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SHIP OF FOOLS

You could see her coming from a thousand miles off, draped from bosom to ankle in a muu-muu of epic proportions. The actress had a suitcase full of them, regularly whipping out a new nylon offering at the slightest hint of perspiratory distress. The crew called her ‘The Tent’.

M’Lady of the Dead Squire’s manor’s bestest friend in the whole wide world was a juicy woman in her mid-sixties, not quite yet gone to seed. Her husband was limp and useless; her loins still panted for one last man, her carnivorous thighs keen to drag one final guest into their deadly embrace. The Tent’s muu-muu’s were highly patterned affairs knocked up for a dollar in Cochin, one of which, when viewed from afar, gave the impression of a tie-died target zeroing in on her crotch. Come on in, it seemed to say, aim here… somehow, it had the opposite effect.

M’Lady and the actress were thick as thieves, endlessly whittering with post-menopausal secrets, stoically waiting for the Tent’s husband to die. M’Lady had already despatched hers, now it was Charles’ turn to kark it.

Poor Charles. He was eighty six and perfectly nice, a long-retired judge with a stash of cash and no-one to leave it to. The Actress was a kindly woman, happy to marry and care for a Bishop twenty five years her senior; on the surface all was fine and good.

But Dogster knew. They knew I knew. I could see his homicide in their eyes. ‘Die, you old bugger,’ I could see in the Tent’s ministrations, ‘hurry up and kark it, you stupid old git…’

‘There you go, da-a-a-arling,’ she’d simper and coo, ‘you just si-i-i-it down there. I’ll get you a gin.’

And so she did, hoping that gin was sufficient poison to send the old sod off to God. If the gin didn’t work, the food on the boat might get him. Failing that, they could only hope for a heart attack on one of the rare excursions.

Like I said, she was an actress.

*

Dogster had already offended them just by being born. That they had to share a river vessel with this snotty mongrel was altogether too appalling. They tried to pretend I wasn’t there, spoke as little as possible, gave me the evil eye as if I’d crapped on their shoe – so, in my Dogster way, I took perverse pleasure in engaging them in jaunty conversation, knowing they were much too, too polite to leave.

M’Lady was a woman for whom the tiniest moment of enthusiasm was an effort. Words had to burrow their way up to the surface through a peat-bog of pretension – by the time they hit fresh air they were strained and strangled, sour syllables squeezed straight from a lime. Her face was still round and full of life; it was her mind turned acid.

Eaugh-h-h,’ she sighed, ‘m-m-m-m…’

Her voice, when she could be bothered to reply, came from somewhere deep between her shoulder blades, a faint politeness that used the least amount of air and effort to communicate, as if this manky spaniel in front of her was really, too, too vulgar a thing to entertain. This, of course, just spurred me on to greater heights. I’d button-hole her at inappropriate moments, preventing her escape, bore her with my impressions, lavish kindness and attention; feign fascination at every detail of her life.

She knew I didn’t mean a word of it. I knew she knew. That was the fun of it – well, for me, anyway.

*

Armed with a bottle of Dogslayer and a dangerous twinkle in my eye, I plonked myself opposite them at dinner one night. It was too juicy an opportunity to miss . M’Lady flicked one eye at me, sighed and grabbed at her spoon as a diversion. She held it up, looked at it with distaste, silently beckoned the waiter over and exhibited the offending object. She looked at him gravely, wordlessly handing the sullied cutlery back in an elegant pantomime of pursed lips and flared nostrils.

He gasped and gulped like a fish with asthma, then vanished in a flash. He knew she would have him killed in the morning. A new one was brought, inspected and agreed on – again, all without a sound. Now, if only she could exchange the Dogster for a fresh one…

The Tent bent over her bowl and, with a delicate little slurp, sucked up the mystery soup. Those luscious lips pursed; a thought rumbled slowly through her upper body, she flinched, looking briefly as if she’d just been poisoned – then, with the gentlest of motions, pushed the soup away.

Her anxious waiter swooped back from the void in a panic, hovering just behind her like a startled prawn.

‘Ne-augh… ay dee-aun’t think sea-ugh,’ she whispered over her shoulder.

His mouth dropped open.

‘Tekkit ah-h weigh…’

He just stood there, completely confused.

The Tent rolled her eyes, pointed to the soup, clutched her throat, pulled a theatrical face and moaned.  She was a spoon mime, the Marcella Muu-muu of disgust. He got the message, leant over, grabbed the bowl and ran.

