There is something repulsive about the sea, especially when seen from the altitude of the upper decks of a monstrous floating pleasure palace where all intimacy with it, including the sound and the smell, is lost. On the inaugural Spectator Mediterranean cruise I paid attention to the sea but rarely, and usually when speed walking along one of the upper decks in a dinner jacket and bow tie, and late for something, and wondering where the hell I was supposed to be going. Then my stare would stray over the guard rail to the barren wastes of glacial blue flecked with white stretching away as far as the eye could see, like some dreary desert seen from an aeroplane. On some deeper level the sight horrified me, and I’d count the days until I could get off this infernal thing for good. Once or twice, given a rare idle moment, I did lean on a rail and inhale deeply and say to myself, ‘Ah! The sea, the sea!’ and try to find it exalting. But far more interesting to me was the juvenile sport of watching my spit drop a hundred feet into the foam below.
The lack of any sensation of being afloat was strange, too. The only time I really noticed the motion of the waves was while singing the hymn ‘For those in peril on the sea’ during the ship’s Sunday morning church service, led with an unmistakable Christian spirit by the ship’s captain in the grand theatre. The theatre was situated low down near the surface of the sea, and the words of the hymn perhaps concentrated my mind. I felt the carpet definitely sink, and my body weight involuntarily shift from my two feet to my left foot only, then slowly and orgiastically to my right.
Also unsettling was the impeccable smartness, urbane good manners and slimness of the mainly third-world crew and staff, when compared with the hideousness, slovenliness, idiocy and shameless greed of the majority of the first-world people whom they were serving. This was particularly noticeable at breakfast time and around the cake stand at the afternoon-tea buffet in the Lido restaurant. The Cunard ethos was articulated in a printed list of promises about the behaviour, self-presentation and even ‘body language’ of its staff, and not once did I see a badly fitting uniform or hair out of place or a smile that seemed false. Witnessing the elbows flying at the afternoon tea, with the sweating, milling fatties jabbing madly at the gateaux with the plastic tongs provided, like chimps given cutlery as an experiment, must have made the staff wonder whether their Cunard promises to be clean, presentable and civil at all times were actually worth the effort.
Of course I except our wonderful Spectator contingent from these observations. They were without exception as impeccably dressed, urbane and civilised as the waiters. Moreover, they were all gentlemen and women as defined by Henry James’s brother William in that the essence of their gentlemanliness was ‘to ignore, to disdain, to consider, to overlook’ — in my case, my tongue-tied ignorance at the dinner table, and footwear inappropriate to the wearing of a black tie.
The only person to set a bad example was Taki. ‘Jeremy, I need a cigarette! Come out with me!’ he shouted between courses at dinner on our first evening. So we stood up and found our way to deck 11, starboard side, where smoking was permitted. The door between the carpeted stairway and the outside deck was operated hydraulically by pressing a six-inch-square aluminium plate situated at knee height on the wall. ‘Press to open,’ it said. Going out Taki opened the door with a difficult, immaculately executed karate kick called a reverse kikome, and on the way back in he used a dapper, ball-of-the-foot mae geri. While we’d smoked, Taki had privately given voice to serious concerns about the lack of pre-menopausal ‘pussy’ on display. He was quite disillusioned: bitter even. I don’t think he had ever come across the like of it before in all his puff, and he wasn’t sure if he was going to be able to cope with it for an entire week. But after he’d let us both back inside the ship with the mae geri, he brightened visibly at the sight of a glamorous and comparatively young lady loitering beside the lift. Quickening his step, he bowled up to her. ‘Excuse me, Miss,’ he said. ‘I would like you to know that I am the owner of this ship and I was wondering, are you quite comfortable? Is there anything I can do for you at all to make you more comfortable?’ It was a masterclass in chatting up. I left them to it, and pressed on back to the Queen’s Grill and my solid-silver bowl of iced tropical fruit sorbet.
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