September 2021

Back to Issue 10


By Peter Murphy

The phrase ‘losing my mind’ has always seemed a riddle to me, though not as deep as ‘one hand clapping’. It came into my mind as I began to relax in the taxi they’d booked for the boat and it wouldn’t go away.

          ‘Is everything all right?’ the driver said after a few minutes, his eyes looking directly at mine in the rear-view mirror but I couldn’t think of an answer.

          On the boat, immediately after the business with the sirens and life jackets, I signed up for a language activity. It was arranged that, for thirty minutes each day, I’d walk with someone who was learning my language. We would take turns in trying to speak in each other’s language. The program co-ordinator suggested that we should meet in the big void featured in the brochures.

          It looked different from the night before – champagne launch, balloons, the captain with his cap and suit, etc – as I entered the zone meant to resemble a street in a romantic, old city, which, as far as it approached reality, referenced something in the Nineteenth Century. There were resin-based flagstones and streetlights that would have gone well in a Sherlock Holmes series. The shops were small and sweet, such as you might find in a quaint English village. Looking down on the street was a facade wall of Georgian flats, simplified so as to be low-profile and, no doubt, offering a pleasant and cosy view to those in the interior cabins behind the windows.

          At the end of the street, like a window on the future, was a shop that specialised in digital equipment, its walls, fittings and devices mostly white. That was where we’d decided to meet. When I saw her there on our first ‘date’, she was reading the instructions on a package.

          ‘Good morning,’ she said. ‘It’s a nice day’. For the first, and perhaps only time, she spoke my language perfectly.

Perhaps it was – I hadn’t been on deck. I was impressed by her apparent fluency but wondered if these were phrases she’d learnt by heart, not always sure of their meaning. In any case, they offered us an opening, though of a distant kind. Though our meeting was primarily on account of our interest in languages, I was conscious of my pleasure in greeting her and made a remark in her language which I thought would express this, only to be met by a strange, fleeting, glance and thought of a time when, after a heated discussion on election night, a friend’s partner turned to me and said, ‘You look as if you could kill someone.’

          We are walking at that point so, as if to divert attention from what had troubled her, she gestured at the door which led onto the deck. At least her gestures were unambiguous … to begin with.

          It was fresh out there and, as soon as the salt wind hit my face, I experienced a kind of swell within, a certain well-being that goes beyond thought, even neutralises it. Perhaps it was the same with her because she smiled; not, it seemed, at me but at everything.

          It was stimulating being in the company of someone whose consciousness I couldn’t glimpse through words and I’ve often found gestures somewhat ambiguous. I felt both alone and yet accompanied by a presence that was quite sharp and whose nature was yet to be determined.

          The sea was so flat it scarcely seemed to move. I looked at it for whatever motion might be out there, at the same time relishing the wake of the ship increasing in violence around us as we approached the stern. I walk rather slowly and hence was conscious of holding her back. At one point, she turned around suddenly, caught my attention and pointed to the sky enthusiastically but when I looked up I saw nothing remarkable; but perhaps that’s what appealed to her. After four rounds of the deck we were about to go our own ways when, indicating the dining room, she pointed to her watch. Perhaps jumping to conclusions, I arranged to be moved to her table and looked forward to the next meal. In the meantime, I decided to spend some time exploring the boat and was impressed by the Temple of All Faiths, which could be entered via the Sky-High Nightclub, which, in turn, could be reached up a diagonal tunnel extending into the space above the stern and culminating in a glossy red metal bubble.

          Exiting the tunnel, I found myself in a space designed to visually intoxicate nightclub patrons. It was on a number of levels and fashioned like drawers tilted downwards yet also facing each other, the tables and chairs resting on supports tilted back to the vertical, everything there being red, gold or black. Heady stuff, I thought, a bit light-headed as its curious features impressed themselves on my consciousness. I was the only one there apart from a few old men playing cards – no sign of a chapel whatever till a crucifix boxed in a three-dimensional transparent arrow caught my attention and pointed me down a narrow set of stairs leading to the bottom of the bubble.

          At first, I thought I’d misunderstood the sign because the space I’d entered looked nothing like any chapel I’d seen. Soon, however, as the tasteful arrangement of Greek and Roman deities and nymphs led my eye towards a kind of table that could pass as an altar I decided that I must be in the right place and that this must be someone’s idea of a Chapel of Love, the perfect venue for a cruise couple intent on celebrating another marriage. In a kind of vertigo, I moved about in the empty space, imagining what it might feel like with other people around – the lucky couple and their party – all excited by the intoxication of ceremony.