The Tent and M’Lady looked at each other, each curled a lip in secret harmony, they sighed together and turned to face the music.

‘And what is it that yo-o-o-o do?’

*

They were shagging for Europe, they were shagging for peace, they shagged for an end to global warming; Frieda and Hans sprawled on their bed, watching the riverbank glide by. They were always politically correct, even at leisure; the only butterflies left in the PC rainforest, furiously flapping their PC wings, certain that their every act led to critical mass. They ate correctly, they spent their holidays correctly, they were as correct as correct could be. Life was kinda German.

The most exciting thing in their Euro lives was sex. There they indulged every perverse Teutonic desire, living out a private life of secret passion, complete with late-night yelps and yowls. They shagged for emancipation, they shagged for the famine in Bihar, they shagged for Hare Krishna, they may even have shagged for love – who knows? Such speculation was too horrible to bear.

The sexual life of the Germans was a topic of endless fascination. Like extras in a Benny Hill show, the British husbands leered and chuckled, remembering those days long, long ago when they still had genitalia. The only shagging that was going on was in Cabin Twelve, trust me. The average age on board was ninety-five.  The Huns were the first couple capable of sex to use the double bed since the company began.

They were the nicest of sweetest of Germans, smart, politically correct, ‘concerned’ citizens of Planet Earth, ‘concerned’ about poverty and the plight of women, ‘concerned’ about literacy and education, ‘concerned’ about inequality, racism, sexism, homophobia, violence – on and on, all their available concern rationed out into precise parcels, a catalogue of all the right things.

Everything was German about them, everything was clean. They were tidy, they were quiet, dressed in light colours, light clothes, light everything. There was no carbon footprint when they were around; there was scarcely a footprint at all – hardly talking, always separate, polite and restrained – there but not there, of it but not with it. They didn’t smoke or drink or take drugs or drink coffee, ate in moderation, sponsored a child in Bangladesh, rode bicycles on the weekend dressed neatly in matching clothes, the kind of people you want to be on the board of your local library, running the town council, teaching your kids. Skin pale and hardly lined, their drug-free, stimulant-free, caffeine-free, excitement-free life was nowhere in evidence on their faces. They were soft, clean and perfect. Their clear eyes took in everything but their opinion was not to be shared. A visible opinion was a step too far, something they couldn’t embrace. It was too bright, too colourful an addition to their personality; life was lived and should be lived in shades of grey and beige, light pink and lighter brown.

This cruise should have been perfect. It was exactly what they had bought – a ‘soft adventure’. Had the cabins been fitted with Laura Ashley curtains life would have been complete. They observed, took a lot of photographs, had a bit of a wander, occasionally interacting with a local or two, but they looked and didn’t touch. They stood and watched as it rolled right by, waved regally from the deck at the wide-eyed children on shore – but they weren’t quite there. They were good people, kind people, locked in a world they’d created and maintained themselves. Scrubbed and clean, tidy and correct, their passion was kept to the bedroom. They had substituted Bremen beige for Indian technicolour, sanitized adventure and life itself, reduced all of West Bengal to a bed and a picture window.

Alas, not for long.

That same sanitised lifestyle held them prisoner even now as their shagging ground to a halt, nipped in the bed by a range of travelling grief.  First she would be missing at dinner or lunch, then he would appear mid-dessert looking wan. Then she was there and he was gone, found lying miserable on a deckchair upstairs. Not a word of complaint. They sipped tea and looked ashen, bravely went out on tours, kept their rumbling bowels to themselves. Life in Cabin Twelve must have been fun.

Next a bumpy rickshaw ride put his back out of whack, so the poor sod spent two days being brave and prone while his wife dutifully waited upon him. Wives, as you know, only come in three sizes: Mummy, Madonna and whore. Husbands, as you know, only come in one: wimp. They are not brave patients. The words ‘drama queen’ come to mind.  Then he touched a piece of India and absently rubbed his eyes. Of course by that night both eyes were bright red, oozing worms and cockroaches. He came to dinner in sunglasses, looking like he’d been crying for a very long time. Sue looked over and laughed. She was way ahead of him. His wife had taken up residence in the lavatory in Cabin Twelve. She wasn’t coming out.

*

‘Bye bye bye bye bye bye!’

These kids were starting to grate. Every village, without fail.

