Writer,Sandra Shippy, Sandra Johnson, short stories, radio plays, DIVERSITY website
She was eleven, nearly twelve years old. Short, very plump with fair mousey coloured hair some of which was tied in an un-fetching bow on the top of her head to keep it out of her eyes and that only added to her unattractiveness. In her mind however, things were very different. She was a princess, a princess in disguise that a wicked witch had put a spell on. One day she would cast it off and the whole world would know, would realise just how beautiful she was. In the meantime, she would have to suffer it - like the Frog Prince.
The ship was huge. Vast, like a small town. There were shops in one area full of things that would entice a young girl. Clothes and jewels that she could only look at in the windows shining with promise. She would watch adults going in and out, ladies laughing and men holding their arms, their waists or just looking at them in a way she did not yet understand but knew that she longed for.
Her special places, apart from the library where she often hid herself basking and dreaming in the grownup books she knew her mother would deem totally unsuitable but which filled and stretched her mind with desires she could not yet put a name to, were the decks.
It fascinated her that she could walk on the outside perimeter encasing drinking areas, dining rooms, coffee lounges and many, many other things and yet be looking at the endless, endless rippling water that surrounded the liner like the white of an egg containing the yolk. She was not afraid of the vastness. On the contrary she found it comforting. She could not say why. She did not even care why and nothing delighted her more than to walk, muffled up in a coat and scarf that hid her unwanted body from anyone’s judging gaze when the wind blew and few others would be there.
She was even more delighted when she discovered that, strangely, her mother too seemed to have relaxed, become gentler, abstracted and looked, even to her eyes like an ethereal dark haired sprite, and seemed less and less inclined to keep a tight rein on her daughter, murmuring acquiescence whenever she asked if she might go somewhere. Whatever the reason, she was delighted with her newfound freedom.
Her most favourite deck was the one below the very top. This contained the swimming pool where she would shyly watch all the jollification, the shouting, the laughing and the dunking. There were only about five other children on board but all of these seemed to have bonded instantly and she, the only outsider, watched from the sidelines.
Her mother frequently tried to persuade her to join in, but one utterly embarrassing entry into the pool in an elasticised swimsuit, suffering the agony of knowing all her fat places were revealed, had been enough. She had sunk to the bottom of the shallow end relieved to be covered by water to the neck but even this had not been sufficient to save her from the approach of a small skinny dark haired boy who had said ‘Don’t move about too much or you’ll spill all the water you’re so fat and we won’t have any left to play in’
She had refused so completely and emphatically to enter the water again after this that even her mother had ceased to try to make her.
When the ship (she knew it was called a liner but this name seemed to make no sense to her) had left Port Elizabeth bound for England she had waved goodbye to her father on the quay and a sense of impending loss of something she was not even sure she possessed seemed to pervade her.
He was the only one to love her without censure and he was staying behind while she and her mother went to England, ostensibly for a holiday so her mother could see her mother.
She was only just beginning to understand the complexities of relationships and this was one she struggled with and while understanding mentally that this person was her ‘grandmother’ it meant little to her in reality. Her mother spoke constantly of her ‘mother’ and she found this so confusing that she refused to think too deeply about it and contented herself with nodding and smiling to keep her mother happy.
She knew too that there was more than just a visit at stake. People always thought children knew nothing. It was not so. She knew only too well that things were ‘wrong’ between her mother and father; it was just she didn’t know what it was that was ‘wrong.’
When she stopped to think about it she felt a deep sense of panic and fear and so she sought with all her might not to.
It was a great joy to her somewhere in the well of her mind that the whole of Bertram Mills’s Circus performers were travelling on the ship. Not the animals of course, these went on something else. But all the exotic people like trapeze artists, clowns, the ringmaster, beautiful girls and wondrous jugglers. They gave an air of magic to the ship because they were constantly practising.
Like her, they frequented the decks and were to be seen often, cart-wheeling; hand-standing, juggling or just generally looking wonderful.
There was always an instant audience and she being a child was grudgingly allowed to push her way to the front. It was on one such occasion that she saw him for the very first time.
He seemed like a young blonde god to her. She was presently reading all the Greek myths and legends and so she called him Apollo to herself. He was tall and muscular and the shirt that he wore was blindingly white in the sun and when he walked on his hands his head turned and he smiled, straight at her. Her heart was pierced with a strange pain and she felt sick and vibrant with health all at one and the same time.
For nearly two days she hugged the knowledge of his smile to herself like a secret password to a different world. He was very grownup. Why he was tall and strong and beautiful and must be at least, at least eighteen years old. She now agonised about what to wear from her limited and even to her eyes, very unstylish wardrobe.
She despaired over her hair and tried many styles letting it all down, parting it in the middle and gripping it on both sides. She thought she looked like a lost dog.
