Day One Ship


“WHY DON’T you want to come with us, Jilda?” Mum calls to me from inside the cabin. She sounds worried.

I’m leaning out over the veranda rail, gazing at the seemingly unspoiled island—one of the lesser-known islands of Fiji. Palm trees sway in the breeze, the white sand seems barely walked on, and the sun sparkles on the tropical turquoise ocean.

“I feel like I’m going to puke, and I’ve still got the runs. I don’t think I could cope with a five-hour excursion today.”

I breathe the fresh air in deeply, trying to settle my stomach.

I doubt it’s the food on the cruise ship that’s made me ill, and all I can think of is the street food I bought the other day in Tonga. The crab-cake burger tasted so delicious, but how long had the seafood been lying around in the tropical sun? Perhaps not such a great idea. I’ve been feeling off ever since, and I don’t think it’s just a bout of seasickness.

I’ve been really looking forward to exploring Fiji, but I know I won’t be able to cope with the winding roads and long hours in the bus we’ve been warned of in the excursion details pamphlet.

“I don’t like leaving you here on your own,” says Mum.

“Mum, I’m nearly sixteen. I’ll be fine. As if anything will happen here. I’ll probably sleep most of the day anyway, and order room service for lunch if I feel at all like it. I won’t even have to leave the cabin.”

“She’ll be okay, Mum,” says my twin sister, Rosa, trying to placate her. “Heaps of people stay behind on the ship and never get off.”

“Why they bother coming on a cruise if all they do is hang around the pool and never go sightseeing is beyond me,” says Mum, planting a quick kiss on my cheek, before grabbing her backpack and shunting Rosa out the door. “They can do that at home.”

“We’ll take lots of pics so you won’t feel you’ve missed out,” cries Rosa over her shoulder, and the heavy door swings firmly shut behind them with a click.

“You can eat my share of lunch!” I call out to the closed door, though I know they probably won’t hear me.

I turn to look at the view again, then after a few moments step back into the cabin and lie down on the bed. Because there are three of us, we have a suite, with a huge king-size bed in the bedroom and a sofa bed in the lounge room area. Rosa and I sleep on the large bed and Mum has the sofa bed. I lie on my back, diagonally across the bed, and sweep my arms and legs back and forth like you do to make snow angels. I’m enjoying having all this massive bed space to myself. My stomach starts to settle. While drifting off to sleep, I think about all the cool sights we’ve seen so far on the trip. Hopefully it’ll only be yesterday and today I feel unwell, as I really don’t want to miss out on any of the other islands.

I remember us choosing the cruise itinerary months ago. After much discussion we decided on one that went from Sydney to islands including Samoa, Vanuatu, Tonga, and Fiji. Mum had long wanted to go to the Caribbean, especially to St. Lucia, Barbados, the Bahamas, and Jamaica, but with the international flights added, it would all be too exy. So she gave up on that idea and was content to let us decide where we wanted to go. The holiday is, after all, to celebrate our sixteenth birthdays. After poring over different cruise itineraries for hours and noting down the pros and cons of each—Rosa did a spreadsheet, would you believe—we decided something in the Pacific Ocean would be just as special. Rosa and I wanted our boyfriends, Zac (mine) and Andy (hers) to come on the trip too, but Mum and Dad both said that wasn’t going to happen. We’ll all celebrate together with a party at Zac’s parents’ place—they’ve got a huge house and garden—when we get home again.

After a time I fall asleep, and when I finally awake, I have a vivid recollection of a dream in which I heard the familiar rising ding-ding-ding from the tannoy that heralds announcements, followed by the voice of the cruise director.

“Can all passengers and crew please report to the Vista Theater immediately. Repeat: all passengers and crew to the Vista Theater immediately. This is not a drill. Repeat: this is not a drill. No life jackets needed, no life jackets necessary.”

I remember the lifeboat drill we had on the first afternoon we boarded the boat, with hundreds of passengers crowded into each muster station. I wondered then whether anyone would remember which muster station they were supposed to go to if there were a real emergency.

Now fully awake, I have to immediately bolt to the bathroom and am so glad I opted to stay on board. It would’ve been so embarrassing having to ask the bus driver to stop in the middle of nowhere and run into the bushes with everyone knowing what I was up to. Sitting on the loo, I feel like I’m swaying and after a while I realize the ship must be sailing.

That’s oddWhere are the others?

I must have been asleep longer than I thought.

Leaving the bathroom, I go out onto our balcony and see we’re indeed miles from shore. Fiji is just a small speck on the horizon.

