Margaret Atwood reimagined; “The Year Of The Flood” creative response.

When the small creatures hush their singing, said Adam One, it’s because they’re afraid. You must listen for the sound of their fear.

You must inhale the smell of their fear. Some say that fear has a particular scent, something overly saccharine, something a little salty, something like salted butterscotch. The salt of your sweat mixes with the panic glands which produce a sickly sweet allure which attracts predators from all around. That’s how they know you’re there, shaking in the dark, under the brush and behind the earthen musk of woodland bark. That’s how they know you’re the furry little creature they’ve been after.

Sunlight comes flooding through the bars on the window and Toby sighs, deciding she’d better do something before the humidity kicks in. She managed to get some sleep last night, but for just how long, she couldn’t say. She’s glad she did though, and she’s gladder that she made it through another night unscathed. Her stomach rumbles. She needs to find something to eat. She hobbles over to the fridge and when the door swings open, no light comes on. There hasn’t been any electricity in the area since the incident, but no matter. She only stores some supplies of bread and tinned food in there anyway.
Leaning against the bench of the breakfast nook, she rests all her weight on one side, her left side. She’s in awesome agony, but she’s managed to channel that pain into determination. Even though the sprain in her right foot has definitely puffed up since last night,  she needs to keep moving. She eases herself onto the floor, props her foot up against the fridge door and redresses the problem area with careful figures of eight. The bandage is gathering brown patches of sweat and grime, but nothing she can’t handle. Toby gently pulls on her worn joggers and sighs, tucking a stray strand of hair behind her ear.

This place has good security. It’s kept her safe for a few weeks. The barred windows offer enough of the outside in and at least the toilet still functions. She decides to slip the door key in her pocket before she grabs her coat.

The door sticks a little then opens, just a crack, which is enough for Toby to survey the hallway. Bathed in an amber light from the far end of the corridor, it seems empty. The doorways are a little murky for comfort, but nothing seems to be lurking there, the shadows aren’t dark enough. The blood rushing in her ears again: katoush, katoush, katoush. She’s ready. She edges herself out the door toward the stairwell. Since the elevator’s out and she can’t risk trying the back stairs, she sets for the fire escape.

Using the subtly corrugated walls as support, she doesn’t look back. Toby stays on track, moving forward, forward. It’s nearly two flights down before she realises that her hands aren’t sliding along the roughness of the walls anymore. They’ve felt something cool, something wet. She pauses in her tracks, her heart is banging. She rubs whatever it is between her forefingers and thumb. It’s sticky. She draws it up to her nose and inhales. Metallic. She swallows hard, her breathing quickens. She keeps walking, this time more cautiously. Her knees are a little bit more bent as if ready to spring into action, although she’s unsure of just how much action her ankle can take.

Toby reaches the ground floor and sunlight pours into the foyer of the empty hotel. Although the air is like expired red-meat in here, although the air is heavier in here,  the thickness associated with a locked sun-room just isn’t there. She’s stopped in her tracks by a snap that wasn’t her. She looks underfoot, the floor is smeared with a rusty spatter. There’s a click and she jumps, eyes darting around. But it’s only the foyer door moving with the zephyr. She’s holding her breath. She looks over at the reception desk. There’s someone at the computer.

She staggers as best she can around the front desk. Her eyes are burning but they can’t peel themselves off the woman sat there. The woman’s hair is perfectly slicked into a tight bun at the nape of her neck. She’s slumped forward a little bit and she seems to be sleeping. Her nude foundation is smudged on the collar of her white uniform, but as Toby hesitates nearer, she sees a thin, ruddy line trailing from just above her diamond earrings, all the way down her jawline to just under her chin. Toby was right, she did hear women’s voices. They were calling to her in pain. There was somebody left.

Snap. Toby twitches and looks back at the foyer door left ajar. Absent-mindedly, puts her hand down on the counter for support, but nearly slips with the stickiness on her hands from the wall  in the fire escape. Judging by the flake of the blood, the reception lady had been gone for a while. So why was the blood on her hand still wet?

