We were travelling around southern Ireland.
But, Nooo. I was certain that once we were on our way home, life would be straightforward again. No more cringing when sirens went off. No more jumping at the sound of a blast. No more dread. Everything would be wonderful.
It’s true, the trip around southern Ireland was great, there was nothing to fuss about.
We overate on scones and soda bread and every high tea we could find. We examined The Book of Kells, sat in pubs unafraid and listened to terrific music.
Ten pounds heavier and sated, we boarded the car ferry to Liverpool.
Once there, we drove our car off the ferry and started the drive to London where we would drop off our car to be put on the ship and board for our dream, at least my dream trip, home.
The drive to drop off the car was not so easy. It was, in fact, horrible. Lots of roundabouts which we had not yet encountered at all. There was the London traffic, and finally a desperate searching for the right building at which to leave the car. I kept trying to find signs to help us. Usually it was too little, too late. I’d spot something, but Ken would have driven past by then. Driving with the steering wheel on the “wrong” side had been an issue ever since we imprudently took the car with us to Ireland. But on the country roads we drove on, the worst thing we encountered were sheep or cows. All we had to do was to wait until they crossed the road. So, the driving was not bad at all. London was a far cry from the country roads. At the first, pretty complicated roundabout, Ken said, “What’s that?” We had never seen one before. He managed it. What else could he do?
That drive into London and the docks was HARD. We were both grouchy and wiped out by the end. Still we had made it and the rest, would be easy, right? A nice sail home. We’d eat our meals, sun on deck, read, talk… Nothing but time and togetherness. That’s what was supposed to happen. That’s what the brochure promised or at least implied. Oh, I was always one to believe in words!
We boarded the ship and were greeted by the captain.
I thought that was a nice touch, a sort of good omen of good things to come. What did I know? A crew member showed us to our room. It was a small room, but it had a porthole which I counted as a plus, a small round window. No private bathroom though. That wasn’t good. Still, the trip was going to be great, great, great. We stowed our belongings and went up on deck. We could, of course, still see land, the docks, mostly. No confetti or waving people sending the voyagers off. I guess that doesn’t happen when you sail on a freighter.
We met a couple from London, St John’s Wood. They claimed there was to be a swimming pool put up eventually. They were taking the freighter all the way to the Pacific. I was impressed.
“This is, fun,” said Ken.”Let’s go forward and look at the spray.”
We did. We were fine. We had boarded later in the afternoon, so it wasn’t that long before dinner was announced.
There were linen tablecloths and napkins. The food was plated and served.
Pork chops, French fries, salad, rolls and some kind of dessert. Probably ice cream. We ate it and declared it good. We strolled around the deck again and then went to our room. I looked out the porthole into black. The beds were bunk style. Ken took the upper bunk. I took the lower. We slept and woke to a gray day. I would have preferred sun, but who cared? Still exulting at the idea of a sail home (it seemed mighty romantic in my mind) we went to breakfast: toast, scrambled eggs, orange juice and coffee. Fine. Lunch was soup and sandwich. No complaints from us or the other passengers. This was all working out just as I hoped.
However, when we sat down to dinner, it was the same menu from the evening before, pork chops, French fries… you get the picture. We diners looked at each other. Someone inquired of a server. The server explained that the cook knew how to cook pork chops and French fries. The crew liked pork chops and French fries. Pork chops and French fries would be served the entire voyage.
This was a freighter, not a passenger ship.
There were pork chops on the plates every single dinner from departure in London to arrival in Baltimore.
After supper, what had been a gray day turned rainy. Rain started to pelt down. We went to our room and tried to read. The ship started heaving.
Up and down. Up up up and down down down.
I opened the porthole to get some fresh air. Wind blew the spray into our cabin.
“Breathe the fresh air,” I said. I had a bad feeling that things were not going to be easy.
About half an hour later, Ken left the room looking green. He came back pale and ready to leave again at a moment’s notice. I didn’t last much longer.
The cabin boy, Santos, knocked on our door and said we had moved into hurricane weather.
Ropes would be stretched along the hallways and stairs, plates would be anchored. He looked at us, assessing the situation. “No good,” he said. “No good. You need to get up and find your sea legs.”
Well that wasn’t going to happen. We lay miserable all night long. We kept wondering if it would be possible to somehow get airlifted off the ship. Anything! Maybe jumping overboard?
The hurricane gained force. Books slid off the shelf. My hairbrush flew across the room.
Eventually, a pale gray light filtered into the room. I had no idea what time it was. I just kept lying there. I could hear Ken moan from the top bunk. Wind and rain were still coming into the room through the open porthole. If the whole sea had come in, I doubt I would have cared. After a while, I had no clue how long,
Santos knocked on the door again. He had tea. “This is not good,” he said. “You must eat.” He thrust tea and some French fries into the cabin. “Lunchtime,” he said. “You eat.” Ken groaned. Santos looked grieved. “ The ship will be fine,” he said in a comforting tone.
“In the Pacific we hit a typhoon where we had to drop anchor and the ship spun around for two days.” I blanched. Again he urged us to get up. But the most we could do was find the bathroom and try to keep our eyes focused on something in the distance.
Why did we have no Dramamine? Chalk it up to thoughtless youth. Chalk it up to dreams of a sea voyage. Hurricanes had not been in my picture of what the trip home would be like.
The ship heaved, over and over. It would hit a trough, go up, then come down. I went up on deck to try looking off into the distance. I encouraged Ken to come with me, but he was past that. He, for one, was convinced we were going to wreck.
Death at the bottom of the Atlantic.
I didn’t think that. Not yet, anyway. The couple from London were nowhere in sight. I held onto the ropes and made my way back to our sickroom.
Seven days. Seven long interminable days.
Santos kept knocking and bringing tea and sometimes toast. But neither of us could keep it down. Poor Santos. He grew worried. He said the captain wanted us to eat. We needed to eat. “You eat, get sick and then better,” he said. I didn’t think so. I had plenty of sick by then. I pressed his hand and shook my head.
He was so kind, so caring. One afternoon, I don’t know when it was, he came by and just talked about his family, his wife, his children in the Philippines. I listened and tried to respond. He went beyond what he was required to do and I remain grateful to him.
Finally, finally, we moved out of hurricane waters. We were approaching the shores of Delaware. Oh joy. Oh heaven. We slept deeply. We smiled. We considered eating, but we knew what the menu was and scotched that idea.
On the last day, the captain said farewell to everyone. He chided us for not eating. “You are thin,” he said. “This is not good for my ship’s reputation.” I looked ashamed. Chastised. But I shook his hand and told him that Santos has been wonderful. He liked that. I found Santos standing off to the side and gave him a hug.
We went down the plank and waited around for our car to be delivered. Ken was like a new man, ebullient. “I might just kiss the ground, “ he said. I laughed and understood; the solid earth was a gift all around us.
We drove off down the road. Glad to be going home. Glad to be on the road. Land! Green! Sun! No hurricanes and (I thought, but didn’t say) no bombs.
Suddenly, Ken said, “I’m starving. Do you want to stop and eat?” I did.
We pulled into a mom and pop restaurant and I remember what each of us had. Ken had chicken potpie. He ate as though he were starving, which I guess he was.
Seven days with no food had caught up to him. He downed one potpie and ordered a second. I had a tuna fish sandwich, and, incredibly, French fries. They tasted great. I couldn’t imagine how I had scorned French fries only a day ago. I licked salt from my fingers. Ken reached over and helped himself to a few.
We laughed over nothing and everything: the year in Belfast, the journey around southern Ireland, our young ignorance.
We laughed the laugh of two people who believed they had, if not conquered, managed to survive.