Back to London

Dear Diary … It’s 12.15pm Monday and I left Holland precisely 45 minutes ago. The Dutch are nothing if not punctual. So here I am, once again, feeling very much at home on the open sea. I do feel a little sad, too, but I guess that’s life.

I changed what money I had left into English pounds before I left Holland and I now have the grand total of one pound two shillings and four-pence. I ‘ll need to spend some of that on lunch, and with 4 heavy suitcases plus hand luggage, I’ll have to take a taxi to Sue’s place from the station. I sure hope Chelsea is reasonably close to Liverpool Street station!

Thank heavens for Sue. If she hadn’t been inspired to do the Grand Trip and fly to London 2 weeks before my ship sailed, I’d be in big trouble.

The ferry is like a mini passenger liner. It has a bar, lounge, TV room, purser’s deck, 3 other decks, a shop and a dining room. The channel is very rough, but it really feels great to be back at sea, almost like being back on the old girl.

There are people from Holland, England, France, Germany, America and even one or two Aussies on board. In my purse I have money from Australia, England, Holland, the US, and a ten cent piece from Panama. Boy, do I feel international! Now I’m going to be very touristy and go up on deck and have a look at the water and think some more

I walked out onto the deck and was immediately slapped in the face by a gust of wind that threatened to haul me over the rails and blow me all the way back to Rotterdam. Oh but it felt so good. I closed my eyes and licked the salt from my lips. Heavenly. The biting wind whipped my long hair into a tangled mess. It would get no complaints from me. I loved it. l steadied myself at the railing and watched as waves slapped the side of the vessel, and as I had done so many time in the past few months, I reminded myself that it wasn’t Australian water I was looking at. These were European waves! Here I was, standing alone on a ferry on the North Sea, heading off for my next big adventure. My dream was now reality.

I leant against the rail and allowed the rhythmic rise and fall of those waves to lull me into a semi-hypnotic state. Suddenly, and without warning, my courage blew away on the next gust of North Sea wind. Tears of disappointment and fear welled up and burst through like a leaky Dutch dike. Until that moment, I hadn’t allowed myself to think too much about this next hurdle. I had just been relieved to be leaving Rotterdam.

Everything had been so wonderful on the ship. We had all existed in a bubble, a timeless fantasy world. Our every need had been met with a smile, our every whim generously catered for. Now I was facing a grim and frightening reality. I was alone and almost penniless. My one day in London on the way to Rotterdam had totally overwhelmed me. Soon I would have to face living and working in the very city that had terrified me.

At least everything would be relatively familiar. I understood the language, the money, the food and the way of life. I tried to convince myself that once I got settled and had time to look around, I’d feel more confident. After all, I’d done nothing for three  months but travel. It was time to settle.

How wonderful it would be to have my own apartment, somewhere to hang my clothes up and cook my own meals. I’d find a job and have a regular pay check to sustain me. I’d  learn how to find my way around sprawling London. I’d save my money and travel the continent in the spring.

I’d be fine.

 Yes, I was sure. I’d be just fine.

I would!

Harwich station

The Juliana docked at Harwich at 6pm. I loaded my luggage on a trolley, had my passport endorsed for a year, walked straight through customs without a problem and boarded the train for London, arriving at Liverpool Street station at 8pm. I had a one pound note and a few coins left in my pocket. I also had 4 heavy suitcases and sundry hand luggage. What fun it was lugging them up escalators one at a time, wondering if each one would still be there when I arrived at the top again. If someone wanted to steal them, they’d need muscles, and I doubted my mini-skirts and bell-bottom slacks would suit a burly, muscle-bound thief.

I hailed a taxi outside the station, gave the driver Sue’s Chelsea address, then slumped back in the seat and fixed my eyes on the meter. I was feeling sick to my stomach. What would I do if the meter clicked over to a pound?

Fifteen minutes after leaving Liverpool Street station, we stopped at a red light. By then, the meter was showing eighteen shillings and I was starting to break out in a cold sweat. Soon I’d have to shout “pull over!” But then what? I had no idea where I was. How would I get to Sue’s place from “somewhere in London”?

Would I be able to find a public phone? Where would I leave my pile of luggage while I looked for one? Did I even have enough change to use one? What could Sue do anyway? Would she have to come out in the cold and dark to find me? Perhaps she’d tell me to get a cab the rest of the way and she would pay for it when I arrived, but we were in a suburban area, so where would I find another cab if I had to let this one go?

