Monthly Archives: June 2013

You Just Had To Be There

You got a bit of cabin fever, I expect.’ ‘Yes, I suppose you could say that. I had the 4 – 8 watch and I found it hard going.’ ‘Did you see dolphins though?’ ‘Oh yes, there were lots and lots of dolphins.’ ‘And phosphorescence? Did you see that?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Did you see dolphins in the phosphorescence?’ ‘I did.’ ‘It’s amazing isn’t it?’ ‘It’s fantastic, they look like torpedoes and … wait a minute. How do you know all this?’ My sister, St Francis, was chatting with an acquaintance this morning. Having very recently returned from a sailing trip to Bermuda he has an evangelistic need to share his experience that all first-timers get. His wife, who didn’t go on the trip and who hasn’t been sailing in tropical waters is already full to the brim with his stories. In St Francis he sensed a kindred spirit. ‘We sailed boats down to West Africa when I was a kid,’ she answered his question. ‘Did you?’ ‘Yes. And I was in the Merchant Navy.’ ‘Were you?’ He’s only known St Francis for ten years. No reason he should have picked up such details in that short time.  

There is a picture of St Francis, windswept and tiny, on the deck of our motor boat. In front of her our mother is frozen in the act of slicing the first piece from a birthday cake. St Francis is three and she’s celebrating mid Biscay. She’s already experienced Breton women in traditional dress clucking over her. Later, in La Rochelle, she’ll see her first dead body which will drift across the harbour between us and the toy sailing boat that she got as her present. My father will cast the little yacht adrift when next we put to sea because none of us want to play with it any more.

And so on, Spain, Portugal, Morocco, Western Sahara etc., etc., until, one day, she and I will be standing in the market in Banjul, The Gambia, gazing up at a very well-built pink-eyed albino woman as she sold our mother some fly attracting mutton.

Three years later, we were living in Nigeria and two years after that we sailed another boat down to West Africa. This time via Sweden.

St Francis has had cabin fever. She’s seen flying fish, whales, dolphins, and dolphins gliding through the eerie glow of phosphorescent waters on dark nights when the coast is an unlit shadow on the horizon. She knew exactly where her friend was coming from this morning just as she understood the wide-eyed, inarticulate little girl from across the road when she returned from a trip to Kenya, a few years ago. St Francis hasn’t been to Kenya but she knows the heat, the noise, the smells of Africa. And she knows that, unless you’re talking to someone who has been there, you cannot communicate the experience. No matter how many stories you tell and no matter how many pictures you take.

Which brings me to an awkward thought – I fancy myself as a writer and if I accept the truth of what I have just written in the last paragraph …


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A Story of Infidelity, Going on the Run and the Unkindest Cut of All

I didn’t intend to be unfaithful, I kind of resented it at first but, after that, it was easy. Zack’s intelligent, brown eyes favoured me with a questioning gaze and I melted like a chocolate fire guard. It didn’t take long for him to get from my kitchen to my bed. Black and sleek, he wasn’t as tall as my true love but by crikey he was beautiful. And we’d only met that afternoon. I’m not ashamed, I’d do it again, especially for Zack.

My sister, St Francis, and I only went to his home to meet him but ended up coming back with him and all his kit in the car.

‘How the hell are we going to explain to Eric, Ernie and Floyd that we’ve brought home another Doberman?’ I asked St Francis.

‘Very carefully,’ she replied. ‘And anyway, never mind them, what about Moriarty?’

Ah yes, Moriarty the villainous feline, arch-enemy of small scampering creatures and nemesis of Floyd, was chased up the stairs once too often by Eric and Ernie and had left home some days earlier. St Francis fretted, Medusa wept and Floyd enjoyed unimpeded passage through the cat-flap (see Moriarty’s Rap Sheet for explanation). Then, the night before Zack came into our lives, Medusa spotted Moriarty in the field in front of the house. With haste she brought him in and offered him Rufus’ bowl of food. Strangely, after so many days on the run, Moriarty wasn’t particularly hungry. No doubt there’s a trail of feathers, bones and small scraps of fur  leading back to wherever he was hiding out. Clearly able to feed himself, the cat would be unlikely to stay home when he discovered another fruit-loop dog hanging around. Tact, diplomacy and keeping Moriarty and Zack apart were definitely high on our list of priorities.

