A short humorous story about a visitor to a Royal Navy warship
| It's not over until the fat lady sings|
The drizzle had been floating down for at least two hours, coating everything with an unrelenting sheen and the cobbles paving the dockside glistened under the stark illumination of the streetlamp, it's orange lustre blanketing the scene with a warm glow. The abandoned sofa on the far side of the road, it's rusty springs nestling among the yellow foam of the torn seats, completed the look of a welcoming firelit lounge. In the dirt between the cobbles, a rough grass had sprung up as if to provide a carpet to soften the impact of the broken glass underfoot and on the graffiti covered brickwork of the wall above the sofa, an advertising hoarding carried the image of a disabled adult wearing a large food stained bib. He was being fed by an elderly hand, offering up a plastic beaker of juice. Its’ owner was unseen and out of shot. The tag line read “How hard can it be to say no to a drink?”. If the passing crowd of staggering, jostling, dancing and in some cases vomiting people on the jetty before me was any accurate measure by which to gauge, I assumed the answer to be “very”. The general decay of the adjacent area was sadly evident in what had clearly once been an industrial powerhouse, now reduced to providing somewhere convenient for visiting ships to dock and spill out their eager crewmen into the streets and bars, ready to take advantage and to be taken advantage of. Such was the existence of the Royal Navy sailor. Carried from town to town and bar to bar by whichever warship they happened to call home.
Here in Newcastle upon Tyne however, there was a slight change to the usual proceedings. The Chiefs and Petty Officers of the senior rates messes were hosting parties and for most of the day, the ship had been abuzz with preparations. The older men of the senior rates messes had swanned around applying the finishing touches to their party plans and the pungent aroma of Brut and Old Spice permeated the ships passageways as the men readied themselves for combat. The bar stocked to capacity, canapés delivered from the ship's galley, cummerbunds on, wedding rings removed or covered up with a hastily applied band aid and the mess stereo cranked up to eleven, the party had started and females had begun arriving at the gangway.
The gangway staff had been joined at this juncture by representatives of the hosting messes who had stood ready to meet and escort attending females through the passageways of the ship to the combat zone and I had started this particular part of my watch after the proceedings had commenced. This meant that I had, fortunately, avoided all the fuss at the gangway with smartly dressed senior rates looking and acting like a lecherous Leslie Philips or belting out the sudden “yak yak yak” of a Sid James laugh in response to a smutty joke as they awaited the arrival of females for the party; pulling at cufflinks, straightening bow ties and nervously smoking cigarettes as they stood around like a bunch of overly excited adolescents about to head off on a first date.
The gangway had remained fairly quiet after the guests had arrived and myself and my bosun's mate had started the watch as we meant it to continue, keeping one eye on the clock and the other, lazily, on security, as a steady stream of visitors came by to have a look at a warship from the safety of the jetty or drove slowly by on the dockside, children or loud jeering teenagers hanging from the windows, shouting greetings or insults, the latter clearly fuelled by bravado or alcohol. Occasionally, someone would walk slowly up the gangway with a look of excitement on their face, following a returning crew member, which would be quickly replaced with a look of disappointment as the crew member entered the ship, but they were turned away at the top. Sometimes they would bring children, begging for a look at our rifles or asking questions about the ship. Questions could be difficult to answer and it was important to remember that sometimes, the answer could have unforeseen or unintended consequences.
On a visit to Liverpool once, during a period where the ship was open to visitors, a civilian teenager had enquired casually at the gangway whether he was eligible to join the Royal Navy. He was told that if he was over the age of sixteen he was of course eligible to join. He thanked the gangway staff for their help and continued with his tour of the ship. No further thought was given to him until hours after the ship had closed to visitors, when he arrived back at the ship in a taxi with his passport and a packed suitcase, walked up the gangway and announced to the bemused gangway staff that he had come to join the Royal Navy. He was informed that the days of sail were over and he had prematurely quit his job and burnt his bridges with friends and family in order to run away to sea. Having been informed he would be required to apply to and attend a recruitment office he had walked dejectedly down the gangway and slowly away from the ship, dragging his suitcase along the ground.
The proximity of the ship to the town centre meant that we were on constant alert for drunken antics, not just from the returning crew but also from the civilians of Newcastle who, we felt sure, would not be able to resist popping along from the town centre for a look at the ship. If nothing else, this would provide a ready audience for the debacle that was about to unfold on the gangway which would entertain many members of the ships company and local population alike, proving that sometimes, the enemy can come from within.
