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Kathryn Tann


Until We Arrive

PART ONE, CHAPTER III

‘Oh Nance, are ya sick?’

Nancy was crouched on the floor between the two narrow

beds, her back to the cabin door. Before her was the Canada

Steam Company room-standard chamber pot. Remnants of

her small breakfast swam below her watery eyes, and all she

wanted was to be alone. Herman’s voice reached her from

somewhere far away, hardly noticeable under the thud of her

heart against her breastbone.

‘Nance?’ the voice repeated, ‘Are you alright? Do you

need anything?’

Nancy pictured her new husband standing a few feet

behind her, a look of horror slapped across his face. Not now,

she thought. She needed to stay very still and quiet. She

needed to concentrate.

‘I’m—’ her voice came out all wavering and pathetic, ‘I’m

fine. I’ll be fine.’ She tried to focus on her breathing, pushing

out one shaky breath after another. For the first time since

they met, she wanted Herman to go away.

‘It’s going to get worse, they said.’

Nancy closed her eyes, took a deep, noisy breath in

through her nose, held it in her tired lungs, and then released

through pursed lips. Her brow, fixed in its frown, ached with

the effort of it all.

A hand rested gently on her shoulder. She felt its warmth

through her clothes. She thought of her wrists resting on the

rim of the bowl, the state of her unclean hands, felt them

shaking. Eyes tight shut, she began to sob.

‘You’re okay sweetheart. Don’t worry about it, you’ll be

alright.’ The words reached her more clearly now. With relief,

she understood that they were kind words, free from disgust.

The pressure squeezing on her brain released a little and, eyes

still shut, she leant back from the chamber pot.

‘I just,’ she gulped in another sob, ‘I’m sorry. I couldn’t

help it.’

‘Hey, course you can’t,’ he said, rubbing her shoulder.

There was a pause. Nancy sniffed.

‘And remember,’ he went on, ‘I was at sea for a living –

I’ve seen grown men in far worse states than this.’

Herman laughed. It rang horribly in her ears, short and

rigid as though it had been forced through an angle. They sat

in silence for a moment.

‘Don’t be embarrassed,’ he said quietly, ‘it’s only me.’

The cabin floor began to swing once more, and Nancy

lurched over the pot in panic.

‘You go to dinner without me,’ she blurted out. ‘I’ll be fine,

I just need some time.’ The sentence was rushed and slurred,

and with it came another sob.

So many times Nancy had dreamt up scenarios where her

new husband could save the day, wrap her up in sympathy and

make her feel safe and treasured. It was one of those privileges

of marriage she had most looked forward to – to be so important

to someone that each little ailment is their greatest concern. She’d

already feigned a few headaches in an attempt to test this out,

each to varying degrees of success. And now here she was, in a

real crisis, with Herman being so kind and understanding – and

all she wanted was to be left alone. What a waste, she thought.

*

When Herman returned from dinner, Nancy was lying on her

bed, still dressed, with the rinsed-out pot by her side and the

flannel, cold and damp, laid across her forehead. Her mouth

was dry and acidic and her throat still knotted up, but she

was feeling a little calmer.

The hopelessness of it all was that there was nowhere to go

on this huge ship that wasn’t also moving. She was desperate

for something solid. She had closed her eyes countless times

already to imagine herself walking along the path leading up

through the woods behind their house, towards the hill that

had the view of the sea. It was a path she had taken less and

less as she grew older, being more interested in the centre of

town than its wilder edges. But she could still follow it in her

mind like a line across her own palm. It was well-worn and

winding, veined with polished tree-root ridges. The light was

dappled with sycamore leaves, and she could smell the last of

the morning dew hanging in the cool air.

In her mind, she had stamped her feet on the hardened

ground and listened to that hollow, oaky, forest-floor sound.

She had pressed her boots down on every familiar root and

rock, and heard the coos and mutters of the woodpigeons.

But every time the room tilted and her stomach lurched she

was back in the small, windowless cabin. She couldn’t see her

way through the next few days, she could only think back. To

trees and solid ground.

