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Alan Veale

Copyright Alan Veale 2018

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For the ‘Little Imp’ of this story

my Big Sister Susan –

with love from her Little Brother

Table of Contents

The Sideboard

Part One – The Dream

Part Two – Keith

Part Three – Delamere

Part Four – Glenelg

Author’s Note


Photographs & Illustrations

Also by the Author

Connect with the Author

The Sideboard

When I was very young I remember being drawn to a sideboard in the front room. It was as long as my bed and nearly as wide. It was made of solid wood, had a cupboard at each end and a couple of drawers in the middle. Nothing unusual about that. But to a nine year old boy who had just been introduced to C S Lewis’s fantasy land of Narnia, that sideboard started to look a little different.

I would run my hands over the smooth door panels, and then use my fingers to trace the delicate patterns of raised veneer around the edges. Imagination would take over as I pressed a rounded centrepiece, childish wonder transporting me through the secret panel I so wanted to be there.

It even had its own smell. If I pushed my face against the dark-stained wood I was convinced I could still detect the living, breathing tree from which this “enchanted” piece of furniture had been formed. Imagine my delight when I found it really did have a secret compartment! My big sister Susan (six years my senior) once showed me the trick of pulling open the bottom drawer, and then feeling for a ridge underneath that would allow a shallow mid-section to slide out. Unlike the rest of the drawers this part was lined with velvet, so it had to be extra special. I could hardly contain my disappointment when I realised the hidden compartment did not hold an ancient map leading me to nuggets of gold or a secret world, but some musty letters and a few old photographs.

In truth that secret drawer really was my personal treasure. Inside that hidden recess was an adventure beyond my imaginings: a story of romance, of new beginnings and the promise of a better life. Here were answers to the questions I had about the parents who made me what I am. Many years later Susan and I returned to look inside that sideboard, and to finally appreciate the epic journey our parents had undergone. What follows is our mother’s story, edited from letters and other documents she left behind.

Alan Veale

Mollie’s Journal

Part One

The Dream

Mollie Veale in 1950

September 1949 – on board SS Esperance Bay, at sea

My eyes are closed, but I know the sun is out there. I am bathing in such a wonderful blend of light and warmth as I have never felt before. I can hear the sea too, and taste the salt painted on my lips by the strong breeze. This really is living the dream. In a moment I expect to wake up to a dull, rain-soaked day in Manchester with a list of household chores to work through. Or perhaps by some miracle I have already been transported to a tropical island, ready to be waited on hand and foot by dusky natives.

In reality I am seated on a deck chair among a small group of passengers belonging to the Esperance Bay, currently steaming her way at about fifteen knots around the coast of Spain. I can allow myself the luxury of day-dreaming, letting my senses pick out the noise of the sea and the strengthening warmth of the morning sun, while my ears have grown accustomed to the steady throb of engines powering the ship south and east on its six week journey. Eric has taken Susan off to play in the children’s room, and I am indulging in a spot of relaxation that feels strangely addictive. If this is an indication of how our lives are about to change, then it is more than welcome. Despite the occasional speck of smutty smoke from the funnel landing in my hair, and the familiar childish shrieks in the background, I feel more relaxed than I can remember since our honeymoon. My thoughts start to drift to another set of pleasant memories, but then I have a rude awakening as I feel an object slam against my right shoulder.

‘Wake up Mummy!’ My little girl has run as fast as her legs will carry her across twenty feet of deck, so it seems she has collided with the wooden framework.

‘Oh, Susan! Please be careful!’

Startled by this interruption to my fantasies, I must look rather peculiar to her, as my reaction produces a fit of giggles from the beaming three year old. I put my arm out to steady her as she jiggles up and down with unrestrained excitement. Then I arch my neck round as another voice interrupts her juvenile chatter.

‘Hey, she beat me!’ Eric strolls into view. ‘I tell you, Mollie, that little thing can certainly run. Calm down, Suey! She’s pretty good on the swing too. How did you get on?’

But Susan’s needs are urgent: ‘I want a chair too, Mummy!’

I pull her onto my lap. ‘Oh it was heavenly! If I closed my eyes I could have been on a desert island. Apart from the noisy neighbours, that is.’

‘Yes, there are a few others competing for kiddie’s facilities, and I suppose they hadn’t appreciated Mrs Veale was trying for a nap. Come on then. Let’s swap now you’re awake. You’ve got that letter to finish off, haven’t you?’

‘Can I do my colouring?’ A perennial question from my art-obsessed daughter.

‘In a minute, Susan!’

Time to give in. My idyll is at an end, and it is clear I will get no sympathy from either of them until I relinquish my throne. ‘Eric, you’re a cruel man, but a fair one. Yes, I’ve still got a page and a half to fill, so I’ll give Elsie and Alan an update. Yes, Little Imp! You can sit with me and do some more colouring while mummy writes her letter. Don’t let this deck chair go, Eric! I might want to try a little more sunbathing when we get back. A girl can get used to this.’

I can sense his eager anticipation while I take hold of Susan and a raffia basket containing handbag, writing paper and pen, drawing materials and a bag of sweets. Eric has a grin on his face as broad as the proverbial Cheshire Cat as we walk off in the direction of the writing room. I can’t help smiling at the loud sigh behind me as he finally takes possession of the much-coveted deck chair.

My dear Elsie & Alan,

It is difficult to believe we are in the middle of the ocean. This is a lovely writing room and except for a little vibration and slight roll, we might be sat in a hotel. We had a weary journey to Southampton as we had no breakfast, and had to do some queuing up to give up ration books, customs etc before going on the ship. The journey to London was very good, right on time. We went in a Corner House with Joan and had a good meal. Susan was fascinated with the orchestra and included bands in her prayers that night. We were fixed up alright in Sussex Gardens but had to come away too early for breakfast.

