From a short story collection:
“When they begin the beguine, It brings back the sound of music so tender’…”
The taxi bounced along the hot dusty coastal road, lost in our thoughts we sat quietly recovering from the night before behind the comforting shade of our sunglasses. In a little over an hour we were collecting our passport stamp at La Linea the Spanish frontier with Gibraltar. The Rock towers majestically from the road which crosses the airport runway, and winds into the fortress town beneath. The bustle of the port was quite a contrast to our week in Andalucía. Giles and I had booked into the newly opened Queen’s hotel in Boyd Street, close to the Botanical gardens and not far from the shops of Main Street. It was also much cheaper than the fashionable Rock hotel.
After reception formalities, we made our way to the second floor. As we were unpacking we heard a noisy crowd outside. Giles moved to the balcony window, ‘Simon come and look at this’, we saw a stream of noisy Gibraltarians marching along below us with banners proclaiming “British we are, British we stay” –it was an anti-Franco demonstration. We learnt that every so often –usually connected with some domestic unrest and the Spanish politic response would make territorial demands on Gibraltar to avert public attention from the real issues -and naturally these were always rebuffed by Her Majesty’s Government.
We exchanged our remaining pesetas for sterling and decided to explore the Rock. Climbing to visit the siege tunnels and Sergeant-Major Ince’s gallery, we marveled at the tunnels cut through solid rock, which had sighted the British guns effectively during the siege in the late eighteenth century. The main street in Gibraltar seemed curiously familiar, with recognisable English brands, telephone boxes and street signs. We bought a duty free box of hand-made Upmann cigars, and enjoyed the novelty of an ‘English’ pint or two in the Star Bar which we stumbled upon in a Lane off Main Street – in fact it all seemed home from home.
Later that evening we decided to stroll up through the Botanical gardens to the Rock hotel to have a drink (just the one) in the famed Barbary Bar –once the haunt of spies and celebrities in its hey-day during the 1930’s. My impression was that little had changed since then – just the guests perhaps. We strolled out to the Wisteria terrace enjoying the stunning evening views to Africa and Morocco. Relaxing in our wicker chairs, with the hum of the ceiling fans from the Barbary bar, we sipped our gin, imagining ourselves transported back to the cocktail era. The pianist completed the illusion playing a selection of melodies and one of Maud’s favorites, A Nightingale sang in Berkeley Square.
The next day, after breakfast we reported to the Cook’s man in Gibraltar; at the offices of the port agency J. Lucas Imossi and Sons, located in Irish Town, as they handled most of the visiting shipping lines. After formalities we joined other passengers on the tender transfer to the ship. We recognised her immediately as we left the dock, gazing at the white paintwork and distinctive oversized black funnel with its two white bands growing larger, as we steered towards the Uganda laying at anchor in the bay on that sunny September afternoon.
This was her last port of call before England. On the return voyage from Dar-es-Salaam that had started three weeks before in East Africa, she had called at Zanzibar, Tanga, Mombassa, Aden, then through the Red Sea to the Suez Canal and Port Said. Once in the Mediterranean she sailed to Malta, Marseilles and Barcelona before arriving in Gibraltar. The last sector to Tilbury, would take three days. Altogether the 14,000 ton ship carried three-hundred passengers, and unusually, more than half were in first class. This was the age before mass air travel and a leisurely voyage to England allowed travellers’ from Africa to gradually acclimatize. Fellow passengers were a mixture of tea and coffee planters, business people, government, military officials and expatriates, some from the Aberdare highlands the so called ‘Happy Valley’ country of Kenya. In its pre-war heyday it had become infamous for its hedonistic colonial life-styles of the rich and not so famous. One scandalous episode involving a murder inspired a book, and later made into the film ‘White Mischief’. The post war ‘winds of change’ were flowing through the continent. There had been the Kenya Emergency in East Africa, but the ‘Mau Mau’ terrorists had been effectively crushed by the mid 1950’s. This accelerated the period towards independence.
