Monday, 11 July 2011

The Restaurant Bodyswerve...

David ‘Windy’ Baboulene and his friend NotNorman are travelling the world, working on ships. They have taken a few days off to go backpacking in the Greek Island of Sifnos…

We climbed up mountainsides, unshaven and sweating heavily in the late summer heat – we must have looked like bandits – then picked our way down the other side of the mountain and visited remote beaches or tiny white churches. We drank, ate and swam, then set off in the opposite direction to try and walk a different way back. One evening we were returning from a long, long walk, towards the setting sun. We were dropping down from a high pass into the top of Apolonia, the capital of Sifnos. We still had some way to go to get back to our rooms, and the sight of a taverna as we entered the outskirts of the town, with a terrific view across the Kastro valley to a glorious strawberry ripple sunset, was too much to pass up. We fell gratefully into the seats on the raised balcony, under a canopy of bougainvillea and grape vines, and removed our backpacks and hats. We were tired but happy and this was just what we needed - a scene of earthly perfection.

A short lady came out. She put her hands on her ample hips and smiled at us. She didn’t speak any English, of course, but her words appeared welcoming, and we were able to sort out some cold beers. It was glorious. So glorious, in fact, that we undid our boots and stayed for another. We were the only customers, so the lady was using the lull in trade to feed her family inside the house, emerging only to pick some oregano from the borders of the balcony. So that was why the air was so fragrant. She took the herbs back indoors. We could see the family eating through the open door, and it had a profound effect on us. I looked at NotNorman. He looked at me. We knew what we were thinking and we called for the lady. It didn’t take too much in the way of charades before she brought an enormous tray of food out to show us. She pointed at it and said, ‘Yovetsi. Yo-vetsi!’
It looked like meat in giant rice (which turned out to be pasta) baked in a fresh tomato sauce. We nodded enthusiastically, and were soon rolling our sleeves up around huge portions of yovetsi, along with Greek salad, zingy olives, Mizithra (a strong, creamy version of feta), and a local retzina wine. The flavours tumbled and rang and burst together in wonderful ways. The sun turned red, and dipped its bottom into the distant Aegean, leaving its colours to bleed across the horizon, turning the sky pink and the clouds orange. NotNorman and Windy were happy, happy boys.
Eventually, we knew we would have to move. It was a shame, and our feet argued strongly the case against, but it had to be. We called the lady and asked her for the bill. She smiled broadly, happy that we were happy, then went into the house, and came back with the tray of yovetsi and began to load our plates up again. We made the international signal for stopping, and signed our names in the sky to get the bill. She seemed disheartened that we didn’t want any more yovetsi, but at least we’d made ourselves clear now.
She went back indoors and returned with another carafe of retzina. We tried to turn it away, but she wouldn’t have it and refilled our glasses. We tried all the hand signals we knew for refusing food and wine and requesting a bill – along with some loud schoolboy French - for some reason – but to no avail. We now had plates full of food again and glasses full of wine, along with a side order of frustrated Greek lady regaling us with a continuous tirade of Greek. We got some cash out and pointed, but this just seemed to frustrate her all the more. In the end, she threw her arms in the air, went indoors and chiselled her husband from his chair. He came out sighing at having been disturbed. I got the feeling he would rather work with donkeys and chickens than holidaymakers. His hands were gnarled from working the land. His face was hard-baked from the sun, and the children ran round his legs as he harangued us with another pointless tirade of Greek and flamboyant hand signals. We stared back blankly. There was a moment of silence before the lady doubled up laughing at her husband, who threw his arms towards us before turning away so the couple could shout at one another for a while without breathing in. They were quite a double act, although the man seemed to be genuinely annoyed. He turned back to us and started rattling off again. The children gabbled and danced around him like pixies. Six goats arrived at a raised fence on one side of the balcony and turned their heads on one side enquiringly. From the way the couple were going at each other, I would have thought they were having a massive argument. I only knew they weren’t from looking at his wife, who shook her head at her man with a disarming mixture of love and mirth in her eyes. Neighbours came out and started to join in, shouting their opinions from the windows opposite and from doorways up and down the street, but none of them made any more sense than the goats, who were also singing along by now. NotNorman and I sat bemused in the middle of it all. We were becoming an attraction. Nobody seemed angry, but something was definitely amiss. I couldn’t figure it out.
In the end the man seemed to have had enough. He threw his hat on the table and marched off up the street, swearing roundly at the ground as the kids danced along behind him. The woman indicated that we should wait. She sat us down again, and poured us fresh glasses of wine. NotNorman and I tried to work out what it was they wanted from us, or that we were doing wrong. It was utterly mystifying. We had no choice but to wait and see.

Then we found out.

