Over the next week we’ll be featuring the creative essays written by young writers who completed residencies in Devonport as part of the Tasmanian Writers’ Centre‘s Young Writers in the City program, December 2016 – January 2017.
Writer: Kyle Perry
Residency: Spirit of Tasmania
The Piece of Small World
This piece I have assembled on a back-to-back voyage on Spirit of Tasmania.
We begin with questions in my notebook. What is it like to sleep on a ship? How friendly are the crew? How clear are the stars in the middle of the ocean? What is there to do? What is the food like?
Then we explore the ship. It’s movement and swell. If you walk on the ship, you sometimes feel like you are walking on a train. Everything smells new and fresh, and the furniture is like a lounge bar. In every wall there is something to do with travel, and curiosity, and life. And Tasmania: of course, Tasmania.
And there are also Wet Floor signs. The Spirit boasts roughly fifty thousand.
It’s night and I’m sitting at the back of the Spirit, out on Deck 9, watching the lights of Devonport flicker in the distance. There’s no one else out here, and I’m trying to capture the scene, the pitch of the ship, the sheer speed of the ship, the pastel yellow of the horizon that deepens to midnight blue, a streak of black cloud above silhouetted mountains, how the wake is briefly white in the deck lights and then disappears into the night, how I wonder what makes the city lights twinkle like stars – maybe it’s the heat rising off the ocean – and now the Milky Way is-
“JUST LETTING PASSENGERS KNOW THAT THERE IS LIVE ENTERTAINMENT ON DECK 9,” thunders the Voice of God.
“Holy…!” I shout, notebook flying out of my lap in a whirl of arms and legs.
Heart pounding, I spy the loudspeaker above my head.
I twist a finger in my ear and mutter under my breath.
I gather my things and stalk inside.
The live entertainment is a laid-back man called Brad with long hair and a nose ring who’s playing Clocks by Coldplay per a passenger’s request. “I’m making this up as I go,” he confides into the mic. Then he stops to tune his guitar. “Sea air and guitars aren’t always the best of friends.” I sit with a drink and Brad asks me why I’m on the ship.
Out of the blue.
From the stage.
Like he’s a real person.
Later, he asks if I have a request. I ask him to play what he wishes someone would request. He plays Chantilly Lace, which I don’t think anyone saw coming.
Again later, after his sheer Fulsom Prison Blues guitar mastery, we sit down for a chat.
“Any good stories?” I prompt.
He grins, then tells the story of a group of about 300 “wild farm boys” all dressed up as pirates, all 300 of them in character, on the ship for a car rally headed from Mackay to Hobart. They had all these hidden rules and the first thing they did was trick him into saying one of their trigger words, “mine”:
Pirate: “Can you play Sweet Child of… oh, um, Sweet Child of…”
Brad: “… Sweet Child of Mine?”
Pirate hoard: “YEAAAAAAAAAAH! AHOOOY!”
He had to do 20 push-ups, right there on stage for them, while they cheered and chanted in pirate cant and drank straight spirits.
Brad said, “But when you’re coming out of Port Melbourne, the first hour and a half is calm, like you’re on a river, but when you hit the open ocean, everything changes.” On this night, the Bass Strait was rough, and for 300 pirates who’d been drinking since morn, it was, in Brad the Singer’s words, “absolute carnage”.
It sounded amazing: wild farm-boys dressed up as pirates with banter and secret rules and a quest, drinking way too much because they thought the ride would be easy all the way across. How is that not amazing? This truly is a magical ship.
That night, when all else have gone to sleep, I walk up to Deck 10, as high as I can get. The black wind sucks and pulls at my feet as I clutch the cold rail, heart pounding, and after one glance I refuse to look at the hungry wake. All around is darkness and starlight and the tumultuous Bass Strait.
I’ve lived forever on an island, but I always forget the scope of the ocean, the abysmal size.
“Don’t slip,” I murmur.
After an age, I edge back through a sliding door, my face slick with sweat.
Absently, I pat one of the Wet Floor signs, like a faithful dog.
My night on the Spirit is rough: it’s such a different feeling sleeping at sea. I’m also a tall guy who rolls around when I sleep, but the ship was already doing the rolling for me, so my leg kept sliding off the edge and then the world would tip and there was this strange car-horn noise now and then, faint above the rumble of the ship.
So I watched the stars for a time, sliding past my porthole, until I pulled the mattress off and shoved it in-between the two beds, so that the edges curled up, and I built a nest of blankets and pillows to hold me in place while the sea tipped and I fell into fitful sleep.
I woke up at a-quarter-to-six by the Voice of God informing us we had 45 minutes before the ship arrived in Melbourne, not trying to push you into anything, take your time, but we need you off our ship in 45 minutes, thanks for the experience; also, leave your cabin doors open when you leave.
For a guy who likes his sleep, I can tell you this: if I smiled that morning, it would have been faked.
