Friday, 8 November 2013

The girl in the white dress


A short story which was incorporated into my semi-autobiographical novel Tales From The Sea.
The girl in the white dress


The San Fortunato arrived in Balak Papan, Borneo, late one evening as the big red ball of the sun was setting into the dark green of the jungle. As soon as the ship docked, the agent boarded and informed the Chief Officer that the cargo would not be ready to load for two days. 
The next morning while sitting my cabin entering safety information in the oficial log, the phone rang.
“ Good morning Third Mate,” It was the Captain sounding amused and unusually cheerful. “ Mr. Bolton, the Managing Director of Eastern Operations, is visiting the ship for lunch. He will be accompanied by his aide and his daughter. She has requested to be shown round the ship. As you are the youngest officer, you will be the ideal man for that job.”
“ Do I have to?” I asked. “ She will be impossible. Educated at some private boarding school. We will have nothing in common. Why not ask the second mate?  He mixes with people like her all the time.”
The Captain laughed. “ This is an order, Third Mate, not a request. I have asked the chief officer to look after the ship while you are entertaining Mr. Bolton's daughter. Try not to upset her with too much of your social comment!”
As I put the phone down, I had a mental picture of the Captain chuckling to himself about how I would be uncomfortable showing this teenager round the ship. I sighed, anticipating the morning was not going to be much fun for me.
Later,  a sailor opened my cabin door after knocking loudly.  “ Third Mate. There are couple of official looking cars approaching the ship along the jetty.  I think it would be a good idea if you were on deck to greet whoever is in those cars when they arrive.”
Standing at the top of the gangway a few minutes later, I watched curiously as two Mercedes cars approached the ship. They stopped at the bottom of the gangway. Three white shirted, dark trousered  Indonesian men got out of the second car and adjusted their sun glasses. They spread out along the jetty facing away from the ship and the cars. Like the bosun who was standing by my side, I laughed out loud. It was straight out of one of those B gangster movie. 
Once the bodyguards were in place, the doors of the lead black car opened and a man got out. He was tall with slicked back grey hair and glasses, dressed in an immaculately cut tropical suit and shiny shoes. As soon as he alighted from of the car, he placed a panama hat on his head. Trailing him, a younger man carrying a brief case and dressed in a short sleeved white shirt and white trousers. Finally, a girl followed. 
From where I stood she looked about fourteen and my heart sank. Her brown hair glistened in the sunlight and like her father, she donned a hat as soon as she was out of the car. She wore a short white dress and white sandals. This was the girl I was going to have to show round the ship.
Mr. Bolton ignored the duty seaman and climbed onto the gangway unaided. The girl and the man with the briefcase followed. When they reached the deck where I was standing, Mr. Bolton nodded to me.
“ Show me the way to the Captain's cabin, Third Mate,” he ordered without so much as a goodday. His accent was clipped. 
The girl looked at me with large brown eyes. Close up, she was pretty with a good figure and was older than the fourteen I had first estimated. Her expression was that adopted by the local Lady of the Manor for one of the local peasants she happened to meet. The next few hours were not going to be pleasant, I concluded
“ This way, Sir,” I answered indicating the ladder leading to the accommodation deck. As he followed me, he was looking round the ship as though checking that all was in order. The girl looked sraight ahead. The man with the briefcase trailed in their wake mopping his forehead with a white handkerchief.
After showing them to the Captain's cabin, I returned to the deck and walked round the ship. As everything was in order, I returned to my cabin and the safety log. I had not been there for long when the phone rang.
“ Come to my cabin and collect Mr. Bolton's daughter, Third mate.” It was the Captain and he still sounded amused. 
I grunted into the phone but dutifully climb the ladder to his cabin. Deep within myself I was cursing the Captain. How was I going to show this apparently bored, spoiled girl around the ship without saying something out of place or upsetting her? I imagined the rest of the crew laughing behind my back at their egalitarian Third Mate looking after a girl from a very privileged background.
Mr. Bolton smiled when I entered the Captain's cabin. “ Lydia is ready to be shown round the ship. I will leave her in your capable hands.”
Lydia climbed to her feet, smoothed down her white, short dress and placed her sun glasses on her small nose. She was almost as tall as me.
I led the way out onto the boat deck and waited for her. The sun was high in the sky and the jungle looked particularly green across the river from the berth. Heat haze distorted the trees and the boats drifting with the current further down the river.
“ Well Miss Bolton,” I said smiling,” What would you like to see?”
She looked at me, though I could not read her expression with her eyes hidden by dark glasses.
“ If we are to spend the next hour in each others company, you had better call me Lydia,” she said without a flicker of emotion.
“ Eddie,” I replied.
She shrugged. “ Daddy said you would show me all over the ship.  Lead on McDuff.”