Back down the track tramped the husband, muttering to himself in between shouted comments and gesticulations to his neighbours. He was followed down the path by his dancing children and by a shimmering ring of white light. It was extraordinary. The light was moving behind him, so bright at its centre that I could not looketh upon it. So unearthly was it, that I could not heareth the sounds around me. So compelling was it that I was rendered powerless and could not move. So glorious was it that I could not close my mouth and stop mine dribblethneth.
The chaos surrounding us continued as the husband arrived back on the balcony. The light pulled up beside us, and smiled. A waterfall of red-brown hair framed an achingly beautiful dormouse face and cascaded down around bronzed shoulders. The rest of the world dropped away to nothing around her.
‘Hi,’ she said, smiling. ‘You got a problem?’
 ‘C-c-c-can I touch your hair?’ I said.
Fortunately, my words were so crushed by love that they emerged only as a whimper.
‘No, we don’t have a problem. At least, I hope not, anyway,’ said NotNorman in a put-on posh accent, and then he laughed a girly laugh and twiddled his fingers in front of himself like Stan Laurel. Good grief. He fancied her. I felt an instant welling of hatred for the man. What made him think he had any chance with a vision like her? He needed shooting. ‘I think we could do with some translation though, if you speako da lingo!’
His appalling Greek accent was patronising and not in the least bit funny. In fact, NotNorman had to go. She would never spend her life with me if I was associated with him. I suddenly realised just what a turkey I’d been hanging about with for the last year. Whatever did I see in him? I would have to man up, say something appropriate and take over before it was too late.
‘J-j-j-j-ust one stroke of your hair and I’ll be happy forever. I won’t ever ask anything more of you ever again if you would just let me touch your hair… ’ I dribbled.
She kept up her smile through my pathetic display, and held out her hand. ‘Hiero poli – pleased to meet you.’ she purred. ‘My name’s Hiftyniftyhoshtihairyboshtiblimmikos.’
Well, it sounded a bit like that. NotNorman shook her hand – I mean, he actually touched her. I just about fainted from being so close to such a moving experience. I heard a whining noise emerge from my throat. It was jealousy. I wanted to kill NotNorman for touching something so sacred.
‘Are you Greek?’ asked NotNorman, pathetically. ‘You look Greek, but you talk like a flaming southerner!’ He laughed again at his desperately unfunny joke. I searched the table for a form of cutlery that could see him off. But WonderGirl was equal to both of us so far.
‘My family are from round here,’ she explained. ‘But I live in England. I’m on holiday from college in London at the moment.’
The Greeks around us were getting louder again, all talking at once and running in circles waving their arms around.
‘S’cuse me a minute,’ she turned to the Greek couple. She breathed in deeply through flared nostrils. Her face turned into that of a frighteningly angry person. Her hair turned into raging flames, her forehead grew and her veins stuck out on her neck and temples. She shook like a rocket about to take off – and then she launched. A massive, guttural tirade of full-tilt Greek emerged from her throat and her body flexed and gesticulated as if she was mid-exorcism. She was like a completely separate human being, throwing her hair about with all the eye-rolling and back-arching and dismissive facial expressions of a native Greek. And the restaurant family came back strongly at her in similar vein. It was as if someone had just fired the gun to begin a break-dancing and shouting nonsense competition.
Have you seen those kids’ toys – Transformers? WonderGirl was like one of those, transforming from ‘Vision of Feminine Excellence’ into ‘Whirling Greek Mad Woman’ as if someone had thrown a switch. She then reached the end of her sentence, turned back to us and melted into perfect smouldering beauty mode once more.
‘They say you are trying to pay them,’ she said, like we were weird or something. She wrinkled up her nose in a way that gripped me by the testicles, twisted, pulled and enslaved me for life.
 ‘Of course we are!’ said NotNorman. ‘We’ve sat here for hours! We’ve had beers, and wine and dinner and everything but they don’t seem to want any money!’
He then slapped my hand down sharply behind her back, where I had been hypnotically getting closer and closer to stroking her hair.
‘Why should they?’ she said. ‘This isn’t a restaurant. You’re insulting them by offering them money.’
‘Not… not a restaurant?’ said NotNorman. It was kind of appropriate that NotNorman should attend a NotRestaurant, but the truth was dawning. This was someone’s home. We were sitting in their front garden. We had dumped ourselves on the balcony of perfect strangers. They had brought us beers and their personal wine, whilst we snapped our fingers for them to bring us their family meal. Good grief, how embarrassing.
‘My God! What amazing people!’ said NotNorman. ‘We didn’t realise! Surely, there’s some way we can repay them for their hospitality?’
WonderGirl shrugged. It was a delightful, heart-melting shrug. A shrug so perfect it made you desperate to stroke her hair when she wasn’t looking.
‘Their son is getting married in the church up the hill there next weekend. You could turn up with a gift. They’d be really touched and you’d get invited to the celebration. It’ll be pretty amazing.’
‘Ach, no good,’ said NotNorman. ‘We’ll be gone before then.’
‘Well, there’s always the paniheiri – a festival – at the same church. We’ll all be there dancing and eating. You should come along to that.’
‘Perfect! When is it?’
‘March 13th’ she smiled – it was early October at the moment – and she turned to go. The kind of turn to go that tells a man she might leave his line of vision. This would be the type of disaster that would have brought Hercules crashing to his knees. I hadn’t considered life’s picture continuing without her being in it.
‘No!’ I shouted. It was the first fully-formed word I’d spoken since she arrived. She turned back with a start and looked at me for my next golden words. I didn’t know what to say. I couldn’t see, speak or think. I didn’t say anything.
WonderGirl put her head on one side and smiled sweetly, a look of sympathy on her face for whatever mental affliction I was labouring under. Then she turned away again. I went to shout, but I couldn’t. She walked back up the path, and her light blinded me again. I couldn’t live a normal life without her near me. In fact, I couldn’t live a normal life when she was near me either, but it was infinitely better than the dark, harrowing existence foisted upon us everywhere else in all the world where she wasn’t.
‘Phwoar! D’you see the arse on that?’ said NotNorman, crudely adjusting his trousers. ‘I’d love to give her one, eh?’
You see what I mean? Dark and harrowing. He needed shooting for the good of civilisation.
We got up to leave, bowing and thanking the wonderful people who had fed us. They nodded and waved with big smiles on their faces, and nodded more when we promised them in slow, patronising English (delivered backwards) that we would be back with a gift sometime soon. We wished them luck with their wedding. The unspoken words spoke volumes. They were fine people who were happy to make us feel welcome. They knew we were grateful and they were pleased by that. It was payment enough.

*   *   *   *   *

I returned to Sifnos five years later on March 13th and went to that same church with one aim in mind. I found WonderGirl and somehow tricked her into going out with me.

We now have four children and celebrated 21 years of marriage in 2010. We live part of the year in Sifnos, and still, to this day, the couple whose balcony we adopted try to feed me every time I pass their house.
The books of my travels - Ocean Boulevard and Jumping Ships are published by Summersdale. Available everywhere.

David Baboulene

Friday, 1 July 2011


Lessons in how to impress girls with stories of drainage. Great sexual promise in the air for Welsh gardeners. Windy goes for a sex drive.

AS OUR SHIP materialised gracefully into the panorama of Bridgetown, Barbados, things were beginning to settle into some sort of cohesive pattern. I was getting a rough idea of how the ship ran, I had caught up on my sleep, and the Windy brain was back in control of the world. The names and routines of the lads around me were taking shape, all the deep-tanks we had cleaned were safely full of cargo, and I was beginning to feel a lot happier with life. The thought of our impending visits to Barbados and Jamaica helped considerably, and the words of the old sages who had been there before, as they held forth in the bar, had us all champing at the bit to get out there with the red paint.

‘Make the most of these ports,’ saged Cranners, the posh second officer from Surrey. ‘Most of the places you’ll visit on ships are not like this. Here you may taste the fine life and mix with the glitterati; excellent restaurants, haute cuisine and splendid company, in some of the world’s most glorious settings.’
‘What he means,’ interrupted Benny the Dog, ‘is that instead of getting rat-arsed and fighting in the port, here we can go up the road to dead flash joints, pretend to be rich and pick up some upper-class skirt. They don’t expect no yobbos ’ere, so we can get away with murder. Any plans, Jinx?’
The second engineer nodded slowly, his eyes afire with sinful designs. He was known as ‘Jinx’ because of his uncanny ability to secure the most attractive female companionship out of thin air, and had a highly agreeable habit of coaxing them back to the ship to meet his friends. It was said of Jinx that, were he to find himself wandering aimlessly across the middle of the Kalahari Desert, he would be stopped by a coach-load of nymphomaniac models at a loose end, asking if he could find them anything to do. His reputation preceded him as an organiser of ladies and mischief, so I was not surprised to find he was extremely well spoken and sported a dashing moustache under sparkling blue eyes.
‘Barbados,’ he said in a slow drawl, like that of a dastardly blackguard outlining his vile plans to a helpless maiden tied to a railway track, ‘is indeed ripe for the deflowering of its high society by uncouth sailors, but it is essential that we have a plan and stick to it, or the word will get round and we won’t get a look in. With a little well-placed effort in the early stages, we could be set up for a splendid time. Everybody in? Leave now if you are not prepared to stand by your mates, because my scheme involves a little... ‘dishonesty’. Any potential squealers should leave now, or expect to lose vital organs. All in? Gooooood. Here’s the plan...’
And with much twirling of moustaches, despicable laughter and rubbing of hands, Jinx outlined his devilry to his cackling cronies.

