Oh, my dear, the noise! And the people!*

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For the incredibly wealthy, a ticket on the QE2 may have been small change. For some of the merely very rich, however, the purchase price was only to get them on board – after that, it was up to their own ingenuity to get upgraded as much and as often as they possibly could.

We learned to recognise these people as they came up the gangway – it wasn’t difficult; they were the ones already rumbling with discontent. Over the first few days of the cruise, they would find any number of things wrong with their accommodation on the less-than-salubrious 5 Deck – they were berthed next to a crew member; their bedside light didn’t work or their toilet didn’t flush properly; the tug hit their porthole window at some ungodly hour of the night and woke them up… The complaints were as varied as they were many. And, sooner or later, the purser would be forced to concede defeat, and upgrade the moaning minnies to more expensive accommodation.

But these cheapskates tripped themselves up in all sorts of ways.

One once took off her earrings while I styled her hair and then forgot to take them with her when she left. I put them in a drawer, intending to return them when I saw her again, but as it happened, the cruise ended shortly afterwards and I didn’t get the opportunity.

A month later, I cleaned out my drawers and threw the earrings away. As luck would have it, the very same day the security officer came to the salon. ‘A passenger has written to complain that she left behind some extremely valuable earrings,’ he said. ‘She’s threatening to sue if we don’t return them. She says they’re worth $250 000.’

‘I know exactly what earrings she’s talking about, and if she paid $25 for them, she was ripped off,’ I said. ‘I’ve thrown them away.’

The security officer shrugged. ‘It’s your word against hers. You’d better find them.’

I dispatched two members of my staff down to the ship’s recycling plant where, fortunately, they were able to locate the black rubbish bag I’d filled the day before. They scratched through it and came up with the earrings – which were, indeed, nothing but cheap tat. I wiped them off, wrapped them very carefully in tissue paper and mailed them back to the passenger. I’d like to believe she had a moment of deep embarrassment when she got them, but I’ve learned that some people are simply impossible to shame.

Then there were the passengers whose husbands had brought them on a QE2 world cruise and who couldn’t get over how lucky they were to have a spouse of such vision and largesse. One in particular – I’ll call her Mrs Jones – told me repeatedly how her husband valued and spoiled her. They’d been married for 35 years, she said, and he still treated her like a queen. Hadn’t he brought her on this astonishingly expensive holiday? Didn’t he allow – nay, encourage! – her to come to the salon every evening around 7pm for a relaxing, luxurious wash and blow? What a generous husband he was, how understanding, how lucky she was to be married to such a fine, fine man!

But I knew something that Mrs Jones didn’t (because – and make no mistake about this – a ship’s crew, like a hotel’s staff, know everything that’s worth knowing about their clients): that Mr Jones had an assignation of his own every evening at 7pm, in the spa hot pool, with any male crew member who was willing. While the sadly clueless but eternally grateful Mrs Jones was getting a blow from me, Mr Jones was getting one from one of my colleagues.

And there were ‘ordinary’ people who travelled on the QE2, for whom the cruise was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. One of these was Mrs Van der Walt, a nasty snob who, when discussing with me the doings and screwings of her fellow passengers while in the chair, would turn up her nose in distaste and sniff, ‘Ja, Richard: soort soek soort, nê?’ (Afrikaans for ‘birds of a feather flock together’.) I always found it rather odd to have these strangely parochial little Afrikaans chats with Mrs Van der Walt on the QE2, surrounded as we were by largely sophisticated folk of many other nationalities.

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Another was a dear old thing called Eve Goodie, a Dame Edna Everage lookalike whose hair simply couldn’t be big enough. She’d come in for a wash and set, and after I’d taken the rollers out, I’d spend some time teasing her hair up into a wild halo until it looked as if she’d just had ten thousand volts shot through her. Then I’d put down my comb, brush off my hands and walk away. ‘There, darling, you’re done!’ I’d say.

Eve loved this. ‘Richard!’ she’d squeal. ‘Come back!’

