From Holly wood Round-up: "Jack Philbin, an admirer of
Edmond Lowe, had never met Lowe but kept staring at him
in a restaurant until Lowe nodded and said, ĎHello.í
ĎWhat do you think of that?í asked Philbin. ĎIíve gone to
so many of his movies, he thinks he knows me!í"
We were sailing on the Cunard Line ship, QE-2. It was still new, bright, shiny, smelling of wax and polish. Our suite was the second largest one possible to book with two bedrooms, a sitting room with a grand piano, two terraces - one forward and one on the starboard side, a dining room, two bathrooms and a powder room. We had our own, well-stocked bar as well. Meals were available to us night and day, prepared and served by our own steward. Our suite could accommodate thirty-five people for a party, we had discovered earlier that afternoon, as old friends and my family swarmed in and out wishing a bon voyage, a swell trip, all of that stuff. It was great fun until someone burst into song. Naturally she sang ĎBye, Bye, Babyí from "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,í now the inevitable ineffable sailing-off-on-a-ship song. The womanís voice was almost on pitch and I knew how that would irritate Paul. If thereís one thing about him that never fails him itís that sense of pitch.
I looked around to see how had started this foolishness and discovered, to my shame, that is was my mother. I hurried over to her, just as she reached the penultimate line: ""Although I know that you care..." I grabbed her on cue and gave her big kiss on the mouth, the only way to halt her in those odd vocal moments of hers. She looked startled, as though she hadnít recognized the man in whose arms she found herself. When I pulled back and looked into her eyes, she giggled, then broke in hearty laughter. That was better than her singing.
"Oh, baby, Iím going to miss you," she said to me.
"I know. Iíll miss you too." I didnít plan to miss her, but it was a nice thing to say.
"Happy Birthday, honey!" She kissed me this time.
"All ashore thatís going ashore!" came the British-accented cry from the companionway.
"Thatís you dear," I said to my mother.
"Must I?" I nodded assent. "Must I really?"
"Yes," I said.
"But I donít take up much room. You could keep me in the closet."
We both giggled at that and I had to slap my own hand across my own mouth to contain it. When I was sober again, a moment later, I put my arm around her and turned her around in the direction of the cabinís door.
"Now scoot, Lana. Iíll write to you. I promise."
"And bring home a nice present or two, too," she said looking over her shoulder at me.
"I will. I promise."
"Something silky," she added. "Or sparkly. I donít care which."
"Okay. Iíll find something appropriate."
"No! Nothing appropriate. Something special!"
"Okay. Iíve got it." I gently nudged her forward. She took the hint and grabbed for my father who was leaning against the wall.
"Help me home, Rob," she said to him.
"Help you? I can barely stand up on this bucket. I think Iím seasick."
"Seasick?" I said breezily. "Weíve been tied up at the Cunard pier all afternoon, Dad."
"I know, and Iím sick of it," he said, slapping his hand against his hip. He leaned over in my direction and gave me a short busky kiss on the lips. "You have a good time son. Remember that. This trip isnít just for work, Max. Have fun."
"I will. I will."
They were heading out the door, the last of our departure party guests to leave. I turned back to look at Paul lingering near the piano.
"Do you want to be up on deck for our departure?" I called out to him.
"You go on, dear boy. Iíll join you in a few."
He was nodding to me, encouraging me to leave the stateroom. I wasnít sure I should, but as this was my first time on a liner I thought it only right to see and experience everything. I nodded in return, turned away and shut the cabin door behind me.
I could still see my parents backs ahead of me in the corridor. I rushed to catch up to them and just as they found the stairwell to take them back to the gangway, I stopped them.
"Iím going up to the Promenade deck, my dears," I said to them. "You find a place on the dock to watch and Iíll find you and wave."
"And donít forget those yellow and pink streamers I brought you," Lana said.
"No, I wonít. Theyíre in my pocket. When the whistle blows the third time and weíre free, Iíll unleash them. Youíll see them, all at once, and know where I am if you havenít already spotted me."
