My Hols 2011
I get up early and have a quick coffee. That’s breakfast, nothing more. We’re off down the motorway in a couple of hours and I don’t want to keep skidding into service areas for a toilet-emergency. Ever since I changed to drinking wine and whisky my bladder’s lost its elasticity. It used have a couple of gallon capacity when I was a beer guzzler. You go downhill if you don’t practice.
It’s hot today, hot and dry, one of those spring heat waves we get every second millennium. I’ve dumped the cases in the boot and I’m pacing up and down the hall, waiting for Liz. I told her we should leave at noon and she’s working to that. She’s a trooper, Liz. Tell her noon and noon it is. Not a minute late. Not a minute early; emphasis on the latter.
The trouble is, the rules have changed over the last couple of days. I didn’t arrange this holiday so I’m not in on the nitty-gritty. The thing is, we’re going off to a narrow boat on the River Wey. That’s Godalming way. There will be eight of us on the boat. Eight people, that is, and two dogs. Big dogs, like an Old English Sheep Dog that thinks it’s still on the farm and keeps herding everything that moves into one confined space then guarding the escape route, growling like a lion and displaying a set of choppers the size of elephant’s tusks. The other hound is bigger still, a designer breed, Labradoodle, with a head the size of Birkenhead and a mouth like a Great White, lovingly blessed with a voracious appetite. This one’s friendly enough, but could accidently demolish a house or sink a ship with its massive crocodile tail which forever shoots back and fore like a Flying Shuttle. The eight other sardines, selected for the tin, are six adults and two kids, Charlie, nine, and Isobel, six.
When I say the rules have changed I mean the ‘feedback to me’ has changed. The actual rules have stayed the same, but I didn’t know them till yesterday. Originally, they told me the boat was available from 2.30pm onwards. Good. In my little dream that meant that Diz, Dan and the kids would arrive in one car, with Dougle, the Labradoodle. And Jon and Sylvia would arrive in another car, along with Ulf, the OESD. As one, they would sign for the boat, memorise the rules and get things ship-shape. Then, in the fullness of time, Liz and I, both in our dotage, would turn up, and the boat would glide gracefully down-river like a swan at sunset.
Then, yesterday, Jon informed me that we all have to be there at 2.30 on the dot for the briefing and handover. It transpires that we all have to tick all the boxes for Health and Safety and all that jazz. So now we need to leave home around 10.30 so… ‘Come on Liz!’
We’ve arrived at the river-berth on time, 2.30. Diz and Dan are already aboard. Sylvia and Jon are unpacking their car and humping stuff along the path. The boat’s called the Snow Goose. She’s the longest vessel on the Wey with only inches to spare as she goes through the locks, all 16 of them. But she’s narrow. Looking down from a bridge she looks like a piece of coloured rope.
God, I’m thirsty. I’ve not had a drink since 7.30am. And it’s hot out here in the sun, waiting for the man to come and give us a briefing. I’m dehydrating so I’ll nip into that café and grab a coffee. ‘Damn!’ I can’t. The man’s arrived and he’s going to start the lecture. He’s telling us all about it now, rattling on about pumps… toilets… water… locks… gates… fire hydrants… oil… and on… and on. I hope the others know what he’s saying ‘cos I’m still pondering the first pump. The memory’s not what it was and my concentration span is in the goldfish league, and I’m hot and I need a drink.
At last, he seems to have finished. Good. I’ll nip into the café. But no. Now he wants to give us a demonstration on the water. So, ‘Let go for’ard!’ as they say in the Sea Cadets.
The tuition’s finished now but there’s still no coffee. The boys are off to Sainsbury’s to get the supplies and the ladies are busy unpacking and I can’t find any stuff. Maybe a cup will appear at some stage. But it doesn’t. They’re itching to get down the water. So we’re all busy sorting stuff out and getting ship-shape.
Dan and Jon are back with the rations, which turn out to be beer, Becks, to be more accurate. I’m not a Becks drinker myself. But I am mad-thirsty so, ‘Down the hatch,’ and other nautical expressions.
