Chapter IV: Yo-ho-ho and a bottle of vodka
With only a customary wrong turn en route back to the crew bar, I found myself entering a social maelstrom in the small area between the doors to the bar itself and the main crew rec room opposite. About 10 people, were all clearly having a good time, singing, dancing and hugging each other — seemingly for no reason whatsoever.
I stuck my head into the bar — it was packed; all three round tables had been pushed together and ringed by the 10–12 chairs, all of which were occupied by at least one body, with three or four of them being double-stacked, laps being either side-saddled or straddled. The noise was raucous as people raised voices to talk, shout or laugh at and over everyone else. A large number of drinks — empty, half-full and very full — had been gathered on the tables; the whole spectrum of colours was represented, be-decked with straws where appropriate.
I recognised Jon sat underneath a beautiful, scantily-clad girl with impressive eye make-up. He saw me peering through the door and grinned and waved.
“HEEEEY! It’s Alex! Everyone! Meet our new guitarist!” he motioned towards me and most of the people around the table looked up and exploded.
“Hiiiiiiiiiiii!!!!!!!!!!!! Woooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!” / “How you doing?” / “Hey!” / “Alright? Welcome!”
I couldn’t help but grin a big, stupid grin. People staggered towards me and pulled me in, hands extended towards me for shaking.
A big arm wrapped itself around me and pulled me towards the bar.
“How are ya, buddy?! Do you need a drink? No — wait, let me rephrase that; “have a beer!” I took the beer from my new American friend and smiled happily. “Cheers!” we clinked beers.
“I’m Jon, pleasure to meet you Alex — here, there’s no way in hell that you will have a chance of remembering all these people’s names, but for the sake of… well, just for the sake of it, I guess! Here we go!”
Jon proceeded to go round the table reeling off names and pointing at faces, who laughed at the rapid-fire introductions and smiled back at me. Different accents hit me, Americans, English, eastern European..?
There were lots of pretty girls in here… lots! I was determined to behave myself on ship, but it never hurt to be surrounded by pretty girls anyway, you know… aesthetics were very important.
“So…” Jon continued, “.. what we have here is mostly the theatre crew, assorted singers, dancers and production team..” A young, dark-haired, guy smiled and saluted at us as Jon continued to hang round my neck, swaying slightly.
“Where you from?” asked one of the pretty blondes — American?
“I’m from London, basically…” I swigged my beer. “You?”
But she had been dragged onto the lap of the guy sat next to her before she could answer, giving a shriek of laughter where her response had meant to be. I laughed, swapping amused faces with Jon.
“And you? What do you do?” I asked of my new American drinking buddy, who released me from his clutch and, with perfect comic sensibility, bowed and shook my hand.
“I am a singer in the show, originally from New England, if you know where that is?” he had an incredibly rich, bass-baritone, voice which flooded out of his athletic frame. He looked every inch the American, square-jawed, hero and clearly he had charisma coming out of his ears. I could believe that this guy was a showman.
“Oh yeah, Bill Belichick and the boys… ‘Here’s a story… of a man called Brady’ I sang smilingly, assuming that he’d appreciate the reference to the New England Patriots.
“That’s the one! Ah..! Sports guy, too! You’ll fit in just fiiiiine!” We clinked beers again. “You smoke?”
“I do now! Let’s go!” My new friend Jon held the door open and we headed to the smoking room. The tables on the left of the rec room were now populated — also raucously — by bodies of every nationality and gender. It was like a big, drunk Benetton advert and the atmosphere was electric as a small Asian DJ played good-time hip-hop tunes from out of the small wooden booth placed in the middle of the floor.
“And here we have the orchestra!” Jon exclaimed over the noise of the music and waved at one of the tables. I recognised the band I’d seen playing in the piazza earlier, they were changed out of their clothes and also, clearly, enjoying a few drinks after work as well.
“Hey man, how ya doin? I’m Chase… good to meet ya” I managed a reasonably ‘street’ handshake grip with the bearded guy I recognised as the drummer and introduced myself.
“You the new guitarist with the party band? Hi! I’m John good to meet you!” said the large, friendly trumpet player. He clearly worked out, he very nearly squashed my hand flat as he shook it. Lovely guy — friendly smile. After the relatively cold treatment from the party band, I was starting to feel the love from elsewhere. I grinned. This was more like it!
“Alex! Good to meet everyone! Looks like a party happened!” I waved around at the room in general.
“Yeah! One of those random nights!” John smiled at me. “Where you from, man? What’s your story?”
“London — but I.. well, yeah! London!” I didn’t think he’d care much for the details — he probably knew London and that would be enough for now. Reading was close enough to London, maybe they’d heard of the music festival but we could go into details some other time.
“Awesome! Welcome aboard man! Come drink with us!”
“Yeah — thanks! Jon and I are just going to grab a smoke! We’ll be back!”
“Oh no! dirty smokers!” John laughed — it made sense for him as a trumpeter to not smoke. I made a note to come and drink with this table afterwards, they seemed like good people. Good and drunk.