And so I would, and there would follow an immensely intricate process that involved smoothing, spraying, more teasing, more smoothing and yet more spraying. Eve loved hairspray.

Once, the salon was very busy. I’d almost finished with Eve but had to leave her for a few moments to attend to another client’s needs, and Eve didn’t like that – ‘Richard!’ she called petulantly. ‘You haven’t sprayed me yet!’

Eve was a beloved regular, so I pointed behind me to the shelf that held the hair products and said, ‘There’s the can. Take it down and give yourself a few squirts.’

What I hadn’t realised was that the hairspray was right next to the hair mousse, and that the two were in similar cans. When I next turned around, dear old Eve had all but disappeared under a mound of white fluff; she looked like a snowman.

She hadn’t looked at herself in the mirror yet, so I quickly whipped her into a chair, briskly removed the mountainous swirls of mousse, and applied liberal lashings of hairspray. Eve was delighted and her ’do, shored up by the mousse, stayed perfectly in place for the next two weeks.

* Supposedly said by English actor Ernest Thesiger (1879-1961) when asked at a dinner party what it had been like fighting in the trenches in World War I.

Next week we’ll have a look at some of the QE2’s super-wealthy passengers and the weird things they got up to. If you want to get a jump on that extract, buy the book – Life on a Permanent Wave: Hair-raising Stories from a Shipboard Stylist. It’s available for kindle at amazon, here.

Sex and drugs

There were several ports that caused an excited buzz among the crew of the QE2, and Pattaya in Thailand was chief among them. This coastal city with its beaches and other tourist attractions, and wild, wild nightlife, never failed to raise expectations: as we neared Thailand, the staff would start getting antsy – we wanted to party!

In Pattaya, you were sure to be picked up – either by prostitutes or by the police. Licentiousness and corruption were as rife as each other, and if you weren’t paying a transsexual to give you the best blowjob of your life, you were paying off the police to get yourself or your buddies out of jail.

The BBC travel documentary programme Whicker’s World was filming in Pattaya when we were there on a world cruise. Presenter Alan Whicker described the place as ‘the new Havana’ and said it was ‘where every sailor dreams of coming to rest and relax’. If the reports were to be believed, many husbands dreamed of the same thing: apparently, after the show aired in the UK, there were marital squabbles aplenty and even some acrimonious divorces, when wives who’d waited faithfully back home for their shipboard-employed significant others saw them dallying with the Pattaya lovelies.

On a more sinister note, a QE2 steward called Steve Wright was on that shore leave, and he was captured on camera by Alan Whicker’s cameras, kissing a prostitute. The twice-married, twice-divorced father of two was later sentenced to life in prison for murdering five women in the UK – all prostitutes. Steve admitted at his trial that he’d begun frequenting prostitutes while working on the QE2: ‘There was a young crew and it was quite normal,’ he said.

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Steve – who became known as ‘the Suffolk Strangler’ and was apprehended after a massive manhunt – was hardly noticed on the ship. He would hang around our social gatherings, always on the outskirts and never contributing much, and while I can’t say he was actively lecherous, there was perhaps something strangely needy about him that made everyone a bit uneasy. A waiter at the time, quoted later in a newspaper article, remembered, ‘Steve would sniff around all the girls and particularly the beauticians.’

Newspaper reports at the time of his conviction in 2008 carried statements from his ex wife, Diane Cole (who also worked on the ship, as a sales assistant), about his interest in a Steiner beautician, Suzy Lamplugh, who disappeared in 1986 and was never found.

• For more about this fascinating story, click here: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-517409/The-ex-wifes-story-My-violent-life-Suffolk-strangler-flirtation-QE2-Suzy-Lamplugh.html

buddha

Thailand, along with Laos and Myanmar, borders the ‘Golden Triangle’, one of the world’s hotspots for narcotics production – and this country, like much of Southeast Asia, has draconian penalties for drug possession: the death sentence, for instance, if you’re caught trafficking heroin, and life imprisonment for being caught with a range of other mind-altering substances. Yet, perversely, the drug trade here is rife and usage very widespread.