Toby’s whole being tenses. She stumbles behind the reception desk, gets on her hands and knees ignoring the burn in her ankle and crawls under the table, beside the printer and office bin. She can see the foyer through the reflection on a fading Cezanne on the wall and she can hear a shuffle. Snap. The morning sun blasts through the foyer doors now.

Bang, the door is violently pushed open, something shuffles and something slides. Toby wasn’t as alone as she thought.


The Queen Mary Celeste

It was about four in the afternoon, mid July, with the sun casting sparkles on the wash and a clear outlook in a cloudless horizon. I was wearing my button-up beige uniform, lanyard swinging from my pocket, odd socks falling down beneath hoiked-up black slacks, knees shining with wear and tear, hair pulled into a tight bun and heavy foundation. I was neat, clean, exhausted and apathetic, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything a bar-tender on a cruise liner ought to be. I was ready to shake a few cocktails and get the party started.

People came onto the ship ready to get loose. They came with lei’s around their necks, towels draped over their shoulders, sarongs tied around their waists. Their water bottles practically had little umbrellas sticking out of them. A short cruise around the South Pacific for less than two weeks was usually enough time for these folk to earn a few freckles, entangle themselves in tan lines. Anyone who comes on a cruise comes to relax, take it easy, stick their feet up and pull their shades down. They came to unwind. To be able to walk just a few meters or so to the elevators which would take them up to the buffet. To be able to just fling their towel in the shower recess and expect someone with a working visa to replace it with a new one.

I was among the staff who had been shifted on back to back contracts for the past few years. I hadn’t stepped onto dry land in months. I’d seen it from the windows on deck five, but I hadn’t touched it. Deck privileges meant that I hadn’t been out in the open air for a while either. We were all sitting on goldmines of pay, not that we ever saw it, or got a chance to spend it. By this stage, sleep was currency.

And still the ship circled the Pacific, pounding ‘Bennie and the Jets’ just to make the fifty-somethings feel comfortable. The top deck was where they dropped the bass, dubstep style for the nightclubbers.

“Oi, canniva White Rabbit, love?”

“Yeah, gimme two Cascade Martinis, will ya?”


They’d wave their cruise cards in our faces without so much as a hello, and after we shook their drinks and took their money, we’d melt back into the wall until the next round.

So one day, a couple of bar staff, a few gals from the medical team, guys from the gym and spa quarters and some room stewards got together, for a catch-up and a gossip. It was rare that our timetables ever met up like this, what with people working night shifts, day shifts and all. We sat down in crew quarters, our throats wet after a few drinks.

“Haven’t really been measuring nips, ya know?” one girl snorted.

“Pfft, I haven’t even been putting out fresh towels, just been hanging up the old ones ay!” wheezed a room steward.

“Can you believe that I’ve been administering relaxants? On a bloody cruise ship?! As if they can’t get more relaxed floatin’ through the tropics!”

“I didn’t even know relaxants were a thing.”

And that’s where we got the idea.

That particular shift began as usual, at four in the afternoon, just before the pre-dinner drinks, then the lonely hearts, then the party all night. I did my bit. I slipped a couple of relaxants in a few drinks, the stronger ones, like Long Island Ice Teas, where the lime could mask the bitter with sour.

The next day, I noticed a lot of balding men sitting in the bar, brows furrowed, glassy-eyed, by themselves. I didn’t remember that being part of the plan, so I asked one what he wanted to order.

“I… I don’t know. My wife, she usually places an order for the both of us, but she’s, she’s just not, well I don’t know really.” So I warmed a glass and gave him a scotch, to which he just slid me his card to swipe. Same story, from all the other men- then I remembered that the guys in the sauna and massage room on deck two had added relaxants to the steam, and to the massage oil too. It was half price Ladies’ Day. These men were nothing without their better halves. They were at a loss. I recommended they unwind, to have a couple more of my special cocktails.

