Tuesday, 31 January 2017

Extract from Tales from the Sea by Eddie Gubbins.

This is an extract from Tales from the Sea an autobiographical novel by Eddie Gubbins which charts his time at sea in the 1960's.

“ The sun, low down to the east, was shining from a clear blue sky that day,” he said in a quiet voice. “ Hardly a ripple disturbed the water of the bay. To the starboard of the San Fernando, lying at anchor off the small oil terminal on the island, were the golden sands of a beach. In Britain, on a day like this, such a beach would be crowded. That morning it was almost empty. Arcing around the bay, green jungle and forest climbed steeply from the sand towards the ridge of a line of hills.”
“ Directly shoreward from the ship, a jetty pushed incongruously out of the jungle into the clear blue water, the piles holding up the decking, grey and weather beaten. Forming a tee at the end of the jetty was a berth occupied by some brightly coloured but rust streaked fishing boats and three navy patrol vessels. Hanging from a metal structure on the jetty were a couple of black rubber pipes connected to two silver pipelines marching shore wards and disappearing into the jungle. In the distance, half shrouded by trees, the tops of several silver tanks shone dully in the sunshine.”
All this I took in at a glance as I came out of the accommodation dressed in a pair of shorts and flip flops,” he went on. “ In my hand, I carried a mug of
coffee. Standing by the rail, I breathed deeply of the warm, fragrant air. The almost empty golden beach invited me to spend a lazy day lying in the sun and doing nothing. Away towards one end of the beach, a few fishermen were tending their nets by their fishing canoes.
“ This is, I thought, a perfect morning.”
“ It was early and, as I stood looking out over the bay and the island, the ship’s crew were just stirring around me. The bosun, his shorts and tee shirt emphasising his wiry frame and tanned skin, waved as he hurried by on his way to the bridge to get his daily orders from the Chief Officer. The overweight chief steward staggered, with an armful of towels and boxes of soap, towards the mid ships accommodation where I stood. He stopped to wipe his sweaty face with a large white handkerchief, before disappearing through a door. The lookout sailor remarked what a beautiful day as he walked jauntily aft from the focastle to get his breakfast. Just a normal morning with the ship at anchor waiting for the berth to clear before docking and discharging its cargo.”
“ While I slowly drank my coffee, I was gazing out to sea through the mouth of the bay watching the small waves break on the rocks near the headland. Abstrusely, I noticed two black dots approaching low over the water. Then, born on the slight breeze, I heard the faint sound of aircraft engines. Before long, it possible to make out the outlines of two single engined planes. Curiously, I watched as the planes rushed towards the bay wondering what they were looking for. As far as I knew there wasn’t any oil under the sea near this island. Therefore I reasoned, they could not be surveying the seabed. Then they banked steeply left and
climbed over the jungle clad hills ahead of the ship. Very soon, they disappeared from my view.”
“ Having finished my coffee, I was just about to return to my cabin to dress properly for breakfast, when I heard the planes approaching from the landward side of the ship. Inquisitively, I strolled across the deck to the other side of the ship to take a look at what the planes were doing.”
He paused and took a long drink of his beer. “ One behind the other, the two planes were diving down the slope just above the trees and heading straight for the tanker. It was just as I had seen in a dozen war movies as the Japanese planes attacked the American fleet. I wondered idly if they were filming a scene from a movie.”
“ When it was above the beach, the lead plane levelled out and headed straight for the ship across the blue water of the bay. I watched transfixed as a black object detached itself from the underside of the plane. It fell slowly in the direction of the after deck. Suddenly I realised it was going to hit the ship. In a panic, I dived for cover behind the bulwark.”
“ There was an almighty bang and the ship shuddered as though it had run full speed into a very big wave. The stays on the mast and the wireless arial twanged. Diesel oil spattered the accommodation from the geyser which exploded from the damaged deck. Pieces of metal splashed into the sea. Over everything was the sound of hissing as steam escaped from fractured pipes. All over the tanker, alarm bells were ringing and hooters wailing.”
I noticed he was sweating profusely and his hands were shaking such that he gripped his glass tightly “ Nervously, I lifted my head above the bulwark and risked a look. I was in time to see the first plane wheel
away, rushing out to sea and climbing into the cloudless sky with its engine screaming. “
“ Turning back, I saw a black object fall from the second plane. Once more I flung myself for cover behind the oil streaked bulwark There was another ear splitting bang. The shuddering and shaking of the ship was followed by the screaming of fractured steel. The second plane headed out to sea, rushing after the first.”
“ Except for the ringing in my ears, all sound had gone. Then there was the grating of steel plates twisting apart, steam whistling from holes in the pipes and the splash of oil landing back onto the deck. What had happened was so fantastic, it was unbelievable. A tanker innocently anchored in a sun brushed bay being bombed in broad daylight in peacetime. It could not be true but I only had to look around the deck to understood that it had taken place.”
“ Cautiously, I climbed to my feet and looked over the bulwark. Oil was bubbling out of the holes in the deck but no longer shooting skyward. At first, I thought my eyes were playing tricks for it appeared the ship was bending in the middle. Yes, I told myself on closer inspection, the aft end is higher than the centre. The funnel looked as though it was slowly falling towards the main deck such was its angle to the vertical. At the same time, the ship was settling deeper into the water.”
“ Shaking my head to clear the ringing in my ears, I did not have time to think too much about that had happened. Looking up, I spotted Captain Ruddock on the boat deck above my head staring aft at the buckled deck and the funnel bending towards him. His face was white which matched the knuckles of his hands gripping the rail so tightly I thought he was going to snap it away from its anchor points. As though he could not believe
what he was seeing, his eyes were staring in horror at the after deck and his mouth was hanging open. Incongruously, I noticed white shaving foam still clinging to his chin.”
“ Spotting me on the deck below, he demanded in a hoarse voice. ‘ What happened?’”
“ ‘Two planes came over and dropped bombs on us,’ I answered bluntly still too much in shock to be diplomatic.”
“ ‘Whatever for?’ he muttered more to himself than me. ‘ Those bloody rebels, I suppose.’ ”
“ Then pulling his shoulders straight, closing his mouth and wiping the shaving foam on the towel he held in his hand, he was the Captain of the San Fernando again.”
“ ‘ Run up to the bridge and get the Chief Officer to sound boat stations. Remind him to get the radio officer to send out an SOS. After you have done that, meet me in my cabin.’ His order was crisp and firm.”