A group of about eight of us from the QE2 contributed in our small way to this nefarious underworld by, on our arrival in Pattaya, hiring a modest convoy of Jeeps and motorcycles and heading off up the Khao Phra Tam Nak, a hill that offers a panoramic view of the city and is topped by the Wat Khao Phra Bat, an 18-metre-tall Buddha statue. What better place, I ask, to smoke a big fat joint?

The road up (and, of course, back) is a winding and somewhat perilous one, but we got there, and, in the shadow of the Buddha, lit up.

Some time later we decided to head back down into the city and partake of whatever nightlife was on offer, and accordingly remounted our bikes and Jeeps. I was behind one of the Jeeps, riding pillion on a 150cc Scrambler with my friend Krish, when the driver of the Jeep suddenly realised he was going too fast to negotiate a corner and hit the brakes. The Jeep spun spectacularly, three times, but by some miracle didn’t plunge down the hillside.

Once the dust and confusion had settled, I said to the driver of the Jeep, ‘Where’s the guy who was holding on to the rollbar?’

‘Which guy?’ he asked.

‘The guy,’ I said, ‘the guy.’ I had smoked a big fat joint, remember, so even as I was asking about him, I was wondering if my seeing some dude cartwheel into the air above our heads and disappear from view had been merely a by-product of the dagga.

We all looked around, shambolic and stoned. Then some bright spark had the notion that the guy may have gone over the edge of the hill. We trooped to the side of the road and peered down – and there, lying in a ravine, being ravenously licked by an excited pack of feral puppies, was the missing man.

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Want to know what happened next? You’ll have to buy the book! It’s available for Kindle at amazon, here: http://www.amazon.com/Life-Permanent-Wave-Hair-raising-Shipboard-ebook/dp/B00GC6YCCI/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1385098890&sr=1-1&keywords=life+on+a+permanent+wave

 

Running over whales at sea

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There were, of course, dangers on the high seas. One was whales. I was interested to read a newspaper report in 2001, after I’d left the ship, about the QE2 colliding with a fifteen-ton, sixty-foot whale during a cruise from Spain to Portugal. Apparently it had sailed into Lisbon with the dead whale still pinned to its bow. The captain of the ship, Keith Stanley, who admitted that some of the passengers had been ‘saddened’ by the incident, told reporters with bizarre understatement, ‘It’s one of those things, like running over a cat.’

That wasn’t my experience some years earlier, when, on a trans-Atlantic voyage, the ship suddenly began moving strangely. The passengers were probably not aware of it, but for those of us who’d become entirely accustomed to the normal pitch and roll of the vessel, and the feel of the propellers’ vibrations under our feet, we knew something was amiss. There was an unusual jarring sensation as the ship moved through the water.

Lengthy investigation finally revealed a whale pinned against the ship’s prow. Word quickly got out and soon passengers were crowding the front of the ship, trying to get a glimpse of the unfortunate creature. Many of them were extremely distressed, even after they’d been assured by the captain that the whale was quite likely either very ill or already dead by the time the ship collected it – whales are known, he told them, to evade ships. (I discovered subsequently that this isn’t strictly true: whales are regularly hit by ships all over the world’s oceans.)

We were already behind schedule and the captain decided to speed up the ship in the hope that this would shake off the corpse of the whale. Alas, it didn’t work: the pitching and yawing became worse, and the passengers increasingly unsettled.

So, finally, the QE2 did what it uniquely among cruise ships could do: it slowed, stopped, went into reverse and sailed backwards at high speed. (The QE2 could sail backwards at 19 knots, which is faster than most cruise ships can sail forwards.) The whale carcass came free and quickly sank from sight, and the ship continued its voyage to New York.

