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PASHMINA WARRIORS

*

Prime C  vomited out a pod of drunks after yet another Connoisseur Dinner. They were getting very popular, despite the host. At the same moment Dog stumbled out of Aquilina in a post-soufflé swoon. Collision with something was inevitable.

‘Evening ladies,’ I said cheerfully to a swaying wall of pashmina, ‘how was your fabulous gourmet feast?’

One looked down blearily at the cockroach.

‘I don’t talk to strange men,’ she said.

Luckily I caught the twinkle in her eye.

‘Wise move ladies, I am very strange.’

I know they saw the twinkle in mine.

‘Great company, terrible food,’ the other said.

‘Completely dr-r-readful,’ slurred her friend, ‘but we had a wonderful time.’

Together they stumbled outside onto the top deck. One retreating pashmina turned to Dog.

‘If I wasn’t so drunk I wouldn’t talk to you at all,’ she shrieked.

They both burst out laughing and swept off into the night.

*

Fate has lot to do with cruising. It’s who you meet and when. Mostly by accident – in the lift, at the buffet, the lifeboat drill, the Cruise Critic social – that’s where the bonds are made. Everything is in the first impression. For Dog, it’s usually where people get a chance to see what he looks like so they can avoid him for the rest of the cruise. That sorts the wheat from the chaff.

Pashminas and pooch met again at Afternoon Tea, falling into conversation as naturally as the whipped cream went with my jam and dry scones. I can’t remember what we talked about but it led to dinner. In an act of considerable bravery these two jolly lesbians adopted a stray.

*

‘Take a bite of this,’ Karen said, pointing to the foie gras, ‘then take a sip of this.’

She was talking about a crisp, chilled Pouilly fumé.

‘Hold them both in your mouth… fantastic…’

Pam beamed.

‘We discovered the combination at the Connoisseur Dinner.’

‘How was your host?’

‘Terrible bore.’

‘I bet his name was Rudi…’

*

Elvira is a most unlikely name for a security guard. She was short but very scary, like Danny De Vito on crack, her hair an electric crew-cut framing a youthful Asian face. I had no doubt that, given the signal, she would attack.

My Manila killer was determinedly professional, refusing to see the passengers as anything other than impediments, just foolish geriatrics getting in the way. Security can only be achieved by total lock-down. If she had her way none of them would be allowed out of their cabins; just keep ‘em in the cells and shove food through the hatches, she thought. For Elvira this is war.

Azamara doesn’t yet work like that so Elvira was forced to be nice.

She saw her brief as security, not schmooze so maintained a professional distance, an unsmiling Amazon ready to wrestle down any cruiser who made a grab for the Captain’s goolies. We were all potential threats. She was the neutralizer of last resort, a Phillipino Billy Bunter with claws.

Elvira was everywhere; every embarkation, every departure – always scanning the passengers for contraband and identity theft. She found the illicit cocaine. She personally escorted Evil off the ship in Rhodes. She stood guard on the bridge, protecting the Captain from over-enthusiastic clients. She was the sacrificial ravagee, ready to lay her body on the line should a sex-crazed buccaneer sail by.

‘Bring ‘em on,’ she thought. Elvira can kill with her thighs.

She’s embraced her body, her sexuality and her persona, found the perfect profession and, on board, the perfect group of people to be secure with. Nobody cares what she looks like – as long as she does her job. She’s out in the world being Elvira, the New Azamara in full eccentric bloom.

Bull-Dykes stand out in a crowd. She doesn’t know it but every step she takes is a political act, each day a subtle demonstration. Don’t judge a book by its cover. Lose the attitude. Be what you have to be. Elvira changed minds – just by being there, just by being alive, just by being herself.

She’s a one-woman revolution.

*

‘We’ve been together since the beginning of time,’ Karen said, looking lovingly across the table.

‘High School sweethearts,’ added Pam.

‘We were both fifteen…’

‘I’m impressed, ladies…’

That was my role. Ask questions; be interested in the answers, comment occasionally, taking care not to interrupt the flow. This was a performance; a double act honed over a million tables, a finely tuned dinner duet. My job was to sit back and enjoy the show.

‘We’re a team,’ said Pam, ‘although my illness has been a struggle the last few years.’