We’re sailing merrily down the river now, Becks beer coming out of my ear holes. Now we tie up by a meadow in the middle of nowhere and settle down to the evening meal, lovingly prepared by the ladies and washed down with Becks beer.
Now they reveal the sleeping arrangements. The children will be in the two single beds in the stern, with Diz and Dan in the ensuite berth beside them. Jon and Sylvia, who is expecting, will be in the midships ensuite berth. Liz and I have drawn the short-straw, the kitchen, which converts into a bedroom when everyone else has departed, and which is not ensuit.
“Whoa!” I protest. “My bladder’s shrunk and I’m full of beer. I need to sleep near a toilet.”
“Pee in the river,” Jon says helpfully.
We sit in the kitchen now, chatting and drinking Becks. Then somewhere around 2300 hours a minor miracle occurs, Katie, our granddaughter, arrives onboard with her boyfriend. That’s quite something when you think about it. Katie lives in Plymouth. Her boyfriend lives in Ascot. And we have got the boat tied to a riverbank in the middle of a huge meadow in deepest Surrey in the middle of the night. But come they have. Then, in the wee small hours, they go. Now everyone goes to their ensuite berths while Liz and I set about constructing our bed, with countless mistakes and much cursing by me.
I’m in bed now, and beer’s seeping down the plumbing. I need a pee. I swing my legs to the deck and head for the door in the dark. “It’s bloody cold!” I go outside. It’s even colder, cold enough for frost. I clamber up and stand on the side of the boat. Now I’m peeing in the river. It’s moonlight, a white frost-mist lying over the meadow, owls hooting, I’m shivering, my legs are full of goose pimples, my feet are blocks of ice, and I’m peeing and peeing and peeing. It goes on forever, I can’t stop; tins of Becks multiplying in my bladder…
I get back in bed. ”At last! Thank God… Yaaaaah!” I’ve got cramp. I leap out of bed and dance and kick my legs in the six inch space between the bed and the bulkhead. I’m in agony, and cold, freezing cold.
At last, frozen and exhausted, I collapse back into bed and pull the blanket over my head. “Thank God for that! Oh no… *@<*+!” The cold has gone for me. I need another pee. I get out of the bed, stagger into the foggy dew, clamber on the rail, owls hooting, and pee and pee and pee…
Back into bed, “Yaaaaah...!” cramp… up and dance... back into bed… up and pee… bed, cramp, dance, bed, pee, bed, cramp, dance, bed… all bloody night.
As dawn breaks I pray to lose consciousness. Then comes this almighty banging. Bang! Bang! Bang! starting at the far end of the boat and getting ever nearer and louder, accompanied by a God-awful rattling as Dougle decides to make his way down the boat to say “good morning” to Ulf; his tail lashing everything in sight and his massive head battering doors until they give way.
The next night, Jon and Sylvia take pity on me and offer to swap beds. I’m no gentleman. I accept. Nay… I snatch at the offer. “Yippee!” I cry, diving under the luxury duvet and down into my double-bedded ensuite heaven. “Yippee!”
I sleep sounder than a corpse in a morgue. It’s wonderful; even at dawn when Dougle crashes along the boat on his way to greet Ulf, his great tail delivering a near knockout blow as he goes past. I don’t care. I feel fine.
But it’s not fine. There are complaints. The others can’t sleep because of my snoring. Another night comes. I crawl guiltily under the blanket. It isn’t bed anymore. It’s the naughty-step. “Lie on your side,” Elizabeth orders.
“I can’t sleep on my side,” I protest.
“I don’t care. Lie on your side.”
“I don’t know where to put my arms,” I protest.
“I don’t care. Lie on your side.”
I lie on my side. I can’t sleep. I toss and I turn. The night drags. I drift off.
Elizabeth pokes me. “You’re snoring,” she accuses, “get back on your side.”
All bloody night.
