November 21, 1969 … Dear Diary, it’s 4am and I’m sitting in the Smoking Room. I’ve just come inside from walking around the deck for an hour or more. Every night for the rest of my life, before I close my eyes to sleep, I want to remember how it felt to stand alone on the deck in the darkest hours before dawn as my ship slowly nosed its way down a river towards Rotterdam.
I never want to forget leaning on the railing at the back of the ship, watching our wake, wanting to believe that it reaches all the way back to Australia like a watery umbilical cord, keeping me safe and connected.
I can feel the ship’s familiar tremble. It saddens me to think I might never again feel that gentle vibration. My hair is being whipped about by the icy wind. Tears sting my eyes. Is that because of the chilly air, or because I’m so nervous? Probably both.
I take a deep breath, trying to settle the fluttering in my chest. My stomach is turning somersaults. All is silent except for the familiar swish and splash below as we glide effortlessly through the dark water. Stars wink their encouragement and the moon’s reflection shimmers on the dark sea. From the back of the ship, I can’t separate sky from sea. I turn to look behind me and see the fuzzy lights of Rotterdam on the horizon. I think I prefer the view from the stern!
Am I ready for this? I shiver, pull my coat tighter around me, then slowly make my way to the bow to watch our progress. One of those lights belongs to the house where Peter lives. All the other lights in all the other houses are where all the other Dutch families are preparing to greet a new day. They’re unaware and unconcerned that for two people, this day will be different from any other.
I’m questioning my sanity again.
I have a sudden urge to run and hide.
Is my life about to be forever changed?
I remind myself that whatever happens next, it will be as it is meant to be.
The night before we arrived in Rotterdam, I spent an hour or more just wandering around the ship aimlessly. I missed my friends, I missed our routines, our conversations and private jokes. We’d spent a lifetime together in just a few weeks and now they were getting settled in England, without me.
The passengers I encountered now were strangers. They offered no smiles of recognition, merely glancing at me with blank expressions as they passed by. For most of them, this was their first night on board and the labyrinth of cabins, the sooty smoke pouring from the ship’s funnel, dinner gongs and other idiosyncrasies that made our ship special were still unknown to them. Would the Australis cast her spell on them, as she had for us? Perhaps not. Many were embarking on a journey to a new land and a new life. It was likely the destination was more their focus than the voyage.
When I finished saying goodbye (yet again) to every nook and cranny, I returned to my cabin, hopeful I’d sleep well and awaken refreshed. I should have been exhausted. I’d spent the day running excitedly around Piccadilly Circus and Carnaby Street, embracing the chaotic delights of London for the first time, then another 90 minutes on the boat train, listening as an elderly gentleman seated opposite pointed out historic sites on the way. Yesterday, I’d spent the day finding my sea legs in Southampton, then sleeping on two lounge chairs pushed together at a Chelsea apartment. The night before that, I’d sat up most of the night in the Smoking Room with my friends, reminiscing, promising, planning, all of us reluctant to waste our last few hours together in sleep.
Even so, sleep eluded me. I tossed and turned, then tossed some more. My eyes refused to close, staring through darkness at the underside of the empty upper bunk. At around 3am, I gave up, got up, wrapped my rabbit-fur coat over my pjamas, stepped into my fluffy slippers and headed up to the deck. A few early risers or nervous new passengers passed me in the corridor and I’m sure I made a comical sight. I didn’t care. I knew it would be freezing outside. I shuffled through the doors and walked to the rail.
I could just make out a distant glow of blurred lights on the horizon. They looked to be at least an hour away. I stood shivering at the stern for a long time, questioning my sanity.
We docked at about 6.30am. As we slid closer and closer towards the wharf, I was disappointed to see that the eye-level balcony was totally devoid of humanity. I cheered a little when I noticed a few people gathered on the dock below. I leant over the rail and studied them carefully. Then one caught a rope and a second ran to help. They were merely dock workers.
Where was Peter? He had assured me he’d be there as we docked. “Believe me,” he had written 2 months earlier, “I am so looking forward to November 19th, I think I better take a carton of cigarettes with me that morning because I’ll probably eat them.”
How many times had I imagined this day? I’d be standing on the deck, bathed in glorious sunshine as we sailed into Rotterdam and were greeted by a cheering crowd. Of course, it hadn’t occurred to me that November was not Holland’s sunniest month, nor was I aware that daylight didn’t seem to happen in Holland at all. I had imagined how Peter would find me in the crowd as we glided in to tie up, and he’d smile and wave enthusiastically. Of course, I’d recognize him immediately too. I’d wave back excitedly, then rush down the gangplank (in a most ladylike way, of course) and throw myself into his waiting arms. We’d walk off, hand-in-hand, towards a glorious sunset. So much for dreams!
I returned to the deck after breakfast to find that daylight really did happen in Holland, after all. Not only that, the balcony was now packed with that cheering crowd I’d so often imagined. I scanned their faces. Still no Peter. Had he changed his mind? What would I do if he didn’t arrive?
The queuing process began. By the time the passport inspection, document checking, permit stamping and other official paperwork was completed, it was almost 10am. I was finally allowed to disembark.
I gathered up my hand luggage, then turned to say a last, sad and silent farewell. Oh how I wished I could have stayed on my beloved ship. That first step was almost agonizing, but I pulled myself together and waddled off. And yes. I do mean waddled! One hand clutched my bulging handbag, the other a heavy overnight bag. My camera bag was slung over my shoulder and a bulky travelling wardrobe draped over an arm. I made at least ten stops on the way to blow into my palms and readjust my hold on everything.
What an elegant entrance to Rotterdam! It held absolutely no resemblance to the arrival I’d experienced in my dreams!
I entered a big hall with shiny polished floors and benches stretching ahead of me. A large sign emblazoned with letters of the alphabet hung above each bench. Of course, XYZ was where I entered, C way down the furthest end where a crowd of people were waiting and waving.
My luggage became heavier with each step. The handles bit into my sweaty palms. The strap on my camera bag cut into my sun-burnt shoulder. The smooth soles of my boots kept sliding on the slippery floor. I had no doubt that at any moment I would go skidding in spectacular fashion across the hall or drop everything and collapse in an exhausted, gibbering heap in front of what seemed by now to be at least half the population of Rotterdam.
Amazingly, I made it in one piece! I was almost to the C bench when I saw someone in a dark coat waving frantically at me from behind a wire gate. A photograph came to life. Yes, I’d have known him anywhere. I walked slowly towards him and he stepped through the gate to meet me.
We stood face to face, just smiling. Then I said “hello Peter” and he said “hello, Sandy” and we smiled some more. They were not really earth-shattering words, but it was all we could manage for now. We had waited six years for this moment.
Peter collected my 4 suitcases and placed them and my hand luggage on a trolley and we pushed it to his car. On our way, we passed a cafe with floor-to-ceiling windows. Andy and a group of other waiters from our dining room rushed to the window and began knocking on it, waving and beckoning me to come in.
I hadn’t been able to find Andy, Marci, Ianis or Victor the previous night and was sad that I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye. How I would have loved to run over and hug them all, but I noticed Peter’s frown. While I saw a group of sweet people who had shared my journey and became my friends, Peter saw a rabble of amorous Greek waiters and – I later learnt – had formed a few ungracious assumptions.
I waved, beamed an apologetic smile at them and shook my head. I was no longer a fun-loving passenger on my glorious Australis. The voyage was over. My new life was about to begin.
But oh, please, couldn’t I just go around one more time before I have to face life in cold grey Rotterdam?