Ferry to Hamburg

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17.10.2019

I’ve been thinking a lot about memory lately, about how and why we remember what we do and whether our memories can ever be 100% accurate and objective. It’s a subject that I find fascinating, particularly when I try to piece together my own collection of fragmented memories or hear my mother share her perspective on events that have taken place during her lifetime, but which I’ve heard alternate versions of from other family members. As such I thought I would revisit some of my memories and write them down. My childhood was unusual in many ways because my family moved so often and I spent my early years on a military base in recently reunified Berlin.

My memories, like yours, may not be 100% accurate or objective. This is partly because as time passes we increasingly rely on photographs, videos and the memory itself in order to keep the memory alive, and each of these is partial and subjective, but it is also because hindsight enables us to fill in gaps and more fully make sense of childhood events as an adult, or adult experiences decades after the fact. These fragments are the stories behind my eyes, as I recall them now. I thought I’d start with one of my earliest memories which is the day my family moved from England to Germany when I was four years old.


In October 1990 when I was four years old, my family moved from England to Germany. The evening we left my grandparents’ house for the ferry terminal in Essex was cold, the fiery warmth of October fading quickly to the permanent drizzle of November, and the sky was the colour of rain slicked concrete. Cocooned in layers of clothing in my car seat I watched as Dad rolled our Volvo forward into the bowels of the ferry, my ears ringing with a discordant mix of shunting cars and raised voices as the terminal staff conducted the loading ceremony.

From the warmth of the back seats where my brother, sister and I had been carefully positioned between boxes, pillows and soft cases like blocks in a high scoring game of Tetris, Mum gathered our overnight bags and shepherded us up the steep staircase to the main deck of the ferry in search of our cabin.

On board with my feet planted firmly on carpet and my arms tightly wrapped around Charlotte, my M&S teddy bear, I felt the gentle rock of the boat as we sat in the harbour, ready for departure. I felt a little bit anxious about the noise and bustle of the ferry deck as Mum and Dad collected our cabin key, but was quickly distracted by the smell of dinner drifting through reception from the restaurant kitchen and the promise of a play in the ball pit before bed.

In the cabin, my sister and I began the first of many territorial fights over bunks and breathing space while Mum unpacked and Dad and my brother headed out the door to ‘supervise departure’ from up on deck. Dad wanted to ‘make sure that they close the doors’, a reference I was too young to understand to the Zeebrugge accident of 1987, though the idea that a ferry could sink filled me with terror on every subsequent ferry journey we made as a family. The visceral fear of being trapped in a sinking car or ferry lingered through childhood, stretching its tentacles into adulthood when I found myself once again on a cross channel ferry to Brittany a few years ago at the age of twenty-nine.

Through the melee of doors being opened and closed and tearful accusations and recriminations with my sister about petty squabbles, I felt the engine start up and the swaying grow more intense as we pulled out of Harwich, said goodbye-for-now to England, and slowly made our way out of the harbour into the pitch black North Sea.

The ship we were aboard, a RORO ferry from Harwich to Hamburg popular with British forces stationed out in Germany during the cold war, would sail through the night, cruising down the Elbe to arrive into Hamburg the following afternoon. My father had just been posted from London to Berlin for the first anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall, and his new job would have him working on the closure and handover to the German military of RAF Gatow, a British airbase in West Berlin which had been instrumental to the success of the Berlin Airlift.


I must have fallen asleep as we drove south from Hamburg the following afternoon, as I remember little of the journey to our new home in the Kladow district of Berlin. The hum of the road and looped French 1980s pop songs no doubt lulled me into a stupor, for I awoke to dark skies once more as Dad pulled in at the gates outside the airbase. Looking out of the window I watched as a man in military fatigues carrying a rifle approached the car for ID and security checks.

In the house on Birch Grove, my brother, sister and I set upon exploring and to our delight discovered that our quarter came with both an attic and a cellar. Pulling open the hall door at the top of the staircase down to the cellar and taking full advantage of it being close to Halloween, my brother decided it would be fun to scare me with ghost stories about the cellar being haunted, but as soon as the lights were on I couldn’t resist following him down the concrete steps into the cavern of rooms below.

The cellar consisted of three main rooms and a couple of smaller storage cupboards. The room furthest from the stairs down from the hall had an outside door with steps leading up to the garden. This room would become our playroom, or rather my brother’s gaming room during the winter, spring and summer school holidays when he was home from boarding school in England. It was the room in which over the coming years he’d play with his ZX Spectrum and teach himself how to code, and I’d sit and watch him play platform games whilst playing with my Scalextric, but on that first night it was, to my four year old eyes, just a big empty room with a bare bulb and a beige carpet. In the corner of the room tucked in a fold of carpet up against the skirting board I spotted something shiny which must have fallen from a box packed by the previous occupants before they moved out; a necklace with a gold coloured chain and a red gem. Treasure.

Above us on the upper floors of the house we would call home for the next four years, my parents busied themselves with unloading the car and settling us in for the first night. The vans with our furniture would arrive in the morning and in the coming days the three of us would each make our way to a new school; my brother back to England, my sister to the middle school on-base and me to nursery.

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