My story begins with a wardrobe. To be precise, it was my dad’s wardrobe in our new home in Kirkwall. Yet when we – my sister Eileen, parents, and I – moved house, I wasn’t in the least interested in the contents of our dad’s wardrobe. That would change years later but in 1964 I was keener on listening to The Beatles singing ‘Twist and Shout’ on our record player or watching Dave Clark thump out ‘Glad All Over’ on his drum kit on Top of the Pops. Besides, I now had a wardrobe of my own to fill, after 6 years of sharing a bedroom with my sister.
'Isn’t this an adventure?' said my mother cheerfully, a few days before we moved. She had come into our bedroom with a large box in which to pack away our books and toys. I glowered at her. I didn’t want to have this adventure of moving house, thank you very much. I was very happy in my old home, for my friends lived close by. I wouldn’t see them so easily in this new bungalow on the outskirts of town. Besides, I liked our old home with its nooks and crannies and secret places to hide in the garden. Our new home stood in a field, the garden not yet cultivated – no secret places to hide there with a book and get away from my little sister. There was no way that you could call this house move an adventure.
Eileen took the move in her stride for she was only six and could bring her dolls with her; a carefree childhood lay ahead. I, however, was approaching adolescence, with all the insecurities and uncertainties about life which that brings. I had to leave my familiar and secret places behind, for I couldn’t take them with me. Adventure was the last thing on my mind.
Then came the summer of 1998, when Eileen and I had to clear out the family home after the death of our parents. We opened our dad’s wardrobe door to find a treasure trove on the top shelf, stored inside boxes. I read a postcard sent to my grandmother Lily from Japan, written in 1910 and which arrived via Siberia.
“J. going strong and keeping A1”, wrote Alf. “Quite industrious on crochet work, trimming for my pyjamas, I believe”.
Goodness me! Who were Alf and J? They were certainly having an adventure in Japan, (if they did not spend all their visit doing crochet.) My grandmother Lily, the recipient of the postcard, was also adventurous for she left Orkney in 1909 to nurse in London, after which she worked in a Red Cross Hospital in Wimereux near Calais during World War One. That was quite the adventure for a farmer’s daughter from Orkney!
There was also a small leather case containing letters from our dad’s time in the Merchant Navy as a radio officer during the Second World War. The ships he sailed on were listed in the Continuous Certificate of Discharge among his papers. He had most certainly had adventures in the war years, for he’d sailed to Bombay, Durban, and Alexandria, to name but three ports. The entry beside HMT Rohna, however, puzzled me. “Discharged at sea”, I read. Did this mean what I thought it did? I remembered he had once said that he had been in hospital in Alexandria. Was this linked somehow to an incident on the Rohna?
So, I googled HMT Rohna and discovered that she had been bombed by a glider bomb in the Mediterranean in November 1943 when carrying American soldiers to the Far East. 1,156 men lost their lives. My dad was lucky because he managed to climb down the safety net and ended up in the water. I can’t begin to imagine the horror of that with his ship on fire above him. The bombing was classified for a long time and my dad did not talk to us about what he had gone through at the age of twenty-two.
So, rather late in the day, I thought of my mother’s cheerful remark when she came into our old bedroom to pack up our things and realised that there were adventures to be had in our new home after all. I was on an adventure of discovery for I had opened a wardrobe door to find out things I did not know about my family. Where might these discoveries lead me?
Now, twenty-five years after finding my dad’s letters, I want to have an adventure of my own. That’s why I’m going to Kew soon to read his Merchant Navy record and find out more about the journeys and adventures he had while at sea. Later, I intend to cross the Channel to travel to Wimereux to see where my grandmother worked. You never know, I might even be bold and travel to Alexandria where my dad spent time in hospital – that would certainly be an adventure!