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She leapt to her feet, leant over the guest-relations counter and grabbed at me.

‘Give me a hug!’

Rather startled, I obliged. I didn’t recall such intimacy between us when we’d met before. I was rather glad there was a counter in-between.

‘I saw your name on the passenger list,’ she gushed, ‘oh, oh, I said, here’s trouble!’

As her cheek brushed mine, she laughed and whispered.

‘I didn’t really say that.’

Yes, you did.

A young blond man stood behind me, holding a welcoming glass of champagne. Unfortunately, I had to decline. My hands were full of Guest Relations Manager.

She was a largish woman, smart as a tack, with eyes as cold as ice. Somewhere between twenty-five and forty, I think – I never really looked that close; I was always a bit nervous in case she bit me. She could be warm as toast and positively Arctic, all in the space of a sentence. As Dorothy Parker once said, our hostess ran the gamut of emotions from A to B.

It wasn’t entirely her fault. If I had to relate to a ship full of cruisers for a living my emotional range would veer from rage to murder. She was very good at her job – except for those eyes, those killer Aza-eyes. They gave her heart away.


My nemesis was a robust New Zealander with a penchant for ping-pong. I mean that in the literal sense, not the Thai. Once each cruise she would host the Aza-Pong tournament, clad only in a headband and shorts. She played a fierce game of defensive Table Tennis, always alert to the slightest threat – which was rather the way she guest related.

Madame Pong was an Aza-professional, devoted to the team. If they wanted a hired assassin, she’d be perfect for the job. Had the company asked her, she would just as readily have hit me on the head, thrown me in a pot and eaten me – instead, she was going to kill me with kindness.


She would drown the pooch in Aza-love, blitz him with invitations, stun him stupid with special treats, indulge his personal foibles – the poor mutt couldn’t possibly complain. Then, at tomorrow’s Heads of Department meeting there’ll be a little announcement:

Beware of the Dog.

That should fence him in.

I had the feeling she’d read my last story about her employer.

‘Death by Azamara’.


I was stepping aboard a new Azamara.

Since my last abortive voyage some changes have been made. The company has re-branded, re-aligned and repositioned itself; now they are ‘Azamara Club Cruises’ and in the process of styling themselves as ’boutique’ – whatever that means. In the interests of fairness it was time to try again. Admittedly, only another staggeringly cheap last minute deal brought about this fit of fairness.

The mongrel was on a mission of surrender; no matter what happened, Dog would not jump ship this time. He would neither fight nor flee; he was going to enter into the spirit; he was going to see the light. No more cynical distance, no more elegant spite, he would join in and be one with the people, suck up the Aza-Mojo and have a wonderful, wonderful time.


I love Cruise Critic.

If you ever want chapter and verse on the sheer small-mindedness of human existence, log in. Want a discussion about the thickness of the crepes suzettes? Log in. Need to know about the latest stunning developments in Afternoon Tea? You know where to go. You can discuss laundry for hours – just don’t criticize.

Actually, the Aza-boards on Cruise Critic are now little more than a stunning marketing exercise. Larry Pimental, the C.E.O. pops in for a chat. Season’s greetings are exchanged. Everybody congratulates everybody else. Host Andy weaves sycophantically between moderator and salesman. They have a Chief Blogging Officer who answers every facile query as if it is actually important. There’s even a Roll-Call so, once the cash is exchanged, you can cyber-meet and greet fellow incoming Azamarians bound, like you, for glory.

The Cruise Critic Meet & Greet is held on the first day of each cruise. It’s an important bonding exercise. A parade of brass is led out to schmooze the customers, greasily assuring them that they are the most important sub-species on board.

Really. Honestly.

Azamara care, they really, really do – and the more you pay, the more they care. In return Cruise Critics care about their company – they take ersatz Aza-ownership. The Azamara Army is growing by the minute.

People just want to belong.


There they are – our Masters and Commanders; all lined up in a dark blue row. There are introductions; from Executive Chef to Chief Engineer, Housekeeping Supervisor to Food and Beverage Manager to Environmental Officer, Human Relations Officer, from Staff Captain to Club Voyage Hostess – a parade of brass from each department, all paying homage to the most important Critical Cruisers in the world. If there was an Aza-medal for Niceness, they’d be wearing it.

‘We read all your posts,’ the Hotel Director will ooze.

‘We learn from everything you say,’ the Cruise Director will coo.

‘Anything you want, just come to us!’ Guest Relations will positively drool, ‘without you we are nothing…’

‘Just tell us – we can’t read minds…’

‘We consider every suggestion…’

‘We ne-e-e-d you,’ choruses everybody in a uniform.

The staff is dressed in dark blue quasi-Navy kit with gold epaulettes and identifying golden stripes. It’s a look from another time, barely changed since the Twenties. Where are their swords? They are virtually the only thing missing. The heavy gold on their cuffs and shoulders draw witness to their service in battle. They are all scarred veterans of the Cruising Wars.

‘Trust me,’ all that blue is saying; ‘trust me,’ says the gold on their arm; ‘trust me,’ I am powerful; ‘trust me’ with your life. For all that their uniform says, they might as well dress up as firemen.

How about the Azamara Arm-ani?  Prada-mara?

Dolce and Gabbazamara?

Who was it that decided that Azamara should adopt military uniforms? Militaries exist to counter perceived threats. What do they do when they find a threat?

Neutralize it.

Just like these cardboard Colonels were doing to the Cruise Critics.


Was there a roll of drums? A puff of smoke? With a subtle flurry of deference the uniforms parted and there, spot-lit, was the Captain. Poking round his legs I saw the smiling face of a child.

Captain made a witty, self-deprecating speech. He looked perfectly capable but amazingly young. He must have been young. He was still reproducing, positively glowing with life.

‘We’ll do everything in our power to make sure…‘

His son absently scratched and wiggled.

‘You are the Most Important People… ‘

The kid stared out at the crowd.

‘We listen, we really listen to everything you say…‘

Cruise Critics respond with a gush and sigh. This is what life should really be like. Even the Captain has come to see them. Azamara listens.

A tiny hand tugged at Daddy’s sleeve.

Captain looked down at his son. He laughed and nodded and, with not very much shyness at all, four year-old Isaac took centre stage. The little boy hesitated, twitched a bit and took a deep, shuddering, excited breath.

Dad prompted with a whisper.

‘Thank you, ladies and gentlemen,’ Isaac said very seriously.

Everybody clapped and laughed.

Then he bowed and fled back to his Daddy’s legs, beaming. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

It’s a new Azamara.




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