The Day I Disrupted Cross-Channel Shipping
The missing passenger
My life has often felt like a badly-written sitcom: Heavy on the embarrassment; light on the laughs.
Whether it's relationship faux-pas, or sartorial missteps, or - biggest of all - hairdressing calamities, I've spent much of my time on this wonderful planet behaving like a comedic buffoon who's found himself trapped in a series of increasingly surreal situations. Only minus the laughter track.
It started in childhood.
There was the time I urinated whilst on a cross-country run. Our PE teacher was the Devil incarnate, Satan in a tracksuit. (It was the 1980's - demonic physical education teachers were par for the course.) I begged him to let me go to the toilet before the run started; he refused, claiming that I should have gone before the lesson. No matter; we had to traverse rough terrain, bordered by a number of bushes - I could relieve myself in one of those.
Five minutes in, I spotted my shrubbery salvation, left the path, and made my way to its rear. However, unbeknown to me, the girls - who were doing a cross-country run at the same time - were following a different, slightly easier route. Whereas the thicket I had selected hid me from the boys, it was actually on the path the girls took. I can still remember the look on the face of my childhood crush as she ran past me whilst I unburdened myself into that giant raspberry bush.
Then there was the day I fell out of a second storey window trying to impress another girl I was in love with...
The time I got a perm, hoping it'd make me look like Magnum PI, but I instead ended up resembling an elderly matriarch from a soap opera...
The day I drop-kicked a kebab onto a stationary (and, in my defense, partially hidden) police car...
Oh, speaking of the police, there was also the time I volunteered to take part in a line-up (all for the grand sum of £8) and got picked out by the victim of the crime (Hint: I was innocent, and just wanted the cash).
Really - I could go on and on.
However, one occasion holds pride (or should that be shame?) of place at the very top of my heavily decorated tree of mortification: The day I delayed an entire ferry.
It was during a school trip to Germany. We would board the ferry in Dover, nip across the Channel, drive across the Low Countries, before arriving in the land of forebears (my Grandad was half-German, so this was a kind of homecoming for me).
It was always going to be an interesting holiday. Not to put a too finer point on it, my school was rough - it was like that prison in 'The Shawshank Redemption' only with more barbed wire. Taking us abroad was an act of madness - we were quite capable of causing mayhem in our own country; goodness knows what we could achieve on foreign soil.
Not me, though. I was a good boy. I'm not sure I ever got told off in five years of high school, let alone endured detention. (Well, the urinating on a cross-country run in front of the girls didn't go down well, but such was the laxity of my school, it barely warranted punishment. It was the kind of place where the students could stage an armed coup, and the teachers would barely care.) Thus, it was heavily ironic that I ended up causing the most disruption.
And all before we even left the ferry.
I'm impressive like that.
It started well enough. After our coach had parked itself in the bowels of the ship, my friends and I explored. It was only a standard cross-Channel ferry, but to our eyes it was a giant playground. Albeit one that seemed less fun once we’d left the calm of Dover Port and actually began traversing the Channel.
It became obvious quite quickly that playtime had been brought to an end.
The crossing was vile.
It was the middle of winter, and the English Channel was as choppy as something very choppy. It was so bad that I'm certain that Russell Crowe's character from 'Master and Commander' would've hidden, cowering in a cupboard, if he was told he had to try and sail it.
It was like one, long, really bad, rollercoaster ride. Albeit one with a duty-free shop where you could buy big bars of chocolate, and fridge magnets depicting a much calmer Channel.
My tender, pubescent stomach wasn't equipped for such adventure. To say I was sea-sick is an understatement. I was beyond sick; I was sea-dead. Only without the nice being oblivious to everything part.
I don't know how many sickness bags I filled, but I'm pretty sure that if we'd laid them out in a long row, we could have walked from England to Berlin on them. I was a vomit machine - every sudden rise and dip elicited more retching. I was a Tardis of hurling; never-ending. I was only a small child who'd had a few pieces of toast that morning; honestly, the amount I brought up defied the principles of human biology.
The sea-sickness, and accompanying vomiting, eventually left me exhausted, and slightly delirious. At least, that's my excuse for what happened next. I told myself I needed to find a seat lower in the boat; the higher up I was, the greater the movement - the lower I was, the less susceptible I'd be to the tossing and churning of the sea.
Without telling anyone, mainly because my jaws could no longer form words due to perpetual vomiting, I snuck off and sought refuge. I found a staircase, and I descended. And I kept on going.
It was working - the lower I went, the less the ship seemed to move. Yes! I'd cracked it! I was also a sea-sick thirteen-year-old boy who was ignoring any signage I encountered. At some point, I crossed over from public areas into those reserved strictly for staff. However, I was feeling better with every flight of stairs.
Before long, tiredness overtook me. So I sat down by a giant, metal orange cylinder. It never occurred to me that the orange container was quite noisy. Nor did it dawn on me the space I had found myself in was full of thick pipes, and levers. Now I'd be perfectly aware that, a). I might have gone a little bit too far below decks, and b). that I was about to fall asleep in the engine room. However, back then I was a sea-sick idiot.
