Cruising

The laptop had been resting on top of his white dress shirt and the beer gut it contained, as he lay on the pleather lounge. The ice in the mug filled with Bundy had melted and the grog could now pass for tea. The blinds to his personal office were pulled down.

The girls had flipped the sign to Closed on the entrance door to the electorate office, and had gone home like he’d told them to. He’d supposed he’d have to fill out some forms about their finishing up, or maybe the Speaker’s office did all that. No matter.

The ad for the cruise had popped up in his Gmail account, not the Parliamentary email account, of course. It had a pic of massive green and yellow striped tubes of plastic that spiralled down around the ship’s smoke stacks to a splash pool.

Walters had imagined some young woman with aqua-coloured dolphin tatts on her chunky white thighs. She hits the little puddle of piss water at speed. Meaty hands scramble up to keep her bikini top from coming off. Snot slips on to her cheek from her flooded nose. Her brat 11 year old son takesvideo on her Android and loads it up on her Facebook accountfor the girlfriends in Penrith or Lugarno to see. #embarrassingparent

No one would recognise him there, he’d thought. The anonymity of mediocrity. And, if they somehow did recognise him through their ‘Shazmapolitan’ bourbon-and-Cokes, sweaty VBs, and 24 hour pepperoni pizza on request, they’d just apply the Factor and leave him to his solitude. The ‘All Politicians Are Bloody Useless’ Factor. Walters had lived in its liberation for four electoral terms. The freedom of low expectations.

Turn up to the school fete and buy a sponge cake. “Hey, he’s alright.” Send a signed birthday card with a golden Parliamentary crest out to Nana for her ninetieth. “That’s very kind of him – not like the rest of that mob.” Doorknock a few suburbs come election time, and compliment their neat lawns. “Never seen one here before. Maybe, he’s a bit different.”

In fact, Walters knew he was very much the same. Or, at least, that he’d mastered the craft of sameness for success.

He had clicked on the booking tab at the bottom of the email and picked a week. Sydney to Noumea to some shit hole Pacific islands to Sydney. Additional booze package available. Entertainment every night. He noticed the young blonde country western singer from her having grown up inhis electorate and her having failed on The Bachelor.

Walters had wedged himself off the lounge to draw his worn wallet from the back pocket of his crumbled navy suit. The Parliamentary credit card was the first one that he’d pulled out, and Walters looked at it. “Fuck it,” he said. It was over. 

The next Saturday arvo, he’d boarded at Circular Quay, without any reptiles from the Press Gallery spotting him.

After checking in – passing passports, forms and jokey pleasantries with the Border Control dudes – Walters dropped his luggage in his below-decks suite. A porthole and a toilet on the opposite ends of a mattress. He started his scouting mission of the Pacific Paradise.

Situational awareness. It was a key skill of his from politics. Knowing one’s context – be it physical, geographic, demographic, social or emotional – and how best to manage any potential vagaries. 

Walters had spent nearly his entire adult life practicing the craft. Starting as an electorate officer in his twenties; then, Ministerial advisor; then preselection candidate; then MP for the last 15 years. Practicing at public school speech nights; at Russian debutante balls; at Tamil language poetry readings; at ribbon cuttings for car dealerships, childcare centres and hospital wards; at awards ceremonies for the full array of sporting teams, from rugby league to soccer to indoor cricket. Each respective setting had a tribe and tribal leader; to keep from being eaten by the cannibals (eg, the voters), Walterswas now fast at figuring things out to stay ahead of the scalping knives. It all easily happened in a select part of his being, just like the faux familiarity and friendliness of the blokes checking passports. He felt he could easily do it forever because that box in his brain was easy to carry.

Floating RSLs was the right parlance for this type of ship. Meeting the expectations of hungry, thirsty, gambling-obsessed Aussies. Endless buffets like pig troughs with long serving tongs and bright lights. A fluid fountain of beer, booze, sweat, and sea water. Pokie machines with all the themes: Chinese waving cats, Egyptian pyramids, three-ring circuses, and literally all the flashing lights, bells and whistles designed to keep the credit cards tapping. Gold brocade handrails everywhere; purple patterned carpeting; PA announcements of line dancing on the aft deck and piano bar open at after dinner.

Walters noted the ‘sophisticated’ bar on the forward deck. Potted ferns, rattan chairs, earth tones, music from PotatoHead in Bali, cocktails with stupid names, a stone-lined dunking pool (which was more like a bath), and no kids under 16 allowed. This was for the Boomer tribe – his birth tribe – and their higher quality novels and expensive Nikons with zoom lens. It was not for him.

On the aft deck, Walters found the Pacific Paradise’s attempt at respectability. Mini tennis courts, mini golf, mini climbing centre, mini running track, mini pool for kids, and mini Tiki bar for the stressed-out younger parents and their lot. Healthy and wholesome aspirations in miniature. It was not for him.

