Skip to content

ICE COLD IN ALEX

  

*

The first time I ever heard of Alexandria was at the Saturday arvo pictures in Hobart in about 1825. Engraved on my memory from this period is one filum. Click the pic.

Dog loves a British war movie. It really has to be in Black and White. Ice Cold in Alex is one of the best. There’s a famous scene where the exhausted crew finally arrive in Alex, ready for that long-deserved beer. Every nuance from the plot is there. Perfect war movie – restrained, spare, very British.

None of which has anything to do with anything. Think of it as an Intermission.

CLICK FOR A CLIP

*

The dead man lay coughing in a deck chair, huddled under a mountain of blankets.

Of course, he wasn’t quite dead at the time.

I think he’d been there since Athens, a permanent attraction; King of the Land of the Dead. Nobody sat close. He wore a dirty cloth hat, Elvis Presley sunglasses and a woollen scarf wrapped tightly around his head. That’s all I could see, save for the thick black socks and tan sandals.

The cough was lurid, volcanic, like the mud pools at Rotorua. His slight frame shook and rattled, as if the creature from Alien was about to burst out of the blankets. Hack, hack. Gurgle. Hack. All around him cruisers got up and left.

Kind Dogster wanted to help but thought he might die if he got close. Socks and sandals is never a good sign. As it turned out, the dead man saved him the trouble. As the fabled minarets of Alexandria hove into view he heaved himself up, hoiked a blanket round his shoulders and staggered off to his cabin.

I never really saw his face.

*

Early morning Alexandria, the day after the last general election. As there were no other candidates, it was a fair bet Mubarek would romp home. Strewn with political slogans, banners, faded posters, graffiti and flags, Alex had an air of sullen rage. Dogster abandoned himself to a guided tour. It happens so rarely that it’s kinda good. No need to think or even be interested, just get on the bus, look out the window, tune out the guide and, for the pre-allotted time, everything is fine.

Alexandria revealed itself to Dog exactly as Alexandria reveals itself to countless tourists – a thin blur of Corniche and castle, shabby shops and glimpses of art deco, the ghost of Alexander Durrell long fled.

‘Yabber yabber yabber corrupt government,’ said the guide, ‘yabber garbage strike illegal building Mubarak.’

She was young, wound tight in a headscarf, red lipstick smeared defiantly on her face. She recited facts and figures but her heart was elsewhere.

‘Mubarek. Mubaraek. Mubarek. Thirty years. Mubarek.’

Everybody told the same chilling anecdotes, no matter what tour they went on. Every guide said exactly the same thing. Most of it was bad. Our guides weren’t reticent about coming forward with attitude. They were charged with the task of telling tourists about Egypt, so they did, Mubarek and all.

Barely six weeks later, Egypt was up in arms. The dominoes fell. Mubarek was gone. I wonder what the tours will be like now?

*

*

‘It was disgusting. Truly, disgusting. The worst I’ve ever seen.’

Alice was very tall, very blonde and self-assertive. A very un-Alice kind of woman, she’d had a career in the W.H.O., traveling to hell-holes in deepest, darkest Africa. This served both the starving nations and her penchant for black cock very well indeed. She knew the world and quite a number of the gentlemen in it. For her to remark on the disgustingness of Egypt was strange indeed.

‘I have photos…’ she threatened. Everybody said the same thing. Egypt was the most horrible country in the world. It was such a coup, such a ship-wide strike that I wondered at the time whether it was pre-planned. Was this a little bit of the people’s revolution? Subversive tourism? Is it possible to send a boat-full of tourists away from Egypt vowing never to return? Apparently, yes.

‘I got scared. I was mobbed by camel men. They were all around me, like locusts, pulling at me, shouting… oh, it was awful. Really, I panicked.’

Alice again. The most level-headed, intelligent woman on the boat.

‘I just ran back onto the bus and sat there. I didn’t see the pyramids.’

*

Of course, everybody hated Alexandria as well. It was dirty. It was smelly, there were dogs running round in the streets. Of course, Egyptian tourism did everything in its power to reduce any pleasure there might have been. As usual every tour bus in Alexandria turned up at the same site at the same time, making it impossible to see. Normal.

The despair was sliced in two with a lengthy visit to the Bibliotheque where the schedule collapsed, three of the passengers were locked on a balcony for thirty minutes and one was simply left behind. While bewildered Azamites were treated to a lengthy demonstration of the Bibliotheque website, Dogster abandoned the group and found the museums downstairs. He was happy.

Of course, the tour ended up in a vast emporium of Egypto-crap; upstairs the papyrus, downstairs souvenirs. Nobody was getting out of there alive. Dog searched for the worst but gave up; just surrendered, glorying in the ancient art of Egyptian souvenirage.