“ Other crew members were pouring out of the accommodation both amidships and aft calling out in alarm. They were dressed in a variety of clothing, many having that minute risen from their bunks. Alarm bells started sounding the long pulses that told the crew to assemble near the lifeboats. Looking rather confused and scared, the crew started to make their way to the boat decks.”
“ As I raced up to the bridge, Captain Ruddock was already issuing orders to organise the crew. When I arrived breathless in the wheelhouse, I found the Chief Officer and the bosun staring aft and issuing orders over the emergency phone.”
“ ‘ The Old Man orders everybody to muster by the lifeboats,’ I shouted as I rushed through the bridge to the stairs leading to the Captain’s cabin. ‘ He says to
make sure that the radio officer sends out a mayday or SOS.’ ”
“ ‘ Where are you off to?’ the Chief Officer demanded harshly. ‘ I need you here with me.’ ”
“ ‘ I have to help the Captain.’ I replied.”
“ ‘ Make sure the radio officer has sent out an SOS as you pass his office,’ he shouted after me.”
“ Stopping by the radio office, the radio officer assured me that he had sent out an SOS in answer to my question.”
“ Leaving the radio officer waiting for a reply to his SOS, I raced down the stairs to the Captain’s accommodation. Loudly above the sound of the alarms and the noise of creaking metal plates, I knocked on the door of the Captain’s cabin. When bidden to enter, I found Captain Ruddock on his knees, dressed in his uniform and stuffing papers from the ship’s safe into two brief cases.”
“ ‘ Everybody is mustering and getting into the lifeboats, sir,’ I said rather breathlessly. ‘ The radio officer has sent out an SOS and is waiting to see if there are any replies before going to his boat station. He has the emergency radio ready for use in the lifeboat.’ ”
“ Captain Ruddock smiled slightly. ‘ Good work. You are to take one of these brief cases up to the bridge. I will bring the other. Try to make sure it stays with you no matter what happens. It contains copies of all the ships papers and records. I have the originals. Between us we should be able to make sure that these are taken ashore and saved.’ ”
“ Taking the brief case from the Captain, I ran down the stairs to my cabin. On the way my shoulders banged painfully into a bulkhead as the ship took a lurch but I ignored the pain. When I got to my cabin, I quickly dressed in my uniform ignoring the shuddering
and bucking of the ship and the groaning of the plates. I shoved my personal effects, my discharge book, identity book, photos, letters and money into a bag I kept for this purpose. Some of the other cadets during my time at sea had scoffed at my caution but it was vindicated now. Slinging this over my shoulder, I raced back up the stairs to the bridge still clutching the briefcase with copies of the ship’s papers.”
“ On reaching the wheelhouse, panting from running on a heaving and vibrating deck, I saw Captain Ruddock standing on the bridge wing looking aft. By the time I joined him, the water was lapping over the main deck and when I looked forward all I could see was the focastle. Looking back aft, it was as though the engine room and the accommodation in the stern were completely cut off from the amidships. The decks were at crazy angles and the funnel looked as though it might fall into the water. The four lifeboats were now being filled with crew under the supervision of the other officers. Air and oil were bubbling up from the holes in the tanks spreading a black sheen over the waters surrounding the ship.”
“ Out of the corner of my eyes, I looked at the captain not wanting him to feel I was staring. His face was lined and drawn. To me, he had that broken look of somebody who had come to accept defeat. Where they gripped the rail, his hands were shaking. His shoulders slumped as though he had aged considerably in a short time.”
“ Seeing me for the first time since I arrived on the bridge as ordered, he nodded. ‘ You had better get down to your lifeboat.’ ”
“ ‘ What about you?’ I asked even though I knew the answer.”
“ ‘ There is a life raft at the end of the bridge. I intend to stay here until just before the bridge goes under.’ He laughed sadly. ‘ Actually, unless the ship capsizes, I think she will ground before the water reaches the bridge. There was only twenty feet below the keel when we anchored, so when it settles on the bottom, the top of the accommodation should remain above the water. Go on. Go for your lifeboat. I can see the third mate is waiting for you.’ ”
“ ‘ If it is all right with you, I would like to stay.’ I never understood what made me say that but it appeared to help the Captain.”
“ Captain Ruddock put his arm round my shoulder and squeezed. ‘ Thank you. You have to have some sympathy with the ones who ordered this. Up in those hills some men are fighting the central government for some measure of autonomy.’ ”
“ ‘ Why bomb us?’ I was curious.”
“ ‘ They see this ship as a part of the government machine. Again I suppose they are partly right. Some of the oil we are delivering will be used in the army’s trucks and equipment. Therefore, to them, we are helping the government suppress the rebels. In these situations, young man, there are no grey areas. To the rebels, those not helping them are their enemies and fair game for assault. I am afraid we have been caught in the middle. I must say that was some precision bombing from a small plane. The pilots must have been skilled. As far as all the reports to me have indicated, nobody on the ship was really hurt.’ ”
“ He waved the last lifeboat away commanded by the Third Mate. I have to admit as the lifeboat moved away from the ship and deck under our feet bucked and shuddered, I was more frightened than I would ever
admit to anybody. Despite my fear, there was no way in which I could have left this vulnerable man on his own.” “ The Captain and I stood and watched as the
lifeboats pulled away from the sinking ship. Two patrol boats had left the jetty and were racing in our direction. Once again my heart stopped as we felt the grinding of broken plates beneath our feet. At one time, we had to cling to the bridge rail as the ship lurched and heeled over to starboard.”
“ The water was steadily climbing up the structure, level now with the main accommodation deck. There was a groan and a long hiss as though an old lady had lowered herself painfully into a chair. The bridge rocked and swayed. The Captain and I saw the stern twist and then settle. The tanker heeled over to port. With a whoosh, the remaining air bubbled from the superstructure in a rush. Then there was silence. Even the hiss of escaping steam had ceased. With a lurch, the ship was still.”
“ The water was now level with the boat deck and the oil sheen spreading out from the ship into the clear waters of the bay look thick and ugly.”
Captain Ruddock turned to me and said, ‘ Thank you for staying with me.’ ”
“ We walked down the twisted stairs together to the boat deck below the bridge carrying the ships papers, my personal belongings and the Captain's bag. By the time we arrived, a patrol boat was alongside the boat deck waiting. I stepped aboard, helped by the crew. The Captain took one last look round his command and stepped aboard after me, leaving his ship to the mercy of the elements.”