It was dead centre of the ship that Walters identified as his anchoring point for the cruise. There on the purple-and-white striped deck chairs and day beds of the Pool of Paradise, the biggest swimming pool on board at 25 metres. The pool had a bar with both a ‘dry’ section and a swim-up area occupying one whole end. It was only a few paces from the food court, and its all-day tacos and nachos, heaving in sour cream and guacamole.

About 10 metres from the action at the bar, he picked a day bed with an adjacent plastic drinks table. An ideal observation post should never be too close, Walters knew. For cover, he pretended to look at his Kindle which was loaded up with books that he no longer had the attention span to read.

Situational awareness. Contextual scan. Population segmentation. Picking the prey from the predators. Walters flicked on auto-pilot and began to identify, assess and categorise the people at the bar and around the pool. 

There were the bogan family units of younger families and their school-aged kids. The sunscreen smeared kids, Walters thought, would spend their whole holiday in the greasy water, yelling and duck diving. The parents – too big for their bathing suits – would consider that their “peace and quiet”, and slosh their way through a pool-full of mind-numbing Margaritas and VBs. As a group, Walters knew they were harmless and easily put on-side with a comment or two about how great the cruise ships facilities are. “Amazing what they don’t have on that buffet, right?” Regular Aussies liked to agree.

There was the hard-drinking crowd by the bar itself. Newer couples, single men and women, and a few families where the bloke was at the bar and the Misso was off to the side with their kids. Mostly tradies, they looked. With their high vis off on holidays, their bodies covered with tatts. Their ‘stories’ of a mate killed on a motorbike, devotion to a mother, a growing list of children’s names, and the like. Walters filed that observation. If you wanted to go from aggro to matey, you could sometime ask a bloke about tatts.

A pack of four men at the centre of it all were hitting it hard at 11am in the morning. Somebody mouthed the ritual words – “it’s five o’clock somewhere” – and the booze had begun among them. Wedging. Steadily drinking from red party cups of Bundy-and-Red Bull while wedging in random shots of tequila, vodka, and bourbon. Beers for chaser. Yelling for the Cold Chisel and ‘April Sun in Cuba’ to be turned up on the sound system. They were trying to piss everyone off to mark their territory for the whole cruise.

Especially the one called Simmo the others deferred to. They drank shots when he drank shots; they laughed too loud when he laughed too loud. His massive muscular arms and thighs basically hid the barstool underneath him; the black wrap-around sunnies like a strip of shredded tyre on the roadside; he wore a black singlet with a union insignia and the name of a BHP coal mine in central Queensland. There was the beginning of a beer gut like a rugby league player who’d hung up the boots a couple of seasons past. When he turned toward the bar, Walters read a slogan on his singlet. ‘If provoked – will bite’ wrapped around a coiled cobra.

At middle distance from Simmo, his bleached blonde de facto, Keira, was minding their three year old girl with braided and pink-beaded hair; the mum’s bag was over-filled with survival supplies of kids’ snacks, towels, water bottles, phone chargers, iPads, headphones, wipes, sanitiser, their keys and passes, and cigarettes. 

Tylah, the little girl, carrying pink inflatables for her arms, toddled over to Simmo. 

“Daddy, could you please put these on for me?” she asked him, looking up the bar stool.

Simmo lifted his left hand, with three gold rings on it, so his cigarette wasn’t in her face.

“Hello princess. Your mum’s better at that, Tylah. Go back and ask her,” Simmo said while taking a pull on the drink in his right hand. Tylah toddled away.

Walters knew then. Not what exactly but something. Something was going to happen. It was the way of testosterone, alcohol, hot sun and men released from the confines of their trucks and technology.

“Hey, beer-tender. What’s it? Claudia, is it? Cloudy. Hey, Cloudy, give me and the boys another round of the Jimmy Beam,” Simmo said to the young woman in black-and-white cruise staff uniform wiping up at the end of the bar. “Hey, whadda about some Accadacca on the Spotify, Cloudy?”

The name tag on Claudia’s shirtfront showed she spoke English, Romanian and Russian. She could actually pretty much speak Polish, Czech, Spanish and Italian too, but three was the cruise company’s policy. Certainly, the policy didn’t allow for her to put her other qualifications on the tag: Doctor of Philology, University of Bucharest. 

Her love of languages had brought her to this moment: pouring poolside alcohol on a boat in the South Pacific to Australian miners who most likely didn’t care to read much in the single language they knew. To living 12 decks below in what was basically a box – or a coffin – to support a daughter in Biserica who knew her grandmother better than she knew her mother. To taking the tip money of pensioners at the poker tables and saving it to get off this boat after a decade. Claudia had one year to go on her final contract with Pacific Paradise’s corporate owners.

“Hey Clouds. Chop chop. Or, chop-ski to you,” Simmo said. 

