Four years ago today I left Southampton aboard the Queen Mary 2 bound for New York City.
I was heading for a summer of Plathing, Bell Jar-ing around New York, then visiting Boston, Winthrop, Wellesley, Cape Cod, Martha’s Vineyard and a week working in the archives at Smith College, Northampton. Nursing a pathological fear of flying, sailing to America seemed the only option.
It was a great option.
It was also not lost on me that this was the mode of transport that Plath used when crossing the Atlantic in 1955, 1957 and 1959. Of course ocean liners get bigger and faster and while the crossing took Plath ten days, I was leaving one continent and landing on another within seven.
Spending a week at sea is a curious experience and I came to love and be utterly mesmerised by the lift and swell of that blue, like a giant infinity pool stretching out of sight.
Occasionally, the surface would be broken by dolphins and whales, sometimes it would be totally obscured by a remarkable, thick, white fog that seemed to press right up against the cabin balcony so you could hear the ocean but not actually see it.
Sometimes, the waves got bigger and rougher and sitting low down in the ship you could feel them smack and bang and spray the windows.
The romance of transatlantic crossings is hard to resist. The lure of afternoon tea with harps playing, the evening balls and dancing, champagne cocktails and grand pianos, string quartets and jazz trios. Sometimes, poignancy strikes, as when we passed near to the resting place of The Titanic in the deep blue early hours of one morning. But the days pass, and they pass quickly, staring at the ocean and lying on deck reading, taking tea, browsing the library and going to the theatre.
Plath’s experience was perhaps less enjoyable. On her return and final journey to England in December 1959 aboard the SS United States she was pregnant, taking two dramamine pills a day for sea sickness, reading Dr Zhivago and being kept awake by screaming, drunken girls at 3 and 4 in the morning. The food was only ‘so-so.’ With barely one night of clear skies and bright stars, the rest of the crossing was on a rolling and pitching liner with the decks shut off. Ship space, she lamented, was rather confined.
I arrived in New York City in the early hours of the morning. The QM2 has to time her arrival carefully otherwise her tall red funnels will not fit under the Verrazano bridge if the water is too high.
The Statue of Liberty glowed like a green beacon and Manhattan rose into view like a startling mirage after seven days of nothingness. And thus began a queer, sultry summer; a summer in which I did know what I was doing in New York and it was spectacular.