Sunday, October 3, 2010

DARK DEEDS ABOARD A RUSSIAN SHIP

    Having at times made the statement that money isn’t everything, any committed traveller, however really needs to think carefully about one absolute necessity; cash.  No matter how thrifty you are there is still a need for a healthy lot of folding money.

     Following an early solo venture when I foolishly set out with my first ever credit card, I vowed there and then to cut the plastic night-mare into tiny pieces; the amount owing was beyond belief.
Aghast at a huge bill I needed to conceal from the husband I sometimes call the Reluctant Traveller, I was forced to sacrifice my entire collection of early edition National Geographic magazines, a chunky gold bracelet and an antique Royal Doulton ceramic, a rare birthday gift from him the year before.  Luckily it took many house moves and even more years before he finally noticed the Royal Doulton was missing. 

     I realised it was time to find a paying job, something that might help me continue the fancy free and foot loose persona I had suddenly acquired and desperately wanted to continue.

    A job behind the scenes on a television show opened new doors; a summer perk entertaining passengers on a Russian cruise ship, the Feodor Shalyapin, meant the whole family minus the Doberman could tag along to Singapore as well.

   The Russian vessel had been purchased from the Cunard Line mere months prior to sailing for Australia.  Known in its previous life as the posh Franconia, the ship had been lying at anchor in a UK river for a considerable number of years and wasn't in the most pristine condition.  In fact we would later see proof of this when crew attempted to lower the life boats to transport passengers from ship to jetty at Bali and one motorised boat crashed through the deck rails instead.

Two surviving life boats in Bali


    This was also the Russian crews first time out of the Soviet Union and while the captain appeared to be senior officer in charge that title and responsibility actually belonged to a  female KGB officer who outranked him and operated from an office somewhere below deck.

    The liner sailed into the tropics and before long I noticed the ships large and jolly seamstresses working non stop on what appeared to be new poolside uniforms for staff.  The sewing machines were set up in the ships laundry and every time I went down there I was amazed at the number of laughing jostling crew, both women and men, striding around modelling newly made distinctively patterned bikinis and swim trunks; somehow the fabric seemed vaguely familiar.
  
    A few nights later while trawling the decks for my thirteen-year-old son who apparently had won the motherly affection of the American entertainer, vaudeville violinist, Edith Dahl, ‘a busty blond well past her use by date and old enough to recall prohibition’, I came across a puzzling sight.  Stretched out in the ships wake, bobbing up and down and clearly visible in the moonlight, was a long line of wooden deck chairs. 

    Immediately the penny dropped.  The crew were stripping off the woven fabric covers and throwing the denuded skeletal evidence overboard.    The covers made snappy, though brief swimmers. The Feodor Shalyapin was a wacky ship with an even wackier crew. But that wasn’t the only weird thing that happened. 

That's my errant son flying through the air as we crossed the Equator.
 
     It was suggested passengers not converse with ship’s officers because they spoke no English, but when the Reluctant Traveller and I joined the captain in his cabin for a memorable Russian feast complete with endless vodka toasts both he and his charming first officer spoke perfect English. 

    Then late one night while searching the decks for the errant son who had again overstepped his curfew, this time playing cards with the crew, I saw the dark shadow of a submarine emerge from the depths; very quietly shadowy figures were transferred back and forth from the sub before it moved off out of sight.  

   Next morning I ran into the second officer and bubbling with curiosity asked him about the submarine.  He looked at me for a second or two and then said, ‘what submarine?’  It was the last time I heard him speak English.  It was the end too of our cosy little dinners with the captain.

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©Robyn Mortimer 2010