Louise and I followed Peter to the Captain’s Cabin. More a suite than a cabin, the décor would have done justice to a five-star hotel. Walls in the palest bleached wood, with bookcases and a dining table in the dayroom, easy chairs, a sofa, wall lights, even a standard lamp – and some classy paintings. I never saw better accommodation on a merchant ship. This small tanker had been designed and built in Rendsburg by a company more used to constructing luxury yachts. Luxury indeed.
Once I was over my amazement, it was time to sort the priorities. Food first – it had been a long time since lunch – and then the sleeping arrangements. Louise and Katie were to share the Pilot’s Cabin next door, while Peter’s bedroom sported a large and comfortable double bunk. But what about Baby?
Ever practical, my husband pulled out one of the deep drawers under the bunk. He lined it with a folded blanket, set it on the floor beside the bed – and that was Baby’s cot for the duration. He didn’t complain, but I found myself laughing as I tucked him in. ‘Poor little soul – had to sleep in a drawer!’
Next morning ‘Silverpelerin’ – named in French for the peregrine falcon – moved into the dry-dock. It’s always amazing to see a ship out of the water – they’re so much bigger below the waterline than above it. At less than 5,000 tonnes, ‘Silverpelerin’ was small, but her long, sharp prow was like the beak of a bird and her hull strengthened for ice. She’d been specially built for the Canadian coast, to transport chemicals from copper mines on the Gulf of St Lawrence, to Baltimore, Maryland.
Within a few days, it was as though we were at home. Louise spent time playing with her new friend Katie, while Baby was happy as ever, eyes large and round, taking in all the new sights and faces. Dry-docks are busy places, and Captain Peter was busy working, but he was envisaging some time off in which we could go ashore, have a meal, and do some sightseeing.
Unfortunately, I woke one morning feeling bad – thought I was going down with a cold. Then I discovered a blister under my arm – it was large and hot and very itchy. Mystified, I examined it in the mirror, wondering what it could be. I noticed Louise was itching too – she had at least half a dozen of these spots. By the end of the day more had appeared on both of us – what on earth could it be? Wrong climate for mosquitoes – wrong era for bubonic plague – some sort of allergy perhaps? Louise was cheerful enough, but I was feeling ghastly.
Peter unlocked the Shipmaster’s Medical Guide from its cupboard and retired to his office to consult it. (Not a book for innocent eyes, he said.) After a little while he returned the book to its locker, and made his pronouncement.
‘It looks like chickenpox and it matches all the symptoms…’
And then I remembered. Just before we left home, a neighbour’s children were away from school with that very illness. Just before the spots appeared they’d been playing at our house.
‘…But the virus can return in an adult as shingles. Maybe you’ve got shingles?’
‘No,’ I said miserably, ‘It’ll be chickenpox – I never had it as a child. So what do we do now?’
‘Well, you’re infectious – you can’t go ashore. In fact strictly speaking, you shouldn’t leave the cabin and I should report it to the local authorities. I’d better tell the people you’ve been in contact with….’
‘Treatment?’ I asked.
He shrugged. ‘It’s a virus. There isn’t any.’
My eyes fell on our infant son, gurgling happily from his play mat. ‘But what about Baby? What if I pass it on to him?’
We had a visit from the local doctor, a kind and pleasant man who had a little English. He kept saying, ‘Virus,’ to which I replied, ‘Chickenpox,’ and he would respond again with ‘Virus’. This went on for some time. But he gave me to understand that Baby would be okay. Only over a year old, he said, were they susceptible to these illnesses.
Frankly, I didn’t believe him, but everyone aboard echoed the doctor’s prognosis. Babies have natural immunity from their mothers, they said, so I was worrying unnecessarily. But, I repeated wearily, I had no natural immunity, because I’d never had chickenpox as a child. Therefore I could not have passed immunity onto my baby son.
Twelve days later, he too came out in spots. Lots of them. QED.
The doctor had given us some medicine to calm our symptoms, and cream to apply to the blisters, but whereas I’d been feeling dreadful for over a week, Louise had been more or less her usual self. Not so her baby brother: he was truly unwell.
By day two he was feverish, the blisters had multiplied, and I was really worried. I dare not give him anything without proper advice, so we had to call the doctor again. He examined baby, nodded sagely, and gave me some other medication to reduce baby’s temperature and make him more comfortable. Finally, having patted baby on the head, he stood back and smiled.
‘Virus,’ he said.
Oh no, I thought, not that again. I smiled back. ‘Yes – Chickenpox.’
‘Virus,’ he insisted with a grin. ‘In German – Windpocken!’
‘Ah – Windpocken!’ I repeated, with a V for the W. ‘That sounds about right!’
We were both laughing as he said his farewells.
The only advantage to being ill aboard ship is that everyday chores like shopping and cooking are taken care of. Babies require little extras, of course – like disposable nappies and baby-food. Jean had kindly done those bits of essential shopping for me, and the crew had been great at entertaining the girls. One of the officers got the chess set out and started teaching them to play. They managed to grasp the basics fairly quickly, but Louise would insist on saying they were playing Chest, while Katie wanted to move all the Prawns…
Relieved of anxiety, feeling better, and with baby on the mend, Peter and I managed an evening trip ashore. The heart of Rendsburg, a picturesque old town of winding streets and half-timbered buildings, was like something out of Grimm’s fairy tales. And already dressed for Christmas – with real snow, not the spray-on variety. I thought how much Louise would love it, and planned to bring her along during the day.
I planned to buy pretty candles, too. They were for sale everywhere – in every colour and shape. At home, plagued by power-cuts, candles were as rare as unicorns.
But it was already the beginning of December, and the ship, originally expected to be under repair for two weeks, was now in the fourth week of dry-dock. Completion was only a few days away, but company policy meant we couldn’t stay aboard with Baby once ‘Silverpelerin’ was ready to sail for Canada.
We would have to leave, but how were we to get home? Baby was still spotty and contagious, and airline rules said no passengers with infectious diseases. After much discussion, we decided it was a risk I would have to take. Otherwise, what was I going to do?
The day arrived, our flights were booked from Hamburg, with a car to take us to the airport. Peter made a call to his cousin – another seafarer at home on leave – and explained about the chickenpox. Cousin Brian lived close to Leeds-Bradford airport and agreed to pick us up at 4 pm. I packed my cabin bag with two bottles of milk and the usual paraphernalia, hoping we’d pass through the security checks without too many questions…
(Final episode tomorrow)