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I couldnít believe my luck. I was stood on the bow of a brand new ship. She was a fifty eight thousand ton giant called the ĎCity Of Durbaní and this was her maiden voyage. She didnít look much like a container vessel, more of a luxury liner with a block of flats situated aft.

My seventeenth birthday had occurred halfway across the Atlantic. After about eight days sailing, the ocean had turned a beautiful bright blue. When the waves broke across her bow they burst up and dispersed falling back into the sea like a million jewels of purest green. As I looked down there were dolphins racing us, bobbing out of the water like something from stingray. With a warm breeze in my hair and the coast of Africa off to starboard I felt truly alive.

The food on board was sumptuous. The menu seemed infinite I had been eating steak for days.

When I woke up the next day we were in dock. I rushed out on deck and could see nothing but cloud and mist everywhere. The bad thing about being a galley boy was that they got you up at 5.30 in the morning. I didnít care; I had prepped my area and was stood on deck staring into the mistsí of Africa. As the cloud rose up like a huge curtain it was well worth the wait, I nearly fell over from shock. Table Top Mountain loomed up like a stupendous sentinel presiding over Cape Town. The sun came out with a vengeance. Africa is a hot place. I had to work the first day but I was dying to get ashore. This was going to be a great trip unlike my last experience where I managed to fall down what seemed like a million stone steps, leading to the docks in Murmansk. I would have been killed if two Russians hadnít kitted me out in the largest fur hat and coat I had ever worn. I cared not if I resembled a large teddy bear. Russia was cold unbelievably cold! While sailing into the Arctic Circle an older seaman had attempted to prepare me with a nautical vernacular.

"If you piss over the side it will freeze before it reaches your knee." Whether he was joking or not I wasnít going to try. I didnít understand anything about the cold war or the Soviet Union but I really liked the Russians they were very kind to me. In this inhospitable climate, and despite the armed soldiers everywhere, there was certain warmth amongst the people.

My African paradise was not all it seemed. When I ventured ashore I discovered a thing called Apartheid and it was in full swing. Being from the wilds of Knottingley I didnít fully understand this. What I did understand were black and white benches for the relevant coloured people. This segregating theme was prevalent throughout the city. When I tried to have a conversation with a black African woman, she looked at me in horror and backed off. The Bosun from our ship laughed and informed me that chatting to the wrong person could end up in a beating or even murder for either party. I couldnít believe that a place so beautiful could feel so ominous.

We visited a place called Valley of a thousand hills. This staggering area of lush vegetation had tall green hills that resembled a vista from another planet. I remembered feeling slightly dizzy in amazement. A Dinosaur would not have looked out of place in this panorama. This was all very different from my home landscape of Knottingley with Greggís tall tower and factory.

In the late sixties with my last days at Church school I can remember being told off for daydreaming I was made to stand with my nose about two inches from the blackboard. I was dying for a pee and the teacher paid no heed to my hand in the air. As I looked down I saw a bucket, half full of dirty water. In my infant mentality I assumed it was obviously for any naughty kid stuck facing the blackboard. This may sound weird but in our house (which had an outside toilet.) we often used chamber pots or a bucket behind the back door, covered with a cloth. You cannot imagine how horrified the teacher was, to catch me urinating in the bucket she used to soak her blackboard cloths in. She attacked me like something from the Exorcist. I just wished sheíd let me button my trousers up, as she was the one who finished up with wet feet.

That night at home, my father was on usual form. He woke us up just after eleven. I heard him shout to my mother, "Whereís my axe?" This wasnít an unusual request, as he would sometimes chop some wood from the derelict house next door. (Yes at almost midnight!) However something in the tone of his voice told me that kindling wasnít on the agenda. From the window at the top of the stairs I watched him walk out onto the land in front of our house and smash a car to pieces. When every area of glass on the vehicle was broken he proceeded to put axe holes in the bonnet and roof. Upon finishing he just walked back into the house dropped the axe and went straight to bed. Within minutes a blue flashing light appeared in Harkers Street. The Police then began asking if anyone had seen anything. Funnily enough no one had.

Sometimes the only other witness to these acts of stupidity was my dog Duke. Not much of a guard dog but very much a friend, Duke was the nicest dog you could ever meet. He was an Alsatian by trade but he was very skinny and his nails were so long he used to slip on the oilcloth. Most of his ribs were visible and his left ear was always flopped down. Heíd never bitten anyone in his life and he looked more like a Disney drawing of an old wolf than a German Shepherd.

