The Struggle against Adversity
Working on the Ferries
Bills, bills, bills. £80 in debt and three quid in the bank. I can no longer wait for God to provide and must do something about it myself; so I apply for a stewardess’s job, pulling out all the stops; that I speak fluent French and German, that I’m a State Registered Nurse, Midwife and Sister-Tutor, though naturally omitting the fact that I am also a war-disabled pensioner fit only for sedentary work. I refuse to sell my sports car which to me would be treachery equal to sending one’s pets for vivisection.
To my great relief I receive a letter for an interview. It is my fate to be saved at the eleventh hour by some hideous, heavy, unsuitable job for which I am paid less and work harder than anyone else. At least this one would be well-paid and I’d get my ghastly insurance card stamped. As a matter of fact I’m so worried about money that I can’t wait to get ‘signed on’ and certainly want no hitch like a medical examination (one look at my twisted, crunched up body and they’d promptly send me home in an ambulance). So - “Any serious illnesses?” “No.” I am only truthful about my age because they could check up on it. I later discover that they actually prefer ‘mature’ women as they’re less troublesome concerning sex.
At last a paid-up member of the Seamen’s Union, I sign the ship’s articles with orders to report at 10 o’clock that night on the train ferry. I go straight to bed, curtains drawn, door locked, take a red sleeping bomb and turn up in good time on the quay with my duffle bag on my shoulder to wait for the old tub with mixed feelings; scared I couldn’t cope, dully resigned to my fate and yet strangely excited by a sense of adventure. The gangway crashes down and up we troop, the relief crew. Two tough stewardesses are waiting with their hats and coats on ready to leave ship, but I worry them so much with my anxious questions: “How shall I find my way round?” and “What do I have to do?” and “Am I on my own, then?” that they become uncertain about leaving me alone. At this moment the regular stewardess appears, welcome as a winter’s sun.
To me the next few hours are chaotic. The passengers charge on and have to be shown to their sleeping berths, first class, second class and steerage under the railway lines; the rest sleep in the gangways. A booked berth is occupied when it should be vacant; two travellers each have a ticket for the same bunk; a large party of schoolgirls has taken over the wrong lounge; an old lady of 120 has been given a high top bunk while a child of twelve has the bottom one and three very grand women have second class tickets having booked first. But Jean, the stewardess, is quite unflappable and coolly sorts out the pandemonium. To my great relief she says that we’d better work together rather than separate to first and second class – I could lose my way in a bed-sit let alone this nightmare labyrinth. I follow her like an obsessive dog as we pick our way along the gangways over the sprawling hairy teenagers, guitars and knapsacks on our round of the doss lounges. The time goes on and on and I begin to worry about the nosh-up; I have to eat to keep going and I can do it at any time of the day or night.
“What time do we eat?” I ask, weak with hunger.
“Breakfast’s at five, when we get in. But you can get yourself a cheese sandwich and coffee if you want it.” I do.
Breakfast at 5.o’clock. I was certainly expecting a solid meal at 2 a.m. at the latest! I stand munching my sandwich and sweating freely in the tiny furnace-like galley where the stewardess and cook make out the crew’s duty-free fags list. En route to the bar for my booze order I pass the hot, steamy pantry with sink and huge piles of washing up.
“You’ll have to take whisky,” the barman says, peering at his list.
“Fine. Thank you very much.”
We tie-up at Dunkirk about 3.30 and get shot of the passengers. The night is humid and sultry and clearing up is very exhausting (folding blankets, putting on clean pillow cases, scouring and scrubbing up. This stewardess is decent as she scrubs up the worst floors herself while I go round with a lavatory brush, clean the basins and swab only a small area of floor. But I stay near her; I dare not let her out of my sight or I should be lost. Having no sense of direction at all, I can’t learn where the lavatories and berths are, although I’ve been taken around dozens of times. Halfway through she asks me if I’d like to break off and have a fag.
“No thanks. Let’s clean up and …have done with it, shall we?”
Good God, if I’d stopped I should have lain down and died.
At last sweating like bulls in the horrendous heat - even our hair is wet. Ravenous, we collect our meal from the galley; only two rashers of bacon, a fried egg and toast for twelve and a half hours’ work. We sit and smoke in the small dining saloon, the stewards at one end of the small dining saloon clack on about their bets while we light our fags and look up our horoscopes in the Daily Mirror. My mate is a Scorpio. “What are you?” she asks. I explain that I’m a Sagittarian with Scorpio rising. “That’s all right, then,” she says, pleased. “I hate Leos. Never get on with them; don’t trust ‘em. They’re too bossy and domineering. I like to be the boss too, so it doesn’t work.”
I understand perfectly and feel at ease with her. She tells me the 2nd Steward is a Leo and very troublesome. “He’ll go too far with his bossing - and I’ll have ‘im,” she says ominously, her glasses flashing aggressively.
The hours of duty were twelve on and twenty-four off, so the next trip is on day turn and perfect as we take only twelve passengers out and bring eight back. This ship having a small crew is really matey. There’s really nothing much to do so we stewardesses do anything we can to help where necessary; washing up for instance, to help the poor sod in the galley. Of course I’ve no idea what we’re supposed to do, I just blindly follow the stewardess around and do whatever she says. The 2nd steward stopped play-time by brusquely reading out a long list of cleaning he wanted done. Crushed and miserable as a Pavlov dog, I reckon I would have done it, or some of it, or at least made with the cleaning rags, but Jean, thank heaven, had more spirit. After listening stonily, she quietly said, “Wait!” and stalked off to the cabin with me following for a ritual fag and chops. This woman was rapidly becoming my most favourite character. Loads to eat on the day-turn: we had a gorgeous lunch: loin pork chop, cauliflower and white sauce, roast and boiled spuds; plum duff with custard for pud. After this feast we had noggins in the cabin a noggin is a large slug of hard liquor for 6d., issued to the crew on certain days.
