpool Illuminations would appear the pinnacle of restraint, lurked Harmony Rosewater. The luxury wedding planner’s techniques were no more subtle than her display. She wasn't hopeful, but it didn't stop her sidling out, instinctively unable to resist, like a well-fed cat noticing something barely worth eating.
Nick saw her first, though, and decided even he couldn’t get through the entire voyage without having a little fun.
Oh yes, Ms Rosewater, I was just admiring the beautiful dress. Like snowfall upon a pillar box. Such beautiful striations. Why yes, actually, I am. We’re thinking of marrying the year after next. Oh, hundreds of guests, I expect. A tropical island would be delightful. Why have we never considered that before?
Half-price if I sign today, Ms Rosewater? I must speak to my partner, of course. She may not have many ideas, but whenever she allows them to float into her pretty little head, she sets them in the daintiest of concrete. Heavens, is that the time? Farewell and toodle-oo.
Time-limited offer, my bottom. Does she think I was born yesterday? Think I’ll do a bit of paperwork for an hour and it’ll be time to eat again. No peace for the wicked, eh?
Just a small portion for me, please. And no sauce, thank you. Let’s see if that stays put. Great whatsits, it’s the wedding woman and they’ve trusted her with a microphone. Oh heavens, she’s doing speed dating next, starting on the hour in the Atlantic Lounge. That's the bar with the lumpen fibreglass statues over at the far end of the dining room. A special treat, she says. Might go over and laugh at them later if the old stomach permits.
It took a long time but, eventually, the next morning arrived. The sea remained choppy, but dinner somehow stayed down.
The theme for today was spirit. And what a peerless bunch of rogues and charlatans the promoters drummed up to help the party along. Nick could smell the most delusional ones even before they entered the room. Growing up in a dangerous cult would never end well for a rebellious youngster like he used to be, and so it proved. Cast out of his community after a transgression too far, he took a long time finding his sense of purpose and rebuilding a life with meaning. Occasionally someone suggested he might let go of his anger for the sake of his health. So far, he had outlived most of them and intended to see out the rest.
The organisers knew from experience to scatter the evangelists for the world's great religions throughout the ship. They sent the craziest looking ones to the farthest corners to stop them coming to blows, while allowing Buddhists, Taoists and proponents of Zen to mingle peaceably in the dining hall.
Later, a woman with a towel on her head appeared and announced herself as a palmist. He could never resist lobbing bricks at an appointment with destiny and waited for a quiet moment to approach. He knew how these people worked, with a greater understanding of the spectrum through which they operate than any of the proponents themselves. It offered many opportunities for mischief, especially when bored.
“You will live to a great age”.
So far, so good.
“I see no children, but you will care for many”.
“You have travelled far, with a long way to go”.
If you mean this damned boat, then I cannot disagree.
“I sense a great power within”.
Oh, this one’s good. Time to ramp it up a bit.
“Why, your hand, it feels like it’s on fire!”
Here, have a jug of water.
“How did you do that?”
Ah, that would be telling.
Nick left the table, grinning only when safely out of sight. Then, entirely unexpectedly, he spotted someone with whom he had unfinished business. It must have been fate which drove him to enter the competition. It also explained why he needed to win. Such was the nature of coincidence and fate.
“Good evening. Mr Mitchell, isn’t it? May I join you?”
“Do I know you?”
“You met with me once, in an official capacity. I doubt you remember, being such a busy, successful man. Since that very night, I believe. Could I ask you to accompany me for a moment, please?”
“I’d prefer to stay here if it’s all the same to you”.
“It’s not far, just a short walk down that corridor. It will only take a moment”.
Nick touched him on the shoulder. As if in a trance, the man arose and allowed the stranger to lead him through a side door. Despite regular cruises on this same vessel, he’d never noticed it before. How very strange.
As they walked, the light at the end grew brighter. Halfway along, Mr Mitchell recalled a night long ago when he was young, foolish, desperate and topped up with the unholiest spirits imaginable. He then experienced an overwhelming weight of dread throughout his entire body.
He was old now, yet Nick hadn’t changed in fifty years. And nor would he. Not even during the next five hundred.
The man looked around. If he ran back now, he might get away. Nick placed a hand on his shoulder and shook his head.
This one had a lot less fight in him than many. Hadn’t even demanded to see the contract. It was in his jacket pocket and all in order. He only checked it through this afternoon. What a coincidence.
Reaching the wall at the end of the corridor, Nick stopped and watched the old man pass straight through it, on his way to a new and very different life. The old devil paused briefly to show the barest minimum of respect, then returned to the dining room. A first aider was busy with the shell of a man nearby. Nobody yet realised its former occupant had vacated and left it behind.
His work done, for now, Old Nick thumbed through the programme for tomorrow, unsurprised to find nothing appealed. With another client gone, though, he needed to find another. And where better to look than here, surrounded by people desperate for the prospect of a new and better life? Surely one among them would wish to avail themselves of his unique services, offering such generous long-term returns on such an insignificant investment?
Why, he thought, things looked brighter already.