He boarded alone with a duffle bag. He boarded with a memory and a secret. He boarded with death. If you had been there, you may have seen his white hands clutching his bag a little too tight. Why weren’t you there?
If you were there, you may have seen the sweat beading on the man’s face as he boarded. It may have been your eyes, momentarily locking with his, which would have made him turn back. But you weren’t
I remember a time when you were always there. I remember a time when I sat in your lap and we watched the people go. Always watching; never boarding. We would make up stories of the travellers; they were on their honeymoon; she was celebrating her birthday. You would have said the man was a spy on some secret mission, or perhaps he would have been a whistle-blower on the run.
When the nightmares had started a few years ago, mum blamed you. I never told you I could hear the raised voices through those paper-thin walls. I heard her whispered shouts.
“Too young for your horror stories,” and, “a six-year-old doesn’t need to dream of conspiracies.”
But still we shared imaginings of wild and wonderful things. For years, you taught me the value of dreams. If you were here, you would tell me dreams have meaning. An almost-magic, a divination from within, which pieced together the jumbled clues of our days. And still, mum insisted I shouldn’t be encouraged. I wish I had told you how glad I was you didn’t listen.
I never mentioned I could hear your laboured breaths and rattling cough when it started a few days ago. I remember feeling glad on the night the cough subsided and you drifted off to sleep. I remember feeling guilt in the morning when I learned it was not sleep you were visiting.
The cruise ship is fully boarded now, and if you were here you would have bought me an ice-cream for the walk home; chocolate for me, rum and raisin for you. You would have called me boring, and I would have called you gross. Mum would have sent me to brush my teeth ready for bed before growling at you about sugar, and weight, and money.
If you were there in the morning, perhaps I would have told you of the dream I had last night. You would have sat in your blue chair, listening intently as I described the white plastic suit the man threw overboard in the middle of the ocean, and the scared look on his face as he coughed. I would have told you how the man had woken up screaming from a dream of labs and test-tubes: accidents and escapes. I would have told you how the virus took hold of the ship, and how their coughs sound at night.
If you were here, you would have cuddled me and told me not to worry—it was just a dream. But you aren’t. And it wasn’t.