Tales From The Sea by Eddie Gubbins is available from Amazon and www.createspace.com as a paperback. From Kindle and Amazon for downloading as an ebook.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Connections a short story by Eddie Gubbins

Eddie Gubbins
They are pervasive! They are everywhere! They flash! They make money for the government! They are not fair! Nobody likes them! They are an intrusion into everybodies life! They are an echo of  Big Brother from “ Nineteen Eighty four!” They should not be allowed to get away with this!
So thought John as he changed into his black sweater and black trousers. As he pulled on his black jacket, his heart raced at the thought that he was going to stand up to this menace. By his actions this night, he and his friends would take one small step in ridding the world of these things. He did not have words to describe how he felt about their existence, creeping silently without notice along many streets on the edges of towns and cities. They must be eliminated and not allowed to proliferate like some alien species breeding their way to taking over the land.
Before leaving his house to join his friends, John crept into the bedroom where his daughter Lisa lay sleeping. He gently lifted the duvet and made sure she was comfortable. Lovingly, he looked down at at her young, innocent face framed by that shock of blonde curls. He bent down and kissed her forehead. At the door, he turned and took one last look at her face framed in the small night light she always insisted on having beside her bed. She was smiling in her sleep, looking for all the world to John like a little angel in a stain glass window.
Carol, his wife, was sitting by the fire watching the late film on television and drinking her bed time drink when he looked into the sitting room. 
She looked up, smiled. “ I will be in bed when you get back. You will be careful won’t you John?” 
John kissed her cheek and smiled in return. “ I am always careful when on a mission. See you later when I get back.”
John had to admit to himself that Carol knew what he was up to on those nights he left the house late. She never objected, never tried to stop him going out, merely told him, as she did this night, to be careful. Whenever he thought about it, John was never certain whether she approved of what he was doing or not. Deep down he understood that she let him get on with his campaign, avoiding any argument which might upset the domestic harmony and in doing so, effect Lisa. Before leaving his house, John picked up the package he had prepared earlier in the evening, checked the contents and stuffed them into his shoulder bag.
Outside the house, it was dim under the widely spaced street lights lining the road where he lived.  As he came out of his drive, the lights of a car parked further down the road from his house came on. Seeing this, John walked quickly to the car. As he approached, the car door opened and he got into the back, depositing his package onto the back seat. There were two men in the car, both like John wearing dark clothes.
“ A good night for it,” George remarked from the driving seat. “ Terry has the hoods.”
Terry grinned, his teeth white in the dim light. John took the black balaclava from Terry and placed it on the seat next to his bag. Once John was comfortable, George drove off towards the outskirts of the town. Near a cemetery and a park, George found a quiet parking spot, parked the car and sat watching the road. All was quiet. With a grin at the others, he pulled his black balaclava over his head, nodded to Terry and John and got out of the car. Terry and John followed, Terry carrying a folded light ladder, John a shoulder bag.
With George leading, they walked towards the main road, keeping close to the hedge which surrounded the cemetery. As they approached the main road, George held up his hand as a signal for Terry and John to stop. Looking up and down the road, George made certain that nothing was in sight. He shrank further into the shadows when a car came over the brow of the hill to his right and round the sharp bend in the road a hundred yards from where they stood. The car slowed quickly as it came towards the cemetery and passed the yellow box on top of a post near the edge of the road. There was no flash as the car sped away, before slowing at the traffic lights near the junction further down the road to their left.
Once all was quiet, George waved and the three men moved out of the shadows of the hedge and ran across the open space to the post. Terry assembled the ladder while George stood watch. John placed the bag on the pavement and arranged some cans and wires on the tarmac. Giving half of these to Terry, John climbed the ladder. Hurriedly, he placed the wires around the yellow box and attached the cans to the lenses and the cover for the camera film. When this was done, he reached down, took the rest of the stuff from Terry and attached this to the back of the camera. Sliding down the ladder, John lit the fuse as Terry folded the ladder away. George signalled for them to run and they quickly rushed into the shadow of the hedge by the cemetery. There was a wosh and suddenly flames engulfed the yellow box. 
At this, George turned away and hurriedly led them back to the car. As they approached the car, they peeled off their balaclavas and slowed to a walk as though they were three men returning from the pub. By the time they were back in the car, the glow had faded.
They laughed and applauded once back in the car, patting each other on the back. Still laughing, George started the car and drove back towards the main road. When they passed the camera, it was blackened and drooping and obviously not working. They could not help letting out another shout of joy.
“ One less for the money grabbing government to make money out of,” Terry giggled as they sped back to their homes. “ They should trust us motorists to drive safely without all this nineteen eighty four stuff. I know when I am driving too fast and always slow down.”
“ See you in the Royal Oak on Friday, John,” George said as John got out of the car. “ We can talk about which one will be next.”
“ See you Friday,” John replied as he shouldered his bag, waved to Terry and walked the few yards to his house.
All was quiet in the house, the windows dark. In the hall Carol had, as usual, left the light burning. John took off his coat and hung it on it’s peg in the hall before going through to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee and stow away his bag. He sat for a while thinking about their campaign and how successful they had been so far. Though they had never tested his theory, he was convinced that most people supported what he, Terry and George were doing. Sighing, he rinsed his cup, placed it upside down on the draining board and went up the stairs. 
He looked in at Lisa. She lay on her back, her eyes tight shut, her blonde curls framing her face and a beautiful smile on her lips. Crossing the floor silently, John kissed her forehead and closed the door gently as he left her bedroom. Carol was asleep, curled up under the duvet one hand under her cheek, her face looking so peaceful in the light from the landing. John took off his clothes, slid into the bed by her side and kissed her gently on the forehead.
The sun was shining on the park making the grass appear more green than normal. The flowers in the flower beds gave a flash of colour and the ducks on the pond looked up in anticipation everytime anybody walked by. 
The little girl skipped along the path, her blonde curls bouncing on her head and a smile on her face. “ Look Mummy,” she called in an excited voice. “ The ducks want some bread. Did we bring any?”
The woman walking by her side smiled and reached into her bag. “ Here.I didn’t forget. Now you be careful of the water.”
The little girl with the blonde curls and washed out jeans, trotted across the grass to the pond. The ducks, as though they had been waiting for this moment all afternoon, came squawking and pushing across the pond to where the girl was standing. With an excited giggle, the girl slowly broke the slice of bread into pieces and threw them into the water. Her squeals of laughter were almost drowned out by the squawking of the ducks as they fought over the scraps of bread.
“ Come along,” the woman said taking her daughter’s hand. “ We have to get home to cook your daddy’s dinner.”
The girl smiled her angelic smile and skipped along beside her mother. They left the park and turned onto the main road by the cemetery. Getting to a place along the road where there was a traffic island in the centre, they paused to let the girl look right and left and right again just as her mother had taught her. There was nothing in sight. The girl looked curiously at the blackened yellow box drooping on its pole like some tree which had been struck by lightening. She did not say anything to her mother. They started across the road, then there was a roar as a car came up over the brow of the hill turning sharply right passed the camera. There was a squeal of tyres, the car bucked and rocked and then a sickening bang as the car smashed into the little girl and her mother. They did not have a chance. The car was travelling too fast in the knowledge gained from the email grapevine that the camera was inoperable. After hitting the girl and her mother, the car skidded uncontrolled and smashed into a wall by the cemetery. Silence descended, broken only by the blaring sound of the car horn. People came running, cars stopped and the smashed car was soon surrounded by helpers.
John followed the policeman down the long, dimly lit, concrete corridor. Their shadows stalked along the wall at their sides like ghosts accompanying Macbeth as he went to meet the witches. Their footsteps echoed off into dark side passages. John felt numb. He had felt numb inside ever since he had been called into the human resources director’s office that afternoon. A policeman had been standing there by the desk and as gently as possible had told him what had happened. 
At the end of the corridor, the policeman pushed open a door, asking John to wait. John stood by the door hardly hearing the rumble of voices from inside the room. After a while, the door opened and the policeman waved him inside. The room they entered was white tiled with a row of what looked like over big filing cabinets to one side. In the centre were two metal tables with white cloth covered shapes laying a on top.
A man in a white boiler suit smiled faintly at John and motioned him over to one of the tables. Taking hold of the white cloth, he gently drew it back. The blonde curls were now revealed framing a bruised face. The blue eyes were closed. John nodded trying desperately not to sob out loud. The man in the white boiler suit replaced the white sheet. Walking to the other table he lifted the white cloth. Carol lay her face bruised and puffy. John nodded and turned away.
The policeman held open the door to the room and led the way back down the corridor, the footsteps once more tapping their echoes down dimly lit side passages leading to the depth of the hospital. Their shadows accompanied them like the ghosts of John’s past come to heckle him.

“ If those idiots had not damaged that speed camera, the car might have been going slower and might have been able to stop.” The words of the policeman dropped into the lengthening silence of their passage along the corridor.

Monday, 16 January 2017

The Girl in The White Dress extract from Tales from The Sea by Eddie Gubbins

The Girl in the White Dress is one of the short stories out of which my semi auto- biographical novel Tales From The Sea evolved. The novel follows my adventures while I was a ships officer in the British Merchant Marine. In its pages the reader will meet the characters I sailed with, days and nights in port, the weather and over all the sea in all its moods. 
I used to entertain my students when it was obvious that my lectures had become boring with stories of my time at sea. They told me that I ought to get them written down and published.

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 official 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 good day. 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 straight 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 propeller 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.

Novel can be purchased from Amazon and www.createspace.com as a paperback. From Kindle and www.smashwords.com for downloading.

Friday, 13 January 2017

Running After Maria

I came across this short story which was published in ' With Islands in Mind' in 2006. As a short story it was  the basis of my novel ' Running After Maria' published in 2011.

My heart was pounding in my chest as I looked out of my cabin window across the deck of the Otter and the docks beyond. I was excited because I was waiting for Maria to drive to the ship and take me back to her home to tell her parents that we were to get married.
My mind drifted back to that first time I had met Maria. It seemed so long ago now, that night at a party on the Otter. It had not been an auspicious meeting. I had been sitting on the deck in a corridor, slumped with my back against the bulkhead, trying to regain my senses after too much drink. I was feeling as though I was floating a few feet off the deck, free and above the mere mortals attached to the earth who walked by in a blur.
Then somebody had spoken, breaking through the drink induced fog and I was looking into pair of dark brown eyes gazing seriously at me through large glasses. The face was round, with a small nose on which her lenses perched. Even through the fog of the alcohol, I was aware that she had a rather large mouth filled with very white regular teeth that smiled at me from very close. The face was framed in brown hair, neatly cut and not quite reaching her shoulders. She introduced herself as Maria Tourvelinen and told me she had come to the party with my friend Brian’s girlfriend.Somehow, I had pulled myself together enough to dance with her and ask for a date when the ship was next in Helsinki.
The following time the ship had come to Helsinki, we had met, had a meal and been to a concert. After that, we arranged to see each other at every opportunity and started to make love in her flat whenever I was in Helsinki. After a while, I had asked her to marry me but she refused.
It came to a head one day in April, when the snow had melted and the grass was starting to show green in the parks. We were walking through the park near the sea and it was so sudden and unexpectedly that I did not know how to handle myself. Innocently, I had said to her, “ I have this feeling we were meant to stay together and grow even closer. I suppose what I am trying to say is that I think it is

time for us to talk about getting married.”

When I had finished speaking, Maria stopped suddenly. It was as though I had punched her. Roughly, she pulled me over to the rail by the edge of the water. She stood there not looking in my direction but staring out to sea. It was as though she was asking the sea to give her some inspiration, for the words to rise from the waters like a siren and rescue her.

