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Chicken or Beef

"What's a puggy list?"

Marcel looked up from his book and repeated his incomprehensible question. I looked at the cover and saw a bare-chested man with his fists raised.

"A pugilist." I tried not to smirk when I corrected him. "Another word for 'boxer'"

Marcel continued to read, and I took a long sip of my Bloody Mary. We were sitting at a table out on the deck and I was trying some hair of the dog to mitigate a raging hangover. I'd never seen Marcel read before. He wasn't the type.

"I can't wait to get off this bloody ship," I said.

Marcel looked up from his book.

"You've got the night off tonight, bud," he said, cheerily.

I didn't want the night off. I was a guitarist; I was burning to play. Since High C's had taken over the Entertainment contract and the new production shows had been installed, I'd become surplus to requirements some nights. Backing tracks complete with guitar had been brought in to 'augment' the band. I wasn't needed in that night's show at all. The Musical Director was a sympathetic sort. Rather than require me to sit onstage and mime he gave me the night off. Who knew? Maybe that contract would be my last.

"It's the All-Crew Party tonight," said Marcel, closing his book and putting it on the table. "A lot of fresh meat got onboard last turnaround." Marcel's smile spread across his moon face like a toothy eclipse.

"I don't know if I'm going," I said.

Marcel looked astonished. "Are you kidding, mate? Half-price drinks. Beautiful ladies. And it's my last night."

I finished my Bloody Mary. "We'll see," I said. I left Marcel and floated to my cabin below decks with my head throbbing to the tune of piped muzak that poured out of invisible speakers. It was five o'clock, which meant my cabin mate had vacated our cabin to go to the soundcheck and rehearsal. Mitch was the drummer, a born-again teetotaller who was perfectly equipped to put up with my drunken misbehaviour. He forgave me. I knew he would eat dinner straight after the rehearsal, giving me the freedom to lie in the pitch black on my bottom bunk for a couple of hours.

In the darkness, I started to feel better. The Bloody Mary took effect and I chewed on some antacids to banish the bile. Time and silence did their trick. Not that you ever have complete silence on a ship. Our corridor, where the entertainers lived, was usually noisy: the look-at-me cries of young exhibitionists and music playing from cabins where the fire-resistant doors had been propped open were ubiquitous, but everyone was in the theatre, so I had peace. There was always the faint electronic hum and the sound of waves crashing against the hull. There was something reassuring about that sound. Especially in the pitch black of the cabin with the curtain pulled across my bunk for privacy.

I lay there until the door opened and Mitch crept in. I didn't stir. I heard him getting ready and knew it must be seven o'clock. Mitch quickly changed into his black shirt and trousers and left. The show wasn't until eight-thirty, but he liked to get into the theatre early to practise.

I pulled the curtain back from my bunk and sat up. There was no longer any throbbing in the centre of my skull. It had been replaced by a windswept numbness that was somehow triumphant. I stood up unsteadily, finding a light switch that illuminated all in its shabby splendour. Mitch was a tidy cabin mate, but this was an old cabin with a threadbare carpet and mottled yellow bulkheads. Underneath the dirty bedsheets, the mattresses told grimy tales of woe. I opened the bathroom door, stepping into the tiny cubicle that improbably housed a toilet, sink, and shower. Ten minutes later I was ready to face the night.

The coxswains were ensconced in Bullshit Corner at their high table by the crew bar, clad in blue overalls. By the time I got there, a large rum and coke were waiting for me. "Thanks, Manny," I said to the bartender, grabbing the drink and taking a swig in one well-rehearsed movement. I greeted the coxswains, and a stool was pushed out for me by a work boot. I sat down. It wasn't long before Marcel joined us, smelling of expensive aftershave and wearing a posh shirt under his tailored waistcoat. It never really mattered what Marcel wore. He always seemed to be bursting out of it.

"A'right lads!" He clapped his huge hands together and rubbed them as though he was trying to ignite something. "What ye havin'?" His voice was always unusually high, which presented a ludicrous contrast to his Herculean physique. A round was swiftly secured for the patrons of Bullshit Corner.

"Reckon I'm on a promise tonight," beamed Marcel, to jibes from the table. "No, honestly. I'm on a lucky streak, mate. Jewellery sales on here are the highest in the fleet under my watch. I'm signing off with a bang." Marcel sounded every bit the Burnley chancer he'd always been, and the common touch made him lethal when it came to sales.

"Aye, well," said one of the coxswains. "You just watch the drink, son. You wouldn't be the first crew member to get chicken or beef on his last night."

I was thinking about the show that was going on in the theatre without me, so I was quieter than usual. Nobody noticed when Marcel was around. As crew members came into the bar, he was flashing the tab, buying drinks for officers and lowly pot washers alike, roaring greetings at everyone.