It’s the following day, and my plan is to try all available entertainment, which introduces me to Dolly, a wonderful lady with stage presence and perplexingly tight pants who runs the Disco Bingo. It’s bingo, except with song titles, most of which seem to be ‘80s songs I don’t know. A randomiser plays the songs and you have to tick them off on your randomised sheet. I have to listen carefully for clues in the lyrics that might have the song title. It was the best bingo I’ve ever played.
After that, I decide to watch a movie in the cinema, but in case I get seasick, as I am wont to do, I take a travel-sickness tablet or three. But I had bought the non-drowsy ones, which literally means they just lace it with caffeine so you’re feeling both tired and awake, which put me in an absolute stellar mood for watching a movie.
I almost sit through half of it, and then the Voice of God tells us Spirit of Tasmania II is passing on the port side, so go have a look if you want, you curious travellers, you. I wrestle for a moment but decide fresh ocean air might be better for me than finding out how Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Childrenends. I have to ask someone which way is port, because of course I do, but then I stand with fellow passengers and watch the Spirit II pace past us in the middle-distance.
That’s when I meet the gypsies camping on deck.
Gypsie Dad’s eyes are deep blue above a black beard inexplicably plaited by a pink hairband. He, his kids, his wife, and her sister are on the deck, lying on a swag mattress and rugged up in picnic blankets, surrounded by wicker-baskets of food. Like absolute champions, even though it is highly against the rules.
“Is it nice, lying out here?” I ask.
“Yeah mate, of course,” says Gypsie Dad. “It’s quiet and it’s fresh and look, the ocean is just there. And we’ve got everything we need out here. We’ve got our rugs and picnic baskets. What else do we need? Maybe our ukuleles.”
“The ocean is nice to look at,” agrees Gypsie Mum from her prone position, “but if I look too often I get queasy.” She puts a hand to her forehead, in emphasis.
“Are you enjoying the ship?” I ask.
“We’re having a little family reunion,” says Gypsie Mum. “We didn’t plan it, but my sister -” she gestures to the smiling woman on the end of the mattress, “just happened to be on the same trip as us headed home for Christmas, so we’re catching up. We haven’t seen each other for months. It’s a small world, hey.”
It is a small world.
I have two friends I met on Spirit of Tasmania without prior planning.
The first is Laura the Teacher, who by pure coincidence scheduled her passage on the same sailing as me. She boards in Melbourne, and I tell her to drop her bags off in my cabin instead of hauling them around with her the whole time.
Oh, didn’t I mention I have a cabin, Laura? On a day sailing? Well, yes, I do. A life-saver? I know.
We head towards my cabin down the leagues of corridors it takes to get there. You think you’re to the end of the ship, but then you look at one of the maps and you realise you’re not even half-way.
In my cabin, which has four beds (did I mention my cabin has four beds? And it’s exclusive to me?), Laura takes a nap while I have a shower.
It takes almost as long to puzzle out the shower tap as it does to walk down the corridors, but finally the water comes. The pitch of the ship is just enough that I rest a hand on the wall, but the water washing away the grit of travel is like a tiny hole in heaven has opened up and I am stunned –stunned – with how good it feels. A shower on a ship, who would’ve thought! The pressure, the temperature, the steam, the life. A disbelieving chuckle escapes my lips. I am in awe. I am shaking with fulfilment.
When I die, I want to be buried in a shower curtain from Spirit of Tasmania.
My friend Loucas the Missionary is on the ship, too, but I didn’t know prior. I’d never actually met Loucas, but we were friends on Facebook, and he knew from my updates that I was writing a piece on the Spirit at some stage but he didn’t know when, but he felt like the Holy Spirit told him I was on the ship today, and then he had a nap in his recliner, and then the Voice of God came over the loudspeaker calling me to the Purser’s desk, and he recognised my name and so stalked me there and followed me as I spoke to crew members. I really admired his dedication. Then he introduced himself with fire in his eyes and a grin that made us instant friends, and he and I and Laura went back to my four-bed cabin and we talked about deep and meaningful things, and then we all had such a good nap and Loucas got to have a glorious shower, which he’d prayed for as he drove onto the ship.
A cabin on a ship is a nice, insulated pocket of space. Almost like its own little world.
Michael the Hotel Manager sits down for a chat with me. He has those stripes on his shoulders that means he’s An Important Crew Member and he looks me in the eyes the whole time, as though he is comfortable and in control but also happy to have me there. He’s been working on the ship for THIRTY YEARS, longer than I’ve been alive. I didn’t even know they had ships back then. Nipunika the Stewardess also sits down with us. She talks softly but every word is golden.