“ Its so hard to explain ,” she had began, her voice trembling. “ If you were a Finn I would most likely say yes to marrying you. I don’t really understand why but there is something which holds me back from saying yes to marrying you.”
“ I am from this land, this is where I belong,” she went on after a pause and I did not reply. “ We Finns have feelings which are rooted deep in the soil of our forests and in the history of our people. For all the hard climate, the isolation from the rest of Europe, the snow and the cold, over the centuries, we have built a way of life. All my friends and my parents live here and I am scared to move away. If I married you, I would have to leave my land and my friends.”
“ Other people have managed,” I had replied harshly.
Now, standing looking out of my cabin window waiting anxiously for Maria to arrive, I distinctly recalled her words. “ Ah, James you are not like all those other people. Don't you ever listen to yourself when you are talking? When we lie together, our passion spent or as we drink coffee in the mornings, you should pay attention to what you are saying. All the other English seamen I have met talk about the here and now and never give any indication that they ever think about the future. To them the whole purpose of living is for their ship to arrive in Helsinki, what they are going to do while they are in port and whom they will meet. I have noticed, even when we are with other people from the ship, you talk about different things than they do, as though the ship is only a place of work and there are other things to do in life. When you describe England in the spring with the soft rains and the budding flowers, the country bars with huge open fire places and pints of beer, your eyes shine with an inner passion. Though you might not realise it openly, I can see that is where your heart is and England is where you will eventually return to settle down once you have had enough of the sea. James, I have lain in bed listening to you talking about the town you come from, about your friends and family and I know that you have roots as deep in that community as I have here. Your bonds to your family are as tight as my own. Our roots go deep into the soil of the places and into the soul of the people from whom we sprang. I am tied to my past and you are to yours.”
“ Maria, that may have been true in the past but events change our outlook on life. If we got married, your family would become my family, your home my home. My attitude to England would change just in the act of marrying you!” I had emphasised each word by almost shaking her.
“ No, It would be like caging an animal which has always been free to roam and cutting it off from it's home. You do not talk about the sea in the same way as the others, as though you are going to spend the rest of your life at sea. Always in the background of what you are saying, I have detected that if the right job came along, you would leave the sea without hesitation. Don't get me wrong, I am not saying you do not like going to sea. All I know is that I am certain that one day you will say to yourself, I have had enough of the sea and then you will find a job ashore and that job will be in England. James at the moment, I don't think I could leave Finland and come to live in England even for you.”
A silence had fallen between us after that. It was not the silence of contentment nor of anger but of bafflement at how this divide could have grown so swiftly. No doubt both of us were thinking about how we could rediscover the excitement of being together which we had had before the question of marriage had arisen.
It came as a shock to me when I realised that Maria had inadvertently opened my eyes to the way I thought about a career at sea. For the first time in my life I began to realise that the sea was not everything to me but only another job. The sea which had dominated my life since as long as I could remember, could this only be a passing phase in my life? I asked myself as the doubts about the foundation of my living began to make all certainty crumble. Would I be able to leave the life I had built for myself at sea if I found another job which did not involve going away from home? Was my character so rooted in England that it was obvious to Maria, while not to me, that I would finally settle down in England? Was Maria right in claiming that it would be impossible for me sail to Helsinki for the rest of my life, that in the end the excitement would fade and I would seek a more stable life style?
After our disagreement,the Otter had sailed to other ports than Helsinki and for a long time I had not seen Maria. All through this forced separation, in her letters, Maria had maintained her stand of not wanting to get married.
When I had finally arrived back in her flat in Helsinki, she had told me before we had made love, “ Your being away for so long has convinced me that I cannot live without you. As far as I can think, this means we will have to get married. I suspect that nothing has changed between us. Our getting married will mean I have to come and live in England at some time in the future. If going to live in England is the only way I can be with you all the time, I will be willing to leave Finland and come with you.”
All I could say was thank you. She had been aware of how I felt towards her for a long time. For me it had been an age to wait silently, hoping each time we met for her to say those words. At the time there was little I could say.
After she arrived on the Otter, we had lunch and it turned into one of those happy occasions which come unanticipated, one which I can even now recall in every detail as though it was only yesterday.
Captain Harris ordered a special meal, even going so far as to break out some of his much cherished wine which he usually kept locked in his locker. He played the gracious host, dressed in his best uniform, presiding over the meal with genial competence. Indeed, he appeared to be genuinely pleased that Maria and I had decided to get married. I had shyly told him of our plans on the way round the Finnish coast from Helsinki to Kotka. As I came off watch, he had called me into his cabin for a gin before we went to bed. His normally serious expression had almost changed to a beaming smile and he had insisted we had one more than our usual ration of gin.
All my friends were sitting around the table. Most had delayed their usual headlong rush to leave the ship and catch the bus for Helsinki in order to meet their girlfriends for the weekend. We sat in the same saloon where I and Maria had first met, surrounded by memories of the party and my first kiss. Above the echo of my friends laughing and drinking through lunch, were the ghosts of other friends who had been at the party that night.
The toasts that lunchtime were for the ship and for Maria who sat in her seat by Captain Harris sparkling and smiling. When the last of the wine had been consumed, all those present insisted on lining up and kissing Maria in turn. As an after thought they all shook my hand and wished me good luck.
When we finally got back to my cabin to fetch my bag, Maria flung her arms round my neck, kissing my lips through the taste of the wine. The warmth of her body and her trembling excitement made my heart beat faster and my body pushed against hers as though I had no control over my behaviour.
“ Let us make love here in your cabin before we drive home,” she had whispered in my ear. “ I have always wanted to make love on board the Otter and in your bunk. You have always come ashore to my flat whenever you are in Helsinki, so I have never had the chance.”
We made love slowly and silently, conscious of the people walking passed the door of my cabin. It was wonderful. Afterwards we lay in each others arms laughing about how we should have done this that first time she had been aboard the Otter.
Then, after a drinking a coffee, we went arm in arm out into the cold, down the gangway and into her car. Even after so much time, I can still see her smiling face as she waved goodbye to Bill who was leaning on the ship’s rail watching us depart and, if I think deeply, experience my sense of happiness and the rightness of what we were about to do.
The light was growing dim as we left the Otter in the middle of the afternoon and Maria had to turn on the car headlights. As we sped through the frozen landscape towards Maria's home, the woods on each side of the road look dark and forbidding. The trees were individually visible close to the road but fading into a dark mass further away. We hardly talked, content to let the dirty snow at the side of the road slip by as the studded car tyres threw little chips of ice into the air. We were still, I suppose, enveloped in the warm relaxing glow of our love making, in many ways outside of time.
Through half closed eyes I recognised the approach to the village where Maria lived, thinking vaguely that it would not be long before we arrived at her parents’ house.
When the car started down the steep slope just before the edge of the village, there was a bang from the front of the car and I sat up in my seat conscious of a sense of fear creeping into the car. Maria was now fighting the wheel, the gears and the brakes. She was staring straight ahead, a vein throbbing in her temple, her mouth a tight, thin line. The skin was pulled tight across her cheeks in an expression of fear and her back was rigid, away from the back of her seat.
The car was gathering speed down the hill and I looked away from Maria and out of the windscreen. A sharp bend was coming towards us too fast. Everything seemed suspended. I stopped breathing, my mind went blank and all my muscles were stiff and unmoving. It was apparent to me even through my fear that the car was not going to get round the bend at the speed it was travelling.
I must have called out something to Maria but she did not answer. A piercing scream seemed to come from outside the car, a scream which told Maria to hold tight. The frozen snow was flashing passed the car, throwing up clouds of spray exactly like a ship in heavy weather. The car was bouncing horribly on it's shock absorbers as it left the road and headed for the trees. There was a loud bang as an object hit the side of the car and pain was shooting through my body as the sound of grating metal filled the air.
Another loud bang, more pain as my body bounced off some metal and I felt I was flying through the air. My leg smashed against something rough and hard and my side was being dragged over what felt like broken glass. Another thump and I came to rest.
Events became completely disoriented then. It was cold and I can remember trying to find out what had happened to Maria. I tried to get to my feet but everywhere there was pain and my legs would not hold me upright. My eyes would not focus and all around it was dark. Somehow I was outside the car, even my fuddled brain could work that out. I was lying in the frozen snow slowly getting colder and colder. The cold did not matter too much because the colder I became, the less the pain throbbed through my body.
Then I was surrounded by people and flashing lights. I tried to ask about Maria but all they did was push me back onto a blanket. They were fiddling with my legs and I confess I screamed with the pain. Then I was inside a vehicle travelling at speed through a village with the people in the green coats still leaning over me wiping my face and holding my hand. The vehicle stopped, the doors were flung open and I was being pushed at great speed along a corridor on a trolley. Doors clanged shut in our wake and more people were leaning over me looking at my legs. I heard a voice as though from a long way off moaning Maria's name and then there was nothing.
It was like floating in a tank of liquid, relaxed and secure. There was no sound and the sense of being detached from anything else was very strong. The light was soft but dappled, dark and bright as though I was laying in water under a tree. There was no time and my body did not exist. It was wonderful.

Then the noise started, a relaxing sort of sound as though I was lying, dozing, on a beach with my eyes closed listening to the waves breaking on the shore. A noise in the background, soothing absorbing, helping me sink back below the surface of consciousness, floating, relaxed and secure. It was only in the mind, not in the body.