Suddenly I realized that it wasn’t that Egypt was abnormally dirty. These people were just very clean.

*

Sometime in the middle of an early dinner the announcement came through.

‘Something something something Cabin 1407 Something Stat.’

Azamara don’t make announcements over dinner. Heads turned.

‘Mmmm, something important,’ whispered one.

‘Maybe someone died,’ laughed another.

‘Hee hee hee,’ the table said.

*

Beryl was the anti-Azamara.

She’d had a life in the Outback biting lamb’s balls off for a living, herding mobs of black-fellas around her father’s arm. Rough, tough and fearless, she should have been lots of fun but Egypt had turned her rancid – Beryl’s native Aussie charm had deserted leaving just a tracksuit and a mouth.

There’s a certain breed of harridan pensioner particular to Queensland. The Gold Coast version is particularly venomous. They hover in a Sixties netherworld, a time pre-‘puter, pre-mobile phone, pre-E. They still write letters and go to church, drink cups of tea and sew – but be warned, these sweet old ladies swear fit to make a sailor blush.

She was dressed in a huge purple tracksuit, grey trainers and pearls. Beryl had long since given up trying to conform. She knew perfectly well what was expected – she simply couldn’t be bothered. She steadfastly refused to dress in anything other than a track-suit unless it was a national emergency. On such occasions she produced a crumpled blue dress and that string of pearls – but she never lost those trainers.

‘I don’t give a rat’s arse, darl,’ she said, ‘I’m too old to care about piss-elegance and trivia and afternoon tea – I’d sooner stare at the wall. They can either deal with it or rack off.’

All of her sagged in folds, from the bags under her eyes to what once were breasts, a symphony of purple velour. She threw back another blue cocktail and called for two more. Her eighty-year eyes blearily tried to focus.

‘I’m a bit pisshed,’ she said, ‘scuse my French.’

Beryl was venting.

‘‘Get yer arse down here. Come on!’

Poor thing was just back from her day trip to Egypt.

‘Eleven and a half hours, darl… jee-e-ezus. Just for some Pyramids. I won’t do that again in a hurry. What a shithole.’ She patted the empty chair beside her.

‘Sit here. Come and talk to me, darlin’,’ she bellowed, ‘siddown.’

I obeyed. I had no option. She was nearly a hundred years old and not to be tangled with.

‘She’s driving me crazy.

‘Who?’

‘Jean! You know Jean – my cabin mate. Jean.’

One of us was confused. I’d never seen either of them before this moment. Beryl wasn’t an easy lady to forget. Vast and very tall, folded tragically in a deck-chair, she sat slurping her drink like an eight year old trapped in a mountain.

‘She’s giving me the shits.’

’So what’s her problem?’

‘Pirates,’ Beryl said flatly, ‘she thinks she’ll be raped.’

Beryl rolled her eyes.

‘She thinks they’ll use grappling hooks and climb into our cabin. The stupid bitch wants to sleep with the curtains open so she can see ‘em coming.’

‘This would be the blind, sex-crazed Somali Pirates?’ I asked, trying to keep the incredulity out of my voice. She nodded gravely.

‘How old is Jean?’

‘Eighty-four.’

Beryl looked at me with a sudden smile on her face.

‘Darls, I said to her – I’ll sleep next to the window. They can fuck me first.’

*

Cruisers love a schedule. We need a schedule. It gives shape and importance to our meaningless days. So when the sail-away schedule was not adhered to, there was a sniff and a grizzle amongst the ranks. We love a sail-away. We like to line the railings and wave vacantly at any poor local in sight, rather hoping that someone is sorry we are leaving. The only people sad in Alex were the Egyptian traders who hadn’t exhausted their stocks of tourist crap.

Tick tick tick. Nothing nothing nothing.

‘What’s happening here?’ huffed one unhappy camper.

‘Huff and puff,’ went the assembled throng, ‘sniff, pish, hrrrumph, hmmmm.’

Grizzle grew to natter, groups in a huddle. Nothing. Nothing. Nada. Little old ladies even had to go to bed, it got so late.

Those still waiting three hours later would have seen the shabby scene below. A covered stretcher carried hurriedly down the dock and deposited in an ambulance that looked like it had driven straight from the fifties to the pier. He was loaded in, the ambulance started up, hiccoughed then stopped about a meter away. Eventually large numbers of bored Egyptians managed to push start the van.

It wasn’t a distinguished exit for the dead man.

He was Ice Cold In Alex, too.

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT  2011

%d bloggers like this: