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Rated: E · Short Story · Military · #2284282
A short humorous story about joining my first warship in the Royal Navy
Meeting the Grim Reaper.

I was fortunate at the completion of my gunnery training, to receive a type 22 frigate as a first draft. By comparison to other types of ship in the fleet, they were, I was assured, like a floating hotel as opposed to a floating museum and so I was fortunate not to be going to a Type 12 or Leander class frigate like the rest of my class. When I went on draft from my training base I did so with an air of trepidation like everybody else but also with a feeling of excitement. Type 22 frigates were the latest addition to the fleet and were the most modern ships the Royal Navy had. I would, I was told, have plenty of opportunity to practise my gunnery and put all I had learned in my training to good use, utilising the most modern equipment the fleet could deploy.

I managed to fit in a weekend leave home before I joined the ship and unfortunately, on my return journey I was delayed in London and so only managed to catch the last train to Plymouth, arriving at a ridiculously late hour. I caught a taxi to the ship and struggled up the gangway with all my kit to be met by the Quartermaster, who, after checking my identity card, told me to follow his Bosun's mate who would show me to the gunner's mess and wake the duty Stores Accountant. The Stores Accountant I was informed, would come along to the stores to issue me with some bedding for the night. The stores were fortunately situated directly beneath the gunner's mess so all I had to do was await the arrival of the SA at the gunner's mess and I would get a bed for the night.

The plan went to pieces almost immediately when, loaded down with my entire kit issue, I was unable to sprint along the waist of the ship in pursuit of the Bosun's mate who, like Lewis Carrol's white rabbit, had disappeared down a hole. With no hookah smoking caterpillar to assist me, I stood, rather idiotically in the wide space of the first corridor inside the door, he had disappeared into, staring along it's length and at the multitude of doors either side of it, stretching into the distance like the sands of Ozymandias. I hoped the white rabbit would realise his mistake and come back for me so I stood apprehensively, surrounded by my kit, looking like an overloaded but hopeful blind date left standing outside the cinema.

I could have gone back to see the Quartermaster, however I didn't fancy staggering back with all my kit only to find my date had turned up and having to stagger back again. Besides, I felt foolish and suddenly very stupid for carrying so much kit and I also suspected that I might get shouted at and didn't fancy that either. It would be a few months yet, before I realised that I was no longer a trainee, but a working member of a ship's company and though I would still be shouted at for making mistakes, I would also be laughed at, laughed with, educated and treated as one of the crew rather than an unwelcome irritant.

Standing here in the middle of the night though, I was most definitely not one of the crew and probably would be seen as an unwelcome irritant, especially I suppose, to the duty SA who was probably being woken as I stood rather awkwardly awaiting the return of the white rabbit. Reading the information on the noticeboard attached to the bulkhead in front of me, I decided I would follow one of my father's extremely rare pearls of wisdom. "If you get lost", he said, "stay where you are and let people find you". In the weeks ahead, I would discover that this tactic didn’t usually work on warships although it was about to work here.

Suddenly, at my feet, a head appeared at the hatch in the deck. It was the white rabbit.
"There you are!" he said, wearily. I got all the way to the bloody gunners mess before I realised you weren't with me". Being typically British, I apologised as if it was my fault he had run off without me. His head popping up through the hatch reminded me of a minor incident at my previous base, HMS Cambridge, just before I left it.

I had worked for the quartermaster, keeping main gate duties on completion of my gunnery training and it was an experience that definitely had its’ more outlandish moments. One day whilst on duty, I was directed to make a broadcast for a civilian worker to come and take a telephone call at the Establishment Control Centre or ECC. The worker was a member of the dining hall staff who could be described politely as living an alternative lifestyle. He was scrupulous about the use of table cloths, preferring a gingham check and would ensure there were flowers on every table. Though I knew him by sight, I didn't know his name. Not only was I about to learn his name, he was about to give me a short, angry and very loud lesson in the correct pronunciation. His name, I was told, was Mr De'ath and the Quartermaster told me that I should instead make a broadcast for Mr. Death, for a laugh. Baiting people seemed to be a regular pastime of most sailors of Her Majesty’s navy. Though initially I balked at this, I was assured this was not going to be a problem and he would see the joke. He also said if there was any comeback that he would deal with it. I was then ordered to get on with it and make the broadcast. I took the microphone in my hand, depressed the button and in my best gunnery voice, I made my first ever broadcast on the ECC broadcast system.

"Mr Death! telephone call, ECC. Mr Death!" I said, cheerily. At the indoor end of the ECC, there was a small hatch which could be opened to afford access for personnel to receive telephone calls without having to go outside the building and around to the door to enter the ECC and so I opened the hatch and placed the telephone next to it.

As I placed the telephone, I looked through the hatch and noted the slight juddering of the double doors beyond as if they were reacting to an unseen force pushing them and it reminded me of daily tea breaks during our training down at the medium range where, enjoying a mug of tea and a pasty, we would see the metal framed windows of the NAAFI shudder and hear the glass rattle in the frames as each medium range gun blasted it's 4.5" shells seawards towards their targets, the accompanying rythmic booms becoming merely background noise along with the rapid clatter of the close range weapons as the business of gunnery became a routine occurrence to us. I then heard behind the doors, what seemed like the sound of a rapidly approaching stampeding elephant, making it's way down the stairs. If I'd known what was actually coming, I would have closed the hatch rather quicker than I had opened it.