Suddenly, the bass bins started to pulsate with techno music. The DJ was in his booth overlooking the dance floor. These guys weren't professionals. Often, they were hopeful young cabin stewards or pot washers with turntables in their eyes. 'DJs,' said a surly voice inside my head. 'They play those records with such skill.'

The All-Crew Party had begun.

Marcel and I took our cue to relocate to a central round table, pulling up adjustable bar chairs and leaving the residents of Bullshit Corner to finish their drinks, go back to their cabins, and put on their party clothes. As always happened when Marcel was around, we soon had a table full of crew members from various departments: officers in their whites, women from the salon who had finished for the day, casino dealers enjoying a smoke break. Marcel held court. It was his last night, he knew everyone, and his generosity was legendary. He turned to Manny and called over for the drinks to be put on his tab, and grateful crew came to join the table. It was still early., but I was hitting the top shelf and so transported to a later hour, out of kilter with everyone else. Everyone except Marcel, who always seemed to get drunk quickly. His face grew redder, his laughter more boisterous, he slapped his thigh and the table to punctuate the banter. I started to feel quite good myself. I had the night off, after all, and I was getting paid for it.

As I watched Marcel, I saw him freeze momentarily, his eyes fixed above my head. "Manny! Put that on my tab," he shouted. I looked over my shoulder towards the bar and saw a beautiful young woman, fresh to the ship and the sea. I don't know how you know, but you know. My guess was that she worked in the salon. She accepted her drink and wandered over. Marcel was preparing a chair next to his, which meant everyone else had to shuffle their chairs to the right. The circle, as always, was getting bigger.

"Thanks," she said.

"My pleasure," said Marcel. "I met you the other day, didn't I?"

"Yes, on the gangway."

"That's right," said Marcel, as though remembering something vital. "Maria."

"Marcel," she countered, with a smile.

She liked him.

"How are you finding things, anyway?" Marcel continued. They chit-chatted about the ship, Marcel expounding on sea life and drawing on his vast experience. She was laughing, leaning in to hear him better over the pumping of the bass bins. When she started talking into his ear, Marcel looked at me with a concerned expression. He laughed appropriately at her utterance and then decided to introduce me.

"This is Mick. Top bloke."

I shook her hand and greeted her with a smile.

"What do you do?"

"I'm the guitarist in the orchestra."

"Oh, right," she said. "I heard you guys the other night. Really good." She suddenly looked puzzled. "Isn't there a show in the theatre tonight?"

"Yes, but I don't have to play. I've got the night off." With that, I raised my glass and Marcel cheered, slapping my thigh.

There was suddenly an empty chair next to Maria, but it wasn't empty for long. The Art Dealer was soon in position. Canadian. Tall and handsome, as they often are, and dressed with the typical fastidiousness required of the profession. He greeted everyone around the table and flashed us all with his impossibly white teeth. I had sailed with him before. I squinted through the cigarette smoke and recently dimmed lights to get a better look at his name tag. That's right. Kieron. But everyone called him the C.B.C. I glanced slyly at Marcel, whose hackles must have been rising.

The C.B.C. shook hands with the crew members he didn't know and nodded at those he did. He greeted Maria last.

"What do you do onboard?" she asked.

"I'm the Art Dealer," he said, "and tonight I'm celebrating. We sold the most valuable piece we have. A Rembrandt etching for ten thousand dollars."

"Really?" Her sculpted eyebrows arched as he told her the story of the sale. Marcel was smiling, but he wasn't happy. I went to the bar to get a round. I decided to line up two doubles to save myself a trip. Manny poured the drinks and tallied pen strokes on my open tab. He winked and tilted his head towards the centre table. I looked over. From the bar, you couldn't hear the conversation, but Maria could have been at a tennis match, looking left and right as Marcel and the C.B.C vied for her attention. I returned to my seat and became a spectator myself.

Maria finished her drink and then went to the bar, accompanied by the C.B.C. Marcel's permanent smile evaporated when they'd gone, and he looked at me. "Who does that tosser think he is?"

"That, my friend, is the Cock-Blocking Canadian."

Marcel's smile was back in play when Maria and the C.B.C returned with a tray of shots. "Drinks for the table! It's not every day you sell a Rembrandt."

"It was an etching, wasn't it?" I said.

"Still a Rembrandt."

We threw our shots back and the C.B.C. called out for another round.

"Alright, my friends," he announced, "I think it's time I introduced you all to a little drinking game from my country."

My head was already swimming. I had finished my first double and the ice had melted in the second. I looked at the clock on the wall above the jukebox. It was only nine-fifteen. The first show hadn't even finished, and I could have sworn it was approaching midnight.

