‘Sometimes’ says Lisa, gripping her mug of coffee ‘I just can’t believe how much I didn’t know about the world, about what was going on, how much I missed.’ I take her hand and smile. Tell myself I'm just being a good friend but we both know there's more to it than that. We’re up in the bar for breakfast again, Lisa and I, as is becoming a habit. Anybody’d think we were sleeping together. She’s taken the opportunity to go and shower and change her clothes between my room and the restaurant. She has a very lovely deep blue cotton dress on now. It’s quite sheer and I can see her breasts move underneath. It’s not doing anything for my resolve. Maybe if I went and spent a little time alone... I wonder if fantasising about her counts. It’s already too late if it does.
She seems back to normal anyway. ‘I used to read the papers, listen to the radio’ she says, ‘keeping up with what was going on in the world but then even that felt like too much effort a lot of the time and frankly it was so depressing. Then I used to listen to Chopin. Do you know Chopin?’
‘I do. I love the Nocturnes’
She seems very pleased to hear that and rubs the back of my hand as if to warm it up. ‘I had Gershwin, and Débussey and loads of other stuff. I used to be able to play Au Clare de la Lune.’
‘You played piano?’
‘Just bits and pieces.’
Just then Raz and Wen appear and Raz asks Lisa very formally if the seat is free and says she doesn’t want to intrude. Lisa gets up and gives Raz a huge suffocating hug.
Wen comes and sinks down into one of the big padded easy chairs near by. ‘Now now girls’ she says. We order breakfast.
‘So Gabriel’ says Raz ‘What do you think?’
‘About my question, last night’
‘I don’t really know what you mean Raz’ I’m not being obtuse. I really am not sure.
‘I want to know how to do better next time around, because I am going back, and the way I see it I can either do what Ruth would do and use my knowledge to make even more money (assuming I remember anything useful of this at all) or I can use it to bloody well make a difference. I could go either way. What do you think?’
‘Oh honestly I don’t think I’m the person to ask. I’m just a grumpy old man who’s read some books. Ask Wen – she’s the political animal around here’
‘What? No, don’t look at me. I hated politics.’
‘But you were in that organisation – Nature and Nurture or whatever they were called’ says Lisa.
‘People and Planet’ corrects Wen and shifts in her armchair, rearranging her cushions and picking up her mug – getting comfortable. The breakfast arrives – Huevo Ranchero for Wen and I, apple porridge for Lisa and some fresh fruit for Raz. We get busy eating. It’s been a long night.
Lisa reminds Wen of what we were talking about.
‘Honestly love’ says Wen, ‘I’m not your guy. I just liked being out in the woods looking at bugs and weeds. I fell in love with Latin America and the university paid me to go there, end of. It was pure self-indulgence on my part. I’m just one of those lucky sods that gets paid to do their hobby. Really...’ and she begins to fill up on refried beans, conversation over.
‘But you were involved in that big campaign about the global reserve in the Amazon’ says Lisa ‘I saw you on the news.’
‘I thought you didn’t watch the news’ I say, also stuffing my face.
‘Well, you know, trees and monkeys. I could cope with that.’
Wen wipes her mouth with a tissue and reaches for her smoothie. ‘I wasn’t even supposed to be involved’ she says. ‘Marco was supposed to do it but he got sick that day. I didn’t know what I was doing up there, what I was supposed to say. All those journalists and delegates. I was just supposed to be surveying. I hated the suits.’
‘We could tell’ says Raz chuckling.
‘You saw me?’
‘On the news. You were very persuasive. I was impressed. Could have done with you on our side. Kidding’ she says, raising her hands in surrender. ‘Just kidding.’
‘Yes, well’ says Wen, waving away our admiration. ‘Sometimes you have to, don’t you. The thing is, after that...’ she gesticulates around with her fork and talks with her mouth full ‘with all the jetting around to conferences and the interviews and all that, everyone thinks you’re one of them – the politicians and the media people, like you really love all the razzmatazz and screwing around with public perception and to be honest a lot of the people who represent the NGOs are like that – they could be in advertising or politics for real, but I couldn’t do it. I hated the whole media circus thing. If I could have just gone back to grovelling around looking for bugs with a clear conscience at any moment I would have. I wouldn’t have missed it at all.’
