The Stars Are All the Same

The waiter took one look at the Countess of Wessex and turned tail.

Tonight, Wessex had tried to kiss two waiters, the cook she had brought over to compliment on his beef bourguignon, and the Duke of Halifax’s serving girl who had passed the Countess on her way to collect a salt shaker for His Grace and had been grabbed by the wrist and pulled onto the Countess’s lap. Wessex had just missed the girl’s lips but had managed to give her bottom a nip as the girl jumped up and huffed her way to the condiments table.

Jamal, the waiter, wanted nothing to do with it, and was now hiding in the kitchen with the dirty pots and pans. Fred, the escuelerie, was elbow deep in suds.

‘Wessex?’ Fred said.

Jamal hmm-ed.

‘That woman is on heat.’

Jamal agreed. Just because the Earl had snuffed it in the Darkening and they were all trapped on a bloody big ship in the middle of the Atlantic, didn’t mean that she could snog whoever she pleased. She had already slept with the charwoman, the clerk, Princess Asumbe, and just yesterday Jamal had seen the second mate exiting Wessex’s chambers, his compass swinging back and forth from his love-bitten neck. Wasn’t that enough? Jamal wished it was, perhaps then her eyes would not stray all down his chest and follow him like outstretched hands as he made his way between the tables.

‘Have you…,’ Jamal couldn’t finished. He didn’t want to know.

‘No chance,’ Fred said. ‘It’s you she’s after, and even if she weren’t I wouldn’t be caught dead twixt her knickers.’

Jamal hmm-ed again, relieved.

‘Heska and Teddy are out there,’ Fred said, jimmying a sponge into a tea-stained china cup. ‘Why don’t you go off to bed, get an early one. I’ll cover for you.’

Jamal rubbed at his eyes.

‘Okay.’

He thanked Fred by looking down at his shoes and nodding, smile only just there like the graze of fingertips on skin.

 

Out on the deck, the air was slippery with sea foam. Jamal took a moment to rest his arms on the railing and breath. The stars flickered. The moon sat high in the sky, its light trailing out across the sea like the long train of a wedding dress.

It had been almost a year since he had been dragged onto this ship, a year since the Darkening. Rich folks had decided on America, and rich folks needed people to serve them. Jamal had been a servant for Lord and Lady Malham at the time, but when the pair were denied entry on the boat for some scandal involving the son of an MP, the Duke of Buckinghamshire and his clerk had, after whispering amongst themselves and looking Jamal up and down, decided that Jamal would nevertheless be useful on the HMS Fortuna.

Jamal looked across the sea and imagined that he could see England. Loosening his bow-tie, he sighed and left the deck for the stairs. There was nobody there to look back at him anyway, hadn’t been before the Darkening and certainly wasn’t now.

 

The servants quarters were loud. Off-duty waiters were in the hall playing poker and his dorm-mate was sacked out on his bed with a nicked bottle of whisky attached to his mouth.

Glug glug glug.

His eyes slipped to Jamal as Jamal entered and kicked off his shoes.

‘Want some,’ he asked, though he did not sound like he meant it. Jamal sank down onto his bed and started on his waistcoat buttons. He hated his stupid clothes, his stupid bow-tie and slacks and shiny, shiny, SHINY shoes.

Harry, for Harry was his dorm-mate, shrugged and carried on glugging.

‘Hey Jamal,’ Vickers yelled from the hall. ‘Got a tenner on you? I’m on a roll here, mate.’

Jamal fished around in his trouser pocket, marched over to the door, and dropped the ten quid note into Vickers’s lap.

‘Cheers, J,’ came the toothy-grinned reply.

Jamal did not like being called that. He was not a letter.

‘Hey where’s Freddy,’ said Harry.

‘Keep your yap shut Hazza, gotta concentrate,’ Vickers shouted and then whispered under his breath ‘On a roll, on a roll.’

‘He’s still on shift,’ answered Jamal.

‘No,’ Harry said. ‘His shift ended two hours ago. Chiya should’u come up to take over.’

‘Well he didn’t,’ Jamal said, though now that he thought about it, he was sure he saw Chiya coming through the kitchen door around nine.

‘Fred sent him away,’ came a voice that probably belonged to Max who was taking all of Vickers’s money.

Ooooooh,’ said Harry.

Yeeeeeah,’ said Max.

‘Man alive,’ Vickers said.

‘What?’ said Jamal and was met with a chorus of giggling. He gave up and started getting his kit off for bed.

‘Oh save that for Freddo won’t you,’ laughed Harry, covering his eyes with his hands. Thoroughly confused, Jamal got into bed and threw his shirt over his eyes, blocking out the lights.