Herman sat on his bed and began unlacing his shoes.

Nancy shifted slightly, resting more upright on her pillows,

afraid to upset the balance and send her head spinning with

nausea once more. She was waiting for him to ask her how

she was.

‘They’ve said no one is to go on deck,’ said Herman finally.

‘Just saw one of the boys in the corridor. Hopefully this is as

bad as it gets.’

‘Oh… What else did he say?’ Nancy’s voice was scratched

and tired.

‘Nothing,’ said Herman, ‘Nothing for you to worry about.’

Herman continued pulling off his shoes, and Nancy edged

herself a little further up her pillows. This was Herman taking

care of her, not wanting her to fret about details and

possibilities. But Nancy wanted to know that it wouldn’t be

like this the whole way there. It couldn’t be, surely.

‘Do they know how long the storm will go on?’

‘Don’t know. Didn’t say.’

Nancy took the flannel from her forehead. ‘Oh, I do feel

awful,’ she said, determined to receive some sympathy. She

wanted to hear that honeyed version of his voice again.

Her stomach dropped with another swell and fall. She

imagined the waves outside, great walls of them, rising up

and sucking in swathes of inky sea. She was aware of the ball

of nausea getting hot and swollen inside of her again.

Suddenly, she couldn’t stand the silence.

‘Is it true that sailors sleep in hammocks? I can’t see how

that would help in a storm like this. Surely you’d be swinging

about all over the place.’

Herman was very still. His gaze was fixed on a seam in

the carpet between their beds. ‘Mmm,’ he murmured.

‘How was dinner?’

‘Quite nice.’

‘Did you sit with anyone?’ Nancy tensed against another

rise and fall.

Herman cleared his throat. ‘Yes. Bumped into that old

widow we met.’

‘Oh, Florence. That’s good. I imagine with all her travelling

she’s alright—like you. Did you talk about much?’

‘No, not really.’

‘Did you find out where in Nova Scotia she was from?

Does she know Halifax?’

‘No.’ Herman looked at Nancy, his face hardened. ‘Not

well, anyway.’

Herman stood, then stumbled without warning towards

her bed. The cabin had tilted steeply one way – so steeply that

Nancy was up against the panelled wall and certain that the

whole ship would turn; belly-up in the middle of the ocean.

The electric light in the room dimmed for a moment, and then

everything began to right itself again.

Nancy sat up straight. There was a groan. At first she

believed it to be the sound of metal creaking under the stress

of the storm – but it was Herman. He was on his knees at the

foot of her bed. Her first thought was that he might be

praying; his arms were stretched out in front of him, but his

fists were clenched tight around the cotton covers.

‘Darling?’ said Nancy, quietly. ‘Are you alright?’

For a few moments he was unresponsive, but then his

shoulders heaved under a deep sigh. He rose slowly, and his

pale eyes, heavy-lidded and distant, met hers. ‘I’m fine.’ The

room had steadied. Herman lifted himself carefully to his

feet, as if nothing had happened. Then, seeming suddenly

uneasy under her watchful concern, he turned away from

her.

‘Go to bed, Nance. If you sit there waiting for each wave

you’re bound to feel sick. It’s in your mind.’ He started to

unknot his tie. ‘Go to bed.’

*

Nancy was wrenched out of sleep by an unfamiliar cry. She

had never heard a man wail. There was something about it

which struck every nerve in her body, and made them all

strum ‘danger’ at once.

Mixed in with that jolt of panic was a feeling of despair.

She must have finally fallen asleep, after hours of lying

sweaty and half-undressed, trying to recall in her homesick

mind the dopey sounds of woodpigeons. She had carefully

cradled the lump in her throat, occasionally letting it rise only

to gag nothing into the pot beside her. She couldn’t have been

asleep long – the hair around her temples was still damp from

the sliding tears. It was enough, however, for her eyes to lose

accustom to the dark. The room was blackness.