‘But you were good at it, the media thing’ I say.
‘Because you could tell she wasn’t playing the game. I get it now’ says Lisa, full of admiration.
‘Sincerity’ says Raz ‘That’s the thing. If you can fake that you’ve got it made. Kidding again people. Just kidding.’
We sit and finish our breakfasts and Lisa goes to get smoothies for us all.
‘So what have you two crazy kids been up to all night anyway?’ asks Wen. ‘Is it as we suspect?’
‘Oral sex’ says Lisa boldly.
‘Really? Well that is a refreshing level of honesty I must say.’
‘Actually’ I say, ‘we just talked about oral sex. Lisa wanted to know all about my past liaisons for some reason. I probably shouldn’t be telling you this.’
‘Did you come to any conclusions, so to speak?’
‘Most men don’t like doing it apparently’ says Lisa with pink milk on her face.
She carefully puts her glass down on the table. There’s sticky juice everywhere and Lisa sucks her fingers. She knows I’m watching her.
‘Apparently men don’t think it’s manly to go down on a woman, and BJs are actually a bit of a disappointment unless you’re into the whole BDSM scene, so I’m told.’ She sits down and organises her straws, looking at me to see what I’ll say.
‘Gabriel?’ Raz looks horrified and Wen looks somewhat taken aback too.
‘Not me I didn’t mean’ I say, realising suddenly why she’s so outraged. ‘A lot of men though’ continues Lisa, ‘apparently, don’t think it’s... erm... dignified, manly, whatever, to erm... you know... What is the word?’
‘Cunnilingus’ says Wen with her face dripping with melon.
‘Yes, I know that, but you can’t cunniling someone. I need a verb.’
‘To go down on?’ says Raz.
‘To lick out’ says Wen with precision. Lisa giggles and squirms gorgeously.
‘I’m sure the French would have a good word for it’ says Raz.
‘Anyway’ I say, ‘apparently I’m in the minority.’
‘Unfortunately I think you may be right darling. I have to say I haven’t met many men who are really prepared to take it seriously. I did it with another girl once. That was a whole different kettle of erm... Help me out someone. Something not involving fish.’
‘Ballgame?’ says Wen.
‘Precisely’ says Raz, cackling away dirtily. ‘I have to say a lot of the blokes I knew didn’t know their way around at all, down below.’
‘That’s what Gabriel said, didn’t you, about women.’ I know she’s trying to embarrass me but I won’t let her. She’s sucking the juice out of a peach, all innocence on the face of it.
‘Some women’ I say. ‘I was saying it can be a bit of a disappointment and I’d rather do... I don’t know, other things.’
‘Well I never got any complaints darling.’
‘But presumably you actually enjoyed doing it.’
‘God yes. Absolutely. As long as he’s clean. What do you think Lisa?’
‘Errm...’ she says, doing a little dance with her shoulders, implying she can take it or leave it, but then she nods and says ‘Yes. I really enjoyed it. Really...’ Then she looks down and peers at her hair. ‘I don’t know’ she continues, flicking it out of her eyes. ‘My ex didn’t like it much, well, not from me anyhow. To tell the truth I really don’t know anything much about any of it – just what I’ve read really. I just feel so cheated. I’m sorry but I do. Mick – my ex was never really that keen on any of this “experimentation”... He was just a three minute wonder and he never went down... or anywhere near my you know what, or tried... And I didn’t really know any different. So... Carry on with your conversation. I’ll be alright.’
I feel Raz and Wen looking at me. I know what they’re thinking.
As we get up to go Wen takes my arm and whispers ‘I think you two are just made for each other.’
That’s what I’m afraid of.
Now there’s land in sight just visible in the haze, dark grey through pale grey, translucent layers of landscape one on top of the other, like a backdrop, scratched with warm drizzle. When it’s not raining the heat and humidity is suffocating and has been for a few days. Raz, Wen, Lisa and I are used to it from the sauna and are the only ones lounging on deck. With our thin clothes stuck to us we look as if we are dressed in nothing but body paint. I look at Lisa’s breasts and belly and thighs, indigo blue. Why is this somehow so much more erotic than her nakedness in the sauna? People are so perverse.
