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DRY DOCK IN DUBAI

*

‘Bevan’s not feeling himself,’ she slurred. I looked in her eyes. They were full of tears.

Bevan and Phyllis had been married since the dawn of time. They adored each other with a deep love that simply flowed over everyone they met. She was a Gold Coast matron, stalwart of the Bowling Club, pillar of the church. He was a gruff old Aussie with an Anzac heart. He didn’t suffer fools. It was my good fortune he didn’t think me one.

’Nah, mate, something’s wrong. I can feel it.,’ he tapped his chest, ‘I know.’

‘He’s very worried,’ whispered Phyllis. So was she. The two of them were poised, just waiting for the worst. ‘He’s never been like this before.’

Bevan was a big, tall bloke, a man of no pretensions with a deep Australian drawl. He said it like he saw it and to whoever he liked. He was of an old Australia, of ‘gidday mate’ and World War Two. No buggering around. When a bloke like Bevan starts talking soft and serious, kinda stoic, kinda sad, it’s time to listen.

We were all pretty plastered, at that time in the evening when secrets can slip into the willing arms of strangers.

‘You think you might die, mate?’ Just him and me, grabbing a moment. He nodded silently. He knew. ‘Something’s wrong.’

Bevan and Phyllis held hands under the table. She squeezed his thumb.

‘We’ll be alright, darling…’

‘No. I know it. I’m gonna die.’

‘He’s never been like this before…’

‘I just want my girls with me.’

His wife and daughter.

‘The two people I love most in the world…’

*

Dubai was an appropriate place to disembark – nothing was real there either.

We docked just opposite the Queen Elizabeth 2, another ridiculous idea in mothballs. She was once Britain’s most famous luxury cruise ship. A thin wisp of smoke eked out one funnel, keeping the engines and the lost dream alive. Some rich guy bought her, dreams of a floating hotel with a history in his mind.  Dubai imploded. Everything stopped. Now she languishes, land-lubbed and useless, long past her use-by-date – not unlike some of us on Azamara Quest.

*

I need a guided tour. I can’t think. Take me somewhere nice. Take me to…

The waiter stood patiently while Dogster swayed, eyes closed, one bony finger waving at a piece of paper. He coughed discreetly.

Dog’s old eyes snapped open.

‘Where shall I go?’

The waiter scanned the shore excursions. He wrinkled his nose.

‘Go to… Sharjah.’

‘Why?’

‘I like the name.’

*

A large American woman stood up.

‘I have toilet paper and wipes!’

Wanda was an Arbuckle of a dame, rotund and friendly, full of chatter and life. She was a regular on all the tours. Hardy came with a Laurel; a tall, equally garrulous retiree with sparkling eyes. He was the On-Board Lecturer. They were a team. She took it upon herself to worry about passenger hygiene. It wasn’t so much a profession as a calling. Together they sailed the seas, lecture and wipe, wipe and lecture for thirty-nine weeks a year.

Every day Eric spoke on something appropriate to the location, launching into the history of Egyptian Kings or Coinage in Ancient Rhodes with equal aplomb. He was always prepared and apparently, very interesting. Dogster missed his lecture series, being heavily involved in everything else at the time.

But there wasn’t very much Eric could say about Sharjah, seeing as it was only built yesterday.

Sharjah is right next door to Dubai. It’s one of the seven Arab Emirates. As I’d never heard of it until now, I thought that this was good reason enough to go.

She was a pleasant enough woman, a German expatriate guide shoveling as much tourist cash as she could into her ample pockets. I’ve forgotten every single thing she said but can report that she said a lot of it.

The spirit and soul of Sharjah can, apparently, only be found in the multiple shops of some rebuilt carpet bazaar where we were deposited to the general ennui of all concerned, shopkeepers and tourists alike. Then we went somewhere else. After that we went to some museum then another and as a grand finale drove an hour into the desert to visit an ethnic something, only to discover it closed. Then we drove back.

How was Sharjah? Dunno. I forget.

*

‘I’ve got to stop!’ I heard him say angrily, ‘you go ahead.’

Nothing smart to say about Dubai. Nothing that hasn’t been said, nothing that won’t be – but this: the Burj Kalifa is, quite simply, the most astonishing building in the world. I don’t care what conceit built it. To stand in front of this thing is to feel the awe that an ancient Egyptian villager must have felt first seeing the Pyramids. It is boggling; pure ambition in glistening chrome; a temple to the unforeseeable future.

