The wind grazed my cheeks with icy fingertips as I stood alone on deck, the last of the Arctic sunlight bleeding slowly from the sky. Sleet blew sideways into my face and I pulled my coat around me more firmly. I was chilled to my core but the clear water stretched ahead of me, into the infinite distance and, for the first time in six days I could finally hear myself think, here in the freezing, glacial stillness.

The old woman had been a fright from the start; nothing had been good enough for her, nothing could be done right. Here on deck I could still hear the echo of her dry, nasal complaints:

“Ameila, where are the bags? What do I bring you for - you’re supposed to be making things better, not worse you stupid girl. Honestly, I may as well see to them myself for all the good you’ve been. Why on earth did I hire you? For goodness sake -”

“Please Mrs Ford, the bags are in the cabin already - I’ve taken them and I’ve seen that everything is arranged just as you like it.”

I ducked my head demurely, my insides frothing with rage. The truth was that she had not hired me to be her aide, or her companion or any of the other titles she gave me in company. She had not hired me at all. The truth was that Mr Ford had promised me a substantial sum to ‘keep an eye’ on his wife. That is, to make sure she stayed off the sauce as much as possible.

“It can’t be helped at dinner or in company of course, but you’re to see that she doesn’t go off the rails - roaming the corridors half cut and all that. And she’s crafty, you’ll have to check her bags, her bedding, her cupboards, everything. But be discreet about it, there’s a good girl.”

And I had been. I had been the model companion making sure everything was arranged and organised so her trip went as well as it possibly could. It was, as she told anyone who would listen, what I was for.

But today was my birthday. Mrs Ford certainly hadn’t remembered or cared, but I had managed to squeeze a few moments of blissful quiet out here on deck as a present to myself while the old lady snored in our shared cabin below. If she woke up to find me missing there would be hell to pay, but, I decided, it had all been worth it. For this.

With a last look at the smooth water fanning out behind the ship as we steamed ahead, I went back inside and up the stairs to our cabin. The old woman was stretched out asleep on the bed, mouth gaping as she sucked and choked on the dry, overheated air in our small cabin. Beside her on the nightstand the bottle of brandy I had left tucked neatly just inside my unzipped suitcase was two thirds empty and uncorked. The cabin reeked of booze. I had been gone less than ten minutes.

I sat down beside her on the bed and watched as her chest struggled and failed to rise, as the air clogged her lungs, as the skin of her face slowly turned mauve, then grey, slackening quickly. As her head lolled on her neck and I was certain that nothing could be done I ran into the hall screaming for a doctor.

This trip seemed as if it were about to improve significantly.