"Okay," said the CBC. "This game is called Most Likely. We go around the table and ask a question. 'Who's the most likely to dot dot dot?' Then you point at someone. However, many people are pointing at you, that's how many drinks you take. Okay, practice round." The C.B.C. paused for dramatic effect before asking his question. "Who's the most likely to not know what the emergency signal is?" All hands pointed at Maria, who laughed. "I do know what the emergency signal is!" she protested. She counted the hands pointing at her around the table and took the requisite number of pulls from her drink. Then it was her turn. "Okay, who's the most likely to know the value of a tanzanite bracelet?" she said. All hands pointed at Marcel. She smiled warmly at him as he drank. "Who's the most likely to get the biggest bonus this cruise?" said Marcel, smiling cockily until all hands pointed at the C.B.C.

A group of women approached the table, also from the salon. "Maria, you coming to dance?" Rock DJ by Robbie Williams was playing and enticing groups of crew onto the dance floor. Maria, now merry, danced across to form a circle with them by the bass bins.

Marcel and the C.B.C. looked at each other.

"Who's the most likely to fuck a moose, eh?" said Marcel.

The table erupted in laughter, then all hands pointed at the C.B.C. He smiled gamely, but his eyes narrowed before he took his drinks.

"Who's the most likely to get a job doing voices on The Simpson's?"

The laughter was apprehensive, but the fingers still pointed at Marcel. He glowered at the C.B.C. before downing his drink.

"Who's the most likely to sell fake paintings for a living?"

"Who's the most likely to get nowhere with Maria tonight?"

Most people had had the good sense to leave the table as the exchange intensified. There were only the three of us, and I may as well not have existed. Marcel and the C.B.C. were locked in a staring match and I could see it coming. For all of the C.B.C.'s earlier bravado, there was fear in his eyes. The amiable salesman that lived in Marcel's face had moved on, leaving a cold, empty room.

"Will you calm down?" a voice screamed. "I'm sick of having to babysit you when you've had a drink!" It was my voice. Marcel looked at me in stunned disbelief. "Every time it's the same, cock of the walk, buying everyone drinks and then throwing your toys out of the pram when someone winds you up!" I knew my face had contorted into a raging rum mask.

"Why are you talking to me like I'm some kind of — ?"

"Because you're acting like some kind of — "

I saw the punch coming but I never felt it.

I was on the deck and Mitch was standing over me. I was only unconscious for a few seconds, I think. The C.B.C. had vanished, the round table was overturned with empty plastic cups strewn around. I could hear Marcel bellowing. The coxswains were back in their party shirts, hard ex-navy men who spoke violence as a second language. One of them had manoeuvred Marcel into a corner and was talking to him with his palms outstretched, blocking his path back to me.

"Are you alright?" The concern on Mitch's face anchored me in this strange new world. I stood up and he helped me to the high table in Bullshit Corner. The rest of the band were at the bar, ordering drinks from Manny, who poured while looking at me like a harassed mother.

"I'll take a rum and coke," I said.

"No way," said Manny. "No drinks for you."

The boys in the band crowded around me in their black shirts. Tony, our Musical Director, looked at me severely through round glasses perched on the button nose in his doughy face.

"What's gone on?"

"I got punched," I said.

"We know that," said Tony. "We were on our way from the show when we bumped into the C.B.C. outside. He was in a hurry to get off, I tell you."

One of the coxswains had righted the table with the help of a casino dealer, and the empty cups were stacked and thrown in the bin. Marcel had stopped his ranting and was speaking to the coxswain in hushed tones. I could see Maria and her colleagues, still by the bass bins but looking over in my direction from time to time as they danced. The bar was a lot fuller now as more crew finished their shifts. Word was spreading about the ruckus and there were fleeting glances over at Bullshit Corner.

"What did you say to him?" Tony continued. "You know what he's like when he's had a drink. Bloody nightmare." He inspected my face. "Well, there's no bruising."

"Can I please have a rum and coke?"

The boys laughed.

"I don't think it's a good idea for you to stick around here, man. And we can't watch your back, we've got another show to do."

Marcel ambled over to us with the coxswain by his side. Neither of us knew what to say. The boys all exchanged banter while stealing occasional nervous glances at Marcel and I. Manny was on the phone behind the bar. He replaced it in the cradle and came over.

"Marcel, Mick. One of the Filipinos called security. They're on their way. You have two minutes to get out of here or it's chicken or beef."

'What's chicken or beef?" Maria was there with her friends. I hadn't seen them come over.

"That's what they offer you on the plane when you're flying home," said the coxswain. He looked at Marcel and me. "If I were you lads, I'd leave here as friends. Cameras on the M1. Make it look like nothing happened."

Marcel and I left the crew bar with our arms about each other's shoulders and laughing. As we went, a sea of crew members parted for us. Indian stewards and Filipina waitresses eyed us warily when we passed and rapidly looked away if my eyes fell on them. I could hear laughter from the sports staff on the dance floor as we Laurel-and-Hardied our way through the heavy fire door that led out to the crew elevator.

