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OCEAN ODYSSEY

 

*

Splat! Take that!

‘You bastards!’

‘Happy Holi-i-i-i-e-eeee!’

His hair was carnival pink, his face was carnival pink, Dog was pink as a harlot’s toenails at sunset. So much for open taxi windows, Holi and over-excited Indian youth – the white man copped a powder bomb, right between the eyes.

So it was that Mr. Dogster arrived at the transit hotel in South Goa, ready to be transferred to the M.S. Ocean Odyssey for his glamorous, luxury cruise.  He was bright pink. This was not a good start.

The foyer was full of elderly British couples, nodding off in their chairs. They’d flown in overnight, been sitting here for hours already – stiff upper lips locked in rictus, groggy eyes at half-mast, gimlet slits of loathing surveying the scene. The bus was late, of course.

‘Oh-h-h!’ they sighed like spoiled children.

‘Oh-h-h-h-h!’ they sighed some more.

Then ‘Ah!’ for variation.

Then ‘Oh!’ and ‘Aah-h-h!’ and ‘Argh-h-h-h.’

The Brits bonded; grizzle met grizzle met critical mass – eventually, just a huff and a puff short of conflagration, our guides were prized from their mobiles and we were herded to the bus. Half an hour later we arrived at Murmagao, the Goa dock.

Silence fell as we all stared grimly at the ship.

‘Oh,’ I heard ripple through the bus.

‘Oh.’

‘Oh, dear...’

Now they really had something to complain about.

The driver stood up.

‘As we have arrived at the vessel my services are finished,’ he said, angling for a tip, ‘if you wish you can compliment me now.’

‘It was a great bus ride,’ Dogster piped up, ‘you were fabulous – will that do?’

He didn’t laugh at my joke. I can’t think why.

She was old and she was ugly, she was rusty, squat and flat. M.S. Ocean Odyssey had lived a hundred lives, the first of them a very long time ago. She was launched in 1965 as a passenger car ferry plying the Greek Islands – not a particularly auspicious beginning for a luxury liner, I thought. Alas, I thought this in retrospect.

Twelve months later she was rebuilt, renamed and sailed as M.S. JASON; carried drunks and poker machines round the Mediterranean for the next thirty-eight years on an endless cut-price cruise to nowhere. A whole slum of footy hooligans had been conceived on this ship, a million pasty Brits had thrown up over her side – she’d been battered, beaten and buggered repeatedly by a battalion of British brutes.

When she was nearly forty, the geriatric M.S. Jason was exorcised, ‘extensively refitted’, renamed and sent out once again. Alas, her renovations were not extensive enough. Now she wallowed sadly in the deserted docks of Goa – a re-painted strumpet out for one last deep-sea shag.

*

Mr. Dogster charged eagerly up the gangway.

There, standing in a line, were twenty sullen Ukrainian housekeepers.

‘Well, good afternoon ladies!’ he said, ‘you all look very splendid.’

One of them squeezed out a tiny smile – the rest stared at him as if he’d shat in their hand.

He was dragged off to the front desk as the rest of the passengers wheezed their way up the gangway behind. His passport was whisked away, credit cards swiped; he was issued an unsmiling Ukrainian brunette to escort him to his deluxe top deck cabin and swiftly left alone to ponder his fate. Two thin single beds, a porthole and a bedside table. Neat, clean, antiseptic. It all reminded him rather of a prison cell – still, it was friendlier than the staff.

Then Dogster caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror. Pink lines tumbled down the crevices of his face, crawling to safety round his chin. His forehead was just one giant tika, a carnival splodge of mayhem from side to side, his hair poked up and out, frozen spikes of coagulated pink, two pink ears flapped electric, like a gay bat out to score. He began to understand the Ukrainian chain-reaction.

Dog went into the bathroom and turned on the taps. Brown smelly water gushed out. He turned on the shower. More brown smelly water. There was no way he was washing in that. Not once. Not ever.

That’s when I first noticed a very strange thing.

The cabin vibrated.

The ship vibrated.

I vibrated.

I felt as if I was sitting on my washing machine on full spin cycle. It wasn’t, despite all you might hear, a pleasant sensation.

‘Gawd almighty, Dogster, what have you done…’

*

I had to get out of the cocktail shaker, so went exploring. Empty corridors led to empty cabins, the occasional Ukrainian stewardess passed by with towels and a snarl. I found one antique client standing stock-still on the stairs, lost and dishevelled. She didn’t know where she was. All the other passengers had vanished, doubtless locked in their vibrating cabins, weeping.

I directed the confused old lady to her berth – as fate would have it, right next to mine – then squelched upstairs to the upper deck, a flat expanse of horror upholstered in plastic grass matting, still soaked from the torrential downpour. Huge puddles dotted the deck. A pile of plastic chairs stood off to one side, a row of plastic sun-lounges on the other. Somehow I didn’t think they were going to get much use. The swimming pool and hot-tub stood empty, aquamarine excavations staring glumly at the sky.

A boat chugged lazily by, laughing crew daubed in bright colours.

‘Happy Holi-i-i-i-e-eeee!’

Everybody was having fun – except for me.

In the lounge the passengers slowly gathered for afternoon tea.

The chief-steward met me at the door. He was Indian, middle-aged, friendly and pleasant enough, the first man I’d seen on board.

‘Are you on your own?’ he said.

I nodded.

‘We’ll have to find you a la-a-ady,’ he leered, as he escorted me to my tragic singles chair, ‘someone to keep you company…

Oh, great. Now, having been cast in the role of lecherous roué, I faced fourteen days of the crew thinking I wanted to jump the Ukrainian chamber-maids. My lip curled. He thought I was smiling. He smiled brightly back and winked slowly, then ran off to find me a serving of stewardess.