Alison tells me we’ll be disembarking in a few days. I hope we can all travel together overland, the four of us.
‘So, what you’re telling me basically is you just gave up with your career’ says Raz.
‘I realised I just didn’t have the drive’ I say.
‘After all that hard work?’
‘Didn’t you feel a bit of a... I don’t know...’
‘Well, I wouldn’t put it quite so harshly.’
‘I would. It’s ok. Yes, I did, for a bit. Well, I was disappointed for a while – depressed even.’ The rainfall suddenly steps up a few notches and we have to shout to be heard.
‘I’ll bet’ shouts Lisa, taking my hand. I look at her in the deluge, at the rain pouring off her head.
‘It took me a while to get used to it’ I shout, ‘that this dream I’d had all that time – my career as a painter, all the headlining exhibitions and lucrative commissions and all the rest of it just weren’t going to happen.’
‘So what did you do?’ shouts Lisa.
‘Travelled a bit. My girlfriend, Andrea, and I went to Turkey for a while.’
‘It was. Look shall we go in? This is getting ridiculous.’ So we all get up and head down to the lounge. We ignore the looks we get, head straight for the bar and order up some cocktails. There’s a bit of a party atmosphere down here, everybody wondering where we’re going next.
‘To be honest Raz’ I say when we’ve found a towel and somewhere to sit, ‘it was ok. I think all this craving for recognition is a bit desperate.’
‘You’re not just saying that because you didn’t make it’
‘I’ve thought about that and yes, of course I’d love to have made a bigger name for myself but then the people I knew who succeeded like that, to me, they all seemed a bit mad. They just didn’t do anything else and really I just had too many other things I wanted to do. I just never really had that single-mindedness.’
‘But you said you loved painting’ says Lisa.
‘I did, but not to the exclusion of everything else. When I was younger maybe – when I was a teenager I didn’t really have anything else.’
‘So it was all about sexual frustration.’
‘Absolutely. Look, famous artists talk about all this worldly stuff as if it’s anathema to real creativity and I’ve met people at college – mostly women actually, who just wouldn’t have anything to do with anything that might “tie them down” in any way, because it distracted them from their work...’
‘They were probably just enjoying their independence’ observes Wen.
‘Certainly, but I just wasn’t prepared to be like that and actually I don’t think it’s healthy. What I want to say to you Raz, in answer to your question, is that our culture – the English based ones especially, tend to hold up this frankly pathological, obsessive attitude to business as if it’s something we should all aspire to and that there’s something wrong with you if you don’t – like Ruth and her obsession with her career, or any of these high flying movers and shakers we hear about.’
‘Hang on Gabriel’ says Raz ‘What are you saying – we should section them all or something?’
‘No, not at all. Of course not. I think they’re valuable members of society quite often – overpaid undoubtedly, but essential nevertheless.’
‘So what are you saying?’
‘That we ordinary mortals shouldn’t be judging ourselves by their standard. We shouldn’t feel we should have to work all those hours. We shouldn’t feel we have to own all that stuff. We shouldn’t have to feel we have to constantly impress everybody else with what we do or what we have, because it will never be enough and we’ll live our lives disappointed and frustrated and ultimately it will all seem futile. Plus destroying the environment and leaving millions of people with nothing at all in the process...’
‘So... What? You think we should all get paid the same, or what? I don’t get it.’
‘No, it’s just about getting paid properly for just doing a decent days work, doing something useful, keeping things going – ordinary stuff, what most people do every day. But instead we... I don’t know... we give these high flyers so astronomically much more, as if they are so, so much better than the rest of us, as if what we do is insignificant. It just distorts everything, screws everything up. It’s all wrong. We’re living life wrong – don’t you see what I mean?’
Raz looks thoughtful, trying to drown her olive with a cocktail stick. ‘I just don’t see how it’s possible’ she says finally. ‘How would you get people to behave differently? Firing squad?’
I lean back and act nonchalant. ‘Parental guidance, public opprobrium, ultimately the law – same as for any other undesirable activity.’
