‘The Argyllshire’ (from Chapter Twenty, draft in progress ‘The Cry of the Fig Tree’)
Stella found herself saying goodbye to her parents from Sydney Harbour on May 11thth, 1916. Her pale hand mechanically signalling her farewell, whilst Stella herself watched as if trapped behind glass. The proceeding week had been a maelstrom of goodbyes and organising, and Stella had felt herself carried away. She had been unable to stop and enjoy the endless cups of tea she had shared throughout the week with friends, or to question the energy pushing her towards her anxious departure.
There were thousands there with them to see them off, most of them nervous families farewelling their brave sons. Stella noticed how small her parents looked, not merely because they were lost in a throng of excited onlookers, but because there lives had reached a weary mid point, and they looked aged. Her father didn’t look stern or serious, he looked sad and powerless. Her mother, who cleaned the house from morning until night, didn’t look to have the strength to walk back to the tram station. She looked timid and tired, and had cried as Stella had hugged her goodbye. They reminded Stella of a pair of bedraggled mice she’d once seen in a children’s book, clinging to each other, stranded on a piece of plywood as it sunk in the ocean. Yet it was Stella who was the little bedraggled mouse setting off on the ocean. She yelled out ‘I love you,’ but she may as well have whispered the words, heartfelt as they were. I love you, she thought in her head, hearing the voice tinny in her mind. She thought that she saw her mother’s head move slightly towards her, her chin tilt forward in a proud fashion, and hoped that she felt all the love bursting forth from her eldest daughter.
Stella had the sudden urge to get off the ship, to run back and hug them one last time. She wanted to smell her mother’s floral scent and to feel her father’s rough hand upon her back. Yet the time for farewells had finally halted, as the alarm of the great ship the Argyllshire sounded, and she felt a lurch as it pulled away, carrying with it over five hundred passengers and two thousand soldiers from the 7th Brigade.
‘Don’t cry dear’, here, take my handkerchief,’ said an older woman, smiling at her, as Stella’s single tear wandered uncontrolled down her cheek.
Stella looked at the woman. She looked surprisingly sophisticated against this backdrop of angst and anticipation. The woman, probably closer to fifty than her mother was, seemed to wear her age comfortably as she stood calmly looking out towards the water. As Stella turned to return her handkerchief, she watched as the woman adjusted the scarf that she had been wearing around her neck, gracefully moving it to tie around her head. She was wearing it in a way that reminded Stella of Annette Kellerman, the one they called the ‘Australian mermaid’, the image further solidified by the setting of the ocean surrounding them.
‘So, where are you off to in these testing times?’ the woman asked.
‘I’m off to London. To the Red Cross. To be a Nurse.’ Stella cursed her shy staccato speaking, and wished she had an ounce of the woman’s calmness.
‘Well well, aren’t you a little hero then my dear.’
‘How about you?’ Stella asked, blushing.
‘I’m going home to see my son. He was injured in France, in Verdun. I have to be with him. They were sending him back to England.’
‘Are you from there? Mrs?’ Stella asked, not confident in the accent. There were many born and bred Australians who spoke with a clipped British tongue, as though from the radio. Stella’s mother had encouraged her to open her mouth more when she spoke, but Stella hadn’t wanted to lose her Australian-ness. It was part of her.
‘Yes dear, I’m Hilda, Hilda Ford, and I’m from Cornwall. God’s own country. Haven’t been back there for twenty years.’
‘Why so long? It must have been hard to be away from home all that time?’
Stella asked, then cursed her own insensitivity. ‘I’m sorry,’ she muttered, blushing. ‘I only ask because I don’t know if I can manage to be away from home for a day.’
‘Home is where you are dear. I met my husband here, so love made it much easier to stay. The heart ties you to a place, or to a man. But, he’s gone now so it’s time to for me to return.’
‘I’m sorry.’ Stella’s words sounded empty.
‘That’s quite alright Miss?’
‘Stella. Stella Wright.’ Stella replied, blushing again.
‘My husband died five years ago now. We had a nice life. He’ll be glad he missed all this wretched war going on.’ The two women looked out towards the great emptiness of the ocean that surrounded them, both quiet for a while. Stella began musing on her destination, and the hostile and unfamiliar world of London hospitals and the war she was heading towards.
Stella needed something – an image, a smell of this foreign land to connect her, to help reassure her of her decision to leave her beloved Sydney behind.‘Is there anything else, apart from your son, that you are looking forward to in England?’ Stella wanted an image of their mother country. She was recalling all the stories she’d heard over the years about the poverty and the grime and the smoke, and was desperately hoping that this woman would help to brighten her outlook.
‘Oh no dear, I wouldn’t go back if I didn’t have to. I’m leaving my daughter behind here now. It might be years before I get back to her. Her, and the grandchildren. They get to grow up with the great expanse of sky over here that we really don’t get in England. It suffocates you. It, ah well…the weather…doesn’t let up.’
Stella could feel her chest constricting. She thought of the smell of the fig tree from her window at home and took a deep breath. It was only this morning that she had left it behind, surely she can’t have already forgotten its’ sweetness.