The following evening was warm and still. The moon was full, and the air was full of fragrant promise. Barbados was everything I imagined a paradise might be, and I was beside myself with excitement at the prospects ahead. As it turned out, I had every right to be.
At 9:30p.m., two pairs of eyes carefully followed the mate as he left the ship and headed into Bridgetown with the captain and the chief engineer.
‘Thank God for that,’ said a relieved NotNorman. ‘Let’s go to work!’
We nipped round and knocked on half-a-dozen doors, and five minutes later a troop of extremely smart young gentlemen in bow ties and suits gathered on the afterdeck where Cranners, who was on cargo watch, had been unloading rather more than he was supposed to unload.
‘This is the last one,’ he announced, intimating the whirring cargo-wires, taut under the weight of their heavy load. As they raised slowly upwards and drew together to a hook, their payload swung slowly into view, emerging from the hold like a submarine from the deep. ‘The other six are behind those containers.’
We peered out onto the quay and could see the dark hulks of the other six cars loitering like muggers in the shadows of the containers. ‘The keys are in them. Get them back by four in the morning or we are in the deep and unpleasant. OK?’
I was beside myself with excitement. The ship was carrying a cargo of Mini-Mokes, and part of Jinx’s plan was to unload one each and use them around the island at night. A Mini-Moke is like a small jeep with a Mini engine and frame. Ideal for Caribbean islands, sand-dunes and chicanery. They would be back in the hold before daybreak and nobody need be any the wiser. It was brilliant. We would majestically sweep up to one of the top night spots in seven brand new, identical cars, masquerading as ‘International playboys racing each other round the world on our yachts’. Top off a scheme like that with our suits and impeccable good looks, and what girl in her right mind could resist us?
We climbed into our chariots and started them up. I had neglected to mention that I hadn’t passed a test and could barely drive, but there was no way I was going to be a passenger with this sort of opportunity around, so while the others popped the clutch and snaked off expertly into the warm night air, I brought up the rear with a hop, a skip, a jump, a backfire, and the death knell of twisting gearbox echoing round the docks. I hoped I would get the hang of it before I had the girl of my dreams in the passenger seat. International playboys are usually racing drivers and pilots. It would be something of a passion-killer to have to attend hospital with whiplash injuries before any romance could get under way. After a while I was knocking along fairly well, and I had to admit that seven clean-cut young men flying through the night in their fashionably understated and identical machines cut an impressive swathe through the island’s wide-eyed populace.
By the time we swung in through the grand gateway of ‘Alexis’, Barbados’s premier restaurant and nightclub, we were certainly turning heads. Nobody was looking at the guy emerging from his Ferrari; they had seen all that before. The smoothie who had landed his helicopter on the lawn a couple of minutes before us might as well have been the bin-man for all the effect he was having now. Seven Mini-Mokes arriving in high speed formation through the trees of the long driveway, and sliding alongside one another with skids and roars, drew all the attention. We leapt out over the doors and all eyes were upon us as we horsed around, casually trying to give the impression that we did this sort of thing every night. We looked good. We were the rebels. The anti-fashion. The avant-garde. And, just as Jinx had predicted, everyone – including a large number of society’s juiciest young ladies – was impressed.
The doormen opened the double doors with bows and without question. We flung our jackets at the attractive hostesses and breezed into the restaurant like a troop of James Bonds. As we clicked our fingers for menus and dispatched waitresses for drinks we could hear the buzz going round. Who were we? Where were we from? What were we doing here?
The place was packed to the rafters with girls, and I was immediately in love. I wasn’t quite sure with whom, as yet, but my eyes met hers across a crowded room with about fifteen girls in as many seconds, and I wasn’t fussy. Like every other teenager on earth, I had, of course, had loads of sex. Unfortunately, most of it was with myself. Tonight, however, it was going to be a piece of cake to change all that. Just look around! It was simply a matter of mingling until I found out which lady would be the lucky recipient of tonight’s star prize. But my quest was halted by Jinx leaning across and speaking in a quiet but urgent undertone.
‘This is the critical time,’ he whispered. ‘Keep calm now, and we’re right in. Don’t talk to anybody. If we go to them we’ve blown it. Wait and see who comes to us.’
I did not see the logic in this. In fact, I could see no redeeming features to such a policy whatsoever. I wanted to strike while the iron was hot. To make hay while the sun shone. To love and be loved. These girls would certainly not remain available all night and I could see that I was not alone in feeling that Jinx had lost his grip. He should be urged to go to his bed and leave us youngsters to do what we do best. I furtively scanned the eyes of those around me, and found the general loathing was unanimous. In fact, it was becoming difficult to remember exactly what it was that we found to commend the man in the first place. The thing to do now was to talk to these fine young ladies who were so encouragingly maintaining eye contact for just that moment too long. Make them laugh. Be erudite, witty and cultured. Be the lunatic, the lover and the poet – and don’t mention sailors. I looked around hopefully for a new leader. A champion to lead the mutiny against Jinx, but I was stopped in my tracks by the approach of a tall brunette with Bambi eyes, scarily white teeth and an American accent. She could have stepped straight off the pages of Playboy.
‘Hey, guys,’ she purred in a deep southern accent, flicking her hair and posing as if she had reached the end of the catwalk. ‘Mah frayands and ah are in a little deeyasagreeyament, and we was a-wondrin’ if y’all could heyalp us owut heeya?’ I considered a comment about heyalping them owut of their payants, but, thankfully, she continued before I could. ‘Y’all British, riyut? Wale, Roxanne reckons y’all heeya for the surfin’ champeenships and ah reckon y’all moosicians working up the stoodio on the Poyint. Y’all a rock bayand, riyut?’
I hadn’t thought of either of these options. ‘International playboys racing each other round the world in our yachts’ seemed like the gravy to me, but these suggestions were match-winners. I knew the way to handle this one. We would be anything they would like us to be. Anything at all. Say, ‘Shucks, you found us out,’ and admit to being rock stars. Or surfers. Either would bring home the bacon. Jinx had been rescued by this turn-up, and we all turned expectantly to hear him redeem himself. He could simply tell them they were both right; that we were rock-star surfing champion Bee Gees. Anything! I willed him to answer along these lines, but I’m afraid he wasn’t up to it. He had gone to pieces.
‘Oh, we’re nothing special,’ he said, averting his eyes and fiddling bashfully with his drink. ‘We’re just here to clean out the drains. Barbados has awful sewerage problems you know.’
I was horrified. He had completely lost the plot now. I began looking for something to shove in his mouth to shut him up – the table included a vase of flowers which looked like it might fit him - but, amazingly, the girl did not spin on her heel and carry her spectacular body off to some men who knew what they were doing. Jinx was unbelievably lucky tonight. She patted him affectedly on the forearm and shrieked with laughter.
‘Come oooon! You can not expeyact me to bullieve thayat! You are havin’ me on! Say, do you mind if me and mah frayands join y’all? We’re a-gittin’ hayrassed bah those deyad-heyads over theyer and it would be mahty fine of you to lurk after us and git theyem offof our backs.’
She pouted pathetically.
‘Of course you may,’ said Jinx with chivalry. ‘Make some space there, lads, the ladies are going to join us.’ And with that, half-a-dozen stunning girls abandoned their Ferrari-driving, helicopter-piloting millionaires, and came curving deliciously over to sit with the sailors.
Half-an-hour later, I was deep in conversation with the most amazing-looking girl I had ever seen without staples in her face and stomach. I never once had to say that we were international playboys racing each other round the world on our yachts; firstly, because Roxanne was nineteen and talkative, and secondly, because I had come up with a brilliant idea. Inspired by Jinx’s good fortune, I didn’t crow about being a high-flyer; I blushed and insisted I was nothing special. And the more I talked myself down, the grander the belief in my pedigree became. She laughed aloud when I said we were escaped convicts and that our suits were really the property of the band, who could be found naked, bound and gagged in the ballroom downstairs. She wouldn’t have it when I said we were private detectives, hired to find Trinidad. It got to the point where I could say, ‘Listen. We’re a bunch of sailors off a merchant ship and we nicked the cars out of the cargo,’ and achieve nothing but the further cementation of the belief that we were making a film on the north beaches. My plan was working like a charm. If Jinx had been a bit slicker he could have claimed to have planned the whole thing from the very start.
Not even Cookie Short – the uncouth Mancunian engineering cadet – could spoil things. A quite superb hostess wafted up to him as a fantasy floats into a dream. She licked her lips, then spoke in husky tones, ‘While you await your main course, sir, perhaps you would enjoy whetting your appetite with a fondue on the terrace?’ Long fingers indicated the French windows that opened on to an impressive balcony overlooking the gardens.
‘You betcha!’ enthused Cookie, tongue hanging out. ‘Is that like doggy fashion?’
Even the weight of such evidence against us was laughed off. Our lack of finesse, our accents, and the battle the poor hostess was having to disentangle herself from a puckering Cookie – all counted for nothing. The incongruities simply seemed to confirm to onlookers that we were in fact British royal family. We could do no wrong.
During the course of the evening, most of the lads found female companionship of a class and demeanour way above that which humble sailors would usually expect even to meet, let alone grope. I feel sure several of the finest ladies of the cosmopolitan jet set were severely traumatised that night. I would think that even the most cynical gold-digger, having left a club on the arm of a supposed millionaire and arriving at 3:00 a.m. on the biggest yacht she had ever seen, would possibly adjudge that her ship had come in, so to speak. So as I watched three of these sweet young things heading off with their playboys to go back to the ‘yacht’, I could not help feeling they would be psychologically scarred for life when they awoke in the morning on a merchant ship, having been unceremoniously rogered by three cheapskates called Cookie Short, Crate, and Benny the Dog. It doesn’t bear thinking about.
Incidentally, I should mention that Cookie Short was not the man’s full nickname. I don’t want you running off with the idea that he had something irretrievably cool about him as the name might suggest. I know his nickname made him sound like a jazz musician, but it was actually his supreme readiness to make basic errors of judgement that led to his full title: ‘Cookie Short of the Full Biscuit’, or Cookie Short, for short, if you see what I mean.
Me? Ah. I was hoping we could move on to Jamaica rather than discuss my evening. I know I was doing pretty well at the last bulletin, and as I danced opposite the heavenly body of the hot-blooded Roxanne, futures in Windy Inc. looked set fair to rise. As the lights flashed and the pulsating music whipped us into a frenzy, she began to really let go. She had a freedom of self-expression, an energetic eroticism to her dancing and that air of carefree abandon that are such potent indications of excellent horizontal prospects. She was physically superb, lithe and fit. I was actually scared of her, and yet drawn irresistibly. I could not have walked away if my life had depended on it. I was spellbound. Her long hair flew hypnotically, her eyes were shut and her full lips were gently parted. I kept finding myself staring at her. It was as much as I could do to force myself to shut my mouth and keep dancing; but as the music beat on, and her tantalising motion bedazzled my feeble male brain, I found myself standing still with my eyes on stalks time and again. Just to kiss a vision like Roxanne, without even having to drug her first, would be the pinnacle of my life. Nothing else would ever live up to the importance of this night. And so far, if I could just control my dribbling, things were going precisely to plan.