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Extracted from Life on a Permanent Wave: Hair-raising Stories from a Shipboard Stylist, available for Kindle at amazon. For more info, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GC6YCCI

Stormy seas

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On the QE2, most of the crew were accommodated in pretty basic cabins located forward and aft on Decks 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7. If you were unlucky enough to be allocated an aft cabin, sleep was often difficult because of the noise and vibration of the massive two propulsion motors – the largest marine engines ever built. In those cabins, it was necessary to literally Prestik your alarm clock to your bedside table, in order to prevent its being rattled off by the vibrations. The forward cabins weren’t much better – it was these that took the full brunt of the ship’s nose plunging repeatedly in and out of waves at high speed, and staff who were allocated these soon became accustomed to being routinely flung out of bed.

Even if I weren’t close enough to the propellers to be kept awake, there were times when I’d go up onto the deck rather than try to sleep through a storm – down below things could feel quite hairy and I had no wish to end up as a bit player in another Poseidon Adventure. I was always very aware of the gigantic power of the ocean, and notwithstanding the QE2’s enormous size, it still ground through the waves in bad weather. Sometimes I’d lie there, listening to the groaning and creaking of the metal that made up the ship’s superstructure, and wonder how thick it actually was – thick enough not to cave in?

As it happens – no.

The year was 1995 and the Steiner manager, Patsy, and I were having dinner together when we got a ‘blue slip’ warning us of bad weather coming. Bad weather warnings were a right royal pain in the arse. At the slightest hint of turbulence ahead (the bridge received regular telexed forecasts from the Met Office), ‘all seamanlike precautions’ had to be taken. For us in the salon, this meant battening down – which translated into several hours of fussy, boring, arduous work. Not only did all the furniture have to be corralled and cupboards locked, but the fragile contents of no fewer than 18 professionally window-dressed displays had to be taken down and safely stowed. If this happened after hours, as it did on this occasion, it was even worse – our staff had gone off, and Patsy and I had to do it all ourselves. And the next morning, before we opened for business for the day, the entire rigmarole had to be done again, in reverse, so that our first customers were presented with a salon in tiptop shape.

It took hours, and by the time Patsy and I said our goodnights and went to our respective cabins, I was exhausted. I climbed into my bunk and fell asleep immediately.

When I woke up I was on the floor. Groggily, I looked at my watch: 4am. Barely conscious, I climbed back into my bunk.

The morning dawned serene: I looked out my porthole and the sea was as smooth as glass. ‘Those bastards!’ I thought. ‘Another battening-down for no good reason!’ I hadn’t slept well and felt tetchy, so when I met Patsy for breakfast I was all set to moan my head off about the wasted effort we’d put in the night before. But there was something about her white-faced appearance that made me hold my tongue. ‘What?’ I asked.

‘What?!’ she said. ‘Where were you, in a parallel universe? We hit a tidal wave last night!’

It was Hurricane Luis – a very rare, very large, very intense storm that formed part of a two-week tropical cyclone that caused extensive damage in the Caribbean with winds of up to 215kph, and left hundreds missing and tens of thousands homeless.

The damages to the QE2, too, were severe. The watch on the bridge told us later about their astonishing ‘three swells’ experience. The first was like riding the world’s wildest rollercoaster, they said, but the ship plunged into it and came out fine; the second was bigger and greatly more frightening. But nothing prepared them for the third: a hundred-foot wave that broke onto the prow of the ship, sweeping objects (including the anchor) from the deck and punching a huge hole in the front. ‘Out of the darkness came this great wall of water,’ Captain Warwick later said, comparing it in size to the White Cliffs of Dover. ‘I have never seen a wave as big as this in my whole life.’ It was the impact of that wave that had knocked me out of bed.

I went below with Patsy to examine the damage. A vast web of wooden scaffolding was holding battens in place, masking a gigantic gash in the front of the ship.

Hurricane Luis went down as one of the biggest hurricanes in modern history. And I slept through it.

