14. Not on the list.

Velma has been invited to some sort of special event, tonight – ‘the great mystery,’ she calls it. It’s not just her – a fair few of the other passengers are on the same list and I’m not invited. Even old Mrs. Bellamy is going, and she smells of wee (well, she does!). I’m trying not to sulk but it’s not working very well – what have I done to deserve this? Velma, however, is all cat and cream, and would never miss tweaking a little jealousy, despite doing her best to keep a contrite face while I stomp around in my flats. There’s a special invitation card, with gold edging no less, and a leering mask embossed upon it – perhaps it’s some sort of masked ball – though no one has said as much. Velma wasn’t supposed to show me, but that’s Velma and rules for you. I’m sure it will be some decadent something-or-other, especially since no one will talk about it. Rumour is that there is going to be a film. Of what? No one knows.

Never one to appear less than 100% Coco Chanel, Velma got dressed up special – the little azure dress with its bead hem, her shell hat with the nouveau brooch, cigarette holder at the ready. ‘Don’t worry, darling,’ she said, picking up the ball of onyx on the sideboard, and scratching at the lighter in it, ‘there’s bound to be another.’ (Just not as good, is the attitude).

Well that’s all fine and well, but it’s rather annoying when one’s surname appears in the stupid half of the alphabet (Ms. ‘O’Sullivan’, anyone?) The who’s-who of attendance seems little more prosaic than a few pickings from A-M on the passenger list.

Pfft. I probably didn’t want to go anyway.

Queer, though, that Velma should mention something else: almost in passing, she said that there was a man called ‘Bailey’ going.

‘Oh?’

‘Not like that you silly puss,’ she said. ‘I wouldn’t even mention the [word omitted – because, honestly…], but he came up to me, just after the Cabin Steward had delivered the invitation, and asked me who I was, trying to take a sly peek at the name on my card. Well, that was quickly pressed to my bosom – I’m an inveterate presser – but he asked who you were, too. Casual, my dear, but very keen to know, if you know what I mean?’

Velma is no retiring wall-flower, so she told him to go boil his head and more besides (oh, dear). But she did say there was something about him.

‘Not anything that would go badly in this ‘gathering’?’

‘Oh no, no, no,’ she laughed. ‘But he might have had the look of a private investigator, if he wasn’t such a disreputable cull of a fellow.’

I must have looked scandalised. She flicked me with her scarf – ‘oh darling, of course I would know a Dick when I see one, and he’s not one! I just didn’t like the cut of his jib. I think the poor, old, dear is looking for someone, that’s all.

Besides, it’s not me I’m worried about.

Now, time to go.’

I gave her a kiss on her ear for luck. She air-kissed me back, nodding her ruby lips and white cheeks in my general direction, and left me filling in this stupid, old diary.

On her way out, she almost knocked over the bashful rose – it still, I am loathe to report, resolutely refuses to blooming-well bloom!

Ship

What a flat tire.

Stupid, stupid old cruise.

13. The Charleston as a tonic for all ills.

Oh, Maud, what a ball.

I think Velma is having a bracing effect on everyone, or at least, a certain impishness is infecting all those with a pulse and a red rag for authority. This whole experience is mad, bad and glad.

But also weird.

I confess, I may not have had a great deal of exposure to the finer things in life, but the oddities of this vessel do perplex me at times. I find it quite silly, for instance, that despite being surrounded by such opulence, and with such a fine dance area in the Santorini Restaurant (equipped with the grandest of grand pianos – a Steinway – no less!), that there are often more people dancing around the sickbay radio than are prepared to do the Jay-Bird or The Black Bottom in the designated areas – truly amazing.

‘Designated areas?’ says Velma. ‘Let them eat Charleston wherever they are, the poor dears.’ But she would say that – she’s the one getting all the patients up and scandalising the doctors. One fellow had a prolapse. Another stood on a thermometer.

Thankfully, there’s a surprising number of beds, but not many in use.

12. What a waste of paint!

Mr XVelma and I are in a most desperate disagreement over the painting at the end of the hallway. It depicts a long, tall fellow in a mask, hat and whites. Quite unsettling, I think – the kind of baroque monstrosity one would expect in a baronial pile, surmounted by stag horns, rather than a modern ship like this.

(Perhaps it would suit The House on the Borderland? Why, Mr. William Hope, do come home, all is forgiven! Northern Star must, of course, do everything I think, right now, right down to a monogrammed ‘L’ on the napkins, because my name is Lucinda, Franklin O’Sullivan, and I am Michelangelo’s very own artistic muse. Ha!).

Velma, on the other hand, says there is much to admire, and that she tires of all this limp-wristed, thin-lining, and delicate floral dabs, and all the ‘meh, meh, meh’ potpourri of all that despicable modernism. Of course she’s a dyed-in-the-wool activist, who would – should everyone become an activist – become a bank clerk, just to agitate the whole damn thing.

