Deep Waters Chapter 2 | by Lydia Penn

Deep Waters Cover by Lydia Penn

Deep Waters Chapter 2 by Lydia Penn

When after a sleepless night, Ben woke the next morning complaining of earache,  he got scant sympathy from Justin, who was still nursing his anger and bruised ego after Skippy’s departure. “Aw, shut up,” he growled. “Go and see the doc, and don’t moan to me. “

There were no other patients in the surgery and Ben was attended to at once. “Just a slight infection,” stated the doctor, peering into his ear. “We’ll soon fix you up with an antibiotic.” He was a jovial, friendly man in his forties,  and seemed glad to have someone to talk to. He confided that he had recently been divorced, and a job on a ship provided him with an opportunity to get away from it all and have some breathing space.

Ben sympathised. “Have you been very busy during the voyage?” He inquired as he took the antibiotics.

“No,” said the doctor. “All pretty boring actually; mainly cases of heatstroke and tummy upsets due to overindulgence.” He chuckled. “Oh, and there was one old lady who insisted she had appendicitis. But it was only a case of eating too much fruit! My, she was difficult to convince though!”

“What about the old lady who fell and bruised her ribs. Didn’t she keep you busy? She sounded pretty demanding to me,” commented Ben, also happy to stay and chat.

The doctor looked puzzled. “What old lady?”

“She walked with a cane and couldn’t manage the stairs because of the fall,” Ben explained.

“You must be mistaken,” replied the doctor. “If there had been such a case, I certainly would have treated her. Where did you get that from?”

Ben felt a little foolish. “A girl my friend got to know, said she was sharing a cabin with an elderly aunt who’d had a fall and was demanding all her attention. Said it stopped her from socialising.”

The doctor began to laugh. “That’s a good one,” he said. “Sounds like it was her way of giving him the brush off, and keeping him out of her cabin. You young men get up to all sorts of things on board ship I know.” He grinned and gave Ben a broad wink. “A good looker was she?”

Ben wished he hadn’t raised the subject, but it was obvious the doctor was enjoying a good gossip, so he attempted to describe Skippy. “She was very antisocial, and never mixed with any of the other passengers,” he concluded.

“Hm,” said the doctor. “I think I know the girl you mean. One of those slim cool blondes. Never mentioned an aunt, but came in here about a week ago and asked for some strong sleeping tablets. Said she couldn’t sleep but didn’t look too tired to me.” He chuckled again.

Thoughtfully, Ben made his way back to his cabin. Justin was not there, so he lay on his bunk and fell asleep. After about an hour he awoke refreshed and went to find Justin. The ship was still docked in Melbourne; it was now the southern winter, with a grey sky overhead that looked cold and uninviting, the sea choppy. The decks appeared deserted and there was an atmosphere of desolation everywhere. After all the sun and activities of the past few weeks, Ben found it very depressing. Rather like the end of term at school, he reflected, everything packed up and corridors deserted. Most of the group he had been with had also disembarked in Melbourne, including his ‘shipboard romance’, an Australian girl named Jan (not Sheila!). He had not been seriously involved with her, but she had been good company.

He found Justin in a corner of the writing room playing cards with three of the other remaining passengers. It was now close to lunchtime, and after lunch, they joined Justin’s card-playing acquaintances in an excursion into the city. So it was not until that evening after dinner that they were alone and had a chance to talk together.

As they sat morosely drinking beer in the lounge, Ben related what he had learned from the doctor. “I don’t buy that idea that she just wanted to keep you out of her cabin, “he concluded.” And it’s obvious that those sleeping tablets were for you! I thought you had just been indulging too much at the bar when I came in and found you snoring your head off. But I can see now, it’s obvious, she drugged you! But why?”

Justin shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe she didn’t want me to see her disembark without an aunt. But why go to all that trouble, and give me all those lies?” After his initial shock, he was becoming very angry. “And to think that I wasted all that time on her, and really felt sorry for her with all her tales about the aunt. She took me for a fool, and how she must have laughed at me,” he stormed.

