Saturday, July 10, 2010

All at sea

For a long time now we have been struggling to get some sense out of the prison service, and several other places, about my salubrious past. I'd better explain that statement because on its own it makes little sense. If anyone should know about my past it is me, but apparently I don't know what I am talking about, not according to the prison service anyway.

I had a brother who is now dead - he died of stomach cancer about fifteen years ago. He, like me, had a colourful history. Two men, same date of birth, same initials, same surname - some idiot saw this and decided in his wisdom that they were both the same man. He (or she) understandably lumped both records together and now it is proving impossible to get the authorities to admit that they have made a mistake. Hence the struggle.

When I was young - as the Beatles would have it, "So much younger than today" - I went to sea. Well, I was an adventurous sort of cove, like most youngsters. Sailors are strange fellows. They must be - how else do we explain pirates? In fact we were only one step up from pirates at times. Young men, no morals other than those of a particularly wayward alley-cat, and a conviction that, once out of sight of authority, we could do as we pleased.

Mostly we were around the Medway towns as home port. I went onto several ships, signed on and went to sea. As we all know, water always finds its own level and birds of a feather etcetera. As soon as I joined a ship I just as quickly got in with the worst elements on that vessel, although what we did could be seen more as stupid escapades rather than crimes - though there were plenty of those in various ports.

Let me tell a wee tale to illustrate...

In Chatham we, as a group (a very flexible and changing group), were of course forever chasing the ladies and, being sailors, the ladies we knew were the ladies we met in dockside bars and other dens of ill-repute - the ladies of the night, shall we say? Of course we would have one we considered our girlfriend, although she often left us in the pub while she went out to earn a quick fiver. That never bothered us - as I say, we had no morals.

I am not saying that we lived on immoral earnings, although if a lady of the night bought me a drink today it wouldn't be the first time. I am sure that when we were at sea these ladies would have other boyfriends on other ships - that was in the nature of things. This story is about such a lady, in a way.

One of my pals, and he will remain nameless for obvious reasons, had a girlfriend, a lady of loose morals and knicker elastic, who had a prow on her like a Russian icebreaker. I won't use her name, she may be a long-married grandmother by this time - she will certainly be well into her sixties. I'll call her Bouncy Barbara and, from henceforth, BB. BB was a very pretty girl with this luscious, buxom figure which made lusting young sailors drool - and older sailors too.

One day we were to take a cargo across to Holland, so off we went and, as was the unofficial practice in those days, a couple of us smuggled our girls aboard to come with us. We were only going to be away for less than a week - but if the Old Man had caught us we would all have been looking for a new berth. One of the girls who came with us was BB. I had a girlfriend too, of course, a lady of the night. In fact, never mind the night, she didn't give a toss what time of day it was when it came to dropping her drawers for a quick fiver.

In Amsterdam, whilst we mucky little matelots did our matelot stuff - such as unloading the ship - the three girls went ashore to have a look around and maybe score for a few knee-tremblers here and there - after all, they were working girls! BB met a Dutch Captain in a bar, much older than her of course, and one look at her inviting curves and he was smitten. The first I knew about it was when BB's boyfriend came to me and told me all about it. BB had been to the Dutchman's home - very plush, a safe with a lot of money and other things just asking to be evacuated to England. The best part was that the Dutchman had asked BB to marry him! My pal wanted me to pretend to be a vicar and do the job. BB would go off for a few days' honeymoon with the Dutchman, leaving the house keys with us, and we would strip the place bare. BB would come back, slip off, join the ship and we would all bugger off back to Chatham with the loot, leaving a deserted Dutch husband with an equally deserted house.

This of course is a wicked crime, no doubt about it, but it is also a great adventure and a laugh for young sailors who had no morals. I couldn't do it of course because I would have started laughing before we got halfway through the fake wedding - another fellow did it. We robbed the Dutchman's house, BB legged it from the marital bed and we were on the ship when she was ready to sail back to Gravesend with our loot. We were the toast of The Royal Exchange in Chatham High Street when the tale was recounted later for the benefit of those who hadn't been there and we spent our loot on several days of debauchery.

I was involved in hundreds of such dodgy incidents around the world - pure adventure mostly, although some were a good bit darker and nastier than BB's marriage to the Dutchman. It wasn't always the same people involved, sailors are transient at the best of times, but they were all the same calibre - crooks, and as I say, only one step up from pirates. (We'd have done that too if we could have gotten away with it.)

The point is, all of those men, and women of course, are my age now, or older, and some will probably have passed away. They will all be settled grandparents and if we were to get together no doubt many a laugh would be had about our murky deeds as youngsters. The trouble is, they won't want any of it being brought out and THAT is where I think my problems lie! I've asked several fellows to get hold of people to prove where I was at certain times in the past but everyone seems to be a bit reluctant to talk about any of it. Quite understandable too really - the great majority of those old crimes will still be on an unsolved register somewhere.

I can see their thought processes. They think I must be going to drag it all up again, tell tales out of school. Well, I'm not! All I need is people who knew me between 1963 and 1983 to verify that they were at sea with me and where we were, what ships we were on, that's all. I don't want to discuss anything we might or might not have done.

Life is like a garden that we create. When we first get it, it's a patch of mud and soil. We mess about at first but as time passes we flatten the ground, grow grass over the ugly mud and trim it until it is a nice, neat lawn. Obviously we don't want some prat coming along and digging up the lawn we have created to cover all of our past blemishes and indescretions.

Don't worry. The lawn is safe. I just need someone to verify the facts of where we were in our salad days, not what we did. What we did wasn't so bad anyway, not by today's standards, and we saw it all as more of an adventure rather than a criminal sort of thing. But criminal it was, and it is best left in the past. Maybe one day we can get together, those of us still alive of course, and snigger about it into our grey beards.

The Voice In The Wilderness

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