At sea, I am sick. There is no other word for it. Just the suggestion of an unsteady deck, just the sensation of unruly movement beneath my feet, and my system goes, full-throttle, into calamity mode. I am not talking here about being on a round-the-world yacht, or on a fishing smack, or on a dreadnought, or on a cruiser, or a ferry. I am not talking about a yawl or a junk. I am not even talking about a dinghy, inflatable or otherwise, although all the above and foregoing are unbearable. I am talking about a punt, or a pedalo in a children’s ‘amusement park’ (a phrase which fills me with anything but amusement).
Any slight wobble, and I want to get out and off (the one thing you can do in a children’s amusement park, although it would be embarrassing to do it). It’s as if there is an inner mechanism which, if tilted, throws my whole system out of gear. This can be embarrassing. For instance, one of my closest friends, the man who has the unusual record of having been the witness at each of my weddings, is an avid sailor, and has been since he was a child in the sailing-crazy village of Topsham. He not only sails boats, he thinks boats, and he has made a colossal fortune out of selling art-work which is boat-related (or, in one case, a boat). He cannot understand for the life of him why anyone in their right or wrong mind would have qualms about setting out on to a stretch of water (his house overlooks the Exe estuary), any more than I can understand why someone would prefer not to listen for several hours at a time to the songs of Neko Case or the guitar of Les Paul or the voice of Boz Scaggs (coming soon, as I must warn my Michigan reader who skips this blog when the word ‘music’ is spotted, and does the dusting instead).
Ferries are the pits. There is nothing to do on them by night except huddle below in a skimpy and uncomfortable and airless cabin, or attempt to ‘take the air’ in an effort to feel so cold that the stomach can no longer be felt. Or – and this is what happened the last time I went on a ferry – get drunk. I was working at the time for a college which (as you do if you’re an FE college) had bought a ‘residential’ base in Normandy, and which, every so often, took its managers away on one of those bonding sessions which involve flip-charts. I had lied my way out of it a couple of times, but I had run out of excuses.
It was a dark night, and the hardier managers led me to the bar, and upended several litres of lager into me. The next thing I knew, I was being woken in a cabin, which I was sharing with the similarly intoxicated Head of Maths, by relentless banging on the door. ‘I’ve told you SEVEN times,’ a voice screamed. ‘Get off this boat!’ Having missed the first SIX reminders, I got dressed in eight seconds, and stumbled with my companion out of the cabin where we had been unconscious.
The whole ferry was empty of cars, vans, caravans, lorries – you name it, it wasn’t there. All that remained was a single minibus, and at its wheel, a grim and tight-lipped Vice-Principal. We were late for the future of further education, and we knew it. I felt worse than a toad, that, under cold stone, days and nights has thirty-one swelter’d venom sleeping got. (Well, I was Head of English.)
I know now how Rupert Brooke felt. For those of you who think of him as a good-looking, boyish poet who had the bad luck to write some patriotic sonnets (under-rated), before succumbing to septicaemia before he could be blown to pieces, let me assure you that he also wrote about other things. Like crossing the channel:
The damned ship lurched and slithered. Quiet and quick
My cold gorge rose; the long sea rolled; I knew
I must think hard of something, or be sick;
And could think hard of only one thing – you!
You, you alone could hold my fancy ever!
And with you memories come, sharp pain, and dole.
Now there’s a choice – heartache or tortured liver!
A sea-sick body, or a you-sick soul!
Do I forget you? Retchings twist and tie me,
Old meat, good meals, brown gobbets, up I throw.
Do I remember? Acrid return and slimy,
The sobs and slobber of a last year’s woe.
And still the sick ship rolls. ‘Tis hard, I tell ye,
To choose ‘twixt love and nausea, heart and belly.
I thought of RB on that channel ferry, when the doors slammed shut, and we moved out to sea. And he was the lucky one: he had a bit of heartache to take his mind off the sea.