Captain Martin Crieff isn’t sure how he ended up sharing a room with Arthur on New Year’s Eve in Reykjavik. Usually, Carolyn insisted on keeping her son close from the very wise urge to keep a sharp eye on him at all times. But the dinner they’d all shared together had left her woozy and she obviously needed a break from Arthur’s constant questions, so they’d swapped usual protocol and here they were – the captain and the steward, trapped in a cheap hotel room, snowed in on the last night of December.
Martin really didn’t like it. It wasn’t that he didn’t like Arthur – the boy was decent enough, annoying but too genuine to be truly despised – but he was used to sharing with Douglas who, honestly, didn’t give a rat’s ass what he spent his time doing. Arthur, on the other hand, seemed to want to stay glued to Martin’s hip because it was a holiday, to ask if they were going to watch festivities on television, to ask if they were going to have an exciting time. And Martin just had other things on his mind.
He couldn’t stop thinking about the dinner they’d just eaten. Carolyn had insisted, in one of her very rare fits of familial affection, that they all eat together to celebrate the end of the year as the MJN crew. He couldn’t really have refused. Now he felt bloated, the sharp cut of his waistband digging in. He felt greasy everywhere. God, he needed privacy. With Douglas, this really wouldn’t have been an issue. He would have just made sure he was alone and gotten it over with. But Arthur was another business entirely.
Using his strictest “captain” voice, he managed to convince Arthur that no, they weren’t going to do anything special because that would be irresponsible as they had to fly the next day. And no good crewmembers would stay up all night before having to fly the following day. He tried to ignore the disappointment on Arthur’s face; it had worked, after all, Arthur would go to bed because that’s what a “good” steward would do and Arthur was a good steward. Martin flicked the light off and sat down on his own bed, not really making moves to sleep himself, more just waiting until he could be sure Arthur was lost in dreamland.
Martin unbuttoned his shirt and folded it properly. Arthur was asleep and Martin was an old hand at this. He knew not to wear a shirt just in case it got messy. He didn’t like that he felt strangely guilty doing something he did all the time just because Arthur was there. He stood and tiptoed into the bathroom, shutting the door before flipping the light on. The wince was immediate.
Oh, god, the mirror.
He couldn’t look.
He couldn’t look away.
With the morbid fascination of someone watching a murder, Martin approached the mirror and looked at himself, torso bare. The pinching and prodding began compulsively. Oh, god. Everywhere. He was just fat everywhere. He almost gagged then and there. It was just horrific to look at himself. Everywhere he could tug at himself wasn’t just fat. Fat wasn’t just collections of lipids. It was manifest ugliness. All over his body, big chunks of ugly; nobody could possibly miss it when they saw him. Everyone had to see it, how ugly he was. Oh, god, make it stop. The toilet, now, now, now.
His knees found the tile floor in a familiar position and he jammed his own finger into his mouth, back to that place in his throat just there – that twitching, quivering place that he hated and loved. Release.
Arthur was jolted awake by the sound of retching from the bathroom. Oh, no! No, no, no! He jumped right up and ran to the door to see the crack of light coming from underneath it. He pressed himself against the door to listen, and then cringed at the terrifying noise from inside. “Skip?” he called, but went inside without waiting for a response because he sounded really dreadful and like he needed help. Inside, he found Martin, sprawled over the toilet, still wearing his goddamned captain’s hat. He looked gray as ash that was itself unhealthy. Sickly ash.
“Are you all right?” He went to Martin’s side, but backed off when Martin tried feebly to shove him away. “It’s just that you look dreadfully… well, dreadful. To be honest, Skipper.” It wasn’t just his skin tone, either. There was something… wretchedly sad about the look of his eyes that Arthur really didn’t like. Nobody should look like that, especially not their captain.
Martin really just needed to be left alone. But something about Arthur’s sincere concern and the way his own mouth was burning like rusting iron made him say, “I think I could use some fresh air.” Arthur’s face returned to its usual glow of excitement: here was something he could do to make the captain feel better, he could take him for fresh air! Weakly, Martin was dragged up and bundled into multiple layers of clothing and hauled out into the freezing, snowy Reykjavik night.
It was still early, not yet midnight. It wasn’t yet an entirely new year. No, that year was still lying in wait with all its hooks and traps, pain and loneliness still intact and yet to come. Martin let Arthur drag him to a nearby park where they ended up sitting on a frosted bench together, watching a group of people far across the frozen lake who seemed to be busily working away on some project.
“Are you sick, Skipper?” Arthur asked once they’d settled.
“Yes. No. I don’t know, Arthur.”
“How can you not know if you’re sick?”
“I just don’t, all right?” Martin snapped too harshly, and then felt the impact of it and spoke again with less venom. “I just do it sometimes.”
“Well, so does everyone I think, Skipper.”
“No, but I mean on purpose, Arthur. On purpose I get myself sick.”
“Well, why would you do that?”
It was a poignant question and it fell between them, creating a strange sort of silence.
“Haven’t you ever had something… something about yourself you’d like to change, Arthur?” Martin finally asked, after a moment’s pause.
“Well, yeah, I guess. But Mum says we are who we are and we should be glad we weren’t accidentally born someone else.”
Martin blinked snowflakes off his eyelashes, pondering this. Arthur had clearly only half-processed what his mother had actually said and, yet, as he seemed wont to do, had managed to make it even more insightful. “I think it would have been a blessing,” he admitted.
“And you think being sick will make you feel better? I’m afraid I just don’t quite understand that, Skip. Must be a bit beyond my scope.”
A silence descended between them again, but, this time, it was full of companionship instead of bitterness. Martin had never told anyone about his purges. He knew his secret wasn’t safe with Arthur and that everyone would find out but, for this moment, it felt… good for someone to know. And not to hate him for being a freak.
“Does Douglas know?” Arthur asked.
“That you… make yourself sick on purpose because you don’t like who you are?”
Martin grimaced at Arthur’s blunt wording. It stung somehow. “No, Arthur, nobody knows. Please don’t tell anyone.” He knew it was an empty request. It wasn’t Arthur’s fault; he just was incapable of lying. Or, for that matter, withholding the truth.
“Ok, you got it, Skipper. It’s just that… well, Douglas really cares about you and I think he’d have a few words to say to you if you told him.”
At this, Martin scoffed openly. “Douglas doesn’t care about me. He doesn’t care about anyone but himself. He might care about my job, I suppose.”
“No, but he does!” Arthur protested. “He cares about you just the same way you care about him! I’ve seen it!”
“Arthur, what are you talking about?” Martin shot him a sharp look. “I don’t care about him in any particularly special way.”
“You do. I know. I learned all about it in my course at Ipswitch.”
“Arthur…” Martin’s voice suddenly sounded serious.
“… You can’t tell anyone that, either.”
The group of people across the lake had apparently been working on a celebration to remember. As the clocks flipped over, they launched rockets high into the air that exploded glittering, colored sparks down onto the icy lake. They whooped and hollered with joy at the new year and the fireworks they’d worked so hard on all night long.