The ship sailed about 12.30pm, and we didn’t know until it was well out from the dock. We were having lunch and suddenly noticed the land slipping past the portholes! Of course, I didn’t bother about pudding and dashed up on deck, but I was glad I had missed the first break as I dreaded it very much. The land soon disappeared as it was misty and has been ever since. It’s just sea and mist all round us now. I hope it will clear soon.

We are separated. Eric is in another cabin, while Susan and I share with another mother and her little girl aged 5. Last night we couldn’t get the kiddies to settle, they both wanted to climb the ladder to the top bunks. We left them finally and took the ladder away, and going back later on the steward said Susan had swung herself down and come out in the corridor saying she wanted to ‘wee wee’. However we did eventually get them off and I slept quite well. The bunks are very nice.

The food is good too. It seems to be all meals. We are on second sittings, breakfast 8.45am, lunch 1pm, afternoon tea 4pm. Then the children have their tea at 5pm and dinner 7 o’clock.

We cannot send any letters until the ship reaches Malta, so have sent you a radio air letter today. We shall reach Adelaide on Nov 5th, all being well of course, so it would be best to write direct to Keith.

We shall try and get deck chairs as soon as possible. I’ve only seen about half a dozen belonging to the ship up to now, and there are 515 people on board.

I finish reading over the partly completed letter, and feel it is an accurate enough summary of our journey so far. I trained as a shorthand typist after leaving school, and then spent several years working in a busy office in the city before I married Eric, so it has become a habit of mine to check everything I write. Susan is on my lap, happily making patterns with crayons on her own piece of paper, so I adjust my position at the desk and continue writing to my brother and sister-in-law.


Beautiful morning. Weather getting warmer. Still a bit misty or we should be able to see the coast of Spain. We played Housey Housey last night, and Eric won 12/2d. What with gambling and cheap drinks (we’ve had a couple of gin & limes), I’ll be a depraved woman by the time we reach Australia.

So far I haven’t had much time on my hands. We had to queue up a long time for a reserved table on Thursday night, and up to now the kiddies are very restless and unsettled.

There is a shop on board which seems to sell practically everything (including nylons, but they haven’t released those yet).

Susan is sat on my knee drawing weird diagrams, she sends you lots of love and kisses, sticky ones of course. Plenty of chocolate and toffee on board, also Players cigarettes 2/6 for 50!

Will write again soon, Eric has sent you a postcard of the ship.

Much love always


SS Esperance Bay

My first letter home. Now “home” is wherever I can lay my head. In a few short weeks I will be an Australian Citizen, and settling in to a new home and a new life. Eric and I are joining so many of our kin and pinning our hopes for the future on promises of a better life in another country. A few years ago I could never have imagined taking such a huge gamble, so what has happened to bring me to this?

Curiously it began with another letter. The War had been over barely a year when it arrived. It had travelled twelve thousand miles, and the excitement was obvious on Eric’s face as he slit open the envelope.

‘News from Hurtle in Australia.’

‘Where’s that?’ I said as I placed our month old baby back in her cot. ‘I’m sorry I don’t know much about Australia.’

Eric with Hurtle

‘It’s not a place,’ he said. ‘It’s a bloke I knew in Palestine. His name is Hurtle! He was a sapper with ANZAC and we got quite close...’

His voice trailed off while he studied the contents of his letter. Idly I wondered if this Australian soldier had some sort of skin condition. I had no idea then about overseas army divisions. We had just come home from a short walk with our daughter in her pram, and I was thankful that she seemed to be fast asleep. Last night Susan had woken me three times, so now I was more interested in my bed than in Eric’s news from abroad. I started to unlace my shoes.

‘Listen to this, Mollie!’ He was standing in the doorway, reading from his letter. ‘Eric, this is a wonderful country if anyone is prepared to work. We had one of my pals and his English bride out here the other week and she could not get over all the fresh butter, cream, eggs, fruit and vegetables we have over here…’

I listened, but somehow the words weren’t making much sense. Where was this wonderful shop?

Then Eric spoke again. ‘What do you think?’ he asked. ‘Be a great place for Susan to grow up.’

I looked at him, realising I was expected to respond with enthusiasm. Hazel eyes sparkled above a broad smile that usually melted my heart. But today was different. Today I lived in a world where a woman needed to be more than a romantic heroine. Today I had to snatch what sleep I could, then put food on our plates, make up a coal fire and soak two soiled nappies.

I took the letter from Eric and chewed my lip in an effort to concentrate as I studied the page. Blue spidery writing on thin blue paper, but some of the words were easy to read: butter, cream, eggs... It was a shopping list too far – all of it desirable, but sadly out of reach of my ration book. Then I glanced at the cot by my side in the cramped little bedroom. Only last night we had talked of our concerns for the child’s future. Our entire world was here in this one room at the back of my mother’s house. Could we dare to dream of something better? I tried to picture us in a different world: our own house, sunshine and three smiling children. But there was a problem with that sort of vision.

‘It’s a long way away.’

‘That’s the point!’ Eric was not to be dismissed easily. ‘Australia hasn’t been touched by the war in the way we have. Think about it, Mollie. No rationing! Hundreds of opportunities for work! Hurtle’s a good mate. He could help us get settled there.’

