( A short story from my series tales from the sea)
I was sailing on the San Wifrido as a cadet around the Caribbean and down the South American coast. It was a well organised ship and the Captain insisted that each cadet was attached to one of the ship’s deck officers. This way we would learn what was required of a ship’s officer. My officer was the second mate. I followed him round the ship and sometimes ashore while he was working. Helping him in his jobs and running errands when ordered. Over time during the voyage we had become more than colleagues but good friends.
The ship had berthed in one of those South American ports bordering the Caribbean sea to load crude oil. As seemed often the case it was the middle of the night. After securing the hip, the second mate and I had watched from the catwalk as guards were posted, one on deck the other at the foot of the gangway. I asked the second mate why in this tin pot dictatorship they needed to post guards. He shrugged.
“ What are they looking for?” I asked as our bags were searched as we went ashore to deliver papers to the agent.
“ Subversive material,” he muttered while smiling at the guard.
When we took over the loading of the cargo from the Chief Officer, it was mid morning. The water ballast had been pumped ashore and the crude oil was now flowing into the ships tanks.
As we opened and closed valves to start loading into one of the tanks, the sun was beating down on the black painted deck. Heat haze rose causing the structures to shimmer and waver. The only shade was under the catwalk which joined the amidships and aft accommodation. This was high above the deck to give safe passage when the deck was battered by waves. Joining the that haze was the cloud of gas from the open vent through which we measured the oil depth in the tank.
By the amidships accommodation, a guard in his green uniform, gun slung over his shoulder, lounged against the rail watching our efforts. Ashore, another guard sat on a bench by the foot of the gangway chatting loudly to a refinery worker.
I measured the oil depth and reported this to the second mate.
He grinned. “ Another forty minutes until we have to change tanks. I’m off to the cargo office to enter the figures in the book.”
“ And get a mug of coffee,” I muttered.
“ I heard that,” he laughed. “Privileges of yer officer class my boy. I’ll bring one back......”
He never finished what he was saying, Like a statue he was fixed to the spot. his eyes bulging from his head. I turned in the direction in which he was looking and froze.
The guard had straightened and was pulling out of his pocket what looked like a large cigar. Calmly, he unpacked it from its silver case throwing the case into the sea.
We stood rooted to the spot, unable to move. Both of us were silently willing him to put it back into his pocket but, after rolling it between his fingers, he raised it to his lips.
After that it was all as though it was in slow motion. The lifting of the arm to place the cigar in his mouth. The reaching into a pocket and extracting a lighter. The hand going round the lighter thumb on the striker. The cupping of the hands against the breeze.
His thumb moved and the lighter sparked. Flame leapt from the wick. His head lowered until the end of the cigar disappeared into his cupped hands. He straightened and the end of the cigar glowed red.
The second mate had ducked under the cat walk and I quickly joined him, hunching down behind one of the pillars.
I took a quick look.
The guard was standing looking straight down the deck through the gas cloud pulling contentedly on his cigar. All I could see was the glowing red end. It appeared to get bigger and bigger.
“ You’ll have to order him to put it out,” I told the second mate trying to sound calm.
“ Not me after what happened to Joe the last time we were here.” The second mate sank further into the shadows under the cat walk. “ All he did was let the national flag touch the deck when he was lowering it one night. The guard shot at him and arrested him. He spent two weeks in jail before the company could get him out.”
I stepped out of the shadows and took a measurement of the oil. About half filling the tank.
A sound made me turn sharply and I once more froze to the spot. In measured steps, his gun slung jauntily across his back, the guard was walking along the catwalk towards the stern contentedly puffing on his cigar. Screaming at me from behind his back in big letters on the accommodation bulkhead NO SMOKING in three languages.
I stood rigid and glued to the spot. The measuring tape dangled unnoticed in my hand. Clouds of gas drifted upwards over the catwalk from the tank opening. The smell of oil filled my nostrils. My stomach was filled with ice.
Clank, clank. Measured footsteps along the metal grating over my head. The red tip of the cigar big and round, bright even in the sunlight. As though out for a Sunday stroll round the village square, the guard passed overhead, leaving a trail of smoke in his wake. My eyes followed his progress but my feet were fixed to the spot. I wondered how much I would feel when the ship exploded.
The guard walked out of the gas cloud and continued until he reached the end of the cat walk. Turning towards the port side, he strolled under the NO SMOKING signs, took one last puff on his cigar and threw the butt over the side of the ship.
Looking in my direction, he grinned. “ Very good cigar. Come from Cuba.”