My ferry trip obsession – a woman with a rose
The Derby Telegraph is inviting readers to submit short stories for publication. Here is Adrift by Rob Worrall .
A NEUTRAL sky. An idle sea. England dissolving into a broth of mist. A Channel crossing is hardly to be listed amongst the most poetic of journeys. It lacks the romance of a trans-Atlantic cruise; the opulence of the Orient Express; the drama of emerging from the Great Plains into the foothills of the Rockies. Dover to Calais: for most of us and, almost always, something functional, dull, necessary. But not, today, for one particular passenger.
There was scarcely anything about her that was distinctive. Her face was neither beautiful nor ugly; the colour of her hair was natural but 'mousy'; her outfit had been purchased from a chain – M&S, Debenhams, who knows? And yet, there was one distinctive characteristic: she carried, nestled in her lap, a rose. Evidently, it had not been cut from her garden; it was a florist's rose, crimson, long-stemmed, thorn-less.
The ferry was crowded, its seating capacity fully laden. Thus, she sat adjacent to other people. But she was not with them. A single passenger, surrounded and yet separated; amidst a throng and yet alone. It was as if she were unaware of her immediate neighbours. Her posture was quite relaxed but her focus was fixed – almost as if she were without sight. Yet she could not actually be blind, for she didn't carry a white stick, nor wear dark glasses; she had merged into the settling crowd without help or uncertainty.
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Inevitably, once seats had been secured, there was much movement. Trips to the bar, to the restaurant, to the lavatory, to the deck. She did not move. She was statuesque. And yet there was something yielding about her, like marble fashioned into wrinkled folds.
By now, you will have guessed that I had become fascinated by her, perhaps, obsessed with her. Only by chance had I even noticed her at first but, that initial contact having been made, I could not ignore her.
Why was she aboard this ferry, carrying that rose, isolating herself from all around her? Why did she not grab herself a coffee? Why did she not exchange meaningless pleasantries with those amongst whom she found herself? Why did she not occupy herself with a book or a magazine? Why did she not move from her seat, leaving the rose as a reservation, and take a turn outside? Everybody else did. But she just sat. Sat and stared – not maniacally, nor distractedly, nor in any way other than with self-contained composure.
Even on a dull day, it is possible to see the coastline of France forming long before the ferry is due to dock. Excited children descry its outline, those unused to the journey begin to gather together their belongings in anticipation of arrival, anxious drivers rummage for their car keys. I am aware that there is a good half-hour to go before we dock. I am not alone. As those either side of her, in front of her and behind her begin, prematurely, to prepare for disembarkation, the lady with the rose retains her composure and her position. The only change in her demeanour is an occasional glance at her wristwatch.
Then I do detect a slight change within her. The fixed stare becomes more focused observation, inertia transforms itself into action – not sudden, nor hurried, but deliberate, purposeful. Taking hold of the rose, she stands and moves towards an exit to the deck. There is neither hurry nor uncertainty in her step; steadfastness, determination, serenity is much nearer the mark.
Her look is impassive, yet tender dispassionate, yet not cold. My eyes follow her as she glides, almost hovers, and then steps outside. I know that I must follow her; I also know that my pursuit must not be obvious. Casually, I, too, take a place close to the deck-rail. Nonchalantly, I lean against it, angling my body so that I can see her, a few yards further down.
Her eyes are trained upon the coast, as its distant, misty outline gives way to sharper definition. The rose is firmly, yet tenderly, held in her right hand. Once again, she rotates her left wrist, in order to check the time. On this occasion, however, it is more than a quick glimpse. She holds her focus upon the watch, rather like a time-keeper or a nurse checking a patient's pulse. There is a slight movement across her lips, as if she is counting the seconds as they pass. Then she stops. She stands erect, almost to attention. Once again, her lips make minimalist movements and I notice that her eyelids are closed. This takes only a few seconds, after which she leans over the deck-rail, briefly, and releases the rose from her hold upon it. Immediately, she resumes her upright posture, having made no attempt to follow the flower's crazy descent into the sea. Without exhibition, but perceptibly, she inhales deeply, holding in the air a while before allowing it, gently, to be released. She then turns to move back inside the cabin. Of course, I follow. She reoccupies her vacated seat, as do I.
The usual announcement is made, asking lorry drivers, coach passengers, and those travelling by car to make their way to their vehicles, whilst foot passengers are asked to remain within the lounge areas. The majority of people begin their migration to the lower decks but I am a foot passenger, so I do not move. Neither does she. There are, perhaps, half a dozen others but the once overly noisy area has become uncomfortably quiet – rather like a dentist's waiting-room. I feel impelled to address the lady who has preoccupied my thoughts throughout journey.
"Are you, like me, staying with friends in Calais?" I venture.
"No," she responds. The monosyllable is neither curt nor dismissive; it is softly spoken. But it is not a prelude to any further elaboration.
"Just a quick shopping trip, is it?" I continue.
"No," she repeats. And then: "I shall be returning on the next ferry."
"Would all foot passengers please make their way to deck one and prepare for disembarkation, immediately? Thank you for your cooperation." The announcement, made against so little background noise seems uncomfortably loud. It offers no option to linger.
"Enjoy your stay," she says. Her tone suggests this is merely politeness; a neat way of concluding the conversation I had initiated.
"Thank you," I respond. And then I am stuck for further words. After all, what do you say to someone who has taken a day-return trip across the Channel, merely to drop a flower into the sea?