1 CHAPTER ONE (All at sea).
It was with excited anticipation that the apprentice joined his first ship.
He said goodbye to his father at the dock gates not wanting his new colleagues to think him in need of support.
Unknown to him, it would be last time he ever saw his father.
Everything was new to him including the uniform he was wearing and the contents of his second hand kit bag. Finances didn’t permit so they had arrived at Rotherhithe Docks in London on the top deck of a number 141 bus.
He approached the Dock gates, stopping occasionally to put down his burden for a brief respite and while resting, was able to look around the busy docks where ships of all kinds were loading and unloading their different cargoes. He was completely taken in by all the activity and wondered what his first ship would be like. The gateman had given him directions and although he was not unfriendly, he came across as somewhat remote and pre-occupied.
Although the apprentice had been to a Nautical School since the age of eleven, he had little idea of what to expect in spite of passing GCE exams in navigation and seamanship as well as several other topics. His school had taught all the usual subjects but seemed lax in equipping leavers with the knowledge of practical matters relating to the theories that they had learnt. In their defence, it’s fair to say that different shipping companies, who employed the school leavers, had different agendas for their cadets and apprentices, which varied from cheap labour to uniformed petty officers or something in between.
Unfortunately, his excitement was soon to be tempered when he discovered that he was in the former category. Although at sixteen, adventure of any kind is still exciting, particularly if you are unaware of any of the other options.
He thought he was sure to recognise the funnel markings of the shipping company he was about to join and armed with the directions that the gateman had given him, he continued his search for the ship.
Murders were very rare in London in the fifties so he had been shocked to read in the evening newspaper the night before he was due to join, that there had been a murder on board the ship that was to become his home and first place of work.
It was with a certain amount of trepidation that having found his ship he climbed the gangplank, mindful of the murder and being somewhat apprehensive about what to expect.
At the top of the gangplank an Indian man met him with a casual salute and said,
‘Welcome aboard sahib.’
As well as murders being rare at that time, so were dark people and he had hardly seen any before and never spoken to one.
‘‘Thank you,” he replied, “I am the new apprentice. Where do I go?”
“To see the Chief Officer, sahib. I cannot leave my post, but if you enter the accommodation through the starboard door, his cabin is at the top of the stairs to the right.”
The watchman scribbled something in a notebook and said,
“Leave your bags Sir, I’ll send them up.”
He followed the instructions, eventually ending up outside of a door with a sign that read – Chief Officer.
He knocked and a deep accented voice said, “Enter.”
He pushed open the door.
‘You must be the new apprentice,’ the Chief Officer said, rising from his chair with an out stretched arm. ‘My name is Peterson.
Mr. Peterson or Sir to you. Anyone of a higher rank than you is always addressed by the term Mister, followed by his surname or alternately as Sir, or by his rank. Got it?’
‘Good. Come along with me and I’ll introduce you to the other apprentices. John McDonald is the senior and you should do whatever he tells you to.’
He followed the Chief Officer out onto the boat deck and down the steps to the main deck. They headed forward to the hatch in front of the accommodation block.
A fixed ladder led down to the tween decks and another ladder disappeared through an aperture encircled by bolts that would eventually be used to secure the steel lid. A short while after Peterson had called down, a fair-haired youth in his late teens appeared from below. The first thing the new apprentice noticed was the absence of uniform. The second thing was the cheeky grin and the third thing was the grime.
Peterson made the introductions and instructed the senior apprentice to settle the newcomer in.
‘As it’s a bit late in the day,’ he said, ‘he can unpack ready to start work at seven in the morning.’
‘Aye, aye Sir.’ McDonald responded, but the Chief Officer had already headed back the way they came.
John McDonald called down to someone below that he would be gone for ten minutes.
He then offered his hand saying,
‘That’s ‘Scouse’ the other apprentice. We’re cleaning and securing the deep – tanks.’
McDonald having proffered his pack to his fellow apprentice lit a cigarette and deeply inhaled.
‘I don’t smoke.’ The newcomer responded, ‘and by the way my name is John.’
‘Touché, so is mine. You’d better just call me Mac. Most people do anyway.’
‘The Chief Officer said to call those above me Mister or Sir,’ John said. Mac gave one of his winning smiles,
“We’re all apprentices so that doesn’t count and neither does it with any one else except the deck Officers and perhaps the Chief and second engineer.’
They made their way back to the accommodation but this time they used the stairs at the rear end that led up to the port side of the boat deck.
A watertight door containing a fixed porthole provided entry into the corridor after they had stepped over a nine-inch threshold designed to keep the water out.
McDonald, as senior apprentice, had a cabin to himself overlooking the boat deck and another porthole on the outer bulkhead overlooked the sea. Next to his cabin was the double cabin for the junior apprentices. Although it was small it was perfectly adequate and sharing was not a problem as the new apprentice had shared his bedroom at home with two elder brothers.