          By contrast, the space didn’t seem designed for a funeral or a church service – though, no doubt, compromises could be made and there were black books on the table. My spirits dimmed a little by this last reflection, I withdrew to my cabin for soothing music and a pre-dinner nap.

          I awoke to some trepidation, perhaps caused by a nightmare I couldn’t remember or the slight turbulence through which the boat was moving which may have played on my mind during sleep. As I hadn’t expected to sleep so long, I found myself hurrying towards the dining-room, a venue which aimed to impress through its rendering of the grand scale. You entered beneath a great void, around which elaborately ballustraded balconies rose towards the ceiling, the first two opposite the entrance separated by an imperial staircase on each side leading down to an elegantly small mezzanine, where a vast copy of a Renaissance painting declared the cruise line’s affiliation with wealth, style and the Italian Renaissance.

          I was surprised to find that her table was on the ground floor – neither she nor her associates evidently having a preference for looking down from a higher setting. There was an empty space at her table and though I’d hoped to sit next to her this was not to be. To my surprise, she seemed startled by my presence and neither welcomed nor discouraged it.

          In return, I gave a half-wave that could be taken as an offer to shift my seat to create more room, reflecting that we were, after all, no more than an allocated pair in a language program. We wouldn’t normally be termed ‘friends’ and I’d no reason to suppose she was interested in seeing me in any other context. They seemed to have packed people in more tightly at her table than at my former table – or perhaps the person at the desk had gone out of her way to accommodate me.

          One of the women at this table was very lively and tried to engage me in conversation only to comment that though my pronunciation was good what I said didn’t make sense. After this she went on chatting with the others as if we hadn’t spoken.

          Upon noticing that the menu was in their language I wondered how I would order but a waiter appeared and patted me on the shoulder as if to say everything would be all right and that he knew what I’d like; and he did.

          With that out of the way I settled to enjoying​ the company of these people without needing to contribute to the conversation or participate in any other way than by appearing to be conscious of their presence. I wasn’t exactly treated as absent but rather, and, more pleasantly, as a space at the table that wasn’t entirely empty. My problem wasn’t so much that I didn’t know many words in their language but that I couldn’t connect them in statements that seemed to be understood – and, of course, they spoke too quickly for me to make out more than the odd word. So I focused​ on their gestures, which ultimately created a form of theatre quite different from what I was used to; flamboyant, more final than in my country, where everything is more or less in suspension, with sometimes a loud burst of laughter supporting an eloquent hand or grimace.

          The way they used their voices was different too. Spatterings of words exploded like shrapnel or shot out like automatic fire only to be followed by brief but absolute silences.

          At times I wondered why my people feel more comfortable speaking in a non-committal monotone. Perhaps the relative uniformity of sound or the proximity of silence comforts us. Clearly these people felt secure in their world of exploding sounds. In some ways being with people who spoke another language was a new and unexpected luxury. For me, conversation is pleasant when there are a number of people and attention is optional and not tiring. Here it was doubly enjoyable because, without ​having to say a thing, I had the pleasure of their lively and exotic company. I wasn’t particularly concerned about understanding what they had to say, though there was occasionally a language student’s pleasure in recognizing a word or phrase. Sometimes I’d tune out slowly, deliciously, and ultimately drift off into a doze.

          ‘Wake up, Australia,’ the lively one whispered once loudly in my ear … but never bothered me again. They were happy to let me gaze or sleep in peace, perhaps regarding this as part of what I represented​ – yet, ironically, our background appeared to be very much the same, retirees, having left the work-force around the same time and having been similarly​ advised on what to do with our remaining time – the big trip being the first suggestion.

          For me, their part of the world was too hot, whereas for them Europe (where my heart has always tended) would probably be, though exotic, colder than they liked. At least, it would be new, apart from what they’d seen in photos. I never had a chance to ask them whether they’d already seen their part of the world on the cruise or whether that was to come. To avoid the heat, I’d only booked the leg that went through the Mediterranean. I didn’t need to see the whole world.

          I can’t remember at what point I and my language companion were to go ashore together and practise our respective tongues in an unfamiliar location. To make it comfortable and natural for us, we were to be taken on a tour of the town by a local guide, before being left to our own devices. It wasn’t an interesting port, but then, as boats stop mostly at ports, tourists must make the most of whatever comes their way.

