By Kerry Fair
Estelle and Miles sat in their car on the wharf, sardined amongst the other vehicles lined-up waiting. Estelle felt agitated and the pain had started-up again. Six months since the crash, but her left foot, no longer there, was throbbing. How can a foot that isn’t there hurt so much. She didn’t dare mention the pain to Miles. He’d think she was trying to make him feel guilty again. Sweat trickled down her forehead as she tried to hold back the tears.
She looked over at her husband. Miles had his head back against the seat, eyes closed. She wanted to forgive him, she really did, especially now he’d lost his job. She dug her fingernails into the back of her hand and turned to look out her window even though her view was almost blocked by a four-wheel drive. In the thin slice of wintry sky she could see the ship’s red ensign flying tautly from the bridge.
Estelle willed herself to be calm as she leaned over and stroked Mile’s arm, his new cashmere jumper soft to touch. She’d bought it for him on an impulse in the hope of cheering him up. Poor bugger, thirty years done and dusted. Fielding must have moved with the speed of a guillotine.
Miles smiled back and patted her leg, reassuring her that it wouldn’t be long now; they’d be on the boat soon. Sea birds flew over the ship’s flag, squawking their way into Estelle’s thoughts. No waiting in line for them. Maybe someday I’ll up and fly away.
Miles started singing along with an old Beatles number playing on the radio. Estelle hummed along as well and they laughed at the end of the track … memories of when they’d first met at uni; he with his long hair, she in her long paisley skirts. Estelle’s pain momentarily diminished with the pleasant memory.
Maybe everything will be OK. And if I can forgive him, truly forgive, there may be hope for us. This could be a new start. He’d never have got on with Fielding anyway; a fat, rich boy buying the company with his father’s money.
It was just over a week since Miles had been retrenched from Southern Electronics but he’d refused to discuss it with her. The axe fell with an email from Fielding telling Miles not to turn up for work the next day. His personal belongings would be delivered by courier. All the employees over fifty got the same message. Estelle understood why Miles was shattered but she wished he’d talk about it, surely that would help. At least he’d changed his mind about cancelling their holiday although he wouldn’t explain why he insisted on catching the boat two days earlier than they’d planned. At least they were still going, despite the hassle to change the date. What was it he’d said? … if we got the boat today, he could make everything right.
By the time the drivers in the front of the queue were directed to turn on their engines, the Melbourne sky was the colour of deeply bruised skin. Estelle felt stiff from sitting for so long. She needed a glass of wine and some painkillers, preferably at the same time.
Fifteen minutes later and they were finally on board and unloading their belongings on the car deck. They caught the lift to the accommodation level where the narrow corridors were jammed with disoriented people trying to find their cabins. Despite the size of the ship, it felt small to Estelle, claustrophobic somehow.
They found their room without any trouble and stepped into the compact space. Everything was white. It was cold and sterile even though the air was warm. Estelle peered through the porthole at the waiting ocean, enjoying an unexpected flutter of anticipation. She turned to speak to Miles but he’d dropped their overnight bags on the bunks and was walking out of the cabin mumbling that he’d be back in a moment. He was gone before she had the chance to ask what he’d left behind.
Estelle sat on the edge of her narrow bunk bed and retrieved some painkillers from her handbag. She was past ready for that drink.
The ‘moment’ Miles said he’d be away turned into ten minutes, then twenty minutes … then half an hour. The prosthetic was irritating her leg and Miles unexplained absence was irritating the rest of her. If he’d gone down to the car he’d have been back ages ago. Anyway, passengers no longer have access so he can’t be on the car deck. If he had a mobile, I could ring and find out what the hell he’s doing. He can be so stubborn. So where is he? The bar? Surely he would have asked me to join him. He never drinks alone.
Estelle propped herself against some cushions on the bunk and continued to wait. When an hour had gone by, she’d had enough. Leaving a note for Miles, she hobbled down the corridor then caught the lift to the deck below. How she hated having to always catch a lift, never again to enjoy the simple freedom of walking up or down a flight of stairs.
The entertainment deck was designed to be a pacifier for hyper adults; food, alcohol and lots of big screens. There were even a few poker machines for those who couldn’t cope with refraining for twenty-four hours. The overall effect was anything but calming. There didn’t seem to be any such thing as a quiet corner. As she walked past the shop, café and tourist centre she stopped and looked for Miles, not really expecting to see him.
The bar, located at the end of the entertainment deck, was full of people settling in to drink their way across the Bass Straight. She scanned the room looking for Miles. He wasn’t there. She joined the queue at the bar, her head feeling like a stretched rubber band. The last thing she felt like doing was being in another line, just for a godforsaken drink.
