Miss Burns retrieved the two bags of shopping from the car and carried them in through the front door of the cottage she shared with Miss Weston. The smell of burning bread alerted her as soon as she went inside; she dropped the bags and ran into the empty kitchen. Oven left unattended far too long; newspaper left open on the table beside full but cold cup of tea; kitchen door swinging open – none of these are comforting signs when your companion is in her seventies. Miss Burns choked down her fear and went out into the garden, in her near-panic she did not notice that the newspaper was open at the obituaries page.
Miss Weston was sitting in a deckchair at the end of the garden, staring blankly at the hedge. She was so still that a whirl of sickening possibilities engulfed Miss Burns. But then Miss Weston became aware of the presence beside her, and turned teary eyes to her friend.
"Sorry, love, I was miles away."
"What's wrong Bel?"
"I suppose I need to tell you a story. I think you might be very angry with me for not telling you before, but somehow I didn't want to talk about it. Please don't hate me."
When someone you care deeply for says something that foolish and vulnerable, there really is nothing to do but put your arms round her and tell her everything's fine. So that is exactly what Miss Burns did, and after a moment or two Miss Weston started to explain what exactly had happened forty-three years before.
Annabelle had made the half-hearted attempt to kill herself three days after confronting her husband over his latest affair. It wasn't the affair as such, that was a routine thing: discovery, confrontation, apology, 'this is the last time Frank' speech; repeat the next year. Except this wasn't routine, this time he didn't get defensive or angry but told her quite simply that he was just setting things in order and when he was ready they would be leaving together. No apology, no emotion left for her whatsoever: the house will have to go, Pat and I need the money. He came to visit her once in the hospital, to tell her not to be so bloody weak and manipulative; it wouldn't work, it was just embarrassing to them all.
She found, as you do, that all 'her friends' were in fact their friends, and for whatever reason most of them seemed to take Frank's side. That left Jenny, the scarlet woman of the sailing club, who hung around on the edges of the old group even after the spectacular eruption of mutual infidelities that ended her marriage. Of course Jenny wasn't the usual sailing club wife, she was far more a yachtswoman in her own right. She and Annabelle drifted together. They drank far too much wine while Jenny ranted about the failings of men, and at length Annabelle shocked herself by getting drunk enough to admit they could be sods. That wasn't the sort of language she was really comfortable with, but she was angry.
Annabelle was depressed, there had been a distinct plan to the course of her life and now that was thrown into confusion and uncertainty. When Jenny presented her with the utterly fantastic idea of answering the advert, she found herself agreeing. And so somehow, without being entirely sure how it all came to pass, she found herself with Jenny in the Caribbean, not simply crewing for a ferocious woman who called herself Kat but paying for the privilege.
Kat was pushing fifty, outdoorsy, and very posh in that way that enabled her to be coarse and slangy without ever seeming crass about it. Jenny made some half-joking comment about Captain Bligh which Kat overheard. She had explained very carefully that Bligh had been a truly great navigator and pretty damned competent scientist who was let down very badly by his crew. His only failing had been a tendency to lose his temper when he was bored. Kat, as she herself told them, was as much in control of her temper as she was of everything else in her life. If she ever shouted or hit, it was because that was exactly what the situation called for. She did not shout, she certainly never hit. She did explain calmly and dispassionately the many things Annabelle did wrong about the boat.
It turned out that Jenny was no quite as down on men as her wine-fuelled conversations had suggested. She was, in fact, very interested indeed in young black men and their supposedly superior endowments. What people called 'race' wasn't a matter that Annabelle had really given any thought to before, but after the first few port visits of Jenny rolling home in the morning she found herself repulsed beyond words. She was quiet, even timid, and that was intensified because she was the only one of the three who didn't really know how to handle the boat on her own. It simply wasn't in her nature to give Jenny the hard slap across the face she deserved before the lecture about people being people and not exotic walking bloody penises put on this earth for your entertainment. It must have been obvious enough without saying, life became very strained indeed. Jenny found a boy she wanted to make use of repeatedly; she had actually said 'I think I'm in love' but that was so transparently false it made Annabelle feel physically nauseous in her throat. Jenny left the boat.
