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MAMMA AZAMARA

*

From now on there is nothing but water and pirates till Dubai.

In a day or so we’ll be in the Gulf of Aden, sailing past Somalia. We all knew what could happen there; Somali hijack, granny-rape and capture. Although rather prone to lurid fantasy, Beryl’s Jean was right on the money. That’s why she was uneasy; she could feel it in her loins – at eighty-four, I suspect any sensation in your loins is alarming, so when the Captain called a pirate briefing, canny Jean was first in line.

Our Captain Courageous was exactly the kind of man you would want in charge if a flotilla of Somali pirates decided Jean was worth a grapple. He stood centre-stage in the Cabaret room, master and commander of all he surveyed, taking us through the reasons, realities, the risks and the remedies. You couldn’t have asked for a more comprehensive speech.

‘We don’t carry firearms on the ship,’ he said, ‘but we have weapons…’

He held up his mobile phone.

‘You all carry a weapon. Just think of it, any problem and there are six hundred people sending out an alert.’

A Pirate Patrol Boat chugged alongside that night, staffed by young men in impossible white, charged to escort us through to Dubai. It circled the boat like an angry hornet for the next five days, looking for something to sting. Each night extra crew patrolled decks already crawling with security and sensors. I believe I heard the howling of anti-Somali tracker dogs. Elvira, the rather manly security guard, volunteered herself for first ravaging.

‘There will be a complete blackout on board. Each night your cabin stewards will draw your curtains. Keep them closed. All outside lights must be turned off. The deck will be unlit…’

He went on, detailing some of the measures and keeping others to himself. Only the most nervous of the nervous could stay afraid; even Jean looked relieved. At least the cut-throats had to get past Elvira to get to her. We even practiced evacuating to our ‘safe place’ and, having practiced our evacuation, hurried back to our cabins to drink jolly swash-buckler gin. For most of us, the potential of pirates was the most exciting thing that faced us for eight long days.

‘There is a plus,’ the Captain added, a whimsical look in his eye.

‘Tonight, with the ship blacked out, take yourself to the upper deck. Look up at the stars.’

*

Eight straight days at sea loomed.

Now I could settle in and really find something to dislike. My only problem was I didn’t have a problem. I had absolutely nothing to complain about. Guest Relations had me hog-tied, muzzled and compliant; their dastardly plan was a complete success. They’d played me like a yo-yo and won. Two weeks ago Dog Satan walked up the gangway. Look at him now.

Madame Pong was triumphant – the Dog behaved like a jolly puppy, admittedly, one with a nasty bite. Guest Relations bravely went in and neutralized the threat. Soon she’ll get another stripe for extra valor; conspicuous kindness in the eye of Hurricane Dog.

Now, at last, she had me where she wanted – time for the kill.

‘I’ve just been re-reading ‘Death by Azamara’ she said archly, somewhere between Egypt and freedom. ‘

Oh, yes,’ muttered Dogster, waiting for the sting.

‘It’s quite amusing… quite well-written, quite funny in its own quaint way…’

Faint praise. She was very stern.

‘Now, I think you should publish an apology.’

Finally, just for a second, Dog saw the whites of those killer Aza-eyes.

She stared at me blankly.

Mr. Dogster stared blankly back.

I’m not sure that this story was quite what she had in mind.

*

I was walking across the pool-deck one hot afternoon. The baking bellies were still there, swaddled in white deck towels. For a second I thought they were all in enormous cloth diapers, multiple Baby Hughies waiting for their feed; infantilized, patronized and passive. All they needed was burping, changing and re-assurance.

There’s a bra-a-ay of Austra-a-ayans in the distance. A cluck of Canadians debate the Muslim veil; smokers sit and wait for death, trapped in their closet under the stairs. One old man leant asleep outside the hydro-pool, his gigantic shorts awry, blissfully unaware he was dangling his tackle, to the hilarity of the crew.

Faces blur into a friendly muddle. I no longer know if I know them or not. I am just nice to everyone, hoping someone will recognize me.

‘Just got on?’ I said cheerily to a new face.

She looked at me with sweet American loathing in her eyes.