On the way back after tea (sausages, egg, bacon, beans and chips), we were going to the pantry intending to help wash up as usual, when I the 2nd Steward shouted for us to ‘get strapped up’ (i.e. do the washing up). That did it! There was one hell of an uproar because this is something that is not in our job description. Stewardesses don’t have to do this or anything but their own work, though they will usually help out where necessary. Jean took him straight to the Chief Steward and had a good old blow-up about our rights. Personally, I seemed to be in a daze, probably sodden with food, and carried on automatically strapping up.
There are orders for me to leave ship and report to the office at 9 o’clock next morning. Damn. I was really sorry to go; they say I am going on a car ferry. The Chief Steward said good-bye and, “Is it true you have a sports car?”
“I’ve never heard of a stewardess having a sports car.”
“Why not? Are we supposed to have orange boxes on wheels?”
All crew leaving ship are allowed a concession of a hundred cigarettes and half a bottle of grog. Up the ramp with my loot I was asked by a customs officer in French if I had anything to declare.
In the Office I am told to go to the Linen Room. This mission filled me with as much horror as a cold bath. I explain that I’ve already been there and drawn my uniform. “I know that,” says the man. “But you’re to go to the Linen Room, not Store Room.”
“But what for?”
“To mend the linen.”
It takes quite a while for this to sink in. “Mend the linen! You have to be joking,” I exclaim unbelieving. “I can’t sew a …..” Words fail me. I haven’t held a needle in my hand since I was forced to do white-on-white embroidery at the ..… ..… Convent for Young Ladies. No doubt thinking he would never be rid of me and sick of my gawping face, the man gets up and kindly but firmly shows me the way, which is just as well.
The Linen Room was a large, square, dirty-white room with a high moulded ceiling, vast windows and a great carved wooden fire-place. It was part of a building that must once have been a grand Victorian terminus hotel. It seemed peaceful enough. At a sewing machine table in the centre of the room sits an old chap doing a crossword puzzle; a youth sits rigid on an upright chair staring into space; a worn-looking man fills in laundry lists at a desk, and an old girl sits in an armchair by the window mending a pair of trousers. Feeling very uneasy I sit down beside her and whisper that I can’t so much as sew a button on, but she quickly puts me at my ease with a wink and a nod.
“Doesn’t matter. Just put this bedspread on your lap and have a needle in your hand to look as if you’re doing something. Here’s the paper”
I sit there with needle and thread poised as told. We read and smoke contentedly for half an hour. Eff, my companion, then says, “It’s tea break! Put your work down or you’ll have the Union on you.” We go off together to brew up and she tells me never to leave the tea tray for a single minute or it’ll be stolen.
“What about if you want to go to the lavatory?”
“You must take the tray in with you.”
During the tea break Eff (pure Easter Island features) tells me about a stewardess on the Holy Run (a ship chartered by Lourdes pilgrims) who has just turned in and put on a new pink nightie to cheer herself up. There’s a bang on the door. She opens up and sees an agitated priest. “Have you got the Bishop in with you?” he shouts angrily. “No, I haven’t.” A quarter of an hour passes and she is just dozing off when the banging starts again; it is the same priest. “Are you sure you haven’t got the Bishop in with you?” he shouts angrily. “No. No. No.” He stands in the doorway unconvinced. He cannot find the Bishop anywhere. Eff goes on about the Holy Run in her wonderful, hoarse, ginny voice, without so much as a crack in her features., apparently a shop-girl, bored with selling hundreds of boxes of Smarties is relieved to see a demure faced nun waiting to be served. “A bottle of Scotch and 200 cigarettes, please.”
I was thrilled with this gem about the Bishop and had dropped down into low gear, ready to listen to some more of Eff’s fabulous sea stories, but we were interrupted by the arrival of the office slave with a chit for me to join a car ferry. As he writes out the chit he says, “You’re not very happy here, are you? Join the ……”
Joyfully I run off to my new assignation. Eff gives me the low-down. “You’ll be all right with Louisa and there’s a decent 2nd Steward.”
Hurrying down the long platform and quay I see my ship pulling away. A porter explains that she’s going over to the other side of the harbour. The police stop me at the car ferry docks politely enquiring if they can help, ‘Madam’.
“Crew of the ‘Bolloxia’”
Walking very fast in the wrong direction, asking everyone I meet for the ‘Bolloxia’, I find the right ramp eventually, stomp through the echoing rather eerie car decks, up the gangways and quite accidentally see the Chief Steward’s Office. He takes the chit saying, “Ah, yes. You’ll do two trips to learn your way around. Go and have lunch. You’ll find them in the restaurant.” Lovely, thank you. Always hungry, I can eat like ten navvies and still look white and starved; I’ve found this to be a great social asset as most people try to fatten me, but since I never put on any weight it gets very expensive for them. Although I once went to a lunch which lasted six week, I don’t think I’m a ruthless professional visitor, more an uneasy bum.
