Latitude 1 N 16: Longitude 103 E 51

TCWG entry for July 2015 – An ocean voyage  –  WINNER

Latitude 1 N 16: Longitude 103 E 51

 

For a few weeks, the word ‘disembarkation’ keeps popping up (black capitals on a huge white board) in Margot’s mind. She is used to random words wandering loose around her mental bits – perhaps everyone is – yet has no idea what triggered it.

Two months later, she wakes one morning and mentions to John,

“I dreamed we sailed on some ship to Singapore.”

“Dream on, we won’t be that lucky. It’ll be somewhere half way up the Gulf, or a hell-hole like Rawalpindi or Calcutta,” he says, dragging himself out of bed on a freezing winter morning. “Anyway, they’re stopping sea travel, it takes too long, costs too much.”

—–

Two weeks later, they arrive home from work at the same time. He laughs when he sees her, shakes his head.

“What?” she says looking around, seeing nothing.

“You’re completely fey. You won’t believe this , we ARE going to Singapore!”

“Yes!“

She leaps into his arms,

“……and then…….” he says holding her at arm’s length “… we’re flying onto Jakarta for a three year posting. You didn’t dream that, did you?”

“Something even stranger…..” he says as they go inside.

“I checked with Travel Section… it’s so unlikely, there’s a ship sailing to Singapore which we could travel on.”

—–

On a spring morning in 1974, they turn up at Tilbury Docks in London, among the last who will enjoy the three week journey down round Cape Horn and via Penang to Singapore, courtesy of the Foreign Office.

The Himalaya is a 500 ft long freight carrier navigating far flung places to deliver cargo, and able to take twelve passengers. No flags or bunting – she’s a workhorse, not a party girl. John is mesmerised watching the loading of freight, crated and bagged. The accommodation is functional, without frills, with berths and communal bathrooms. There are no shows, buffets or bingo on this waterborne workplace.

They’re dejected on meeting the others. The atmosphere is not very Noel Coward. There’s a loud, retired law professor from Wellington. His wife is a quiet lady, on the large side and to Margot seems the most interesting. She has Experience of Life written all over her. There are seven retired school teachers – all introducing themselves as Miss – who have been saving for three years for the trip. And a Norwegian lady, independent looking, travelling alone. When Margot runs into her in the common room – yes, the common room! – they settle down to read. Astrid pulls out ‘Gulag Archipelago’ and Margot whips open her bag, producing the same copy.

“I’m only at page 100 but find it too heavy going,” Astrid says.

“It’s so depressing,” Margot agrees.

They talk instead. Astrid’s a retired paediatrician.

“Luckily they won’t be calling on my skills here,” she says drily.

“I never considered that….what would happen if someone needed a doctor?”

“The second mate is usually the medical officer, as well as the navigator. That’s why twelve is the limit for passengers, you must have a doctor on board for more.”

The things you learn…..

____

There’s a tour of the ship. They all go up to the bridge, where the second mate uses a technical language new to most of them. Is John pretending to really understand the difference between relative and absolute bearing, the significance of apparent wind, and shift tides? They’re shown the lifeboats and instructed what to do in an emergency. There’s a film night every three nights and card games occasionally. They will be crossing the equator twice, but there will be no traditional shenanigans in a pool, though they will be informed. There’s also a laundry room, with everything they’ll need. All is shipshape.

—–

They sleep well, there’s a heartbeat somewhere, almost inaudible, like a metronome on the lowest setting. She pitches, rolls. Real life is below decks, with voices, laughter, and the work being done.

—–

Miss Brown, one of the teachers, has the cabin next to John and Margot. They’re now three days out to sea.

“I swear I hear a canary tweeting the same tune in there, listen,” John says.

Margot puts her ear to the wall separating their cabins.

“You’re right, she’s smuggled a bird on board.”

They wait another day, hearing the canary often.

“Should we do anything about it?”

“Let’s be sure,” John decides.

He goes and knocks on the teacher’s door.

“Good morning, I was wondering if you had a book I could read. We seem to have finished ours.”

The door shuts as he disappears into the cabin. Within five minutes he’s back clutching a Barbara Cartland, laughing as he flops down.

“It’s a tape recording of her budgie – she misses him.”

By the end of the trip, they will know every chirp off by heart.

____

Six passengers sit at the chief engineer’s table, six at the captain’s table.

“Where do you live, what do your parents do?” the professor asks Margot across the table.

“What education have you had, what school did you go to?”

All this because he’s from the same city.

The professor’s wife is devoted to him. Bored by Margot, then Astrid’s monosyllabic answers, he turns his attention to Miss Rutherford who is deeply flattered. Margot glances at his wife again. Her expression reveals nothing but Margot guesses she has had years of this to put up with. The captain, a dour Scot, is an excellent conversationalist with a dry wit. They all fall into a routine of somehow not responding to the probing questions of “Call Me Professor”.

“Let’s talk about SEX today,” he typically says, rubbing his hands together over the dinner table one evening. They keep eating. None of them react.