Weird. The others must be up by the pool or something, leaving me in peace.

Back in the bedroom I glance at the bedside clock. It’s only 1:00 p.m. Why are we already at sea?

I remember the day before yesterday when we were in Tonga. Some of the guests went on a day trip to the north of the island and the ship set sail and picked them up from there later in the afternoon. Perhaps that’s what they’re doing today too, and I didn’t take enough notice of the plan.

I hop back into bed but can’t sleep. I feel uneasy and my dream has made me unsettled, so I get up, throw on some clothes and, after grabbing my ship’s key card, slip out of the cabin. The long, carpeted hallway stretches into the distance in either direction, and I glance both ways before deciding to go up to the pool.

The hallway is eerily quiet. The space outside the lifts, where normally heaps of passengers congregate, as they are either too lazy or incapacitated to take the stairs, is empty. I take the stairs, as I always like to get a bit of built-in exercise whenever I can, and reach the pool deck. There’s no one dozing on the sun lounges, or aimlessly breaststroking up and down the length of the pool. Even the humongous guy who’s usually in the spa bath with the whole space to himself isn’t here!

There are no waiters hovering round ready to deliver drinks or hand out towels either—that’s unusual.

I remember my dream, so I wander down to the Vista Theater on deck five, directly under the pool deck, to see if maybe there really had been an announcement but I’d just been too sleepy to realize. There’s no one in the huge auditorium designed for a large audience.

What on earth is happening?

Suddenly I hear somebody behind me. Startled, I jump and turn around. A man I don’t recognize has come into the auditorium.

His hands are shaking, and it’s all he can do to keep his voice steady.

“What are you doing here? Everybody was supposed to leave.”

“I didn’t know….”

“Did you not hear the announcement?”

“I was asleep. I thought it was a dream. What’s going on?” My voice is shaking too.

“The ship has been taken over by our group. You were not meant to still be on board. No one was, apart from a very minimal number of essential crew. Seeing as you are here, you need to know we will not harm you as long as you do as you are told.”

I feel tears spurt into my eyes, and quickly try to blink them away. I don’t want to cry in front of him. But I can’t help it. I want Mum….

“Please stay calm. Do not be upset. This is a peaceful mission. We have been forced to take this action, and seeing as you are here, we will need your full cooperation.”

I feel sick and my stomach clenches. Mum and Rosa would right now be enjoying themselves somewhere on the island, probably still at that outdoor lunch while being entertained by local dancers that had sounded like so much fun when we’d booked the excursion. Eating some local produce like plantains, whatever they are. Mum and Rosa would have no idea yet what lay in store for them when they return to the dock to find the ship has sailed off without them. And with me on board!

The man continues. “I am afraid that for the next few days, we will tell you only what we decide you need to know. Secrecy is paramount. But we can inform you we will not be returning to pick up the passengers and crew that were let off in Fiji.”

“But my mother and sister will be worried about me!” I wail.

“They will find out soon enough that you will be fine. Where is your cabin? Does it have a view?”

I don’t know whether to tell him in case he follows me there, but I know there isn’t much choice. He could follow me wherever he wants—there’s no place to hide on the ship where I could never be found. But I try to sound vague.

“It’s a suite. With a balcony.”

“Well you cannot stay there. You need to return to your suite, pack all your gear, and remain there until you are assigned a new cabin. Once you are in your new one, you will only be allowed to leave it when we call you for meals. You will be taking your dinner in the Banana Lounge—there will be no choice where you dine.”

I don’t care where I eat, or even know if I feel like eating, so I don’t ask what’s happening about lunch. I just want to be off the ship and safely with Mum and Rosa.

“Rest assured, we want you to stay safe, and you will be freed after we have completed our task.”

“What task? How long will it take?”

“We cannot give any details, nor an exact time, but hopefully it will not be too long.”

Finally I realize I have to do as I’m told. Despite the assurances, I know he has all the power, and I’m utterly on my own and defenseless.

“A woman will come to your cabin to show you to your new one. You really need to tell me the number of your suite so she can find you.”

I mutter the number, but he seems to understand me.

I return to my cabin and begin to pack. My hands are trembling as I stuff my clothes, shoes, and toiletries into my bag. It seems so long ago that I unpacked so excitedly when we first arrived. I look around at Mum’s and Rosa’s things and can feel tears stinging my eyes once more.

When will I see them again?

I take one of Mum’s scarves and a necklace of Rosa’s that has a silver shell charm hanging from it as a bit of comfort for me. At least they’ll make me feel like I have some sort of connection with them.