Whenever you want a slow dance it never happens. They play upbeat, boogie-and-sweat numbers back-to-back all night. Ogling Roxanne as she writhed provocatively was all well and good but I could not excusably get my hands on her at this pace. As each song drew to its high-kicking finale, I implored the heavens to bequeath to me that soothing saxophone and gentle keyboard intro’ that are the green light to leap on top of the girl you’ve been so carefully shepherding about the dancefloor throughout all the fast ones.
Eventually, my patience was rewarded. Some old slush started up, and I leapt. We moved into an intense clinch, entwined like climbing plants. I felt her fingers on the back of my neck. This was it. My time had come. Every inch of me tingled and shivered. I had to keep cool. Don’t do anything stupid. Don’t come on too strong. I decided to skip the fancy stuff and just cling on. Incredibly, fate was on my side, and as the dance built to its powerful middle eight, her upturned face appeared longingly in front of mine.
We kissed.
I have no idea how long we remained locked in divine fusion, because, although my lips stuck to their post, my brain left the building through the roof like a firework display. After an aeon or two, Roxanne was first to come up panting for air. She licked her lips and her eyes were ablaze.
‘Shall we leave?’ she panted hungrily. I tried for the self-assured, ‘You wanna go? Sure.’ All cool and off-hand, but only a meek whimper emerged into the air. Leave? Together? Just us? This could only mean one thing! This monumentally beautiful girl wanted to be alone with me! She wanted ME! My stomach hit the ceiling, then dropped through the floor. This was My Night. This was IT.
I was convinced she was finding my style and sensual expertise irresistible, and couldn’t control herself a moment longer, but I guess, with hindsight, she was probably more keen to leave in order to stop me from humping her leg in public like some kind of demented spaniel. She led the way from the building, and I followed like a hydrogen balloon floating along behind her. If she hadn’t been holding my hand I’m sure I would have become lost amongst the chandeliers.
On the way across the grounds to the Mini-Moke we stopped for another desperate grapple. I was insane with passion, and she was matching me all the way. If the owner of the car upon whose bonnet we were performing our acrobatics had not returned, it might have been all over there and then, but we had to move on. We tried again against a tree before we got to the car, but Roxanne was unhappy with all the people watching from the balcony.
‘Not here,’ she purred. ‘I want this to be veeeery special. Let’s drive out to the beach.’
So with a hop, a skip, a jump and a hey nonny nonny, and leaving a trail of gearbox cogs in our wake, we headed off into the night towards the beach.
‘This is Sam Lord’s castle,’ she said as she led me through the grounds of a magnificent castle and down a narrow path lined with palm trees. ‘We can be alone down here.’
The path unfolded onto a moonlit tropical beach. The waves tumbled together like playful kittens all along the sandy white shoreline and the scintillating phosphorescence shimmered on their dancing crests as far as the eye could see. The palm trees leant out over the beach like dark old men looking for dropped money, the steel band played infectious, carnival rhythms and the happy sounds of the joyful revellers filled the night air as they danced on the beach and drank exotic cocktails around the open wooden bar. What? Joyful revellers? Steel band? I thought we were going to be alone?
‘Oh no!’ cried Roxanne as we took in the scene. ‘There’s a goddam party going on! Let’s try further along the beach. There’s a waterfall up there.’
I followed her doggedly. Anywhere. I didn’t care where. Just anywhere, and the sooner the better. If ninety per cent of my mind was not being ruled by my genitals, I feel sure I would have marvelled at the beauty of the scene, but the only available ten per cent was concerning itself with the basic motor functions engaged in tracking Roxanne, so I was merely frustrated that the scene of my greatest triumph was so overcrowded. Didn’t these people have homes to go to?
Further along the beach, we turned inland and walked up a track through the palm trees. The full moon lit our way as only a full moon can, and even my preoccupied grey cells could appreciate the exquisite setting of a tall, dignified waterfall, tumbling into a small lagoon. It was nothing short of breathtaking.
‘C’mon!’ Roxanne shouted, and ran towards the water, stripping off as she went. The picture of her naked form, reflected gently in the moonlight as she dived into the water, will remain with me until my dying day, but I had a more immediate problem. Girls are lucky. Their state of arousal is not immediately obvious to other swimmers. For men, things are different. Especially for shy young men who are too embarrassed to strip off. There was only one answer. I ran headlong for the lagoon and jumped in fully clothed. Her laughter was challenging and sexy, and I chased her energetically until I finally got hold of her. I wasn’t going to let her get away again. This was it. We kissed under the cascading waterfall. She tore at my suit, and I felt her naked body press urgently against mine. I was at the gates of frantic heaven once more, and this time, nothing could stop us from...
‘What did you say?’ I asked her.          
‘I didn’t say anything, I think it...’
‘Last one in’s a banana. Wheee!’ About twenty of the revellers from the beach party were running towards us, stripping off as they ran.
‘I do NOT believe this!’ I said as my heart sank. ‘This island is like Piccadilly Circus!’ The romance faded like a burst balloon.
‘Let’s go back to my place,’ said Roxanne, rushing to cover up. ‘My folks will be asleep by now. We’ll have the whole place to ourselves.’
On the way to her father’s villa, Roxanne teased me the whole time. She wouldn’t let me stop driving and get hold of her, but she kept flashing her thighs and touching me, and whispering suggestive things in my ear. She was fascinated that I had maintained a steadfast erection for nearly two hours now, and she was determined to enjoy my frustration. In between teases, she asked sensible questions and tried to put me off, then started on me again, using her sexual expertise to prevent things from wilting. One of the questions she put to me was what I really did for a living. Even with the limited brainpower of a man with an erection, I could see that there was no point in lying. The truth was best. I wanted to see her again, so I might as well be honest – I just came right out with it. I was still explaining as quickly as I could when she lifted her shirt and asked me if I liked her stomach. She took my hand and brushed it over her flat, soft belly. Then she suddenly bent across my midriff and kissed me on the thigh before pulling away once more as I reached for her. Every time I tried to join in, she would back off, insist that I concentrate on driving, and then ask another question. By the time we pulled into her driveway, I was beside myself.
