Monday, 11 September 2017


4. Friends

Corky took Jack to football practice. The team were struggling to get players and they didn't really train, just contenting themselves to have a kickabout. Most of the team were 17 to 25-year olds, but there were a couple younger and a few older. One boy Karl was only fifteen, which wasn't allowed because the minimum age was sixteen to register for the league. As the team were often short of numbers, they registered him and lied about his age.

Jason was coming round frequently, but with Jack friendly with Corky and Josh friendly with Gerald, he inevitably ended up talking to Joel. Joel was fine with it at first but it was getting to be every night and although Jason was a useful source of information, Joel was beginning to get irritated by the boy's constant presence. He couldn't bring himself to be rude because Jason had been helpful when they had moved in and was always well behaved.

Joel did enjoy the way Jason spoke to him almost as a peer rather than as an adult. Most teens clammed up in the presence of an older person but it didn't seem to bother Jason. It was a little uncomfortable for Joel when Jason spoke frankly about sex and drug taking though. He found himself opining on it not being a good idea without sounding like a hypocrite, it was difficult as Joel had done everything he advised Jason not to do.

Josh and Gerald would go straight upstairs and play on the Playstation shutting themselves out of the way. They preferred it that way because nobody had any reason to go up to Josh's room with the second toilet and bathroom being on the floor below. Already the boys had started scheming as to what they would do on Friday night when Josh knew Gerald would be allowed to stay over. Gerald produced a small pouch of tobacco.
"Do you smoke?" he asked.
"Not that stuff" Josh said meaning he didn't like hand-rolling tobacco though he often shared a 'tailor-made cigarette with his old friends where his mother lived.
"I can get some weed" Gerald said conspiratorially.

Josh had tried it twice but only after he had been drinking with his friends and both times he had been sick. Not wanting to appear soft or 'uncool', Josh didn't say about his bad experiences with it. Nor did he mention that his brother smoked and Josh could have raided Jack's room there and then whilst he was at football practice. Jack didn't know his brother smoked at all. Josh had caught him one day and said what a retard he was for 'smoking that shit'. He hadn't told his father though.
"Yeah?" Josh asked trying not to sound disinterested or disgusted.
"I'll bring some round on Friday night if you want" Gerald promised.
"Yeah, because dad will be at the pub and bro' will be on his computer or playing pool with Corky. He wouldn't say anything anyway, we'll just have to blow the smoke out the window." Josh said with feigned enthusiasm but secretly hoped Gerald would forget.

Joel and Jason were playing pool when there was a knock on the door. Joel answered it and saw a youth about Jason's age stood there. On the street was a car with two other youths in it and the engine was still running.
"Is Jason there?" the boy asked looking a little agitated.
"Yeah sure, I'll get him" Joel said and went back to the front room.

Jason went to the front door then came back and said he was going out. Joel was glad because he would have been loathe to leave Jason unattended in the front room having not yet established a trust of the boy and Joel had things to do before Jack came back. Jason and the other boy got into the car and the tyres squealed as it pulled away at speed. Joel watched it go thinking 'bloody boy racers' as it disappeared down the street not bothering to slow down for the speed bumps.

With Jason gone, Joel went up to the spare room Josh had earmarked for his Warcraft games and emptied the remaining boxes left over from the move. He sneaked a casual look in on the boys each time he collected another box and saw them playing a racing game on Josh's Playstation. Seeing the boys were occupied, Joel went back downstairs and rolled himself a joint with the weed Corky had bought for him. Joel had begun smoking casually with a friend from his village when he was fourteen years old. Like so many of his friends he began to smoke in earnest a couple of years later to temporarily blot out unpleasant memories.

He was fortunate he hadn't gone the same way as some of his friends who dabbled with other things and were now just a distant memory. Drinking had a similar effect to smoking but Joel often ended up in bar-room brawls when younger. At least smoking made him less volatile. He had given up smoking whilst he was married but the divorce had hit Joel hard and he started again. Reality was just too painful sometimes. It was difficult to understand how things from his childhood were still so difficult to live with. The wounds may have healed but the scars remained.

Joel didn't know if Jason smoked but suspected he might. Nevertheless he didn't want to smoke in front of the boy even in the knowledge it was more the norm than the exception in this street. He had just lit up when there was a knock on the door. A lad about Josh's age was stood there and Joel thought it was another boy his son had befriended. He was about to call Josh but the lad asked for Jason.
"He left about ten minutes ago" Joel told the boy.
The lad looked past Joel as though he didn't believe him.
"Can I use your toilet I need a crap?" the boy asked suddenly.

Surprised at the request and a little suspicious, Joel couldn't really refuse and went to show the boy where the toilet was.
"It's alright I know where it is" the boy said.
"You been in here before?" Joel asked puzzled.
"No, I live two doors away and the houses are the same. Jason's my brother"
"Why can't you crap in your own house then?" Joel asked with confusion growing.
"Mum's out and I can't get in" the boy answered as he went into the toilet.

