CHAPTER 6

 

The four of us stayed for a couple of nights in the Rest House at Takoradi, which gave us a few hours to walk the beaches and paddle in the ocean, and to luxuriate in the fresh sea breezes after the heavy atmosphere of the interior.

The ship we were sailing on was the M.V. "Apapa", which was one of the Elder Dempster line so-called banana boats, bananas being one of the chief exports from the Gold Coast. There was a sister ship, the M.V."Accra", the same weight of 11,000 tons and identical in every other way, and these two ships looked after most of the passenger trade between the Gold Coast and England.

I didn't know it when I gazed for the first time up at the gleaming white sides of the ship which was to be our home for the next twelve days, but these two did not have a very good reputation on the Coast. They were new and clean and well staffed, with modern fitments and a swimming pool, shops, a hairdresser, a library, good food and several bars but - they rolled!

 First sea trip home - Fred, J. Peggy and J.R. on board M.V. Apapa, 1951 First sea trip home
Fred, J. Peggy
and J.R. on board
M.V. Apapa, 1951

The story I heard, which might or might not be true, was that the two ships were built at the end of the second World War when steel and all raw materials were in very short supply and therefore severely rationed, and in order to get the two ships built on time with the scarce products, they were made about a hundred feet too short. The width was kept the same so they were a bit like fat tubs wallowing about on the long Atlantic swells, and wallow they did! A few years later another ship, the "Aureol", joined the fleet, and those who traveled on her on her early voyages reported that her motion was a vast improvement on that of the other two.
 J. on board the ship, 1951 J. on board the ship
1951
But I can state categorically, having eventually traveled on all three of them, that there wasn't a pin to choose between any of them when it came to rolling and pitching, and the worst part of any trip home to England on these ships was the inevitable delay which occurred when turning into the Mersey estuary from the Irish Sea on the final approach to Liverpool docks. There was always something to delay us - fog, or a dock strike, or else very rough weather. But, whatever the reason, there we would be, hove to and anchored, waiting for the fog to lift or the strikers to call it off or the gale to blow itself out before the ship dragged its anchor. When the way went off the ship there was nothing to concentrate on except how many degrees it was rolling, and to wonder if it would eventually roll right over and drown us all.

I believe the days of passenger travel by sea between England and West Africa are dead and gone, as it is now all done by air. That does seem a shame, because once you got your sea legs there was no pleasanter way to finish up a twelve or fifteen month tour than to relax on a comfortable ocean liner with everything done for you, plenty of food and drink, entertainment laid on, no need to move a muscle if you didn't want to. And (best of all) everything paid for by your employers. Soothed by the warm sun and the sound of water rushing past the hull, watching the flying fish and once or twice seeing whales spouting in the distance, to my mind sea travel is far preferable to hectic air travel any time, even if the trip does end up with a dense fog or a raging gale.

 M.V. Apapa, 1951 M.V. Apapa
1951

But when we boarded the vessel for my first sea voyage in September 1950, the sky was blue, the sea was calm, and such depressing thoughts were far from our minds.

We found that our cabin was next to that of Fred and Peggy, which pleased us all. This was a one class ship all first class - and the cabins were very similar to one another in size, shape and accommodation, and all had portholes opening onto the outside. I had never been inside a passenger liner before and was ready to be impressed by everything I saw, especially as we had our own bathroom and shower, a dressing table in the sleeping cabin, with built-in wardrobe, desk and chairs. It seemed one could wish for nothing more, and I happily began to unpack my clothes and hang them up. That's the best thing about a cruise - unpack once and you've done it. None of this cramming things into suitcases and rushing to catch planes or trains, and then all the subsequent unpacking and ironing out of creases.

Peggy and I explored the ship together, noting the position of the most important saloons and lounges. The dining saloon was one deck below our cabins, and when presenting ourselves at the open doorway we were allocated a table for four in a good position in the middle of the floor, with a first rate view of the other tables. Not being V.I.P.'s, we were not seated with the Captain or the First Officer, or even the Second Officer, but this worried us not at all and we anticipated having a thoroughly good time on this sea voyage. We quickly found the shops, which made our eyes stick out on stalks, not having seen a proper shop for twelve months, and promised ourselves a quick inspection of the goodies so temptingly displayed therein.

