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Rated: ASR · Short Story · Comedy · #2284986
An Amusing Short Story About Altruism And Preconceptions Of Royal Navy Sailors

The constant thump of the loud music being played by the DJ downstairs was competing with the multicoloured flashing lights and the large volume of alcohol I had drunk in a competition to see which could give me a bigger headache and I stood surveying the scene before me, thinking how the tackiness of the carpet seemed to be caught up in a similar competition with the tackiness of the décor. I was standing at the top of the stairs on the upper floor of the Plymouth nightclub called Boobs, known affectionately amongst its naval clientele as Bob's Country Bunker in an apparent homage to the Ackroyd/Belushi vehicle, The Blues Brothers. The upper floor was a location I rarely visited and I was quietly surprised at the number of people squeezed into it where, just like the patrons downstairs, everyone appeared to be engaged in a shouting match with their fellow drinkers, attempting pointlessly to converse over the scream of music being pumped through the high volume, low quality sound system.

I had come up to buy cigarettes, having foolishly forgotten to bring a pack of cheap branded cigarettes from my ship and now stood cursing my poor memory as I prepared to fork out a small fortune on a pack of cigarettes from the vending machine situated right at the top of the staircase. I looked at it and marvelled at the skill of the various drinkers who had managed to balance a varied collection of glasses, bottles and rubbish atop the machine just above the illuminated windows which advertised the particular brand of cigarette available by pressing each corresponding button, naturally after first depositing the equivalent of a down payment on a mortgage.

As I attempted to focus on the slot and successfully jam a coin in, it occurred to me that many of the happy, drunken revellers in the club would no doubt be attempting a similar task later on. I hoped they'd have more success than I was currently having and assumed that for most of them there would be no monetary exchange. I stabbed a coin into the fascia of the machine for the fourth time, like a drunk attempting unsuccessfully to get a key in a lock and as I did so, my attention was drawn away from the machine to the sound of feet thumping up the stairs and shouting that sounded as if it were approaching from the same direction.

Half crouching, coin grasped between thumb and index finger, I swung round and peered through an alcoholic haze into the darkness of the staircase, its nicotine stained walls seeming to absorb light, making the stairs all the more dark and difficult to navigate for the unwary drunk. Halfway up the stairs, silhouetted by the light of the dance floor at the bottom, was a young man of similar age to myself and he was bent forward, clawing at the stairs as he rushed up them, his eyes wide open, mouth agape, painting a clear picture of stark terror on the face of a man obviously attempting to escape something or someone. Beyond him, a crowd of people, frustration and anger on their faces were reassembling after being barged out of the way by him when they then began to step aside and form an opening into which stepped a tall, rotund, heavy set man looking something akin to Big Ron, a character from the television soap opera, Eastenders. He reminded me of an old acquaintance called Dan Dunn, only he was bigger. Much bigger.

I immediately understood why the rapidly approaching bundle of fear was running away from him. What I didn't understand was why his prey had run up the stairs instead of out the exit. The running man stopped at the top and threw his arms up in defeat and frustration, his face a picture of self disgust and resignation to his fate. I presumed he was asking himself the same question but commendably, he refused to give up, casting his eyes furiously around, looking for some way out of the situation and away from the approaching behemoth who was slowly and dramatically ascending the grubby, sticky carpeted staircase behind him. Big Ron appeared to be playing to the crowd, growling as he took each single and deliberate step, arms raised in a mock strangulation pose that wouldn’t have looked out of place in an Ed Wood film. Clearly, Big Ron had seen Plan 9 From Outer Space. If only I’d had a Theremin..

Instead, I became slightly annoyed as Big Ron arrived at the top of the stairs and Mr terrified began to back away from him, barging me further away from the cigarette machine and my desperately needed nicotine fix. As Big Ron began his slow final approach, signalling certain armageddon for Mr Fear in front of me, the sweating jogger began to look about frantically for a way out. His eyes fixated on the rubbish atop the cigarette machine and he reached out quickly, grabbing an empty bottle by the neck, its body uppermost in his hand and with all his might he slammed the bottle down hard with a backwards stroke against the top of the machine. Impressively, despite the force applied to the downward stroke, the bottle refused to smash, instead affording everyone a magnificent view of a real time demonstration of Newton’s third law of motion as the bottle immediately bounced up and away, spinning violently out of his hand, disappearing into the somewhat aggrieved crowd to his left. A sea of heads seemed to turn in unison as everyone present appeared to follow its trajectory. As if to underline his abject failure to maim his opponent with a bottle, a very definite albeit faint, indignant “Oi!” was heard coming from within the watching crowd.