‘Bye bye bye bye!’

At least the screaming broke the silence, that black shroud of British reserve that gripped the top deck. In my long history of river-cruises, it’s a first. A world of utter calm, blissful quietude; twenty people sprawled on the top deck and not a word spoken amongst them, gathered there like Quakers on vacation.

They have no questions to ask of anybody, nothing new they need to enquire about, no wisdom they need to consult. Certain of their superiority, they felt no need to doubt or even discuss. They read, do crosswords or sleep, drool running down their chins. Those not snoring discretely guzzle gin and show absolutely no interest in India at all. One has brought her quilting, one her knitting, another the auto-biography of David Niven. Several dog-eared books of puzzles do good trade. Occasionally a wild game of mahjong breaks out, even a brief conversation – but words are generally not required, nor any but the mildest stimulation.

They sat in self-satisfied silence, occasionally glancing at the scenery, at this point in proceedings, happy to glimpse a cormorant. Live people scare them. Only grubby children and suitably picturesque poverty attract their eye, provided it’s from a safe distance.

I couldn’t stand it. The terrible calm hit me like a marshmallow brick – it was overpowering, like entering a different, parallel world. Surreal. I’d stand at the top of the stairs looking around. Nothing moved. The only living thing was the top-deck Bongo, trapped on duty behind the bar, hoping for an order.

I could survive for just minutes at a time then had to rush away. I couldn’t breathe; it was the most claustrophobic open-air location in the world. Some odd glitch of group-dynamics had created this; some strange rule was holding it in place.

It was all about a woman with thin, dyed blonde hair.

*

The silent assasin was entirely ordinary in every way except for one not so silent fact – she had cancer. She was not shy about playing the tragedy card. She came on this cruise because the brochure said: ‘Note that cabins do not have TVs or phones…’ She interpreted this to mean no noise at all – anywhere. Her cancer apparently required that at all passengers comply with her regime of silence, the implication being that if they spoke, she might die.

Well, there’d certainly be no worries with Dogster. She was another of the pixilated strangers he shared the boat with. She never once talked to him, never once acknowledged his presence with more than a withering stare, made certain that she never shared a table with him – let alone a smile. But she had cancer. Cut her some slack…

Actually, she was a certified Mrs. Beeton bully who’d managed to turn passive-aggression into an art form. Her cancer just meant she could add ‘martyr’ to her list of accomplishments. She seethed with something secret, angry at herself for falling ill, angry at an unthinking world for standing by and letting her, angry at the simple pleasures others took for granted, holding firm to what she knew. She preferred to gaze on nice things, picturesque rural activity, preferably through glass. Life should be one long Andre Rieu concert, not the grubby parade of Bihar that presented itself on the river bank.

‘There’s nothing noble about dirt,’ I heard her say, ‘none of them wash.’

She’d sit and read, pale and pastel in the afternoon sunlight. If any noise other than the permitted ones occurred, she’d sigh. If the disturbance continued, she’d sigh again. A third imposition warranted a slight turn of the head, a laser glance over her reading glasses and then a return to her book.

Should none of these red flags be noticed, next move was the slow burn. This involved a sigh then the book was lowered very, very slowly to the lap. Her tragic, martyred head turns very slowly. The sweetest of smiles…

‘Would you mind…?’

*

The upper deck reverie was only disturbed by Raja, the highly enthusiastic wildlife guy. When sailing, his job was to stand up on the upper deck, scanning the horizon. Every now and then, he’d shout out a sighting, a Brit or two would rouse themselves from torpor and trundle to the rail for a cormorant viewing.

‘Dolphin! Dolphin! Two o-clock!’

The four frisky dolphins got a cheer. They were frisky and Gangetic which, if you’re a British tourist, is a surprisingly big deal. They look pretty much like other dolphins to me, only smaller.

Raja and Raja alone was allowed to break the code of silence. The Gorgons liked him – even Cancer joined in. When not scanning, shouting or sharing his binoculars, Raja was the enthusiast. He was relentlessly upbeat about everything, his perfect teeth and perfect English melding in a perfect storm of lavish charm. He could lie like a robber’s dog, meant not a word of anything he said but was so expert, so skilled in the ways of the foreign fools that one could only admire his consummate skill.

There’s only so much a naturalist can do from the deck of a moving boat. He pulled every stunt he could. Those Gangetic Dolphins may well have been crew members with fins strapped to their backs.

*

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