"Weíll find you," she said. Then she said it again. I hugged them and headed up the stairs to my right as they joined the throngs heading down two decks to the visitorís gangway. As I turned the landing and headed up the next flight of steps I saw my motherís hat disappearing below me. I didnít know how poignant a moment that could be until that very moment. Suddenly I was very much alone in a strange place, an alien atmosphere and I wasnít prepared for it. I felt tears welling up in my eyes and, inadvertently, I missed the next step and staggered, catching myself at the handrail.
Another hand grabbed me from behind and helped to steady me.
"Are you all right?" asked an unfamiliar voice.
"Oh. Yes. Thanks. I just missed the step," I said.
"And weíre not even shoving off yet." His voice was charming and slightly accented. I turned to see who this man might be and was confronted by a face like none other Iíd seen in my life.
His face was wider than it was long, very pale and smattered with freckles. His eyes were hazel, almost amber actually, and they were quite far apart, highlighted by long blond lashes and arched brows that seemed almost unreal. He had a very straight, very long nose, more than an inch and a half at the tip from his face itself. His nostrils flared up and the mouth below that nose was wide, thin-lipped and seemingly perpetually dour, its corners turned downward. His chin disappeared into his neck and his neck was long, slender and revealed an enormous adamís-apple. His hair was a sandy blonde color, very straight and cut badly, the tresses falling haphazardly over one another and over his high brow. I realized that I was staring at this face when the mouthís corners turned up to smile, revealing beautiful teeth, but even in a smile his mouth retained that odd, downward-turned aspect.
I turned away, not wanting him to think I was staring.
"My name is Drew Hatton," he said.
"Hello, Iím Max," I answered him.
"Well, no," I blushed, "the Incomparable Max, actually."
I turned away and continued up the stairs, knowing he was directly behind me.
When I reached the Promenade Deck I moved out onto the long stretch of newly waxed wooden flooring and looked in both directions for a place at the railing that wasnít already crowded with other folks. There was only one spot and it was all the way forward. I hurried to it, not knowing if Drew Hatton would follow me, or if he was meeting his own friends, family or companion. As I squeezed into the railingís tiny open space, between a man who might have been a New Jersey butcher and an elderly woman who was clearly a British Dame of some sort, I heard Drewís voice again.
"Ah, churl," he said, "took all and left not a drop for me." When I turned to look at him he had the potty face again.
"Juliet, isnít it?" I asked him.
"The line, fool," I said, knowing I was now in flirtation mode.
"Ah, yes, the Shakespeare. Rather like Juliet, I imagine."
"I would move over and offer you half of what I have here," I said, "but Iím rather hemmed in, as you can see."
"No matter," he replied. "Iím taller than you and can see quite well if I squeeze up against you, like this..." and he moved in very close indeed, "Then if I put my arm about your shoulder, like so, and lean across your other shoulder, just so, I am almost where you are and still have a perfect view."
"Yes, you do," I said.
"Oh. Am I being too forward on such short acquaintance?"
"Well, this is a bit intimate and awkward," I said.
"How true. How delightful."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Delightful of you, that is, to be so frank about this awkward situation."
"Why delightful?" I was curious now.
"Well, some other person might see this as an advantage, but you obviously donít. Thatís refreshing."
"Oh, so you donít actually know who I am, then." He sounded a bit disappointed.
"Well, I shanít tell you. I mean why spoil such a perfect moment."
"Okay." I turned away to look at the dock and see where we might be on the way to departure. Three of the five heavy ropes were gone and the gangway was being pulled away from the ship. A moment later I heard, from below us, the clang of the heavy metal gangway door being shut into place. I turned back to Drew.
"Weíre almost off," I said barely able to contain my excitement.
"You sound thrilled," he said. "Donít tell me this is the first time for you."
"It is, though."
"My God, a virgin."
I was about to dispute that, but let it rest.
"Well, we need champagne, Max. Itís imperative, you know. A Cunard tradition." He shouted for a waiter and one appeared instantly. He ordered two champagne cocktails and turned back to lean on me again and to peer over my shoulder.
The fourth rope was being wound up on the lower dock area and the ship gave the first big blast of its horn. It was deafening. I put my hands up to my ears, to block the sound of it, but Drew gently put his hands around my wrists and lowered my arms.