Then I was rising above the surface and the soothing sensation of floating was thrust aside by the pain. The colour in my mind was now red. I was surrounded by red but I tried to get back to my floating. It was still all in the mind but I was surrounded by pain.
As I broke the surface of the liquid, the pain started to separate. Soon I could identify different parts of my body by the type of pain. Then I was fully conscious and I wished I had stayed in the liquid. My head had been taken over by a trainee drummer who was practising the same phrase over and over again. My leg hurt with stabbing bursts of pain as though somebody was pushing a knife into the muscle and twisting it savagely. As my heart beat rapidly, I could feel my side and arm throbbing as though somebody was hammering to get out.
I opened my eyes slowly but had difficulty focussing at first. Raising my hand, I rubbed my eyes and was surprised to feel bandages. The general whiteness of my surroundings started to come into focus. Trying to sit up proved difficult, if not impossible. The red curtain descended again as soon as I tried to move. Pain filled my whole world so much I wanted to cry out. Steeling myself against the onset of the pain, I raised my head sufficient to look around and found my leg encased in plaster, raised above the bed on some kind of harness.
Just as I was sinking back onto the bed, sweat beading my brow, a girl in a white uniform and with a cheerful face crossed the room into the direct line of my vision. She went to the door and shouted something I did not understand. Soon, another girl appeared and between them they managed to raise me into some semblance of a comfortable sitting position. I asked her in a very hoarse voice, what had happened to Maria but she only shrugged and made signs that she did not understand what I was saying. It was obvious she did not speak English or so I reasoned. I told myself, I would have to wait until somebody who spoke some English came to see me before I would find out about Maria.
Later a doctor came to examine me but he would only answer question about my condition. With a touch of a smile playing at the corner of his mouth, he told me to lie back and try to relax. I was helpless to do anything else, though I dreamed about walking out of the room. Instead, I lay back and let the nurses deal with my needs. After an injection, the pain stayed in the background and I was able to relax.
A long time passed, or so it seemed to me, when the door to my room opened and Mrs. Tourvelinen was standing there looking at me. My heart missed a beat when I saw her. She was visibly drawn into herself but rigid as though trying to hold herself in control. She looked so much like my Maria, I wanted to cry out. She came a few steps into the room and then hesitated for what, to me lying captive in that bed, seemed like hours. Then she pulled back her shoulders with a mighty effort and walked across the floor to stand by the bed.
Suddenly as though all the courage she had stored up had vanished, she collapsed onto the bed and pulled my face into her breasts. She sat like that, rocking back and forth, stroking my hair like a mother with a son she wants to protect from the evils of the world. I could feel the tightness inside, the cording of her muscles as she fought to control her emotions. She lost the private battle with herself. Tears cascaded down her face and sobs shook her frame.
I knew then what she had come to that hospital room to tell me. It was as though her grief had been transmitted without words. There was no need for her to try to compose herself but she fought for control so that she could tell me what had happened. Stiffening myself against the onset of my grief and anger, I strove to make my face appear as unemotional as possible.
When she was able to start, she was very blunt and brutal. I suppose at the time there was no other way in which she could have braced herself to speak.

“ Maria died in the crash and the funeral was yesterday.” Her face was still wet with tears, the anguish of her expression showing how she was trying to comfort me but finding the right words was proving difficult. “ I hope you will be able to forgive me for not telling you as soon as you regained consciousness but the doctor told me that you must not be stressed too much so soon after coming round. In addition, I wanted to tell you myself what had happened. I could not leave that

painful duty to somebody unknown to you.”

“ The car hit a tree on Maria's side and she was crushed against the door,” she went on, even though it was obvious she wanted to hide the memory from herself but was compelled to tell me what had happened. “ Somehow you were thrown clear of the car because the emergency service people found you lying some distance away jammed between two small trees. The doctors and nurses fought to save her life. They managed to get her back to the hospital but she died the day after she arrived without regaining consciousness. At the same time they were trying to put your leg back together and bring you out of your coma. My husband and I have taken turns to sit by your bed. It has been over a week since you were brought here and when they told me you had regained your senses, I thought it was time to come and tell you what had happened.”

While she was talking, I kept my face impassive but my throat was so tight, I could not say anything. All I could do was sit and stare wide eyed at the wall. My mind tried to grasp what Mrs. Tourvelinen was telling me. I knew her words were important. I tried to reason out what her words foretold about my future but I could not hold onto the words long enough to understand. My stomach felt as though it had been placed in a freezer and been turned into a lump of ice. Cold fluid filled my veins. Numbness was rapidly spreading towards my brain. Echoing through my mind was just one refrain and this was not really a part of me. What am I to say to a mother who has just lost her daughter while I lived through the same crash? What comfort can I bring to this vulnerable woman when I feel so empty and bereft of any reason for living?
After she had finished telling me as much about the crash and what had happened afterwards as she could, we sat in that white painted hospital room in silence. We were lost in our own thoughts but the presence of the other brought a feeling of sharing and a great deal of comfort. She held my hand and after a while, quietly left, whispering goodbye as she went out of the door. I did not move but lay still staring at the wall. The silence stretched into my small world. All alone I sensed the white walls crowding in on me, making me feel I was in some sort of snowy hell.
I cried then, deep sobs wrung from the depths of my very soul. The shaking tore at my body until there was no emotion left and I could lay back. I now had to confront the images from the past that rose up out of my mind to join me as though they were real. The nurses frequently bustled into the room and performed their secret rites before leaving to find their next victim. Through this time, I hardly noticed their passage or the passing of the hours or the days. For a while it was as though I was suspended from the bed, looking down at events as they happened, completely divorced from the person lying there. At other times, I was submerged below the oceans of my emotions trying to swim through an opaque darkness that had no end.
What fools we humans are, I kept telling myself in the few moments when I was conscious and rational. We build in detail our future plans in the certain knowledge that what we plan will come to pass. All the time there is lurking in wait the sudden event that shatters all the certainty from life in a fleeting moment. We are then all left naked before the world. All we humans beaver away like ants to construct relationships, to lay the foundations on which we base our lives. But, I kept asking myself as the time floated by as I lay in that hospital bed, what for? Why do we plan and what is the point of making foundations for our future life? Who in the whole universe can answer me that question honestly? At times when the plans we lay are crumbling before our eyes and there is nothing we can do to save them, the whole exercise of living appears such a huge joke. Something or somebody must get a whole lot of pleasure out of watching the manoeuvring and posturing of these earthly beings as all their plans and hopes turn to dust in their hands. How often does the bad appear to triumph over the good? That is true, I hear myself almost shout. Why do the bad win most of the rewards in life? Why do the bad seem to enjoy life much more than the good? Or have I got the meaning of life all wrong? Am I really looking at the bad and the good? It is a mystery to most of us as to why some people always win and yet others always lose. It does not look as though there is any connection to good or evil. It is a mystery of which most of us are not privileged to glimpse the answer. 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

Tales from the Sea by Eddie Gubbins

Tales From The Sea by Eddie Gubbins

A sample chapter from a semi fictional account of Eddie Gubbins' time as an officer at sea in the 1960's.