We had only been at sea a few days before I decided that this was the life for me. From the moment I opened my eyes to my early morning cup of tea until the end of the day when I collapsed onto my bunk, I extracted the utmost enjoyment out of every hour. A big bonus was the fact that I discovered I was not seasick, although it would have been difficult even on an Elder Dempster ship to feel ill on this millpond of a sea. Six times round the promenade deck before breakfast, inhaling the sea breezes, was followed by a large repast. The length of the menus at every meal was mind-boggling, with everything from grapefruit, bananas, paw-paw, melon, to eggs in all disguises, plus bacon, sausages, kidneys, kippers, and ending with several cups of tea or coffee. Some of the younger men used to work their way through the entire menu with no difficulty at all, and Peggy also did pretty well in this department.

On one occasion I remember I asked for a boiled egg at breakfast, and when the steward asked how long it should be boiled, I told him "four minutes". In due course the egg arrived - stone cold. I indignantly pointed this out to him and he in turn was equally indignant.

"It was boiled for four minutes!" he protested.

"Yes", I said, "but when? Last week?"

This was an unusual occurrence. Most of the time the food was excellent and Peggy and I were more than ready for it first thing in the morning. By the time J.R. and Fred surfaced, we were usually well into the bacon and eggs and inclined to chide them for being lazy. But they said they were tired, they had had a hard tour, and we women after all had been taking life easy ever since we arrived on the Coast. This we couldn't deny, so, leaving them to their second cups of tea, off we went to see what we could buy from the shops.

The goods were all export quality, which meant they were better than anything obtainable at that time in England. There were nylons and make-up and cameras, jewelry, underwear, sweaters. I bought myself a plain, long-sleeved round necked pure wool sweater in a brilliant emerald green for (I think) three pounds, although Peggy nearly passed out at such extravagance, and it proved to be one of the best buys I ever made. I wore it on my winter leaves in England for years and years, constantly, and I suppose it did finally wear out but not before I had well and truly had my money's worth out of it.

J.R. bought himself a Rolliecord camera and several highly coloured shirts, which he faithfully promised Fred he would wear back at the mine.

"He is a dreadful man, your husband", Fred remarked to me in mock amazement. "He knows he'll never wear those at Marlu - he'd be laughed off the camp!" (He never did either, but they were unveiled with a flourish years later on our first visit to Hawaii).

The rest of the morning was spent in a variety of energetic ways, such as deck tennis, deck quoits, swimming, and physical exercises on the boat deck, organised by a bobbed hair female who reminded me strongly of my sports mistress at school. There was also the greasy pole competition, with men trying to push each other off a greased pole stretching across the swimming pool. It didn't seem to me much like fun, except for the spectators. J.R. had a try and ended up with a ducking for his pains. Those who preferred to take life more easily spent their time sunbathing or reading or betting on the ship's daily run, or taking snaps of each other with their brand new cameras. We all met up again at lunch, and it was then that I made the acquaintance of a group of people who struck me as being rather odd, to say the least.

They were sitting at the next table to ours, a party of six - three men with their wives - and it was their voices which first attracted my attention, mainly because when they were speaking, or shrieking, to each other there was no way we could carry on with our own conversations. They drowned us out. I thought this showed very bad manners, and raised my eyebrows across the table at J.R.

He grimaced and Fred laughed.

"The poor man's Raj", he said, and when I looked mystified it was explained to me. These people were Civil Servants living with their wives and families in Accra and Takoradi, and they considered they were the elite of the white people living in West Africa, similar to the whites who had formed the British Raj and had ruled India for so many years.

I observed them with interest throughout the whole trip without drawing attention to myself - not difficult, as they behaved as if we were invisible - and marveled at their penetrating voices, the vague vacant smiles which they bestowed on those who were not part of their tight little circle (unless you happened to be the Captain), the way they wore their sunglasses in the dining saloon as though they were film stars trying to avoid recognition from their fans. You meet these people in all walks of life, of course, and they are not worth a second thought, but on this occasion when I was first exposed to them, I did find them very irritating. To them we were "mining types", and I'll never forget the sneer on the face of one of these women whom I happened to be chatting to one day at the pool, when I said we were from Marlu Gold Mine. "Oh, you're from the mines!" she caroled at the top of her voice, and then strolled away to find more elevating conversation material elsewhere.