I did think about it. I stared back at my husband and tried to remember what I could about Australia. Red portions on a map, or was it pink? I thought back to my schooldays with Miss Travis and a huge globe dominating a corner of the classroom. I remembered her turning it slowly to show us the pink-coloured extent of the British Empire. Canada was the largest single expanse, and then she spun the globe to show us the next in size at the bottom of the world – Australia. We asked lots of questions then: Why didn’t they fall off if they lived upside down? What was it like to live in a pink country? What was it like? Miss Travis told us it was hot there, and they had natives who threw strange sticks in the air that flew in a circle. The tomboy inside me was desperate to own one of those sticks.

The memory brought the beginnings of a smile to my face which I immediately quashed, not wanting to give Eric any encouragement for an idea which, at first mention, seemed too fantastic to contemplate. Then Susan began to splutter in her sleep, little bubbles of saliva decorating her tiny lips as a growing squeal emerged demanding my milk. It was a welcome distraction for once, and I threw a smile of apology over my shoulder as I started to unbutton my blouse.

‘Not now, Eric. We’ll talk about it later, shall we?’

It was a topic of conversation that would be raised many more times. While I knew Eric was right to look at alternative prospects to those in Britain after the war, all I could think about was the wrench such a parting would cause. Emotions had been running high enough following my father’s death less than a year before. He had been sixty three, and we all felt his loss deeply. Father and Mother had been the same age, and her own poor health was a growing cause for concern. Brothers Alan and Bert were both recently married and living nearby. But my younger sister Joan had moved away to London, and that at first seemed a huge distance to cope with – so the prospect of relocating to a foreign country on the other side of the world was totally unreasonable.

Or was it?

Mollie with Susan 1947

Eric’s idea of moving to Australia became an obsession. Each letter we received from Hurtle painted a clear picture of brighter prospects in a new country. The former soldier was now a farmer, but he was looking to change from growing crops to rearing sheep. It seemed the meat market in Australia was booming, and if Hurtle could also buy a butcher’s shop he reckoned he would need help with the business side. I was sure it was this that had been the real reason behind Eric’s decision to work with his brother-in-law, who ran a butcher’s in Chorlton.

At the shop he gained first-hand knowledge of the meagre allowance a housewife had to manage on, struggling to put protein on a plate in an economy that had been restricted for years. I laughed as he finally started to appreciate what life was like from my point of view. Not one to do anything by halves, Eric next announced he was starting a night school course in bookkeeping. He had been a regular soldier since 1935, signing up at the age of twenty one in preference to doing factory work. The army had sheltered him from the real world until a few months before Susan was born, so I couldn’t blame him for looking at alternative lifestyles in another country. But convincing me this impossible dream could work for us was never going to be easy when I felt so strongly about my immediate family.

One Sunday we boarded a tram on our way home from church in Hulme. Eric carried Susan in his arms as I could not offer her the same degree of protection. A childhood accident had left me with a hip problem and a severe dose of tuberculosis. The result was my left leg grew shorter than my right, leaving me with a pronounced limp. Once I was seated on board Eric was able to hand Susan back to me, before drawing my attention to a poster opposite that had been left up too long after the event: Let us Face the Future – the rallying call from Attlee’s Labour Party manifesto.

‘See that?’ said Eric. ‘The promises we were made? We voted them in to change this country for the better. Promised us a major new health service and goodness knows what else. What have we actually got?’

There was no need for me to reply. The answer was all around us: broken fittings and peeling varnish on the wood trims inside the tram, cracked and stained leather on our bench seat. But the real evidence was etched into the faces of the other passengers – pale and drawn, eyes cast down, Sunday-best clothes patched and worn thin as their owners tried to maintain an illusion of prosperity.

Our tram lurched from one side to the other as it rounded the corner into Chorlton Road, a long metallic screech assaulting my ears as the wheels scraped the side of the rails. I clutched Susan tighter to my chest in case her little head should come into contact with the window next to me. She gave a squeal and reached a tiny hand up to try and touch the grimy surface of the glass, streaked with rusty condensation. An older woman in a matching maroon coat and hat sat opposite us, and gave me a disapproving stare as Susan made a further protest. I smiled in apology but got a blank response in return.

The war was supposed to have united us all in fighting for a common cause, but now each of us seemed preoccupied with our own private battles. All of us were struggling to get by day-to-day. Britain no longer seemed so “Great” now that the war was won.

Eric was in conversation with another passenger. The man had been with us that morning at the church service, and I remembered him saying he had recently moved to the area from somewhere near London.

‘This country has been pulling together so long it’s exhausted,’ said the man. ‘My cousin and his wife are selling up and moving to Canada. Can’t say I blame them. Surely there ought to be a better life for us here after all we’ve been through? What price Victory, eh?’

I didn’t look up, but I could sense Eric glance in my direction at the mention of Canada, and I desperately tried to think of something more positive to contribute. I used my glove to wipe a clearer patch of glass for Susan to look out at the grey city landscape. In my heart I knew the stranger had a point. Eric and I had been offered a plausible solution and it deserved serious consideration. Perhaps I was behaving like the proverbial kangaroo with my head stuck in the sand. Or was that some other animal?

October 1949 –

on board SS Esperance Bay, past Suez

It is the first week of October, and Australia is still nearly four weeks away. But this voyage has been like nothing I have ever experienced. Eric reminds me over ten years before he had sailed with five hundred men on a ship very similar to this, but then the home port had been Liverpool. They had taken a similar course through the Med to Port Said, and then taken a shorter journey by train to Palestine for the necessary demands of army service. Now he is able to point out some familiar landmarks to us as we enter an engineering marvel called the Suez Canal. We are almost a quarter of the way to Australia!

