Here we are cruising on the Yangtze river. I no complain too much.
The boat is basic, but sturdy and reliable (even if the smoke stack does rather pump out noxious black smoke, making the upper and back decks rather unpleasant places to be).
Our blissful lying in the sun, drinking cheap cheap beer, reading, and talking of everything and nothing is only occasionally interrupted by stops on the shore to look at marginally interesting towns (mostly interesting because they appear so marginal), and stops in the restaurant to eat spectacularly good and dirt cheap chinese food (is there any other kind?).
This evening, though, we could not share the deep calm of sunset as it settled over the birthplace of the Chinese people. For one of our people, indeed our expedition leader, had disappeared.
An extensive boat search, twice, turned up nothing. A hurried conference revealed the Johnny of the Dicky Tummy had returned before the rest of us to the boat after dinner (mmmm, boiled potatoes with butter and dill, cold beer – and all for just over $1). And no one had seen him since.
Did he go back ashore and was he even now desperately trying to explain his plight to a local member of the constabulary? His less than fluent grasp of Mandarin might well be an impediment to free flowing conversation.
Had he been arrested for finally trying the famed Chinese patience too far with his repeated refrain of “they just don’t try, do they?” upon finding another person who spoke no English (bear in mind we are deep in the heart of China just now).
Or had he bumped into Michelle Yeo, and raced off down river in her speedboat to be married by a Chairman Mao impersonator at the Chapel of Love in Yichang?
We search the boat thoroughly again. By now we are a little concerned. Johnny is generally quite capable of taking care of himself, of course. But one always has the impression that he might suffer from some unexpected lapse of concentration that could have disastrous consequences.
Eventually we enlist the help of a man from Taiwan, whose comparative advantage is that he speaks perfect English and fluent Mandarin (well, I assume he was fluent, although I can only really attest to the quality of his English for the obvious reason that my Mandarin is limited to saying “one bowl of rice” and “not spicy thank you”).
He rallies the crew. And soon word comes back that there is a gwailo in the beauty parlour on the top deck. Could this be the long-lost, intrepid explorer Johnny Shackleton Trubshaw?
Surely he was not having a massage. There must be some kind of mistake. Perhaps he was interviewing the beautician for an upcoming BBC special on nails of the world. Maybe he had found a particularly rare specimen of spider making its home in the lanterns that hang around the parlour. Certainly he would not have just wandered off without telling his chums where he had gone? Did he not realise that we would be worried sick? Was he not the slightest bit concerned that, without him, the expedition could never continue?
Johnny will be sent to his room with no dinner. And there he will stay until he realises the error of his ways and apologises for all the troubles he has caused.