Annabelle realised she had a made a very big mistake indeed. Somewhere in the back of mind was an understanding that Kat was unreasonable in her expectations; that she was not thoroughly useless but merely lacked the full range of skills that would enable Kat to sit back and relax once in a while. Knowing it in the back of her mind was not enough to outweigh the sense of not being good enough. She wanted to leave as well, but she didn't. She wasn't about to turn her back on Kat when everyone else she knew had rejected her. For all Kat's failings, there was something else about her that was very new to Annabelle. She had been Frank's little woman; Jenny had obviously seen her as the necessary second person to secure her own place; she had had almost a decade of 'Ahh, is your husband in?' from visitors and callers. Kat was the first person she could remember who expected perfection as a matter of course; who apparently did not see her as the silly housewife who needed allowances made. Taking the constant criticism wasn't nice, but it was preferable to confirming it all by abandoning her responsibilities. She would never earn Kat's respect by being the sailor Jenny was, but she could at least be more loyal.
And so the two of them sailed on, short-handed and shorter-tempered, and on occasion Annabelle found herself thinking the whole thing was one constant nightmare. Or so she thought until they hit the whale, and then she found out what constant nightmares are really like.
It's very rare indeed, but it does happen. Sixty tons of whale soaring out of the depths to breathe meets a few tons of eggshell hull: the whale swims off with a sore back, while Kat grabs the ditch bags and screams at Annabelle to get the fuck out of the cabin as water foams round their waists already.
By the time Kat dragged her out of the sea and into the raft, Annabelle was screaming and sobbing. Kat told her to shut up and calm down. She raved and kicked against the inflatable sides. Kat gave her the hardest slap she'd ever had in her life, right across her face; it stunned her. She felt fingernails digging hard into her bare arms and Kat's weight pushing her down into the bottom of the raft.
"Enough now. Calm down or I will knock you on the head and put you over the side."
It took a minute to really sink in.
"Are you threatening to kill me?"
"You are trying to kill me. I've got nothing against you Annabelle, but that choice simply is not a choice at all. Now for God's sake will you grow up and cope. You can't have your mummy or your teddy bear, so either do something to help or just sit there without getting in my way anymore. Am I making myself clear?"
"I don't want ... I never wanted to be here. I want to go home."
"I imagine you do ..."
How very strange, thought Annabelle: as soon as it left her mouth, even she had realised how thoroughly unhelpful and childish that comment had been. Yet Kat, who had treated her with something between dismissal and exasperation ever since they had met, sounded uncharacteristically sympathetic.
"... there's not really anything I can do about that for the moment, is there? We need to get through this, young lady, that's all there is to say."
They were in the raft for five nights and four days. Kat rigged her knife to a paddle to form the most rudimentary of spears, and on the third day somehow managed to stab a passing fish with it. Her sympathetic tone had not lasted. Annabelle couldn't bear to eat it raw; well that was tough, because she was going to, they were not going to waste any more biscuits and Bovril when there was fresh food in the raft. Annabelle felt like crying and sicking it back up; Kat explained in no uncertain terms that both would cause dehydration and kill her quicker. Kat rationed the cans of fresh water to the bare minimum necessary to keep them alive. The exposed parts of their bodies burnt in the sun; seawater evaporated off them and left them covered in a thin film of salt that tortured the sunburn and crusted hair and clothing. Even with nothing to eat or drink, Annabelle found the natural functions asserted themselves for the first couple of days; she had to go over the side with no privacy whatsoever. In her more lucid moments she found herself understanding that the fear and discomfort were about what you would expect from the situation, but she was entirely unprepared for how thoroughly disgusting the entire experience was. In her less lucid moments she huddled unresponsive and unhelpful as Kat tried in vain to raise a signal on the handheld radio.
Kat, somehow, coped with it all and kept functioning.
Kat saved both their lives.