Zack comes from a loving family and is well cared for but he needed a new home due to circumstances beyond his family’s control. Parting was such agony for them all that they pleaded with St Francis and I to take him straight away and get it over. So, we drove away with the sad, quiet dog. He met and made friends with the other dogs, one at a time, was ignored by Rufus and, mercifully, never clapped eyes on Moriarty. he had a long walk with Eric, down by the river, and enjoyed his dinner but … he couldn’t settle. He howled when left alone for a bit. He refused to go sleep even though his head was nodding. He whimpered and couldn’t be comforted. Zack was very sad. St Francis was sad for him. I was sad for him but there was another problem that occupied us as well. Unbeknown to Ernie, he was going to the vets in the morning and we had to keep him away from food (and the cats’ bowls, the left-overs, the bin) after 8 p.m. He was going to have a general anaesthetic and when he awoke, he would discover a long line of stitches where those two little round things used to hang between his back legs. St Francis felt guilty. She needed to spend time with him.

‘Why don’t I take Zack to my house?’ I offered.

St Francis thought for a moment. ‘OK,’ she said. Eric can stay here. He can sleep in the kitchen.’

Leave my Eric? Spend a night without him hogging the bed? That’s where the resentment came in but it ebbed away as soon as Zack laid down beside me on my hearth-rug and fell asleep. The quiet of my little house, the lack of all other life-forms apart from me (and a couple of small spiders) meant he could relax at last but, when I moved away, he snapped awake and came to follow me. He didn’t want solitude and who can blame him? He’d had a tough day and was probably very confused so I took him upstairs.

Smaller and more polite than Eric, he took up a lot less of the bed but just like Eric, he snored like a chainsaw and farted non-stop. I’m so glad I left the bedroom windows open. In the morning, while Ernie went to meet his destiny, Zack and I charged around the house playing. Then the phone rang. Zack’s family couldn’t live without him. Would we bring him back?

St Francis and I were sorry to let him go but the sight of that dog belting up the garden path of his rightful home and throwing himself back into the bosom of his family made everything better. He is back where he belongs and, best of all, he was safe from Moriarty.

As I write this post, Ernie is recovering well from his operation, though he is keen to get the healing over and chase sticks again, Moriarty is still at home purring like a small generator and Eric, after sniffing around the house for Zack’s scent, has forgiven my infidelity and spread himself across the bed with his head on my knee.

All is right with the world.

Who are you, then?

Who are you, then?


Zack left, Eric right.

Zack left, Eric right.
Asleep at last

Asleep at last

'You'll have to catch me first!' says Ernie

‘You’ll have to catch me first!’ says Ernie


Posted by on June 15, 2013 in Family Life, Uncategorized


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The Captain’s Coffee Pot

The night was moonlit and calm as we rounded Finisterre and left Biscay behind. I had the midnight to four duty with my watchmate Marijke. Apart from the 2nd Engineer, everyone else was asleep. All was quiet. On the horizon, deck lights on fishing boats blazed too brilliantly to look at through binoculars but the boats were following a course that kept them away from us so I didn’t trouble my eyesight. It was a slow steam south for us on one engine  and the ship’s movement was gentle. Two engines meant the likelihood of shaking our fillings loose and popping rivets out of the hull (Yes, the ship was that old) and even then we’d have had trouble overtaking a rowing boat so a one-engine plod was OK by us.

