by Sheila Connolly
In June of 1958, my grandmother set sail for England on the Queen Mary. She worked for Lipton Tea then, and she was escorting the collection of tea-related silver on a grand tour of Europe, that lasted six weeks. I still have the postcards she sent to me and my sister at each stop. It was kind of a last hurrah for her, because she retired from the company later that year. But she went out in style!
Last month I attended the Bouchercon Conference in Long Beach, California, where a couple of thousand mystery authors, publishers, agents and fans gathered to talk about killing people, er, books. It was wonderful—stimulating and exhausting all at once.
It was a long way to go for a short event. I almost decided not to bother, but then I remembered that the Queen Mary is (permanently) docked in Long Beach, and I wanted to see it. So I booked a stateroom on the ship for one night (never thought I’d say that!) before the conference started.
I deliberately didn’t do any research on the ship, because I wanted to see it with fresh eyes—and see if my grandmother’s ghost lingered. I really wasn’t prepared for the experience: it was like stepping back in time. I could believe that I was seeing it through my grandmother’s eyes.
I understand that the City of Long Beach owns
it, and they’ve done the best job of doing nothing that I’ve seen in a long time. That is, they didn’t modernize or pretty up much of anything. All the woodwork, the fixtures, the accessories are intact. No plastic, no cheesy replacements. Much of the ship looks the way it looked when it was a luxury way to travel.
At the same time it’s weirdly empty. Maybe mid-November is not a peak tourist season, but in the 24 hours I spent going to and fro from my stateroom (I love to say that!), I met only a handful of people in the hallways. Which were surprisingly narrow: if you happened to run into Bob Hope or Fred Astaire or even the Duke and Dutchess of Wiindsor on the way to the bar, you’d have to be careful not to bump into each other. Yes, they were all passengers, once upon a time, as were many other notables.
I’ve visited a lot of monuments in my life—cathedrals, palaces, private homes of famous people. Never have I felt as though I’d been transported to another world. I found myself taking pictures of the plumbing fixtures and the doorknobs, because they were all original.
As writers were are always making up things in our heads—people, places, objects. But it’s unsettling to find yourself in the middle of a setting that is not modern. No, I didn’t meet my grandmother strolling in the long and empty hallways, but I could well imagine her hanging her clothes in the narrow closets, writing a note on the pull-out desk-top, or admiring the view from the substantial portholes (which still open—I checked). I could picture her seated in a deck-chair on the promenade desk, watching the waves and the gulls, and ringing for a steward to bring her a nice cup of tea.