Shaky looked shocked at his own inadequacy and stared intently in disbelief at his empty hand before looking up at a now completely enraged Big Ron who began to approach his intended victim slowly with his hands outstretched again. Watching the show play out before me, I thought how easy it would be to lend assistance and attempt to defuse the situation and yet, being a sailor of the Royal Navy, I knew I was going to do no such thing. Sailors of Her Majesties Royal Navy do not help others…well, not initially anyway. Instead, they will watch and extract the maximum amount of entertainment and schadenfreude from any given situation and THEN offer assistance with as much enthusiasm as they can muster.

It reminded me of several instances in my past where people had been involved in incidents and the watching crowd of sailors had taken no action whatsoever until the laughter had begun to die down. I remembered Leading Regulator John Reidy who had been drinking with some colleagues onboard HMS Battleaxe and woke with a hangover to find the ship was putting in an unscheduled stop to Devonport. He received a call from the Master At Arms to close and land mail The ship had gone to harbour stations ready to go alongside and forgetting this meant the hatches would be closed to protect the ship’s watertight integrity, Leading Regulator Reidy ran up the ladder as fast as his hangover would allow. Unfortunately for him, the closed hatch did not allow him to run any further and as unstoppable force met immovable object, he was reminded that the two cannot coexist in reality and in this particular instance, immovable object won. His journey ended rather abruptly and after smashing his head into the hatch, he fell straight back down again at a faster speed than he had ascended, smashing his coccyx into the deck as he landed. The sound of his interrupted ascent, subsequent rapid descent and howls of agony brought his messmates running from the adjacent mess and on arrival they found John shuffling round in circles like a reinterpretation of Geronimo, one hand on his head, the other on his backside, muttering and groaning in pain. That it looked as if John was performing a painful rain dance did nothing to stem the laughter from his messmates. When the laughter died down, they took him to the sickbay where eleven stiches were applied to the wound on his head.

It reminded me of the time a woman was queuing at the end of the gangway when the ship was opened to visitors whilst alongside in the port of Delfzijl in the Netherlands. The gangway had been brought from a Dutch naval port further north and it was absolutely huge, like a scale model of the Nijmegen road bridge. Being a tidal port, the ship moved often and rapidly without warning as other vessels entered and left the busy port, the wash from their progress shunting the ship back and forth at its’ moorings. People were warned not to stand too close to the end of the gangway as it moved in and out with the ship but one waiting visitor did not heed the warning. We were alerted to her plight by her sudden very loud and agonised screaming which pierced the air, drowning out the sound of the squabbling seagulls ever present in every port. The giant roller on the end of the gangway had rolled completely over both her sandal clad feet and now she stood, arms outstretched in agony, held in place, pinned by tons of steel. The threshold of the gangway meant she was unable to lean forward and as her feet were completely trapped up to the bottom of her shins, she could not lean back or sit down. She simply stood for all the world, arms outstretched like a homage to the crucifixion, screaming for god. The watching sailors laughed. One of them was a medic who did eventually make his way down to the woman, intending to comfort her until she could be extricated from her predicament when the ship moved back out again. As he approached her, he called for someone to bring his medical kit from the sickbay.

“I don’t know about first aid”, quipped one of the watching crewmen. “ but she’s definitely going to need bigger shoes”. This only served to increase the laughter but once it had died down, the medical bag arrived and the medic was at least able to offer pain relief as he and his colleagues waited for the ship to roll out again and free the poor woman.

It reminded me of a casualty evacuation exercise that was carried out on one of my ships when a chef was placed in one of the small spaces where the prop shaft leaves the inside of the ship and enters the water, known as a gland space. He was placed in a Neil Robinson stretcher which allows for vertical handling of a casualty keeping them within the confines of the stretcher so they may be extricated from difficult to reach spaces without exacerbating or adding to their injuries. With one member of the crew keeping an eye, the rope attached to the stretcher was passed up two decks, through a pulley and was then taken up by a line of sailors who were the ships duty watch and emergency party. Once they received the signal to raise the casualty, they applied themselves fully to the task, pulling with all their might. To the uninitiated, It looked like a giant game of ice fishing. Two decks down, the stretcher pad under the head of the fish had got stuck on one side of the small opening in the hatch through which he was to be raised and it had forced his head onto the other side of the hatch opening meaning he could not pass through. Two decks up, the duty watch felt the stretcher come to a stop and could not understand why it would not come any further. Applying the standard remedy of brute force and ignorance they allowed the rope to pay out slightly before yanking hard again in direct competition with the hatch.