Pam had a scar running down the centre of her chin.

‘I had bone cancer.’

Both women were impeccably dressed, flowing in pashmina and ethnic jewellery. Karen was a solid woman with curly grey hair and a lightness of spirit quite at odds with her size. Pam was smaller, more battered, wise and ineffably kind – her recent ordeal shone bright in her eyes.

She went on to describe every hideous detail of her illness; her many surgeries, her new titanium chin, bone grafts and chemo; the whole unpleasant nine yards.

‘Things were grim,’ Karen said, ‘she nearly died.’

‘But I didn’t!’ Pam chortled, ‘I’m still here! I’m alive!’

We all drank a toast to that.

‘We went through it together,’ they said as one.

*

Phantoms dancing on the darkened deck, twirling to a tune only they could hear, swirling and laughing, gliding as one, a perfect combination. Poetry. They had a beautiful relationship – you could see it in the intimate way they knew each other’s moves; they positively flowed into each other. This young couple was wonderful to watch.

He was in his early forties, had warm twinkling eyes and loved his wife with a gentle passion. She had auburn hair, a face from a fresco and loved him right back.

‘I saw you last night,’ I began, ‘dancing on the deck…’

They looked at each other and giggled.

’I just wanted to say what a beautiful couple you made. You fit together. It was great to see.’

‘Oh, thank you. You have no idea what that means…’

To my great surprise she started to cry.

He smiled and gently put his hand over hers.

‘I’ve had breast cancer,’ she said, eyes leaking tears, ‘this cruise is to celebrate the all-clear…’

She grabbed his hand and looked at her husband with such quiet love I could have wept.

‘He’s been with me every step of the way…’

I saw love. I saw happiness. I saw life in the face of death, light in darkness. We sat there for a moment in silence.

*

Chain-smoking, sitting with her back to the crowd, bald head resting on a rug thrown round bony shoulders, she looked exactly like a boiled egg. Occasionally the egg would wobble a bit and exude smoke, a bony arm would claw up and down and a croak would issue from the blanket, the voice of a million cigarettes rasping through the wool.

‘Arh-h-h-h, it’s so cold.’

No, not really; she was cold, not it.

The scourge had come swiftly, surely, taken her away on a nightmare of chemo-therapy and rage. Her body was giving up. My boiled egg was a feisty Swede, long expatriate in Florida. She was still angry at pretty much anyone who got in her way. Egg must have been the patient from hell.

‘If my husband said ‘goodnight’ to me I’d scream at him,’ she croaked, ‘if he didn’t say ‘goodnight’ I’d scream at him… I was no fun at all. The doctors ran for cover.’

She chuckled and coughed.

‘And I’ll keep screaming!’

Egg looked me dead in the eye. She was defiant.

‘I’m still here!’ she croaked, ‘I’m still alive! No doctor is going to forget about me!’

*

‘Forty-three years…’ said Karen seriously, ‘that’s a long time. We’ve made a house, raised a family; I’ve fathered three girls; we’ve had two careers; I’ve been a surgeon, she’s been a teacher…’

Dog started to babble, still reeling from the cancer story.

‘You didn’t hear what he said,’ Pam interrupted gently.

Bewildered, I stopped.

‘…he fathered three girls…’

There was one of those frozen moments as the waiter brought our food.

Karen smiled benignly. Pam blinked and chuckled. They both looked directly at me over the table.

The waiter left.

‘I went into hospital with a husband,’ Pam said finally, ‘I came out with a wife.’

My jaw dropped.

Karen still had that Mona Lisa smile.

*

‘Whack! An iron bar. They knocked me clean out.’

Peter was seventy-two and fit as a fiddle. He’d just been in Bangkok. He ran laps around the top deck, looked twenty years younger, healthy, toned and comfortable. He wore a T-shirt that said ‘Perambulate before you Vegetate’ which, I guess, said it all. Rather strangely, he was traveling without his wife.

‘It was about eleven-thirty at night. I’d just got back to the hotel and there was a knock on the door. The second I unlocked it someone burst in and punched me,’ he continued, ‘somebody else hit me on the head.’

He said this in wide-eyed wonder.

