She stood at the rail looking out to the horizon in that early morning. The West African coast burned in the rising sun. It was already getting hot and the passengers squinted through cheap dark glasses bought in the kiosks of the Liverpool docks, unused to the white searing light.
The view was unnatural to her, so far now from the Sussex Downs but it breathed with change and smelt of adventure. A throng of dirty green palms and steep white beaches pummelled by breakers came into sight.
The humid atmosphere had condemned and solidified many cement carrying cargo ships, rendering them as beacons, and now stripped of all ferrous metals and their use over, they stood sentry over the port of Lagos. The liner, with rust marks on the hull was awake with the shouts of seaman preparing the anchor chains and securing loose ropes. Steam hoses snaked over filthy hatches, funnelling the hot water and clouds of putrid smoke rose into the already heavy morning air.
She turned to her small child who had now screwed up his eyes in the glare and he was already looking more pink skinned in his stroller on the deck. He was wearing a grubby shirt and no shoes. Six weeks of swimming in the deck pool, colour blind to fellow children had turned his skin a very pale olive. His fair hair had been stroked by countless expatriate spinsters going back to work in the schools and libraries that tried to make Nigeria a better place. He would miss that attention.
A new life awaited her, one not constrained by formality but bound by enterprise and imagination. She had been to Austria and France before, dreary cheap holidays in the post war period, often in always cold and rainy Cannes. It seemed permanently out of season for her. Photographs show the family group standing bored near damaged monuments to French poets and municipal non-entities, all long forgotten. The men were wearing awkward jackets and tight ties, the girls dressed as for an austere garden party. Her father had spent too much time on the Continent fighting Germans to have much enthusiasm to return or even enjoy going back voluntarily.
Almost without realising, she felt a bumping as the side of the ship starting to scrape along the wharf, popping the worn tractor tyres that were hanging over the pontoon. Crowds of black workers materialised from the warehouses all eager to catch the thick greasy ropes that would secure the shuddering ship to its berth.
As the propellers reversed to slow the ship’s movement, thick mud was thrown up from the stern, threshing the stinking water that was thick with rubbish, dead fish and discharged oils and sewage.
‘Welcome to Lagos and Victoria Island,’ an announcer said, his voice echoing through the emptying lounges and corridors of the now motionless ship.
The stewards and the deck hands jostled and pushed through the passengers, who were now all on the deck scanning the waiting crowds on the pier, with trolleys of trunks and heavy leather suitcases. She shimmied to one side, moving her child out of the way as the stream of luggage swept passed.
Then she saw him in a white suit and Regimental tie, that would never change with him. He was waving and pointing to a gangway that hung from the side, swaying dangerously and she allowed herself to be swept onto the the river of arrivals bouncing down the wooden steps.
Her feet touched the African soil at last. She felt giddy after so long at sea, but her child danced excitedly as he stumbled towards his father.
As he bent down to pick up the boy his hat teetered and was caught in time by his wife, who now held him and she drank in his male smell of sweat, exotic foods and spices and of a foreign land that soon she would call home.
‘Darling,’ he stammered, ‘so glad you are here, I have so much to show you,’