Seating for sailors wasn’t allowed in the 1950s when our fine vessel’s keel was laid. Instead, there were two small folding benches attached to the front bulkhead of the wheelhouse. They were positioned so that you sat (or perched) sideways on to the windows and you had to twist your upper body to see where you were going. With one boot propped on the heating pipe down at deck level, you would soon have one hot foot and acute backache. Marijke and I would periodically swap sides so we could twist the opposite way and warm the other foot. Neither of us sat in the tall wooden chair lashed to the gyro unit because it creaked and squeaked and looked ready to splinter into match wood at any moment. If the ship pitched down into a wave trough, the chair’s occupant could find herself thrown at the bridge windows with a thump. The benches were safer. Not comfortable but safer.

Time passed, the dim outline of Spain slid by on the port side and a cassette played over and over on the bridge stereo. Neither of us could rouse ourselves from our boredom to change it or stop it. Then, mid-watch, the internal phone rang.

‘Bridge,’ I said, rather unnecessarily, into the mouthpiece.

‘Hi, it’s me, Faike,’ the Second Engineer shouted above the rattling and chattering of the ship’s machinery down in the engine room. ‘I’m phoning out for pizza. You guys want something?’

I turned to Marijke. ‘Faike says he’s phoning for pizza. You want one?’

She thought for a moment. ‘Oh yeah, OK, shall we share one? A vegetarian special?’

I turned back to the phone. ‘Can we have a vegetarian special to share?’ I asked Faike. He said we could. I hung up and returned to my bench. And that was the most exciting thing that happened – until …

At 0345, Marijke headed down to the galley to brew up a fresh pot of coffee for the next watch. The captain’s watch. I’m an instant coffee kind of woman but I was in the minority on that ship, perhaps because many of the crew were mainland Europeans. The Dutch and Scandinavians and Germans etc often prefer ‘real’ coffee, ‘real’, strong coffee that you can dissolve a teaspoon in and our Swiss captain was such a fan of this evil, paint-stripping brew that he’d gone ashore in Amsterdam and bought himself a new coffee pot. Not for him the heavy-duty ceramic jug that had been aboard the ship forever. No, his was a modern, stylish glass jug and he liked his morning coffee made in it. Despite the benign weather, despite the slow easy movement of the ship as she rolled gently on little Atlantic wavelets, the sexy new coffee jug somehow managed to escape Marijke’s grip, slide across the galley and throw itself on the deck tiles where it smashed into modern, stylish glass splinters. When she reappeared in the bridge, Marijke was stricken.

‘Don’t worry,’ I said. ‘We’ll think of something.’

‘Good morning, Peter,’ I said to the captain when he entered the bridge ten minutes later. Marijke was below calling out her own relief.

‘Ha! Good morning! What is good? Can you believe Marijke has broken my  jug and now I must use this?’ He held up the ancient, indestructible ship-issue jug. ‘The weather is not even bad, the ship is not going up and down so how did she break?’ He leaned towards me and asked quietly, ‘is she stupid?’

I blinked at him in the half-light of the smudgy dawn. ‘Didn’t she tell you?’ I asked.

‘No. What?’

‘Well Peter, Marijke was defending the ship from aliens. She fought them off single-handed and the only weapon she had to hand was your coffee pot. That’s how it got broken.’


‘Yes really. If it wasn’t for her, we’d all be slave labour in underground uranium mines on Jupiter now.’

‘Oh,’ said Peter, chastened. ‘I did not know this. OK then, if she saved the ship from aliens what is the problem with one broken coffee pot?’

‘Exactly,’ I answered. ‘And it died a hero’s death.’

‘A hero’s death eh? Yes, it’s true. Now, you want to stay on duty or hand over the watch to me?’

I wanted to hand over the watch to him, it was his turn, after all. So I did. And then I went to bed and our little vessel sailed on into a new day free of alien invaders and with one Dutch sailor who wondered why she had gone from being in the dog-house to being hailed as the ship’s saviour.


Posted by on June 12, 2013 in Shedward Seawards


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