Day three, the hotpants gymsters stopped going to the gym, because their muscles protested before they even looked at a set of weights. The sunrise Tai Chi group on the open deck had found their Zen. The origami groups folded because the silver-haired scrapbookers just, decided that a thousand paper cranes was enough.

By day five, the ship fell silent. Well, the music still pumped a pulse through the ship, but it echoed through empty corridors. The buffet was still served, but the food mostly went down into crew quarters so we could eat the leftovers. The passengers dialled for room service.

When we reached our first port of call in the Pacific, only a few people disembarked. The local taxis were climbing the fence to rip a fare off a passenger, but the only people who got off just meandered to the nearest white sand, lay down their beach towel and soaked in the sun. No souvenir postcards were sold, no duty-free alcohol was declared, no vendors were haggled, no taxis were chartered.

Day eight was the scheduled Captain’s Degustation, but due to lack of interest, all the canapés and champagne flutes were served to the executive officers and the Captain himself.

By early day nine, the speed of the ship slowed to a gradual crawl.

The ship cruised through the Pacific, a boat full of people relaxing and unwinding in an eternal paradise of stunning weather. Heartbeats slowed, breathing slowed. When we left them, they were alive, just living in a bubble of calm. After that, I suppose the fatal side-effects got to them- you can only sit for so long until the blood pools in your ankles, or your muscles freeze. You can only last so long until your airways slacken and your lungs deflate. We lowered a lifeboat into the drink and lapped our way to land.

The Mini Gallery

If you’ve ever been to an art gallery, you’ll know it’s very cold. Apparently all museums all over the world are the same temperature, but the thing is, it gets hotter with lots of people and it feels colder with less people. Most of the Art Galleries I’ve been to have been nearly empty, so I’ve needed a cardigan. Maybe people don’t go because they don’t like the way the eyes of a portrait follow them around the room.

I knew a girl once, we called her Mini because she was the tallest out of all of us, which we thought was pretty funny. Her mum was a model for all the glossy magazines. She always had the softest clothes and the most sparkly jewellery. Mini had no brothers or sisters, so sometimes her mum let her dress up in the furs and glitter and they’d have fashion parades up and down the corridor of their lemon-coloured cottage. Mini’s dad was an artist, and he was from India. Before he came here, he was so famous that he painted the official portraits of the Maharajah, in fact lots of the blue elephants and red monkeys that you can see on the inner walls of the Taj Mahal were painted by him. When he came here, he got a job at a television company as a set designer and scenic artist, and that’s how Mini’s parents bumped into each other.

Mini’s dad painted all kinds of things for television. He painted beaches for the backgrounds of movies, he decorated the set for Play School, he painted pretend red blood on the teeth of Jaws and he shook hands with the Bananas in Pjamas. Mini was so in love with her dad. Sometimes he would try teach her how to draw, but she would sit and cry because the baby chick she drew just wasn’t the same as the majestic cockrel he drew. At the end of the day, he’d help her build a pillow fort out of the green velvet cushions on the sofa, and they’d lie beneath, sucking on icypoles, watching his paintings flick across the Kids TV channel.

One day, Mini’s dad came home, but something was different.  There were no paints on his hands, his jeans were just as blue as when he left. Mini’s dad had lost his job at the television company and so he sat in his dark art studio, painting the same painting, over and over again for years.

Mini’s mother thought it would be nice to go and get some fresh air, so she decided to take Mini and her dad to the Art Gallery a few times every month. Mini’s dad loved these expeditions, at first. He’d point out all of the secrets; “Look, see how her fingers are a little smaller on the left hand? That’s because the artist forgot,” he’d say, “Look, see how her hair has a line through it? That’s because it was painted in after he thought he was finished.” And Mini would hold his hand and ask for a piggy back, just to smell the oil on his shirt.

Then, Mini’s dad thought that the painting in the art studio at home needed more perfecting, so he didn’t come to the Art Gallery with Mini and her mum anymore.

