In the midst of a global oil crisis and national power cuts, Capt Peter rang from abroad. His ship was due into Rendsburg, northern Germany, for repairs. This dry-dock job was expected to take a couple of weeks, and would I like to come over with the children?
It was autumn 1973. Louise was six years old, our son barely five months. Travelling with a young baby, with all the attendant paraphernalia, was not an idea I relished. On the other hand, apart from the joy of being together again, it would get us away from the shortages at home. I allowed myself to be persuaded, and a rapid ring round airlines and passport offices ensued. Everything was organised within days, and flights from Leeds/Bradford via Heathrow to Hamburg, were booked.
With Baby in a sling, I manhandled our luggage from taxi to check-in, Louise carrying Fred Bear, her favourite teddy. Fred was a cute Pooh Bear lookalike, hand-made by a family friend. No problem at our local airport, but going through security at London’s Heathrow we were viewed with gimlet-eyed suspicion.
The contents of my hand-luggage – all baby accessories – were taken out and examined. The three of us were well and truly frisked. Fred Bear was given a particularly thorough going-over – at one stage I thought they were going to unpick him at the seams. Did we really look like Semtex-carrying members of the Bader-Meinhof gang?
Even Baby was indignant as his little body was pinched and prodded. Given the all-clear at last we were allowed to board our flight for Hamburg, my daughter clutching her teddy as though she’d never let go.
On landing at Hamburg we were met by the ship’s agent who introduced us to the Chief Engineer’s wife, Jean, and young daughter, Katie. It would have been normal practice to escort us to the ship, but not in this case. The agent promptly packed us into a taxi, gave the shipyard address, and waved us off into the wilds of northern Germany.
Probably an hour’s drive from Hamburg, the old town of Rendsburg stands beside the Kiel Canal, which connects the Baltic to the North Sea. It was already dark when we left the airport and after six when we arrived at the shipyard – to find deep snow, a wire fence, a wooden hut inside the gates, and no sign of a ship.
The place seemed to be locked up for the night. My heart sank. I’d been watching the time since we landed, knowing Baby’s next feed was due. The Chief’s wife sighed. ‘So what are we supposed to do now?’
We were reluctant to get out of the cab, but the driver wanted to get back to Hamburg. His English was basic, our German non-existent. We imagined he was employed by the shipping agency, but didn’t know for sure. Certainly our protests that he couldn’t just leave us there cut no ice. (Or snow.) But he did get out of the cab and rattle the gates.
An elderly man emerged from the hut. Well, he seemed old to me at the time – he was probably in his fifties – clearly not impressed by the taxi-driver, or his tale of stranded women and children. We might not have understood the words, but the gestures were eloquent.
‘What do expect me to do about it? I’m just the night-watchman – nobody tells me anything. Ship? What ship? There’s no ship here – you can see that for yourself!’
Taxi-driver: ‘They won’t get out of my cab – but I’ve got to get back to Hamburg. Unlock these gates and let them in…’
The exchange went on for a while. The driver returned and made a call on his radio. He sounded annoyed. Baby woke and grew fractious, started to cry. It was past his feed time, and no doubt the taxi-driver’s too. Louise and her new friend Katie sat quietly, eyes huge, afraid to speak. Eventually the cab radio crackled and another incomprehensible exchange ensued.
‘Okay,’ the driver said, getting out. A cold blast of air hit us as he opened the passenger door. ‘Ship delayed.’ As Jean and I nodded – yes, we’d gathered that – he struggled for his next words. ‘Here – maybe one hour.’
He sighed, jerked his head. ‘One hour. You wait – I go.’ He was clearly sorry – but implacable.
‘Where can we wait?’ I demanded. ‘It’s freezing – what about the children?’
But already he was unloading our luggage, stacking it inside the gate, telling us we could wait in the hut. Within minutes he was backing up, turning round. Like orphans abandoned to the snow, we watched him leave.
As Baby twisted and let out a yell of protest, Louise gazed up at me. ‘What are we going to do, Mummy?’
Good question. I gazed at the Chief’s wife, but she shrugged, saying something about ships always being late. True, but not helpful.
Suddenly I was angry. ‘Well, we can’t stand here,’ I muttered. ‘We’ll freeze to death.’ With that I pushed open the gate and rapped on the door of the watchman’s hut.
‘Excuse me,’ I said, in the ringing tones of an Englishwoman with Churchill at her back. ‘We need to come in.’
The man opened his door barely an inch, leaving no doubt as to his thoughts on the matter. His job description did not include granting asylum to two women, two little girls, and a squalling baby.
He shook his head vehemently, muttering words to the effect that this was his hut and he wasn’t obliged, etc, etc
‘I’m sorry,’ I declared, shouldering my way in, ‘but you’re going to have to put up with it.’ As he fell back before this angry mother, I pulled Louise in behind me, clutching her teddy. The other two followed. It was a very small space – we filled it.
‘The ship isn’t here, but we are. As you can see, I have a baby…’ I indicated my squalling son, ‘and he is hungry. I refuse to let him die of exposure while you make up your mind whether it’s fitting or not.’
He hunched his shoulders and retreated behind his desk as though we really were some terrorist gang. He eyed the teddy with suspicion and picked up the phone. Maybe he was calling the police – I didn’t care. There was a chair – I took it, opened my bag and hunted through the contents for Baby’s bottle. The milk was cold, but baby didn’t seem to mind. He guzzled the lot while the others looked on.
We did a nappy change too. That really upset our host, but cheered Baby no end. He was soon gurgling away and entertaining the girls. Just as well, because that hour seemed to go on forever.
The telephone rang. Miraculously, after a brief exchange, the tension eased. Our reluctant host produced what might have been a smile. He stood up, and with words I understood, indicated that the ship was here.
The girls dashed out as he opened the door. ‘Mum, it’s here – the ship’s here!’
And so it was. In the distance we could see the bright deck lights of a long ship with an elegant prow – MV Silverpelerin – coming alongside the quay.
Warmth and welcome were just minutes away. After all the anxiety, I could have wept with relief. Just as well I had no idea of further trials in the days ahead…
(Don’t miss episode 2 tomorrow – and episode 3 the day after.)