Chapter 1
I had been destined for a life at sea for as long as I could remember. In fact, I can recall vividly the first time my family started to take it for granted that I was going to sea when I left school.
It was at one o our family get togethers when I was about six years old. All of my aunties were there sitting in a line in the front room, pulling all their friends and acquaintances to pieces. It was a room which at that time was only used for special occasions or when some so called important visitor came. There was a fireplace with black cast iron surround and coloured tiles with pictures of flowers.
The uncles, my dad and granddad were in the sitting room drinking beer and talking of football and politics. The grandchildren in the conservatory playing with the toys they had brought with them.
We all came together for a buffet supper prepared by my grandmother, the aunties, uncles and eleven grand children. Somebody, I cannot recall who, started to speculate about what would become of all the grandchildren when they grew up and left school.
Suddenly Granddad put his large hand on my shoulder and announced in a voice which brooked no argument. “ Edmund is going to sea when he grows up. He will be the first Captain of a foreign going ship in the family.”
Everybody in the room nodded sagely and I did not protest. I suppose at six years old, I did not fully appreciate the true implication of what was being decided on my behalf. Oh, I had sat at the feet, so to speak, of my grandfather and listened to his stories of when he was at sea on White Star Liners. He had talked
of the people, the ships and the sea. He made it sound so glamorous, mysterious and fascinating that I had been attracted to the sea from that time.
Even at such an early age, I had felt the excitement of being on a ship when my family took the ferry from the Town Quay to Hythe across the river to visit my aunty and uncle. To feel the vibration of the engine through the soles of my shoes and the slow roll of the boat when we passed another moving craft had made me feel as though we were at sea. At those times I could let my imagination run wild.
Then there had been that first summer when my family had taken a holiday on the Isle of White. Once on board the ferry, I had stood looking out over the bow with the wind ruffling my hair mesmerised by the bow wave and the movement. Passing through the docks and on down the Solent, I had watched the ships and imagined where they had come from or were going to and secretly sailed away with them to all those exotic places I had only read about in books or seen in the cinema. When we sailed passed the tankers moored at the Fawley Oil Refinery, they looked large and strange with their hulls so far out of the water. Fascinated, I had watched closely as the ship was manoeuvred alongside the quay and tied up when we arrived in Cowes.
As you can see, this goes to show that I was destined for a life at sea from an early age. It was accepted by my mother and father and the wider family. Others might discuss university or an apprenticeship in the shipyard but there was no doubt in the family's mind that I was going to sea.
This ambition spilled over into my school life. All the top pupils at the grammar school I attended were destined for university after taking A levels. When I informed the headmaster when discussing my future that
I was going to sea in the merchant navy, he was not impressed.
“ You are among our top pupils,” he had said looking at me over the top of his glasses. “ There is no question but our top pupils go to university. The success of failure of the school is measured by the number of pupils who go to Oxbridge first and then other universities second. Nobody from our school goes for a career in the merchant navy.”
Even when I assured him that I was planning to become a Captain, he was not reassured. I could not understand his attitude at the time but came to understand later when I became an academic.
One of the geography teachers at the school was in the Royal Naval Reserve and he set out to convince me that I ought go to Dartmouth and into the Royal Navy. An officer in the Royal Navy was, it sounded, more acceptable than an officer in the merchant navy. Even now I do not understand the thinking behind this assertion.
Periodically, Mr. Jenkins arranged visits to Portsmouth naval dockyard, including staying for a few days on HMS Vanguard. Whenever these trips were arranged, I was included. It was not long before I realised that my parents could not afford the expense of sending me to Dartmouth so I settled down to enjoy the trips but finding out all I could about the merchant navy.
Before sitting my O levels, I had sent an application to become a deck cadet with an oil tanker company and, after attending an interview, I had been offered a cadetship if I passed the required grades. In the September, I would go to pre sea college in Stepney, London and join my first ship in January. My grandfather was more excited than I was when I told him.
“ I told you,” he informed anybody who would listen.” Edmund is going to become the first Captain in the family.”
After finishing school at sixteen, much to the disgust of the headmaster who still harboured the hope that I would relent and go to university, my uncle found me a position as a deck boy on one of the Isle of White ferries for the summer. It was a glorious summer. The sun shone, the ferry sailed back and forth between Southampton and Cowes and I was doing something I enjoyed. It was not much of a ship. A modernised landing craft with some accommodation built on above the engine room and the ramp at the bow. I learnt a great deal about the various things that take place on board a ship. A few times when they were short of crew, I was transferred to the Calshott, a tug tender that met the ocean liners as they approached Cowes. It could carry five hundred passengers but the few times I was on board all we carried were the Dockers going to meet a liner and get the baggage ready for discharge. I did make a little extra money by making them mugs of tea and sandwiches during the trip down the river. Though I did not think about it at the time, it was good grounding in sea life without having to leave home before I actually started my sea career.
In September, I took myself off to pre-sea college. There I shared a room with Andy Brookes, who like me was a cadet for the same tanker company. Andy was about the same height as me but much broader and stronger. I was lucky. We got on well even though I was hard put to maintain my friendship when he played his accordion some nights. The Triumphal march from Aida I seem to remember. After hearing this many times, even now every time I hear that tune brings back memories of pre-sea training. We were thrown into the
ring together during the boxing but maintained our friendship by agreeing not to hit each other too hard. Unfortunately Buster Brown the instructor, a true east end product noticed. Well I suppose we were naive to think that we could get away with it. Andy was put into the ring the next time with the most accomplished fighter and was soon overwhelmed. I was put into the ring with Douglas Moorhouse. I must admit I had taken a dislike to him from our first meeting. He was tall, handsome, always got his own way and always won. It was no match up even though I had spent time training with an amateur boxing club. With his long reach and height it was almost impossible to get to him. He knocked me down as soon as I tried to hit him. I got up and tried again. Ducking and diving, moving sideways and away from his right hand, I managed to hit him a couple of times in the chest. He knocked me down. Andy screamed for me to stay down. I got up. Buster stepped in grinning and stopped Douglas hitting me again.
“ I admire your courage young man,” Buster told me. “ In life you have to learn when the odds are too great. Then you have to retreat and work out some other way of defeating your opponent.”
Douglas grinned and held out his hand once the gloves were off. I shook it in return and grinned back. Deep down I vowed to make sure I beat him at something while we were in college. I was learning lessons that I hoped would help me when I was at sea.
The college had a small motor yacht that was used to sail down the Thames and back from Wapping Dock. It was painted white with a yellow funnel. There was a tall mast and a sail. It was provided to give the students experience of running an actual ship at sea.
There was a small professional crew but the idea was that most of the tasks were carried out by the students.
The students set off on their training voyage early one morning after we had been at the college for a few weeks. We had learnt the rudiments of seamanship and navigational chart work. Most of us were eager to put some of this theory into practice.
For me, the voyage did not start too well. Captain Duncan, the teacher in charge, was a tall imposing figure though with that hangdog look of somebody who wondered how they had got themselves into this situation. I suppose looking after twenty sixteen year olds on a yacht is no pleasure. When he came aboard, he demanded to know who it was leaning on the rail with his hands in his pockets. Of course that was me. All the teachers at the college called themselves Captain. The students had suspicions that not many of them had actually been the Captain of a ship before leaving the sea to become teachers. In the three months that we were in the college, not one of us had the courage to question whether this was true or not. Not that it made any difference to me at the time. On board the yacht, Captain Duncan was in charge.
In a stern voice, he said. “ One of your jobs will be to clean out the latrines twice a day.”
The other students laughed but they made sure they were presentable from then on. I suppose that was what Captain Duncan was trying to achieve. If it had not been me, he would have found somebody else. I did what I have always done when this happens to me. Sink into my shell, don’t show any emotion and get on with the job. It was a horrible job but I stuck at it.
On the third day as we started to return to Wapping, Captain Duncan found me cleaning the latrines as ordered.
“ Get cleaned up and report to the bridge,” he commanded me.
When I came up the ladder onto the bridge, he smiled at me for the first time. “ You have done well and accepted your punishment without histrionics. I want you to take over the wheel and we will start you on the path to your steering certificate.”
The seaman stood by my side and offered advice but after a while let me continue on my own. It was wonderful. Concentrating on keeping the ship on a straight course whether by following the compass heading or points on land. I was in my element. The familiar landmarks on the banks of the river passed on either side and ships sailed by destined for places round the world.
Captain Duncan smiled again after watching me for a while. “ You have done this before.”
“ Yes Sir,” I answered with a grin. “ I was a deck boy on the Isle of White ferries while waiting for my O level results. Because I was going to sea, they taught me how to steer when the ship was in Southampton Water. I even took a turn when, in an emergency, I was seconded to the tug called Calshott.”
“ I remember the Calshott,” he said ordering a different heading as we passed Gravesend. “ Steam driven tug tender. I used to see her when docking aboard the Southern Cross.”
When we were approaching Tower Bridge, the sailor took over the wheel for the docking in Saint Katherine's dock. With an effort, I tried not to show my disappointment at not being allowed to take the yacht into the berth. Deep down I was pleased with my time on the wheel.