At midnight, the Officer Of the Day and myself carried out a routine patrol of the ship, to ensure security and also to ensure nobody was too drunk or at risk from the adverse consequences of excess alcohol consumption. We stopped by the senior rates messes to remind them that their party was to end and guests should be clear of the ship. The party guests began to leave in a slow stream, some accompanied by their hosts, others bored and heading home or in some cases towards town to carry on drinking in one of the many public houses and clubs. When we returned to the gangway, the steady stream of drunk women leaving the ship was mixed in with the drunken members of the senior rates messes. A number of taxis began arriving and leaving as various groups of people left.
The routine ending of a party then, with some lucky ones escorting females away from the ship, some perhaps exchanging contact details or arranging further meets and others wistfully standing at the guardrails, smoking and watching their drunken efforts at snaring a local female, walk away unsteadily into the night accompanied by other equally unimpressed females or other, smoother colleagues who had swooped in and stolen their target for tonight.
Then, the screen door opened and two petty officers stepped out, shakily, into the night air, followed by a female. I say female however given her clothing, appearance and the darkness of the area, this was, at the time, an assumption on my part. “She” was taller than both of them. In fact she was taller than all of us and seemed to be wearing a very long, very thick overcoat. She reminded me of undercover elephant, without the mask. I hoped she wasn't half as drunk or belligerent as the two petty officers that preceded her as she would definitely have presented a challenge to myself and my bosun's mate in managing her if things turned ugly. Well, uglier anyway.
The top of the gangway was lit by a floodlight suspended from the bulkhead and as she stepped into the yellow cone of illumination, I was able to get a good look at her. I noted that she appeared to be wearing pyjamas and a pair of somewhat grubby carpet slippers, predating the current trend for lazy women to leave the house attired in their nightwear by some twenty years, making her a trendsetter if nothing else. Behind me, the two petty officers had begun to grapple with each other in a physical fight, apparently over the gargantuan.
It seemed they had both harboured romantic aspirations as far as this woman was concerned. Her thick woollen overcoat, comfortable choice of footwear and, now she was stood under the bright unforgiving light of the gangway spot, apparent five o' clock shadow, had clearly driven them wild with desire and as they slurred drunken threats at each other, I stepped in and separated the two of them. The Officer Of the Day ordered them to stop fighting and go back to their mess and fortunately for everyone, their ardour cooled along with their tempers and they both complied, returning through the door and presumably to their mess without giving she-ra a second glance. “This is fuckin’ embarrassing”. She uttered in a thick, manly, geordie accent through the cave on the front of her head. This surprised all of us as previously she had seemed as devoid of speech as she appeared to be of shame.
It is at this point worth mentioning the type of gangway in use. Usually, a large framed, steel gangway would be used in a dockyard however since we were not in a dockyard we were using our own ship to ship brow which is a smaller lightweight aluminium gangway, assembled on board and used to cross between ships, hence the name. It was, however, also used in situations were no other brow was available and the freeboard was low enough to reach the jetty without fear of the tide affecting it. The brow was then, by its’ very nature, more flimsy than a standard dockyard supplied gangway and though it retained an inherent tensile strength, it could also be viewed as somewhat rickety.
Trogg started down this gangway, which shook and rattled under her weight but though I had faith in its’ ability to carry her weight, I had a little more concern about how it would carry her girth and I was puzzling as to just how she had managed to navigate the brow on arrival when she suddenly jerked to a complete stop and cried out in frustration, complaining she was stuck. Our collective smirks disappeared when we realised she actually meant it and we marvelled at how well the gangway coped with our collective weight as first I and then my bosun's mate warily made our way gingerly down the gangway towards the obstruction and between us we pushed and shoved at this bear in an overcoat, in a futile attempt to free her. Our considerable efforts achieved nothing. Her huge circumference was well and truly jammed, somehow wedged tight between the aluminium stanchions of our temporary brow. I stood back, surveying the scene before me, wondering how much pressure could be applied to the stanchions before they gave way. The strain must have been immense and yet still they remained intact, somehow, under the application of such a continuous physical force. I expected to hear either the crack of a snapping aluminium bar or her cries for help as she fell through the slowly bending bars into the under slung safety net below.
