Time to Leave
By Frances Guerin
The view through the dirty windscreen was filled with the orange hull of a roll on/roll off cargo liner at anchor in Port Melbourne. My friend Anna had borrowed her boyfriend’s red Mercedes Benz to deliver me to the ship I was about to board. We sat in dazed silence inside the car, sequestered from cargo, storage facilities, forklifts, top loaders, and men in hard hats bustling around Webb Dock East.
A ute doing 360s screeched past our two faces peering through the window at this ship called Tourcoing. I couldn’t see the white words on the bow, but the ship’s name was written in the letter I had received from the company four months earlier. The ute was the kind they drive on farms in outback Australia: white, with a few dirty marks and the odd dent. Its circular movement painted a stroke of white familiarity against the orange steel belly of the 10,000 tonne cargo liner behind it. The driver’s arm hung out of the window, covered in tattoos, from beginning to end, no skin, coloured ink all over. I knew that the rest of his body was the same; at least, I was convinced I knew such things. Really, I had no idea about how tattoos were worn, let alone what was under the shirt of the man in the ute. In 1986, tattoos were the mark of the marginalized, criminals and sailors. They were not yet a fashion statement made by children of the urban middle classes.
I took a cigarette from the pack on the dashboard and leisurely lit it, my eyes remaining fixed to the scene through the window; it was as if I was at the drive-in watching a movie. I was fascinated by the images, not ready to acknowledge they might turn into a reality. I stayed comfortably ignorant of the magnitude of the step I was about to take.
“Australian dockers are so obscene, you know,” I said, translating the man’s behaviour for Anna.
She began to nod in agreement before I had finished delivering my judgment. Anna grew up on the other side of the park where I had lived my life in Adelaide. Our reference points were the same, our understanding of people and culture was identical; we were young Adelaide women in the foreign land of Port Melbourne docks. Anna had clearly drawn the same conclusions about the man in the ute.
“Typical,” She groaned in agreement as she restarted the car to find a parking space among the shipping containers.
“Well at least he’s working, I guess that’s something,” I said to check my middle-class Adelaide judgments. Australia’s heavily unionized dock and shipping industries had made strikes and shut downs the norm of the 1980s.
“I guess,” Anna agreed, distractedly. She was more interested in the forklift on the left heading towards us.
“Is he going to stop, or what?” she asked rhetorically, leaning forward over the wheel to see beyond the car parked next to ours.
At least I am here, I thought. I was relieved to be on the docks, in the sun, watching the dense traffic of cars, trucks, forklifts, overhead cranes and top loaders. I had spent months anticipating this moment. I was finally leaving. As long as I didn’t pay too much attention to the big orange boat, the scene was familiar enough, even though I had never been to Port Melbourne and had never set foot on a dock. I had seen docks on the nightly television news, in the papers, in the movies. I remained in my Adelaide bubble as long as I sat next to Anna in the red Mercedes Benz. I was in no hurry to acknowledge that life as I had known it was about to end.
“Come,” said the docker with the tattoos in the ute, hanging his head out the window as Anna was about to navigate her way around the objects and activities on the dock. He tilted his head to the left to motion the red Mercedes to follow him. As he squinted, the lines on his face grew deeper.
We drove up the long ramp at the back and into the belly of the big orange liner. Anna and I giggled at the novelty; my laughter was laced with a touch of apprehension. This world we were entering in the red Mercedes Benz was one that in some distant part of my mind I continued to deny was about to become mine. Though not yet. I was still an Adelaide girl. I was next to Anna in her boyfriend’s car, laughing.
“This is more exciting than a movie,” I said as I opened the boot.
The two of us hauled my backpack, suitcase, and sun hat out of the car, as the docker opened a sealed door to reveal freshly painted mint green metal stairs. I could smell their cool odour. I would soon learn that sets of stairs in the same mint green connected each level of the ship, indoors and out. At first sight, I felt welcomed by the soothing freshness of their colour. As we dragged the luggage up the stairs, our steps echoing through the stairwell, hard leather on steel, we marked our path with a mixture of dirt and rubber.
“Geez Fran, what have you got in here?” Anna asked out of exhaustion rather than the curiosity about what I had packed.