‘I woke up hours later in a pool of my own blood.’

Pete was completely matter-of fact in the telling; rather simple-minded, oddly anecdotal, as if it happened to someone else. Blood and gore, room ransacked, passport and money missing, cards gone. Reception. Police. Statements. Hospital. Multiple stitches. He showed me. It was true.

’What did your wife say?’

‘I haven’t told her…’

There’s no fool like an old fool. This one sensed that there was part of the story missing.

‘You know, my friend – we are both men. Sometimes a single man can find himself in… err …situations. There are many beautiful women in Bangkok.’

‘None of that matters,’ he said simply. He looked at me. His eyes were bright and fiery.

‘I’m alive. I might have been dead. I’m lucky. I’m still here – I’m alive.’

*

‘I was suicidal,’ Karen said, launching into her story, her raison d’etre, her screed. She had a far-away look in her eye; slowly conjuring up demons for my delectation. I sensed a monologue coming on.

‘I was down by the river at home…’

Oh, Lordy, it’s gonna be the suicide story. There’s been many a slip ‘twixt the cup and the snip.

‘I looked out over the water, slowly took off my shoes, my socks, my belt… took my wallet out and laid it on the bank…’

You know the drill. The suicide show was quite a performance, complete with dramatic pauses, trembles in the voice, gulps and shudders; a little too practiced for me.

‘…I had it all planned. I stood up and walked into the water. Take me, I said to the river…’

Pam noticed me getting uncomfortable.

‘There’s a happy ending,’ she piped up anxiously.

Karen looked a little miffed at the interruption.

‘When was this?’ Dog asked.

‘I was seventeen.’

‘How old are you now?’

Dog paused to let the obvious sink in.

‘So why are you still going over this forty-something years later?’

Karen was starting to reveal the depths of her obsession. She’d been living in the land of me, me, me far too long, enabled by a loving wife. Now she was politically correct as well.  There was something kinda spooky about it all, a sublime cognitive dissonance.

Pam jumped in.

‘This is the story we tell our kids.’

Karen was her compulsion. So was Pam. They talked the talk, they certainly walked the walk; pashmina warriors in the confusion wars.

*

Apparently there is a whole sub-culture of suicidal despair out there. Pam and Karen are role models.

Their children are mobs of gender-perplexed young men and women itching to hurl themselves into their own particular whirlpool. Dog only knows about the anguish of the average trans-gender, cross-dressing, gender-reassigned trans-sexual genetically-mutated transvestite from repeated viewings of The Rocky Horror Show. This was a whole new world.

They counseled disturbed youngsters at Trans-Sexual Summer Camp, saving lives and, not incidentally, pushing their own particular agenda; they campaigned relentlessly for the right to change; to be – not dream, to follow your muse. If you need to cut your willy off – well, it’s O.K.

‘You can, you really can. Look at us.’

They made reasoned speeches to the gender-challenged community pleading the constitutional right of any American to change shape, color, creed, sex, sexuality or size with not just immunity but downright support and admiration. Relentlessly articulate, driven and smart, they had the gender-confusion market to themselves. Most of the self-help gurus felt the price of admission to that club was way too high.

There was just one unexpected by-product. Everybody thought they were lesbians.

*

Pam’s husband timed his gender-rearrangement to coincide with her many surgeries. While she was battling for her bones, he was turning into a woman before her puffy eyes. When the great day came and the dress went on in public, Pam was post-op with her mouth stitched up. I’m not sure she had a lot of say in the matter.

But then again, neither did he.

Karen was gender-rearranged and was now, to all intents and purposes, a woman – but he/she was never gay. Gender confusion isn’t about sexuality at all. It’s a different topic. He was a heterosexual man and now, I assume, a heterosexual woman – who likes women. Pam is just a perfectly normal mother and wife; she sure ain’t no lesbian – but now she’s in love with a woman who is her legal wife. What a mess.

‘I’m still here,’ Pam said and smiled softly, ‘I’m still alive.’

Pam lost a lot more than her jaw. She lost a husband, a family, her life as she knew it and all while battling death – everything sacrificed to the awful blind giant of her husband’s obsession. She must love him an awful lot.

Nothing else matters.

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT  2011

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