"Why did you freak out like that?" Marcel looked at me with a wounded expression.

"Why did you hit me?"

The elevator doors swished open and we got inside. Marcel pushed the button to take us down to Deck 3. As the doors closed, two Nepalese security staff passed by in blue uniforms.

"Right, we've got to have the same story," said Marcel. "We were just mucking about. Play-fighting and you ended up on the deck. That's all. Just a bit of fun." The doors opened and we stepped out onto the corridor, putting our arms around each other's shoulders and smiling stupidly as we walked for the benefit of the security cameras on the main crew corridor.

"We can't go back to our cabins," I said. "If they want to breathalyse us that's the first place they'll look."

"Right," said Marcel. "I can go up top and start schmoozing some guests. They won't come for me up there. And you keep your head down."

I opened a door off the M1 to take me down a deck to the crew library. It was almost always empty. As I sat amidst the donated paperbacks and bibles, I contemplated my next move. Two cabins down from mine were our trumpet and trombone players' cabin. Joel, the young trumpeter, was romancing the shop manager and spending his evenings in her spacious double bed. His bunk would be free for the night. I just needed the key. The second show would start soon. I had to get to the theatre without being seen.

I sneaked backstage through a maintenance door. Dancers were wandering around in feathers and sequined jackets. I heard the announcement for the five-minute call. The musicians were onstage. I could see them all seated at the back, putting sheet music in order, checking tuning and valves, and donning headphones for the click track. Tony was seated at his keyboard, looking perturbed. I crept to the star cloth, a huge black curtain with fairy-lights poking through it, behind the band. There was a narrow walkway between the star cloth and the bulkhead. I crept along it to where the horn section was and called out to Joel from a gap in the curtain.

"What are you doing here?" he hissed. "Security just came in looking for you."

"Can I kip in your cabin? I don't want to go back to mine."

Joel passed his cabin key through the gap. "Don't drink any more. If they find you, they'll breathalyse you." Just then, I heard the voice of the Cruise Director from the stage. "Have any of you lot seen Mick?" I froze behind the star cloth. "No, haven't seen him," said Tony, supported by murmurs from the band. "It's very important that we find him. If anyone sees him tell him to call my deck phone." I heard his footsteps retreat into the wings and then waited as the singers and dancers took up their positions. There were four clicks on Mitch's drumsticks and the show burst into life. I crept back along the narrow walkway, slunk past the stage staff to the maintenance door and out of the theatre.

I lay on the top bunk in Joel's cabin with the curtain drawn, listening to the waves against the hull, and drifted into oblivion. I didn't even hear his cabin-mate Pete come back from the crew bar in the early hours. I was out until the phone tore me from the arms of Morpheus. Pete dropped the receiver into the cradle as I pulled back the curtain and switched on the bunk light. "That was Tony," he said. "You've to go to the Cruise Director's office right now."

I hurriedly dressed and went to meet my fate.

I took a seat opposite the CD at his desk and smiled weakly at Tony and his poker face.

"I think we can keep security out of this," said the CD slowly, "but we have to get this Incident Report right." He handed me a clipboard and a pen. He talked me through my statement. Marcel and I were old friends. . . high spirits . . . 'manly language'. We started play-fighting, but it was all in good fun and a table got knocked over. I signed my name with a shaking hand.

"You know there's a zero-tolerance policy for violence," said the CD. "As for the drink." He had noticed the tremor. "In the event of a real emergency, we all have safety duties to perform. Two units are the limit. If the ship starts sinking, it's all hands on deck."

"I only had two units!" I protested. "It says here." I raised the clipboard and started to intone: "'We were enjoying our two units of. . .'" but withered away under the CD's piercing gaze.

Tony coughed.

"It won't happen again, sir."

The CD shook his head slowly. "Marcel made his statement last night. I dare say some high-end jewellery passed under the table in the Purser's office. You're very lucky you have Tony here to advocate for you."

"I'm sorry, Tony,"

"I'm not a fan of getting out of bed at six in the morning to save my guitarist's job," he said. "It's Sarah Manetti tonight. She doesn't have tracks and you've got three big guitar solos. If we didn't need you it would have been chicken or beef, mate."

Lisbon is one of my favourite ports. I met the band on the gangway at eleven and we went ashore. I never got to see Marcel: he'd disembarked earlier with his suitcases to join another ship. As we strolled along the seafront, I saw Maria walking with the C.B.C. He looked a lot less impressive in board shorts and a t-shirt, but she seemed to like him.

We arrived at our regular lunch spot, just by the marina. They do a great Bloody Mary there and I was hungry. I ordered the chicken.

Anglo-American author in Poland. ESL teacher, aspiring Polish speaker. Former cruise ship musician. Passionate about travel, music, coffee, and writing.