The deep rich colours of the sea enthral us all, passing through turquoise and emerald green to every shade of blue, all governed by the depth of the water below. We are steering a course across the Red Sea to the Arabian Sea and then on to Ceylon, before crossing the equator via the Indian Ocean to reach the western coast of Australia at Fremantle.

Eric has decided to write to his younger sister, Pat – but never considers a letter to his father. My own parents had both been so dear to me, and yet Eric’s accounts of childhood are very different to mine. He had been close to his mother, who died suddenly while he was serving overseas, and Pat had only been ten when he left. But he has two brothers and another sister, all now married and with their own children. That doesn’t seem so very different to my own background, but then Eric explains it to me in a simple way: ‘Your family hugs a lot. Mine just shake hands’.

Now we have a little family of our own, all of us clinging to the ship’s rail, and delighting in the experience of warm wind peppered with sea spray. I squeal with delight as I catch sight of a porpoise leaping out of the water just yards from the ship. I haven’t felt so happy since our wedding day.

It is very much like a holiday, but one we have never known before. There are so many goods available to us on board – without limit and at cheaper prices – that it immediately puts a brighter gloss on the whole adventure. The gloom of ration-infested Britain is becoming a distant memory. Not only do we not have to pay for, plan or prepare our meals – we have them put in front of us! We can also eat together as a family, and Eric can have a smoke afterwards if he wants, joining other male passengers in the lee of the dining saloon while I and the other mothers take our children off to bed.

The further we travel the higher rises the temperature. After two weeks, as Esperance Bay reaches Aden on the Arabian Coast, peaches in jelly and ice cream with wafers are more than welcome in the stifling heat. Despite it all, I still have thoughts of “home”, and keep my promise to write to Elsie and Alan:

In the Arabian Sea,

Sat Oct 15th /49

My dear Elsie & Alan,

I don’t know just where we are at the moment, nor the exact date and am only just beginning to care! The Red Sea seems to have taken all the use out of me. It is cooler now but below decks all the heat seems to be stored up and then of course we are still in the tropics. We went ashore at Aden on Thursday – it was fairly cool in the shade and we enjoyed a wander down the main street looking in the shops. Some of the shops were quite nice and had some lovely things for sale. Eric bought a white silk shirt for 10/- and pyjamas, also white silk, for £1. They seemed to cater for men mostly, as apart from women off the ships, I didn’t see any others. There were a lot of beggars, and cheeky little Arab boys. We went in a cafe for iced drinks and suddenly found two little lads cleaning the men’s shoes under the table. Eric pushed one off and then we found him attacking Susan’s she wasn’t protesting either! She was very good and came all round with us holding tight to my hand, not saying much except when she saw one or two camels and goats. Aden is very hot, dusty with barren looking hills. They haven’t had any rain since 1941.

The ship took in drinking water. It’s terrible stuff because it’s treated with chlorine. We are all hoping there will be fresh supplies at Colombo, which we should reach on the 19th. I seem to have been on this ship two months instead of just over two weeks and still three weeks to go. Susan doesn’t eat any better. She has had two or three stewards round each threatening, and then when they’ve gone she says “He’s a nice man isn’t he mummy?” There is a fancy dress party for the kiddies on Tuesday. We are racking our brains what we can do for the imp. At tea time today the steward rashly told the kiddies there would be large balloons for them at the party. So Susan instantly said “I want a wellow one” and demanded it forthwith. I asked her tonight “I wonder what Auntie Elsie and Uncle Alan are doing?” and she said “I think they’re crying”. So I said “Why?” and she answered “I think they want to see Suey”. So I said “We’ll have to go and see them one day” and she said “Yes, we’ll go on the bus!!” Oh dear, I only wish we could.

If you leave Knutsford Avenue I wonder if you would put that plant which grew from my wedding bouquet on mother and father’s grave. I should like to think of it there. Susan loves the swimming pool. It is lowered for the children for an hour, and Eric takes her in. She doesn’t mind the water coming right up to her shoulders now. All three of us slept out under the stars on Tuesday. In the morning we were covered in smuts from the funnel. We are about three hours ahead of your time now so each time I think of you, I have to remember that. I do hope you are both well and that we didn’t leave you too much clearing up. It looked dreadful to me. Please give my love to all at Zion, and very much love to both of you.


On board Esperance Bay (Mollie on RHS)

Eric finishes reading and passes the single sheet of paper back to me on the other side of the table. ‘Very good. You write a lovely letter. It’s a shame about the ink.’

I glance up from looking in my bag for the envelope I prepared earlier. ‘It kept drying up with the heat, I think. What time is it?’

‘Nearly ten past nine.’

‘Phew!’ I fan myself with the envelope and grin at him. ‘Gone nine o’ clock at night and still so hot out here! I hope the kiddies can sleep.’

Eric smiles. ‘She’s a nice lady, Mrs Solomons. And Rachel. She and Sue get on very well. They’ll probably talk themselves to sleep.’

‘Or Mrs Solomons! It’s good of her to give us some peace though. I’ll miss her once we get to Fremantle.’ I look up as a steward approaches our table. ‘Eric? Could I have another gin and lime?’

We are sat in the corner of the writing room I had claimed for my own. Eric orders the drinks and gives the steward a ten shilling note, then turns back to me with a wink.

‘Depraved woman!’

‘Hey! Be careful Eric – I could get used to this. There’s still time... Was I right about it being nearly two weeks?’

