Thursday, 24 December 2009


Sunday 20 December

I wake hoping for a white-out but although more snow fell in the night it’s a white shawl over midtown’s grey stone shoulders, not a wedding cake. In the deep blue dawn light an early taxi blinks along Lexington Avenue so I see the city’s up and moving and worry less about getting to the pier. A last breakfast with Curt in Oscar’s at the Waldorf – overpriced at nearly $50 a head – then I bundle up and head for Brooklyn where the Queen Mary is berthed. It’s quite difficult to get a cab, most have their off-duty lights on, and I notice while waiting as a limo is loaded with a desiccated Jewish couple and sixteen pieces of luggage that their labels reveal a cabin assignment seven decks below mine. I feel smug but also apprehensive as the bellman also commented that it was amazing I was travelling for sixteen days with only two cases. Do I have enough clothes, or the right ones?

My taxi driver has been in the city only a week, from Pakistan, but hopefully he has some experience of Himalayan snow conditions as we slither towards the FDR drive from which it’s a clearer run to Brooklyn. Cunard have abandoned the traditional piers in the Hudson in favour of a ‘cruise terminal’ across from Governors Island but the run-down warehouses and businesses which fringe the streets of the district of Red Hook confirm that this is still the working freight and trawler port, and whilst the shed through which we are processed in long tedious lines is not quite scented with fish, it’s only an air-freshener away from Cannery Row.

It’s an opportunity to size up the passenger contingent, and I’m not overly impressed. Immediately around me are lots of low-rent Brits disgruntled that their flights out of the UK have been delayed and they lost opportunities for shopping in Manhattan. One was particularly aggrieved not to have been able to get some item from the Harley-Davidson store in Times Square. I don’t tell her it closed. The nicest person I meet in the terminal is the check-in clerk, a smartly made-up black woman in her early sixties, from Aruba, who tells me her life history including living in London where her landlady was Hattie Jacques. She flirts shamelessly and holds my hand a long time when returning my passport. Unfortunately, she’s a contractor and not working on board and I feel I’ve lost a friend as I head for more and emptier corridors and on to the ship.

No band, no fanfares, but Asian stewards in Santa hats point the way to the lifts and a Brooklyn glee club trills piercing carols in the stairwell. From the outside the ship seemed huge but streamlined – this is a transatlantic liner rather than a cruise ship and the structure’s slimmer and deeper than those floating barges, and it doesn’t look – quite –like a block of council flats resting on its side. Inside, the designers have clearly been ‘inspired’ by the art deco motifs of the first Queen Mary, but the execution’s radically vulgar. Sure, there are brass rails and marine wood panelling but it’s all lacquered like a Korean piano and the too-bright carpets, theatrical lighting, high-reflectance gloss surfaces and plastic laminate artwork make the overall effect just Vegas.

I like my cabin, which I learn to call ‘stateroom’ – about 250 square feet so a bit bigger than my bedroom at home with blond wood fittings in what I first think is anigre veneer till I touch it, but it has pleasing lines and I particularly appreciate the design of the closets into which everything fits with room to spare. The bathroom’s small with the shower moulded into a curved wall and the shower head’s not powerful, but the view over the water to Manhattan and the statue of Liberty is stunning from my 12-th deck balcony, which has the advantage of being so far forward you can also check out the officers on the bridge.

I decide to be uncharacteristically diligent and put everything away with some sense of order and precision, but as one of my cases is among the last to arrive, this takes quite a lot of the afternoon and I’m still in mid-unpacking when it’s time for compulsory boat drill. I’ve gathered my overcoat, head covering, and life-jacket but not the enthusiasm for standing by a lifeboat whilst it’s ten below zero. My sweet cabin steward, from Luzon in the Philippines and who rejoices in the name of Elgin (or possibly that’s the badge they had available when he joined the crew) is cosily conspiratorial and tells me I could just watch it on TV instead.

He gives me a tour of the cabin’s facilities including how to use the phone to summon him by bleeper when ‘I come running’. He also tells me that if there’s anything I need during the voyage, specifically “if anything pops out” I’m to send for him. I think he means pops up, but he has a sideways glance which makes it teasingly ambiguous.

