Marina and The SS Oronsay

FictionIssue TenIssue Ten Fiction

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by Bella Bevan


It was supposed to be an easy walk to the docks from Tilbury station, but after five minutes of lugging her trunk, Marina was already exhausted and the ship was nowhere to be seen. She couldn’t help but scowl at her older brother, Morey, as he excitedly bolted ahead, carrying both his own trunk and their younger brother Terry’s. Morey’s strong and capable body, shaped by his time in the army, made their luggage appear empty. How bizarre, Marina thought, that in his arms he was carrying practically their whole lives. Their belongings could never have been gathered so compactly when they were children, with all the things they used to own; all the dresses and toys. Now at fifteen years of age, when Marina most needed an array of beautiful outfits if she was ever to find a husband, she barely owned enough to fill her suitcase. She had to keep reminding herself that this was why they were moving to Australia in the first place, to stop being poor and to live like they did in the old days – before the war. 

There was no more work for her father as an aircraft designer, now that the war was over, and Morey was going mad working in a factory. 

‘We are going to Australia to start a new life,’ her father had announced one night at dinner. He explained that Uncle Bill had already organised jobs for himself and Morey on a cane farm, and that they would be able to afford a big house out there. 

Marina didn’t want to leave Wolverhampton or England, but she knew she had no choice. All her sisters were married, they had already made their lucky escapes; but without a husband, or her father, there was no way Marina could stay in the country. And so, it was settled. She would travel to Brisbane, Australia, along with her father, mother, and two brothers, as a ‘Ten-Pound Pom’.

‘There it is, there it is!’ cried Morey as he reached the end of the street. ‘The SS Oronsay, she’s HUGE!’.

Marina’s heart skipped a beat. Somehow it hadn’t seemed real until now – that there was a ship that would take them and hundreds of other English families halfway across the world to a country called Australia. But here was proof. She felt herself fill with an adrenaline that propelled her throbbing legs toward the ship. 

‘My God!’ she said as she saw the enormous white machine floating on the water.

‘Marina Pye!’ snapped her Mother. ‘Do not use the Lord’s name in vain, please!’ 

The five of the Pye family stood together dumbfounded as they looked upon what would be their home for the next six weeks. 

The white walls of the ship were frightfully tall and were wider than Marina’s street back in Wolverhampton. She had never seen something so huge. For a moment she thought perhaps it would not look so big as they drew closer. But the hundreds of tiny black windows and the enormous crowd surrounding the ship made its size undeniable. Smoke billowed out of a golden cylinder protruding from its top, and Marina likened the ship to her father’s frightening friend, the Captain, when he’d smoke his pipe.

As they drew closer, the noise became unbearable, and it took all the courage Marina had to force herself to keep walking towards the din. The chaos stemmed from a mixture of the ship’s horn, the sea splashing up against it, the excited chattering from the crowd and the inaudible orders being made between the crew. Marina could feel the electricity in the air, so overwhelming that she wanted to climb into her trunk and lock herself in. When a young crewman kindly asked to assist her on board she flinched violently. She contemplated that if she ran away now, perhaps no one would notice before it was too late. But of course, she knew deep down that would be ridiculous. London was a cruel place in 1951, especially for a fifteen-year-old girl on her own.

And so, she continued walking closely behind her family.

The gangplank wobbled as they entered the ship. Looking out into the crowd from above, Marina could see a mixture of emotions. To the ear, the masses appeared to be cheering and whooping with excitement, but Marina could now see there were weeping mothers waving off their sons, sobbing wives being dragged on board the ship, and solemn faced men shaking their father’s hand for the last time. The children, however, were all excited for the novel adventure ahead. A pack of young boys rushed past her, giggling and screaming. 

‘Ouch!’ she said, as one obliviously shouldered her out of the way. The plank shook violently, and Marina gripped the flimsy metal railing tighter and tried to steady her heartbeat. 

Once safely on deck, Marina could gauge the full scale of the ship. It was enormous. So big one could easily get lost. As her eyes scanned the girth of the vessel, she could see there was a pool built into the wooden panelling, surrounded by deck chairs in bright tropical colours. Marina thought they looked ridiculous amongst the coat and hat clad travellers, and against the grey sky backdrop. How odd it was, she thought, that this place be parading as some sort of holiday resort. In her mind, this was a place people went when they had no other options, nowhere else to go, and were sent away as punishment for their inability to find honest employment. How could she forget learning at school that this was the same way convicts were sent to Australia many years ago. Yet, she also noticed now that the ship was decorated in red and white paper ribbons and multi-coloured bunting, as if for celebration. 

‘Cheer up, love,’ said her father to her mother, who was sniffling into her handkerchief. ‘It’s all going to be okay. Think of it as a summer vacation, and if you don’t like it remember we can always come back in two years.’

‘Two years is a very long time to live somewhere you don’t like, Frank.’

‘Just give it a chance will you, Ethel. Please, for the family.’