Joel left him to do what he needed to do. The boys' name was Paul and Joel later learned off Jason his mother didn't trust Jason's younger siblings in the house when she was out. Paul finished what he had to do and went back into the street. It was getting on for 9:30 pm and the street was still full of young kids. Joel wouldn't have thought anything of it had it been a weekend but it was a schoolday the next day. He did reason that the kids on the street were probably excluded or expelled but still felt it was wrong.

It wasn't too long after Jack and Corky returned from football with the two younger Crick brothers. The four of them played pool while Joel carried on putting stuff away. Joel called up the stairs to Josh that Gerald would have to go home in half an hour. The other boys stayed until nearly midnight before the Crick boys left, Clicky had just turned sixteen and was one of the few in the street who actually went to school. Corky stayed a bit longer and smoked with Jack while Joel played cards on the internet rather than get into another hypocritical debate with his son.

It had been another quiet night by the streets standards but none of the Phillips knew it was just the calm before the storm.


2. California Dreaming

The plane touched down with a jolt and Joel was awake instantly. In the early days at sea Joel enjoyed flying, in fact he would often choose a ship to join simply because it involved air travel to get there. He had long since tired of the experience though and generally deprived himself of sleep beforehand so he could nap through the flight. This time he hadn't made a conscious effort to stay awake before the flight, the send off party did that.

Joel grinned as he thought of the night before then winced. He had a stinking hang-over but at least he hadn't been arrested like several of his friends. He had landed in Los Angeles a place he visited twice before, both times with positive experiences. Perhaps one of Joel's chief assets was the ability to fit in. It was a far cry from his schooldays when even Joel himself began to think he was a freak.

The sea had brought the boy a new popularity or perhaps it was because he had become a man, Joel didn't feel any different and there wasn't any drastic changes in appearance or attitude. He shrugged deciding it wasn't his problem. Was that arrogant? Perhaps that was the problem. Nah! Couldn't be, or at least he didn't see any way his behaviour at school could equate to arrogance. Quite the reverse.

Joel did regard his temporary hosts with a condescending air. He had a love-hate relationship with Americans. He loved Americans in America but hated them anywhere else in the world. There had never been a problem with Americans on their home soil but abroad there had been several conflicts. The chief problem was how they epitomised those very things Joel despised most.

Braggarts always made Joel bristle. It was as though wealth was some kind of status symbol and it brought back bad memories of Joel's peers at school. Joel didn't like pretentious people either. You are who you are, no child can be held responsible for his / her roots. Affected speech or mannerisms particularly irritated. In Joel's mind Americans were gullible, they would have to be to believe the ridiculous advertising, conniving lay-preachers, and all manner of others who beg for money on television. Funny, it is hard to visualise God being strapped for cash.

Nor did he mind they didn't understand sarcasm which Joel often used to great effect for humour. Joel always insisted it was irony not sarcasm, but those who knew him would beg to differ. That was their problem! Arrogant or not there was no doubt Joel had developed heightened cynicism due to events in his life so far, and this little jaunt to 'find himself' dowsed a lit fuse just before it reached the powder keg. Joel had to get away or there would be an explosion. It had been five years since Joel packed in the merchant navy to get married. Now with the divorce the shackles were off and the wanderlust had returned.

Joel had no idea of the geography of Los Angeles despite the two previous visits. It had largely been hanging around the dock area or the organised trips to Anaheim and Disneyland. It had been a lot of fun with friends from the ship but Mickey Mouse held little appeal now. Clearing customs and retrieving his baggage without incident, Joel looked at the large number of signs being held up by people in the arrivals area. Didn't anybody know the person they were meeting?

Arrangements had been made for Joel to stay with a colleague of his brother who worked at the LA branch of the international company. Joel's brother had given him strict instructions not to do anything to embarrass him. The brothers didn't really get on at all and the temptation for Joel to 'play-up' was great. Joel had saved his brother a beating by thugs on more than one occasion, only because said thugs knew of Joel's reputation. The only saving grace was remembering his brother owning up and taking the beating off his father for something Joel had done. It was the bravest thing he had seen his brother do. It also served to show that despite the siblings surface hatred of each other, there is little either wouldn't do for the other in times of crisis.

More by luck than judgement Joel saw the hand-written sign bearing his name and smiled. The man holding it was similar in age to Joel's brother and not really his idea of a stereotypical American. The warmth of the welcome didn't surprise Joel at all, it was one of the things he liked about America. He had only visited the coasts but the hospitality was perhaps something the somewhat apathetic English could learn from, yet in many cases it seemed forced or insincere. If you say 'have a nice day' to everyone it loses impact.