The cabin had two wooden bunks, one on top of the other, two lots of drawers, a double, wardrobe, a chair and a desk that turned into a washbasin when the top was lifted. Natural light was restricted to a single porthole that looked out onto a lifeboat hanging from davits.
Ablutions were shared and in a separate shower room together with two W.C’s. just along the corridor.
Pointing with his cigarette, MacDonald stood in the doorway and said,
‘Tom sleeps in the bottom bunk so yours will be on the top. I’ll leave you to unpack and see you around five thirty. You game to go for a beer after dinner?’
‘Urr, I don’t drink either but will be pleased to come. What shall I wear?’
Before he left, the senior apprentice told John to stay in his uniform for dinner and change after into something casual like jeans and a sweater.
John unpacked and stowed away his gear in the spaces left by his roommate. He climbed the short wooden ladder to test his bunk that, apart from creaking a bit, was surprisingly comfortable. Though he didn’t know it at the time, it was to be his bed for over half a year and it would serve him while he travelled completely around the world.
Shortly after five thirty the two other lads arrived and introductions were made to the person he would be sharing his room with and working alongside for the rest of the voyage. Luckily, immediately they met they felt comfortable with one and other even though ‘Scouse’ had a strange accent.
The other two went off to shower and John, the new apprentice, made a cursory exploration of the other public accommodation.
It didn’t take long as the only two rooms that were not private, were the dining saloon and the officers lounge where he was to spend many an evening either reading or playing cards.
He returned to his cabin to find that the other two apprentices had decided to skip dinner and head for the shore. Naturally he was invited.
“ Love to. Hadn’t we better let them know?”
“Not necessary.” The senior apprentice said, “How much money have you got?”
The new apprentice quickly changed into something more suitable and the three of them headed for the shore.
Their first stop was a pub’ called ‘The Bricklayers Arms’ where they ordered two pints and a coke for John who was paying. The Twenty Pound note his father had given to him for ‘rainy days,’ was already starting to diminish.
As they sat near the dartboard, John took a pull on his coke and asked of nobody in particular,
“Did you see anything of the Murder?”
MacDonald, who had sailed on the ship on its last trip, seemed pleased to have been asked. He entered into an account of what had happened with a certain amount of relish.
“ The Chief Steward, called a ‘Butler,’ on our ships was approached by one of the cooks who complained that the food was inadequate. Anyway, the Butler apparently told him if he wanted anything else he could eat his ‘p…k.’ Sometime later when the Butler was asleep, the cook castrated him and stuffed the separated parts into his mouth. Bloke bled to death and wasn’t found until too late next morning. The police were all over the place, when we docked. They took the cook away.”
The new apprentice was dumbstruck and the second apprentice, who had no doubt heard the story many times before, added,
“ You see the Butler has an allowance of so much a day for each person from the shipping company. There is a legal limit. If the Butler can save on the allowance, he keeps the rest.” He drank deeply from his tankard and added, “ These Indian people don’t have the same standards as us and are all religious fanatics who don’t just rear up when a problem occurs but will sneak along in the dead of the night and think nothing of stabbing the person who has upset them, even if it’s only a mild misunderstanding.”
This information was quite alarming to the sixteen year old who had been rather sheltered until then, but he was determined to learn so asked another question,
“I thought the articles we signed said something about…not frequenting alehouses or houses of ill repute…doesn’t that mean pubs?’
Mac explained that the articles were old fashioned and drafted in the eighteenth century so it didn’t really apply. Alehouses no longer existed and neither did houses of ill repute. He omitted to mention to the newcomer, that today’s favourite haunts of sailors of all nationalities were the modern equivalent known as BB’s. Not bed and breakfast but bars and brothels.
Someone selected a disc on the ‘Juke Box’, a new innovation to England in the 50’s being a legacy of the Americans. Paul Anchor’s ‘I’m just a lonely boy’, resonated around the bar causing John a moment of depression and nostalgia which fortunately, soon passed. A pool table, another American introduction, attracted the sailors. The two elder apprentices were first to play with John taking on the winner. The wager was half a crown that wouldn’t have been unreasonable had John played before but as Mac said, “ you have to pay to learn.” John hoped this wouldn’t apply to everything!
As the night wore on, John’s ‘fail-safe’ got smaller and smaller, but needing to be included he didn’t complain. In fact he was unaccustomed to alcohol and the half pint that followed his coke had the effect of making him quite gregarious, especially on an empty stomach. Although it was a bit out of character, he soon found himself chatting to strangers and even young ladies, a thing he had never done before. Of course he was eventually to realise that ‘Ladies’ wasn’t quite the appropriate word for the young women, especially when they discovered the extent of his now depleted funds.
