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TRAGIC SINGLES

*

‘Can you help me?’ she said in a girlish, sing-song voice.

Francine was squashed somewhere in her seventies, a great Florida dame with hair like the Lion King, dripping with bling. At some point in the recent past she’d obviously been mummified. Rather like the bling, it was impossible to tell which bits of her were real or imitation. She chattered away to anyone, a happy motor-mouth; prattling to strangers with not a care in the world – there was just one little problem.

‘I need you to get me over the line…’

She held out one arm.

‘Of course, my darling,’ Dogster chirped, not knowing what on earth she was talking about.

‘What line?’

‘That line,’ she said sadly.

She was pointing to a crack on the dock. The crack in the concrete was about an inch wide, the kind of connection you find on docks and wharves. It wasn’t a chasm; it was a one inch gap.

‘Ever since I had my accident, I can’t cross gaps. I freeze. I need someone to take my arm before I can move.’

So here she was, frozen on the dock, looking down at The Gap, unable to cross.

All she needed was a helping hand.

*

Ruth was bent nearly double over a walking frame, moving very slowly. I let the others go ahead and stayed back to escort her to the table.

‘I see you have some mobility issues,’ I said gently.

She stopped dead and looked up at me with incredulity.

‘No. What makes you think that?’

*

Leela stayed in her cabin for the first three days, consumed with terror, nibbling at the basket of fruit. Her hands trembled; her lips trembled, all of her trembled – she was quite the most tremulous woman I’d ever met. She worried about hygiene, she worried about health, she worried about worrying about worry itself. She existed alone, somewhere in Chicago, trapped in her terrors, her anxieties locked in a bitter embrace.

In an act of quiet strength Leela fought back. She made up her mind to break out of the cage she’d created. She would travel and see the world. In between panic attacks she actually booked, actually paid and actually arrived in Istanbul – all on her very own. For Ms Leela, this was huge. That she’d made it here without expiring from multiple anxiety was a testament to her bravery.

Now here she is; Mother Courage, sitting next to all of us at the Tragic Singles Lunch.

*

Silent Mike was in his sixties, a soft-spoken, gentle man you might think timid. He wasn’t – just shy.

‘How long since your wife died, pal?’

‘Three years, two months, thirteen days and six hours,’ he said without a blink.

*

They were mostly women with a convenient smattering of timid widowers, as broad a mix of personalities as you could find. Some were full of terror. Some were full of rage. Some were bereaved, some never married – some never had a choice. Some were shy, some talked too much, some couldn’t stop once started.

For some it was clear they were single because nobody in their right mind would take them on. Bruised, defensive, determinedly dull, they clung to manners the way a drowning man clings to driftwood. Everything had its place. They liked to tut tut tut and tsk tsk tsk. It gave some form to their anguish.

Some were simply traveling alone. No reason, no tragedy, no drama. They just liked it. There is always an intrepid octogenarian tramping around the decks in khaki shorts. Most were just making the best of things.

‘Stuff happens,’ one said when quizzed on her martyrdom, ‘some people slip through the cracks.’

Either way, by choice or accident, act of God or fate, we’d all ended up around the same large table – twenty tragic singles on the Azamara Quest.

*

She spotted me.

‘Woo hoo! Can I join you!’

We were already intimates from the tragic lunch.

‘We have to support each other,’ we all agreed.

Well, now I was being supported.

‘It’s my birthday,’ she gasped as she sat down.

Miss Bentley’s twinkling eyes hit mine. She giggled.

‘I’m sixty-nine.’

She was a great gal. Obviously, not everybody on the boat thought so. She’d just been rudely frozen out at another table.

Oh, but then, Miss Bentley was black.

On Azamara, the only black women you see are in a uniform with a tray in their hand. Of course, that’s by no means company policy – nor a particular whim of the guests: but obviously cruisers of color go elsewhere. Quite where, I don’t know. Not on Azamara relocation cruises, that’s for sure.

‘If they don’t want a black gal at their table, I thought, well, sweetheart, fu-u-uck you,’ she laughed, ‘excuse my language, darlin’…’

I assured her I’d heard that word before.

She snorted and smiled.

‘What are we drinking, honey?’

*

I heard a squawk from a distant table. So did the rest of the dining room. Someone had fallen off their chair. A flurry of waiters erupted and descended on the culprit. A little old lady lay hidden between tables, the only visible sign a pair of surgical stockings waving feebly in the air.

Miss Bentley rolled her eyes and chuckled.

‘Honey, in the old days, that would’ve been me…’

In the early eighties Miss Bentley was a real-live disco diva. She had hit records – even caught the Soul Train to fame and glory. The divine Miss B had been there, honey, and done that. I was tremendously impressed.

‘I’m retired now, darlin’ – this old gal can’t go on singing Disco forever…’

We spent dinner excitedly swapping London stories, names, dates and places. She gave great gossip – unfortunately I ended up too drunk to remember a thing. Miss Bentley’s anniversary was celebrated in style – that much I remember. I was lucky to be invited.

The birthday girl was Aza-brated, Aza-dored and Aza-loved to death. Somewhere after the main course, a choir of waiters formed behind her, a cake with sparklers was wheeled in and delivered spitting sparks and flames, to a beaming Miss Bentley feigning surprise. The staff burst into a spirited multi-national version of ‘Happy Berr-day to You-u-u-u…’ and everybody cheered. Hip Hip Hooray! There was cutting-cake, fussing and smiling and some cross-cultural hugging. I even think there were tears. Oh, that was me.

She stood up uncertainly and waved vacantly to the room.

‘Well, g ‘nite honey, it’s been great…’ she said thickly, ‘thank you for your company,’ then she gave me a squeeze and wobbled a bit.

‘But, if you’ll ezcu-u-use my French, this old gal has gotta pee.’

*

I saw her later, laughing gaily, surrounded by the girls. Miss Bentley was glowing, lit up from within, accepting birthday praise as to the manor born. For a moment the Disco Diva was back.

Those ‘tragic’ solo women had formed a feral pack. The speed of their bonding was startling; they seemed to melt into each other on arrival – now they traveled as an Amazon Army, complete with a gaggle of gossiping troops. They all had a very good time indeed, growing old disgracefully together – nothing remotely tragic about it.

Silent Mike was in the middle of them all, a broad shy smile on his face, talking animatedly to his instant harem. Ruth lay drunk on the couch; Francine twirled wildly on the dance floor. No gaps on Azamara. There was anxious Leela, too. She was having a great time, adrift in the company of similar souls. I think she’d even stopped trembling.

I stood in the shadows, too drunk to take part. A little miracle. All the girls were dancing like banshees in the moonlight. It was a crazy, wonderful sight.

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT  2011

THREE

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