Anyway, I much prefer the painting with the dashing cavalryman on his white charger, or our lady of the ratty ermines; or if silver nitrate is your poison, then that photo of those gleeful fellows playing in their rat-a-tat band (above the carpeted stairs running down from the Mall). Though is the drumming fellow the self-same as our cavalryman? Brothers in arms at least?

Band Practice

So, with all this art on-board, why is it that I am drawn to, yet repulsed by that particular painting? It dwarfs me. It’s no great shakes with the brush – no sir. The fellow is surely mis-proportioned. I do not like his bearing. It seems cruel – disrespectful, somehow. Bacchanalian? Oh, I’m stumbling on the words.

I shall look again tomorrow, though I shall still not hand a golden laurel to the artist, I am sure. But a clench went through my stomach when I saw it, first – my own bow wave.

A fateful feeling?

Oh, Lucy. How silly.

Velma laughs at my quaint ways, but she’s jolly-well wrong about this painted fellow. There’s nothing good about him.

11. REQ: 3 x ‘Nouveau Classic’ Freezers

Edmund Turner, Larder Cook, C Kitchen –

Mr. Spendwrith,

May I draw your attention to my earlier request for extra freezer space.

At the moment, of course, one could swing a whole suckling pig down here. But we both know how busy these cruises can get, and that a great deal of cold storage is a boon in the more tropical climes – especially when the festivities begin.

We never have enough space, so please tell me we’ve learned our lesson since last time.

I require three of the General Electric ‘Nouveau Classics’, with the extra ice boxes, and convenient, pull-out shelves.

I’m sure we can pick them up at Ponta Delgada and launch them over.

Edmund.

10. Do I exist? The fox-stole lady incident.

WomanAt times like these, I begin to notice how different I am to other people. I must already have established how different Velma and I are! She says I get excited over such silly, childish things, when it comes to the luxuries on-board, but the other passengers do seem so blasé about it. We don’t all go on yearly cruises with whatever and whomever of the European aristocracy, or the who’s-who of the transatlantic notables. And I am so very sad I didn’t get a chance to meet the king on his previous jaunt aboard – now that would have been a thing! [I admit it, Velma if you’re stealing a read at this diary again! Just because you think he’s an outdated expression of a bankrupt, male chauvinistic power structure – well, whatever].

While Velma is as strident as a fire engine [you are], and is in every way the definition of a Flapper at sea (with enough makeup to sink a battleship, or at least give us a port list [though I’m being catty now, and you are incredibly elegant, my dear, of course, as you fine-well know]), sometimes I’m not even certain other people notice the finer things on-board, or notice me for that matter. Indeed, earlier today, I tried to pass a frumpy old woman in a fox stole and pince-nez, who was standing in a promenade doorway leading in to the upper deck. A cold breeze was blowing. And a silly thing: she just stood there. Didn’t even move to let me by – as if I wasn’t even there. I tried to awkwardly breeze past her, but the old battle axe was as stolid as the Rock of Gibraltar in all her fox-fur finery (well, I admit it, if she’d continued to stand in that doorway, we may have been trapped there all day, and Velma might have done something deplorable, so I did give her a little two-handed shove… and she still didn’t acknowledge me).

Very queer.

For that matter, the ship-board security don’t seem to move around much either (is everyone so stiff-necked?). Velma even waved a hand right in front of the eyes of the guard outside the presidential suite – taunting him, saying he wasn’t guarding the gates of ‘Bucklington Palace’ now, and how we’d all been better off when old Vics had been on the throne, and he didn’t even blink – stoic to a fault.

Perhaps he thought he was still guarding the King? Ha! Ha!

9. Embarassed.

Rose

Velma is laughing at me right now. She says I should write this down, so I will Maud, though do tell her to stop dismantling my cigarette box (she has of course just snorted, reading this over my shoulder, and wandered off to some other mischief – honestly, I can hardly keep up).

I know it’s been a little time since my last entry.

So today, we were a little bored, or at least, Velma was, and she decided we must confront the outrageous Mr. Pelham. Velma says it’s important that we challenge the misogynistic tropes that seek to enslave women, and that I should take Mr. Pelham to task for the whole rose thing (I did, of course, make the mistake of showing her the darling thing, with some pride, and she simply laughed that big, honking laugh of hers). It was all I could do to stop her picking the sepals off – a rose, after all is still a rose, though it does seem resolute in maintaining its bud-ish ness.

Perhaps a little growth?

Anyway, she marched up to Mr. Pelham, where he was playing Gin Rummy, and said, ‘look at it, you dirty old geezer’, and some such, and what was he playing at? Women ought to be free, and that he ought not to have a wife, or if he did, he ought not to cheat on the lovely woman, whomever she was. I was mortified.

The Deck Steward had to be called, there was a stramash, and I discovered that there is such a thing as a brig on-board, as there were several boos and calls of ‘take her to the brig’ – Velma, eyes flashing, at that – and one or two of ‘take him to the brig’, but Pelham clearly had no idea what Velma was talking about (not the stuff about male-female stereotypes, and how she was a better driver than anyone else on-board, hands down, but the rose).

