Chapter 3: The Glacier
Seagulls soared overhead in undulating patterns. They would form perfect concentric circles, their outstretched wings frozen in the air, before darting across the sky in every direction. Of all the new things he had seen since leaving Petit Géant two months ago, these birds brought him the most joy.
The sun beat down on Civitavecchia, the clay-coloured port town outside Rome. Heavy beads of sweat made the journey from Sebastien’s forehead to the base of his neck.
The dock was alive with the sights and sounds of the sea. Everyone moved with purpose. Sailors stamped out cigarettes and hurried across the concrete. Merchants sold balls of deepfried dough to hungry travellers armed with suitcases with indestructible shells. Smoke and salt were infused in the air, but he liked the scent.
The hiking backpack he sat on was stuffed with almost everything he owned. An elegant woman in sunglasses dropped a handful of coins in the cap on the ground in front of him. He realized he looked like a beggar. “Signora!” he called out, wanting to return her money. She quickened her pace. He pocketed the change.
Fuelled by rage and a desperation to flee everything he knew, Sebastien had spent the last two months fixated on a plan. He had a purpose now. It brought him to Civitavecchia and, more specifically, to the Glacier.
It wasn’t a real glacier, of course. It was a ship. Towering above him like a steel behemoth, its hull was white like snow. A thousand eyes stared down at him — panels of blue-tinted glass held in place by silver bolts. The ship exhaled a thin plume of smoke from the pyramid-shaped funnel at its summit several decks above him.
“Sebastien?” A woman in a turquoise pantsuit stepped off the gangplank that led to the ship’s crew entrance. A silk scarf decorated with golden anchors was tied around her neck. It was his first time hearing a South African accent. “Sebastien Goo?”
He stood up and waved before slinging the heavy backpack over his shoulder. She smiled brightly as she approached, her heels unsteady on the concrete dock.
“It’s Goh,” he corrected her with a smile. “Like ‘Go home. ’ Not Goo. ”
She held her palms to her chest with her mouth open, embarrassed. “I’m so sorry!”
Sebastien laughed. “It’s fine. It happens all the time,” he lied.
The woman introduced herself as Claudette, manager of the photography department. She led him up the gangplank into the belly of the ship. Two uniformed men in blue shirts and dark pants stood guard. One of them made small talk with Claudette while the other checked Sebastien’s passport and employment papers. The guard handed back the documents and gave him a decisive nod.
“Thank you, sir,” Sebastien said with an overly enthusiastic smile. The guard jerked his head in the direction of the metal detector beside him. An X-ray machine devoured the backpack before spitting it out on its conveyor-belt tongue.
“Why is this ship called the Glacier?” Sebastien asked, as he followed Claudette through a maze of steel corridors. “Seems like a strange name for a Greek ship sailing the Mediterranean. ”
“It used to do the Baltic route. I guess they didn’t bother to rename it. ”
She stopped abruptly at a door painted the same ivory colour as the walls. “This is your cabin,” she said as she knocked.
The door opened seconds later to reveal a man in his early thirties, wearing nothing but a pair of orange soccer shorts. A fresh layer of sweat coated the well-defined lines of his torso. His close-cropped hair was the colour of sand.
“And this,” Claudette said, her cheeks blushing, “is your cabinmate. ”
“Welcome aboard!” The man took Sebastien’s hand in a crushing grip. “I’m Ilya. Sorry for looking like such a beast. I was just doing a quick workout. ” He pivoted to grab a towel, revealing constellations of little round scars across the otherwise smooth skin of his back.
“I’ll let you boys get acquainted,” Claudette said. “Ilya, be a doll and give Sebastien a tour of the ship. Sebastien, I’ll come by in three hours to brief you on your first assignment. ”
“My first assignment?”
“The captain’s cocktail party. You’ll be taking photos. ”
“Cocktail party?” Sebastien hadn’t known what to expect on joining the staff of a ship, but he didn’t imagine sipping a negroni with the captain.