A kindly Lancashire couple invited me to join them. We made the predictable small talk and stuffed sandwiches into our mouths. Crumbs flew, weak tea was served and we settled back in our seats, bonding as best we could. I had a strong need for gin. Just as I raised my hand to order our little threesome was interrupted by a husky blonde of middle years. She made a beeline for our table and plonked her tight British arse down beside me.

‘Miss Jane,’ she said with a wink and a smile, ‘I’m sure we’ll be the best of best friends.’

Not if I could help it, I thought. She was sitting much too close. One ring-choked hand was held out. It wasn’t clear whether I should kiss it or rattle it. I chose the best option and ignored it.

‘Let me introduce you Mr. and Mrs Kind Lancashire Couple,’ I said instead, by way of diversion.

Introductions were made in a fulsome fashion as Jane led the frontal attack, bonding in a whirlwind of fatuous theatrical blather. She was brittle, bitchy, entirely banal – and common as the commonest muck.

‘You’ll see a lot of me,’ she shrieked, looking over at me.

Not if I see you first.

‘I’m your cru-u-u-uise director!’

*

Miss Jane didn’t stop talking for the next twenty minutes.

The Kind Lancashire Couple and I had ample time to stuff savouries into our open mouths as she launched into a lengthy description of every passenger that had ever been on the ship in precise and intimate detail – it wasn’t complimentary.

‘They’re all like this, darling,’ she said sotto voce, ‘they’re all a hundred years old…’

I was, indeed, one of the youngest on board.

‘We wheel ‘em up the gangway, feed ‘em tea and scones – half of ‘em don’t know where they are most of the time. Just as well – we’re not going anywhere.’

It was true. After two weeks of sailing we ended up back where we’d started. On the assumption we survived.

‘Last trip, rained cats and dogs all the time!’ she cackled, ‘they were all stuck inside vomiting; we had to cancel half the ports. Couldn’t get them out of the boat, my dears – too old, too rough – we might’ve broken one of them,’ she said and burst into a laugh that only a hundred cigarettes a day could provide.

I listened, amazed, as she dished the dirt, a series of well-practiced anecdotes of seasickness, rough seas, hideous passengers and gruesome shipboard romance, all the time imagining that we found her prattle fascinating.

Somehow I knew that, next voyage, I would be added to her monologue.

‘Gawd, we nearly did break a few one trip,’ she chuckled, ‘the ship rocked so much all the chairs fell backwards in the dining room. The old ladies were trapped there on their backs, dresses up around their waist – all those pink surgical stockings waving in the air!’

Bring me gin.

Now.

‘They’re so bitchy on a cruise, these old girls, they all get together in their groups and bitch and bitch behind each other’s backs,’ she prattled on relentlessly, thinking we cared.

‘One old lady, she was a shocker, we used to call her the tarantula, all over the husbands like a Black Widow spider. They were in and out of her cabin all night! Viagra Central we called it. Only looked in her fifties but she was seventy-five if she was a day.’

Jane leant over to me conspiratorially.

Suu-u-urgery,’ she said and pulled a face.

Something you might well consider one day soon, I thought.

*

All the other passengers had arrived in the lounge. They sat in isolated clumps on plastic leather chairs, being fed savouries. Like the ship, they were old and ugly, rusty, squat and flat. Like the savouries, they were stale. It remained to be seen whether they vibrated.

Miss Jane would soon find out.

‘Showtime!’ she gushed and launched herself from our table to the dance floor in a single bound, a sheaf of papers flapping in her hand.

She must be on drugs, I thought, no one was that happy naturally.

Our hostess grabbed a microphone, assumed the pose and stood, glaring at the punters. A final crunch on their savouries and they fell obediently silent.

For one terrible moment I thought she was going to sing.

Go-o-o-oldfingah-h-h-h…’ was welling up in that fulsome, amplified breast, I could feel it in my bones. Instead, to my brief relief, she made a lengthy welcoming speech.

Jane Whatever wasn’t her real name, of course, it was her stage name. She was, as she was quick to explain, really an entertainer. I could see her already, stuffed inside a green lurex frock, belting out-of-tune Shirley Bassey hits to drunks in working-men’s clubs around the north of England, telling off-colour jokes and introducing the dwarf-throwing as the next act.

I lasted a minute or so, then excused myself and ran to the bar, desperate for alcohol, methylated spirits – anything to block out the pain. I hovered up the back, half-listening, half blanking out the gush as our Miss Jane ran through the rules, the schedule, the so-called entertainment – mostly starring her – all the wild excitement that was to be ours for the next two weeks together. If it was possible, my spirits sank even lower. There were altogether too many references to rough seas, seasickness and bad weather.  That un-seasonal storm was turning nasty. So was I.

The gin arrived. I skulled it then ordered another. I sculled that, ordered another. Reeling, I fled to my deluxe cabin. It was still vibrating. I lay down, hoping the mattress would absorb some of the movement. It didn’t. I watched as the curtains shuddered, as the door to the bathroom slowly swung open, as the liquid pooh dripped steadily from the shower.

I was being shuddered to death. Every atom in my body was being shaken apart. The gin in my stomach lurched. I felt sick. I vibrated my way down to the front desk. With a deadly smile on my face I asked the obvious question.

‘This is really dreadful… when is it going to stop?’

The concierge, a glacial British lass of tender years, had heard this complaint before – many, many times. She looked deep into my eyes with an expression of utter contempt.

‘Get used to it,’ she said steadily, then returned to her computer.

I’d been on the boat for two hours. Only another fourteen days to go.

*

PART TWO 

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