Conga Line by Holly Zwalf

‘The only good thing about a cruise is getting off,’ my hairdresser had quipped with a smirk earlier that week, handing me a roll of condoms along with my change. ‘Have one for me, honey, but when your knees are wrapped round your ears and you’re banging so hard on that porthole that the ship’s threatening to do a Titanic on our last remaining iceberg, don’t forget that it was me who got you where you are by giving you good hair.’ As he waved me out the door my phone vibrated against my hip.

‘Brewton,’ Aunt Aggie barked out before I’d even had a chance to say hi. ‘Remember to pack some socks. The aircon on the Himalayan Isles trip was fucking cold. And bring your own toilet paper. They use two ply but three is so much more luxurious.’ She dragged out the urrrrr in luxurious as though she were savouring the very thickness of the paper on her tongue. ‘You need a costume for the last night. “Seamen and Sirens”. Sirens as in mermaids, not police sirens.’

‘And seamen as in…?’

‘What?’

‘Nothing.’

‘Pay attention, Brewton. Don’t forget some ozone blocker glasses and a hat for when you’re out on deck. The ones with the neck flaps are best. And be at Katoomba ferry terminal at 10am sharp. I don’t want to miss out on getting reservations for the Gilmore Girls Retrospective on ice. So please. Be. On. Time.’ She rang off abruptly.

I was almost coming to regret offering to keep the old bitch company for the week. To be honest, being stuck on a boat for six days with a bunch of pensioners and overeaters was my idea of hell, but I’d agreed to chaperone my aunt because she liked to have company at dinner, and because she was old, childless, and Landed—she owned her own house. As the sea levels had risen so had the property prices, and we’d now hit a point where 80% of the population were living in the Leura slums, shipping containers stacked on shipping containers stacked on shipping containers. It was hard to remember a time when a shipping container had been considered a hip place to live. Agatha rented out her house for a phenomenal amount of money—enough to keep her permanently in cruises. Apparently in the old days a cruise had been cheaper than a nursing home. The only people who could afford one these days were still the pensioners, but now it was because they were the only ones who were Landed. Them and the Packer-Murdochs.

*

Ever since the Big Melt had started eating away at viable landmass, cruises had become the new black, the new Bali, the new New York. In fact there was even a New York cruise you could do where you could putter past the Statue of Liberty’s crown, round the tip of the Empire State Building, and have lunch on Rockefeller Island. All sightseeing had to be done from inside, though, ever since some American refugees had pulled a poor couple off the deck when the ship had got too close to the shore, and tried to surreptitiously trade places. Apparently it had been their accents that had given them away, asking where the bathroom was instead of asking for the toilet. No one who’s Landed says ‘bathroom’ these days.

*

The teeth were blinding. From the start of the gangway all the way to our berths, our path was flanked by wildly grinning crew—everyone from the captain to the cleaner was there to flash their expensively bleached smiles. My Aunt had booked us adjoining rooms—in case she got stuck on the toilet in the middle of the night was my assumption. I dropped my day bag on my bed, untucked the blanket and sheets (I can’t stand a tightly-made bed), shoved the cardboard sign declaring ‘Welcome Brewton! Remember: fun for all, all for fun!’ in the bin, and then went back out into the hallway to wait for Aunt Aggie. As I was closing my door an overweight old queen puffed past me, dragging a suitcase behind him.

‘I never trust the staff with my junk,’ he lisped in that affected gay accent I hate, by way of explanation for his suitcase, and then gave me a once-over and a knowing grin. ‘Looks like we’re going to be cabin boys together.’ He winked, as he stuck a key in the door next to mine.