‘Doesn’t sound very feasible darling.’
‘Well obviously. They’d kick up one hell of a fuss I expect and they’re powerful people. They’d probably just take their business elsewhere.’
‘Well, like I said... being pragmatic...’
‘So Raz, are you arguing that I’m wrong or that I’m being impractical?’
‘What? Oh thanks sweetie.’
The waiter brings us more drinks. I look out at the torrent coming down off the roof of the cabins outside the door. A small red crab has somehow got up on deck and is scuttling about indecisively. Maybe a bird dropped it. I consider rescuing it but am too settled, steaming in my chair.
‘Ok,’ resumes Raz ‘so if we’re no longer all rushing around trying to be best, what I don’t get is what we’re all supposed to do instead. I mean won’t the world grind to a halt?’
‘We’ll do much the same as before I expect, but less so. Probably none of us really needs to work more than three days a week. We’ve actually reached a point in history where we probably don’t need anything much new at all, apart from some medical advances maybe but...’
‘God’ says Raz, ‘I can think of a few gadgets I couldn’t have done without. I keep wanting to get my Hippo out to tell Leslie what’s going on...’
‘Well I’d have literally been totally lost without my Savant’ says Wen, ‘and I loved my Manda*’ she adds with some passion. ‘My typing was absolute rubbish. People were always telling me it’d improve with time but it never did.’
‘What Voca did you have?’ asks Lisa. ‘I had Patrick Stewart.’
‘Guess’ says Wen.
‘Attenborough’ says Raz, clapping her hands gleefully and Wen smiles. It was obvious really.
‘How about you Gabriel? I bet you had someone sexy like erm... that woman on Radio 4. Catherine somebody.’
I shake my head, a little abashed.
‘Joanna Lumley. She’s more your generation’ says Wen.
‘Not your missus’ says Raz with disgust and the truth is out. I look away and they all cackle with delight and I wonder for a moment if her Mac still speaks with my voice. I want to change the subject.
‘I totally miss my Slippery Fish’ says Lisa with some intensity. Raz observes my reaction. I decide to move the discussion on.
‘The point is’ I begin. ‘I’m not saying there shouldn’t be any... I mean, we’re just too obsessed with all this crap. You’ve got to admit most of it is just crap. We’re a spoilt brat culture, Raz, really. You know this. All this 'relative poverty' crap. We have everything we need but we just keep on whining for more. We’ve all got so much more money than we ever had at any other time in history and we just keep whinging on about how we never have enough. People aren’t happier these days. All the studies say so.’
‘It’s like that thing back in the nineties about GMOs feeding the world’ adds Wen. ‘I could have told them it wouldn’t happen. We already had enough to feed everybody. The reasons we didn’t were political and economic. GMOs didn’t change any of that.’
‘So your point is?’
I look at Wen. Apparently she has nothing to add.
‘My point is’ I say, trying to remember what my point was, ‘My point is, that if we already have everything we need, why are we all still squabbling? Why don’t we just relax and appreciate what we’ve got?’
‘But where’s the fun in that? Why would anybody even bother to get up in the morning? What would you do with all this free time?’
‘I don’t know. Do something creative. People used to have hobbies and handicrafts, projects around the house... People don’t do that any more do they.’
‘Not if they want a sex life darling. I have visions of these sad individuals in their sheds making model aeroplanes, or darning socks, with their NHS specks held together with sticky tape.’
‘That’s so exactly not what I meant’ I say tersely. I look around for inspiration. I hate the way “sad” has come to mean any enthusiasm that doesn’t involve getting pissed or running around with a ball, or making money of course. I take a long swig from my glass and take a moment to think. I think about my dad’s collection of alpines, and his railway magazines, and his old LPs. I thought he was “sad”, poor old bugger, but he was just doing the things he loved. That was when he wasn’t taking the car apart, or digging the garden, or fishing. All his friends were the same. He hated buying anything he couldn’t take apart with a spanner and a screwdriver. No silicon chips for him.
‘I’m sorry’ says Raz, smiling patronisingly at me and patting my hand. ‘Tell me what you meant.’