I passed out of the college as the second highest student. Andy congratulated me but I was disappointed
not to be top, especially as Douglas Moorhouse had been the best student. He was one of those infuriating people who were good at everything and knew it. His arrogance got under the skin of most of the other students but I learnt a valuable lesson from that experience. It was more important when in a situation where one could not get away from those one worked with to find an accommodation and a way of so called rubbing along.
When we left college, Andy and I had to report to the head office of the tanker company. The Marine Superintendent went over our reports and assigned us to our first ships. Andy to the Fernando, me to the Fortunato. After three months sharing a room, we said goodbye on the steps of the office but hoped we would meet some time.
In the first week of January after a pleasant Christmas with my family, I found myself on a train bound for Heysham. It was the first time I had ever been north of London and the country and accents were strange to me. A taxi took me from the station to the berth and I got a good look at my first ship as we approached along the quay.
To me she was huge but later I came to understand that she was really of medium size for a tanker in the late nineteen fifties. The accommodation was amidships, three levels including the bridge. Running the whole length of the tanker was a catwalk raised about ten feet above the deck. The funnel was rather squat and above the aft accommodation. It was painted with two narrow yellow rings separated by a larger white ring. On this was the eagle, black with drooping wings. The smoke cowl was black. Two tall masts rose above the deck one aft of the accommodation the other forward. The hull was black with a yellow
stripe and the structures in yellow. This was my first ship.
Once on board, the chief officer allocated a cabin to me, the middle one of four small cabins designed for the cadets and situated on the starboard side of the amidships structure. My porthole looked out on the walkway leading between the after deck and the fore deck. When I had stowed my gear in my lockers, John Reid, one of the other cadets introduced himself. He had been sent by the chief officer to showed me round the ship and explain what was going on. I was soon in a daze at all the technical language and unfamiliar sights. It was one thing to learn about life on board ship, cargo loading and ship routines in college but quite different when presented with these in practice. I found I was one of four cadets sailing on the ship and that we had a number of routine tasks to carry out. Over dinner in the saloon that evening, I was introduced to the other cadets at the table where we would take all our meals. As dinner was served by stewards, I was glad that at college they had taught us how to act when being served with a meal.
That night was even worse. I had to keep watch from midnight with the second mate as the cargo discharge continued. Not only had I to keep myself awake at times when I was usually asleep but I found the physical labour hard. It involved turning valves to switch discharge tanks, climbing up and down the almost vertical ladder into the pump room and going to the kitchen to make mugs of coffee for the second mate. And all the time, I was trying to learn this technical language and the jargon of sea life. When dawn was breaking, I had breakfast with the second mate and fell into my bunk, asleep before my head had hit the pillow as the saying goes.
The next afternoon I met many of the crew and soon realised that these were the people with whom I had to, not only work, but also live with for the next few months. It was soon obvious to me that it was very important for me to establish a way of dealing with these people which did not take away my own individuality but which would be flexible enough to avoid conflict. It is usually enough for somebody to rein in their feelings when working in an office during the day because at night they can walk away from the job and choose whether to meet their other office colleagues for recreation later in the evening or not. I know a great number of people work and play with the same set of people especially when the out of work hours life of an organisation revolves around the social club but it is the choice an individual in those circumstances is free to make. Nobody is going to force such a person to mix only with working colleagues, though colleagues and bosses may put pressure on somebody to take part in some of the activities of the company. It is, at the end of the day, up to the person what they do with their non- working time. At sea things are different. Not only must you find a way of keeping stable relationships during working time, you are shut up with the same people for the rest of the time as well. Tolerance of the different attitudes to life, tolerance of other peoples point of view and a quickness in forgetting past wrongs are called for aboard ship. The most successful seamen soon learn how to practice restraint.
Late on the second day on board the Fernando, I experienced that special feeling which comes to all seamen. It is amazing to the lands man but quite suddenly on board a ship in port there comes a time when all activity ceases. The cargo has been discharged or loaded. In our case the tanks battened down and the
pipelines lifted ashore. The berth workers collect up their gear and walk down the gangway talking about their next job or the weekend at home. All attention is on the office ashore where all the various pieces of paper are being assembled. For a short while the ship will lie quietly waiting, the diesel generator a muted noise in the background, waiting as though gathering strength in the same way as a sprinter waiting for the gun before the explosive action.
It does not matter for how long a time a sailor has been sailing the oceans of the world, how jaded the sailor’s senses have become to the child like excitement of viewing the world as full of wonder, there is a certain expectant thrill running through a ship and it's crew just before the ship leaves port. It does not matter whether the crewmember is young or old, whether the ship is large or small, the expectancy, the thrill and excitement is felt by everybody on board. It even transmits itself to the shore people even though they experience the same thrill several times a week, it is still there. One can see it the faces of those connected with the ship and feel it in the vibration under the feet of those who walk the decks. At this time more than any other it is possible to believe that the ship itself is alive, waking from a long slumber in port and ready for the adventure and challenge of the sea. The pulsation grows as the engine is tested, sailors walk the deck in a purposeful fashion, ready to get this complex system of man and machine into motion. It feels as though the sea itself is calling, beckoning out there beyond the dock.
The mistress of the ship and the crew is waiting. She waits beyond the dock and there is no real knowledge of what her reaction will be when they go out to meet her. She may greet them in a calm, balmy mood and like a gentle lover entwine them in her arms,
leaving them refreshed and happy when they part. It could be that she is angry with unmatched violence which beats upon the senses and leaves the lovers drained and exhausted, ready to rush apart, concentrating on finding peace and quiet rather than wallowing in the feeling of complete satisfaction. Like all lovers, the sea and the sailor never quite know what moods will greet them at the times of their meeting or how the mood can change very quickly as the time passes. This is the excitement of the sea and, every time a ship leaves port, the sailor approaches love with a mixture of exhilaration and apprehension. Will they together make beautiful love under a clear blue sky or will they fight? It is not for the sailor to subdue the sea but to live with her moods in the hope that he can survive.
The sea is calling always calling even when the sailor has long left voyaging behind. The sea calls over the noise of this sometimes dreadful life. To sail away but to where? That is what adds to the thrill. Let the voyage be long or short, let the love making be calm or fierce, in the urge to sail away lies man's eternal quest for something new. Why oh why does man always strive after the new when accepting the present would save a lot of heartache? It has long been a mystery to me but, more than in any other profession, the sea seems to offer a greater chance to satisfy this need. The sailor never arrives because each new port is a stepping stone to the next and on to the next until the nomadic lifestyle grows too much. It maybe that the sailor observes other people settling into a pattern of life which brings rewards from such things as family and home, anchored to other aspects of living rather than constantly on the move. So the sailor leaves the sea and puts down roots or does he? The sound of a seagull screaming over an inland rubbish
tip, the wind moaning around the roof of his house or the sound of waves lapping on the shore will awaken in the hidden recesses of his mind the longing to feel the excitement once more as the ship goes silent, ready to leave for the sea.
We sailed in the evening from Heysham out into the Irish Sea. As soon as we were clear of the coast the chief officer arranged for the tanks to be cleaned. The crew were split into gangs and I was assigned to the first gang. How I survived that first night I still can’t believe. The work was dirty and hard, pulling pipes across the deck and lowering them into tanks. Timing the height for each wash and then lowering them further into the tank. All the time the ship rolled to me violently and water washed across the deck. By the time my watch ended, I was wet, cold and exhausted. John helped me undress and have a shower before I collapsed into bed.
“ It will get easier,” he assured me with grin as he dried his rather thin body with a towel. “ At least you didn’t throw up all over the deck. I did the first time I sailed and had to do tank cleaning.”
He was right. It did get easier and I was soon involved in the routine of the ship. The bane of all cadets’ existence, I found out, was Saturday morning. It was our job to clean the brass on the bridge under the watchful eye of the third mate. I was surprised at the amount of brass needing cleaning. Somehow, Captain Morris always managed to find his way onto the bridge just as we were finishing. For some reason, he always found a bit that we had missed. As senior cadet, Malcolm always went onto the focastle to clean the ships bell and the brass plates on the winches. I took note of this. By keeping out of the way, he always missed the ire of the Captain.
Captain Morris was a stickler for procedure. On Sundays, he did his rounds of inspection through the ship seriously. It was a ritual. Unless the ship was clean he would get the cleaning redone to his satisfaction. We cadets had to stand by our bunks until he had inspected our cabins. Afterwards, Mister Marsh, the chief officer invited us to his cabin for a beer with the other deck and engineering officers who were not on duty. In that way, he felt the cadets would be part of the officers’ circle. It was important because most of the time we were neither officers nor crew but some undefined position in between.
We crossed the Bay of Biscay with an almost flat calm sea and the winter sun shining. Nothing like I had anticipated or dreaded. The stories I had heard while in college about the terrible weather and the gigantic waves, the warnings that it could be hell were unfounded. Most of the seamen ignored it but I was on the bridge when we passed the white bulk of Gibraltar and entered the Mediterranean Sea.