‘Well, it’s the fifteenth of October now, and we sailed on the twenty-ninth, so yes – we’ve had just over sixteen days, and...’ he does some mental arithmetic. ‘...If we keep to schedule we have another three weeks before Adelaide.’

‘Gosh! Not even halfway yet.’

We sit quietly for a moment, and then a thought crosses my mind that I just can’t shift. I am about to voice my concerns when Eric distracts me with an observation of his own.

‘Have you noticed something?’


‘My asthma. It’s gone!’

I stare at him for a moment, trying to recall when I last saw my husband doubled over with the effort of coughing while gasping for breath. He reminds me it had been while carrying our luggage into the cabins on that first day. Over two weeks have passed without incident, and that is the longest asthma-free period either of us can remember since before he was demobbed.

The steward arrives with our drinks before I can reply. ‘Oh, thank you. Eric, that’s marvellous! What do you think caused it?’

Eric takes the proffered change and places a sixpence tip on the steward’s tray. ‘Thanks, Sam.’ He smiles as he puts the remaining coins back in his wallet. ‘The sea air, I should think. We’ve had plenty of it, after all, and I don’t think it matters whether it’s humid or not. It’s just so much purer than we have at... than we had back in England.’

‘But what happens when we get to Australia? What if you get ill again?’

‘I won’t. We’re going to be arriving at the start of their summer, and that has to mean lots of dry, hot periods. I got plenty of those in Palestine and Persia, and I reckon that sort of atmosphere suits me. So – I think my body will respond to that, and the asthma should get less and less.’

I nod in agreement, although privately I am not convinced. My thoughts drift back to an occasion not much more than a year ago, when I was still struggling to cope with the suggestion I leave my family behind me.

Eric was late. It was nearly seven o’clock and he still wasn’t back from work. I knew he should have finished by half past five, and would have no problem catching a tram from Piccadilly. The service was regular, and should have taken no more than thirty minutes, so by now I was getting worried. A loud knock at the door gave me such a fright, and I expected to see a grim-faced policeman stood outside. Instead there was Eric, his hair dishevelled and shirt soaked through, clearly in some distress and supported under the shoulders by two genial gentlemen, both older than him.

‘Would you be the lady looking for this young fellow?’ asked the shorter of the two.

I must have looked so shocked, but the man seemed oblivious.

‘Delighted to meet you, my dear, but your man insisted we bring him here.’

As the three of them eased past me into the hall I realised Eric’s breathing was very ragged, and his shirt wet from perspiration. He leaned against the wall and smiled in gratitude at his companions.

‘Now you take it easy, Rick,’ said the shorter man. ‘Your lovely lady will have you right as rain in no time. It’s been a pleasure. What a story to tell the grand kids, eh? Goodnight and God Bless.’

With that the two of them nodded to me politely, the short man tipping the brim of his hat as he closed the door behind him. I never found out the names of those Good Samaritans.

Eric’s asthma problems began in the army while he was overseas. An accident in a vehicle had broken his nose and surgery had been attempted in field conditions without proper facilities. That was the end of his overseas service and, while his nose seemed to heal, Eric was susceptible to colds and bronchial problems for at least the next two years. Once discharged from the army he did improve with time, but certain conditions could still trigger an asthma attack.

On this occasion he had been slightly later than usual leaving the office, which caused him to run across Piccadilly Gardens to catch the tram. He boarded one just as it set off, but his breathing had become so laboured that he collapsed straight on to the platform. Help was immediately to hand, but Eric could hardly speak, and no one could initially understand whereabouts he wanted to get off the tram. While the short man had suggested they take him to a doctor’s surgery in Stretford, Eric had been adamant he wanted to go straight home – and so they had ended up walking a very slow mile and a half to our house in Chorlton.

Ironically, that same day of the asthma attack we received another little blue letter from Australia. Hurtle’s ambition to become a sheep farmer was now realised, and so the pressure was back on Eric to consider his business proposition. It was amazing how quickly my husband’s breathing got back under control when he opened that letter. I took the opportunity to suggest he fetch some coal in from the bunker outside.

October 1949 – on board SS Esperance Bay, the equator

We both agree it is the strangest sight we have ever seen. Susan is sat on the knee of a bare-chested man wearing a long flowing beard, a cardboard crown and various silk scarves attached to his belt around a very substantial waist. The broom-handle at his side has a three-pronged fork that is probably made from plywood attached atop of it, and this peculiar figure is sat amid a group of other men, some of whom have adopted coconut brassieres to wear over their bare chests, while their lower halves are largely covered by skirts made out of straw.

It is mayhem on a scale neither of us have encountered before. Even Eric with over ten years service in the army says he cannot believe the sheer lunacy of the occasion. We are five hundred souls crammed into every conceivable space in and above the aft sun deck. Many of the more agile passengers have climbed onto deckhouse roofs in a manner that would normally have earned a rebuke from a ship’s officer. But not today!

Esperance Bay is a jungle of steel with huge metal hawsers and derricks for loading cargo – and limited deck space. Everything seems hot to the touch unless it’s in shadow. On a normal day we would have nothing more energetic to think about than scrambling for a prized deck chair, or trying to stop our three year old from throwing herself into the sea. Today it seems more like the rush hour in Manchester, competing for a seat on the tram. We make Susan cling tightly to both of us as we push her through to that portion of the sun deck where a table has been moved from the saloon, and is now smothered by a merchant navy flag together with several boxes and buckets. Those same crew members who might have admonished dangerous practice from a passenger are mingled among us, some perched precariously near the rails, and many of them in costume.