When they returned to the ship a little after midnight all that remained of his fathers’ last gift was a five-pound note and a few coins.
At some time during the night they had sailed. John awoke with the first hangover in his life and in sailor’s parlance had a ‘Technicolour yawn.’
His cabin mate was nowhere to be seen though his wristwatch indicated that it was only six thirty a.m. He knew from the evening before that they were bound for Hull to unload the last of the cargo and take on some stores and were due to remain for about a day.
The door opened and his colleague returned, draped only in a wet towel, obviously having just taken a shower.
‘Good morning mate, how are you feeling?” enquired his roommate.
‘Touch fragile,” replied John.
“You’ll feel better when you’ve showered. You’d better hurry up though; we turn to at seven sharp. By the way, we seldom wear uniform. Just working gear – jeans and a jumper, will be good.”
Visions of wandering around the ship’s bridge in full uniform, faded as reality took their place.
A routine had begun that would hardly vary for the months to come, apart from when they were in port.
It consisted of starting deck work at seven. Breakfast at eight thirty until nine and working throughout the day until six in the evening. Apart from lunch between one and two, there were only two other breaks. These were for a quarter of an hour each and called ‘Smokoe”, when they would take tea and tabnabs, a euphemism for toast or some kind of rock cake.
The new apprentice was to learn many new words apart from bad language and although some were nautical expressions, most of it had a connection to the lascar crew.
He soon learnt that a bosun was called a ‘serang, a storekeeper ‘cassab’, an ordinary seaman a ‘collassie’ and so on. Then there was jargon where an electrician was ‘Sparks’ and a carpenter was a ‘Chippy’.
Hull turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax being a provincial City with much of the center being constructed pre World War Two. They were only in port for one day to discharge the balance of their timber cargo and to complete loading the hardware stores.
The junior apprentice was allocated the task of checking the stores on board against the requested list and was particularly looking out for compliance of both quality and quantity. It was not an onerous task, except that many of the items were new to him, such as tallow and tepol, so being a diligent person he had to take great care in cross referencing with the ships original order.
He wondered what ten bags of cement was for and found that several had been torn, spilling some of the contents. He knew not to directly question the crewmen who were engaged in the loading so he decided to take it up with the Indian bosun who could speak reasonable English.
The next minute he was spun round with a long slim knife at his throat and the ‘Serang’ was gesturing excitedly causing a spray of spittle to fill the air.
The Chinese carpenter brought the conflict to an end by disarming t Serang and escorting the two protagonists to the Chief Officer’s cabin.
The Chief Officer remained seated but swiveled his chair so it was facing the three men standing side by side in front of him.
Addressing the Serang he said,
“ What have you got to say?”
The Serang was hardly in control and blurted out in a mixture of Hindu and English that he had been woefully insulted. The new apprentice had called him a ‘B…. rd’.
“That’s totally untrue Sir,” the apprentice exclaimed. “All I said was …. Serang who busted the cement bags?”
The Chinaman stifled a grin as the Chief Officer directed him and the apprentice to wait outside in the passageway.
A little later the Serang sheepishly appeared and avoiding the apprentice said to the Chinaman, “Both go in.”
The Chief Officer patiently explained what had apparently occurred. He said it would take some time to adjust to cultural differences but in the meantime asked the ‘Chinese Chippy’ to take the ship’s youngest recruit under his wing.
“What will we do about the cement Sir?” asked the petulant apprentice.
“Tell him Chippy,” said the Officer.
“Sign for it damaged and keep the peace,” responded the carpenter.
The first lesson in democracy had been learned.
The carpenter took the apprentice to his workshop in the tween decks below the galley. It looked a comfortable workplace and at one end was a desk with two chairs arranged around it. Photographs of Chinese people were secured to the bulkhead.
The workshop was kept clean and tidy and contained several racks of different sizes and grades of wood. A large pile of marine plywood was stacked in one corner and bags containing sawdust had been made ready for any oil spillages. One bulkhead had been completely taken up with pigeonholes containing a variety of nails, screws and nuts and bolts of various lengths and gauges.
He invited the apprentice to sit down and made a pot of tea using his own electric kettle. A tray containing two mugs, spoons and a jar of sugar, sat on a shelf above a small recessed refrigerator containing the milk. They both sat drinking tea while the carpenter lit a cigarette and appraised the young apprentice with the way of life aboard ships such as the one they were on. The Carpenter opened his desk drawer and took out a package, which he gave to his new charge.
‘You’ll find this very handy to keep with you for all kinds of things like undoing shackles, and splicing etcetera.”
It was a leather sheath containing a sailor’s sharp spike and a double-edged knife.
The Chinese answer to democracy was perhaps not so subtle.
TO BE CONTINUED……..