Mini’s mum thought Mini should still go to the Art Gallery, because then it could be a fun thing to learn about all the art there, then go home and tell everything to Mini’s dad. She’d play mystery games like ‘Spot’ with Mini, where Mini would have to spot the cat, or spot the dog, or spot the goose in each painting- from pieces painted hundreds of years ago, to pieces painted only last year.

This amused Mini for a while. She’d dart through the gallery in her pink parka, slip between tall people in suits and busy herself telling other visitors to the gallery more about the painting than their Audio Tour Guide did.  She nearly knew all the artworks at a glance.

That was until one day, when she was sent on a mission to spot the brown-haired girl in each painting, and saw something that caught her eye. She stooped a little closer to inspect and she saw her own face, staring back at her.

Writing Exercise- “The Big Sleep”

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills. I was wearing my powder-blue suit, with dark blue shirt, tie and display handkerchief, black brogues, black wool socks with dark blue clocks on them. I was neat, clean, shaved, and sober, and I didn’t care who knew it. I was everything the well-dressed private detective ought to be. I was calling on four million dollars.

“The Big Sleep”, Raymond Chandler


Day Eleven – Home

Frodo and I awoke at 0730 and ran the ship with his GoPro. He ran along each corridor of each deck then up a flight of stairs and back the other direction- all the way up to Deck 14, then all the way back down again. I ran ahead and pranked him as he came along, for instance, I lay in a banana chair sunning myself, or I leapt out from behind a door. So much fun! We got a couple of death stares from passengers, and we got celebratory cheers from the stewards.

Breakfast at the buffet. Super tasty. After, Tangled was supposed to have a piano lesson with the wonderful Piano Man, Gregg Ackermann, but she was so sick. We think it was a mixture of exhaustion, sleep deficit and dehydration. She needed to take care of herself and sleep for a solid day, she was running on overdrive for a while. All the excitement! I sent her to my cabin, gave her two Panadol, a bottle of water, an apple, left the toilet seat up, closed the blinds and set the aircon to normal temperature. Incidentally, Gregg had prepared a full lesson for her, which was all the more disappointing. She was to learn ‘Unchained Melody’ by ear, then receive the sheet music, which had “For Tangled” on the top.

The glare on starboard side was so much so that I couldn’t differentiate the ocean from the sky.

Conversing with the ship’s entertainers and crew is so interesting. Their stories are phenomenal.

The tall handsome British bartender told us how in his year-long contract on the Pacific Pearl, our overnight in Port Vila was the only overnight docking the ship’s had. This means that the Port Vila nightclubs would’ve been rockin’ all night with all the crew partying on land for the first time in a year or so. If crew members had back to back contracts, they may not have stepped on land overnight for ages, at all, depending on whether or not they’ve been shifted to work while at a port or turning around when in Sydney.

Gregg was also telling us about how on the final night of a cruise, people are (unofficially) supposed to tip their regular waitstaff. For example, if you frequent The Orient, you tip the bar staff who’ve remembered your order all week. This means that on the last night, hoards of people fill the tables of other bars on the ship, because they still want the social occasion, but they don’t want to tip.

We heard stories about how being on shift all day everyday, you learn to people watch, and even if you’re stationed on one Deck all trip, you learn about the other departments just from watching the flow of people. For example, when a parade of people follow behind a man in a chef’s hat, they’re probably on the Galley Tour. Another example is that when Wala was cancelled, Aqua, the Spa treatment services on Deck 2 dropped the prices on luxury spa treatments and called it a Ladies Day. By extension, the bars all over the ship were inundated with glassy-eyed, furrow-browed, lost-looking men, presumably the husbands of the women who’d taken advantage of Aqua’s Ladies’ Day.

I met a barista who’s been working on and off cruise ships for fifteen years. He began just before the birth of his eldest daughter, and returns home to see her every now and again. He watches her grow taller and more beautiful with every visit. Because working on a cruise ship generally means that you don’t really have any outlet to splash your cash, his pay accumulates and is now used to pay off his daughter’s university fees back home. He buys a ten dollar phone card for fifty-five minutes of conversation and checks up on his family in lots of five-minutes when he gets the chance.