She pin-curled it all over with grips and endured the maddening pain of iron like shards piercing her head all night only to emerge looking like some maddened golly-wog. Her tears wet her face as much as her hands wet her hair and finally she settled for pulling it all back into a very short ponytail that while it did nothing to flatter her seemed at least not to add to her ugliness.
She began to follow him from a distance, her heart in her mouth lest either he or someone else realise what she was doing. She wore a long shapeless grey jumper that covered some of her too fat body and black trousers. Her one attempt at trying to look worthwhile was to co-ordinate the black of the trousers with the black ribbon in her hair.
One morning she was up very early and traversed her favourite stretch of deck. She stopped abruptly because suddenly he was there in front of her, stretching, bending, walking on his hands and with one large back flip was face to face although in her case it was more like face to waist, he being so much taller than she.
‘Hello princess’ he said in a strong guttural accent she was later to discover was German ‘and how are you today.’ Her heart raced excitedly. ‘Princess’ he had called her. Was it possible that he could see through the disguise to the real her? She began to think it must be so when he commenced to talk to her as if she was a grown up.
‘I have seen you for some time now’ he said. ‘I wondered if you would speak to me. I have so wanted to speak to you because it is obvious you are my best audience.’ Silently she nodded her head and then he said ‘Shall we walk along the deck?’
She said only one word ‘Yes’ but it seemed enough for him.
From then on she met him there every morning. She watched him practice clapping excitedly whenever he performed something spectacular that seemed to her to be most of the time. Always afterwards they walked along the deck together he deep in thought and talking all the time and she just nodding and saying yes.
Over the course of days she learnt that he was indeed German, his name was Joachim Krause or Klaus she was never quite sure which; he was nineteen years of age; he came from a family of trapeze artists – ‘the greatest in the world’ he said ‘ and one day I shall be the greatest of all’.
She of course agreed emphatically with him that this would be so and he would laugh delightedly making her heart turn over at how beautiful he looked.
He explained very seriously that of course they could not actually put up a trapeze on the ship; however serene it seemed they would be thrown off balance and that could prove fatal so they had to content themselves with acrobatics ‘ tumblers’ he would say scornfully ‘not flyers, not like me, not like us’.
He told her about the different holds, passes, tricks, none of which she retained in her head but which he did not seem to mind being only too happy to tell her again and again and she only too happy to hear it again and again. He spoke of the many varied and different costumes he wore ‘black with gold sequins’; ‘white with gold feathers embroidered on it; red with purple patches of velvet’.
Everything he described seemed to her only more and more fitting for a prince, for so she had come to think of him and he it seemed was quite content to spend time with her which sometimes made her feel close to bursting.
It would only be much, much later in life that she would finally ask herself if it were possible that he was what the world now called ‘gay’ and that at a time when it was not acceptable and that in her he may well have found indeed a ‘perfect’ audience; one without censure; one full of worship; one who made no demands save to look at him adoringly and one perhaps strangely who he recognised as being as lost and uncertain and out of step as he himself was.
Certainly she never saw him with females for any length of time other than to pass a polite comment or the briefest of drinks and she, in her naivety believed this was because he loved her too and perhaps he did.
When she entered the lounge one day and saw her mother deep in conversation with a young, dark haired man and holding in her hands something she appeared to like very much she understood and with that understanding came the first pangs of growing up.
She thought fleetingly with some fierce anguish of her father’s sad lined face as he had waved goodbye on the quay and realised for the first time that she could not, after all, fix everything just by wishing hard enough.
And when she saw the delicate, silver leaf brooch that her mother now wore continuously and when too, from time to time, she would catch glimpses of them, dark heads together engrossed in each other while their coffee cooled or their drinks grew stale; and when finally she saw them both silhouetted against a railing one pale evening, her mother’s hand lost in the big paw of the young man and his mouth pressed against her white cheek, she knew that things had changed for all time.
As the ship neared England the weather began to change, growing windier and wilder and sometimes wet with rain.
The decks became too blowy, too slippery, and too dangerous and even her mother began to notice that her small daughter was often in parts unknown and, as the ship neared its destination, she too began to revert to the normal, upright, suffering, sometimes querulous woman that was all too familiar and freedom became curtailed.
She was only to see him two more times.
The second to last time was late one afternoon just before the morning the ship docked. He was standing shoulders hunched inside a dark windbreaker on the deck, hood up but his fine blonde hair blowing briefly in and out of the hood. He was smoking a cigarette fiercely something she had never seen him do before.
‘Joachim’ she called out. He looked up blowing smoke furiously.
‘Oh it’s you’ he said ‘ I thought you had flown off the ship.’
