Bernard Mann is a poet, author of non-fiction on river corridors, and writer of some fiction. His poems have been published in New Millennium Writings and other journals and anthologies. His Rivers in the City, on 15 river cities of Europe and the U.S., was published in New York, London, and Tokyo. Mann was a member of Kibutz HaSollelim, lived also in Jerusalem and Hadera, wrote for the Jerusalem Post, and in the U.S., edited Harvard University's Connection quarterly. He is a landscape architect and lives in Austin, Texas.
Nothing of him that doth fade,
but doth suffer a sea-change
into something rich and strange.
William Shakespeare, in The Tempest
“It’s quite lovely,” Jana agreed, answering Arnold’s comment and nod toward the flower arrangement.
“I imagine there must be one or two of the crew,” he went on, “who do nothing but tend the ship’s garden, wherever that is, and snip and cut and carry their pots of gladioli and mums here and there.”
“The floating garden of Babble On,” she said.
“Pretty boring work,” Arnold offered, missing the wordplay.
“Well, it all depends on how you gear up, mentally, for this sort of job, you know."
“Sure, it’s that. Mind over matter.”
“More a matter of mind over mind,” she said, and took a long drag on her cigarette.
“Hmm? I’m losing you again. Mind over – Oh, well, never mind. I mean – hah! – what the hell!” And he fiddled with the table’s ashtray while his ears reddened.
She smiled and exhaled twin streams of blue smoke.
Nothing was said between them for some moments, now, and each paid more attention to the rise and fall of the ship, to the roll it took, slowly, from side to side, and the headlong barreling that it managed at the same time until the bow met the next large swell and that slight shuddering could be felt, not a troubling shudder but just enough of one to let all on board feel the depth of this engagement between ship and ocean.
“It’s like a giant, a very giant sumo match,” Arnold offered. “This Queen Elizabeth, last monarch of the great steamships, and the Atlantic, taking each other on.”
“There a tea ceremony at the end of it all?”
“Yeah, that would be some tea ceremony. The tea bags would need to be sky high.” Arnold chuckled.
Jana said nothing, but offered the silent comment, They don’t use tea bags in tea ceremonies, you twit.
A man and two young women came into the lounge from starboard, staggering and projecting their arms akimbo for balance to reach the soft chairs across from Jana and Arnold.
“Hello! Hello!” The women called out, in chirpy, cheerful English voices. The man nodded and said, “Good afternoon.” They settled happily in the furniture and congratulated themselves on managing to reach the lounge. A steward quickly materialized and they ordered drinks. The woman nearest Jana and Arnold turned to them giddily and asked, “What are you two drinking? Something that can ward off the demons of the Deep?”
“Ship’s Grog is what I’m having – you ought to try one,” Arnold answered, mischief in his eye. Jana let on she was nursing a cream sherry.
“Oh, my,” said the woman. “Doesn’t the sweetness of it make you a bit queasy? Or queasy-er, since we’re all starting from basic queasy this afternoon.” And with that she laughed with abandon.
“Can I offer you two anything?” the man asked. “Another round of what you’re having? Or anything else? Please, allow me.”
All of this was said in a quick flow. The summation, allow me, followed almost at once on the inquiry, can I offer, so that by the time Arnold’s mouth was open and prepared to say, thanks very much, but we ––, the only courteous thing to do was to accept.
“Why, that’s real nice of you,” Arnold managed. “We’ll say yes, with thanks, but the next round’s on me.”
“Fine, very good of you, too, indeed,” the Englishman replied, and introduced himself as George and his two friends as Susan and Ellen. Arnold introduced himself and Jana. All then placed drink orders with the patient steward, who jotted them down with a large Cunard Line pencil that wagged wildly.
“Are you returning home? From our fair England? From the Continent?” Susan asked in the same effervescent manner she had used in her opening comment on queasiness.
“All of three,” Arnold said. “Hat trick, We’ve been –”
“Beg pardon?” Susan asked. “Forgive me, what’s a hat trick?”
“Hockey term,” George jumped in, “Scoring three goals in a game.”
“That’s right,” Arnold affirmed.
“Oh, I see, I see,” Susan went on, with a smile and then a giggle. “You were saying yes to home, England, and Continent all at once.”
“That’s right,” said Arnold. “You’re right on target.”