When I had been in Africa a bit longer, I realised that these aggravating people were in fact very minor officials, with un-called for high opinions of themselves. The men and women in the higher echelons of Government service, many of whom I met later on, were in the main charming, kind and well mannered to everyone they met, whether they were high in the social scale or at the bottom. But on this my first trip, I had yet to find that out.

Afternoons on board ship were mostly spent quietly resting in our cabins or in a shady part of the deck, and we roused ourselves at 4 p.m. for afternoon tea. With the coming of dusk we were back in our cabins having baths and getting changed for dinner. Evening wear consisted of dinner jackets for the men and long dresses for the ladies, and after dinner there was some entertainment laid on - perhaps a cinema show, a dance, whist drive or bridge, and often it was Housey Housey (Bingo). We became acquainted with the traditional calls of "legs eleven", "doctor's orders No. 9", "No. 10, Downing Street", "No. 8, fat lady", "No. 13, lucky for some", and so on, and although no one made a fortune it was a relaxing way to spend an evening.

Our first port of call was Freetown, in Sierra Leone, where we took on more passengers. These were mainly Government officials and their families, and a few British Army Officers who were stationed there. After two days of plain sailing with clear blue skies and calm seas, we approached the beautiful tree-lined harbour with the hills in the background, and watched the African boys in their canoes called "bum boats" come alongside. The arrival of a passenger ship was a happy day for them, as they swarmed around the sides of the ship, diving for pennies in the clear green water.

One of them, known as Charlie Brown, was well known to the passengers of the liners which passed that way. He was recognised immediately as he invariably wore a top hat, which he carefully removed before diving over the side of his canoe. All the boys swam like fishes, and the ease with which they retrieved the coins before they reached the sandy bottom was fascinating to watch. What I did think was unfair was the way some of the passengers wrapped halfpennies in silver paper before tossing them over the side, thus deluding the boys into thinking they were sixpences. Sixpence was a lot of money to them in those days, and I can still see their looks of fury when the trick was discovered.

It was while we were standing at the ship's rail, watching the new passengers coming aboard, that I first noticed the woman who was to claim my fascinated attention for the rest of the voyage. She was being seen off by a rather supercilious Army officer - small moustache, swagger stick tucked under one arm - whom I took to be her husband. But I hardly noticed him. She was the one I gazed at, because she was all the things I most longed to be and knew I never could be. There is no way a short, fair haired, blue eyed, young looking twenty-seven year old female can change herself into a tall, slinky, raven haired green eyed siren. With the best will in the world it can't be done. I had always longed to have a tall, commanding presence, even in school days, but in the plays and sketches we put on at high school I was invariably cast as the maid, or the young sister, and when in Matriculation year we were 'doing' Shakespeare's "Midsummer Night's Dream", I yearned for the part of Titania, but what did I get? the Fairy, everlastingly cavorting around with that precocious Puck. Now, here in front of me stood my ideal, the one I really would have liked to resemble.

She must have been in her early twenties and was wearing a very simple white sundress with high-heeled sandals, her dark hair was cut in a Cleopatra bob and from her ears swung enormous gold hoops. Well, gold-coloured, anyway. She was made up as if she had just come from a beauty parlour, and perhaps she had. Very cool, very soignee! Managing to make the rest of us feel like melting dripping and look about as appealing. When the gong sounded for all visitors to go ashore, and the Army officer grabbed his cap and started to make departure noises, she turned towards him and said, "Bye bye, darling! God bless!" and kissed the air six inches from his cheek. That sorted him out. He could see there was no point in hanging about, so he made a swift retreat. As the ship began to move out she waved to him once or twice, being the dutiful wife, but before he was out of sight she had started chatting to two of the ship's officers who had materialised by her side.

I nudged J.R. "Don't you think she's good-looking?" I whispered. He did not. "She's what I call a 'hard bit' was his curt comment, after a casual glance.

Whatever he thought, I was still fascinated. I found out her name was Barbara, and she certainly wasted no time on moping or shedding any tears. She waited until the lights of Freetown had disappeared below the horizon, and then she quickly organised herself as the centre of the gayest, noisiest group of grass widows and unattached bachelors on the ship. She wore a different dress each evening and different jewelry to go with it, and was obviously delighted to be the cynosure of all eyes. I am always interested in the antics of other people, and what better time or place to watch them than on a cruise?

