Just as a change from what I usually write
in this space, and as a tiny self indulgence, this month's feature is a short
story I wrote for the Marine Society short story competition. It won and was
also awarded "Best in Show". The story subsequently appeared in the Marine
Society magazine, but, to my mind WAS completely spoilt by inappropriate cartoon
It was inspired by a tale related to me in a pub
by the former Second Mate of a Ben Line steamer which had been run up the beach
in Taiwan. Starting with a question- what happens next?
he got to the bridge the Captain could smell the heat of the Indian morning. The
odour was a mixture of dried wood, tar, diesel oil and very faintly overlaying
it all, the musky smell of tropical blossoms.
Closer to the
land the smell might be obscured by the overwhelming stench of a million people
living in close proximity to each other.
On the bridge
wing the mate leant on the dodger studying the coast through the mist. He was a
young man, tall with a well trimmed dark beard and the studious air of one who
thinks before he acts. He was a good mate who could be trusted to look after the
ship, the company and if needs be, the Captain.
The Captain knew
that the Mate had a wife and two young children back in Southampton, and at the
end of this day he would be on his way home to join them. Maybe after that he
would have a command. Something more modern than the Eastern Queen.
"Shall I call the
rest of the boys now?", asked the Mate.
queried the Captain.
"OK give them a
few more minutes, and go down yourself for a coffee. I’ll look after things
"Are you sure
sir", asked the Mate. The Captain had never, in the years he had known him, ever
taken a watch or even part of one.
“Yes of course”
replied the Captain “Go on”.
So the old man
was alone on the bridge of his ship, for the first time since he had been mate
of the Eastern Queen. It seemed so long ago. The ship had been new and he had
been a young man. The autopilot clicked away, guiding the ship on a straight
course, but soon the Indian quartermaster would come up and take over, twirling
the brass and mahogany wheel with the confidence derived from years of practice.
But now the Captain was by himself.
The pine deck
planking was still white, thanks to him, scrubbed weekly by the bosun’s squad.
It cost some overtime, so the Superintendents were always moaning but what the
hell. The deck boys polished the brass daily so that their dark faces could be
seen in the shine of the bell. The name was worn, but not polished out. “EASTERN
looked at his own face, reflected in the shining metal. He was grey, old and
tired. He would be going home after today. Was it going home? He had a house and
a wife and a son and a daughter, adults now living in the south. Had he ever had
a home? Had they ever been his family? He thought not. The wife was part of that
exuberance of youth when it seemed that there could be no such thing as failure.
He’d been taking his Mate’s ticket and he’d met her. They had married and then
he had gone back to sea, back to months on the bridge of a ship, not the Eastern
Queen, but a ship.
He had come home
occasionally . They had had children, but his wife had been self sufficient. She
had brought up the kids in a nice detached house in Washington – the one near
Newcastle. He had sent home the money. On his brief periods of leave they had
got on. They had managed. He had no idea how it would be now, and at that
instant the years seemed to stretch out before him like a dusty road.
And then there
was the girl in Vang Tuo. He had no idea what he should think about her. She
seemed to like him, but how could he really tell. Vietnam was a poor country
where some young women found an easy way to keep food on their tables and there
was little doubt that she was one of those. But he liked her and he judged her
to be honest as long as honesty did not conflict with her need to survive. He
had only a hazy idea how their relationship had started.
Eastern Queen had been employed carrying oilfield equipment from Singapore to
Vietnam, mainly because of her fifty ton derrick, and it was this trade which
had extended her life by a couple of years. The Vietnamese ports were just like
the places he had visited as a young man. In the river at Saigon – no Ho Chi Min
City – he reminded himself, the ships lay at buoys in the river with clusters of
barges tied up alongside just like they had in the old days in every port in the
In Vang Tao the
ship could tie up alongside. The oil port was a vast area of quayside more or
less covered with large lumps of metal in various states of corrosion, but from
the quayside it was only a short walk to the main street and the bars. And on a
hot summer afternoon the captain had walked ashore.
It had always
been his habit to collect local crafts. Back in Washington his study was full of
ebony masks from Africa, reindeer skins from Finland, opium pipes from China and
silk painting from Hong Kong. Larger items, including lacquered chests and a
wonderful antique Chinese tallboy had strayed out into other areas of the house.
