Lucinda comes home. part 1
Lucinda comes home
1940 - Britain was really at war now. Ships were being sunk; aeroplanes in the sky were not now friendly , and pretty little gardens were being dug up to grow vegetables or house Anderson shelters. How life had changed. Not only adults felt this change. Children living in London were sent with little labels around their necks to unknown destinations out of cities for their own safety. Some, like Lucinda, were sent across the seas to friends or relations living in countries not at war. The Atlantic had become the graveyard of many of these children, as well as refugees from European countries., who had all risked a watery grave rather than another awful war, especially as Hitler had invaded so many of their countries. The ship that sailed before Lucinda’s sank, as did the ship after, but at fifteen she had felt no fear, only excitement. The tannoi told everyone to sleep fully clothed, and a cheerful Officer handed each child a big bar of chocolate to keep with them at all times as it would sustain them in life-boats should they be torpedoed. Needless to say, by the time the Statue of Liberty hove into view there was little left apart from the silver paper.
Lucinda had loved America and settled first into school life, and then into a job in Brentanos Book Shop with ease. Several times during those years she had tried to return home, intending to join the W.R.N.S. or at least do something useful. Letters from school friends told her of their lives in the army, working in hospitals or ammunition factories. She felt guilty at not sharing their discomfort. Every week she would go down to the Post Office to send them parcels of chocolate or tins of ham. But that was not the same thing and in her heart of hearts she longed to go home. When she tried to return she was told that there were enough people in Britain as it was, so would she please just stay put. Then came 1945 - and the European war was over. Lucinda tore down to the British Embassy and managed to get a berth on a small ship leaving the following week. She had always kept a diary - even as a small girl. This is Lucinda’s own story of how she came home, taken from her diaries.
3rd August 1945 on-board the Almonzorra.
This was once a pretty little liner, but now it is a weary old troopship with every home comfort ripped out. We eventually managed to board after hours of searches, and endless form-filling at about five o’clock, so by the time I had organised my necessary bits and pieces (which included a small suit-case) onto my meagre bunk it was quite dark, even the rust and peeling paint invisible. The cabin is a bit of a shock. In peacetime I suppose it was a cabin for two. Now it is a cabin for six! Three rows of bunks with very little head-room - plus the fact that absolutely everything - from suitcase to tooth mug has to go onto the bunk with you . I thought a trip around this tatty old boat would be a good idea so I went up onto the deck to see us leave New York harbour. It all seems so unreal that I am actually going home. When I left I was fifteen. A child. Here I am - all grown-up. I hope I will fit into the family again. I am more American than British now. It makes me nervous. My Mother is so very English. Will she like me as I am now? I descended into the little lounge-cum-bar where there was a lot of activity around a somewhat out-of-tune piano. I soon
saw why. A Junoesque and extremely beautiful, noisy blonde was holding court. She had quite an entourage as she threw back her head and sang. Song after song poured out. Marcia could really sing. We were told she was returning to Europe to continue her operatic training. The Bar was thick with cigarette smoke, there was a heavy blue haze over the whole area. I could hardly breathe, so descended once more to the cabin. Several other girls had already been in and it was obvious that we were all going to have a hard time organising our luggage.
Just as I finished writing last night, putting my diary under what passed for a pillow, a head of peroxide curls bounced into view - about a foot away from my face. My arm was grabbed by scarlet talons and a highly rouged face descended onto mine.
“That Marcia. Thinks she owns the place. Going home to fame and fortune. She’s going to Covent Garden you know.” This was followed by a sniff and a cloud of cigarette smoke. The crimson lips sucked waspishly on her cigarette holder. Then, annoyingly, she sat on the last few spare inches of my bunk.
“Maud Prothero” she announced. “I’m in that bunk there” she pointed with her chin.
“Six in a cabin! it’s a disgrace. My poor Roger has eight in his - so I told him to come in here if it gets too tight. One old man objected to his cigar. Honestly, some people!”
Much nicer are the two girls from the British Embassy going home after their tour of duty. They have two of the top bunks. One is above me. The other two bunks are Mrs Smaill in the lower one and her companion , Joyce, above. Mrs Smaill is very old and looks very ill. Joyce has to bandage the old lady’s legs several times a day, and seems to have most of both their luggage on her bunk as well. She looks weary, yet always cheerful. Such crowded conditions must be very hard for them both. The girls from the Embassy are cheery - though I must say that Linda’s feet dangling within a foot of my nose are ---well.
