Sugar was freckling in the sun. Even after two weeks at sea, she still didn’t resemble her bronzed shipmates. They were uniformly tanned, drawn taut, bleached, waxed, capped, and shellacked. Their bodies made unnatural angles as their linen shirts and dresses billowed in the breeze. Sugar wore the requisite oversized sunglasses of their class. With her name, she could be one of them. Cricket, Tinsley, Muffy, Sugar. It was either a socialite’s name or a stripper’s. You just had to take the context clues. She had never been able to live up to one or down to the other until recently.
But, there she stood on the lido deck of the Silver Slipper, pale and spangled in a confection of a dress. It was lovely, really: one-shoulder, bias-cut silk chiffon in layers of creamy jade and celadon. It was one of 23 she’d bought especially for the voyage. She knew quality; she read her magazines. And though she wasn’t afflicted with that match-matchy taste of a poor girl going to prom, she hadn’t mastered casual wear. That is, she hadn’t yet perfected the art of looking casual in terribly expensive clothes. There was sort of a carelessness in the way the others dressed, as if a cruise was an everyday affair.
She leaned on the railing, drink in hand, eavesdropping. The passengers talked about other drinks, other cruises, other ports. They told the same stories over and again, sometimes to the same people, about mildly mortifying incidents that always turned out all right in the end. From Deck 10, she could see for miles. The skies were clear, the sea was calm, and the warm weather rivaled that of the Caribbean. There was little to look at except a few seabirds. Every now and again, the small boats of day fisherman from Oman and Yemen came into view.
Two white skiffs appeared. The fishermen waved their arms with such fortitude that Sugar almost put decorum aside to wave back. One of the men lifted something much larger than a net handle or pole up to his shoulder and aimed. The warhead careened towards the Silver Slipper and exploded in the observation lounge. White phosphorus smoke streamed from the bridge. The man raised the grenade launcher again, and Sugar flattened herself against the deck. She could see the propulsive trail and hear the second shot punching through layers of metal.
The Slipper zigzagged sharply to escape the attack. It had been travelling fast, traversing the Gulf at nearly 20 knots. The evasive maneuvers sent the pool water crashing over the deck. Before the passengers could fathom their wetness, they heard the terrible symphony of bottles and stemware falling from the open shelves in the bar. Surviving liqueurs rolled through the debris and collected under the very wet and entangled lounge chairs on Deck 10.
The drenched passengers, Sugar included, made their way to the inner compartments. When asked about the risk of piracy at the start of their two-day, 491-mile passage through the Gulf of Aden, the captain had said there was no need for an abundance of caution. The ship is fast, the decks are high, there are so many people on board… it’s not an attractive target, he’d assured.
And, here they were, somewhere between Safaga and Oman. The pirates had somehow scaled the four stories up to the promenade. They were darker than the passengers—the color and shine of cherry cola. And, they were armed with automatic weapons. Shouting and gesturing, they corralled passengers into the ballroom. The crew was forced to abandon their stations and join the rest. The group was unusually quiet, observing the pirates as if attending a play or musical revue. They rustled a bit, though, in the discomfort of minor scrapes and wet clothing that was becoming cold.
Sugar arranged the damp layers of fabric under her bottom. The rustle of silk chiffon caught the notice of one of the patrolling pirates. He gave Sugar the once-over, then took her hand with an eye to her ring. She drew back out of reflex. And he, out of pirate reflex, slammed the butt of his gun into her nose. Blood spattered across the chiffon. The dress resembled nothing more than a puddle of melted mint chip ice cream. Sugar tore a strip of fabric from the hem and used it to staunch the bleeding. She knew how to take a punch.
The assaulter argued in Somali, or perhaps Arabic, with a fellow pirate. From what Sugar could determine, they weren’t aboard for jewelry or 22 clean, candy-colored dresses. There was much more reward in ransom, given the number of passengers and their collective offshore wealth. If you damage the product too much, you don't get any money.
She had only wanted a little adventure.
When Peter died, there was a bit of insurance money. While she would never have wished for the accident, there was a certain relief in the absence of her husband. It had been a horrible marriage. And, before and instead of dealing with his debts, Sugar simply booked passage on the Silver Slipper. They had no children and no pets. They had no savings. She gave notice on their rented flat in Effingham and donated the furniture and such to the children’s receiving home. She had bought steamer trunks and a new wardrobe, boarded the train in Surrey, and didn’t look back.
From the port in Southampton, she’d sailed through the Atlantic, the Strait of Gibraltar, the Mediterranean, the Suez Canal, and the Red Sea. It had, up to the Somali pirates, been a pleasant, peaceful, and delicious journey. There had been ports of call of indescribable color and beauty in Lisbon, Civitavecchia, and Luxor. On land and sea, there had been the most fabulous food. In fact, between their dramas, the pirates were enjoying slices of foie gras terrine with port wine jelly and white truffle oil on toasted brioche from the buffet.
There was a sound like the wick-wick-wick of eggbeaters. A pirate rushed into the ballroom, sweating, and the sound became louder, a sort of steady chopping. They conferred passionately amongst themselves, alternately pointing to the captain and pointing up. Then, they left as quickly as they’d come. They took some profiteroles and a jar of sturgeon roe. Otherwise, they commandeered neither hostages nor treasure.
Apparently, in such situations, a navy-scrambled helicopter can be overhead in as few as 15 minutes.
Within a few days, things were back in their proper places. The ship’s doctor taped Sugar’s nose. Both her eyes were black, but the bridge of her nose was still too tender to the touch to support sunglasses. She rested on a newly-clean deck chair, eyes closed, listening to the cocktail banter. They talked about how the broken glass and pool water had damaged their leather-soled shoes. How dirty the pirates’ fingernails were, how tacky it was for them to have taken the jar of Sevruga caviar. The inconvenience of having the observation area closed for repairs. They talked about other cocktail parties to come, long after they’d disembarked, at which they could tell their friends they’d encountered real pirates in the Gulf of Aden. And, as one noted between sips, how unfortunate it was that he wasn’t roughed up like the woman in green, because the retelling would be so much more interesting.
The cruise line, it seems, was offering restitution for the inconvenience of the piracy by way of additional complimentary days of travel. The passengers discussed whether that was tacky, too. For her part, Sugar would stay aboard the Slipper for another 81 days until it returned to Southampton. Or not. By the time they’d approached Dubai, she only had £81 and a handful of foreign coins left. It would be a relief when the money was gone.