“Where’d this come from?”
I just shook my head and swung my legs out of bed. I began pulling on the pile of spare clothes I’d left on the floor after the trip to A&E.
“I’m just tired, Jude.” Tired was an understatement. I hadn’t slept longer than two hours in the last three nights. “And I can’t see where this is heading. It’s hard enough now when it’s just the two of us. I don’t want to be your wife-in-every-port stuck at home with a kid and a raging case of postnatal depression while you’re getting shot at in every hellhole this side of the equator.”
“Recent events kind of imply I’m in more danger in my own apartment,” Judah said, and then winced as he saw my face. “Sorry, that was an asshole thing to say. It was an accident, I know that.”
I swung my still-damp coat round my shoulders and picked up my bag.
“ ’Bye, Judah.”
“ ’Bye? What do you mean, ’bye?”
“Whatever you want.”
“What I want is for you to stop acting like a goddamn drama queen and move into my flat. I love you, Lo!”
The words hit me like a slap. I stopped in the doorway, feeling the weight of my tiredness like something physical around my neck, pulling me down.
Hands in pale latex, the sound of a laugh . . .
“Lo?” Judah said uncertainly.
“I can’t do this,” I said, my face to the hallway. I was not sure what I was talking about—I can’t leave; I can’t stay; I can’t have this conversation, this life, this everything. “I just— I have to go.”
“So that job,” he said, the beginnings of anger in his voice. “The one I turned down. Are you saying I was wrong?”
“I never asked you to do that,” I said. My voice was shaking. “I never asked you. So don’t you put that on me.” I hoisted my bag up onto my shoulder and turned to the door.
He didn’t say anything. He didn’t try to stop me. I walked out of the flat reeling like I was half-drunk. It was only when I got on the tube that the reality of what had just happened hit me.
- CHAPTER 5 -
I love ports. I love the smell of tar and sea air, and the scream of the gulls. Maybe it’s years of taking the ferry to France for summer holidays, but a harbor gives me a feeling of freedom in a way that an airport never does. Airports say work and security checks and delays. Ports say . . . I don’t know. Something completely different. Escape, maybe.
I had spent the train journey avoiding thoughts of Judah and trying to distract myself with research on the trip ahead. Richard Bullmer was only a few years older than me, but his CV was enough to make me feel hopelessly inadequate—a list of businesses and directorships that made my eyes water, each a stepping-stone to an even higher level of money and influence.
When I brought up Wikipedia on my phone, it showed a bronzed, handsome man with very black hair, arm in arm with a stunningly beautiful blonde in her late twenties. Richard Bullmer with his wife, the heiress Anne Lyngstad, at their wedding in Stavanger, read the caption.
Given his title, I’d assumed that his wealth had been handed to him on a plate, but it looked, from Wikipedia at least, as if I’d been unfair. The early part of the picture was cushy enough—prep school, Eton and Balliol. However, in his first year at university his father had died—his mother seemed already to be out of the picture, it wasn’t entirely clear—and the family estate had been swallowed up in death duty and debts, leaving him, at nineteen years of age, homeless and alone.
Under those circumstances, the fact that he got through Oxford with a degree would have been achievement enough, but he had also created a dot-com start-up in his third year. Its stock market flotation in 2003 was the first in his string of successes, culminating with this boutique ten-cabin cruise liner conceived as a super-luxury retreat for hopping the Scandinavian coastline.
Available for the wedding of your dreams, a dazzling corporate event to woo your clients with the “wow” factor, or simply for an exclusive holiday you and your family will never forget, I read from the press pack as the train hurtled north, before turning to a floor plan of the cabin deck. There were four large suites in the nose of the boat—the prow, I supposed you’d call it, and a separate section with six smaller cabins arranged in a horseshoe shape at the back. Each cabin was numbered, odd and even on either side of a central corridor, with cabin 1 right in the tip of the prow, and cabins 9 and 10 adjoining each other in the curved stern of the boat. I guessed I’d be in one of the smaller cabins—presumably the suites were reserved for VIPs. There were no measurements on the floor plan and I frowned, remembering some of the cross-channel ferries I’d been on, the claustrophobic, windowless little rooms. The thought of spending five days in one of those wasn’t a comfortable one, but surely on a boat like this, we’d be talking something considerably more spacious?
I turned the page again, hoping to find a photo of one of the cabins to reassure myself, but instead I was confronted with a shot of a dazzling array of Scandinavian delicacies spread out on a white cloth. The chef on the Aurora had trained at Noma and elBulli, apparently. I yawned and pressed my hands into my eyes, feeling the grit of tiredness and the weight of everything from last night pressing down on me once again.
Judah’s face as I’d left him, stitched up with the blow from the night before, came into my head and I flinched. I wasn’t even sure what had happened. Had Judah and I broken up? Had I dumped him? Every time I tried to reconstruct the conversation, my exhausted brain took over, adding in stuff I hadn’t said, the responses I wished I’d made, making Judah more clueless and more insulting, to justify my own position, or alternatively more unconditionally loving, to try to convince myself this was all going to be okay. I hadn’t asked him to turn down the job. So why was I suddenly expected to be grateful for it?
I dozed off for about thirty painful minutes in the car from the station to the port, and when the car driver’s cheerful announcement broke into my sleep it was like a splash of cold water to the face. I stumbled out of the car into the searing sunshine and the salt-sting of the breeze, feeling bleary and dazed.
The driver had dropped me off almost at the end of the gangway, but as I looked across the steel bridge to the boat, I couldn’t quite believe we were in the right place. The pictures from the brochure were familiar—huge glass windows reflecting the sun without a single fingerprint or speck of salt water, and gleaming white paint so fresh that it could have been finished that morning. But what had been missing from the brochure photos was a sense of scale. The Aurora was so small—more like a large yacht than a small cruise liner. Boutique had been the phrase in the press pack—and now I saw what they meant. I’d seen bigger boats hopping around the Greek islands. It seemed impossible that everything mentioned in the brochure—library, sunroom, spa, sauna, cocktail lounge, and all the other things apparently indispensable to the Aurora’s pampered passengers—could fit into this miniature vessel. Its size, along with the perfection of its paintwork, gave it a curiously toylike quality, and as I stepped onto the narrow steel gangway I had a sudden disorienting image of the Aurora as a ship imprisoned in a bottle—tiny, perfect, isolated, and unreal—and of myself, shrinking down to match it with every step I took towards the boat. It was a strange feeling, as if I were looking down the wrong end of a telescope, and it gave me a dizzying sensation almost like vertigo.