The guitarist who had been so good earlier was stood up on the other side of the table talking with a lady and smoking a vape. Big clouds of smoke unfurled out of the corner of his mouth in between sentences. He looked over at me and smiled, waved and went back to talking with the lady. Fair enough, can’t interrupt a man when he’s working…
The tall bassist was also deep in conversation with a girl, but he looked up and shot his hand in the air to say hi and smiled and nodded at me. Several more pretty girls were round the table, musicians could always count on pretty girls being scattered liberally around in their presence. I grinned to myself and followed Jon on towards the smoking room.
Inside, we lit up and headed towards where the rest of the party band were sat about halfway down the room. It was busy, bodies and smoke filled the room as music and loud conversations all fought for dominance of the airwaves.
The group of eastern Europeans had grown — in number and in volume — since I was in here earlier, about 15 of them were now hugging each other and dancing to the music which hadn’t improved very much. They occasionally sang the lyrics passionately…
These lyrics must be gold, because the music is awful…
The rest of the party band were in here. They acknowledged us with smiles and waves and shuffled up to make some space for Jon and I. Half of them were checking their phones and social media accounts, Joe and Simon were both Man Utd fans apparently and discussing the weekend’s results.
I talked with Jon (new-found American singer friend, not to be confused with party band bassist) about his background — he’d been on ships for years and had a seemingly endless supply of stories from exotic and marvellous parts of the globe.
“One of my favourite places was the Falkland Isles… where I found a proper British pub that served real beer and had a pool table. I made friends with some local grandmothers because we had a shared interest in knitting… well, crocheting actually… anyway… and they could get me this real cheap but high quality wool, you see?!”
He was a great raconteur, creative and intelligent and funny as you like — with an endless treasure trove of stories of the high seas. The dry kindling of a proper bro-mance was laid.
He told me about his times on ships around the globe, how he’d befriended entire pubs in Glasgow and not understood a word any of the locals had said to him; different shows he’d toured in and various do’s and don’ts of shiplife. We drank beer as we laughed and swapped stories.
An hour flew past as new people all came in and out for cigarettes, a seemingly endless supply of drinks were provided for me. Lee made sure that, until I had been given my own crew account in the morning, I was to be bought drinks whenever anyone was heading to the bar. My ‘initiation’ was well under way. I’d not really been a big drinker — ever — and hadn’t really had a big drunken night for a few years before coming on board. My alcohol tolerance levels were about to get a rude awakening.
I was introduced to Stefan, a Serbian croupier — who informed me that every ship had, or should have, at least 200 Serbians on board, all of whom would be crowded round a speaker in the smoking room, singing traditional Serbian techno music. He looked pointedly at the loud gang at the end of the room.
“Aha! Serbians, eh..?” I mused.
“Sure, is best country. People there most fun, every ship you go to you will find… and you will love! Come! I introduce you!” Stefan pushed me good naturedly towards the crowd at the end of the room.
He shouted something in Serbian over the noise, and the group turned towards me and welcomed me in with smiles and laughter.
“I tell them that new guy must meet the Serbians as most important crew members.” Stefan looked outwardly quite severe — very eastern European — but he was funny and warm. I realised that this was true of a lot of the Serbians, although many were outwardly happy and convivial. They loved to drink and sing together, and constituted the life and soul of the smoking room in general.
I smiled and shook hands with them all, accepted another green bottle of beer to go with the two other drinks I currently had on the go and pulled out another cigarette. Questions came thick and fast.
“What you do? Where you from? What your name? This first day? Why you no hair!!?” They laughed and threw arms around me to welcome me into the group.
I laughed; the conversation switched to English as people introduced themselves and explained how Serbia was the greatest country on earth, with the best food, and offers to take me out to Belgrade and its nightlife if I was ever out there.
Thanks to ESPN’s 30-for-30 I knew a bit about the history of Yugoslavia’s basketball team before the Bosnia-Serbia civil war had ripped the area apart, and was able to chime in with references to Vlade Divac, which drew gasps of “yes! Best in world back then! Screw you, Russians!” — more cheering and clinking of drinks.
These guys were crazy!
The two attractive girls from earlier were part of the group, and smiled at me once more. Behave, Mr.
I’d been incredibly reckless with both hearts and hygiene in a previous life, and had resolved to almost definite celibacy since cleaning up my act earlier in the year. But this ships’ company of ferociously attractive young women was going to be challenging. From what Jon had told me about his experience on this ship, and most of the others, everyone had pretty much slept with everyone else to an extent. To me, this was a major turn-off: maybe as a younger man I would have wanted to take my turn on the roundabout, but now, in my late thirties and happy to put some distance between myself and a fairly dubious past, I was happier staying out of that game.
Also, I was determined not to get emotionally involved with anyone during my time on board. The last thing I wanted was to ‘meet’ someone, to get close and then be cruelly parted from them — probably for ever, at the end of the contract. What would be the chances of meeting someone on board who lived in deepest, darkest, west Wales?
Yeah, I know — it sounds weak. But how close could I get to someone in two months, anyway? My plan just simplified things, it removed the already slim chances of emotional trauma completely. I had a long and tragic history of jumping into relationships with both feet, when I grew feelings for someone I tended not to do it by halves. So, I had resolved to keep both of my feet on dry emotional ground.