Thankfully Aunt Aggie appeared at that point. She was eager to get straight to the bridge table, so once I had seen her to her chair and propped her up safely with a garish welcome cocktail in hand, I set off to find the nearest bar. If I was going to get through the week alive I’d be needing plenty of booze. After a detour past the badminton courts, two pools, and several forests of potted palms, I found my way to the Blue Lagoon, a sunken indoors bar on the seventh deck with aqua coloured lighting and an 80s cover band. I didn’t want to have to tackle the crowds again too quickly so I ordered two beers and then swam through the smokey air to a table in the corner, as far from the band as possible. I’d just settled into my second drink when the band struck up a remake of the Vengaboys remake ‘We’re Going To Ibiza’, except they’d changed the words to ‘oh, we’re going to Tuvalu’ in an attempt to ironically reference the first of the land masses to have gone under in the Big Melt. Suddenly a fleshy hand had grabbed mine and I was tugged from my chair and pulled into a writhing conga line. The woman clamped my hands around her waist and wiggled off, her tight pink bike pants and purple bum bag wobbling in my face. I was about to escape when I felt another pair of hands snake around my waist, holding me firmly in place in the line. I glanced back to see a hungry looking woman with identical bike pants and bum bag grinning at me. She had a miniature frothy veil pinned to her ponytail, and the words ‘Hen’s Angels’ printed across her breasts. I was a gay man trapped in the middle of hetero hell. We wove around the tables picking up more people as we went, until the entire bar was joined together groin to arse groin to arse, snaking around the room. As the song ended the band’s frontman chuckled into the microphone.

‘Well done folks, and welcome to Sailaway Cruises! Now every time you hear the opening bars of that song this week, the rule is that anyone within earshot has to join the conga line. Fun for all, and…’ He held the microphone out to the crowd, as though we were at the Big Day Out or something.

‘…all for fun!’ the crowd screamed back.

‘And if you refuse, what’ll you have to do?’

‘Walk the plank! Walk the plank!’, the regular cruisers in the crowd yelled joyously, pumping their fists in the air.

*

Rumour had it there was a gay meetup called the Kylie Klub, every evening at sunset on the fourth deck. I told Aunt Aggie I had had too much sun that afternoon and was going to have a lie down. She barely looked up from her cards. I changed into my tightest tank top and a tiny pair of shorts, and ran some product through my hair. I’d made a pact with my personal trainer to only take the stairs, so I circumnavigated the lift queue and begrudgingly left the aircon to scale the first flight.

‘Honey,’ he’d warned me, ‘you can gorge yourself at the buffet, but never ever do I want to hear about you taking the lift between decks.’

Why do gay men always call each other honey, I wondered idly, as I sweated it out climbing the stairs. Three flights later I emerged onto a nearly deserted sunlounge area, complete with real sand and dotted here and there with beach balls, buckets and spades, and other nostalgic beach paraphernalia. The moment I spotted the Kylie Klub I realised there was no point getting any closer. It was just a bunch of sad old queens, my neighbour included, drinking Gone Island Iced Teas in aquamarine resort wear and ozone-blocker visors. If I was going to get laid on this journey, clearly I was going to have to screw one of the crew.

Dinner that night was a sombre affair. Aunt Aggie had lost a friend at bridge, and he was now down in the ship’s morgue, chilling.

‘This is the problem with getting old, Brewton,’ she sniffed into her prawn cocktail.

‘Everyone starts fucking dying on you. You can’t play bridge with three players, you know.’

I patted her hand gently and passed her another dinner roll.

‘I think I’ll pass. I’m going to call it a night.’

I walked her to her room. ‘Do you need any help getting into bed?’ I asked.

‘Bugger off, Brewton. Go enjoy your youth while you’ve still got it.’ She patted me on the cheek and closed her door.

I was at a bit of a loss of what to do. I had already had my fill of the trashy bars, and I hadn’t bothered making any reservations for the onboard shows. I wandered about aimlessly for a while but got caught up in another conga line near the ice sculptures, so once that had ended I went below decks and sought refuge in the casino. At least there everyone was too zombified by their little flashing machines to take time out to do the conga. The brittle air tinkled with pokie jingles, undershot with the occasional baritone hoot when a roulette wheel turned up the goods. I spent some time making eyes at a cute croupier before security started to get edgy, and then I took myself off to bed for a wank.

*

I was sitting poolside the next day in my water-proof ozone suit when a siren started up, and everyone in the pool swiftly got out.