          Our tour guide met us on the wharf. There was nothing culturally specific about his clothing, apart from his hat. When he greeted us in his language, I thought this might be part of the experience and that his next words would be in a language he thought we’d understand but I was mistaken. We walked around the town with him and listened to what he had to say in his language with apparent attention. Even my table companions, who were normally so noisy among themselves, looked interested. Then we rode around the outskirts of the town with him and were told about the various sights, some possibly fascinating, in great detail – in his language. Every so often he would pause and take questions in various languages, which he would answer incomprehensibly.

          At length, his little bus stopped at a great square near a cathedral, at which point we all alighted and were given some time to explore the town independently. As we watched the others heading off, my companion made a remark I didn’t understand – along with a gesture that seemed to relate to the size of the square. What did she mean? Was she reluctant to walk around in so public a place? Perhaps she feared the hands of thieves or the eyes of strangers. With a remark that she may have understood I gestured towards a large cathedral as an option and this seemed to hit the spot.

          It was elegant and restrained. In the entrance foyer we watched a video about its history featuring a voice-over in a language neither of us recognised and not the one the guide had used. Upon going further in, I sensed a kind of gasp on my companion’s part though I can’t remember hearing anything and then noticed an uncertain look in her eyes. Following the direction of her gaze I observed further down the aisle a small coffin on a large stainless steel frame and the deceased’s survivors making their way to a cluster of pews further down the largely empty church and was touched by the sight of four large candles surrounding the box as if to protect it, their flames moving gently.

          Increasingly I sensed the weight of intentional silence created by those who’d known the person in the box and reinforced sympathetically in the manner of those who’d entered by chance and without much reason for being there. My companion’s face was somehow fixed now, as if the reality of the presence or absence in front of us had overwhelmed her. Wondering if it had been too unwelcome a reminder of her own mortality, I remembered a sermon at a funeral in which an elderly congregation were advised that if life were a 24-hour clock their time was around twenty minutes to midnight, which, as a nearby mourner had remarked, was close to earth’s on the Doomsday Clock.

          I was surprised that she was so taken aback as, in many ways, our cruise was as much a reminder of our own mortality as a distraction from it. Perhaps it had been more of a distraction for her because, with a sharp turn of the head, and a face suggesting deep annoyance, even a sense of betrayal, she indicated she’d had enough and it was time to make an end.

          It was around this time that she tended to bypass language in favour of gestures entirely. I didn’t think about it much till later, when we were sharing a bench on the little boat taking us back to the ship – as a kind of pair, even though growing ever more reluctant to try our luck with phrases in each other’s language. I wondered whether I would ever make progress.

          At dinner that night her people were speaking with even more animation than usual, impressed or bemused by what they’d seen ashore, or so I thought, before I heard someone at a nearby table remarking in my language and with considerable enthusiasm that there was to be a masked ball on the second night at sea on our way to the next place – and then a band began and my thoughts about language dissipated as a vibrant trumpet spoke of energy and hope and of every good thing in life and people. Later in the evening there was an announcement about the ball in many languages, including my own, to ensure that it would be enjoyed by as many as possible.

          I found it an intriguing prospect as I settled down in front of the TV in my cabin and watched a promo featuring paintings of masked balls in Venice in its glory days and videos of elderly cruise guests dancing slowly and cautiously or drifting around in aimless states. Though their eyes were often obscured I remembered the dead eyes of passengers who shuffled past on their return from shore excursions, vaguely focussing on the night’s buffet or high teas yet to come.

         The approach was basically sound. False hope is still hope, after all, and certainly some images in the masked ball promo were very compelling, initially unobtrusively blending the liner’s elderly with Venice and its gold masks, gorgeous breasts beneath half-concealed faces, wide mouths shouting or laughing (somewhere between elation and desperation) and men in black elegantly leaning over balconies.

          Naturally, nothing was allowed to dampen the mood of ease and fantasy, though I was surprised that the faces of elderly passengers were not glamourized. There was no shortage of Venetian accessories loosely attached to elderly frames, masks sometimes hanging around necks, as passengers perhaps forgot the names of their companions, or their own. Nevertheless, there was a kind of glow, if not of romance, at least of mystery. The frequently haggard faces were generally spared the exposure of close-ups, a notable exception being an elderly man putting on his mask who caught my attention because his face seemed uncannily like mine – but when I tried to examine him more closely to reassure myself that I didn’t look like that only a mask with a hooked nose met my gaze.

