I began my 17,000 mile jaunt of 1966 on Durham Station in North-East of England. The station is high on the rim of the River basin forming Durham City, and commands a regal view over a field of nestling grey slate roofs around the greenery of the River Banks of the Weir with the Norman Castle and Cathedral rising up out of the greenery. As I stood there gazing out over this place where I grew up, this place of my roots, I knew that I was proud to be part of its antiquity, and I was happy to remind myself that the present Cathedral was begun in 1087. My musings then drifted back to the present as I stood next to my mother and tried to think of something to say at a moment when everything had already been said. I shuffled uneasily, finding the silence onerous. I hoped that the train wouldn’t be late to prolong our good-bye.
When the sun shone unexpectedly through a sky scattered with clouds I turned my face toward it and shut my eyes to enjoy the intensity of its warmth. Mother commented that it was a good day for there was “enough blue overhead to make a sailor a pair of trousers”. She also seemed to enjoy the warmth although the station, windswept in its high location felt cold and I was glad that she had insisted that I wear a lined raincoat. As I wondered whether I should respond with a trite comment on the weather, I detected the approach of the train.
I was pleased that it was on time and I heard my younger brother’s yell of delight as it sounded its steam whistle and approached with smoke and clangor. I saw my mother’s hasty swing to grab him away from the edge of the platform. Everyone stepped back to avoid being sucked into the path of the approaching roaring mass of moving steel. Only too soon it stopped and I maneuvered my suitcase up the step onto the correct coach. Then someone closed the door and I stepped forward to lean out for a final farewell. We hadn’t hugged before I boarded, but now I saw concern in my mother’s moist eyes, “Good-bye dear, take care. Have a wonderful summer. Write.”
She looked wistful and now all I wanted to do was to jump off the train and hug her, “Yes, Mummy I’ll write as often as I can.”
“Promise me, we will miss you.” She reached up and her hand fleetingly touched mine.
Behind her my younger brother bounced up and down impatient to go home to play. He pulled at her clothing, “Can we go now, can we go?” His voice was high and pleading.
The whistle blew and the train pulled away. I looked out of the window waving my arm as I watched the waving form of my mother and brother. Soon they were two undistinguishable diminishing objects on the end of the platform, and then the curve of the railway viaduct hid them from view. At that moment I doubted myself and wondered whether this was a good way to spend my summer break from University.
By the following morning I had managed to get myself across London, though the maze of platforms in Waterloo and down to the coast. Now, I stood on the concrete wharf in Southampton where the National Union of Student’s ship loomed tall. But, even though she looked huge to me, and, I assume, to the other assembled passengers on the concrete pier, I knew her to be small as transatlantic liners go, and that she had previously only sailed in the Mediterranean. Her new mission was to ferry students between Europe and the United States. Before docking in Southampton she had left the warmth of Athens, her home port, sailed out of the Mediterranean, past the Rock of Gibraltar, and north to Le Havre her first port of call. Here she took on a contingent of Continental European students.
Now she was docked to pick up her English passengers, ready for her maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean to New York. The waiting crowd, on the dock, was noisy and excited and included both student passengers and their families. I stood alone and watched them as they exchanged last instructions and promises.
I wasn’t given long to watch these activities and contemplate the ship’s looming hull for soon the business of the day took my full attention. We passed through paperwork and stood in innumerable lines. The concluding formality was to be given cabin assignments and assigned a meal shift. When my turn came I looked around and surmised that the majority of the British were selecting the early meal-shift and so I, on the spur-of-the-moment, selected the late shift. I made my selection for several reasons, first because I thought that my experience would be enhanced if I avoided my fellow citizens, and second because eating late suited my concept of continental chic. Lastly I knew that the late shift would give me additional time to stand on deck to breathe in the sea air and to watch the British shore fading into the horizon.
Hours later I responded to the gong for the second meal-shift. When I reached the dining hall 1 was held back to give those with seats already assigned time to sit. 1 stood waiting with a small handful of fellow passengers who had boarded at Southampton. 1 felt insignificant and alone and quietly accepted my pass to table number ten. Then, 1 entered the large dining hall with its rows of long tables, and cacophony of sound from the voices of many students engaged in intense conversation in a multitude of languages. For a moment 1 paused to adjust to the noise, to gain my balance on the swaying floor, and to take in the layout of the room, and then 1 made my way towards table number ten. It seemed a long way off and 1 moved cautiously, still a little unsure of my sea-legs.
When 1 reached my destination 1 paused to survey my options. There were a couple of vacant spots on that long table one of which was to be mine for the next nine days. That’s when I first saw Mike; he sat with a pinched white face and intense pose, rather as if he was bored by everything around him. 1 looked at him and tried to assess his mood. 1 asked myself,
“Should I should sit next to this disengaged young man or take the other vacant seat? My quick assessment of Mike was, “He looks so intense that he will probably be poor company.”
Then, 1 glanced up the table and saw the German boy next to the other empty seat. He was dark and well-built and bubbled with self-confidence. 1 thought, “Oh, no, he looks worse.”
1 approached the seat next to Mike and asked, “Is this seat taken? I’ve been assigned to this table.”
He turned, and I expected a bored look, but instead, when he saw me, his gaze became a winning smile. He nodded, “No, it’s free, let me help you.” He arose and assisted me with my chair. 1 accepted his help and noticed his lean body and strong build and admired the ease of his movements. As 1 looked into his face 1 saw his blue eyes. What eyes; I immediately took in how the worn knitted navy sweater which he wore seemed to accentuate their punch, their color was seductive but their sparkle of intelligence animated his whole body. Initially 1 had wondered whether his pale complexion, accentuated by his blond hair, was due to ill-health but the ease of his movement and the dance of his eyes exuded life and a healthy vitality. As 1 sat 1 knew that 1 had made the right choice.
Everyone introduced themselves giving short explanations of their nationalities and reason for being on the ship. I told them that 1 was a second-year architecture student at London University. Mike had boarded at Le Havre and introduced himself as an American from Boston returning home from a year in Paris. We gossiped in English with lapses into German around the German boy whose name turned out to be Hans, and French when the Canadian honeymooners sitting opposite us spoke to each other.
Before long the conversation began to lag and I took on the challenge of keeping talk flowing. I asked some inane questions. I recall that one of my first questions, when I discovered that Mike was American, related to Christianity in the United States. Looking back I don’t know whether this was prompted by our saying a collective Grace before we ate or whether it stemmed from the preconception that I had that the majority of Americans were practicing Christians taking their faith from their pilgrim forefathers. I quickly discovered that Mike thoroughly disliked the question. He gave an irritated, dismissive response spoken in a clipped tone. He explained that it was counter culture to categorize Americans into church going robots. Somehow I deftly morphed the discussion into one about theism and so salvaged our exchange. Now, all these years later I recall that he told me that he was raised catholic but was, perhaps at that stage in his life, or perhaps still is, an agnostic.
© Copyright, Jane Stansfeld, January 2014