Her father was some sort of businessman, and, judging from the size of his Barbados retreat, I should say he was pretty successful. She opened a side door and I followed her, tip-toeing into an enormous kitchen, then on through a dining room lined with a thousand books. We didn’t make a sound. As she reached the door at the far end, she looked back at me with big, hungry eyes and I knew my greatest moment was once more beckoning. The moment when I would finally, at long last...
‘Oh! Hello Daddy!’
... meet Roxanne’s parents.
‘Hey, baby!’ came the cheery reply. ‘Come on in! We’re playing cards with the Robinsons here. Wanna try a hand?’
‘Er, no thanks, Pops. This is Windy Baboulene. He’s the – what did you just tell me you do for a living? – the British and Commonwealth Surfing Champion. He’s here for the tournament at the weekend.’
I sidled sheepishly into the room. I was not looking my best, still damp and in a bedraggled suit with no shirt, I looked like Charlie Chaplin would if they dug him up now, but what could I do? Apologise for having been skinny-dipping with their daughter? The Robinsons looked mildly alarmed, but Roxanne’s dad, after a lifetime of dealing with difficult businessmen, was equal to the challenge.
‘Ha, ha, ha! Good nickname for a surfer, eh? Windy! And British Champion, eh? That’s great! We’re all keen surfers here – you could give us some tips! Say, I thought the British Champion was Grahame someone... Grahame Park? That’s it! Grahame ‘Tube-runner’ Park. What’s happened to him?’
My mind blanked out. How the hell did I know what had happened to him? I’d never even heard of him.
‘Oh. Ah. My ol’ mate Grahame. Yes. Are you sure? Is he still the British Champion?’ The company nodded. They had read it just yesterday. He was still the reigning British Champion. ‘Because I am actually the, er... WELSH Champion. Roxanne had it a bit wrong there. Welsh Champion. That’s it. Out there every day on the river Avon doing my thing!’ With a grin and a wink I did a quick impression of how I imagined I spent my days out taming the three-inch swell of the river Avon. The assembly looked a little bemused, but once more Father showed his steel.
‘Well now, that’s great! Listen. If you’re staying the night you could give us a few tips in the morning. We only get the ten-footers over this side of the island, but they’re great for learning on. What do you say?’
I gulped. Only one idea came to mind, and it wasn’t one of my best. ‘What? Oh! Ha, ha! You thought I said Surfing Champion! Ha, ha! No, no, no! You misheard. I’m the Welsh Turfing Champion and one of Britain’s premier landscape gardeners. I can turf two acres of fallow spinney in under four hours using nothing more than –’ Roxanne came to my rescue.
‘Oh, very funny Windy. He’s so modest about his surfing. Anyway, sorry Pops, but we can’t stop. We just dropped in to get some dry things and now we’re off to a party. See ya!’ And with that she swept me from the room. Within seconds we were back in the car, Roxanne in tears of laughter.
‘Turfing Champion? Turfing Champion!’
‘Shut UP, Roxanne.’      
‘Where NOW?’ I said, curtly. I was exasperated. Something had to give soon or I would do myself a mischief. Roxanne’s sexy laughter filled the car.
‘Mr Sausage never went down the whole way through!’ she giggled. ‘All that turfing stuff, and he stood to attention the whole damn time! Mrs Robinson couldn’t take her eyes off your groin! She believed you’re a surfer all right. She thinks you carry your surfboard down your pants! So how about we go back to your place, and go for a ride on your surfboard?’
‘Umm, OK,’ I said. ‘But you might not like it – my place, that is – not my, er... surfboard. I’m staying on a ship in the harbour.’ I crossed my fingers as the news sunk in.
‘So you really are a bunch of sailors? HA! That’s GREAT! HAHAHAHAHAHAAAAA!’
She was laughing fit to burst, but I didn’t feel humiliated. What was important was that she didn’t care that I was a sailor! She wasn’t after the glamour and prestige of a prize-winning Welsh turfer – she wanted me for myself! Nothing could stop us now. If I could get her back to the ship, they would be dragging me off her exhausted body in three days’ time so the ship could leave. I drove back out on to the open road with renewed belief. The rollercoaster was on the way up once more. Tonight seemed destined to be The Night, irrespective of what the world could throw at us.
She began to tease me again as we flew across the island towards the Global Wanderer, a ship now transformed in my mind from an atrocious old rustbucket to my sexual utopia. She whispered in my ear the details of what she was going to do to me once we were alone, then she took my hand and placed it under her short skirt. She invited my hand along her bronzed thigh and took a sharp intake of breath as my fingers touched her. She wasn’t wearing underwear. She threw back her head and thrust herself hard against my searching fingers. I could not believe this. She refused to let me stop the car, and kept saying, ‘Faster, FASTER!’ So I drove as best I could, but I wanted to look at her far more than I wanted to look at the road. The only light was that from the moon, and she looked gloriously erotic. I took a couple of bends at ten miles-an-hour in fourth gear, but – despite the complaints from the engine – she didn’t notice. As the car built back up to speed, she built up with it. Her pelvic thrusts became wilder and wilder and her moans became screams. The engine’s roar grew louder and louder, she was nearly there. The speed of the night air in her hair grew faster. She was nearly there. She squeezed the life out of my hand with her thighs and cried with pleasure. Nearly there. Nearly there. She bucked and squealed and bucked again, her rhythm getting stronger and more intense and closer and closer. Her back arched and she lifted herself completely off the seat. She cried through clenched teeth, ‘Yyyyyess! Yyyyyeesss! Nooooowaaahhhh!’ and her eyes rolled back. She froze as if she had been shot, went into the most phenomenal muscular spasm, and had a volcanic orgasm there and then in the car.
So did I.
The car went into a ditch.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Flaming Nuisance...

