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Thursday, 22 November 2007


Waiting at Aruba airport on my way home from 10 days in the Caribbean on a big white imperial destroyer of a ship, much of it between ports on "sea days". A sea day is when you're at sea all day. I know. self-explanatory. We had two sets of two sea days this trip. These are the days you become aware that you're within reach of losing it. You can't get off the ship. I can't over-stress this point. You're trapped. And all of the little places on the ship that you have discovered, that you think nobody else knows about? They're all full of passengers. The sanctuary pool? Full of blokes snogging their girlfriends in the deep end. The gym? Wall to wall old ladies going 6 steps a minute on the treadmills and their husbands reliving younger days by doing bicep curls with 2kg weights in US Navy baseball caps. Even the basketball court, tucked away high up at the back of the ship, where I sometimes go to practice my juggling - full of chefs shooting hoops. In full chef whites. Honestly, I didn't mind this last one. I'm as big a fan of a surreal image as the next pelican.

Normally I spend a good deal of my time on board these ships hiding away in my room watching TV shows and movies on my laptop while grazing the food I have scavenged from the "Horizon court" buffet. (Oh the cheese pie. That's what'll kill me, for sure). But this trip I had nice people to play with. Rupert and Danielle are lovely English folk in the early 20's who do what they describe as "Special effects puppetry". What this means to you and me, is that they play characters who walk around and interact in a charming and hilarious way with members of the public. The characters, though, are only about two feet tall, and are carrying huge backpacks in which hide - yes - Rupert and Danielle. There's actually no decent way of describing what they do, other than to say that it's completely excellent. There are a lot of what we call "walk about" acts these days, and 98.7% of them are god awful. I mean really bad. (May I just digress for a second here and say that many performers learn a skill but not how to perform, or learn how to perform but never have a skill to go with it, but walking on stilts is really, honestly, not much of a skill, so if you don't have a crapload of creative genius to add to it, then you have nothing. NOTHING. You're just a twit with wood strapped to your legs. A TALL TWIT). Anyway, the point I'm making is this: Rupert and Danielle are bloody brilliant, and as talented at performing the characters as they are at designing and making the props - which is to say, very. The characters are so good, and so unlike anything anyone will have seen previously, that they always carry in their check-in luggage a photograph of the characters posing with a real dog ("for scale", Rupert points out) with the word "PUPPETS" written in large orange pen on the back, so as to answer any questions anyone might have.

The kids, as I decide to patronisingly refer to Rupert and Danielle for the entire cruise (and something that, to their credit, they don't complain about), are very friendly and pleasantly geeky, (You gotta love a girl who brings Daredevil comics on a cruise with her) so we end up hanging out a lot together, going for meals at the posh restaurants, and sitting at the back of the big song and dance shows and giggling like children. Rupert doesn't drink alcohol, opting instead for various creative combinations of various juices and sodas. Danielle more than makes up for this, and will love me for bringing this up, I'm sure. I teach them how to play poker, and Danielle quickly shows a frightening natural talent for the game, winning over and over while cheerfully muttering "I am loving this game", at least until real money becomes involved, by which time her streak leaves her and attaches itself to Rupert and me. I can only hope that they were as grateful of the company as I was, because I really was - to the point of starting to become paranoid that I was being annoying and clingy, but that's probably more my issue than theirs. As I write this, and unless they have backed out, they are on a guided tour of an Ostrich farm. People who work on the ship, like us, get to go on the tours free if there are any spaces left after everyone else has had the chance to sign up. They put themselves on the list for Scuba diving, and Horse riding, and they got Ostrich farm, which is hilarious.

I have just noticed that the bottled water I am drinking as I write this, ("Tropical AWA Aruba water") has a large gold medal on the label which proudly proclaims that it was the "Grand quality award winner in Brussels, 2004". Clearly they mention this to impress me, but all I can think of is why it didn't win subsequent years. Did the quality of the water fall that dramatically? In which case, since I am drinking this water in 2007, what's the point in telling me how good it used to be. "Oh man, you should have been drinking this water a couple of years back, it was the cats meow. These days, meh..". Or maybe the quality of the competing brands jumped up suddenly from 2005 onwards, leaving Aruba water behind, in which case perhaps I shouldn't be buying this water since it's clearly not trying as hard as it used to. Maybe I'm going into this too deeply, it just seems like the more you examine it, the more putting the big gold medal on the bottle is lose-lose.

Sunday, 4 November 2007


Every night, here at the GOP variety theatre in beautiful rainy Hannover, in the middle of the big finale bows, we do a sequence that is apparently traditional in European variety - "the gimmicks". Big bouncy music starts, and we all take it in turns to run centre stage and do one more encore trick. Something a bit silly to get one more cheer out of the crowd and send 'em home happy. Often some of the acts do something together, as is the case with Sven, Roma and Ekaterina. During rehearsals they put together a trick where Roma sits on Svens shoulders, leans right back and Ekaterina hooks Roma's feet under her armpits. Sven then picks them both up and spins around like a lunatic while they both hang out flat each side like a fairground ride made out of circus people. It's cool.

