A Stranger In Time

… It was around half past midday in June 1963 and I was looking over the rail of the French Messageries Maritimes cargo-passenger vessel “MS Caledonién”, which I had boarded in Sydney harbour an hour or so earlier.   The 17,500 ton ship would be setting off shortly, I hoped, on its circuitous journey through Melanesia and Polynesia before crossing the Pacific Ocean bound for the Panama Canal, Curacao, the Windward Islands and Madeira before finally docking in Marseilles, over eight weeks later.   The vessel’s cargo would be the dried kernel of the coconut or copra from which oil would be expressed, to be loaded at various small islands’ quaysides from the Pacific to the Caribbean. There was tourist class accommodation on board for a hundred or so travellers and the rest of the human cargo, of a similar number, would be stowed in steerage class.  This latter consisted of an area of eight basic cabins just below deck with four iron bunk beds each and a larger ‘open plan’ area at deck level next to the holds with similar bunk beds which would house over a hundred male passengers, including eighty Tahitian conscripts leaving to do their national service in Metropolitan France. Steerage accommodation was at the prow of the boat.              

At this stage of the proceedings I was unaware of where I was on the boat or, indeed, of the steerage class area and the cabin I was due to share with two other women at the beginning of the journey.  I had paid a modest sum for this shared cabin to get me back to Europe after three years living in Victoria and New South Wales as a new immigrant with a new husband, from whom I had recently separated.  I’d made sure I arrived at the docks at the earliest time and was now scanning the dockside and embarkation gangway to spot the arrival of the husband whom I’d left some six weeks earlier.  Following the break-up of the marriage, he was returning home to France on MS Caledonien and had no idea that I had booked my return to Europe on the same vessel.  When buying the ticket I’d asked the shipping company to use my maiden name.  The French company had been happy to allow me to do this without questions.  So I was travelling as Margaret Evans, final destination London.              

Just at the moment I caught sight of my husband boarding the boat with his metal trunk and our cat in its home-designed, padded cage, hand-painted green like the rest of his luggage, I retired quickly from the boat rails with my heart in my mouth and turning found myself facing a neat, middle-aged gentleman with a small beard and glasses who asked me quietly if I needed any help. “Well,” I replied, smiling “I think I may have boarded above my station, if, as I guess, this is the Tourist Class.” “That is correct”, the gentleman ventured,  adding gallantly “but to what other station could a young woman like yourself possibly be directed.” “Steerage”, I replied briefly, with lack of concern and a small grin.  Indeed I did not care about anything more at that moment than the thought of the shock my husband would experience in setting eyes on me for the first time since I’d left him, in the knowledge that there was no way in which either he or I could immediately get off the boat.  For the moment I’d no intention of leaving the Tourist Class deck until the ship was well underway and that could be a couple of hours hence.              

So why not make this a pleasant interlude with a pleasant man?  It would certainly help to keep my mind occupied without dwelling on the inevitable confrontation to come.  I was wearing my wedding ring on a long string around my neck where it was not visible.  At the age of twenty-six, it might easily be assumed that I was not yet married. My fellow traveller was certainly not shy to talk about himself with ease and confidence and I soon learned that he originated from Hungary, was Jewish and an author as well as a communist.  Following a timely exodus from Germany in 1934, where he had lived from an early age, receiving his education in Berlin, his widower father had brought his children to England to make their home initially in London. David Martin, as he introduced himself to me, spoke with excellent English, despite a mild central European accent.  Having told me that he was a writer he asked if I was aware of a book of his, made into a film called Tiger Bay.  I knew this successful film of the late fifties and was suitably impressed.   It was in the nineteen fifties, I learned, that the author had decided to leave England to live in Australia.              

I was familiar with the post-war world of European communism and the powerful French Left in particular.   I’d met my Parisian husband at an international farm camp in Wisbech where I’d taken up the post of chief cook with my Burmese friend and fellow student, Petronella, from Hendon Technical College, where we’d just finished our City & Guilds course in hotel management. A converted prisoner of war camp from the forties had become the base for a farm camp comprising a number of large bell tents for up to eight people and a Nissan hut containing mess area and kitchen with an old coal range.   Most of the hundred student labourers, picking spuds and strawberries, were from central and western Europe and Scandinavia.   In 1955 it was close enough to the difficult and austere post-war years for political feelings to be running high and as far from the Right as might be conceived.   At that time I’d been an avid reader of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Camus and other members of that left-wing literary coterie.                

So, despite a rather conventional lower middle-class upbringing with a mother who had aspired to move as rapidly as possible from Tottenham to Totteridge, from Red to Blue, avoiding twin-set and pearls happily, I was engaged upon finding my own independent niche in life.   An excellent secondary education had set me off on a long literary trail which had included the late nineteenth century European authors, the Russians being my favourites, writers from an optimistic present as well as a nibble at an intimidating classical output from the Greeks to iconic tomes on Eastern religions.  Pragmatically unconvinced by the communist credo myself, I nevertheless understood and sympathised with its roots.  I wanted to travel but a ‘fellow traveller’ was not my insignia.   It would not be unfair to say that my roots were close enough to the workers of the world for me to feel strong feelings of compassion for the less well-off, spiritually as much as materially, and to have a sharp sympathy with the underdog.  I admired those who could and had overcome terrible circumstances in their lives occasioned by the misfortunes of birth, war and totalitarian politics.              