And so the days and nights glide happily by as we meander through the English countryside, moseying in and out of locks and mooring to stakes on the riverbank at night. Jon at the helm, assisted by Sylvia, the Viking, who is more at home on water than she is on terra firma. Dan and I are on rope and lock duty, assisted by Charlie and Isobel who take to the life like ducks to water. The dogs too are amazing, good as gold onboard and leaping ashore for a pee and a poo at the locks. Diz and Liz are on galley duty as we lock into the Thames and make our way up to Windsor, picnicking and barbequing as we go.
We are back in the River Wey now. Homeward bound. Dan and I are leaving today. It’s by prior arrangement. We’re not chickening out.
Now the red light comes on in one of the toilets. The tank is full. We all use the second toilet. Then its red light comes on. This is an emergency, eight people aboard and no toilet. It’s all crossed legs and watering eyes from now on. Jon consults the brochure. There’s a marina, two locks up the river. You can clean out the toilet tanks there. So… full speed ahead.
At this stage Dan and I bail out. As we leave the Snow Goose and stride along the bank, Dan punches the air “Yes!” he cries.
The others beat up river, toilets and bowels full to overflowing, work the locks and pray to the Lord as they make for the lifesaving marina. They head straight for the pump by the sceptic tank, leap ashore and read the notice.
“Closed on Tuesdays,” it tells them.
“Shit! This is Tuesday!”
A couple of months later, Liz and I are off on another boat. This one’s a Cunarder, the Queen Victoria, bound for the Baltic.
On the first morning we go to the Lido for breakfast. The Lido’s up-top on deck nine. It’s a good place to eat because it’s bright and informal with picture windows and tables close enough to be matey yet distant enough to be private. It’s buffet service. I don’t usually like buffet service; all those people poking at the sausages and honking over the ash browns. I always end up at with a reject egg and cold bacon. But it’s different in Cunard. The food comes straight out of the pan onto your plate. White Star service. And these posh people turn away to sneeze. Breeding.
The drawback with the Lido is that you have 2,000 people wanting food and a seat at the same time. On the other hand, when you eventually find a place to sit, its good fun to watch everyone else wandering about like lost souls, looking for a parking place, with their White Star breakfast degenerating before their eyes.
We turn out to be sitting next to an American couple, Norman and his wife. He’s a little tough guy, very broad, thickset and muscular. I like him. We get on fine. We both see our respective countries as having deteriorated in almost identical ways. That’s growing old for you.
Norman brings it home to me. Ever since I left school I’ve been rubbing shoulders with people from every quarter of the globe. I find that, at grass roots level, we’re all pretty much the same. Our main concerns are health, food, shelter and a good place for our kids and their kids to live.
So who’s causing the trouble out there?
Evening comes round, 2030, dinnertime, black tie and all that jazz. We chose to sit at a table for six. If it was just a table for two, which is what I would have opted for, Elizabeth would have felt out-of-it. She likes people. I’ve got reservations. If we were at a table for four and we didn’t get on with the other two... nightmare. So we settled for six. That gives me a one in five chance of finding someone I get on with.
In this case we are lucky, the six of us get on fine. The others turn out to be Mr and Mrs Scouse from Liverpool and Mr and Mrs Taff from somewhere full of double-f’s, d’s and ll’s in West Wales, so mealtimes are convivial. As we settle down for our first meal, we introduce ourselves and start feeling our way into a pleasant relationship.
In mid conversation, my companions disappear as an open menu drifts slowly down in front of my face, like a descending fire curtain, missing my nose by a whisker. Conversation pauses as our ageing Portuguese waiter repeats the operation on each of my fellow diners, until, job done, the debate resumes. We’re chatting away merrily now, when,
“Whit wid you laike, sir?” a voice like a mating corncrake grates in my ear from behind, hot breath on the back of my neck.
“Verry naiss,” the waiter assures me when I squeal a startled reply.
“And you liedee, whit would you laike?” he whispers seductively in my wife’s shell-like before moving round the rest of his flock, repeating himself over and over,
”‘Whit would you laik liedee? Verry naiss...”
