Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2284291-The-Professionals
Printer Friendly Page Tell A Friend
No ratings.
Rated: ASR · Short Story · Comedy · #2284291
A short story about my first ever official duty watch in the Royal Navy
The Professionals

As a junior, though I was quite timid, unsure of myself and quite frankly, thick, I have no doubt that I shared these qualities with most if not all of my other classmates. What set me apart from the crowd though, was that I managed to demonstrate this regularly to my class instructors during my training. One day, I gave a practical demonstration to the Quartermaster at HMS Raleigh when, on completion of my passing out parade, I went into Torpoint with my family. We didn't really go anywhere particular, what with me being only sixteen and too young to drink but I enjoyed what was my first time out of the training base without a figure of authority breathing down my neck or ordering me around. It was a taste of freedom and it was a welcome one at that. However, once I had waved my family off at the ferry back to Devonport, I returned to HMS Raleigh and as I walked through the main gate, the smile of contentment and feeling of inner peace was snatched away as I was stopped by the Quartermaster, who demanded to see my identity card

I showed it to him and as I attempted to walk away, he stopped me again and asked why he could not find a station card for me in his box. A station card is a small, colour coded card which contains information about the holder such as name, rank, place of work and which duty watch they belong to. Collecting them in at the main gate from personnel going out, was a way of ensuring the main gate staff knew who was ashore and who was not. Foolishly, I had neglected to hand mine in as I walked out through the gate with my family, believing, erroneously, that since so many people were going out on that particular day and nobody had actually asked me for it, that they were just not bothering with them. Experience, common sense and hindsight were qualities as yet unpossessed by me and now I was stood here in front of Leading Seaman Enraged, who was very quickly joined by Lieutenant Incredulous Disbelief, I suddenly wished I had been a little less neglectful.

They both stood shaking their heads and trying to better the other man's statement of mocking derision that I could have left the base without handing in my station card. Knowing where personnel were at all times, they lectured me, was imperative and a prime concern of the Quartermaster for reasons of safety and security. Ridiculous, obviously unanswerable questions were fired at me in a quickfire demonstration of bad cop and even worse cop as I stood silent and red faced, my head pinging quickly left then right as I looked from one to the other like an unwilling spectator at an angry tennis match.

Eventually, I took advantage of a gap in the unrelenting torrent of competing synonyms for "stupid", mumbling to the floor "I didn't know" :- the stock answer of the junior in trouble. Tweedledee and Tweedledum instantly turned off the tirade, as if suddenly bored. Either that or the ready use store of negative superlatives was depleted and so with a final "next time you don't know, fucking ask!" I was sent away, reeking of shame and relief in equal measure.

A few months later, after completion of part two seamanship training, I was appointed to barrack guard duties along with the rest of my intake which meant I would be working at the very same main gate with the Quartermaster. These duties entailed either patrolling the base in pairs at night, including the disused base across the road, the recently closed HMS Fisguard, or standing in the middle of the road during the day, checking identity cards of car drivers and saluting officers when they drove in. Unfortunately, this particular duty required me to wear an official uniform cape.

This was a waist length rubberized cape with a leather strap attached to the inner lining on either side, enabling the wearer to hold it closed. It was rather like wearing an umbrella and was ineffective in anything stronger than a mild breeze. Experience taught me me that in rainstorms it was neither waterproof nor warm and if anything, when attempting to hold it closed during a storm, it served more as a sail, making standing still or even upright extremely difficult and at times impossible. Marching in it was an absurdly impractical task giving the wearer the appearance of someone hysterically swatting a kamikaze wasp or conducting an invisible orchestra. Capes, I decided, ought to be worn only by priests, nannies and batman.

My first actual watch turned out to be a night watch, which meant a foot patrol and it would be the middle watch, running from 00:00 to 04:00. The Quartermaster came through to the watch accommodation section sited just at the back of his guardhouse and gave us all an unnecessarily loud and aggressive briefing which consisted of a quick exchange of information regarding where to patrol and a warning about standards which like this story was long, rambling and far too serious for it's own good. It seemed to me that every time someone had occasion to speak officially to us, there needed to be a part that conveyed the understanding that they either didn't like us, didn't like the job or didn't like anybody.

