The cloying smell of heavy bunker oil pervaded the air as the Quartermaster pulled back the weighty steel passenger door in the side of the cruise ship. Wisps of violet grey dawn light chinked in through the steadily widening maw, bringing with them an already overbearing blanket of stifling humidity as Miami yawned and stretched awake across a limpid velour Biscayne Bay.
It had been a tragically short night of rest for the chief photographer who, along with most of the crew of the SS Tropic Star, had been celebrating Christmas Eve hard and mightily into the wee small hours at a 'hole in the wall' dive called the Little Brown Jug, frequented by generations of off duty cruise staff since the year dot. Having dragged his fragile carcass delicately off the top bunk endeavouring not to wake his slumbering partner, the Chief had blearily found his way to the photo lab and had flicked switches, pressed buttons and verified levels of the chemical tanks as the gently heating soupy mixes blipped and burped into life.
Whatever time had he finally got to bed? he mused. Focusing hard on the swimming dial on his watch he determined that it was probably only an hour and a half ago. The extraordinarily loud exclamations being made every second by the relentless sweep of the second hand broke his dim reverie and so he reluctantly harnessed himself into his battle equipment. He slumped visibly as the weight of the over the shoulder flash pack battery and motor driven Nikon camera dug into his painfully weary flesh.
5:50am Christmas Day, ten minutes to go until the eight hundred passengers eagerly waiting in the terminal below would come swarming up the jetway. The cacophony from the vast echoing hall below did nothing to alleviate the dull pounding that was wreaking havoc in the Chief's marshmallow-like skull.
At five to six, leaning for support on the gangway railing supping gingerly from a restorative, steaming double espresso and gamely attempting to spark up a Marlboro Light whose wavering end seemed reluctant to be set a fire, the Chief noticed the lumbering hulk of a giant yellow Chicken with its head under its arm stumbling onto the gangplank, looking like he felt.
"Hey Ernesto, how you doing?"
Ernesto, a Nicaraguan cabin steward was employed occasionally by the photo department to dress up as a mascot for the boarding passengers to be photographed with as a tacky souvenir memory of their cruise. At twenty bucks a week it was a good deal for him and he usually threw himself into the role with great panache, clucking, flapping and squawking about the place much to the passengers feeble amusement.
"Not too bright myself this morning either Nesty, have you seen Kev..?"
"No see him boss."
Kevin was the number two photographer on board, two photographers on the gangway were essential back then, as once you heard the 'deadman's click' as your thirty sixth frame had been exposed, your number two would leap into action and continue shooting as you rewound and reloaded with a fresh film canister.
At just two minutes to six the shabby apparition of the Chief's wing man ambled shakily into the lobby area, shielding his bloodshot eyes from the devastatingly bright, now gold-hued rays lancing in from the low rising sun.
"Jesus mate, you look like shit, you okay..?"
"Good morning to you too boss" mumbled Kevin, sniffing and snurfling in the time honoured tradition of coke heads the world over.
Good grief, if we get through this embarkation unscathed it will be a bloody miracle, thought the Chief grimly as the terminal director, a sultry, impeccably attired hispanic woman flounced up the gangway to enquire if we were ready for kick off. A quick glance to the left and right of him at his bedraggled cohorts and he knew that, no they weren't, but would have to carry on regardless. The Chief took up position next to the 'Welcome Aboard' sign as first shooter and Ernesto reluctantly plonked his foam Chicken head onto his own perspiring head of tightly coiled brilliantine curls.
Ready as we'll ever be..
His worst fears were confirmed as a unique and distinctive magpie-esque cawing grew steadily louder and more penetrating from the other end of the jetway.
"Oh no, Christ that's all we need today, Snowbirds.."