The stewardess takes me to the galley to get a plateful; roast lamb, peas, cabbage, roast spuds and apple pie. And, my God, how these shop girls can talk, yackety-yak non-stop worrying and cackling on about the boat – and me. They go on about my scrub-out and whether I’ll find the boat as you never know where she’ll be berthed (nasty doubts here) and if I’ll be on time. I’m now soaked with fear and can’t take any more; I tell them, unnaturally calm and confident, that I can worry no more; I’d do the scrub-out and arrive on time. I hoped I’d find the bloody boat, but certainly wasn’t going to stand on the sea-front counting the port-holes to identify her as they suggested.
At six o’clock next morning (turn-around time as it’s called) I hunt round the docks until a harbour board man leads me to the boat and it’s a relief to see the right name on the stern. The moment I meet the French shop assistant, I know we’ll click. Very French-woman looking she is short, plumpish, low-slung, greying hair brushed back and brown eyes in a firm face; reserved and quiet. I am thankful not to be on with goitre case, an arch-worrier who would have driven me with the greatest kindness right out of my mind. Renée, as my new partner is called, shows me to the ‘Ladies’ Room’. On account of the hysterical chat yesterday I expect to do a nauseating scrub-out, but all is in good order. It looks very clean, much too clean for my liking.
“Ees all right,” says Renée, so we stalk off to get breakfast. It’s really uncanny what money can make you do; normally I never get up before 10 o’clock and hardly ever clean my own loo, yet now I wake up in the wee hours in order to report as ship’s lavatory lady at dawn.
At first I’m really quite hopeful about the place as it’s small, only four bogs and four basins, and I reckon even I can cope with the floor without my war-wounds opening. But I had my doubts when the other stewardess said they were ‘proud of their toilets’, a very sinister remark. Before long I am going to put this pale pink ‘Ladies’ Room’ at the top of my list of horror-lavatories; it is worse than the fly-infested six-seater we had in North Africa during the war, the French ‘cabinet à la Turque’ in a cave, the Spanish filth holes & the Belgian mixed doubles. Boxed in amidships the lounge, it has no portholes and no fresh air at all, the deckhead is covered with huge heating pipes which drip rust and one bulkhead is next to the funnel, which keeps the temperature at Turkish bath level; the crappy loos block, the flushes don’t flush, the tatty old taps won’t run or won’t stop and all the other pipes leak and flood the floor continuously.
When I first started this foul, disgusting job, I told my friends dramatically, that I would never be seen again as I’d be in bed or on board. But it so happens that we do get a day off between the turns of duty, 24 hours on, 24 hours off, because we don’t have to stay the night on board to ‘sight our reliefs’. My astrologer friend is very interested in my fate; having worked out my horoscope, she says I’m attracted to lavatories because I have Scorpio rising at the beginning. This makes me mad. “What the hell do you mean? Attracted to lavatories? I’m bloody well not, you know.” Her attitude that it is all right with the stars for me to do this work gets my goat. “I mean to say, I wasn’t born and bred to be a lavatory lady. I know most of my family have been sailors ….. but admirals, not sodding loo cleaners.” Quite unperturbed by my resentful anger, she goes on to explain her theory. “Your ascendant is Scorpio, which is at its most powerful and strongest at the beginning, and, you see, it rules over privies and private parts….”
“You’re telling me!”
“… and all places which creeping beasts use…”
“A bloody good name for them -”
“…and water, ponds and pools.”
“Now I know there’s no hope.”
“I don’t mean you’re attracted to them. I mean they’re attracted to you …”
“Hang on a minute while I go upstairs and kill myself.”
“They cross your path, they’re magnetised towards you…”
“Oh, stuff the stars!”
People I meet out shopping are also sold on the shipboard life for me:
“Now that’s a nice healthy job for you.”
“What fun it must be.”
“How interesting to meet people.”
The ship is as healthy as a salt mine. We start bronze-fit and go through pale grey to dead-white with black lines under our eyes. Completely enclosed, life on board is only just sustained by the lousy ventilation system, which is just about at its last gasp and pretty well packs up altogether in my stinking hutch of a ‘powder room’, the round-mouthed blowers blasting hot, evil-smelling, noxious fumes into an already fetid atmosphere. Apart from girls who are too obsessed with their faces to notice anything except the mirrors, the passengers moan about it: “Cor, ain’t it ‘ot in ‘ere! ‘Ow’d you stand it? I suppose you gets used to it.” Like hell! Half an hour of it and you’d fall down in a terminal coma. And in here is my official chair, the only place I can sit while on duty. Well, it’s the money I’m after not burial at sea, so I reel out half-conscious to stand in the stuffy lounge. There are problems here, too.
A really silly one is the uniform itself. The stewardesses wear a natty line in prison-wear, a little blue cotton number which has wide short sleeves that I hate and a ghastly button-down pleated bodice gathered on to a tight waist-band; it’s far too low at the neck and needs a scarf to stop the crew peering down in. There is only one pocket which is always stuffed with fags, holder, lighter, purse, knife, tape, safety pins, sea-sick and aspirin tablets, keys, hankies and a large paper napkin (useful for cleaning mirrors and mopping up). Now the weight of these things stretches the thin material tightly over my bottom and I feel naked and exposed. Especially since some of the crew have asked me if I’ve got anything on underneath.