The woman looked at Stella’s downcast face. ‘Don’t worry dear, you do your duty and Europe will be waiting for you right on the doorstep.’
‘And your grandchildren will be here for you.’
‘Oh they’ll be all grown up by time I get back. Won’t remember me at all.’ The woman answered, dismissively.
‘Surely it can’t be that long? We nearly got them in Turkey, we’ll get them in France.’
‘My dear, who ever told you that we nearly got them in Turkey?’ the woman looked at her, her eyes narrowing.
Stella coloured slightly. ‘My father.’
Stella looked at the crowd, to see if they could spot the man that inspired so much love and fear in her simultaneously. She was always trying to do something to make him proud, to make him see her. As she scanned the crowd, and recounted their farewell in her mind, she still had no real idea if she had inspired him or disappointed him with her plans for London and her career as a nurse.
‘Who knows what will occur, but I doubt it will be over soon. I do wonder how many British boys have to die before those Yanks decide to come over and help? And how about all those Australians, refusing to vote for a conscription? Disgusting. We need men to fight those Huns dear, and if we don’t have men, we’ll be dealing with those Nazis running all over the world. They’ll be destroying all in its path, right up to Westminster. It could be years before we clean up this mess, we need help. Although, if America does finally decide to join in, who knows what help they’ll be in ending this mess.’
Stella’s heart was racing. She felt guilty that her body pulsed with a surge of excitement at the talk of the fighting continuing. Part of her was worried that it would all be over before she got to London, but now, it sounded as though she’d actually be there in time to help, to do something.
She also felt sorrow roll over her, the thought of leaving her parents here, to face the changing world if America got involved too. How much bleaker could it get for them? Would they be alright on their own? She looked back down at the shore, trying to make out the city she was leaving, the parents she was leaving behind for god knows what to happen to them, while she went off in the world.
Oh god, please look after them, Stella thought.
Although, she didn’t believe in God.
Stella woke up to her first morning on the ship, drowsy from the barbiturates she’d taken the night before. Her mother had pushed them into her hand, reminding her that sleep was a ladies first prerogative. It kept both your complexion and your spirit bright. She didn’t think that she would use them, but finding herself lying alone in a room without her sister sleeping beside had made her feel so unbearably sad, that the unwanted, unasked for tear, began to descend down her cold cheeks again. The thought of the ocean swirling around below her didn’t comfort her either. In an effort to stem the tears, she’d taken them without another thought.
As Stella lay waking in her bed, she felt the tumble of the waves challenge the pit of hunger stranded within. She wasn’t sure that she could eat. She looked around the cabin – sparse and empty of anything. There was a small window through which she could see the grey sea, tumbling and reaching up to her. It looked grey and dirty as it slammed against the boat, not at all like the glistening blue that she remembered from her beach days.
It all felt so strange. She tried to stand up, but was immediately knocked off her feet into the opposite bunk. The woman there smiled at her.
‘Not easy, is it dear?’
Stella recognised her as the woman from the deck, Hilda. She smiled wanly at her.
‘First time on a boat?’ The woman asked her, lying relaxed with a journal across her stomach.
‘Yes,’ Stella muttered grimly, as she attempted to get out of her bed again. Gripping the side rails, she miraculously remained on her feet this time, as she felt the waves smashing against the window.
‘Oh well love, it might take a few days, but then you should be okay. That is, unless we hit some rough weather.’
‘You’ve been on a boat before?’ Stella asked.
‘Yes dear, when I came out from England.’
‘Oh, of course.’ Stella nodded awkwardly. This woman was so worldly and experienced, and here Stella was, a young nobody, who couldn’t even get out of her bed properly.
‘Come on dear, let’s try and leave the cabin together. You can hold on to me for support.’
Stella felt more useless, the woman was nearing her sixties, but she stood up from her bed strongly and surely, and Stella felt her warm arm around her elbow.
‘Now, don’t hold out much hope for good food here either dear – it’s food for fuel not taste, more than anything.’
Stella nodded her head. Her stomach felt as weary as her head, taking the smells and bleak sights as a sign that perhaps she had made a grave error by leaving.
‘Some toast, that will do you some good, with some marmite on it. That’s what they are giving our troops, you know’.
Stella looked about the boat, scanning the passengers. She saw young men, children with their mothers and elderly couples, but not many single young ladies. She was the only one, as far as she could see.
Stella passed by a young man in a uniform smoking off the back, the smoke mixing with the boat’s diesel, forcing the bile to begin its ascent. A rollicking wave knocked the boat up and down, sending Stella stumbling into the side. The soldier turned to steady her, taking her other hand as Hilda had done.
Stella looked at the young man, dark eyes with heavy eyelashes, and immediately thought that he looked far too young to be going off to war. ‘Thank you’, she said, before quickly darting her eyes away. ‘Anytime ma’am’, he said as he returned to his cigarette.
The smell of the smoke reminded her of her father, and kept her stomach churning as easily as the waves below her. Before she could stop herself, she was suddenly doubled over. As she went to reach out for something to hold, suddenly all went black.