          The music had no connection with Venice, being mostly old-time favourites. And then from among some Country and Western songs of over sixty years ago emerged a ballad about the Titanic with an elusive refrain,

Round and round the ripple goes

Where it’s gone to no one knows

And it kept changing, branching ever further outwards, metaphysically, from

  … where they’ve gone to …


  … where we come from …

till the words became a vertigo before merging into an angry songs about ‘mad, bad love’.

          At times a feeble voice might be heard trying to hum along with such old numbers as ‘Whispering Hope’ as the dancers moved round the theme-park ballroom in eerie slow-motion. What was missing in the music was more than made up for by the elaborate arrangement of cakes and other sweets on display for supper – in the centre of which a huge ice carving of the Bridge of Sighs almost silently dripped its way into oblivion. Around it stood three huge cakes, one in the shape of St Mark’s, one a gondola and one a gondolier singing as he bent against his oar. Further around this, in a diminishing scale, were more ice carvings, cheese cakes and brightly iced cakes whose shapes only a boat cook could imagine. It occurred to me that for some people, this must be paradise.

          On the night of the event, they didn’t bother to dress up at my table apart from some cheap masks, probably bought in a recent port. Their masks were so slender the face behind each was always too obvious – so there was something peculiarly coquettish about them, as if each were proclaiming, ‘Here I am. You can see right through me.’ They seemed to be enjoying the event, possibly because it reminded them of something in their culture.  

           I returned to my cabin in something like a trance, in part mesmerised by the slow-motion, near-frozen dance of the masked elderly and in part intrigued by the idea of these people putting on masks. I slept well that night and only learnt – from the next morning’s announcement over the intercom – that our next shore excursion was to be to an ancient walled city. This was closely followed by an announcement about the floor show that night, followed again by a warning that we would be wise to enter the Great Theatre as early as possible after dinner to avoid disappointment.

          In fact, when I went into that space, which was designed to suggest magnificence, with only minutes to spare, there was room enough for me to choose a seat near the back in case the show wasn’t interesting. The band was intermittently visible and invisible, audible and inaudible, and I was soon able to deduce where each member was performing under the stage floor because, on appropriate occasions, one or more of them would be raised up via trapdoors to play beside a dancer or singer, as if nothing extraordinary were happening.

           I was most impressed, however, with what was above the stage; a vast space in which huge sets would appear from above and below around minuscule singers, dancers and comedians. In particular, there was a broken wall in the shape of an amphitheatre. I thought it might be the Colosseum but, in fact, it was a bull-ring in front of which Carmen warned a toreador about getting too involved with her. When the toreador sang his famous aria, I was struck with how convenient it must have been for the librettist that ‘amour’ rhymed with ‘toreador’ and my contemplation of the theatre and performances there hung about in my thoughts till everything was replaced, on the following day, by the lethargic gait and voices of passengers in front of me as I found myself moving along the chicane towards the exit door and the metal gang-plank that would take us, with the guiding hands of crew-members, to the shuttle bus for our excursion.

          Nestling around the edge of the sea and surrounded by hills was the most beautiful place we’d seen so far. The houses were so old they could only have survived through recent maintenance. Did the residents love them or was it for the tourist trade and was most of what we saw for hire? Tourists were clearly critical as within minutes tides of them, most resembling the people on my table, began moving through the town like an army on a long march, their faces suggesting weeks of monotonous trudging.

          Instinctively, though I couldn’t have named the instinct, I looked for my language partner, only to experience a new difficulty in that I no longer felt sure which of those on our table was her. I was troubled because, in spite of the similarity in their features, this hadn’t happened before. Things seemed to be getting hazy, hazier, on that day. It was as if a curtain that had come down in the recent past, opaque from the start, was now getting more and more so at an unnerving rate – and yet I can’t think of anything that happened to set it off. 

          To be on the safe side, I thought I might wait for her – whichever one she was – on exiting the bus in the hope of some glance of recognition, but this didn’t happen. I managed to hold this thought till I realised we were all filing into an art gallery which seemed large enough to be the main one in town. In fact, it was a museum as well but, as our table had little interest in the past, we passed quickly through that section and into the gallery along with most of the others.