Clutching the glass of wine and trying to resist the urge to gulp it down, she found a table where she could see both entrance doors to the bar. She had good vision, but no peace. flashing video screens, competing sound tracks and too-loud conversations attacked her on all sides. All this and a missing husband. So much for a relaxing night at sea. What the hell can he be doing? Maybe something’s happened to him. Maybe he’s slipped on some stairs and fallen where he can’t be seen. Even as she considered the possibilities, she knew he’d be immediately noticed if something had happened. There were people everyone and this sterile ship didn’t have the interesting nooks and crannies found on older vessels.
Fluctuating between anger and anxiety, Estelle rotated the beer coaster in front of her like it a set of worry beads. Maybe he just wants to be alone. He could have told me. No, something’s happened. ‘God oh god, surely he’s not so depressed that he’s … Estelle didn’t allow herself to finish the sentence. Instead she finished the wine, her hands shaking as she put the empty glass on the table. She’d have to report him missing.
At the ship’s reception desk, she was greeted with practiced hospitality by the smiling duty officer. Of course, he’d be happy to page Miles over the intercom but there was absolutely no cause for concern. No-one had ever disappeared from the Tasman Tourer.
Estelle sat on a padded bench by the desk as the message was put over. A few minutes later a friendly American tourist enquired about hiring a car in Devonport and a stressed English woman reported a missing handbag. But Miles didn’t come to the desk. A half and hour later, the officer repeated the call. Miles still did not appear. The duty officer cleared his throat and stumbled over his words as he tried to reassure Estelle that everything was alright. He was less convincing and didn’t make eye contact. He would speak to the captain and meet-up with her at her cabin.
It was getting late and the bright lights and shiny surfaces sent shots of pain into Estelle’s eyes. She returned to the cabin but the note she’d left for Miles sat undisturbed in front of the mirror. She had a shower, which wasn’t easy, then changed into the clothes she’d brought for the morning. She wanted to be dressed, ready, but for what she didn’t know.
Laying down on the whiteness of her narrow bed, Estelle’s mind flashed back to the hospital room. The frowning doctor announcing her foot would have to be amputated; Miles fainting at the news, knowing it was his fault. And Estelle trying to comprehend, through a fog of painkillers, where she was and what had happened after they’d left the party.
The Tasman Tourer swayed as it entered the open waters of the Bass Strait but Estelle didn’t notice. She’d fallen asleep, so deeply that she didn’t hear the first few knocks on the cabin door. The white ceiling confused her and for a few frightening moments she thought she was back in hospital. The officer from the reception desk was at the door, no longer smiling. He told her that all public areas had been searched but there was no sign of Miles. He was sure her husband would turn up safe and sound and there’d be some simple explanation. She watched the officer walk down the long, empty passageway. Behind all the other doors people were peacefully sleeping.
She slumped onto the bed feeling helpless. She had to face the possibility that Miles might had killed himself. That he had jumped overboard. Could Fielding have driven him to that? The cabin was closing in on Estelle. She urgently needed to breathe fresh. She also needed her husband back.
The blast of howling Bass Straight coldness was welcome as Estelle struggled out onto the small area of open deck. Desperate smokers were the only other passengers taking on the icy wind. Miles didn’t smoke but Estelle still looked to see if he was among them.
Leaning against the railing she watched the waves rise and fall, the foam illuminated by the ship’s lights. Please, oh please, don’t tell me that he threw himself into that. Surely no-one could be that desperate. But Miles had been strangely calm when they were waiting to board. Maybe he knew exactly what he was going to do. She wondered if that was what he meant when he said the trip would make everything right.
The cold cutting through her, Estelle was forced to go back inside. Even the smokers had left, warmth appealing more than nicotine. Inside the atmosphere had quietened and yawning passengers were heading off to their cabins and recliners. It was late. Was it all too late?
Returning to the cabin, Estelle curled up under her doona and waited. She couldn’t cry. She could hardly function at all. The sea got rougher as the boat ploughed on to Devonport. There was nothing to see out the porthole except swirling shades of grey and salt spray tricking down the glass. What the hell should she do now? … What should she do tomorrow?
The knock on the door startled her, even though she was awake. Miles, thank god. HHHe’s knocking so he won’t scare me. Heart thumping, Estelle fumbled with her crutches and half-hopped to the door. But it wasn’t Miles. The officer from the reception desk was back and introduced his companion, Captain Blake. Their faces said it all. She was in for bad news.
