It was gone 10.00 when I woke again, this time feeling less like death warmed up. A lingering smell of poo told me I had slept through at least one cycle of the lavatory pump. The voices drifting up from below – keep calling it below, Lol, whatever the evidence says – sounded rather heated.
I squirmed out of the sleeping bag, went for a pee and contemplated the shower, but quickly filed that under ‘too hard’. I used a washcloth – somewhere between a flannel and a small towel in size – and the pouch of pre-soaped water to give myself a lick and a promise, then edged towards the hatchway. I fed myself through it, feet first like a wuss, and handed myself down to join the party.
We had agreed to store the food and food preparation gear in the lockers next to the door gap in the main cabin. The space above the door was free, and thus provided a cosy recess we had designated our galley. I was on the ladder, in the corresponding position on the opposite side of the cabin.
“Here he is!” said Meena with heart-warming enthusiasm. “How are you feeling Lol-ji?”
“Better than yesterday,” I replied, “but still fragile.”
“Come and get some breakfast,” said Beau.
“What have we got?” I asked as I handed myself round the cabin side.
With a rapid exchange of glances they said in unison, “Flavoured paste with added water.” This had clearly become the ship’s first catchphrase while I slept. It was a fine start. (Not quite fair, mind you, since some of our food pouches contained flavoured paste that required no added water.)
Kimi opened a locker and gestured. “We’ve opened the first bale. The choice is yours.” I riffled through the sachets and selected the blandest I could find: Energy Drink (Strawberry).
I took a gulp and examined the packaging carefully.
“What’s the problem?” asked Kimi.
“I just thought it might be there in the small print,” I replied.
“This is gonna be a joke!” said Beau. Thanks buddy!
“Tell us, Lol-ji,” said Meena.
“Something like ‘No strawberries were harmed in the making of this drink’,” I replied. They laughed gamely, but deadpan is a tough gig when there’s a Beau to piss on your chips.
“I think you are somewhat better,” said Kimi.
“I think I am. Does my face look as weird as everyone else’s?”
“Yes, and your hair also,” said Meena, “but maybe not so weird as mine.”
“Kimi,” I said, “I see the lockers are reconfigured for transit. You?” She nodded. “Thank you.” The doors had been reversed so that the various clips, rests and brackets were now ready for use and the labels describing the contents were visible. My understudy loadmaster had covered for me well.
“Oh, it was easy,” said Kimi. I had noticed before that graciously accepting compliments or thanks was beyond her performance envelope.
“I heard raised voices earlier,” I ventured as gently as I could.
“What can you tell me about it?” I prompted.
“I thought,” said Beau at last, “we should make a start on the social media work, on account of this is a peak interest moment. Kimi agreed.” So the dissenter had been Meena, my social media understudy.
I began to run through the number of ways whatever I said next could damage crew relations. I stopped when I was fast approaching ten.
“That was a kind thought,” I said. “I’ll make a start right now.”
I scanned their faces quickly. Yup, I think that had sort-of worked.
“I’m going to work out,” said Beau. Fair enough. We were each required to do two hours a day and my lie-in had squeezed the available time.
I drained the pouch and stuffed it in the rubbish chute.
I looked down – keep calling it down, Lol, whatever the evidence says – at what we soon came to call our workstations, the four lockers spaced evenly round the lower tier that had brackets for our laptops and tablets. On one, the brackets were empty.
“So that’s me, right?” I asked Kimi.
“Yes,” she said. “They all seemed equal so we thought you would not mind.” Fair enough.
“Any other inventory jobs to take care of before I start on this?”
“No, it’s all up to date,” she replied.
So I handed myself down and across, towards the vacant workstation, Meena drifting beside me like a dolphin effortlessly shadowing an inept oarsman.
“Mary was trying to get hold of you,” she said. “So I told her how you were. She asked you to get in touch when you were ready.”
“Do you want help with social media, or shall I leave you to it?”
“Let me see what we’re dealing with first.”
“OK. When you have some time I need to interview you. One of my research projects is SAS [space adaptation syndrome] and I want to learn your experience.”
I smiled at her. “I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to that!”
With a sympathetic smile she pushed off towards her workstation, her hair whiplashing as she went.
I fished my devices out of the locker and clipped them in. The silence, punctuated by Beau thumping away on the treadmill up on the berth deck, was again oppressive. I reached out my cans – we’d all been issued with quality noise-cancelling wireless headphones – and hunted down some energetic music on the tablet: Hot Club de Paris, that’ll do nicely.
When the laptop had booted I messaged Mary. She came back to me on video immediately with, “Hi, Lol, good to see you! How you feeling now?”
We had a relaxed conversation about not much, both of us getting used to the strange situation. The response delay was under a second, so we were able to talk fairly naturally. She told me I looked different, with my flyaway hair and weird face. I told her she looked exactly the same. Soon after that we ran out of small talk.