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DINNER FROM HELL

  

All over the ship glad-rags were slipped on, crumpled coats dragged from cheap suitcases, false teeth dunked in Steradent ready for the next adventure – the Captain’s Welcoming Cocktail Party. As Dog hadn’t listened properly to the speech or read his schedule, he had no idea the fiesta was happening, so, like a fool, turned up at dinner promptly at seven o’clock.

An Eastern European Maitre ’D stared glumly at me as I approached. No flicker of a smile, no attempt at a pleasantry. There, in a distant corner of the empty dining room, was a table for six, already occupied by three similarly punctual passengers who had wisely chosen nourishment over a social life. Staring straight in front of them was a young British couple we’ll call Ben and Betty and, opposite, a very elderly single lady. This was my next door neighbour, the woman I’d seen lost on the stairs.

Her name was Ethel.

Ethel was still lost and dishevelled – abandoned in a conversation only she could understand. Ben and Betty sat trapped like two bunnies in Ethel’s headlights, silent, desperately polite, pecking at the bread and sipping their water. Betty was making an attempt to be nice – and she was genuinely a sweet young thing – her husband, on the other hand, had abandoned all pretence. He sat mutely staring at Ethel as she raved on.

Ethel was rambling, her two pink eyes rolling vacantly from side to side, lost under eyelids of such extravagant complexity that they threatened to snap shut at any moment. This was a face of such great antiquity that her skin had forgotten where to go. It hung in folds, compelled by years of gravity further and further towards the floor, desperate to escape its owner’s prattle, dangling around her neck, wobbling there like turkey gobble as she went on – and on – and on.

This was to be my table for the next one hundred years. Betty’s eyes brightened briefly as I sat down and introduced myself, hoping somehow for rescue. Ben nodded bleakly and returned to his bread. He knew there would be no rescue. Ethel waited impatiently for the niceties to end then resumed her story.

‘I’ve been in every chorus at Covent Garden for the last fifty-two years,’ she announced grandly.

‘They must be missing you,’ I said. My irony escaped her. One ancient eyebrow attempted a manoeuvre but was held in place by the tumbling folds of skin.

‘How lucky you are.’ I whittered on, ‘you must have seen all the great stars, all the great conductors… ‘

She appeared suddenly confused. The poor darling had completely forgotten what she was talking about. I gave up and turned to the couple beside me.

‘So, you’re unusually young to be on a cruise. What brought you here?’

Betty began to blurt out their story; she was a teacher with relatives in India, a penchant for the sea, school holidays…  I feigned fascination. She didn’t get very far before Ethel was off again.

‘I hate computers,’ she said, out of the blue.

Betty paused, bewildered. Those kind sparrow eyes darted to her husband and settled, fluttering, finding comfort in his lumpen form. He sighed and looked down at his bread.

‘All those brainless people sit there,’ Ethel continued, ‘staring at their screen for hours on end – loathsome, stupid addicts. What can’t they just write a letter?  All they really need is a pen and some paper. When I was a girl we didn’t have computers…’

It occurred to me that when she was a girl they didn’t have electricity. She continued on her Luddite agenda for quite some considerable time. I attempted a few comments about the glories of the internet, the advantages of E-mail but she wasn’t remotely interested in anything anybody else had to say. I gave up and turned to the waiter.

‘Bring me one hundred large Kingfisher beers, line them up on the table and I’ll drink them all.’

My humour was lost on the staff.

The Ethel-ogue was interrupted briefly as she ordered dinner. I turned to Ben.

‘So Ben, what is it that you do?’

He didn’t answer.

I repeated my question.

Again, nothing – he remained fixed on his breadstick, eyes firmly locked on his plate.

‘Ben,’ I hissed, ‘I know you don’t want to talk but try and squeeze out a sentence or two, O.K.? This is difficult enough as it is. Help me out here, pal.’

He looked bleakly at me.

‘Computers,’ he said finally. ‘I sit, loathsome and stupid in front of a screen all day.’