‘I had dinner with you last night…’

Argh-h-h-h. I think I’m coming down with a touch of Stockholm syndrome. Maybe it’s just a bad case of Stockholm Lite. My cognition is dramatically impaired. I’m feeling a bit dissonant, kinda strange. This is ridiculous. This is totally surreal. Someone is stealing my soul.

*

Azamara Quest slipped through dangerous waters, her passengers safe in her benign embrace, silently running from malevolent strangers, lost in the shadows of an Arabian night. Each day the Milky Way grew a little bit brighter, the passengers a little more dim.

Inch by inch, knot by knot, my capacity for thought was whittled away. Perhaps someone drugged my food. It was a perfectly pleasant sensation. There was nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to think or need. Life was shallow, boutique and stress-free – an elegant Aquilina soufflé, just froth and designer bubble – signifying nothing, sweet nothing at all.

Life was just one endless conversation. We sailed from Alexandria to Dubai on a gulf-stream of booze and bullshit.

‘Good morning, good morning, Mr. Dogster!’’ coo the butlers.

‘Come to dinner!’ hoot the tragic singles.

‘You’re looking good today, sir,’ says the waiter, ‘can I get you something special from the chef?’

‘Gidda-a-ay,’ drawls the entire of Queensland, sleepily guzzling through another Azamara day.

‘Come and join us!’

It was quite impossible to get through breakfast without smiling. Inevitably someone would be needlessly nice.

Breakfast slithered into lunch with a chat or two in between. Lunch became a vagabond affair, sometimes upstairs, sometimes down, sometimes with people, sometimes alone. By the time the luncheon gossip had settled it was time for afternoon tea. More chats, more rambling and soon happy hour fell upon us all, precipitating the long, slow boozy descent through dinner and into the cabaret room for something approaching entertainment. The punters are too drunk to know whether it is or not.

I saw them in the lifts; I saw them on the stairs, in the corridors after the Cabaret, elegantly stumbling about in their stupid high heels, best dresses and bra straps slightly awry, supported by a florid husband with romance on his mind.

‘Sleep well, you guys…’

‘Arg-h-hwarggh woah-ha-ha!’  he said with a cheery wave.

She was swaying, trying to open the door. They both tumbled inside.

‘G’ni-i-i-ite!’

Slam.

*

Mamma Azamara swallowed us whole, shepherding us past the sex-crazed Somalis, protecting her babies from a threatening outside world. All eyes looked in, not out, gazed fixedly down at their plates – but never, never once at the stars.

We sank into her generous bosom with grateful thanks. The more we snuggled, the more we were mollied; the more we behaved, the more we were coddled; the more we played the SoCal game, the more we were indulged and rewarded – Aza-anaesthetized, Aza-botomized, cudgeled with kindness; reduced to a pliant wreck. Wherever we turned, there was niceness.

I was neutralized, bowdlerized, cauterized, annulled; indulged in a sweet, slow-motion slaughter. I was battered into submission, bludgeoned with service from breakfast till bed, surrounded with caring, sharing staff. Death by soufflé.

*

Whassat?’ said a Gold Coast cruiser, pointing at the distance.

His wife cast a bleary eye to the sea.

‘Somalia,’ she grunted.

‘Sama-a-a-a-arya…’ he mumbled, trying to process all those syllables.

‘Pirates,’ she said flatly.

‘Sama-a-a-arya…’

‘Som-alia.’

‘Have I heard of that?’

*

Just over the horizon is Sudan, Somalia, Saudi Arabia, Oman – fascinating cultures, amazing places, another parallel universe – but we are relocating, relocating – endlessly ree-lo-caating.

We sail and sail and never stop, glide right past the world, neither there nor here. We’ve achieved invisibility; we are everywhere, we are nowhere; not of the world nor even on it; just a luminous dot on a radar scan, a flickering blip on an electronic screen.

We choose this, our voluntary incarceration; we choose the jailers, we choose the jail; all lost in the Azamara Quest for the perfect nothing; the Über-nothing of boutique nothing of nothing much at all.

Cruisin’.

*

At the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;

Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is,

But neither arrest nor movement. And do not call it fixity, Where past and future are gathered.

Neither movement from nor towards, Neither ascent nor decline.

Except for the point, the still point, There would be no dance, and there is only the dance.

BUIRNT NORTON (‘Four Quartets’) T.S. Eliot

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT  2011

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