High Seas, High Teas

What’s quite surprising is the way the Queen Mary 2 vibrates, eight stories above the water and 10 stories above the engine room. For a technical nincompoop like myself, what’s even more surprising is the reason. Stabilizers. The little underwater winglets that work like airplane stabilizers actually make the ship vibrate. Perhaps a more technical person might say that they convert the ship’s rocking into vibration. Perhaps they wouldn’t. Perhaps they would say that Poseidon’s trident had been twanged. I would say the whole thing is reassuring.

And that’s it, the essence of Queen Mary days. Everything is reassuring and reassuringly easy. Strange how one gets used to this sort of thing. Soon even minor demands seem outrageous.

Which makes it even more strange, the perpetual flaring of my impatience. After lunch…and a judiciously small one, at that…I got turned around. The key aboard this gargantuan vessel is to know front from back, bow from stern. And inside, the only salient features are, of course, internal architectural ones. Theaters in front. Dining rooms behind. Our stateroom is toward the stern. So I set out in the right direction, reached my floor, and then I decided I was at the opposite end of the boat. Of course, looking at the ascending room numbers usually tells me what’s happening. And it should have told me today. It didn’t. I rolled from the wrong end of the ship to the other wrong end of the ship back to the right end. And by the time I got back to the room, damned if I wasn’t highly pissed.


As though I have things to do, places to be. As though the ship wasn’t the place, the only place until in a few days the next place appears over the horizon. There are grounds for contentment. No, there are no grounds at all. We are floating on a sea of contentment. My discontent, and I have decades of it, is floating with me. It’s all buoyant, that is the thing. Have I ever had life so easy?

Funny thing, I can’t resist trying to make it somewhat harder. At least once a day I think seriously about the lack of Internet. We are out of touch. How are the dogs? How are the cats? Is our house sitter watering the tomatoes? What about the lettuce? Remembering to haul the rubbish bins out to the street on Monday morning? Honestly, how did people ever cross the Atlantic before they could transmit trivia back and forth across the waves?


It’s not even the winter of my discontent, it’s the fucking summer. It’s time to lighten up. Let the Queen Mary be heavy. Let last night’s steak…the largest amount of meat I have consumed in a year…be heavy. Yes, it’s all too much.

In mornings aboard ship, I take advantage of the many railings. These are what make a ship the perfect environment for ambulation…stretches of walking, thoroughfares where one can grab and sway to one’s hearts’ content. Which explains why I find myself outside the stateroom, holding a rail and walking backwards down the hall. Unfortunately, the rails are only on one side of any given hallway. So I grab on, walk backwards, then walk forwards. And if I have the energy and ambition, I repeat this process. Trust me, it’s downright aerobic. It’s even mildly proprioceptive, for the ship is moving, albeit gently. Constant adjustments, subtle ones, are necessary. It’s a little boring, I confess. Still, there are momentary diversions, as when fellow passengers stop to ask if I am okay. These exchanges give me one of those rare insights into my general appearance in this, our world. My challenge, of course, is not to be snappish. The general question – do you need help –requires a general answer. No. Thanks.

Of course, I’m not always entirely certain. Do I need help? Wouldn’t object a bit, actually. What do you have in mind? As I say, most of these exercise bouts are boring. Still, they do come to an end. And on this particular day you would think that I had just hiked around the entire ship. Jane helped me across the faintly rocking hallway, I collapsed into my wheelchair – then back into the bed. After all, it was 10:30 AM. I was exhausted. And guess who joined me? Nothing like a midmorning nap to keep one going.

Thus, shipboard life. With nothing to do of an essential nature, much to do of an optional and an enjoyable nature…look at what happens. The organism slows to a creep. And things that require even a modest effort suddenly seem insurmountable. For days, Jane and I have been looking at the immigration queue. Thing is, this ship set sail with representatives of Her Majesty’s border patrol. Wouldn’t want to make us go through passport checks at Southhampton, right? So it’s all done aboard the ship on the high seas. One deck after the next is invited into the dining room at off hours to get their passports stamped. At times, there has been a long line. We’re not waiting in that queue, Jane and I have said to each other. No way. An hour. Some people say two hours. Absolutely not. After all, we have much more pressing things to do, such as the 10:30 AM nap.

It’s all going to end soon…we will be in Southhampton, boarding a London train. The train may jiggle a bit, but the rest of the Earth’s surface promises not to be moving. There may not be people bringing us tea at all hours. It sounds brutal. Not to mention hard to believe. The captain just made his midday announcement. We have gone 550 nautical miles in the last day. Our course was so many degrees of this and some of that. And we weren’t even trying.


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Trying is what starts happening tomorrow when the ship docks at Southampton. For the first time in eight days, I will have to deal with real matters. If being on holiday can be described as real. It will be a relief. I need to have a current to swim against. A goad to keep me on my toes.

Chronically discontent. This seems to be my state. Now that I am officially all at sea, not to mention on vacation, I keep thinking of my bigger projects. The next book in particular. It’s been ”next” for too long.

And these days, at 68 years old, I have to ask how much “next” there is. Which, if you marry a theologian, is a perennially welcome question. I think a lot about mortality aboard this ship. When it comes to experiencing Freud’s oceanic feeling, there’s simply no better place. Meanwhile, amid all this wretched excess and indolence, there’s Turgenev.


It’s good to know that the Russian aristocracy was wondering what to do, 50 years before Chekov. And I can’t wait to see what the National Theatre is going to do with ”A Month in the Country.” We find out on Friday. We shall find out that then, as now, people who didn’t have to work busied themselves with small matters. Is it time for dinner? After all, you should know, your watch always being so accurate. Oh, 4:20. Not time yet. Better go for a stroll. Watch the servants picking raspberries. Have a chat with the doctor. Who has no apparent patients, by the way, but plenty of time. And he wasn’t even aboard ship.

Somewhere out there is Ireland. Mostly somewhere up ahead. We must pass south of Ireland around 6 PM this evening. Then, as the day fades, lights appear in the distance. Cornwall. Devon. Dorset. We steam up the English Channel. We stop off the Isle of Wight to pick up pilots. I swear that once in the night I actually heard this happening. It’s about 3 AM. Voices. I heard them. Pilots? The ship’s officers? Oh, I suppose it’s possible, but hardly likely. The Queen Mary 2 is 12 stories tall and a bit less than a quarter mile long. There’s a chance, but only a slim one, that you’re going to be close to the real nautical action. The latter goes on somewhere generally out of sight.

It’s so out of sight aboard this floating city…that maybe it’s time to be in a real one. Nothing floating in London, except the pound. Which, strangely, has floated to something of an all-time low. Still, being one of the world’s most expensive cities, it probably won’t matter. Stay tuned.


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