*

At that deathly moment, as if by fate, we were joined by another elderly British couple. I’d seen them moaning earlier in the day, dozing in the lounge back at the hotel. They were of a breed: in their early seventies, paragons of politeness, toffee-nosed tossers with all the social graces of a wet dish-cloth. They introduced themselves with the minimum of fuss then sat, silent and disapproving, as Ethel resumed her oration.

Mrs. Brit. ordered some water then once it was poured from the bottle, sent it back.

‘I want to see this opened in front of me,’ she said grandly, ‘I want to see you break the seal. Take this away.’

The waiter did, rolling his eyes. She was off to a great start with the staff. They’ll be gobbing in her food by the end of the trip, I thought.

I turned again to the waiter on his return. I looked him dead in the eye.

‘Please. Bring. Me. One. Big. Beer.’

‘I don’t know what you’re worried about,’ snorted Ethel. ‘All that water business. Don’t drink the water, they say, don’t drink the water. I’ve drunk the water all my life and nothing has ever happened to me!’

It was evident Ethel hadn’t yet processed the fact that she was in India. She had, however, processed the fact that she was going to India.

‘I’ve lost my pension book. I’ve looked everywhere for it,’ she announced and looked sternly around the table. ‘I can’t go abroad without it.’ It was High Tea at Ethel’s place, all of a sudden. She zeroed in on Mr. Brit who was looking at this turn of events with some alarm.

‘Do you know where it is?’ she asked. I watched the cogs tumbling rapidly in his brain. He began to go red. His wife nudged him and he took a breath. He’d only just met Ethel.

‘Now,’ he said bewildered, ‘how could I possibly know where your pension book is? Did you leave it behind somewhere?’

‘No,’ she said incredulously, ‘I’ve lost it.’

Ethel wasn’t the only person losing it around the table. I turned my head and looked Ben dead in the eye.

‘Incredible,’ I said to Ben with a completely straight face.

‘Amazing,’ he gravely replied.

We both turned back to face the fray; there was no way of knowing what might happen next.

‘How could I possibly know about her passbook?’ Mr. Brit was saying.

Mercifully the Kingfisher arrived and I used the diversion to make a feeble attempt to usher the new arrivals back into the real world.

‘Well,’ I said brightly to the elderly Brits, ‘you look like a well-travelled couple.’

There was a shocked pause.

‘How dare you say that,’ she blurted.

‘Well, if you’re going to say something like that, you’d better justify yourself,’ he hurrumphed.

‘Outrageous,’ she sniffed.

Gee, this was going well.

‘I’m just trying to work out just which part of ‘you look like a well-travelled couple,’ could possibly be offensive,’ I said, trying to keep the venom out of my voice.

Of course, I should have used the word ‘seem’.

‘But, as I can’t,’ I babbled gaily, ‘I’ll just continue on as if nothing has happened.’

Ben chuckled. A brief shudder of amusement flickered across his face. His poor wife Betty didn’t really know which way to turn. She dived desperately into her Lamb Biryani, pulled a face, then suddenly announced to the table that this was unlike any biryani she had ever tasted before in her life.

‘It’s very dry – very bland, very tasteless.’

Mr Brit. looked up from his biryani, that drooping face and big nose glowing with stupidity.

‘Perhaps this is how it’s meant to be in India.’

‘Bland and tasteless?’ Betty asked. There was an edge to her voice.

‘Perhaps we have it wrong in the U.K.’

‘Perhaps it’s just crap biryani,’ I blurted.

‘I wish you wouldn’t say that word,’ snorted Mrs. Brit.

‘What? Biryani?’

‘I hate those dreadful words!’ Ethel exclaimed suddenly and then proceeded to spell them all very loudly.

Faces looked up startled from the next table.

‘He-e-e-elp!’ I mouthed.

*

‘I was in the movie where Doris Day first sang ‘Que Sera Sera,’ announced Ethel, quite apropos of nothing. ‘We were in the chorus at the climactic scene!’