The double doors beyond the hatch suddenly burst forward with such brute force that I half expected to hear Michael Caine shout THAT refrain and I was very much taken aback as what I would describe as a five foot tall doppelganger of Steven Berkoff burst through the doors looking every bit, to coin a phrase, like a maternally enraged gorilla, albeit, mercifully, a fully clothed one. HMS Cambridge had it's fair share of eccentric people, some of them angry and some of them just downright bizarre but the sight before me was most definitely a new visual experience. His face was contorted in a twisted look of rage and I would say that puce would be a good starting point in attempting to accurately describe his colour. The veins on his temples stood out in a cliched look of complete apoplexy and in the absence of any other supporting evidence, I assumed he was angry about something.

As he stepped forward, chest heaving with a noisy mix of breathlessness and rage, I recognised him as the man from the dining hall and was actually pleased to be able to put a name to a face. That name, was about to be confirmed to me in a manner that I found simultaneously impressive and disturbing. He thrust his head through the hatch, his eyes manic and I noticed a pebbledash of spittle dotted around his tightly pursed lips. I half expected him to scream "Here's Johnny!"

The angry head began to take on a darker hue of puce and finally his mouth opened as he took in a long breath. Impressed at the length of time it took, I wondered for a second whether he'd ever been a free diver. As his breath slowed and his lungs filled to capacity there was a split second of tension before the volcano blew and when it did, It seemed the windows of the ECC buckled, like the NAAFI windows down at the range during the days gunnery. The veins on his temple bulged almost to breaking point as he screamed at the top of his voice...

" My name is Deeyath!" Then, impossibly, even louder "DEEYATH!" His eyes protruded from their sockets like a drowning man struggling for air as he accentuated the apparent apostrophe in his name. Then, a staccato outburst as he very helpfully spelled it out for everyone. Given the volume of his voice, this meant many residents of Heybrook Bay, a small coastal village just beyond the base, were now satisfied that they too had the correct spelling and pronunciation.

"D, E, APOSTROPHE, A, T, H" He screamed. I assumed there was a very patient, understanding person on the other end of the phone. Either that or they'd hung up. Given the inexplicable violence being played out before me, I silently prayed it was the former as I fought against the rising urge to laugh. Then, almost as soon as the angry crescendo reached it's peak, the outburst receded and Mr. De'ath stood silently, glaring at me like a defiant teenager through the hatch, his eyes ablaze and his face a pink, sweaty sheen. He picked up the telephone handset and in a shockingly easy, sudden change of temperament, he said softly and politely into the phone " Hello?" He listened impassively for a few seconds before passing the handset back through the hatch. "Wrong number" he said, resigned, before turning curtly on his heel and stepping quickly away and through the double doors. I wondered what the odds would be that someone had mistakenly telephoned a military base on an isolated cliffside in Devon whilst attempting to contact a different Mr De'ath.

I spun quickly round and looked at the quartermaster, leaning back in his high chair, feet up on the desk, hiding behind a copy of Navy News. I assumed he found something funny as the paper shook back and forth, vibrating as if he were attempting to shake out a fold in the centre pages. He obviously knew what the civilian worker's reaction would be and had clearly found the whole experience totally expected and completely hilarious. I wondered how many others had fallen victim to this prank and now, sympathised a little with Mr De'ath as I mulled over how many times he had been called to the ECC with a false call for Mr Death, and his ire became completely understandable.

Back on the Battleaxe, the white rabbit came up the rest of the ladder and in a thick cornish drawl said " 'ere let me get one of your bags", before picking up my suitcase, and starting back down the hatch. His progress was slower this time and he waited at the bottom of the ladder for me to descend before we continued along an even longer corridor than the one above. This corridor, I was told helpfully, was known as the main drag, or Burma way, and actually ran the entire length of the ship, practically from stem to stern. Over the next three years I would become very familiar with every deck tile, light fitting and fixture, but for now, I walked along, dragging my kit staring up and down at everything like a tourist and trying to keep up with the white rabbit who had now given me his name, "Pusser" Hill. Like a proud homeowner, he pointed out various locations as we passed them along the way until eventually we went down a ladder and into the confines of the gunners mess. As I put down my bags, he added my suitcase to the pile and said "see you later mate" before disappearing back up the ladder. I stood awkwardly, amongst the pile of bags, wondering what was going to happen until a few minutes later, a yawning sailor came down the ladder wearing a crumpled blue uniform, spectacles and a very unhappy look on an obviously tired face.

"Follow me mate" he said. We both descended another ladder where he unlocked and entered a metal door and grabbed a small accounting book, asking me to sign where he indicated before passing me a set of bedding. I muttered a very muted thank you and turned to go back up the ladder with my pile of bedding, the tired SA muttering behind me as I went back up. I was met at the top of the ladder by an older man wearing nothing but a pair of boxer shorts and a gold chain around his neck. He introduced himself in a mancunian accent as Leading Seaman Barlow and then very kindly showed me to where I would be sleeping. He pointed out an empty bed then got into the bed opposite before very curtly and abruptly sliding across his curtain without another word. I placed all my things on the deck at the end of the sleeping compartment, quickly made up my bed, undressed and got into it. It seemed I was now in a world populated with the helpful disinterested and the friendly irate. I had arrived in the fleet.
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