We awoke a little groggy and snoozed as long as we could. The night before, after the tour of Belfast with Marty had wrapped up, Jamie and I didn’t really have time to venture out and explore the town again, but we weren’t ready to call it a night either. Entering the lobby, we saw there was a birthday party going on in our hotel bar, so we walked into the mix and had a drink, a special house concoction, that turned out to be so good we had a couple more. Before going back to the room, we inquired at the front desk about catching a cab early the next morning. The man behind the counter (who was wearing colossal dark-red sunglasses) assured us that a cab to the nearby ferry terminal would not be a problem, and sure enough, five hours later when we returned to the lobby loaded up with luggage, it was only a minute after the hotel placed the call that a cab was waiting outside.
Intermission: Happily Trapped on the Irish Sea with a Thousand Football Fanatics
The cab ride to the ferry terminal was short, maybe five minutes through the industrial side of town. Like most Irish men, Colin was a football enthusiast, although in his case he was possibly a football extremist, and I’ll just leave his story there. As a matter of practicality though, the first thing he told us was that an important match up was taking place in Glasgow today, and that the ferry this morning — first run of the day — would be loaded to capacity with people headed to the stadium. It was to be a contest between two Scottish teams: the heavily favored Celtic Football Club and the Heart of Midlothian F.C., also known respectively as the Celtics and Hearts.
After loading the 600 or so vehicles onto the lowest deck of the ship, passengers began boarding a few floors above. The MS Stena Superfast VII is a 30,000 ton, 670-foot monster, with the capacity to carry 1,200 passengers and 660 cars across the northern mouth of the Irish Sea, in a little over two hours. Having no idea what we were doing, while boarding, we literally went with the flow, which took us up two flights of stairs and then deposited us and the rest of the spirited but peaceful mob onto the main floor. From this center-point of the ship, the mob then dispersed in all directions, most folks with purpose either heading for their favorite places, or straight for the galley to our immediate right. Tucked away in the far corner of the room, we snagged one of the last open tables left in the massive, atrium-like deli, a two-seater pushed against a bulkhead, and sandwiched between the end of the kitchen and a watertight door to the outside. It was a good spot because from it we could survey the whole place, undetected.
The ferry left the dock precisely at 0730, and having observed for a while the few hundred people inhabiting the dining hall, two things were obvious: One, if there were any Hearts fans on board, they weren’t making any statements about it, and two, for all unattached males under fifty, the goal was to drink as much beer as possible. Practically everyone in the place was wearing green and white jerseys — Celtics colors — and almost every occupied table had a beer pitcher or two on it. For those that didn’t have a seat, they just walked about, wearing and carrying the same. At the next table over, while one Celtics fan was finishing his breakfast and washing it down with amber-colored brew, his friend opposite him, tightly grasping his empty pint glass with foam at the bottom, had his forehead planted on the formica, with eyes open. But there was an order to it all. Wandering the extent of it later, I saw more of the same in the bars, lounges, and seating areas spread across the ship, although in these more secluded areas the shows might have been less exuberant. Mixed in with it all were old couples reading or snoozing in comfy, faux leather lounge chairs, and families with young children enjoying the view out the window, or taking in the interior scene surrounding them, one that they were perhaps seeing for the first time, or the tenth. And though greatly outnumbered, I saw Hearts milling about, too, with colors on full display.
After breakfast, Jamie and I went through the watertight door and stepped outside onto the starboard-side deck. “Are you in the military?” asked a tall, thin, blonde guy with rosy cheeks and a beaming, friendly face, standing with three other young men in tight formation. I was wearing camo pants, which must have been what prompted the question, and oddly enough, that’s how things started. Killian, the inquisitive blonde, I would soon gather, was the voice and brains of the crew, while his counterpart, Rory, a sturdy character with fiery red hair and matching beard, was its spirit and muscle. Third in line was a supercharged little speed-talker, a guy not more than five feet tall and maybe a hundred pounds, whose name I never got but one I’ll remember as “Alaska”. And last was an impressively drunk, scruffy-faced, shuffle-footed oddball, who consistently made mouth sounds which I think were social contributions, but ones most of the time spoken to his shoes. I don’t remember how much time had passed before Killian produced a joint, but it wasn’t long. Pulling it out of his shirt pocket and silently handing it over to me to do the honors, I lit it up, took a drag, and then passed it over to Mumbles, gazing at his footwear. Looking up, he genuinely seemed surprised by this act of inclusion, which instantly struck me as strange, but he accepted the toothpick-skinny blunt without comment, took a puff himself, and then passed it along to Alaska on his left. Next was Rory and as puny as it was, it barely made it back to Killian before that was officially the end of that. Although entirely inconsequential in effect, and more ceremonial than anything else, Killian’s gesture of intercontinental goodwill was appreciated nonetheless.
Killian, Rory, and Alaska then fired off a fusillade of words, almost competing with one another to ask and tell me as many things as possible. Even Mumbles now seemed a little more animated and engaged. Meanwhile, Jamie stood by in silence, stunned by the sheer energy of it all. Asking me in confused unison where I was from, I told them I live in California these days, but that my home state is Maryland, which Rory inexplicably reacted to by singing “Sweet Home, Alabama”, a song he only knew the first three words to, and sang several times. Next, Alaska took over the line of questioning and asked me how many states I had visited, to which I offered him a more efficient response by instead telling him the three I had not, one being his “namesake”. Alaska then proclaimed with all seriousness that if he ever ended up in America’s northernmost state and was attacked by a grizzly bear, the first thing he would do is bite his ears off.
All in the span of maybe a minute, laced within other fast-paced small talk, I then got their stories: Killian was excited about an approaching, first-time trip to America, off to NYC to visit family, and in two weeks Rory was moving to Australia, in search of adventure, with no particular plans on how to find it. In contrast, Alaska was living in the present, apparently not thinking much past the football match, while Mumble’s story remained untold, which was probably just as well. And then in a flash, after a hearty round of handshakes, Killian, Rory, and Alaska ran off in an easterly direction towards the stern, still grouped in tight formation, laughing and in pursuit of their next unanticipated experience in life, which abruptly left Jamie and me with Mumbles, who now just stood next to us in silence, and stared at us both blankly. After what was probably only fifteen seconds but felt far longer, without a sound, Mumbles then slowly shuffled off in the opposite direction towards the bow, on his own, and we didn’t see any of them again.
Shortly before 10:00 a.m. the ferry pulled into Cairnryan and the off-loading began. Once again, we jumped into a slow-moving stream of people, this time one running down the stairs we had climbed two-and-a-half hours ago. The scene in the central staircase was a little more boisterous now, although still congenial and controlled, with lots of talking and laughing, and small groups of young men, fueled by expectations and beer, rough-housing with each other, and singing Celtic F.C. songs. Caught up in the commotion, Jamie and I seemingly floated down the stairs, and not paying attention, we floated all the way down to the car lot, located at the lowest publicly accessible point on the ship. So, turning around and working against the semi-solid flow of humanity, one now descending at an even larger volume, we slowly made our way back up the stairs, and eventually reached the checkpoint where the carless people disembarked.