The ship weighed anchor in late afternoon, and the first evening, we descended to ‘C’ deck and presented ourselves at the entrance to the dining room. We were greeted by an immaculate and solicitous maître d. He led us to our table appearing to effortlessly glide (think Fred Astaire) across the dining room. Winding between tables, our senses were assailed by what seemed a sophisticated and ‘well-healed’ atmosphere. The room was decorated in a pre-war art deco style, lightwood veneered walls, recessed with glowing subdued lighting. The floor space was scattered with circular groups of diners, passing the hubble-bubble of table conversations mingled with wafts of exotic and intoxicating female scents.
Table introductions were made, and our fellow guests seemed equal to that evening’s occasion, in long frocks and evening dress. Giles and I on the other hand, only managed modest dark blazers, ties and white shirts. We found ourselves in the company of a Standard Bank executive James Pembroke from Nairobi with his pretty (but quiet) young wife June, an interesting and kindly retired colonial couple (and big-game hunters) Freddie and Alice Jansen who kept us entertained with stories, and the mesmerising Mrs. Hatton-Jones. We learn that she was a divorcee travelling alone, from the so called hedonistic ‘Happy Valley’ set, close to the Aberdare mountains. She was beautifully groomed, with figure to match about medium height, probably middle aged (Giles’s estimate –along with his uninvited observation ‘you do seem to have a penchant for the more mature woman’) with silver blond hair. She had an uncanny resemblance to the American actress and singer Frances Day, one of Maud’s more outlandish theatrical acquaintances who I had met whilst staying at Abbots Leigh.
Our fellow passengers had already established themselves on the ship, which had been on passage for around twenty-five days. They had developed friendships with their ‘in’ jokes aided and abetted in their table hopping games by the immaculate ‘Fred’, as the maître d, was known, passing their ‘billets-doux’ message slips between tables. We were participating unknowingly in the twilight years of this East African shipping service, with its ship board ‘Drawing room’ together with the colonial guests, characters that would soon fade into history. Even the conversations seemed littered with phrases from another age. ‘thanks awfully’, …don’t I know it darling, …don’t talk a lot of rot, ..’I’d look a fright’.
As fresh faces on board Giles and I received an unusual amount of attention. Connie Hatton-Jones in particular enjoyed herself. She would provocatively lean forward in an apparently innocent, ‘but knowingly’ sort of way to speak to us, showing her ample décolletage. She would pay rapped attention to our every word. Whilst Giles chatted away to another cricket enthusiast James Pembroke, Connie Hatton-Jones flirted outrageously with me, and as Freddie murmured, she had found some new entertainment. I was captivated by her sexual charm, irresistible to men, even more so to young men. That first evening had started tentatively but soon passed effortlessly. Captivated, the wine flowed with interesting conversations and we soaked up the dinner party atmosphere. Later, as guests began to disperse towards the Drawing room, the distant sound of a jazz trumpet playing ‘Cole Porter’s Begin the beguine, Connie knew the song …as she swayed her hips, and hummed some of the lyrics to the tune …”It brings back the sound of music so tender,… of tropical splendour, … a memory evergreen! I’m with you once more…, And down by the shore an orchestra’s playin”……
Connie on impulse caught my arm and with …‘let’s dance, darling’ as she swayed to the rhythm of the music, but Connie was in demand –holding me closer she suggested perhaps meeting ‘accidentally’ for drinks around lunch time tomorrow just you and me for some fun. ‘Let’s meet in the tourist class bar Simon, away from the rest –it’s down on ‘A’ deck’. She had been flirting all evening and flattered by her attention, excited by her warm soft closeness, feminine scent and the prospect- I readily agreed to the proposal. And then she was gone, whisked away on the dance floor by one of her many admirers.
I was excited but also petrified, ‘I feel a bit out of my depth’ I confided to Giles after we returned to our shared cabin. ‘She’ll eat you for breakfast –or lunch in your case’. Well she certainly slips into the category of amply upholstered’. ‘You make her sound like an arm chair’. ‘My point exactly’. Sensing my concern, he went to say ‘look Simon – it’s all a game really, imagine you’re batting on a sticky wicket –take it slowly one ball at a time, but you must go through with it – got to be worth it’ It was the advice of my cricket loving companion, who added with a grin ‘you lucky bugger’.
The following morning, (despite travelling first class), our particular cabin had no bathroom. Our Goanese steward had brought us an early morning cup of tea and a digestive biscuit, and advised a time he’d run a bath in one of the bathrooms, along the corridor. What service! Afterwards we took a quick stroll around the deck, before descending to the dining room for breakfast. There is always something special about breakfast –and it is irresistible on board ship. Reading the menu Giles decided to work his way progressively through the courses.
