At long last! There we were, all thirty-two of us, waiting at the quay – the Gardening Club Summer cruise party. We had been planning this for so long and I was one of those who wondered aloud whether it would ever happen. “Connie,” they said, “have confidence in the committee.” I do, of course, especially in George, who is so masterful. He is a born committee member – which I mean as a compliment. And I think that is why George is our chairman. Frank was keen to do it, but all of us felt – and the only exception was Sally – that he lacked the qualities you need in a good chairman, even if it’s only a gardening club. Of course, Sally is Frank’s wife and she might be expected to think that.
There was a lot of shouting in Italian on the quay when we arrived, but then this is Italy, after all, and Italian is the language in which people are going to shout in if they are going to shout at all. Somebody was shouting at somebody else about loading our luggage, while the person who was shouted at, shouted back.
“Rather shouty bunch,” remarked George.
It’s the sort of thing he says, and it’s one of the reasons why everybody thinks him so clever. He was an accountant before he retired.
The Captain arrived and started to shout at somebody, who then shouted something at us. George said, “That means that they want us to get on board.”
I said, “I didn’t know you could speak Italian.”
He laughed. “You mean, shout Italian!”
We all laughed, and went up the gangplank.
George said, “They make very good sea captains, the Italians.”
We all laughed again.
My friend Rosie and I are sharing a cabin, because it is cheaper that way. I don’t mind at all, because Rosie is a very tidy person. Her herbaceous beds at home are legendary – not a leaf out of place. And so our cabin is very spick-and-span. “Ship-shape,” said Rosie. “That’s how we must keep things.”
This has been our first full day at sea. I took a seasickness tablet – just in case – but I didn’t think it was strictly necessary. Rosie says that she never gets seasick, even on very rough days. She has rounded Cape Horn, she told me, although she explained that she was asleep at the time.
“It doesn’t make much difference,” she said. “The important thing is to be able to say that one has rounded the Horn.”
“Which you can do,” I said.
Our first proper sit-down meal was dinner this evening, because lunch was a buffet affair. The other passengers are from France; they are polite enough but don’t seem all that interested in us. I doubt if they know much about gardening.
The Captain joined us for dinner. He has only three officers to assist him, as this is a small ship. The officers were all dressed in white, which matched their teeth. They grinned a lot and seemed to enjoy the wine on offer. George said that he saw the captain drink five glasses of Chianti. He counted them, he said.
“Perhaps it’s for sea-sickness,” said Rosie. “You can get sea-sick even if you’re an experienced sailor. There were a lot of people sea-sick when I went round the Horn – not that I noticed very much.”
“I don’t trust that chap,” said George, as the Captain left us after dinner. “He can’t walk straight.”
“That’s because he’s a sailor,” said Rosie. “They all walk like that.”
A very strange day. We lost sight of land today, and we seemed to spend a lot of time going round in circles. We were all sitting on deck, enjoying the sun, when George observed that we seemed to be going round and round. From where we were sitting, we could look up at the bridge, and so he signalled to the Captain – a sort of question mark sign. The Captain waved back, and then disappeared. Now the engines stopped, and we went backwards for a while before they started again and we resumed our circles.
At dinner, George asked the Captain what he had been doing. The Captain speaks English, although not very well.
“Mind your own business,” he said. He said it in a way that made it sound almost polite.
“I was only asking,” said George.
“Please shut up, sir,” said the Captain. Again he seemed quite polite.
Dinner was served and the Captain and the officers all became quite drunk. They started to sing Neapolitan songs and although some of the French passengers joined in, we did not.
“It’s important to keep up standards at sea,” said Rosie.
There was no sign of the Captain today even at dinner. One of the officers came in for the meal, but spent all his time talking on his mobile phone. George asked him where the Captain was, and he replied, rather curtly, “He is very busy. He cannot talk to you.”
Frank said, sotto voce, that he had seen the Captain with one of the young women who cleaned the cabins. “They seemed to be on very friendly terms,” he added.
