I know I should be grateful to Dad for taking me on this cruise around South America for my eighteenth birthday. Yes, I am grateful for the opportunity to see things I might otherwise never get to see, but the cruising itself isn’t my thing.
For starters the average age of the passengers must be seventy, and it is only that low because of a family with three under-fives that is skewing the numbers. That leads to reason number two. The parents dump the kids, whose sole means of communication seems to be a high- pitched scream, in the day nursery, and they hide in the bar for the day. I can’t bring myself to support the parents against the disapproving stares of the geriatrics, not when I hate them with the rest for inflicting their brats upon us when the crèche is closed.
I suppose I could be the nauseating teenager and complain there is nothing to do and that I’m bored, but that is not strictly true. The shore trips are great. Dad has made sure we are booked on anything that looks as though it could be interesting or educational, so that we don’t spend our time and money bumming around the shops buying useless souvenirs.
When we are not ashore it appears there is plenty to do. But. There is a library, except none of the books are the sort of thing I like to read. The cinema has only one film on the schedule I want to watch that I haven’t seen. There is food available ad lib in the restaurants and cafes and it is usually good, but contrary to popular belief, this teenager’s stomach is not a bottomless pit.
There are games, but after Dad and I won the quiz three times in a row the crew hinted that we should not play anymore because we were spoiling it for the others. Although bingo is alright for a couple of games, it can hardly be described as intellectually stimulating, and the time I won the geriatrics filling the room looked at me with such hatred, you would think I had stolen something from them. I left before they could turn into a lynch mob, although I doubt any of them could run fast enough to catch me.
I could go to the gym but that too is full of the bingo players trying to tighten up all their sagging bits that are beyond repair. If it is not busy I jog around the deck for something to do. But that gets old after a couple of circuits.
What are missing are some kids somewhere near my own age.
There is a limit to the number of hours Dad and I can maintain a conversation. I think he also wants time to chat up one of the younger widows on the passenger list. I keep reminding him there is a reason they are young widows - their husbands must have wanted to die first. That is assuming the wives were not more actively involved in their partners’ early departures from the world.
It is not strictly true that there are no other kids my age. There are two girls. Whenever they are around I can feel their eyes on me. Even Dad has noticed and said with their accents, the ironmongery on their teeth and the predatory looks they are giving me, I would be wise not to let them get their claws on me. I wasn’t going to go near them anyway and Dad’s comment means I don’t have to feign interest in front of him. However since the girls seem to spend their time hanging round the pool, it means swimming is out, unless it is in the morning before they get up. Thankfully they are not early risers.
We flew out from Heathrow and joined the ship at Buenos Aires. Now, a couple of days later, the ship puts in at Puerto Madryn. I am watching the passengers coming on board when I see this guy walking up the gangway. Dark hair, dark eyes and a nice deep tan and fit looking. Best of all he appears to be about my age. As he is not particularly tall, I get this mental image of him as a teddy bear: small and cuddly.
From catching sight of him around the ship as we head south to our next port of call — Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego — it appears he is also with his father. There is a snag that stops me plucking up courage to talk to him. I don’t think he speaks English. I have managed to overhear him talking to his dad and can’t understand a word they are saying. Not even enough to guess at the language. So I have to content myself with looking at him, trying hard not to let him see me watching. I am not always successful and blush when I get caught. The funny thing is he blushes too.
Today as I am leaving the pool after my early swim, I see the two girls talking to him and I am wondering how I can help keep him from their clutches when I hear him say, “Mi no habla Ingles.” and he turns and walks off. My Spanish is pretty well non-existent but even I can work out what that means. With his tan, it makes me think he might be Argentinian and come from an area where they speak a local language as well as Spanish. At least it stopped him from getting into the girls’ clutches.
We berth in Ushuaia and there is a call over the PA system for the various tour groups to muster in the lounges prior to disembarkation and joining our tour buses. Dad has been a bit secretive about this trip, so I think he must be planning it as a bit of a surprise. When we get to our muster point I am trying to work out which trip we are on, but I am distracted from listening to the tour guide when I see the teddy bear join our group.
As we disembark and join our bus I overhear him thanking the crew, saying ‘Gracias’. His father just nods an acknowledgment to the crew. He is seated in the bus first and I get the feeling he is watching me as Dad and I take our seats.