I give him my shoes to clean as a test of his devotion.

About 6.30 the phone rings and a deep deep voice announces itself as Jody, representing the gay tour company which assembled this onboard group, confirming my invitation to its initial cocktail party. There are eight people in the private room when I arrive sat around a long thin table on which you might place a coffin, but it turns out I’m the last – and further that the agency lied to us all about the numbers they had booked.

Jody, I’m amazed to discover, is a woman. At least now. But possibly always because she has with her a central-casting Midwestern-dullard husband in blue blazer, evvaprest slacks and a thin grey moustache. Whilst I think that on her own she’d be raucous with a bunch of gay men, together they lead us in a weepingly pedestrian conversation about the cities we come from and the ships we’ve sailed. No future activities, excursions, parties or adventures are discussed and as the dinner hour approaches Jody and Mr. Jody make a pretty speech that there will be another cocktail on the last night of the cruise, meanwhile they’re off to dine in a different restaurant from us for the duration of the voyage. Thank you and good night.

In a way, this welds the remaining not-so-magnificent seven into a self-supporting group and we further introduce ourselves at our nice round table by the windows in a pleasant side section of the Britannia Restaurant. We are two couples and three singles. Ages seem to range from 45 to 65 but all are sound in wind and limb and no-one’s conversationally shy. The singles have a bit more about them than the couples and I sense we will perhaps as a trio look out for each other. I particularly like David, a tanned fiftysomething New Zealander who’s an airline marketing manager which might one day be useful and whom I suspect despite his Gucci exterior has a dark side. This is later confirmed when he tells me the clubs he’s visited in London. Akjan, a tall elegant Uzbek now living in Toronto is a former ballet dancer turned hairdresser so has great posture and a superb dress sense with a clever range of designer spectacles which match his outfits and provide a notable feature on his smooth oval face.

The couples are older, and more conventional. And Canadian, there seems to be a lot of it about. Jeff is the most outgoing: tall, lean and white-haired with dancing, and possibly roving, Paul Newman blue eyes, he must have been devastatingly handsome when young. Since he also has the drier sense of humour, and is currently a substitute teacher he’s obviously channelling Dorothy Zbornak from The Golden Girls. His partner David is harder to pigeon-hole, he’s much quieter, and I suspect a little deaf: when he speaks it’s mainly about their cosy domestic life in Nova Scotia which he constantly describes as ‘really quite interesting’ as though it needs the reassurance.

The other pair are also fairly reserved, Paul doesn’t even mention it’s his 60th birthday until a waiter arrives with a cake and a raw vocal quartet. His partner Eric is originally Danish and still has a strong accent which makes some of his jokes hard to appreciate, but he’s certainly trying to join in and twinkles in his Jutlandish way. Although a long-standing couple, they live separately in New York.

We discuss the snow and tell banal stories about how we got to the ship – the Canadians drove taking three days, isn’t that interesting – and since several of them have been on the boat before, in this sort of group, I ask how we manage things like buying wine each night and a discussion ensues which separates the moderate-drinking retired couples from the working singles who are clearly keen on a glass or three, but the majority verdict driven by the couples is that everyone buys his own. We’ll see.

David and I try to collaborate on a bottle but our tastes are different and he chooses a Chianti whilst I’m pleased to find Frog’s Leap, a plummy Californian Zinfandel, on the wine list and order that. Apparently they’ll keep it for subsequent nights but I’ll have to neck it in two otherwise it will only be fit for salad dressing. It’s not until I get back to the cabin I reflect that $52 + 15% service + tip isn’t exactly a duty free bargain for something I used to buy for $18 when I lived in New York.

It’s OK but not a great night. The food is very average, plated like school dinners – if you went to a good enough school – and our waitress is flat-footed, charmless, slow and can only parrot the information she’s been trained to give us, she won’t engage in conversation. David and I are delegated (I see a pattern forming here) to represent the table’s complaints to management.

Which we do, and to his great credit Jamie the youngish English Maitre’D takes it all on the chin and promises us either a new location or at least new waiting staff for the morrow.

The ship’s clock moves forward an hour tonight so it’s now nearly 12 and we head separately to our beds.

It’s a start.

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