‘Brown alert, brown alert,’ some kids screeched as they raced out of the pool.

‘What’s a brown alert?’ I asked the woman lounging next to me.

She looked at me with raised eyebrows, but when she realised I was serious informed me that it meant someone had done a shit in the pool. It must have been several giant shits, because by the afternoon the pool had been drained and a sign erected explaining that it would remain empty for several days, until the desalination plant could generate enough water for a refill. The other two pools swelled with annoying families as a result, and the splashing screaming kids were more than I could handle, so I took to reading and napping in my room between meals. It was amazing how quickly I had converted to cruiseship life. It was all about the food. In the mornings we ate at the Sunny Side Up cafe, which had real poached eggs from the ship’s chickens, and an incredibly convincing synthetic smashed avocado on toast. Lunch was a two hour affair at one of the five onboard buffets, allowing for a conga line or two round the tables, and most nights Aunt Aggie and I ate at the Captain’s table. It was supposedly the most sought-after table on the ship, reserved for the people in the suites and long-termers like Aggie, but I never actually saw the fabled Captain. The class structure on board was positively retro, as was the way all the menial staff were brown skinned, while the people in charge were all white. The whole ship was like a floating colonial time warp. The free buffets were an all you can eat affair teeming with lobsters and crabs and prawns. Delicacies like beef and chicken and pork, however, were only available in Seagrass, a restaurant on level ten which you paid for separately. Having come from the Leura slums, where most meals came in a glass in the form of a protein shake, it almost made me feel nauseous watching perfectly good apples, loaves of bread, and cheeses all get swept into the bins at the end of each meal. However the nausea might have also been attributed to the unusually rough seas. I’d heard murmurings that the currents were behaving strangely, and that the Big Melt was somehow to blame.

*

Every night after dinner Aunt Aggie insisted that I chaperone her to the lounge bar for Croaky Karaoke. The rules were that you could only compete if you were over 75, but that seemed to be the mean age of at least half the people on the boat so there was a long list of competitors to get through. Everyone was desperate to win because the prize was to sing a duet on the final night with an old crooner called Justin Bieber. All the old bats were batty over him, Aunt Aggie no exception.

‘I know what you’re up to, Brewton,’ she hissed, when on the third night I complained. ‘You’ve got your eye on my house; I’ve got my eye on Justin Bieber. I need your vote, so suck it up.’

Every night we sat there for hours, waiting for her name to be called, applauding the geriatric wannabe Madonnas and Beyonces and Lady Gagas (but not too loudly because votes were partly based on the amount of decibels registered when the audience cheered at the end of your song). I was fairly certain my cheersquad abilities were the real reason Aggie had invited me on the trip.

“Seamen and Sirens” night came round faster than I’d expected. It was a relief to realise our time onboard was nearly at an end, though to be honest I’d started to be lulled by the conveyor belt rhythm of being fed, watered, and entertained on repeat. I decided to brave a bar for my final night onboard, and seeing as Aunt Aggie had given up on her karaoke dreams the night before when her rendition of Frozen’s ‘Let It Go’ had failed to raise the roof, I was free to go as I pleased. The best action seemed to be happening back at the Blue Lagoon. There were the usual Little Mermaid red wigs and tails, a group of hot guys in full navy regalia, a few King Trident staffs and fake beards, and some smart bugger who had just tied a plastic bag on his head and was telling anyone who’d listen that he was a used condom. Most people just wore a sailor’s cap with their normal clothes, though, because most people hadn’t read the ‘before you board’ email, and the caps were only five bucks in the Ship Shop. Problem was, it made it hard to tell the civvies from the crew, which is why the announcement didn’t get taken seriously until the next morning. Someone stood on a chair and started yelling about Katoomba going under and a war between the Himalayas and the Alps, but it got swallowed up in a raucous call for ‘conga!!!’ as the band struck up their theme song. I’d been keeping my eye on a tasty young thing working behind the bar, and was drinking fast and tipping high, trying to lure him over. Unfortunately I soon had company—my neighbour, all dragged up as Ursula the sea witch with blue lipstick sliding down his face, and tentacles sewn on to his shirt. We were apparently in competition, but I reassured myself that even if he was tipping higher, I was the one with youth and looks on my side.

