Wish You Were Here by Brian Webster

I’ll remember that fateful night when the ships boiler exploded as long as I live. Every detail is etched deep in my mind, and in quiet moments return to haunt me. Someone said that it punched a massive hole the size of a railway tunnel in the ships side and allowed a merciless sea to pour in. As the water level rose with lightening speed I remember how I splashed desperately in blind panic waist deep down flooding corridors. The terrible screams of frightened people trapped, helpless, and unable to escape, still reverberate inside my head. Those last few minutes when the final chilling call came to abandon ship boomed out over the speakers is imprinted on my mind forever. But now sitting quietly, with the pangs of hunger twisting my stomach like a knife, the most vivid memory the entire cruise is of food. Food that was constantly available to us as we lazed our way like bloated whales on that luxury Caribbean cruise. Chicken, meat, fish, and exotic food dishes of every description were piled mountain high on people’s plates. Although I exercised every day this constant temptation still resulted in me having to loosen my belt. I remember with distaste, the extreme gluttony of fellow passengers who enjoyed food to excess and regularly gorged themselves into eating stupors. Now experiencing real hunger for the first time I think about all the food that was thrown away, tipped over the side like so much jetsam into a greedy ocean Food that to a starving man would represent a banquet fit for a king and which I realise sadly is now gone, all gone.

I think about my wife and the enthusiastic way she abandoned her diet choosing to eat continually during the voyage and how quickly she ballooned up. I recall how with full cheeks she kept continually promising to join me in the gym, but never did. I can see her now, shuffling along to the dining room, her heavy legs squeezed into tight pink shorts like giant sausages that might explode at any moment. Her joke about ‘not wanting to waste good food’ soon began to irritate but she chose to ignore my advice and kept right on gorging herself.

It was when she was sleeping off another giant ‘snack’ that disaster struck and in the mad panic that followed we got separated. Everything happened so quickly. In the free for all of people fighting to survive I kept screaming her name until I was eventually thrown into the water. The next thing I recall was clinging to a life belt and swimming in the inky blackness away from a sinking ship that seemed reluctant to let me go. It was later, much later when I’d almost given up hope that I managed to stumble up a sharp shingle beach that cut my feet. I remember urging my aching legs to stagger out of an unforgiving sea to fall exhausted into deep sleep on scrubland just above the beach.

During the next few days I discovered that only two other passengers, a Mr. and Mrs. Ibbotson and their revolting dog Major, had managed to drift to my particular island. I knew the area was littered with similar atolls and hoped one of these now offered a refuge to my wife and at least some of the other passengers. We three found ourselves alone on an island that although it had plenty of water seemed totally devoid of food, and that’s when the arguments started.

Scavenging along the beach I’d just picked a handful of dark green leaves hoping they might be edible when I heard Ibbotson’s brusque voice, “Can we eat it?” He watched me closely as I tentatively put a couple of leaves in my mouth. Immediately a strong acid taste burnt the back of my throat, making it impossible for me to swallow the masticated mash. Quickly spitting it out I choked, “Not a great success I’m afraid.” Rinsing my mouth with water from a small plastic bottle that I carried I listened to him cursing his bad luck that he’d been marooned with the likes of me. My empty stomach responded by making a familiar gurgling sound as if to emphasise the fact that I’d not eaten for several days. The recent meagre finds of a few birds’ eggs and a couple of rotting fish tossed up on the beach had done little ease our hunger but merely managed to sustain us.

“We’ve got to do something,” Ibbotson bellowed and knowing how this familiar argument quickly built up I sat in silence as he continued. “Damn it man, I haven’t eaten for days and neither has my dog.” Abdicating my role of food taster I lay back on the coarse sea grass and gazed out across an empty, picture postcard azure sea, waiting for him to calm down. Not a word about his wife; I thought. As usual he’s just concerned about himself and that brute of a dog. Reading my thoughts, the jet black bullmastiff slowly turned towards me and growled menacingly.

“Come here Major. Sit down or by God you’ll get a whipping.” Ibbotson yanked roughly on a thick knotted rope, nearly strangling the dog. Suspecting the dog was just biding its time, waiting for his command to attack me, I made a further attempt at conversation to hide my nervousness.

“How’s Mrs. Ibbotson holding up?”

“She’s fine. Of course she’s moaning on a bit about not having any food but apart from that she’s fine.” His abrupt, matter of fact voice, seemed at odds with the picture I’d seen yesterday of his wife weeping but it was obviously designed to bring the conversation to an end so we sat in silence. As we sat I watched the dog begin to gnaw on a piece of driftwood until eventually it was crushed in its giant mouth, scattering sharp pieces across the gritty sand.

I’d already witnessed Ibbotson’s volatile temper a few days ago when I caught him beating his wife, and after accusing him of being a coward he’d immediately turned round to threaten me. On that occasion I’d walked away but his paranoia continued to grow and now he was hinting broadly that I had a secret cache of food hidden away. Unnerved by his increasingly erratic behaviour I made sure I kept the knife I’d picked up from the debris scattered along the beach near at hand, in case I needed to defend myself.

The attack came as I was resting under a tree to escape the midday sun. Feeling drowsy after spending some hour’s scavenging, I was slipping into sleep and dreaming of my wife waddling towards me when Ibbotson struck. Hearing a rustle from the nearby bushes, I turned just in time to see him launch himself at me holding a heavy cudgel he’d fashioned from a branch. We struggled and more by good luck than judgment I managed to kick him with such force that he tottered and rolled down the steep grassy slope to the beach. Stripped to the waist we fought and the dog that he’d fortunately tethered to a tree, desperately tried its savage best to join in. Under the burning sun we battled each of us straining to be king of the island until, suddenly, it was all over.

Lately as darkness falls we’ve adopted the practice of cooking our evening meal on the beach hoping our fire might act as a beacon to any passing rescue ship. Sitting quietly in front of the spattering fire I watched as another piece of raw meat turns from pale pink to a sizzling brown and my lips grew moist with anticipation. Mrs.Ibbotson reaches out to squeeze my hand, and kisses me lightly on the cheek, as if to assure me I’ve been forgiven. Smiling back I continued to scan the darkening horizon for any hope of our salvation. The dog, subservient now to his new master, lies quietly at my feet waiting patiently for another bone. Mrs. Ibbotson appreciates the meat won’t last forever and I don’t know why I’ve spared the dog. I suppose I’m really an animal lover at heart. I close my eyes and a picture of my wife waddling along in her tight pink shorts comes easily into my mind. I miss her and dream of her all the time. I dream about her chubby cheeks, her fat succulent legs, and I wish she were here.

Selected: March Short Story Contest

Published in Issue #28

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