The Aussies were like large happy dogs who’d only ever known big feeds and nice humans; it made them obnoxious and loveable at the same time. They made Claudia laugh, and they also made her angry. That there was this other way to live. Jokes, booze, gadgets, and history that only went back to the last trip to the buffet. In her part of Europe, on the other hand, they said that peace was only a break between the last war and the next war. They carried memory like cinder blocks; the Aussies floated on sunshine and high wages.

Claudia poured them a round of bourbon in small plastic shot glasses. It must have been their sixth one in the last hour. 

Simmo smacked the thin, younger one of his mates on the back. 

“Like the heroes at Gallipolli, Dazza. We’re drinkin for Australia!”

“Be good, Aussies. Make sure you eat something,” Claudia joked with them.

“Well look at this, boys! A pit boss. You bet Clouds. Hey do you know Dracula? Isn’t he from where you are?” Simmo said.

She laughed, picked up a bar rag, and soaked up their mess of butts, spilled drinks, and broken corn chips. The detritus of drunkenness. The younger one had his eyes half closed. She headed over to the other tables to get guests’ drink orders.

Walters had taken it in. He’d watched the joking and mucking around; he knew that with blokes like these there was usually something just under that surface. Something they didn’t even acknowledge until it blew up in their own faces. Maybe, something that couldn’t make the adjustment from the underground shift system of seven days on, seven days off, followed by seven night shifts. Something that couldn’t balance the light and the dark.

A suburban cocktail of watching PornHub; shouting and silence in the family room that opened to the small courtyard of the company’s housing; getting wasted and getting sober for the mandatory drug tests; polishing the JetSki in the driveway, and; spying on each other’s mining town lives on Facebook.

Dysart. Where the RV with the prostitutes overnighted in the Council carpark and the kids had the lowest reading levels in the country because they spent half their schoolyear in Bali. Or on booze boats like the Pacific Paradise.

“Quite the crowd,” Walters said to Claudia when she came over to his area. He took note of her name tag. They both noticed Young Bloke get off his barstool and sway. Simmo shoulder-charged him upright, and stuck another beer in his hand.

“Yes. Work hard, party hard, I think they say,” Claudia replied while picking up his empty beer bottles. “Another beer for you, sir?”

Claudia’s face lit up. 

Da, multumesk,” Walters replied.

“Romanian! How do you know? Esti Roman?”

It worked about 80 per cent of the time. The politicians’ best party trick. Know a couple of words – yes, thank you, hello – in the many languages on one’s electoral beat. It was one of the easiest ways to make the connection – or manipulate, or get the vote, or obscure a real issue. An old timer had some to him: once you can fake genuineness, you’ve got it make.

“I wish. I only know a few words. A beautiful language.” He had her. It wasn’t with any aim in mind. It was as habitual as take-away coffee in the morning.

“But your accent is very good. You should learn even more. Inca o bautura? Another drink?”

“I’d like that very much, Claudia, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Make direct eye contact when the constituent invites it. Make the constituent the centre of your undivided attention.

Claudia walked back toward the bar with the empties, or “dead soldiers”, as the Aussies called them. It was nice to have heard her own language – even for a sentence. She would tell her 13 year old daughter on Skype tonight. She would list it in the ‘gratitude’s’ she was trying to practice before going to sleep. Right after her mantra’s about acceptance and positivity and being mindful.

A flash went through her head. Late summer in the village at the base of the Carpathian mountains. When the leaves on the walnut trees were thick like a carpet over the sky; when she, her ex-husband and her toddler daughter had picked unripened nuts from the backyard tree. He’d sliced the little green balls open with a Soviet era copy of a Swiss Army knife and fed them soft white petals of fruit.

Simmo had reached around the bar and put a “spew bucket” at the Young Bloke’s feet. They roared as he made for it and splashed chunks of yellow vomit on the pool deck. Chewed corn chips.

“Geezus Christ, Dazza! Watch me Havianas,” Simon bellowed. The other blokes were bent over, laughing.

“Goddamit, Simmo, you fucking idiot,” Keira yelled from behind her phone.

Claudia ran for the mop in the utility cupboard off to the side of the bar. Walters said “Legs eleven. Bingo” to nobody. He then pretended not to notice – smug in his weird victory. He looked back over at the pool.

Tylah’s pink inflatables bobbed on the pool’s surface. Walters looked again. He stood up. 

The little girl’s body was floating face down under water about three meters from the bar and from where her mother was. It was suspended.

Walters shouted and pointed. “Child! There’s a child in the water!” His body did not move. 

Simmo and Keira both saw and moved to jump in the pool. With a big stride, Simmo’s thong slipped on the vomit. He fell backward, smashing his head into the terracotta tiles. The sunnies skipped away.

He rolled over and crawled toward the pool on his elbows, screaming “FUCK!”. Blood ran from his skull onto the straps of his singlet.

Keira was trying to rip the headphones out of her ears and tear her way through all the cocktail tables, day beds, towels, beach bags and other mothers watching Netflix on their devices. She was trapped.

Claudia dropped the mop. She dove.

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