The bus ride is short and we are dropped in front of a wooden building with a pointy roof. There is a sign that reads ‘Tren del Fin del Mundo’, which I guess means ‘Train at the End of the World’. So that is why Dad was being so secretive. It is my actual birthday today and he has managed to find me a trip to indulge my nerdy love of trains. Mind you I think he secretly quite likes trains as well. How else would I have caught the bug?
There is an old woman dispensing leaflets as we walk through the station building. Dad unkindly whispers to me that she looks like an old crone. She certainly wouldn’t win a glamorous grannie competition, and she doesn’t look like the other older Argentine women we have seen in Buenos Aires or Puerto Madryn. My guess is she has some South American Indian heritage.
“Ingles?” she asks as we reach the head of the queue.
“Please,” we reply and she hands us leaflets in English.
I am so engrossed in finding out what the train looks like that I hurry on the platform and miss the opportunity to see what language the teddy bear asks for.
The loco is a diminutive 0-4-0+0-4-0 Beyer-Garrett, apparently built in South Africa for the line in 2006. I manage to snap a few pictures before we are herded aboard the little narrow gauge train.
Reading the leaflet before we set off, I discover that the line was originally used to carry building materials, especially wood, and was started in 1902 by convicts who were shipped here to try and open up the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego. The line was closed in 1954 but was rebuilt and reopened in 1995 as a tourist railway, with a 2-6-2 locomotive built in the UK and a second Garrett, the first locomotive to be built, as opposed to assembled, in Argentina.
The little carriages are constructed with very large windows to give an excellent view of the surrounding scenery. Inside, the three-a-side bench seats are arranged in compartments. The backs of the seats are low enough not to obstruct the view along the carriage.
Dad and I manage to get seats at the back of our carriage facing forward. There is a reserved compartment forward of ours. The teddy bear and his dad are at the front of the same coach but only the father is facing forward. I am pleased to find the teddy bear is facing me, when I catch him looking in my direction, he looks away quickly. Is it possible he is also blushing?
We hear the guard blow his whistle to start the train and, just before we set off to more whistles from the engine, the crone climbs into the reserved compartment. She stands and starts a bi-lingual commentary: Spanish and English. Her English is better than I expected and she is giving us more information about the railway than is on the leaflet. She looks around the carriage as she talks, presumably trying to gauge our reaction to what she is saying.
Although I am looking through the windows at the dramatic scenery on both sides of the train, the view does not change fast enough to hold my attention all the time. I sometimes watch the guide as she says her piece in English, but at other times my gaze lingers on the guy at the other end of the carriage.
If I think he sees me watching him, I can feel my ears going red and I have to pretend I am looking at a passing feature in the landscape. There are other times as I turn towards him, that I see him turn away. Has he been watching me, too?
The train stops after half an hour or so. The guide says the stop is for twenty five minutes and she tells us that close-by there are some impressive waterfalls and a reconstructed Yamana Indian campsite that we can go and look at. We do and I take a few photographs.
We rejoin the train, and it continues the journey along the valley. The crone carries on with her commentary, again looking around the carriage as she talks. She tells us about the national park as we are about to cross the boundary, and once inside, she points out more things of interest along the route.
Eventually we get to the end of the line. We all get out again as there is a break while the engine is moved to the other end of the train for the return journey. The run-round move is always a good photo opportunity and I get a few more shots before everybody rejoins the train. Creatures of habit, we return to the seats we had on the way up, so now I am facing away from the direction of travel. Dad has to be different and has managed to swap sides in our compartment so he is facing forwards, leaving an empty seat next to me.
I start to review the pictures I have taken as the train sets off again. I am surprised how many have the teddy bear in the frame. I normally prefer not to have any people in shots I take as they might distract from the main subject. I zoom in on one of the frames and look down the carriage to check how well the camera has caught his likeness.
“We have a word for it.”
I jump at the sound of the crone’s voice. Engrossed in looking through my pictures I had not noticed that there is no commentary and that somebody had taken the empty seat next to me.
“Sorry,” I say. “I hadn’t realised you were there. A word for what?”
“The looks you and that young man down there are giving each other.” She points her hand at my camera and nods in the direction of the teddy bear. I tense at the implication she has been looking over my shoulder at my private photographs, but then relax when I realise that the way I was holding my camera, she would have found it difficult to resist the temptation.
