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?”

“Shottttss!”

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.

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