As Marina’s father and brothers lent over the bannister of the ship, squished against hundreds of others, waving vigorously to no one in particular, her mother took her to the women’s sleeping cabins to try to settle themselves. Their room was tiny, with two bunk beds just big enough to fit their bodies, and there was one small round window that was sealed closed. As her mother fussed about the room trying to make it homely, Marina stared out of the little hole, taking a picture-memory of the last small part of England she could still see. Eventually the horn roared, drowning out the sounds of her mother’s whimpering, and Marina watched silently as the ship moved further and further away from the docks, stealing her from everything she had ever known. She wanted nothing else but to tear out that window and swim back to shore, but instead she stayed as still as a statue, like the dutiful daughter she was. 

***

It was a few weeks into travel when Marina was having a particularly difficult time sleeping. Her stomach was upset, probably from the grey looking chicken they had been served for dinner that night. 

‘That’s not chicken,’ her father had said, despite explicitly being told otherwise. Her mother, who had hardly eaten since they’d left England, was sleeping deeply in the bunk below. Bright light was seeping through the cracks of the curtain covering their tiny cabin window. As quietly as she could, Marina climbed down off her bunk bed, slipped on her day-dress, and headed to the deck for fresh air. As soon as she was outside, the heat was overbearing, and the sun burned her porcelain skin. Squinting as her eyes adjusted to the light, Marina began to make out her new unfamiliar surroundings. The blazing sun reflected off the flat sea ahead and was accentuated by the golden sand that appeared as far as the eye could see. The vast Mediterranean Sea that they had long been travelling through appeared to have shrunk into a perfectly shaped line that moved in sharp angular corners of desert. 

‘The Suez Canal!’ yelled a crewmember to an enquiring guest.

When they finally docked at Aden, Marina still hadn’t recovered from the shock of the unfamiliar surroundings. The landscape was like nothing she had ever seen, or imagined, before. Her father seemed unmoved by the city’s backdrop of enormous terracotta coloured mountains. 

‘Come along and stop dawdling girl!’ roared her father as they exited through the gangway on the lower deck. Perhaps he had seen places like this already in his time in the army. Her mother on the other hand, was putting on a brave face although her faintly green pallor betrayed her. 

‘Look at his hat!’ Terry said excitedly, pointing to one of the local boys helping with the docking and refuelling of the ship.

‘That’s enough from you, boy,’ bellowed their father, knocking Terry on the back of his head.

Marina knew Terry was being bad mannered, but she couldn’t help but stare herself. All the local men were dressed in a way that was so abnormal to her. Some were wearing nothing but what looked like a woman’s nightgown, in different coloured linen. Others wore cotton vests with tartan material wrapped around their legs like skirts. And most peculiar, Marina thought, was the way in which many had material wrapped around their heads. Like the boy Terry had rudely pointed at, many of the young local men were also wearing peculiar little red hats with tassels. 

The smell of the city was almost overpowering. The fragrant scent of cooking and unfamiliar spices made Marina’s mouth water. Mixed with it was the desert dirt that relentlessly hovered in the air and the inevitable scent of sweat from the crowds in the scorching heat. Marina’s father had made plans to hire a taxi that would take the family for a drive around the city to see the sites. The driver spoke very little English so he was a poor tour guide, but Marina was content taking in this foreign land in silence from the safety of her backseat window. 

Although Aden was alien to Marina, she noticed, as they moved deeper into the city, that there were elements of England there too. Hordes of British soldiers trailed the streets, and many of the shop signs had English words next to the strange markings of the native language. Some of the buildings looked modern, not dissimilar to the ones in Wolverhampton, while others looked older and grander, unlike anything Marina had ever seen before. The buildings were lined with circular roofs, oval windows and large open arches as entryways.

‘Slow down please, you’re driving too fast,’ said her mother. 

The driver took no notice and continued speeding down the dusty roads. At this point it appeared they had exited out the other side of the city centre, and now the cluster of civilisation was moving further away into the distance. 

‘Where is he taking us?’ said her mother, now red-faced and beginning to grow hysterical. ‘Frank, why won’t he answer me?!’

‘I don’t think he understands dear, please calm down,’ said Marina’s father.

‘What if he’s trying to kidnap us? Stop the car I want to get out!’

Eventually the driver stopped in a remote little village, which turned out to be his home. Apparently, he just wanted to show the English tourists where he lived. When they finally arrived back at the docks, Marina’s mother couldn’t get out of the car quick enough. She practically ran back onto the ship, and Marina laughed to herself remembering a time when her mother was once so reluctant to board that vessel.  

Back on the lower deck the atmosphere was loud and boisterous and it made Marina feel anxious and overwhelmed. Locals shouted from their canoes and waved items in the faces of passers-by. Marina made the mistake of lingering too long when looking at a beautiful purple and gold trimmed scarf, and the merchant mistakenly took her for a prospective buyer. As she walked away, he followed her and tried to barter. He was so persuasive that if she had any money of her own, she most certainly would have made the purchase. But alas, they were poor now, and Marina knew better than to ask for trivial items. 

