“Oh,” my mother says, “I’m glad you called back.” She says she’s sitting in a cafe with her old friend, Sheila. “So you’ll have to speak up,” she says, “there’s a lot of background noise.”
“I’ll call you when you get home,” I say.
“I can hear you perfectly well,” she says, “so what’s this you were saying about Budapest? You mentioned it just as we got cut off this morning.”
“My editor e-mailed me a few days ago,” I say, “she wondered whether I might like to go to Budapest. So that I can write about it when I get back. I’m excited but a bit apprehensive...”
“Apprehensive?” my mother says, “what on earth is there to be apprehensive about? Budapest is supposed to be a lovely city. I mean, how kind of your editor — I hope you said thank you.”
“It’s a cruise,” I say, “starts in Budapest. Three nights down the Danube, ending up in Vienna for a classical music recital, so—”
“A CRUISE?” my mother shouts, “GOOD GOD. IS IT COMPULSORY?”
“No,” I say, “it’s not compulsory.”
“Well, what a relief,” she says, “I mean I’m sure your editor means well but I hope you said no.” There is a sound of muffled talking and more clacking crockery.
“Mum?” I say, “are you still there?”
“Yes, I’m still here,” she says, “I was just telling Sheila.”
“What does Sheila have to say?” I say.
“Sheila says she’s glad to hear it’s not compulsory, she’d rather go on a banana boat.”
“A banana boat?” I say.
“Yes,” my mother says, “she says she’s always wanted to go on a banana boat.”
“When you say “banana boat,” I say, “do you mean one of those inflatable bananas that you rent, on holiday?”
“Are you talking about an inflatable banana?” my mother asks Sheila.
There is more clacking crockery and muffled talking.
“Mum?” I say.
“No,” my mother says, “she’s talking about a container ship. She says at least she wouldn’t have to dress up for dinner every evening on a container ship, which would be the least of my worries, if you ask me.”
“It’s the eating that would get me down,” she continues, “watching people eat around the clock. That’s why people go on cruises, you know. To eat. They eat all day and all night.”
“I’m not worried about watching people eat,” I say.
“Well you should be,” she says, “I mean, can you imagine anything more gruesome? I’d rather sit on an inflatable banana. I’d rather sit on it blindfold. Even if the cruise started in the Taj Mahal and ended up in Buckingham Palace.”
“Have you been on a cruise, Mum?” I ask.
My mother says of course she hasn’t and for other reasons besides having to watch people eat all day.
“I mean eating is the least of it,” she says.
“Has Sheila ever been on a cruise?” I say.
“Of course she hasn’t,” my mother says, “she’s just told you, she’d rather take her chances with a container ship.”
“I’m not worried about watching people eat…” I say, “it’s more…”
“Around the clock,” my mother says, “watching people eat around the clock.”
“It’s not that,” I persist, “that concerns me, it’s more the…”
“Confinement,” my mother says, “I couldn’t agree with you more. I mean I know a couple who spend all year hopping on and off cruises. Terribly fond of themselves. They spend a month on land, putting everyone they know to sleep and then, when they’ve finally run out of people to put to sleep, they jump on a ship where they know people can’t get away from them. Thank God for cruises, is what I say. Sometimes, they have their place.”
Muffled talking resumes.
“Our coffee’s just arrived,” she says, “so I’d better go but tell me quickly, what did you say to your editor?”
“I said “yes,” I say, “as soon as I’d read the email.”
“Oh,” my mother says, “well, look on the bright side.”
“There’s a bright side?” I say.
“With any luck you might get to hear a bit of Schubert in Vienna,” she says.
“That’s true,” I say.
“But take an inflatable banana with you,” she says, “just in case.”