‘Herman?’ she said. Her voice seemed to be eclipsed by

the audible thudding of her heart. ‘Herman, what was that?’

It had been too loud and close to be a dream. It had been

right there in the cabin. Through the walls, Nancy could hear

a baby crying somewhere else. She doubted herself. But then,

a sob; released into the room despite every effort to hold it

back. It creaked out of a throat aching to suppress the tide.

Nancy lowered her feet to the carpet and widened her

eyes, trying to make out Herman. Wider they opened, almost

beyond her control, looking for familiar shapes in the gloom.

Another sob escaped through clenched teeth, shaken out with

‘Oh, God.’

‘Herman, what is it?’ Crouching forward, hands out first,

Nancy managed to find the edge of his bed, and then a hand.

She held it, and it held hers back.

Her bewildered mind raced through murder, blood, injury

– despite the sealed door of the cabin, locked tight before the

lights went out. Something had changed, however. There was

a hopelessness in the room. ‘What is it?’ she repeated.

‘He’s gone. He’s gone, Nance.’ The grip on her hand

tightened, fingers pressing hard between the splay of her

bones. ‘The idiots killed him and I was goddamn sleeping.’

Nancy took a deep breath. This wasn’t real, it was a

nightmare. It was her husband’s nightmare. They were safe

in the dark of their little cabin, still floating on the top of the

empty sea.

She eased her hand away from his. ‘Shhh,’ she said. ‘It’s

alright.’ She began feeling her way down between the beds and

around the edge of the wardrobe. She could hear the shaking

breaths begin to control themselves, air hissing out between

clenched teeth. Finally, she found the switch. She paused, for a

moment wishing they could keep the darkness after all.

When the yellow light blinked everything into existence,

husband and wife were squinting directly at each other.

Herman’s eyes were swollen, spilling over with tears and

shame. His sheets were in a ball against the wall, and he was

clutching his knees. Across was Nancy’s bed, still made but

creased and rippled where she had lain. The fold-out dresser

between the beds was empty. Her hairbrush and pins had

slid and scattered across the carpet, and powder had been

flung in dusty spokes out from its upturned pot. Small

movements still tugged on Nancy’s balance, but they were

frequent and rhythmic now, easier to predict and almost

manageable in this way. The baby in the other cabin was still

crying its tiny heart out.

Nancy went to her husband. She balanced next to him and

slid an arm behind his shoulders, then felt his body twist

around, his face press into her neck. His chin was heavy on

the bone of her shoulder, and cold tears and sweat gathered

along her collarbone. Under the sudden weight, it took all her

effort not to topple backwards from the edge of the bed.

‘Shhh, sh, sh,’ she hushed, just as her Mam would do for

her, just as she did for Jonny when he would have his bad

dreams. ‘Shhh, sh, sh.’ Nancy didn’t know what else to do.

She could feel his lungs heaving under his ribs.

‘Was it a nightmare?’ She whispered.

Herman turned his face down, freeing his hot breath from

the folds of her blouse, ‘Yes,’ he muttered.

The cabin pitched and Nancy threw a foot down to stop

them both from tumbling to the floor. It swung again and she

tried to push them further onto the bed, pulling her hand

away from his slippery grip.

‘It’s alright, my lovely.’ Usually, she would have been

afraid of patronising him, of making him feel small – but this

wasn’t her usual Herman. ‘Do you want to tell me about it?’

‘No, I can’t, it’s—’ Herman pulled himself away. He

exhaled the heavy contents of his chest and dragged a hand

down from his hairline to his chin. When he spoke next, his

voice was almost ordinary again. ‘It was just a nightmare.’

Nancy thought about the strings of his snot and saliva she

knew were left sticking to her damp curls.

‘Come on now,’ she took his hand again. ‘It’s only me.’

Husband looked at wife. The bloodshot stare told her to

beware – that there was something here beyond her simple

understanding.

‘It’s fine.’ Herman looked down at Nancy’s crumpled skirt

and sagging stockings. He frowned. ‘Go back to bed.’


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