At this, Susan laughed keenly and bent over nearly double.
“How do you fancy our little boat?” George asked Jana, leaning a bit towards her.
“Your little dory, the Queen? She’s quite a show. I like her very much. Have you sailed on her before?”
“This is my third time. I worship her. I must know every deck, every hatch fore and aft. It’s a great pity that this is her last voyage across the Atlantic.”
“Yes, it’s always sad to see a great lady leave the stage,” Jana said with a wistful smile and a rise to her brows.
“There always has been a measure of elegance on board, a stylishness that measures up to her namesake.”
“Do you think Elizabeth would have approved? I mean the Virgin Queen, had she been around in our time?”
“Oh, she’s named after the Elizabeth who was George VI’s queen, actually, but I have no doubt the original Elizabeth would have loved the basic lines of the ship. She would have also marched through,” and here George smiled broadly, “calling out all sorts of fittings and furniture of which she disapproved, whipping out orders to her chamberlain and men of the court to see to the changes right off!”
“You, sir, switch out the settees!” George stood up and gestured with his hands as if he were Elizabeth. “And you, sir, see to it that the brocade on that far wall is changed to the royal blue, and let me not find you dallying, or I’ll feed your arse to the sharks of the House of Tudor!”
Jana laughed, easily, heartily, and she realized this was the first time in months she had laughed with abandon. She heard other laughter, too, for Arnold and Susan and Ellen were going on and on about the ladies of the street in Soho and other choice subjects.
But she didn’t care.
“What do you and your – gentleman friend – do when you’re not busy sailing ocean liners?”
“My husband owns a marketing company. I’m a playwright.”
“Oh, my,” George said. “How terribly impressive. The playwrighting part of it, that is, not the marketing half. Anyone can do marketing, you know. Pop a commercial on the telly, run an ad in the dailies. Too simple for words.” George gave a half wicked smile.
“And what do you do,” Jana asked, and she let her eyes wander to George’s lips.
“I own a restaurant chain, Gyre and Gimble by name.”
“Oh, right out of Jabberwocky!” Jana’s eyes gleamed and her mouth opened in a broad smile.
“Yes, right you are. But tell me something of your plays. What are they about? Where have they been staged?”
“They’re on various sorts of things. One’s had a happy four months off-Broadway, another two have been produced at colleges. I have one new play in the womb.”
“Marvelous,” said George, his brows raised and his chin up a turn. “Tell me all about them.”
“That’s too long a story,” Jana said.
She drew a pack from her purse, offered a smoke to George, who drew a cigarette for her and one for himself. He reached for his lighter, snapped it on, and held it steady while Jana leaned forward, cupping her hand around the small flame, letting that hand rest on George’s, and drawing in deep.
They glanced sideways toward Arnold, Susan, and Ellen, who were playing a patty cake threesome, laughing wildly, and leaning into each other’s shoulders.
“The aft bar is the best part of the Elizabeth. Have you been there yet?”
“I always like best parts. I’d like you to take me there.”
“Take a reading, Mr. Lave.”
“Aye, sir,” said the deck officer, and Andrew Lave called out the compass, anemometer, and barometer readings to his captain.
“Weather’s letting up.”
“The swells have been subsiding, in any event. Passengers should appreciate the turn for the better. There’s nothing the Cunard Line, and this captain, wouldn’t do to make our passengers happy passengers, including making the weather more favorable. I certainly hope our good passengers appreciate all that we are doing for them. Including improvement in weather and oceanic behavior.”
And Captain Monsey allowed himself a chuckle and a little tapping of his shoe.
“Aye, sir, aye, sir,” Lave and the other officers of the deck and the helmsman replied.
“Well, I shall amend that a bit, since we are legally no longer owned by Cunard but by a pack of Philadelphia businessmen. But I shall pretend that we are still Cunard, at least seamen sailing now and for these upcoming last twenty hours in that great tradition.”
“Hear, hear, sir!”
The Queen Elizabeth, in this, its last crossing of the Atlantic, bound for ignominious dockage in forlorn Port Everglades, was still sailing smart and in good hands.
“Men,” said Monsey, “I’m not one to be sentimental.”
