29 July 1939, Tilbury Docks, Essex
All her life, Lilian Shepherd will remember her first glimpse of the ship. She has seen photographs of the Orontes in leaflets, but nothing has prepared her for the scale of it, the sheer gray wall towering over the quayside, beside which the passengers and stewards scurry around like ants. All along the dock as far as the eye can see, cranes stretch their long metal necks into the watery blue sky. She had expected the number of people, but the noise of it all comes as a shock—the harsh cries of the gulls circling overhead, the creaking of the heavy chains that hoist the containers from the docks and the jarring clang as they hit the deck, the shouts of the smudge-faced men who are supervising the loading and unloading. And underneath all that, the excited chatter of the families who’ve gathered to see loved ones off, dressed in their best clothes—their funeral and wedding outfits—to mark the momentous occasion.
There is so much industry here, so much activity, that in spite of
her nerves she feels her spirits stirring in sympathy, excitement skipping through her veins.
“You won’t be short on company, that’s for sure,” remarks her mother, her eyes darting around from under her best linen hat. “Won’t have time to miss anyone.”
Lily loops her arm through her mother’s and squeezes.
“Don’t be daft,” she says.
Frank is gazing at a couple standing off to the right. The woman is leaning back against a wooden structure while the man looms over her with his hands resting on either side of her head and his face angled down so that the lock of his hair that has come loose in the front brushes her forehead. They are staring fiercely at each other, noses just inches apart, as if nothing else exists and they can’t hear the jangle of noises around them, or smell the pungent mixture of sea and salt and grease and oil and sweat. Even from several feet away, the woman is clearly very beautiful. Her scarlet dress fits her body as if someone has sewn it in place, and her full lips are painted a matching color, dazzling against the sleek black of her hair. He is tall, solid, with a moustache and a cigarette that burns, forgotten, between his fingers. Though the couple are oblivious, Lily feels awkward, as if it is they, her family, who are intruding.
“Fetch your eyes in off those stalks,” she tells her brother sharply, then smiles, to show she was joking.
Lily’s family have visitor’s passes so they can see her safely on board. Lily is worried about how her father will manage the steep gangplank, but he grips the rail and puts his weight on his good foot and ascends in this fashion. Only when he is safely at the top does Lily breathe again. They are getting older, she thinks, and I am leaving them behind. An acidic rush of guilt prompts her to blurt out, once they are all gathered on the ship’s deck, “It’s only two years, remember? I’ll be home before you know it.”
The ship extends far deeper than Lily has imagined. The upper decks are for first-class passengers, while tourist class is below and beneath that are the laundries and the third-class cabins. F deck, where Lily’s cabin is housed in tourist class, is a warren of narrow corridors, and she
and her family have to ask directions from two separate stewards before they find her cabin. Inside, there are two sets of bunk beds close enough together that a person in one upper bunk could reach out a hand and touch the person in the other. Lily is pleased to see that her cabin trunk has already arrived, her name stamped on the end neatly in large capital letters, protruding from underneath one of the bunks.
There are two women already in the cabin, sitting on the bottom bunks. Lily guesses the first is two or three years younger than her, maybe twenty-two or twenty-three. She has a round, open face with pale blue eyes so wide and unfocused Lily suspects she ought to be wearing spectacles. The idea that she might perhaps be carrying a pair around in her bag but not wishing to wear them, in a small act of vanity, makes Lily warm to her on sight. Not so her companion, who looks to be at least a decade older, with a thin-lipped smile and a long, sharp chin.
The younger woman leaps to her feet, revealing herself to be of above-average height, although she dips her head to the floor as if to make herself smaller. “Are you Lilian? I knew you had to be, as there are only us three in this cabin. Oh, I’m so happy to meet you. I’m Audrey, and this here is Ida. And this must be your family. Australia! Can you believe it?”
The words gush out as if the girl has no control over them. Her voice pulses with excitement, causing the wisps of fair hair around her face to quiver in tandem.
Lily makes her introductions. Her parents first and then her brother, Frank, whose eyes glide off Audrey’s plain features as if they are coated in oil. Soon the ship will leave and I will stay on it with these two strange women, and my family will go home without me, Lily reminds herself, but it does not seem real.