Shipwreck was one of the many things that Annabelle had never given much thought to, it's not a matter that impinges on everyday life very often. Thinking about it many years later, she realised that most people would probably assume finding the island would be a joyous thing, and they'd both skip happily about on the white sand and whoop for joy. In truth, it was the middle of the night and the weather had turned stormy. They crashed up onto the beach and immediately started being sucked back out to sea on the receding wave. When Annabelle fell out, she found she could no longer move knees that had been bent up for so long. She collapsed in the surf and almost drowned while Kat was too busy fighting to save the raft to help her. She dragged herself out of the water and heaved her lungs dry; eventually Kat had everything else secured and crawled over to see how she was. It seemed to take an eternity of screaming in the rain for Annabelle to work the cramp out of her legs. Kat held and gently rocked her throughout, mumbling soothing nonsense into her ear against the sound of the wind and surf. Then, of course, she realised that Kat was in little better state herself, so she returned the favour.
They were in no real shape to explore when morning came. They stumbled along the beach until they found a rivulet worming across the sand, and followed it back into the trees where it coursed down a low cliff in what, under other circumstances, would be a very pretty miniature waterfall. They dragged themselves and their few supplies back and forth until they had a pathetic camp set up by the pool.
"For God's sake, stop hobbling round in that one plimsoll."
Annabelle pulled it off and tossed it aside. Kat grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her hard.
"Where do you think you are?"
"Stop it! Just stop, please!"
"You don't throw things away – not anything, not ever. Honestly, girl, grow up."
Kat turned back down the beach, but after a few steps she came back to where Annabelle stood fighting the urge to cry yet again.
"Listen to me, Annabelle. We may be here for some time: no one knows where we are; we lost our radio with the yacht and the emergency one doesn't seem to be working. I've ... We can't tolerate any more mistakes, not from either of us."
She turned again, and this time Annabelle picked up the shoe and followed her.
On the second day Kat forced them both to scramble up the cliff and keep scrambling until they reached the top of the island. It was maybe a mile and a half long, a third as wide at the far end, and with no sign whatsoever of habitation. Worst of all, there was nothing on the horizon in any direction save for blue haze. To all practical purposes, they were alone in the world. Neither spoke for a while, and at length Kat led the way back to camp.
Once there, she became even more organised and practical than before. First things first, they needed to take stock and inventory everything they had; everything was vital from now on because they didn't know how long it all had to last. Clothes and bodies had both suffered in the raft, one lazy day was just about forgivable but certainly no more. So: wash both thoroughly to stop any further deterioration, that came before everything except fire.
An hour later they were both crouched down by the stream doing their best to scrub out their underwear. Annabelle would hardly describe herself as an exhibitionist but after the last week it seemed rather ludicrous to act modest with Kat. Kat herself seemed as easily confident in the buff as fully clothed. It was all, in some demented fantastic way, beginning to seem a situation she could handle. Until ...
She looked up from her knickers to realise Kat was surveying her with that same calm appraising look that she had directed at every other piece of salvage. At that particular second, the curious gaze was directed at Annabelle's breasts, as Kat spoke it began to descend.
"I think we need to get one thing into the open. There are practicalities. You're not exactly my type but you are what's available, so you'll have to do. I would rather not be violent; I will be if you make it necessary."
There was a clear implication in what she was saying, but it was so absurd Annabelle couldn't accept it.
"I beg your pardon?"
Annabelle saw Kat swallow, distinctly saw it rippling down her throat. She saw the little half smile that danced across her mouth for a few seconds. Kat had been speaking in her usual curt manner, even when saying that extraordinary thing, but now she changed. A little firmer, a little deeper, the way she had sounded once or twice back on the boat when one or the other of her crew had done something truly stupid.
"Would you mind repeating that please."
Kat's was not a voice to argue with. Annabelle said it again, but of course the second time was no longer a question. It was to order; hesitant and confused.
"I beg your pardon."
Kat's eyes closed, she gave one of those very quiet coughs that clear a tickly throat. They opened once more and fixed on Annabelle's.