 

Some dark hours later he was woken by a soft tapping on the door. He itched his nose and hoped the sound would go away, but it persisted.

Fuck you, dumb noise. He just wanted to sleep. Pushing against the mattress, he got up out of bed and shuffled over to the door. He opened it, and though his heart turned to stone and dropped through his stomach, he wasn’t surprised.

The Countess of Wessex was on the other side in her silk nighty and stiletto slippers.

‘Hello, sailor,’ she purred.

‘Your…,’ he forgot how to address a Countess. ‘Madam Wessex, you should go back upstairs.’

‘But I’m lonely,’ she pouted. ‘And it’s cold up there. Won’t you keep me company?’

Jamal blinked.

‘I’ll escort you back,’ he tried again.

‘Oh alright,’ she smiled. Jamal closed the door on her and turned in the dark to search for his shirt and trousers. After pulling on his shoes, he opened the door once again and stepped forwards, but Wessex did not step back. Their chests pressed against each other and Wessex gasped.

‘Oh my,’ she breathed. Jamal stepped back.

‘You first,’ he said, and pointed down the corridor. When they reached the staircase, Wessex extended her arm and, instead of taking the bannister, took Jamal’s hand.

Just then, he heard a gasp coming from behind, though it was more akin to the sound of somebody dropping a stack of plates across a tiled floor. At least, that’s what it felt like when Jamal turned round and saw Fred standing at the bottom of the stairs.

‘But,’ Fred said.

‘Well hello there,’ said Wessex.

Fred looked at her, frowned, then looked at Jamal.

‘Okay,’ he said faintly, and walked off down the corridor.

‘Wa-,’ Jamal began, then stopped. Wessex’s hand was on his behind. He sighed. ‘Come on,’ he said.

 

The door to Wessex’s rooms swung open and Jamal’s jaw would have dropped had his mind not been on other things. The reception room alone was double the size of Jamal’s dorm. Two forest green armchairs sat on a fluffy cream rug and were separated by a coffee table piled high with books and stacks of ink-scrawled paper. Next to the flowing beige curtains was a piano with a stool in front strewn with sheet music, and there was a mirror on the wall above a marble mantlepiece that seemed to be encrusted with real diamonds. It was like peeking into one of the rooms in the Malham estate, not a room on a ship, not like the salty dorm room he shared. He could barely feel the ship moving against the waves.

A hand tugged him forwards by the waistband of his trousers. He batted the hand away.

‘Stop now,’ he said.

‘Oh darling come on now.’

He turned to the door.

‘Goodnight,’ he said. Garbage loser, he thought. He had been dragged onto this ship but he would not be dragged into this room.

His shoes were silent until he reached the servants quarters and were clattering against stone rather than carpet. The door he was looking for was at the end of the corridor and when he reached it, the knocking sent off a chorus of whinging.

‘What you want,’ said a sleepy, squinty-eyed mophead by the name of Lou.

‘Can I speak to Fred.’

Lou looked back over his shoulder.

’S’not ‘ere.’

Jamal frowned.

’S’that it?’

‘Where is he?’ said Jamal

Lou scrubbed a hand over the side of his cheek.

‘Ugh…I dunnooo.’ He sounded like he was ready to cry.

‘Alright, go back to sleep,’ said Jamal and went off down the corridor, back the way he had come.

When he reached the deck, a chill rushed down the collar of his shirt and hid in his shoes. Fred was down the far end, leaning over the railing, the moon bouncing off of his pale arms.

‘I was just,’ Jamal called out, then stopped. He did a quick walk till he reached Fred’s side and then finished on a rushed breath. ‘I was just helping her get to her rooms.’

‘I know,’ Fred said, not looking away from the stormy waters.

‘No, I mean she came to my dorm but I marched her straight back to her rooms. Nothing happened.’

Fred was silent. He seemed to be looking at nothing.

‘Oh,’ he said finally.

Jamal rested a hand against the railing, feeling unbalanced.

‘Yeah,’ he said.

‘Well that’s….,’ Fred trailed off.

Jamal risked a glance, waited for Fred to meet it. Fred’s eyes were very blue, blue like the sky above Malham Cove. Jamal smiled. Fred smiled back, a small laugh escaping his lips. The same stars that shone above England shone above them now through a gossamer veil of sea-drenched clouds. Jamal moved his hand so that it pressed against Fred’s and they breathed, calm as the ship drifting through the water, onwards in search of fortune and a new home.

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Nanci Gilliver