I hear a lot of people today looking down on Council houses. When we acquired ours on the Warwick estate it was a revelation. We had a bath with hot running water!, a toilet upstairs and radiators to keep the house wonderfully warm. The house on Sycamore Avenue had a strange odour about the place. I later learned this was the smell of the council fumigation process; the previous tenant had done something horrid there. We didnít care, it was spotless when we moved in. My father decided in his infinite wisdom to enrol me in a Karate club. He had been an army boxer so I would have to learn to look after myself. When I first attended these sessions I hated it. I would trudge down to Kellingley social club, pay fifteen pence and then be forced to do dozens of sit ups, press ups and a vast array of odd fighting techniques which to me seemed ridiculous. However as the months rolled on I felt myself becoming physically stronger. I could run faster and felt very supple and agile. Years later at sea when some idiot attempted to rape me I unleashed a monster my father had beaten in to me. One thing I learned from Martial Arts is how to temper violence and keep it separate from emotional rage. This sobriety makes you a very dangerous opponent.

Karate in 70s Yorkshire was a haphazard affair. Instructors werenít sure about contact or semi-contact in sparring. Sometimes it became a bit messy there were lots of bloody noses and broken bits. Then the Bruce Lee films came out and martial arts became fashionable complete with ridiculous myths. You would hear people say " Donít touch him, he does Kung Fu. One jab and your head will explode." I think my father thought that Karate would Ďtoughen me up.í He was wrong; one Japanese instructor I had taught me about philosophy and writings on Buddhism, Shintoism and the love of nature. The library in Knottingley and the wonderful staff who worked there helped me obtain these books.

When I first showed my father my favourite piece of Samurai poetry. He asked me if I was gay. An anonymous Samurai wrote the poetry in question, in the 14th Century. To a selfish or complacent person to poem might seem insular. But when lonely, frightened or just plain lost the poem begins to make sense, and give you direction.

By reading stuff by the Dalai Lama or Confucius I began to realise my father was a thick psycho. If you think Iím exaggerating. I dare you to read on!

He came home one day from the Wallbottle pub, on the Warwick estate. I was ordered to put Duke (my Alsatian.) on a lead. Dad had a friend with him called Ken, so I assumed he was just showing off. As we walked over the fields toward the sand factory there was a small area of loose soil. My father stuck a spade into it and casually said, "Thatís his grave".  I thought to myself, Oh God, the dog and I are about to get a hiding so he can prove some ridiculous point. After a while we arrived at a secluded area surrounded by trees. Ken produced a washing line and began to tie a knot in it. My father stared at me hard "Give me the dog." I shook my head and began to cry. He smacked me in the mouth and snatched Duke away. Ken stepped forward and placed his hands on my shoulders to turn me away.

My father snarled at him, "What the **ck you doing?"

Ken replied in amazement, "You canít make him watch."

"Boutí time he learned to be a man", Dad retorted.

These two macho men then lynched my dog from an elder tree. Through my sobbing I observed their incompetence as the line stretched and Dukeís hind legs touched the ground. His slow strangulation looked agonising. Ken became very uneasy and spun me away from the horror. I wiped my eyes and turned back (To this day I donít know why.) I saw my father try and decapitate Duke with the spade. A small drop of blood landed on my cheek, it felt horribly warm. Dad raised the spade again as the line snapped. Duke was lying on the floor dreadfully injured. He took another swing and Duke gave out the loudest howl Iíve ever heard. About nine feet to my fathers left three men appeared. All their faces wore the same expression of shock. One of them spoke,

"What on God's earth are you doing?"

My father turned towards them with a blood-covered spade; "You come any nearer Iíll give you some of this."

They slowly backed off. My Father pushed me hard and snarled at me to run. As they legged it I took one last look at my dear friend who lay dying beneath the elder tree. I then ran away feeling unbelievably guilty.

The first part of the samurai poem goes like this.

I have no parents: I make the heaven and earth my parents
I have no home: I make awareness my home
I have no life or death: I make the tides of breathing my life and death

It was dusk when we sailed away from Cape Town and I could just about spot seals bobbing about in the calm ocean. As we headed for Durban I decided, I didnít much like South Africa. Even though Russia had been freezing and we got stuck in the Ice and it was so cold the anchor had fallen off. Bleak looking as it was, appearances can be deceptive.

Mike Edwards
22 October 2003

Also by Mike Edwards

Knottingley Compatriots
Memories of Knottingley - My Knottingley
More Memories of Knottingley - My Knottingley II
Stranger Things Can Happen At Sea
Happy Days
Teachers of the 70's

[Memories Index]

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