"We need to make a list of all our resources; all the things we have between us that will enable me to cope with our situation and keep us both alive. Extraordinary times mean extraordinary needs and, for me, one of those needs is your cunt'"
She knew the word existed; she knew what it meant and that you never say it; she had never actually heard it used in conversation like that, in its proper sense. It was a vile thing to say to her. She put a protective hand between her legs.
"Oh for heaven's sake, girl, I didn't mean now. We've got work to do."
Kat got up and carried her washing back to the camp.
Annabelle found Kat squatting near the fire and calmly laying everything they owned out in neat rows. The knife was in its sheath, strapped to her right ankle. Annabelle stood awkwardly in the shadow of the trees, hands cupped nervously over the thing that Kat had shown such a casual interest in. Here she was, utterly alone and naked with the equally naked person who had just calmly mentioned that rape was on the menu for later; the person who was obviously not going to let their only weapon out of her own reach for a moment. This, surely, was the absolute low point; however many times she had told herself that this journey could get no worse, this must be it.
Kat went through what they had. The cans of corned beef had to go into the water to keep cool, otherwise they'd end up a slop of molten fat; she'd had that in her time and believe her it wasn't pleasurable. All the canned food was emergency rations, they would try every possible means of procuring fresh before they ate any more of it. Kat had both her shoes, they needed to make something to protect Annabelle's feet as a priority, lame and damaged would not help matters. Whenever either of them was out of sight of the camp, she would carry at least one of the flares. The remainder would go just there: easily to hand when needed but out of the sun.
Annabelle felt absurd standing at the edge of the clearing. What was the point in it? If Kat was determined to carry out those threats, was she really prepared to run off to the other end of the island? Of course not, what would happen would happen and in the meantime standing wasn't helping matters. Kat's hands pointed about them, from time to time she would sketch something in the sand to reinforce her words, and Annabelle couldn't follow it from over here. She went and sat beside Kat as she went on for hours, explaining exactly what they had between them and that none of it could be wasted if there was any other option.
What Kat had done at the stream was so tragically cruel, because in every other way her presence was the only thing that kept Annabelle from climbing that cliff again and throwing herself off. If only she hadn't said that vile and horrifying thing ...
But, of course, she had.
Kat had several boxes of matches – each and every head encased in a tiny blob of wax to keep it waterproof – and one pack of cigarettes wrapped in a sealed plastic bag inside another sealed plastic bag. She very carefully opened both bags and set them to one side for later use.
"You don't smoke at all?"
"Not really. Tried a couple when I was a girl, didn't like it much."
"These are precious; we have precisely twenty and in a few minutes we will have nineteen. You're welcome to share, if you ever want to; do not steal one behind my back ..."
"I wouldn't ever ..."
"Bel, you can't begin to imagine what you would or wouldn't ever do. No one can until the moment comes. If you ever steal my cigarettes, or my food, I will be sorely tempted to kill you."
Annabelle was not really horrified by the words. It was the tone that settled in her stomach, the simple straightforward fact that it was not a threat.
"I prefer Annabelle."
An uncomfortable tense silence descended as Kat took a few puffs on her cigarette and looked around them with her appraising gaze. She offered the cigarette to Annabelle, who took it and found the first drag not as unpleasant as she remembered. She still coughed a little, and handed it back.
"How old are you?"
"Really? You look so much younger. Listen to me, child, I've seen your wrists so I'm sure you must have had something go bad for you not so very long ago. I don't know what it is, that's none of my business ..."
And once more: how very strange, she could be so gentle when the mood was on her. A long pause as she watched the smoke curling up from her hand.
"... When I was about five years younger than you are now, I was in prison for seven months. I don't know what picture that's causing in your mind, but I promise you it wasn't anything like you can imagine. It wasn't a soft prison, Bel, a lot of us died there. I'm sorry I scared you earlier, I shouldn't have threatened like that. I have every intention of living through this thing too, I need to be able to relax sometimes so I can focus and concentrate on keeping us in one piece. I'm not talking about orgasm, Bel, I'm talking about release. There's things I will need to have in order to get by. Please don't make that ugly for us."