Each of us are awaiting “Examination by the Court of King Neptune” in the sweltering heat just before noon. We have reached Latitude 000000 (the very middle of our world) at Longitude 86 degrees and 28 minutes East of Greenwich. There is nothing physical to show for it (Susan was disappointed not to see a broad stripe crossing the ocean), so we have to rely on what we are told by the crew. One of them has daubed his face in outlandish clown make-up complimented with a red fluffy wig. Apart from a crudely fashioned “medallion” hanging round his neck, his only other attire is what I can best describe as a loin cloth, and he starts the ceremony with a proclamation:

‘Hear Ye, Hear Ye, Hear Ye! My name is Davy Jones and you are attending the Court of King Neptune! I hear tell that today we have a large number of Pollywogs wishing to cross the line with the permission of His Majestic Loveliness. But first, will all previously ordained Shellbacks make themselves known?’

For a moment I am struck with a peculiar thought: we are about to cross a line. That invisible barrier takes me back to a time when I felt under so much pressure to make a decision. It was a choice I did not want to make and I was starting to panic. For the first time in four years of marriage I was beginning to realise my husband and I were looking at different visions of the future. We were arguing over trivial things, snapping and point-scoring – each of us seeking to reach the moral high ground. Both of us knew the real problem lay in this dilemma over Australia, and the more I resisted Eric’s arguments, the more I remembered my dying mother’s advice about a wife needing to support her husband. I needed reassurance from somebody, and it came from a surprising direction:

My sister has always been generous, in her nature and with her money. I wrote to Joan one week and briefly mentioned how Susan was getting so big she was now outgrowing her pram. So I was delighted when a brand new pushchair was delivered to our door. A few days later Joan herself arrived for a weekend break, and the weather was kind enough for us to try out our new gift on a special expedition personal to us both.

There was only a slight wind to send a sprinkling of fallen leaves scuttling along the path in front of us. We were on Barlow Moor Road, squinting in bright sunshine as a field of headstones came into view on our left hand side. It was Joan’s first visit to our parents’ grave in twelve months. I was wearing my winter coat, but wished I’d followed my sister’s example by not buttoning it up as the effort of pushing Susan over the distance of a mile was making me quite warm. Joan strode out on long legs, and I had to remind her I didn’t have the physique to keep up the same pace.

‘Oh, sorry! Would you like me to push for a while?’

‘Yes please,’ I said. ‘Here, I’ll take the basket.’

Joan seemed pleased to take charge of steering her niece along the path, and I took the opportunity to examine the small floral arrangement inside her basket.

‘Lilac and yellow – Mother’s favourite colours.’

‘Yes,’ said Joan. ‘Winter pansies, and the florist found me just the right little pot for them. She’d be pleased, don’t you think?’

I smiled, and nodded my agreement. Surely today would be a good occasion to air the thoughts and doubts that kept whirling round my head? I was just about to broach the subject of Australia when we reached the imposing entrance to Southern Cemetery and turned in past the lodge.

‘Still no gates,’ said Joan.

‘No,’ I replied. ‘Can you remember what the old ones looked like?’

Entrance to Southern Cemetery

‘Not really. Sort of Gothic? Black painted metal, I suppose. They’ve probably found a new home as a pile of shrapnel somewhere over Germany.’

‘That would be poetic licence, wouldn’t it? Bombed by something that once stood guard in front of a cemetery.’

Neither of us laughed. Neither of us smiled. We both recognised this bit of black humour was only a mask. We were moments away from reaching the grave, and the memory of our mother’s passing was still as fresh to us as last week’s heavy rainfall.

We took a path to the left, and then steered the pushchair over grass-covered verges and past stone-edged plots towards the latest in a line of white and grey monuments, each standing in silent tribute to the memory of those lying beneath.

Mother had died eighteen months before, and as we approached the now familiar stone cross that marked our parents’ grave I found myself feeling apprehensive. Mother and Father had always been full of warmth and love, rarely needing to admonish their children, so I couldn’t understand the conflicting emotions within me. I desperately missed their presence in my life, and attending the place where they were now both at rest had previously given me a sense of spiritual peace. Not so today.

‘I think she’s fallen asleep.’

‘What?’ I had been staring blankly at the inscription on the headstone. Now I turned my head and saw my sister peering over the top of the pushchair. Susan was slumped over to one side, her long chubby legs dangling on the edge of the step.

‘Just look at her. She likes her mid-morning nap, doesn’t she?’

I answered with a nod, busying myself by fetching a small fork and trowel from a brown paper bag stowed in the tray underneath. I could feel Joan’s eyes on my back as I knelt down and started to tidy the gravel garden bed in front of the headstone.

‘Did Eric say anything about the stuff I brought back from London?’

I paused for a moment, my mind returning to the subject I had tried to push to the back of my mind.

‘Oh. Yes, he did. He was very grateful. He said to thank you for taking the trouble to call on his behalf. It was very informative.’

‘And?’ Joan knelt down opposite me and began to pull up some of the growth by hand. ‘Did any of it make a difference?’

I considered the question before continuing to fork over the mixture of gravel and soil. ‘Well, for one thing we now know Australia House have pretty strict requirements for new migrants, as they call them, to be medically very fit.’

Joan raised an eyebrow but said nothing as I turned my attention to the weed-strewn gravel. The literature on emigration to Australia had been eagerly awaited by Eric, but less so in my case. I had an overwhelming urge to take out my frustrations on the untidy mess in front of me, hardly conscious of the amount spilling outside the plot and onto my coat.