I ask them what they like about the ship. Nipunika talks about the crew – they’re one big family and she loves working with them, she loves them, that’s why she’s been doing it for 11 years – and also the travellers: how it’s always different, how she sees regulars and she can catch up with them, how they have prime ministers and singers, movie stars and sports stars, all of them using the Spirit, and the ship acts as the great equaliser: everyone is in the same boat, and everyone brings something different.
“It’s like a small little world,” she says, and I can tell that she means it.
Michael is the leader of the hospitality crew, ‘the human side of the ship’, and he wants it to be stress-free. He talks about the comradery of the crew: they live and eat and serve together, and they’re close-knit, and content. They’re a family.
It shows: the whole staff, so far, has been suspiciously relaxed. One of them had banter with me when I bought my meal. Another asked about my family. Another called me “sweetheart”.
“But as for travelling on the ship itself…?” I prompt Michael.
He glances away in thought. “I think it’s the experience of being on a ship, but also, it’s the life. Not only out on the water – I mean, look at that big blue horizon – and you can see seals and whales and dolphins, and other ships and boats on the water, but here on the ship itself, there’s always something happening and someone to talk to and something to see. It’s like Nipu said: we’re a small little world.
“But there’s also the fact we’re Tasmania’s flagship. Our restaurant here is Tasmanian produce, there are photos all around of Tasmania, most of the staff are Tasmanian, we have people to answer any Tasmania questions. It’s like when people come onto the Spirit they’re starting their holiday, not preparing to start it: we want their Tasmanian experience to begin here, with us, not when they disembark in Devonport. In a way, this ship is part of Tasmania.”
A little piece of Tasmania, floating on the ocean.
A little piece of the world in itself.
Laura and I eat breakfast by the window, while the Spirit is dormant and docked in Port Melbourne. Finally it rumbles into life, and everything starts rattling.
“Look at the water!” says Laura.
“Describe it to me,” I say.
Laura says, “It’s foamy… it’s making the water green… no, that’s not poetic enough… it makes the water look like marble… and the foam is being blown in the wind… there’s so much foam, where is it even coming from?”
We’re following a line of red and green channel markers, right to the horizon, leaving behind a trail of seagulls, miniature in scope.
“WHOEVER OWNS THE WHITE DOG, POSSIBLY A MALAMUTE, CAN YOU PLEASE HEAD TO DECK FOUR,” says the Voice of God.
“Oooh, let’s go to Deck 4,” Laura says.
“I don’t think we’re allowed,” I say, as I eat my Tasmanian yogurt, which is so good.
I meet two young couples who are travelling in vans together. I sit with them as they eat their lunch, because one of them, Katy, has a whale-tail pendant and looks like a child of the forest so I figure she’ll be interesting. Both her partner, Chase, and the other guy, Cade, have hair with the texture of too much sunshine and salt-water, and when I say that, they laugh. They’re surfers. Well, body-boarders. Sponsored body-boarders. They have an Instagram for their trip, called @stokedandbrokeaus. They’re happy 20-something wanderers, following the surf.
“But what about the ship?” I ask.
They say the Spirit is better than they expected. “It’s a hectic ferry,” says Chase the Surfer. “Fully feels like a cruise ship, hey?”
They’re calming to talk to, and friendly. I can see what Nipunika means, about travellers. They tell me about their travels, about the freedom of the open road, about not worrying about things, about following passions, and I’m jealous.
They ask me about Tasmania, and I am honest.
“Tasmania feels like a whole different country. It’s beautiful, and there aren’t as many people, and the roads take a lot longer to drive than you’d think because there are so many mountains. And it’s nothing like the rest of Australia.” I am firm on this. “We’re like a whole different country.” A beat. “Our own world.”
My new friends Joe and Tianaha are taking the ferry with their three kids. I speak to them because Joe’s beard is more impressive than mine, and he was friendly to me in the restaurant line. They say the ferry is “something different”, and the kids prefer it: it’s easier than keeping them seated on the plane – they can eat and drink and play card games, they can watch the ocean, it actually makes the time go quicker but it’s not as tiring.
“It’s actually kind of fun.”
After our conversation I go for a walk. People play cards, sit on the floor, chat and drink, and sleep in the oddest places: against tables, on benches, leaning against each other, leaning against the wall.
What happens when you travel for a long time? You get creative.
Later, I see dolphins swimming alongside the ship. I press my nose against the glass, as they jump in and out of the wake. I’ve seen dolphins before, but never this close. They move under the water with their own wakes, and leap in and out, and my first thought is, “We’re so far from land, it can’t be safe out here for them”.
Great, I’m worrying about fish now. I’ve been travelling too long.
They fade into the water and disappear, but I keep my nose pressed against the glass for a long time after they’re gone.
And then I spot Tasmania.
The ship docks in the evening, and everyone goes home to their beds and their dogs and their non-wet floors.
And I – insular, islander, Tasmanian I – am back home in this, our own little world.
But now this question in my notebook:
On Spirit of Tasmania, did I ever even leave it?