After a minute, Miss Rutherford says in a timid voice,

“Sex is not to be discussed. It’s like a box of chocolates that you keep to yourselves and savour in private.”

The captain speaks up in his restrained manner.

“Well, where I’m from, it’s very rude if you don’t offer the box of chocolates to all your friends first.”

It’s hilarious, and for once the professor shuts up, possibly because of the ice in his wife’s glare or the fact that he’s been upstaged.

—–

The food is wonderful but there’s too much of it. Three times a day, and drinks before lunch and dinner. Despite skipping lunch, within ten days Margot’s clothes are tight and when she starts jogging round the deck, the others think its a good idea. Well, Miss Rutherford and the professor are the only takers. Before breakfast and instead of lunch Margot circles the deck ten times. The ship is a good size, but quickly begins to feel small. She needs to feel grass under her feet, and wonders how it changes people at sea for all their working lives. Are they more in tune with nature, or themselves, do they yearn for grass, forests, and remaining immobile instead of this constant thump, hum and horizontal casting across an ocean? It must make you self-sufficient, solitary even. She grips the rail, looks way down to the wake, churning and spilling out behind. Mesmerising. It has a strong pull, you must resist. Nevertheless, it calls.

John comes in after a dip in the pool.

“Just heard three of the old dears complaining bitterly to the chief engineer about not sitting at the captain’s table!”

“Well, they have a point…..we could all change around.”

“ He told them it’s a working ship, not for passengers, and the captain’s decision. Not fair, they said, and they’ll do something about it. I did laugh, the engineer walked past me muttering ‘Holy Mother of Christ, why me?”

—–

In the mornings Miss Rutherford pads the deck in her shorts and a tee shirt, closely followed by the professor. He never quite catches up with her but Margot, behind them, hears giggling and the voice of the professor is muted. He’s chatting her up and Margot decides to run anti-clockwise instead. She does not want to witness their intimacy.

—–

The lunch run’s solitude is perfect , she needs this on a daily basis. Her mood is ruined by the professor and Miss Rutherford turning up unexpectedly. They appear and start moving together along the deck. Margot overtakes them and a few minutes on glances back, feeling miffed they’ve disturbed her run. He has her pinned to some kind of mast, she’s not resisting. Suddenly the professor’s wife is there as well, from nowhere.

“You bastard! this is the last time you’ll do this to me,” she yells.

They break apart, the teacher’s terrified and Margot runs on to get away. Miss Rutherford follows her, followed by the professor, then his wife who can’t run, crying and shouting as she joins the procession.

“You promised, lying bastard!”

Miss Rutherford and the professor overtake Margot, she’s stopped to avoid involvement. His wife catches up with her, in despair.

“Sorry you had to witness that, he promised he’d stop. He says he’s too old, but I can’t bear it anymore.”

Margot can’t think of a thing to say, she lays her hand on the lady’s arm.

“I lost weight once, look at me, he hates me! Once I went on a diet and lost four stone, I looked so good. But I was miserable without food, it’s hell not to eat. Never get fat, never, then you won’t have this sort of thing to put up with.”

They walk arm in arm along to the stairs.

“That old bitch never eats Mars Bars or puddings, I’ll bet,” she says bitterly of Miss Rutherford who, like the professor, is nowhere in sight.

____

In the dining room that evening, one of the other teachers is sitting in Miss Rutherford’s chair.

“Good evening.”

Everyone carries on as usual, though Miss Rutherford is at the chief engineer’s table, looking fierce.

The captain is last to arrive and sees the swapped teacher occupying the chair, with some determination. He stands still, hands on the back of his chair, looking directly at her.

“As you were, Miss, as you were.”

Like a headmaster reprimanding a prefect who has suddenly become too big for their boots. Nothing happens for ten seconds, then she rises slowly and goes back to her usual place while Miss Rutherford triumphantly plonks back down, to the silent fury of the professor’s wife.

—–

They’re nearing Capetown, the weather is fair, hot even, so Margot gets into the bikini intending to brown up a bit while she can. She’s on her own again. The rest of them are back in the dining room for every meal. Nobody is around as she takes the dress off and lies face down on a towel with the Doris Lessing. There’s a light wind but near the huge, inflated raft used as a pool, there’s a bit in the sun, sheltered from the wind.

She begins to drift off, so relaxing, the sun is doing it’s job.

“Hello,” says a voice above her.

Its bright as she raises her eyes to a man standing there. She’s never seen him, he must work on the ship somewhere, he stinks of booze and seems unsteady on his feet.

“What do you want?”

She’s instantly threatened.

“Oh, just to chat. Where are you from, I know that accent.”

He sits down next to her.

Wrapping the towel around her slowly and closing the book, she stands up carefully. He stands as well. He is very tall. His shadow falls over her. It seems a long way to the stairs.

“New Zealand,” she mutters without looking at him.

She does not want to make him angry, even though she is full of it.

“I’ve been there……..but I’m asking you which town you’re from.”

She’s walking towards the stairs, they still seem so far off. He’s next to her, she can hear him breathing.

“Wellington,” she mutters.

“ I haven’t been there, only Auckland….do you know it?”