One evening we four were sitting in the lounge before dinner, when in swept Barbara, wearing a green evening dress with a very plunging neckline. She went up to her crowd, who were indulging in their usual noisy chatter in one corner, clicked her fingers for the steward, thus drawing the attention of everyone else in the room, and said in her loud, clear voice, "Whisky-sodas all round?"

"Silly bitch", said J.R., witheringly, and then to me, "Close your mouth", as I was evidently sitting there gaping. I couldn't help admiring such superb self-confidence, and wondering if at some time in the distant future I might learn to emulate it.

One night between Freetown and Bathurst we had Gala Night, with funny hats and streamers and everyone dressed up to the nines. This was the evening when Barbara, dressed in a white satin gown with no back and not much front, came into view halfway through the dance arm-in-arm with the Captain, no less. They appeared from some obscure corner where they had clearly been having a few drinks, because she was not so much arm-in-arm with him as holding him up.

"Aye, aye!" said Fred, "who's driving the ship?"

Fred and J.R. went in for the Knobbly Knees competition but neither of them won. Neither did Peggy or I receive any prizes in the Ladies Ankle competition, but to our disgust the first prize for this latter event went to one of the wives at the table next to ours in the dining saloon. From the screams of delight which went up from the rest of the group, you would have thought she had won an Oscar.

The occupants of another nearby table at dinner that evening invested in a bottle of champagne, and their steward when drawing out the cork made a mess of it The cork shot out at about ninety miles an hour, hitting the ankle lady squarely between her bare shoulder blades. The screams of delight which followed came from our table.

To add insult to injury, Fred, who was in a really devilish mood that night, stretched out his arm and grabbed a dinner roll off the plate of the nearest of the Government females - (she didn't notice, having her back turned to us as usual) - took a bite out of it and put it back on her plate. When she came to pick it up and saw that instead of a round, plump roll all she had was a pale crescent moon, the look she threw at us was enough to kill us all stone dead at twenty yards. Fred was quite capable of dealing with that. He cast a reproachful look at me and said again! - "He's a dreadful man, your husband!"

All childish schoolboy humour, no doubt, but we enjoyed it enormously and laughed ourselves silly. At least our high spirits stopped short of throwing the food about or breaking the china. And to crown the evening, I won a raffle and found myself the proud possessor of a Japanese china tea set - one of these highly decorated ones with very shallow cups which allow the tea to cool before you have a chance to drink it, and with flowers painted on so thickly that it hurts your lips to try. I kept that tea set for years, packing and unpacking it time after time as we traveled round the world, but I don't think we ever used it.

 

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We sailed on around the western bulge of northern Africa, swimming, sleeping, eating, playing Housey-Housey, stopping once for a few hours at Bathurst, where it was hotter than ever and there was nothing to be seen but a distant sandy shore. Then gradually, as our bows turned towards the north, the heat began to ease off.

The high spot of any trip home from West Africa was the twenty four hours the ship spent in the Spanish Canary Islands, at Las Palmas. By then the weather was much cooler, although usually sunny, and we could explore the town without being reduced to grease spots within fifteen minutes. As the ship glided slowly into the dock, we could see the old American taxis, 1930's style, lining up to take the paying passengers - us - on jaunts round the island or into town as soon as we could disembark. Vendors, with stalls selling a variety of goods, from hand-embroidered tablecloths to huge Walking-Talking dolls, were stationed all long the walls of the long dockside which appeared to stretch way out into the distance, almost into town. When we were tied up, the sellers swarmed aboard with arms full of their goods and soon the deck was covered with cloths, table napkins, pillowcases, etc., and we were being besieged to buy, buy, buy. Some brilliantly dressed dancers came to give an exhibition of flamenco dancing, and it was to the clicking of castanets and the stamping of heels that we four made our careful way down the sloping gangway onto the dock and prepared to part with our money.

J.R. bought me a couple of embroidered table cloths because they were so beautiful and I still use them on state occasions. We then took one of the old taxis into town and spent an hour or two in and out of the shops. This was still a great novelty to me after a year of the U.A.C. and the trumpery Indian stores in Tarkwa, and there were some exquisite clothes, especially for small children. These did not attract me for the moment, but I noted it down in the back of my mind for possible trips in the future. I could have stayed there for hours but the rest of the town was nagging to be looked at.