‘No’ she said ‘my mother wants me to stay close because we’re nearly there.’
And then bravely because she recognised this might be her last chance ‘I have missed you – so much’.
There was a moment’s silence and then he smiled, his beautiful, beautiful smile with teeth so white she felt as if the sun had come out.
‘And I little princess’ he said ‘I have missed you beyond all reason.’
He leant down towards her. His hand reached out and gently touched her hair and he planted a kiss on her forehead.
‘One day ‘ he said ‘I will come and get you and you will watch me fly through the air. You will sit in the front row and you will wear a white dress covered in gold spangles and you will clap and cheer all the time and I will do everything for you.’
He had promised her, he had made a promise. Surely, surely there could be no doubt he loved her.
He took her small hand in his and removed the white woollen glove and bent over it. He touched his lips briefly to her skin and clicked his heels smartly together.
‘I must go now princess, but surely we shall meet again’ and turning, he walked away from her.
She watched the tiny arc of flame that his cigarette made as he tossed it with unerring aim over the rail and into the sea.
The next morning she saw him at the bottom of the gangway engulfed by other people as she stood pressed against the rail waiting for her mother. He was laughing and gesticulating to someone, she did not know whom and she waved and called his name frantically but he did not see or hear her.
She watched his blonde head desperately until, like a raindrop joined by many others, it vanished becoming indistinguishable from the rest.
When she returned to Port Elizabeth on another liner a year later she had lost a considerable amount of weight and her hair had grown longer and more manageable. She still avoided swimming and continued (as she would do all her life even when the mirror would inform her that she was wraithlike) to think of herself as ‘too fat’.
However she knew logically that she was indeed more presentable. After all, she was now just over twelve years old and ‘quite the young lady’ as all her English relatives had told her more than once.
Within a day of being at sea it became apparent to her that her mother and the dark young man of just over a year ago had obviously made some sort of assignation.
She had glimpsed what she was sure was him and then thought herself mistaken and then, some three hours after the ship had sailed and, on impulse, had followed her small, (and now she knew for certain beautiful) mother and had seen how in the coffee lounge with a sound like a sob coming from her mother, she had flown into his arms and they had held each other for some time without speaking. She had left then.
Seized by a sudden desire she could not explain, she walked the decks, mainly alone except for a few hardy like-minded madmen and searched and searched. But of course he was not there. Why would he be?
She, unlike her mother had made no firm date for future meetings, indeed now that she thought of it there had been no mention of time or place in her last conversation with her blonde Apollo.
Wisdom suddenly flooded through her young body and mind and she knew without question that she would never see him again. Her prince had come and gone and the only thought that consoled her was at least she had had one.
Over the course of the voyage she met a Nun, tall, young and soulful dressed in white and black and, with what seemed to her, tragic brown eyes. She grew very attached to her and the Nun gave her a bible that she was to keep for the rest of her life. She also made a secret vow to become a Nun and mourn for her lost prince forever.
She would lie in her bunk and practice this role until she wept from the sheer sad beauty of it all.
Of course she did not become a Nun.
She would try on many roles with the help of her active imagination and both her changing body and personality would aid her in this and in the end, as did so many others, she would settle into a life that was both ordinary and extraordinary.
When later she would think of him she would never see his face as other than a blur, only his blonde hair and his brilliant smile would come to view as easily as if it were only an hour ago. Strangely his voice would remain clear and strong in her head, word for word, for as long as she lived.
When they arrived in Port Elizabeth her father was there to greet them, relief and hope written in the lines of his thin, strained face. She realised then that her father was old. At least forty and that was surely ancient.
Her mother had with her a beautiful chased metal music box purchased at one of the Madeira Island stops for her by the young man with dark hair.
She had watched her mother secretly as she had said goodbye to him held tightly in his arms while he tried desperately to persuade her to stay with him.
‘I couldn’t’ she had said ‘I can’t leave him and there is my daughter’.
In vain he had said her daughter could come too but duty had stood firm in the face of love.
She had heard her mother crying softly in her bunk the night before they docked. Never again would her mother stray and in the years to come she would think of her mother as hard, bitter, spiteful, shrewish, demanding and many other harsh adjectives. But at the time she did not mind either way.
Her mother had bought her a beautiful brooch made of butterflies wings encased behind glass and silver depicting the ship they travelled on. She had greatly desired it for the entire voyage but had been told often and firmly that it was far too expensive for a girl of her age. It was a thing of great beauty and very high cost.
Nothing was said but she knew it was the price of silence.
Years later she lost the brooch and it worried her on and off throughout her life that now she had no concrete reminder of what had occurred and with whom (after all a bible was of little help in situations such as these) because now, at this distance in time, she had no other proof that once she had been a princess.
Copyright Sandi Johnson, 2009