The gangway shifted beneath my feet, the oily, inky waters of the harbor swirling and sucking beneath, and I had a momentary illusion that I was falling, the steel beneath my feet giving way. I shut my eyes and gripped the cold metal rail.
Then I heard a woman’s voice from up ahead.
“It’s a wonderful smell, isn’t it!”
I blinked. A stewardess was standing in the entrance to the ship. She was bright, almost white blond, with tanned walnut-brown skin, and beaming as if I were her rich, long-lost relative from Australia. I took a breath, trying to steady myself, and then made my way across the rest of the gangway and onto the Aurora Borealis.
“Welcome, Miss Blacklock,” the stewardess said as I entered. Her accent was slightly clipped in a way I couldn’t place, and her words somehow managed to convey the impression that encountering me was a life experience on a par winning the lottery. “I am so very pleased to welcome you on board. Can one of our porters take your case?”
I looked around me, trying to work out how she knew who I was. My bag was gone before I could protest.
“Can I offer you a glass of champagne?”
“Um,” I said, distinguishing myself with witty repartee. The stewardess took that for yes and I found myself accepting the dewy flute she put into my hand. “Uh, thanks.”
The interior of the Aurora was gobsmacking. The boat might be small, but they had crammed in enough bling for a vessel ten times the size. The gangway doors opened up onto the landing of a long, curving staircase and literally every surface that could be French polished, encased in marble, or draped with raw silk had been so. The whole flight was illuminated by an eye-watering chandelier, suffusing the place with tiny splashes of light that reminded me of nothing so much as the sun glinting off the sea on a summer’s day. It was slightly nauseating—not in a social-conscience sort of way, although if you thought about it too hard, that too. But more the disorientation—the way the crystals acted like a prism on every drop of light, dazzling you, throwing you off-balance with a sensation like peering into a child’s kaleidoscope. The effect, combined with lack of sleep, was not completely pleasant.
The stewardess must have seen me gawping, because she gave a proud smile.
“The Great Stairway is really something, isn’t it?” she said. “That one chandelier has more than two thousand Swarovski crystals.”
“Gosh,” I said faintly. My head throbbed and I tried to remember if I’d packed the ibuprofen. It was hard not to blink.
“We are very proud of the Aurora,” the stewardess continued warmly. “My name is Camilla Lidman and I am in charge of hospitality on the vessel. My office is on the lower deck, and if there is anything I can do to make your stay with us more enjoyable please do not hesitate to ask. My colleague Josef”—she indicated a smiling blond man to her right—“will show you to your cabin and give you a tour of the facilities. Dinner is at eight, but we would invite you to join us at seven p.m. in the Lindgren Lounge for a presentation on the boat’s facilities and the wonders you can expect to enjoy on this cruise of the famous Norwegian fjords and the Swedish archipelago islands. Ah! Mr. Lederer.”
A tall dark man in his forties was coming up the gangway behind us, followed by a porter struggling with a huge suitcase.
“Please be careful,” he said, wincing visibly as the porter bumped the trolley over a joint in the gangway. “That case has some very delicate equipment in it.”
“Mr. Lederer,” Camilla Lidman said, with the exact same amount of near-delirious enthusiasm she had injected into her welcome to me. I had to hand it to her; I was impressed at her acting skills, though in the case of Mr. Lederer it probably took less effort since he was kind of easy on the eye. “Let me welcome you aboard the Aurora. Can I offer you a glass of champagne? And Mrs. Lederer?”
“Mrs. Lederer won’t be coming,” Mr. Lederer said. He ran a hand through his hair and glanced up at the Swarovski chandelier with an air of slight bemusement.
“Oh, I am so sorry.” Camilla Lidman’s flawless brow puckered in a frown of concern. “I hope nothing is wrong.”
“Well, she’s in fine health,” Mr. Lederer said. “In fact, she’s fucking my best friend.” He smiled and took the champagne.
Camilla blinked and then said smoothly, almost without pause, “Josef, please do take Miss Blacklock to her cabin.”
Josef gave a little half bow and extended a hand towards the downward sweep of the staircase.
“This way, please?” he said.
I nodded dumbly and allowed myself to be ushered away, still clutching my glass of champagne. Over my shoulder I could hear Camilla telling Mr. Lederer about her office on the lower deck.
“You are in cabin nine, the Linnaeus Suite,” Josef told me as I followed him down into the beige dimness of a thickly carpeted, windowless corridor. “All the cabins are named after notable Scandinavian scientists.”
“Who gets the Nobel?” I cracked nervously. The corridor was giving me a strange, stifled feeling, a heavy weight of claustrophobia on the back of my neck. It wasn’t just the size but the soporifically low lamps and lack of natural light.
Josef answered seriously.
“On this particular voyage, the Nobel Suite will be occupied by Lord and Lady Bullmer. Lord Bullmer is director of the Northern Lights Company, which owns the vessel. There are ten cabins,” he told me as we descended a set of stairs. “Four forward and six aft, all on the middle deck. Each cabin consists of a suite of up to three rooms, with its own bathroom, featuring full-sized bath and separate shower, full-sized double bed, and private veranda. The Nobel Suite has a private hot tub.”
Veranda? Somehow the idea of having a veranda on a cruise ship seemed completely wrong, but I supposed, thinking about it, it wasn’t any weirder than having any other open-deck area. Hot tub—well, least said about that the better.
“Every cabin has a named steward to assist you, day or night. Your stewards will be myself and my colleague Karla, who you will be meeting later this evening. We will be delighted to help you in any way we can during your stay on the Aurora.”
“So this is the middle deck, right?” I asked. Josef nodded.
“Yes, this deck is solely passenger suites. Upstairs you will find the dining room, spa, lounge, library, sundeck, and other public areas. All are named after Scandinavian writers—the Lindgren Lounge, the Jansson Dining Room, and so on.”