Taking her instructions literally, I led on. Viciously ignoring her white dress and sandals, I started with the engine room. Well not exactly ignored the white dress but took a certain pleasure in the thought that she might learn what dirt was all about. She listened politely as the engineer told her about the boilers and the turbines. Followed me down to the propellor shaft and the steering engine room. Going back up on deck I climbed the ladder behind her. The dress was so short I had a good view of her sturdy legs and floral panties. Stop these lewd thoughts, I seemed to hear my mother saying.
Then to the galley to glimpse lunch being prepared and the dining room. Down the corridor to the games room. I followed this by walking along the deck to the focastle, the anchors and the chain locker. What amazed me was that despite my best efforts, when we emerged back on deck again, she appeared as clean as when we started.
Finally I led her onto the bridge. We lent over the chart table looking at the charts of the area. Rapidly I showed her the wheel and the magnetic compass on the top deck. Lastly we went to the radio office and the sparks explained the wireless system. 
We stood on the bridge wing looking over the deck when we had finished. “ Would you like to come to my cabin for a drink before you go back to your father?” I asked tentatively.
For the first time that morning, she smiled. “ That would be nice. What can you offer?”
“ I have beer, fruit juice, coke or gin.”
“ A beer would be fine.”
She looked curiously round my small cabin when I showed her inside and sat her down in the chair. After I had served the beer, we talked about ourselves. I found out that she had lived a sheltered, rarified life compared to mine. It sounded great but there were drawbacks. Her father and mother had moved around the world on company orders. Lydia had been deposited in various boarding schools for most of her life. Then in the holidays, if she could not join her parents, she would stay with relations. I started to feel sorry for her.
“ I take my A levels next year,” she remarked which told me she must be seventeen. “ If I get good grades I will be off to Oxford. I already have the promise of a college place.”
“ What will you study?” I asked being polite.
“ Ancient history.” She smiled. “ There is no need to to pretend interest. Daddy cannot order you to listen to me or take an interest I what I am doing.”
“ I was enjoying hearing about your life,” I remarked truthfully.“ We have to get you back to the Captain's cabin so that you can go to lunch.”
“ Thank you for showing me round,” she said politely.
Over lunch, Mr. Bolton invited me to spend the afternoon with his daughter  at the club in the compound. To my horror, the Captain concurred.
That afternoon, I rode to the company accommodation compound through the oil refinery in the car sent for me. Laid out like a village were bungalows of differing sizes surrounded by manicured lawns and flower beds. At the centre was the club house with bar, shops and a gym. Across the road from this was a nine hole golf course. A bit apart from the other buildings was the large, sprawling bungalow of the Boltons.
The car dropped me outside and the driver told me to phone the car pool when I needed a lift back to the ship. I stood at the edge of the lawn for a while looking round and then walked along the path to the bungalow. A maid met me at the door and took me around the back where Lydia was waiting. She smiled in welcome. Pulled round her body was a wrap.
“ Come on,” she said taking my hand. “ We must get to the pool.”
The pool was large surrounded by tiled terraces with sun loungers. Lydia chose a spot and waved to the other people sitting or lying on other sun beds. She pointed to a changing room back from the sun terrace and I quickly changed into my swimming trunks. When I rejoined Lydia,  there were towels on the sun bed. A white coated waiter stood waiting, a tray in his hand.
“ I have ordered my drink. What do you drink?'
“ Bacardi and coke.” I said quickly reaching for my wallet.
Lydia laughed. “ You don't have to pay. Everything goes on my father's account. In fact every member of the club pays for their guests because there is no cash used on the compound.”
It turned out to be a wonderful afternoon. Though Lydia had at first appeared superior and stuck up, by the pool we were like any young people enjoying each other's company. As we talked and swam, I came to realise that Lydia must be lonely unless other expatriates brought out their teenagers to stay. Also, when coming aboard the ship, she must have been nervous. Why she could have been apprehensive, I could not imagine. Her up bringing must have taught her to handle such situations. That afternoon, I suppose she grasped the opportunity to talk and be with somebody close to her own age.
I was invited to stay for dinner at the bungalow of the Bolton's that evening after our swim. 
After dinner, Lydia and I went for a walk around the garden. It was very pleasant with the insects chirping in the shrubs, a soft breeze  and stars twinkling in the sky. To my surprise Lydia took me to a summer house at the bottom of the garden and we made love on a bench illuminated by the moon. A perfect way to end our day, Lydia remarked, as we walked back to the house.
As the ship sailed, I was surprised to see Lydia waving goodbye from the river bank. There had been no promises of long lasting friendship or undying love. Just a pleasant day spent in each other's company.