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NOBLE CALEDONIANS

Caledonia is the Latin name given by the Romans to the land above the Antonine Wall, north of their troublesome province of Britannia. These days the word has fallen into disuse, living on only though a brand name – ‘Noble Caledonia’ – a U.K. based travel group specializing in river cruises. It’s a very reputable company, which is why sixteen of the twenty-five passengers sailing the Ganges in November 2009 booked with them. To all accounts and purposes, the trip was a beautiful no-brainer: all the Caledonians had to do was get on the plane at Heathrow, get off in Kolkata; be met and fussed over, let themselves be transferred to the ship and check-in. All they then had to do was unpack, sit on the upper deck drinking gin and tonic, cruise along the Ganges and fourteen stress-free days later pack up, disembark in Varanasi and fly home. It’s a shame it didn’t quite turn out that way.

*

At a restaurant called Aaheli the gourmets queue for hours, hoping for a table and a glimpse of the food. The top table was set for sixteen.

Six British husbands sat mute, staring intently at the wall. Six British wives chatted away, daintily ordering their Special Thali. All of them were trying to pretend they knew what a thali was.

‘Not too spicy, whatever it is!’

‘Not hot!’

One sweet old dear pulled the waiter aside.

‘My husband and I can’t eat any spices at all.’

Aaheli’s were way ahead of the game. They served their bestest, blandest Bengali; curries for Caledonia with no curry; a tasteless tourist Thali with all the papp and none of the dum.

‘Lovely!’ everybody chorused when asked, ‘very nice.’ Of course, they didn’t like it at all.

‘Rabbit food,’ one husband sniffed in a rare display of raw emotion.

The men were already settled into grumpy acquiescence, borne of long experience – not one of them wanted to be here. Their wives were quiet, rather restrained. Luckily four additional women filled the remaining chairs and the gaps in the conversation. The girls were bonding fast. Each one of them vied for the Alpha-Gorgon spot.

*

These Noble Caledonians were a pretty elderly bunch; two in their mid-eighties, most in their seventies; the youngest a well-preserved sixty-five; six men and ten women with a total age of around one thousand, two hundred and fifty years. By now these people were an endangered species – there’s something about river-cruising that brings them out en masse.

Nine other clients arrived separately in dribs and drabs during the day; two couples, two singles from Australia, a German duo and a solitary American. Dinner at Aaheli was the first time they had seen the other passengers. More to the point, it was the first time the other passengers had seen them.

The Noble Caledonians firmly believed that everybody else on board was crashing their exclusive party; the arrival of every non-C cruiser was cause for animated discussion, instant irritation. With each new face the whispering chorus of disapproval grew – and the more the Caledonians criticized, they more they bonded. After all, if you are going to have an ‘us’, you need to create a ‘them’. Fortunately, when you’re a Brit of this ilk nearly everybody on earth is a ‘them’ so there are lots of options to choose from.

The Germans sat on their own at a table for two. A youthful, bright-eyed psychologist and his intelligent, cultured wife looked around at the group, wondering what they’d done to deserve this. Of course, they’d been instantly ex-communicated. Don’t even mention the war.

*

‘L-l-l-lesbians,’ one sniffed.

Two kind ladies from Melbourne were unaware the blow-torch was upon them.

‘Alien l-l-l-lesbians’ she repeated.

‘Sh-h-h-h! Mother!’

The oldest woman at the table couldn’t give a monkey’s toss whether the alien lesbians heard her or not. Perhaps she said ‘Austr – alian’, it’s impossible to know, her vocal pyrotechnics were so belabored. It was rather like having Lady Bracknell to dinner.

What a pity the girls weren’t black as well – they could’ve scored the pariah trifecta.

*

Neil and Sue were genuine, good people, salt of the earth from Oz. She was grumpy at dinner, kept rubbing her eye.

‘I’m getting a stye, look.’

Sue proffered her eye for inspection. Yes, she was. It started when she wiped her eye in the street yesterday – by today it was infected.

‘It’s throbbing, now. It’s getting worse.’

She put her sunglasses back on.

‘You know what it’s like with these things, you think everybody is looking at you…’

It wasn’t just paranoia, she was right. Tsk tsk tsk.

The two Australian couples dined together. They had sensibly pre-ex-communicated themselves to save time.

*

It was time for Dogster’s fall from grace. Six gimlet-eyed matrons looked up as he made his grand entrance. M’lady squinted and reached for her glasses.

‘Who is that man?’

That man was scanned for defects; The Dog was hit with a full body ultrasound as he walked in the door. His teeth rattled. This was better than surgery.

‘Is this another one?’ someone hissed.

‘He’s the journalist.’

‘Oh dear…’

‘Is he one of us?’

Dog sincerely hoped he wasn’t.

‘Tsk, tsk, tsk,’ tsk’d one.

‘Oh-h-h-h…’ oh-h-h-h’d another.

A third just sighed and rolled her eyes.

The mongrel failed muster. He was scanned, judged and found wanting in less time than it took to kill a cat. Damned and ex-communicated before he’d even sat down, the poor mutt was herded off to sit with the other single men – both, alarmingly, called Joe. Both had lost their wives. It was the only thing they had in common.

*

Yankee Joe barely talked at all. He was a short, nuggetty man’s man with a broad Noo Yoick accent, a no-crap kinda guy with too much dough and no friends. His wife was two years dead. He looked much younger but was seventy, an ex-surgeon who, like many of his breed, had developed the ego of a diva. Like all sawbone superstars, he had the compassion of Stalin.