"You mustnít," he said. "Itís bad luck."
"It is. The ship will give three blasts and on this final one the tugs will begin to move us out into the river. The tradition is that the first blast notifies the Gods above that weíre praying for good weather and an easy voyage. No one can shut that prayer out."
"Whatís the second one signify?"
"That is to remind those on shore that we are not merely leaving their sight, but we are asking them to pray for safe harbor and safe return."
"Nice. And the third one?"
"Well, the third one, Max, thatís the most important call of all...." Our champagne arrived and he took both glasses, handing me one and keeping the other. "What should we toast to? A happy voyage?"
"Sure," I said.
"And how about to you, Max?"
"Me? No, I donít think so."
"But itís your first trip. It must be to you."
"Well, itís also my birthday, so okay, why not?"
"So that would make this your 'maidenhead' voyage." He raised his glass and started to say something, but the second blast of the shipís horn drowned him out.
"Whatís the third horn for?" I asked ignoring the missed toast.
"Well, Max, thatís the most important one, as I said. It reminds us that lifeboat drill is only twenty minutes on."
"Lifeboat drill?" I asked him. He filled me on the procedure, the need to return to the cabin, read our instructions, find the life-jackets, put them on and reconvene on deck under our assigned lifeboats. "Sounds silly," I said.
"Itís not. Itís imperative. And if you miss it, and they do take attendance, then you pay the penalty."
"Whatís the penalty."
"The brig, my dear. The brig." There was a silence and then he burst into laughter.
I could feel the ship floating free now and I wanted to see if I could find my parents on the upper deck of the pier.
"Excuse me, Drew, but I have to look for someone." I turned back to look at the land we were about to leave. I reached into my jacket pocket for the streamers my mother had given me. I held them, now, in readiness for the right moment, the third blast of the horn. The tugs were in place and starting to guide us into the channel. I couldnít see my father anywhere but I thought I recognized Lanaís hat again. I raised my hand to wave goodbye and then the final blast from the shipís horn occurred.
It was long and loud and didnít disturb me a bit this time. I had become accustomed to its tone and volume. I tossed my hand forward and then jerked it back suddenly, allowing the streamers to unleash and float on the light breeze. Their combined pink and yellow colors seems quite distinct to me as I watched others down the line doing the same thing. The woman in the hat was waving her hand and I felt certain it must be Lana. I waved hard and the streamers danced on the light wind. Then I let go of them and watched them float slowly backward and downward until I couldnít find them any longer.
The ship was turning now in the channel and starting to move down river. I realized I was now staring at New Jersey and I turned back to face Drew. But he was gone. I was alone.
I suddenly thought about Paul, alone in the suite. I wondered if I should head back there and check on him. I finished my champagne cocktail and was heading down the outside staircase to the deck below when the announcement about the lifeboat drill began to come over the loudspeaker system. Drew had been correct. I moved on to find Paul and find my life jacket.
I entered the suite through the salon door, one of three to the suite, expecting to find him there, on the sofa or out on the terrace watching the processing shoreline. He wasnít in either location, so I went to his bedroom door and knocked gently. There was no response.
I had noticed, during the bon voyage party, that he had remained a bit aloof and distant from the crowd of friends, relatives and well-wishers. I had thought it odd. It wasnít his style to avoid the middle of a room, to limit the attention paid to him. I had spoken to him about it, briefly, while a friend of his, Mitzi Kronos - born Martha Maloney - was singing a medley of hits from her Broadway years but he had dismissed my concern with a simple gesture. Even Rob, my Dad, had noticed his peculiar behavior and commented on it to me. Now there was this new wrinkle. No sign of the man in our rooms.
I went to the closet in the front hall and opened it, hoping to find only one life jacket there, indicating that he had taken his and gone above to our assigned boat station, but there were two life jackets in the cupboard. That concept wouldnít hold water. I began to worry.
I went back to his bedroom door and knocked louder, calling out his name, hoping to hear his voice. There was no response. I was going to try again, but instead I just gripped the doorknob and gave it a turn. The door opened easily and I stepped inside Paulís room. His trunks stood open, but unpacked on one side of his bed. A closet door was open and there were a few things there, mostly the coat he had worn to board the ship and three hats, his suit jacket and his shoes, the ones heíd been wearing at the party. I knew these oxfords well, having helped him off with them many times. Now I was really starting to worry.