The menu choice seemed immense, starting with fresh fruit, a wide range of typical English cereals followed by a selection ‘cooked to order’ dishes like smoked cod fillets or grilled Wiltshire bacon with choice of eggs and ‘Hash Cakes American’ – which we both found a novelty, all washed down with the usual toast and marmalade tea or coffee, delicious.
We didn’t see Connie, and learnt from Freddie and Alice that ‘she doesn’t surface before noon’. After breakfast we explored the ship. It was a sunny day, with a warm sea breeze as we decided to join fellow passengers in deck chairs, enjoying the best of the southern European weather, as we ploughed steadily on towards England. I was dozing lightly in the sunshine, when Giles broke the silence. ‘I wonder what’s for lunch’, followed by ‘It’ll be soon time for your seduction Simon’. ‘I’ll leave you to it then’, and with that sauntered off along the deck.
Back in the cabin I splashed some ‘Yardley for men’ aftershave on my face, bracing myself for the inevitable stinging sensation. Slipping on a blazer jacket, pausing to consider a cravat but decided against it, and with a final glance in the mirror stepped out into the corridor and made my way to the bar. Glancing around I noticed Connie was engrossed in a conversation with another older man – she caught my eye but made no sign of recognition. ‘Playing cool’, I thought, as I levered myself on the bar stool and ordered a beer. Time drifted on as I continued to nurse my drink – I began to wonder if this was all a mistake. The steward had been summoned to her table, she spoke to him and signed the pad on his tray, he returned to the bar.
Connie excused herself from her partner and left alone passing me again without recognition and followed by a whiff of Chanel No 5 –and was gone. Not sure if I was to follow, the approaching bar steward interrupted my thoughts, ‘Excuse me sir, the Lady asked me to give you this’, passing a note. Hastily written across his receipt pad, ‘Mrs. Hatton-Jones regrets’, very formal I thought, glancing at my watch realised lunch was practically over, so I ordered another beer. I felt foolish I was out of my emotional depth, and I had had lost out on two events.
Meeting Giles in afternoon he cheerily said, ‘Connie came down to lunch, but she sat with what’s-his-name from the next table, I wondered what she had done with you’. ‘Don’t ask I replied’. Missing lunch, I’d wandered around the deck a few times and the sea air made me ravenous. To compensate from my failed amorous adventure – I even ate two teas, first with the children by agreeing to help their stewards with some conjuring entertainment, (which they and I loved) and later with Giles in the lounge, as I related the story, and for once he didn’t laugh. ‘You do seem to have a thing about older women Simon, that Mrs Van Spengen and now Connie’. The mysterious Connie was absent from dinner –but appeared for desert later at another table, Jansen’s comment ‘Connie is at it again’ made me realise that it had all been a game – an amusement for Mrs. HJ.
Lingering on at the end of dinner, we noticed as staff were clearing and resetting tables in the dining room, they also placed silver circular rings over the table cloths. Wondering why I asked a passing waiter. ‘It’s the Bay sir, – stops dishes sliding off’ apparently it is notorious area for storms. They had announced there was a screening of the Stanley Baxter film ‘The Fast Lady’ in tourist class – where the ship’s entertainment was always considered better so we had been told, so off we sauntered.
Rattan armchairs had been set out for passengers in the open air on aft deck. We settled into the film with our cigars and drink to hand, with a general air of well-being and feeling life was grand! After a while there was a perceptible rolling movement of the ship as we approached the Bay of Biscay. The Rattan chairs began to creak and move slightly with the ship’s motion, increasing rhythmically row by row, as the film continued. In one’s and two’s passenger’s retired for the evening, by now the creaking chair rows were out of rhythm, eventually leaving Giles and me alone in splendid isolation sliding from side to side. It was a surreal evening.
The ship’s menus were extensive with the puddings being a particular personal favorite. I discovered that the school perennial ‘Spotted-Dick’ had been re-branded ‘Mansfield Pudding’ at sea. Giles too had a hearty appetite. In fact he would literally eat his way through all the courses. This was quickly noted and became the focus of the table’s amusement. Individuals would join the table, peruse the menu and make remarks like, ‘what’s Giles’s opinion of such and such?’ Unperturbed by the teasing he always gave a positive opinion usually ‘splendid, absolutely splendid’ much to Fred’s delight.