Margot hardly knows Auckland at all, but says in an effort to pacify him

“Not really….I don’t know many suburbs.”

”Well you must know some!” 

” Ponsonby and Mt Eden….”

“What do you know about Mt Eden?”

“um…..well there’s a prison there I think.”

“I know, I’ve been in it!”

What does he mean?

Another half minute and she’s at the top of the stairs, safe. She swiftly moves down to the ground; he’s at the top still.

“Do you know what I was in for?”

She glances back at him.

“Indecent exposure,” he replies looking into her eyes.

From that day Margot eats lunch with the others.

____

They hum southwards down the Atlantic Ocean. Himalaya berths in Capetown late one afternoon. The docks are busy with freight being unloaded and re-loaded far into the night, on several vessels simultaneously. Most of them are thrilled to get on terra firma – a whole day to see Capetown – but the school teachers, en masse, tell the captain its not right that they have to buy their own meals on land. The captain, his face rigid, bows at the waist to them.

“Ladies, I hear what you say. If it so pleases you, do go to the kitchen and feel free to make whatever meals you fancy. The cook is going ashore, you will have the place to yourself. Have a very fine day.”

There is much muttering and raising of maidenly eyebrows, but eventually they traipse ashore behind the rest of them.

—–

It’s 9.30 a.m., the day is sunny and windless.

“Don’t go up Table Mountain if there’s fog or cloud,” the captain’s told them in his tips for Capetown

Astrid asks John where they’re heading.

“We’re going to try to walk up Table Mountain.”

“Ah, that sounds good.”

“Join us, you’re welcome,” Margot says.

No need to ask Astrid if she has boots, they know now she’s a keen hiker. They have the feeling she’s semi-professional when they see her gear.

—–

The climb begins. There are many paths. Astrid has a nose for which one they should take, and the views become more spectacular the higher they go. The air quality is supreme, or does it just feel that way after the claustrophobia of the ship? Almost five hours later they’re at McClear’s Beacon, on a point between the two oceans, with virgin bush as far as the eye can see. The day remains clear, no clouds famously descend to obliterate the view. There are few people. Many unusual trees and plant species jump out on the way up, it is largely untouched for such a prominent landmark.

Standing at that height gives the place an otherworldliness which wraps round you like a blanket. The water makes the difference. The freezing Atlantic flanks the mountain at this point with the warm Indian Ocean lapping it from the other side.

Astrid points out to what looks like a tiny piece of rock, miniscule from this height.

“Nelson Mandela has been imprisoned there on Robben Island for ten years now.”

“But there’s nothing of it, where are the buildings?” John’s shocked.

“Down there somewhere. The whole place is 3 km long north to south, about 2 wide. The whole area is less than 6 km.”

Mandela will live another fourteen years on that bleak rock, looking out from behind bars to where they are standing.

They take the cable car back down the mountain, cast down by the reality of South Africa’s bravest man. A life like that, brought about by his singular integrity and unwavering commitment.

There are many tourists clambering to get on the cable car.

“I’m going back by taxi, it’s enough. I need to rest.”

Astrid looks exhausted.

“We’ll walk, we’re going to get something to eat,” John says.

It’s only a few miles. A beautiful day in a lovely land, yet history is always before you, begging to be looked at, and seen. They visit the Botanical Gardens which are charming, the city is a pretty one. Nature is abundantly generous to this continent.

“That restaurant looks nice,” Margot says, so they go over the street towards it. There’s a sign NO BLACKS inscribed in gold, curly writing. They look at each other, walk on. There’s a mobile van a bit further up, a chimney rising from the back of it with good smells. They round the end of it to see a line of about 12 people waiting to be served. Some are laughing, clapping, the others talking quietly. There’s a rope between there and an empty counter with sign WHITES ONLY. They feel strange, go to the end of the other queue. The man behind the counter yells,

“No, sir, madam, other line please. “

Nobody protests or stares, they go where he points, he wipes his hands on a cloth, comes over to them and asks,

“What would you like?”

“The others are first, we can wait.”

“No, sir, you are to be served first. Please.”

They can hardly bring themselves to look anywhere.

____

The last stop before Singapore is Penang, a small island. They visit temples in George Town, eat good street food and have a rickshaw ride. It’s sweaty, around 30 centrigrade with 90 % humidity, the daily thunderstorm arriving at 4 pm precisely, as promised by the captain.

“I love the Far East, what do you think?” John asks.

It’s the first Asian trip ever for her, though not for him.

“It’s ok.”

“OK? It’s spectacular!”

The Rolling Stones are blaring out from many shops – really bizarre to hear I Can’t Get No Satisfaction, mixed with Malay, Indian and what sounds like Chinese music. It’s odd. She looks at the faces of the people, indeed inscrutable. Unknowable.

On a fine June morning, the Himalaya’s anchor is lowered in Singapore Harbour. The passengers all go down the gangway for the last time, say their goodbyes and walk along the lengthy jetty to the Customs Hall. There is a huge white board, with black letters in capitals: DISEMBARKATION.

Margot has just arrived in her own future.

—–

 

 

 

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