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STRANGER THINGS CAN HAPPEN AT SEA


MIKE EDWARDS


Captain Lancaster looked every bit the gentleman officer. Apart from his size, (which was well over one fathom,) his elegant nature and refined speech couldn’t help but command respect. The burly man from Liverpool who stood before him was having none of that. He had a wry smirk on his face. The Captain addressed him in a tone that sounded like an officer from the film ‘Zulu’;

"This is the third time you have been caught brawling aboard my ship?"

The Scouser didn’t answer. The Captains voice then took on a steely edge,

"I can log you or you can come out on deck with me. You decide?"

The smirk fell from the deckies face. I could tell from everyone else’s expression they had never heard a conversation like this. The Deckie looked the Captain up and down, and then smiled, "I’d rather go out on deck."

The skipper shook his head then stood up and gently pointed an open hand towards the storm door.

Once on deck most of the crew were stood around in such a hush it could have been a prayer meeting. The first mate looked very nervous and the deck cadet looked so anxious he was about to cry. The Captain turned towards him, "My jacket?"

Whilst the garment was halfway down his arms, and with his upper body turned towards the Mate, The deckie pounced. He lunged forward and smashed two well-rehearsed punches into the Captain’s head. The Deckie jumped back expecting the Captain (like most of his victims) to fall.  He didn’t.

The Skipper squared up and continued in his beautiful accent, "If that’s the best you can do old chap, your in big trouble."

The Captains refinement ended at that point as he turned from Hugh Grant into Mike Tyson. A few minutes later there was an unconscious Scouser laid on the deck. None of my friends or the older sailors had ever seen an episode quite like that before. Then again they do say, stranger things can happen at sea.

Seafaring life is a strange thing. It is totally unlike normal society. When I first set out from Knottingley in 1977 people would say to me "Everyone at sea is gay, and when you go to sea you’ll become gay too." Of course these statements are ridiculous, not just in their ignorance but their prejudice too. There were a lot of gay people at sea, but they only made up about five percent. Plus they weren’t at sea because they were gay; they were there because they were different.

Another forty five percent were different too; they could range from junkies, alcoholics, anyone running away from something horrid, or your plain common or garden nutcase. The last thing you had to worry about at sea was if someone was gay. The other fifty percent are people who just wanted a career at sea, and quite a few of those were weird. The travel prospects were incredible. As merchant seamen you could visit anywhere regardless of political or social barriers. Whether it was Albania, Russia or halfway up the Amazon, if a country needed goods a merchant vessel could take them. One thing I am sure of from my time at sea is that travel does broaden the mind. This is nothing to do with the distance you cover. I think it is the outlook on what you are seeing.

On one ship, as boy sailors, the deck boy and I were often baby sat by some of the gay stewards. This was very safe for us as the skipper knew that we would be kept away from the dreadful brothels and bars that ‘some’ of the seamen frequented. Later when we saw the various types of appalling rashes and bleeding you could catch in these places, we realized we did need looking after. As a heterosexual male virgin, I fully intended to save myself for Debbie Harry. A platinum haired goddess who was the lead singer in a pop band called ‘Blondie’ I can’t speak for the deck boy, I think he shacked up with a bricklayer from Essex.

The deckies were good to us too. On the one occasion they had to take us, we were left in the foyer of a brothel for about twenty minutes. It was such a strange place all red velvet and plush carpets and a warm perfumed smell kept wafting through the marble corridors. Our curiosity was soon ended when a fat lady appeared and took us down the street and into a wonderful colonial type building. We were left on a balcony over looking a piazza. She gave us Food and wonderful drinks made with ice cream. There we sat for hours watching various people practicing the tango, snogging, or doing what most South American people do - fight.

On one of our trips to the Gulf we had waited 2 days for a convoy to mount up. Apparently only so many ships can travel through the Suez Canal at the same time. When we finally got under way I tried to stay awake for as long as possible to view as much of the landscape as I could cram into my memory. I got told off several times for neglecting my work, but it was well worth it. The views were incredible, gently swaying palm trees and beautiful aromatic breezes rising up over the sand. There is one point in the Suez where it is so narrow that the ship looks like it is sailing through the desert. I can remember it was just before dusk and I was propped on a chair up against the gunwale. I was struggling to keep awake when two horsemen appeared on the bank. They looked like something from a movie; dressed from head to foot in black with rifles across their backs. You couldn’t see their faces only their eyes. One of them waved to me before they galloped off. This was Real ‘Laurence of Arabia’ stuff. Next we sailed by a small town. It looked like there had been some type of war, lots of the buildings had shell and bullet holes and there were children playing in an old burnt out tank. Before I dropped off the last thing I saw was a large triangular monument erected in memory of soldiers during some horrid war.

The strange combination of different demographic types aboard each ship made life interesting. On most trips we would call into Sweden, usually Gothenburg. Whenever we did a jovial middle-aged man would appear. He was known as Porno Pete and would sell various 8mm cine films or wonderfully disgusting magazines you couldn’t buy in England. One bunch of sailors even bought a rubber blow-up doll. I couldn’t see the attraction myself; she looked more like a self-defence dummy than a woman. I think you would have to be very drunk to fancy her; she was a cross between Betty Davis in ‘Baby Jane’ and a half eaten Labrador. This terrifying doll scared me half to death on many occasion I could usually find her stood in the corner of the laundry awaiting her next victim. She travelled with us to many a port but came to a nasty end when an amorous steward accidentally burst her with a cigarette. Some Idiot then threw her over the side. Bad Idea, as it caused a Russian ship to stop, assuming it was a swollen corpse in the ocean.

For many years I often thought I hated Knottingley, I felt I’d been running away from it. Staring out over infinite oceans is quite therapeutic I realised I loved Knottingley, it was my father I feared. Upon returning home on leave I found my mother had received one black eye too many and left him. She now had a flat on what was left of Aire Street. I did see him once stood behind G.T. Smiths in an alcoholic stupor. I just walked by thinking he hadn’t noticed. He grabbed me and looked straight into my eyes. There was a dreadful sorrow in his gaze and his face was face full of broken commandments; "Never… ever ignore me Michael. I do love you but I…I just can’t…seem…"

I just walked away. I was with a friend called Gary Slater who was also from a broken home so he assessed the situation quicker than my confusion would allow.

"Are you alright Mike?" said Gary

"Yeah", I replied. His sensitivity touched me. We didn’t speak any more as I felt quite ill.

Whilst on leave in Knottingley I discovered something wonderful. She was tall with long legs. This slender woman with stunning hair the colour of corn had big eyes deep enough to swim through and high ‘Geena Davis’ cheekbones. She had the soft skin bursting with a glow that scientists call estrogen. The sunlight seemed to dance and kiss her every curve. Wasn’t just me to say it, but she was truly beautiful. As we walked down the Bendles in the rain, she kissed me underneath that concrete shelter thing. My legs nearly gave way in ecstasy. I thought I was going to fall in the cut. I have no Idea what she looks like nowadays, but in the glory of her youth in the late 1970s, she was much loved by the God’s who give out looks. I’m afraid to say Debbie Harry was relegated to the back burner. That was my second kiss, (the first one didn’t count as it was a fat girl up Warwick who blew a raspberry into my mouth.) Like most relationships when too young it was short but extremely passionate. I was far too young and insecure to appreciate such a stunning nubile but I spent many a time at sea thinking of her.

Mike Edwards
22 October 2003

[Memories Index]


Also by Mike Edwards

Knottingley Compatriots
Memories of Knottingley - My Knottingley
More Memories of Knottingley
Happy Days
Teachers of the 70's
Africans and Communists

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