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.
‘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.