*

I woke up in the morning with a tentacle poking into my butt cheek. It took me a while to realise the tentacle was actually another kind of appendage. Worse still it appeared it was attached not to the slick young barman, but to Ursula. Oh sweet jesus what had I done? I eased myself out from under the snoring bulk and shrugged on my clothes as quietly as possible, trying to recall how it had all gone so wrong, but my head was too fuzzy to remember. I consoled myself with the thought that at least we were docking today. I’d never have to see him again. I had the hangover from hell, and my head was thumping hard. No, actually, that wasn’t inside my head, I slowly realised. I could hear thumping from the decks above, and the soft roar of voices. Confused, I slipped out the door, to find the corridor full of frantic passengers. I spotted Aunt Aggie holding a cocktail glass and slumped against the wall, and rushed over.

‘It’s all gone,’ she moaned.

‘What’s all gone?’ I asked, panic rising slowly in my throat.

‘There’s no ice left.’

‘At the bar?’

‘No you stupid fuck, in the poles. The last sheet has melted. My house has gone under.

Everyone’s at war with everyone and there’s no safe port to land. We’re stuck on this fucking boat for ever.’

*

Up on deck some people were hurling themselves over the railings, while others were surging towards the bars. I joined the scrum, desperate for some hair of the dog. The bar staff were nowhere to be seen, so everyone was just helping themselves, the smart ones stashing bottles down trousers for future safekeeping. The band, however, were all in their places, singing ‘We All Live In A Yellow Submarine’ and crying drunkenly in between verses. A crackle erupted from the loudspeakers hidden in the palms, and then a voice filled the bar.

‘This is your captain speaking.’

The band stopped playing and a hush fell over the crowd. I was relieved to discover there was a captain after all.

‘From now on the buffet will not be all you can eat.’

There was a murmur of discontent from the crowd.

‘At our most recent calculation this ship has enough food in the buffet to last us another three days, but only on tight rations. We are also in the process of excavating the waste disposal units to salvage what we can.’

Another murmur from the crowd, this time accompanied by the sound of people retching.

‘However we have good news. Sailaway Cruises have been preparing for the end of the Big Melt for some time, and our passengers will be pleased to hear that the tropical garden on level two is currently producing all the fruit and vegetables consumed on this ship. Thanks to the fishing club we have a steady supply of seafood, and the desalination plant is providing us with drinking water as we speak. If we exercise extreme caution we are confident that the cruise can go on…’

‘…and on, and on…’ interrupted the lead singer of the band, doing a convincing impression of Celine Dion’s smash hit,

‘…indefinitely.’

Cheers erupted from the crowd, and someone popped a party popper.

‘However in the interest of keeping up morale, anyone found not adhering to the spirit of this ship will be forcibly removed. It is important that we work together in times like these. This ship’s motto is ‘fun for all, all for fun,’ and we will be enforcing this where necessary.’

As everyone hooted and hugged each other, I noticed out of the corner of my eye several crew members appear, taking up posts at each exit. The band struck up the opening bars of ‘Oh, we’re going to Tuvalu’ and I started for the door, but it was barred by a brawny crew member with arms folded. He stared me down stonily.

‘Everyone must conga, or walk the plank’, he said, and nudged me back onto the floor, where I got swept up by a joyful Ursula who grabbed me by the hips and propelled me groin to arse into the midst of the conga line.

The band played on and on.

Bio:

Holly Zwalf is very bent, very queer, and very scared about climate change. She is a solo parent by choice and lives in the bush in Queensland with her toddler. From her desk overlooking the dam and a crepe myrtle tree she coordinates Rainbow Families Qld, writes academic articles about her research on kink and femme feminism, and writes queer chic lit novels. She also occasionally puts on some shoes and descends to the city, where she performs smutty spoken word stand up comedy, usually involving silken tofu and silicon cocks. 

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