Justin first noticed the girl as he and Ben joined other first-class passengers at the ship’s rail as the Sydney bound liner sailed closer to Port Said and the Suez Canal. She was standing at a little distance from the other passengers, a slim figure leaning over the rail, her long blonde hair blowing in the slight breeze. It was 1960, just four years after the Egyptian government had nationalised the Suez Canal.
“Change of colour isn’t it,” remarked a tall grey-haired man standing next to Justin, as he perused the landscape through a pair of binoculars.
Justin agreed; gone was that deep Mediterranean blue, which they had enjoyed for the past few days, and in its place, the sea now appeared pale green as they approached the Nile Delta. “Can you see land yet?” he asked.
“Here, have a look through these,” responded the man, handing over his binoculars, which gave a clear view of buildings and the land ahead. It was a welcome sight after over a week at sea. Justin returned the binoculars and looked around again to see the girl. But she had gone.
“Come on,” urged Ben at his side. “Let’s go for a swim before lunch. We can’t go ashore until this afternoon anyway.”
“Did you see that blonde to the left of us, leaning over the side?” Justin asked him as they made their way towards the pool. “I don’t remember seeing her before, and she must have been aboard since Tilbury.”
Ben shrugged, knowing his friend’s weakness for good looking blondes. “The ship is full of blondes – and, funny thing, so many of them seem to be called “Sheila”, too. I’m sure there are still a lot of passengers we haven’t met yet. I met up with a whole new crowd last night when you were well occupied with that little blonde on the dance floor.”
Justin continued. “She seemed so aloof, she just intrigued me somehow. Maybe we’ll see her when we go ashore after lunch.”
But the colourful spectacle that met their eyes when they went on the deck that afternoon totally occupied their interest. The ship was berthed at the quayside, and the decks were filled with native vendors displaying their wares. Alongside were other natives in small craft, passing up goods by ropes which passengers had tied to the ship’s rails. Up and down the ropes went baskets of goods and the noisy business of bartering was well underway. To Justin and Ben, who had not previously travelled outside Europe, it was a novel experience. As they made their way ashore they encountered even more vendors with their wares either side of the metal landing stage.
“Great fun,” commented Ben, who had bought a leather bag for 10/-. “I’ve probably been ripped off,” he added, “but so what! It’s quite an experience.” They entered Simon Artz, a shop practically opposite where the ship was berthed. At first, it appeared deserted, and goods were only on view under glass-topped counters, which stretched the length of the oblong shop. Suddenly, as if from nowhere, they were surrounded and the sales pitches began. They extricated themselves and joined up with a group of other passengers to explore the town. It was a full afternoon. Then back on deck later they watched as the ship slowly entered the Suez Canal. So it was the next morning before Justin saw the girl again. They had gone up on deck before breakfast, and found the ship at anchor in the Great Bitter Lake, awaiting the passage of the northbound vessels. She was again on her own, a little apart from other passengers, and appeared totally absorbed with the view before her. Justin sauntered over, while Ben remained to study the landscape through a borrowed pair of binoculars.
The girl appeared startled as Justin greeted her, but she turned and smiled. She was wearing a big straw hat and her eyes were hidden behind a pair of large sunglasses, but there was something in her manner that Justin found fascinating; he had already noticed her long shapely legs beneath a pair of white shorts. “Rather a monotonous landscape isn’t it,” he continued, indicating the long stretches of the desert before them. He introduced himself. “I’m Justin, by the way – and don’t tell me your name is ‘Sheila’. There seem to be an awful lot of girls called ‘Sheila’ onboard among the Australians.”
She gave a light tinkling laugh, which somehow seemed at odds with the rather flat tone of her voice. “Oh, you’re English of course,” she said. “A ‘sheila’ is Australian slang for a girl, so that is why you keep hearing it.” She paused, then added, “my friends call me ‘Skippy’.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen you on deck before, while we were in the Med,” went on Justin.
“Maybe that’s because I wasn’t on deck,” said Skippy, but volunteered no further explanation, and she went back to studying the desert before them.
This is really hard going, thought Justin, while at the same time he realised he was extremely hungry, and it was breakfast time. He decided to make one last effort. “Look here,” he said, “I’m starving and I must go to breakfast, But perhaps we could meet at the pool bar for a drink before lunch, say around eleven?”
She paused for a moment, then shrugged her shoulders. “Why not,” she said. “Thank you, I’ll be there.”
It was scarcely encouraging, but Justin loved a challenge, and he did find her intriguing; there seemed to be a sort of reserve about her which he aimed to breakthrough. However later, by the pool, as they sat sipping large glasses of cool lemonade, Skippy appeared much more friendly. She took off her sunglasses and he saw that her eyes were a large pale blue, fringed with dark lashes. She wore light blue slacks and a sleeveless white top. “Have you been away from Australia long?” he inquired.
“Too long,” she said and gave that light tinkling laugh. “It’s time I got back. And you? Are you emigrating, or just on a visit?”
Justin explained. “My friend, Ben is on a visit to his Australian relatives, and I have a little free time between jobs. So I thought I’d come with him and see more of the world. He’ll probably stay a while, but I have to be home by Christmas as I start a new job in January.”
“Are you a journalist?” Skippy asked.
“Heavens no,” said Justin, a little surprised, “I’m an engineer.”
She seemed to suddenly relax, and asked, “are you going all the way to Sydney?”
“I certainly am,” said Justin. “Ben’s relatives live on the North Shore, and I’m going all the way there, hoping they’ll put me up for a short stay. And you?”