“How do you mean?” I ask.
“As though you want to talk to each other, but don’t know how to start, neither of you wanting to make the first move.”
Embarrassed that she should have noticed, I grunt an acknowledgement.
“You could always try talking to him,” she says. There is a smile in her voice that stops me taking offence.
“I suspect he is Argentinian,” I reply. “I don’t think he speaks English and I don’t speak Spanish.”
“Oh, he is not Argentinian. His Spanish is European, and it is not his first language.”
I look at her quizzically.
“I have what you say is a good ear. Good enough that I can distinguish some English and Spanish accents and can usually tell if someone is from Europe.”
She sees I am uncomfortable talking about the teddy bear and changes the subject. She tells me about things we see as the train rolls along, but like mothers and grandmothers everywhere she also interrogates me as she talks: asking if I am enjoying the tour and why I am on the cruise. Too late I realise I have told her it is my birthday. She stands up.
“You’re not going to embarrass me and do that American thing and announce it to the carriage are you?” I ask in panic.
“No, no. Don’t worry,” she says. “We are approaching the next station and I need to get out as we may be picking up some passengers here. Nice to talk to you.”
“And you,” I reply. Then I remember how she started our conversation. “But you never told me what the word was that you were talking about.”
“Mamihlapinatapai? That doesn’t sound like Spanish.”
“It’s Yaghan, also known as Yamana. I’m a Yamana. One of the indigenous Fuegan tribes. I’m not a European Argentine.”
“Thanks for the explanation.”
“The word also has a slightly different meaning,” the guide says. “It can also refer to that look between them when two people are sharing an unspoken but private moment. Maybe if you get to know your friend, you will come to demonstrate that as well.”
The train draws to a halt at the station and she gets out.
The new passengers join our compartment so we shuffle round and I end up next to Dad facing the engine. The guide has gone to sit elsewhere.
By the time we get back to the terminus at Ushuaia, the trip has taken over two hours. We alight and head towards the buses to take us back into the city and the boat.
Later, when we are back on the ship, I am walking down one of the connecting corridors when I see the two girls who I have been avoiding coming towards me. They have that glint in their eye that tells me they are not going to let me escape this time.
I am resigned to the encounter, trying to think of how to extricate myself from their clutches as soon as possible, when I feel a pat on my back.
I turn around and see my teddy bear with a grin on his face. Greeting me as though we have known each other for years, he puts his arm on my shoulder and steers me past the girls and round a corner before I can recover enough to say anything.
“Sorry about that,” he says in a most mellifluous accent. “But I thought you probably wanted rescuing from those two.”
“You’re right there,” I reply before demonstrating my lack of tact by saying: “You speak English!”
“Of course I do,” he laughs. “I’m from Swansea.”
I should have recognised the Welsh accent but I must be confused by the close encounter with the guy I have been admiring from afar. I blush.
“Apologies,” I say, “I haven’t overheard you speak any English. I thought you were Argentinian.” I think it polite to let him know that I have had my ears open when near him.
“No need to apologise. I have been speaking Welsh with Tad as his is a bit rusty and he wanted to brush it up for this tour.”
“That would explain why I couldn’t work out where you were from,” I say. “We live near Doncaster. I don’t think I have ever heard Welsh before. My education is sadly lacking!”
He smiles at my self-deprecation before we find our way into one of the cafes on the ship to continue our conversation. He introduces himself as Alwyn — or Ollie for short. He tells me they have been hunting out distant relatives in Northern Patagonia. There is a Welsh - speaking enclave there, the descendants of emigrants who moved there in the late eighteen hundreds. That explains why Ollie and his tad joined the ship In Puerto Madryn.
He also reveals that earlier in the day after the crone had left our compartment, she got back into the train in his compartment and also introduced him to the word. She passed on that it was my birthday as well, which gave him the idea for the interference he ran for me with the two girls.
The crew of the ship also know it is my birthday because we had to give all that sort of information when Dad booked the cruise. They use the information, too. There have been several passengers embarrassed by the marching of birthday cakes from the galley to their tables at dinner. In order to share my expected embarrassment, I ask Ollie if he and Huw, his tad as he calls him, will join our table tonight.
