“Stephen, well done for getting this sorted”, I say. Before me, a marked BMW 1200 RT at his side stands Madden with a collection of travel vouchers in his gloved hand. “Bond, are you sure about this?”, he replies, “it will just be a matter of hours before they realise you have gone”.
“But they won’t know how”, I add, feeling slightly smug. “The last thing they will suspect is a cargo ship. Shortly I will simply be lost at sea. The crew speak Filipino and internet is patchy. Checks at Ezeiza and Jorge Newbery airports will all draw a blank”.
“But they will guess that you are to return to Buenos Aires - for Moneypenny and for tango”, he adds, sounding rather ridiculous. “James, keep your head down, or mine too will be on the block”.
Madden, who without the gelco jacket would pass for an extra from a 1940’s Hollywood film, flashes his usual smile. “Have a good trip, Bond, and don’t fall overboard”, he adds jocularly, before thrusting the vouchers into my hand and pulling his helmet over his voluminous moustache.
Ahead of me is the departures booth. Inside a grey faced dock official with a Sudanese accent checks the booking and waves me through with a nod. Beyond, I walk the long trek towards the ‘Hanjin Buenos Aires’, weighing in at 35,595 tons, 225 metres in length and flying a Maltese flag.
Tillbury docks are designed for vehicular access. Nobody ever walks, save the Chief Officers and crew that descend from the bridge to direct large freight boarding a vessel. It seems like half a mile, made arduous by another flurry of rain that lashes the sides of docked ships as I pass. Eventually, I reach the Hanjin. Dusk is gathering, and the last of the evening’s cargo is being backed onto the lower decks. A bearded officer waves in my direction, and I head towards where he is standing. “NIck Compton, Chief Officer”, he says cheerily, “and who might you be?”, he enquires. “MIght you just be Major Bond - James Bond, one of our five passengers?”, he adds knowingly. “Step aboard. Dinner is at 8 pm. Join me at Captain’s table if I get back in time”, he continues. “Got to get these Range Rovers stacked. Oh, and Madden is my cousin - he has told me about you, but don’t worry, you are safe with us. Nobody ever checks the manifest”.
Tonight there is to be no piping aboard, just a glare from a galley steward carrying a box of provisions on the mid-deck. I search along the long white corridor for a door bearing the number 007 on my boarding voucher.
A fluorescent light staggers into life revealing a small cabin with two bunks. Opposite is a fixed desk leading to a wardrobe and functional, airless bathroom. I pull open a drawn curtain to reveal the view - a long line of red blue and green containers. Somewhere below, engines hum gently producing a constant low level vibration. I throw the Panama onto the bottom bunk and place my travel bag on the chair. ‘That’s me unpacked’, I say to myself, wondering whether this was my best idea.
On the desk a folder marked ‘PASSENGER INSTRUCTIONS’ bulges ominously. The first few sheets start ‘In the event of….’followed by a major catastrophe identified in capitals, with line drawings of stick-men jumping into lifeboats. The translation appears to have been undertaken by the Filipino chef, as is the sample menu which is decorated with lurid photos of Adobo and Dinuguan garnished with mint and green chillies. Fortunately there are some recognisable dishes, at least according to the text.
It has been the longest Sunday, and eyeing the pack of cheese and tomato sandwiches that Mireille had dropped into my jacket pocket before leaving, I decide that I will skip dinner. Somewhere in my bag I have a bottle of Talisker single malt. Now all I need is the plastic cup from the bathroom and ‘dinner is served’.