“Calm down,” urged Ben, “and let’s think this through. There’s something very strange about it all.” His legal mind was already at work. “Did she actually say that she was disembarking in Sydney?”

Justin thought for a moment, trying to recall the conversation. “Well, not exactly.” he said finally. “But when I said I was going all the way to Sydney, I asked her if she was, and she said something about ‘going all the way’, so I took that to mean Sydney.”

“Well she’d no intention of going “all the way” with you in any sense,” said Ben with a wry grin. “But think, man.” He took a long drink of his beer and then went on. “Was there anything else she said that seemed a bit odd when you look back?”

Justin thought again. “There was just one I can remember. She asked me if I was a journalist, and when I said no, I remember she did seem a little more relaxed. But that was all. Perhaps she just didn’t like journalists.”

“Seems like she was trying to travel incognito,” Ben suggested. “She avoided mixing with other passengers very deliberately. Look how she always stood on her own on deck, and she never went ashore or joined in any activities. Maybe she is someone famous, an actress perhaps, and she didn’t want people to recognise her.”

“I thought people like that wanted recognition and publicity,” said Justin, “I wonder …”

But what he wondered, Ben never knew, for at that moment a male English voice broke into their conversation. “Mind if we join you. It’s so quiet and deserted everywhere.”

The friends looked round to see the middle-aged man who had loaned Justin his binoculars as they approached Port Said. He was accompanied by a middle-aged woman, obviously his wife. “Please do,” said Ben with a smile. “I agree, it’s quite depressingly quiet now. I’ll be glad when we arrive in Sydney. Are you staying in Sydney or travelling further?”

“We’re visiting our married daughter in Sydney, but I hope we can travel around a bit too before we return,” said the woman with a north country accent.

“Mavis wants to go up to Queensland and see the Barrier Reef,” explained her husband.

“What about you two,” asked Mavis. “Are you travelling around for a holiday, or are you emigrating?”

“I’m visiting relatives, and Justin just tagged along with me,” explained Ben. “I’m looking forward to getting around too. It all seems so different from home.”

Justin felt it was time he joined in. “Yes we went into Melbourne today on the train and I was really surprised as it is not nearly as English as I thought it would be. It seemed very noisy too with the trams. Reminded me of Cologne actually.”

” Ah yes, ” said the man whose name they learnt was Alfred, and then he embarked on a long discourse of his impressions. The conversation became more general as they all talked of their experiences, and it was quite late before Justin and Ben returned to their cabin.The subject of Skippy was quite forgotten.

Until the next day.

They were frantically packing in the afternoon before the ship was due in Sydney. Justin grabbed one bundle of clothes from the mountain he had piled up on the dressing table, and out fell a small book. “What on earth!” he exclaimed as he picked it up. Then he remembered, that night, the book Skippy had dropped. He had picked it up intending to give it to her the next day, but he had been so drugged he had forgotten all about it. “How did it get in with all my clothes, ” he wondered. “And who’s Banjo Patterson anyway?”

” He’s an Australian poet, ” Ben informed him. “Jan told me a lot about Australian poets. But how did you get that book? Did you pinch it from the library?”

“Of course not, ” Justin snapped. “It fell out of Skippy’s bag and I was going to return it to her the next day.” He was thumbing through the pages. “Hey! Wait a minute. Here’s a name and a phone number. Must be her real name — Sarah Cummings. She never did tell me her name and I never asked. She was just ‘Skippy’.”

Ben was foraging among another pile of discarded papers, paper bags and wrappers. He produced a stained, crumpled passenger list. “Here, ” he said. “We can check her out.” He looked up in bewilderment a few minutes later. “There’s no Sarah Cummings on the passenger list at all. In fact, there is not a single Cummings.”

“Here, let me look.” Justin grabbed the book and looked through it. Ben was right. He looked up perplexed. “She must have been travelling under another name. This gets more and more strange! But at least there’s a phone number here. When we get to Sydney I’m going to ring Miss Sarah Cummings and ask what her game is.”

But the phone call only increased the mystery!