He had found that Vietnam was a treasure house, full of beautiful lacquer work,
superb copies of western paintings and limitless blue porcelain.
He was making his
way towards a pottery store when he was surrounded by a number of beggars all
exhibiting their wounds and deformities. He was beginning to panic when a voice
rang out behind him and magically the beggars moved away and gave him space. He
turned to find that the voice belonged to a young woman who was sitting at a
table outside a typical Vang Tao bar. It had an open shop front with a couple of
tables and a fridge at the back stocked with beer and Coke. "Big bottle of
Tigger Here" said a chalked sign outside.
The girl had
smiled at him and beckoned for him to sit down. Next thing he knew she was
serving him with a bottle of Tiger beer, first placing a glass on the table
which was so cold that the condensation on it appeared to be frosting. She had
seated herself opposite him, unselfconsciously studying him as he sipped the
beer. That had been the beginning.
strode out onto the port bridge wing and looked shoreward. He could see the
distant outline of the mosques and minarets of the city, and the cranes of the
port, some of them moving slowly as the early shifts got to work, discharging
cars and heavy machinery, loading jute, cotton and Indian finished goods. And
the container gantries servicing ships which would dwarf the Eastern Queen.
The ship raced
northward on the flood tide, towards the beach and its fate.
He had found
himself in conversation with the girl, who was, he knew, young enough to be his
daughter. She had a child herself. A small boy could be seen at the back of the
bar trying to dismantle one of the chairs. She spoke surprisingly good English,
but the Captain did not find this unusual. In all the ports of the world, pimps
and whores and taxi drivers spoke English.
She said that her
father had been executed by the North Vietnamese after the American had gone.
She said that she was married but that her husband had left soon after her son
had been born, and had not returned.
The Captain had
been enchanted by her.
Over to port the
Captain could see the beach and on it the remains of a hundred ships. Up ahead
was the pilot boat. The pilot would know where the Eastern Queen was to be
He went to the
autopilot, narrowing his eyes to see the numbers on the dials as he adjusted the
course. The bow swung in response until the pilot boat was ahead.
Out of habit the
Captain strode out to the bridge wing and stood looking aft. The wake curved in
response to his alteration, a white froth on an otherwise dark blue sea. The
engine beat out a rhythm which had become the rhythm of his life. The old
Doxford still giving good service, still original in nearly all respects, but
now almost impossible to keep going due to shortage of spares. The Doxford yard
had closed many years ago.
What was it all
for, this life? Surely not to give all these years of service to a ship-owner,
and to be repaid by being sent to the breakers with his ship. His communications
with the managing director had been forwarded to the personnel department. Some
jumped up little snot-nose had written back to him.
were sorry to inform him that there would be no other position available in the
company. No other command. They thanked him for his help and hoped that he would
enjoy his retirement. So there it was. At the end of this day both he and his
ship would have been sent to the breakers.
Of course it was
those things. Those container ships. Every single one replaced ten Eastern
Queens. So no matter how sound the ship they were just sent to the scrap heap
The Eastern Queen with its big dirty holds, its old long stroke diesel and its
requirement for forty people to keep it going instead of eight, was just over
He patted the
white pine rail. “Well you and me both old lady”. The big Doxford pounded on.
But the girl in
Vang Tao. She thought he would be returning to see her, with gifts and money.
They had a relationship. They had slept together in the small room in which she
lived at the back of the bar. The Captain had been surprised, by both her
interest and his own enthusiasm.
He had helped her improve the bar. They had chosen a spot on the
wall where they would hang the clock from the Eastern Queen, but now it
all seemed so foolish. He was an old man and they had little in common. She was
just taking him for what she could get. It was one thing to visit the bar when
he was returning safely to his ship, but another to become part of the scenery.
