At first sight the ship was bigger than the dock in which it floated, a whale sprawled in a hip-bath.
Nine hundred-and-something feet long, 56,000 tons gross, it was a custom-built marine pantechnicon. It had a toppling Hilton hotel mounted at its back end, with a long city block of slotted containers stretching out ahead of it. For the last ten days it had gone tramping round the small seas of Europe, picking up cargo from Le Havre, Antwerp, Rotterdam, Bremen and Gothenburg, and it was now gorged with exports. The car decks, on the water-line and below, were a luxury traffic jam of unplated Jaguars, Porsches and Mercedes. The containers were packed with many thousands of tons of bizarre odds and ends: Swedish matches, French brandy, frozen seal meat, Dutch tulip bulbs, paint, perfume, laughing gas, helium … Two containers were bound for Macy’s store on Herald Square in Manhattan: one, loaded at Le Havre, was billed on the manifest as ‘French wearing apparel’; the other, which had come on at Liverpool, was billed as ‘English bric-à-brac’.
The accommodation for the crew of the Atlantic Conveyor matched the grandeur of its cargo. I was travelling as a guest of the owners, Cunard Ellerman, and was assigned the cabin of Officer B, high up on the tenth floor of the wedding cake. Officer B lived well. His cabin was a roomy studio apartment furnished with bookcases, a refrigerator, a king-size bed, a comfortable sofa, a long desk of varnished pine, a cabinet for drinks and glasses, a coffee table and his own lavatory and shower. Just down the hall, Officer B could swim in the heated pool, put in a sweaty half-hour or so on the squash court, work out in the gym and open his pores in the sauna, before showing up in the Officers Bar and Lounge, where the bonded Scotch was ten pence a measure, and where a new film was shown on the video at eight-fifteen each night.