I huff a bit and try to explain. ‘It’s like my dad. He did everything – the rewiring, building a lean-to, growing our veg, fixing the car... Nobody does that sort of thing these days do they?’
‘They were so, I don’t know, capable, his generation, don’t you think? Independent, self-sufficient... I find it quite hard to take my generation very seriously. We don’t seem to be able to actually do anything much do we? Just go to the office, come home, watch telly, drink beer, go to the office...’
‘I know what you mean’ she concedes wistfully.
‘And cooking. People don’t know how to cook any more.’
‘Women I take it you mean’ says Lisa, elbowing me in the side.
‘Men, women, anybody. It’s not a sexist point. We’re all of us so.... so bloody infantile, so impotent. I don’t know... I know it’ll sound funny coming from me, but it just seems, I don’t know, really lazy somehow. Do you know what I mean? I mean, I know they do all those long hours and there’s all the stress and so on, but... I don’t know... at some level, it’s a deeply decadent way of life.’
‘Yes but it...it’s about freedom isn’t it?’ Raz looks around for agreement but nobody reacts. ‘It’s about not having to worry about all that crap – just pay somebody else to do it.’
‘But then you have to spend all that time at the office to afford it’ says Wen. ‘Funny sort of freedom if you ask me.’
‘I’m talking about some measure of actual independence Raz – a bit of self-reliance.’
‘Yes I know but...’ she has a pained, constipated look on her face. ‘...but it’s just... It’s so ruddy time-consuming, and so bloody messy – to have to learn to do all that stuff. I have to say I’d rather spend my spare time chilling out with a bottle of rosé in front of the box and let someone else do the chores.’
‘But that’s not what he’s saying, is it Gabriel?’ interjects Lisa, looking from her to me. I just smile blandly and she looks momentarily flustered. ‘What he’s saying is’ she resumes, ‘is that it’s not that you have to come home from work and decide whether to do your own stuff or chill out, is it?’ She glances at me again. I try to look amused and wait for her to carry on. ‘The real choice is between doing your own stuff and having to go out to work. You get to relax either way. Do you see?’ She sits back, looking very pleased with herself, like a good student. Ten out of ten I think. Clever girl.
Raz takes a sip and thinks about it. ‘Well I don’t know’ she says finally.
‘You’d rather pay someone to do it for you’ I say.
‘Well, yes. I suppose I would.’
‘You’d rather spend all those hours doing something you hate, slaving away, making money for someone else, simply to avoid doing things for yourself.’
‘Well absolutely, since you put it like that. But look here, how many employers are going to agree to employ you part time so you can enjoy some quality time with the plumbing?’
‘I managed it.’
‘Hmm’ she says, unconvinced. We sit quietly for a while, pondering. I know she’s right. The employers wouldn’t stand for it. They need their wage-slaves, and they need them to try to cheer up their dreary lives by going shopping. Our economy runs on dissatisfaction and dependence and it makes me sick. When was it that life became not about making a home, spending time with the kids, meeting up with friends, enjoying the countryside or making a nice meal and instead became about making money? Has it always been that way? And if so, why do we still fall for it?
‘I suppose that was why I chose to make as much money as I could, while I could’ continues Raz, ‘so I could give up work altogether eventually. Didn’t turn out that way of course. I still worked flat-out until I dropped...’
‘And yet you still believe that if everyone embraces the spirit of free enterprise we can all lead rich and happy lives.’
‘God no. That’s the trouble – everybody’s brought up these days to assume they’ll get a great job if they only try hard enough and get themselves noticed, but it stands to reason most of them won’t. There just aren’t that many great jobs to go round, or even half decent ones. The vast majority are just going to end up in some menial retail or office job, bored and frustrated. And then who’s going to pick up the pieces? No wonder kids go off the rails these days. At least in the old days you knew where you stood. I’m not saying we should go back to the old eleven-plus but you have to admit it reflected society’s needs. You didn’t get your hopes up. You maybe didn’t like where you were put but at least it didn’t come as a huge shock later on. You made the best of it.’
