The new passport takes its first trip. It flies in a pink leather cover inside a mesh bag inside the zipped compartment of my handbag. This Russian doll tendency – the putting of things into other things – makes for creative gift-wrapping and sprang surprises in lunchboxes when my sons were at school, like yoghurt tubes in toothpaste packets…. Must have my DNA tested for traces of the taiga.
This flimsy proof of an identity fetches up in the safe of a cabin on the second deck of a new ship called the Charlotte Bronte, docked at Cologne. It sits there in darkness for seven days, with my companion’s credit cards for company.
The cast: attentive young crew, charming captain, forgettable pianist. The cabin attendants are whimsical, arranging towels and toilet rolls into abnormal attitudes – boats, fans… The passengers: mostly pensioners, preferring a river to an ocean, mainly seriously married couples. A few bold souls – all women, in striped or embellished tops – who have come on their own and often look lighter-hearted than the rest of us.
Only October, but far too cold for the sundeck. The wind is from the East. Still, the Rhine and the Moselle are perfect cruising country, with views best seen from a ship’s balcony or through a panoramic window. Of wooded slopes and steep terraced vineyards and frosted pines on the skyline. Spires and half-timbered houses. With the odd caravan site, for variety.
When the ship enters the Gorge, she passes the swirling siren waters of a bend and the rock of the Lorelei. On the bank, the solitary figure of a man – or a woman – stands and waves for a while, then turns away.
It’s true my shiny new smartphone won’t connect to any known network – but there are no desperate events of any sort. There are no bugs on board (all the hand-washing stations see to that), no holes below decks. No one dies or falls over the side in mysterious circumstances. It’s not that kind of cruise.
In the floating restaurant, the food and wine are all divine. It is there, amid the sparkling glasses and fabulous 5-star flavours, that my companion, once my partner, tells his long, witty – and unstoppable – stories to strangers. Our stories are so precious and part of us. These, though, I have heard a thousand times, over 14 years. It’s time to leave the table. Or sit back and think of Germany or just drift away…
There’s another, soldierly man I like the look of. We pass in the deeply carpeted corridors. A few smiles and snatches of conversation. A brief lifting of fatigue. But the moment also passes, if there was a Moment.
A sequence of shore excursions and guided tours. Around a mechanical music museum, a Roman ruin, a Gothic cathedral…A cobbled climb to a castle before returning to our beautiful capsule and another feast. My middle grows muffinesque.
The ship passes under one bridge, then another and another; she slides in and out of several locks, then sails on – softly, softly down the stream – while an old friendship, born from love, starts to founder.