Whether I fell asleep or passed out is moot; I lost consciousness either way.
The next thing I knew I was being woken by the afore-mentioned Satan in a tracksuit (it had just my luck that he would leading the trip). Behind him stood an array of naval types; the uniforms varied, but their facial expressions didn't. They looked, to a man, peeved. Groggily, I was lifted to my feet. Once I was upright, we began to move upwards.
Three things hit me as we climbed. One, I had gone down a LOT of stairs. Two, the boat had stopped rocking. Three, neither of those things were good.
Eventually, we completed our ascent and re-entered the public area. There were no passengers to be seen. Every chair was empty.
"Why is the place deserted, sir?" I'd asked.
"Because most of the passengers have left the ship, Donovan."
"You're were missing for a few hours. They've had plenty of time. Most of them, anyway."
Given that my school friends would mock you for a year for getting a new pencil case, I knew I was never going to live this debacle down.
However, they weren't the only people I needed to worry about.
Following the evil PE teacher, we finally entered the vast hold where all the vehicles were parked during the crossing. Upon embarking, all the vehicles had been lined up in three, tightly packed rows. But we had docked in Belgium; why was the middle row still full of cars? Surely, given the length of time I'd been missing, they'd had hours to fully unload the ship. Well, apart from my coach, that is.
As we made out way to the school's coach, I started to realize that the people sitting in the cars looked annoyed. At me. What was...?
Our coach was parked at the very head of the army of vehicles. As we got closer, my teacher turned and spoke.
"Given that you are a minor, we - and our coach - were not legally permitted to leave the ferry until we had recovered you. In fact, even moving the coach could have opened us to potential legal action. This means all these cars parked behind have been trapped here. Because of you. For hours."
The malevolent educator smiled as he said this.
The cars were all parked bumper to bumper, crammed in like metal sardines. There was no room to reverse or extricate themselves from the queue. They needed the vehicle at the very front to disembark before they could. Considering that our coach was the head of the queue, this obviously had not happened.
With every step I took, my head sunk lower. By the time we made it to the coach, my chin was buried against my sternum.
"You might also be pleased to know that this ferry should have been loaded up by for now its return to Dover. They're hours behind schedule now. Credit where credit is due, Donovan: You've not only thrown our meticulously arranged plans into disarray, you've also disrupted cross-Channel shipping for the day."
We had reached the coach. My teacher thanked the ferry's crew, and then rapped on the door. The unsmiling driver opened it.
A loud cheer went up as I trudged up the steps. I found an empty seat and tried to make myself as small as possible. Finally, the driver pulled away. As did the rest of the passengers on the ferry.
As I hid in my seat, I began wondering what my teacher would say if I told him I was flying back to England at the end of the holiday. I never wanted to even see another ferry for as long as I lived.
A Week to Remember
The rest of the trip was full of incident as it turned out.
There was the time someone brought some ninja throwing stars, and then tried to launch them across the Berlin Wall into the Eastern Sector. The Wall came down a few months after our trip, but I'm pretty sure we had nothing to with that.
Or the night two of the teachers got drunk and had a fistfight.
Or the day someone broke the arm of a mannequin in a museum about the Second World War. The only problem was it was a waxwork of Adolf Hitler. However, that issue was only compounded when the pupil responsible picked up the arm and started walking around performing 'Heil Hitler!' salutes with it. We laughed; the museum staff didn't.
In fairness to my friends, they didn't relentlessly tease me over the ferry incident. Inevitably it was raised; it was too full of comic potential to ignore. But the trip passed without it being thrown in my face every minute. Who knows - as long as nothing else untoward happened, I might be able to put the incident to bed.
Sadly, the misfortune wasn't over yet.
I didn't fall asleep on the return leg across the Channel. In fact, I doubt if I've ever made more a concerted effort to stay awake; I'm not sure I even blinked.
When we arrived back at the school at the end of the trip, my parents were the only ones not waiting. After an hour, and after all the other students had been collected, I realized they weren't coming. I got back on the coach and was driven home. My parents were as surprised at seeing me standing on my doorstep with my PE teacher as I was shocked to find them still indoors. My mum and dad had got their dates wrong; they thought I was returning home the following day.
They could not have been any more apologetic; I don't think anyone ever bought me as much chocolate as they did over the next few days.
It almost made up for having to spend the rest of my school days being called 'Coach-topher' by that PE teacher.
I can still see that bright orange cylinder, as well as the faces of the passengers in the cars. Somedays I can even feel the unnatural movement of the ship as it was buffeted by those gargantuan waves.
It's also why I fly nowadays.
And if I do ever have to take a ferry again, you'll find me dosed up on sea-sickness pills and caffeine, wide awake, and sitting in full view in the public seating area.
As for coaches? Don't even get me started.
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