Thursday, 14 February 2013

A Slow Boat to England - A Love Story

Slow boat to England
30 airports, 30 airplanes, 12,000 people, 24,000 feet walking along endless miles of carpet and flying over thousands of miles of land and sea on their way to who knows where. The airports I fly too are universally dull, full of bleary eyed drones who can’t wait to get aboard and settle their sacks of bones into lightly sprung polyester seats for endless hours of lukewarm food, and uninspiring entertainment before entering into a zombie like stupor for the duration of their flights and during one of these trips it becomes clear that, as with most things in modern life, we haven’t been freed by modernity but trapped by it.
The porter pushes his sack barrow loaded with my three-piece Globetrotter luggage set up the gangplank to the deck and then up the stairs to my luxurious cabin. I tip him heftily and survey my surroundings. My room is spacious, on par with a luxury suit in a 5-star hotel, with all the mod cons you’d expect, a satellite connected 54” flat screen LED TV with surround sound, Egyptian cotton sheets and duvet cover, a whirlpool bath and more Egyptian cotton in the toweling. I step out onto the balcony and watch the crew gather in the mooring ropes and prepare to set sail. The surrounding docks are picturesque in a roughly hewn industrial way; the cranes lift and then carry the containers from ship to shore. Our ship pulls away from the dock and we’re on our way. The next 23 days are to be spent travelling from Hong Kong to Southend, I’m already dressed in suit, so i slip my jacket on and head down the passenger lounge for a welcoming aperitif just before the sun passes the yardarm and lunch is served. My 11 other passengers were mostly in their 50’s although there was a young couple who had used this as their honeymoon. Once in open water the captain joined us and welcomed us aboard. He went through the preliminary details of safety and general courtesies such as the meal time were to be strictly observed because the kitchen staff have tight deadlines preparing high quality meals for us and the 50 crew. We mingled for a while and got to know each other and drifted off in separate directions, some forming alliances and friendships of the bat others going their on ways.
I found myself talking to a woman called Janice, a middle aged English professor  at Oxford University. She often traveled by ship because it gave her time to relax and work on the academic paper that she’d spent the previous years working on. Her husband caught planes and gave her time to herself, she knew of his affairs. He didn't know of hers. We chatted for an or so and went for lunch of fois gras pate; smoked salmon, mangetout and pommes frites; desert was cheese and biscuits and a strawberry mouse. The wine was superb.
After lunch I retired to my cabin for a lie down, 40 winks later and I drowsily woke up. Splashing some water on my face i stepped out onto the balcony and lit my pipe, a habit I'd had since I was a precocious 16 year old trying to exhibit an air of sophistication. The precociousness faded, the habit didn’t and some 30 years later I had grown into it. I like to think it gave me an air of sophisticated nonchalance. It probably just made me smell bad.  The air was warm smelt of salt water and diesel fumes; if I craned my neck a little I could see the crew going about their business on the deck. I sat down on a metal bench that was welded to the balcony, opened a book and began to read. 20 more days of this I thought, I’d be so relaxed I’ll be practically comatose when the shores of Blighty come into sight.
A while later I went for a walk to get my bearings and stretch my legs. I met a few of my fellow passengers besides the pool. For a working ship it was a small but lavish affair, just under 2 meters deep and about 5 meters long by 3 wide with wooden decking around the edge. The water was from the sea and, this being the Yellow sea was a very pleasant temperature.  After walking around for a while I discovered the crew bar. Despite my wealth I’d come from a working class background and generally preferred to socialize with working men rather than the faux aristocracy with whom I was forced to spend most of my working life. It was considered out-of-bounds for paying passengers as it was considered that they crew needed somewhere that they could escape from us and not have to be so polite. They looked surprised when I stuck my round round the heavy steel door, not quite sure whether to tell me to “fuck off” or just leave me to realize that I had made a mistake and wander back from whence I'd crawled in from. I asked if I could come in, the Chief Engineer, who was a broad Scotsman both physically and in accent, came and had a word. “It’s not strictly allowed, sir” the contempt dripping from his tongue like saliva from Pavolov’s pooch. I stopped him before he could I say any more and he began to turn away, thinking that I'd understood and would leave it at that. I’d been to university in Edinburgh and spent many of my free weekends in the highlands and slid back into the heavy  brogue I’d  picked up there in the countless evenings in bars and told him that it was fine, but I was more comfortable socializing with the crew and in return all the crew would be tipped generously.  He stopped, slapped the back of my shoulders and said “well why didn’t you say so?” The deckhands were mostly Filipinos with no ability to speak English and kept themselves to themselves, the officers were a mixture of Germans, Scots, English, Italian and Australian, educated men who could all speak their own language plus several others. Apart from James, my new found cohort, and a couple of deckhands on a break, the bar was empty. Beyond the steel door the bar was comfortably, if sparsely decorated, there was a row of seats at the back with four round tables and assorted stools, the bar itself had three stools against it. It was a fully functioning bar with optics, draught beer, an ice bucket and bar towels. “What’d ya fancy?” asked James as he stood behind the bar. A neat rum was needed as a pre-dinner tipple. After one or three later, James and I went our separate ways for dinner, where I met Janice, she’d been working all afternoon but after dinner was ready for relaxing swim, and asked if i’d join her. By 10 o’clock the others guests had gone back inside and we were left to ourselves. Janice had kept herself trim, and wore a 2 piece swimsuit without any cares, I on the  other hand had been suffering from middle aged spread since I was in my mid 20’s when my metabolism slowed but my drinking and eating habits increased, I was a little self conscious sitting there next to her so wore slacks and a linen shirt. Once we were alone, she asked me to join her in the pool, I made to go and get my swim shorts but she simply looked at me silently and undid her bikini top and stepped out of her bottoms, placing them on the side of the pool. Not being backwards in coming forward I took the hint and removed my clothes and stepped into the pool. From there on in fantasies were fulfilled and fluids exchanged and we woke up in my cabin. It was half an hour to go before breakfast and Janice decided it would be prudent to get some fresh clothes on.  During breakfast we chatted as part of the group, eager not to draw attention to ourselves by ether ignoring each other or speaking solely to one another. We didn't see each other again until lunch, I occupied myself by reading on my balcony and writing in my journal, at midday we all assembled for pre-lunch drinks.
The next 23 days continued in much the same vein, Janice and I continued our tryst, spending nights between each other cabins, we gave up keeping it a secret after about the filth day when we were caught having a late night dip sans costumes. There were disapproving looks from the newlyweds, who rather idealistically believed in the sanctity of marriage, but the others didn't react in one way or another, although there were some subtle nods from the married men.  In between evenings with Janice I spent time in the crew bar and got to know the officers and crew a bit better and spent a lot of time on the bridge and on the decks as well as reading and generally relaxing.
We pulled into Southampton docks on a cold Wednesday morning, Janice and I said our goodbyes one last time and I made my way back to my cabin to pack. We had a final breakfast and said farewell to the crew and as promised I tipped the crew handsomely.

Back in the real world my car arrives at the hotel and I make a mental note to look into travel by cargo ship and then I call my wife, Janice.

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