It was an Alfred Hitchcock movie made in 1954, starring Jimmy Stewart, details that eluded her at the time.

‘Ahh,’ I said, ‘my mother used to sing that to me as a child…’

‘Sing what?’

Que Sera Sera…

‘I can’t think what that has to do with anything,’ she said blankly.

I turned to Ben. He was ploughing through his main course with great concentration.

‘I can see why you’ve gone quiet,’ I said, ‘this is the most bizarre dinner I’ve ever had.’

‘Horrific,’ he whispered and rolled his eyes…

Silence fell around the table. Even Ethel had run out of things to say. Knives and forks clanked against our empty plates, a glass shuddered on the vibrating table. Around us the staff stood serene, uncaring, staring at the minefield in front of them.

‘So, you think we look battered, eh?’ said Mrs. Brit. suddenly.

She was still mulling over my ‘well-travelled’ comment.

‘Do you think we look old? Is that what you’re trying to say?’

There are those moments in life where further conversation is futile, where less is infinitely preferable to more. I’ve travelled enough to spot them fast and act quickly. The thought of fourteen more days, fourteen more dreadful dinners flashed through my mind.  The vibrating cabin, my vibrating stomach, the awful food, the surly service, the unsmiling Ukrainian maids – all combined in a moment of pure clarity. I’d gone into another zone: that fatal place where, all of a sudden, regardless, you just don’t care.

‘Well,’ sniffed Mr. Brit, ‘you’re stuck with us.’

I turned slowly to the new arrivals, unexpectedly composed, deadly. The words tumbled out of my mouth unaided by rational thought.

‘I have no intention of sitting at this table ever again.’ I said calmly.  ‘Life’s much, much, much too short.’

Four British mouths popped open. Eight British eyebrows flew up.  Ethel was stuffing dessert into her gob. She had no idea what was happening.

‘Now, if you’ll excuse me,’ I said sweetly, standing up, ‘I just have to go upstairs to my cabin and kill myself. One of us has to die – it may as well be me.’

I bowed slightly and left, leaving I know not what in my wake. Out of the corner of my eye I saw the waiter, doubled over with laughter.

*

‘Hello,’ I said, smiling benignly at the poker-faced receptionist, ‘I just need your help for a moment.’

She levered her gaze away from the computer screen, staring at me with a face of utter disinterest.

‘Ye-e-e-es?’ she said lazily, ‘how can I help you?’

‘I’m getting off the boat,’ I said sweetly, ‘now.’

Her mouth opened and closed like a goldfish gasping for air. I certainly had her attention then.

‘Could you get my bill together and arrange a car? I’ll be down in fifteen minutes.’

Her question finally emerged out of the confusion.

‘Wha.. wha.. why?’

‘I don’t think I have to explain that to you.’ I said evenly. ‘Just do your paperwork and get me off.’

As I turned away and walked upstairs to the vibrating cell I was aware of a flurry of phone calls behind my back.

‘Pinky’s getting off!’

*

When I returned, bags in hand, the Captain was there. He was tall, strong and Russian. Strangely, at that moment, I felt much taller and stronger than him.

We shook hands in a manly fashion.

‘Can I ask your reasons for leaving us?’ he enquired, just a hint of Slavic concern on his face.

‘No.’

He wasn’t expecting that reply.

‘Is there anything we can do to change your mind?’

‘No.’

‘Is there any complaint you would like to make?’

I hesitated briefly; just long enough for him to read my mind. I glanced slowly round the ship and took a breath.

‘No.’

I held the pause – and his gaze – for a long time. He knew not to push that particular issue.

‘Now boss,’ I said firmly, ‘may I get off?’

We shook hands in that same manly fashion, my passport was returned, my credit card un-swiped. No complaint. No drama. No refund. No explanation. I just got off the boat, walked down the gangplank and folded myself into the waiting car with not a glance behind me. It was ten p.m. I had no idea where I was going or what I would do for the remaining fourteen days.

Mr. Pinky drove away.

‘Panjim,’ I said. ‘Take me to Panjim.’

*

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