Lunch at the Waterfront was poached Salmon.

We took a tour of the Galley after watching the Head Chef prepare one of the easy gourmet meals they serve at the Waterfront Restaurant. In the bowels of the ship, the Galley itself was quite impressive. The production line and the organisation in the galley where the food is produced en mass was just mindblowing.

We retired to the Mix Bar for conversation and a liquered coffee.

Halfway through dinner, (which was, incidentally, Grilled Scotch Fillet), there was an announcement from the bridge. “Medical Response Team. Deck 11”. This happened twice. Papa Smurf said that he thought there was about one death on any full length cruise- which shocked me to no end. Our table steward said that the Medical Response Team consisted of random staff members from every department on every Deck, who are allocated to, and trained in various skills. For instance, he was one of the thirty stretcher-carriers on board. He wasn’t needed for this Medical Response because we were on Deck 7, and so presumably someone working on Deck 11 would be there first. (All of this is my very basic understanding of an emergency situation on board. I’m sure the procedures are more professional and make more sense than from my conversation with the waitstaff.) Nevertheless, we later discovered that the response was to a heart attack, an elderly lady and fortunately, she stabilised and recovered…to the best of my knowledge.

This incident stirred the glowing writer in me. What if there was a death? A murder perhaps? A double homicide in two cabins on two separate Decks? Or even on the same Deck? Would the assigned Response Team have to split? How would they cope under pressure? The middle of the Pacific Ocean would be a perfect place to dispose of a body, I suppose. What if there was an outbreak on the ship? Or a pandemic on the cruiseliner? A serial killer? On one hand, lucky it was the end of the cruise and the lady managed to have a tropical island holiday. On the other hand, it’s so close to home.

The sunset that night was the colour of strawberry sherbet. Sunset over the ocean is a stunning sight I’ve never really had growing up on the east coast of Australia. The horizon was all the muted colours of the rainbow, in one giant gradient. The sun crept behind the haze, but the sky however, was cloudless.

I was a little sad and disappointed to be leaving the cruise, to be honest. The Clan are my second family, and the autonomy and anonymity that come with isolation and seclusion on board made my blood sing. Plus, if you leave your towel on the floor at home, it’ll still be there twelve hours later- oh the small luxuries!

The Piano Man rehearsed and practiced his pieces when he performed for us. Each live performance was a rerun of older tunes, a place to experiment with newer tunes. This made each performance so personal. Bless good music. Good music that resonates through your core, drums that feed your pulse, bass that reverberates through your soul, piano that runs by itself. That last night, our Clan got front row seats on Deck 6 for Live At Charlie’s; the ultimate band jam where all the ship’s entertainers perform in a loose, giddy arena. Good company, comfy jeans, bronze fingernails, hair in a loose bun and a Gingerbread cocktail, cymbals crash! new friends waved, jelly shoes sparkled, dim lights casted a million and one shadows, colours blue, red and gold. All the retail therapists had changed into casual attire as Decks 5, 6 and 7 were transformed into a swingin’ club. Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now” and Pharell Williams’ “Happy” echoed through the party boat.

It was a superb night, what a way to end the cruise. I gained this care-free attitude, one where I’d managed to find some perspective, some sense of priority. Gregg was right when he said the ship was a time-capsule. It completely removes you from society. Back in civilisation, life goes on and, on the boat, life goes on, but seems they’re on different timelines, quite literally worlds apart. There’s a hiatus back home, but although your life is on pause, the rest of your social group, work, family, they’ve all moved on. I’m not sure if this is in a sense purgatory or liberation (musings such as these apply mostly to those who are contracted to work for months on end, rather than my small scale less-than-a-fortnight-cruise). For the crew, this life can be a monotonous one, like a phone call to customer service where you’ve been placed in a queue and you’re to listen to Prokofiev on loop. People there are either happy to have left their old lives for whatever reason, or they’re there by necessity. I learnt so much respect and gained appreciation and admiration for the hard work the crew put in.