“But tonight will be the last night of the last trans-Atlantic crossing of this wonderful woman, and I would be honored by your presence in my rooms at twenty two naught hours, after the banquet is over. We’ll have a bit of rum and perhaps something better and we’ll sing a round or two of The Old Drunken Sailor. Eh, what?”
“Aye sir!” Came the robust reply.
At the sound of the bell that signaled end of watch, Andrew Lave took his leave, walked down a short flight of steps and through a connecting corridor, opened the door to his own cabin, tossed his hat on the small table, flung off his jacket, hauled off his tie, unbuttoned his shirt, grabbed a whisky glass, poured a jigger of scotch, and took a good part of it, neat. Then he bent over and removed a small case from the bottom of his wardrobe. He unlatched it, turned back the cover, and carefully, reverently, removed the instrument that lay there. Out of the underside of the case’s cover he withdrew a bow, applied the resin block, stood erect, closed his eyes, tucked the instrument under his chin, and began playing, softly, the first movement of Mendelssohn’s violin concerto.
The late November afternoon air was cold but not bitter. It carried fine spray tossed from the spumes of high waves and the smell and taste of Atlantic salt. The swells had subsided and walking the promenade deck was not difficult, now, but still Jana held the rail while George, showing his sailor’s legs, made headway at her side, his hands jammed into his coat’s pockets. The sun, pale and descendant, splattered wave crests and troughs with sintered gold and silver.
“This is beautiful,” Jana said.
“Yes, yes, to be sure,” George answered, “but so are you.”
“Hush!” She said, but smiled, too.
They might have reached the aft bar without going outside, but this was the better road to take. They passed beneath one lifeboat, at a still and silent ready in the davits, and then another. Jana wondered, as she had a dozen times a day since leaving Southampton, how all might transpire if the call to abandon ship would come. The ship shuddered now a bit, the bow having found a straggling hard swell, and she reached out with her left, free, hand to grab George’s arm.
“There, I’ve saved you,” he said.
“Yes, you have.”
They reached an open hatchway, walked through, and turned to the right through a large anteroom, adorned with good art, into the bar. The lighting was soft, made warm by large tan shades on the lamps, and the voices of thirty or forty passengers, mostly at the tables, sifted through the smoke-hazed air. George guided Jana toward the bar and they chose two leather-fitted stools with low backs sporting the Cunard coat-of-arms.
“What will your pleasures be, sir, madam,” asked the bartender.
“Oh, how about a Pim’s Cup Number Two,” she asked.
“Fine, mum, and you, sir?”
“I’ll have a gin gimlet, if you please, with Tanqueray.”
They were sitting close to the bar’s center, where a large royal coat of arms was mounted, handsomely tooled, and she wondered whether it had been installed at the ship’s birth in 1938, or only when she ended her service as a troopship after the War. Circling the heraldry of the House of Windsor, flanked by rampant lion and unicorn, was the thousand year old flaunted dare of England’s kings.
“Honi soit qui mal y pense,” Jana read aloud.
“May harm come –” George translated.
“– to he who thinks up evil for me,” Jana finished, for she knew it well.
To screw or be screwed, she mused.
When their drinks arrived, they toasted the bartender, then each other, and soon felt warm to the core.
“This is sacred ground to many, I’m sure,” Jana ventured. “Hemingway? Virginia Woolf? Dorothy Parker? Harold Ross? Thomas Wolfe? They sailed either the Elizabeth or the Mary, at least once, hmm?”
“Well, I’m sure they did.”
“Do you read Wolfe, I mean Thomas, in England? You probably have read Virginia, with her Bloomsbury address.”
“Not that I can say, really, to be honest.”
“No, not really. But I’m a fan of Hemingway.”
Jana took another sip of the gimlet.
She and George talked on, but other thoughts surged at her, thoughts she had suppressed for the past two hours as she imagined an infatuation with George. While one part of her head spoke to George and listened to and made sense of his words, another part, deep in her mind, was ablaze with painful questions. Was Arnold already bedding those two women? One of them? Both of them together? Should I let George take me? Just for the hell of it? I could do it with George, easily, said one voice inside her head. Revenge can be sweet. But do I really want to with him? He’s good looking but as shallow as Arnold, said another.
The bartender came over to inquire after his customers’ satisfaction and George asked, “Pardon me, if I might inquire, how long have you served on the Elizabeth?”