‘Here dear, I’d like you to meet Mr Johnson. He’s the ship’s navigator. He’s come out to help.’ Hilda said as she laid a cold compress on Stella’s forehead. Stella found herself sitting in an armchair surrounded by a group of onlookers. There was a group of soldiers who all seemed to be, well, laughing at her.
‘Now, now, what we have here is all nerves. Get a load of this into you’. Mr Johnson said, as he offered Stella a flask. It smelled vaguely of the vagabond that lived in the park at the end of their street. Her father would give him work in the summer, when he’d be clean shaved and didn’t smell to bad, but by winter, all you would smell would be the potent mixture of what her mother called the ‘devil’s liquor’ and urine.
‘No, thank you’, Stella said, pushing the flask away. The potency of the liquid set off another round of retching over board, making Stella so overcome with embarrassment that she could feel sweat greasing her palms that gripped the ship’s barrier.
‘You’ll be surer than sure once you realise this beauty ain’t going to get you into any trouble. It’s the fear that makes you sick. She’ll be keeping at a nice fourteen knots, with over ten thousand tonnes of her cursing through the water, and not a hint of interference from Neptune, I can almost guarantee it.’ Mr Johnson said with a chuckle.
‘I suggest if you won’t have any here rum, that you then get someone to bring you a hot cup of black tea, same as my grandmama used to always have. Then, miss, you should put yourself down sit here. Be on the watch for the Sirens for me. And, if you see them, well then, the hit to your head was a good one!’ Mr Johnson said laughing as he turned to leave. ‘ Be glad you ain’t one of these brave lads we are ferrying across the ocean to battle, because you’d sure as heck be dead once you reached the shore if you let the sea sickness affect your mind. Gets your balance all off. You are lucky mind! That’s why women ain’t never got a place in the war. They are too soft. This is all men’s work.’ He said as he returned back down into the bowels of ship.
Stella knew that the man was trying to be kind, but he made Stella prickle with anger all the same. It was true that she was soft, she was sickly, but that didn’t mean she enjoyed being laughed at, or made to feel she didn’t belong within the war effort. She was going there to help.
Stella remained mainly oblivious to the goings on of the troops from NSW, with their main destination shrouded in secrecy, and her sickness keeping her confined to her bed.
She had a parade of people visiting her room to offer her seasickness remedies, but Stella often felt that all they really wanted to do was gawk at her. There wasn’t much entertainment on board after all.
One passenger, Mrs Jackson, suggested cayenne pepper, which was not to be found anywhere in the galley. Another passenger suggested sitting on brown paper, which someone thought might be in one of the cabins on the upper deck, but to no avail. One of the ladies from the upper deck came and offered Stella one of her garter belts to wear around her stomach, to prevent the sickness from rising. All it did was cut Stella in half. Eventually she gave up, with the realization shortly hitting her that her seasickness was going to be her companion all for the entire trip. She tried to spend as much of her day on the deck, where she could take in the fresh air, that is, as she felt as though the air did help, as long as the boat was moving steadily.
Stella walked on to the deck one morning right into a conversation between Hilda and Mr Johnson. ‘You are right Hilda, they should have more leave.’ He said, trying to be optimistic, ‘and it’s a pretty town, housing a stunning town hall that was built by an Australian. But, you know, it’s not enough. We have ships out there ships waiting for us. But you are right, that’s what it’s about.’ Said Mr Johnson, looking out to the boys on leave for the morning in Durban.
. Let’s hope she gets us there fast enough to see him.’ Hilda said, stroking the boat’s side.
Stella stayed remained sitting on the deck, sitting and watching as the officers clambered back on the boat, full of excitement. ‘You should wait Miss, until we get to Dakar.’ The last officer said as he climbed back on board, grinning wildy. He was smiling so broadly, as though he only had adventure on his horizon. ‘My cousin reckons that there is great fun to be had there with the niggers. He wrote us home that they threw coppers into the water to get them diving in. He reckons that they are the best in the water. They would always dive for the money, and would always bring it up.’ For some reason, this made Stella sad. It was as though he thought he had so much to look forward to, but there was only torment ahead on his horizon. Stella could not even think that far ahead, as her stomach churned and she raced for the side of the ship, again.
‘I’m sorry love, but my grandma used to always say that the best cure for seasickness was to sit under the shade of a tree.’ Said Hilda as she came back out, watching Stella vomiting over the side for the umpteenth time that day.
Stella thought of her tree back home in her courtyard. Her patient and loyal fig tree, and longed to be back under its’ shade, and not in the curse of this storm. ‘Will it pass?’ Stella asked Mavis, hoping that if she could only ride out this trip then it would all get easier, and everything would be alright. That she would be alright.
‘I’m sorry, dearie, but I think the worst is still upon us.’ Hilda said, as though reading her thoughts. Stella took a deep breath, knowing in her bones that Hildawas right. She leant over the side one more time and saw her tree out in the ocean. It was there at home waiting for her, as her parents would be, when all this was over.