In December 1957, my brothers, my mother and I walked up the gangplank onto the SS Southern Cross, waved goodbye to one or more of my 3 uncles, headed towards our cabin, and settled in for 7 weeks of the trip of a lifetime. Traveling from Liverpool, England, to Wellington, New Zealand.
I was only 6. Patrick was 5. Robert was 8. John would have been 7, but he died a baby, we left him in a graveyard in Sussex.
We left from Liverpool after a ferry from Belfast, where we had spent 3 months with my mother's mother at 125 Marlborough Park South (the house still stands). Our sea voyage took us across the Atlantic to Trinidad and Curacao, through the locks of Panama Canal to the Pacific Ocean, and stops at Fiji and Tahiti before catching sight of my father and our family car, a black baby Austin.
We positively zipped across the ocean, compared with the trip of the first Englishman to make the trip, Captain James Cook, who had the choice of sailing around the southern tip of Africa, or the southern tip of South America. Due to the huge engineering, and medical, triumphs of American engineers in the early 19th century, the Panama Canal shortened our voyage by days, perhaps week.
I remember salt baths, and getting off in Panama and the smell of the tropics in Panama, Fiji and Trinidad. Trinidad smelled like Indian spices. Fiji was watermelon. Panama was so, so elegant with a warm night sky and palm trees. My first taste of the Americas.
We were on board about 3 weeks by Christmas, and Patrick and I took part in a Christmas pageant. I was an angel, and I had to hold my arms up. I remember my arms aching and aching, but I had been told to keep them up, and so I did. I always obeyed authority. Patrick always looked like an angel anyway, he always knew how to smile his way out of torture.
My mother told me that she was enjoying leaving the 3 of us in the children's room, until she saw Robert walking along the ship rails. If you watch the SS Southern Cross promotional video, you can see that the children's playground is perilously close to the edge.
Later on, in Fiji, someone grabbed hold of Robert and was going to make off with him, until a policeman arrived with a large machete and returned Robert to my mother. Such a pity. We had two really good possibilities of offloading Robert before we arrived in the lands that can see the stars that make up the Southern Cross, before he started causing trouble that ripped my family apart. I always wondered why it was John that died, and not Robert.
The highlight of the trip was definitely when an old lady died. She had been on an around-the-world trip, and she died somewhere away from land. A wonderful service was given her, and then they tipped her coffin overboard. My brother Patrick and I stood near the plank where they held her coffin, and watched as it was launched. Wow.
I have wondered for some years, probably all my life, why my mother left the UK, running after a useless husband who cared about no-one but himself. Certainly not Hannah, his mother, who was dying from ALS, not his only surviving brother, made paraplegic by bullets during WW2, certainly not his family, whom he dragged to Australia 3 years later and abandoned happily for a young lab assistant in 1962, certainly not his young lab assistant, Eleanor, who killed herself in 1968, a year after she had succeeded in getting him to move with her 1,500 miles away from his family.
The news of the death of this young girl of 25 was greeted with rejoicing in our house. But her death improved nothing. Not my mother's health. Not my father's behavior. Not my father's job prospects. Not my fear of the dark. We discovered later that she had made several previous attempts at dying, and had called my mother several times. My mother, not surprisingly, had refused to speak with her.
My father, Dr MCH Dodgson, had flown out by BOAC and Qantas, a 4-day flight, and spent several weeks in Australia before flying to New Zealand to take up a job as the only neuropathologist in New Zealand in a tiny hospital on top of a hill in Gisborne. He instructed my mother to pack up the house, her medical practice, her 3 children, and send their car to him in New Zealand, take out loans to pay for his trip and their move, using the insurance on his life as collateral, and then pay 5 pounds to emigrate to Australia to fulfill the desires of the Australian government to fill the arid continent on the other side of the world with white people, preferably British.
I am my mother's daughter, and I have realized, even though she was traveling to an uncertain future with a self-centered man who had no interest in her own well-being, she wanted adventure, she wanted to travel. She had planned to travel back to the UK five years later, but was prevented by sudden chronic illness that stopped her ever again running, or walking fast, or walking at all without a lot of pain. She took a gamble on a lame horse, and lost. My beautiful, brave mother, Dr H Patience Uprichard Dodgson. Caught in the tight webs of misogyny and disease.
My mother wrote about the
trip on the Southern Cross to my father, see the letter below.