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Sunday, 10 August 2008

Greased reality

This should have been an easy trip. Three days on a cruise ship. And for once I didn't have to take a plane to another country to board the ship, it was leaving from Southampton, just an hour and a half train ride from home. Bingo Bongo Bango. Easy.

The bad news started when I chatted to my taxidriver while he was driving me to the dockside. "Sea Princess? Not arriving until five". The current time was 10.30am, so this was not good news, especially since my papers told me that it was leaving at 5pm. Engine trouble, I was told, but the plan was to do the turnaround (the massively chaotic process of getting all the old passengers and their luggage off the ship and all the new ones and their luggage on, which normally takes a whole day) in a few hours and leave that evening so the schedule could be stuck to. "Is that going to work?", I asked one of the port staff. "God knows", she replied.

Ok, so I have a whole day to kill in beautiful metropolitan Southampton. The Venice of the Solent. If Venice was like Coventry. I get another taxi back into town with the idea of having a long lunch. After telling my story to the can driver he offers to help me fill the day by showing me Stonehenge. "Ever been to Stonehenge?", he asks. "No", I say, "is it close?", "Ish", he replies.

I decide to opt out of the Stonehenge trip and instead I find the classiest restaurant in central Southampton. After a couple of hours though, I leave Pizza Hut, walk around a shopping centre for a while then go back to the dockside and pass the remaining time reading.

The ship limps in an hour ahead of schedule and I check in, collect my paperwork and go through security, where, as usual, I inform the people x-raying my suitcase that there are pretend theatrical knives inside because I am working on the ship as a juggler. This is never a problem. Very occasionally they'll make me juggle the knives to break the boredom of their day, but that's as serious as it ever gets. Except today. They confiscate the suitcase and tell me that they need to call a security officer from the ship to clear them. So I wait. For another two and a half hours. Until, on my third attempt at hassling them, someone finally lets the suitcase come on the ship, but separately from me. I have to meet my suitcase on board. One more half hour queue and I'm on board, so I go off to find my suitcase, only to be told that they're confiscating the knives until they have been personally cleared by the head of security. "I don't think you quite understand", I say calmly, "that they're not real knives. They are theatrical props designed to look like knives. But to not be knives". They're not listening by this point and have taken my knives, taped them together in a clump and are saying "Thank you for understanding". "But I don't. I don't understand", I reply before stomping off to find my cabin.

Almost always I have the same kind of cabin that a passenger has, and it's all very pleasant. Today, of course, I don't. They've stuck me in a crew cabin, deep below decks in the middle of the labyrinthine and claustrophobic crew area where suddenly the ship throws off it's pretence of being a floating hotel and reveals that it's a smelly, noisy, dingy..well..ship. I don't care though, I just need to eat and sleep, so after a quick visit to the buffet, I hit the sack.

Only to be woken, at about 3am, but severe unpleasantness. I open my eyes and feel wrong, but it's not until I sit up in bed and the room spins around like someone has heavily greased reality that I know something's not right. I immediately start having a panic attack, because anything like this reminds me of the terror of my former days as an epilepsy sufferer. So after a few minutes of falling around in my tiny cabin moaning and freaking out - literally bouncing off the walls so fucked is my equilbrium, I get it together to kneel on my floor in Japanese seiza position and do the kung-fu breathing techniques that are so often my best friend. They slow my stampeding heartbeat let me get me head together, they chase away the panic attack and give me enough respite to suss what's going on. This must be some kind of severe motion sickness. The ship hadn't started moving when I had dropped off to sleep, and these decks are notoriously close to the engine, and the lower centre of gravity of the ship tends to exaggerate the motion in these cabins.

Carefully, closing my eyes whenever I have to move my head more than an inch, I put some clothes on and leave my cabin. The long narrow corridors tip and pitch and blur in front of me and I fall flat on my ass. I get back to my feet making even slower progress and eventually manage to get to the stairs, up one deck, and to the front desk, where I am given a phone with a nurse on the other end. Yes, she can help me, she can give me an injection for this, but it'll cost $150 for the call-out charge, and another $100 for the treatment. I'm stunned. I'm not sure how you can justify a call-out charge when I'm the one visiting you in the medical centre of the ship that you work on that I have just boarded. I'm coming to you, can't I charge a call-out fee?

Regardless, even in my woozy and nauseous condition, I'm still able to whinge to her about how I can't really afford that, and I say goodbye, satisfied that even if I die tonight, I still woke her up and whinged at her, so it hasn't been a complete waste.

I stagger back to my cabin, take some old ginger anti-seasickness tablets I find in my show case, and lay in bed for about an hour breathing slowly with my eyes closed and trying not to move. Somehow I manage, eventually, to fall asleep.

The next morning I'm still feeling shitty, but it's noticeably less. I take a shower without ending up on my ass, which is a victory. I take some more ginger tablets and go to the gym. Work through it, I figure. I do a good hard workout and that, combined with the fresh blustery wind on deck and the news that I'm not working until tomorrow, make me feel more positive than I've felt in the last twenty four hours.

Then, sitting on the bed in my cabin, the bridge make an announcement. They still have the engine trouble that causes the ship to be late yesterday. The took on a whole ship full of passengers knowing that the ship was broken. Wow. They can't reach top speed. They're going to try to fix it today, but if they can't, then we're going to be skipping the port in Lisbon and going straight to Barcelona. This worries me a little as I'm supposed to be leaving the ship and flying home from Lisbon. Bugger.

A few hours later and I have had a room service sandwich, which always helps things along, and the captain is back on the public address system. He has good news, they have fixed the engine and we will be reaching Lisbon on schedule. He thanks the three thousand fingers he thinks were crossed and then apologises and says he has to go now as three couples are waiting for him to marry them.

After a slightly more decent night's sleep I wake and receive my show and rehearsal times for that night. Remembering that the security people still have my fake knives, I call them on the number they gave me. No answer. I try the other number. No answer. I go to the front desk, explain the situation and ask that they call them up to meet me. The staff member mutters, looks at his feet and says "Yeah. They wouldn't come". Ok then. So I find out where the security office is and go there myself. I explain that I'm the guy who they took the fake knives from and they tell me that when I need them I am to come and collect them and return them right after I've finished using them. I lie and say that I need them right now, with no intention of returning them. The security girl tells me to follow her, we are, apparently, going to the brig. THE BRIG! That's exciting. That's what they threaten Steven Seagal with in Under Seige. It's the closest thing to a prison there is on board. And my fake knives are in it. I hope they haven't become someone's bitch.

The brig turns out to be a cupboard containing an old tarpaulin, a couple of unused litter bins and a cardboard box with "CREW CONFISCATED ITEMS" written on it in black marker, and, from what I can see, just my knives in it. I sign the release form and she gives them to me. "Going to do some tricks with them now?", she asks, "No, I thought I'd go kill some people. y'know, random style", I reply. She's not listening, I know this because she replies, "Ok, thank you for your co-operation". Then, she lets me go. Holding the knives that are so dangerous that they can be only given to me right before I work and must be returned right afterwards. I walk back to my cabin through the ship, holding these three big (fake) knives. Drawing the most spectacularly brilliant looks from crew members as I walk past. I'm giggling now. First time I've had a smile on my face for a couple of days.

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