Soon there’s a knock at the door.

“Are you ready?” someone calls.

I open the door to one of the staff members, our housekeeper Lily, who’s always been so friendly to me and Mum and my sister. Whenever she sees us, she exclaims how alike Rosa and I are and tells Mum how lucky she is having us both. I feel so relieved to see her familiar face.

“How come you’re still on board?” I ask. “I thought all the crew were supposed to have left the ship too.”

“Yes, we were surprised when so many of us were given a special day’s shore leave. They’ve only kept a skeleton staff. I don’t know what’s happening, but they’ve assured us we’ll be fine.”

“I’m scared.”

“Don’t be. Keep your key to this room,” whispers Lily. “Hide it away carefully. You never know when you might need it. Where you are going does not have a balcony. Or even a porthole. I will give them another key and pretend it’s yours.”

“No porthole?”

Lily just looks at me, and I realize I must sound like a spoiled brat. I bet her cabin doesn’t have a porthole, let alone a balcony.

“Thank you, Lily,” I whisper, very aware of the huge favor I’m being granted and the risk Lily is taking. I slip the cabin key into my bra.

“Good place.” Lily smiles, and then she leads me away.

We go to another deck and have to pass a guard standing, legs spread wide, at the entrance to the long corridor. I can see way off in the distance another guard at the other end where the corridor turns a corner. Lily opens the door to an interior cabin, which has a fake porthole looking through to an ocean scene painted on the back wall to pretend you have a view out. Ugh.

I can’t believe it—there’s another passenger still on board! She looks about eighty and is lying on the bed, one hand covering her eyes and the other clutching a bunch of tissues. She’s sobbing quietly.

“Sorry,” says Lily from the doorway. “I’m afraid you won’t be able to leave this cabin unless you are given permission. The guards in the hallway are to ensure you don’t leave this area.”

And she closes the door behind her.

I drop my bags and turn to look at the woman on the bed. She stares back at me.

“We saved for years for this cruise,” she says eventually. “And to think we were going to go on a previous one, but my husband was ill and we had to change plans.”

“Where’s your husband now?” I ask.

“He’s at home. He’s really too unwell to travel. He wanted me to still go on our trip, as it had been a dream of ours for so long. So my sister came instead to help me. And now look what’s happened. I should’ve gone on an excursion today to see some local dancing with her, but I didn’t want to bother her having to push me around in my wheelchair all day.” She continues crying. “And now I don’t know what’s going to happen to either of us.”

I sit down beside her and hold her hand. Her skin is soft and saggy.

“You’re not alone. I’m with you now.”

“Thank you, dearie. You seem a good girl.”

“Jilda. My name’s Jilda.”

“I’m Sheryl.”

I tell her about how my mother and sister are on the same excursion.

“I’m sure they’ll all be fine. They’ll be looked after on the island,” I say, trying to convince myself at the same time.

“Thank you, dearie. You’re so kind. But us. I wonder what will happen to us?”

“I guess we’ll have to wait and see. The man said they’ll only tell us what we need to know. And he promised they won’t hurt us.” I try to keep my voice steady.

“Let’s hope they keep their promise, then,” says Sheryl. “I’m much too old for all this uncertainty.”

“How come you didn’t leave when they called everyone to the theater?”

“I wasn’t sure what was going on, and thought I’d wait for further announcements. But none came. It’s too far for me to get to the theater without someone pushing me, and I knew it would take forever for me to hobble there.”

That makes sense. I wonder if there are any other passengers left, apart from us, who for one reason or another didn’t make it to the theater.

I let go of her hand and stand up and walk around the cabin, discomforted by not having any real windows in the room. I’ve gotten used to having a balcony, fresh air and a view, and now that I’m stuck way inside the ship with nothing to look out at, I feel a bit claustrophobic. I know our being in an interior cabin is a wise move on our captors’ part, as we captive passengers have no idea where we are. The only time we’ll see outside is when we’re allowed to go for meals.

I’m grateful I’m not on my own, though, as my thoughts would have driven me crazy. At least I have someone to talk to, even if she is old enough to be my grandmother. But she is granny-like in the nicest of ways.

Eventually a call comes over the loudspeaker for us to go to dinner.

“I’m not hungry,” I say.

I still feel a bit weak from my food poisoning, if that’s what it was, and also worried about what’s happening with the ship. The man said not to worry, but the uncertainty is driving me nuts. And I know Mum and Rosa will be feeling sick not knowing what’s going on. Hunger is the furthest thing from my mind.