“Nothing I don’t need,” I quipped. I couldn’t explain the weight of my bags; that’s just how heavy bags are, I thought.
We arrived at a landing two flights up, and a man with lacquered grey hair, dressed in a perfectly pressed white uniform stood tall.
“Hello,” he said with a slight lilt on the ‘e.’
I took one look at his upright gait and was convinced he was Norwegian from the way he stood, even if the undetectable accent of his words suggested otherwise. Besides, he must be Norwegian; Tourcoing is a Norwegian cargo liner, I concluded.
“We knew you were coming,” he said, bending down to help us with the luggage.
“Hi there. Where do I go?” I asked him with the backpack slung over my shoulder, eager to put it down. I was happy to be having a conversation with one of these Norwegians. The thought made me turn around to the docker, but he had disappeared. The docker’s “come” had been the only word he had uttered. He’s weird, I thought, fleetingly.
“Follow me,” the man in white uniform said.
We dragged the bags down one long corridor of shining linoleum squares, and another, and another, before he stopped at a door no different from any of the others we had passed. He jingled a set of keys, found the one he needed, and opened the door. Anna went in first.
“Hey Fran, you have an en suite. This is really groovy,” she announced before falling backwards onto the bed. I didn’t care about the bathroom, I liked the fact that there were two portholes, and especially that the one on the left looked out to the underside of another set of mint green stairs. The room was big enough. It had a bed attached to one wall, a desk to the other, a round table in the middle, four chairs, two portholes and a closet. My indifference to the cabin was equal to its bland functionality.
“I’ll leave you here then,” the sailor in the white suit who didn’t yet have a name turned and left us in what was now my cabin.
“These people are weird,” I said to Anna as I closed the door behind him. “That one never told us his name, and the docker uttered not one, single, word.”
“Do you think the docker wasn’t allowed on the boat?” She reflected.
“What makes you think that?”
“Because he just disappeared!” She had noticed it too.
“Who knows. Maybe it’s illegal for anyone not employed by the company to be on board,” I suggested, thinking there must be some law that stops the dock workers entering ships.
“Fran, that’s crazy—I’m here, aren’t I?” Anna insisted.
“Oh yeah. Who cares. They’re all weird.” This was my only response to anyone or anything outside of what I had known in Adelaide. If it was different, it must be weird.
Anna and I lay back on the bed and looked to the ceiling; it was easier to laugh at the weirdos than it was to engage with the enormity of what I was doing.
The vibrations of the recently ignited engines reached my cabin, bringing a twinge of anxiety to my chest.
“You’re gonna have to go,” I turned to Anna, still lying on the bed.
“Will you be okay?”
“Yeah, it’ll be lunch time soon,” I chirped, believing the promise of food would somehow allay the uncertainty I was starting to feel.
“Don’t forget to stay in touch,” she said, lifting her body from the bed.
“Of course I will,” I assured her, but wondered how I would be sending letters from a cargo liner at sea. “Come on, I’ll take you down to the car,” I continued cheerfully.
The rumble of engines was getting louder, and I wanted Anna to leave before her concern for my wellbeing grew. I was twenty years old and had no time for the unsettling emotions stirred by goodbyes.
I waved to the red Mercedes Benz as it reversed down the ramp, waiting until the familiar red form turned onto the dock and disappeared.
Not knowing what I was supposed to do next, I headed back to my cabin, closed the door, turned the lock, and stood with my back to the door as I recovered my breath. I stared at the mint green stairs that now marked the limits of the space designated as mine.
The sound of the ship’s horn filled the air. It was time to leave.
Frances Guerin is an Australian who left on a cargo liner in 1986 and has been traveling the world ever since. She is a tax resident of the United Kingdom, an Australian citizen, has lived in London, New York, and currently resides in Paris, France. Frances is a professor of film and visual culture at the University of Kent in Paris, where among others things, she teaches courses on fin-de-siècle visual modernity in Paris. Frances has published five books on film, photography, and painting, and many articles, essays, and reviews. You can find her on the web at www.francesguerin.com, on her blog at fxreflects.blogspot.com, and on Twitter and Instagram at @frances_guerin.