There was, he warned, no room in his guardhouse for immature horseplay. We were not to "fuck about" and we were to take our duties seriously. He stressed that as the man responsible for security, we were working for him and he would be watching us with a very keen eye. We were assured that nothing, absolutely nothing, would get past him and the consequences of any nonsense were outlined in no uncertain terms.

After a quick handover of equipment, I signed the patrol log indicating I was leaving the guardhouse along with my companion and we headed off out into the night to complete our first ever night patrol, armed with a steel helmet, wooden truncheon, whistle and torch. We felt prepared. We felt ready to take on anything. We felt proud, responsible and in our prime. We were now proper sailors. We were barrack guard which was almost, practically, ships company!

First, we crossed over the road to the now disused HMS Fisguard. The atmosphere whilst walking round this base was eerie given that it was dark, deserted and silent. Without warning, the silence was broken by a loud smash as my patrolmate tested the strength of the steel helmet he was wearing by headbutting a pane of glass in a window. My stomach lurched in fright and I jumped, thankfully strangling a girly scream in my throat. Strangely, the feeling I had of professionalism when I left the guardhouse quickly ebbed away and I felt instead like an imposter. Ready for nothing and scared of everything. I was suddenly back on Bodmin moor when we had camped overnight during our part two seamanship training.

We had been taken on a map reading exercise by our class Instructor, PO(SEA)"George" Moralee, the walking dictionary definition of an anger management problem. As an introduction to just how angry he was, when we were first assigned to him, he listed what he would put up with and what he would not, the latter being a much longer and detailed list. One of the things he would not put up with was "why" questions. Though I wanted to ask why an instructor would be so averse to answering what would surely be the most frequent question he would receive, I sensibly and successfully fought the urge to ask him.

His aggressive personality had come in handy when our campsite was disturbed during the night by loud noises coming from somewhere close by. Having been woken by screaming, shouting and the general sounds of drunken carousing, we had nervously unzipped our tent flap and peered out into the darkness to witness similar groups of frightened faces gathering at the flaps of their tents in our cluster. All of us members of the British armed forces and none of us brave enough to venture out and see exactly what was going on.

Everyone's attention however was drawn not to the field opposite, full of what appeared to be naked devil worshippers dancing round a fire and chasing the moor ponies, but to the sudden entrance stage left of PO(SEA) "George" Moralee, purposefully striding through the tents towards the hammer house of horror, waving his fists and shouting "You lot, Shut the fuck up and fuck off!" Without doubt, over the course of our Part Two Seamanship training, we determined that though PO(SEA) Moralee had an extensive vocabulary of profanity, his preferred expletive of choice was most definitely "fuck" and all of it's derivatives. He was practically a living thesaurus for obscene language.

Presumably surprised to discover anyone else was there let alone someone brave enough to run across a field yelling and swearing at them, the interlopers did exactly as they were told. George had that effect on people and we often wondered why he had never been a police officer. Having despatched the Bodmin Coven on their way, George put on his tired and angry face, glancing round slowly at all the other faces poking out of their tents which was enough to make everyone pull their heads back in, zip up and go to sleep. It occurred to me that "George" would probably have patrolled HMS Fisguard alone. In bare feet with no helmet, truncheon or torch. For just a second, I understood why he resented trainees but then on reflection it was obvious that he didn't really resent trainees: he resented everyone. Curmudgeon should be replaced in the dictionary, I thought, with Moralee.

As we walked past the deserted buildings in HMS Fisguard, the steady crunch of glass beneath our boots told me that my patrol mate was not the first person to have strength tested a steel helmet against the windows. It seemed to me pretty ironic that the biggest threat to the base was probably the security teams patrolling it, but I worried less about that than I did about the possibilities of ghosts or terrorists jumping out on me from any one of the foreboding and shadowy buildings. As we entered the old gym, It struck me just how spooky an empty swimming pool looks in the dark. We wandered aimlessly around in a general direction of the main gate, shining our torches into long abandoned rooms and hallways, discussing how we would deal with any potential problems, knowing without doubt or admission that we would likely run away as a first response to any incident especially here in the sinister confines of a scooby doo backdrop.