As we talk over dinner, Ollie and I find we both have something else to celebrate other than my birthday. We have both been offered places at Oxford University, conditional on our obtaining the necessary grades in our ‘A-level’ exams. We have even put the same college, St Mary of Winchester, as our preference. Ollie rolls his eyes when his tad mutters that Ollie should be going to the Welsh college: Jesus.
The meal reaches the coffee stage, heralding the march of a cake in honour of my birthday to our table. Suitably embarrassed, I make a wish and cut the cake. Small pieces for the four of us as we have just eaten a large meal.
Of course the two girls have noticed the little ceremony and come bustling over to our table hoping use it as an intro to get their teeth into us or, if not us, some cake. I am sufficiently polite to thank them for their good wishes and pass them the knife to let them cut themselves a slice of cake each.
What slices they are! Although we know they too have just finished eating dinner, they take the rest of the cake between them. The pieces are at least twice the size of those we have had. Dad notices and can’t resist saying something as they take their first bites.
“Remember girls! A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips!”
The smirk on Ollie’s face tells me he is thinking the same as me. He looks at his tad and says something in Welsh. Huw loses it and breaks into a real belly laugh. While the girls are distracted, wondering what to make of Huw’s antics, Ollie leans over to me.
“I think your dad’s warning is too late,” he whispers. Yup! Just what I was thinking. One look at them and you can tell their BMIs are already supra-optimal.
“Now then, we mustn’t be ‘sizeist’,” I whisper back, my grin belying the comment.
I look at Ollie and can see the same glint in his eye that I know I must have. We are both trying hard not to laugh. Unfortunately we don’t quite manage it. Ollie splutters a stifled snigger worthy of a six year old discussing farts, and I release an unintentionally camp sounding giggle.
The girls look at us in disgust, pick up their slices of cake and turn to walk off. Watching their retreating backsides, I am just about to say to Ollie that I am glad they have gone when we hear their parting shots.
“We’re wasting our time trying to get anywhere with those fags,” says one in a voice intended to be overheard.
“Nice cake though,” replies the other before taking another bite out of her slice.
I have done enough on-line reading to know the first girl was not referring to cigarettes. I can feel my ears burning and know I have coloured up. Knowingly or not, the girl’s gratuitous insult has hit the mark. Sensing Ollie is fidgeting in his seat, I turn and see that he too is blushing. Is it for the same reason? Has he also learnt the word from that same vein of fiction that I have been mining? I look across to our fathers. I wish could have caught the moment on camera. Dad has the face of someone who has been listening for a penny and finally heard it drop. Huw just looks bemused.
“Crude slang word for gay,” says Dad, “Americanism, I believe.” Enlightenment dawns for Huw too.
“Come on Huw,” Dad continues, “Let’s go through to the bar and get these two a brandy. They look as though they could do with it.”
Having effectively outed ourselves to our parents, Ollie and I can only agree.
Treating the spirit with the respect it deserves, we sip our brandies as we endure listening to our fathers recite a litany of missed or ignored signs of our gayness. Eventually Dad takes pity on us.
“I think we’ve embarrassed them enough,” he says to Huw, “Let’s go and see if we can find a rich widow for me to chat up and leave these two to talk among themselves.
I seize my chance to get some crumbs of revenge.
“Dad,” I say to get his attention as he is about to walk away from the table. “Don’t forget. If you find one your age, there is a good chance she will be the mother of one of those two girls.”
Success! He goes white at the thought. As they walk off, Huw looks as though he is about to break out laughing again.
Ollie and I spend the rest of the trip enjoying each other’s company
and getting to know each other better. It helps that Dad and Huw have
become friends and are prepared to give us space. They even agree to
swap around so that Ollie and I can share a cabin. That means I get to
cuddle my teddy bear, something we wouldn’t manage by only meeting on
deck or in the restaurant areas.'
By the time the cruise is over and we fly back to Heathrow to go our separate ways we both have an added incentive to study hard and get the necessary results in our exams — we will each have a boyfriend waiting for us at Oxford.
And the icing on the cake? He shares my nerdy love of trains!
© copyright Pedro August 2018
With thanks to Cole Parker for applying his editing skills, thereby greatly improving your reading experience and to Awesomedude and Codey’s World for hosting the finished product.
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Photo of Tren Fin Del Mundo: By Hiroki Ogawa, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57633073