The old gentleman was most embarrassed and I apologised. But Velma was annoyed at that, at my ‘deplorable subservience to the father figure’, so she marched us back to my cabin, and has insisted I relate the whole, ‘sorry tale’ in my ‘prissy little school book’, and I decided to do just that, to punish her, until we are talking again.

Oh dear, though – I’m sure I shall be the first to apologise.

There are cigarettes all over the floor.

8. Captain’s compliments at cabin 10.

I still haven’t met my neighbour in the next door cabin. I’ve been coming and going quite a lot – and thanks to Velma, probably more than is respectable, at all hours from the bar, or lounge. We’ve been gadding about and watching everyone else on-board (and increasingly being watched by everyone else on-board), but the most I’ve seen of the passenger in cabin 10, is a breakfast tray. It’s always sent with the First Class Cabin Steward, a knock, and the Captain’s compliments, though the Steward is quick enough to discard the tray at the door – he practically runs back to the deck above. Then the tray just sits there.

Twice now, Velma has insisted we take a peekeroo under the silver salver, just to see ‘what that other lot are getting’. Both times, it was the same: a steak, blue to the edges (Velma said she hates that metallic stink of blowtorched beef, griddled with just a huff of heat), no condiments (just as it comes), a coffee pot (Velma drinks extremely strong coffee to compete with the taste of the cigarillos, she says), one delicate porcelain cup, no milk, some fresh stationary – a little stack of cards – and that’s it.

This time, we replaced the salver with a clatter, as it slipped from Velma’s fingers, and we both ran away giggling – Velma kissing away a stolen fingerprint of juicy meat.

A moment later, on our way to the pool – bunny towels in hand – the tray had gone.

7. Scandal at sea. It’s a miracle – I’ve made a friend.

Good news, Maud! I have made a friend on-board. I know you always fret about me meeting new people, and whether I’d come up to scratch and all that. And of course, what do I do? I turn round and find someone right in the middle of the ocean!

Velma

Velma was playing shuffleboard on the upper deck, and was making quite the scene. It’s your pick whether it was her scandalously short skirt, her mechanically bobbed hair, the fact she had her cabin door thrown wide and had dragged the radio to the bulkhead and was blasting jazz to the whole of B Deck (and most of the Atlantic Ocean, for that matter), or the fact those pretty lips were mouthing off the most spectacular invective – which would hardly be respectable on a coal miner, let alone a young woman in her twenties – each time she missed a puck. There was plenty of her bending up and down like a man, and lots of her extravagant laughter at the tut-tuts from those gathered to see her trounce the Ship’s Boy (who no doubt had his own tasks to be getting on with).

When old Mrs. Vincent finally hoisted her bosom, patted her battleship curls into place, and told this ‘young lady’ this was hardly acceptable, Velma slopped a measure of Scotch over the side of her glass – ice spinning, as she gestured – and told the ‘sour old plum’ to go take a long walk off a short plank (I’m paraphrasing, of course, as I simply couldn’t write what she really said. Honestly, you wouldn’t believe it). I’m afraid I laughed out loud and clapped my hands in sheer surprise (I’m such a child) and dear Mrs. Vincent stalked off, having made plain of her enmity for the both of us, and that she would go speak to Captain Drayton and have Velma ejected, forthwith – though to where is somewhat unclear.

Velma gave me a wink, and that was it. She handed her shuffle stick to Captain Mainwaring (the letch who’d been watching all that bending with a great deal of interest), and grabbed my arm and demanded I told her all about myself as we headed for the bar. ‘You can tell a Harlem Sweetie anything,’ she said – ‘we’re like a confessional cloister that way.’ You should have seen the looks she was getting. Scandal at sea!

6. Acknowledgement of room-services rendered.

Spent a day in my cabin, today. Eggs Benedict for breakfast. Baked ham for lunch.

Why not holiday from one’s holiday, in the lap of luxury and room service? The Cabin Steward is ever obliging.

As cabins go, it’s impossibly extravagant. I have a double bed to myself and a huge circular rug as a centrepiece, which lies like a lily pad on the polished parquet. One wall has a bold colour scheme of silver, black and chrome that matches the linoleum in abstract designs in the bathroom (I do, finally, have my own private porcelain throne). Glossy walls. Metallic threads in the bedspread. Reflective fabrics. Everything is so clear of clutter.

As one enters one’s boudoir, one is elegant and restrained. Why show more than a striking painting of a deconstructed violin? Or a bronze statue of dear old Summer, herself? I’m pretty sure my chair must have been made by Eileen Gray, the mirror by Le Corbusier.

Cotopaxi Cabin Sketch

There’s a mother-of-pearl letter opener on my writing desk next to the most darling, enamelled cigarette box. I may take up smoking, just so I can appreciate its lovely, violet glaze and the click of its silver hasps (smoking is, after all, supposed to be good for you). There’s even a cocktail cabinet in my room, for cat’s sake (though I confess that might not be quite so good for me)!

All I need now is one of those white, ostrich-feather centrepieces you so loved in Vogue, Maud, and my own film-projector and Cecil B. DeMille to crank it, and I’d think I’d died and gone to heaven.