Standing on the deck of the Rawlpindi, Ruth took in the early morning scene with wide eyes. This was the very final leg of the sea voyage, as the great ship slowly manoeuvred its way into the Yangtze and towards the port of Shanghai.
They had actually arrived the night before, but no-one was of a mind to attempt the docking at ten o’clock at night, and, as William had pointed out, it was highly unlikely they would have been able to disembark at that late hour. So, instead, they had taken advantage of the extra few hours to finish packing so that everyone could be on deck to observe the arrival into Shanghai.
“What a lot of boats!” Basil exclaimed as a positive flotilla swarmed around the liner.
“Shanghai is one of the busiest ports in the world,” William replied.
“So many shapes and sizes,” said Paul.
And there were. Ruth could see modern motor yachts and cargo vessels mingling with older sailing ships and traditional Chinese craft.
“How ever do they avoid collisions?” Anne was moved to wonder as one particularly adventurous dinghy cut straight in front of the Rawlpindi.
“Blind luck and skill,” said William with a grin.
“Pretty boat!” Gabrielle flung her hand out to point to an extremely gaudy specimen of a junk, hung with flags and bright white sails.
“Want one!” demanded Michael, whose favourite toy was a rather splendid miniature yacht that had been sailed many times in the duck pond of the local park.
“We’ll see,” said Anne non-committally.
Then the flotilla was passed and they were being towed into the quayside by a puffing tug boat and willing dock hands. Great ropes were thrown from bow and stern and Ruth watched as the workers expertly caught them and made them fast to the dockside bollards. In remarkably little time, it was all over and the unloading process could begin.
“Can we get off yet?” Maurice asked, his tone veering perilously close to a whine.
“Not yet,” William answered. “Cargo comes off first—See!” he added as the first loads of trunks and packing cases were unloaded by an army of dock workers, all dressed in smocks, trousers and conical hats to keep the sun from their eyes.
“Ooh!” said Basil. “That one’s ours!” He pointed to a particularly distinctive trunk dangling from one worker’s carrying pole.
“The other ones are probably ours too,” said Paul sagely.
“See how many of ours you can spot,” suggested Anne.
To Ruth’s amusement, all three boys promptly started speculating on each and every load.
The twins, however, were rather less enamoured with this pastime and began to express their boredom. After a glance at Anne, which revealed that she was hardly less interested in proceedings than the boys, Ruth drew the pair of them back towards a cluster of deckchairs.
“Tell us a story!” Michael demanded.
“Please!” added his sister, who generally remembered her manners rather better.
“All right,” Ruth agreed. Having foreseen this likely event, she had made sure to put a couple of the twins’ storybooks in her bag. She had barely withdrawn one of the books, however, when William joined them.
“We’ll be disembarking soon,” he said. “They’ve almost finished unloading.”
“No story?” asked Gabrielle, seeing Ruth tuck the book back in her bag.
“There’ll be time for that later,” Ruth answered.
“If you can take her,” William directed, “I’ll take Michael.
Ruth nodded and suited action to words by taking hold of Gabrielle’s hand firmly with her own.
They made their way back to Anne and the boys. To Ruth’s surprise, in the brief interlude away from the railing, the chaos on the dockside had largely resolved itself; just as William had said, the first passengers were beginning to disembark.
It didn’t take long before it was their turn to descend the great gangplank. William, with Michael in his charge, led the way. He was followed by Basil, then Paul, then Maurice, then Anne, leaving Ruth, with Gabrielle, to bring up the rear of the group. It was a position that Ruth minded not one jot, because it gave her a few moments more to take in the details of the Shanghai dockside.
Everywhere she looked, there was movement. Movement of the dock workers, movement of passengers, movement of cargo. And the noise! From the deck of the liner, Ruth hadn’t truly appreciated it, but as she neared the quayside all she could hear was the yells and cries of the workers as they argued, cajoled or congratulated one another. Sometimes, to judge by the reactions, they contrived to do all three at once. There didn’t seem to be any one person in charge, and yet the piles of cargo were disappearing in various directions and with speed, so Ruth assumed that there was an overseer somewhere. Or else the workers were so practised that they needed to ask no questions and merely attended to the job at hand.
Beside her Gabrielle looked about her with wonder. Most youngsters Gabrielle’s age would have doubtless been terrified of the cacophony and the overwhelming sense of the strange, but she was fascinated and only Ruth’s tight grasp on her hand prevented her from wandering away.
“This way, Ruthans,” William called, waving his free hand in the direction of a large, open shed set back from the quay’s edge.
A glance into it made Ruth decide that this was most likely the customs post, and so it proved. Lettered benches indicated where passengers were to wait for the officials, and William led the way across to the benches marked ‘W’ where fortune appeared to be shining on them: they were the only family due to pass through customs in that section, which mean that their customs inspection began, not when the customs officials were available, but when the last of their trunks arrived, which was only bare moments after the family group.
That, however, was as far as fortune favoured them. The sheer number of boxes, cases and trunks clearly nonplussed the officials who began an apparently heated discussion in their own tongue. When this showed signs of continuing indefinitely, William waded in, using the same tongue, which caused the customs officials more consternation but did have the benefit of provoking them into beginning the inspection.
And such a peculiar inspection it was, Ruth thought. The first few items were laboriously opened, cursorily inspected and then stamped as passed without any comment. Then, almost as if deciding that there was nothing to be gained by actually looking, the next several cases were merely stamped. One of the trunks – the one that Basil had so easily recognised when it had been unloaded – elicited an open demand, which Anne obeyed, but once it was open the official who made the demand merely glanced in, then stamped the trunk and allowed Anne to lock it again.
Then came the moment that the adults of the party had been dreading: the packing case containing Anne’s sewing machine. There had been much discussion prior to the departure from England over this item. William had been for not bringing it, given the likelihood that the Chinese customs agents would give them trouble over it. Anne had been adamant that it come, given that it was a Singer machine and an excellent model and would, very likely, be extremely hard to replace. In the end, it had been packed and William had decided to head off trouble by declaring it.
Ruth now held her breath as the customs agent opened the packing case and peered inside.
“Ah, Singer!” he exclaimed. “Very good machine.”
As he studied it, Ruth felt sure that he was going to pronounce it contraband and confiscate it.
“My wife would like one.” There was a wistful note to his voice as he uttered this remark. Then, to everyone’s surprise, he stamped the case as passed and pronounced, “All cleared. Nothing to pay.”
There was a moment of stunned silence amongst the Watson party. Then William offered a vote of thanks, even as the waiting workers started loading the boxes and trunks onto their hand carts so as their baggage could continue its journey.
The customs agent merely smiled. “Welcome to China.”
And just like that, they were finished and out into the sunshine of a late spring day in Shanghai.