          A display of works by a famous craftsperson caught my attention, particularly some elaborate dragonfly broaches. From there we moved on to slender pieces of pottery and glassware – rich colours, that somehow contributed to a kind of peace that inhered in the space. My table paused as if reluctant to move on and I could see why. I was sure I would remember some of these objects but doubted whether this shadowy peace would come with the memory.

          As tourists can’t stop for long, we moved on till we found ourselves in halls of paintings. Every surface in the place was dead white. The main hall featured a great white dome, with lines of black ribbing panes of glass. I made my way along a series of portraits, before pausing at a middle-aged face I might not have noticed if it were not for a curious turn of the mouth. Grief or contemplation, I couldn’t tell – but something in the features led me to wonder at the thoughts in that mind. At different times it has come back to me, enigmatic as ever.

          ‘Do you know something about him?’ someone said in my language, while I was still looking, but when I looked up no one was there.

          Again we moved on – this time, to a room displaying posters from famous movies . I was happy about this as I was still in a mood for faces and cinema is very much about that, particularly in posters.

          The one that caught my gaze was for Hitchcock’s Vertigo yet it wasn’t a face that drew me but the silhouette of a man falling from a great height. Me, I thought, though I couldn’t – still can’t – think why. Beneath the poster the museum had included scenes from the film accompanied by relevant lines of dialogue.  In one, a judge observed, ‘The law has little to say about action not taken.’ It struck me that, like the person on trial, I was a person of ‘actions not taken’ and it was somehow comforting to be told that, in general, the law made no judgement about this – and then, before I had time to pursue this thought, we were all hurried along so briskly that, in the end, I was so flustered I couldn’t find my boarding pass and wasn’t allowed on until I did.

          ‘You may know who you are, sir,’ observed a steward, in a way that sounded almost polite, ‘but I certainly don’t.’ I thought his ‘may’ was the right word even though it was ‘I’ that he emphasised.

          I don’t remember a lot about the cruise after that. My memory comes and goes; sometimes taking in a lot, sometimes not even the last few hours. I don’t even know if it went where I thought I was going. There are, of course, events I still hazily remember, like a weekend in port when the ship seemed taken over by a gamers convention where everyone was dressed as Darth Vader or Spiderman or Snow White and characters I didn’t recognise.

          Endings used to be memorable for me and, though my memory isn’t what it used to be, I remember the day that followed the last dinner (which featured a Bombe Alaska, a waiters dance and a photo with the captain) as a kind of ‘decanting’ to a strange place, a place I thought I knew but which had become different – like ‘the rest of my life’, as they say.

          I’ve always liked things to be in place and to go as they should – or how I think they should – so, after a few reminders from the cabin steward, I had my bag packed early the night before and was happy when some of my table decided to share a taxi into town rather than go by shuttle bus and I wasn’t surprised to see my language companion, or the one I’d come to think of as her, sharing with us … till I woke with a jolt to find the taxi had stopped and the driver had come round to my door and opened it to speak to me.

          ‘They’ve all gone,’ he said gently. ‘They have a plane to catch. They’ll be on the bus to the airport now. They said you wouldn’t be going with them but they didn’t know where you belonged.’

          I nodded vaguely.

          ‘Do you want to get out in the city … or can I take you home?’

          ‘Home, please.’

          I must have given an address … but when I woke up and realised we were going through suburbs I’d never seen before I knew it couldn’t have been mine and, for the life of me, I couldn’t remember where I lived.

          So, I just let him drive for a while, hoping where I’d said might be somewhere near where I lived and that, sooner or later, some streets might begin to look familiar and then it would all fall into place … but this didn’t happen … and so, after what seemed a long time, I decided to explain the problem.

          ‘You’re not the first,’ he observed drily but not unkindly and so, as if drawing on past experience, he suggested we open my suitcase and look for an address. Luckily, he found one on a book I’d meant to read at sea and because I knew my name (and still do) we were able to connect it with me.

          ‘Here’s where we get out,’ he said at length, and, if he was one of the staff where I am now, he might have added ‘darling’.

          After gesturing at figures on his little screen and taking some notes out of my wallet, he helped me find my key and then, very generously, carried my bag up to the front door.

          It was then that I understood what it must be like to be in a state of deep shock as I looked at my front door, reflecting that this must be where I lived.

          ‘Good-bye and good luck,’ he said as he put down my bag … and then he was gone.