I checked his bathroom, but it was empty. The bed, still perfectly made up was not where Paul was to be found. His room, in fact, was devoid its occupant.
I exited and crossed the salon to my stateroom hoping that he had gone there and was lying on my bed asleep. That would have been wonderful, but it turned out to not be the case either. My room was just as empty as his had been. I decided that he must have come up onto the Promenade deck during our shoving off to find me and might still be up there looking for me. That was the simplest explanation. He was on deck. When he didnít find me and realized that lifeboat drill was on, he would return to the cabin for his jacket and Iíd be waiting.
I waited for ten minutes and he never came. Two more messages were broadcast over the loudspeakers about the drill and then, after a lull, there sirens commenced, summoning people to places. I hesitated. I didnít know what to do. Finally, as the final call was given, I dragged myself in the modified Mae West vest and hurried back out and up to my place. Perhaps he would be there, I thought. Iíd see him there in line, sans vest, but there.
The deck was crowded and I pushed past several groups of people to get to my assigned place on deck. Once there, in my proper group, I searched the three-deep cluster of people for Paul. I couldnít see him.
A junior officer of some sort began to call the roll, by cabin number. When he got to ours I answered to my name, but Paul made no reply. They called his name four times and I finally spoke up.
"He seems to be missing," I said. "I tried to find him in our suite, and I waited for him, but he never showed up."
"Where is he, then?" the officer asked. I shrugged and looked as uninformed as I could. Iím sure it wasnít a stretch. I really had no idea.
"Please wait here when weíre done," the officer said.
Fifteen minutes later the hordes were officially dismissed. People filed past me, looking sympathetic or annoyed, depending on whether they were female or male. Finally the officer approached me.
"Iíve radioed the Purser and the Captain. They would like to see you."
"Me? What have I done?"
"We donít know, of course. Thatís why they want to see you."
I shrugged, asked where, was told where to go, and I went there.
Neither the Captain nor the Purser had any knowledge about Paul Donnerís whereabouts. I was instructed to contact both of them as soon as he showed his face. I promised to do that and returned to the suite.
There was no sign of Paul. A thought hit me, and I telephoned the purserís office and asked for the man. In an instant he was on the line
"By any chance is there a Helga Meerstadt on board?" I asked him.
"Well, she and Mr. Donner are great friends and former lovers. If he found her on board he might be with her. That would explain a lot," I said.
"Give me a moment." I listened to the awkward silence as he thumbed through his registers. Then he was back on the line. "No, Iím sorry. She is not with us on this trip."
"Well, then, Iím stumped," I said.
"Please keep us informed, Sir, of any changes."
"I will," I said. I hung up the phone and sat down on the sofa. I was at a total loss about Paul and what had happened to him. I decided to wait for him, right there. I wouldnít change or dine or anything until I knew where he was, what had happened to him. I waited a long while.
In fact, I waited until midnight without any word of him. I fell asleep on the couch on my first night on a ship, still dressed in the clothing Iíd worn all day. When I woke it was dawn, we were at sea and I was losing hope, all hope, of finding my lost friend.
Paul Donner was missing.
The phone rang. I grabbed it, hoping for good news.
"Good morning," said a familiar voice.
"Hello," I replied, a bit diffident I realized, but I was exhausted.
"Care for a spot of breakfast?"
"Look, Drew, this isnít the best time...."
"Itís the only time for breakfast, dear," he said.
"Well, not today, thank you." I knew I sounded curt and dismissive, but I couldnít help it. He noted the tone and changed his into something softer, sweeter, more solicitous.
"Can I help you with something, dear? You sound so defeated."
I explained about Paul and his current status of "missing." Drew was sweetly conciliatory. He offered to do some searching for me in the public rooms, the bars, the tiny secret spaces where people went to play games, or cards, or simply be alone. Grateful for his help, I thanked him and hung up the phone.
He called back a half hour later to say that he had found sign of Paul, but by that time it didnít matter. I knew the answer already.