I’m a pack rat and I never throw anything away, so somewhere in a box in my flat I know there’s a passenger list. It’s from the RMS Queen Mary and it’s dated sometime in January 1962. It looks exactly like this:
Except my copy has some pencil sketches on the inside cover because when I was sitting on an Underground train with my mum, I was bored, so I started drawing pictures of the passengers on the only available paper I had with me. I hasten to add I was seven years old at the time, and would never in a million years have defaced such a historical article if I’d had an inkling what a passenger list from the Queen Mary would have meant some 50 years later.
Last time I told you about our voyage from Montreal to Southampton aboard Holland America’s Ryndam. This blog’s about the return journey, from Southampton to New York. My mum and my sister and I sailed both ways without my dad, who was a travel agent. He didn’t much like England, and I think at that particular time he had a fam trip booked to Bermuda instead. So we spent Christmas in London without him. But we were scheduled to meet up with him in New York and then fly home with him to Saskatchewan.
I remember having an amazing time in New York, accompanying dad on a sightseeing tour while mum stayed at the hotel with my sister. But I balked at climbing the spiral staircase to the top of the Statue of Liberty. So my dad left me at the pedestal with instructions not to move or talk to strangers, and took off on his own to visit the lady’s head. My mum was highly unimpressed when we got back to the hotel and I told her all about my adventure with dad. He could never, ever, have got away with something like that today! Nor would he have attempted it, to be honest. But this was 1962, and the world was a much more innocent place back then.
Back to the Queen Mary. My memories aren’t as vivid as those of the Ryndam, which is a shame. I remember sailing out of Southampton, and my mum being particularly sad at leaving the country where she was born and spent her first 30 years. Years later I found out why. It was because she knew her dad was quite ill with cancer, and that this was the last time she would see him before he died.
She didn’t tell me that, though. All I knew was that she was very upset and crying, and because she was upset, I was upset. To the point that when we were sitting down for lunch in the very posh restaurant, I was sick. All over the tablecloth. Much to my acute embarrassment. Because even when you’re seven, you know what embarrassment is, even if you have no explanation for your behaviour, and no idea how to control it.
So that’s my first enduring memory of the Queen Mary.
I remember our stateroom. It had dark wood panelling and two portholes, and I recall dark green as being the predominant colour of the upholstery and bed coverings. Here’s a photo of a First Class cabin on the Queen Mary, converted into the present-day hotel in Long Beach, California. The room has modern curtains, bedding, fixtures, and amenities but the wood panelling and portholes are originals. I recall our cabin looked a lot like this, though I’m not altogether certain if we travelled First Class.
I remember our night-time cabin steward, who you summoned by pushing a button on the wall beside the bed. He was quite elderly, and lovely, and he told us that the best cure he knew for seasickness was ginger ale. At the time we thought it was just an old wives’ tale – or an old mariner’s tale – but now we know that ginger has amazing anti-nausea properties – so much so that the companies which make traditional seasickness OTC medications also now offer pure ginger as a natural and very effective alternative.
I remember the bathroom in our cabin. It was a luxury, as most passenger ships from that era had a sink, but no private toilet and most definitely no private bath or shower. You shared the facilities at the end of a corridor with your fellow passengers. This bathroom had a bath, and the bath was highly unusual in that, in addition to hot and cold fresh water taps, it also had hot and cold salt water taps. Which really did work.
I remember that also making this voyage from Southampton to New York were the Vienna Boys Choir. The Vienna Boys Choir still exists today, but I would say they’re not nearly as famous as they were in 1962, just after Walt Disney made a film about them called Almost Angels. I saw that film, well after our ocean voyage. But even that January, I knew who they were. And they were scheduled to give a performance on board the ship, very late at night. Mum decided we’d have a sleep first, and then get up to watch the concert. Unfortunately we neglected to set an alarm clock – we should have asked our lovely cabin steward for a wakeup call – and we missed it entirely.
I remember that mum was invited to sit at the Captain’s table for dinner one night. I’m sure it was because dad was a travel agent and he’d undoubtedly sent a lot of traffic Cunard’s way. My sister and I ate our dinner early, and then mum set off in her finery, leaving strict instructions for us not to leave the cabin, and to behave.
Please bear in mind that I was all of seven years old, and my sister was three. Please also bear in mind that my sister has always been more adventurous than me. And that she very definitely had mischief on her mind about half an hour after mum closed the cabin door behind her. And that I was a willing participant in my sister’s mischief, which involved slipping out of the cabin clad only in a cotton petticoat and knickers – I couldn’t possibly catch her, she was moving too fast – and I had no idea how she’d managed to open the door. Little sister made her way out onto an open deck, with me in hot pursuit oh…about 10 feet behind her… Once there she ran about with the wind in her hair, and clambered onto the railings – I pulled her down before she could tumble overboard – and was only stopped when a stern-looking officer confronted us both and marched us back to our cabin. We were joined about fifteen minutes later by mum, looking very annoyed, having been informed that her two small daughters were running amok and unattended on deck and could she please return to her stateroom immediately to see to them.
The rest of the voyage was uneventful. Which is probably why I don’t remember much more about it. I’ve always been more excited about going to a destination than coming home from it. I do recall sailing up the Hudson River, and peering over the railings to see immense chunks of ice cracking away from the side of the ship. And I think I spotted the Vienna Boys Choir at the pier, disembarking before us.
There are a few things about the Queen Mary which found their way into my writing. If you’ve read my novel Cold Play, you’ll know that Chris Davey, the hero, ends up in the bow of the cruise ship after rescuing Katey – his love interest – and Rick Redding – a passenger – when she ship catches fire. The space they find themselves in is the old cargo hold. Modern cruise ships don’t have cargo holds, but the old passenger ships did. The Queen Mary did. And, in fact, when I was researching how Chris, Katey and Rick were going to climb up the decks to safety, I consulted the Queen Mary’s original deck plans, and original photos of the insides of her cargo holds.
Another thing about Chris Davey: the sea is in his blood. He was conceived on board the Queen Mary, during one of her last voyages. I like to think his parents occupied the same cabin that I did. And that the Vienna Boys Choir were on that crossing too… and that perhaps his conception possibly came about because of a missed wake-up call…