With my new Serbian friends and Jon all drinking and shooting the inebriated breeze, I felt at home in the smoking room. Soon, I was to be nursing a solid 20-a-day habit. I was amazed that Jon — the star of the theatre show, having to perform 2 and sometimes 3 shows a day — also managed to keep up a steady and dedicated smoking routine, too.
“It’s the same as any muscle — the throat and voice just toughen up to withstand the routine you subject it to. And besides, smoking helps me keep my tough, bass baritone! If I didn’t smoke, why I’d probably sing like a little girl!”
I remembered the pool table: I’d played pool a lot back home, it was almost unusual to be drunk and not get a few frames in. I said as much to Jon.
“My friend! When I was in Glasgow AND The Falklands, do you know what the problem was? THOSE LITTLE POOL TABLES YOU GOT IN THE UK! What is up with that???”
I laughed — American pool tables, the larger ones with the bucket pockets, were my own preference too. But I had played enough on the small British tables with their red and yellow balls to appreciate his frustration.
“Wanna go see if we can get some frames in?” I asked.
“Have you ever played pool on a ship before!?” Jon looked at me, waiting for the penny to drop…
“Well alright then! This is going to be fun for you, my man!” he smiled. I didn’t quite get what he was driving at, but I guessed I would soon enough.
Three guys in white uniforms were playing on the table, one sat on a stool with the triangle in his hand. I would soon learn that this was the coveted ‘me next’ symbol for the ‘winner stays on’ format. Jon and I parked ourselves on the bench opposite the table and continued drinking and laughing while the three guys played out their frames.
“So what’s the big deal with playing pool on a ship?” I really hadn’t got it. I suffer from mood-dependent IQ. Luckily for me, as soon as I had asked the question, nature provided an answer.
Swearing is a universal language; you don’t need to know the words, you only need to hear the inflection. One of the guys at the table erupted into a stream of what could reasonably be assumed to be vicious, venomous, swearing of the highest order, as the giant ship tilted over noticeably and led the balls on the table down to the far end of the table. Jon creased up.
“That was perfect!”
Aha… so, this was going to make pool interesting. By the end of my time on the ship, I would be a little uninspired playing pool on land without the element of ‘moving targets’ to really hold one’s attention.
Eventually Jon and I were racking up, and before too long he had beaten me. We’d laughed our way drunkenly through the frame and had been entertained hugely by the random rolling of the balls with the swaying of the ship in the seas. It was clear that Jon had a very competitive streak to him and I very nearly almost took revenge on him, for this first defeat, later on in the cruise. I played him a few weeks later, left-handed. It wasn’t until I only had a few balls left that he noticed this, it would have been a sweet, sweet victory had I not gone too far and tried to pot the black on one foot, left-handed, with my eyes shut. Of course, I missed — and lost. It was worth trying though; it would have been amazing! Oh well. I once did my mate Jimmy that way just before a gig, if you can do it as a finishing blow I heartily recommend it.
Anyway, I felt as though I was properly settling in, only needing a few games of darts to complete my natural pub sport yearnings. I never did get the darts games, though. You can’t have it all, right?
After a long day’s travel, the nervous excitement of getting onboard the ship and meeting up with the band, the drinks and the hyper energy levels in the crew rec and smoking rooms, my body told me that it was time to call it a night. My natural homing signal had kicked in and so once I had smoked a final cigarette for the evening and finished the drink in front of me, I decided to head back to my cabin.
As my room card slipped in and out of the slot and facilitated my rather wobbly entrance into the cabin, my gut looked up at me and signalled a definite ‘OK!’ I’d successfully transplanted myself from London to Asia and joined the ship without any obvious hiccups; had met the band I was to play in for the next few months and successfully integrated myself into ship life through a series of ingested alcoholic beverages. I swayed around the cabin as the motion of the ocean betrayed itself through the floor and attempted to undress myself as quietly as possible.
The cabin was dark apart from the light shining around the edges of the closed bathroom door and the soft light coming from behind the closed curtains of Tom’s bunk.
Shoes, socks and jeans were all deposited on the floor before I attempted to clamber into the 2 feet of space between my mattress and Tom’s bunk. In my irrigated state, with only a few bumps and bangs of elbows and head, it was a fairly successful entrance. I’d been surprisingly comfortable lying down on the bunk earlier, when digesting lunch, but now I was snuggled drunkenly down under the duvet in darkness, pulling the two curtains closed, I felt a wonderful, homely, sense of security and comfort.
I had, to all intents and purposes, shut out the world and was alone in own my personal isolation bunk — deprived of all cares, stimuli and distractions as well as the ability to focus my eyes effectively.
In my prone position I became keenly aware of the gentle undulations of the mighty ship’s passage through the Pacific Ocean. The tender toing and froing cast a somnorific spell over my whole body, my centre of gravity being gently massaged back and forth in the nestled warmth of the mattress under the duvet. Coupled with the alcohol, this soporific salubriousness was too much for my consciousness to take and I succumbed quickly to a deep and happy sleep.
I was here! Woooo!