Whereas last night the mood on this ferry was noticeably expectant and gamey, with the mostly British passengers boldly striking up conversations with new acquaintances, and a kind of restrained excitement - queuing to reserve a place for dinner, asking for extra pillows, going to the bars, men recounting tales of their own derring-do in buying an old boat, or explaining the moves in some particularly favoured football game - it's all changed this morning. How late did they stay up? It's much more subdued. After all, last night we were setting out on a voyage across the treacherous Bay of Biscay with who knows what ahead? But today we are homeward bound, three hours only to go before we dock in Portsmouth. Andrew, on a recce first thing this morning, reported overhearing men saying things like 'Good morning young man! Still in the land of the living?'
There is a ship's pianist, who has quite a good touch and achieves some very pretty romantic runs, but perhaps from years of repetition has the habit of blurring one tune into the next, sometimes halfway through a melody or for no reason at all, so that listeners might catch the hint of something they know but before it can be identified, he's swept them off into something quite different, and we get Chopin mixed with Lloyd Webber with Beatles with songs from the first World War, all stitched together with achingly wrong chords and trills. It's so bad it's almost good. We sat near the piano during dinner last night, before we had heard him. Now, he's back again as the morning light streams into the lounges, and the boat is somewhere south of the Isle of Wight.
There is another hazard on these boats - how churlish of me to mention it in this pretty and luxurious and well-run vessel.... That is, germs. In fact the loos are all clean and neat and modern, as they have been throughout our whole holiday (a lesson we should learn in England). I am sure most people are diligently washing their hands when they need to, but I regard each railing, each bannister, each door-handle with suspicion. I learned all about this on another ship where there were disinfectant dispensers in every dining area and bar....
On a ship, you are certainly closer to your own deep fears about sudden catastrophe. During the night, though I slept pretty well, I was also worrying about what would happen if by chance our ship should strike another, on the very quarter where our tiny cabin lies.... Water would gush into the long narrow corridors, we would have no chance of escape, we would inevitably drown.
Andrew found a newspaper article about a maritime disaster at Santander which had him shaking and weeping with laughter this morning.... In 1893, a cargo boat had an illicit quantity of gunpowder aboard, and when the engines caught fire and attracted the attention of officials and firefighters, the local population also came to see the fun, and filled a tugboat to get a better view..... The store of petroleum also caught alight and in the end the whole thing exploded with such ferocity that hundreds - possibly thousands - died in the ensuing inferno. A trainload of holidaymakers arrived just as all this happened and they too, along with the train itself, were blown to smithereens. The newspaper report is worth reading - the crowd was reduced to atoms, survivors were said to have lost their minds.....
Santander had another terrible disaster in 1941, when a south wind encouraged the spread of a fire through the timber-built district of the old city and great swathes of it were lost.
But Santander is now far behind us. We still have bright warm sunshine, almost Spanish in intensity, out on the decks.
But inside this boat, people are snoozing, walking along very sedately, preparing for their return to normal life at home. I almost snoozed myself, half an hour ago. I fear if I actually went back down to our cabin and tried to catch a few winks I'd instantly wake up again... So I sit here, describing this scene for you, with that damned pianist twittering about in the background, half true, half dreadful.