Sheryl hoists herself up in the bed and says, “I’m starving. I tried to order room service at lunchtime, but nobody answered the phone. We must always eat when we’re offered food. We don’t know what’s happening and whether the feeding will suddenly stop, so we must keep up our strength and eat whenever we’re given the opportunity.”

I suppose she has a point. Who knows what’s going on and whether the food will run out if we don’t call in to another port to get fresh supplies. Although there aren’t that many of us on board by the look of things, there still seems to be some staff who’ll also need to eat. Not all of them were told to take the day off in Fiji.

Sheryl puts her legs over the edge of the bed, stuffs her swollen feet into rubber flip-flops, and, after levering herself up with a grunt, hobbles over to her wheelchair.

“I don’t need it all the time,” she explains, “but I do need it when I have to walk long distances.”

I don’t think going to the Banana Lounge is a long distance at all, especially if you use the lift, but I’m not going to try and convince Sheryl to walk in case something happens on the way.

How will I lift her up off the floor if she falls?

“I’ll push you.”

“Thanks, dearie. I’m so lucky to have you with me.”

I’m starting to wonder whether that’s why they put me in with her, as she seems to need a lot of help.

Pushing the wheelchair isn’t so difficult, and I realize how easy it is to be on a boat with a wheelchair, as every surface is flat and there are lifts between floors. Maybe that’s why so many oldies go on cruises.

There are a few other passengers still on board who mustn’t have heard the announcement either, or not followed it for one reason or another. We sit near each other at two tables. It’s such a different atmosphere from the previous nights when the room had been full of passengers chattering loudly and having fun. I look around at the others. Most of them appear anxious, and don’t seem to have much of an appetite either. There’s a friendly-looking girl with long, curly brown hair at the other table. She looks about the same age I am, or maybe just a little older. I wonder who she is, and hope I get a chance to talk to her some time. I could do with a friend my age. I’m already missing Rosa so much, and it’s really only been a few hours.

I pick at the food as well as I can and manage to force down some pasta and a couple of meatballs smothered in rich tomato sauce, which fill me up.

“Veggies too, dear,” says Sheryl. “Health is now your top priority.”

I fork up a few pieces of fresh tomato and a couple of slices of cucumber. Sheryl smiles to herself.

Dinner over, there are no more announcements, despite several passengers demanding some answers. Some are particularly annoyed the Wi-Fi hasn’t been available since the ship left the port. Even the televisions are not working, so we can’t watch any news to find out if anyone knows about us. There seems to be some sort of communications blackout—at least for us.

There’s no entertainment tonight, the bars are closed, and we have to return directly to the cabins. Usually we enjoy a choice of activities, like singing, dancing, music, a film, or a show. It’s eerily quiet as I wheel Sheryl back to our room.

Sheryl lies down on her bed, and I sit in one of the lounge chairs. I’m putting off lying down for as long as possible, as I don’t really want to sleep so close to a virtual stranger, but ultimately I know I won’t have a choice. Luckily our beds are separated with at least a little bit of space in between them, though not much.

I’d brought the third book in my current favorite trilogy with me on the cruise, but I just don’t feel like opening the pages. Instead I sit there with my book in my lap and think about Mum and Rosa.

What are they doing now? What do they think has happened to me?

I know Mum will be really freaking out by now with worry, and Rosa won’t be much better. I wish I could let them know I’m all right—so far, anyway.

After a while I put my book on the little coffee table, get up out of the chair, and try to push my bed a bit farther away from Sheryl’s. I have to move my bedside table first, which is easy, but the bed takes quite a lot of effort. I finally manage to gain an extra half a meter or so. She has her eyes shut, so I hope she won’t notice what I’m doing and be insulted I want more space between us.

Sheryl begins to snore lightly, and then gets louder and louder.

Oh, no. I’m going to have to listen to her snore all night!

Eventually she wakes herself up with a snort.

“Damn,” she says, and reaches for her CPAP machine—one of those appliances that help with sleep apnea. My grandfather’s got one of them, so I know roughly how they work. Placing the mask over her face, she switches on the machine, and soon rhythmic breathing fills the cabin. At least it’s better than the sound of snoring. She doesn’t seem to have noticed the beds are farther apart.

I grab my book and hop into bed, but I lie there staring at the ceiling. Eventually I give up and drop the book on my bedside table, turn out my bed lamp, and close my eyes. The rocking boat begins to lull my senses; my eyes grow heavy and I drift off to sleep too.