Seeing that this woman was not coming free, I looked past her to see a collection of returning crew members gathering at the bottom of the gangway along with a small crowd of civilians, all of whom obviously found the woman's predicament extremely hilarious. The waiting party guests at the top of the gangway began making complaints and urging us to “do something”. Some of the crew members waiting on the dockside now began shouting drunken insults and more than a few of them, recognising the city as the location for the filming of the seventies Michael Caine vehicle, Get Carter, began shouting quotes from the popular gangster film.
“You're a big man but you're outta shape” was enough to start the tears flowing and suddenly I felt a little sympathy for our gangway obstruction.
During really quiet and tedious watches, I had resorted at times to actually reading the Quartermaster’s Book of Reference (B.R.) and despite the wealth of knowledge contained therein, I knew there was definitely no instruction for extricating overweight people from a gangway. The Officer of The Day was even less useful as he had resorted to entertaining the waiting guests at the gangway with tales of his Hong Kong deployment some years previous. I knew I would get no assistance there. I told my bosun's mate to try and get to the other side of her to see if applying force from two different directions might make a difference. Without hesitation he slung his SA80 service rifle over his back like a rucksack and hopped over the flimsy rails of the gangway.
There was a sudden and very loud collective “WOOOOOOO!” of encouragement and appreciation from the watching crowd when he did so and as he looked sideways at his newly formed fan club, a smattering of applause broke out amongst the appreciative and obviously easily entertained group of watching drunks. He grinned briefly and then, holding on for dear life, he edged his way past our Alf Roberts look-a-like, the gangway rocking intensely as he pulled and struggled to get past her. Having cleared the obstruction, he effortlessly flipped back over the rails to the relative safety of the gangway and the crowd of watchers again, applauded his efforts.
There now began an intense period of pushing and shoving, both from my end, my hands set against her bulk, pushing with all my might and him pulling from the other in a similar fashion, mixed in with insults from the crowd and groans of discomfort, embarrassed cries and squeals of displeasure from our temporary gangway resident. Some of the braver members of the audience had begun to make their way up the gangway to afford assistance when amongst all the grunting and groaning there was a slight ripping sound followed by a creak then a sharp crack as something came loose and like a cork from a bottle our errant visitor shot free from her very public shame and flew down the gangway at a speed her bulk had definitely never experienced previously.
Briefly, it looked like THAT scene from the cinematic epic, Raiders of the Lost Ark, as the terrified people attempted to flee for their lives back down the gangway. Sadly, unlike for Indy, there was to be no escape and as our former prisoner bumped, jogged and then rolled uncontrollably down the gangway, she cleared all before her, violently flattening my bosun's mate against the foot treads of the gangway and knocking the ascending helpers to the floor in an uncontrolled landing that would have impressed any Hollywood stuntman and probably startled someone at the British Geological Survey.
The crowd of well wishers on the jetty stood open mouthed in silent shock for a second before loud, raucous and hysterical laughter broke out. Unable to step ashore because I was armed, I stepped along the gangway and helped my dazed bosun's mate to his feet and we returned back up to the ship, turning to see the crowd standing over the now prone and seemingly unconscious woman lying on the ground in a puddle of vomit helpfully left by an earlier visitor. I telephoned the switchboard and asked them to call an ambulance to the ship and then send the duty first aider to the gangway.
The ambulance must have been sitting somewhere near, as it approached the ship a scant few minutes later and pulled up alongside the gangway, it's blinding emergency strobe lights illuminating the scene like a blue stop motion animation. Stepping out of the cab, the crew gave a very real time demonstration of a louche attitude to an emergency as they strolled, hands in pockets towards the prone, overcoat clad mass lying motionless and seemingly lifeless on the cold, greasy cobbles of the jetty. They had clearly seen it all before and remained completely unimpressed by the scene that met them as they squatted down, examining their new patient and asking her questions. Eventually, with a strength that belied their rakishly thin build, the two paramedics hauled the poor woman onto a trolley which they then manhandled into the ambulance and after a few minutes, one of them got out of the ambulance and came up the gangway.
“There's nothing wrong with her.” he said, shaking his head slowly. “She told us what happened and she was just embarrassed so we're gonna give the bonny lass a lift home.” I assume he employed that word “bonny” ironically. As the paramedic stepped back down the gangway towards the ambulance, The Officer Of the Day, myself and my bosun's mate all looked at each other. No words were spoken or needed but there was a collective “wow” in the air as the ambulance drove slowly away into the night and a feeling of disappointment that, although the incident was over, the fat lady had definitely not sung.