“Twenty-two years and three weeks,” the bartender answered, “from the first sailing since she was freed from ferrying troops in the War, and yes, I am sorry, indeed, that it’s coming to an end.” His eyes met briefly with George’s and Jana’s, then followed his own hand as he wiped the counter with a flourish. His hair, gray with white at the temples, was combed impeccably. He moved away to handle new orders brought by stewards from the tables.
“He looks sad,” Jana said. “The good life has come to an end.”
“I’ll try to ask whether he remembers serving Hemingway,” George said.
Jana winced and sipped some more of the Pim’s.
“How about you gals giving me a tour of your cabin? There’s sure enough time for a quick show and tell before dinner?” Susan and Ellen turned to each other in a pretend merry swoon. “Why not!” Ellen answered gleefully, and gave a little squeeze to Arnold’s arm.
“Are you up to dealing with two tour guides at one and the same time?” Susan asked, her eyes wide, brows high.
“Oh, I think I can manage,” he said, and they burst out in laughter again.
Off they went, arm in arm, singing till they reached the cabin door.
George and Jana went to the banquet’s second setting, at eight, and were seated at a table near the center of the great dining room. The chandeliers seemed to be brighter than she remembered them being on previous evenings, but there was no special décor to this last and final banquet, the end of a very long history of dinners at sea aboard the Elizabeth. Perhaps, Jana wondered, staying loyal to tradition, the British way, was more important than balloons and confetti, our way.
Arnold, Susan, and Ellen were nowhere to be seen.
At the end of dinner, as dessert was served, and the small orchestra finished its playing, a voice on the loudspeaker announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, the master of the Royal Mail Ship Queen Elizabeth, Captain William Pierce Monsey.”
The captain, amidst vigorous applause, stood in his resplendent white dress uniform, the jacket with blue and gold epaulettes and gold buttons, the sleeves trimmed with captain’s stripes, a Cunard insignia on his chest, and turned about to acknowledge his guests in the dining room’s four quarters.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he said, once the hall was quiet. “Ladies and gentlemen, this is an honor above honors, for me to be your captain on the very last Atlantic crossing of this grand and beautiful ship, the Elizabeth, and this, the very last dinner we shall have served to you, my distinguished guests.
“We know that all good things must come to an end, as the saying goes, but, still, I wish it weren’t so. She’s been a very good ship, a very good ship, indeed. We have had a few awful and treacherous storms and she pulled through all of them, shrugging them off like flies tossed away by a horse’s tail.”
A few guests chuckled and clapped.
“This good lady is the largest passenger steamship, the largest passenger ship of any kind, to have ever sailed the seas. She served grandly in World War II, carried seven hundred and fifty thousand troops to Europe, Suez, and the Pacific, sailing half a million miles in the process, survived retrofitting and awful seamen’s strikes, and has been a wonderful express carrier for nearly two million good folk such as yourselves between England and America. If the damned jet airplane hadn’t been invented, we’d still be sailing strong with the Elizabeth!”
Which brought appreciative laughter and applause.
“And so I would like to lead your toast to this grand old lady, if I might. Please raise your glasses.”
And everyone did.
“To the most beautiful ship that ever sailed the high seas, to the R.M.S. Queen Elizabeth, long life and all our love!”
“Long life and all our love!!!” everyone shouted and cheered.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” the captain continued, “I would like to introduce to you my first mate, Commander Andrew Lave.”
After polite applause, Lave stood, his uniform as resplendent as Monsey’s, a violin tucked under his left arm and a bow in his right. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he said in a deep and vibrant voice, “a short passage from the Fantasia por un Gentilhombre, by Rodrigo, arranged for violin.”
From the moment Lave stood, Jana sat enrapt. Andrew Lave was tall and handsome to a fault, eyes and brows strong, nose sturdy, mouth well set. His violin sang with the beauty of any virtuoso she had ever heard. He moved his upper body this way and that, dipping and swaying with the music’s surges, almost as if he were at the helm of a sailboat, she thought, away from this ship, in some enchanted lagoon. Away from his rigid maritime duties on the bridge, she thought, off in a freer world of his own. It’s a world he’s sharing with us, it’s a part of him he’s sharing with me.