One of the less aggressive sellers seemed to take a liking to her, and wanted nothing but to give her a gift. The young man lent over his canoe and gently handed her a small ivory elephant model, promising it would bring good luck. Marina wondered if he had sensed her sadness and taken pity on her. Nevertheless, she thanked the kind stranger and treasured her precious gift. 

Amid the excited commotion, baskets were being passed around the boat, which came from the local hawkers. The crew explained to the travellers that if they wanted to buy something from the basket, they had to replace it with money, as the sellers were not permitted on the boat themselves. When Marina found her brother Morey, he was parading around wearing one of the tasselled red hats they had seen worn by the locals, which he excitedly explained he had purchased from one of the merchant’s baskets. 

After the near-kidnapping escapade, Marina and her mother decided they had experienced quite enough adventuring for one trip, and that it was safer to stay on the ship at all times. Marina made sure to never stand too close to the edge for fear of falling off into the endless ocean. She spent her days reading, never venturing too far from her parents. Her brothers, on the other hand, were always running off with the other boys and involving themselves in the organised games and group activities. Sometimes they would bring Marina along, when she wasn’t feeling too seasick or homesick. It was there that she made friends with Edna, a girl very much like herself who was travelling with her parents and brother. 

When the Fancy Dress Party was announced the two girls decided they would go together. They had such a wonderful evening that by the time Marina reached her bed she was so exhausted from all the dancing and conversation that she fell straight to sleep, getting makeup all over her sheets.

***

There were times when Marina felt it wasn’t all bad, that life on the SS Oronsay could be pleasant. Even her mother had made friends with some of the wives and together they would lie on the deck chairs by the pool and natter the day away. Two of the ladies had the misfortune of falling asleep in that position one day and were burnt so badly that their legs were covered in bubbles and boils and they had to be carried around the ship for the rest of the journey. They would all eventually learn that the sun could be as cruel and dangerous as a harsh English winter. 

There were also times when even the most hopeful and optimistic of the travellers became frustrated. Despite the ship being so large and full of many compartments, the surroundings began to look monotonous, and one could feel trapped and claustrophobic. Even Morey lost his vigour some days. One day in particular when they had been travelling for weeks and they had not seen land for a long time, Marina noticed Morey was extremely irritable. He kept fiddling with his false teeth, taking them in and out repeatedly. There was no one who he could see about it on board, but Marina wondered if there was really anything wrong with them, or if he had just conjured up the problem in his mind for something to do. She and Morey had gone up on the deck to see if they could spot Australia yet, and after some profuse fidgeting from Morey, he suddenly took out his false teeth and threw them overboard. 

‘Morey! What on earth did you do that for?’ said Marina.

‘They were annoying me,’ he said plainly, then he shrugged and walked off back to his cabin. Their mother and father were furious.

‘They cost me a fortune,’ said their father. ‘I’m not paying for another set!’

Marina spent the next few days with Edna while her parents calmed down. 

***

Marina’s younger brother, Terry, was often off playing with the group of orphan boys that were being taken to Australia to be fostered, or to work on the farms. There were ten of them, so he was never short of a playmate. It was a sad day when the man who supervised the boys died of a heart attack in his cabin. Many people attended the funeral held on the ship’s deck. Marina’s mother didn’t want her or Terry to go, as she said it would be too much for them to witness at their age, but their father insisted. Marina would never forget the image of the man’s body wrapped in cloth within a hessian bag that was tipped into the ocean off a wooden plank. “Buried at sea” was the term people had used.

 In the end, Marina and Terry wished they hadn’t attended the funeral after all. They both agreed that simply throwing the man’s body overboard like that was horrifying and wrong. After that day, the ship took over the care of the boys, and everyone did what they could to help out.

It wasn’t long until they finally saw Australia. Marina thanked God when it appeared on the horizon, for it was a much needed glimmer of hope for the weary travellers. Most of her final days on the ship were spent on the front deck, watching as their new home came closer and closer. On the morning of their arrival, Marina, who had now grown brave enough to lean on the bannister, looked past the ocean mesmerized by the vast natural landscape in front of her. So much nature, so many colours: yellow sand, blue sky, red mountains, green trees. So much green. She held onto her skirt as the wind whooshed it wildly about her shins. She knew she should have been downstairs readying her bags with her family, but the fresh smell of flora and the unfamiliar sound of the fauna intoxicated her senses. 

***

‘What have you brought us to, Frank!’ Marina’s mother wailed, as ants continuously ran out of the fruitcake while the family tried to enjoy tea at the migrant centre. Little did she know this was only just the beginning. For in Innisfail, waiting for them were snakes and redbacks, toilets that didn’t flush and archaic kitchens. 

Marina’s mother and father wouldn’t end up staying in Australia. The change would be too immense, and the tides pulling them back to the familiarity of home were too strong. Yet the fragile and nervous fifteen-year-old Marina would find the courage in her to stay. She would attain full-time employment and lodgings in town. She would catch the eye of a tall, dark and handsome young Australian man. They would marry and have four children and travel all over the country together. 

But that is another story.

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