During my time working on the ships I attended a comprehensive fire course. There are no firemen to call on a ship, and you can't just fill the thing with water, so they take the fire training very seriously. You join me half-way through, about to experience the real thing...

The best part of the course though, was when we spent two days at a fire station, going out with the guys on the fire trucks and experiencing the whole fire fighting job for real. Fan-bloomin’-tastic, as the man said. Fire stations cannot take groups of passengers, so we were split up, and I was sent alone to join a brigade down the coast at a fire station in Middlesbrough.

I had heard stories about what to expect from a couple of days on Blue Watch. It was a busy, city centre fire service, so Nick, the lead fireman who was to look after me, gave me to expect that the two days would not pass without our seeing some proper action. He was tall and confident, with the swagger of a man who had been around this particular block a few times. He had a blue-eyed glint and a truly terrible moustache. But he was right. On the first day, I got some action all right, but it wasn’t exactly what I expected.
The fire station was comfortable, with a large relaxation area, a pool table and television, but we did no relaxing. There were machines to clean, training exercises to be done, and they felt honour bound to conquer my fear of heights at the top of a tower (they didn’t. They made me very, very scared of heights indeed). Then there was the endless volleyball match. A highly competitive event that was apparently more important than just about anything else in a Middlesbrough fireman’s life and, incidentally, a far more potent source of injury and sick days than anything that generally happened on the job.
The fun and smiles stopped the moment there was a ‘shout’. People dropped what they were doing and ran for the trucks. I pulled on the highly unfashionable rubber trousers and boots, and, after only the briefest of wonderful thoughts about what Chevvy would have done to me wearing these, I jumped aboard the fire truck feeling absolutely part of the team. Nick and the lads piled on around me and we headed off into the city with the blue lights flashing and the sirens screaming. It was magic. Fire trucks go surprisingly slowly, but the engine’s roar and the siren’s wail and the traffic leaping to the sides around us mean the excitement was intense. The only sad thing was that the service gets so many false alarms and crap callouts to deal with that the firemen themselves do not get excited every time the bell goes. They fully expect that most calls are going to be a waste of time. They have a small context for every call quite quickly, and more often than not recognise the signs of a false alarm very early on, but they are still obliged to check it out. On this occasion, it was serious. We were told that there was a guy threatening to commit suicide from a high rise block of flats. We arrived on the scene amongst a gathering crowd. Sure enough, there he was, distantly visible at a great height, naked, and out on a window ledge. You couldn’t see very well – it was drizzly and he was very high up – but it looked to me like he was clinging on by his hands. I felt my stomach go queasy for him. Unless we could act fast, it wouldn’t be long before he would be coming down the quick way…
The jumper was too high for the ladders, so some of the guys started setting up a means of catching him whilst I, along with two coppers, three firemen and nine members of the public, counted up the seventeen floors and along to his position at the sixth window. After a loud disagreement or three about how many floors up he was, and a recount or nine about how far across, we had the sums done. We went into the flats, jumped in the lift, and set off to try and get to him from the inside.
It was kind of strange to be standing in a lift crowded out with firemen. People never know quite what to do in lifts. Whatever our day consists of, emergency or not, it must all go on hold and we must all stare at the back of each others heads and listen to gently piped music for the time it takes for the lift to take us where we are going. There we all were, in our helmets and fireproof gear and holding axes, but just standing there in a bunch. It struck me as odd, not just because of the quiet inertia in the middle of an emergency situation; more because, when I signed up for the Merchant Navy almost exactly one year earlier, I couldn’t possibly have imagined that my signature could somehow lead me to be standing gormlessly in a lift in the centre of Middlesbrough in the midst of a tightly bunched group of stationary fire fighters listening to Shakatak. It just didn’t scan. It was particularly incongruent when the lift stopped at floor 9, where an elderly lady with a cat basket was waiting for the lift. She looked at the sea of firemen in front of her and blinked hugely through Magoo glasses.
‘You going down, duck?’ she said, and started to barge her way in with us. Nick stood in her way.
‘Sorry, love. Emergency. We’re using this lift. You can’t come in.’
She looked puzzled. ‘Shouldn’t you lot have a fire engine?’
Nick smiled as he pressed the button twenty times to get the doors to shut.
‘Sorry, love,’ said Nick. ‘There’ll be another one along in a minute.’
The doors shut and we looked at each other shaking our heads at the things that get in the way of the emergency services. Life and death could hang on it, and she wasn’t even pushing the right button. Whatever next.
A few moments later, there was a ‘Ping!’, the doors drew open and there looking back at us, an elderly lady with a cat basket was waiting for the lift. She looked at the sea of firemen in front of her and blinked hugely through Magoo glasses.
‘You going down, duck?’ she said, then tried to force her way in.         
‘Will you stop pressing the goddam button!’ yelled Nick. ‘We’re trying to attend an emergency here!’
‘Don’t worry, duck,’ she said, patting his arm. ‘A load of your lot went up already. They’ll be there by now.’
Eventually we arrived at the seventeenth floor and life restarted with a ‘Ping!’ We left the lift as one and galloped along the corridors like a sixteen-legged beast, with eight heads all counting doors as we went. We decided we had the right one, knocked and waited – again, in a strangely inert bunch – around the door to the flat. It was as if we were playing a weird party game, requiring all eight of us to try and stand in the one pair of boots, on exactly the same spot on the ground. We must have looked like a human bunch of flowers.
A gentleman answered the door. He was around forty, wearing a silk bathrobe and with a posh cigarette drooping from his limply raised hand. Had the cigarette been in a long black holder he was Oscar Wilde. He seemed surprised to see a bunch of fire fighters all standing in exactly the same spot outside his doorway. We waited for a pithy Wilde one-liner.
‘Can I help you?’ he asked. Not brilliant, I suppose, but we didn’t give him long, and it got the message across. There was a woman in the room behind him, relaxing on the sofa.
We stared at him in silence for a moment; there was no emergency here.
‘Sorry, mate. Wrong door,’ shouted Nick, and, in a single bunch we all moved as one – like the Ant Hill Mob in Wacky Races – along the corridor to the next door, from which a fat, sweaty woman with spiked, scarlet hair, a screaming baby under her arm and two yappy dogs invited us, in a definitive and charming local Cleveland dialect, to fuck off.
We Ant Hill Mobbed it across to the door on the other side of Oscar Wilde. Some studenty kids, doing something they all looked massively guilty about, begged us not to tell anyone they were there, so we began to think we must have the wrong floor after all.
Nick radioed down to the guys at the ground level and sparked a fresh round of counting up and across, and they came to the same conclusion as us. We were in the right place.
We checked which floor we were on, and which way was west, and told each other that we simply couldn’t understand it. This done, we gathered once more around Oscar Wilde’s door. The silk bathrobe answered again. This time he was much funnier.
‘Do you want money or something?’
Still some way to go, but a definite improvement. Nick no longer had time for small talk.
‘This is an emergency and we need to look out of your window,’ he announced, and we all barged past and into the room. 
‘Hey! Do you mind! This is a private residence! You have no right to…’
Blah blah blah. I mean, that was barely funny at all. Barging past was much more fun! The bloke and his protests soundly shoved out of the way, we all sailed into the living room in our tight bunch, doffing our hats and politely waving axes at the surprised looking woman on the sofa as we cruised sideways across towards the room which we reckoned had a jumper on the ledge. It was a bedroom. The window was closed, and there was nobody standing outside, but we figured we would at least be able to see where the jumper was from here.
We stood corporately on the bed, opened the window and all eight heads leaned out at once. There in the next window along – a second window for the same room in which we were standing – was a rubber doll. She wafted and wobbled in the wind; wide-mouthed, wide-eyed and despite the drizzle and the fact that her thumb was jammed into the closed window, she appeared to be ready for just about anything.
Nick smiled broadly as he spoke into his radio.
‘False alarm lads. It’s a rubber doll…’
‘A what?!’ crackled back the reply.
 ‘You heard,’ said Nick. ‘Same model as your one, boss.’ He winked at me.
I looked back at the living room where the man and woman were sitting. ‘What do we do now?’ I asked.
Nick shrugged. ‘The bloke’s been caught out, hasn’t he? His missus has come home whilst he’s, erm, pumping up his inflatable friend there, so he’s chucked it out the window, and made out he was having a shower or something. Then someone in the shopping centre’s called 999 thinking she’s gonna jump!’
‘Yich! She’s better off out there,’ said one of the guys, giving me a picture of Oscar that I really didn’t need.
Nick laughed. ‘OK lads, show’s over. I’ll take the guy to one side and have a private word to make sure it doesn’t happen again. You lot get back down.’
We all trailed back out past the red-faced man, who stood with pursed lips and avoided eye contact, and his other half sat looking somewhat baffled on the sofa. Nick was starting his diplomatic little chat as I left.
‘OK, sir. I do need to highlight a fire safety issue for you, if you wouldn’t mind stepping back into the bedroom here…?’
Halfway down, there was a ‘Ping!’ the lift stopped and the doors opened. Two puzzled eyes blinked at us through huge Magoo glasses and a cat that was massively fed up with the day he’d had so far meowed pitifully.
‘Yes, love, we’re going down,’ said one of the firemen as we made space for her. ‘Do you want a fireman’s lift?!’
She stared at us all the way down. It was unnerving.
‘You know what, duck?’ she said as we helped her out at the bottom. ‘I’m sure I’ve seen you somewhere before…’
By the time we got to ground level, the jumper had gone. She had been brilliantly talked out of it – another successful suicide avoided and another relationship saved by our magnificent fire brigade.