‘Nobody told me about this…’

In order to see the scale of it, the bus had parked a long, long way away. Now we would walk. Well, some would walk a bit and stop, then walk and then stop and then stop and walk some more.

“I can’t make it!’ he hissed, ‘it hurts!’

Barry’s arteries were clogged with gunk, his blood flow severely restricted. All this meant was that he could walk a block or so and then his legs hurt. The only way to stop them hurting was to stop and wait for the blood to flow and the pain to go. Then walk another block and repeat the procedure. So Barry and Dogster let the others go ahead and stopped to admire the scenery – as often as was necessary.

‘It’s giving me the shits,’ he said.

Barry was just a retired bus-driver seeing his next Big Shift looming. His eyes shone bright. They could see the armchair and the T.V.

‘I’m an old man all of a sudden.’

The Seven Ages of Man. There’s always a bit of grief in between Ages, a bit of a struggle to accept. It’s like grieving – only we grieve for ourselves; for the young men and women we were, all that youth and carefree freedom thrown cruelly into relief by the state of our bodies now.

‘C’mon, let’s go,’ he said. I could see he was hurting. Dog blathered Dubai inanities, hoping that diversion would defeat pain. It doesn’t. We soldiered on.

‘I’ve got to stop.’

We all have to. Where did yesterday go?

*

‘Ten years ago,’ said the guide, ‘none of this was here.’

She waved her arm from left to right.

‘Nothing – just dreams.’

No history; only now, only tomorrow.

The Burj Khalifa is ninety-five percent vacant. It’s a shell – a sham, a tube to deliver tourists to a platform two thirds of the way up for a retail opportunity and some photographs at fifty bucks a pop. I think it’ll take about seven million years to pay back the building at this rate – but that’s not the point, is it? The point has already been made.

There it is, all twelve thousand stories of it, rearing out of the desert like a defiant unicorn.

Me! Me! Me-e-e-e! Look at me-e-e-e-e.

‘Was it worth it, Barry?’ said his wife.

‘You know, darl,’ he said, ‘I’m not sure anything’s worth it, these days…’

Is this it? Get married, settle down, work like a dog, have kiddies, send them to school, work and work and then retire. Is that it? Then your legs fall off and you die. Is that all?

I’m pissed off too. Nobody told me either.

We’re all sailing towards that final Dubai dry-dock, one way or another, running from the Reaper, taking a break from the endless grind. One day we have to disembark.

As Bevan was wheeled off the ship he caught my eye and waved.

‘My daughter has flown in!’ he shouted.

We both knew what that meant.

He could die now.

*

We’ll play a game. Let’s pretend you like me, let’s pretend you care. I’ll pay you. I’ll be the client and you pretend – pretend I am important; pretend I am a VIP. Let’s pretend I am the King of Azamara. I’ll pay you. I don’t want to think. I want you to do it for me. I’m tired. I’m old. I’m getting frail. I’m getting stupid, easily flummoxed, prone to accident. Pick me up, put me down, take me anywhere you like, just do it for me. I don’t really care where we go. I’ll pretend to be interested and you pretend it’s interesting. I’ll pay you. Let’s call it cruisin’.

Argh-h-h-h.

*

A sweet old American sat bunched in a wheelchair, waiting to be trundled aboard.

‘Hello,’ said Mr. Dogster.

Two rancid eyes stared back. He took a moment to focus.

‘Do I kno-o-ow you?

‘No,’ Dogster said gaily, ‘just being friendly.’

‘Pfft,’ he sniffed and retreated back into his misery.

‘Don’t worry, pal,’ Dog said kindly, ‘I’ll try not to do it again.’

I realized why he was in a wheelchair. Those two spindly legs had simply refused to have any more to do with him.

One day, this’ll be me.

*

The City of Ridiculous Dreams was the end for some, just the beginning for others – for Dog it was just a pit-stop on a never-ending cruise. No goodbyes, no heartache, a wave, a smile and they’re gone. Old faces disappear, new old faces loom, full of eager anticipation. Guest relations have found another curmudgeon to cuddle, another grizzle of Cruise Critics to shmooze, another dead-man, another Dogster, another diva, another lunatic chef. Threats will be found to neutralize, the Cruise Wars will continue; the Azamara Army must prevail.

Without missing a blink, the whole performance began all over again.

Showbiz Alex took a deep breath, cranked up his smile and opened the door.

Showtime!

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT  2011

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