Something had been found. It could be distressing but would she see if she recognised it. Captain Blake gently touched her shoulder before he picked up a canvas bag from the floor. He pulled out a green jumper, the cashmere matted with blood. The tears she’d been holding back poured out. She couldn’t stop.
By the time the boat docked in Devonport, Estelle felt a numbing pain through every part of her body. She was exhausted like she’d never been in her life.
The police, she was told, would be waiting on the wharf and someone would take care of the car. Dazed by grief and lack of sleep, Estelle stuffed her few belongings back into her case and waited for the porter. She touched her husband’s unopened bag. It seemed absurd that this was all she had left of him.
The porter leading the way, she started walking back down the corridor, unable to focus on anything around her. Then she saw him, or thought she did. But it couldn’t be. She squinted and shook her head. It couldn’t be. But it was. Miles was striding towards her down the long passage-way, dodging passengers and their bags. A few seconds later, he was standing in front of her, smiling.
Estelle couldn’t speak. Her legs didn’t want to hold her up anymore. He put his arms around her and neither of them spoke. She pulled away and stood back to look at him. He was fine, in fact he was buzzing with energy. Estelle’s mind was a whirlpool of confusion. She was delighted to see him but nothing made sense. His clothing. Miles was wearing a white business shirt that wasn’t his, and black trousers that weren’t his. They were way too big for him. He hates white shirts. He doesn’t even own one. Where on earth did he get these clothes from? What happened to his clothes? Why was his jumper covered in blood when it was found? This is crazy.
‘Everything’s okay’ Miles said, taking the bags from the porter and supporting Estelle with his arm. ‘We’d better get down to the car.’ He spoke as if he’d been gone for just a moment. ‘Hope you weren’t worried’ he said, as they waited for the lift. ‘I took a couple of extra tranquilisers last night and must have fallen asleep – didn’t hear my name over the intercom. Anyway, let’s leave it for now, I’ll explain everything later. We’ve got to get down to the car.’
But where could he have fallen asleep, the staff had searched the ship. And what about the shirt and trousers? They look so expensive. And how the hell would he know there’d been an announcement put over if he’d slept through it?
Estelle started shivering and felt faint, spots of blackness blotting out the corridor. She couldn’t get the words out to ask anything. Leave it be for now. He’s alive. He’s well. That’s all that matters.
She drifted in and out of sleep during the drive to Strahan. None of it made sense … but it hurt too much to think and Estelle just couldn’t push through her exhaustion to ask anything. Tomorrow … he’ll explain it all tomorrow.
At Strahan, Miles helped Estelle out of the car and into the apartment they’d booked online. She was too tired to look at the tranquil harbour just across the road, too tired to get out of her clothes, too tired to do anything. Miles helped her onto the bed then made her some hot milk. He seemed content to sit next to her, patting her hand and stroking her forehead. She felt like a sick child being comforted through delirium. She started to ask him about his clothes but he told her to rest. Maybe she shouldn’t ask any questions at all, just let his disappearance slide into an abyss of the unexplained. She sank into sleep while Miles held her hand.
Estelle woke to bright sunshine, the smell of coffee and the sound of someone trying to start a stubborn outboard motor. The black trousers and white shirt were hanging over the back of a chair outside the bathroom door. Then she heard the familiar sound of Miles humming in the shower. He’d be there for quite a while. He always liked a long shower in the mornings.
She reached over and turned on the radio and huddled back under the blankets. The news was just starting and she tried to concentrate, hoping to stop all the questions flooding back into her mind.
By the time the lead story was over, Estelle knew that the new future for her and Miles was never going to happen.
The captain of the Tasman Tourer has reported a missing passenger.
Robert Fielding, the new owner of Southern Electronics did not pick up his car from the car deck when the ship docked at Devonport. When last seen he was wearing a white business shirt and black trousers.
Estelle didn’t rush out of bed. Since the crash, she’d been unable to do anything quickly. And there was no need to rush anyway. She knew what she was going to do.
She looked down to where her foot used to be. She’d begged him not to drive that night. It was obvious he’d had too much to drink. But no, Miles had refused to give her the keys. He’d walked away unharmed from their crumpled car while she’d gone from one operation to another.
To the sounds of Miles’ off-key singing, Estelle got herself off the bed and attached her artificial foot. She checked herself in the mirror, brushed her hair and put on some lipstick. She zipped up her overnight bag and grateful that the car was an automatic, she picked up the car keys and left closing the door quietly behind her. She especially wanted to drive to the police station, rather than ring. She wanted Miles’ future to be decided by her sitting behind the wheel, just as he’d done to her.
Image: Queenie – Kerry Fair