Friday, 27 May 2011

The Tale of Ahmed the Magnificent

(You join me as a teenager, working my apprenticeship on a cargo ship in Calcutta, India.)

I was miserable. My spirit ground mercilessly under the heel of authoritarian brutality. My heart callously scooped out and cast adrift by the soulless Chief Officer. He had deemed me to be in need of some punishment, and - not realising the damaging effects that removing Fun from a young chap can have - wagged the finger, gnashed the teeth and dashed from my lips the Calcutta Cup of Delights. And he didn’t stop there. Being possessed of the idea that I might sneak off the ship, he took the preventative step of leading me by the ear along to the top of the gangway, pointing me out to the seacunny on patrol and leaving orders that I was not to be allowed to set foot across the threshold. He then lifted me by the lapels, touched his nose to the end of mine and spat down my front as he warned me that if I did leave the ship he would conduct an energetic and highly personal endoscopy with the ship's mop. I was to stay in and study and think about how I could be a better person in future. I got the feeling that this time he meant it.

As the boys waved goodbye and marched purposefully up the road in their happy clothes, I trudged off to the ship’s bar and was pleased to find it livelier than expected. The Fifth Engineer's Asian wife was entertaining a couple of girl friends from the city. Mindi and Bhupinda were very lovely ladies indeed (from what I could see of them behind my supposed friend NotNorman and the licentious Wugg, who were leaning all over them trying to be clever). But it was Mindi whose every word took my breath away; whose every smile squeezed my heart and made me want to cry if I could not make her mine.  

But Mindi’s attention was being dominated by NotNorman and Wugg, so I sat casually nearby and tried to muscle my way in by throwing super-clever remarks into their conversation from a distance. Mindi laughed at my jokes, but NotNorman deliberately held his laughter back. He made snide comments through clenched teeth in response. However, the real problem was that I was getting side-tracked by Bhupinda. She had locked on to me when I handed her a drink. I didn’t want her attention, and kept trying to see past her to stay involved with Mindi’s gang.

I tried to be polite. I pretended to listen to Bhupinda, smiling and nodding as if I was interested whilst actually concentrating hard on keeping up with the others. But every time I made a joke and joined us back into the interesting conversation behind her, Bhupinda just saw it as an opportunity to breathe in, then moved across in front of me again and started on and on about some bloke she knew once who had a boat and a sister and a cat and how nothing ever happened but she could still talk continuously about it without hesitation, repetition or deviation and the only interesting point was that these people and their cat were added to an enormous list of people she had known who had moved house without telling her where they’d gone and didn’t you just hate it that people did that all the time? I was struck with a similar emotion and began to think she must be sponsored by the guild of removal van companies. It was incredible. Each time she started talking, it quickly became clear that she didn’t intend to stop any time soon. NotNorman’s plan was working. I was becoming removed from the Mindi-fest, and was being worn down by this relentless, moon-faced talking machine that moved in front of me every time I tried to get around it.

For a while, I did force a smile and kept at least a tiny bit of polite nodding and eye contact going with Bhupinda but, good grief, she went on. Blah, blah, blah. Drone, drone, drone. Before long, the only words I could hear during her conversation were the ones in my own head, screaming inside, imploring her from behind my clenched smile:‘SHUT UUUPP! SHUT UUUUUP! GO AWAY! NAFF OOFFFFF! LEAVE ME ALONE! SHUT UUUUUUUUUP!’

I kept on clapping my hands together and saying, ‘anyway I really must mingle,’ or ‘well, lovely talking, but I really need the loo’, or ‘good Lord, look at the time! I really have to throw myself out of this porthole’, but there was no let up in the verbal onslaught. I started to hallucinate. Her big round face got bigger and rounder as it kept droning on and on and ooooon. Soon she had six faces, all circling in front of me and talking all at once like some hideous visitation from a 1970s pop video. She didn’t even breathe, not once. I wasn’t even pretending to listen politely anymore. There was no point. I ruffled her hair up. No change. I pressed her nose in and made a honking sound like a 1940s car horn. She kept talking. I squeezed her mouth together from the sides. Her eyes bugged out but the gabble just kept on coming. I pushed her cheeks right into each other in front of her teeth. It brought a surprised look to her eyes and distorted whatever it was she was batting on about, but she just kept on and on and on and on and on and on regardless. I beat her to death with a chair but there was no change in the output from the mutilated corpse on the deck. It was beyond reasonable limits.

I was in the throes of trying to slit my own throat with a beer mat – she had apparently witnessed many tragic suicides in her time as a conversationalist – when there was a bit of a row outside the bar. The door crashed open and an Asian gentleman in a top hat and tails, carrying a fold-up table, a magic wand and a large tray, came falling in, followed hot-foot by the seacunnie who had been trying to stop him.

‘He says he invited, Sa’ab. Not true, eh?’ cried the seacunnie. It wasn’t true, but that wasn’t going to stop me. Anything to get away from Bhupinda.

‘Yes, yes! He’s with me! Come in, come in!’ I chanted magnanimously, and waved the seacunnie away. ‘Do you want a girl to talk at? I mean, to?’

The visitor, who had been expecting a physical expulsion, found he had a foothold. He straightened his jacket and stood upright and dignified.

‘I,’ he announced, bowing low, ‘am Ahmed the Magnificent.’ And he certainly was. He was around four-feet tall, with a silver beard that almost reached the floor at the front and coat tails which nearly reached the floor at the back. He wore a scraggy white shirt with a bow tie and matching bow-legs, and he had a large jug and an intriguing looking plastic tray with a lid. ‘I am here to perform – my performance!’

‘Errr… what kind of performance is that?’ asked Wugg with suspicion. Given some of the things he had seen around the world, he perhaps thought it best to ask, particularly with ladies present.

‘It is a Magnificent show,’ said Ahmed, patting the lid of his tray with a reassuring smile. ‘You won’t have seen anything like it.’

Exactly the problem, I thought, but now we at least had a focus of attention that was not Bhupinda’s life story or our battle over Mindi. Wugg asked again what the show was about, and Ahmed replied that if we paid up, we could see what it was all about, couldn’t we? An argument ensued concerning whether we should allow him to proceed. I wanted the focus to remain away from Bhupinda and NotNorman, so I cut through the crap. I ran to my cabin, got some money and paid the man his price. I mean, the guy was obviously some sort of magician. He might be a crap magician, but even a crap magician couldn’t do any harm, could he?

In my defence, as the sponsor of this event, the first minute and a half couldn’t have gone better. Ahmed the Magnificent indulged a theatrical preamble, talking with wide-eyes about the mystical East and the intriguing and inexplicable things that happen when in the presence of Magnificence. As he spoke, he removed his jacket, erected the fold-up table and placed the tray carefully on the top. I’m not sure what could be mystical and inexplicable – or even Eastern – about a Tupperware tray, but we made ourselves comfortable with our beers, and began heckling from the stalls. I felt pleased with the rise in excitement. I looked around at our lady guests. They were enjoying themselves so far, and I was happy to take the credit. Ahmed the Magnificent then flexed his fingers. The tension rose as he paused dramatically, hovering over the tray… he lifted the lid… and the chaos commenced.