I had noticed earlier, in the bar, that the price of a pint of beer was the same as in a posh hotel and, rubbing salt in the wound, there was an additional 15% service charge. I bring this up now. “That’s steep,” I complain. “I was trained to give a 10% tip, not 15.” They all agree.
“You don’t get...” Mrs Taff disappears behind a bowl of steaming soup, cut off in mid flow. “...15, or even 10% interest in the bank,” she continues when she reappears.
“I thought we would get cheap…” I say, as a soup plate descends slowly down in front of my face, “...drinks,” I continue, when my companions come back into view. “After all...” I pause. Mrs Scouse’s head is disappearing before my very eyes, replaced by a plate of something steamy and the face of a Portuguese waiter. “...It’s all duty free on the high-seas.”
“Did you know you are all paying...” Mrs Taff is saying.
“Yes, laidee,” the waiter interrupts, sliding something in front of her face.
She waits patiently. “Eleven dollars a day, each, just for entering this room.”
“Yes…” Mrs Scouse wants to join in, but a plate hovers in front of her face.
“It’s in the small print,” her husband springs to her rescue.
“...Extra service charge,” Mrs Scouse has rejoined us.
“‘What?!” We explode in unison.
“Bon appetite,” the waiter tells us.
An alcohol-based hand-gel dispenser, like those on hospital wards, guards every entrance to every dining area. Hawk eyes make sure you comply with the compulsory hand wash. I frown at first but, fair enough, bugs can whip through these tour-boats like a Nebraska twister through a cattle ranch. You can’t be too careful.
When I go to the toilet, realisation dawns. If I ever thought the alcohol dispenser was a bit over the top, I change my mind now. This bog paper is gossamer thin; deadly dangerous. These rolls should come with a finger bowl attached. They might be OK for the constipated masses and genteel ladies from the shires, but they are of little use to a hairy-assed larger shifter like myself. I visualise a lavatorial crisis and implore the room-steward to leave me ample reserves of paper.
We’ve got class here, big-time. Even the stewards and menials are posh. There’s no riffraff anywhere. All the men have dicky bows tucked away somewhere. And all those women come with trunks full of evening gowns and jewellery.
But top of the class are the Grill Passengers. I call them the Grillers. They live on deck eleven, close to heaven. You never see them. Nay. You never know you’ve seen them. They’re like Freemasons, invisible to the naked eye. I suspect that they’re those strange people who sit in the boxes in the theatre and squint at the stage sideways, pretending not to be interested.
I did come across a Griller once. The ship had docked in Tallin or some such place. The gangway for going ashore was on deck A, which is below deck 1 and about as near to sea level as you can get without wearing a snorkel. So we gets in the lift on deck 8 and presses the button for deck A, like you do. But the lift stops at deck 5 and people get it. They press the button for deck A, like you do. But the lift stops at deck 4 and more people get in. They press the button for deck A, like you do. But the lift stops at deck 3 and more people get in. They press the button for deck A, like you do. Now the lift stops at deck 1. Yippee! This is only one deck above deck A. We’re nearly there.
One woman gets in. We don’t know it, but she’s a Griller. She produces a card, slips it in a slot, and whoosh... the lift shoots back to deck 11, next to heaven, and she gets out without so much as a, “drop dead.”
We press the button for deck A, like you do.
I travel light. Which means that, apart from underpants and socks, which I trample underfoot in the shower, I rely heavily on the services of the local dhobi wallah.
Elizabeth will have none of this. She can sniff out a washing machine at five miles. If there is a launderette in the land she will load me with a pile of grubby castoffs and drag me to it, like a Romanian peasant’s donkey. This routine happens again on the Victoria where every passenger-deck has its dedicated launderette.
So, one Baltic afternoon I find myself, like Mr Woo, in a den full of washerwomen who have gathered to gossip and discuss the optimum temperature for fumigating knickers.
It’s here, in the washing den, that I see her again, the apparition who haunts every launderette in the world.