As he played on, dissolving between the work’s major and minor keys, across the landscape of mixed sensibilities that Rodrigo had captured, Lave’s face expressed the emotion of the piece even more freely. His eyes were closed, but they and the brows that arched above them, and his lips, turned mournful and turned with gladness, as the pith of the music rambled from one corner of the heart to another. Over everything else, there was a measure of rhapsody evident, a reveling in the beauty of the work and of the voice of the violin that had woken so ecstatically in his embrace.
When he ended, Lave bowed low to each quarter of the dining hall, to a thunder of applause.
As the banquet ended, Jana laid her hand on George’s. “Excuse me, really, I need to say hello to Mr. Lave.”
“Sure,” said George, and offered a polite but unconvincing smile.
Lave nodded his appreciation to several guests who offered their congratulations, then freed himself to walk towards an exit.
“Mr. Lave,” Jana said, "that was an extraordinary experience."
“Why, thank you very much, ma’am.”
“It’s Jana, not ma’am, if you don’t mind, and can I be so bold as to ask whether you might be free for a bit of conversation somewhere?”
“Why, certainly,” he said, and his eyes met hers more firmly.
“Andrew Lave,” he said, and extended his hand.
Jana shook hands, smiled, and felt shivers on the sides of her neck.
“There’s a table in that alcove –”
“Would walking with me a bit on deck outside be proper?”
“Why, yes, but you might be a bit chilled.”
“I won’t mind, if it’s all right with you.”
“No, it will be fine, certainly.”
As they stepped outside, Jana felt the November chill – it was colder than earlier, even though the deck was partly enclosed – and though she had her jacket on, Jana held her arms tightly, hands tucked between elbows and ribs. “Andrew – I’ll call you Andrew – what will you be doing when we reach New York?”
“I’ll be spending a few days at Cunard, then it’s back to London, perhaps on to another commission, Cunard or another line. The QE 2 is set to take over, but it already has a full crew. Everything’s changing so quickly, you know. Airlines taking over the trans-Atlantic trade – that’s one reason this old lady is being sold for the pleasure of tourists in Florida.”
“And London is home?”
“Yes, it is. Just off Hampstead Heath.”
“And is there a good wife waiting for you there?” Jana looked at Andrew. She wasn’t at all afraid to be so bold to ask.
“Why, yes. She’s my wife, and she’s good.”
Then he said, “I hope,” with a bit of a self-conscious laugh.
“My, my,” Jana offered, “is she good or isn’t she?”
“You’re shivering,” he said, dodging the question, “shan’t we better go in?”
“Is your cabin warm enough for me?” Jana asked.
Andrew looked straight into Jana’s eyes and hesitated.
“Yes, I believe it will be,” he said.
They were silent for a moment, then Andrew touched her arm lightly, to guide her in a turn towards an opening, said “This way,” and led her back into the ship’s interior.
They sat at the small table in Andrew’s cabin, which was really bigger than a cabin but less ample than a stateroom, and he uncorked a bottle of well-aged sherry. They toasted each other and began with small talk, but Jana soon brought the conversation back to London.
“You said something rather strange before, that you hope your wife is good. That, to me, is a banner of doubt.” And she leaned forward, holding her elbows, raised her chin a bit, arched her eyebrows, and opened her eyes wide.
“If you’re a sailor,” Andrew replied, “or a ship’s master, or even a commuter in London, all you can do is be a good man to your wife and hope.”
“That, Andrew, sounds just a bit too weak for a good answer.”
“How about your – husband?”
“He’s worthless. And probably laying two women in their cabin at this very moment.” Jana tossed her hair and looked to the side. A tear brimmed to the edge of her lower lid. She turned back to Andrew, then covered her face with both hands, and stifled a sob. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to do this, really, truly.” She wiped her eyes with a handkerchief and said, tossing her hair again, “I’ll leave.” But Andrew placed his hand over hers and said, “No, stay. I want to talk with you, and to hear more from you. Here, a touch more sherry?”
“Yes, please,” Jana answered, managing to stop her tears. “I must look awful right now,” and she placed her free hand on top of his.
“You’re a beautiful woman, Jana, and those are beautiful tears.”