“Of course I have. Why do you ask?”
“Well, it doesn’t look like it,” the experts explain. “You see, when the stuff is stretched you can see the outline of the bra and pants. What have you got on then?”
“Oh, the usual. Anyway, I’m not here to model knickers.”
I don’t know what to do with my hands, because if I stand with folded arms I’m asked if I’m on guard and with them clasped behind me I get a jab in the stomach from every passing member of the crew. Fed up with this going on I wallop back, an effort when all I want to do is look at the sea and dream. It really means being on the alert all the time for these grabs, jabs, hugs and tricks. I got caught first time with the ‘look at my back hair’ one; you look, they grab pubic level. Next time I poured a hot cup of tea on the maulers. Of course, these boring jokers are old hands and not the seasonal students who are only interested in themselves. Yet the physical irritations are nothing compared with the psychological inhibition of standing in the lounge in the presence of the small, tense Chief Steward. This tight-faced little bastard has the power to make me feel intensely guilty about not being in the lavatory, so that I skulk back into it at the sight of him. The way he never speaks or acknowledges my existence gives me the creeps, it really does. Even when I’m with Renée he’ll say good morning to her and cut me dead: I don’t want a bow from the waist nor do I want to feel like a radioactive lavatory brush. On the long turns – 18 and 24 hours non-stop – his insistence on everyone being in their right cage makes life rather boring.
The old bird in the Linen Room was right about Bert, our 2nd Steward. A short, thin, wiry man, he is friendly and good about booking the hours. This means we get the pay for work done; it has been known for some creeps to cut down on the hours to curry favour with the higher ups. He tries to jolly us along as we become more and more zombie-like from lack of oxygen and is helpful about supplying stores. Whether or not the stewardess is regarded as one of the 2nd Steward’s perks I don’t know, for sure, but I’m thankful this one made no sexual claims as this sort of blackmail is as boring as it’s tiring. In this ship the arch sex-pot is a cook, a fat, fair and foul-mouthed bastard called Johnny, who has his hands up my skirt quicker than you can say rape when we queue for our nosh in the galley. Natch I hit out, but my mind’s on what’s for dinner; “I want food not sex, you fool.” It’s all-in wrestling to get some grub. Renée, a tiger of respectability, shouts, “You touch, I smack your fice.” Her English is very French with Cockney vowels. Johnny yells back, “Fice! Where was you dragged up?”
So, cruising on darling daddy’s yacht is all good, filthy fun; it’s gales, waves, sex, slops and spew – and nothing makes me sicker than sick. I must do something about it, so try willing myself not to be. I can now cope heroically with the most indescribable situations, which is just as well; the old tub would roll on wet grass, so there’s always plenty of customers. After a while I know how and when they’ll react. The first trip of the day is the worst as most people are tired after a hard night’s driving/sleeping in their cars, but on the whole I think that British mums are the best behaved sea-sickers. They give some warning so I can clap a brown paper bag on their faces and if I’m too late they’ll aim clean and true down lavatory and basin then try to clean it up or poke it down. I always let them do this. They also have this sweet way of handing me a neatly folded bag, smiling fondly: “It’s the little girl’s sick.” I thank them very much. Although very nervous urinaters, popping in and out during the whole trip and frantic at the last moment, they are good plug-pullers. The French certainly do suffer badly from sea-sickness, but at least they’re clean, quiet and even grateful for my bogus sympathy and broken French; neither do they get in a pee-tizz like the British, which is something. Irish and Italian peasants are beyond all earthly help. Retching and noisily dying, they are deaf to my pleas to go on the boat-deck for air. I’m stuck with them for the entire trip. They smell rather strong and never pull the plugs. Whenever I hear raucous American voices I know what to expect and am filled with dread: a muck up. Self-control and consideration for others is something these camera-eyed parrots don’t have. It’s not enough just to throw up all over the place after we’ve docked and I’ve cleaned up ready for the next lot, they explode and I don’t mind saying they’ve got stomachs like cows. Filled with loathing and despair, I yell “Merde!” at the top of my voice as I wash my hands afterwards. “Pat, where you learn your good French?” Renée asks, impressed.
At Boulogne we have Boat Drill in the pouring rain. I dash below to our cabin under the car decks, stand on a chair to tug the life-jacket out of its cupboard, then up to the boat-deck, but can’t find my boat, so return to the lounge to find the crew assembled there. The Mate is in charge and he frowns at me saying, “You were on the boat-deck, weren’t you? It’s Emergency, not Abandon Ship, isn’t it?” in a gently menacing voice. Staring accusingly, he carries on grilling, “Where’s the fire alarm?” I look around nonchalantly, but can’t see the bloody thing anywhere; “I don’t know.” He pauses and then says, “It’s behind you” in a pitying sort of way. I’m leaning on it. We then go up to the boats and stand in the rain while across the quay the crew of a passenger boat jeer at us.