Indeed, it’s a great set up- you travel from tropical island to tropical island making people’s dreams come true. It’s a dreamstate made reality, on repeat, on repeat. Another paradise, another strawberry daiquiri, on another beach.



P&O Cruise to Vanuatu and New Caledonia

Day Ten – Sea Day

Sailing back to Sydney, full steam ahead at 18knots and traveling a few hundred nautical miles north of Norfolk Island. The weather was slowly deteriorating, getting colder and colder the further south we traveled. The sea was so calm, it seemed harmless. If it wasn’t for the movement of the occasional ripple, I’d have described it as perfectly glassy.

Waterfront for breakfast, Smoked Salmon, Chorizo and Chives Scrambled Eggs on a croissant. Afterwards, we used the banana lounges of Deck 9 to sunbathe to the hum of the ship, watching the wash astern.

The ladies of the Clan had High Tea at Luke Mangan’s Salt Grill restaurant on Deck 14 to celebrate some birthdays. The venue was all sheek grey walls, sleek black lines and reflective surfaces. The High Tea was served on Luke Mangan’s branded tableware, beside Maxwell and Williams’ ‘Kimono’ series tea cups and saucers. That, and the loud, energetic sitar playing throughout the restaurant seemed to create a conflicting atmosphere for me, however the food was delicious. Champagne, warm scones with jam and cream, quail egg on a toasted swiss cheese sandwich with turkey breast, sashimi, tandoori bites, portuguese tarts, fresh lamingtons and Florentines to name a few tasty morsels. My favourite was the raspberry macaron with fresh blueberry filling.

The sunlight pushed through the clouds cover in lighter splotches over the calm waters- so much so that it seemed I was staring out the window at a salt lake, mirage, oasis and all.

Formal wear was the theme for the night and I wore an elegant deep blue floor length dress.  Pan-roasted ocean trout with mash and gravy for dinner. I found myself not necessarily missing home, but slowly tiring of the onboard lifestyle. It’s like a forced bubble of paradise on loop, exceedingly lavish and stagnant at the same time.

We ran down to the Atrium to catch the Pacific Rat Pack, an excellent blues and jazz showband, where I mingled with my new surrogate uncle and had a cognac coffee. We then scampered up to the Marquee for “Runaway To The Circus”. Wowee! What a performance! The dance crew collaborated with the acrobats to put on a circus show with routines to “Make ’em Laugh”, Britney Spears and other poplar tunes. The costume changes, and costumes themselves were totally incredible, the staging and backdrop, light show extravaganza was just seamless. They managed to shock and amaze us with bungee ropes and giant elephant puppetry. Extraordinary.

In the Atrium, I decided to leave the crowd and sit on the floor for the final show, Champagne Waterfall and Bomb Alaska parade. The Clan followed my lead and sat with me, so we had excellent front row seats.  The Champagne Waterfall had 650 glasses in the tower. Smoke filled the Atrium for a Lazer light show and balloons fell from above. Chefs and stewards paraded with the Bomb Alaskas, showcasing the catering staff for us to applaud. The ship partied all night, but as I was running past the Waterfront restaurant later that night, I spied our waiter vacuuming the restaurant- vacuum strapped to his back, bandana on his balding head, as he danced gaily to his headphones. We felt sorry for him, that the cruise was over and the party had begun and yet he was still working behind the scenes. “I was shifted on the party last contract” he beamed, “I’m happy to vacuum, it means I should get 12 hours sleep tonight. And I get off at Sydney!” I was so pleased for him.

After a bit of guitar in The Orient bar, Lucy, Frodo and I watched Paul Brasch, adult comedian in the Marquee and we definitely had an unhealthy dose of laughter, I nearly forgot to breathe. He was a natural entertainer on the fly, excellent impromptu and a fantastic storyteller.

We visited Gregg Ackermann after the show. He said he was pleased and thankful to have such an enthusiastic audience.