As the man asked a series of questions during the drive Joel answered without thought. He was barely listening in truth, having become absorbed with the sights and signs of the city. The man seemed satisfied with the answers but in retrospect it was actually quite rude of Joel. He would be staying with the man and his wife in a small suburb of LA called Seal Beach. Joel liked it better when he had time to investigate a new place. Often in the past many places had been mere whistle-stop tours and there was no time to meet the 'real' people.

Joel's visits to America had taught him little and he regarded Americans as he did Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders, just members of the extended English family. That should put him in good stead for what was to come!

The last part of the car journey was along a beautiful looking beach and Joel's California dreaming had begun.

Salad Days.14

If I thought of the Panama Canal as heaven, the Suez Canal was the gateway to hell, at least it felt that way for me. I was fascinated by Egypt and the ancient monuments such as the Sphinx and pyramids. Port Said had none of those. I would find out on later voyages it was a very typical North African port. One point of interest however, is the fact Port Said is one of only two cities in the world that span two continents as Africa meets Asia. The other is Istanbul spanning Europe and Asia.

The only real memory of Port Said wasn't a particularly good one. Four of us were ashore and a gang of kids followed just as they had in South America. These were more vocal though and knew a little English. Maybe they only knew one phrase which they repeated over and over "Give me money, give me money". There were about a dozen kids ranging in age from about 6 to 14 years old. I could see the guys I was with getting agitated, so I stepped in.
"I know a trick to get rid of them" I said softly and collected all the coins we had between us.

Throwing the coins in the air, we hurried away. When we looked back I was shocked at what I saw. In Peru as soon as a kid touched a coin it was his, regardless of age or size. These Egyptian kids were punching and kicking each other, the bigger kids taking the coins from the smaller ones. We watched the mass brawl I had sparked with the gesture and the guys I was with looked at me in disbelief.
"Wow! You are ruthless" one said.
"But I.... but...." I struggled for words as I realised the other crew members thought I knew a mass brawl between the kids would take place.

In Suez we had to take the 'bum-boats' on board. I asked an AB why they were called 'bum-boats'
"Because the Suez Canal is the arsehole of the Mediterranean" he said.
"And we're just passing through?" I ventured but he didn't get it.

I'm not really sure what purpose the bum-boats were as I was never on watch to actually see them serve any purpose. I was told they were something to do with the pilotage through the Canal. All I knew was the ship had been taken over by Egyptians trying to sell all manner of things. There were copper looking ash-trays but in time the sheen wore off. All the goods were poor quality but for us younger crew members they were invaluable mementos. We were told to keep the Egyptians out of the accommodation because they would nick anything that wasn't nailed down.

Walking past the deck-boy's cabin we looked in and saw the boy with his trousers round his ankles and an Egyptian guy with a tape measure knelt in front of him.
"What's going on?" the AB I was with asked.
"He's measuring me up for some underpants" the deck-boy replied.
"He's feeling you up for a cheap thrill" the AB snorted then turned to the Egyptian "Fuck off, not allowed here!"

The Egyptian guy made a hasty exit and the AB told the boy to pull his pants up and get up on deck.
"And lock your door unless you want to lose all your stuff"

It was about an hour later we went back into the accommodation and saw the deck-boy had not only forgotten to lock his door, he left it wide open.
"Give me a hand" the AB said.

We stripped the deck-boy's cabin, even taking his mattress and the light bulbs, and stowed all the stuff in the laundry room locker. When the deck boy saw his cabin had been ransacked he burst into tears and I started to feel sorry for him but was stopped from telling what really happened. 'It will do him good' the AB had assured me and we kept it up for two days before giving the boy his stuff back. He didn't thank us.

One Egyptian guy who was allowed in the accommodation, under supervision, was the Gilly-Gilly man who called himself Jock McGregor. He could mimic Scottish, Scouse and Cockney accents depending where the ship was registered. 'Jock' showed us magic tricks involving chicks and cups similar to a cup and ball routine. He was very good and the whole time he performed he repeated 'gilly, gilly, gilly'.

The journey through the Canal was fascinating in its own way but didn't have a patch on Panama. It felt odd sailing through the middle of a desert. and I saw a few burnt out tanks but there was very little else to see. At the time the only place for northbound and southbound traffic to pass was in the Great Bitter Lake about two thirds of the way through the Canal. The convoys would pass and continue their journey north or south.

As we came out the other end, the waters of the Red Sea gave no indication of what was to come. Up to this point the crew were almost tolerable, all that was to change quite quickly. After stopping for bunkers in Jeddah we found out what the orders were. Most had been expecting to go to the Far East, when it was announced we would be going to the Persian Gulf the mood changed significantly.

I was unconcerned, I'd been there before, it wasn't that bad. If  I knew then what I know now my mood would have changed too.