We have a few minutes slumped down in the restaurant and then it’s “LOADING, LOADING, LOADING!” Bert, the 2nd Steward jumps up and screams, “Right! Everyone out. Come on, let’s ‘ave yer!” Reluctantly the chain-gang drags back to prison. At the top of the gangway I see a coach-load of old Scotch boilers struggling up worn-out from their wet holiday in Austria. They’re all right, but I wish they were men for the Gents, lavatory-wise. Johnny, the loutish cook, passing by on his way to the galley, says, “Get back to yer shit’ouse!” I picture a leisurely castration with a pair of rusting scissors. The ship is crammed with passengers in crumpled surplus store clothes, stuffing their peeling faces with ham sandwiches and Pepsi-colas; combing their tangled hair (except when the men wear funny little hats which are never removed) or bleating around for duty-free cigarettes and whisky. None of these morons look at the large notices directing them where to get it. So, in the same way they go to the Purser to change money, the Cashier to change tickets and the Chief Steward for their passports. Walking up the lounge I am knee deep in screaming, stamping, running kiddies and feel a moment’s pity for a white-faced, exhausted girl who is slumped trying to get a bit of rest after her jolly hols, sprawling pinned under two writhing, man-eating toddlers. Her husband lies back, spent, unable to cope with the maniac energy of their six year old son. I see there are plenty of babies about too, and I must admit the mothers have their problems when it comes to changing them in my lovely hot-house ‘Ladies’ Room’ in the summer season millions of babies are transported to all parts of Europe in arms, baskets, boxes, slings, back harnesses and carry cots, rather like pet animals.
Seeing the creepy Chief on his way to the forward bar I push into the ‘Ladies’ which is packed with jabbering, giggling schoolgirls. From boring experience I know they will spend the whole crossing mooning in the mirrors, narcissistically in love with themselves, love-sick, sick. Obsessed with their appearance, they slowly drag a dirty comb, hairbrush or combined brush-comb through long, bedraggled hair which they never succeed in unravelling. Shorter hairdo’s get straightened but are back-combed into wildness again (I pick handfuls of this broken hair from the basins afterwards), and while the front hair is lightly brushed over, the back is left untouched so that it looks like a chicken’s bottom in a high wind. When they have done and undone their hair, they next make-up their eyes with false eyelashes, mascara, top and bottom eyeliners, crease liners, white, powder and cream eyeliners of various colours. ‘Twiggy’ lashes are painted on the lower lids; the mouth is whitened out and - Bingo! The finished article looks as though it has been on the game for at least three years. Along with the schoolgirls’ educational excursion we have wine-maddened schoolboys, lurching and slopping their drinks over other passengers, racing and chasing, effing and blinding like demented dockies. I wonder whether the two angst-ridden, tortured looking characters drinking double brandies could be their schoolmasters.
As an excuse to get out of the appalling ‘hot-house’, I walk around the heaving decks in a purposeful manner. Suddenly people are running towards the shop; I join them and find a murderous fight going on. Two women appear to be killing each other and it takes four beefy men to separate them the dark woman has had her hair torn out by the roots and great lumps of it lie on the deck. The other brawler, a young blonde girl, is shouting and struggling to get at her again. The Chief tells me to look after the scalped one but I have some trouble disengaging her from a comforting steward. She is shot to pieces, very distressed, her face white with red marks on it, she is crying, trembling and incoherent. Her hair has been very much thinned out. I take her up to the Engineers’ Mess on the Boat-deck where the Captain’s ‘Tiger’ (steward) makes a cup of tea. At this point her husband comes in and, hearing what has happened, becomes enraged and insists on finding her attacker. So, led by the Purser, we set off in a posse to identify her. The girl is found sitting with her family in the lounge and seeing us they all rise up with clenched fists to fight, shouting at once: “She smacked my daughter’s fice first!” and “She pushed my bruvver” and “She ain’t getting away with it.” The Purser hastily bundles the couple into his cabin for the duration of the trip. This sort of thing breaks the monotony and quite cheers me up.
Every fortnight we have ‘Black Thursday’, an 18 hours turn with six trips. I cannot find any crew ‘below decks’ parking space, so leave my gleaming Sprite with its Institute of Advanced Motorists badge showing off (something I am deeply proud of, but which I suspect to be an unspeakable irritant to man drivers) on the Master’s parking plot.
Making toast in the furnace-like griller and concentrating on not burning my fingers again, I hear my bête noire, that crude sod Johnny, yelling like a madman, but in the hiss and roar of the galley I can’t hear what he’s saying and don’t want to anyway. He moves over and thrusting his great sweating face at me bellows, “Do yer like curry, yer deaf cow?” I hold back the instant venom, because he’s a wonderful cook and is doing our meal today, and answer politely that I do. He looks pleased: “That’s all right then,” adding for the benefit of the grinning assistant cooks, who adore him, “If yer can’t beat ‘em, spoil ‘em!” One of these oafs then asks me, “Ow’s yer sports car?” At once I am friendly and smiling and tell them that it goes like a bomb because I’ve had it electronically tuned. Without a second’s pause, Johnny shouts joyfully, “She’s ‘ad ‘er cu-cu electronically tuned!” amid sexy guffaws from them all and as a matter of fact I laugh too. To me he says, leering, “See yer in me cabin, kitten, and we’ll see how yer….” Now I get my breakfast (bacon and eggs and fried bread today) and scram out of it. What gets me down is never having any tea. If a steward makes a pot, he guards it as though it’s his life’s savings and with good reason; it takes all day to find everything, tea, milk, sugar and tea-pot are all in different places and there’s never a clean cup and saucer in the rack. It’s just as well that I’ve had three mugs of tea before I set foot out of bed or I’d never survive a dry breakfast.