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• Astonishingly, even inclement weather didn’t keep some passengers from their salon appointments. Even though when the seas were rough passengers were advised to stay in their cabins, it wasn’t unusual, when we were bobbing around like corks, battling to keep bottles, cans, hairdryers, brushes and sundry other equipment from flying off surfaces, for some little old lady to come clawing her way in, irritable and exhausted from having fought the bucking motions of the ship all the way to the salon. And these were always the ones who wanted to look like Grace Kelly – which required, of course, the full hands-on treatment: shampoo, blowdry and a finishing-off with a curling iron. And so we stylists would stand, braced as well as we could behind our usually querulous clients, while the odd manicure girl went whipping past us at high speed from one side of the salon to the other, holding for dear life onto her wheelie-trolley.

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Extracted from Life on a Permanent Wave: Hair-raising Stories from a Shipboard Stylist, available for Kindle at amazon. For more info, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GC6YCCI

• Thanks, Jess, for your review on the amazon site. Richard and I would love readers to submit more reviews – good or bad, it doesn’t matter – we want to hear from you!

The floating city: HMS Queen Elizabeth 2

Steiner staff at work

The Steiner hair salon on the cruise liner QE2 was pretty central, and passengers were forever coming into the salon reception and asking for directions to other parts of the ship. We didn’t mind doubling as the ship’s informal information centre, but I was always amused when people expressed surprise to find a hair salon on board. ‘Wow, a hair salon!’ they would say, as if it were the last possible thing they might have imagined finding on a gigantic luxury cruise liner.

But the truth was that practically anything that could have been found in a small, very efficient little city could also be found on the QE2, from plumbers, electricians, engineers and carpenters to doctors, nurses, dentists and physiotherapists. The staff complement included waiters, public room and cabin stewards; there was a full laundry staffed and run by bona-fide Chinese laundrymen; there were dancers and singers, printers, photographers, computer technicians, cruise salesmen, florists and seamstresses. There were formal dining rooms, elegant bars and lounges, boutiques, a European-style spa, a casino, a grand ballroom, a cinema, a computer centre, indoor and outdoor swimming pools, a shuffleboard court, a tennis court, a golf driving range and putting green with an in-residence pro golfer, a synagogue, one of the largest libraries at sea with over 6 000 books and a trained librarian… you name it, the ship had it.

And all the people who serviced this floating city ate, lived, worked and slept on board for as long as the QE2 was cruising. Some of the passengers could hardly believe that well over a thousand staff members existed side-by-side with them, most of them quietly going about the job of making their clients’ cruise experiences as enjoyable as possible.

One woman asked one of our hairdressers, in disbelief, ‘So do all you people sleep on board?’

It was one of those ‘snappy answers to stupid questions’ moments (and we got a lot of them), and this stylist stepped quickly up to the plate. Keeping a perfectly straight face, he answered, ‘No, madam. There’s another ship that follows us, and every night at midnight we’re lifted off the QE2 by helicopter and taken to the staff ship to sleep.’

The next morning, a very irritated purser came to remonstrate with us. ‘I had a passenger in my office first thing this morning, complaining that she hadn’t been able to sleep a wink last night – because the noise of the ‘‘staff helicopter’’ taking you guys back to the ‘‘staff ship’’ had kept her awake!’

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Extracted from Life on a Permanent Wave: Hair-raising Stories from a Shipboard Stylist, available for Kindle at amazon. For more info, click here: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00GC6YCCI

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Some background about the book

My friend Richard Wood worked on various cruise liners as a hairdresser for over a decade during the excessive ’80s and naughty ’90s, including many tours of duty on that most famous of ships, the Queen Elizabeth 2. His stories of those times are often scandalising, sometimes touching and always entertaining – so it seemed natural to put them together in a book.

We worked together on the manuscript over several months in 2009. It was the ideal time for me to do it – it was the year after the global economic meltdown; my freelance work had dwindled to a trickle, and I had plenty of time on my hands. On the downside, although several publishers originally had expressed enthusiastic interest in the book, by the time the manuscript was ready at the end of 2009, the recession was really biting – publishers had radically slashed their book lists down to those that were certain to sell, and none was willing to sink money into a ‘maybe’ book project.

A business associate of Richard’s asked if she could agent the manuscript – she was confident that not only could she get it into print, but that she could also sell the TV and/or film rights. She had no experience at all in publishing, and I was sceptical of her chances of success – but we had nothing to lose, so we gave it to her for a year.