Lily’s mother is asking Audrey and Ida where they are from.
“We’re chambermaids, working at Claridge’s hotel,” says Audrey.
“Not anymore,” Ida chips in curtly. She is wearing an old-fashioned black high-necked dress, and when she leans forward a sour smell comes off her that catches in Lily’s throat.
“When we saw the advertisement about the assisted-passage scheme, we thought, ‘Well, why not?’?” says Audrey, “but we never really dreamed . . . that is, I never really dreamed . . .” She glances at her older companion and the words dry up in her mouth.
“Are you looking forward to seeing all the sights on the voyage—Naples, Ceylon?” Lily’s mother coughs out the foreign words as if they are small stones she’s found on a lettuce leaf.
“Got to be better than staying here, doesn’t it?” says Ida. “If we go to war—”
Instantly, Lily and Frank glance towards their father, who has stood all this while in silence, leaning against the wall.
“We won’t go to war,” Lily breaks in, anxious to head off the conversation. “Mr. Chamberlain said so, didn’t he? ‘Peace in our time,’ he said.”
“Politicians say a lot of things,” says Ida.
A bell sounds out in the corridor. And again. The air in the cabin vibrates.
“I suppose that means it’s time for us to go,” says Lily’s mother. And her voice now carries a thin note of uncertainty that it lacked before. I will not see her again for two years, Lily tells herself, as if deliberately pressing the sharp blade of a knife against her skin. The answering jolt of pain takes her by surprise and she puts a hand to her chest to steady herself.
“I’ll come with you onto the deck to wave good-bye,” Audrey tells her. “My own folks saw me off at Saint Pancras, but I want to get one last look at Blighty. You coming, Ida?”
The older woman narrows her little black eyes. “Nothing for me to see there,” she says. “Who’d I be waving to? A tree? A crane?”
On the way up to the deck, Audrey whispers in Lily’s ear. “Don’t mind Ida. She’s just sore because she didn’t get the full assisted passage on account of her age. I hoped that might put her off coming, but no such luck.”
Lily smiles but doesn’t reply, because of the pain that is flowering out across her chest like dye in water. She watches her parents’ backs as
they lead the way to the deck, noticing how her mother’s head is bowed in its best black hat, how her father clings to the rail as he climbs the stairs, his knuckles white with effort.
“Is your dad always so quiet?” Audrey asks.
“The last war,” she says.
Now they are out in the open again and joining the line of visitors queuing to go down the gangplank. Lily imagines herself grabbing hold of her mother’s arm. I’ve changed my mind, she’d say, I’m coming home with you.
“You look after yourself, mind,” her mother says, turning to face her. “A pretty girl like you, there’s some would take advantage.”
Lily feels her cheeks flame. Her mother has never told her she is pretty. Other people have, Robert’s voice soft as butter—“You’re so lovely, Lily”—but not her mother. Too worried perhaps about giving her daughter a big head, the very worst of female vices in her view.
Mrs. Collins appears beside them. She is a stout, pleasant-faced woman, appointed by the Church of England Migration Council to accompany Lily and the other seven young women traveling on the assisted-passage scheme to take up domestic-service employment in Australia. “Accompany” is another way of saying “chaperone,” but Lily doesn’t mind. They met her at Saint Pancras and so had her company for the duration of the train journey. Lily could tell straightaway that her mother liked her, and that that would be a comfort to her in the days to come.
“Don’t you worry, Mrs. Shepherd,” says Mrs. Collins, and her wide, kindly face folds into a smile. “I’ll take good care of this one.”
Frank is the first to take his leave. “Don’t forget to write—if you have any time between fancy dinners and balls and lovestruck admirers!”
Lily lands a soft pretend punch on his arm, then pulls him into a tight embrace. “Look after Mam and Dad,” she says in his ear. Her voice sounds lumpy and strange.
Her dad gives her a long, wordless hug. When he pulls away, his eyes are glazed with tears and she looks away quickly, feeling like she has seen something she shouldn’t have.
“We must get off,” says her mother brusquely. She gives Lily a dry kiss on the cheek, but Lily can feel how rigidly she is holding herself, as if her body were a wall shoring up some otherwise unstoppable force.