Having a light load on this first trip, I nip out to the stern boat-deck to watch the ship leave port; the Captain doesn’t like to see us up here, so I’m careful how I go. When the ship gathers speed and sweeps out of the docks it gives me a feeling of exhilaration and adventure. It must be marvellous on a ballast run (a crossing without passengers).
As the sea is calm and there are no customers, I sit in the ‘hot house’ and work on a bitter parody of ‘Sea Fever’ I am writing. There is a sharp rap on the door and the 2nd Steward looking very serious hands me a piece of paper. “A telegram for you, Pat,” he says gravely. I nearly pass out with fright and then read it:
From the ….. Master of the …..
To ………… Master of the BOLLOXIA
MISS PATRICIA ELAINE MOODY
HAVE CARS PARKED IN MASTERS CAR PARK
POLICE MAY REMOVE AND FINE £2
I am so happy I screech out loud and rush round to show it to Harry Brown, who is on the till in the restaurant. After a good laugh over this daft cable, Harry gets really furious. “It’s only because we’re not officers. Bleeding prejudice, that’s what.” I must not smile, so scowl blackly and agree. “That’s right. The bloody fool’s probably got some tatty old Ford Anglia and is jealous of our cars.” Harry has a very smart convertible. “I’ll stick a bloody potato down their exhausts, that’s what I’ll do,” he says ominously.
“Good idea and I’ll pour some sugar in the petrol tank.”
“If they lay a finger on my car, I’ll have ‘em!”
Instantly the whole ship’s company knows about our parking crime. The Mate comes down and says pleasantly, “They’ve got the plank out for you. The fine’s gone up to £5 and they’re going to tow your car away.”
“They’d better not touch it or there’ll be trouble.”
The Chief Engineer comes up and goes on and on in a thick Scottish accent about where to park. Now I’m beginning to get narked: “I’ve got a parking permit. What am I supposed to do if there isn’t a parking place? Bring her on board and put her in my cabin?”
At Dover, Harry and I get permission to go ashore. We are surprised to find no police or homicidal Masters. When I get back the Mate is waiting for me: “Captain …..’s got the gallows out for you. He’s after your blood.”
“Well, give him my love and tell him to get stuffed”
It doesn’t look as if there’s much chance of getting our heads down between trips because of a bond load. I don’t have to help Renée unpack, check and put away her stores, but I couldn’t lie down and leave her toiling away on her own, it’s bad luck for us it’s come in today, though, but we have two hours in Boulogne before the last crossing to revive: this is the one time when we have a slug. I remember a grog bottle of brandy in the cabin which helps to raise our blood sugar.
On the last crossing I go up to the boat deck to chuck a gash-bag overboard and I stand by the rail for a few moments to get some air: there’s a full moon and the ship is cutting through the bright sea at full speed because the ‘good’ captain’s on, we’ll make Dover in good time. Since we only loaded a few passengers, I reckon the big scrub-out I did at Boulogne will do and leave the place tidy. I go back to check it as old creepy Chief’s on and he likes you in there wiping their bottoms all the time. It is packed out with three strapping, naked bints; huge pendulous tits hanging, great white buttocks quivering, wobbling as they try to balance with one foot in the basins; it is a fantastic spectacle. Obviously hikers, as their gigantic knapsacks disgorge crumpled clothes, billycans and tents all over the floor and from the stink they haven’t been near water for a month. The place looks like a refugee camp hit by a hurricane; my clean floor is awash, filthy with mud. Quite unconcerned, they are indifferent to my fury as I remonstrate: “It’s strictly forbidden to wash feet in the basins!” Then one of these Amazons asks, “Well, can I wash me hair?”
“No, you can’t!” I shout, as I reel out, overcome by the stench. I run straight into Johnny and out of sheer irritation tell him what’s going on in there. His eyes widen with excitement. “What! ‘Ave they got their panties off?” he asks urgently, breathing hard.
“Yes, they have. They’re starkers, I tell you, and they’ve bloody well mucked the place up good and proper.”
“Oh, come on,” he wheedles, “Let’s ‘ave a peep. It’s always done. Always. Listen, just go in and hold the door open a bit. That’s all you’ve got to do. Come on!” he nudges me and out of revenge I hold the door ajar, wait a few moments, then go out of the opposite door. Now I bump into an indignant steward who says crossly, “What’s the big idea of telling the cooks? It’s me you should tell. Now do it again.” I’m getting to like this Marx Brothers act and open the door quite wide as though I’m letting some air in for the strippers. Duty done and honour satisfied, I go and grouse to Renée.
But it’s the last shit that breaks the stewardess’s back. There is a huge turd in the bog with the poor flush and despite pulling on the flush like a madwoman, I can’t get it to go down. Of all the goddamned silly things to delay one, this is it. Renée comes in, ready for off, with coat on and case in hand, she says tense with worry, “Pat, whatcher you do? The ramp he go up and we go over other side.” Wet with sweat and quite desperate, I gasp, “I know that. For goodness’ sake help me. You keep the flush going and I’ll throw some buckets of water down.” Victory at last and we make the ramp just in time.