‘I mean, look at us! First there’s my history of TB, and then there’s that business with my heart. Remember what the doctor said when I was in labour?’ The burst of energy subsided, and I looked round for the paper bag. ‘No, I reckon the Aussies would turn me down flat.’

Joan put some of the uprooted greenery into the bag and passed it to me. ‘So what about Eric? What about his asthma?’

‘Ah! According to Eric, it shouldn’t be a problem. He reckons it’s the damp and the cold that make it worse, so a hot country like Australia should be better for him. A lot better. He says they’d take all that into consideration.’

Even as I said it I knew I was in denial. A part of me felt certain Eric must be wrong. How on earth could two people with such obvious physical problems pass a medical in such circumstances? But another part of me didn’t want to face rejection on those grounds because I knew Eric wanted it so much.

I stood up and walked over to the pushchair, glanced at my sleeping daughter and then picked up the little floral arrangement from the basket. As I did so I became aware of the peaceful nature of our surroundings, and it seemed to me a hundred souls were now awake and listening to our every word. I stood hesitating in front of our parents’ grave, holding the bouquet of lilac and yellow flowers like a jilted bride before the altar.

‘I don’t know what to do, Joan. I really don’t.’ I blinked in exasperation, knowing I was close to tears. ‘I know Eric’s right, and we could do better over there. He would have a healthier life, and I don’t want Susan to miss out. But is it right to take her away from the rest of her family? It’s not like we’re just going to hop on a train! What do you think I should do? I’ve talked to Alan and to Bert, and they just say it’s up to me. Why does it always have to be my decision?’

I looked at my sister. We were almost ten years apart in age, and at least six inches different in height, but we had always been spiritually close. The day she had moved to London had been hard enough to bear, and I wondered how we would manage that physical distance between us. Now I had to consider something much worse – and I was desperate to avoid making a choice.

Joan gently took the flowers out of my hands and placed them on the tidied plot in front of the headstone. Then she stepped into place next to me and linked arms, both of us with our heads bent in respect. A fresh breeze blew some russet-tinged leaves onto the newly tended gravel bed.

‘Eric might be right,’ she whispered. Then she spoke louder. ‘Or he might be wrong – about the asthma, I mean. I do think his motives are right, and I’m sure he is simply looking for the best way to bring up his family. It shows how much he cares.’ We were both silent for a moment, and then Joan turned her head and looked down at me.

‘Did you study Marlowe at school?’

‘Yes, I think so. Dr Faustus?’

‘That’s right. I thought it was dreadfully boring then, but I actually saw a riveting performance on stage at the Old Vic last week. You probably won’t remember but it starts with a soliloquy where the good doctor ponders his fate and decides it’s not in his control. I quote: Que sera, sera. What will be, shall be. Now I’m not suggesting you go and sign up with the Devil, but I do think you should just let fate run its course.’ She paused, and I glanced back at our parents’ headstone as Joan continued. ‘I like Eric. And I love you! Why not take the medical? What harm can it do? It takes the decision out of your hands and leaves it with the Almighty. Que sera?

I looked up and saw my own pain reflected in Joan’s eyes. But it felt like a cloud had lifted.

It took months for our application to be processed – far longer than either of us had expected. I could see Eric was getting nervous, and it reached a point where neither of us wanted to mention the ‘A’ word... When the day came, and two identical brown envelopes dropped through the letterbox, my medical report was not what I had expected.


Eric nodded and smiled. ‘Me too. A clean report with no major issues. So – that’s it. We’ve got the “all clear”! Mollie, look at me... You are happy about this, aren’t you? It’s a chance we can’t afford to throw away. You do agree?’

I did agree, although with reluctance. The Almighty had dealt the cards and Eric had picked up the winning hand. Now all I could do was to hope his gamble paid off. As the weeks passed and spring gave way to summer, I even found myself warming to the idea of a fresh start. No more dreary wet winters. No more struggling to get a fire going to dry our damp clothing. One part of my brain became fixated with the vision of escaping from all the drudgery of post-war Britain. The rest of it was kept busy with the business of being a wife and mother, as well as with the preparations for emigrating. Alan and Elsie in particular were amazing in all their practical support, readily taking their niece for a short time when I needed help for any reason. Life as a British citizen was rapidly drawing to a close, and yet my marriage to Eric seemed strengthened as we found a new excitement, looking to our future together.

So we crossed a line we had drawn for ourselves, and months later we are genuinely enjoying our new status as Pollywogs, queuing up with most of the Esperance Bay’s passengers who are crossing the equator for the first time. We are required to perform or endure a form of ceremony that often involves water, stepping over or under a cane held by two crew members, or reciting a silly rhyme. After Eric is encouraged to try limbo dancing by two dusky “mermaids” (accompanied by raucous laughter), I am relieved when I am allowed to simply walk under the same pole while keeping a firm hold of our daughter. Each of the children are then introduced to King Neptune before being presented with a certificate in very grand style (signed by “Neptunus Rex”) proclaiming each one to be a Shellback. Susan makes sure that mummy puts her souvenir safely away in her basket before both of us return to our cabin for some well-earned rest.

Sitting alone with Eric later that day, and without the distraction of our daughter getting in the way, I recall what has been nagging me since we left Southampton.

‘Eric, how do we know Mother’s sideboard is on the ship?’

He frowns as he considers the question. ‘Well... it must be! The paperwork confirmed it would be travelling with us, so it’ll be in the hold.’

I am not to be placated easily. ‘Yes, but how do we know it is? Have you asked anyone?’

Eric sighs. The look on his face tells me I don’t need to say any more, as he looks round to attract the steward’s attention. Perhaps I should explain about the sideboard.