We finished patrolling HMS Fisguard and crossed back over into the well lit and ghost free safety of HMS Raleigh to continue our patrol, remarking that the likelihood of successfully combatting a terrorist attack armed with a steel helmet and a stick was pretty low. If we were attacked by the dreaded IRA or the Red Army Faction, I thought, we could at least whistle for assistance whilst dazzling the terrorists with our torches. The time was just after 00:15 and we would be on watch for four hours, although only on patrol for approximately another thirty minutes.

Five minutes later, swinging our truncheons around like keystone cops and shining our torches into every window we passed, we were discussing how tired and sleepy we were. My patrol mate pointed out that there was an unused accommodation block next to our own and if we just went into the lounge and lay down to sleep on the chairs there, he would set the alarm on his watch for thirty minutes and we could get up, head back to the gate and nobody would be any the wiser. To my sleep starved brain, this seemed like an excellent plan and so we headed off in the direction of the block, entered the ground floor lounge and carefully perused the rows of nineteen fifties upholstered lounge chairs before choosing separate rows - the possibility of being found sleeping too close to another male obviously far more terrifying than being caught asleep on duty. He set his watch for thirty minutes and we laid down on the chairs falling quickly off to sleep.

We were woken rather unceremoniously by two members of our class who were in fact keeping the next watch, the morning, which runs from 04:00 until 08:00. The time was 05:30 and we had effectively been away from the main gate for five and a half hours. We both rubbed sleep from our eyes, the realisation of what had happened was, just like the sunrise outside, slowly beginning to dawn on us both. Immediately I began pacing quickly up and down between the rows, as if exercise was going to get me out of this, saying over and over again "oh shit! oh shit!". My partner in crime was similarly running up and down in blind panic and had started praying, sounding like a sexually satisfied woman that, like us, was well and truly screwed, shouting repeatedly "oh god, oh god!".

The other members of our watch had spoken to the oncoming members at 04:00 and told them we were missing and both watches had been discretely searching for us. Given our location, it was a miracle they found us at all. There was no time for remonstrations with my official timekeeper as we contemplated returning to the gate and our fate. The aggressive warning given to us by the Quartermaster now began to loop like a background noise in my head, increasing my feelings of dread and approaching doom with each replay.

We had signed out at midnight and obviously not signed back in again and our non return had also meant that there were not enough helmets and truncheons to go round. We must surely have been missed. Our classmates told us that the rest of the watch had assumed we had gone to sleep somewhere and had been searching for us but they had not made a report of a missing patrol to the Quartermaster nor his relief who took over at 02:00 and so we were advised to try and walk back in to the guardhouse, right past the Quartermaster as if we were simply returning from patrol, sign back in, hand over equipment and go straight to bed without a word, hoping we would get away with it.

This was exactly what we did. I don't think my heart had ever thumped so hard in my throat as it did at the moment we strolled past the Quartermaster, trying to look nonchalant and in control but in reality quite close to cardiac arrest. As I signed the log to note the time of our return, making up a time to suit us, he didn't even look up from his J T Edson cowboy novel. I thought back to the day of my passing out parade, the dressing down I had got from the Officer and Quartermaster and their comments about safety and security and suddenly I realised I had learnt a valuable lesson.

Not that trusting my colleague to set a watch and get me up when needed was foolhardy. Not that actually going to sleep when I was supposed to be on duty was lazy, irresponsible and ultimately constituted a dereliction of duty, but that the Quartermaster, despite his lofty position, words of warning and threats of retribution for transgressions, was actually winging it just like everybody else. Despite his rigid application of the rules, public display of attention to detail and aggressive projection of authority, he had still failed to notice the fact that one of his patrols had gone out at midnight and subsequently been missing without contact. He had also clearly failed to notify his relief and presumably his superiors. So much for safety checks and security measures. Comradeship and loyalty was definitely going to keep me far more safe than his checks ever were. For the remainder of the watch, I slept the sleep of champions.
© Copyright 2022 matelot (matelot at Writing.Com). All rights reserved.
Writing.Com, its affiliates and syndicates have been granted non-exclusive rights to display this work.
Printed from https://www.writing.com/main/view_item/item_id/2284291-The-Professionals