Another taxi took us to the Santa Catalina Hotel, which in those days was situated outside the town and since been engulfed in urban growth. It was a handsome building, built by Franco in the 1930's in the Moorish style, mostly of stone with white-washed arches, sunken gardens, turrets, colourful tiled floors, palm trees in great profusion, beautiful flower gardens, clipped hedges and pergolas. The remarkable thing about our visit to the Santa Catalina was that while we were walking round the gardens, it started to rain! I am reliably informed that it only rains in Las Palmas about twice a year, and it would have to do it while we were there.

Once clear of the Canaries and heading inexorably north, our minds began to turn to thoughts of England. The weather turned cooler and rougher day by day, out of trunks and wardrobes came our warmer clothes, the swimming pool was emptied, the deck chairs stacked, and instead of ice cream at mid-morning the stewards came round with something they called beef tea. It wasn't very beefy but at least it was hot, something to warm our hands on during intervals of playing deck tennis to keep the blood circulating. I would have preferred to escape from the cold winds into the library, but Peggy, bless her heart, would have none of that and became even more energetic as the temperature dropped. She would not allow any slacking.

"Come on!" she would yell, dragging us from our comfortable chairs, "or have you grown roots?"

We sailed on into the dreaded Bay of Biscay, anticipating the worst, expecting mountainous waves to wash down the decks from stem to stern and ourselves to be battened down below hatches. But it was not noticeably rougher than anything we had so far experienced, and when we passed the Ushant lighthouse early one evening we realised we were really on the home stretch.

The motion of the ship changed as we entered the Irish Sea and began to gradually slow down, the rolling becoming more pronounced. The sea did not look exactly friendly and on this occasion I think it was gales that delayed us. I seem to remember sitting in the forward lounge, gazing glumly out of a porthole on the starboard side, with a depressing view of tumbling grey waters when the ship rolled one way, followed by an equally uninspiring expanse of sullen grey skies when it rolled over the other way. This went on for hours while we crept slowly round the coast of Wales, the ship pitching up and down as well as rolling sideways. We were all packed ready to disembark but Liverpool remained obstinately out of sight. Our cabin steward swept the dust under the carpet one last time and then stood by hopefully for his tip. Passengers wandered moodily up and down the companion ways, not knowing what to do with themselves except moan about the English weather. At one point I came face to face with Barbara, clad ready for the Arctic in white fur coat and hat (ermine or just plain bunny?), and I even got speech from her because for once she was all on her own. Presumably, all her escorts were in their cabins getting themselves spruced up to meet their wives and girl friends, who were even now probably lined up along the dock, straining their eyes into the murk to catch the first glimpse of the returning heroes. She looked pale and a trifle pinched, and as I had just finished a brisk six rounds of the promenade deck and was red in the face from the fresh wind, her remark to me was, "I must say, you look remarkably healthy!" - which had the effect of making me feel like a bouncing schoolgirl in gym slip and black stockings.

Fred and Peggy provided us with one last good laugh that morning. We were getting dressed in our cabin when we heard Peggy starting to laugh next door and she went on and on, peal after peal. She was a great laugher, was Peggy, and we couldn't wait to find out what was the joke. At breakfast all was revealed. They had had the radio on while Fred was getting into his long winter underwear for the first time since they had left England fifteen months before, and to the exotic strains of "Jealousy" he began to do the tango up and down the cabin. Unfortunately, their small boy Kofi (our Kofi), in an excess of zeal had not only washed these garments in almost boiling water and caused a disastrous shrinkage, but had also starched them, and it was the sight of her husband prancing up and down in too tight, too short and very scratchy underwear which was Peggy's undoing.

No wonder Fred looked cold as we finally huddled on deck and observed a low skyline beginning to appear in the distance. He was back in his tropical underwear until he could disembark and make a beeline for the nearest Marks & Spencer's.

Soon we could see the outline of the tall Liver building. Two tugs came fussily towards us, were attached to the ship by long ropes and began to tow us towards the Albert Dock.

In about half an hour and in drenching rain, we were once again back in England.

 

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