Maud smoked all night. Poor Mrs Smaill couldn’t stop coughing. There seemed to be a lot of water sloshing around the cabin floor. Maud’s tapestry suitcase was getting wet , so it was all hands to getting it from under her bunk to onto her bunk. She is using it as a pillow. She snores too.
Breakfast was good. Most of us enjoyed it. The only complaints - and so loud - came from Maud and her precious ‘Rog‘. They didn’t like the coffee. The eggs were cold. It was endless. It was obvious to all that the Galley was not exactly palatial. But the wretched Rog ( Yellow cravat, pointed shoes, ginger moustache) never had his cigar out of his thick, pink lips unless it was to shovel food it or complain out of it.
What an indomitable old lady Mrs Smaill is. Whatever the conditions she never once gives way or alters her routine. Her great size and lack of mobility must be a great trial. Poor Joyce has the unenviable task of getting her in and out of her corsets and elastic stockings while wedged into the tiny space between the rows of bunks. Somehow, before going down to breakfast , we all managed to get ourselves dressed. The two girls (Linda and Anne) and I did this as quickly as possible to leave the cabin free for Joyce and Mrs Smaill. Maud was still determined to appear in full war-paint, so it took her ages. It was a brisk, sunny day, so a walk on the deck seemed a good idea. Meeting the others on board took quite a time, and it was soon lunch. I managed to find a wind-free corner of the deck after that and sat and read my book.
Before dinner I thought a gin and orange might be a good idea. But the Bar was full of Marcia and entourage - plus the ginny , beery cloud of cigarette smoke. Not a good thing if you are not a very good sailor. I pushed open the heavy storm door and went back on deck. It shut behind me with an ominous click. For some reason - quite chilling. The sea swished lethargically under the bows, splashing back on itself half-way down the ship’s side. It became hypnotic. Leaning over the rail, admiring the late, low light on the water I suddenly realised that voices were getting closer. I was hidden from the main deck by the bulge of a life-boat. No-one saw me.
The voices were urgent - angry. One very dominant over the others, and they were speaking a foreign language. It sounded Russian. As they passed me the late sun reflected off the white paint and I thought I recognised the rather unpleasant Russian I had met during the morning get-together we had all had. He had introduced himself as Mihail. His breath was bad and his teeth were black. Up on the deck he seemed to be the dominant one - and in a temper. He suddenly opened another of the heavy storm doors and roughly pushed the others in. It was marked ‘Crew’. By that time the sun had vanished and it was time to think about dinner, so I returned to the cabin.
Ooh! I am angry. Very angry. We were all in our night gear. Joyce helping Mrs Smaill out of her elastic stockings when the cabin door opened and in came Roger.
“’Ellow darlin” to Maud. “Thought I’d pay you a little visit before beddy-byes. Evenin’ ladies.” He blew his cigar smoke over us. Joyce went up to him and suggested he depart as he was embarrassing Mrs Smaill who was still undressing.
“Oh don’t mind me luv” he chortled. “I’m broad-minded.” We just couldn’t get rid of him. He kept asking the two girls to join a poker game. Awful man. Completely awful man. After he’d gone we threatened Maud with a report to the Captain if he ever came again.
“Honestly - some people. He was only being friendly - and his own cabin isn’t friendly (I wonder why) so he thought he’d come here. You’re a toffee-nosed lot - all of you.” She pulled whatever she could reach over her head and that was that!
The morning was sunny and the seas like a mill-pond. I could hear Marcia practicing her scales in the bar and one or two people were walking around the deck. It was so peaceful. I tried to realise that a week or so ago these waters had been alive with U-Boats and violent death.
“Good morning Lucinda” the voice was heavily accented and deep. I turned around and saw it was the big Russian.
“You enjoy ze sea-air and ze water?” I nodded and said that indeed I did. Trying to be friendly and cool at the same time. I didn’t really want to encourage him.
“You will join me for a little walk around ze deck - yes?” I couldn’t think of a reasonable reason not to so we started walking.
He told me very little about himself, but seemed to want to know a lot about me. Where I would live in England. He was very interested to know I would be heading for Scotland. He seemed so interested in me and my life. Was I going to join relations? In a town? Near shops? Questions flowed. Then - would I join him for a drink in the Bar before lunch. I made the excuse that I had promised Joyce to help her with Mrs Smaill and went down to our cabin.
After dinner the girls and I went out onto the deck and went around at least ten times before feeling we had induced the right amount of tiredness to cope with the cabin. When we got down here it was so hot. The porthole had been sealed shut and decorum made us shut the door. Sleep was restless.
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