“All the way,” she responded, and they sipped their drinks in silence for a moment, before Justin asked, “are you going ashore at Aden? I didn’t see you ashore at Port Said.”
“No. I’m not keen on going ashore,” she said. “All the noise, dirt, and the natives trying to sell things all the time.”
Justin thought this a little odd, but he said nothing. He pulled out a packet of Benson and Hedges and offered her a cigarette.
“No thank you, I don’t smoke,” she said, as he lit his cigarette and sat back relaxing while he inhaled. Skippy got up to leave as lunchtime approached. But she agreed to meet him again before lunch the next day.
However, as the ship made good progress through the Red Sea towards Aden, Justin felt the same could not be said about his relationship with Skippy. She accepted his invitation to have a drink with him, but she volunteered little information about herself, and the conversation remained very general. “She’s playing hard to get,” said Ben, with all the experience of his twenty-four years. “Why don’t you just drop her and join in more with a group. There are plenty of other attractive girls onboard.”
But at their third pre-lunch drinks meeting, Skippy suddenly opened up. “I’m sorry, Justin, but I haven’t been quite honest with you. The truth is that I find it rather embarrassing.” She looked at him earnestly, anxiety mirrored in those large blue eyes. “You see,” she went on hesitantly, “actually I’m acting as a sort of paid companion to an aunt who’s paying my fare, and she’s rather demanding. She had a fall when we were in the Bay of Biscay, and bruised her ribs quite badly. So she has been confined to her cabin and she rather expects me to be with her. So I’m not free to do as I would like.”
“I see,” said Justin slowly, but in actual fact, he didn’t see at all. Skippy, he thought, was perhaps a couple of years older than he was, and it seemed awful to him that she couldn’t participate in all the ship’s activities or visit the ports en route. She was missing all the fun.
Now she had opened up to him, Skippy became quite loquacious. “You see,” she went on as she put down her empty glass, ”she has a real temper and can get very upset. But usually, she’s very kind. So I don’t want to upset her. She has to walk with a stick which she finds awkward on the stairs.”
“I’m so sorry,” said Justin, taking her hand across the table. ”But things will be better when we reach Australia surely, and then you will be free. I’d like to take you out when we reach the shore.”
“That would be nice,” said Skippy, looking a little brighter, as they gazed into each other’s eyes.
I am making progress, at last, thought Justin. He was becoming infatuated, and infatuation combined with sympathy made quite a heady cocktail!
Skippy refused to let him walk her to the cabin which she shared with the aunt, nor would she go for the traditional “stroll on deck” that he wanted. But as they neared the Australian coast, she reported that her aunt was much better and happier. She sat in the lounge with him in the evenings drinking coffee after dinner, and sometimes accepted his offer of a liqueur.
At Fremantle, they went ashore together, and hand in hand wandered around the dark deserted streets. They joined a crowd at a radio shop window, watching T.V. which had come to Australia only two years previously, then before they returned to the ship, Justin took her in his arms and kissed her. She responded warmly and Justin felt things were promising for the future when they get to Sydney. He suggested that she joined him on one of the shore excursions while the ship was in Melbourne. “But how about your aunt?” he queried hastily.
“I’ll see what I can do,” Skippy assured him.
It was the night before they were due in Melbourne, and they were once more, after dinner enjoying each others company and drinks in the lounge. Suddenly Skippy said, ”I’d love another gin and tonic. Would you mind?”
“Not at all,” said Justin. “And I’ll have another beer.” He signalled the waiter; it was still early and Skippy seemed exhilarated in a way he hadn’t seen her before, but he made no comment and went on discussing activities for the next day. Skippy then indicated an elderly lady sitting not far away. “She reminds me of my aunt,” she said. “I’m so glad she’s better, but I really must go and see her now. No, don’t get up,” as Justin made a move to rise. She gave him a light kiss, and picking up her large bag from the floor, was gone.
Justin sat for a few minutes slowly drinking his beer. He began to feel very drowsy. Must be all these late nights catching up with me, he thought as he yawned. He decided to go to his cabin, but as he got up he felt something against his foot under the table. He bent down and picked up a small leather-bound book. Must have come out of that large bag of Skippy’s when she put it on the floor, he thought. I’ll take it and give it to her tomorrow. His head began to swim, and it was a relief to reach the cabin; he was only half undressed before he fell asleep on his bunk.
Suddenly someone was shaking him vigorously and he could hear Ben’s voice, as from a distance. He groaned, opened one eye, and then quickly closed it.
Ben shook him again. “Wake up, man” he shouted, “It’s lunchtime. Are you all right?”
Justin sat up groggily and clutched his head as he swung his legs over the side of the bunk.
“You’ve had a helluva hangover,” said Ben. “Here, I’ve brought you a black coffee. I reckon you need it. You were snoring your head off and behaving as if you were drugged. I’ve been quite worried about you.”
Surely not, … How could that be, Justin thought hazily as he sipped the coffee Ben gave him. He suddenly realised what day it was. Lunchtime, Ben had said. He looked at his watch. “Oh,” he mumbled. ”Skippy! I was to go on a shore excursion with her this afternoon. How I …”
“You can forget Skippy,” said Ben matter of factly. “ I saw her disembark two hours ago. She’s well-named — she’s certainly skipped out on you!”
Justin stared. “She can’t have!”
“Look here,” said Ben, “I don’t know what you drank last night, but you were flat out when I came in. Skippy’s gone, and you’re in no shape to be going anywhere.”
As his head cleared, Justin thought back to last night — that second drink — the slight diversion as he looked at the woman Skippy had indicated.
Yes, he’d been drugged!
It was the first of many puzzling disclosures to come.