The door flings open and she barges in; a big fat woman; solid; super-heavyweight; aggressive; Tyson scowl. As always, she’s hugging that massive basket, piled incredibly high with an impossible amount of festering unmentionables.
I first heard about this phenomena when my parents were alive and living in sheltered housing. They shared a washroom, like this on the Victoria, with the rest of their neighbours. There was a rota for using the machines, but that went up in smoke when this apparition appeared, like Beelzebub, wielding a loaded basket.
In my parents’ place, the residents concluded it was the spirit of an aggressive neighbour who had died and was doing the washing for the corpses in the cemetery. But I’ve seen the same vision, many times since, in launderettes as far apart as Australia and the Arctic Circle. So I know better.
It’s the Devil’s washerwoman.
This day on the Victoria, in she comes, ignores the queue, and marches straight to a dryer and drags everything out. Then she opens a washing machine, snatches out the wet clothes and stuffs them into the dryer she’s just emptied. Now she tips her basket of putrid rags into the newly vacant washing machine, slams it shut, turns on her heels and marches out, all in a single movement. Not a word spoken. In and out in a flash then back to hell.
I know about this. She does it all day, every day, in every launderette in the world; seen it with my own eyes.
The rest of us stand, like sheep in an abattoir, hoping to slip one of our smellies into a cleansing-machine before the return of the demon.
I lean on the rail, gazing over the Skagerrak at the coast of Denmark; flat sea; flat land.
“Flat earth?” I wonder, but, “No,” I decide. I’ve seen the photographs from outer space. “It’s a bladder of blue cheese.”
Talking of flat earth, reminds me. My dad used to work with a bloke who was in the Flat Earth Society. Mad as a goat. The scary bit is that MI5 put him under surveillance then took him in for questioning. Things like that help me sleep sound at night.
They’ve peppered these flat Baltic lands with wind turbines; uncannily Quixotic in this day and age: Windmills vs Climate Change. May the strongest force win.
It’s evening now. We sit in the open-plan Chartroom Bar having a pre-dinner drink. The Chartroom is on deck two, next to the dining room at the aft end of the ship. That dining room is big, real big; second only in impressiveness to the city-sized theatre situated in the bow. They feed 2,000 people in two sittings in that canteen. If my arithmetic’s correct that’s 1,000 souls per sitting. And they all have to drift past this lounge to get there.
It’s probably the most fascinating time of any day, to sit in this nautically themed bar, picture windows overlooking the sea, and watch that passageway over there. First, an odd couple drift by, then two’s and threes, then groups. Then a continuous stream of people in dinner suit and evening gown. They all go floating past while you watch; not one hundred, but hundreds and hundreds of them, first in one direction then the other; first to dine, then, topped-up with three courses of bloating calories, back to the ballroom or theatre. None of them are under 70. Some have been dead for years.
It’s like they are not real. Like they are phantoms, ghosts from the past re-living an age that has gone. Maybe I’m seeing spirits, fresh from their watery staterooms, drifting over the decks of long gone Atlantic liners.
And look, there’s breakfast Norman. Hey! He’s wearing an army officer’s dress-uniform, more medals than Idi Amin. My God, maybe he’s Storming Norman of Desert Storm. But no... I don’t believe it, that uniform is identical to the one they wore in the American Civil War. I’ve seen them in films.
So maybe none of this is real, just ghosts from the past reliving the first – and best – four days on the Titanic...
Our ancient steward in the restaurant, oblivious of people, going through the motions of the years, serving and clearing, serving and clearing, like he did at that last dinner on that fatal day in mid Atlantic...
Norman in his cavalry outfit, on vacation from killing Confederates...
The Devil’s Hag, haunting the launderette…
The Queen Victoria, like the Flying Dutchman, a ship with no cargo, going nowhere in particular; drifting round the flatlands of Scandinavia where Don Quixotes tilt windmills at Continental Drift…
“I’ve seen enough. Beam me up.”