Monday 21 December
With the balcony door propped open and the sound of the sea roaring beneath, I sleep perfectly and am only woken at 8.30 by Volodymir, the tallest waiter on the ship and surely the product of a Transylvanian laboratory experiment, demanding entry with a tray of tea.
This is the first of two full days at sea and the ship’s programme is rammed with appointments every half-hour like a dentist’s but most of which are of the bridge and dancing varieties. However there’s more than enough to fill the day and I start with a seminar on getting the most out of your digital camera. Like so much organised on cruise ships this is a thinly disguised sales pitch and the ‘lecturer’ is the young German manager of the camera shop. I don’t learn much and slip away before the end to get a seat in the Royal Court Theatre for the principal guest lecturer.
I have to say that as cruise ship entertainment headliners go, Edwina Currie is no Shirley Bassey but she does give a funny and candid talk about politicians and the way they lie for a living. Her husband, a swarthy former Scotland Yard detective, sits across the aisle from me in cheap shoes and overcast eyebrows. I can see now why she slept with John Major.
Next, I do something really brave and go to the "Solo Travellers’Get-together with Social Hostess Freda". Freda’s a toughie, but I guess you need to be in that job, and the free champagne has made the solos vociferous. They are uniformly over sixty, all but three are women and I’d say one of the other two men is gay, so the remaining one’s in for a busy fortnight. I don’t see a kindred spirit among them and then it turns out that two of the men are the ‘Gentleman Host’ dance partners. One is so especially vile I can’t stand closer than two yards from him for fear of contamination from his breath, and the other is the dark side of seventy and not particularly steady on his feet so I’m not sure how he’ll fare in the rumba.
Lunch seating is not pre-assigned and you can opt to have a table to yourself or share a larger one. I choose conviviality and am the eighth person at a table containing three residents of a retirement home in New Jersey, two Germans who claim to have lived in Surrey but clearly didn’t pick up the language during their time, and a couple from Scotland of which the wife is pleasant but the tattooed husband prefers to trade football team names with the man from Hamburg.
It’s not a conversation in which I can really participate but that’s irrelevant because the table is dominated by the woman from the mental, sorry, retirement home (the other two are men, one of whom doesn’t speak and the other who is very elderly, badly shaven by a third party with a very unsteady hand, and drooling threatens to rest his head on my shoulder) who keeps up a bright patter about the quality of the soup, the lightness of the batter on her seafood plate and her experiences at theatre in her locality where the tickets for seniors are $8 and the performances so much better than Broadway. She looks and sounds exactly like Roseanne’s mother from the sitcom. Bev, I knew I’d get the name eventually.
I have a very nice boeuf bourguignon but honestly I could cut my wrists with the butter knife. When I share this thought sotto voce with the Scots lady she tells me the most effective method is to slice along the vein rather than to hack laterally across the wrist which is how I would have planned it. So at least I learned something useful and possibly gained a co-conspirator in a suicide pact.
Straight after lunch it’s in to the world’s only Planetarium-at-sea (yes, I can hear you ask ‘why’ but I don’t know the answer either) where Robert Redford, when I can hear him over the whining of American geriatrics who can’t operate the lever which reclines their seats, tells me how our moon was formed in a week from what was basically clusters of boiling spatial waste. When I think of the romantic evenings I’ve seen it hanging low over the river, or one spectacular summer night in Cardiff Bay, I’m sure he’s wrong.
Outside the overheated Planetarium where I had sat next to a woman with asphyxiating perfume, I cool down and ponder my fate in a corridor lounge when I am scooped up by Akjan and David to go to afternoon tea in the Queen’s Room. It’s quite lovely, and we continue together to the meeting of ‘Friends of Dorothy’ in the Commodore Club.
This daily open-to-all meeting for gay travellers is held immediately outside the private room we had our cocktail on the first night, this room now being occupied by the ‘Friends of Bill W’, the recovering alcoholics and members of AA. As each group eyes its neighbour through the glass, it’s unclear which thinks the other is more strange.
About 20 people arrive during the half-hour assigned for mingling, and again they are mostly couples but among them an attractive and outgoing pair of women from Provincetown on Cape Cod, Bianca is a Psychology academic and Sue a real estate broker, and as they travelled on the identical cruise last Christmas (and have already booked for next) they’re helpful authorities on where to go and what to do. The other couples, they’re almost all paired off, are too similar to pick out individuals but I did like Bob who’s a head teacher from a high school outside Toronto, although his partner bears a striking resemblance to Liberace, and there’s a sweet motherly Jewish guy with bright bridgework and rainbow-coloured jewellery who works so hard to bring people together I thought at first he might be on the ship’s social staff but it’s just his personality. He’s also a loyal Cunard customer with lots of ideas on how to get a bargain for repeated bookings, although as this seems to involve selecting a cabin whose view is obscured by a lifeboat, I’m not totally focused on the objectives.
Apart from a weasel type who works the room promoting his own travel company, everyone plays nice and the average age is about 10% younger than the median for the ship. When David and I compare notes later it’s clear we’ve spotted the same people who are lively enough to join for drinks so our 7.30pm cocktails in Commodore Club become a chummy landmark in the cruising days ahead.
At dinner we meet our new waiter, a handsome Goan called Eugene who proves to be much more efficient and engaging than the first girl, and our table visibly relaxes.
Cocktails and dinner were very social, it’s the first dress-up night, and perhaps we have a bit more to drink than previously. As we’re now level with Florida, it’s warm enough to stroll outside afterwards and since we’re on the same deck, Kiwi David walks me back to my cabin door where we kiss goodnight.
This is so sweetly old-fashioned I don’t quite realise what’s happened until I’m inside and getting ready for bed. Suffice it to say that I like him a lot, but I know it won’t go down the romantic road. I think it’s one of those occasions where you have to decide if someone should be a one-night stand or a potential longer-lasting friend, and I think we could be good friends.
But it was nice to be asked.