“Listen,” he went on, “I sail the seas because I’m driven to do so. Just as you are driven, I’m sure, to write for the stage. And I am driven to play the violin, day in, day out. But I cannot sail the seas living in London. I met and fell in love with a woman who knows all this, who loves me – as I love her – and is content to wait the two and a half or three weeks between leaving and coming back that this insane passion of mine requires.”
Jana thought she would do best to take her hands back, but then she didn’t want to lose the touch of Andrew’s strong, warm hands, so she just left them there, clasped with his.
“If I would allow myself to have romantic pleasures on my crossings, and not tell my wife, I might fool her, but I would be living a lie to myself, and that would be hard to bear. And then I would be tempted to leave her, and I would be leaving a good woman, a woman I love.”
Jana said nothing, on the verge of tears again, but she nodded her head in understanding, managing a smile.
“I only wish,” she said at last, “that I were as lucky as your wife.”
“Here, let’s drink to better days and weeks ahead. Who knows what good fortune will come your way.” And he stood and leaned over to kiss her forehead. And she pressed her hands to his cheeks and brought his lips to hers.
They lingered for a moment.
“I’m afraid I need to leave for the bridge. Captain’s called us all for a toast,” Andrew said, his face still near hers.
“All right. I’ll see you in the morning,” Jana said, a note of bruised illusions in her voice, and started to get up.
“No, stay here, we should talk some more. I’ll be back in twenty.”
And he left for the bridge.
It’s been three years, Andrew told himself. As he had over and over again. Three years.
“Can you,” he leaned toward the taxi-driver, “take me to the Harbor Lantern?”
“Yes, yes! I take you there.”
The cabbie swerved away from the hotel curb into packed Hong Kong traffic.
He had asked the concierge whether a decent bar might be found near the Queen Elizabeth.
“Many bars, but I hesitate to recommend one to you, sir.”
“Well then, do you know of a decent place of any kind with a view of the Queen Elizabeth, which is now – …”
“Docked, undergoing conversion,” the concierge answered brightly, with a sociable smile, and added, “There’s an elegant lounge halfway up the hill, in the Xian Royal Hotel, that has a broad view of the harbor. I’ve been there myself and assure you you’ll see at least some part of the old queen.”
And so he called Jana. They had found each other’s phone numbers months earlier. Much had changed in his life – his wife dead from cancer – and hers. When he found out that she had left Arnold and was now teaching at Hong Kong University, he told her he would fly from Cyprus, where he was on leave, to meet her. “To pick up where we left off,” Andrew said, “and pay another visit to our good ship”.
That ship on which Andrew had served for six years, that fine mistress of the sea on which he and Jana first met, was now being refitted as a floating university.
They met and embraced in the Xian Royal’s grand lobby, kissed and embraced again. They stood for a long moment, eyes locked together, smiles rich with thanksgiving, words of love as pure as pearls, strands entwining them.
Down at the pier, when the workers had finished and left under a tinted crepuscular sky, a figure wearing a bulky raincoat slipped onto the ship. The single guard did not question him. The man made his way down the central staircase that flanked what had been the main deck lounge where Jana and the others had laughed and tippled their drinks. He labored somewhat because of the heavy containers he carried.
On B Deck, he went aft and poured half a canister of kerosene along one of the cabin’s wooden panels. He struck a match and tossed it into a crumpled newspaper. He shuffled on to another cabin and repeated his rite, then ran to two rooms nearer the bow and set fire to them as well.
“This, Jana, right here on the Xian’s ballroom veranda, high above the mess of the city, is about the best place to say goodbye to the Queen as magnificent ship and hello to her on her maiden voyage as floating university.”
“And the very best place to be in your arms, my magnificent first mate, Andrew the Adorable.”
They laughed and kissed again.
“This is far better than coming any closer. I just couldn’t bear marching through whatever they’re doing to dismantle her, changing everything over into college stuff.”
“But that’s where I’ll be teaching in the spring. Let’s just say, Long Live the New Queen, or something like that.”
“Right you are, but –...”
He never finished the sentence, nor did either say a word, for both saw a flame, a large and menacing flame, rise from one end of the ship in the gathering dusk. Others rose from midships and then there were loud sirens piercing the night sky and subduing all the other sounds of Hong Kong.
Except for the sounds of their wracking sobs.
By morning, the ship had charred into twisted, blackened, smoke-wreathed steel, hissing and sinking into the harbor’s cold, insensate waters.