I couldn’t have put it better myself. She takes a moment to observe the end of her cigarette burning down. She blows on it a bit and watches it glow. I’d like to say she looks smug about it but she doesn’t. She doesn’t look happy about it at all.
‘The fact is’ she says, after a quick final drag and stubbing it out. ‘The fact is that it doesn’t matter how brilliant they are, but most of them, I’m truly sorry to say, will never be more than mindless drones. And that’s the way it is.’
We all sit quietly for a bit. Lisa finishes her drink, using her straw to fend off the remaining ice. I look about at the other passengers.
‘That’s actually a faulty metaphor, entomologically speaking’ observes Wen. We all turn to look at her down in her armchair, sipping her cocktail.
‘In a beehive’ she continues ‘the drones are the males. They’re only there to mate with the queen. It’s the workers, the females, do all the... well... work. Anyway...’ she shrugs, ‘Carry on...’
‘Is that so?’ says Lisa.
‘Really?’ says Raz.
We take a moment to consider the faulty metaphor.
‘I have to say I didn’t get the impression you were terribly bothered about all this at the time’ I say.
‘No, well I admit I was only really concerned about my getting rich’ resumes Raz, lighting up a new cigarette, ‘but in any case, if I remember correctly it was you who told us that people should stop being so neurotic trying to make more and more money, because they already have more than enough to be going on with. And don’t give me all that relative poverty crap because I don’t buy it. I’ve seen enough to know that if you’ve got clean running water and electricity, a telly and a fridge you are not poor. You’ve actually got to be a junkie or chronically ill to be in genuine need these days. I’m sorry, it may not be very PC to say so but there it is.’
‘No actually I tend to agree with you’ says Wen. ‘We’re spoiled rotten. But it is, of course, an illusion.’
‘What is?’ says Raz.
‘That there are no poor. They just happen to live elsewhere. You’ve seen them. We still depend on them to do our dirty work, as you so astutely put it.’
The four of us sit back and catch our breaths. It seems to be clearing outside but getting dark. The staff are setting up for the evening meal and other passengers are getting restless and heading down to get showered and changed. All very civilised. It’s funny how we’ve not got bored with this over the last few months and I’m going to miss it.
‘Would I be allowed something nice once in a while?’ says Raz after a while. ‘Some small luxury, in this utopia of yours?’ I have to tug myself back into the conversation. I’d been thinking about food.
‘What? Oh, of course you would. Oh look, I don’t even mind if you buy yourself a Porsche if you really love your car. I just don’t think everyone should think they should have a flash car just to prove something to their neighbours – it’s just so immature.’
‘Doesn’t prove anything these days anyway’ says Wen. ‘Half the time you check out who’s at the wheel and it’s some old fool trying to recapture his youth.’
‘So how much should people be allowed to own?’ asks Raz.
‘Actually, to be honest Raz, I don’t care. If people want to work themselves into the ground and be millionaires that’s fine. I think it’s kind of neurotic but ultimately it’s up to them. What I’m saying is, half the world shouldn’t have to die young as a result, and the environment shouldn’t be wrecked because of it and they certainly shouldn’t be able to run the place as if everybody thinks the way they do, because we don’t.’
We sit quietly for a while after that.
‘Are you done?’ says Raz.
‘I think so, for now. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. Can I get back to you? Actually, do you think it’s time to get changed? I’m actually fizzing here.’
We all head back to our respective cabins. At my door Lisa stops and waits for them to go. Once they’re gone she holds my face gently between her hands and kisses me softly on the lips. ‘I love you’ she says. ‘You’re brilliant’ and I’m surprised to find myself grinning at her. I can’t bring myself to say the same but she doesn’t seem to expect it. I watch her bottom jiggle in her damp dress as she heads along the corridor and then I open my door. The bedclothes are still flattened where she sat and I can still smell her there.
* Manda ™ was the first commercially successful brand of voice recognition software. Soon almost any new electrical device from cars to cookers to sex toys could be given verbal instructions, in a normal voice, as if addressing a friend or colleague. A popular feature of Manda was that a voice of ones choice (a ‘Voca’) could be downloaded for the device’s responses, replacing the standard Hawkinspeak diction used by earlier systems.