“I’ll write to you,” Lily promises. “I’m keeping a diary so I’ll remember every detail.” But already her parents are halfway down the gangplank, swept along by the tide of visitors coming behind them.
Audrey, who has been standing discreetly to one side, tucks her arm through Lily’s.
“You’ll see them soon enough. Two years will go like that.” She snaps her large fingers in front of her face. Her hands are coarse and pinkly raw. Lily is well aware how hard the lives of chambermaids can be.
Mrs. Collins nods. “She’s right, you know. Now, hurry up, you two, if you want to get a space at the front.”
Passengers who have said their good-byes are already arranging themselves along the length of the ship’s railing. Lily’s eye is caught by a flash of scarlet and she notices the woman they saw earlier on the dock. She is pressing herself against the railing with arms straight out on either side, steadying her. Lily is astonished to see she is wearing black-lensed sunglasses. Though she has seen them in magazines, this is the first time she’s seen someone actually wearing them, and to her they appear alien, like a fly’s eyes. The woman is scouring the crowd gathered on the dock, as if searching for someone. The rugged, moustachioed man she was with earlier is nowhere to be seen.
“Over here.” Audrey pulls Lily towards a gap in the crowds.
Again Lily is reminded of the sheer scale of the ship as she peers down at the quayside, where the families and friends of the departing passengers are gathered in their somber-colored Sunday best, their pale, anxious faces turned up towards the deck. Lily scans them now, looking for her mother’s soft brown eyes. Oh, there. There is her family. The three
of them, craning their necks, looking for her. Lily shakes off Audrey’s arm and waves her hand to get their attention. Her heart constricts at how small they appear, no bigger than her fingernail.
When he sees her, Frank puts a finger in each corner of his mouth and whistles. Lily watches her mother give him a mock slap. The sweet familiarity of the gesture brings a lump to her throat and she has to look away. Her eyes fall on a man she has not seen before, a few feet away from her family. He is wearing a cream jacket, which makes him stand out in that sober crowd. Also, unlike most, he is bareheaded, and his blond hair catches the weak sun as if he has been gold-leafed. Even from the deck she can see the perfect proportions of him, the wide shoulders and narrow waist. He steps out from the crowd until he is at the very edge of the quayside, where the wooden boards fall sharply away. Now that he is closer she can see that his skin is burnished like his hair, his cheekbones smooth and sculpted. He is shouting something, his hands cupped around his mouth, face tilted upwards. Lily leans forward, straining to catch it.
“Stay! Please, stay!”
He is staring at a point to her left, and she follows his gaze until she finds the woman in the red dress. Still alone, she stands at the railing gazing down, impassive, at the golden young man, as if she cannot see his anguished expression or hear his heartfelt entreaty. Then, abruptly, she whirls around and begins pushing through the crowd behind her. For a second, she catches Lily’s eye, and Lily is sure she sees one of the woman’s perfectly arched dark brows lift a fraction above the dark glasses, but then she is gone, heading back towards the entrance to the cabins and the upper decks.
Lily turns back to her family. Her father stands still, his face lifted towards her. From this distance she can’t tell if he’s still crying, and she is grateful for this. She tries not to notice how shrunken her mother looks and instead drinks in the trio on the dock as if trying to commit them to memory. She fishes around in her handbag for her neatly folded handkerchief, but the tears she feels she ought to be shedding don’t
come. Instead there is a treacherous flare of excitement. She is going, she thinks. She is really going.
The gangplank has been taken up, and now there comes a sudden, startling noise like a thousand bagpipes blaring at once. And then the ship is moving, the figures on the quay frozen into position like a painting in a gallery from which she is slowly backing away. She hardly dares believe that she is actually leaving it behind—her family, of course, and her home, but also the things she doesn’t like to think of: Mags, Robert, that room with its peeling wallpaper and the green, bloodstained carpet. “Are you running away from anything, dear?” that lady at Australia House had asked. Lily had said no, but she wasn’t fooling anyone.
But now all that is past. Today a new life begins. For the first time in eighteen months, hope bursts like a firecracker inside Lily’s narrow chest. Still, she carries on waving her arm until Tilbury Dock is just a black smudge in the distance.