Working in swish hotels and restaurants during my university years turned out well for me. During the day, I was the full-time student haunting lecture theatres and libraries. In the evening, I transformed myself. I exchanged my tee shirt, joggers and jeans for my black trousers, polished shoes and tailored waistcoat and entered the world of culinary delights for the well-heeled.
The hours were good, the tips not bad, and the meals free. What more could a student want? This was fine, except for the long university holidays. I got itchy feet then, and wanted to travel. If only I could find a way to combine my night job with a little globetrotting. The opportunity to do just that came along quite unexpectedly one evening; a bit like a bolt out of the blue.
One of the regulars in the restaurant I was working in at the time turned out to be an executive with P&O. He was very interested in my studies, and somehow the travel dilemma came up in conversation. He solved it with one phone call. The solution? Cruise ships. I was offered a job as a steward during the uni holidays.
Two days later, I presented myself to the purser on one of the luxury liners docking in Sydney. I was going to sea! It was the beginning of an exciting adventure that lasted several years and provided wonderful material for my stories and books. As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction, and life on board a large cruise ship can be just that, and a lot more.
The adventure started the moment I stepped on board. As I was soon to find out, I had entered a very different world. The purser, a very busy man, spent less than 3 minutes with me. ‘This is your cabin,’ he said pointing to a cross on a confusing floor plan. ‘Collect your uniform from the laundry – here;’ another cross. ‘You start work at 5:30 pm in the dining room – here;’ a large cross. ‘Report to the head steward; Tony Bonnici. Any questions?’ I could think of a few, but decided, wisely, that this wasn’t a good time to ask. ‘Welcome on board,’ said the purser, obviously pleased by my submissive silence, and patted me on the back. ‘Good luck!’ The way he said ‘good luck’ definitely sounded like I could do with some. I was right.
I had no idea that the ship had so many decks; below water. I’m sure my allocated cabin was just above the propellers somewhere deep down in the bowels of the ship. It took me ages to find, but I had finally made it down to the right deck and was looking for cabin 42 – my new home – when I saw it.
The shock of white hair and the swagger were unmistakable. The man walking along the corridor in front of me dressed in a stunning crisp white uniform with heavy gold braiding and epaulettes was none other than Grumpy, my long lost friend and mentor from my first job in hospitality. ‘Excuse me sir, I’m looking for cabin 42’, I said from behind.
The little man stopped, turned around, and looked at me with eyes widening in disbelief. ‘What are you doing here, laddie?’ he said in his heavy Scottish accent.
‘Just signed up, and about to report for duty to a Mr Bonnici,’ I replied, ‘if I can find this bloody cabin of mine.’ Grumpy put his arms around me and patted me on the back. It was a spontaneous gesture of affection by a man I had once held in high regard, but who had been humiliated by a silly mistake. Ridicule can ruin a reputation faster than a rape conviction.
‘You’re coming with me, laddie,’ he said, ‘I need chaps like you.’
‘Are you the captain?’ I joked.
‘Something like that; in my domain.’
‘And what might that be?’
‘The first class dining room, of course; come.’
Half an hour later, I was settling into my new cabin – 4 decks higher up – and was admiring my splendid new uniform in the mirror. Working in first class, I thought, you beauty! I could hardly wait to start my shift. Grumpy, my old-new boss had arranged it all with a click of his fingers. It felt like old times and I couldn’t believe my luck. It was the lull before the storm; literally speaking.
You want to know about the storm; right? Well, considering the hour, that’ll have to wait for another bolg. So, look out for Bombe Alaska; part II. You won’t be able to stop laughing; promise!