Last night, we were at the end of the show, playing to a lovely crowd, and they were doing it. Spinning around fast, Roma's pink costume and Ekaterina's gold bikini a blur.

Then it all came apart in mid air.

Ekaterina has slipped out and is flying through the air, her body completely horizontal, still spinning, still a blur.

Time slows and all seems to go quiet, then it suddenly speeds up again like an old VHS player catching up with itself after grinding through a patch of crumpled tape.

She hit the hard scuffed black stage, knocking herself out. No sickening thud, she's too light, her body clears 20 feet in half a second like a stone skimming on water. Then she bounces at least a full foot and a half back up into the air, clearing the footlights and landing in the laps of the front row before slipping awkwardly to the floor.

Roma falls backwards to the floor, the weight of Sven partly on top of her. She somehow crawls the few feet right past me into the wings and out of view of the audience, only then seemingly allowing herself to be completely knocked out.

Time gets back to normal speed. The audience is frozen. We are frozen. It hits me that the stupid high energy music that accompanies the finale is still playing, suddenly so unsuitable. Then some of us are shooting offstage for help, others of us are running to the front to check Ekaterina who lays crumpled and unmoving in shadows on the floor. Audience members shuffle in their chairs back or get up to give us me space. Furniture gets moved back. The houselights come on.

Lutz gets on the mic and asks if there is a doctor in the house - something that would strike me as an almost comical theatrical cliche if it wasn't under such serious circumstances, and in German. He's too late though, 4 separate people have already made their way to Ekatrina and announced themselves as doctors or nurses. One of them even speaks Russian which is useful as Ekatrina is from Moscow. I look over the lip of the stage. Ekaterina is still not moving. Her eyes are closed. People are taking her pulse and talking frantically in languages I don't understand. I feel a cold sweat shiver over me, and then a thought strikes me - I realise that nobody is attending to Roma, and run back to see she is still laying motionless in the wings, so I get Sven, her performing partner to help her. Now she's moving, slowly, talking with Sven through half-closed eyes, her usually strong voice croaking and thin.

The ambulance has been called, and the audience has mainly left now - fifty percent of them, we later learn, not paying their bill - a fault of the shock of the event rather than opportunistic theivery, one would hope.

I go back to check on Ekateria, and she's conscious , eyes open, talking to her friend Natalia, who is on the floor with her, holding her hand, Faces close together, cheek pressed against cheek. Just keep talking. Ekaterina is obviously on the verge of freaking out, the meaning and possible consequences of what has just happened slowly sinking it. She tries to move but as soon as she does is restrained gently by everyone and told not to. This scares her, and were it not for Natalya's gentle calming whispers, looks like she might have lost it. But she doesn't.

Then the ambulance men arrive and with them, a policeman who asks me where Sven is. When I go to get him, the cop starts to question him as if an assault has taken place. A crime of some sort. This is, it is explained to us, normal routine, although it seems very uncomfortable to all of us, and certainly is for Sven, who would much rather be tending to his injured partner and co-worker.

Ekaterina is taken out on a stretcher, and then Roma goes past me on stage again, this time in the other direction, from the wings, being helped to walk by two medic and limping badly. Still looking groggy, trying to protest weakly but losing the battle and being taken to hospital.

Frankie the barman gets us all drinks, he knows all our usuals now, and gives me a Jack and Coke that is more than half Jack. It's needed. We all raise a glass to those that are on their way to hospital.

Ekaterina was released from hospital in the early hours of the morning and is staying with Natalia, who lives upstairs from us. We go and see her, she's in bed, smiling through glazed eyes, clearly still a little concussed. She remembers very little about what happened and all we tell her is that she bounced and it was spectacular. Good, she says. We bring her a plate of cheese, which, in a private moment the previous week she had admitted to us was "My eat". Amazingly, she's going to be ok. Looks like her tiny weight and incredible flexibility saved her. not to mention luck - a few feet to the side and she would have hit a concrete pillar, and few inches to the other side and she would have landed in a table full of glass. There are worse places to land than the nice soft audience. I joke that if I ever get taken to hospital unconscious, I want to be wearing a gold bikini as well.

Obviously she's not working tonight, but Roma, we learn when we arrive at the theatre, is. She's bumped and bruised, but nothing worse. "I must work tonight", she tells us, "Because it's what I am. I need to make sure it still is". Tough crazy circus chick.

Me and Dave go on right after Roma every night, and don't usually bother to watch the act. Tonight though, we do. And after she has finished her perfect routine, grinning as she takes her final bow with clenched fists and a little "yeah!", we both turn, wipe tears from out eyes, giggle at being such suckers for circus shit like this, and make our way to the stage,