On Sunday we have the Captain’s Round and chicken for dinner. The Captain’s Tiger tells me who’s on and I am not happy to hear that it’s the ‘bad’ captain. I would never have dreamt that the man in charge could make such a difference to a ship’s progress yet it is exactly like being driven; one doesn’t notice the good driver but one does the bad. This skipper’s nose will be glued to the radar and 40 cigarettes smoked before we even leave harbour, yet our journey over will be slow, jerky and uncertain, entering port a long-drawn out affair. When he does the Round he will look for trouble, run his fingers along ledges for dust like an old ward sister and shout and bawl if it’s found. So in a mood of bitter resentment, anxiety and depression I set to and wash the whole place down; all the painted bulkheads and doors, scour out the lavatories and basins, polish the mirrors and brights and scrub the floor (Including our cabin, shower and loo); replace all linen with clean and stack up the paper towel rack – normally empty as the passengers throw them all over the show (these will be removed when the Round is done). While I am cleaning up so thoroughly I mutter resentfully to myself that I’ll desert ship if there is one word of criticism out of the cocky little sod. As it happens, the Mate does the Round and there are no complaints; an ordinary end-of-trip scrub up would have been quite sufficient.
One mystery I cleared up while I was emptying the sani-bins was the cause of the sickly, pungent pong that frequently reeks out this crappy ‘convenience’ and I read the discarded sachets and aerosols which I find there: ‘A vaginal deodorant spray, Madame, gives you fragrance in the most womanly part of a woman, a product that would make your grandmother swoon; enjoy clinically clean confidence day and night; Vaginex can do for intimate feminine hygiene what your daily bath can’t; keeps out embarassing vaginal odour so make it part of your beauty routine.’ So now it’s a social obligation to have a daisy-fresh and dainty vagina. Well, all I can say is that these ‘discreetly’ perfumed sprays certainly reveal more than they conceal and I can’t wait for the Great Smell Sellers to deodorise shit as it’ll make sweet reading if nothing else.
Renée and I have a treasure hunt while we are waiting for Henri to come on board for our shopping list. We lift up all the lounge seats for lost property; Renée finds a broken lighter and 2/6d and I a penny; no luck for easy money, not me. Henri arrives and jabbers on in rapid French about his son’s wedding. We have to listen patiently until he is finished as this is a useful fiddle to get bread, cooking oil, Camembert cheese, etc., and horse meat (the idea of eating horse makes me quite faint, I’d rather eat babies) and I can never really understand why he bothers to do this shopping for us as he certainly doesn’t make anything on the goods. The French on the other hand are crazy about our soggy, sliced, wrapped white bread, cartons of pepper, H.P. sauce, mustard pickles, salad cream and mayonnaise, pork sausages and Cadbury’s Milk Tray.
Once the shopping list is settled we sag down in the restaurant to pour shandies down our parched throats, too thirsty and dead-beat to ever bother with noggins. We look up our horoscopes: though Renée may be a Leo, she’s no bulldozer and I always fall in with her suggestions because she knows the ropes. Asked to read out her husband’s prediction under Taurus I make one up to tease her: ‘Romantic association towards the end of the week. Beware of jealousy in the home.’ Her face tautening with fury she splutters savagely, ‘I send eet ‘eem. ‘Eem know, eef I ‘ear enyting, I mark ‘er and keel ‘eem!’ she is so worked up, I show her the real one: ‘Financial gains from a journey,’ to calm her down; this couple are still nuts about each other after 22 years of married life.
And now Johnny joins us on the next seat. We are fighting friends again after a troublesome period. When we were down below getting ready to leave, he walked back from the showers to his cabin (next to ours) completely starkers. All I saw was his fat pink back, huge wobbly bottom and fleshy shoulders; I felt nothing more than amusement, but Renée was very indignant, and I heard her attack. “Watcher you dangle like thees? Why you not ‘ave towel round?” she is really upset and growls on, “‘eem ‘ave no respect. I report ‘seem”
“Is it worth reporting?”
She takes me literally and insists that it is and reports him to the 2nd Steward. For a few days there were scowls and sulks and snide remarks, ‘Here come the bleedin’ virgins’ and so forth whenever we appeared and then he whacks me over the bottom with a meat cleaver and all is well. Renée forgives by squirting him behind the ears and over his hairy chest with Madame Rochas’ ‘Femme’ as he stands by the shop in his chef’s gear. This scent he adores and goes off to serve food to the passengers smelling like an expensive whore. Now as I rest with my feet up, he leans over and fondles my knees. Wearily I chop down on his hand and then give up. “Oh, all right. For £50 then.” He stops at once, sitting up like he’s been stung, and says indignantly, “Look, I don’t want to buy it, mate, I just want to borrow it for half an hour.” We all have to laugh at the rotten sod, but there’s peace for the last few minutes before loading.
Today we have a grog issue, I have half a bottle of Benedictine for 10/- and we want to get our bottles signed. This is a nerve-racking and humiliating performance, real cap-in-hand stuff. We have to hang about waiting for the Boarding Officer, hoping it’ll be a nice one. Some are, some aren’t and the old hands know them all. Directly the Great Man and his case-carrying side-kick arrive, we follow them into the forward bar and stand cringing with our bottles while he sorts through his papers and ignores us. It depends on his mood how long we are kept in suspense, the number of suppliants (if the whole ship’s company lines up, you’ve had it) and how busy he is. This chap looks up at me with great distaste and says irritably, “And who are you?” In the most bored voice possible I reply, “The Stewardess; Moody,” pointing to my signature on the manifest, the ship’s declaration of bonded goods, its Bible. Now begins the catechism: “When did you have the last?”
“About three weeks ago.”
His mouth turns down and he says crisp and nasty, “You know you’re not entitled to anything at all.” I think, you sadistic swine, say, “Yes.”