After forty years in one protected environment or another he had a sudden
feeling of insecurity. He tried to imagine himself living in Vang Tao. There
were old French colonial villas in the hills above the town that you could buy
for a song. He had visited one once with her. Even though it had been run down
the old place exuded a charm which he had been almost unable to resist. The teak
boards, the old tiles and the geckos on the walls, clicking and whirring like
run down clockwork, and outside the remains of a beautiful tropical garden. He
had imagined himself out there, shaded from the sun by a broad brimmed
Vietnamese hat, restoring it to its former glory. But no. It was not for him. He
would be better off back in Washington.
The captain rang half ahead on the engine telegraph, swinging the
big handle back and forward to make sure that the bell rang below. It was
answered by the engineers, the small pointer behind the glass aligning itself
with the larger pointer on the outside. He had told the pilot that he and he
alone would give the orders. It would be the pilot's job to indicate the space
on the shore where the ship was to be beached.
The engine picked up speed. The Eastern Queen was now moving
visibly towards the shore. The Captain studied the coast through the binoculars
and made sure he was on the right course. Behind him the mate re-appeared, and
the third mate and then the apprentice. They all stood respectfully at the back
of the wheel house.
"The other officers have asked if they can come up to the bridge
sir" said the mate.
The Captain was silent for a moment . "Yes, OK tell them they
can come up to the port wing – using the outside ladder mind, and tell them not
to get in my way. "Full ahead Third Mate".
The Third Mate grasped the handle of the telegraph and swung it
back and forward against the stop.
The ship picked up speed again and soon she was travelling at her
full fourteen knots, causing a stiff breeze to ruffle the little hair that
remained between the assembled company on the port bridge wing.
The captain was now gazing intently through the binoculars. He
could see a line of hulls looming out of the mist, all of them with their sterns
pointing out to sea and all of them with their bows out of the water. This was
the Alang breakers beach.
The tide had slackened now and the Eastern Queen would be run
aground right on high water. There were forty thousand people dismantling ships
on this beach, and within days some of them would board and start work. They
would begin with the easy stuff and finally cut the hull into sections and drag
them into the sand dunes. There the steel would be transformed into re-inforcing
bars in primitive rolling mills.
"Give her a double ring" instructed the captain and the Third
Mate swung the telegraph so that he felt that the handle might come off in his
The pace of the engine increased and black smoke began to trail
astern. The assembled company now saw that the hulls were in various states of
distress many of them being reduced to no more than steel skeletons, and they
saw that there was a space which might be just the right size of the Eastern
Without saying anything the captain moved to the front of the
bridge and held onto the rail. The group of men on the wing did the same, and
the Eastern Queen steamed on.
The pilot gave subdued instructions for minor alterations of
course to the helmsman who spun the wheel in response. The men on the bridge
were stunned into silence by the sight before them. To port and starboard as far
as the eye could see the beach had been turned into a nightmare landscape of
dismembered rusting hulks and above the noise of the Doxford they could hear the
shouts of the breakers crews, the rasp of the metal cutters and the crash of
steel on steel.
It seemed that an eternity passed before the bow touched the
sand, and then it was all over in a moment. With a great sliding crash the
forecastle rose towards the sky and the ship ground to a halt, the engine
"Stop engines", shouted the captain.
The Third Mate swung the telegraph handle to the upright
The engine stopped. There was silence.
"Well" said the Third Mate, "I suppose that's it then".
"Well I suppose it is" said the Captain.
He thought about the packed suitcase on his daybed and the box
containing the lacquer and the blue pottery. He wondered if there would be room
for it in his study back in Washington. Now his shopping trips would now be of a
more mundane nature. The Metro Centre was the north-east's ultimate shopping
mall with its chain stores, its sports shops and its bingo halls. And the shops
in Newcastle city centre. He thought of the restaurant on the top floor of
Binn's department store where captain's wives maintained strict segregation from
the wives of other seafarers. Would he be expected to sit with them?
He thought of the old colonial villa on the hill above Vang Tuo,
with its dark polished teak floors, empty but for the geckos, and the old
tropical garden which he knew he was meant to restore. There he would have no
need of any reminders of his voyages. He thought of the young woman and the bar,
and the hot dusty street. The Captain sighed and walked into the chartroom. He
looked back to where the Third Mate was just closing the movement book.
get those charts put away" he said, "Oh. And …bring that bridge clock down to
my cabin before you sign off".
VIC GIBSON 2002
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