Claudette let out a pretty laugh and looked at him as if he were a puppy learning to swim for the first time. “This is no oil tanker. This is the Glacier. ”
* * *
The Glacier was a 90,000-ton floating hotel that offered guests the same grandeur they’d expect to find in any European capital. “It’s a luxury liner, not a cruise ship,” Ilya explained an hour later as they marched through the winding passageways of the staff quarters. “At least that’s what they want us to call it. Cruise ship is a dirty word here. It’s more or less a cruise ship, though, but with a superiority complex. ”
The two men were dressed in identical uniforms the staff members wore while visiting the upper decks of the guest quarters. The gold buttons on the turquoise blazers were embellished with anchors. Their white pants had perfect creases ironed down the fronts. Sebastien tugged at the collar of his shirt. He wasn’t used to being strangled by a necktie.
A gold badge was pinned to the lapel of each jacket. His cabinmate’s badge said:
He glanced down at his own badge.
Ilya strolled through the corridors like he owned the ship, explaining every stop along the tour with the flair of a maestro. He seemed to know everyone they passed, swapping smiles and air kisses.
“We call this Styx,” Ilya explained, sweeping his arms outward as though revealing the grand prize of a game show. The wide passageway was the main artery in the lower decks of the staff quarters, stretching from one end of the ship to the other. “There are seventeen decks on the Glacier. The top fourteen are where paying guests wine, dine, and sun themselves into a stupor. The bottom three are where staff and crew live. These lower decks we call Hades — the underworld. Styx is the river that runs through it. In Greek mythology, the newly dead are ferried down the River Styx but only if you’ve paid the toll. ”
The Glacier’s version of the River Styx was a social hub for the ship’s staff and crew. There was the cafeteria (“The food isn’t too bad, if you’re a zoo animal”), the staff bar (“The crew bar on C Deck usually gets wilder”), the staff purser’s office (“Uma will be your favourite person. She’s the one who pays us in cold, hard cash”), the computer lounge (“Since they installed Wi-Fi everywhere, nobody goes here except for the Filipino Mafia”), and the medical clinic (“As many free condoms as you need!”).
Over a thousand people worked aboard the Glacier. They lived on the three lower decks of Hades, ordered by the ship’s strict social hierarchy.
Located just below guest quarters was A Deck, where the ship’s white-suited officers lived. An exclusive wing near the stern was home to the captain and his commanders. If the officers were the upper crust of Glacier society, the commanders would be the aristocracy. “You need a special key card to enter, unless you make friends with one of them,” Ilya said with a mischievous twinkle in his eyes. “Their cabins are much nicer than ours. They don’t have to share with a mate. They have portholes so they can look outside and not feel like they’re rotting inside a coffin. There’s even carpet!”
Directly below the officers was B Deck, home of Styx and all members of staff, including Ilya and Sebastien. This was the realm of the turquoise-suited middle class comprised of people holding titles deemed respectable, such as massage therapist and art auctioneer. They generally came from wealthier countries. “As staff, we get more privileges than crew. We can hang out in the guest areas when we’re off duty as long as we’re dressed appropriately and wearing our name badges. Crew aren’t allowed to do that. We can go to the crew bar, but crew can’t enter the staff bar. Class division is a cruel reality here, I’m afraid. It’s sickening, but I guess we’re the lucky ones. ”
Near the bottom of the ship were the crew quarters of C Deck. This was for the lower class of servers, cooks, bartenders, housekeepers, and deck cleaners. Most of them came from countries in Asia and Eastern Europe. “They work longer hours and get paid worse than staff. Plus, guests and officers treat them like servants. ” Ilya shook his head in disgust. “Most have families back home. The money here is better than it is there. They deserve more respect. ”
“It sounds a lot like the real world,” Sebastien said with a shrug.
“You’re wrong, my friend. ” A devilish smile returned to Ilya’s lips. “This is as far from the real world as you can get. ”