Oh why hadn’t I saved more money? Why hadn’t I delayed my trip for a few more months. I had my return ticket, but what little extra money I’d saved had disappeared in ports along the way and during my time in Rotterdam.

Yes, I’d discovered the hard way that Dutch treats weren’t just a saying! They were for real.

Besides, why would I have needed to save more money? A friendly Dutch family had been waiting to welcome me with open arms into their cosy home. A work permit for the Netherlands was stamped in my shiny new passport, and  a job had been waiting for me in Rotterdam.

I bit down on my lower lip to stop the involuntary quiver that started when I thought about my stay there. How disappointing it had all been.

Once again, I briefly considered that perhaps it might be best if I jumped on a plane tomorrow and returned home. I had somewhere to stay tonight – if I ever got there – but how would I get through the weeks ahead? How would I find a job when I couldn’t even afford the train fares to go for interviews? How could I find a place to live when I had no money for rent until I received my first pay packet? And what was even more terrifying, I had to accomplish all this in London! Huge, frantic, immense, chaotic, overwhelmingly terrifying London! I could see the headlines now:

“VISITING AUSTRALIAN GIRL STARVES TO DEATH WHILE SLEEPING IN A SUITCASE ON A SUBURBAN LONDON STREET …. AND NO ONE NOTICED”

The traffic light turned green. The cab moved away from the intersection and  immediately turned into a side street.  And in that street, mercifully, it came to a stop.

“Here we are, luv. Tite Street Chelsea!” the driver announced.

The meter showed 18 shillings and sixpence. I could have kissed him.

I’m sure he expected me to say “keep the change” after lifting my four heavy suitcases in and out of the cab, but I bravely held out my hand for my one shilling and sixpence change. He grudgingly handed it over.

It was all the money I had in the world.

ROTTERDAM

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?

Across the Universe

October 14, 1969

The waiting room at Melbourne’s Station Pier was buzzing with excited passengers and tearful families when we arrived at about 5pm. Mum, Keith, Suzanne, Ray and Judy used their visitor passes immediately and climbed the gangplank, while I stood in a queue for half an hour before I was allowed to join them.

Mum and I went to find my cabin and were greeted by a note on the door: “all of us are in the fwd passenger lounge.” It was signed “the boys & girls”.

I had no idea who “the boys & girls” were. I’d only been allocated 5 passes from Chandris and I’d given them all out. I dumped my hand luggage and we negotiated the seemingly endless corridors and stairs to the lounge to find that most of the staff from my office were there.

David had ‘borrowed’ one of my passes and made multiple (and very credible) copies at work, so I had 15 people to party with!

L-R: Mum, me, and a few work colleagues

At 7pm the announcement came over the loud speaker. “Everyone going ashore must leave now.” Help! We all had hugs, said our goodbyes, and then had more hugs. Mum was crying. I had a few tears welling up too, but I had to stay strong for her.

I stood on deck and watched them walk down the gangplank.

I had never felt so alone in my life.

People down below threw streamers. Passengers leaning on the rails tried to catch them and threw streamers back. Auld Lang Syne played over the loud speaker. Everyone waved and called to each other. It was all just as I had imagined.

Except … we weren’t moving!

By 8pm, a few well-wishers began departing. Then a few more. Suzanne gave me a wave and left. Mum, Keith, Ray and Judy stayed.

By 9pm, most of the crowd had disappeared. My loyal four remained.

Not quite the way I’d dreamed it would be –
my 4 (centre group) waving at 10pm

I knew Mum wouldn’t be able to stand for much longer. Not long after 10pm, she blew me a kiss and I pretended to catch it. Ray put his arm around her shoulders as they walked to the car, turning occasionally to give me another wave.

I knew she was crying.

I was crying too. But I couldn’t let her see that.

Dear Diary, Tuesday, 14 October 1969

I’m on my way! Today is the first day on board the Australis, and I can hardly believe it’s happening!

A quick peek to starboard (or is it portside?) reveals there’s nothing but water for a long, long way. A frightening but exciting thought.

It’s now 3am and I’m sitting up in my narrow little bunk-bed.

An hour ago, I was standing alone on deck as this big beautiful ship sliced through the ocean,
taking me further and further away from everything safe and familiar, closer and closer to who knows where and what, or for how long?

Oh God!

How did it come to this?