We hardly saw any land as we sailed east towards Port Said. Then there were ships converging from the west and we picked up the pilot just off the Suez Canal. The pilot took us to an anchorage in a line of tankers and we waited. Boats suddenly appeared and men were shouting their wares for the crew to purchase. Wafting on the breeze was the unfamiliar smell of Egypt a mixture of rotting vegetation, unclean drains and sweaty bodies.
The bosun organised the cadets to rig the spotlight on the bow. I was curious and Andy explained that this was used to light the bank of the canal as we transited during the night. One of the crew had to be stationed by the spotlight to position it on orders from the bridge.
We lay at anchor for most of the day, peaceful but hot and sweaty except for the persistent bum boats as they were called. Then suddenly there was a great deal of activity. The pilot arrived with his bags and everybody was looking towards the Canal entrance. Then they came in a line astern. First a couple of ocean liners, their passengers lining the rail to look at all the waiting anchored ships. Then cargo boats of every description and colour. Their funnel colours and badges told the informed which company and the flag at their stern the country. Then the oil tankers. One was another company ship and we dipped our flag in response as she passed.
“ Captain Marshall,” John informed me as we stood by the rail and watched. “ I sailed with him on my last ship.”
“ What happens now?” I asked naively.
“ When the north bound convoy is clear, the south bound convoy will form and enter the canal. I expect we will anchor in the lakes half way through the canal to let another north bound convoy pass.”
The last ship of the north bound convoy cleared the canal and ships started to weigh anchor in a predetermined order. They sailed away from us into the canal as the sun was setting in the west. As one larger tanker passed our position, the order was given for the anchor to be weighed. Once under way, we followed the tanker ahead into the canal. It was getting dark as the sand banks and dunes beside the canal engulfed our ship. The spotlight was turned on and the banks lit up. That is all we could see. A round patch of moving sand with the stern lights of the ship ahead and steaming lights of the ship behind.
The next morning I awoke to find the Fortune anchored in what looked like a large lake. All the ships
of the south bound convoy were there. It was not long before the north bound convoy passed. I stood by the rail and watched in wonder. A couple of Royal Navy ships leading, their weaponry covered in canvass. Some ocean liners with the passengers standing looking at all the ships anchored in the lake as they passed waving occasionally. Then came the cargo liners of some of the companies listed in my book of ships funnels and company flags. I had seen some of these in Southampton before leaving to go to sea but most were only studied in books. Then last came the oil tankers and I had to rush aft ready to dip our flag to any of the company’s ships. Before long the last of the north bound convoy passed and we were weighing anchor and sailing south through sand banks leaving the green oasis of the lakes behind.
It was hot in the Red Sea. Hotter than I had ever felt. With no air conditioning, even in the shade of the cabin it was hot. It took a few days and then I started to get used to the heat.
We turned into the Persian Gulf through the Straits of Hormous joining the line of tankers sailing towards the loading ports. Coming the other way, another line of tankers lower in the water making for Europe or the Far East. The heat beat down and the decks were too hot to walk on bare feet. The Chief Officer made me keep my shirt and a hat on for most of the day fearing that I would get sun burnt. The Second Mate dished out sun tan cream for our faces and salt tablets to take with water, something I had never seen before. The sea was flat calm stretching ahead like the floor of a cathedral. The only breeze came from the forward movement of the ship.
In the middle of nowhere a pilot joined the ship and we sailed into Mina Al-Hamadi. There was nothing
there like normal habitation. A jetty jutted out from the sandy shore to join the longest berth I had ever seen. Tankers were tied one astern of the other for as far as the eye could see. Some were high out of the water indicating they had just started to load, while others were almost down to their marks ready to leave. The pilot guided us parallel to the berth until we could see a vacant spot beside a gantry with rubber pipes hanging free. We tied up here between a Danish tanker and Japanese one. It was not long before the ballast was pumped out and we started loading. The oil poured into the tanks and we shut each tank down as it filled. Lastly we filled a central tank and ordered the shore to stop. Papers were exchanged, we blew the whistle and we were off. I had not set foot on foreign soil.
We reversed the trip and sailed for Eastham Docks on the Mersey at the entrance to the Manchester Ship Canal. In fact we sailed this trip for the next seven months and during that time I did not set foot in any overseas countries. Mina Al-Hamadi was the closest I got but, apart from walking along the jetty to the recreation club, there was no going ashore. It appeared to me that the authorities were quite willing to sell us their oil but they were not confident enough to let us mix with their people in case we contaminated them with western ideas. Maybe in my case it was a good thing. There is no question that I would have disputed the way they lived and their general philosophy. They did let us hold a Christian service in the clubroom by the jetty operational control building. It was inspiring actually to say the Lords Prayer accompanied by thirty other men talking in ten different languages.
On the forth trip I did get a glimpse of the dangers associated with sailing on oil tankers. Until then I had not thought too deeply about risks involved in floating
on top of eighteen thousand tons of crude oil. To me it was a joy to be at sea. To see the stars in the sky at night far more clearly than on land. To stand on the bridge and watch the sun come up out of a calm sea. To feel the motion of the ship and the thrill of moving through the sea. These were the things that dominated my life. Well in my case going to foreign exotic places had not happened. I was stuck on the same worn track just like a train running along the same rails between the same stations. I could still sense the excitement in the crew and listened to the stories of the exotic places they had all travelled to. I assured myself that it would come in the future.
I happened to be on the bridge one day as we came out of the Red Sea into the Indian Ocean when there was a flurry of activity. The radio officer came out and talked to the second mate. The second mate called the Captain and he soon appeared on the bridge. I could not stop myself listening.
“ The Radio officer has picked up a faint SOS. He thinks it is an automatic one like those from the lifeboats. He reckons by the DF it is on our course. Obviously he has no idea how far away it is,”
“ Get him to inform the authorities. Set a course to intercept if we can.”
The radio officer appeared again. “ I have a communication from a British war ship. I gave her our position and they confirm that the source is about thirty miles from us. Could we go and investigate? They have given me the position of the ship in trouble and a bearing.”
He placed a piece of paper on the chart table. The second mate was soon plotting positions and bearings on the chart when the Captain spotted me on the bridge wing.
He smiled. “ Don’t just stand there. Take those binoculars and keep a look out.”
I stood staring at the horizon through the binoculars. The Captain watched the radar trace while the second mate navigated the ship.
Suddenly the captain exclaimed, “ There is an echo two points on the port bow at about twenty miles.”
We stood in a line looking in that direction. Then I saw it. A small smudge on the horizon and told the Captain. A sailor appeared and the steering was put on manual. The smudge got bigger and was now definitely a ship even to the naked eye. We sailed closer and closer and the ship now took on features. From this distance it looked intact, bow into the wind and swell. Then I realised something was missing.
Like most smaller tankers of that time, the bridge was over the officer accommodation amidships. As we approached it became apparent that this was missing. All I could do was stare. The crew were lining the ships rails but all were silent. In place of the accommodation structure was some twisted girders and a hole in the deck. All the structure was missing.
On the deck above the aft accommodation, some sailors waved as we approached. The captain ordered the motor lifeboat to be made ready. Turning the Fortunato into the wind and slowing parallel to the other tanker, the Captain got as close to the other ship as he dared. When this was done the chief officer and the third mate sailed our motorboat across to the tanker with some medical supplies and to find out what had happened.
It appears they were cleaning the tanks when there was an explosion which ripped away all of the accommodation. It had happened in the early hours of the morning and all the officers were asleep except the
second mate on the bridge and the engineers aft. The second mate had been blown off the bridge and into the sea. They had rescued him in the lifeboat. He was injured but helping the bosun tend the ship. All the other officers had been killed.
The crew had rigged up a system so that they could steer the ship from the steering engine and had managed to turn the ship into the wind. The generator was going so they had power.
We stood by the disabled ship for the rest of the day. That evening as the sun was going down a British warship arrived and took charge. Captain Morris was not really amused by the way the warship officers appeared to arrogantly assume that we would hand over to them but we had commercial considerations to take into account. Unlike the Royal Navy whose sole purpose at that time was to spend taxpayers’ money, our purpose was to carry cargoes for payment so that our company could survive. We dipped our flag in reply to their farewell and set course for the Persian Gulf and Mina Al-Hamadi once again.
I did get to stand on foreign soil before I left the Fortunato. The ship was sent to Rotterdam on the last voyage and I was sent on leave. I did not see much of this country because those crew returning to the UK were taken by taxi to the railway station and then to the ferry for Harwich. Still, I could truthfully say I had been abroad.
And so my first voyage ended without visiting any of the exotic places I had dreamed about all those years while I was waiting to join my first ship. I had listened in awe to the tales of my Grandfather of foreign shores, of storms and of sun kissed days when the sea was flat calm. I had been through storms, lent on the rail at night looking at the stars in a cloudless sky but not

visited any exotic places. Kuwait was abroad but we had not been allowed ashore. The nearest I had come to the country of Kuwait was the clubhouse in the centre of the long jetty. I went home wondering what I was going to tell my Grandfather about the places I had visited and the sights I had seen. He had been anticipating tales of the sea when I came on leave.

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