The next few minutes were a bit of a blur, but as far as I remember it went something like this. Inside the tray were half a dozen snakes writhing about in two inches of water. They weren’t huge, but they were certainly agitated, bright yellow and looked well worth avoiding. The lid-lifting seemed to be the starting gun for them to begin a race, and they quickly set about legging it over the sides of the tray, their black, beady eyes and flicking tongues betraying their desire to find someone to blame for their imprisonment. I had heard stories of snakes swallowing whole cows, and for an instant I wondered if we would still be able to hear Bhupinda talking from inside a snake. Such happy thoughts were soon overwhelmed by my own desire to avoid a personal encounter with one of these most fearsome of reptiles, over which Ahmed the Magnificent was demonstrating a remarkable lack of control. He had a little crooked stick with which he continuously returned these murderous beasts to the tray each time they made a break for it, but there were lots of them, they were sliding out of the container from all sides and he was concentrating more on the spoken part of his act than he was on snake herding. In short, he was losing the battle. I wanted him to forget the spoken part of his act and get the lid back on, and I soon became anxious enough to interrupt his performance.

‘Erm, Ahmed, old friend. You couldn’t just, erm, pop those chaps back in the old pot there, could you? Maybe do a few card tricks or something? You see, snakes are all well and good at the right…’


I was interrupted by a corporate scream as one of the snakes made it out of Ahmed’s range and headed sou’-west at full ahead. As Ahmed chased it, the others were quick to identify opportunities for a new life of freedom that now lay in the nor’-east. They landed noisily on the floor and set off. Things were now officially out of control, and these were not shy or nervous snakes. They did not suffer from stage fright, but seemed keen to play a positive part in the performance. So, whilst the rest of us tried to cling to the ceiling, the snakes lapped the bar and The Magnificent Ahmed busied himself with his act, returning the snakes to the tray with his little crooked stick each time one completed a circuit and came in range.

The distraction of the snakes had led to a certain lack of focus on what Ahmed the Magnificent was saying, so it was something of a surprise to me when he suddenly grabbed a snake, held it up in the air, its head in one hand and body in the other.

‘And now… Ahmed the Magnificent… will eat… this… snake alive!’ he announced proudly.

The ladies all screamed in unison (OK, OK, I might have let out a small one myself) and a good deal of verbal effort was made to discourage him. But we were not in strong positions to do much about it. Reading from left to right: Wugg was sitting on top of the television with his feet drawn up; the girls were clinging to each other in a line on the back of the sofa; I was standing in the sink behind the bar and had armed myself with a washing-up brush; and NotNorman – where was NotNorman? – Ah! There he was! Clinging octopus-like to Bhupinda’s head as she stood on the back of the sofa. I couldn’t help but notice that Bhupinda was telling NotNorman about how she met some bloke with a snake once, still managing to squeeze the words out despite NotNorman’s arms and legs circling her face. From these vantage points, we tried our hardest to discourage Ahmed the Magnificent as he concertinaed the snake up so its tail was squashed up behind its head, then, to roars of disapproval from all present, he pushed it into his mouth.

As the concertina’d body opened up, the snake visibly slid down his throat until finally, and to passionate condemnation from all present, the tail disappeared. He opened his arms wide to accept his applause, and opened his mouth wide to show us there were no snakes hiding under his tongue or curled up in the rotting cavities of his teeth. But we knew that already. One look at his rolling, pulsating stomach told us where it had gone.

He then picked up another snake.

We renewed our shouts for him to stop as he concertinaed up the new candidate and adopted the position. Then, recognising the levels of disapproval, told us that, for a small additional fee, he would not eat snakes. Indeed, for the right money, he would pack up and leave. We agreed frantically to paying him to go away, but we were in the ship’s bar. We didn’t have any money on us, only ever signing for items taken from the bar. I had been to my cabin to fetch his price the first time round, and we would have to go again to fetch some more.

We tried to explain to the chap that we could get him some more money if he could just give us a clear path to the door and a couple of minutes. But we were too late. Gulp. Slither. Schloop! Another snake snack took its place in Ahmed’s intestines. His stomach writhed around and he looked to be in some discomfort as he urged us to produce more cash… and set up a third snake for consumption. When we didn’t produce the required money in time… Gulp! Another snake joined his mates inside The Magnificent Belly. At this moment, the chief engineer entered the bar. He was a huge, Northern man who wasn’t scared of anything. He was eight feet square, without a single hair on his entire body, but despite his size he had a high voice like Sybil Fawlty.

‘Awww, bloody he-eelll,’ he sang, irritated that there was no peace to be found in the bar and that he now had another job to do. He looked at me standing in the washing up bowl, then at the damsels in distress, added two and two, then collared Ahmed and dragged him bodily from the room. He then put his head back into the bar and pointed first at me, then at NotNorman.

‘You, and you. Pack up them snakes and follow me. Now!’

Fortunately, three of the snakes were already eaten. One was in Ahmed’s hands and the other two were in the tray, so we were able to slam the lid on before we actually had to handle any snakes. Even so, Mindi was shouting abuse at NotNorman, the like of which you would not expect from a lady of good breeding. It seemed, from what I gathered before we left the bar, that he had omitted to prepare her for the presence of snake digestion artistes in the bar. Man, she was mad! I had the strangest feeling that things might have swung away from NotNorman in the battle for her affections, and try as I might, I didn’t seem able to feel sorry for the man.

Outside, Chiefy organised us into a team: I carried the jug of water; Wugg carried the tray of snakes, NotNorman carried the fold-up table, and Chiefy carried Ahmed by the scruff of his neck and booted him Magnificently up the bottom every other step of the way to the port gates. He was deposited remarkably gently at the road – I think deep down it’s hard not to find some respect for a man who earns his living getting his arse kicked the length of the harbour with live snakes in his belly.

‘And make sure he doesn’t come back!’ yelled Chiefy, as he stomped off back towards the ship.

NotNorman and I stood and watched Ahmed the Magnificent get himself together. He drank the entire jug of water – must have been a couple of litres – and then, with a noise like a passing 650 Honda, threw up the snakes back into the tray. I can’t say if they were happy or not – snakes don’t tend to betray their emotions with facial expression – but they were alive and well, and definitely had something unusual to discuss with the family back in the tray. Ahmed picked up his equipment and headed off. He was my precious $20 richer, and had another $20 in his line of sight in the shape of the Scandinavian container ship next along in the dock. I wondered how many ships would see his performance in a day. What a life. Maybe one day I would see him on ‘The X Factor’.
"Shall we leg it up the road?" said Wugg, gazing happily through the open gate. “Chiefy just got us off the ship!”
And it hit me - we were passed the seacunnie! Fee to roam! But I remembered the look in the Mate's eye and the singularly unsuitable nature of a mop for use as an endoscope.
"I don't think so," I said, shaking the peanut. "The Mate will go berserk if I nip off again. Early night for me."
Us Baboulene's are known for our solid resolve, so Wugg didn't push it. He knew nothing could make me break my word once a decision had been made. I would respect the curfew this evening. We turned to go back to our cells. As we did so, we were met by a car leaving the dock. Inside were the two girls from the bar. They stopped and rolled down the window.
"Hey, guys! We're going into town - you wanna come along?"
There was a degree of conflict. My head said 'No!', my heart said 'Yes!' I looked at the girls in the car - beautiful, fun-loving girls who didn’t like NotNorman anymore, and a completely different part of my body seemed to drown out the others. It told me to stop being an idiot, to get in the car, to go and have a good time... and to remember to hide the mop first thing when I got back...

(The complete and unexpurgated version of this story is featured in my second travel book, Jumping Ships.)