Three years after that, I fell in love with a Norwegian woman. Three years after that we separated – not amicably. It was therefore a surprise to return thence the next year, when I accompanied my mother on a Norwegian coastal cruise. I wrote about that in a chapbook called Sailing North. It was an emotional journey for me; for the first third of the new century's first decade, I had thought that my of my future lay in and around Norway, a country which I loved for reasons which were not much connected with its national geography (although it helps).
Eight years later, I am on another fortnight-long cruise with my mother. Again, emotions are running high. She is now seventy-five and in failing health, and she is repeatedly asserting that this will be her last big holiday. I hope that she is wrong, but with eyesight and heart deteriorating, worsening diabetes and serious arthritic problems in both legs, she is losing her mobility and independence and with those her will to live.
In the intervening years, she has had some adventures with her friend Audrey, a charming and granite-hard Yorkshirewoman who has strong genes – her grandson is Mark Cavendish, a Manx professional racing cyclist who has won more Tour de France stages than anyone else. Together, they have visited Madeira, the sunny coasts of both Spain and Portugal, Moscow, St Petersburg, Helsinki, cruised in the Mediterranean and taken a train across Canada to the Yukon.
But now, growing prematurely infirm, rather than another cold damp Yule on the Isle of Man, she felt that a gentle cruise in the tropic Caribbean seemed likely to be something that she could cope with and even enjoy. She has eschewed any inoculations or vaccinations and had not planned to go ashore, but she broke that resolution on the first day.
So in mid-December, I found myself flying from freezing London to sun-kissed Barbados, for me long a byword for exotic tropical luxury. Here we were to join the Ventura, an Italian-built P&O cruise liner: a nineteen-deck floating town, with multiple shops and bars, a cinema, a theatre, piano, tapas and ballroom dancing clubs, four free restaurants and as many more which cost extra, from burger and pizza joints all the way up to a Marco Pierre White designer boutique étoile, and no less than four swimming pools – one an "infinity pool". Not one of those posy ones one the edge of a high drop where the water goes right to the invisible edge in a rich man's home or a hotel for the moneyed; no, this is a small oblong pool enclosed on a high sun deck, but with its own integral flume, a high-pressure watery conveyor-belt allowing you to swim flat out in a six or seven metre long pool for as long as you can, in a sort of acquatic human-scale hamster-wheel.
(I've tried it. It is absolutely fantastic. I am a reasonable swimmer but not a fast one. I can just about stay in the same place, absolutely flat out, for half to three quarters of a minute against the current doing breaststroke or backstroke; with some warming up and massive effort, I can actually advance against the flow doing a racing crawl and touch the machine's guard bar. Somehow it is immensely more satisfying than trying to take 30sec off your time for a lap of the local pool, although to be fair this may be because my local pool is the unheated outdoor Tooting Bec Lido in south London and one of its lengths is a distinctly non-trivial eighth of a kilometer. Its widths are fairly serious in their own right and would be lengths of most indoor pools. But I am getting ahead of myself.)