David Martin, with no doubt a previous less pronounceable Hungarian patronymic, was a wiry, smallish man with a goatee beard and interested and perceptive brown eyes behind thick-rimmed glasses.   He wanted to know more about me and my background, the reason for my journey and so on but that conversation fizzled out with my choosing a short, feasible explanation without lying or telling David anything of the true situation I was in at that moment.  As an author it might indeed have interested him.  I was good at making things up as I went along, so the conversation developed on a more general level with my new companion engaging in questions of a philosophic and political bent.  Following the disclosure that he was politically a communist, whether a party member or not he did not say, he failed to mention his views on the downfall of Stalin in 1953 and the subsequent spread of unpalatable truths about gulags and life generally in the Soviet Union under that tyrant’s dictatorship, a man whom as a child at school I’d been taught to regard, like everyone in Russia, as the kindly people saviour  or ‘little father’. At one point in the conversation David said that I seemed to be a bright young woman and was eager to know what my  IQ level might be. This unusual question, which I felt instinctively was of some importance to my companion, produced a negative response.   I really had no idea.  Who assesses your adult IQ, I wondered, and for what purpose, unless you are unable to produce the usual educational certificates of mental worthiness for any particular job?              

“I would suggest,” said my new-found friend, tapping his fingers together, “that your IQ would be well upwards of 120”.  “Would that be high, low or middling”, I asked him. “Quite high”, David replied with an appreciative nod.  

Was I supposed to be flattered by this acknowledgement I wondered and continued to muse briefly on how IQ assessments were made beyond the schoolroom;  by fitting shapes in the right places, mental arithmetic, knowing the meaning of words, problem solving or just the answers to a lot of general knowledge questions?   And what had that to do with anyone’s ability to find happiness in life, was my follow-up thought. My experience to date had suggested that high or low IQs had little to offer in this elusive matter.  Indeed, it seemed to me that an unquestioning existence in reasonable circumstances might provide the best chance of finding contentment.  The constant pursuit of knowledge about the world or oneself was doomed to fall short of aspirations anyway, doomed never to arrive at really worthwhile or useful conclusions.  Life was far too complex for that.  

At this time this subject was a sore point, since I felt a bit of a failure at life generally and certainly falling well short of the happiness goal. But perhaps intelligence had its place for I instinctively knew that however bad things were, I was young and time was hopefully on my side.  I had almost convinced myself that mistakes are made as a guide to learning and moving on, though this was a depressing thought.  Indeed there were moments when this argument was not at all persuasive, if not positively sick-making; moods, it had to be assumed, must go through their swings and roundabouts with little that one could personally do about it most of the time. At this moment I felt almost happy because I’d practically managed to safely trap myself in a time capsule with my husband, whom I still loved, from which neither of us could easily remove ourselves after the ship had sailed.  Indeed, in a strange way I was looking forward to being cocooned from life, away from one environmentally controlling period and not yet in another for over two whole months at sea, which might seem like a lifetime with its temporary suspension of engaged time.  I was excitedly prepared to take on the challenge and make the most of it.  And this, perhaps, was one reason why I was happily talking to David Martin, who represented neither threat nor commitment, just a passing, interesting stranger who was currently physically shielding me, without his knowledge, from any drama of things to come.  

So when Mr. Martin asked me if I would be prepared to undergo a short experiment concerning some new practice he was developing in hypnosis, I smiled while looking at him to work out whether one might read ‘etchings’ for hypnosis, according to the old joke, or whether to take him simply at face value.  I agreed to assist in this practise in his nearby cabin for twenty minutes only while warning him that I did not feel I was the ‘hypnotic’ type.   And so it proved. Despite David Martin’s genuine or otherwise attempts to alter my state of consciousness, his efforts at hypnosis proved a failure.  

And so I left David Martin to muse upon his conversations with me and his apparent lack of interest to develop the short relationship further on the voyage.  Indeed, after wending my way through the unfamiliar byways of the boat to the steerage class, I was ready to face another reality and had nothing further to do with Mr. Martin in the tourist class for the rest of the journey. This incidental meeting, however, had etched itself in my memory and in view of subsequent happenings in my life when I was to find myself with a Jewish Hungarian father-in-law, was later to produce a wry smile. It was in fact forty-seven years later that I learned that David Martin had worked for the BBC during the war, had been a Daily Express correspondent and literary editor of Reynolds News before going to live in Australia where he became well-known for his writing, especially books for children, and was awarded in 1991 the prestigious Patrick White literary prize and was made a member of the Order of Australia for his services to Australian literature.   

It was only in 2010 that I learned David Martin, born in 1915, had been married, had one son and had died, aged 82, in 1997, leaving behind an autobiography My Strange Friend. What a pity, I felt, that I’d not made enquiries earlier, for I might have got in touch if only to see if he remembered anything of the exotic journey and strange meeting we had once shared.  An attempt to contact his grandson, a musician, failed.  Perhaps David Martin’s book might say where he had been going on the MS Caledonién in 1963… perhaps not.  I will have to read it one day to find out. …

David Martin