“They are a friendly people,” said Rosie. ‘When I went round the Horn, there were Italians on board and they had constant parties. They seemed to be having a marvellous time.”
We steamed into a port today. Nobody was quite sure where it was, as our itinerary said that we were not due to call in on any port until we reached Naples. The Captain has reappeared and seemed quite excited when we approached the harbour. A small boat full of young women in bikinis came out to meet our ship and went round us at great speed, with all the women waving their arms enthusiastically. I think they knew the Captain, as he waved to them and shouted from the side of the ship. He must have said something amusing, as they screamed with laughter before they shot off again. Then the Captain went back on to the bridge and reversed the ship out of the harbour.
At dinner, George asked the Captain why we had called in at that harbour and then immediately gone out again. The Captain just glared at him and told him to mind his own business.
“That captain is a real shocker,” said Rosie.
This has been one of the most dramatic days of my life – so dramatic, in fact, that I hardly know where to begin. It all started when George saw the Captain and all the officers sitting in one of the cabins, drinking and playing cards. He then went up to the bridge – to complain to somebody – but there was nobody there.
“The ship was on some sort of automatic pilot,” he told us. “The wheel was making little movements and when I looked at the controls I saw a light on under the automatic pilot switch.”
We received this news gravely. “We can’t go on like this,” George went on. “As the only British people on board, it’s our duty to take control of the ship.”
We looked at him in surprise. “What’s being British got to do with it?” asked Rosie.
“Well,” said George, “the Italians are clearly incapable of running this show, and the French are mostly sunbathing. So that leaves us. We shall have to take over and get us back to port.”
We discussed it for a short time, and we all agreed.
“I’m going to go and lock the Captain and his officers in their cabin,” said George.
“I’ll help you,” said Frank.
They came back a few minutes later. They had met with no resistance, they said, because the Captain and the officers were all asleep.
George went up to the bridge and made an announcement on the public address system. “This ship is now under the command of the Gardening Club,” he said. “Please stay calm.”
The French applauded and said something which none of us caught, but I think they were pleased that things were now under control.
A very pleasant day. George spent most of his time up on the bridge, and I took him several cups of tea. Rosie helped him on his watch, and was allowed to steer from time to time, as she was the only one who had been round the Horn. Frank had a mobile phone that had a map-thingy on it, and so he managed to find out where we were.
“Naples is over there,” he said, pointing into the distance. I saw just ocean, but that’s what it’s like at sea, Rosie explained.
“When I went round the Horn, we saw very little,” she said.
We had a particularly enjoyable dinner, as the chefs seemed rather pleased that the Captain had been replaced.
“Captain very bad sailor,” said the head chef. “Disgrace to Italy! British good sailors.”
George thanked him, and we all sent him a message saying that we very much appreciated his cooking. We heard that he was very touched by this, and began to weep.
“We’d better start looking out for Naples,” said Frank at the end of dinner. “According to my phone, it’s not far now.”
We saw Naples just after breakfast. George told us that we would be going in very slowly, as he was not quite sure how to get into reverse.
“You need reverse to stop a boat,” he said. “So we’re going to slow right down. I have, however, found the button that sounds the horn, and so I’ll be able to give them a good toot to announce our arrival!”
We made it quite easily, although there was a bit of a bump when we hit some wooden-thingies on the edge of the quay. George said they didn’t matter very much, and there would only be a very small scratch on the side of the boat.
The Captain was released. He and the officers shouted at us a lot and then ran down the gangway. Then one of the officers found a car and they all got into it and raced off, shouting in Italian about something or other.
“Good riddance,” said George.
We all packed our suitcases and made our way down onto the quay, where the tour company representative was waiting for us.
“Have a good cruise?” she asked cheerfully.
“Yes,” I replied.
George was standing nearby. He winked at me before he answered her.
“Not at all,” he said.
“British understatement,” I said.
We all laughed.