One of the first things she did was ask that we clean up the bad language, and also remove all the South African colloquialisms. I wasn’t happy about this – I had been careful to retain Richard’s uniquely South African voice throughout the story – but I sat down with her and we spent several hours bowdlerising the script.

By mid-2011 it had become clear that she wasn’t going to be able to sell the manuscript, uncensored or otherwise. And so it sat in a folder on my computer for another couple of years, gathering virtual dust.

A few months ago, I got a mailer from Authonomy, HarperCollins’ web-based writers’ community. I’d forgotten I’d submitted two chapters to the site, and I went back and read the comments I’d received. They were all so enthusiastic and positive, and so many of them asked for more of the book, that I realised that we really did have to get it out there. But self-publishing, even on a modest scale, is expensive.

Amazon’s self-publishing Kindle site was the answer – there are no upfront costs (although Amazon does take a giant chunk of any earnings), and the authors retain complete control of the manuscript. And the one we’ve published here is the original, uncensored script.

It’s up to Richard and me to market our book, which is why I’ll be running extracts from it on this blog for the next while. And if any of you do buy a copy, it would be great if you could write a review on the amazon site.

What the paint was for – efficiency strikes again

paint

A few people have asked me what I needed the single litre of paint I went to such pains to get last week.

For my birthday, my brother-in-law bought me a rain showerhead (the big flat round one), and he quietly and efficiently installed it for me too. Because the old shower-arm was slightly larger than the new one, at the join of the new arm and the wall was a small, irregular patch of orange paint, a remnant from the room’s previous incarnation as the orange-and-green ‘lizard bathroom’ (it’s now the much lighter ‘lily bathroom’).

Because I have elements of obsessiveness and compulsiveness in my personality, I tend to like everything done NOW. It’s something that’s always driven my kids mad, but, ironically, it’s partly because of them that I have these traits – raising two children involves countless little daily tasks which, if not handled as they arise, can quickly accumulate to the point where you’re drowning in the small stuff. So I always have a ‘to do’ list running, and I’m forever doing my best to tick things off it, as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The orange patch was one such.

The morning after my brother-in-law had installed the showerhead, I drove to Riebeek West and bought a litre of white paint and a small paintbrush to touch up the orange patch. I hauled the long ladder out of the shed, stirred the paint as directed, and applied the white paint over the orange patch. And immediately realised that the base wall colour wasn’t white at all – it was off-white.

I got down the ladder and looked up at the white touch-up – it was bigger than the orange patch had been, and far more obvious. My daughter said, ‘Mom, just wait for the white to dry, then find out what the wall colour is, and patch up the white part with that.’

But that would take too long, you see – I wanted this job finished NOW. So, using the inappropriately small paintbrush, I repainted the entire showerhead wall with the white paint. It took me about two hours and it looked terrible – the original off-white shone through the new white coat, there were drips aplenty, and the brush strokes were clearly visible.

So now I had no option but to find out what the off-white paint colour was, and try to track down a litre of that. I phoned Lood, my amazing handyman, and asked him if he by any chance remembered the colour he’d used to repaint the old lizard bathroom last year, and he said, ‘No, but there was some leftover paint. It’s probably in your shed.’

Not only was it in my shed, I had carefully labelled it ‘leftover lily bathroom paint’.

This is what my daughter has taken to calling ‘efficiency strikes again’. So when, for instance, I turned the house upside-down a few weeks ago looking for my postbox key, and then found it in the basket I’ve put aside specifically for keys, that was efficiency striking again. (The paint and the keys are just two examples – my efficiency regularly derails my life.)

Because the leftover paint was nowhere near enough to fix the entire wall (although it would have been ample to cover the original orange patch), I had to order another litre of it. And that’s the other story.

* Of course, once I’d finally got the paint, mixed by computer according to the exact name and number on the tin of the leftover paint, and began applying it, I realised that it wasn’t, in fact, the same colour – it was at least one shade lighter.