Below and out of sight of the enthusiastic duty watch, the chef in the stretcher was almost knocked unconscious as he was pulled repeatedly and forcibly into a hatch he could not pass through, his head butting up against the cold unforgiving steel before the pad stopped any further movement. One deck above him and below the duty watch pulling the rope, the rating keeping an eye on proceedings was watching through tears of laughter, his head following up and down the rhythmic bouncing of the chef in the stretcher as he listened to what he later described as a satisfying series of clunks followed by muffled complaints from the casualty. When his laughing began to affect his ability to breathe, he called up to the duty watch and explained the problem before climbing down one deck and releasing the stretcher pad. The chef was pulled to safety, concussed and bleeding and given medical attention.

Here in Boobs, Big Ron, was very unhappy with Mr. Fear who had just, in more ways than one, lost his bottle. He grabbed his prey by the neck and swung him violently around, like a rag doll, before throwing him back down the stairs he had rapidly charged up moments before. Ragdoll seemed to surf down them on his chest, hitting his chin on every step as he did so, crying out in pain as his head snapped back with each impact. At the bottom of the stairs, the crowd had very graciously moved aside to allow him a landing space on the dance floor where he interrupted the members of five to two club enjoying the last slow dance of the evening, drunken hopefuls pairing off with other drunks, proving that romance is but a skinful away. Big Ron followed him down and I decided I too would go downstairs and meet up with my pal so we could make our way back to our ship. As I reached the bottom of the stairs, the doormen of the club were helping the stair surfer to the door and remonstrating with Big Ron who was clearly not finished with him. I spotted my pal and we both headed for the door, hoping to get a taxi before the rest of the club came out.

As we left the club we were met with a typical scene at closing time as door staff argued with drunks and one in particular who had only minutes before surfed down the stairs, aided by Big Ron. He seemed to be pointing out the carpet burns on his chin to the door staff who thought it hilarious, when he spotted Big Ron coming out of the club in front of us. Discretion being the better part of valour, he turned to run across the road, managing two steps out from the pavement before his progress was stopped suddenly by the bonnet of a passing Ford Escort, slamming him to the road and adding road rash to his list of injuries. At once a large crowd of drunks formed an interested and totally unsympathetic circle around his prone, seemingly lifeless body, looking and eating chips and kebabs as if this were an end of night cabaret. As the female driver of the Escort climbed out of her car, visibly shaking and close to tears, something happened that made me reconsider my opinion of Royal Navy sailors and their propensity to watch and laugh at others’ predicaments. My pal leapt into action without skipping a beat, without joining the onlookers gawping for entertainment and most notably, without pointing and laughing at someone else’s misfortune. “Schadenfreude has no place here tonight” I thought, as my pal began to push his way through the crowd.

“Let us through!” He shouted, his voice thick with arrogance, authority and apparent disdain for onlookers. I was impressed with the immediacy of his action and suddenly felt a little pride seeping into my cynicism “Let us through!” He urged. “We’re doctors!”

At once I turned to look at him, shocked, as the crowd parted to let us through and yet I felt compelled to join him in this farce, this deception, this lie. I glanced across at the woman driver standing by the door of her car looking on anxiously. I thought how she looked relieved that someone was helping, someone was coming to his and her assistance. Maybe, just maybe, I was wrong about sailors of the Royal Navy and I began to feel a little smug that we were taking positive action for an unfortunate victim of circumstance. That I knew they were circumstances of his own making did not matter. Nothing was going to take away my feelings about this moment. She looked almost serene as she waited for the two doctors to administer aid to the casualty that she had just rammed to the floor with her car and reassure her that it was all going to be alright. It wasn’t her fault. It wasn’t her fault that the drunk had run out in front of her as she passed the nightclub, probably driving at a sedate 20 miles per hour.

In front of me, my pal had knelt to the floor and was checking the pulse of the clearly still breathing casualty. Standing up, he slowly shook his head.

“There’s nothing we can do. He’s dead” He announced to the shocked crowd whose gasps of surprise completely drowned out his announcement of the time of death.

The female driver of the car, slumped against her door and began to wail and cry in anguish.

In the background approaching sirens heralded our departure as we stepped back from the crowd and made a hasty retreat from the scene, running towards the taxi rank, me looking back in disbelief at the scene of total bedlam we had left behind us and him laughing uncontrollably. Though he had achieved nothing in the way of actual help and completely wrong footed me, I was at least impressed that he had helped first and laughed afterwards. Perhaps there was hope for sailors after all. Perhaps.
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