I’m on-board! I told myself I’d do it and I’ve done it! So long dirty-old Southampton, hello the SS Cotopaxi! It feels so exotic: an American ship. And I have dollars, now – though they feel like play money; like something only a child would spend. I’m deliberately not looking at the ship’s itinerary, but I believe we’re destined for Gibraltar, Havana, and then ports unknown!
This morning, everything was so different. I was weathering the storm of my own impulsiveness: a few moments to clean, a lot of last minute running round to collect some ‘necessaries’.
I have a pitiful lack of clothes, but did find enough to fill a tatty, old leather suitcase. I obviously brought a couple of books (maybe I’ll get a chance to finally finish War and Peace, though in truth I’ve never felt drawn to its endless sabre-rattling, and it’s so cruel to the poor horses!) but the last thing I packed was that fat envelope on the mantle. It contained maps and a poster – and some adverts, of course, for exotic ship-board boutiques – and the tickets with the theatrical mask printed on them (quite strange, but so expensive and elegant), and a chocolate-box label with an X etched on it. X marks the spot? Ha, ha.
Now that I think of it, that little golden card was lying on the carpet where it had no right to be, but I industriously brought it anyway…
Was it only a few hours ago I was back in our dainty little house? Already, it feels like a lifetime ago. It was time for me to go, Maud, just as you wanted for me. So I left with that friendly touch to your hand, and the thought: don’t look back – adventure this way! Just like the Popular Book for Girls.
I didn’t run, but I moved swiftly – a right-old clatter of hard shoes on cobbles and then onto paving (and phew that case was heavy). The tram, and then a long walk, because I couldn’t afford a further fare [or rather, break such large notes. Tsk, tsk, remember, Lucy, you silly goose – you have money now]. And there it was, the quay growing and growing into cranes and warehouses, smoke and steel.
As a woman travelling alone, I had a little awkwardness around the gates and gangways, and the signs of where to go and do the ‘such-and-such’ of Southampton quay. Everywhere, it was couples or families or men! I must have looked quite the odd-bod, I know. But I decided, there and then, that I was going to become an entirely different person on board: the real me – a new woman. (Perhaps I’ll become a Flapper, too, Maud, just like you – though I can see your outraged face at the smallest thought of it!).
Through in the ticket office there were scores of people dragging trunks or suitcases, colliding with my own brown, battered one, with its M.E. initials in peeling, gold paint. And there I am in my dowdy coat and floppy hat, with a few paper flowers and a twist of tissue-berries on it. Everyone else was so crushingly elegant. (I shall buy myself some new clothes with my new inheritance, first thing tomorrow – see if I don’t!).
Then there was the hoot of the steam horn and the rumbling drive of the propellers as the ship came to, the sailors catcalling and shouting, dropping and looping off ropes as thick as my arm, the ends stitched into huge hangman’s nooses, hooked over the chins of black-iron flat-heads.
The ship towered over me, the gulls crying, the scent of the sea – salty and stale and electric, all at once. A sailor hooked me aboard off the gang, his hand beneath my elbow as my case caught in the door. His grin had all the swarthy impertinence of an Eastern bazaar – though he did grip a bruise I didn’t know I had. (In the mirror, it’s a whopper – I swear it’s the same shape as Stevenson’s Treasure Island).
Now, I have a plate of cucumber sandwiches in my cabin, and Darjeeling tea, and a darling view out of the porthole. I’m sure I shall be compelled to socialise, later. It’s so exciting – the Cotopaxi is so huge, so luxurious. Whom shall I meet? This cruise will be such an adventure! I’m so glad you gave it to me, Maud. You know me best, and I needed to get away.