The weather changed and became cooler as we steamed through the western approaches, towards the English Channel passing an outward bound aircraft carrier on the horizon. After breakfast whilst taking a stroll on deck now wearing pullovers, we watched as the ship picked up the Trinity House pilot off Brixham in Devon for the final run up the channel to the Thames Estuary. Later we watched the faster, P&O Oronsay with her pink painted hull steam past us heading for the nearer port of Southampton.
Giles and I decided to enjoy a drink in the tourist class bar on promenade deck to avoid any ‘heavy rounds’ which would have been inevitable on meeting our newly found (wealthier) travelling companions. We made our one drink last, it seemed forever, – eventually making our way down to the First class dining room. Joining our table guests we exchanged pleasantries noticing the absence of Connie. No dinner jacket on the last night of a voyage –as tradition dictates. We started to peruse the last night dinner menu Giles and I glanced at each other with unspoken understanding as we hadn’t dined better – it seemed a long way from our small London flat and monotonous toast and tea or ‘spag bol’ suppers!
As usual, Fred glided between tables saying he could recommend this or that, and so we ordered. We agreed to cover the entire menu between us. Keeping travel mementoes as I do an old dog-eared copy reminds of what we consumed.
D I N N E R
Lobster Mayonnaise, Consomme Vermicelli, Cream of Vegetables
Fillet of Lake Fish Meunière, English Guinea Fowl Forestière
Roast Quarter of Lamb Mint Sauce Fresh Broccoli, Chateau & Boiled Potatoes
Grilled to Order 15 minutes Tournedo Bohemienne
Roast Beef, Horseradish Sauce, Liver Sausage Salad, Coleslaw
Charlotte Royale, Poires Belle-Hélène Savoury Canapé Windsor
Dessert Apples Tangerines Figs
Coffee Coffee will be served in the Smoking Room and Drawing Room
We made our way to the smoking room on promenade deck, for coffee as the menu suggested and to make the most of our duty free cigars. It was a splendid room – like a gentleman’s club, it had highly polished wooden veneered paneled walls, the room set out with blue leather settees and chairs. The crowning glory was a pair of elephant tusks a distinctive feature mounted either side of a painting. They had been a gift from King Freddie as he was known, the Kabaka of Buganda an ancient land now part of Uganda, a few years earlier. On the last morning much to Giles’s disappointment we had to manage on just one orange and a digestive biscuit each for breakfast in our cabin, (brought earlier by our steward). This was because our remaining cash funds (no credit cards then) wouldn’t stretch to all the tips expected at the breakfast table, and we simply couldn’t face the social embarrassment.
But this way of life was to end, and within a few years the shipping service had been withdrawn. The wind of change was blowing through Africa. There was industrial unrest, the development of containerisation for cargo, independence of the East African states and the success of the jet aircraft for passenger transport, all contributed. The Uganda would find another career as a school’s cruise ship and later achieve distinction as a hospital ship during the Falklands War.
The ship rounded the North Foreland and into the calmer waters of the Thames estuary where were to disembark at the Tilbury landing stage on an overcast and grey damp morning. Passing along the ship gangway towards the cathedral-like baggage hall I glimpsed Mrs Hatton-Jones with her luggage porter ahead of us. We were different first class passengers now –reduced to carrying our own suitcases towards the rail platform for the forty-five minute journey to London. We had without realising experienced a glimpse of colonial travel a microcosm of the past –and been part of it for a few days.
I paused watching her disappear, having completed a few pages of my practical travel education. Checking through my pocket for the last of the cash, for the ticket to Fenchurch Street, I chanced upon the bar-tender’s note ‘Mrs. Hatton-Jones regrets’. And for a moment so did I, but as Jack once wrote ‘Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.’ On the train to Fenchurch Street Giles broke the silence with ‘what are we going to tell Hodges on our ‘operational debrief’ Simon -apart for your newly discovered penchant for well upholstered older women? ‘We can’t excite the old man Giles we’ll leave that bit out’.
Note: Abbots Leigh, and Maud are introduced in an earlier short story.