Glad you were able to make it.


The Junkman – 1953/54

0830, Ships company falls in by divisions. Every man-Jack from the diminutive Captain Superintendent and his enormous great Dane down, mustered on the quarter deck in brilliant, winter sunlight. The complete set of toy sailors.

Focsle division is dressing off and numbering from the right under the bleak gaze of instructor Granny Mac Donald. Despite the delay tactics of senior cadets Heydenrick and Pretorious, bent on frustrating the process, it becomes obvious that we are a cadet adrift. With a clatter, senior cadet Crewe arrives, skidding into his place in rank like a wind milling scarecrow. Granny is on him like a stooping sparrow hawk. He addresses Crewe from a point just abaft his left ear in a series of cackling salvoes: “Heh heh! Well, well, look who’s joined us. Same old crows eh! Glad you were able to make it Mr Crewe. Nice of you to come. But yere in the rattle again ye know. Heh heh!” His eyes flicker over Crewes uniform:” Ye look like a dogs breakfast laddie, look at ye.” The handle of a semaphore flag flicks at Crewes errant shirt tail, whisking it clear of his pants then comes down again with a crack as Crewe attempts to stuff it back in.

We stand, frozen at attention, seniors chortling silently while we junior cadets, fearful of retribution, stare like serious-minded goldfish into the peaks of our caps. Mutters of: “What’s funny chum? Are you smiling chum? See me afterwards.” are breathed at us from every side. Granny, meanwhile, rolls around to the front end of Crewe, taking his time. In the other divisions inspection goes ahead, officers moving slowly down the ranks. In our top the unfortunate but undismayed Crewe draws all the fire.

“Yere tie man. Heavens! Look at ye. What’s all this flyaway rig eh?” Crewe hastily tugs his necktie two blocks and attempts a placatory smile – a futile move. “And yere cap” Granny rasps on. “Yere cap badge, in case yere interested, it’s all of two points off course” Crewes eyeballs disappear with exaggerated concern into the top of his head. He does it rather well but Granny is apparently unimpressed. “Och aye, heh heh! Yere all adrift.”

The clown of the Fo’csle division, Crewe is already heavily in debt to the punishment book, known in Navy parlance as the rattle. He will doubtless pass out at the end of the year with many hours of hard labour owing to the ship. Nevertheless, unwilling to accept the inevitable he tries a diversionary tactic: “Yes sir and I have a terrible hole in my left sock too Sir.” He lifts one hoof like a lame donkey. His mates are by now in a state of near collapse. The faces of the chums are contorted into excruciating grimaces. Granny’s glacial countenance, by contrast, seems only to make things worse. Crewes bid is in the nature of a plea bargain, something as yet unheard of but guaranteed to cut no ice at all with the dour MacDonald. He has seen it all, heard it all before. A veteran from the days of the old ship afloat, he has served here far longer than any other soul on this immovable quarter deck. The grizzled, old, ex-Navy yeoman of signals has a heart of granite with, we suspect, the ships motto chiselled on it – Honour and Duty. Crewes cap seems to hold his interest. “What’s amiss wi ye cap Crewe? Heh?” One bushy, white eyebrow lifts fractionally, then in slow, even, dispassionate tones: “IT APPEEEEERRRS TAE BE ON FIRRRRE.” Sure enough, there is smoke rising from the top of Crewes headgear. But before he can make a grab for it, Granny’s semaphore flag has hooked it neatly from his head. A small bonfire smoulders in the lining, a glowing cigarette end falls incriminatingly to the deck. “Heh heh! Same old crows.”

Recreation, for those periods set aside, we have aplenty. Entertainment, less so. Movies (Bioskope) on Friday nights, of execrable quality but looked forward to with enormous anticipation by all those not on the defaulters list. Mostly we provide our own entertainment. The old upright at the South end of the main hall is in constant abuse and it is surprising, now to recall, how many possessed some degree of musical talent: Mac Macgregor, a versatile instrumentalist, who went on to make it his career and to die, a comparatively young man, in Paris. He and Snake Wrede on guitars, playing Bothie Blues and Kap it uit, that surely was entertainment. Oliver could bash out just about anything once he had got the tune and we would harmonize hideously with surprisingly little protest from our mates. There was ToffeeHall (junior, not senior), something of a keyboard enigma. Seating himself down unobtrusively at the battered ivories, he would launch straight into a rendition of Alligator crawl. Right the way through, good, steady, ragtime left hand. – Pure Fats Waller. But only this one number, played through once, finish.

We learn to dance, a priority, in anticipation of that cataclysmic event, the Bothie annual dance, a moment, unique in the ships calendar when actual female forms, delectable in the painstaking preparation and largely superfluous adornment of young beauty, will come to grace these cloistered decks. Thus we waltz earnestly around the hall, skirting the lockers, clutching each other as partners. No wonder Bothie boys are such notoriously bad dancers.

Make and mend on a Sunday afternoon, that comfortable dog watch, traditionally set aside for sedentary occupation, it being tacitly permitted the whiles, to sit upon ones bunk. There is a discussion group at the North end of the hall. Over a concoction consisting of dates and smarties compounded in marmalade they applaud the benefits of a life at sea. The glamour of foreign ports, the flesh pots of the East, fanciful romantic encounters, all enjoyed in equal measure to the remnants of Chicks Lawrence’s gwogbox spooned up on the handles of their tooth brushes.

Further West, Junior Young settles himself python-like around the rim of his locker and extracts the last vestiges of peanut butter from a jar with his forefinger, while not far away Feet Shewell, gazing upward as though in a trance, endeavours to suckle inspiration from the cap of his fountain pen. He is developing a tender, calligraphic relationship with a young lady in Boksburg discovered in the back pages of Outspan magazine. Not far away Fisherman Downing and Joe Stalling inspect the ruin of Stallings socks and discuss the possibilities of a heel reconstruction job.

Ding Dong Bell, stretched luxuriously on his bunk, his mind fogged by prairie dust and gun smoke, maintains, his gaze on his paperback, his open mouth strategically placed to catch the thin, sticky stream descending from the condensed milk can wedged in the springs of the bunk above.

The piano tinkles cheerfully, somebody practices paradiddles on the side of a locker and mellow light, flecked with occasional motes of undiscovered dust, filters down over all. It is a peaceful scene, pastoral almost, yet it cannot last. The urgent juices of life, gurgling around in young bodies demand activity, preferably of a precarious nature. A game of Bok Bok is suggested. (The last one resulted in a dislocated shoulder and fifteen candidates for Monday mornings Chief Officer’s report.) Somebody, Douglas is it ? points to the fact that the main hall rafters are a good 20 feet above the floor. How many beds do you reckon we could fit one on top of the other?

It is a challenging project, demanding teamwork and planning and is not lacking in the essential element of risk: The odds of attaining the summit and then successfully dismantling the structure again without incurring either injury or discovery are the sort that bookmakers do well on. The foot of each bedpost has a socket which fits neatly on to the top of the one below. Thus five beds are raised piecemeal and reassembled one atop the other, forming a structure 15 feet high, impressive but not altogether stable.

Support for the project is immediate and universal, cadets are strung out like ants hanging on at various levels to pass up the heavy sections. The hall, normally immaculate is a shambles with discarded bedding strewn everywhere. Johnny Hirst, swaying precariously on the top, shouts instructions: “Come on you guys, get a move on. We need a head section up here……” He peers over the brink to find out why he receives no response. His gaze is met by that of duty instructor Jim Davis, wooden-faced, arms clasped behind his back, rocking gently on heels set well apart.