The term Snowbirds had been adopted as a pet name for the thousands of New Yorkers of Jewish descent who, regular as clockwork when Winter took a grip up North, would literally flock South to Miami in a migration of stay-pressed polyester pale blues and turd browns, ensconcing themselves in the purpose built art deco condominiums along Miami Beach for the duration. Every so often these condos would have an evacuation order put on them so that the brave men and women of the South Dade county health department could come in to fumigate the buildings against the many and various bugs and horrors these delightful folk lived amongst. Renowned for their mean spirits and penny pinching ways, the Snowbirds were offered an unbeatable $18:99 all-in deal on a cruise to nowhere and two full banquet spreads of breakfast and lunch. They would be back in their dungeons in the sky by 4 O'clock even before the last Cockroaches had finished spinning on their backs in their final throes jigging and jerking to the dance of death.
Many of the wizened and leathery faces were familiar to all of us as they were regulars on the ship. The Chief knew his day was lost already as the last thing these folk were going to splash out on was yet another souvenir photograph at nearly a third of the price of the entire cruise itself. Bracing himself nevertheless for the onslaught of the marauding pastel trolls, the Chief raised his matte black weapon as the first passengers hurtled towards him at break neck speed causing the jetway to oscillate sickeningly.
"Outta ma way boy.."
"No pictchas, no pictchas.."
"I got one already.."
He let the hurtling tide of inhumanity speed past, barely hearing the litany of abuse and rudeness which continued apace until Ernesto, irked by being ignored, flailed a debilitated yellow wing across the shoulders of a diminutive couple, a lady with a mauve rinse and her hubby with his waistband just below his nipples. More astonished than compliant, the couple stood to what amounted to attention given their slight stature, locked in the embrace of a demented fowl. Zoning in on their faces through his viewfinder the Chief noticed a very thin but distinct trickle of green vomit dripping steadily from one of the nostril holes in the Chicken mask that Ernesto would normally use to see through. Less than a second and a half later, what resembled the geyser at Yellowstone national park erupted from where the head of the mask joined the body suit and Ernesto crumpled into an unconscious heap, his red felt clawed feet soaking up the remnants of last night's Absinthe which pooled in almost luminous puddles of putrescence before eventually dripping into the already rainbow fuel streaked water of the dock below.
"Kev, Kevin for God's sake, get this heap off the gangway."
Had the Chief been looking for a glacé Cherry with which to adorn his already doomed day, he wouldn't have to look far. Turning to see just what was going on behind him he saw the immobile frame of his second in command standing stock still with fixed glazed over eyes and wet gobbets and slashes of bright crimson adorning the whole front of his beige uniform polo shirt.
Staring disbelievingly, the Chief was astonished to witness an errant shard of glistening early morning light passing clear through Kevin's nose from one nostril to the other. His Septum had finally given up the ghost from years of being shackled to the mirror and the razor blade and had gone into some sort of final meltdown at just that moment.
Confining the rest of that day's photo shooting to the rubbish heap, the Chief had no option but to grab the babbling and dripping chicken man by a sour and sodden wing under one arm and steered the other blank pale-faced wastrel off the gangway. All of this, may the lord be praised, without being noticed by the stern faced German Staff Captain with the weedy thin black combover and inch long brush moustache, who himself at that very moment was being surrounded by a horde of vociferous semites, lambasting him for his rather unfortunate but purely coincidental resemblance to a certain rather unpopular twentieth century Austrian born artist turned fascist leader.
Safely locked away and secured in the steamy heat amongst the vinegary chemical vapours of the photo lab, the Chief slumped in his chair and poured himself a well merited three fat fingers of Wild Turkey, and at 7:07am as the ship pulled out into the ocean's tender embrace, toasted a Merry Christmas to absent friends and family around the world.
Absinthe, it seemed, did indeed make the heart grow fonder.
Thank you to my first guest blogger! A hilarious account of working Christmas Day having played a tad too hard the night before, and far from family. I'm fairly certain this piece is closer to truth than fiction, from Neil's years of working on the cruise ships sailing out of Fort Lauderdale.