Susan’s third birthday in June heralded an intense period of activity. Our house was back on the market, and plans were made to move in with Elsie and Alan in Stretford until the Big Day arrived at the end of September. First there was furniture to be sold or disposed of.

‘It’s all just utility stuff, anyway, so I don’t suppose we’ll get much for it,’ I said. ‘But not Mother’s sideboard. That’s coming with us. And my sewing machine.’

‘What? It will cost us a fortune to ship that to Australia!’

I played dumb for a moment. ‘Don’t be silly. It will save us a fortune if I can run up a few items for Susan. I wonder what the price of material is like over there? No, Eric – Mother left that sideboard to me, and it’s an antique. Been in her family forever, so I’m not parting with it. Whatever it costs, it’s coming with us. It’s all I’ve got left of her, so don’t argue.’

Eric said nothing. We had been married five years and he knew when an argument was a lost cause. It was rare for us to disagree anyway, and he always gave way to me on the subject of money. My husband might be a bookkeeper at work, but today was Sunday and he had to acknowledge Home Rule! Eric turned his attention to the pre-embarkation booklet that had just arrived from Australia House that morning.

‘This sounds promising, Mollie: Emigration to Australia in this age is as simple as taking the tube from Blackfriars to Westminster. The emigrant ships are fast, comfortable liners with all modern conveniences, making the voyage through the tropics and foreign seas a rest holiday. Sounds good. And it’s just given me another idea. How about you and me taking a few days off and visiting your sister in London? Joan’s got a spare room, hasn’t she?’

I’d been kneeling in front of the sideboard, sorting through the contents of one of the drawers. My face must have been a picture as my mouth dropped open, and I turned to stare at my lovely husband.

It was such an inspired idea. What a marvellous opportunity to take one last look around the capital, especially with Joan. Then a snag occurred to me. ‘What about Susan?’

‘I thought of that. Elsie could have her for a few days. You know she loves that little imp to pieces!’

I smiled at a recent memory of our daughter on my sister-in-law’s lap, chuckling at her blowing raspberries. As Eric grinned back at me I knew we shared the same thought.

‘You’re right. I’ll call round there later tonight, and I’ll write to Joan in the morning. I haven’t seen anything of London for years. Do you know something? I think my hubby deserves a full ration of liver tonight for that idea!’

I laughed as Eric’s face lit up with obvious pleasure. How easy it was to reward my man. I replaced my sewing tin in the drawer as another thought struck me: perhaps we could stretch to an onion to go with that liver?

The house sold easier than expected, but Eric and I did manage to fit in our short break to London. Removal to our temporary home in Stretford took place at the end of the second week in September, as Eric left his employment in Piccadilly. Joan, Susan and I then went to a favourite haunt in North Wales for a short break together while the final packing (and re-packing) was done between Eric, Elsie and Alan.

On the morning of the twenty eighth of September two black taxi cabs were lined up in the street – one for the luggage – their drivers waiting patiently as the final goodbyes took place. I stood at the doorway of our old house in Knutsford Avenue with a lump in my throat I was convinced must be my own heart. All that was once familiar now felt strange. This house had been my home. Now I didn’t have one.

Eric stood just outside the porch, ready to steer our little family down the path on the first leg of our long, long journey. The awful moment had finally arrived. We were leaving almost everything we had ever known behind us. Who knew if we might ever return? I stared at my sister-in-law’s face, struggling to find the right words.

The Family Home

‘I’ll write.’

I didn’t know what else to say.

‘You’d better!’ was the reply. ‘So will I.’

Elsie was trying to hold her niece in her arms as well as giving me a hug. Big brother Alan stood at her side, his face sombre, waiting to offer affection or support in equal measure. It was the moment we had all been dreading, but we had survived the War, hadn’t we? This was not the end of the world. It was the beginning of a new one.

‘Here,’ said Elsie. ‘You’d better hang on to this one. Take care of each other.’

We walked down to the gate. As we reached it Susan let go of my hand and went running back to her aunt.

‘I’m coming back for you Auntie Elsie!’

We stood there, determined to keep the tears in check as my brother gently steered our daughter back down the path, and then all three of us were finally inside the cab. Moments later, the two vehicles moved off in convoy towards the junction fifty yards away.

Inside the second taxi, I hugged Susan tight and squeezed my husband’s hand. In my head was a solitary thought: We’re starting a new life, so why does this feel like a funeral cortège?

But there was no going back. Eric and I were convinced we had done the right thing by putting faith in each other – and in the promise of what Australia could provide for our young family. It hurt me to leave so much behind, but what lay ahead was far more important.

October 1949 – on board SS Esperance Bay, South Indian Ocean

We are standing at the stern rail, watching the sea churn up in a white frenzy that marks a chalk-like pathway across the Indian Ocean. The footprint of our progress narrows and disappears in the distance towards a barely defined horizon, sky and sea melting into each other in a heavenly blue. Eric recalls a previous occasion when he observed a similar sight, and once voiced concerns about the threat of submarines following their wake.

‘You’re dead right there, chum,’ says a voice close behind us. ‘My brother saw it happen to an escort back in forty three.’

We turn and recognise a fellow passenger; one we have not spoken to until now. He is probably twice our age but very slim, and stubbornly wearing a dark suit and hat during the day while Eric has been in shirt sleeves for most of the voyage. He has just lit a cigarette and now leans back against the deckhouse, inviting relaxed conversation.

‘Too many good men were victims of that kind of cowardly attack,’ says the stranger. ‘Thank God we can put those days behind us.’

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