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Serpent in Paradise
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Mary Kingsley: Imperial Adventuress
Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World
extract

Co-edited by Dea Birkett
Amazonian: The Penguin Book of Women’s New Travel Writing

Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World

extract

Jella: From Lagos to Liverpool - A Woman at Sea in a Man's World

The ship was now working to in-port periods of duty, the engineers on from about seven in the morning to five in the afternoon, while the mates, if they were not wanted at the hatches, could go ashore. No one did. Instead they wrote up their notes, caught up on any office work in their cabins, and hung around the bar. The following evening I watched the lights from the dock being switched on through my cabin porthole. The phone rang. It was Roger, the Chief Engineer, excited.

‘There are seven British Caledonian airhostesses in the bar if you fancy a bit of female company. Why don’t you come down?’

I muttered a listless ‘Great’, and replaced the receiver.

‘Women,’ I tutted, plonking myself down heavily on the bed. I had grown used to sitting amongst the men in the evenings, drinking too much beer and listening to their tales.

‘Women! What do they want coming on board?’

. . . I snatched up my boilersuit from the bed, pulled it over my shoulders and tied it with a belt. This could be considered trendy, I thought. I looked in the mirror and liked what I saw.

The officers’ saloon was always smoky.

‘Hey, come on over,’ Roger shouted, waving an arm already beginning to have a life of its own. He was struggling with the cellophane on a carton of beer cans, simultaneously trying to entertain the two women on the other side of the bar.
‘This is Shirley. And this is – ‘ he smiled, too familiar already, he thought, for any offence to be taken by the mere forgetting of a name.
Two heads turned and smiled at me, one brunette, one blonde.
‘Dea,’ Roger gestured with the flat palm of his spare hand as if a priest offering me up as the host. ‘This is Dea. She’s sailing with us. Beer?’

He ripped out a can for me. I pulled the ring and swigged exaggeratedly back. Shirley and her friend took a sip from urine-coloured drinks. . .

A glance around the bar revealed more Shirleys, all, except one, very pretty. Their hair was long, their nails long, their bare tanned legs impossibly long in high heels. They all looked so happy. They appeared to be a herd of strange animals, of an entirely different species to my own. I saw grotesquely painted exaggerated lips, scarlet talons on the end of creeper-like arms.

‘Our plane is grounded at Accra,’ explained Shirley. ‘We’re waiting for the bit to be flown out.’ . . .

Drinks and cigarettes were being plied gallantly upon the girls, accepted in moderation. The officers had been starved of white female company for two months. But while the women’s eyes flirted, their backs stayed straight, refusing to accommodate the contorted shapes of the officers’ bodies bending to almost – but never actually – touch their scented female forms.

I was spectator to this sport. I was angry and upset. I was just, maybe, being accepted by these men. Now these women – these women – had come along and reminded them that I, too was female. They could go back to their fancy Ghanaian Hilton that night. This was where I lived . . .’

Jella


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