An Absolute Deception – Extract

Gulls shrieked overhead, swooping about, making long slow circuits out of the air, circling in a leisurely, dreamy fashion, then darting sharply away, only to reappear minutes later with their strident, childish cry. Hannelore stood on the upper deck, watching the land rising gradually towards the blue mountains that were a pale, soft colour now but would turn lilac, then purple later in the day. The shore, with its waving mass of people who’d come to see the latest batch of passengers off, was a distant, thin line, moving steadily away from them, but at an angle, like something seen through a camera lens. All around them the waves lifted themselves in a slow, glossy roll, pausing for a moment then rolling oilily and evenly towards the last remnants of land. It was hard to measure their progress; one minute the companionway that bridged the gap between the ship and the shore could still be distinguished, next minute it was gone. An hour or so ago, sitting in the gaily decorated ship’s bar with everyone, she’d felt her eyes slowly fill with tears, a brimming she couldn’t control. Across from her, Tante Bärbel noticed and made some comment about her hair having escaped her scarf. Hannelore was wearing a new dress – lemon yellow, with a swirling pattern of orange and white – a gay, summer dress, despite the cold into which she was about to sail. She felt Tante Bärbel’s hand slide under the silk scarf to tuck the offending strands back in. She put up her own hand in a mixture of embarrassment and confusion and for a long, trembling moment, their fingers touched and held.

‘There, that’s better,’ Tante Bärbel said at last, leaning back and blowing out her cigarette smoke in lazy, overlapping rings. Behind her, moving discreetly through the crowd of well-wishers, friends and relatives who’d come on board to wish the passengers one last farewell, the ship’s officer indicated to the serving staff that they should stop serving drinks now. It was time for the ship to leave. They sat smoking in silence together as the minutes to Hannelore’s departure ticked by. Presently, a bell clanged, sending the seagulls swooping upwards in protest. All non-passengers are requested to leave the ship. Will all non-passengers kindly leave the ship.’ The words were very carefully enunciated. There was a great sighing and scraping back of chairs as the groups around them began to break up and disintegrate. The ship’s band broke into a song; gulls shrieked again and again and the bell sounded once, twice. Tante Bärbel’s face was pulled together tightly; Hannelore found she couldn’t speak. They got up and clumsily embraced, Tante Bärbel holding her tight by the elbows. A great feeling of loss came over her. Her world had turned itself upside down; from now on, nothing would be the same. She was released suddenly, and thought for a second she might even fall.

She watched Tante Bärbel walk down the companionway with everyone else, noticeable not only because of the red, wide-skirted dress she wore and her neat, black pillbox hat, but because of her straight-backed, beautifully upright posture. She was wearing gloves; it was Hannelore’s last image of her, slowly pulling one long white glove, then the next, over her smooth, pale arms. She turned and gave a half-wave, her hands slowly slipping back down until she was hugging herself, white gloves against her red dress, a dancer’s elegant pose.

The hooter sounded again, solemnly marking the moment of parting and Hannelore had to turn away. The ship broke away from the land, no longer part of it and the water rose around them. When she was sufficiently composed to look back, the shore had become a line; the crowd had melted together as one and the red dress was nowhere to be found.

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