Even getting these few details was a struggle. He sat at the table, resisting any effort at small talk. He resisted big talk as well. As a matter of fact, he resisted any kind of communication. It was very, very odd. Most people make an effort when sitting round a table with strangers. Not Joe. He just sat and drank and when the food came, ate. He appeared to have no social skills. Of course, he did – Joe just couldn’t be arsed using them. He’d ex-communicated everybody long ago.

He only blossomed when he saw a beautiful woman. Then his face softened, he smiled and laughed, suddenly witty and magnetic, the very soul of masculine charm. Joe was an unabashed admirer of the female form – some might say a bit of a lecher. His period of mourning appeared to be over.

*

Aussie Joe was sixty-eight but looked a great deal older; a mountain with unkempt white hair and a crumpled shirt, little-boy eyes swimming in thick-rimmed spectacles, a child peering cheerfully from an old man’s face. He was so completely without guile, so utterly naïve I rather liked him.

‘Bought these for twenty bucks in China,’ he said proudly, peering through the bottle-top lenses, ‘I’ve been a-a-all around the world. I got these in Bei-i-i-jing!’

Joe was an innocent abroad – but he was traveling with a different agenda.

He coughed, a lava-filled death hack that cut through the restaurant like a chain saw. I looked over his shoulder at the table full of Caledonians behind him. Tsk tsk tsk. They really didn’t like that cough. This Joe was not just ex-communicated; he was already in the running for cruise pariah.

‘Where are you from, Joe?’

As if I didn’t know.

‘Straya-a-a-a!’ he cried, ‘greatest country in the world.’

Aussie Joe told me everything in that single nasal bray. He had a very moist mouth and big lips. He liked to talk but tended to spray.

Brru-u-u-urppp.

He belched.

Gorgon eyes flashed at the Top Table.

I could sense a ‘tsk tsk tsk’ coming up very soon.

The German couple looked over and smiled.

‘Ooops, ‘scuse my French,’ he said, ‘all this Indian tucker, I’m getting bloated…’

Joe ate everything. Food was food. He just ate it. Brru-u-u-urp. Like those terrible glasses in their thick black frame – he just wore them, prescription or not. His complete lack of sophistication was quite startling to anybody but a fellow Australian, his world view that of a curious, elderly child – behind those rims and the blather was a kind, good-hearted man from the outer suburbs of Canberra.

Poor Joe. He was too easy a target. He’s already been ex-communicated once, just for being Australian. He was doubly damned because he was eccentric, triply condemned because of that terrible cough – now the belch! In public! Truly, he was going to hell.

*

Across the way, the Ganga Gorgons appraised the Pariah Table.

‘Tsk, tsk, tsk,’ tsk’d one.

I knew it’d come, sooner or later. These women were like a cage of rabbits.

She was a stylishly dressed widow from somewhere small in Surrey, asplash with bright colors and cash. Her arms and neck were weighed down with tastefully chunky jewellery framing a perfect mane of swept-back grey hair. In her village, I’m sure she opened the fete. Good grooming masked her black, vacant heart. She was Lady of the Dead Squire’s Manor.

M’lady had brought her best friends on the cruise with her, a small plump woman with an elderly husband. The two girlfriends were thick as thieves; both married for the money. M’lady already had it – her husband got the message and dropped dead early. Maybe she’d killed him – for women like this murder was nothing.

The girlfriend was an effusive, buxom gossip who dressed in a tent to disguise her stomach. The tent was low-cut; something silver round her neck drew the eye to the yawning chasm between her breasts. Dog knew not to look there. He would die. She was an actress, she claimed, but I rather had my doubts; star of the amateur theatre group, perhaps. She still affected all the gush, mush and show-biz blather of her professed profession – once a luvvie, always a luvvie, I guess.

‘Oh-h-h-h…’ she gasped theatrically, then laughed.

A third woman just sighed and rolled her eyes. Not a word needed to be said.

The eye-roller was a silent assassin, a simpering killer in a pastel cardigan. She has no face, just a pixilated blur. From the moment she clapped eyes on Dogster she said not one word to him nor ever looked in his direction again – she knew Dog-Satan when she saw him.

Another well-dressed woman looked him up and down.

‘Oh, dear…’ she said.

She was the youngest of the old; black silk and cerulean blue, more chunky jewellery but no husband, just a drinking problem instead. Her face was drawn, as if failure had gathered at the nape of her neck and squeezed. Judging by the expression on her face, one of us had farted.

The pause lengthened as they all stared at the servant’s tables, mutely disapproving, bonding as they located their prey. Every group has to have a whipping boy; everybody needs a pariah dog.

From the silence a single word cut through the air.

‘Augh-stra-a-alians…’

This was failure’s mother. She sat there like a cane toad at the top table, blinking her lack of concern. The old dame was eighty-six with a face like an inflated spaniel; dangle jowls, tiny eyes lost in a meringue of soft flesh bubbling out from her cheek-bones, layering down her face like drapes in a box at the theatre.  In her time she’d been a formidable woman but form had long since settled into function – something had shrunk, leaving her spaniel folds exposed.

After that crowning contribution, nothing else was needed. The Queen Mother had managed to conjure up a whole sub-species just from the name of their country.

Aughful. Stra-a-ange. Alien.

Aussie Joe’s pariah status seemed sealed.

Ahhh, but they hadn’t yet met Dogster.

*

PART TWO

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