“How long will you be ashore?”
“Until Tuesday at 6 a.m.”
He holds the bottle up to check it’s open and swigged, signs it, marls the manifest and that’s that. We can now righteously produce our contraband if stopped. These customs boys are very sharp, but Rummage Officers are quite terrifying, really sinister. Having unlimited powers they can smash anything to pieces if they suspect smuggling and there’s no redress for damage incurred in the search. I was told how they carved up a motor car because of a tip-off and found it lined throughout with gold. When a ship goes out of commission they pick it to bits; every cigarette has to be accounted for and there’s no hope for anyone taking stuff through; the Rummage’d be up at your house and no hiding place could fool them. You are then sacked, fined and in the nick, maybe.
In the second week of September the holiday season slows down; we bring back more than we take out and these out-going travellers are of a different type and class, mostly without children and conventionally well dressed, suits, dresses and hats. Some are rather more outré and camp, but the young men’s long hair is well-cut and cared for. Most of our students have left which makes us very under-staffed, though I’m only too glad to help make sandwiches in the tea-bar, collect up cups and glasses from the lounge and bars and wash-up, as it gives me a legitimate excuse to get out of the ‘hot-house’. The boys are promised ‘short hand ‘ money, but of course I don’t get anything extra as I can never technically be short-handed as long as I’m there. My spirits rise at the thought of this ‘stretch’ ending only to be shattered by a ghastly rumour going around that we are doing an ‘off-turn’ (spending the night) in Boulogne for a fortnight. Everyone is looking forward to this bar me; I cannot stand the idea of sleeping in our bleak, dark, suffocating pit of a cabin, which has no open porthole or proper ventilation. I have the top bunk (the bulkhead 18 inches above my head sags as the cars roll on) and after lying down for half an hour my nose is blocked, so I can well believe Renée when she says you always have a headache and a stuffy nose after a night in it. Obsessed, I think of nothing else but the problems of this ‘off-turn’; about early morning tea and whether I could succeed in bribing someone to bring us a pot of tea, about insomnia and exhaustion and going ashore.
The men, on the other hand, are very chuffed about it, prancing about like randy dogs in anticipation of crumpet ‘à la Française’ and booze-ups in Boulogne. I must say sex is something they never seem to tire of; these sea-going bint-hounds never miss a scent and the whole catering staff turns out to sniff any doll in a bottom-length miniskirt, or big-breasted cow in a see-through sweater, or an appetising bit of stuff travelling alone. They man the gangways to look up skirts and this really sends them. Why is the steward white and shaky? Because he thought he saw a girl sitting in the bar who had a hole in her knickers. At once another goes off to verify and reports the pants untattered and black. This same connoisseur tells me about the time his chat-up technique hit the jack-pot. He offers to show a married woman around the ship. The tour ends in his cabin where they have it off like they’re in the ‘Perfumed Garden’: mission accomplished, he takes her back to happy hubby, lushing it up in the bar, who thanks him for all his trouble and kindness and gives him a tip of 5/-. This sex-maniac also describes how they drill observation holes through the women’s lavatories.
“What, here, in this boat?” I exclaim aghast.
“No, not this one. On the ‘Honeymoon Run’ to Jersey.”
He then gives an account of how he and the stewardess peeped in on some couple performing, which razzed them up so much they promptly followed suit in the adjacent cabin. I am tired and bored with the whole goddamned outfit, and as for sex I might as well be spaded.
A few days later Bert, the 2nd Steward, comes up looking really brassed off and dejected. The poor chap is so depressed he can scarcely break the bad news that we are not doing the Boulogne ‘off-turn’ and since we are going out of commission I am to be signed off. How almost gaily I whisk out the lavatories, how almost joyfully mop up vomit and with what a light step I bounce around the heaving decks, oblivious to the moans of passengers unable to buy scent and sandwiches on account of the depleted stores. What a reprieve! With a song in my heart on that last trip I pulled the plugs and wiped the seats, scoured the basins and swabbed the floor. Euphorically I expected some kind of party celebration, but, no, we closed shop in an atmosphere as gay as a funeral parlour. Taut and tense to the end, each in his own department drearily cleaned up, checked and counted with never a song or a drink to celebrate the season’s end. When a boat goes out of commission, no matter what sort of a hell-ship it has been, there is a parting feeling of regret and of sadness at leaving one’s shipmates, but never less experienced than on this Borstal boat. The one bright spot for me was to see the ‘Ladies’ rummaged and the customs officers emerge filthy from clambering among the pipes, which I had thought spotless.
So bruised, bashed and broken, though financially solvent, with precious signed bottle and a hundred fags, I took my leave of the sea and wish you all a sailor’s farewell.
Pat Moody (with apologies to J. Masefield).
I must go down to the pees again, to the splashing pee and the spew,
And all I ask is a tall bog and a flush to clear her through;
And the plug’s jerk and the blocked loo and the bum paper streaming,
And a grey scum on the basins, and a coach-load screaming.
I must go down to the pees again, for the call of the urine tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a load of pay with over-time to blue
And the cheap fags and the noggins, and the sex-mad crew.
I must go down to the pees again, to the lavatorial life,
To the U-bends and the ‘Ladies’ where the air’s like a fetid knife;
And all I ask is a bottle signed by a laughing man at Dover,
And a nosh-up and a kip-down when the short trip’s over.
I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.
I must go down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.